Real Canadians don't dissent

We must abolish vacuous political rhetoric. The success of Canada demands no less. Or something. At least you can argue with lurid exaggerations like Paul Martin telling the Liberal leadership convention "We stand together on the edge of historic possibility, at a moment that comes rarely in the life of a country. It is a time when destiny is ours to hold." (Bosh. Things are pretty quiet right now, except in the war on terror which we're ducking.) But what can I do with utter gibberish like the throne speech's, "The future of our children is, quite literally, Canada's future"?

It's not wrong, it's nonsense, because no one could conceivably retort "No, the past of our uncles is." Likewise Stephen Harper's statement, launching his bid to lead the Conservative Party, that "If I were prime minister, my priority would be clear: to secure a future for our children." As opposed to the guy who wants to secure a present for our grandparents?

Malcolm Muggeridge, a left-wing journalist until he came to his senses, furnished me with a pungent metaphor I can't print here for sententious nonsense like a column starting, "The Canadian people want answers in the Arar case." Really? All of them? If not, why do you say it? Or a Treasury Board president saying "These measures will help us build the Canada we want through investments in Canadians' priorities ..." (No, don't try to remember who said it, when, or which priorities built the Canada we want.) Or the Mulroney Tories' 1992 Steering Group on Prosperity report Inventing our Future: An Action Plan for Canada's Prosperity claiming "there is remarkable agreement on the challenges that confront our country ... Canadians everywhere share a similar vision of a prosperous Canada."

As Jeffrey Simpson once wrote, "Beware politicians - or journalists - who start any sentence with, 'Canadians want.' Invariably, what 'Canadians want' usually reflects what the speaker or writer wants." Indeed. So why not admit it?

I'm not shy about telling you what I want, or saying you should want it too. The crucial difference is that I'm not blind to, or offended by, the fact that plenty of intelligent, well-informed people will disagree with me until the Trump of Doom, to say nothing of the wacko recluse down the street who thinks gypsies with rubber-tipped mallets are breaking into his basement at night and installing second-hand equipment from Montreal.

What does offend me is a kind of upbeat malice that seeks to smother dissent with a non-optional hug. Consider "unacceptable" and the drumbeat of related absolutes. To say "should," "might consider" or "if ... then" invites discussion of real possibilities and consequences, and by extension the limits of the possible. A breathless "must," by contrast, invites the shaming of dissenters. As Inventing our Future ended its first chapter, "The time for further discussion and study is over. The time for action is now. Let's get going! Allons-y!" And when Martin Cauchon says gay marriage "reflects what we are as a society" you know where it leaves opponents. As Susan Riley says, "The Canadian public has no appetite for meddling moralists..." Canada: Love it or leave it. Thus Scott Brison didn't run for the leadership of the new CPC because of "a great sense of doubt that this new Conservative Party will, in fact, reflect the values of Canadians." So I guess we all have the same values. Except that guy with the gypsy issue. And the one-third of English Canadians who voted for the Alliance last time. But as Maude Barlow tells us, "in Canada there are elite think-tanks, business leaders and right-wing politicians who see medicare as an anachronism incompatible with the rules of a global economy. That's not what the people of Canada think. We know that because of what they told the Romanow Commission." As for those non-people who aren't with the program, well, they weren't invited to talk to the Romanow Commission. It might cause dissonance.

At least the McCarthy-era U.S. had a House Un-American Activities Committee you could see, and protest. Here we brand things un-Canadian to dispose of them through social, rather than intellectual, means. It's reflexive by now; Mr. Cauchon also urged marijuana decriminalization because "it's about time we do something as a country." I favour marijuana legalization because I don't think we all need to do the same thing as individuals. But that position acknowledges diversity, which could cause chaos. So if the country lights a big stogie, you will inhale.

Alternatively, we could set a new, though hardly demanding, standard for political utterances. First, it should be possible to understand them, meaning we can imagine a comprehensible dissenting statement. Second, and related, they should not deny the complexity of life by squeezing out, with an unnaturally tight smile, the very possibility of dissent.

Is it what "Canadians" want? I dare not say so. But I want it, and I think you should too.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson