An Election Really Rigged – Part Two

American presidents have ways of getting rid of governments they don’t like. Ask Iran (1953), GuatemalaAmerican presidents have ways of getting rid of foreign governments they don’t like. (1954), Congo (1960), Dominican Republic (1961), South Vietnam (1963), Brazil (1964), and Chile (1973). Or, as explained in my November 7th blog, part one of this story, ask Canada (1963). President John F. Kennedy played a direct role in helping to topple the teetering government of Prime Minister John Diefenbaker.

Now for part two. Kennedy’s efforts would be wasted if Lester Pearson’s Liberals, his preference to form Canada’s government, did not win the ensuing election. Kennedy set out to put Pearson in power.

The Pollster:

Pearson’s team had all read Theodore White’s brilliant The Making of the President 1960. It outlined factors that determined Kennedy’s success, including the use of frequent and targeted polling. Kennedy had hired former marketing executive Lou Harris. For the first time in electoral politics, a pollster worked exclusively for a campaign and employed daily random sampling to correlate and analyse massive amounts of data then suggest changes that shaped the candidate and message.

The Liberals had asked Harris for help in the 1962 election. He had previously been asked to assist the British Labour Party but the president wanted the Conservatives re-elected and so asked him to decline the job. After the call from the Canadian Liberals, Harris again asked Kennedy’s permission. He was soon on a plane to Ottawa. Now, a year later, he heading north again.

Like before, the Liberals sought to hide Kennedy’s man so Harris again assumed his wife’s maiden name and used the phony passport forged by the State Department. He avoided Parliament Hill where he might be recognized and attended weekly meetings at Pearson’s home. Harris hired 500 women who made daily calls across the country. The polling determined, for example, how Pearson would dress – in a straight and not bow tie – which cities he would visit, the policies he would emphasize, phrases he would use, and that the campaign would sell the team and not the leader.

Harris later said that Kennedy was, “…all but shouting from the sidelines. He hated Diefenbaker…He obviously couldn’t say anything publicly. But every day or two he would want to know how the election was going.”

The Reporter:

One of Kennedy’s closest friends was Newsweek magazine’s Washington bureau chief Benjamin Bradlee. Several times the two had discussed the need to get rid of Diefenbaker. In the campaign’s first week, Newsweek arrived in mailboxes and on newsstands across Canada with an arresting cover showing a disturbingly close-up and alarmingly unpleasant photograph of Diefenbaker over the title: Canada’s Diefenbaker: Decline and Fall. The accompanying article embarrassed even the prime minister’s staunchest critics: “It would be too flattering to dismiss him just as a superficial fellow – he’s really much dimmer than that.” The article claimed that that Diefenbaker lacked leadership skills, was unable to make decisions, and had been bad for Canada, NATO, America, and the world.

At a news conference the morning after the magazine’s release, Diefenbaker was greeted by reporters holding its cover up over their smiles. He laughed but burned inside. The Newsweek issue allowed him to openly add Kennedy to those he said were out to unseat him.

The Editorialist:

Among the newspapers clearly against Diefenbaker was the widely read Toronto Star. It published over a dozen articles by Sam Lubell that were crammed with quotes gathered from Canadians. None supported Diefenbaker. Typical were these from an April 2 article: “He’s so irresponsible he makes me ashamed I am a Canadian.” “I can’t stand to look at him on TV.” “He’s out on a limb sawing off our relations with the United States.”

Lubell was an American journalist, pollster, and political strategist. Among his closest friends was Kennedy’s national security advisor McGeorge Bundy. After the election, Lubell left for Europe carrying a letter of introduction from Bundy that stated, “He has been very helpful to the Government on more than one occasion, and he is a very able and disinterested reporter.”

The Ambassador:

The American ambassador to Canada was an old friend of the Kennedy family, Walter Butterworth. As all ambassadors do, Butterworth sent home regular reports that summarized the editorial stands of a host of Canadian newspapers. He went further, though, and held regular, secret briefings with a select group of Canadian journalists who were known to be critical of Diefenbaker. Throughout the campaign, he fed them information to augment their pro-Pearson, anti-Diefenbaker articles and editorials. In communications to Washington he boasted of the degree to which he was shaping Canadian public opinion.

The Direction:

The Kennedy administration’s interference became so blatant that Pearson was forced to deny that he and the president were in direct contact. He was repeatedly heckled as an American stooge. As he approached the podium to address a large Vancouver rally, an American flag was unfurled before the stage and burned. Hecklers shouted “American Slave” and “Yankee Lover” as a group of young men in the balcony loaded long straws and pelted him with frozen peas. He shouted his speech while his wife, Maryon, sat stoically on the platform with tears streaming down her cheeks.

A couple of days later, Pearson was about to speak in Edmonton when he was told that he and Kennedy’s mutual friend,Washington-based Canadian journalist Max Freedman, was on the phone from the White House press room. Pearson was rushed to a janitor’s room to take the call. He was told that Freedman and Kennedy had been having dinner and discussing the election and that the president wanted to speak with him. A tired and frustrated Pearson explained how Kennedy’s actions were backfiring and finally shouted, “For God’s sake, tell the president not to say anything. I don’t want any help from him. This would be awful.”

Lou Harris reported to Kennedy that all the American interference in the Canadian campaign was actually hurting Pearson and pleaded with the president to “call off his dogs”. “And for God’s sake,” he said, “keep quiet about Pearson no matter what you’re thinking.” The chastened president directed Bundy to order staff not to necessarily stop interfering in the election, just stop getting caught. A memo read: “The President wishes to avoid any appearance of interference, even by responding to what may appear to be untruthful, distorted, or unethical statements or actions. Will you, therefore, please ensure that no one in your Departments, in Washington or in the field, says anything publicly about Canada until after the election without first clearing with the White House.”

Memo:

When Kennedy had visited Ottawa in 1961, he had mistakenly dropped a briefing memo written by his deputy national security assistant Walt Rostow. It was given to Diefenbaker who was incensed that it listed policies Kennedy would “push” Canada to adopt. Near the end of the 1963 campaign, Canadian journalists learned of the memo and wrote of the degree to which Kennedy was indeed “pushing” Canada.

The next morning, Kennedy saw an AP news story about the Rostow memo and immediately called Assistant Secretary of State Tyler. Kennedy read him excerpts and noted parts that he said were false. “Now it seems to me,” he said, “that he may have leaked this – Diefenbaker. It makes him look good and us look lousy…he’s a liar.” Kennedy asked Tyler to see what reaction the story was sparking in Canada and said, “If it is helping Diefenbaker we ought to knock it down. The question is how.”

A new Montreal Gazette article suggested that the memo contained a margin note, scribbled by the president, in which he referred to Diefenbaker using a “derogatory term” that was quickly purported to be “SOB”. Kennedy and Bundy discussed how they could handle the latest bad press without lending credibility to Diefenbaker’s claim that they were involved in the campaign. They decided that Kennedy’s press secretary would call the Gazette reporter and deny the SOB rumour. Minutes later, Time magazine’s Hugh Sidey was ushered into the White House for a previously arranged meeting. Still upset, Kennedy declared, “Now I want you to get this damn thing about Diefenbaker correct. I’ve been in this damn business long enough to know better than that. There are a lot of stupid mistakes I make but that isn’t one of them.” He added with a smile, “Besides, at the time I didn’t know what kind of guy Diefenbaker was.” Ben Bradlee later reported that Kennedy confided with him that he did not think Diefenbaker was a son of a bitch, he thought he was a prick.

Kennedy’s press secretary privately briefed selected reporters on the Rostow memo. From that meeting came an article by New York Times syndicated columnist James “Scotty” Reston, a mutual friend of Kennedy and Pearson. It appeared in the Montreal Star on the morning of April 8 – Election Day. It blamed Diefenbaker for the whole kerfuffle saying he had been wrong to have kept the memo, probably leaked news of its existence, had lied about it, and was wrong in using it for political advantage. As Canadians went to the polls, they pondered whether their prime minister was a liar or political rapscallion, and perhaps whether the president they admired so much thought he was a son of a bitch.

Voting Day:

Canadians did as Kennedy had hoped and elected a Liberals government. Lester Pearson became Canada’s prime minister. What had just happened was not secret. Washington Daily News columnist Richard Starnes noted, “It is an irony of history that President Kennedy’s Administration while properly charged with failures in Cuba, Laos and Europe is prevented by the rules of the game from claiming credit for a skilfully executed triumph elsewhere. The victory occurred in Canada where adroit statecraft by the American State Department brought down the bumbling crypto anti-Yankee government of Prime Minister John Diefenbaker and replaced it with a regime which promises to be faithful to the concept of Canadian-American interdependence…the Kennedy Administration must congratulate itself in private for its coup.” The Starnes column was passed around the State Department and White House with readers adding smug handwritten notes to its cover page. Assistant Secretary of State Tyler wrote to McGeorge Bundy: “Mac, You see how smart we, I mean you, are!”

Canadians knew too. In a column that appeared in papers across Canada, syndicated columnist Charles Lynch  wrote, “Diefenbaker was defeated by Kennedy.” His observation was echoed even in France where the Paris-Presse headline was succinct: “Canada has voted American.”

This question that comes first to mind is how this could have happened. The second, and more important given the Donald Trump victory, is could it happen again.

John F. Kennedy,  Lester Pearson Photo Toronto Star

If you enjoyed this column, please share it with others and consider checking part one of this story at https://johnboyko.com/2016/11/07/an-election-really-rigged-part-one/.

To learn more about Kennedy and Canada please consider Cold Fire: Kennedy’s Northern Front, available online and in sensible bookstores in Canada and the United States.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

An Election Really Rigged – Part One

We Canadians are a smug lot. For the last while, we’ve pressed our noses to the window on our southern border and been shocked and chagrined by the gong show masquerading as a presidential election. We’ve been stunned by, among other things, all the talk of rigged elections and secret shenanigans. Let’s get over ourselves. Let’s consider a Canadian election that was truly rigged. First, let’s see how the Americans helped topple the Canadian government.

President John F. Kennedy hated Canadian Prime Minister John Diefenbaker. Their political difference would have put them at odds even if they had gotten along famously. The final straw in the feisty fight was Kennedy’s rage over Diefenbaker’s failure to offer enthusiastic and unreserved support during the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. Kennedy needed the Canadian government changed. He usually got what he wanted.

Raffi final

Photo:Toronto Star

Strike One: Two and a half months after the Cuban crisis ended and the world returned to the gritted-teeth peace, NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander General Norstad ended his career with a tour of alliance capitals. On January 3, 1963, he arrived in Ottawa. Resplendent in his medal-bedecked uniform, Norstad made a brief statement and then, in response to reporters’ questions, suggested that Canada’s prime minister was a liar. He had been lying, the general said, about a number of things including the need for Canadian troops in Europe to have American nuclear weapons.

Many newspapers and people had already turned on Diefenbaker but Norstad’s stunning declaration turned more. A few days after igniting the firestorm, Kennedy welcomed Norstad to the White House, pinned a Distinguished Service Medal on his chest, and praised him for displaying “great skill” and “sensitivity” in his diplomacy and especially for having, “…in a unique way held the confidence of our allies in Europe and, of course, our partner to the north, Canada.”

Strike Two: Amid withering attacks from all sides, Diefenbaker rose in the House of Commons to explain and defend his government’s nuclear policy. He concluded that his government’s policies would always reflect Canadian interests and not those of “people from outside the country” who cared only for their own national interests.

The speech was a grand performance but confused more than clarified. It intensified questions about Diefenbaker’s leadership in the media and among his cabinet and caucus. The Americans then poured oil on the gathering flames. The American ambassador sped a message to the State Department in which he took specific exception to nearly every point Diefenbaker had made. The letter was reworked by National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy and then Secretary of State Dean Rusk took it to the president. Kennedy agreed to the letter’s release saying, “We can’t let these fellows get away with this.”

Late in the afternoon of January 30, the State Department press release was given to Canadian reporters in Washington. It was astonishing. Point by point, it explained how Diefenbaker had misrepresented a range of issues and facts. Only three weeks after General Norstad had told the Canadian people that Diefenbaker was being disingenuous regarding nuclear weapons, Kennedy’s State Department, even more bluntly, had called their prime minister a liar.

In the House of Commons Diefenbaker thundered: “[Canada] will not be pushed around or accept external domination or interference in the making of its decisions. Canada is determined to remain a firm ally, but that does not mean she should be a satellite.” The fury of indignation led by media on both sides of the border forced Secretary of State Rusk to respond. Far from apologizing, he said that after hearing Diefenbaker’s speech the Kennedy administration was justified in laying out the facts. News of Rusk’s statement appeared on the front page of the New York Times and was reprinted in papers across Canada. Yet another high-ranking American, the third in three weeks, had called the Canadian prime minister a liar.

Kennedy called his special advisor George Ball twice that night to say that he understood the effects of his government’s action in Canada but that Diefenbaker deserved it. Ball confirmed that as a result of their interventions the Diefenbaker government could fall. Kennedy doubled down saying, “We should feed some…up there that Diefenbaker’s in trouble. We knew that he has always been running against us so that it’s very important.”

 Strike Three:  The growing tension brought all that had been tearing the Diefenbaker cabinet asunder to the fore. In an unprecedented shouting match meeting at the prime minister’s residence, the cabinet split and the defense minister resigned. Shortly afterward, Rusk appeared before the Senate Subcommittee on Canadian Affairs that had been called to investigate the State Department’s intervention into Canadian domestic political. Revealing that he obviously had an Ottawa mole, Rusk said that six or seven Canadian cabinet ministers were splitting from the prime minister. He then bluntly reiterated everything the State Department memo had said. For those keeping score, it was the fourth time a senior Kennedy administration official had publicly called Diefenbaker a liar.

Ottawa fell into chaos. There were bizarre late night meetings, hushed hallway conversations, private deal making, and public back stabbings. On the evening of Tuesday, February 5, for only the second time in Canadian history, a government was defeated on a vote on non-confidence. Diefenbaker visited the Governor General and the election was set for April 8.

The news sparked laughter and celebration at the White House. The American ambassador telegrammed the State Department to gloat about America’s role in having brought down Diefenbaker: “In effect, we have now forced the issue and the outcome depends on [the] basic common sense of Canadian electorate… we see grounds for optimism that over the long run this exercise will prove to have been highly beneficial and will substantially advance our interests.” Kennedy said nothing publicly about his administration’s role in the Canadian government’s fall. However, McGeorge Bundy later admitted to President Johnson, “I might add that I myself have been sensitive to the need for being extra polite to the Canadians ever since George Ball and I knocked over the Diefenbaker Government by one incautious press release.”

Let us not be naive. Politics is tough. Politicians will do things to advance their careers, political appointees will do things to support their bosses, and political leaders will do things to advance their agendas. Occasionally that leads one government to overthrow another with a violent revolution or coup. Sometimes, such as in Canada in 1963, it leads to a nudge through shaping perceptions and changing course.

Kennedy’s efforts in helping to overthrow the Canadian government would not have been worth it, of course, unless Lester Pearson and his Liberals won the ensuing election. The president would not leave that to chance. But that is for part two.

I have been away from my Monday blog for a while to complete my next book but I’m back. Part two of this story will appear next week with more in the weeks that follow. For more on Kennedy and Canada you could check out Cold Fire: Kennedy’s Northern Front which is available online and at bookstores throughout Canada and the United States.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lies to Divide

Adolf Hitler did not begin by building gas chambers. He began by telling lies to divide. We are now engulfed by too many more.

Brexit campaign buses, billboards, and commercials said that Britain sent £350 million a week to Brussels and it would be available for health care if she left the European Union. Mexicans are mostly rapists and drug dealers who steal jobs and so, once a wall is built and illegals deported, the jobs will return.

The day after winning the referendum, Leave campaign leader Nigel Farage confessed that the 350 million was a lie and the NHS should expect no bonus. We should not expect a similar admission from Mr. Trump for the multiple falsehoods tangled in his Mexican lie. Narcissists never explain, apologize, or admit error. The Trump and Farage lies are not the problem. The problem is that they are accepted by a big enough minority as to become powerful political forces.

Lies That Divide

(Photo: http://www.mirror.co.uk)

We have always been lied to. Tobacco companies said they didn’t know cigarettes were murderous and addictive but they knew for years. Oil companies said climate change was a hoax, years after their own scientists told CEOs the truth. These and similar corporate lies divide us from our money and health. Political lies divide us from each other.

Richard Nixon won office in 1968 based largely on his southern strategy. He said he wanted a return to law and order. Southern whites heard that he would take care of hippies, feminists, and Blacks. Nixon declared a war on drugs. Those responsible for its implementation later admitted that the war was just dog whistle racism understood to mean jailing African Americans.

More recently, Canada’s former Prime Minister Stephen Harper pledged to ban Muslim women from wearing face-covering niqabs during citizenship ceremonies. The problem was that there was no problem. All Muslim women had always needed to show their faces several times through the long, multi-step process. The only time the niqab could be worn was during the swearing-in ceremony that was completely ceremonial after all the paperwork was done. But the Nixonian dog whistle was heard and understood by anti-Muslim nativists, xenophobes, and anti-immigrant racists.

The lies told during Trump’s nomination fight and the Brexit campaign were easily googled and revealed. But like with Nixon and Harper, those to whom the lies were directed didn’t care. Some were just racists and bigots ready to hear their shameful beliefs legitimized. Many others who believed or dismissed the lies were not racist or dumb. They were desperate. They had been dealt awful hands. The forces stacked against them are too big and faceless to fully comprehend. But the physical embodiments of change were in their towns and on their TVs. They are the others. The others are from different countries, ethnicities, races, religions, or classes. The end of Britain’s industrial era is as tough to understand and accept as the end of post-war prosperity where America was number one with no competition. But it’s sure easy to see the guy with the odd accent running the convenience store or fume at the assembly in Brussels dictating the curvature of bananas ( another Leave lie by the way.)

My faith in Canadians was restored when nearly 70% voted against the divisiveness being sold by Mr. Harper. My faith remains with British and European leaders who will navigate into a new era with compassion rather than bitterness and reprisal. My faith rests with the American people who are even now leaving Trump and the Vichy Republicans to hand Hillary Clinton a landslide.

I believe the truth matters. If those perpetrating demonstrable lies are allowed to lead, then I will need to admit that I’m wrong. The British vote certainly says I am. But my faith abides.

Please leave a comment in the space below to identify a clear lie that you see currently being told by a public figure or institution. Let’s see how large the list becomes with the hope that by laying them in the sun they shrivel. Let us inoculate ourselves with the truth. 

I am looking forward to your list. If you enjoyed this column and would like others to add to the list, please forward it using Facebook or other means. You might also consider checking my other columns at http://www.johnboyko.com

 

Seeking the Elusive Community

Every poet from William Shakespeare to John Lennon has tried to define love. They all failed. Good. To precisely define a concept of such profundity is to trivialize and cheapen it. Such is the also the case with other notions of importance and among them is community. Community is being tested today in countries and companies and schools. Perhaps we owe it to ourselves to walk the poet’s mile toward community’s unattainable definition with the hope that the existential journey affords wisdom, or at least grace.

Community is a feeling. It grows from shared values, interests, experiences, and goals. We are social animals and so we naturally seek community. It is the yearning or circumstances that lead some to churches and others to street gangs. It is the warmth and smiles of a book club or slow pitch ball team.

National community is dynamic. Most of us are born, live, and die in one country. We find community in implicitly accepting the power of the state, complaining about government, and in the embrace of values that link we the people – the nation. It is community that brings us to our feet for the anthem and after a trip abroad makes the flag look so damn good. It is the national community we miss when emigrating and that offers culture shock to immigrants. The kind-of-heart see the national community as a quilt and celebrate each unique square. On the other hand, the frightened and angry – and those fanning the flames for political gain – tear at community by seeing it as an exclusive tree fort and advocate throwing “the other” out while pushing down the ladder.

Seeking the Illusive Community(Photo: http://www.asantecentre.org)

Corporate community is ephemeral. With new jobs, we sweat the interview, endure our rookie mistakes, and then eventually fit in. We contribute. We finally get the history and jokes. Some colleagues become friends. We become part of the team, part of the community. However, no matter how many casual Fridays, tipsy parties, mission statements, motivational speeches, or team building retreats we enjoy and endure, the boss is always the boss.

Sometimes the boss’ decisions lead to radical policy shifts or dismissals. Unexpected, poorly communicated, or unsupported decisions are painful for those whose experience is demeaned and beliefs belittled. They are tragic for the unfairly and suddenly gone and heartrending for those suffering survival guilt. All are stunned by the realization that they are not really valuable and valued members of a community but interchangeable units of labour. They become haunted. They become hunted. They are torn by the thought that their community is really not a community at all.

National and corporate community builders would do well to read David Rieff’s In Praise of Forgetting. He decries communities that commemorate every anniversary of some riot, battle, attack, or assassination with sparks of fresh rage. Rieff is not saying we should forget our past, but rather that we should learn to learn from it, accept it, and for the good of the community and ourselves, move on.

Linked to Rieff’s idea, and equally worthy of consideration, is the crazy thought that South Africa, the country that institutionalized racist discrimination, became the world’s model as to how a community recovers from a catastrophic past. The brilliant Nelson Mandela convinced not everyone but enough that speaking the truth of what happened, and why, and by whom, and to whom, would lead to reconciliation. Mandela did not say we should forget, rather that we should explain, understand, atone, and forgive. Canada is now trying the Mandela-Rieff ideas with its own Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

All communities live on trust. In Johannesburg, as in Ottawa and Washington, and as in every broken corporate or school community, slogans and tag lines mean nothing. Promises mean nothing. Office, title, and job description mean nothing. Hierarchy is a bad and sad joke. Teams made separate are made irrelevant. Truth untold is rumours confirmed. Communities remain strong and broken communities can only be made whole again when trust is unquestioned. Trust is born only of patience, empathy, respect, honesty, loyalty, and transparency. It is seen in how we treat others, all others, when there is no one else around and nothing to gain. Only those who understand that community is not mechanical but organic can contribute to regenerating trust. Those committed to silos or levels of power or walls of exclusion can’t build bridges.

We owe it to ourselves to preserve strong communities and reconstitute those that deserve recovery. We need to understand and celebrate the strength in those that are thriving. In others, we must mourn that which was broken and help those who were hurt. Let’s shun the shouters, dividers, and serial liars. Let’s ignore the cynics, sycophants, and saboteurs. Tomorrow’s community is for those who hope and work for better, armed with lessons learned and wisdom earned.

A values-based community offers explanation and inspiration, a ladder and a net, and shelter from the storm. It’s worth the work. And maybe that’s as close to a definition as we need.

If you enjoyed this column, please send it to others and consider checking my others at http://www.johnboyko.com

The Power of Graceful Words and Cogent Arguments

It was a word salad. Ms. Palin’s endorsement of Donald Trump’s candidacy last week did something few could imagine. It outdid even her past performances in presenting a rambling exhortation as bereft of grammar and sentence structure as it was a cogent argument. She had valid points to make but even Mr. Trump appeared embarrassed at her inability to make them.

Plenty of people laughed. Tina Fey revved up her spot-on impersonation for Saturday Night Live. Others were outraged at the depths to which political discourse has sunk and by the fact that her speech garnered applause at the time and, from the predictable quarters, praise afterwards. I, however, was sad.

I was sad for all those young people with good teachers who are learning the power and beauty of the spoken word. In classrooms across North America, good teachers are encouraging an appreciation for poetry, Shakespeare, and stirring speeches. Students are learning that the more they read, the better they can write, and the better they write, the deeper they are encouraged to think. They are learning that to be articulate is a good thing. And yet, there was Ms. Palin addressing a serious matter, the presidency, with profane and made up words more akin to a drunken karaoke rap than reasoned prose.

I was also sad for students learning the precision of a well-defined argument. They are being taught to dismiss false dichotomies that present either/or options that don’t really exist. Students are learning to begin the evaluation of an argument by exploring its premise and to be unfooled by straw men foisted as false foils. If nothing else, they are learning that arguments must at least be arguments, that is, they must state a point of view and defend it with demonstrably valid evidence. They learn that truth matters and that one can have one’s own opinion but not one’s own facts. And yet, there was Ms. Palin presenting not an argument as to why Mr. Trump should be president with but, rather, nonsensical assertions, jumbled phrases, insults, non-sequiturs, and even goofy rhymes.

If you missed it, all twenty minutes, here is part of what Ms. Palin had to say:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CubzfKS5yQk

Let’s pause for a moment to consider two examples that demonstrate the way things used to be and can and should still be today. First, in about two minutes Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Gettysburg Address stated the reason for the gathering, the value of the sacrifice of those lost in the recent battle, established the Civil War’s global and moral purpose, and affirmed the legitimacy of the fight. And he did it all in words he wrote himself and with the grace of a poet.

Take a moment to read what Lincoln said that afternoon in Pennsylvania with consideration for the value of marrying diction and argument.

http://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/gettyb.asp

There is another example among many that could be chosen. On April 4, 1968, Robert Kennedy was running for President. A crowd in the predominately Black section of Indianapolis had been waiting for a long while and was growing restless. It was dark. Just as he was ascending the stairs to speak, Kennedy was told that Martin Luther King had been assassinated. His handlers ordered him back to the car. He refused.

Instead, Kennedy looked into the sea of Black faces and asked them to lower their campaign signs. This would not be about his campaign. He said that their hero and inspirational leader had been killed and that a White man had done it. There were gasps. But Kennedy went on. He gently interpreted the murder in a personal context and then as a national, existential challenge. He quoted several lines from the Greek poet Aeschylus. That’s right, a man running for president extemporaneously quoted a Greek poet.

Value of Graceful Words and Cogent Arguments

(Photo: http://www.peacebuttons.info)

In cities across America that night there were riots in Black neighbourhoods with grief expressed as rage. That is, in every major city except one: Indianapolis.

Allow yourself the gift to be moved by Robert Kennedy and the power of elegant, graceful  words and a genuine, cogent argument:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BCrx_u3825g

I refuse to believe that Ms. Palin’s ramblings and Mr. Trump’s rants are cause for despair. It is just as I refused to be disheartened when in the recent Canadian election the prime minister embarrassed himself and disgraced the office by abandoning reasoned arguments to instead, day after day, present a sophomoric, faux game show complete with buzzers and bells.

Palin, Trump, Harper, and for that matter Mr. Cruz and Mr. Sanders, have their audiences and I think I understand them. They are angry. They are angry that the rules they have followed and thought they understood are changing. The bad guys have been winning on Baghdad’s Main Street and New York’s Wall Street. They are angry that the elite, donor class sold them on voting against their interests to support people, policies, and programs that have widened gulfs and strangled mobility. Their anger is palpable. Their anger is justified.

Unjustified, however, is meeting anger with bombast. Insults are not arguments. Beliefs are not policies. Prejudices are not facts. Biases are not opinions. We deserve better. All of us deserve better, even, or perhaps especially those angry folks attracted to Mr. Trump on one side and Mr. Sanders on the other.

Leaders and those who seek to lead should elevate and not stoop. They should inspire and not conspire. They should speak not to our inner demons but, as Lincoln called them, our better angels. And they should present themselves in ways that encourage calm reason over empty passion and articulate debate rather than spewed slogans. Like Kennedy, they should cool the embers of justifiable anger rather than stoke infernos. Picture Palin or Trump in Indianapolis that night.

For the sake of the children learning to speak, write, and present persuasive arguments as part of their becoming engaged citizens and whose world will be shaped by our decisions, let us demand more. Let us refuse to support those who’s jumbled words and absent arguments suggest we settle for less.

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Leadership and Narcissism

Leadership and Narcissism

The Canadian election is over and the American presidential campaign is heating up. Justin Bieber’s adolescent petulance has again made headlines and pictures of celebrities in Halloween costumes have been spamming my Twitter account. CEOs at Volkswagen, a couple of banks, an oil company, and those running Soccer’s FIFA World Cup have been behaving badly. Perhaps it is an appropriate moment to consider narcissism.

The word derives from the Greek legend of a handsome young man named Narcissus who fell so head over heels in love with himself that he devoted days to gazing longingly at his reflection in a pool. He eventually died and was transformed into the flower called narcissus.

Narcissism

(Photo: http://www.barrett.com.au)

In 1914, Sigmund Freud used the legend to discuss the problem of excessive self-love. In the 1970s, University of Chicago’s Heinz Kohut deepened our understanding by writing that all children have a grandiose sense of self and see others as merely pawns. Due to a trauma they may not recall, and may not have even been a negative experience, some people never move past that stage. Kohut dubbed the result a narcissistic personality disorder.

Those suffering from the disorder, he wrote, do not suffer at all. They thrive. They revel. They strut. They succeed and they celebrate. They are aware of their inflated sense of self while carefully calculating their interactions with others to advance careers that they see as their due. A narcissist is completely and sincerely convinced that their opinions are superior to all and so their world – be it a particular organization or company or even the broader arts, business, or politics – will be improved if others just got out of their way. A 2004 Harvard Business Review article noted that executives at Oracle described CEO Larry Ellison like this: “The difference between God and Larry is that God does not believe he is Larry.”

A narcissist always makes a good first impression because he is irresistibly charming, witty, and confident. It’s an easy act because his life is a performance. He is often a loving spouse and parent, for example, as it allows yet another demonstration of his ability to master difficult tasks. He often gets things done at work because he swiftly clears aside obstacles whether they are people or established practices. If caught doing something unwise or illegal, critics are dismissed as jealous or mindless ‘haters’ and rules or laws as merely misguided impediments. Narcissistic leaders are capable of shoe shuffling mea culpas but privately smile at critics and criticism as bothersome bumps on the road constructed by poor souls who will eventually understand that all will be better when they are allowed back on the bridge with only their hands on the tiller. Consider Richard Nixon or Bill Clinton.

Washington University’s Erica Carlson writes that it is this combination of self-awareness and refusal to accept criticism or consequence that results in narcissists never believing that they need to change. Narcissists are incapable of change. The world must change to suit them and not the other way around. Consider Kanye West even before he announced that he would run for president.

Not all leaders are narcissists and not all narcissists are leaders. But, according to Dr. Thomas Paine, narcissists are overwhelmingly represented in leadership positions in sports, entertainment, politics, and business. Paine warns us to watch for a leader who is a charming conversationalist but always brings talk back to himself or his preferred topic. Watch for a leader who surrounds himself with sycophants and banishes those with long corporate memories and others who challenge his views or goals. Look out for the leader who can feign empathy but whose goal-driven actions aggrandize himself and his personal metrics of success while revealing no genuine concern for the feelings or even the lives of others. Watch for the leader who smiles at adversity with the confidence that he will weather all storms and emerge triumphant. Most importantly, he warns, watch for leaders who value their success more than that of the organization they lead. Consider Donald Trump.

Narcissism is more important than the Beibs or Kardashians. It is more important than measuring your personal rate of selfies per hour. Our intersecting worlds of culture, business, and politics matter a great deal and so the slippery slope from confidence to arrogance to narcissism among some of our leaders in each world matters. In fact, it is crucial.

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Hundred Days and Honeymoons

In the fifth century, a northern European marriage tradition encouraged newlyweds to enjoy a daily dose of mead, a fermented liquid honey. It was believed to be an aphrodisiac. Using the only calendar available, the sipping stopped when the moon returned to the wedding day’s phase – about a month. From this custom came the honeymoon.

The concept has grown. We experience honeymoons at work. The new person is allowed silly questions and rookie mistakes. New business leaders are similarly excused if questions reflect a genuine desire to understand and not veiled threats, and mistakes are forgiven if blame is accepted and apologies are quick. Often, however, honeymoons end when a business leader’s personality flair reveals a character flaw; intelligence becomes arrogance, or the pace and nature of change threatens profits or values.

Such is also the case in political leadership. Political honeymoons are Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s fault. He became president in March 1934, in the depths of the Great Depression. Within 100 days of inauguration he presented, and Congress passed, 15 major bills. He began by closing and stabilizing banks and then quickly touched nearly every sector of America’s sputtering economy. Some New Deal legislation worked and some failed but within those frenetic 100 days confidence and investment were rekindled and lives and capitalism itself were saved. Soon, however, even FDR’s honeymoon ended. Critics appeared from the left and right and the Supreme Court overturned his most ambitious initiatives.

Every leader, whether in business or politics, is warned that a honeymoon is as real as it is transitory and so it must be as productive as possible. Since FDR, every newly elected political leader has also been measured according to his or her First 100 Days.

Few leaders have demonstrated those twin realities as clearly as Barack Obama in 2009 and Pierre Trudeau in 1968. Both were propelled to office by charm, charisma, and positive campaigns. Both undertook ambitious agendas supported by the public and enabled by their party’s legislative majorities. Then, inevitably, both saw popularity plummet as their 100 days involved more talk than achievement and performance that couldn’t match promise. Obama watched Republicans take the House of Representatives. In his next election, Trudeau formed a frail, two-seat minority government.

Justin Trudeau has yet to be sworn in but the clock is already ticking on his honeymoon. Like all honeymoons, it offers novelty and excitement. The United States has seen two father and son presidents – Adams and Bush – but this will be a Canadian first. Never have Canadians welcomed a new leader not through the lens of TV news or at the behest of newspaper endorsements but, rather, primarily through the citizenship levellers and engagement enablers of YouTube videos, tweets, selfies, and blogs. Not since Pierre Trudeau, have Canadians embraced a celebrity politician as they would a movie or rock star.

Hundred Days and Honeymoons

(Photo: beaconnews.ca)

Our prime minister designate followed a masterful campaign with a positive election night speech, a fun meet and greet with surprised Montreal subway commuters, and an articulate, confident press conference. Even those who did not vote Liberal seem invigorated by his promise of change in policy and tone; shown most blatantly in his inviting premiers and opposition leaders to the climate conference in Paris. Much of the country, in fact, much of the world appears giddy with expectation. A Canadian journalist has, only partly in jest, asked the international media to stop ogling our prime minister.

The Liberal parliamentary majority could guarantee a productive 100 Days with actions and bills addressing the environment, murdered and missing indigenous women, tax reform, infrastructure spending, an end to Canadian military action in Syria and Iraq, and more. We should enjoy the ride but remember our history. The 100 Days will end and the honeymoon won’t last. Soon enough, Canadians will stop sipping their honey and Mr. Trudeau may not seem quite so sunny.

If you enjoyed this column please share it with others on Facebook or your social media of choice and consider checking my other columns at http://www.johnboyko.com (This column appeared as an op. ed. in the Ottawa Citizen on October 29, 2015)

Rocks, Guns, and Unicorns: Today’s Campaigns Are Child’s Play

The longest Canadian federal election since 1872 is finally over. Thank goodness. The attacks on Liberal leader Justin Trudeau began before the writ was dropped with TV ads declaring him not ready and others showing wildly out of context quotes and clips. The New Democratic Party and Liberals launched their own ads and assertions that were equally nauseous in tone and questionable in accuracy.

The long Canadian campaign was nothing, of course, compared to the American four-year presidential marathon that became real fully two years before party nominations. Canadian negative campaigning also pales in comparison. Consider the House Benghazi Committee that was ostensibly created to investigate the deaths of four Americans in Libya in September 2012. Republican House leader Kevin McCarthy recently bragged that the committee’s sole purpose is to destroy Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid.

Today's Negative Campaigns Are Child's Play.

(www.faircitynews.com)

Negative ads and practices are used because they work. They have always been with us. In many ways, they are tamer now than before.

Consider Burr and Hamilton. Alexander Hamilton was the primary force behind the Constitution’s ratification and as the country’s first treasury secretary he saved the United States from bankruptcy. Aaron Burr was a senator and then Thomas Jefferson’s vice president. In 1804, Jefferson made it clear that he would drop Burr from the ticket in the upcoming election and so Burr ran for governor of New York. He lost by a wide margin; due mostly to vicious negative attacks launched against his character and lies told about his record. He blamed a number of people including Hamilton.

Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel. In a New Jersey field they paced it off, turned, fired, and Hamilton fell. One of America’s most respected founding fathers died the next day. Burr returned to Washington and, with Jefferson’s blessing, served out his term as Vice President.

Canada’s history is less violent. In 1861, Conservative John A. Macdonald was running for re-election. Former friend and Reform Party candidate Oliver Mowat arranged to run in Toronto and, as was legal at the time, against Macdonald in his Kingston riding. Mowat had a number of scandalous allegations made against Macdonald and printed in newspapers owned by members of his party. (The Reform Party became the Liberals.) Included among those blatantly and unapologetically partisan papers was the Globe. It was owned and edited by Reform party leader George Brown.

Macdonald arranged his first public meeting. Mowat hired a group of young men who spread themselves around the back of the hall. When the meeting began, they instigated fights. They threw rocks at those on the stage. Macdonald jumped into the fray and threw punches along with the rest. Macdonald won the fight and election and later become Canada’s first Prime Minister. Mowat was later elected Ontario’s premier.

In the twentieth century, newspapers and money continued to wield enormous power. In 1950, young Massachusetts congressman John F. Kennedy was running for the Senate. His multi-millionaire father, Joe Kennedy, used various committees to quasi-legally funnel several million dollars to his son’s Quixote effort. Joe saved the Boston Post from bankruptcy with a $500,000 loan and then, two weeks before the election, saw the influential paper flip from supporting the Republicans to endorse his son. Kennedy defeated the far more experienced Henry Cabot Lodge by a narrow 52% to 49% margin.

Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson used one of the first negative TV ads in 1952. A carnival barker fields questions for a Republican candidate who, because he has two heads, offers two contradictory answers. The ad was clever but the Republican’s Eisenhower won the election.

http://www.livingroomcandidate.org/commercials/1952/platform-double-talk

Things have become increasingly worse. It was believed that forcing candidates to say that they endorsed a particular ad would help. It didn’t. Some thought the backfiring of certain ads, such as the Conservatives making fun of Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chrétien’s face in 1993 would help. It didn’t.

Today we seem to be stuck with campaigns that demean democracy rather than elevate it. Canada’s prime minister, for instance, based much of his 2015 re-election bid on trying to divide and frighten Canadians. In the campaign’s dying days he spoke only of taxes and used a sophomoric game show gag to make his point while saying things about his opponents that were obviously untrue. It was embarrassing.

Meanwhile, the United States has Donald Trump saying demonstrably false and ludicrous things while firing shot gun blasts of negativity and yet polling far above his opponents. America also has the Supreme Court’s Citizen’s United v. FEC ruling that declared money is free speech. It allows folks like the Koch brothers to buy Congressional seats in ways that would make 19th Century Robber Barons blush.

A glance back suggests that parties, candidates, and the wealthy are not about to change. Maybe it’s up to us. Maybe we need to become a little more discerning and ask the next question of candidates who insult us by reducing complex issues to simplistic sound bites and slogans. Maybe we need to reject those who use negative smears in ads, speeches, and debates by using social media to fact check and fight back. Truth may beat trolls. Maybe we need more journalists with the courage of comedians such as John Oliver to take on issues that corporate-owned media or ideological mouthpieces avoid. Maybe we need to respect our citizenship by more intentionally exercising it. We could begin by insisting that candidates and politicians address more than just boutique tax cuts meant to buy us and, rather, tackle substantive issues that challenge and improve us; all of us. We can do it with our tweets and blogs and donations and attention and attendance and, most importantly, we can do it with our votes.

I may be naive. But that’s okay. Hope is never a waste of time. I sincerely believe we can have an uprising without a coup. We can have a revolution without guns. All we have to do to be better is want better. All we have to do is demand better. In this way, history’s lessons will not be that resistance is futile but that better is necessary and change is possible. We’ll see.

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The Wolves Within You

A Cherokee legend has a grandfather telling his troubled grandson that there are two wolves fighting within him. One wolf is pride, sorrow, regret, anger, self-pity, and ego. The other is humility, serenity, acceptance, generosity, empathy, and compassion. The boy asks, “Which wolf will win the fight?” The grandfather replies, “The one you feed.”

I know the wolves.

For a long while now, a place I love has been in trouble. It continues to do exceptional work for its clients. But while details and some of the people change from time to time the problem persists. It is existential. The place is trying to remember who and what it is. A number of good people have become the extended period of angst’s victims, others its apologists, while too many are now hiding to avoid becoming either. It’s sad on too many levels. But it is recoverable if those with good hearts and sound wisdom speak to the right people, hear the right things, and then, in turn, are heard.

I still love the place and continue to work hard for its success and redemption. But sometimes, usually deep into long runs, despite conscious efforts, I find myself replaying conversations and situations. It is then I feel the wolves. Their fight is vicious.

The Wolves Within You

(Photo: http://www.whitewolfpack.com)

Two people I love are fighting disease. There is no cure for either. The only weapons available are their knowledge that they are loved and the depths of their characters. They are doing the best they can. They are fighters. The only option for those around them is to offer support, love, and good cheer.

I know all that. But it’s just not fair. Sometimes, and it’s usually when three in the morning shadows wash across my ceiling and haunt a sleepless night that I feel the wolves. I can almost hear them.

The wolf fight rages within me as it does in different ways and to different degrees in us all. The legend is wise. The advice is sound. May I someday garner the sagacity and strength to live its lesson and starve the beast.

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Your Circle of Loyalty and Responsibility

We are the enlightenment’s willing slaves. It began when a number of 17th century European philosophers upset mankind’s apple cart. They independently and with variations on a theme argued that progress is not determined by God but by us. Progress, they said, is natural, relentless, and linear. We need to think of life, they contended, in terms of straight lines.

The notion was perfectly fine until the trenches of the First World War, extermination camps of the Second, and then, more recently, climate change’s dreadful reality suggested that perhaps positive progress is not so inevitable after all. Maybe progress does not follow a straight line. Perhaps Aboriginal philosophy, the spiritualism that existed long before religions demanded they were right and Locke, Hobbes, and his cohorts insisted they were wrong, were on to a more fundamental and enduring truth. Maybe it’s all about circles.

Consider the talking circle. It is a traditional way for Native North Americans to solve problems. In a traditional talking circle, men sit at the north and the women south. A conductor, who is nearly always silent, sits to the east. A token of some sort – a feather in Native circles – is passed and, like the old camp game, only those with the token can speak. It removes barriers and allows people to freely express themselves as equals with equally valuable experiences and views.

The talking circle is appearing more regularly in corporate boardrooms and team dressing rooms around the world for the simple reason it works remarkably well. Teachers call it a Harkness Table.

The healing circle is the talking circle’s most powerful iteration. Participants speak of whatever is bothering them with others listening without interruption. As parents and psychologists know, the act of speaking allows the first steps toward healing. The act of listening encourages empathy and support and invites not judgement, punishment, or revenge but justice and redemption. Alcoholics Anonymous employs this ancient technique.

It's All About Circles

(Photo: http://www.dreamstime.com)

The spiritual among us get it. Hermes Trismegistus once said, “God is a circle whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.” The poet T. S. Eliot wrote:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

Americans and Canadians are now embroiled in political decision-making. The air is smudged with attacks and promises and the media is focused on tiny, distracting issues while portraying the elections as horse races. The options being presented by the various candidates and parties are really asking voters to consider circles of loyalty and responsibility.

Some are saying we should be loyal only to our immediate families and ourselves. Everyone of a different class, race, region, or nationality be damned. Others are arguing that we should feel loyal to and responsible for those of our own country with those outside its borders on their own. We’ve made it into the tree house, they say, and should happily kicked down the ladder. Still others go further. They argue that we are human beings who share the planet and so should feel loyalty to and responsibility for all, including Earth itself.

When boiled to its essence, the American and Canadian elections are proving that the enlightenment philosophers were wrong and that aboriginal spirituality is right because it is really all about circles. It is about the size, the volume if you will, of our personal circles. So where do you draw your circle of loyalty and responsibility?

Consider that question when you hear a candidate speak of building a fence or helping to save Syrian refugees, supporting those who deny gay or women’s rights or those trying to extend them, propose we all pay a little so we can all be healthier or pay for only ourselves. Think of those using dog whistle code words such as “True Americans” or “Old Stock Canadians.” Where is their circle? Where is yours?

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Ten Rules for a Campaign Worthy of Canadians

In TV’s political drama West Wing, C. J. once bemoaned a trivial incident being reported as news and said, “Everybody’s stupid in an election year.” Charlie replied, “No, everybody gets treated stupid in an election year.” With the first debate in Canada’s long electoral slog heading toward the October vote now over and the campaign gathering steam, sadly, it appears that C. J. was correct. But there remains time to change. Canadians can enjoy the campaign they deserve if party leaders obeyed the following rules:

10 Rules for a Campaign Worthy of Canadians

(Photo: kelownalakecountry.liberal.ca)

  1. Don’t call us voters or taxpayers. We are citizens. Citizenship is a profound concept that informs our collective identity, individual rights, and responsibilities to others. Don’t cheapen citizenship’s nobility by confusing it with voting and paying taxes. They are merely two of its duties.
  1. Don’t tell us we’re choosing a prime minister. We’re not Americans picking a president or Human Resource directors involved in a hiring. Rather, we’re architects designing a House. The 338-member House we create will decide which party enjoys its confidence and that party’s leader will become ours.
  1. Don’t deride coalitions. Canada fought the First World War with Borden’s coalition government. In 2010, Britain’s Conservative and Liberal Democrat party leaders negotiated a coalition that successfully and responsibly governed Britain for five years. Coalitions are a legitimate option in any parliamentary democracy.
  1. Don’t offer false choices. The most obvious example is the old chestnut of picking either a thriving economy or sustainable development. Respected scientists and economists have argued for years that we can have both or neither.
  1. Don’t employ terms without definitions. Promising tax changes for the rich and middle class without defining either invites cynicism. Promises to help families are similarly shallow when the concept of family is so broad.
  1. Don’t try to scare us. We know that foreign policy discussions must involve Canada’s support for aid, international justice, environmental stewardship, and fair trade. We know we must sometimes go to war. Please don’t pretend that foreign policy is about nothing more than tempering liberty to battle terrorism that, after all, is not an enemy but a tactic.
  1. Don’t bribe us with our money. Monthly cheques for this program or that are just dribbles of our cash that you held for awhile. Come tax time, you’ll get part of it back again anyway. We are not children and our money is not your candy.
  1. Don’t devalue social media. If you shade the truth or outright lie, change your message in various regions, or contradict a previously stated principle, we’ll know instantly. We’ll know before you can react or spin. Your TV ads won’t save you because fewer of us watch them than follow Twitter and Facebook.
  1. Don’t underestimate us. Kim Campbell once said that campaigns are not a time to discuss complicated issues. The unusual length of this campaign offers a unique opportunity to prove her wrong. Trust our intelligence and attention spans by engaging us with complex ideas and grand visions. We just may surprise you.
  1. Don’t forget character. Impress us by your ability to rise above empty slogans, staged events, sophomoric behaviour, and bully tactics. Speak not at us but with us. Speak with journalists who inform us. We all suffer slips of the tongue so if you commit a verbal gaffe, apologize and move on. Relax. A leader’s most important attribute is not a bursting war chest, lists of promises, strict adherence to a script, or even, forgive me, nice hair. Leadership is about character. In fact, that’s all it’s about. Show it. We’ll recognize it. We’ll reward it.

West Wing’s Leo McGarry once said, “We’re going to raise the level of public debate in this country and let that be our legacy.” We respect all those working to earn a seat in our House. Just imagine if party leaders, in turn, respected us by obeying the ten rules and adopting McGarry’s goal as their guide. We could then engage in a campaign worthy of Canadians.

If you liked this, please send it to others through Facebook or your social media of choice. This column appeared as an op. ed. in the Montreal Gazette, Ottawa Citizen, and Maclean’s online.

Recency Illusion, Leadership, and the Ladder from Cute to Scary

My favourite teacher of all time is a seven year old. I am absolutely gobsmacked when she adopts her serious, slightly condescending tone to tell me the proper way to toboggan, dive, catch a ball, or to inform me of the stars, animals, or myriad other things. She is so cute because of her assumption that because she has just learned something then it must be brand new. In 2005, linguist Arnold Zwicky developed a term for this assumption: Recency Illusion. He was talking about words but it can be applied more broadly.

While recency illusion is fun in children, it ascends the ladder to frustrating in teenagers. After all, those in their teens right now are the first to ever sneak a drink, skip class, have sex, experience heartbreak, love loud music, and write bad poetry expressing inescapable angst. Right?

Recency illusion escalates to interesting when dealing with things that don’t matter. We might think, for instance, that we have invented words. Consider the word “high”. It comes not from your son’s party last weekend or even 1967’s Summer of Love. It’s been traced to author Thomas May who wrote in 1627, “He’s high with wine”.

The phenomenon is also interesting when dealing with culture. I recall a young person asking in the 1980s, “Did you know that Paul McCartney was in a band before Wings?” Last week I switched off the radio when a young woman with an effected vocal rasp (strike one) who seemed to anticipate question marks when approaching the end of sentences (strike two) was rhapsodizing about the history of the Civil Rights movement based on nothing more than just having seen the movie Selma. (strike three)

Recency illusion moves up the ladder from interesting to scary when demonstrated by adults with power. Marketers depend on recency illusion. Consider the phrase “new and improved”. Forget for a moment that if something is new then it cannot possibly be an improvement and only that we are saps for the word new.

Marketing guru Jamie Turner argues that the word new triggers emotions that lie in the sub-cortical and limbic parts of our brain. These parts respond not to reason but primal, instinctive impulses. We want the new product because it must be better. No matter how hard the more highly developed parts of our brain try to warn us, we are fooled anyway. Marketers know this and count on it.

Recency Illusion

(Photo: www.thewritingreader.com)

Even scarier and certainly more dangerous are leaders who believe that history begins the day they slide behind the big desk. Sometimes it is quite intentional such as the during French Revolution and Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge coup when new leaders threw out the old calendar and declared it Year Zero.

Far more often, recency illusion is subtler. It’s revealed in a leader’s unconscious or unspoken Year Zero when words, behaviour, and decisions reflect a belief that every problem is brand new and unique, every flitting trend or fancy buzzword an exciting idea and essential option, and every constructive critic an enemy of progress. Consider the echoes of recency illusion in Tojo ordering the bombing of Pearl Harbour or George W. Bush being persuaded that American troops would be welcomed into Baghdad with cheers and flowers. Consider recency illusion on parade with last week’s no-brainer business decision that morphed into this week’s unintended consequences.

Leaders suffering from recency illusion are bereft of a sense of history and so are like amnesiacs acting as tour guides – constantly surprised, easily duped, and blind to sycophants. They are deaf to advice from those without selfish agendas but rich with genuine corporate memory. Even when lost in the dark woods of their own making, those imbued with recency illusion’s arrogance often refuse to learn because lessons come only to those with the humility to admit that, as George Harrison once sang, life goes on within you and without you. As always, it is the led and not the leader who pay recency illusion’s dearest price.

Seven year olds will always be cute, teenagers infuriating, marketers manipulative, and “experts” will always use new words to sell old ideas. That’s fine. But maybe all those in leadership positions should pause and wonder whether their actions reflect recency illusion.

Plus, as both Canada and the United States swirl toward choosing new leaders, perhaps our democracies would be well served if we were aware and wary of candidates using recency illusion to sell themselves and their ideas. Maybe that awareness will invite us to more carefully consider the past as prelude, test an offered premise, ask the next question, and ultimately, to make a better choice. And wouldn’t that benefit us all?

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