Wednesday, June 30, 2010

A Great and Good Country

A 143rd birthday is as good a time as any to consider one’s health. This Canada Day, we can contemplate a storied past and wonder if we are headed the right way for the future.

The short answer is yes, Canada is going in the right direction. Moreover, we have attained this trajectory by way of the best elements in our national culture. But first, some context on the state of other countries and what sets Canada apart.

At the best of times, the world is a dangerous place. This is nowhere near the best of times, as nations are still struggling out from under a worldwide recession, and much of the Earth is bound up with wars and rumours of wars. The planet’s condition is reminiscent of Woody Allen’s Speech to the Graduates: “Mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly.”

But within this maelstrom, Canada stands tall, distinguishing itself in military and moral conflict, maintaining an economy and financial markets that are the envy of all.

There are institutions that require reform, certainly – Parliament and the Hockey Hall of Fame come to mind – but in the main, this land is doing alright. Further, it is encouraging that other countries have taken note of Canada’s relative good condition.

Author Quentin Crisp opined, “Americans want to be loved, the English want to be obeyed.” If nations can be written down to such singular motivations, then perhaps Canadians simply want to be noticed.

Canada’s hosting of the recent G8 and G20 conferences, which came just as other parts of the world began to observe this country’s economic strength, may do something to scratch this itch.

Over so many years, in any photo of international heads of government, Canada’s prime ministers would wear hopeful smiles that invariably went unrecognized. They seemed like good-natured hangers-on, in the company of well-known statesmen from seemingly more important parts of the world.

Owing to reasons perfectly in keeping with the national character – caution and circumspection – Canada’s economy has finally brought the country the respect it craved.

For ages, we heard nationalist cries for Canada to “punch above its weight,” which always seemed an inapt incitement for a land less likely to punch than to compose a strong letter. Tin-eared monikers like “moral power” were fashioned, ascribing a level of influence the nation never really had.

It is not that the country’s ambition exceeded its grasp, inasmuch as I think Canada is capable of anything to which it aspires. Rather, all this talk of power, and yearning to stand astride world affairs like some wintry colossus, is at odds with the national character. The image has always been incongruous, like Paul Martin in a cowboy hat or Stephen Harper attempting a freestyle rap.

We are not chest-thumpers, by and large, though we do engage in a unique and gentle sort of self-promotion. This is often misguided, from unwatchable, publicly funded television series’ to successive generations forced to read Margaret Atwood at bayonet-point.

Indeed, the only endeavor in which Canadians cannot accept also-ran status, or even second place, is hockey, and it is ironic that a country of measured expectations and pre-emptive apologies would choose such a fast, physical game into which to pour its national pride.

There is something endearing and healthy about this exception to our rule of modesty. It shows Canadians are capable of consuming passion, just like anyone else, but the nation knows to channel that energy into something enjoyable and good, rather than, say, imperialism or mime.

We are, therefore, a nation that does one thing very well, and most everything else with the best of intentions. Canada is great because Canada is good, and with this in mind, we may press on with hope for even better days to come.

Theo Caldwell is the author of Finn the half-Great.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Race and Reason

For the last two weeks in this space, I have been critical of President Barack Obama. My reprehensions have largely pertained to his policies and performance, in areas like the Gulf oil spill, health care and debt.

Opining about the most prominent politician on the planet engenders fiery responses from all sides. One of the reasons it is unwise to discuss politics socially is that folks tend to jam all the frustrations from elsewhere in their lives into that topic, so rhetoric quickly becomes heated. But with Obama, the debate persistently reverts to the issue of race.

I first puzzled over this after one of my early columns on Obama, years ago. Why was a political article suddenly about skin color? Had my editors slipped in a racial slur?

Myriad opinion-pedlars had the same experience, and it was only in the fullness of time we realized this was “the move” among some partisans – accuse any Obama critic of racial bias.

No decent person opposes Obama simply because he is black. But opposing him does not make people indecent, either. Yet people hammer each other on this score.

I'm going to go out on a limb and say these accusations are generally insincere. That is, folks who hurl the charge don't actually believe that in today's day and age, evil, moustache-twisting racism is behind criticism of Obama.

In my experience, when such accusers are confronted, they normally demur, saying they're not speaking of anyone in the immediate discussion, then they make some vague reference to the rampant intolerance of the Canadian West or the American South. This, too, is bollocks on stilts, defiant of modern realities. Seeing the Calgary Stampede on TV doesn’t mean you understand Alberta, just as changing planes in Atlanta doesn't make you a Civil War buff. Besides, impugning an entire population just to make a political point is pretty poor.

People were hopeful that Obama's election would solve racial problems, but this emerged from overturning the misbegotten notion that America would never elect a black president. Almost two years after a majority of voters did just that, including in the South, the issue lingers.

Look, Obama has not thrived in the presidency. For the good of the world, I hope he gets it together and becomes a smashing success but, for the moment, his lousy performance is a matter of record. That’s not a slur, it’s a fact. But therein lays an opportunity.

I believe real progress will come when Obama is treated like any other politician and the subject of race is no longer raised in his defence. That is, when Americans are just as comfortable voting against him as for him. Obama, or anyone else, should be judged on the strength of his policies and, dare I say it, the content of his character, rather than the color of his skin, even if that means being critical.

Supporting or opposing a candidate for reasons of race, gender, or anything besides what they do and advocate evinces ingratitude for the hard-won struggles of the past. Likewise, assigning sinister motives to fellow citizens who disagree with you is not the stuff on which strong societies are built. We can do better. At long last, it is time for us to treat people, simply, as people.

Theo Caldwell is the author of Finn the half-Great.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

A One-Term Wonder

Watching Barack Obama speak from the Oval Office Tuesday evening, I was reminded of a remark he made back in January: “I’d rather be a really good one-term president than a mediocre two-term president.” At the moment, he is on track to be neither, but I have often wondered just what he meant.

Does Obama believe he has been really good thus far? If so, in what area? Certainly not the Gulf Coast oil spill, which occasioned his Tuesday speech (if Obama wants that second term, it’s a good thing pelicans don’t vote).

Health care? He forced a trillion-dollar overhaul through Congress, which 63 percent of the American people want to see repealed.

The economy? He is adding more to America’s national debt than all 43 previous presidents combined.

Foreign policy? He laid down fewer conditions for meeting with the president of Iran than with the CEO of British Petroleum, and both oil-rich entities remain troublesome.

After taking office, Obama’s approval rating fell faster than any first-year president in the history of modern polling. When they voted for him in 2008, Americans wanted to believe they were electing a moderate, outcome-oriented, problem-solver.

Instead, Obama has turned out to be what those knuckle-dragging, book-burning, typical white people who opposed him warned: a garden-variety leftist. Like it or lump it, America is a centre-right country, and Obama’s prescription of stern lectures and statism is incompatible with the public mood.

But those are just facts and opinions. Truth be told, I think Obama does feel he’s been successful. The oil spill is not his fault and, unpopular as the new health care law and enormous debt may be, I expect Obama genuinely believes his policies are in America’s best interests. To give the man his due, he is loyal to his convictions.

Fundamentally, though, Obama does not seem to be enjoying his job. Like many liberals, he sees government as central to all human endeavours, which makes the American presidency the grand prize in the game of life. Now that he has the pressures and problems of that portfolio, however, he appears nonplussed.

Which leads us back to that one-term business. If I had to guess, I’d say Obama will not run for re-election in 2012.

The last two presidents who were eligible to run for re-election and chose not to do so, Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson, were also Democrats who had grown unpopular with the American people. Johnson, in particular, faced opposition from within his own party, as Senators Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy mounted primary challenges. How does this history apply to Obama?

Does anyone remember Hillary Clinton? There were, and are, about a zillion excellent reasons why she should not be president, but not in Newt Gingrich’s wildest dreams could she have done worse than Obama. She may run for the Democratic nomination again, perhaps under the slogan, “Told ya so.”

Who will run for the Republicans? Gingrich? Mitt Romney? Mitch Daniels? We don’t know, and at the moment, it doesn’t much matter. As the adage goes, elections are referenda on the party in power and, although Obama may not be on the ticket, the Democrats will be holding the White House.

In 2008, Americans wanted fresh ideas and a new start. In 2012, they may actually get it.

Theo Caldwell is the author of Finn the half-Great.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Obama and The Beatles

It takes character to withstand the rigours of adulation. Two men who know what it is to receive the worship of the world met in Washington recently, and the outcome was intriguing.

Last week, President Barack Obama welcomed Sir Paul McCartney, the most prolific of the Beatles, to the White House and awarded him with the Gershwin Prize, commemorating his magnificent musical career.

The presentation was the culmination of a star-studded event, wherein Obama helped McCartney croon his old ballad, “Michelle” to the First Lady. Unless you happen to be a Gulf Coast resident who wishes Obama would call a halt to White House parties until the massive oil leak has been capped, I’m sure it was a touching moment. Maybe McCartney should have included “Fixing a Hole” in his playlist.

But Sir Paul couldn’t just “Let it Be.” After thanking Obama and the award’s sponsor, the Library of Congress, McCartney added, “After the last eight years, it’s great to have a president who knows what a library is.”

This little dig was, of course, the one-millionth instance of some bien-pensant coming up with a new way to call George W. Bush stupid. As it happens, Bush’s wife was a librarian, so one assumes that as a young caveman, the future president would at least pop by the place to drag her home to cook the day’s hunt.

But let’s say it’s true, and Bush is the most remarkable mouth-breather imaginable. So what? He will never hold political office again. Why sully a celebration by trashing a man who’s long gone?

Obama has made a habit of blaming Bush for everything from economic collapse to vapour lock, but unlike McCartney, he has practical reasons for doing so. To wit, the longer Obama can blame Bush, the longer he can avoid criticism himself.

Even so, in the whole history of humankind, scant few have ever been the objects of such global adoration as have Obama and Sir Paul. What, then, are they so cross about?

Obama could be forgiven for being frustrated, as his presidency has not been the success folks expected. As leader of the hopey-changey crusade that swept the world in 2008, he had nowhere to go but down.

McCartney referred to “the last eight years,” and it bears mentioning that Obama has been president for seventeen months. In that time, America’s budget deficit has tripled, unemployment has hovered around ten percent, and Obama’s approval ratings have plunged.

The Beatles, too, began to crack at the height of their success, including the 1966 comment by McCartney’s song-writing partner, John Lennon, that they were, “more popular than Jesus” (Lennon claimed the remarks were misinterpreted; the Vatican posthumously pardoned him in 2008).

Like many young people, I went through a “Beatles phase” (I have yet to experience an “Obama phase,” but anything’s possible), wherein I became a font of trivia about them. But one learns that everybody is fallible, celebrity notwithstanding.

These men, Obama and McCartney, have had it all. They have been to the mountaintop, yet they are still capable of bitterness. How is that possible? Perhaps, to paraphrase another sensation, Shakespeare, the fault is not in our stars, but in ourselves. Maybe success and happiness are states of mind, no matter what the world thinks.

Theo Caldwell is the author of Finn the half-Great.