Monthly Archives: May 2005

You would have expected some results after 50 years

Might I interest you briefly in politics? Oh dear. What a rude word. Besides, if you follow public affairs at all, you are already immersed in the stuff. Which is odder than it seems. Why are newspapers so full of politics and government? Do you ask what else they would contain besides public matters? But there’s the nub of my gist. Why does “public” so often mean “political”? Why aren’t there more stories about our common life that aren’t about government?

Partly, political stories are fairly easy: a press release, three phone calls and a story. It’s straightforward he said/she said, requiring no icky background knowledge of science or something. But mostly, government gets so much media attention because it’s so big. The state nowadays not only spends nearly half of GDP, but also regulates every gol-durn thing in our lives.

In 1998, American conservative commentator William F. Buckley, Jr. sarcastically called meddlesome do-gooders “the shower-adjusters of this world.” The joke’s on him: Monday’s Citizen said: “The British government is considering regulating the maximum temperature of domestic baths.” It seems the public are too stupid not to scald themselves unless big nanny hovers over them as they bathe. While I’m inclined to think the state has no place in the bathrooms of the nation, if it’s in there bossing people around I do want to hear about it. But I’m not done with my question about all this government news. Indeed, I’ve just gotten started. Continue reading

Three-ring circus on the hill

Canadian politics has become a circus complete with clowns, tawdry sideshows and even a heartbreaker in a glamorous costume. It’s amusing for the peanut gallery, but a tough life for the participants and an increasingly bad deal for the audience.

Start with the high-flying trapeze girl. I believe Belinda Stronach is a Liberal at heart. I never understood what she was doing in the Tory party, nor what they saw in her. It can’t just have been youth and good looks; this is not the 1950s. I’m sure I had a clipping about her many proven talents around here somewhere. But anyway, she has her reward.

So does Paul Martin. He has probably prolonged his time in office by months. But at what cost to his dignity? When he tried to tell journalists his lavish recruitment of Ms. Stronach was unrelated to the budget vote, they famously burst out laughing; Andrew Coyne on CBC Newsworld said the press now treats the prime minister as “risible.” Nice polka-dot pants, dude. Continue reading

Beyond Mariposa

Stephen Leacock is one of those things you’re supposed to cherish if you’re Canadian, like Margaret Atwood or the Commissioner of Official Languages. I don’t care. I like him anyway. His acute sense of the absurd, his keen ear for language and his fearless inventiveness make him a true comic genius.

His failed attempt to open a bank account, in “My Financial Career,” is an unsurpassed depiction of intimidation in the face of large, impersonal modern institutions. Let Kafka’s protagonists succumb in tediously lopsided contests against vast shadowy conspiracies. This is just man against self and losing badly.

Leacock also turns a phrase with Wodehousian virtuosity. In his satire of the Mariposa election contest between cynical vote-buying Liberal and Conservative candidates, when doomed independent clean-government candidate Edward Drone “tried to put up a streamer across the Main Street with DRONE AND HONESTY the wind carried it away into the lake.” Those final three words plunge his campaign into exquisite ignominy. Also not to be missed is his account of protracted goodbyes in the era of the motor car, in which George Washington’s Farewell Address ends “I have grown old in the service of this country and there is something wrong with my ignition.” Continue reading

Have confidence in our constitution and the rule of law

Is there a government in the House? Hair-pulling squabbles should not erupt among adults over whether a non-confidence motion swept Paul Martin out of office earlier this week. It is not a matter of theatrics or spin. Governments that can obtain from the House the revenues necessary to their program command its confidence; those that can’t, do not. That’s all there is to it, and all there needs to be.

At least one newspaper editorial said Tuesday’s pseudo-non-confidence motion should count because it sends a signal that if a real non-confidence motion came before the House, it would pass. But if so, the signal was unnecessary and if not, it was inaccurate. The Citizen editorialized that “Strictly speaking, the federal Liberals are correct” that it “was not a vote of non-confidence … But it was a sign that the end is clearly close at hand.” Really? The motion instructed a committee to tell the government to resign. Suppose the committee refuses, as it may well. Is a vote that fails to command the rhetorical assent of one of its committees sufficient to dissolve the entire House? Why not just defeat the budget instead?

Another newspaper began an editorial: “Paul Martin’s Liberal government has lost the confidence of the House of Commons,” and ended by urging the government to “(g)ive the House an immediate chance to vote confidence or no-confidence in the government.” What, again? Or did you just admit it hadn’t yet done so? Continue reading

Define conservatism: Read the 1953 book that changed America’s way of thinking

The conservative mind? In 1953 it didn’t even seem to exist. When Russell Kirk first published The Conservative Mind: From Burke To Eliot in 1953, the New Deal meant prosperity, the United Nations meant perpetual peace and scientific sociology meant true human fulfilment. The book was absurd, even impudent. And very successful.

Kirk quotes famous critic Lionel Trilling writing, in 1950, that “In the United States at this time, liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition. For it is the plain fact that nowadays there are no conservative or reactionary ideas in general circulation. This does not mean, of course, that there is no impulse to conservatism or to reaction. Such impulses are certainly very strong, perhaps even stronger than most of us know. But the conservative impulse and the reactionary impulse do not, with some isolated and some ecclesiastical exceptions, express themselves in ideas but only in action or in irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.” Trilling was less than thrilled with the vitality of liberalism, Kirk adds, “but he could perceive no alternative body of ideas.”

Kirk challenged this orthodoxy as part of a reinvigorated, literate conservatism that included, two years later, William F. Buckley founding National Review magazine expressly to stand athwart history, yelling “Stop.” But not irrationally, not inarticulately, and not futilely. Kirk’s book found an audience, first with influential reviewers at the New York Times Book Review and Time magazine. Then, as Kirk himself put it in his 1986 foreword, “the book’s success exceeded his [own] hopes … Directly or in someone’s paraphrase, presently its chapters reached those people who, [British political jurist Albert] Dicey says, are the real (if unknowable) shapers of public opinion: a multitude of thinking men and women, obscure enough, who influence their neighbours and their communities. The book was read by professional people in particular.” Continue reading

I like my politicians to admit that they’re politicians

It is, without qualification, good that the four federal party leaders found a way to put aside their quarrels and attend ceremonies marking the 60th anniversary of VE-Day. So, definitely with qualification, is Paul Martin’s explanation of the decision: “I think we’ve got to put politics aside,” he told reporters. “This is simply too important.” He accidentally said something profound which, in his profession, is about the only way it happens.

Remarkably, his utterance does not seem remarkable. Participants and observers of the political process nod sagely and move on. But wait. Try to imagine anyone in any other business talking that way.

If the French president were coming to town, would the chef charged with his care and feeding say, “I think we’ve got to put cuisine aside. This is simply too important”? Would the garage tuning up his limousine say, “I think we’ve got to put mechanics aside. This is simply too important”? And if he were nevertheless to suffer a traffic accident or food poisoning, would his attending physician tell the press, “I think we’ve got to put medicine aside. This is simply too important”? It is, transparently, unimaginable. Continue reading