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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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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Shudder or Think? We Must Decide

Canadians are being asked to be afraid. We should apparently be so afraid that we will trade a little more security for a lot less liberty with Bill C-51, Canada’s Patriot Act. It will affect our privacy at home and at work and is why four former prime ministers, retired judges, and so many academic experts in privacy matters oppose it.

At the same time, we are to be afraid of what people wear. A hijab, we’re told by the federal government and a Quebec court, is a threat; not a burka, that covers a person’s face, but a hijab that covers one’s hair. Is this a thin edge of the wedge where courts and the government can tell us what to wear and to fear those outside the mainstream, wherever that ever shifting current happens to be at the moment?

quebec-hijab-dispute-crowdfund-20150228

Rania El-Alloui was recently told by a Quebec judge to remove her hijab or consult a lawyer before proceedings could continue. (Photo: Graham Hughes)

Rather than shuddering, many Canadians opting to think because the anti-terrorist bill and hijab kerfuffle are stirring a debate regarding the definition of Canada.

To try and define Canada, however, is tough for any assortment of words quickly tumbles into confessions of a job half done. Canada is the dancing fire in Iqaluit’s sky as much as the homeless veteran on a Yonge Street sidewalk. Canada is Montreal private club English and Moncton Franglais as much as Ottawa Valley twang and Come By Chance slang.

If only we could ask the Irish who, when the potatoes went dead in the ground and rents flew high, left to start again where merit meant more than whose your father. It would be nice to ask the slaves who snapped their chains and followed the North Star to freedom. Or, maybe the Ukrainians, those peasants in sheepskin coats, who left poverty and oppression for free land and a fresh beginning.

Nowhere was Adolf Hitler’s evil more banal than at the death camps, and the worst of the worst was Auschwitz. The innocent who suffered unspeakable horror spoke of a building where their confiscated property was stored. It became a sliver of light through the cruel darkness. It held the promise that someday they might be released. We could speak with them about their naming the building Canada.

At the war’s end, Canadian doors opened to its victims. Hungarians, Italians, Czechs, Poles, and more came to work the mines, factories, and farms and build the schools, roads, and little towns and towering towers. The Ottawa men called them Displaced Persons while some snarled DP as an insult. The latest to arrive are always harshest on the next in line. Ask the Vietnamese about the Pakistanis or the Irish about the Jews or, for that matter, ask the Boethuk about the English; that’s if you can find a Boethuk to ask.

All the answers from all these people, along with songs and stories and dusty old Royal Commissions, leave us with a country too complex to fully comprehend let alone define. Maybe that’s OK. Canada is like the shape-shifting trickster Raven whose beauty is its ever-changing complexity.

Perhaps this vision brings us as close as we will come in our quest for understanding. But in our hearts, we have always understood the Canadian secret. It is the freedom to try and fail and try again. It’s the draw bridge locked open to new people and ideas.

It is embracing complexity and the fundamental notion that there is value in us all that has created a society where each of us gives a little to help folks we will never meet, whether it’s the old man across town or the hungry child half way around the globe. It’s the notion of community extending beyond our family to where every child is ours. It’s where differences in whom we are, whom we worship, and whom we love are not just tolerated but accepted as who we are

It’s complicated. It’s hard. It’s meant to be. But it is what will save us from fear-based prejudices and policies, be they the proposition of police-state practices or a national dress code. It is our celebration of Canadian complexity that we guard, oh Canada, when we stand on guard for thee.

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Of Flags and Fury

February brings us one thing that Prime Minister Harper wants us to know and another he wishes we’d ignore. He hopes we pay attention to Bill C-51, his new and still pending Anti-Terrorist bill. He hopes we forget that today our flag turned 50 years old. The two offer a tremendous opportunity.

Unlike with the War of 1812 or the First World War, Mr. Harper has given little money or attention to the flag’s birthday. He’s right, let’s snub the flag. The notion is not as blasphemous as it sounds. Consider that every school day, millions of American children stand and recite, “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which is stands.” In other words, it is not the flag that deserves allegiance, but what it represents. So maybe Mr. Harper is right that commemorating the flag would trivialize our national identity by indulging in a patriotic celebration of its mere symbol.

Flag_of_Canada.svg

Patriotism, after all, is ankle-deep and transitory. It’s civic-nationalism that delineates who we are. Patriotism can dance merrily along without concern for introspection but civic-nationalism demands it. Unlike the bread and circuses of patriotism or jingoist chest-thumping or empty-headed chauvinist aggression, civic nationalism rests upon a quiet, self-assured confidence among citizens in what is unique, valued, and valuable. It is inspirational and aspirational in defining what deserves to be protected and enhanced.

Our flag is just patriotism on a pole. The day before Lester Pearson assumed office in 1963, a bomb shattered a Montreal afternoon. The horrible blast and those that followed fueled the ethnic-nationalist debate regarding the creation of an independent state for the Québécois nation. Pearson’s new flag offered tribalists and the rest of us the patriotic balm that the British flag would be removed from ours. To the parts of the prairies and north where maple trees do not grow, of course, the big red maple leaf offered yet another reminder of central Canada’s myopic vision and arrogance.

So let’s forget the flag’s patriotism and use the opportunity presented by its birthday and C-51’s potential birth to question not what’s up the pole but in our hearts. For too long we have been called taxpayers. For too long we’ve been treated only as consumers. We’ll soon just be considered voters. Let’s demonstrate that we are citizens by engaging in a national conversation. Let us post blogs, send tweets and emails, and my goodness, maybe even speak with one another. I suggest these questions to begin:

Do we respect parliament and so believe that new legislation should be introduced in the House and not at some place akin to a campaign stop? Do we believe the rule of law insists that our police and spies always obey the law? Do we believe that adequate staff, budget, and mandate must exist along with a process that reports to parliament before anyone can speak of proper oversight of our spies and police? Do we believe the rule of law implies that citizens can only be arrested when they break a law and not for what others think they’re maybe thinking? Do we believe the best way to fight those who do not share our democratic values is to suicide the democratic values we treasure? Do we believe misinformation is criminal propaganda if a citizen creates it but not if disguised as an MP mailing or TV ad? When the House debates begin, will we recall the difference between insult and argument? Do we believe a party that says it opposes the law should vote for it? Do we understand that economic prosperity and environmental sustainability are not either-or propositions but that security and liberty are?

So let’s take our government’s advice and ditch celebrations of a patriotic symbol. Let’s instead engage in something deeper – active citizenship. If we use C-51 to consider whom we are and whom we wish to be, we may just end up proving ourselves worthy of our allegiance to the flag through deepening our understanding of the Dominion for which it stands.

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Why We Should Not Go To Iraq

Every American president in the last twenty-five years has appeared on television to announce he was bombing Iraq. It was recently President Obama’s turn. It was immediately clear that he needed foreign flags in the air more than foreign soldiers on the line and Canada obliged. Prime Minister Harper signed on and sent 69 advisors. Two weeks ago in New York, according to Mr. Harper, the United States asked Canada for more help. He should have said no.

There are Canadian bones in war cemeteries around the world. Canada also played major roles in creating and sustaining the United Nations and NATO; both designed to prevent the digging of more graves. We should be proud that Canada has done its bit. However, we should be equally proud that Canada has often said yes to its national self-interest by saying no.

In 1775, Boston’s rebellion was morphing into a larger revolution. The rebel Continental Congress dispatched Benjamin Franklin to Montreal to woo Quebecers to its cause. Rebels had convinced thirteen British colonies to join and wanted another. They failed. Quebec’s leaders said no.

The Québécois had little interest in joining a rag-tag group of rebellious fellow colonies, only two of which allowed the practice of their religion, and whose army mistreated civilians, stole property, and spread a worthless currency. The Canadians – and they were already called that – would not fight. In saying no they stayed Canadians.

This year we are commemorating the hundredth anniversary of the First World War. Canadians were changed by the sacrifices of too many young men in Flanders’s mud and on Vimy’s ridge. Before the war we were British. Afterwards we were Canadian. At the conclusion of the peace negotiations, Britain insisted that it would sign the Versailles Treaty on behalf of its dominions. At that point Canada’s economy was dependent on Britain and for all intents and purposes its foreign and defense policies were one. And yet, Canada’s Prime Minister Borden said no. He insisted that Canada sign as an independent country.

Shortly afterwards, in 1922, bungled communications led Turkey to threaten war with Britain at Chanak. Britain had committed itself to protecting access to the Black Sea and asked Canada and others to send soldiers to help. Prime Minister Mackenzie King said no. The Chanak crisis, after all, was as removed from Canada as was its outcome from Canada’s interests. As befits a sovereign country, we refused to respond as we had in 1914 – with a hearty, “Ready, Aye, Ready”.

In May 1961, President Kennedy met with Prime Minister Diefenbaker in Ottawa. Kennedy said he wanted Canada to join the Organization of American States, stop trading with Cuba and China, become more involved in Vietnam, and to station American nuclear weapons in Canada and with its NATO troops in Europe. Diefenbaker was committed to fighting the Cold War but he was also a nationalist who believed that Canada’s contributions to that struggle had to be consistent with its values and interests. Diefenbaker told Kennedy no, no, no, and no. It was perhaps the first time in Kennedy’s life that anyone had told him no.

kennedy and diefenbaker

Kennedy and Diefenbaker

In 2003, President Bush sold his country and much of the world on the necessity to attack Iraq and asked Canada to join his coalition of the willing. Prime Minister Chrétien said no. He did not accept Mr. Bush’s evidence regarding weapons of mass destruction. Parliament had already approved sending Canadian troops to Afghanistan but Chrétien would not commit more to Iraq without solid evidence, a UN Security Council resolution, or clear links to Canadian interests. He later explained, “We’re an independent country, and in fact it was a very good occasion to show our independence.”

Chretien says no to Iraq

Mr. Harper looks on as PM Chrétien says no to sending troops to Iraq.

Now, Prime Minister Harper has stated his belief that young Canadians should offer themselves to slay and be slayed in Iraq because it is in Canada’s best interests to fight one of many terrorist organizations at work in the Middle East. More tellingly, he said in the House on October 3, “If Canada wants to keep its voice in the world, and we should since so many of our challenges are global, being a free rider means one is not taken seriously…When our allies recognize and respond to a threat that would also harm us, we Canadians do not stand on the sidelines. We do our part.” His words did not have the same ring as “Ready, Aye, Ready” – but the point was the same.

We owe it to ourselves to participate in our national conversation and to carefully consider the prime minister’s argument. In doing so we should consider Canada’s history of responding to allied invitations to send our young people into harm’s way – to send our children to kill theirs. Perhaps in our contemplation we will recall that the word that, more than any other, that has always indicated Canada’s taking of another step toward sovereignty has been no.

An edited version of this column appeared last week in the Ottawa Citizen. If you like this column, please consider sharing it with others using the buttons below and following this blog where I post new thoughts every Monday morning. I enjoy comments too, even from those who disagree – respectful debate is good.