Thursday, August 28, 2008

Deplore the ideas, not the person

“If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each man's life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.” – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
I do not want Joe Biden to be vice president of the United States. Even before Sen. Barack Obama invited Biden to address the Democratic National Convention as his nominee for second-in-command, I found Biden’s liberal politics and blustering, loquacious style to be unpalatable.

But whenever I think of Biden as a person, I cannot eclipse from my mind the events of December 18, 1972. Biden was thirty years old and had just been elected to his first term in the Senate. His wife, Neilia, was driving home with a Christmas tree for the family. A tractor-trailer smashed into her car, killing Neilia and the Bidens’ one-year-old daughter, Naomi. Joe Biden was sworn in as a senator at the hospital bedside of one of his sons, who was badly injured in the crash.

There is much to dislike in what Obama and Biden represent. Their policy prescriptions and campaign rhetoric combine vague platitudes about the future with astounding self-regard. Together, they are Hope and Arrogance. But they are still human beings, with wants and fears and sorrows and joys no different from anyone reading this column.

While a person’s sad history may disarm us of hostility, however, it does not constitute a qualification for office.

For example, I do not want Sen. John McCain to be president just because he was a prisoner of war in Vietnam (although critics of his age may wish to spot the Senator 5½ years for the time he spent in the worst place on Earth). Rather, I believe he is the best person on offer to lead the free world.

When voters and politicians recognize in one another the suffering of a life lived, hatred and blind admiration are banished, and candidates rise or fall on the strength of their policies. This is as it should be.

Deplore the ideas, not the person. In general, this is more difficult for left-wingers, largely because so few of them have ever been on the other side of the ideological spectrum. The public square contains vastly more conservatives who were once liberals than the reverse. Churchill’s maxim that a person who is not a conservative by age 30 has no brain, while uncharitable, simply means that a right-of-center worldview is the natural result of a modicum of study.

It requires less learning to be left-wing. Political correctness is uncomplicated and its liturgies are easily memorized. So, simple hatreds are liberals’ playthings.

The most egregious recent case of this is the mass-hysterical hatred of George W. Bush. Dubbed Bush Derangement Syndrome by commentators, the condition causes folks to assign bloodthirsty motives and, paradoxically, monumental stupidity and otherworldly powers to the fellow whose present misfortune it is to reside in the White House. This is short-sighted and demonstrably ineffective.

Opponents of the Iraq war may not care, for example, that Bush watched his little sister, Robin, die of leukemia when she was three years old. But they might be more effective critics of Bush’s policies if they gave more thought to his humanity.

Obama and Biden are the wrong people to lead America. They are people, though, and that merits our respect.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

City Hall needs to park the frills and do its job

Toronto needs a new perspective. Those priorities that our current leadership takes for granted -- expensive environmental and arts programs, massive public works projects, the dream of a car-free city -- ought to be set aside in favour of more practical, helpful initiatives.

Prosaic as it may seem, the city's job is to clear your snow and trash, keep parks and streets usable and safe, and spend your tax dollars as efficiently as possible. Once these rudiments have been mastered, perhaps there will be time to discuss saving the planet but, given the state of Toronto today, city councillors can keep their capes in storage for a while yet.

It is not the job of city government to make you a better person by coaxing you from your car or diverting your tax dollars to mime troupes. If you want to make the world a greener place or support local theatre, those are worthy things. But those are individual choices, and city government ought to make it as easy as possible for you to act upon them.

The new perspective Toronto needs will recognize what is important -- that is, the basics -- and incorporate the political will to make it happen.

Toronto's citizens should not have to spend one second worrying that trash won't be picked up or transit will stop working because of labour unrest or spending cuts. Moreover, Torontonians should be able to walk along any stretch of, say, Bloor or Dundas at any hour of the day without being surrounded by litter and accosted by panhandlers. We need to be able to move about safely, and at will.

Basic as the need for movement may seem, City Council's current attitude toward transportation proves the adage that, "Socialists love mankind in groups of a million or more." To every problem, from gridlock to pollution, they present some mass solution, relying on public transit and funding and eliminating the element of personal choice.

But the way an economy or a city works is by millions of people making different choices. From the perspective of transportation, that means people need to go in different directions at different times, for millions of different reasons. To suppose that citizens of Canada's largest metropolis can be moved about solely by mass transit is to defy economic reality. Toronto needs to be an easy city in which to get around, however a person chooses to do so. That is, by bicycle, public transit or, saints protect us, by automobile.

Like most governments, Toronto's fiscal woes have nothing to do with revenue. The city takes in plenty of money. The problem is how it is spent.

Take trash collection, for just one example. We ought to be able to offer this contract to union and non-union suppliers alike and, if a non-union shop offers the best deal, we should not have to pay them inflated, union rates as the city's so-called "Fair Wage Policy" dictates. The city answers to taxpayers, not union leaders.

Once again, this is basic stuff.

Not one penny should go to politicians' pet projects until all children in Toronto, regardless of ability or economic status, have places to play, all four seasons of the year. I don't want to hear one word about recycling bins so long as there is a single kid in this city who does not have a place where he can go and have some fun.

Safe, clean streets, places to play, and a healthy respect for your employers' pocketbooks -- this is the stuff of a marvellous city.

Hang the rest until you get the rudiments right.

The politician who embraces this vision will make no friends among Toronto's labour leaders or political elites, and he may have to push past a protest placard or two. But so be it.

The basics are important, and Toronto needs a leader who believes in them.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Solzhenitsyn spoke for millions

“In every life there is one particular event that is decisive for the entire person – for his fate, his convictions, his passions.” –Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, 1918-2008

For the great Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who died this week, the pivotal event of his life came when he was suddenly and unjustly pulled from freedom into captivity. Like millions of others, Solzhenitsyn was a victim of the Soviet Union’s political prison system, known by its notorious acronym: Gulag.

For writing politically unacceptable letters to a friend, Solzhenitsyn found himself stripped of rank, rights and liberty. He lamented that his tale was nowhere near unique. The Soviet Union spent decades locking up its own people in order to silence dissenters and terrorize those who were left.

But Solzhenitsyn’s gift for letters would prove to be his oppressors’ undoing. By chronicling the excesses of his communist captors, Solzhenitsyn exposed to the world the brutality of the Soviet Union. The truth and eloquence of his words could not be countered by communism’s elite apologists in the West and in 1970, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

A student hoping to learn from a Nobel laureate about the dangers of this world should set aside Al Gore’s Earth in the Balance and take up Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago. Better yet, read Solzhenitsyn first, then consider how the assault on liberty he describes may apply to today’s religion of environmentalism. Solzhenitsyn’s canon is a study of the vigilance freedom requires, and the misery that comes when it is lost.

Tragically, communism did not collapse with the Soviet Union, and one-fifth of the world’s population is still subject to that demented ideology.

As the Olympic Games begin today in the People’s Republic of China, there has already been discussion of that communist regime’s suppression of its own people and its neighbours. The Laogai, China’s version of the Gulag, is the most extensive system of forced labour camps on the planet. Likewise, in North Korea and Cuba, political prison networks hold countless human beings in bondage for crimes of thought, speech and religion. This is the essence of communism, and the practitioners of today’s inhumanities are the heirs of Solzhenitsyn’s jailers.

But for all that he suffered and saw, Solzhenitsyn’s inclination was always toward mercy and goodness. This was not some version of pacifistic protest, however, but an act of intellectual will. “For mercy,” he said, “one must have wisdom.” In upholding this creed, he proved that the human spirit can maintain its divine spark, even in the face of true evil.

Understandably, Solzhenitsyn developed a cynicism toward politics, noting that fine words and high-minded ideology can blot out basic humanity. Of his cruel countrymen, Solzhenitsyn mourned, “Where had all that Russian generosity gone? It had been replaced by political consciousness.”

Solzhenitsyn knew his task was to tell the story of those who were silenced. In his dedication of The Gulag Archipelago to those who did not survive the prison camps, he asks their forgiveness, “for not having seen it all nor remembered it all, for not having divined all of it.”

But despite his human imperfection, Solzhenitsyn shed light on one of the greatest crimes in all history, and his imprisonment was not in vain. When Soltzhenitsyn’s oppressors took away his freedom, they gave millions of others a voice.

Flawed, but still noble

Any noble notion that is implemented by human beings will inevitably fall short of its ideals. The Olympic Games are no exception. But the glory of the effort, the pursuit of excellence that the Olympics embody, make the exercise worthwhile.

The Olympics are among those well-intentioned international institutions that purport to represent humanity’s highest aims. Like the United Nations or Greenpeace, the Olympics stand for ideals that ought to be universal, while implementing them imperfectly.

In practical terms, the Olympics combine competition among the planet’s greatest athletes – this is the ideal aspect of the Games – with unmistakably human oversight, represented by the International Olympic Committee.

For decades, the IOC has been the object of criticism, accused of corruption and complicity with the world’s worst regimes. The IOC’s coddling of the repressive People’s Republic of China has been well-documented since the day the 2008 Games were awarded to Beijing. Until recently, the IOC had planned to ban the newly democratic Iraq from this year’s event, claiming the country had politicized its process by replacing members of its national committee. This is the same IOC that raised no objection when Saddam Hussein was imprisoning and torturing Iraqi Olympians who underperformed.

In this way, the Olympics, and the IOC in particular, have much in common with the U.N. Both are playgrounds for tyrants, where bureaucratic elites overlook genuine injustice while scrutinizing the shortcomings of free nations. But these undeniable weaknesses do not outweigh the nobility of their aims.

Like the U.N., if the Olympics did not exist, we would have to invent them. Certainly, the world’s leaders should have a forum to meet and discuss things, just as nations should periodically put their weapons and differences aside for the sake of athletic competition. These ideals may have been pursued imperfectly, but they are still worth pursuing.

Fear of imperfection should be no deterrent. If human beings attempted only what we know we can do right, the world would be nothing but gibberish and genocide. The Olympics aspire to something better.

Inevitably, when athletes compete under flags, folks assign national significance that obscures the simple nobility of the event. But the notion of sport as proxy for politics was always a flimsy one. During the Cold War, from the Summit Series to Rocky IV, audiences in the East and West imagined that the success or failure of their athletes would vindicate or discredit their ideology. Of course, this conflates two unrelated issues. An athlete may be strong of limb or fleet of foot at the same time his government is utterly wrong about freedom of speech or foreign affairs.

With the demise of the Soviet Union, the quadrennial clash of ideology has been downgraded, but is not dead. Reports indicate that communist host-country China hopes to score a symbolic victory over its rival for superpower status, the United States, by topping the medal count in 2008. But now, as then, such notions are meaningless.

If China were to win every gold medal, it would not change the fact that communism is the most murderous, miserable ideology ever devised. And anyway, this is scorekeeping for politicians. The athlete’s lot is human competition, a universal language.

It is unlikely that the athlete in the arena, blessed with God-given talent and the discipline to develop it, is contemplating his voting choices – if he has the good fortune to represent a genuine democracy, that is – while performing.

One expects, rather, that he is focused on achieving his utmost at the moment that is likely the pinnacle of his life and career. The magnificence of such a spectacle is unique to the Olympics and deserves our attention. Unlike those whose best skills are, say, orthodontics or accounting, an athlete in top form is a thing of beauty to behold.

The Olympics could never be entirely apolitical. It is impossible to remove politics from even the most benign of human affairs. No one is suggesting that the Olympics require the comity of a global church picnic, with potato sack races contended at a world-class level. But it would behoove us to keep our eyes on the real prize. That is, the glory of sport.

The Olympics’ ideals are just that. While we live in an imperfect world, impurity will hold sway. But there is much to admire and enjoy in the Olympics’ pursuit of perfection. Let the Games begin.