Politics more absurd every day

(October 5, 2017)

Political discourse has become more like theatre of the absurd. Every day, inane behaviour and baffling comments from politicians crowd out more important issues in the news.

To even call it discourse is a stretch, because discourse requires rationality and respect that is usually absent from the chaos that politics at all levels seems to reflect.

Political analysis has become the job of late-night comedians, because no one else has the skill set to handle its absurdities.

Those absurdities also disguise what else is going on, as the attention of viewers (and voters) is focused on the daily spectacle, where charge and counter-charge have to be more and more outlandish to attract a crowd.

Combine this general distraction with a major drop in news reporting and politicians rarely face the kind of media scrum or the tough questions that used to be a significant feature of the political landscape. There are not enough reporters, enough news programs or enough newspapers, to offer the challenges to power that the Fourth Estate has traditionally provided for nearly 200 years.

In other words, politicians are close to operating with impunity, able to brush off television questions with a 10-second soundbite that says less than a tweet and rarely pushed to explain themselves in any depth.

Canadian politicians are luckiest of all because even at their most reckless, neither the vitriol nor the inanity of their comments come anywhere close to what Americans seem to expect. They may look good by comparison, but unfortunately that doesn’t mean much.

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Opinion surveys a moot point in climate discussion

(July 11, 2017)

And the survey says… or does it?

Comments on “what Manitobans want” about a carbon tax sound like an episode of Family Feud. The answers depend on the questions asked and who happened to be in the crowd that was surveyed on the day.

Moreover, expecting Todd MacKay of the Canadian Taxpayers’ Federation (CTF) to say something good about a carbon tax (“Manitobans should resist carbon tax,” July 5) would be like expecting the Dairy Farmers Association to say nice things about margarine.

The lesson to be learned here is never to use opinion surveys to direct government policy one way or the other. Surveys tend to yield the results desired by the people who commission them. From the questions themselves (where a loaded question gets you a loaded answer) to the selection of contributors, surveys have become tools of propaganda more than social analysis.

To use the poorly designed, badly administered, self-selected survey on carbon tax offered by the Manitoba government as anything more than an illustration of how to do things wrong is, therefore, simply absurd.

Further, it’s not just about what you ask, but what instrument you use for the survey. I have queried classes of university students for several years now and found that most of them only have cellphones. Want to know what Manitobans under 30 think about anything? Don’t expect to find out by calling their grandparents on the family landline at 2 p.m.

Nor will even that survey necessarily yield the wisdom we expect from our elders. As Britons found out to their chagrin in the Brexit vote, older people do not always have the interests of the younger ones in mind. Overwhelmingly, the younger voters (at least those who got out of bed to vote) wanted to stay in the European Union — by the same margins older people voted to leave it. Those who had no future of their own apparently did not care much about anyone else’s, either. That’s a disturbing prospect for any society, including our own.

I would thus rather listen to what the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce has to say about implementing a carbon tax than have supposedly random surveys or public referenda guide the development of government policy on ecological issues. Nor would I easily accept the conclusions of think-tanks like the CTF, which boasts such former leaders as Jason Kenney in its “non-partisan” work.

Frankly, the term “think-tank” tends to be an oxymoron. Too often think-tanks merely parrot the ideology of their founders/funders, cloaking their bias in little more than a dollar-store disguise — something (ironically) that actually tanks critical thinking and undermines the credibility of any conclusions they reach.

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In All of Us Command

— Evening shadows at the National War Memorial, Ottawa

It is Canada’s 150th birthday today. Later on, after celebrating with family and friends, I will be with a large group of people at the Forks, the historic junction of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers where trade and settlements go back thousands of years.

We will sing O Canada, and – as I have done every time since 2003 – I will change the words from “true patriot love/in all thy sons command” and sing instead “in all of us command.”

In 2003, I began teaching history to students in the Canadian military, through the Royal Military College. The first time I looked at my class list, then out into the room, I knew I could never sing those outdated and entirely inaccurate words again.

The number of women in the Canadian Armed Forces – in all branches, including combat arms – continues to rise. It is a reflection of the ideas about equality that underpin what we do as Canadians, even if we need constant reminders about past (and present) injustices.

It’s not just about what we do, either, but about who we are as a nation and who we are, as citizens.

The proposed change to the national anthem to bring the rest of the country in line for today with what I have been singing for fourteen years have been thwarted by unelected, largely Conservative, mostly (if not entirely) white and male senators.

On a day when we mark our birthday as a nation, their actions remind us how the self-serving and self-interested defence of unmerited privilege threatens the sustainable future not only of our country, but of the whole planet.

It would be easy to associate their actions with patriarchy and misogyny – the barriers that women world wide, including in Canada, must continue to overcome. I consider their attitude more insidious and dangerous than that, however – it is what lies behind racism, religious intolerance and hatred of those who are different, for whatever reason.

More specifically, it is the same attitude that protects personal and corporate privilege, the power to continue to do as one pleases, regardless of the social, cultural or ecological consequences. It is what we have to overcome, and quickly, in order to make the changes to how we live together on this planet, if we want our children and grandchildren to be able to have any kind of a sustainable future.

It may seem a leap to associate those few, unchanged words with such an outcome, but (as national anthems tend to be) they are symbolic of who we are and who we should be as citizens of Canada — and of Earth.

Those women in uniform who looked back at me in that first class had made the personal choice, for their own reasons, to serve Canada at the risk of their own lives, if necessary. They had chosen to protect the people and the institutions of the country, even those mostly white and male Conservative senators. It seems a small thing to offer the nation’s respect for their service by changing a few words.

I’m an historian, so the various attempts at historicizing the national anthem and claiming purity with past traditions as justification for leaving things unchanged are just as lame to me as they sound. It is not about protecting tradition, but preserving privilege.

Things change – and so they should. As First Nations people remind us, the historical record of settlement and colonization reflects many injustices toward aboriginal peoples in Canada.

Our record of injustice toward the other children of Earth who are not human is even worse. We are called “to live with respect in Creation” just as much as we are called to live with respect toward each other.

If we had an anthem for being citizens of Earth, those should be lyrics it includes.

For now, for all of us, and for a sustainable future, those few words can make a difference in how we think about each other and our collective responsibility toward those who will follow us in this place.

O Canada, our home and native land.
True patriot love, in all of us command.

If you are a Canadian, please choose for yourself to sing those words, every time you have a chance to sing the national anthem.

It’s not about who we were, but who we are – and about whom we hope to become.

Miigwech.