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Monday, January 23, 2006

Deep And Meaningful Thoughts About Politics In The First Decade Of The 21st Century
"As several essayists have observed in recent days, the Frey case exemplifies a diseased attitude toward truth in American society, which is visible all across the cultural spectrum and goes straight to the top."
-Alex Ross

Indeed. And that is why the next great North American politician will have more in common with Ashlee Simpson than John F. Kennedy.

(More on this in the next 24 hours or so.)

I want desperately to believe in Barack Obama. (Heck, I want desperately to believe in Jack Layton.) Remember him? He was, and may still be, the most perfectest politician ever. Smart, handsome, principled, moderate, equally red and blue, with the ability to deliver a decent speech. Essentially the opposite of most every other political leader

But I know very well that somewhere between now and 2012, he's going to let me down. Something will come out. He'll contradict himself. He'll disclose a brief flirtation with communism. Or Maroon 5. Someone will find an improperly completed tax return, the body of a missing hobo or a sex tape. It's going to happen. Deep down, we all know it.

This isn't because we're more cynical than we were, say, 40 years ago. As I've said before, it's because we know more. We're smarter than that. We haven't lowered our expectations; we've just become more realistic. So you can't tell us that the government isn't wasting our money on hotel porn or secretly listening in on our phone sex. And don't even start trying to tell us that Tom and Katie are in love. We're not idiots.

All the same, we still would like something to believe in. Or at least something that doesn't make us feel we're being lied to. At least completely.

Joe Simpson, the worst father in the history of procreation but one of pop music's five greatest evil geniuses (the others, in no specific order: Phil Spector, Lou Pearlman, Michael Jackson's Dad and Paul McCartney), understands this. And so he did unleash upon the world his daughters.

Now, it's very cool to dislike the Simpsons girls right now. I get that. I'm not even going to try and refute it (though Ashlee is, generally, under-rated). All things considered, they're pretty annoying as individuals and borderline offensive when put together. Joe's creations are not perfect. But that's not the point. Well, actually, it is the point. It's exactly the point (I just blew my stoner friend's mind with that one.)

Here is what Joe did: Through the affordable magic of reality television, he destroyed whatever notion of mystery was left in pop music. Accomplishing what tabloid entertainment probably would have done eventually; he created celebrities with no claim to privacy (if not literally, then at least by all appearances). Everyone already knew that pop music was a messy, ridiculous, morally bankrupt operation. And here there were no illusions of anything different. Think your pop stars are manufactured? Artificial? Imaginary characters more fiction than truth? Well, guess what? You were right. Jessica wasn't really perfect, wholesome and virginal. She burped, bitched and had sexual intercourse with something called a Nick Lachey (and you just know that if MTV had allowed it, Joe would have been willing to show this).

And a lot of people - though not you, of course - loved it. Why? Because, for once, nobody felt like they were being lied to. Sure there was the voyeurism and the chance to see a celebrity in intimate settings making an idiot of herself. And, yes, she does have rather large breasts. But, most important, it was real. Or at least seemed that way.

(Even those who despise her must concede one thing: If not for Joe Simpson's efforts, you would have no idea who Jessica Simpson is. Perhaps he has created a monster. But he did so from some spare hair extensions and vocal chords he found at the pop star scrap yard. He made something out of nothing, all the more so with Ashlee. And that is an accomplishment of some note.)

The Joe Simpson Way has also single-handedly sustained pop music, in the bubblegum sense, over the last three years. Hip-hop is far and away the dominant genre. And rock has made the greatest gains. But the stars we still spend most of our time talking about are Britney, Lindsay and Hilary. Why? Because they live their public lives by the standards of reality television - every pimple, display of affection and nipple made available for public consumption. There is little about their apparent lives that one couldn't learn from the tabloids or blogs. And that has nothing to do with a new golden age of investigative journalism.

Now, I can't claim to have polled the Canadian people on this (so far as I can tell I'm the only person in this country who isn't a pollster), but I'd wager that about the same percentage of people that believe Britney Spears can really sing believe that Prime Minister Stephen Harper (or PM Martin, PM Layton, etc) will do even half of what he has promised over the past two months.

This is cynical. But it's also fair. Recent history seems to tell us as much. And when one begins to consider the political and practical obstacles that confront your average national leader, it is probably foolish to expect much more than half of what is promised. (Same with Brit - I mean, come on you guys, she can't be actually singing in concert when she's got all that dancing and writhing to do.)

It's like a typical weekend at my house (This could go very wrong -Ed.). I can legitimately identify a dozen or so things I need to do around the place at the start of every weekend. And I always convince myself that I'm going to get them all done. But there is a television here. And a computer. Not to mention pesky lobbyists (or "friends") trying to tempt me with promises of concert tickets. I know full well from the start that I'll be lucky to get half of my To Do list done. But I still tell myself at the start of every weekend that this time will be different.

Going forward, I have two options: I can continue lying to myself and continue to come up short under the mistaken idea that by hoping to accomplish 12 things, I will generally guarantee I get to five or six of them - the whole "Reaching for the moon" theory your dippy grade school teacher kept telling you about. The danger being that in never quite accomplishing what I set out to do I will slip into a prolonged and deep depression, eventually giving up and turning to a life of petty crime.

Or I could get real with myself. Accept that if it's 1pm on a Sunday afternoon, I'm probably still in bed. And understand that this does not automatically make me a bad person.

I'm convinced this is the Next Way for Western democracy.

There are those who would suggest that the current distaste for politics has everything to do with the quality, or complete lack thereof, of recent candidates. That if Abraham Lincoln came back, we'd see true greatness and rediscover faith in the pursuit of public office.

This is, of course, completely batshit insane. If Abraham Lincoln came back today, we would destroy him. There would be blogs devoted to mocking his beard. His stovepipe hat would be seen as a sign he was out of touch with today's youth. The Toronto Sun would start calling him Longface Lincoln. After a week, he'd make a tearful announcement that he was dropping out and going back to being dead and revered.

So, no, it's not Paul Martin's fault (so far as I can tell this is the only remotely negative thing going on in Canada that he cannot be blamed for). We just have the capacity to know more now. That knowingness, coupled with the multitude of modern distractions (TV, Internet, iPod, MuchMusic VJ Leah), means that collective inspiration is by now a quaint concept.

In fact, it could be argued that the closest we come nowadays to that sort of uniting interest is the general fascination that follows the likes of Jessica Simpson. Which brings me to my point (oh, like you've got anything better to do today than read a 7,000 blog entry).

Politics needs Joe Simpson. In fact, it might be the only way to save democracy in North America - the only force that stands between meaningful governance and a meaningless fraud (like, say, FM radio). Only Joe Simpson - or at least someone thinking like Joe Simpson - could give us a JFK for the 21st Century.

Essentially, the next great politician will be promoted the same way Joe promoted Jessica and Ashlee. There will be, seemingly, no illusions. He or she will admit that mistakes will be made and that, like every other reasonable person on the planet, they will sometimes hire friends to do important jobs because, well, those are the people they like, know and trust. They will not have to practice their smile if they don't generally smile all that much (Can you believe we spent the last two months debating, in part, Stephen Harper's ability to form a reasonable smile? Doesn't that make us idiots?).

The photo op won't die, but it won't be managed to smooth over the bumps, it will be managed to highlight the bumps. Brutal honesty, or at least the appearance of brutal honesty, will be paramount. If conservative, the politician will admit not being a fan of abortion, but having no interest, much like every other reasonable person on the planet, in bogging down the business of the nation for four years debating it. The liberal will maintain a belief in strong public health care, but acknowledge that, well, yeah, if they really needed a new hip they'd go to Buffalo too. If a member of the Liberal party, the politician will openly wonder what the hell he stands for.

Access - or at least the appearance of access - will be key. Journalists won't just travel with campaigns, they will be embedded, allowed to watch as policy as formed, speeches are written, another round of expense-account beers are ordered. They won't show everything, but they'll show enough. And if reporters begin to bristle, or reject the new way entirely, candidates will simply starting producing their own shows. (Not enough is made of this. Obviously George W. Bush has been roundly criticized for his manufactured town hall meetings and the like, but propaganda as news is a much wider issue. In sports, for instance, both the Maple Leafs and Raptors have their own digital TV channels. In a few years the only way to see either of them will be to subscribe to their in-house networks. Meanwhile, entertainment "news" programs are regularly used by the networks to promote their own shows.)

Essentially, the goal will go from presenting a convenient ideal to presenting what at least seems to be a reality. This is an important distinction. Jessica was first promoted as an ideal, but failed. She succeeded when she proved her reality, namely by failing to understand the origins of tuna. This still hypothetical politician will have to do likewise, not necessarily by failing or making an idiot of themselves, but perhaps simply by contradicting what the politician is supposed to be about in the theatre of the absurd that currently passes for politics. This will disappoint those who enjoy being lied to (namely, intellectuals), but it will revive politics as a meaningful subject.

In effect, taking politics less seriously will help people take politics seriously again. Politicians will still be subject to scorn. But in seeing their suspicions confirmed, the average voter will also find reason to believe in some of the other things the politician has to say - ie., if he's willing to be honest about the patronage, maybe he's telling the truth when he says he's going to increase military spending and teach my kid to read good.

Politics won't change entirely. It'll just stop pretending to be one thing and start pretending to be something else entirely.

Like I said, I want to believe in Barack Obama. But how is that possible so long as he's billed as perfect.

(The alternative is this: Voter interest will continue to sag as successive leaders prove themselves hollow and unable to maintain the images they have built for themselves during the campaign. Eventually, elected officials will cease to be of any interest and we will quietly, peacefully be annexed by the United States, itself having lost so much faith in democracy that it is, by then, ruled by an altogether banal dictator. The choice is yours Canada.)

(Think about just this: How much better would Paul, Stephen and Jack be if they didn't have to live like they were without human error or frailty? As it is now, can you even imagine a more uncomfortable group of men? (Well, all right, one scenario comes to mind: Bush, Rumsfeld and Cheney at a private screening of Brokeback Mountain.) How is that inspiring? Does anyone really find them genuine and human? How does this strengthen democracy?)

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