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)

Thursday, May 15, 2014

The invention of differences in paradise

Forgetfulness about childbirth helps mothers continue to enjoy sex. And truly forgetting is liberating. On the other hand, forgetfulness about human history can lead to dead ends and trouble. Because Canada has only recently done something noteworthy on its own initiative, our forgetfulness tends to just support mediocrity and sentimentality. It’s not life-threatening. However, it does bother emigrants and irritable bloggers. 

Jeffrey Simpson is the most solid practitioner we have who writes with one foot on the data and the other on yesterday’s puffy white clouds. 

In his Globe column “A Party defined by its enemies, by choice,” Jeffrey Simpson reflected on the rupture of our political culture: from the clubby politics of our past to the divisive politics of Stephen Harper:

“This kind of political differentiation is new to Canada. Of course, there has always been political competition among parties. And of course, parties have heaped abuse on their adversaries, exaggerating their faults.

“In the past, this competition has tended to be between or among parties – a political game, if you like. But the Conservatives have now focused their sights on other institutions outside of politics to help with their strategy of differentiation.”               

If you’re going to be bitter about the present, first be bitter about the past.

Simpson ought to scan the archives of his own paper, even his own early stories, and shake himself free of the winsome spin of vanquished Liberals: the theme that public life was more gentlemanly, more responsible, when we were winning.

There were every bit as many injuries on the field when Liberals and other "nobodies" played the "political game."

Today’s Conservative PM attacks his partisan adversaries by: (1) complaining that Michael Ignatieff was working abroad for 30 years (2) attacking Stephen Dion’s written platform and his legal opinion that the Governor General, on his own council, could make him prime minister instead, and (3) marketing the notion that Justin Trudeau is shallow.

Yesterday’s Liberal PMs attacked their adversaries by: (1) claiming that they were soft on Quebec nationalists and servile toward the provinces generally, (2) dismissing New Democrats as extremists, (3) describing a Harvard economic gold-medalist Robert Stanfield’s anti-inflation suggestions as “Zap! You’re frozen,” and (4) in the '90s, dismissing Preston Manning and Stockwell Day as American right-wing puppets. They were incompetent if they couldn’t control their caucus, or bullies if they could.

(Dramatizing the awfulness of now, Liberal winners transform safely departed adversaries into public-spirited gentlemen, my first leader being designated harmlessly as “the best Prime Minister Canada never had.” Simpson sees them as “more pragmatic.”)

Simpson’s principal argument, however, is about scope: in the past, PMs were hard on other politicians, not other institutions. This is both arbitrary and, again, unfair. In fact, it implies that our politics today are more vicious and dangerous than before and that’s just crazy.

Harper’s Government has fought with public institutions — the PBO, the Chief Electoral Officer, crown agencies, regulators, political journalists, and, most famously, the Supreme Court and the Senate. Life within Harper’s Ottawa is quarrelsome and that ill-serves Harper with Canada’s peace-loving mainstream. However, is that inherently bad? Were yesterday’s political targets better able to protect themselves and less important to maintaining a tolerant democracy?

You can "savage" a young Canadian’s freedom and future prospects by throwing him in jail without a judge’s warrant, as Pierre Trudeau did in 1970. Yet are heads of public institutions, with fixed terms, public profiles, public mandates, and constitutional or Parliamentary protections, being "savaged" when Harper publicly questions their public positions?

Before political parties were subsidized — and, yes, when they were directly subsidized — monies, campaign workers, newspapers, leadership delegates, core voters, and swing voters were mobilized by fear of the other guy’s ideas and the promise of one’s own. We divided, often bitterly, on religion, the monarchy, republicanism, capitalism, socialism, the Vatican, the Cold War, US "imperialism," immigration welfare and work incentives, bilingualism, the official status of the French Language, capital gains taxes, and the character, health, and associations of our political enemies.

In Simpson’s alternative paradise, Liberals are "pragmatic" in office and their opponents are "pragmatic" once they retire. Ideology would have no place.

This is a fantasy and it's no fun. Popular democracy, most conspicuously in Quebec and the West, didn’t invent ruthless politics, divisive ideas, and ideologies. It simply let the people join in the fight. 

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