During 2015, Canada took a conscious, introspective turn toward a more progressive journey as voters elected Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Since then, we’ve been making inroads on a significant departure from the attitudes of the prior administration and staying mostly true to this. While there remains a lot of heavy lifting to do in correcting the anti-progress legacy of Stephen Harper, we’re on the road to recovery. There remains a certain faith in government, such that we’ve significantly boosted voter turnout. That in itself speaks volumes.
The change of administration brought with it some very public moments, like the new equality cabinet, the rise of an aboriginal chief as Justice Minister, and the appointment of an internationally respected war hero as Defense Minister.
While these changes are in all respects welcome, and in most cases long past due, it’s the subtle stuff we don’t see going on behind the scenes day-to-day which contributes just as much if not more to the shaping of our character as a culture of many different cultures. The way our politicians behave toward one another, their interaction with the people, their willingness to champion progress and education, their attitudes toward strangers, and their compassion towards the ‘other’ — all of these are the measure of a politician whether that individual is within view of the press or not. One thing I found reassuring about this past election was the conscious rejection of divisive politics by the Canadian people. What we have right now is not perfect by any measure, but it’s a lot better than the alternative might have been.
There’s a common thread within the Trudeau administration communicated via nonverbal action to the effect of “love trumps hate” — a welcome opposite and a proper course correction in the wake of the shameful anti-intellectual, anti-Muslim hate campaigns Harper had been running during the dying months of his career.
With that serving as the wall to our backs, it’s no secret we felt it was in our best interest to move forward and elect someone we didn’t just feel we could relate to, but whose views actually made practical sense in the context of expanding upon economic recovery efforts, equality, justice, and overall social progress. In this case, it seems we got lucky, and the dialogue has begun to lean toward diplomacy rather than isolationism, openness instead of xenophobia, insightful inquiry instead of rabid nationalism.
On the latter point, I think Rick Salutin put it best: our weaker sense of nationalism may be one of our greatest assets — enough to bring us together, but not so overbearing as to always stand in the way of getting things done.
That brings me to the crux of the matter: even as we try to salvage our tarnished national image on the world stage, there are serious circumstances compounding south of our border in the world’s largest exporter of culture which I fear could pose significant risks to Canada’s economy and social progress in the near future.
America, I’m looking at you. You’re in a bad place right now. Whether it’s celebrity worship, anti-education, gun nut culture, creationism, anti-equality initiatives, widespread legalized bribery, or racist sympathizers standing tall among your political elite, the present situation is fucked up.
The causes, nuanced as they are, span too many pages to list in one article (or even a hundred) — and that’s why ordinary people flock to the type of quick-fix politicians the present socioeconomic climate has been producing. They want a speedy, magical solution to all the malaise, yet the solutions required to address these problems are thoroughly labour-intensive, if not also demanding of a high level of specialized education and professional expertise.
This is why contemporary anti-intellectualism scares me. And it should scare you, too. There is a group of high-profile politicians making headlines right now who’d rather make a lot of noise and rile everyone up, but not do the actual work required to fix real problems.
Last month, I made a post on Facebook about Donald Trump’s gains in political traction. The man carries himself with the impulsivity of a third-grader, lacks appreciable political skills, and yet because he’s a celebrity he commands some level of readily accessible popular support, mostly because he’s a slick salesman good at playing to vulnerability. If elected, he’s more likely to scapegoat other cultures instead of actually come up with any useful, actionable strategies to solve America’s problems.
Not long after my post, a friend posted some especially valuable insight on the matter; loosely paraphrased, this is not a one-off, he’s getting support because some people actually share these beliefs and he’s a voice to them. It was at that point I realized I’d been seeing the situation incorrectly: extremism doesn’t begin at extreme political figures, more like the other way around. In all cases, it begins at the existence of some major inequality — money, education, status, achievement, etc. — and eventually someone capitalizes on that.
In the US, the issue seems largely split between arguments about money and education.
Real wages have largely remained the same or receded since the 1960s for most taxpayers. Meanwhile, living costs have steeply shot up, erasing the ability to save and ushering in the ubiquity of easy credit (and all its attendant dangers).
The US education system has likewise found itself in crisis for several decades. Public school under-fundings, facility closures, inadequate accessibility, improper implementation of standardized tests, grade inflation, poor post-secondary readiness, constant tuition hikes, and unsustainable levels of post-secondary student debt top a laundry list of problems that continue to worsen, not improve, under a system which offers few legitimate supports or well-thought-out social safety nets. On top of this, some opponents to education have become so brazen as to insist courses be illogically altered to include irrelevant material (i.e. adding creationism into science texts) or demand that courses be watered down (i.e. reducing course demands despite the fact many students aren’t arriving at college functioning at a grade-appropriate level).
If it was only these two issues together, one would immediately see the ways in which it’s quite the toxic powder keg waiting to explode. The reality is more lurid, however — to these issues don’t forget to add an unsustainable for-profit healthcare system, self-destructive domestic policing and surveillance industries, a fervent nationwide distrust of government, and the growing public belief in various conspiracy theories. Then, and only then, do we begin to approach the current status quo.
This article sums up a good deal of what’s gone wrong in recent times. It’s not just the US who has been dabbling in radicalization, however due to its status as a global superpower, there will likely be significant trickle-down effects for most developed nations if the US government and its institutions allow themselves to be led further astray.
Some time ago, when it was only rare idiots like Sarah Palin gracing the stage from remote venues in Alaska, and there were less tales of politicians gutting public school systems or squandering economic opportunities in the name of nationalism and faith, it felt easier to tell ourselves the US wasn’t heading into a modern Dark Age. There are just too many bright minds around for that to happen, right?
As it turns out, fear is a handy tool to circumvent all of that, and even the most powerful nations can be brought to their knees in slobbering, unglamorous fashion by whipping up a lot of misguided public outrage and pandering to base emotions.
Until now, I’ve largely held off from giving any attention to clowns like Donald Trump, Ben Carson, or others of that ilk since they are the type of people who seed discord and divide nations as a means of seeking their own personal fortunes. There is scant concern for the average American there, and as expressed through action, these figures appear to hold a common belief that any press, even bad press, is good for their bottom line.
So while I don’t like to feed the trolls, it’s still important we have a discussion about this stuff for the sake of understanding. It falls to each of us to arm ourselves with knowledge, and recognize the ugly transformation that’s taking shape. We must do anything we can to stop it.
While I’m not American, my female partner is a US expat, and we’ve both got a keen interest in education and world events; each of us has observed the steady expansion of anti-intellectualist influence in the US over the past few decades to the point today where this doesn’t merely guide US politics, but rather defines them (having come from the South, her insight into regional issues has been something I’ve found particularly helpful).
Last administration, Canada got a taste of the US political climate’s trickle-downs in the form of Stephen Harper. We sat, teeth grated, as he made highly questionable legislative and personal choices, some of which served only to benefit multinational companies. We watched in self-questioning horror as he aped contemporary US conservatives with asinine religious debates and volumes upon volumes of similarly unwelcome political chaff.
At the end of it all, however, the people realized it wasn’t too late to get up, go to the voting booth, and send 6.9 million (symbolic) middle fingers to Ottawa.
We don’t like dumb. We don’t want dumb. We didn’t vote for dumb. And last but not least (and this is the important part) we found a way to look beyond the climate of fear and get rid of dumb. Hopefully it’s a direction that lasts, at least for a while.
And if we can do it, then America our beloved neighbour, you can too.
It’s repeatedly being noted in the news that many Americans feel scared or overwhelmed right now because there’s a lot of turmoil. In that kind of climate, there will always be opportunists who wish to take advantage, people who wish to hijack a political party for the sake of their own ego.
Recognize that the best hands to steer this ship are not the ones closest by, or the ones most loudly screaming that they want to help — but rather, the ones that bear the best education and skills, the most centrist mindset, and the motivation to do the job right.
Given their current platform, the Republican Party intends on bypassing critical thought to lay the groundwork for a nihilistic populist agenda based on toxic machismo and xenophobic chest-thumping. Notice how they haven’t come up with solid action plans for education, infrastructure, etc. so far? That’s not by accident. The plan is to divert attention, not solve the issues.
This does not give honest representation to the Republican voter base by any measure, nor does it constitute responsible stewardship of a nation. If you’re a history buff, you’ll probably recognize this as a story we’ve seen played out many times before across many centuries. Once it’s gathered enough momentum, I don’t think there’s a single version of this where it actually turns out well for anyone, be they leaders or citizens.
If you’re not sure what I mean by this, a good starting point for study would be the rise and fall of 20th-century fascism.
One cannot build or improve a nation by dividing it.
The recent favouring of noisy, scapegoating, slick-salesman political parties, as opposed to rational ones that form effective and actionable platforms, raises an important issue about the reality we live in: anti-intellectualism is no longer just a fringe element, it’s gained a strong foothold and is actively becoming assimilated into the mainstream.
If tomorrow Donald Trump disappeared off the face of the Earth, someone else would surely step in to replace him. That’s not by accident. It’s because enough people like you and I are fearful of the current economic situation that pandering to fear finds resonance with an audience. This fear makes us less likely to question things and connect with others in healthy was. In a more prosperous and egalitarian setting, this might never have grown to such proportions, and the long list of predators putting on a conservative costume might have been more easily red-flagged and laughed off the stage by their peers.
We all need to look beyond the fear, beyond these kinds of low-brow politics, and find the strength and vision to steer far away from this course.
And if Canada can take a step forward in spite of its own socioeconomic problems and say no to radicalization, I have faith America can make the move too.
We stand with you, friends.
In 2016, vote “no” to dumb.