Saturday, April 12, 2014

When is a politician's unbridled rhetoric too much?....ask Robert Fulford

First Thomas Mulcair skewers Justin Trudeau "for never being able to empathize with the poor" and then Robert Fulford, writing in the National Post today skewers Mulcair  for his minimal knowledge of history and psychology, and more bitingly, for presuming to know how the future is going to unfold. Fulford points to leaders like FDR, born into wealth, who almost literally "owned" the word progressive throughout the twentieth century, and imposes a kind of intellectual rigour to which all politicians will inevitably be exposed, and through which all politicians will also be ridiculed.
Let's not find fault with the facts in Fulford's argument; they are indisputable. So is his premise that, although born into wealth, and having spent some of his youth living in 24 Sussex, Justin Trudeau, as is everyone else, is quite capable of developing political policies and strategies that could conceivably assist those living in poverty.
Let's not dispute, either, the biography of Mr. Mulcair, raised as one of ten siblings, each of whom learned very early to seek outcomes based on some "coalition" of the willing among those siblings just because of the level of scarcity that prevailed in their family of origin.
There is, however, a significant difference between the word "empathy" and the word "policy". One can easily, readily and indisputably engage in policy development that supports and sustains those living on the edge of poverty, scarcity and extreme need, with or without developing an empathy for those recipients of that policy. Mr. Trudeau, along with Mr. Mulcair, will, we can hope, announce policy alternatives that differ from those of the Conservatives in the upcoming election, in that they illustrate a perception of the role of government that seeks to enhance the lot of those most in need of a "hand-up". We have had too many years of a government that has sought openly, deliberately and vigorously to enhance to lot of those corporations whose executives pour wheel-barrels of cash into the coffers of the Conservative Party.
However, in an attempt to distinguish himself, and his party, from the Liberal Party, Mr. Mulcair, at least as seen through the Fulford lens, has used some inflated rhetoric when speaking to his party's national council, the insiders of the NDP, who would categorically and unequivocally grasp the difference between Trudeau's privileged upbringing and the poverty of Mulcair's. He ought to be faulted, if at all, not for his "failure to read history" (as he has, doubtless, acquired some modicum of historic precedence for his leader's role and expectations) but rather for the spectre that faced Mitt Romney, the last Republican candidate for the White House who disdained the 47% who "depended on government" and who "weren't going to vote Republican anyway", and thereby set up a class-warfare spectre in the society.
Poor people are, we can all agree, far too quick and ready to disdain the rich members of their community. The rich, in the eyes of too many poor people, have stepped on too many people while climbing up the ladder of wealth; if they inherited that wealth, then it was their ancestors who trampled on good people to achieve that status. Rarely, if ever, do poor people seek or grasp any counter-intuitive information that might add leaven to their perception of the rich, as philanthropists, as benefactors of many worthy causes whose work is often directed to the needs of those who could not afford that benefit but for the philanthropic work of the wealthy. Poor people generally send their children to school in less than "fashionable" clothes where they are too frequently ridiculed as "not fitting in" with the upper-class norms of fashion, hair design, tech devices and even general health.
And, let's not beat around this bush: rich kids are equally as disdainful of the poor as the poor kids as contemptuous of the wealthy. That is a fact of every school culture in the country, exacerbated in some locations more than in others.
From a political perspective, (and not to be wedged into the Fulford purist intellectual box of historic and psychological perfection), all political leaders use language to establish and maintain their leadership, and face the prospect of having, through language, to build  bridges that welcome both those of significant means and those of extreme scarcity into the "political tent" known as the political party that seeks to form a government. Of course, they will inevitably cross lines of historic accuracy, in their pursuit of growing a cadre of volunteers who can and will commit to spreading the "message" of the party's attitudes, policies and strategies as to how to achieve their vision of a "better life" for all Canadians, that is the heart-beat of all political parties. And of course, one cannot submit a rigid intellectual historically accurate, nor a psychologically global perspective into each and every sentence written in to a politically motivated discourse, however we might all aspire to leaders who do achieve such standards.
Empathy, that quality that "identifies" one with another, in a literal and literary sense, is something, most would agree, that attends to experiences similar to, if not actually identical with, those of a specific group to whom one aspires to appeal in an upcoming political campaign. Those who have suffered the loss of a child are, most likely, better able, generally, to identify, and empathize with others who have suffered a similar experience. That is not to say that those who have not experienced a loss of a child will be completely unable to empathize with suffering parents of such a tragedy, but that the experience does tend to make one more sensitive to the depth of the loss.
Similarly, growing up in a home with 10 children, of working class parents, would, in general, tend to make one more likely to be empathic to those in similar circumstances, and not to hold out that those who grew up in "privileged" circumstances, something to which Mr. Trudeau himself has said was his lot, are unable or unwilling to demonstrate empathy for the less advantaged.
Language, the scalpel of the political meeting, as well as the machine of the ivory tower, as well as the vernacular of the fast-food restaurant and the exclusive dining room, as well as the 'musical instrument' of the poet and the novelist....deserves to be used with the most careful attention to both accuracy and the spirit of its intent. We would never expect a poet to deploy language that merely orders a hamburg, without holding out the option of his being different in the words of his order, or the tone of his expression, nor would we eviscerate him for his uniqueness. And while integrity is still one of the more significant standards to which we hold our political leaders, we have, at the same time, to render some "grace" in our critique, in order to permit some flexibility in the use of language when speaking to an "inside" council of both advisors and team players. We would, for example never excoriate a coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs for using expletives in his attempt to engender better performance from his players, in a culture in which expletives are the norm.
This is not to excuse Mr. Mulcair for his exaggeration of the facts, but rather to pay witness to the situation in which those facts were distorted, in a larger attempt, not to "educate" his troops in the fine details of history or psychology, but to exhort them to enhanced and sustained efforts on behalf of the larger goal of winning the next federal election. If every cartoonist had to submit to the rigours of Mr. Fulford's argument, we would suffer a comedy deficit, which would make social discourse most dry and undigestible. If every courtroom lawyer were to have to submit every statement to Mr. Fulford for his editing, the courtroom would become antiseptic. And if every university lecturer were required to submit every statement to "professor Fulford's scrutiny" there would be no lectures in any discipline, and we would collectively suffer a brain-deficit. However, if we were together to reduce our dependence on the "ad hominum" attempt to make a point, in all venues and theatres, we would also grow some needed tolerance for both our careful use of language and our sensitivity to other human beings.
Paying homage to the intellect of Mr. Fulford, and his considerable and profound insights demonstrated over decades of highly influential and provocative writing in many venues is still a worthy exercise, provided one sprinkles a little "sloppy" realism into the recognition of the many differences between politics and a purely intellectual pursuit.
Mr. Mulcair, while imperfect, ought to be found wanting in his policy and leadership attributes, not whether or not he would pass an examination in either history or psychology, especially when the evidence selected to "convict" is based on "insider" trading.

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