April 29th, 2011
We’re racing towards Federal Election Day here in Canada and the City of St John’s is littered with lawns signs, dog pooh, and chip bags. That’s how you know it’s Spring here in these parts. I will be traveling home from abroad on Election Day and so I already voted. Apparently, so did everyone else. Polling stations have been reporting record-breaking line-ups. I take comfort in that. There’s nothing prettier than an entire nation exercising its democratic rights. The heavy turnout suggests more citizen engagement, and perhaps more concern about the direction this country might be heading in. By the time I touch down again the whole thing will be over, and the map of Canada will likely look somewhat different from the way it did the day before. Exactly how different is anyone’s guess right now, even the pollsters.
I really like elections for the theatre of it all, the public debates, the chance to have important issues raised, and the opportunity to get some real news, not just phony, fluff stuff on the airwaves. But I hate the attack ads, the posturing, urban litter (see above), and the dumbing down of so much public discourse. This time it’s not only the attack ads that debase the whole democratic enterprise but it’s the particularly anti-intellectual theme of so many of them, especially those emanating from the Conservative Party of Canada. Of course, attack ads are by nature anti-intellectual. They depend on exaggerated sound bites and over determined images. They play to ignorance and fear, and treat the viewing and listening pubic as if we were all a bunch of high school dropouts. They are vulgar and offensive, and therein lies their effective, haunting staying power.
And so perhaps it is not surprising that so many of the Tory Party ads are aimed at demonizing the leader of the Liberal Party as—of all things—an intellectual, or even worse, a University Professor. What baffles me is why a country that prides itself on being progressive, socially conscious if not just plain socially democratic, fair-minded, and (small l) liberal in its policy and practices would tolerate this kind of campaigning. What in the world is wrong with being a university professor, or looking like one? What is so bad about being smart, thoughtful, capable of using three-syllable words, well-read, informed about complex issues, sensitive to language, multi-lingual, and so on? You would think these would be highly desirable qualities to look for in a leader of a country like this, right?
Lack of charisma, the American artist Jenny Holzer has famously said, can be fatal. There has been a widespread identity campaign going on against Michael Ignatieff—University of Toronto and Harvard educated writer, professor, broadcaster, public intellectual—a campaign that explicitly identifies his charisma deficit with his intellectualness. I am not so naïve as to think that one could ignore completely a politician’s lack of television-friendly sparkle, or his/her inability to “talk to the people,” whatever that means, but can one really point to Steven Harper as the model of any of these attributes? Hardly.
It is one thing to lack the dazzle of a George Clooney and quite another to be suspicious of someone because he is too smart! That’s the kind of US-style thinking that generates Tea Parties and Birther people, that compels a smart, Chicago-educated Millennial President, who happens to be an intellectual, to display his Hawaii-issued birth certificate. How pathetic is that?
Is this what we in Canada have we come to? A nation of shallow thinkers who would prefer a leader who had fewer intellectual credentials? Say, preferred a leader who didn’t seem too well educated? If that is so, and, of course, this all remains to be seen next week, it’s no longer the country I thought I was raised in.
Giving Steven Harper a very hard time at the moment is another leader of the Opposition, the feisty nothing-to-lose Jack Layton, PhD (Political Science). Layton has been called a lot of things but “too intellectual” has never been one of them. Perhaps that is because he has, until now, never been a serious threat to Steven Harper, MA (Economics). Perhaps it is because he has never been taken seriously or seen as an intellectual threat, the way Ignatieff is to some, even many.
Frankly, I despair when such anti-intellectual trends take hold the way they have during this campaign, and I wonder why Ignatieff and his Party haven’t countered with a bold defense of intelligence itself—for its own much maligned self.
It’s not that I necessarily voted for the Liberals, but I do cringe at how their Leader has been thrown under the great big Tory bus for being, well, just too much of a thinking man’s man. Scary….