Harper and Trudeau: At the very least, we ex­pect them not to make things worse

It has been a dis­tress­ing spec­ta­cle all round. It isn’t that our politi­cians have not been “de­bat­ing” the “is­sues.” By now we have a fair idea of where they all stand on the threat of ter­ror­ism and how a free and demo­cratic so­ci­ety should re­spond to it. Nor can any­one com­plain that the ques­tion of how to rec­on­cile re­li­gious obli­ga­tions and in­di­vid­ual rights, di­ver­sity and unity, has not re­ceived a thor­ough air­ing. I would even go so far as to say there have been valid points made on all sides.

It has been a dis­tress­ing spec­ta­cle all round. It isn’t that our politi­cians have not been “de­bat­ing” the “is­sues.” By now we have a fair idea of where they all stand on the threat of ter­ror­ism and how a free and demo­cratic so­ci­ety should re­spond to it. Nor can any­one com­plain that the ques­tion of how to rec­on­cile re­li­gious obli­ga­tions and in­di­vid­ual rights, di­ver­sity and unity, has not re­ceived a thor­ough air­ing. I would even go so far as to say there have been valid points made on all sides.

It’s just that ev­ery time our lead­ers open their traps these days they seem to find a way to make those points in the most in­flam­ma­tory, least con­sid­ered, most ab­surdly over-the-top fash­ion they can pos­si­bly man­age.

It’s just that ev­ery time our lead­ers open their traps these days they seem to find a way to make those points in the most in­flam­ma­tory, least con­sid­ered, most ab­surdly over-the-top fash­ion they can pos­si­bly man­age.

This is, if noth­ing else, a vi­o­la­tion of their job de­scrip­tion. We don’t ask a great deal of peo­ple in pol­i­tics. We don’t ex­pect them to be all know­ing, or all wise. We know that there are ex­perts to ad­vise them, but that even with the very best ad­vice, they will al­ways be at the mercy of events — events such as ter­ror­ist at­tacks.

This is, if noth­ing else, a vi­o­la­tion of their job de­scrip­tion. We don’t ask a great deal of peo­ple in pol­i­tics. We don’t ex­pect them to be all know­ing, or all wise. We know that there are ex­perts to ad­vise them, but that even with the very best ad­vice, they will al­ways be at the mercy of events — events such as ter­ror­ist at­tacks.

What we do ex­pect of them is that they will help the rest of us keep it to­gether in the face of such threats: that they will use the plat­form they have been given to put things in per­spec­tive, to add con­text, to keep us fo­cused on what mat­ters, to ease fears, to re­solve di­vi­sions, in all to find the right words to say at the right time to the right peo­ple. To be politic, in other words.

What we do ex­pect of them is that they will help the rest of us keep it to­gether in the face of such threats: that they will use the plat­form they have been given to put things in per­spec­tive, to add con­text, to keep us fo­cused on what mat­ters, to ease fears, to re­solve di­vi­sions, in all to find the right words to say at the right time to the right peo­ple. To be politic, in other words.

At the very least, we ex­pect them not to make things worse. And yet what has been the ex­pe­ri­ence of re­cent days and weeks?

There is per­haps a le­git­i­mate de­bate to be had about what the niqab sym­bol­izes, and whether peo­ple should be able to cover their faces in cit­i­zen­ship cer­e­monies, with all that they sym­bol­ize. I think they should have that right — I think that is one of the things the cer­e­mony sym­bol­izes — but I rec­og­nize there are peo­ple of good­will who take the op­po­site view.

There is per­haps a le­git­i­mate de­bate to be had about what the niqab sym­bol­izes, and whether peo­ple should be able to cover their faces in cit­i­zen­ship cer­e­monies, with all that they sym­bol­ize. I think they should have that right — I think that is one of the things the cer­e­mony sym­bol­izes — but I rec­og­nize there are peo­ple of good­will who take the op­po­site view.

That did not re­quire the prime min­is­ter, of all peo­ple, to open up that de­bate, of all de­bates, in the im­me­di­ate af­ter­math of an Is­lamist ter­ror­ist at­tack, of all times, at a par­ti­san rally, of all places. Nei­ther did it re­quire him to do so in such in­cen­di­ary terms: it is “of­fen­sive,” he said last month, an­nounc­ing the gov­ern­ment would ap­peal a Fed­eral Court rul­ing over­turn­ing the niqab ban; it is “anti-women” he said this week in Par­lia­ment. That he nev­er­the­less chose to say what he did in the way that he did at the time and place that he did must there­fore be re­garded as de­lib­er­ate, for what­ever pur­poses he may hope it will achieve.

That did not re­quire the prime min­is­ter, of all peo­ple, to open up that de­bate, of all de­bates, in the im­me­di­ate af­ter­math of an Is­lamist ter­ror­ist at­tack, of all times, at a par­ti­san rally, of all places. Nei­ther did it re­quire him to do so in such in­cen­di­ary terms: it is “of­fen­sive,” he said last month, an­nounc­ing the gov­ern­ment would ap­peal a Fed­eral Court rul­ing over­turn­ing the niqab ban; it is “anti-women” he said this week in Par­lia­ment. That he nev­er­the­less chose to say what he did in the way that he did at the time and place that he did must there­fore be re­garded as de­lib­er­ate, for what­ever pur­poses he may hope it will achieve.

Like­wise, there is a se­ri­ous cri­tique to be made of the gov­ern­ment’s ap­proach to this is­sue, and to Canada’s Mus­lim pop­u­la­tion gen­er­ally. It would be fair to ac­cuse it, if not of scape­goat­ing and marginal­iz­ing Mus­lims it­self, then of act­ing with reck­less dis­re­gard for that pos­si­bil­ity — not be­cause many of the ter­ror­ists we face to­day do not pro­fess the Is­lamic faith, but be­cause it has been too will­ing to al­low oth­ers to make a more gen­eral as­so­ci­a­tion be­tween the two, ter­ror­ism and Is­lam, or at best too slow to re­ject such think­ing.

Like­wise, there is a se­ri­ous cri­tique to be made of the gov­ern­ment’s ap­proach to this is­sue, and to Canada’s Mus­lim pop­u­la­tion gen­er­ally. It would be fair to ac­cuse it, if not of scape­goat­ing and marginal­iz­ing Mus­lims it­self, then of act­ing with reck­less dis­re­gard for that pos­si­bil­ity — not be­cause many of the ter­ror­ists we face to­day do not pro­fess the Is­lamic faith, but be­cause it has been too will­ing to al­low oth­ers to make a more gen­eral as­so­ci­a­tion be­tween the two, ter­ror­ism and Is­lam, or at best too slow to re­ject such think­ing.

That did not re­quire the leader of the Lib­eral party, in a speech this week, to make com­par­isons to the pol­icy of “none is too many” pur­sued in the 1930s and ’ 40s — the de­lib­er­ate re­fusal to ac­cept Jewish refugees from Nazi Europe. What­ever use­ful point he might have hoped to make was lost at that mo­ment. How­ever dis­cred­itable the cur­rent gov­ern­ment’s con­duct may be, the com­par­i­son was grotesque, not only over­stat­ing present sins but triv­i­al­iz­ing those of the past.

And those were just the lead­ers. Per­haps Public Safety Min­is­ter Steven Blaney has a le­git­i­mate de­fence to of­fer of Bill C-51’s dra­co­nian re­stric­tions on speech, but “the Holo­caust be­gan with words” is not one. No doubt there are ter­ror­ists who wish to at­tack Canada, and cer­tainly the Con­ser­va­tives are en­ti­tled to present them­selves and their poli­cies as the best de­fence against that threat. But a fundrais­ing ap­peal in­vok­ing a spe­cific (and not ter­ri­bly cred­i­ble) threat against a spe­cific lo­ca­tion? In what way is this help­ful?

And those were just the lead­ers. Per­haps Public Safety Min­is­ter Steven Blaney has a le­git­i­mate de­fence to of­fer of Bill C-51’s dra­co­nian re­stric­tions on speech, but “the Holo­caust be­gan with words” is not one. No doubt there are ter­ror­ists who wish to at­tack Canada, and cer­tainly the Con­ser­va­tives are en­ti­tled to present them­selves and their poli­cies as the best de­fence against that threat. But a fundrais­ing ap­peal in­vok­ing a spe­cific (and not ter­ri­bly cred­i­ble) threat against a spe­cific lo­ca­tion? In what way is this help­ful?

The point, as I say, is not that each of these peo­ple did not have a valid ar­gu­ment to make. But in pol­i­tics — in any field, re­ally — it is not enough merely that what you say is log­i­cally plau­si­ble or even fac­tu­ally true. Con­text mat­ters, too, as does tone. It’s not just what is said, but who says it, and how, and when, and where. Jac­ques Parizeau may well have been right, in a nar­row sta­tis­ti­cal sense, that in­fa­mous night in Que­bec, when he blamed the ref­er­en­dum loss on “the eth­nic vote.” An aca­demic study might have come to the same con­clu­sion — eth­nic mi­nori­ties, over­whelm­ingly fed­er­al­ist, pro­vided the mar­gin of vic­tory — with­out con­tro­versy. But the con­text gave his re­mark a much darker hue.

The point, as I say, is not that each of these peo­ple did not have a valid ar­gu­ment to make. But in pol­i­tics — in any field, re­ally — it is not enough merely that what you say is log­i­cally plau­si­ble or even fac­tu­ally true. Con­text mat­ters, too, as does tone. It’s not just what is said, but who says it, and how, and when, and where. Jac­ques Parizeau may well have been right, in a nar­row sta­tis­ti­cal sense, that in­fa­mous night in Que­bec, when he blamed the ref­er­en­dum loss on “the eth­nic vote.” An aca­demic study might have come to the same con­clu­sion — eth­nic mi­nori­ties, over­whelm­ingly fed­er­al­ist, pro­vided the mar­gin of vic­tory — with­out con­tro­versy. But the con­text gave his re­mark a much darker hue.

Politi­cians of­ten com­plain about be­ing “quoted out of con­text.” It would help if they sup­plied a lit­tle.

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