Recovering backpacker, Cornwallite at heart, political enthusiast, catalyst, writer, husband, father, community volunteer, unabashedly proud Canadian.
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As the political and economic fortunes of Greece grow more precarious, it becomes harder to separate symptoms of a disease from the side effects of cures. The country’s Finance Minister, Yannis Stournaras, has projected a twenty-five percent contraction of the Greek economy for the years 2008-2014 and a 1930s-styled Depression, both the presumed outcomes of EU-imposed austerity measures.
The blame for both trends — economic malaise and the growth industry of political extremism — may reasonably be assigned to Greece’s corrupt and inept politicians within the prevailing ND/PASOK coalition. Yet if it happens that short-term (and short-sighted) prescriptions are only further sickening the patient, as appears to be the case, then there may be a surplus of incriminations for the evident quackery.
The polls are now suggesting a favourable view of Golden Dawn among twenty-two percent of the population, a number corresponding exactly with the standing of Canada’s Liberal party. “None of them” is now the top choice (at 40%) of the had-it-up-to-here Greek voters. This has provoked anguished recollections of the Treaty of Paris and the resulting economic and political catastrophes which soon brought down the Weimar Republic and raised up the NSDAP, otherwise known as the National Socialists, or Nazis. (Invariably the punch-line of this rehearsal of the Third Reich’s ascent is an inferred historical irony: aiding Greek neo-fascism today are the economic conditions brought about by Germany’s stubborn demand for austerity.) Vigilance of this kind never rests, and the advisement over crying of wolves aside, perhaps it never should. Laikos Syndezmos – Chrysi Avgi (the “Association of the folk – Golden dawn,” to cite its full and proper name) is indeed as its detractors claim — a growing vigilante mob of menacing black-shirted thugs and irredentist racists.
Greece’s economic prospects are in kind, if not in scale, representative of the Euro’s and of Europe’s economic prospects also. Disaster there will imperil the American economic recovery, which in turn will harm Canada. One can only imagine how much more difficult the already challenging work of economic recovery becomes as reformist-oriented regimes are displaced seat-by-seat to make way for skin-headed truncheon-bearing revolutionaries.
REUTERS/Yannis Behrakis/FilesMembers of the Greek extreme right Golden Dawn party hold red flares outside the town hall of Perama town, near Athens, during an election campaign rally in this April 23, 2012 file photo.
Lurking in the shadows of the Golden Dawn is indeed a historical irony, but it is not the widely cited case of Adolph Hitler and his devotees. Rather it is the so-called “4th of August” Ioannis Metaxas dictatorship, upon which Chrysi Avgi is largely, though not exclusively, modeled. Established in August 1936 to circumvent a discredited and gridlocked parliament, as well as to address an economic crisis — is this sounding familiar? —, the Metaxas dictatorship declared a state of emergency to undertake reforms of a more anti-capitalist and socialist than fascist character.
The irony to which I refer derives from the fact that many of the proposed Mataxas reforms of the 1930s would arrive throughout the democratic world after the war, including now uncontroversial notions such as the forty-hour work week, maternity leave, minimum wages, and workplace safety.
The mixed character of the 4th of August regime, simultaneously authoritarian and reformist-populist, was a product of the times as surely as is the Golden Dawn. In Greek the word avgi can figuratively refer to “the old days” as well as literally to morning and its synonyms, and thus in its atavistic appeals, Chrysi Avgi resembles race-obsessed German fascism much more than it does the Mataxas precedent. Illegal immigrants, the threat of Muslims, Albanians, the reclamation of Istanbul and of other “alienated” territories, neo-paganism and the Greek “folk” are familiar as well as predominant themes of Golden Dawn propaganda.
The unifying thread of this cursory review is the failure of democratic political systems, the remedying of which involved eventual recourse to measures which the Athenians themselves long ago taught us to refer to as “Draconian.” Greece is slowly coming undone before the eyes of the world, and with each passing month the prospect of black shirted goons overtaking the agenda of a European democracy grows not only slightly more thinkable but inevitable. The confidence of Golden Dawn these days may be inferred from their decision to franchise, a move which has led to the opening of a Montreal chapter. They have good reason to be confident. The harsh medicine of austerity has thus far been their principal nutrient.
Greece is an extreme, but they're hardly the only ones. Short-term, top-down policies are common, as are divisive, aggressive politics and corruption, which is denied by the use of even more rhetorical vitriol. Our leaders have forgotten the rules of political gravity.
By general consensus, the just-completed U.S. election cycle saw the triumph of what has been called “post-truth politics.” It marked the final rejection of the notion that telling the truth, about your own policies and opinions and those of your opponent, is in any way necessary, sufficient, or even desirable for electoral success.
Many media outlets responded by devoting resources to high-profile truth squads that evaluated the claims made by the Democratic and Republican campaigns. For example, the Washington Post subjected claims to a “Pinocchio test,” grading them on a scale from one to four Pinocchios. Similarly, the fact-checking website PolitiFact rated claims from “true” down to “half true” all the way to “pants on fire” (i.e., lies).
And while this renewed commitment to what was once the bread and salt of political journalism should be cheered on its own merits, we should probably park any grand hopes that it will have any discernible effect on elections.
Lying for political advantage is as old as the hills. But for the better part of human history, getting caught out in a lie was considered politically damaging, which is why politicians used to go to great lengths to hide the truth. And when caught, they would act apologetic, contrite and somewhat ashamed. But there came a point when politicians discovered that, if you simply kept repeating the same thing, over and over again, people would come to believe it regardless of whether it was true.
Patient Zero for this pathology is Ronald Reagan. During his campaign for president in 1976, Reagan toured the country telling the story of the Chicago welfare queen who allegedly had 80 aliases, 30 addresses and 12 Social Security cards. When you add in Medicaid and food stamps, Reagan claimed that her annual tax-free income was over $150,000 U.S. The story wasn’t remotely true, but no matter how often it was debunked by the media, Reagan just kept telling it.
This caused a great deal of consternation among reporters. What were they supposed to do? Keep calling out the lie every time it was told? It seemed impossible to do so without being seen as partisan. And yet how were the media supposed to perform their traditional role of holding power to account if those in power simply smiled, nodded and carried on with business as usual?
This marked the emergence of “truthiness” as the defining characteristic of American political culture. What distinguishes truthiness from lying is that, while a lie has the decency to acknowledge the existence of a corresponding truth, truthiness isn’t even in the truth-telling game. It operates in a realm of perception, feeling and gut instinct, where it is more important that something seem true than that it actually be so.
Today, the entire political space seems to operate in a parallel realm almost completely disconnected from our world of facts, logic, inference and evidence. And while the last six months of the U.S. presidential election campaign saw a proliferation of concerted efforts at trying to hold politicians’ rhetorical feet to the factual fire, the effect on the dynamic of the campaign was negligible.
One difficulty is that the truth is not self-revealing. That is, you can’t debunk a claim simply by calling it a lie and pointing to relevant evidence, precisely because a lot of that evidence will itself be contentious. Facts don’t sit out there in the world waiting to be discovered. They exist at the centreof a web of overlapping observations, judgments and inferences, all of which are themselves open to challenge. Fact-checking will never be as principled and disinterested as we would like.
But a bigger problem with the effort to truth-squad our way back to fact-based politics is it misunderstands the way political persuasion works. Successful politicians don’t win over the electorate by giving them a set of plausible facts that in turn motivate a set of policies, they sell them on an attractive narrative. The best politicians, from Reagan to Bill Clinton to Barack Obama, are storytellers.
To see why this matters, just look at two of the statements that PolitiFact called “pants on fire” — that is, the most bald-faced lies made during the campaign. From Mitt Romney came the claim that “Under Obama’s plan (for welfare), you wouldn’t have to work and wouldn’t have to train for a job. They just send you your welfare cheque.” For his part, Obama said Romney “backed a bill that outlaws all abortions, even in cases of rape and incest.”
Neither claim has a shred of truth. But why then would they make them?
Because both claims speak to broader narratives about how each side of the great American partisan divide sees the other. So, maybe Obama’s welfare plan wouldn’t eliminate the work requirement. But isn’t it generally true that Democrats are in favour of redistribution from wealth creators to wealth takers? And maybe Romney didn’t actually back a bill that would outlaw all forms of abortion. Yet is it not the case that Republicans continue to wage a relentless campaign against a woman’s right to choose? Think back to Reagan’s nose-stretcher about the Chicago welfare queen. She didn’t exist. But the reason the story had such traction was that it fed into growing anxieties over the expansion of the American welfare state and the loss of a sense of personal responsibility.
It is no coincidence that the term truthiness was coined in 2006 by the comedian Stephen Colbert, host of the wildly popular talk show The Colbert Report. Along with Jon Stewart (host of the sister program The Daily Show) Colbert has become one of the most influential political analysts in America.
Truth should always remain a regulative ideal of political life. Facts matter, and fact-checking is still an important function of the independent press. But in the age of post-truth politics, it is important to remember that the guiding light of reason is the satirist. The literary devices of irony, sarcasm, and parody are the mechanisms through which grand political narratives are exposed not as false, but as laughable, preposterous or absurd.
Periodically, I find myself in conversation with the odd laissez-faire libertarian who insists that financial economics is the be-all and end-all of everything, and that we've landed on the best system - if only people would stop being people and let it work. For some odd reason they don't take kindly when I suggest, most often in kinder terminology, that they're as delusional about their system as communists were about theirs.
The whole point of life is to continue, not profit. Title, land, means of production, knowledge, wealth and charm are all just means to attract the "fittest" possible mate to ensure one's genes are carried on in the strongest possible package. The "weak" packages stand less chance of reproducing, meaning that over time, undesirable traits are minimized and desirable ones are expanded upon. Everything else we do as living creatures - territorialism, resource hoarding, tribalism, oppression of others and puffing ourselves up simply serves the purpose of increasing our desirability and ensuring the best possible access to quality mates and, therefore, strong offspring with a strong chance of carrying on our line. Fashion and social activities like dance and dating are part of the same, instinctual drive. Of course there is more to society than this - social evolution charts a different course than biological evolution does. Because we're not conscious of how the more engrained, limbicly-derived behaviours are formed, though, we have less control over them.
It is the economy, stupid - just not the one you thought it was.
There is zero evidence that progressive policies like ending slavery, emancipation, civil rights or gay marriage result in the end of civilization (and watch this clip to the end).
However, there is lots of evidence that the hateful oppression of minorities, however you want to justify it, does end civilization - unless you consider things like Concentration Camps and ethnic violence civilized. What leads to this kind of oppression gaining strength? Corruption and disproportionate resource access at the top.
Gas plants are being moved out of wealthy suburan settings with high power usage and being moved to more rural settings with less ability to influence politics both in terms of votes and dollars. Bike lanes that benefit local users in downtown Toronto are being nixed to benefit commuters from suburban areas or out-of-town visitors. Wealthy cottagers are decrying mines and development that would be good for people who live in the region year-round, but again, they aren't as well-heeled as the summer commuters.
Here's the elephant in the room, folks - we can decry politican shenanigens all we want, but this is how our democracy works - or not, as the case may be. Political Parties are at the mercy of modern realities; people don't pay attention so huge advertizing budgets and expensive campaigns are neccesary. Money is more important than votes, because with dollars you can rustle up votes or essentially buy votes through enacting or cancelling projects that suit those who support you. That's how Parties land on policy choices - by what the people are willing to support. Those with more ability to support financially, with votes or with volunteers are listened to the most - squeaky wheels, etc.
Or, if you get people angry enough, you can motivate them to come out and vote against. But you have to pay to get that message out, too, as the CPC has been very successful in doing. While this is a way to grow your support, there are consequences when you keep pushing the anger button - people tend to stay angry. This approach is exactly the thought process behind what the Golden Dawn is doing today in Greece. We're nowhere near that bad, but we are on the same spectrum - something we should find disconcerting, but will refuse to acknowledge.
We can start pointing fingers of blame at rural bumpkins or urban latte-sucking elites; we can blame the poor, the wealthy, immigrants, each other, but until we start acknowledging our own responsibility for the sad state of affairs in our province and around the world, things are only going to get worse.
I grow weary of the rising chorus of people decrying "the system is broken!" and yet insisting that it's a dog-eat-dog world and it's every man for himself. The system is simply a process - it's us, the people, who matter. The system fails or succeeds based on the choice we make. Those with the most resources are suggesting that everyone should be forced to compete equally and aggressively for what goods are to be got - after all, they were successful, so anyone who works hard enough can be.
That's crap; not only do people have differential skills (this "retarded" man communicated more effectively than billionaire Donald Trump has managed) but they have different opportunities, too. A kid from a broken home with a learning disability has to climb a mountain to reach success while for someone like a Mitt Romney, success requires nothing more than a quick jaunt across a well-manicured lawn.
Those at the bottom are demanding to have what they see the people at the top having - and yes, the challenge is vexing enough to be a deal-breaker, but the disparity remains. There are those who suffer in dejected silence - they don't vote, they can't contribute to the economy and the system is stacked against them changing their (and their children's) lot in life. Then there are those who decide to take the dog-eat-dog mentality to its natural next stage - if it's all about doing as little as possible as aggressively as possible to get ahead, why not just take the things you want by force? Why do you think crime is a greater problem in poor communities near wealthy communities than where the playing field is level? Because poverty is crippling but a gun provides an immediate avenue to the power and resources that others take for granted.
Oakville is one of the wealthiest communities in Ontario and the largest consumer of power in the GTA; the monied people feel entitled to blast their aircon and keep their lights on all day, but government dare not impinge upon their rights by presuming to put power generation in their backyard. They raised a fuss, they threatened with their dollars and they got what they wanted - and the people who listened were rewarded. Everyone won except those to whom the loss was downloaded to - but, the way our system runs, it was up to those communities to put up an equally strong fight to bend government to their will. They didn't, so too bad for them. This is how the polarization game festers.
In Eastern Ontario there's a big battle over whether French should be mandatory for people hired to work in local hospitals; it's not fair, say the militant anglophones; you're taking opportunity away from unilingual English speakers. That's not fair, says the francophone community; we have historic language rights and it's important we understand what advice we're getting as clearly as possible. The immigrants who have come to Canada and are struggling to learn either or both official languages are simply told to suck it up, because this is the reality they chose when they came here. No one has time or patience for middle-ground solutions; dog-eat-dog, etc.; they who are forceful get their way at the expense of others. There's no middle ground in that world view.
There are more than enough dollars in our economy to have robust employment and there certainly are enough fresh ideas (if untested) that could lead to massive innovation opportunities, but those with the capital aren't hiring or taking risks on semi-proven entrepreneurs; why should they? If people want to work they should prove they deserve to be hired by breaking through the fog of other people's busy-ness or better, yet, just start their own thing, and brow-beat customers into hiring them. People with new ideas have to find someone else to prove they work, first - do that, then maybe we'll consider investing in you. The people without opportunity and worse, a bit of skill are being discouraged from even trying; again, that's survival of the fittest.
Here's the thing that people seem to be missing - this is a society, not the wild. Those who aren't the fittest don't die off, they fall into poverty and either end up destitute, homeless and sick or turn to crime to get what others have gotten through other means. Yeah, it sucks, but you aren't going to solve the problem by toughening up crime or building firewalls - that only increases the divide and builds on the already-smoking kindling of frustration. Those with dollars can tell everyone else to suck it up - but that's leading to its own series of challenges, isn't it?
Everyone deserves a backyard, but as populations become more dense, we need to realize that a growing portion of the land is becoming public space - it's a natural evolution from fiefdoms down to urbanized living. "Not in my backyard" means not at all - "not my problem" really means it becomes everyone's problem.
There's only one way out of this growing mess and it's a counter-intuitive one. When the tensions rise and it looks like we each have more to lose individually, that's when we need to work together the most. That means reevaluating how we see ourselves and our needs; it means drilling down to the core of what we believe in; if it's a dog-eat-dog world, than we need to except rising crime and social disruption as inevitable and start stocking up for the Zombie Apocalypse. Otherwise, we need to start realizing that the fates of each of us is inextricably linked to the fate of all of us - we can only be strong as individuals when we're strong as a society.
And that's the point, really. We tell ourselves that it could only be a different set of people at a different time that could fall under the sway of an angry lunatic like Hitler. We continue to tell ourselves this, because we don't believe we are capable of atrocity, as the temperature climbs and the pot begins to boil.
But it simply isn't true. Give the right social strains, sense of national indignation and lit by the right voice of anger, every society can boil over. It's happening right now in places like Hungary and Greece.
The only way to defend against this threat is by accepting the fact that we can be influenced and training ourselves to be consciously aware of how those influences work. Do that, and we can reduce the social stresses that lead to resentment and violence in the first place. This is accomplished not by abandoning people to the lot history have provided them nor by sheltering them from reality. But then, we already know the way forward, don't we?
In politics, loyalty is everything. It's hard to earn, even harder to maintain. So, when you have a "lone wolf" and "non-team player" who manages to retain the loyalty of some pretty capable and in-demand people over years, that tells you something.
Kennedy isn't a hard guy to like; he listens, he cares, he's charming in a low-key way. He also makes time for people, even when they don't necessarily have anything to offer him in return. It's just the way he is. Not that long ago, Kennedy took the time to sit down with me, a complete stranger, to listen to my ideas for a social enterprise and offer advice. Not only did he give some useful direction, he also put me in touch with some partners that have become invaluable. That's not something I'll forget, and I'm hardly the only person he's helped in this way.
One thing that is true about Kennedy; he is demanding. He's not a yeller, like some politicians are, nor does he employ passive-aggressive techniques to get his staff to bend to his will. What Kennedy does is push his people to reach higher. He's a big thinker - he connects dots in ways that others might not think to do. That's not a bad thing - we've done the elect the simple message guy thing recently and ended up with Rob Ford. Friends of mine who've served on Kennedy's team in the past say it's always a challenge working with him, but a rewarding one. And again, they continue to back him, which speaks to his character.
Also worth noting - Kennedy has been labeled "the man who gave Liberals Dion" because he threw in his support behind the second-last Liberal Leader to be driven into the ground by Stephen Harper's attack machine. Look at the picture to the right - Kennedy wasn't the only one who thought Dion was worth giving a shot. What if, for argument's sake, he'd backed Ignatieff? He didn't work out so well, either. In fact, if the last two losses have taught Liberals anything, it should be that we have structural problems that need addressed - we have to stop pinning all our hopes and all the blame on our leaders and step up our game at every level. We have to take collective responsibility for our Party if we want to continue offering positive solutions and making meaningful differences in our society.
Last thing - people are telling us that GK has political losses under his belt and is therefore doomed to fail again. I flatly reject that notion, because it isn't a Liberal one. Yes, politics is an aggressive survival-of-the-fittest game and any weakness is sure to be exploited by opponents, but our political system is the foundation around which our whole society is built. Are we going to tell people who have been fired from their jobs that they are worthless, move on? Do we tell students who fail tests to give up because they've proven they're not up to the job? Should we hand our veterans lump-sum cheques and tell them they're on their own? Stephen Harper won by being the deadliest player on the field; look where it's landed our country.
I am fundamentally opposed to the idea of writing people off - that's not what a responsible society does. The reason we fall is so we can learn to pull ourselves back up - society and government is the hand that guides. That's not what's happening now and our society is suffering for it. We deserve better than that. We need better than that. Leaders lead by example; if Liberals truly believe that everyone has something positive to offer, we can't write anyone off as having outlived their usefulness.
We have some amazing candidates who've put their names in the race to lead the Ontario Liberal Party - the province will gain no matterwhich one wins. I love the fact that the three front-runners have a solid background in education and social justice, as well as experience working in or interacting with the business sector. Remember that Tim Hudak has no professional experience out of politics, period. He has no track-record of success to run on and his bluster has so far done nothing but polarize Ontarians and grind our Legislature to a halt.
Liberals at both levels are faced with a generational challenge - to focus strictly on the win and turn ourselves into a mean political machine like Harper's Conservatives, or aim to be something that reflects the values we hold dear - the values of Canadians. We will not win by seeking to demolish the opposition; that's the game Hudak and Harper are playing and it's one that's hurting our country.
At both the federal and provincial levels, we win when our communities win, when we put the people, not the Party, first. We won't find success through dividing and conquering, but by moving forward together.
That's the single most important lesson people engaging on political campaigns can learn.
Of course, that's easier said than done. How do you create an image that resonates in the minds of the general public? Political operatives have been developing this craft of political branding for centuries, yet it remains more art than science. Smart folk like Stephane Dion and Michael Ignatieff have tried to articulate their brand in logical, academic terms - and fallen far short of success. Same with Mitt Romney - he thought that his track record of tough success in business spoke for itself and therefore spent the first chunk of the just-finished Presidential campaign simply speaking to that record.
This bold-strokes message won Romney the first Presidential debate; it also proved to be his ultimate downfall. What he and perhaps his campaign team didn't realize - or rather, didn't think mattered - was the way his messaging coloured in the brand outline they had established. Romney could not be other than he was; the more he spoke, the more public traction he gained, the clearer it became to the average American that he wasn't one of them. His essence was painted with the rich primary colours of old-America elitism.
For his part, Obama's initial falter was not due to his words, but his image. President Obama at the beginning of the campaign was just that - a President wrapped up in the busy-ness of office, running for reelection. His messaging had the wonkish, sharp lines of academia and created an image inaccessible to the average American. It was when he refound his 2008 palette featuring the warmer hues of hope, promise and commonality that he once again registered with the electorate.
That's the key; we can talk about the science of politics all we want, but politics is meant to be art. One of the tricks you learn in crafting art is that defining a pictorial narrative or a portrait isn't always about bold lines that force an impression upon your audience, but rather a more subtle, strategic manipulation of light and shadows to build an image in their mind's eye. You don't build the picture for them - you control the context they see and allow them to construct your image themselves.
That's the Philosopher's Stone of political branding, the key lesson that opens the doors to success; sophisticated narrative building isn't just about simple, blunt lines and volume, but about shading in prescribed context that allows your candidate to shine through.
Stephen Harper, knowing that his personality is all sharp-edged policy with the odd splash of angry reds and cold blues wisely stays out of the public spotlight. His tenure as Prime Minister has been more about defining others than defining himself. Team Harper has relied on shadows to create their narrative and portray their opposition; troubles lapping at shores, not in it for you, etc. This approach has worked so far because none of Harper's opponents has successfully created their own palette. As mentioned before, previous competitors used lines and ran campaigns devoid of texture; Thomas Mulcair has so far drawn from the same dark shading that has defined the Harper narrative.
Buchenwald, like all Concentration Camps, was hell on earth. Horrific, dehumanizing death was endemic. You cannot hear the stories of survivors without feeling some shame at being part of a species that can inflict such atrocity on its own members. For people like my grandfather, the horror of the Camps is compounded by a survivor’s guilt that forever imprisons part of their souls to private torment. To this day, the sound of a German Sheppard barking or even a few phrases spoken in German is enough to send shivers up Ed’s spine. Not quite the adventure he signed up for.
Today, on Remembrance Day, we pay tribute to the veterans and soldiers in the field of combat for sacrifices made on our behalf in places far from home. I will be thinking of my grandfather when The Last Post sounds, quietly expressing my gratitude and regret for the burden he carries to this day. I’ll also be thinking about the men and women in uniform protecting Canadian interests somewhere out there out now.
The further removed from conflict we become through geography and time, the less we realize just how horrific it is. We condemn ourselves to repeat history when we forget the lessons it teaches us. Honouring our veterans and recognizing the value and nobility of their sacrifices on our behalf gives us reason to think about the causes and consequences of war. To me, they are embodied by the policy of hate represented by Buchenwald and the toll World War II took on my grandfather.