Monday, May 25, 2009

Such Men Are Dangerous

In the wake of the debate last week between President Barack Obama and former Vice President Dick Cheney, what was remarkable was not the reaction from the left -- which was predictable -- but the reaction from folks on the right, who used to be ardent supporters of both Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney.

In the New York Times, David Brooks wrote, "But the bottom line is that Obama has taken a series of moderate and time-tested policy compromises. He has preserved and reformed them intelligently. He has fit them into a persuasive framework. By doing that, he has not made us less safe. He has made us more secure."

While Brooks praised Obama, Andrew Sullivan -- in The Atlantic -- lambasted Cheney. Cheney's speech, he wrote, was ". . . not a patriotic defence of what he thinks is best for the country; it was a vile and deliberately divisive attempt to use the politics of fear and false machismo against the stability of the American polity."

Most damning of all was Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson's take on Cheney. Wilkerson is a former assistant to Colin Powell. After the shabby treatment Powell endured at the hands of Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney, Wilkerson, in the Washington Note, came out swinging. "When will someone of stature tell Dick Cheney that enough is enough? Go home. Spend your 70 million. Luxuriate in your Eastern Shore mansion. Shoot quail with your friends -- and your friends. Stay out of our way as we try to repair the extensive damage you've done -- to the country and to its Republican Party."

For even more abhorrent than Cheney's defense of water boarding is his assertion that, in the present circumstances, those in charge can throw the checks and balances in a democracy out the window. Cheney maintained throughout the time he spent in his "secret, undisclosed location" that the president need not be bound by the messy business of oversight. All he needed was a legal opinion that "enhanced interrogation techniques" were acceptable. Likewise, the FISA court could be bypassed when wire tapping was required.

In the end, it is Cheney's contempt for democracy which historians will remember. Unlike Cassius, he is not noted for his "lean and hungry look." But the second part of Caesar's admonition to Mark Antony bears repeating: "Such men are dangerous."

Monday, May 18, 2009

Oh, What a Tangled Web

I stopped feeling angry about Brian Mulroney a long time ago. I should note at the outset that I never voted for him, so I never felt a sense of betrayal. But, because he came to office with the greatest parliamentary majority in Canadian history, I can understand why he infuriated so many of his supporters.

In fairness, Mr. Mulroney did a number of things which stood him and his country in good stead. Last week, CBC journalist Brian Stewart -- who spent most of the Mulroney years in Europe -- recalled how in 1984, after consulting his UN ambassador Stephen Lewis, Mulroney helped mobilize relief for victims of the Ethiopian famine. He asked Lewis if the UN planned to do anything about the disaster. When Lewis replied that, thus far, nothing was on the horizon, "there was a pause and a quick lets-do-it commitment from the prime minister that would launch both men onto the world stage."

Likewise,when Ronald Reagan -- fearing Communist agitation in South Africa -- refused to condemn apartheid, Mulroney spoke unequivocally against it. He stood firmly against capital puishment. And, as others have noted elsewhere, he did more for the environment than any of his predecessors.

Still, there was something unsettling about the man. He was always trying too hard to please -- like the rising young man trying to impress the boss. He was given too often to hyperbole and self promotion. And he wore the signs of his success a little too conspicuously. In the end, it was Mulroney's talent for exaggeration and self aggrandizement which did him in. Canadians always suspected that, behind the good deeds, he was looking out for his own interests and the interests of a select group of supporters, who the late Dalton Camp referred to vaguely as "offshore money."

Appearing before the Oliphant Commission last week, Mulroney dredged up all of that. Oliphant will probably agree with his claim that he has done nothing illegal. And, in the end, Mr. Schreiber will probably be extradited to Germany. But, as Jeffrey Simpson wrote in The Globe and Mail, "There is the law and there is ethics. What might be legal sometimes is not ethical. What might be legally defensible, in a hair splitting or tightly defined way, does not pass a reasonable smell test of proper ethical conduct."

And that is how the public will remember Mr. Mulroney -- as a gifted but ethically challenged prime minister. The Schreiber affair has eclipsed the times he stood for compassion and justice. He will be remembered for the three envelopes which Schreiber stuffed with cash and handed him. It's a tragic tale, ending not with a bang but a whimper.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Eye Candy or Education?

Appearing before a convention of electronic journalists in 1958, Edward R. Morrow said, "Our history will be what we make it. And if there are any historians about fifty or a hundred years from now, and there should be preserved for one week the kinescopes of all three networks, they will there find recorded in black and white or color, evidence of decadence, escapism and insulation from the realities of the world in which we live. If this state of affairs continues," Murrow added, "we may alter an advertising slogan to read: LOOK NOW, PAY LATER."

If recent events prove anything, we are now paying for what we have refused to watch for a long time. It is true that there are more networks than there were in Murrow's time. But they operate on the same principle: television's prime directive is to sell. This is particularly true with over the air broadcasting, which now largely distributes infomercials, a plethora of television justices, and Jerry Springer-like freak shows. The so called "quality" programing has migrated to cable or satellite, where viewers pay for what they watch.

Recently, Canadian broadcasters have complained that the old "free" model of television broadcasting is broken. They claim that some kind of pay as you go system is the only viable broadcasting model. This is a curious argument, given that the medium itself -- the airwaves they rely on to make their profits -- are owned by the public.

Digital television promises many more channels. But more channels -- like more networks -- do not guarantee better quality. And, if people want to pay for schlock, I have no desire to prohibit their choices. However, it is worth remembering that Murrow's appearance before his fellow journalists was the opening salvo in the battle to establish the Public Broadcasting Service in the United States.

American public broadcasting chose the BBC as a template for its operations. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation was originally founded on the same British model. But, over the last forty years, it has increasingly looked to William Paley (who founded CBS) and David Sarnoff (who founded NBC) for inspiration. And, as Canadian governments of all stripes have cut funding for the corporation, the CBC has increasingly relied on cheap, commercial American programs to fill its time slots.

If government can find money to bail out banks and the automobile companies, it should be able to find money for public broadcasting. Public broadcasting is also an investment in the future, because it is an investment in education. As James Travers wrote last week in The Toronto Star, "Education isn't just a competitive fix; it's the only available magic elixer. Among so many other things, it lets us wisely weigh the safety of what we eat, the wisdom of corporate investments, and the profound implications of sending Canadians abroad to serve and die. Education not only helps makes sense of testing times and a chaotic world order, it puffs up every part of life."

Over two hundred years ago, Thomas Jefferson warned that democracies which lack a passionate commitment to public education will wither. In recent years, public schools have suffered the whips and slings of government neglect. If private broadcasters have their way, public broadcasting will suffer the same fate. Both institutions deserve better.

As Murrow said, "This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it is only wires and lights in a box. There is a great and perhaps decisive battle to be fought against ignorance, intolerance and indifference."

That battle continues. It will not be won without a strong, unwavering commitment to public broadcasting.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Starting at the Bottom

The Liberals have left Vancouver, with instructions from their leader to sell the party to the country. In the words of Jean Chretien -- almost twenty years ago -- they "have a lot of work to do." The most important work they have before them is to review and rebuild their policy platform.

For the last thirty years, the conventional way of doing that has been for a leader to gather a brain trust around him or herself, and -- after solving the problems of the world (as they perceive them) -- to issue marching orders to the rank and file. In Canada, this has resulted in the concentration of power in the Prime Minister's Office, where a handful of unelected bureaucrats dictate policy.

The result, as Toronto Star columnist James Travers has noted on several occasions, has been that, "Prime Ministers now rule between elections with the near absolute authority of monarchs." Our salvation does not rest in the hands of a benevolent dictator. For, we face more than a financial crisis. At the heart of the economic meltdown is a crisis of democracy.

Power and wealth are inextricably linked. And, as wealth has increasingly been concentrated at the top of the social pyramid, so has power. That was crystal clear when Detroit's auto executives flew to Washington in corporate jets to beg for public assistance; it was clear as bonuses were handed out to AIG executives; it is clear in the present torture debate in the United States. The powers that be want to avoid prosecutions, because they will inevitably lead back to Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney.

Until very recently every policy announcement in Canada was made by the prime minister, while members of his cabinet nodded approvingly in the background. It is only as the economy has gotten worse that Mr. Harper has allowed his ministers to tout government largesse. Power enjoys the spotlight, until the refuse of bad policy decisions -- the decisions made by that small, self assured phalanx of "smart" folks -- hits the fan.

In truth, the policies were bad because they were made by a small group of technocrats. Democracy -- true democracy -- is a self cleansing and self correcting mechanism. That is why any true democracy has a set of checks and balances -- opposition parties, government committees, and regular communication channels between the people and their representatives -- to test and reformulate policy before it is given the force of law. The problem is that these processes take time; and they are messy -- some would say inefficient -- two phenomena which are supposedly roadblocks to true happiness.

There was talk at the end of the Liberal convention of an imminent election. That would be a mistake. What the Liberals need now is time to formulate policy -- not by turning to a small band of experts, but by heading down the pyramid and consulting ordinary Canadians. In the process, they can advocate for changes in Employment Insurance -- for those changes are sorely needed. But, until they have a plan to deal with the world as it is, they are not ready to return to power.

Such a plan needs to move wealth -- and power -- down the pyramid to those at the bottom. That will necessitate a whole series of carefully thought out policy changes.

Mr. Ignatieff likes to refer to himself as "a Roosevelt Liberal." If he is who he says he is, his policies will move wealth and power into the hands of ordinary folks. Like Roosevelt, he may draw the ire of his own social class. But things will not change unless -- and until -- that happens.

The Liberals made a step in that direction this weekend when they moved to a one person one vote system, which gives every member of the party a say in choosing their leader. It was a good beginning. But, as Mr. Chretien said, there is still "a lot of work to do."