Wednesday, April 27, 2011

A post in which I compare the Canadian federal election to high-school calculus (or, two things that make me cringe and want to vomit)

The Canadian federal election is about as painful, as uninspired, and as humourless (unless you count the unintentional hilarity of watching wooden politicians try to deliver barn-burner speeches as if said speeches were on par with Martin Luther King-inspired greatness when they're nothing more than pandering, partisan gibberish devoid of any real meaning or substance) as high-school calculus.

It occurred to me to make the connection between the campaign and calculus a couple of weeks ago. It was the first day of the spring semester at Kyoto University and I decided to take a graduate-level class on economics. The class started with a pop quiz. We were asked to answer a bunch of questions. Stuff like "calculate dy/dx where y = f[x, z(x)]" and "solve the following optimization problem where max z = -x squared + 2x."

Two full pages of math problems. I left the whole thing blank. Those of us who failed the quiz were advised to brush up on high-school calculus. But how do you "brush up" on calculus when you never learned it in the first place? I dropped the class immediately.

I'm just not wired for math. I love words. I hate numbers. I love stories. I hate formulas. I love ideas. I hate details. I love improvisation. I hate memorization.

I was thinking about all of this as I made my way out of the classroom when it hit me. I suddenly understood why I was so turned off by the Canadian election and by each of the federal leaders. This campaign is too much like calculus.

A formula calculated to win votes

Just like numbers on a page, the federal leaders' words are cold and calculated. Their messages don't come from the heart. They come from the head. Each message is carefully crafted and controlled. Each message is brought to life not by inspiration but by polls and focus groups. Each message is shaped and massaged by campaign strategists and communications experts. It's a formula calculated to win votes.

The end result is messages devoid of meaning but full of partisanship and pandering. All spin, no substance. Do they think we're idiots? To speak of "family values" is to insult our collective intelligence. What does "family values" mean anyway? I'm pretty sure that Stephen Harper, who voted against gay marriage, has a very different concept of "family values" than Jack Layton, who makes a point of marching in Toronto's Gay Pride Parade every summer.

But it's too easy to just pick on Stephen Harper. All of the leaders are aiming low. They're all trying to woo us with talk of families and health care and jobs and money for seniors. I mean, how can anyone be opposed to any of that? I suppose that's the point. It's banal and safe and inoffensive. It's how you win votes in Canada.

Ordinary Canadians

I can't stand the way they call us "ordinary Canadians" as if we are some sort of homogeneous blob that thinks and acts the same way. When the leaders want to get in touch with us ordinary Canadians, they go to Tim Hortons and hockey rinks and churches and mosques and synagogues. They loosen their ties, undo a button or two, roll up their sleeves, maybe even wear a baseball cap.

It's an image contrived to make us think, "They're just like us!" Except it's an "us" I don't identify with. I'm not religious, I don't watch hockey, and I don't think anyone over the age of 10 should wear a baseball cap unless they are actually playing baseball. You can't generalize about the tastes and habits and hobbies of average Canadians. We're all different. (Although, I will admit to a fondness for the occasional double-double and chocolate dip donut from Tim Hortons).

I'm starting to think our political leaders have a low opinion of us "ordinary Canadians." It seems they think the only thing we care about is protecting our jobs, our high standard of living and our families. Could they be any more insulting? Oh, yes, they could. They bombard us with attack ads that are so amateurish and silly that it feels less like an attack on the other parties and more like an attack on our intelligence. I don't care about how much of a loser you think your opponent is. Drop the ads and spend the time and money on something else, like a well-designed website with detailed information on your policies and your long-term vision for Canada.

This what I would tell the leaders

Be bold. Be brave. Say something you really mean. Say something off-message and unscripted. Say something controversial and original. Say something that touches our hearts. And say it in plain English. Answer journalists' questions honestly and directly. Tell us about your policies. Tell us about your dreams. Stop pandering. We're not stupid.

I'm tired of only hearing about the safe stuff. Let's talk about corporate tax hikes. Let's talk about ending government subsidies to the Alberta oil sands. Let's talk about public transit. Let's talk about bullet trains. Let's talk about a carbon tax. Let's talk about the shameful living conditions on First Nations reserves. Let's talk about compulsory voting legislation. Let's talk about universal daycare. Let's talk about poverty. Let's talk about secularism. Let's talk about art and books and poetry.

I'm not naive. I know that if the federal leaders talk about this stuff their opponents would tear them to pieces. And they would lose credibility and votes. I think this is why they play it so safe during the election campaign. Better to offend as few people as possible in order to get as many seats as possible. Then, once you're in Parliament, you'll have real power to push your real agenda forward.

I just wish it didn't have to be this way. I wish we could elect sincere, honest politicians who don't stick to a script when they talk. Campaigning needs to be less like math and more like life. Stop calculating every move, every word. Make your speeches messy, emotional, moving. Touch our hearts and stir our emotions. Inspire us to follow you. Create a vision for Canada that leaves no one behind and makes our hearts soar with hope and possibility.

But what do I know? I'm just an ordinary Canadian.

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