Thursday, March 21, 2013

Just watch it

Reputedly, federal Liberal leader shoo-in, Justin Trudeau, received a note on a flight last week asking him if he felt he could beat Prime Minister Harper in an election. His scribbled response was, "Just watch me."

"Just watch me", I think, was cute, clever, and absolutely the wrong thing to say. It's a reference to his father, Pierre, and harkens back to the darkest moment in modern Canadian history, the October Crisis of 1970. British trade representative James Cross and Quebec labour minister Pierre Laporte had been kidnapped by cells of the FLQ (Laporte, in fact, would subsequently die at the hands of his captors and suffer the indignity of being discovered in the trunk of a car at a Montreal airport). The army was on the streets of Ottawa, Montreal, and Quebec City. Prime Minister Trudeau was buttonholed by the press on the steps of Parliament Hill and grilled for most of ten minutes about the suspension of civil liberties and martial law under the War Measures Act. He held his own, and when finally asked how far he would go, he shrugged and issued the most memorable line of the crisis: "Just watch me." It made him a hero in English Canada, and reviled among Quebec nationalists.

It's a charged phrase and I think it was wrong for his son to offer it so flippantly. First of all, it cheapens a moment of real existential drama in our history. Secondly, I think it smacks of vast hyperbole to suggest winning the next federal election can be in any way equated to doing what it takes to quell an armed rebellion in a just society. And finally, I think it's a mistake on a personal level to tie himself too closely to his father's legacy, particularly referencing one of its most divisive aspects. Yes, I agree, those of us who want to see Justin assume the mantle are doing so partly out of hopes the apple doesn't fall too far from the tree. But it still needs to be its own tree when it sprouts, and it'll die in the shade. Justin needs to be his own person, and his allusions to his political and genetic heritage need to be more subtle and nuanced, I think. "Just watch me" is about as blatant as it gets without actually changing his name to "Pierre".

Union hangover

It's hard to deny it anymore. The European Union, at least as such, is, if not a failed experiment, then badly botched attempt. One after another, third-rate economies tarted up to be second-rate and bolted onto first-rate economies are having to be bailed out by those said first-raters. The taxpayers of the robust economies are getting understandably tired of doing this, especially when the taxpayers of the faltering economies have no interest in economizing or changing the ways that put them in dire straits in the first place. How can such a union persist, particularly when it's not actually even fixed together as a single political entity? I no longer really think it can.

Years ago the suggestion of a "two-speed Europe" was uttered sotto voco. I didn't care for the idea. Everyone should follow the same rules! Everyone should have the same standards! They all arrive together! I think that was the general feeling in the EU as well. It seems to me now that was unrealistic, and maybe those suggestions should have been said a bit louder and discussed more adamantly. Don't get me wrong. I'm not talking about an a la carte union, which the British want and I find unutterably self-serving. It has all the charm, maturity, and respect for your roomies as claiming the right to come over on Friday night, find a bed mate, raid the fridge, and half-heartedly dump some pocket change in the coffee jar before you bugger off again past the sinkful of dirty dishes. No, not the Anglo-Saxon conception of the EU. There would be two sets of rules, depending on the speed of your economy; a core set, and a starter set. The problem is membership in the EU has always been toss 'em into the deep end if they can pump their arms and legs; don't worry, they'll swim. Sure.

It struck me sometime in the 2000s that the experiment was running a little hot. The EU was admitting new members with all the alacrity and discretion of a beer hall manager. The more the merrier, hurry hurry hurry before all the kegs are empty! The criteria for joining were shoddy and economies that had emerged from communism a decade earlier were being ushered in if they had something like a pulse. Well, it wasn't hard to have a blazing economy if you were being stuffed to the gills by corporations eager to take advantage of the fact your workers were still dazzled by the prospect of making twenty bucks a day. But that didn't make it a robust economy, as we're seeing. Even back then, I was having misgivings. It seemed to me then, and even more so now, that admission to the European Union, particularly the eurozone, should have been golden carrot dangled before prospective members for at least a generation. Something to work for. Tighten their economies up, show that they can be fiscally responsible, demonstrate their staying power, and train the citizenry for the responsibilities admission entails and the obligations to the other members.

I'm tempted to think that the only way to save the EU is for it to nova. Explode, and the core shed the dead weight members. Let them continue to trade and keep free movement of labour, but divorce the sick economies. Force them to rebuild and work toward the stable currency the euro really represents when it's not forced to back economies like Greece, where tax evasion is a gold medal Olympic sport. And if they can't be bothered to shape up and reapply, that works too. But I'd make them pay the freight for forex if they wanted to trade with the core EU. Come to that, I'd make the UK do that for sticking to the pound. If Germany can fold the mark, the Brits can certainly fold the pound, and if they won't, I don't see why the core EU should have to enrich bankers for the dubious privilege of paying for British goods in pounds.

I don't know what's going to happen, but I've reached the point where I no longer expect to see the EU—or more specifically, the eurozone—emerge with its current membership. In fact, I'm at the point now where I'm not sure it would be a good thing if it did. Maybe some of these economies need a timeout. Some of their taxpayers certainly do need to sit in the corner with the dunce cap on, that's for damn sure.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

World stunned as elderly white man ascends to papacy

Yes, it's official; "the world" has a new pope. Cardinal Jorge Bergolio, Archbishop of Buenos Aires, has taken the name Francis, the first pope to do so. Yet another opportunity lost for "Pope John Paul George Ringo". When will they wake up?

There are a couple of moderate historic firsts here. One is that this is the first pope elected from among the Jesuits. Discovering that surprised me. The Jesuits have been around for, what, four or five hundred years? And this is the first one of them to make the grade? It's not like the College of Cardinals is a conservative lot or anything, is it? Secondly, Francis is the first American pope. It's nice that, after over five hundred since Europe began the annexation of America—essentially begun by Catholic countries in the first place—and its effective conversion into a cultural and political extension of Europe, the Vatican has finally noticed that gee, there are quite a lot of Catholics here, not to mention quite a few cardinals over the past 500 years. But I shouldn't complain, I suppose. The Vatican has known about Asia and Africa for much longer, and yet, Francis is apparently the first pope from outside Europe in over a thousand years.

At least they didn't opt for another Italian. Since, to this day, the largest block of votes in the College of Cardinals by far comes from Italy (49—as many as all the countries in the Americas combined despite their having 15 times Italy's population), there was some talk of them falling back into the old track of Italian popes. Until John Paul II, Italians had had an uninterrupted lock on the papacy for over 400 years, so even in Europe, non-Italian popes have been underrepresented. For example, there has been one, exactly one, pope from England: Adrian IV (oddly enough, the last non-Italian pope till John Paul II). I'm dubious as to whether the world will ever see another native English-speaker as pope, given that the Anglosphere is largely Protestant and increasingly secular.

But here we go again. The guy's 76—an age at which most people have been retired for a decade—and despite the novelty of his being from the New World, it's much of a muchness... white, unmarried, deeply conservative and reputedly chosen to hold the line. I'm seeing "clean house" connected with his name. Basically that means put on an apron and hose the muck off the ramparts. But the ordination of women, the end of the non-scriptural celibacy of the clergy, the acceptance of homosexuality, or a responsible attitude toward contraception (not abortion; just contraception)? Don't count on any of these. These and other reasons are why, if I were to become genuinely religious, I would probably opt for Anglicanism, rather than return to Catholicism; and why I've come to consider myself a "cultural Protestant" in recent years.

I'd like to say here that I like that Benedict abdicated. I'd like to say "retired". There should be more of this. Popes should serve a while, and then step out of the job, not be carried out. Same thing for the Royal Family. I know the Queen took an oath to serve us her whole life, but after six decades, I don't think anybody would say she hasn't done her bit. Let Charles be king for a little while while he can still enjoy it, and then after a decade or so, he can step aside for William, etc. They already do this kind of thing in other European monarchies. It seems to me vastly more human than an institution where you spend your life waiting for someone you love to die just so you can have your turn. Likewise the papacy.

But anyway, like I was saying, this guy is 76. Odds are, within 10-15 years, they'll be blowing smoking again. Maybe by then, a quarter of the way into the 21st century, the Catholic Church will be ready to join the 20th.

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Me & George

I had a great time with President George W. Bush last night. It was in a dream, of course.

I've hardly had a kind or admiring word for the man in waking hours, so I was rather surprised at the positive impression my subconscious mind seems to have of him. He was patient, avuncular, attentive, and told great stories. Just like the right has always said of him: a guy you'd want to have a beer with.

The setting was a cottage on a big lake somewhere on a grey day with a dishwater sky. At first the place was buzzing with with folks in autumn weather cottage garb... caps, lumber jackets, creek waders. A casual excuse for some kind of political get-together. Somehow I ended up talking with Dubya, and I get the impression that in the dream, he was the current president. At the start of things, he was the life of the party (no pun intended), getting people laughing, breaking the ice. Somehow, eventually, he and I gravitated together and it was like he was new to me, but he had known me for a while. That doesn't make sense but that's how it felt. The crowd never really vanished but it kind of stopped being relevant.

I was particularly intrigued with an elaborate fishing rod he brandished. It allowed him to expertly cast three lines at once, a long, long way. As well, he could cast from inside the cottage, looking through the closed sliding glass doors overlooking the lake. (I never figured out how. Such is the "logic" of dreams.) He was baiting the hooks with bits of some kind of shredded poultry dipped in a gourmet sauce. I don't remember if he caught anything but I got the impression that the activity of fishing itself was sufficient.

At some point we were sitting down near a Franklin stove and I was trying to work up a polite way to ask if there were some way he could change the US Constitution so that Canadians would also be considered US citizens. Boy, that comes from a long way back. I guess you never really lose some yearnings. Damn you, Schoolhouse Rock. :)

That was the extent of it, pretty much. Not the strangest dream I've ever had, or the most memorable or the most profound. But surprising, pleasant, and maybe a note-to-self that I need to look a little deeper at some of the big-note folks I've written off. I dunno.