Playin’/plain dumb

In political circles these days, there is apparently nothing more coveted than the very thing we all hope our kids will never be.

You know, a hayseed. A bumpkin. Political scientists have a fancy moniker for it, a “populist.” But whatever you call it, it’s certainly in political vogue these days.

And the simplest route to political power, it seems, is the one that involves appearing, well, simple. Feel like mocking books and art? Go to it, pardner! Think higher education – or even education – are overrated? Speak your mind!

Most usefully, are y’all in the mood to bash nameless “elites”? Fill yer boots! Give ‘er!

It’s a tad ironic, given we all presumably send our kids to school so they can read books and learn and use their minds and succeed where we didn’t. But it’s a fact, nonetheless: Aspirants for high office now widely regard education and knowledge as an impediment to political success. That’s the “populist” credo at work.

Case in point, the Ford family. One Ford brother, Rob, is mayor of Canada’s largest city. The other one, Doug, is powerful councillor alongside his brother.

They’re millionaires and politically successful and they couldn’t possibly have achieved all they have achieved by being, well, dumb. But there was Doug the other day huffing that he’d close libraries in “a heartbeat” – and insisting he doesn’t know or care who Margaret Atwood is. Even better, Atwood shouldn’t be listened to on libraries because she wasn’t elected. Like he was.

This is so dense, so breathtakingly idiotic, we can only assume Doug Ford was saying these things because he believes, deep in the recesses of his tiny black heart, there is a constituency for politicians who sound like rubes. That’s the only rational explanation.

In fairness to the Ford Nation – a nation that seemed decidedly unpopulated, by the by, when hundreds of citizens stayed up all night to unanimously protest Ford’s plan to shutter libraries – they’re not alone. Lots of politicians want us to believe they’re “populists,” too.

As an Albertan, for example, I had the occasion over the years to meet, interview or just generally chat with Stephen Harper, Ralph Klein and Preston Manning. While I was no fan of their politics, I found each man to be keenly intelligent – and quite thoughtful too. But each man went to great lengths to cultivate a public image that was the polar opposite of those things.

Harper, in particular, has expended a small fortune in fundraised Conservative Party dollars to project a populist mirage, that he is Tim’s-lovin’, Stampede-stompin’ Everyman who disdains the elites and intellectuals and all that higher-learnin’ stuff. When, in fact, he is a fluently bilingual economist with an insatiable thirst for knowledge, and a mind like the proverbial steel trap.

The Canadian political landscape is littered recently with the corpses of brainy men who failed to appreciate the potent power of populism. Both Michael Ignatieff and his predecessors, Stephane Dion and Paul Martin, were highly accomplished men of letters, who had succeeded at everything they did in life.

But when facing off against Stephen Harper – the fellow intellectual who had learned to hide the size of his brain, and mock culture and refinement with a straight face – it was no contest. Ignatieff, Dion and Martin got their asses kicked. By a “populist” who isn’t.

Now, nobody likes a snob. Nobody likes being made to feel like a dummy. But, honestly, don’t you think this populist fad has gotten a bit out of hand? When books and libraries get sneered at, don’t you agree it can only mean we’re heading in the wrong direction?


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