Monday, December 28, 2009

Petulant Children

In a recent column, Andrew Sullivan distinguished between two types of conservatives: "There are conservatives who are always girded for war or suspect all peace as some kind of hidden war; and those who are happy at peace, greatful for its blessings and hopeful that it will last. There are those who always see Hobbes and those who see Hobbes but are greatful for Locke."

Modern conservatives are fascinated with Hobbes. The past year has made their fascination with the man -- who held that life was, unfortunately, "nasty, brutish and short" -- abundantly clear. In the United States, the Republican Party has become a party of no policy; indeed, it is now just a party of "no." New York Times columnist Paul Krugman recently referred to a study, by political scientist Barbara Sinclair, which plotted the use of the senatorial filibuster -- a technique which for nearly 200 years was used effectively but sparingly: "In the 1960's, she finds, 'extended-debate-related problems' -- threatened or actual filibusters -- affected only 8 percent of major legislation. By the 1980's that had risen to 27 percent. But, after Democrats retook control of Congress in 2006, and Republicans found themselves in the minority, it soared to 70 percent."

In this country, the Harper conservatives have followed the same trajectory. As James Travers wrote in the Toronto Star:
Little now stands in the Prime Minister's way. Parliament's independent watchdogs are mostly mute, their collars drawn tight and leashes shortened. Parliament's committees, including the one investigating torture allegations, are rendered impotent by a confidential manual instructing partisan sabotage. Elected representatives sent here to safeguard the national treasury and restrain ruling party excesses are no longer able to fulfill those defining duties.

For years these folks whined about injustice, claiming that modern republican and parliamentary democracy had rigged the game against them. Now that they have been elected, even tenuously -- as were George W. Bush and Stephen Harper -- they have sought to dismantle those democracies, afraid that their time will never come again. They have operated on the Hobbesian principle that power can only be won and maintained by vanquishing one's enemies; that the world has always been a nasty place; and that the fundamental principle in any democracy -- that the best solutions are the products of debate, cooperation and compromise -- is idealistic hogwash.

They are, in truth, petulant children -- intent on getting their way. And, like the little boys in Golding's Lord of the Flies, they are quite content to burn down the island in their manic quest to rid themselves and their countries of contrary thinking.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

A Father Remembered

My father died last week. He lived a long life -- long enough to see his children grow up and have children of their own. In fact, he lived to see and enjoy two great grandchildren.

A year and a half ago, I marvelled in this space about how a man who grew up without a father managed to become such a good one himself. And I was immodestly pleased when he responded to that post publicly.

We no longer live in Montreal, where my wife and I grew up. But I try to call my parents every weekend; and my father always gave me his take on each Monday morning's post. You should understand that my father's political opinions -- on most subjects -- were far different than my own. Even though I bear his name, he was never out to convert me to his worldview.

In fact, one of the many lessons he taught me was that we could disagree -- profoundly -- but we did not have to fight. Perhaps he came to that conclusion as a World War II veteran. He certainly had no patience for war stories. He valued his friendships with other veterans; but he took no pride in someone else's total surrender. He refused to keep a gun in the house; and when -- as a kid -- I asked him why, he simply said, "I had enough of that during the war."

To say I will miss him doesn't capture the way I feel. But I am confident that he has earned his reward.

Monday, December 14, 2009

A Study in Hypocrisy

On Friday, Security Minister Stockwell Day articulated the reasons why the Harper government had refused to release uncensored documents to the Parliamentary Committee investigating Afghan prisoner abuse. "We are not going to make information available just readily," he said, "about friend and foe alike, about specific items, about a security operation that could imperil our own troops and imperil the citizens."

It's interesting to compare Day's statement to one that Stephen Harper made as he assumed office three years ago: "Restoring accountability will be one of the major priorities of our new government. Accountability is what ordinary Canadians, working Canadians, those people who pay their bills, pay their taxes, expect from their political leaders."

And then there was this trope on how a minority parliament should operate, from the then Leader of the Opposition: "And I think that the real problem we're facing already is that the government doesn't accept that it got a minority."

What the prisoner abuse scandal illustrates is what these statements illustrate: what the government says and what the government does are oxymoronic. Peter McKay says that there is "no absolute proof" of prisoner abuse. General Natynczyk says there is. Richard Colvin says the government knew of the problem in 2006; but it only attempted to fix it a year later, despite the fact that our allies, the British and the Dutch, had acted on the problem much earlier.

More importantly, there is the principle of the supremacy of Parliament. It is the fundamental check against a government's abuse of power. The simple truth is that we are dealing with two kinds of abuse here: abuse of prisoners and abuse of Parliament.

As Jeffrey Simpson pointed out in Saturday's Globe and Mail, there was a fairly straight forward way out of this mess. Harper inherited the war and the problem of what to do with prisoners from Paul Martin. The government could have made the following statement:
We heard Mr. Colvin's warnings and those from other sources. He was a fine public servant, but he had only one angle on the challenges he faced. We listened to his information and sought to cooberrate it because, after all, we were working in another country for which we had to show certain respect. When we gathered more information, we acted to upgrade our agreement with Afghan authorities.

Instead, the Harperites turned their guns on Mr. Colvin, as they had on Linda Keen before him. Then they brought out the generals to discredit Colvin -- until Natynczyk discredited the generals. Mr. Harper's government, like Richard Nixon's government, has taken on the personality of the man at the top. It displays a deep and bitter sense of paranoia.

Hamlet was wrong. Conscience doesn't make cowards of us all. But paranoia does. And, if Mr. Harper succeeds in withholding those uncensored documents from Parliament, he will make cowards of us all.

Monday, December 07, 2009

When the Economists Are in Charge

In October, the British historian Tony Judt delivered a lecture with the sobering title, What Is Living and What Is Dead in Social Democracy. Speaking at New York University, where he is currently a professor of European history, Judt said, "We appear to have lost the capacity to question the present, much less offer alternatives to it. Why is it so beyond us to conceive of a different set of arrangements to our common advantage?"

Judt's question is particularly pertinent today, as the Copenhagen Summit on the Environment begins. The reason for our lack of vision, Judt claimed, is because, for quite awhile now, we have been "resort[ing] to 'economism', the invocation of economics in all discussions of public affairs."

For the last three decades he maintained, "we have not asked is it good or bad? Instead we inquire: "Is it efficient? Is it productive? Would it benefit gross domestic product? Will it contribute to growth? This propensity to avoid moral considerations, to restrict ourselves to issues of profit and loss -- economic questions in the narrowest sense -- is not an instinctive human condition. It is an acquired taste."

We now see everything through the prism of economics -- particularly Neo Classical Economics. And viewed through that prism, there is no such thing as the collective. Or, as Margaret Thatcher put it, "there is no such thing as society. There are only individual men and women and families."

But Copenhagen is all about the collective -- the global collective. It's about state and international solutions. However, in the wake of World War II, and beginning with the Neo Classical economists -- like Friedrich Hayek and Joseph Schumpeter -- there arose, among those who set policy, a deep suspicion of the state. It is significant that a number of the economists who eventually became associated with the "Chicago School" were refugees from Austria. Their mistrust of government grew out of their experience between the wars. And, as the British and American welfare states struggled under the forces of globalization, their ideas gained currency. It is these ideas which the prime minister and his party have adopted as unalterable truths.

That baggage -- at least in part -- explains why Mr. Harper lacks any real vision. His mission is to propagate Hayek's and Schumpeter's mistrust of the state. That mistrust has led to greater economic inequality and greater social instability. It has also led to a planet at its tipping point.

Mr. Harper did not intend to put in an appearance at Copenhagen. He changed his mind when he discovered that Barack Obama was going to attend. Moreover, he has no policy on the environment. Worse still, he called the Kyoto Accord, -- the last attempt at a coordinated plan to save the planet -- "essentially a socialist scheme to suck money out of wealth producing nations."

The last two years have given us some insight into the consequences of the Chicago School's doctrines. Applying those ideas on a global basis would be an unmitigated disaster. That realization does not appear to have dawned on Mr. Harper. Perhaps that's because he fancies himself an economist.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Nixon's Ghost

A few weeks ago, historian Michael Bliss wrote that Stephen Harper was beginning to look like another Mackenzie King. I wrote at the time that the analogy was pretty specious. While Harper's principles are as elastic as King's, this prime Minister is more mean spirited and paranoid than King.

When Richard Colvin testified three weeks ago that he had sent repeated warnings to Ottawa expressing his -- and The Red Cross's -- concerns about what was happening to the prisoners our soldiers had transferred to Afghan authorities, Mr. Harper and his acolytes first tried to shoot the messenger. Last week, former head of Canadian Forces, Rick Hillier, along with retired lieutenant general Michel Gauthier and major general David Fraser sought to discredit Colvin. Hillier called Colvin's claims "ludicrous;" and he told the committee investigating the matter that there was "nothing" in Colvin's memos which merited his attention.

Hillier affirmed that he had read the memos before he testified in front of the committee. David Mulroney -- no relation to Brian, and currently Canada's ambassador to China -- was the man to whom Colvin reported. He, too, reviewed the memos before testifying. He told the committee that, while the government was aware of allegations of torture, "there was no mention specifically of Canadian-transferred prisoners." There were echoes here of Bill Clinton's response to the Monica Lewinsky allegations: "It depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is."

But the crux of the problem is that, while the generals and Mr. Mulroney were given access to Colvin's memos, the government will not allow members of the committee the same privilege. They argue that "national security" trumps the committee's right to know what the government knows. That claim sounds a lot like Richard Nixon's claim of "executive privilege" -- his justification for keeping the White House tapes away from members of Congress. For awhile -- particularly in 1972 -- Nixon looked invincible. He used government agencies, like the FBI and the IRS, to discredit and destroy those on his "enemies" list.

Nixon was an introvert in national politics. He trusted few people, even those closest to him. In the end, his campaign of dirty tricks -- and his own paranoia -- did him in. Mr. Harper is an intelligent introvert who has risen to the highest office in the land. His circle of trust does not extend far. And the attack machine he has assembled has its own team of dirty tricksters.
His attempt to deny Parliament access to the Colvin memos is tantamount to Nixon's refusal to release the tapes.

We do not know whether -- like Mackenzie King -- Mr. Harper keeps a crystal ball stashed somewhere in the basement at 24 Sussex Drive. If he has such a device, I doubt that he is trying to converse with King's dead mother. However, I am beginning to wonder if he as been communing with the ghost of Richard Nixon.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Whatever It Takes

Just when the Harper government starts moving up in the polls, it always manages to reveal the mean spiritedness at its core. Richard Colvin, a career diplomat, testified last week before a Parliamentary subcommittee. He claimed that, while he was posted to Afghanistan, he sent reports to 76 people in various government departments, detailing his suspicions that prisoners captured by Canadian Forces were turned over to Afghan authorities and tortured.

He also claimed that his reports were, for the most part, ignored. When they were brought to someone's attention, he was told that the information he sent was too sensitive to be put in writing. His reports could be delivered orally; but he was to leave no paper trail. He was also told that if he brought his information to the Military Police Complaints Commission -- a government agency specifically established to deal with these issues -- legal action would be taken against him

The next day, the government rose in righteous indignation, claiming that the man it had promoted to a senior post in Washington was not to be believed. Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay said that Colvin's testimony was full of "holes" -- and that he (MacKay) had never seen any reports of suspected torture.

But, as Chantal Hebert noted in The Toronto Star, the government's claims of ignorance ring hallow: "Colvin, among others, was supposed to be their eyes and ears in Afghanistan." And, given the fallout from the Gomery inquiry, it is hard to imagine that the civil service would "keep its Conservative masters out of the loop."

The problem is not new. It has bedevilled the government before. Former Defense Minister Gordon O'Connor was removed from his post in part because he bungled earlier reports that our troops had handed over prisoners to Afghan torturers. The issue is no mere scruple. If Canadian soldiers are found to have cooperated in torture, they can be convicted -- under international law -- of war crimes.

Any claim of government ignorance begins to sound like the Cheney-Rumsfeld version of what happened at Abu Ghraib: It was a few bad apples who were responsible for the outrage. Time -- and good journalism -- have revealed that the directions for "enhanced interrogation techniques" came directly from the vice president's office.

Mr. Colvin knows that his testimony is not improving his career prospects. And the government's reaction is part of a pattern. When the RCMP suggested that the gun registry was a useful tool, the government trained its rhetorical guns on the Mounties. When the opposition formed a coalition last November, the Harperites fulminated about how the other parties were in league with "the separatists" -- the same tactic they had used to try and topple the government of Paul Martin. And, of course, there were the ads picturing puffins pooping on Stephane Dion, and the ad hominem attacks on Michael Ignatieff. And that is the point: the only way Mr. Harper and company know of dealing with criticism is to launch ad hominem attacks on those who criticize them. They will do whatever it takes to destroy those who will not tow the line.

Handing a majority government to these folks would be the equivalent of handing the cars keys to a fourteen year old. It would be an act of parental neglect.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Barbarians at the Gate

Glenn Beck, who is one of the emerging faces and voices in the Republican Party, made news last week when he claimed that Barack Obama has "a deep seated hatred for white people or the white culture." It is very sad, indeed, that Obama's mother and grandparents are no longer able to respond to Beck. The patent absurdity of what he says would be easily dismissible, if not for the fact that people like Beck are nothing new in American political life.

As Richard Hofstadter has noted, Beck's virulent paranoia has a long history. Its "sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness and conspiratorial fantasy" first raised its head with the early fear of Masonry -- even though several of the founding fathers were Masons. And it was revived in the anti-Catholic movements of the 19th and early 20th century, when Catholics and their secret agents, the Jesuits, were said to be "prowling about all parts of the United States in every possible disguise, expressly to ascertain the advantageous situations and modes to disseminate Popery."

Then, a little more than sixty years ago, Joseph McCarthy saw a communist around every corner. One of his acolytes, Robert H. Welsh Jr., claimed that President Eisenhower's brother Milton was "actually [the president's] superior and boss within the Communist Party," and that Eisenhower himself, was "a dedicated, conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy." It was in the midst of this insanity that William F. Buckley founded National Review, in staunch support of McCarthy and his vision. The enemy, Buckley claimed, was Liberalism -- which had established a "gigantic, parasitic bureaucracy." But what really bothered Buckley was the people he thought were the barbarians at the gate.

If Liberalism has stood for anything over the last two hundred years, it has been for broadening the franchise. The first American voters were white, male property owners. Then those men who did not own property were given the right to vote; then the slaves were freed and given that right; then women were allowed to walk into polling booths. All of those who were deemed unworthy at the nation's founding were eventually allowed within the walls; and, for Buckley, that spelled disaster.

Thus, when the Supreme Court declared school segregation illegal in 1954, Buckley wrote that the question was "whether the White community in the South is entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas where it does not predominate numerically. The sobering answer is Yes -- the White community is so entitled because, for the time being, it is the advanced race."

And that, in a nutshell, is what is at the heart of what Hofstadter calls "the paranoid style" in American politics. All of the bromides about democracy can be thrown out when those who see themselves as members of "the advanced race" feel threatened. The basic rule of one person one vote does not apply. "Universal suffrage," Buckley concluded, "is not the beginning of wisdom or the beginning of freedom."

After the school desegregation decision, the next logical step was the Civil Rights Act of 1964 -- which put an end to all segregation and lynching in the South -- and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Once those two laws were passed, it was inevitable that one day a black man would be elected president -- as inevitable as a Catholic being elected to that office or appointed to the Supreme Court. It is interesting to note that -- at present -- five of the nine justices are, at least nominally, Catholics.

In his inaugural editorial, Buckley wrote that the mission of his magazine was to "stand athwart history yelling Stop." Buckley is gone. But Beck and Rush Limbaugh have picked up his mantle. They are convinced that there are uncivilized hordes standing outside the gate; and that Obama -- a card carrying member of the unworthy -- is ready to let them inside. The same complaint was raised against Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson. Mr. Obama is in good company.

Monday, November 09, 2009

The Wounds of War

This Wednesday there will be another parade from the Canadian Legion to the Cenotaph, which -- appropriately enough -- is on Main Street, in the geographical centre of town. Each year there are fewer veterans who march to the Cenotaph; and they march there more haltingly.

I live in small town Ontario -- in a place whose existence was officially recognized 170 years ago. The town was founded by United Empire Loyalists, people who thought Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson were rabble rousers. Their allegiance was always to Britain; and so, when the mother country entered two wars in the last century, this town's sons -- ready, aye, ready -- lined up to defend the mother country. The names of the residents who died in those causes are engraved on that monument at the centre of town.

One of our veterans died last spring. On D-Day he was on Juno Beach, where he was wounded. He returned here with a limp and the click of a leg brace, to teach where I taught high school. He himself taught history; and every year, on November 11th, he took it upon himself to organize -- even long after he retired -- the school's Remembrance Day ceremonies. His roots were Loyalist. And, even though there were many who did not agree with his politics, his personal integrity was beyond reproach. He loved his family; he loved his country; he loved his town. And, for him, public service was the highest calling.

I think of him this week. I think of the gunman and his victims in Texas. And I think of this generation's dead soldiers who are flown from Afghanistan to Trenton, not far from here. I think of all the wounded, who have returned home, forever changed. When I was young, I was foolish enough to think that we could banish war the way we had banished polio -- forgetting that the Book of Ecclesiastes warned us long ago that war was cyclical and seasonal. There is something unbearably sad in that realization. And that is precisely why we must remember those who have died, and those who were wounded, this Wednesday.

We, who were fortunate enough to not bear their burdens, enjoy the fruits of their labours.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Playing for Keeps

Michael Ignatieff made two key personnel changes during the month of October. He replaced his Quebec lieutenant, Denis Cordere, with former astronaut Marc Garneau; and he replaced his chief of staff, Ian Davey -- one of the team which went to Boston and asked him to return to Canada -- with Jean Chretien's former director of communications, Peter Donolo. Both appointments underscore the fact that Mr. Ignatieff has had trouble making the transition from public intellectual to leader of a political party.

But, as James Travers pointed out last week in the Toronto Star, Ignatieff is not the first leader to have a difficult -- sometimes bruising -- transition to the centre ring of national politics. "It took Pierre Trudeau and Brian Mulroney a term in office to build teams able to sustain their momentum. Paul Martin failed to turn his leadership team into a cohesive administration and paid the ultimate political price." And Tom Flanagan, Stephen Harper's guide to political victory, went even further. Claiming that Ignatieff needed a history lesson, he wrote in the Globe and Mail that the Liberal leader "has been imitating Mr. Harper so closely" that he should "take solace from the fact that the Conservative leader bounced back."

Both changes show that Ignatieff is learning how to play for keeps. The essential problem in Liberal strategy up to this point has been the assumption that Mr. Harper's intemperate nature will eventually lead him to the guillotine. That may yet happen. But Canadians have also consistently shown that -- while they remain interested in who they are voting for -- they also want to know what they are voting for. And, on this second score, the Liberals have offered nothing. Unlike Stephane Dion, who offered Canadians a radical platform for the future, the post-Dion Liberals have promoted no new ideas.

It is more than ironic that a man of ideas seems to have none at his disposal. Until the party has the courage to do a thoroughly critical post-mortem of its recent failures, there will be no changes in its fortunes. The time and place for that post-mortem is the policy conference which has been scheduled for early in the new year. It will be Ignatieff's task to lead an intellectual renewal of his party. His past history suggests that he is the man for the job. But that job will only get done if the Liberals have the courage to admit their failures and reject what some see as short cuts to the brass ring.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Desperate Lives

In his column in yesterday's New York Times, Frank Rich had an interesting take on the "balloon boy" saga which dominated the news -- particularly the electronic news -- for most of last week. Hearkening back to the Great Depression, he recalled the desperate dance marathoners in Horace McCoy's 1935 novel, They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, the aimless deadenders in Nathaniel West's The Day of the Locust, and the pathetic and nameless Curley's wife in John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men -- all looking for wealth and stardom in the barren, jobless desert which was America in the 1930's.

Rich suggested that Richard Heene's callous exploitation of his children called more for sympathy than outrage. Having made a mercurial impression on the reality television show, Wife Swap, Heene was attempting to pilot his own show into the company of Dancing with the Stars, Survivor and Dr. Phil. The whole saga, Rich maintained, was emblematic of the times. "A freelance construction worker and handyman, [Heene] couldn't find much employment in an economy where construction is frozen and homeowners are more worried about losing their homes than fixing them." The media maelstrom which he pinned his dreams on "is among the country's last dependable job engines." It has found ratings gold in entertainment masquerading as news; and it has exalted the trivial and trivialized what has been -- or will be -- historically significant.

Understanding Heene's desperation does not excuse his neglect of his parental responsibilities. And he will probably experience the lash of the law. But, Rich wrote, "the ultimate joke is that Heene, unlike the reckless gamblers at the top of Citigroup and AIG, may be the one with a serious shot at ending up behind bars."

If that prediction turns out to be true -- and if the millions of unemployed are left to drift into bored non-productivity -- the result could be catastrophic. Those who chart public policy would do well reread the ending of The Day of the Locust.

Monday, October 19, 2009

The First Shall Be First

Last Friday, Jeffrey Simpson -- in The Globe and Mail -- marvelled at how nominally conservative governments have managed to survive the Great Recession pretty much unscathed. They have accomplished this, he wrote, "not because they are conservatives but rather because they are pursuing leftish policies." In Canada, Simpson noted, "Mr. Harper is sitting pretty, largely because, he, like other conservatives, has done very non-conservative things."

There are some -- believing that John Maynard Keynes was right all along -- who give thanks for the elasticity of conservative principles. But Goldman Sachs' and J.P. Morgan-Chase's announcements last week that they intend to distribute billions of dollars in bonuses to their employees (some of whom almost brought those houses down) remind us all that the prime directive of conservatives is: the first shall always come first.

Nearly eighty years ago, Franklin Roosevelt warned his countrymen that "The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little." And Katrina Vanden Heuvel reminded readers of The Nation last week that "The public face of the response to The Great Depression was the WPA."

Unemployment in Canada stands at 8.4%. Yet Mr. Harper has only extended employment benefits to a small number of the longest employed workers, who are -- Tom Walkom noted earlier -- mainly auto workers residing in ridings which the Conservatives see as critical in the next election. And while employment hovers at close to 10% in the United States, Rolfe Winkler, in a recent column, concludes that "Main Street still owns much of the risk while Wall Street gets all of the profit."

And those who owe their salvation to government bailouts have walked away with not even a blush. Roosevelt was accused of betraying his class. But today government policy treats these folks as an endangered species. The ordinary folks who have been stuck with the check are the endangered species.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Nobel Oblige

The announcement from Oslo last week that Barack Obama had won this year's Nobel Peace Prize generated lots of gasps and -- on the part of some -- lots of fury. No one seemed more surprised than the man who currently occupies the White House. Moreover, his daughters helped him keep things in perspective. "After I received the news," Obama said, "Malia walked in and said, 'Daddy, you won the Nobel Peace Prize, and it is Bo's birthday.' And then Sasha added, 'Plus, we have a three day weekend coming up.'" The award has not gone to the man's head.

But it certainly touched something sensitive in some right wing neighbourhoods. William Kristol, whose judgment is open to question -- after cheerleading for the Iraq War and Sarah Palin -- compared Obama to Mikhail Gorbachev: "But let's hope the parallel extends this far: that a year from now the Democrats suffer a major electoral repudiation, and that the New Liberalism goes the way of Reform Communism. And that, beginning in 2013, Obama will have lots of free time to spend hobnobbing with Gorbachev on the international celebrity circuit."

And David Frum, in The National Post, wrote: "From the age of 20, Barack Obama has collected acclaim, awards and prizes, not for his accomplishments (which have always been rather scanty) but for his potential. You would think with the guy nearing 50 and elected President of the United States that the prizes for 'the most promising young man' would cease." But, much to Frum's chagrin, they keep coming. "Waiting in the wings: the Vatican," he wrote. "Why wait until the guy has performed his posthumous miracles to confer sainthood upon him? Think of the amazing miracles he could perform in the future."

Obama himself recognized that the award was "aspirational" and that the challenges this generation faces "can't be met by any one leader or any one nation." And, he added, "To be honest, I do not feel that I deserve to be in the company of so many of the transformative figures who've been honoured by this prize, men and women who've inspired me and inspired the entire world through their courageous pursuit of peace."

The award was clearly a statement of expectations. The committee expects Obama to accomplish great things. It is another burden which has been placed on his shoulders. One wonders how many burdens his shoulders can carry. He faces a long and difficult journey; and success is far from certain. But this much is certain: Obama's countrymen elected him, not just because they felt he had the intellectual equipment to face a world of Brobdingnagian problems, but because he also had the temperment to deal with those problems. The Nobel committee obviously agreed with the electorate. Mr. Kristol and Mr. Frum are not of that party.

Monday, October 05, 2009

Another King?

Last Friday, in The Globe and Mail, Canadian historian Michael Bliss mused that Stephen Harper might be on the cusp of becoming another William Lyon MacKenzie King. It was King -- Canada's longest serving prime Minister -- who established the Liberals as Canada's "natural governing party." It was King, too, who had absolutely no political scrupples. "Sooner or later," Bliss wrote, "the contempt that many in our chattering classes still seem to feel for the Conservatives in general and Mr. Harper in particular is going to begin to give way to the realization that he is on the verge of becoming the next Mackenzie King."

Perhaps. Bliss conceded that -- like King -- Harper is "neither colourful nor lovable." But Bliss's central thrust, that "Conservatives hold the political centre so thoroughly that Liberals have no idea whether to attack the government from the right . . . or from the left . . ." is dubious. He is right, however, when he claims that "the Liberal Party is floundering in uncertainty and disunity."

Canadians are far from certain that Harper is a centrist. I suspect that a majority of them would agree with W.E. Belliveau that Harper's "personal ideology remains far from the centre. His core beliefs are right wing and often anti-social." No, Belliveau concludes, Harper is a chameleon: "A chameleon can change colours at a drop of a hat. A chameleon is not a leader. A chameleon is a survivor, and that's the message of Mr. Harper's new found centre status." If one requires proof, one need look no further than his recent performance at the National Arts Centre, before an audience of black tie patrons of the arts who -- during the last election -- he dismissed as financial parasites.

Belliveau is on to something. But, however valid his analysis might be, it does not let the Liberals off the hook. They are in danger of reliving the fate of King's earnest but naive opponent, Arthur Meighen, who -- Bliss correctly noted -- "was consigned to the dustbin of history, where he wrote memoirs insisting that he had always been right."

When the Liberals chose Ignatieff, they chose a man of ideas who had absolutely no political experience. That lack of experience was undercored last week in the foolishness over the Liberal nomination in Outremont. More importantly, the party is still waiting for a policy conference, which is now scheduled for early next year. It would have been better to have had the conference sooner rather than later; and it would have been better to support the government on an issue by issue basis until the conference. Having sorted out its platform, the party would then be in a better position to withdraw its support wholesale.

Liberals' frustration boiled over this summer when they realized that to support Mr. Harper is to ride on the back of the tiger. He lives for the thrill of devouring his opponents. Anyone who believes he does anything for altrustic reasons -- even performing with Yo Yo Ma at the National Arts Centre -- is deluded.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Arrogant Fools

In his new book, Keynes: The Return of the Master, British economist Robert Skidelsky offers this assessment of New Classical economics, which has driven economic policy for the past thirty-five years:
I therefore believe that the root cause of the present crisis lies in the intellectual failure of economics. It was the wrong ideas of economists which legitimized the deregulation of finance which led to the credit explosion which led to the credit crunch. It is hard to convey the harm done by the recently dominant school of New Classical economics. Rarely in history can such powerful minds have devoted themselves to such strange ideas.

Stephen Harper, who is a graduate of the New Classical School, chose to skip the United Nations Climate Conference last week. It's not that he wasn't in the neighbourhood. He spent the day conferring with the mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg. But his absence sent a clear message. It was the same message he sent when he refused to show up at the unveiling of Joe Clark's portrait in Ottawa, or when he neglected to show up at the 25th anniversary of Brian Mulroney's first election victory. Harper has expressed contempt for both men in the past. His defenders will simply claim that the Prime Minister is no hypocrite.

But it's not that simple. Given Harper's claim, during the last election campaign, that Stephane Dion's proposed carbon tax would destroy the Canadian economy; and, given his shameful neglect of environmental policy, it seems clear that Harper viewed the conference as a non-event. However, there are better economists than he who understood the significance of that one day meeting.

Last Thursday, in The New York Times, Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman wrote: "It's important, then, to understand that claims of immense economic damage from climate legislation are as bogus, in their own way, as climate-change denial. Saving the planet won't come free (although the early stages of conservation might). But it won't cost that much either." Krugman then went on to cite a Congressional Budget Office estimate that the legislation recently passed by the U.S. House of Representatives "would cost the average family only $160 a year or 0.2 percent of income."

Some commentators, such as Henry Giroux, of McMaster University, would say that those who claim that saving the planet will destroy the economy are lying -- in the Orwellian sense that what they say is the exact opposite of what they mean. A somewhat more charitable interpretation might be that they are simply fools -- like the fools at the beginning of the last century who claimed that The Titanic was unsinkable, or that the Maginot Line was impenetrable. They believe they are invulnerable.

For Skidelsky, New Classical economists and their disciples have been arrogant fools, marching in their own parade. It is time to show them the door.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Diminishing Returns

I admit that I am mildly surprised. I doubted that Stephen Harper would accept Jack Layton's offer to keep his government alive. Indeed, Harper did little to solicit Layton's support. That support probably had more to do with the NDP's readiness to face an election than it did with its stated interest in making Parliament work.

What was even more surprising was the Bloc Quebecois' support -- although these days it's hard to vote against a tax cut. After the dust had cleared, those ads that the Conservatives have been running about Micheal Ignatieff forming a coalition with socialists and separatists -- the ones that end with the tag line, "We can't trust him. We just can't trust him." -- took on a whole new meaning.

The really insightful event of the week was the Harperites proposed reforms to the EI system,which they apparently never brought to the table this summer. The proposed changes are absolutely consistent with the wedge strategy which has defined the government from day one. As Tom Walkom pointed out in The Toronto Star, they are designed to play one segment of the labour force against all the others: "The Prime Minister's proposed temporary reforms are aimed at jobless Ontario auto workers, a key NDP constituency."

These folks are "relatively well paid older workers who find themselves out of a job." They live primarily in the Windsor and Oshawa areas; and, in the last election, the NDP lost Oshawa by only 3200 votes. Draining NDP votes from key Ontario ridings could make up for the seats Mr. Harper will lose in Quebec the next time out. Harper had originally sought to draw votes away from the Bloc Quebecois, by recognizing Quebec as a "nation within a nation" two years ago, until he blew up that support in a frantic effort to keep his government alive after his November fiscal up date -- the one that forecast no deficit. Mr. Flaherty readjusted his figures last week. That number has gone from 0 to $56 billion in 10 months.

Wedge issues have been the hallmark of modern conservatism. They were the core of Ontario's Harris government, whose chief of staff -- Guy Giorno -- is now Harper's chief of staff. They were central to the second Bush administration, whose chief political strategist -- Karl Rove -- was occasionally referred to as "Bush's Brain." In both cases, the strategy was subject to the law of diminishing returns, because it relied on "micro targeting," -- which further subdivided the wedges -- until voters saw themselves only in terms of what distinguished them from their fellow citizens and not in terms of what united them. In the end, politics became the equivalent of herding cats -- and ended in a cacophony of discontent.

Mr. Harper's party is not the only party whose appeal is based on wedge issues. The Bloc Quebecois is founded on the principle of wedge politics. Nationalist voters in Quebec are a large and fairly stable unit -- unless leaders like Pierre Trudeau, Brian Mulroney or Jean Chretien, native sons all -- convince a significant number of their fellow citoyens that Quebec's interests are better served within the government than without.

Michael Ignatieff is no native son. But his grandparents and his uncle settled along the banks of the St. Francis River in Quebec's Eastern Townships. He knows Quebec much better than the Prime Minister. Be that as it may, he now is at what The Star's James Travers calls a "rare moment." Having released his party from the role of grumbling enabler to loyal opposition, he must now "seize this moment between crises to reintroduce himself to Canadians and restore party confidence that it hasn't made another leadership mistake."

Crucial to that mission is a rejection of wedge politics. Ignatieff must convince Canadians that -- while he understands their differences -- he also understands what unites them. Canadian voters have stopped coming to the polls because they have figured out they are pawns in a game where they are being played against each other. Mr. Harris and Mr. Bush both discovered that -- in the end -- wedge politcs is a losing strategy.

Monday, September 14, 2009

The Bogeymen

As Parliament resumes today, an election seems inevitable. Jack Layton has offered the prime minister an olive branch; but, given Mr. Harper's penchant for ressurecting bogeymen -- in this case, "socialists and separatists" -- it appears unlikely that the prime minister will take the offer. Instead, Mr. Harper says, what needs to be done is to "teach them [the opposition parties] a lesson." He tried to do that last November; and we all know how that gambit turned out.

Now Mr. Harper seeks to shift the blame for that "separatist coaltion" to the Liberal Party -- forgetting that, like Dr. Frankenstein, he gave that monster life. He also forgets that his rabid attack on the Bloc Quebcois was seen in Quebec as an attack on all Quebecers. Mr. Harper might wish that his Conservative predecessor, Brian Mulroney, would disappear. But, as Mulroney reminded Canadians last year, you cannot form a majority government in this country without winning seats in Quebec.

It is absolutely true that it is now up to Mr. Ignatieff to make his case. It is not enough to promise that "we can do better." He will have to outline a specific set of policies which give substance to that claim. But, as Jeff Jedras wrote in the National Post, Canadians should not blame the election on Ignatieff: "It's important to note that, in a minority parliament, it's not the job of the opposition parties to support the government. In fact, just the opposite. It is the responsibility of the government to maintain the confidence of the House. And if it can't, if the Conservatives can't keep the support of just one opposition party, then they have some serious explaining to do, and alot of the responsibility to shoulder for any resulting election."

Jedras went on to argue that, "Harper decided long ago to govern like he had a majority, that cooperation with the opposition parties was unnecessary, as long as he could count on the Liberals being willing to do anything to avoid an election. So he played political games every step of the way, forsaking cooperation for gamesmanship and the seeking of partisan advantage."

Those games continue. The Harperites have sought to paint Ignatieff as "the other" -- the same tactic that conservatives in the United States have used against Barack Obama. But Mr. Ignatieff, like Mr. Harper, was born here. And, as Mr. Ignatieff makes clear in his book, The Russian Album, there is a much longer tradition of public service -- inside and outside Canada -- in the Ignatieff family than in the Harper family.

Nonetheless, the burden of proof lies with Mr. Ignatieff. He claims that he has purposely chosen to keep the party platform under wraps until now so that the Harperites would not have the luxury of time to distort it. Given the government's use of fear as its chief political weapon, there may be some wisdom to that strategy. But now that the gaunlet is down, it's time for the wraps to come off.

Monday, September 07, 2009

Here We Go Again

When Michael Ignatieff announced last week that he and his party would no longer support Stephen Harper's minority government, he was -- at least among the chattering classes -- universally condemned. Even commentators on the left offered no support. "Heaven knows the country needs big changes," Gerald Caplan wrote in The Globe and Mail. "But the last thing we need is yet another election that will change nothing." And Tom Walkom wrote in The Toronto Star: "We do not need an election because, in the broadest sense, the choices have altered little since 2008 when Canadians last went to the polls."

Both men are essentially correct. So far we have not been given clearly defined choices -- even though, as Caplan says -- we need to make big changes. Nothing underscores that need more than Marlene Jennings description of Human Resources Minister Diane Finlay's reaction at the most recent meeting of the EI Commission, whose formation saved us from an election last spring. When Jennings challenged Finlay during the meeting, Finlay -- according to Jane Taber's report in The Globe and Mail, "started screaming at [Jennings] at the top of her lungs. . . . 'I have a right to my opinion, she screamed,' said Jennings. 'You are not going to tell me what to think.'"

That is an attitude which starts at the top with the Prime Minister. Unfortunately, Finlay's ardent defence of her right to an opinion is of little comfort to the 500,000 Canadians who have -- according to The Toronto Star -- lost their jobs since the last Labour Day. And it is Harper's opinion -- that the best government is the government which governs least -- which is responsible for our present financial morass. That opinion is also why his response is so out of touch with the times. It would, indeed, be fitting if both the Prime Minister and the Minister of Human Resources woke up to find themselves unemployed.

Now Mr. Ignatieff and his party believe they can hasten that outcome. But, to date, they have not presented Canadians with an alternative vision. Yesterday, the Liberals began running ads under the banner, "We Can Do Better." The slogan is even more alliterative in French, "Nous meritons mieux." But Ignatieff will need more than poetry and soaring rhetoric to succeed. We await his program, even as the Conservatives ready their personal attacks. Let's hope that this is an election about ideas, not about adolescent insults.

Monday, August 31, 2009

The Last Brother

Much has been written about Ted Kennedy since he died a week ago. There is little I can add -- except some personal impressions. Three weeks ago, my wife, our son and I stood at the Kennedy grave site in Arlington, Virginia. My mind went back to November 22, 1963, when I was as old as the son who stood beside me. I was surprised at how vivid the memory was, and how I ached at the unfairness of things.

For me -- and, I suspect, for many of my generation -- the assassinations of the Kennedy brothers and Martin Luther King marked the end of innocence. We had chased each other between our houses, firing cap pistols in the pursuit of justice. Justice -- and its triumph -- were certain. The death of those three men forced us to confront the power of the gun and the darkness of the human heart. The world was never the same again.

From then on, I was never surprised by disappointment. When Teddy drove off that bridge in Chappaquiddick, I was more disappointed than angry. When the story hit the media of the night Kennedy and his nephew spent before the latter was tried for rape, I was again more disappointed than angry. I concluded that the burdens Kennedy had borne had finally broken him.

However, he did not disappear. In the Senate he continued to thunder about unfairness -- not his own -- but the unfairness endured by those less privileged than himself. And, like Irish politicians of old, he continued to look after the folks. I'm convinced that duty is in the DNA of the Irish. There have been too many widows and orphans to allow it to atrophy.

I was particularly struck by what Kennedy wrote to one of the widows of September 11th -- a passage President Obama used in his eulogy: "As you know so well, the passage of time never really heals the tragic memory of such a great loss, but we carry on, because we have to, because our loved ones would want us to, and because there is still light to guide us in the world from the love they gave us."

I probably will not return to Washington in the years that are left to me. But if I did, I would visit Arlington again. I'm sure I would still feel the ache of injustice. But I believe that I would also feel something else. I would leave with the faith that -- as Martin Luther King said -- "unearned suffering is redemptive;" and -- as Edward Kennedy said -- "the dream still lives."

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.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Mr. Roosevelt

During our recent trip to Washington, we stopped to pay our respects to Mr. Jefferson and Mr. Lincoln. Each resides in his own temple: one, a man who helped build the machinery of democracy; the other, the man who gave the most succinct definition of it. This was the third time I have stood inside the Lincoln Memorial and read The Gettysburg Address, which is chiseled into one of the monument's walls. Its simple, direct and powerful prose always moves me.

But on this visit, even more than the Gettysburg Address, I was struck by other words on another wall -- part of a monument which did not exist the last time we were in Washington. The new memorial to Franklin Delano Roosevelt is a sprawling complex. A bronze statue of Roosevelt in his wheelchair -- his Scottish terrier Fala at his side -- is the centerpiece of the memorial. But in addition to the statue, there are several walls -- some with waterfalls cascading over them. On the rest are chiseled passages from Roosevelt's speeches, of which there were many. One wall -- and one passage -- haunts me.

In 1936 -- during a speech in Chautauqua, New York -- Roosevelt remembered his days as Assistant Secretary of the Navy in the Wilson Administration. After the United States entered the war in 1917, Roosevelt -- before the onset of polio -- made a tour of the front lines. What he saw he never forgot: " I have seen war." he said in Chautauqua. "I have seen war on land and sea. I have seen blood running from the wounded. I have seen men coughing out their gassed lungs. I have seen the dead in the mud. I have seen cities destroyed. I have seen 200 limping, exhausted men come out of line, the survivors of a regiment of 1,000 that went forward 48 hours before. I have seen children starving. I have seen the agony of mothers and wives. I hate war."

It was ironic that we began our visit at Arlington Cemetery and ended it at Gettysburg. In between we visited the Vietnam Memorial, where we encountered a veteran -- cane in hand --who claimed he lost the index finger on his right hand during an attack which killed 27 of his fellow infantrymen. Roosevelt had seen too many men like him; and what Roosevelt saw led him to work for international institutions like the United Nations and the World Bank, which could prevent what he had seen. For, as he also said, "Unless the peace that follows recognizes that the whole world is one neighbourhood, and does justice to the whole human race, the germs of another world war will remain as a constant threat to mankind."

His vision went far beyond his own country and his fellow citizens. He saw himself as a citizen of the world. If Lincoln was the greatest American president, then surely Roosevelt ranks a very close second.

Monday, August 10, 2009

The Party of Lincoln?

From north of the 49th parallel, the debate over health care in the United States looks more and more insane. That's not to say that establishing a national medicare system is easy. When Tommy Douglas introduced medicare to Saskatchewan in 1962, the province's doctors -- with the support of the North American medical establishment -- went on strike. The strike lasted almost a month, while the province imported doctors from Britain, the United States and other provinces. But what the opponents of medicare discovered was that the plan was immensely popular -- so popular that it served as the model for the national plan which now serves all Canadian provinces.

There will always be powerful interests to oppose any national medical insurance plan. At the moment, though, it would appear that, in the United States -- in Yeats' phrase -- "the worst are full of passionate intensity." Sarah Palin claims that, "my baby with Down [sic] Syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama's 'death panel' so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their 'level of productivity in society,' whether they are worthy of health care. Such a system is downright evil." This from the Republican candidate for vice president of the United States?

John Boehner, the Republican House Leader claims that the plan now being crafted would make it illegal for health care workers " to provide anything less than abortion on demand." And the last week has seen the spectacle of the people's representatives being shouted down at a time honoured American political institution, the town hall meeting. The goal is not to have a public debate. It is to shut down public debate. In effect, the strategy is to defeat a plan, which is still being developed, by adopting a scorched earth policy.

Next week we are travelling with our youngest son to Washington. We've only been there once before -- eighteen years ago -- with our two older sons. But you can't go to Washington without walking down the National Mall and paying Mr. Lincoln a visit. Lincoln has been a hero of mine since I was eight years old -- when my parents, in a trip to Kentucky, took us to the log cabin where he was born. Later, of course, I discovered The Gettysburg Address. But as I have grown older, I have become convinced that Lincoln's finest speech was the one he delivered at his second inaugural. The best lines Lincoln ever wrote are the last lines of that speech:

With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow and his orphan -- to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves and among all nations.

Compare those lines to Sarah Palin's or John Boehner's and you see what has become of the Republican Party. The members of that party are fond of saying that they need to return to first principles. What they really need to do is to return to their first president. His spirit lives on in the Lincoln Memorial. Unfortunately, it does not animate the modern Republican Party.

Monday, August 03, 2009

Wither the WASP?

Over the last couple of weeks, we have witnessed a strange spectacle. Despite the state of Hawaii's verification that Barack Obama was born there, people like Lou Dobbs and Liz Cheney have joined a gaggle of conspiracy theorists, who continue to question the veracity of the president's birth certificate: Barack Obama, they insist, was born in Kenya; and, therefore, he has no legitimate right to the presidency.

As Bill Maher pointed out in The Los Angeles Times, we've seen this movie before: "This flap might be a deluded right wing obsession that is a total waste of time, but so was Whitewater . . . [and] more recently we had the Swiftboat allegations against John Kerry. . ."

How does one explain this kind of zaniness? "That reaction," Frank Rich wrote in Sunday's New York Times, "is an example of how the inexorable transformation of America into a white-minority country in some 30 years -- by 2042 in the latest Census Bureau estimate -- is causing serious jitters, if not panic, in some white establishments."

Those establishments have been White, Anglo Saxon and Protestant; but they have been under siege for some time. There was the surge of immigration, beginning in the 1840's, first with the Irish, the Italians, and the Jews from Eastern Europe. They may have been white or Semitic; but Anglo Saxon and Protestant? In the twentieth century, there have been waves of Hispanic and Asian immigrants, all answering the call at the base of the Statue of Liberty: "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore."

For over two centuries, the "wretched refuse" have arrived and risen to prosperity -- but there were certain barriers they were supposed to respect. Now that they outnumber those who originally occupied positions of power, the "quality" are getting anxious, even a little paranoid. That was never more apparent than when such luminaries as Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich called Sonia Sotomayor -- President Obama's nominee for the Supreme Court -- "a racist."

From time immemorial, minorities have forged political alliances to advance their agendas. But the people who refuse to recognize the legitimacy of Obama's birth certificate refuse to recognize their growing minority status. They can't beat them; and they won't join them. As Mark Twain observed, "Denial ain't just a river in Egypt."

Monday, July 27, 2009

In Praise of GBS

This past weekend we -- my wife and I and two of our sons -- travelled to Niagara-on-the-Lake, to attend a performance at the Shaw Festival. We also attended a presentation our son gave to the International Shaw Society, which convenes there during the festival.

The play we saw was The Devil's Disciple. It was the play which liberated Shaw from his usual employment as a journalist; and it allowed him to pursue his bliss in the theatre. In truth, that statement is inaccurate. Shaw was a brilliant man of many parts; and his blisses were many. Suffice it to say that the theatre made his reputation; everything else was further testament to the man's genius.

The play is about the true nature of religion and morality; about how a man of the cloth can become a man of action; and about how a man of action can become a man of the cloth. And, as always, Shaw delights in turning everything on its head. The truly religious man is the man of the title. And, through him, Shaw punctures the hot air balloons of hypocrisy and pomposity.

Like his countryman, Jonathan Swift, Shaw had no patience for hypocrisy and pomposity. But, unlike Swift, he never let those things get the best of him. His wit was a scalpel. He used it with swiftness and precision. And, despite the human frailty which Shaw found everywhere, he still saw that heroism was within man's grasp. It was not about whether Eliza Doolittle was a "squashed cabbage leaf" or a member of the aristocracy. It was about human dignity and the ability to see things as they are. When you watch a Shaw play, you come away with the distinct impression that -- for perhaps the first time -- you have seen things as they truly are.

I can only assume that the members of the International Shaw Society share some of that sentiment. There are distinguished academics in the group -- men and women who have spent their time at various universities, researching and teaching Shaw. But there are others whose professional pursuits have been outside the academy. What brings them together is their love of the man and his work. Our son loved being among them; and he marvelled that they were not competitive. They appear to be untouched by the spirit of the age just passed. For them, self interest is not what makes the world go round -- a notion which Shaw, a socialist, found appalling. They truly seem to enjoy each other's company. And their enthusiasm is infectious.

When I taught high school, we had several Shaw plays in our book room. For the most part, they collected dust and remained untouched. Once in awhile, one of us would pull Pygmalion off the shelf. Last Friday night, The Devil's Disciple played to a nearly packed house; and the audience did not need to be cued by a laugh track. Perhaps that was because, through the laughter, we saw -- in a dark time -- that, occasionally, human beings can still do the right thing. It was Shaw, after all, who proclaimed -- in Back to Methuselah -- "You see things; and you say,'Why?' But I dream things that never were; and I say, 'Why not?'

Monday, July 20, 2009

When Things Get Pathological

When Stephen Harper declared in an interview after the G8 summit that, "I don't believe that any taxes are good taxes," Jeffrey Simpson wrote in The Globe and Mail: "There is no 'school' . . . anywhere in economics that says 'no taxes are good taxes.'" Some economists, Simpson wrote, "like right wing politicians, might think taxes are too high, maybe way too high. They might think the private sector can do lots of things better than the public sector. They might believe taxes should be lower. But anyone who says 'no taxes are good taxes' and 'I don't believe any taxes are good taxes' is wrong economically and very, very scary socially and politically."

The response from Terrence Corcoran, in The National Post, was withering. "Rev. Simpson," Corcoran wrote, "propelled himself and his Liberal congregation into a hysterical anti- Conservative, anti-Harper orbit." While Simpson would be the first to admit that he is no fan of Mr. Harper, one can ask, "Who is truly hysterical?" Simpson long ago stopped referring to the government as "the Conservatives" and instead chose the term "Harperites," suggesting that what Harper is selling is not conservatism.

He made that distinction clear later in his column. "Only libertarian anarchists believe that all taxes are bad and that society can get along without them." Besides, Simpson asked, "Who will provide, if not the taxpayers, the revenues to pay for the two services that even the most right wing ideologues agree only public authorities can provide: the defence of the realm and law and order?"

Corcoran saw a conspiracy in the making. "What is really going on here," he claimed, "is a mounting Liberal campaign to set the state for tax increases to cover future deficits. Liberals cannot officially plant this idea, and they would much rather have Mr. Harper bear the burden by forcing him to raise taxes." No, says Mr. Corcoran, the way to solve the problem is to cut spending.

What's strange is that we've been here before, fifteen years ago, and the solution -- under the Chretien government -- was to do both: to raise taxes and cut spending. We know what we will have to do. The Harperites -- and Mr.Corcoran -- suffer from a peculiar pathology, a pathology which occasionally shows up -- as it did last November, and immediately after the G8 summit -- when Mr. Harper lashes out at the opposition in a fury of indignation, determined to crush them. He seems unable to help himself. Mr. Simpson is right to worry that the Prime Minister is pathological.

Monday, July 13, 2009

And So It Goes

The death of Robert McNamara last week generated a great deal of comment. McNamara was reviled as the architect of the Vietnam War. He was reviled when he wrote thirty years later that "we were wrong, terribly wrong;" and he was reviled by many, even in death. It was a strange fate for a man who became one of Henry Ford's "whiz kids."

"It's impossible to mention his name without starting an argument," Errol Morris wrote in The New York Times. But Morris -- whose Oscar winning film, The Fog of War, gave McNamara a platform to defend his actions -- was not without sympathy. "During his tenure as secretary of defense, there were conflicts that could have escalated into nuclear war -- the confrontation over Berlin, the Cuban missile crisis. All of this must be seen against the backdrop of the prevailing ideas of the time, the domino theory and the cold war."

McNamara consistently maintained that his prime objective was to avoid nuclear Armageddon -- and he knew that dodging it in Cuba was more luck than strategy. If fighting a conventional proxy war was a substitute for nuclear Holocaust, it was -- in McNamara's words -- a case of "doing evil to do good."

But it was precisely that twisted formulation which was his undoing. A brilliant technocrat, he could marshall a phalanx of figures to justify his policies. The problem was that men and women could not be reduced to a series of complicated equations. In the end, McNamara concluded, the most grievous error he and the other New Frontiersmen made was to not know one's enemy -- to not "empathize with him." It was the same piece of wisdom Atticus Finch gave his seven year old daughter Scout in Harper Lee's superb novel, To Kill a Mockingbird.

It was this failure, rather than any of his accomplishments -- even the avoidance of nuclear holocaust -- which followed McNamara around until the end of his life. "By then," wrote Tim Weiner in The Times, "he wore the expression of a haunted man. He could be seen in the streets of Washington -- stooped, his shirttail flapping in the wind -- walking to and from his office a few blocks from the White House, wearing frayed running shoes and a thousand yard stare."

McNamara was not the cold, heartless automaton of my youth. He was a man -- like George Bush Sr. -- given to weeping in public. His colleagues, especially Lyndon Johnson, took it as a sign that he had gone soft. Most of the public took the position that -- even if they were tears of remorse -- they were too late. And so it goes. Too often we recognize our follies too late.

Monday, July 06, 2009

True Patriot Love

On July 1st, the Prime Minister proclaimed, "Today we celebrate the most peaceful, prosperous and enduring democracy the world has ever known." A bit over the top, I'd say; but it's the kind of rhetoric that other politicians have used before. And, if the polls are to be believed, Mr. Harper was only voicing what the vast majority of Canadians accept as true. As Jeffrey Simpson wrote last week, "almost 90 percent of [Canadians] believe they live in 'the best country in the world.'"

The problem with this kind of boilerplate, Simpson wrote, is that Canadians begin to repeat the Chapters-Indigo slogan: the world needs more Canada. "The assumption supporting this assertion," he claimed, "is that we Canadians are so worthy, morally upright and generally well intentioned, that the world would be a better place, if it were more like, well, us. Which, in turn leads Canadians to their deadliest sin: an unsinkable moral superiority."

Then, to remind us that there are many less than superior accomplishments in this country, Simpson enumerates some of our shortcomings: we have the world's worst record for per capita green house gas emissions; Canada is "almost alone in flogging asbestos around the world;" and "the decline of manufacturing and the struggles of high technology reveal Canada for essentially being what it has always been -- a hewer of wood and drawer of water, a country excessively dependent not on brain power but on natural resources."

Some might view Simpson's comments as sour grapes -- what they claim is a national tendency Canadians have for raining on their own parade. But that claim misses Simpson's point: "There are admirable aspects of being Canadian," he writes, "and these have all been justly celebrated on Canada Day. But self satisfaction can lead to a refusal to acknowledge weaknesses, to allow patriotism to curb critical thought, to refuse to face hard choices, and to cover a slow, albeit comfortable, slide toward international marginality and domestic mediocrity."

It has always seemed to me that one of the reasons for prairie winters is to remind human beings -- who all too easily fall victim to their own delusions of grandeur -- that, in the grand scheme of things, they are less important than they perceive themselves to be. A prairie blizzard carries a simple message: humility is the handmaid of reality. We are, indeed, a country of vast and varied blessings. But smug self satisfaction isn't one of them. True patriot love recognizes that fact.

Monday, June 29, 2009

That Old Time Religion

On Saturday, Tim Hudak was elected leader of the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party. Mr. Hudak entered politics at the age of 27, as a new member of Mike Harris' government. He married one of Mr. Harris' principal advisers, Deb Hutton. And, during the leadership campaign, he advocated the kind of policies Harris championed, like abolishing the Ontario Human Rights Commission.

When the party chose his successor, Ernie Eves, Harris left the building. On Saturday, he was in the front row, where -- according to The Toronto Star -- he "beamed like a proud father during his protege's victory speech." Mr. Harris certainly liked what Hudak stood for. What government needs to do, Harris said, is "to get out of the road so that the private sector can grow the jobs and the wealth we need to run the province." It all sounded remarkably stupid, given our present predicament. The Harris prescription is precisely why we are where we are. It is the reason GM and Chrysler are doing so well.

As Jeffrey Simpson wrote in a recent column, the private sector has not been a source of wisdom or innovation: "Fifteen years ago," -- when Mr. Harris was first elected -- "Nortel Networks employed 29,000 people. It was the country's high tech leader, known here and abroad. It did more research than any company in Canada. It spawned feeder companies. There were other high tech powerhouses like JDS Uniphase and Newbridge Networks. Today many of those companies have been demolished, broken up or taken over. Even Cognos, a wonderful Canadian success story, succumbed to an IBM takeover."

The Conservative prescription used to pass in the 19th Century for Liberalism. Back then, Edmund Burke's conservatism stood for community stability and government protection from wild-eyed individualism run amok. It was with The Great Depression and the New Deal that Liberalism morphed into a different creature -- a political philosophy which saw government as the banker of last resort. New Deal Liberalism gave us Unemployment Insurance, Old Age Pensions and Medicare. Twenty-first century Liberalism seeks to set people back to work, establish a green economy and slow global warming.

On that last score, American conservatives are still in denial. John Boehner -- the Republican leader in the House of Representatives -- called the climate change bill , which passed in the House last week, "a pile of shit."

Nineteenth century conservatives would never have used such inelegant language. The fact remains, however, that twenty-first century conservatives -- like Mr. Harris, Mr.Hudak and Mr. Boehner -- are stuck in the nineteenth century. For the last thirty years they have wanted to return to a simpler time -- when the rules were clear, most of the population was caucasian, women stayed home and government stayed out of the way. Like William Jennings Bryan's supporters during the Scopes Monkey Trial, they have advocated a return to "that Old Time Religion." Unfortunately for them -- and for Mr. Bryan -- we have evolved since then.