Paul Tuns demurs:
I don't quite agree; calling politicians bipedal mammals implies that they are human beings, a point I would not concede. By the very fact that they seek higher office to tell us how to live makes them sub-human and not worthy of our respect. A few years ago Prime Minister Stephen Harper was glad-handing at some event and he recognized me and came over to say hello and offered his hand. I refused to shake it, and I am very proud that I didn't give into the pressure to show deference to the office or the man. There are politicians I like (the late senator Jesse Helms, former Ontario MPP Bill Murdoch, current MPP Randy Hillier, current Senator Rand Paul) to whom I would extend my hand, but most do not deserve it.
Yikes. And people think I'm cynical.
I rarely disagree with Paul but I'm afraid my view of the political class is not quite so bleak. It's not because our basic political assumptions are that far off, though it might be that he does this pundit stuff for a living and so deals with pols on a regular basis. My sympathies. My less cynical view comes from how I approach politics and politicians. Paul regards them as being sub-human. This is because so many of them are amoral, which is a polite way of saying they have the scruples of a jackal.
That's the wrong approach. Politicians should be viewed anthropologically, the way researchers study some primitive tribe located deep in the Amazonian wilderness. If you view politicians through a moral lens you wind up hating pretty much all of them. It's difficult to evaluate some one objectively if you hate their guts. They are actors constrained by political reality and attempting to pursue certain goals. Viewing them in this rather more clinical light gives you a better perspective.
More importantly damning the political class as a whole is too easy. Politicians are products of their place and time. One of the reasons I urge people to study political history, even if their interests are in less traditional branches of historiography, is because a nation's politicians and politics reveal so much about the people as a whole. The key question to always keep in mind when looking at politicians is this: Why do the people put up with them?
Look at the political class in, say, Pakistan. They are corrupt and dishonest to a degree that makes Dalton McGuinty look like a choir boy. Why? Because they can. Because the vast majority of Pakistanis are too ignorant, too superstitious and too subservient to demand and force better government. We shouldn't get too smug in saying that. Once upon a time the government of the English speaking world was not that much better than modern Pakistan. We improved ourselves over many centuries. That is until we started to backslide.
If modern politicians are dishonest in Canada, it is because that's what the electorate wants. The voters of Canada, as well as the rest of the developed world, are themselves grossly dishonest. They demand low taxes but high government spending. They complain about the nanny state, yet panic at every unusual tragedy and demand "action" from the government. Faced with such obvious contradictions a political leader has two choices: Tell people the truth or lie through their teeth. Since people don't like hearing the truth, as it is unpleasant and uncomfortable, politicians decide that to win they must lie. Morally speaking who is worse? The liar or the people who knowingly believe the lie?
Or put it in a slightly different light: Who is worse? The John or the Whore?
To me they sit on the same moral plane. Both rather pathetic and deluded.
Getting back to shaking hands with Stephen Harper, who is hardly the worse politician in Canada, how many people do we deal with on a daily basis that are, morally speaking, worse than him? Think carefully about your acquaintances and co-workers and ask yourself if they are any better than a typical politician? Or are they just without the opportunities presented to a successful pol.
To borrow some religious phrasing here: A righteous people will never blithely tolerate sin. They may forgive the contrite sinner, but sin is always hateful and to be fought. But the modern world doesn't believe in sin, whether by religious or secular standards. Certainly we moderns work ourselves up into a terrific frenzy fighting strawmen: Sexism, racism and environmentalism being among the most prominent. A cold eye will tell us that never before in human history has sexism and racism been so marginalized in the civilized nations. Our ancestors did not have such a reverence for nature, except perhaps at the most primitive level. We are angry at uncontroversial things because that is safest thing to be angry about. We can feel righteous without having to worry about being right.
Meanwhile untold horrors pass us by without comment. Millions live in obscene poverty in the Third World because we lack the moral courage to advocate for capitalism, the only economic system that has proven itself capable of lifting whole nations toward prosperity and whole peoples toward dignity. Late term abortions are perfectly legal in Canada and often conducted for no greater reason than the fickleness of the alleged mother. Our public schools are a disgrace, failing to impart knowledge, learning and discipline. Young people, despite their material advantages, enter the world more ill-prepared and confused than at any time in living memory. Family life is disintegrating in a culture that places whim and fleeting emotion above facts, principles and ideals.
Our politicians are a damnable lot certainly. But again we are often a damnable people.