Archive for the Blog Category

An Inconvenient Trump

I know what you are thinking: here we go again; another diatribe about Donald Trump’s crassness, egomania, divisiveness, xenophobia, pettiness, hair colour, hair style, marital history, bankruptcies, political fecklessness and complete unsuitability for any office let alone that of the most powerful person in the world.  What more can be said about him that hasn’t been bemoaned by every political commentator, talk show host, comedian, cab driver, office mate and random guy on the subway to whom you have had the honour and/or interminable burden of listening?

The answer is nothing.  His candidacy is so patently ridiculous it is both easy and convenient to dismiss the phenomenon as the collective psychosis of some sub-class of American society.  And therein lies the perniciousness of Trump.  It is that ease of dismissal that has created and now intensifies the ardour of those that hear in his incoherence the kernel of something that is both real and profound.

The world has changed dramatically since the days when Donald Trump remembers America as “great”.  Goods and capital flow more freely around the world than at any time in human history.  The phenomenon of globalization has raised most if not all boats.  Global poverty has receded precipitously (but not completely), and the gaps between rich nations and poor nations has narrowed.  But not so the gap between richest and poorest within nations, and certainly not so in the richest country in the world.

America’s working class has watched as a torrent of blue collar jobs that once provided a middle class lifestyle left for cheaper labour markets, and those jobs that remained were repriced in a seemingly futile effort to stem that flow.  Those that retreated to the service sector found another cruel reality: a steady flow of immigrants, including illegals, whose tenuous status could be exploited to further depress wage levels.

Politicians of all stripes in the US and elsewhere justifiably extol the virtues of the free flow of goods and capital (and even to some extent people) as the best means of maximizing global growth and wealth.  However, few politicians acknowledge the impact of this freer trade upon the American (and yes, Canadian) working class lest they arouse the outrage that The Donald is now tapping.  Both Bernie Sanders and Trump are breaking that mold.  The impact of this truth-telling in the Democratic race is muted because Democrats in general if not Hilary Clinton in particular can at least pay lip service to a willingness to bring forward and maintain redistributive policies, like Obamacare, that can offer some support to those caught in this downward spiral.  But the Republicans remain duty-bound to oppose redistribution in any form.

The only advantage enjoyed by the Republicans in addressing this issue is their adherence to law and order at all costs.  The most ardent of the tribe demand free access to guns and more jails as solutions to almost any social problem; in the immigration and employment context, is the concept of a southern border wall any more extreme?  Having taken that plunge, Trump is able to buttress his populist appeal by promising an end to free trade and the repatriation of jobs, a position that would be suicide for the typical Republican candidate that is dependent on corporate donations for campaign funding.

We shake our heads incredulously at the absurdity of the Trump candidacy. But in our histrionics, his supporters hear only the same disdain for their plight that they have heard for the last 25 years.

The Right to Life and Death

The Supreme Court of Canada faced a difficult decision last month as they heard arguments for the extension of the timeframe granted to the federal government to update the provisions of the Criminal Code that prohibit doctor-assisted suicide.   If the extension request had been denied, the provisions would simply be void and, as in the case of the legal void in Canadian law with respect to abortion, such decisions would have been left to the wisdom of patients and their doctors.

Some argued that such a legislative vacuum would open the door to abuses, and must accordingly be very clearly restricted after a protracted consultation process.  Others acknowledge the theoretical risk, but can point to the general absence of late term abortions to argue that individual patients and physicians can be relied upon to make responsible decision s in the vast number of cases.  In the end, the Court decided to continue to hold the Government’s feet to the fire on this issue, permitting an extension of only four months before the ruling would be enforced to void the offending provisions.  Sadly, even if the Government succeeds in bringing forward acceptable legislation that deftly balances these two competing perspectives, it will be too late for my friend Joel.

First off, a disclaimer: Joel was not a close friend, but he was a close friend of a close friend of mine.  I spent a lot of time in Joel’s company in a particular period in my life when the presence of an affable, generous and fun-loving co-conspirator for an evening out was a very welcome respite.  He was always full of tall tales, good cheer and a consistent focus on the present.

His reluctance to fuss too much about the future was understandable.  When I first met Joel, his mother was well down the road of a horrific physical and cognitive decline due to Huntington’s disease.  Huntington’s is a devastating genetic neurological disorder that has its onset in adulthood, leading to a dramatic deterioration that is ultimately fatal.  Children of Huntington’s carriers have a 50% chance of inheriting the disorder.  When I met first met Joel, only his older brother had begun displaying symptoms, and genetic testing was not widely available.  It was only some years later that Joel and his sister learned from a genetic test that they too would be afflicted.

Joel was fortunate to make it into his mid-fifties with only mild symptoms, but the looming deterioration had begun to accelerate in the past few years, prompting him to leave his work on long term disability.  In December, Joel learned that he’d soon lose more of his independence; his driver’s license was to be revoked and he’d be moved into an assisted-living facility.  Although he went through the motions of adjusting to these measures, this was his cue to take back control of his life.  Joel took matters into his own hands, and he took his life one week before Christmas.

Joel was under no misapprehension about what the future held for him.  The ultimate end for Huntington’s sufferers is tragically certain, and Joel had seen firsthand the decline of his own mother and brother.  There was no one better informed to assess the tolerability of that journey.  Had there been alternatives that would have allowed Joel to manifest a choice as to how far down that road he wished to venture, I am certain that it would have been ended at a later time and in a more comfortable place and in better company than alone, on the edge of a bridge, on a cold December Toronto night.

Aspirational Inspiration

A couple of years ago, my wife and I spent a week visiting Washington.  It was a beautiful Fall week, and we took in all of the sights – the White House, the Capitol, the National Mall, all the Memorials and as much of the Smithsonian as we could cram into our visit.  We dug deeply and broadly, and had a great holiday that was relaxing, educational and inspiring.

It was that last aspect of the experience that was most surprising and noteworthy.  As Canadians, we tend to be very cynical about the mythology of America.  We are right in their face; up that close, it easy to see the blemishes.  But the treatment of the American story in Washington, and in particular at the American History Museum of the Smithsonian, is disarming.  The dark side of American history – the overtly brutal conquest of their indigenous peoples, slavery, the Civil War, Jim Crow, Viet Nam – are neither hidden nor whitewashed.  They are there in plain sight, and presented with a solemnity that is both apologetic and implies “we can and must do better”.

What struck me on that visit was the recognition that perhaps what the rest of the world in general and Canadians in particular miss when we dismiss Americans’ blithe patriotic claims to be “the greatest nation on the planet” is this: what makes America great is not what it is, was or ever will be, but what it aspires to be.  It is the boldness and idealism of their reach that defines them as a unique global actor, notwithstanding the more than occasional venality of their grasp.

The Canadian ethos stands in stark contrast.  It took almost one hundred years for Canada to assert an entirely independent worldview, and another fifty before we were bold enough to reclaim our own Constitution.  Our ambition has always been modest, particularly so relative to our accomplishments in the context of the great military challenges that have arisen in our still brief history as a nation.  Our grasp has consistently exceeded our reach.

It is that defining character that makes the agenda of the new Liberal government both appealing and disorienting.  Reasonable people (myself included) were well aware that 25,000 Syrian refugees could not be relocated to Canada in 60 or even 90 days, and that the Liberals’ active and progressive agenda on climate change, infrastructure and relationship renewal with First Nations can’t be done with annual deficits under $10 billion and a return to a balanced budget by 2019.  Nevertheless,  we were still inspired by the aspiration.  Even the Liberal campaign slogan of “better is always possible” was a far cry from the “doing the best we can with the cards we are dealt” that would better reflect our ambitions historically.

Americans are quick to reward those who over-promise and slower to punish those who under-deliver; Canadians have not been so inclined.   It remains to be seen if the election of 2015 represents an about face in that cultural distinction or the basis for crushing buyer’s remorse.