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Recovering backpacker, Cornwallite at heart, political enthusiast, catalyst, writer, husband, father, community volunteer, unabashedly proud Canadian. Every hyperlink connects to something related directly or thematically to that which is highlighted.

Thursday 6 August 2015

Topless with Trudeau and the Ford Factor

(quote thanks to Peter on Warren Kinsella's non-blog)

Much hay has been made about the picture war emerging from #Elxn42, both the pics parties want you to see and the ones they don't.  

There was Trudeau boxing - personally, I'm undecided about whether I think that works to or against Trudeau's favour.  Boxing involves physical discipline, which - rightly or wrongly - we associate with toughness and leadership.  It's also about competition, which is what elections are, and a subtle reminder that the only time Trudeau's gone toe-to-toe with a Tory in any kind of arena, he beat him soundly.  

At the same time, though, fisticuffs is school-yard stuff, surely not what we want to see from our leaders.  Then again - are attack ads any different?

More nuanced - different audiences will automatically have different reactions to any situation, and that reaction can after-the-fact be nudged by whatever spin gets placed on the emerging story.  That, truly, is a big part of what campaigns are - massive efforts by parties to define their side/leader positively and the other guys negatively, whatever the reality of context might be.  A great piece on the fakery of campaigns can be found here.

Part of any partisan spin doctor's job is to read the emotional tea-leaves of the nation and find out what they are and aren't in the mood for, how they will and won't react to particular messages and themes.  It's a tough job, often gotten wrong.

So - how do you feel about Justin Trudeau posing with a naked woman at what is clearly an event of some kind?  Is he doing what politicians do - take pictures with people, give them some memories and minor engagement?  Hanging with the people in a relatable way, as some people believe Rob Ford does?

Or is he demonstrating a lack of political savvy, demonstrating immaturity?  Is this evidence that his staff isn't on the ball, because they allowed a picture of him with a semi-nude woman?

There's no one answer to this, but that doesn't matter - what matters in a campaign is the majority's answer.  That's what spinsters need to check the pulse of and, where possible, nudge in their favour.

Pride, of course, is a celebration of diversity.  For most of Western history (and unquestionably into the present), being gay was sinful, socially ostracising in much the same way as being black or in many circumstances (including politics) being a woman was.

People avoided openly gay peers out of fear; LGBTQ individuals had to live in shame and fear of being discovered for being what they truly were, for the social consequences of being themselves were high.

For women and minorities, no such hiding option was available - on the job market, on the bus and in our Legislatures, access was limited.  That was life.

As such, the world of high power in politics and in business were dominated by white men of a certain age group.  That demographic tended to view their position of power as inherent to who they were and made decisions that reflect their viewpoints only.  Marginalization was - and to a large degree still is - institutionalized.

We have made progress, though - the existence of Pride is proof of that, as is the US's first black president and the growing number of women as political leaders.  In politics, on Bay Street, in a growing number of places, the upper echelons of society increasingly reflect the demographic reality of the nation.

Does Trudeau having his picture taken at a public event with a half-naked woman make him more one of the people (and therefore better able to understand and represent their interests) or does it make him look unfit for leadership?  Will more people like the message the picture conveys or not - or will the spinsters be the one to determine the emotional frame the picture generates?

I don't have answers, nor polling data, nor decades of campaign experience to draw on.  

What I do know, from a casual survey of people I know and of online discussion, that the general response to the picture seems to be "meh."

People likely to vote Conservative are in high dudgeon about the picture.  People likely to vote Liberal are staunchly defensive of what it represents.  Dippers are rubbing their hands with glee. Most people, though, don't really care.

Which to me is a good thing.  I'd like to think we're at a point of social maturity where we aren't scandalized or titillated by the human form presented publicly.  A woman should be able to walk around with a tight red dress and not have to beat off staring eyes and wandering hands on the streetcar, just as a half-naked man mowing the lawn doesn't draw much attention.

Freedom of speech, freedom of expression, the right to participate, the caveat of being respectful to others as they do their own thing, so long as they don't hurt others in the process.

That's what we're after, right?  Those are principles much of Harper's base at least pretends to be in favour of, n'est ce pas?

Do we want leaders who are like us, representative of us, able to craft and defend policy that reflects our reality?

If he were to run for Mayor today, Rob Ford would in.  The fact that he's a law-breaking, drug-using pathological liar doesn't matter - enough people see him as human and relatable, his positions sound-bite simple enough to give him a win.

If Rob Ford were in an electoral contest with Stephen Harper, what would the result be?  How uncomfortable would Ford make Harper feel, how clearly would he draw a contrast between the antiseptic introverted ways of Stephen Harper compared to the vicarious populism of Rob Fuckin' Ford?  

That's not the race we have, clearly - Trudeau is no Ford.  He is, however, more human and relatable than Harper is.  

Another thing Trudeau isn't is tightly scripted nor controlled (so far) by his team.  This isn't the case for way too many politicians who, in hard truth, are somewhat marginalized themselves.  Harper might be his own watchdog, but the way he governs has expanded the chasm that exists between MPs and their constituents.  

The ability for Conservative MPs to be among the people, their constituents is stifled by The Man at the top - the white, anglo middle-aged man who is a picture-perfect representation of yesterday's institution and the discrimination it embodied.

Team Trudeau has clearly been trying to portray their guy as the embodiment of a new kind of leadership that is more engaged with people and less focused on cold partisan calculation.  

Team Harper has been trying to present Trudeau as young, immature, too focused on fun people engagement stuff and less serious about political calculus.

I think public reaction to the images that emerge from this this election go beyond all this.  How we respond to imagery that shows our leaders dipping their toes in all the colours and diversity of our country says at least as much about us and our social maturity as it does about theirs.

Would we rather our politicians be stage-managed like actors, or put on leashes like kindergarteners?

If that's how we expect our leaders to be - have we any right to complain about shrinking freedoms at the individual level?

Such are the meta-questions that plague Canadian democracy, and ones we'll learn a lot about over the rest of the campaign.

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