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)

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Rhetoric: Living in the Age of Bluff?

Even on this lucky continent, resourceful politicians must learn how to survive periods of constrained resources. There are many tested ways to perform on the cheap: For instance, amend commercial, consumer, and environmental regulations; update the criminal code; make a solid impression at international conferences; and assign blame to others, those who aren't liked by most of their voters.

This new century’s signature ploy may be the bluff, hints of heroic intention that fall well short of heroic action.

Here are a few familiar subjects worthy of heroic treatment: climate change, Russian military aggression, the middle class’s disappearing American Dream, nuclear proliferation, Iran, and North Korea. And here is an eclectic, short list of active practitioners: Barack Obama, Stephen Harper, William Hague, Hillary Clinton, Chrystia Freeland, and all Western neocons and recent premiers of Ontario.

Here are a few illustrations (If you laugh spontaneously, they’re flops. If they remind you of Sir Winston Churchill — out of power — they work):

William Hague, foreign secretary of the most literate and shrinking English-speaking power, declares that the crisis in the Crimea represented the “gravest security threat of the 21st century.”  

Chrystia Freeland, Member of Parliament for Rosedale, calls for sanctions against Russia that “bite.”

Stephen Harper suggests that Russia be kicked out of the G-8.

Barack Obama’s applies the cold war Domino Theory to Crimea.

Hillary Clinton calls for a “mass movement” to stop global warming.

At first glance, I was most impressed by Hague’s alarming historical framework. He implied that brave action by everyone must be taken, that failure to act will haunt us in the history books. But the record of this busy century quickly gets in the way. Is today’s Crimea crisis actually more dangerous than 9/11 and global terrorism, the Iraq War, the Great Recession and the sovereign debt crisis in the Eurozone, and all that’s looming in Iran, China, and North Korea?   

Only Hillary Clinton’s radical sounding exhortation has staying power. Her heroic challenge won’t be taken off the public agenda merely by behind-the-scenes diplomacy. It has awful staying power. More importantly, her statement in no way leaves her accountable. She can make a fortune giving speeches about a terrible problem or, conceivably, become America’s third president waiting for "mass" encouragement to exercise responsible leadership.

Is bluff always dangerous or bad for us? Not necessarily.

In the '80s — when his declaration was meant have effect — Ronald Reagan’s belligerent declaration that the Soviet Union was an “evil empire” struck many as irresponsible, a charge best made by a bishop, not a president in a nuclear cold war.

Even-tempered Barack Obama is not good at bluffing — fortunately.

His “red line” assertion about Syria was taken seriously by the Economist, Senator John McCain, and, allegedly, by factions in Syria’s civil war — but not across America. Consequently, when his line was crossed, America didn’t have to get into another war to preserve its honor and another president’s credibility.

Defiant American and Canadian rhetoric about effective sanctions on Putin’s Russia, however, are probably doing more harm than good. The more we "own the podium," the less that affluent Europe has to sacrifice for its own security.

Finally, should we be embarrassed about our tolerance for and today’s promiscuous use of the bluff? Not this year, for sure.

The year 2014 is the hundredth anniversary of a slaughter that was caused and sustained not by bad intelligence and the stresses of rapid change, but by leaders and peoples seduced by hateful myths about their neighbors and ridiculously extravagant rhetoric about honor.

Better to be alive now — in an age of comics and cynics. Our political leaders can still be persuasive, but we’re not as easily taken in or enslaved by their bluffs.

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