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Why the world could use a few more idealists

Evan Solomon on the moment cynicism burned away
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump points to the crowd after delivering a speech during a campaign event, Saturday, Oct. 22, 2016, in Gettysburg, Pa. (Evan Vucci/AP)
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump during a campaign event, Saturday, Oct. 22, 2016, in Gettysburg, Pa. (Evan Vucci/AP)

It’s been a particularly bad time to be idealistic about politics. Donald Trump went to Gettysburg, Penn., and promised, in his first 100 days of office, to sue every woman who has come forward with allegations that he sexually assaulted or groped them. Clearly something was jamming the signal as he tried to channel his inner Abraham Lincoln. But even those who regard Trump as a dangerous narcissist find it hard to hold up Hillary Clinton—competent though she may be—as the embodiment of Obama’s “hope” and “change.  Clinton’s dissembling on issues like her emails means she lugs around enough political baggage to be sponsored by Samsonite.

Let’s not get smug. Idealism has taken a hit here in Canada, too. When asked by Le Devoir about his promise to change the electoral system, Justin Trudeau unabashedly put self-interest over principle. “Under Stephen Harper, there were so many people unhappy with the government and their approach that people were saying, ‘It will take electoral reform to no longer have a government we don’t like,’ ” Trudeau said. “But under the current system, they now have a government they’re more satisfied with and the motivation to change the electoral system is less compelling.” Just watch him spin. Trudeau once railed against the problem of the false majority, where a party that gains 39 per cent of the vote—the Liberals and the Conservatives both drew this percentage—wins 100 per cent of the power. But now that it’s working for him . . . well, what’s a few clouds over that sunny sky?

It’s not much better in Camp Conservative. Steven Blaney, the Quebec MP and former minister of public safety, kicked off his leadership campaign by reigniting the divisive and unnecessary niqab debate. Blaney not only promises to make immigrants remove their niqab when they take their oath of citizenship, he says his government “will not hesitate to use the notwithstanding clause should the Supreme Court oppose the will of Parliament.” So the Constitutional red button is in play—over this?

Blaney also wants to test immigrants for so-called anti-Canadian values. Is he trying to out-flank his rival Kellie Leitch? It’s hard to tell. Since there are already criminal background checks on immigrants and a citizenship test, I pressed him for details on what exactly he would change. He had no specific answers. That he launched a campaign with virtually nothing to say on the economy, health care or any other fundamental issue facing the country is revealing. For Blaney, strategy matters more than substance.

Related reading: How Kellie Leitch touched off a culture war 

In the wake of broken promises, lies and political scare tactics, I had something of a Chrystia Freeland moment—the minister of international trade who almost teared up as she watched the free trade deal with the EU crash on rocks of a place called Wallonia. Has politics now moved past cynicism and into pure parody? I hope not. Citizens have every right to feel idealistic, to want politicians to do better.

From left, Pearl Achneepineskum, her son William Achneepineskum and Gord Downie seen during WE Day on Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2016, in Toronto. (Arthur Mola/Invision/AP)
Pearl Achneepineskum, her son William Achneepineskum and Gord Downie seen during WE Day on Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2016, in Toronto. (Arthur Mola/Invision/AP)

And then, two unexpected moments pressed back.

First, I spoke to my father—never a bad thing to do. He and my mother were visiting and I asked him if I could interview him about his life. He agreed and we sat together with a recorder for hours just going back through his experiences, losing his own father when he was 13, the fight he had with a neighbourhood kid who called him a son of a bitch. “I didn’t even know what he meant except I thought he was insulting my mother!” We laughed a lot and cried a bit, too. At one point I asked him what his favourite song was growing up and he instantly said “Amapola,” recorded by Helen O’Connell and Bob Eberly in 1941 with the Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra. His family had a wind-up phonograph, and as the song played the phonograph would slow down and he’d have to rush over to crank it up again. He started to sing, letting his voice slow down like the fading machine in his memory. “Amapola, Amapola / How I long to hear you say ‘I love you.’ ”

I quickly googled the song and in seconds there we were, listening. “I bet I haven’t heard this in 70 years,” he said. I could see time bend into memory, and I thought of the world that had so changed around him. He heard that song during the Second World War, when there was so little reason to hope for a better future. Sometimes we forget the music of a better future.

Related reading: The Runaways Project — help us find the other Chanie Wenjacks

But I heard it again later in the week, when my wife was working on Gord Downie’s Secret Path project. Downie’s series of 10 songs about Chanie Wenjack, the First Nations boy who fled his residential school in 1966 and died trying to walk home, is moving and heartbreaking. As we all know, Downie, the lead singer of the Tragically Hip, has incurable brain cancer, but as he performed these songs in Ottawa you could see he was all in, totally given over to Chanie’s story and the issue of reconciliation. He was beyond himself and we all knew it. At that moment, cynicism burned away, and idealism, which can seem naive and frail when politicians talk about it, suddenly seemed like the only thing that mattered, something you could actually build a future on, something politicians might want to remember.