Passion or pugnacity?

Much is being made of Justin Trudeau’s recent verbal run-in with Environment Minister Peter Kent over the Kent’s comments regarding the Opposition’s involvement at the Durban climate change conference (i.e. the one where Canada pulled out of the Kyoto Accords).  Many – and I hesitatingly include myself in this camp – believe that it’s indicative of decreasing civility and productivity in our country’s political discourse.  Others, such as my friend Katie Vikken, see it as a refreshing display of raw conviction in an increasingly smug legislature.

I regret Trudeau’s words more for practical reasons, than due to a belief as to what House of Commons debate should be in principle.  In writing for the International Herald Tribune magazine recently about the place of passion in political change, Burmese democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi differentiated between “intense, transitory” emotional outbursts – she borrows from sociologist Max Weber in characterizing this as “sterile excitement” – and “long term, firmly rooted dedication to principles or a cause”.  Trudeau has chosen the legislative arena as his grounds for making change; in my opinion, as long as he puts on a tie every day and takes a seat in the Commons, he has a responsibility to play by the same rules as everyone else in the game.  He obviously believes that this forum is a place that he can transform his passion into power, but he needs to make sure he pursues this goal in a way that doesn’t cause him to lose legitimacy and credibility with both his colleagues and the public.

Like I said, though, I toe this line hesitatingly.  I came across a book of George Orwell’s essays while re-organizing my humble library tonight (best option once I realized neither mindlessly refreshing my Facebook profile nor slogging through Franz Kafka’s The Castle was doing it for me), and soon found myself flipping through his famous treatise “Politics and the English Language”.  In it, he describes the type of dialogue that is destroying the efficacy of modern political discourse as follows:

When one watches some tired hack on the platform mechanically repeating the familiar phrases, one often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy… a speaker who uses that kind of phraseology has gone some distance towards turning himself into a machine.  The appropriate noises are coming out of his larynx, but his brain is not involved as it would be if he were choosing his words for himself.  if the speech he is making is one that he is accustomed to make over and over again he may be almost unconscious of what he is saying, as one is when one utters the responses in church.  And this reduced state of consciousness, if not indispensable, is at any rate favorable to political conformity.

The first thing I thought of when I read this was the lame-ass party phlegm Peter Kent let go at Durban.  To use phrases such as “collective engagement” when you’re very clearly the first one to bail, and to tout “ambitious targets” when you blatantly write off those that the international community has decided are most enterprising – this is exactly the type of “useless” political discourse that Orwell laments.   When you consider the scale of such ignorance, coupled with the fact that it’s going unchallenged by a good chunk of Canadian civil society, it’s clear that it poses more of a threat than any fuddle-duddling Justin Trudeau does in the Commons.

From an ethics standpoint, I think Kent and Co. deserve all the criticism that’s being thrown at them. Unfortunately, all it takes is a high-profile Liberal MP to deflect the attention away from serious debate, and perpetuate the childish name-calling and goading that’s come to define Canada’s parliamentary process.  I’d really like to see progressive parliamentarians engaging civil society, getting out into their constituencies, and learning alongside Canadians how to turn this passion into the type of political power that can be potent even in the midst of a Conservative majority.

*Orwell quotes taken from All Art is Propoganda: Critical Essays.

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