An Unbeautiful Mind

Amid the hysteria, demagoguery and desperation of the last two weeks, there were at least a few attempts to explore the matters of Stephen Harper’s mind and motivation (see here, here and here). A quick review of the testimony.

“He did not do that for ideological reasons. He did it because he wanted to destroy the Liberal party. That’s what it was all about … He pushed away his ideology because he thought he could win … This isn’t the first time he has gone down a road like this … I don’t think he’s a man who possesses a high level of emotional intelligence. He just doesn’t get it … [Like] someone with a drinking problem who falls off the wagon with damaging consequences … When things don’t go Stephen’s way, he has a tendency to go into a really dark place. When things don’t go his way, his reaction is to quit … He is unable to live the Churchillian principles of being magnanimous in victory and defiant in defeat. He’s mixed them up … He got to where he has by being highly partisan and highly disciplined, but to move from a partisan to a statesman, you need a capacity for magnanimity … He’s not a politician. He does not adapt to a popular way of speaking … He is incredibly brilliant but he’s pathologically partisan. He just has this partisan gene that just drives him to poke political foes in the eye at every opportunity … He likes to take everybody to the brink and push the envelope all the time. It’s inherent in his nature … You ask anyone, any objective analyst from any party, they’ll all give you the same answer, it’s all about Harper. He just wants to crush his opponents and to achieve that objective, he triggered this uncalled for crisis.”

In other words, if Stephen Harper had been blessed of above-average athletic ability, he might have had a career in professional sports. Talent in pro sports is obviously important, but it’s a relative truth that ultimate success is largely dependent on a willingness to compete, a consuming desire to surpass your rivals.

(Note, this is different than the ridiculous cliche that Team A beat Team B because Team A “wanted it more.” Team A beat Team B because Team A was better prepared, more talented, more efficient, luckier or some combination thereof. On an individual level though, “competitiveness” matters. If it could be measured, the best performers would almost always turn out to be the most competitive. Michael Jordan was probably the most competitive player in the history of the NBA. LeBron James and Kobe Bryant are blessed of various inherent abilities, but they’re the two best players in the NBA right now because of how competitively they approach the game. That desire informs how you prepare, how you work to better yourself, the standards you hold yourself to and how focused you are to the task at hand. At the highest level of any profession, the difference between one person’s performance and another person’s performance comes down to how much and how hard each person works. In sports, that comes down to competitiveness. It sounds like an over-simplification. But sometimes it really is that simple.)

Politics is, in obvious ways, a sport. And on that level, Stephen Harper is an impressive competitor and a formidable opponent. If you wanted someone to manage your run for town council, Stephen Harper would be the guy. He thrives in The Game. And he is most celebrated when politics is discussed in terms of The Game.

But to what degree do we want that in a Prime Minister? If we witnessed anything these last two weeks, wasn’t it the limits of The Game? Or, put another way, didn’t we see what happens when The Game is put first, foremost and only?

I just purchased a copy of Bernard Crick’s In Defence of Politics. I haven’t read much more than a few pages yet, but I gather that one of Crick’s points will be that the political process requires a certain amount of gamesmanship. And that this is quite often for the best; that through The Game and its adversarial nature, we achieve a reasonable kind of governance.

That’s probably true. But it probably assumes a certain balance between The Game and what we’ll call, for lack of a better term, Reality. It probably assumes that The Game is merely the forum through which we pursue things that actually matter; that relate directly to people’s lives, whether they be informed by ideology, objective evidence or personal belief. And, in this case, the political gambit that launched all of this had absolutely nothing to do with anything that actually mattered. The “economic update” was symbolic at best, bordering on the irrelevant. The government conceded as much in the days immediately after when it withdrew the “initiatives” upon which the “update” was based. It appealed only to one person’s desires: Mr. Harper. It sought only one goal: the destruction of the Liberal party.

As a partisan, Stephen Harper is free to pursue such ends. But as a Prime Minister, Stephen Harper is probably supposed to be pursuing something more than the destruction of his political rivals, no?

So. What matters to him? What does he want to do? What vision has he articulated? What has his government shown us? Aside from beating the Liberals, what are his priorities? Does he have any other priorities? Is there anything that comes before that? If there isn’t anything, are we all okay with that?

(Spare me the sarcastic, reflexive, partisan answers to those questions. I ask the above quite sincerely. Whether you believe it or not, 95% of the questions posed here aren’t rhetorical in nature.)

The fate of the coalition, the internal struggles of the Liberal party, the demise of Stephane Dion, the surrender of Bob Rae, the emergence of Michael Ignatieff, the parameters of our parliamentary democracy, the role of the Bloc Quebecois within that… all of these things are terribly interesting. But in the middle of it all, at the start of all this, is Stephen Harper. And through him you can, if you are so inclined, get to all sorts of questions about what it is we’ve got and how it is we’d like it to be.

We know, from what we see and hear, how Stephen Harper understands this thing. And, for sure, politics, for all those obvious reasons, is a sport.

But surely it is not just a sport.

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