Seamanship Quotation

“In political activity, then, men sail a boundless and bottomless sea; there is neither harbour for shelter nor floor for anchorage, neither starting-place nor appointed destination.”
— from Michael Oakeshott's
Political Education” (1951)

Monday, May 9, 2016

Conservatives make poor fans

A sulky cloud has soiled Donald Trump’s first week as the presumptive nominee of the Republican Party over Washington. Professional conservatives aren’t big fans. They’re “not ready” to lend their awesome intellectual reputations to his campaign for the Presidency of the United States. The un-reluctant warriors of American politics are reluctant.

Their lack of enthusiasm for The Donald may have no impact on the outcome of the election in November. But, it is, at least, conservative. Conservatives make lousy fans. Their heads are never in it.  Conservative Washington insider is an oxymoron. Speaker Ryan’s success—and his vision of a conservative president—is based on the debasement of conservative thinking. 

Let me explain.

In presidential elections, the mass market Republican Party competes with the mass market Democratic Party. In the United States of America, mass parties can’t be conservative; they are either good or bad liberals. And, hopefully, they will continue to be for another century.

America’s place in the world and Washington’s place in America are fixed. Beginning with the end of WW1 and ratified by the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, the United States has driven the creation of a needy, restless, egalitarian-talking—liberal—world and now, as its one superpower, it is obliged to keep it going.

Small countries like Canada can elect new brands as far apart as Justin Trudeau and Stephen Harper. Few notice; fewer take offence. Their leaders can choose to tackle problems with comfortable solutions. The President, meanwhile, must sit behind his desk each morning, and eat shit, and leak to the New York Times that it smells oh so sweet.

Writing a conservative manifesto for the Cleveland Convention may save Paul Ryan’s sophomoric face. But it will have little to do with the conscience of careful Americans in November.

The voters will elect a president who will work inhumanly long hours on fixing, containing, stalling, and neglecting problems. Think tanks will hum out papers on “small government,” and the White House will govern.

The conservative temperament can ally itself with liberals in a hurry, liberals with outside interests, liberals raised on power, adaptable liberals, and adventurous or prudent liberals. That’s the menu.  

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Trial and error for self-promotion? (Part 2)

Inexpensive for those who have forever. Elderly non-entities, however, better cut corners and master a few dos and don’ts. Even modest goals—say, finding a new partner or just surviving in a smart social circle—require deliberate change. (Excellent pensions and decent health have limited shelf value.)

Here are suggestions to get you started, safely:

1: Develop new skills and an attention-worthy project, ideally—well before you notice you’re old and invisible.

If you know you’re passé at the office, retire immediately if you can. Then get excited about a new endeavor before they start putting just one more candle on your birthday cake.

2: Test what you’ve dreamed up on a heartless friend of a friend. If you want to do something truly out of character, pay for a consultant.

They’ll teach you how to dress, breathe on television, and use the tools of the social media. This kind of shopping is easy and affordable if you live in Toronto. If they’re not interested, your idea—in this world—isn’t interesting either.

(Note: Even the nicest people turn away from lost causes. It was tolerably sickening watching Donald Trump “fire” breathless college graduates. Humiliating a 70-year-old, however, would have killed his show.)

3: Mine your past as little as bearable.

Care for your brain cells and respect the limited patience of others; kill those knowing asides. People won’t abandon an exciting idea, apocalyptic concern, or redemptive solution merely because you’ve been there, done that.

4: Never relax.

You’re not living in a causal culture. It’s intensely judgmental. A ponytail doesn’t make a dude.  You’d only look tired and poor or vain and passé.

5: Don’t get emotional.

You’re finally in touch with your feelings of remorse, disappointment, injustice, and loneliness. Congratulations. If you can’t stop picking at them, write an encrypted diary. Being anxious about finally leaving home, your first divorce, and getting old can be sexy; that’s established public art. Being a nervous wreck about failing socially or professionally at 75 is usually creepy.

Then again, when is pride ever free?

Thinking about being visible, and 70? (Part 1)

Inspired by Ian Brown’s page-turner “Sixty: The Beginning of the End, or the End of the Beginning?”

Let’s get into this slowly. After all, this hopeful essay attacks a delicate subject, concerning the most delicate among us, our post-70 cohort. Most Canadians seem relaxed having a bloodline-determined head of state while waking up each morning in a whimsical celebrity world. Winning the lottery is dandy. Watching the mighty fall can be a joy. Discreet name-dropping is tolerable. However, watching old non-entities still struggling for attention, repeatedly telling stale tales of old battles makes everyone, and especially the children, feel uncomfortable.

Abandoned on a thicketed hillside next to a friend’s cottage on the shore of Owen Sound is a 60-foot-long, ferro-concrete shell of a bluewater sailboat, a giant grey bug propped up on a dozen useless legs. It expresses years of determination, craftsmanship, and hard labor. At the same time, it tells another story: the builder, the dreamer who ran out of money, time, and, possibly, his health. Sad and glorious. But, not laughable.

Unlike the doomed boat-builder, however, the elderly attention-seeker must also be brave, because he or she succeeds or fails with us.  

If grey attention-seekers are looking only for eye contact and a smile, they can find a book somewhere and flip the pages of “How to Build the Boat of Your Dreams” or “How to Learn Spanish” or “The Dos and Don’ts of Being a Grandparent” or “How to Write a Screenplay” or “Buy Property in Sicily.” Easy and safe.

But how would we feel standing beside a senior trying to purchase “How to Be Visible after You’re 70”? Hopeful? Or embarrassed?

There are medical reasons for coaxing 17-year-olds to buy prophylactics. Well-being services for seniors, including support for timely erections, are often covered in our public and private insurance plans. They’re now public goods. In addition, however, they’re plausible excuses to buy that wicked book.

The oldest generation’s most prominent voices eventually will fade away. While that process grinds away, however, let’s prick our ears. Once in a while, an old non-entity will have something useful, even delightful, to say.

 Most of us will remain social animals, right up to that good death out there.

Courts decided that, after 65, we could keep our university and business careers and menial jobs until we’re incontestably incompetent. Between that new right and the new one about dying, we obviously have the right to be visible.

Smell the coffee. The West is hugely influenced already by 70-somethings, predominantly men.

A year from now, neophilia America will be lead by Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump. (Michael Bloomberg decided the race was too crowded by insiders.) We follow the thoughts of Paul Simon, Leonard Cohen, Mick Jagger, Christopher Plummer, Paul McCartney, Neil Young, David Cronenberg, John le Carré  Joan Didion, Toni Morrison, David Gergen, Bill Clinton, Henry Kissinger, Pope Francis, and every aside by Bob Dylan. The startling new Toronto hangs on the opinions of David Crombie, Stephen Lewis, Michael Enright, David Peterson, Frank Gehry, and Jack Diamond. And the whole country listens to and pays for the liberating pension protection of four hearty retired prime ministers, numerous former ministers, Preston Manning, and countless deputies, ADMs, and bank governors who allegedly know Ottawa and Beijing inside out.

And the terrible shiny top of the baby boom is twinkling just offshore.

Please, don’t feel bullied into simply paying closer attention to icons and giving them extra, extra airtime. The problem is the unarticulated, unattended, and often brutal market barriers facing new voices over 70, including mine!

Respect your elders, if you wish. But, please, not their pecking order.

If we’re going to save our less-than-young country—literally, its appetite to see and act anew—we must create a world-class, competitive market among seniors, similar to the one we impose on the young.

Social reformers, however, won’t touch our celebrities and aren’t interested in helping old non-entities with that neurotic spark.  Getting attention is our problem. 


Wednesday, March 23, 2016

‘Sunny ways’ and ‘voodoo economics’

The expression sunny ways was coined by Wilfred Laurier to spin the compromises his government had to fashion to hold an intolerant, very young country together. He was a careful builder, befitting his time. Justin Trudeau uses the same expression proudly, as an unqualified optimist.

Laurier, however, was a classic anti-authoritarian, small-government Liberal. He carried on nation-building infrastructure projects and honored the debts incurred by that binge conservative John A. Macdonald. Above all, he looked to trade an individual initiative to grow the economy.

Laurier is not the inspiration behind Justin Trudeau’s fiscal policy.

The greatest contemporary practitioner of sunny ways was Ronald Reagan. He understood that lecturing tolerance and applying a traditional conservative fiscal policy wouldn’t sustain his extraordinary popularity. And he liked being liked.

According to the Joint Economic Committee of the US Congress (1996), over his eight years in the White House, personal income tax revenues declined from 9.4% of GDP to 8.3% of GDP. US federal government spending and deficits, as his critics warned, soared.

Justin Trudeau has Reagan’s nature, only with new demons to throw money at. Allegedly, he too has been underestimated all his professional life. As with Reagan, his critics are simply those who still don’t get it. Reagan would shrug; Trudeau worries that they’re deranged.

So, as George H. W. Bush, a dogged evidence-based politician, complained about Reagan’s sunny growth strategy in the 1980s Republican primaries, Canada now has a fiscal policy in place in Ottawa that can, as well, be called voodoo economics.

Monday, March 21, 2016

A peek at Barack Obama’s legacy

A president’s “legacy agenda” are those projects a White House wants us to treat as especially serious, above petty politics. They’re intended to improve America’s prospects and impress historians. As such, they’re always bigger and classier than the business at hand. They can also crowd out other merely worthwhile interests.

For instance, Obama’s legacy” project of securing American leadership in the fight against climate change has been invoked by as sufficient reason to restrict energy trade with Canada. His project of securing greater American influence in Asia means less protection for vulnerable American workers and less generous investment of American power in the Middle East.

As his power fades, Obama’s work on his legacy agenda is now largely rhetorical and contingent on the uncertain support of others. What he’s penned in speeches and executive orders will need to be honored in hundreds of big and small and unpleasant decisions by China, Japan, South Korea, India and, oh yes, the courts and the next president of the United States. Nevertheless, even rhetoric can alter the future. Obama’s favorite conservative president, Dwight Eisenhower, coined that ear bug: “military-industrial complex.” The complex has kept up with the growth of the US economy, but Ike did entrench a healthy fear of it at the center of America’s political culture.

With months left as president, Obama’s legacy work will be cultural as well. While he talks with conviction about the world, he’s building his place in history at home.

His utterances on climate change and his calm crisis-management style are entrenching two powerful political memes: that today only liberals respect scientific evidence and, that since a black man can be a thought-minded, essentially conservative president of these troubled United States, then any talented outsiders can.

(Thanks to the discipline and often-tedious formality of Obama’s presidency, change in the White House is now so normal an idea that it’s possible that even a white male will beat a woman in this November’s election.)

His science project and his global pivot, however, largely rest with that woman: Hillary Clinton.

A deft Republican president (Jeb Bush or possibly Marco Rubio or John Kasich) could have consolidated major components of Obamas foreign policy: global trade agreements, restraint in the Middle East, activism in Asia, and steady collaboration with other major powers on climate change. However, a Donald Trump or a Ted Cruz victory would be humiliating. At least Woodrow Wilson didn’t live to see what the Republican Roaring Twenties did to his liberal vision of collective security.  

Obama’s homilies on race and civility during the Republican primaries likely helped make Trump an irresistible hero on the right. Now that his nomination is almost unavoidable, Obama will have to move heaven and earth to make sure he is, in fact—what Democrat fantasists had idly presumed, months ago—a Republican disaster this fall.

Whatever we think of the Clinton election machine’s touch or integrity, a Clinton presidency will be compelled to guard the hardening cement at the base of Obama’s legacy. It will end up backing his trade agreements and being as careful in the Middle East. It will want to try and might do better at finding bipartisan support where Obama failed legislatively.

It is bittersweet that Obama’s most ambitious dreams need the election of another Clinton. But the world would probably be that much nicer even if Hillary Clinton doesn’t achieve much more than being the president who entrenched Barack Obama’s legacy.