Tuesday, March 21, 2006

The "L" Word

(I wrote this item almost exactly six months ago but never posted it. Since life has been busy these days, I thought I'd publish it on my blog today. Oh, and one reason life is busy: today is Alana's birthday!)

I received junk mail last spring from The National Review, an influential conservative magazine. I received this mail because I'm a member of the Military Book Club, and until 2004 I subscribed to Military History Quarterly (an excellent military history magazine I collected for 16 years). I'm not sure which of these sold my name to conservative mailing lists, probably both. At the height of the 2004 presidential race I was receiving conservative material at least once a week, something I found incredibly funny since I'm not a) conservative, b) American, or c) able to vote. My wife, who is a registered Republican, didn't receive any conservative material.

The mail from The National Review addressed me as "Intelligent American". The mail then went on to explain how "liberals" were on a campaign to eliminate "judgment", a fairly common conservative theme. The implied message was that I was "intelligent" because I was not a liberal.

As a Canadian, I find the whole "'liberal' as a dirty word" thing to be quite funny. Most American politicians try to avoid the "liberal" label, yet Canada has an entire political party — at the federal and provincial levels of government — known as the Liberals. The Liberals are considered the "left of centre" party. Canada has a truly socialist party that regularly wins seats in the House of Commons, the New Democratic Party (NDP). If you called a Canadian politician a "liberal", they'd be right to reply, "And your point is...?"

Canadians tend to be socially liberal and fiscally conservative, sometimes known as "having your cake and eating it, too." This is most obviously seen with regard to socialized medicine. British television ran a "greatest Briton" program, where people got to vote for the greatest Briton of all time (Sir Winston Churchill was selected). The Discovery Channel did the same thing for Americans (the winner was Ronald Reagan, beating out Abraham Lincoln; apparently Americans forgot about Iran-Contra). The CBC ran a similar program for Canadians. The "greatest Canadian" was Tommy Douglas, the Saskatchewan politician — the child of Scottish parents, I will add — who invented Canadian medicare. At the same time as Canadians demand universal health care, they also want the government to be fiscally responsible, a balancing act that more than one government has found hard to manage.

Most Canadians — based on the results of several federal elections — believe that "big government" can be more effective than the free market at managing certain programs. This goes against conservative "free market" thinking, where a free and competitive market is seen as the best method of keeping costs down. Canadians also tend to have more of a "live and let live" attitude, perhaps because Canada is a more secular society. Gay marriage is legal Canada, and those opposing it are a (vocal) minority. Pierre Trudeau, as Justice Minister in the late 1960s, once famously said, "The state has no place in the bedrooms of the nation." This is a belief that most Canadians accept.

(Canada recently voted in the Conservative party, which are threatening to repeal gay marriage. Some right-wing political pundits in the U.S. have pointed to this as a shift to the right for Canada. Actually, the federal Liberal party was mired in a corruption scandal. The election was not a vote for the Conservatives but a vote against the Liberals, who had been in power for far too long.)

Americans, on the other hand, tend to be more conservative, displaying their Puritan roots. I laugh when Republicans characterize Democrats as "liberals", since most Democrats would be considered right of centre by Canadian standards. I'm not sure when "liberal" became such a dirty word in American politics (probably as a result of fallout from Vietnam), but it never ceases to amuse me that Democrats have let it become a dirty word. I'm firmly convinced that Arianna Huffington was right on the mark when she said, on Bill Maher's HBO show on April 8, 2005 that the Democrats are "spineless weasels".

The National Review junk mail illustrated something I found quite disturbing (again, as a Canadian). In American politics it doesn't seem to be enough to say, "I disagree with the other side's policies". It appears that you also have to denigrate the other side, and insult it. It's as though people feel they can't just have an opinion, but they must justify it, too. Since their opinion is often just that, an opinion, the only way to justify it is to attack the other side. The other side's opinion is wrong because they are stupid, immoral, corrupt, or otherwise unworthy of consideration. I noticed this not just on television and online, but in the company where I work. Political discussions in my workplace (all of them pro-conservative/anti-Democrat, with the exception of one or two Libertarians) almost always included insults against the opposing side. It wasn't enough for someone to say they disagreed with a particular politician, they also had to explain why that politician was stupid/immoral/corrupt/untrustworthy, and thus that politicians point of view had no credibility whatsoever.

I could write off some of this as the ravings of the paranoid (someone I work with is convinced that Louisiana's governor, Kathleen Blanco, was directly involved in a conspiracy involving the plane crash that took her husband's life), except that it is so widespread. I was at a client's site the day before the presidential election, and I could hear anti-Kerry insults — not a debate against his policies, mind you, but insults — throughout the day.

I find ad hominem attacks disturbing. It hampers free speech. If you raise your voice in dissension, you run the risk of being publicly tarred-and-feathered. I will point out that this is not limited to conservatives; plenty of liberals do the same thing. I just mention conservatives because there are precious few liberals in northeast Louisiana. If there are any where I work, they are keeping very quiet (and probably for good reason).

Canadian politics can get this dirty too, but it's not as pervasive as American politics. I have a theory about this:

1) The Canadian political system is radically different to the American system. Even in a national election, Canadians only vote for one person, the person representing their riding (equivalent to a congressional district). This is sort of equivalent to everyone voting for their member of Congress, with the house majority leader becoming president. As such, a workplace in large metropolitan areas in Canada often contains people from different ridings. They may debate the worthiness of a particular party getting into power, but they may vote based entirely on local issues or local personalities.

2) Canadians tend to flip-flop in their voting patterns. You do get staunch supporters of a single party, but the average Canadian is more likely to vote out an incumbent than the average American. It helps that there are several viable political parties in Canada. It's entirely likely that someone voting Liberal this time around voted Conservative last time, or vice versa. (Ironically, with three major parties — four for residents of Quebec — to choose from, Canadians still contend that they don't have enough choice.)

3) Canadian society is more secular than American society. There's always been less pressure to conform (the Canadian Cultural Mosaic versus the American Cultural Melting Pot), which has actually resulted in less polarization. Gay marriage does not spark the kind of debate in Canada as it does in the U.S. If a Canadian politician tries to tamper with health care, though, they will find it to be the "third rail" of Canadian politics, and likely to cause a very serious, and concerted, backlash against that politician (unless, apparently, that politician is from Alberta). This contrasts with American politics and its close link to religion. There is more fervor against gay marriage down here than there are clamors for universal health care. When middle-class Americans voted for George Bush in the last election they were voting because they were afraid of terrorists (someone in my office actually thought there would be a terrorist attack against the U.S. if Kerry won, while there wouldn't be if Bush won) and men kissing. Otherwise, they were voting against their own best interest economically.

At any rate, it's likely that I will continue to get conservative junk mail. Since I live in the largely conservative northeast Louisiana, and I'm on conservative mailing lists due to my interest in military history, I'm sure I won't receive any liberal campaign literature any time soon. That's just as well, as the Republicans are wasting money sending me mailings and, since I can't vote, the Democrats might as well not bother.

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