Thursday, January 06, 2011

Let Us Construct Mythologies

(With apologies to Leonard Cohen)

I've been sharing food with my political friends, and the common lament from the would-be contenders for 24 Sussex is, "Despite the exponentially-increasing media platforms, we simply cannot get our message heard." They presume our politicians -- specifically Harper, Ignatieff and Layton -- have one or two ideas that can't be summed up in a tweet, but could potentially ignite voter response, if only these would-be voters made the effort to sit up and listen.

There is some truth to that observation, but not enough to fruitfully meditate on. I counter-propose that our politicians, particularly Ignatieff and Harper (Layton can't be considered a serious contender for PMO), have very clearly communicated their message to the public -- "I want power" -- and the public has responded appropriately. I suspect what they are unable to communicate is a sufficiently compelling mythology that the public can identify with and get behind.

South of the 49th, of course, we have a different story. Presidential contenders have to espouse their belief in the myth of American Exceptionalism right from the start. After that, it's a matter of identifying, then embodying which myth lies closest to the yearnings of the motivated voter. Right now the Tea Party myth is getting a face-lift. How the current manifestation differs from the earlier ones, or veers from the historical record, is part of another conversation; the important thing is that everyone who hears the words "Tea Party" has an immediate, visceral response.

Trudeau was a master at myth manipulation. He cut the secular-humanist cosmopolitan figure, occasionally canoing through the Canadian wilderness to reassert his ties of identity to our home and native land, before shaving and resuming his role as designated roué. Mulroney settled on a myth as well, albeit with a great deal less self-awareness. Alex P. Keaton (brought to life by another Canuck) was Mulroney's template; Canadian voters were assured that if they bought into the smooth-talker's Trade Agreements, they could reasonably expect to join the PM's family on their winter vacations in Malibu. Chretien might have implemented Mulroney's policies to a degree that made that great chin quiver with indignation, but he did so by bolstering the myth of Canadian exceptionalism and independence: although we were beneficiaries of US economic growth, we were decidedly not its "Ready, aye, ready" toadies.

Harper, I suspect, originally hoped to ride into office on the myth of the Pauline authority structure: kids subservient to parents, wife subservient to husband, family subservient to government, government subservient to last apostle's Christian God (and, above all, backbenchers subservient to Harper). In a population base that has become truly multicultural, that has been a hard sell, but he's tweaked the template enough to appeal to the conservative leanings of recently transplanted cultural groups hoping to keep their religious and family identities relatively intact. Alas for him, this tack only steers him over the shoals of Trudeau's Charter of Rights. The rights of the individual citizen might be so deeply assumed by the citizenry as to make arcane the notion of voting in its support; we now rely on our judges to remind the politicians to put away their caning rods, and no-one votes for a judge.

Early in the game, Ignatieff dashed off a book, a strategy that ought to have at least superficial appeal to the mythically inclined imagination. However, the only person who seemed to need reminding that Ignatieff was smart enough to write a book worth reading was Ignatieff himself. The book was a sentimental hash that virtually farted with a sense of entitlement every time a page was turned.

So here the Canadian voter sits, scrolling through tweets and watching silly cat videos while waiting for the next Knight In Shining Armour to ride up the hill, wielding Excalibur and pointing the way to Camelot. It wouldn't be such a bad predicament, if only the times were less interesting. As it stands, it is the politicians who are relying on their plebeian subjects to supply all the character, do all the sacrificing, and dutifully follow the hero's path -- while the Hockey Fan and the Poindexter wait for the moment to finally seize office and shape it in their image.


Cowtown Pattie said...

"...who hears the words "Tea Party" has an immediate, visceral response."

Que the gagging sound for this Texan...all the while donning her bullet-proof body armor.

I feel your pain, re the lackluster choices for leadership.

I wonder if current times make us short sighted (can't see Lancelot for the tin men), and given enough time for history and pundits to analyze, heroes emerge from the forest?

I think "jaded" is an in-the-moment kind of feeling, yes? (I need to look that saying origination up...) but yes,I stand guilty of owning that emotion.

Can I get a second on that, Mr. Robinson?

Funny, but the names that come to my mind when contemplating great political figures of the 20th century are Mikhail Gorbachev -World and Quanah Parker - Texan and American.

(I just finished reading a short magazine piece on Quanah, so maybe why he jumps to mind sooner.)

Cowtown Pattie said...

Hey - I forgot to say, great writing here WP!

Whisky Prajer said...

Thanks, CP! Gorbachev I know -- Parker is new. Looks like I'll be doing a little Googling.