Monday 13 October 2008

Why I'm The Weird Guy in The Neighbourhood With The Green Party Signs

Dedicated to the person who stole my lawn signs, and anyone else who thought that might have been a good idea.

Sign of the Times
The other night, the big Green Party election signs hanging on both corners of our fence got stolen again. The neighbourhood, a fairly typical middle-class suburban one, is brimming with signs of Tory Blue and Liberal Red that never go missing. Naturally, being the inquisitive person I am, I am led to wonder why this is the case. I speculate that it's either a case of the signs being so rare as to have novelty value, or as being so philosophically incongruous to the surroundings as to incite political action, but I know that I can't really know that unless I know who stole the signs. So, in the hope that whoever it is who took the signs may someday have the occasion to read this, it is my pleasure to give you now my account of why I put them up.

Great Expectations
Once upon a time, I was preparing to become the Prime Minister of Canada. It wasn't just me, actually, everybody always told me I was going to be the Prime Minister of Canada. I had the knack early of being so political that, generally speaking, I was very good at getting people to like me. Whether that was because I was generally likable, or manipulative, didn't matter to me all that much at the time. My political destiny was a kind of mutual understanding - they believed me, and I believed them.

Birth of the Anti-Cool
When the time was right, sometime in late high school, I dutifully started down the path. I became a proud young Progressive Conservative, which at the time meant that the only thing I was really sure about was that I was against everything that Pierre Trudeau, one of Canada's most interesting political figures, stood for. In the environment I came from, Pierre Trudeau was bad because he was cool, intellectual and dangerous. So, because everyone I loved and listened to at the time was Conservative, and I wanted to be conversant with adults regarding such adult matters as politics, so was I. Although I might not have agreed at the time, this was not the product of soul-searching or rigorous debate, it was just about wanting my opinions to matter to adults.

Best-Laid Plans
If high school is the time to distance yourself from your parents, then I guess university is the time when you're supposed to start thinking for yourself. I was a little behind the curve on that one, but about a year into my Political Science degree at the University of Toronto, I actually did start to understand that. Up until that time, I was studying political science because that's what it made sense to do if you wanted to be a lawyer and then ascend through the ranks so that one day you could run the country. How could one so naive have known that, in studying how the game was actually played, I would learn anything that would threaten such a well-crafted plan?

Notable & Quotable
The problems started when all the people I liked and with whom I wanted to hang out weren't the kind of people I was meeting as part of the Progressive Conservatives. Perhaps if there had been a girl in the Tory sphere to fall for, things might have been different, but there wasn't. What I had started to realize was that most of the people in that crowd were little more than products of their circumstances, and had no real desire to be anything else. Not that there's anything wrong with that - it just clearly wasn't me. One of my more Liberal fellow political afficionados used to steal one of the best quotes I'd ever heard. "If you weren't a socialist in your twenties," he'd say, "you had no heart; if you were still a socialist in your thirties, you had no brain". He used this particular quote to set up and then disarm the whole Conservative argument, by arguing that the Liberals covered both, that to be a Liberal was to keep your heart but not at the expense of your brain. Having had by now significant exposure to both sides, I wasn't sure either one had a monopoly on the brain part.

A Kind of Freedom
Still, I wasn't going to give up my beliefs just because I wasn't particularly enamored of the people around me. I was deeper than that. If I couldn't find like-minded people to political party with, then I'd have to strike out on my own. It was clearly still too early to be doing any soul-searching, so my first step out of the political comfort zone was what many people would have considered a step even further to the right, although I never saw it in those terms. I became the campus' only Libertarian. For those unfamiliar with the concept, a Libertarian basically believes that good government is no government, that the private sector is a perfectly-formed self-regulating system that punishes misbehaviour with commercial failure and rewards good behaviour with commercial success. I even managed to wrangle a column in the campus newspaper where I could air my views. Believe it or not, I liked this system of thought not because it was elitist but because I really believed it wasn't. I really did believe that everyone had the ability and opportunity to be successful, and that even the obstacles that loomed largest could be overcome with ingenuity and effort.

The Impossible Dream
Somewhere around the time that I began to realize that that was a pretty ridiculous notion, I also began to realize that I might not actually want to be the Prime Minister. I can't actually remember if it was a particular event or person that caused me to realize that, or just common sense, but there were clearly some obstacles that were less surmountable than others. Perhaps it was continuously hearing from other members of my party the exact same words that I was used to hearing from their parents. Mt. Everest is climbable, but expecting someone with a pre-existing condition like asthma and a wooden leg to do it is to expect, if not the impossible, then at least an effort of mythic proportions. Just because it could be done didn't mean that everyone could do it. I still believed everyone had the right to stand on the summit and enjoy the view, or at least catch a ride to the trailhead of the path up the mountain, I just couldn't figure out how, for some people, that could ever happen without a little help.

So I did what those who have lost faith in existing entities always do when they don't think they have a better alternative - I began to make fun of them. The University ran an annual event called Mock Parliament, in which representatives of Canada's established political parties culled from among the student body at the school ran in elections and subsequently held a two-day parliament. The idea was both to give those interested in politics a forum in which to see what actual politics was like, complete with all the issues of the day, and to take the political pulse of the student body at the school. In my first year of University, I had participated with the Progressive Conservatives and quite enjoyed the whole thing. By the time the second year rolled around, I was in my sarcastic phase.

The Message
I placed a call to whomever it was at the university who was in charge of organizing the whole thing and asked if I could run a new party in the elections. I was informed that I could not run a party in the elections that did not have a corresponding political club at the University. So I started one, cobbled together a few charter members among my friends, and got us on the ballot. Everyone seemed quite surprised when we won somewhere around a quarter of the popular vote throughout the university. Everyone except me. My rationale was that, in the midst of a time of great change in the lives of students, there must have been quite a few of them who were looking for something new. This was university after all, and my "party" was little more than a protest party. If students at Kent State could put their lives on the line to send a message to the powers-that-be, the very least that a bunch comparitively well-off kids from north of the border could do was cast a vote for a protest party in a bogus election.

The Medium
We called ourselves Tommy Flanagan's Pathological Liars, after a popular Saturday Night Live character of the day, who lied about everything to make himself seem cool. To me, Tommy Flanagan represented the perfect icon for the politician gone wrong, who would say anything necessary to win the hearts of voters. Considering our success in the election, apparently quite a few people got the joke. The goal during the actual sitting of Parliament was to poke fun at anyone who took themselves too seriously, but not to disrespect the proceedings. I was in fact proud that we contributed substantially to most of the debates about the issues. I knew the whole thing was a roaring success when the Tory leader, a guy in whose caucus I had been the previous year, approached me during a break in the proceedings and spat in my direction an ugly diatribe at how I was making a complete mockery of the entire Canadian political system. He seemed to think this would hurt my feelings, and seemed rather stunned when, at the end of his invective, I thanked him and let him know that mockery of the system was exactly my point.

Constructive Criticism
For my second kick at the cat, I was more interested in actually establishing constructive ideas, so I formed another club, and we got ourselves on the ballot again. We were The Great Thinkers of All Time, a collection of historical and influential characters from Plato to Lincoln to the Pope whose goal was to bring to bear their particular ethical and moral perspectives on the Canadian issues of the day. As such, we were able to ask questions of the make-believe parliamentary body that just didn't get asked in the real one, and even if they were, seldom were any answers forthcoming. In short, we got to be philosopher kings for a day.

Hard Wired
I take this trip down memory lane because I think that this type of pattern is an archetype of the process of discovering oneself politically. The process, to summarize and dramatically oversimplify, is as follows: 1. support what your parents support because you are seeking their approval 2. support the opposite of what your parents support because you are trying to distance yourself from them 3. become sceptical of the political choices or system in general 4. support that with which you most closely identify. It's certainly worth noting that not everyone makes it through every stage, or even past the first, likely not because they are less evolved or aware, but because their discovery engines are chugging away on other highways. I'd love to finish my own basement, but while some of my neighbours' energies have been focus on running electrical wiring and putting up drywall, I've been puttering along this road.

Alternate Current
I think this archetypal process is important because it applies to societies as well as individuals. In the same way that those who have not passed through these stages tend to reflect the political views of their parents and background, the electorate that's busy re-wiring its basement tends to fall back on its political parents, the existing parties and paradigms of the establishment. There wouldn't be anything wrong with this if parents were always right about the correct course of action for their children but, as a child and a parent, I like to think there needs to be a time when the parent takes a less active and more advisory role. In a time of change when information is everywhere and so much is new, if I want to re-wire my political basement, I want someone who knows what's current.

Crossed Lines
We are in the midst of a time of great changes now, but, by and large, our political choices do not reflect this. In other words, going to the establishment for political advice is like asking Grandpa for advice on configuring your iPhone. People are becoming organized in new ways whose primary purpose is not always profit, information is not being beamed through as many filters, and we are coming to realize that entities like banks that, if nothing else, were at least a source of predictable prudence and stability, have fallen victim to the same weaknesses in managing wealth that they have always been so quick to condemn. Even those economically reared within those very institutions, children of the establishment in a manner of speaking, understand that, while the bottom line will continue to remain an important boundary, there are other lines that are no longer acceptable to cross.

What's in a Colour?
It's part unfortunate, part ironic, and part fitting that the colour green, and by association the Green Party, is associated with trees and grass. It's unfortunate because it makes it easy for anyone resting on old blue and red paradigms to dismiss any of its supporters as tree hugging lefties, and every decent person knows that tree huggers, while pleasant and often fun to hang out with, have no place in the corridors of power. It is ironic because green is also of course the symbolic colour of money, which often seems so intent on doing away with anything else that intrudes on its claim of ultimate greenness. It's fitting not only because of the obvious reasons, a strong policy focus on the environment, but also because it is indeed a grass-roots movement, which means that you can't always see it, know who's part of it, or understand the breadth of its presence, but you can often see its results. Who would dare these days to not call themselves a bit green? Green is in. Green is the color of things that grow from the earth, natural things, not artificial things. Most of us live in a man-made world where we can live for a whole day in our buildings, on our roads and sidewalks, without touching the earth -- the earth from which our food and water are taken and to which we will one day return. I think pretty much all of us agree that we could all use a bit more green.

But I am not primarily green for any of these reasons. I may have hugged a tree or two in my time, but I'm just as comfortable these days in a boardroom as I am on the forest floor. I make too much money to be a true lefty, and I spend as much of my days on concrete as the next guy. Green for me has nothing to do with left or right, money or the lack thereof, grass-roots or trickle down. Green for me is evergreen, the colour of legacy.

The Community Gates
I am Green because I am convinced that we actually have the ability to shape the future. I am Green because I believe that legacy and greatness are intertwined. Those who have achieved great success, in any form, begin when they look back upon their success, to think about how they will appear to the future. When Bill Gates, the world's richest individual, decides to spend his fortune helping those who can't help themselves, it is clear that we are no longer in an era where the value of legacy will be measured exclusively, or even primarily, by the extent of one's material holdings. The wealthy benefactor is not a new thing, to be sure, but the wealthy society, comfortable in its gated community of material contentment and focused on personal growth, is considerably more recent. Pretty soon, it should be old enough and adult enough to actually take some responsibility for its actions. Sorta like the person who swiped the Green Party sign from my front gates.

Return on Investment
Whoever you are, and for whatever reason you swiped my signs, you should know that I am Green because, if we do indeed believe that there is greatness in our society, and value in giving, then a time is coming very soon when we will look back upon our comfortable life and see that we must begin to act as if the future were watching us, as if our legacy as a community were at stake. If we don't, we risk having lived without purpose and leaving to those who follow a legacy that is defined by a great deal spent but little actually invested.

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