Friday, February 4, 2005

Political zeitgeists

The other night, the President of the United States stood up before his countrymen and repeatedly lied through his teeth. Here's an examination of the State of the Union address, complete with analysis and exposure of Bush's untruths. Warning: they are numerous. And grave.

Having said that, what I want to talk about now is the reason why I bothered to post a link to a web page fact-checking a speech by a foreign leader to his people.

The U.S. right at the moment is gripped by greater controversy than I can remember seeing in my lifetime. Much of it has to do with the war in Iraq. There are other issues, though, including various deceptions of the President (see above link). This, more than anything, is the contribution of the internet; it's harder to cover up dirty tricks these days. And easier to yell about them. A high-volume war of words is being fought over every single issue on the American political scene. Everyone involved seems to agree that it's a war of basic principles; even, a battle for the soul of the country.

Like most Canadians, and like most people outside of the United States, I deeply hope that the forces of conservatism lose. The U.S. is already far to the right of most Western industrialised countries, Canada included, and obviously I'd like to see the U.S. come into line with generally accepted international ideas of social justice. But, philosophical differences aside, the conduct of the right wing since assuming control of the American government has done nothing to provoke optimism about their ability or desire to be a positive force in the world.

The conduct of the Iraq war is a case in point. The recent elections were a heartening sign, yes. But the elections ought to have gone well. Most people, most places in the world, want to have control over their government. What the elections proved was that for most Iraqis, the Americans hadn't bungled so incredibly badly as to taint the entire concept of freedom. Which may just be saying something about the perspicacity of the Iraqi electorate. On the flip side from the elections, of course, are 100 000 dead civilians, incidents of torture and allegations of rape committed by American troops, and a general collapse or weakening of the infrastructure of the country — the ability of the government to provide electricity, clean water, and safety.

The Bush administration, meanwhile, refuses to accept that there are any problems in Iraq. Bush himself claims that his recent election victory meant that the American public supported his war, and the way the war was run. Other international issues of mounting concern, such as the situation in North Korea, Iran continuing to press for nuclear weapons, an increasing mood of repression in Russia, and a possible genocide in the Sudan, all develop with no sign of concern from the White House. Instead, Bush continues to weaken the fiscal health of his country, and aims at undermining the American Social Security system — in other words, reducing the role of government by reducing services provided to the elderly, and dismantling Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal.

Compared to the high-stakes high-tension American political scene of the moment, things in Canada seem oddly sedate. Oddly, because a minority government's in power, and that usually generates something interesting. But at the moment Canadian political chatter is occupied by only three issues, all of which I'd argue are relatively minor.

The first is the ongoing saga of the sponsorship inquiry. This is a soap opera that's been going on for quite a while, and unless some new discovery comes to light, it seems to me unlikely to generate much further outrage on the part of the Canadian public. The fact is, allegations of kickbacks and back-room deals have always been a part of Canadian political life. Conservatives, for those of us who remember the Mulroney era, still have a worse taint on this issue than the Liberals. I think that the Canadian public gave its verdict on the sponsorship scandal in the last election, when the Liberals were deprived of their majority. Again, unless something new is uncovered, I think the sponsorship scandal is going to die a slow, painful death — despite the best efforts of the Tories to keep it going.

The second major issue of the moment is Paul Martin's recent deal with Newfoundland and Nova Scotia over energy revenues. Anodyne on the face of it, it's already become an excuse for Ontario, Saskatchewan, and the Northwest Territories to press Ottawa for more money for themselves. It's beginning to look as though Martin bit off more than he could chew with this deal. But as an issue, it hasn't yet taken hold with the Canadian public. Squabbles between the federal and provincial governments over cash is nothing new. Or unexpected. And it's not yet clear that the protests from the other provinces are going to go anywhere.

(Links in the preceding paragraph from The Gracchi; scroll down a bit to find a nice entry about Martin's errors in the energy deal.)

The third big issue facing Canadians is no doubt the most divisive, and that is the gay marriage bill that's just been tabled in the House of Commons. The Tories have turned up the invective over this bill, and to fight it they've aligned themselves with religious leaders, with the American right, with anyone they can find. But I still don't see how they can stop the bill from becoming law. The Liberals and the NDP are solidly behind it. At least three of the Tories' own MPs support it. So, probably, do most Canadians. A recent poll in the National Post suggests otherwise, but all previous polls show that a majority across the country are in favour of gay marriage — and given the quality of reportage in the Post in general, and its habit of playing games with polls about Medicare in particular, it's hard to take this new poll very seriously.

Most likely, the Conservatives hope to use the gay marriage issue merely to divide the Liberal party. There is dissent within the Liberal caucus over gay marriage. The party may end up weakened, when all is said and done. There will certainly be a lot of noise generated, and some vigorous debate. But it seems inevitable that the bill will become law.

That's not to encourage apathy; the struggle isn't won yet. But if gay marriage is the most pressing issue on the mind of the country, I think it's safe to say that things are fairly placid in Canada.

This obviously has not always been the case. But for whatever reason we seem to be in a bit of lull, controversy-wise. The federal government will be handing down a budget later this month, and that may strike some sparks. The Parti Qu├ębecois is holding a convention in slightly more than a week, and one never knows what may come out of that. For the moment, though, things in Canada are calm — especially next to the ongoing meltdown in the United States.

All of this should explain why, so far in this blog, I've talked about American political issues but haven't yet referred to Canadian politics. I don't think there's much happening on the Canadian political scene right at the moment. The American scene, though, is a completely different animal. And what happens in America always affects Canada. It also often affects the rest of the world. Which is to say that the United States is always worth keeping an eye on. At the moment, with the situation growing increasingly dramatic, it's quite hard to turn away.


Kyle said...

The US is a hell of a show, no denying it. As I like to say, our political system has come down with rabies, by which I mean the GOP's modern leadership and the pro-Bush opinion apparatchiks.

Could you post on Canada and Bush's missile shield? I've never followed the issue except for headlines, but the notion of Canadian sovereignty being obliquely phased out (as I gather many shield opponents expect) is definitely a worthwhile topic.

Kyle said...

Hey, I posted a comment here, but like where is it? All right, I'll try again. Could you post on the missile shield debate in Canada? I've followed it only thru the occasional headline and would like to hear more. Especially about the idea that Canada's sovereignty would be obliquely phased out, as I gather shield opponents up here believe. (Opponents of the shield in the US just believe it's a guaranteed waste of trillions, but you knew that already.)