Thursday, April 11, 2013

Time for an Abstract Post

With all the last few posts being so specific, I think it's time we stumbled a little into the abstract for a bit. (I've tried to write a few specific blog posts over the past couple weeks, only to find myself deleting them over not quite liking the direction they were heading in; so, hopefully, some abstract thinking will allow us to move along out of this funk.)

Now, I call this an abstract post because I think we'll focus more on an issue and some ideas behind it rather than actually examine something that has been in the news. There is certainly a lot to talk about in news, whether its the Labrador by-election or the foreign worker issue or the SK Party spending $220,000 on touting their post-secondary track record (which doesn't deserve a touting).

Or even some words about the NDP Convention, or the coming Liberal Convention that will likely end with Justin Trudeau becoming the next Liberal leader. But despite all of that interesting political fodder, I think we'll stick with the abstract. I'm sure some passing reference to some, or all of it, will show up regardless but we'll see what happens.

With many of the things that have happened over the past weeks, on multiple levels, I have been frankly stunned by the stunting of ideas, debate, and reason that exist within the current political sphere. This is not a new thing, it's been the status quo in the US for quite some time, but it has been growing in Canada at an alarming rate over the past few decades.

A perfect example of this can be found in the death of two international leaders: Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and the UK's Margaret Thatcher.

We'll use our illustrious Prime Minister Stephen Harper for an example of this.

Upon Chavez's passing, Harper was quick to smack millions of Venezuelans in the face by talking about how Chavez's passing would lead to real change, real democracy and was more or less welcomed by the international community.

Compare that to Harper dropping everything to attend Thatcher's funeral in London, and his outpouring of her being a political icon and hero of his.

Despite the common adage that one shouldn't speak ill of the dead, that idea seems to fly out the window when you're dealing with a political rival of the opposite spectrum stripes. At the same time, however, Thatcher's death has prompted various reactions in the UK. The BBC reported today that Judy Garland's "Ding Dong the Witch Is Dead" from the Wizard of Oz, is likely to hit in the Top 10 Charts in the UK due to it being bought in response to her death; and numerous people across the country have thrown parties and celebrations on her passing.

Scottish comedian Frankie Boyle has gone so far as to say that "the government could save money on her funeral by simply giving every Scottish person a shovel who would be more than happy to dig her a hole to hell."

Naturally, people have come out and condemned this behaviour, citing the mantra of one not speaking ill of the dead. And while comments such as that, which the comedic value will not be discussed (personally, I found it and the rest of Boyle's routine quite funny, but comedy varies) might venture into crossing the line, we must remember that many of the same people weren't showing the level of respect they're demanding when politicos on the other side of the spectrum passed.

One of the more interesting articles I read on Thatcher's passing revolved around the idea of not white washing history; to acknowledge Thatcher's political legacy, and the things that she had done well, but to also remember the division and issues that she got wrong. Effectively, it's a call to common sense.

People are ultimately human, and death does not bestow a state of perfection that automatically removes any mistakes, errors, goofs, or downright inhumane actions taken during that person's lifetime. To quote another British politician who has a checkered record, Oliver Cromwell, we need to remember people "warts and all".

To get a little more abstract, we need to talk about how this is systemic of a larger picture in politics. There is an idea of one-sided debate that is establishing itself as the dominant mindset of politics.

Allow me to explain that a little better.

I've mentioned the differences in Harper's reaction to two deaths; but we've seen that same reaction when it comes to political discussion. Under the Harper Government, we've seen a move towards equating opposing political policy with treason.

We've seen an alarming amount of references to the idea of "selling out Canada" or "betraying the nation"; references that harken back to the dubious phrase of "un-American". A simple word that has been a death knell to political issues south of the border for decades, if not centuries.

We've seen a government that has restricted debate from the discourse of actual ideas and the examination of best course; to "we've made our decision, we're in power, and you're all a bunch of damned traitors if you say anything different!" And numerous people across this country are swallowing this poisoned Kool-Aid en masse, accepting the government's accusations that the audacity to say anything against government policy means you are "un-Canadian".

It's almost as if everyone in this country has forgotten what the word "Opposition" means. The role of the Opposition has never been to rubber-stamp what the government was doing...Or perhaps this was a behaviour that was established during the Dion-Ignatieff years that the Conservatives figured would continue until the end of time.

At the same time, the Opposition doesn't exist to just stand up and yell "WRONG" and "NO" over and over either. There are indeed times when the government and the opposition will agree on a course of action, but more often then not, the opposition exists to provide an alternative viewpoint and a suggestion of another way to do things.

But, much like our American cousins, we're seeing a slide toward the stunting of debate by simply calling any and all different viewpoints "un-Canadian" and "traitorous with a side of treason"!

We've seen it provincially as well with Brad Wall's attacks against Thomas Mulcair, and his attacks against Cam Broten as well. A key example was trying to paint Cam as "anti-Saskatchewan" for a perceived lack of being in favour of the Keystone Pipeline. Granted, Cam has since come out in favour of the pipeline, which perhaps shows one of those areas where the opposition and the government can agree...

But we have to start to ask ourselves what sort of representation we want from our officials. Bad policy is the result of electing anyone who is so blinded by ideology that they must resort to cries of treason against political opponents; we deserve to be able to have debates, as opposed to stunted conversations that in the end get us nowhere.

Furthermore, these debates lock us into a perpetual cycle of the same old argument over and over. Look again to the US, and the debate over Obamacare. The 2012 Election saw Romney, and all of his Republican opponents in the primaries, talk about the need to repeal Obamacare. And I would be willing to bet that the 2016 Election will continue to see Republicans call on the need to repeal previous bills passed by the Obama Administration.

When we get locked between administrations that only care about repealing and undoing what the other side did when they were in power, we get locked in the same argument for years to come. A local example would be the SK Party's Bill-85 with regards to labour laws. I'd be willing to bet the NDP will campaign on repealing parts of that bill, much like they campaigned in 2011 with mentions of repealing Bills 5 and 6.

And while bills like that do need to be repealed, we must be sure that we are not defining our campaigns simply by being the party that wants to undo what was done in the past.

Perhaps the real problem with debate, beyond ideological blindness and base accusations, stems from the short memory span of the citizen. Again, talking locally, the issue of health care has come up a lot in the Legislature during Question Period. Primarily, questions revolving around a new medical facility in North Battleford that is now massively behind schedule despite campaign promises to move quickly.

The SK Party's main line of argument is the same old line we've heard from governments of all political stripes: The last government is the problem; or, when you were in government, why didn't you do it then?

It's a flippant remark, and quite frankly, is another example of everything that is wrong with our political system. For those who know Saskatchewan history, everyone knows why the NDP governments from 1993 - 2007 didn't address some of these issues. The province was on the verge of bankruptcy, and difficult decisions had to be made to keep the province afloat.

Now, I'm risking falling into my own trap here some might say of blaming previous governments. But, as we talked about white washing earlier, there is a difference when blaming a previous government when they did indeed play a role in developments outside of their term. There is no denying that Grant Devine's Tories left the province in rough shape, and in a mess that took years to clean up.

That forced the NDP into tough decisions; it was a question of cutting off the limb to save the body. Yes, hospitals were closed (an action SK Party supporters still throw at NDPers, which truly underscores the need for a stronger history program in schools) to save money and other actions were taken to right the province's economic ship.

People must begin to understand that the actions of the past continue to have an impact today. A government from 20 years ago can still have made actions that are felt today, I think Margaret Thatcher proves that point quite well, and there is nothing wrong with admitting this. But, we cannot have selective history. You can't stop at blaming the NDP for something, without acknowledging the mess they inherited from the previous government.

Perhaps this was where debate truly began to go downhill, the moment the public began to allow politicians to simply spin even the recent past into a flexible talking point. Debate cannot be, or at least should not be, white washed. And the public should begin to demand better. Winston Churchill said that "The best argument against democracy was a five-minute conversation with the average voter", which is only half of the story.

The other half is that the average voter forms their opinions from the media, which uses the opinions and soundbytes expressed by politicians. The public deserves better, but first we must become a better public. We were endowed, with free thought and the capacity to be rational, thinking beings. It's only a shame that so few people decide to actively use this talent.

Which I think brings me to my final thought on this issue. The true problem, which could be a byproduct of spin, is that we have legitimized opinion to the same level as fact and truth. It is true that everyone is entitled to their opinion, but opinion should not be confused with fact.

It may be your opinion that the Great Dragon in the sky swallows the sun at night, and burps it up again in the morning. But our facts explain concepts such as stars, gravity, and orbit; your opinion is yours to keep, but it is not valid in the court of true and false and at no point should you feel you've won an argument based on overwhelming opinion over fact.

Rationality seems to be a dying art form, which is a rather depressing thought on the face of it; which becomes doubly so when one begins to wonder whether we have ever truly exercised our rationality in the first place. Regardless of that thought, we need to elect politicians who encourage debate. Who don't spew talking point after talking point, followed by a revisionist history that paints their party as sunshine and lollipops while demonizing all political opponents.

We need to do this, if only to have a force that encourages the general public to put down the remote and think for themselves. To question everything, to examine everything, and to truly start us down a path where debate is open and free.

It is hard to say whether such a politician exists, or if such a person would even get elected in the first place, but in addition to rationality we've been given two other gifts that should be embraced fully: the power to hope, and the power to dream. 

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