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)

Changing Democracy 140 Characters at a Time

Twitter is our Athenian agora. It is reshaping our democracy. A president, prime minister, pope, or peasant like me can stand and proclaim whatever they wish. Within seconds, they will be applauded by some while others, wearing the technological robes of Socrates, will tear their pronouncement asunder. In commemoration of my second anniversary on Twitter, I offer six things I have learned.

Twitter

It teaches. The most popular tweets make a short statement or pose an interesting question and then link to a related article; usually in a respected newspaper, magazine, or professional journal. People are thereby exposed to ideas and facts they might never otherwise consider. An informed electorate is the harbinger of a thriving democracy and the bane of those who wish to distract, mislead, or divide.

It mocks. Twitter is where negative ads and pomposity go to die. Pity the politician who makes a speech or posts an ad or tweet that is in any way disingenuous or contradicts something previously said or claimed. You know that Stephen Colbert, and Jon Stewart in the United States and Rick Mercer in Canada rub their hands and praise comedy’s Gods for making their work so simple. It is like the days when they wrote their best bits by quoting Sarah Palin verbatim. Twitter doesn’t wait. The fact checking and rebuttal is done in an instant. The truth is posted, an old film clip or article is linked, and the mocking begins. And we all know – well, everyone except Ms. Palin, I guess – that once they start laughing at you, you’re done.

It attacks. I once posed what I thought was a reasonable question about the American gun control debate – something about how a few those supporting the second amendment were having trouble with the first. Wow! It can get ugly out there and fast. NRA trolls are as lightning quick and wolverine vicious as political party trolls. They are as fair and accurate as those I picture in their parent’s window-less basement without access to their meds or spell check. But in a way, that’s OK. Democracy is messy. Even with unfair and unreasonable attacks thrashing in from the sides there is debate. I’ve witnessed debates tumble from vitriol to reason and, except for trolls with an ugly job to do, a softening of positions and a glimmering of tolerance and understanding. There is very often acknowledgment that a different opinion, when based on evidence, is not wrong, just different.

It scorns. I almost felt sorry for CNN when, in its latest effort to profit from tragedy, reported things that were quickly discovered to be false. As I had seen before, tweets began announcing that CNN was reporting on the Confederacy having won the Civil War, that John Lennon had shot someone in New York, and more. The respect most of those on Twitter still feel for newspapers and peer-reviewed journals is matched by the disdain with which they hold television news – all television news. It’s no wonder. Follow Twitter for a day and then watch the evening network news. See if you can find one thing that is new or addressed in adequate depth. See how much that truly matters is ignored while fluff is disguised as news. It becomes clear why more and more people are getting news analysis on the Comedy network and how Twitter is creating its own fourth estate.

It earns. Many confuse Twitter for a confessional, diary, or billboard. Some think it’s a porn site. Those folks are generally blocked and ignored. Few on Twitter care to see what you’re having for dinner and nearly all want you to keep your clothes on, thank you very much. However, as candidate Barack Obama proved in America and Justin Trudeau is proving in Canada, Twitter is a powerful political tool. It is tremendously effective in fundraising to earn money and friend-raising to earn adherents. It allows a party to throw ideas up a technological flag pole and instantly see who and how many salute, jeer, or gather a Twitter flash-mob to tear it down.

It inspires. Bill Cosby and Canada’s Jian Ghomeshi have been heartbreaking and bile-raising reminders of how far we have to go in addressing the treatment of and respect for women. A year ago, long before the stars fell, a group of women on Twitter used a hashtag to begin noting incidents of having suffered sexual harassment. And then came more and then more. As the numbers grew into the thousands and then millions, so did the outrage and desire to act. Then, just as that campaign was catching fire, Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield began Tweeting awe-inspiring images from the real stars. While commanding the American space station he sent stunning pictures that moved millions of Twitter users to silent reflection. The images reminded us, as did the women, that we are all brothers and sisters on this tiny planet and maybe we should treat each other a little better.

Unless one is careful, Twitter can murder time. But so can any social media, or TV, or even books for that matter. But time can’t be wasted, it can only be spent, and a few minutes on Twitter each day is a compelling experience. Like TV and, yes, even books, you learn quickly to wade through the junk and find what matters. Social media will continue to evolve. Political leaders who fail to understand its power will remain its victims. We owe it to ourselves to consider the ways in which it is changing the nature of our public discourse and how through those changes, the manner in which we govern ourselves. Like it or not, our democracy is being changed, 140 characters at a time.

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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.