The Age of Monochrome

by Glen

54437785.IMG_0815PADpbaseDec25So, the Christmas lights at the Parliament buildings are blue and orange this year. Gone are the historic red bulbs that had always been part of the mix. One of my old friends who works on the maintenance staff in Ottawa emailed the he was a little shocked that the politics of Canada would actually have the reach to determine what colour Christmas lights should be. The very scope of that reach has been something many, including Progressive Conservatives, have been struggling with for years.

Over time, I have heard numerous folks liken the present federal government to those in other jurisdictions. Some view it as Nixonian; others as Thatcherite. My own view, which has taken a few years to formulate, but which was greatly assisted by being in the action for a few years, is that the Harper Conservatives are more like Henry Kissinger than anyone else.

The former American Secretary of State was an enigma.  Kissinger was relentless in his logic, often to the awe of some. “Geopolitical” was his favourite word. He viewed politics as chess, not checkers, and always worked power to his advantage. For this imposing figure, how other countries like Vietnam, Cambodia, or even European nations mattered was in how they could benefit America – little else counted. For a time he was viewed as a mastermind, until events got beyond his ability to control. He had a way of extending foreign policy by sweeping diverse nations into one grand scheme: how they benefitted America. This often created a complex schematic that no one else could figure out. And he applied it 24/7, working relentlessly for its success. One colleague said that Kissinger could play the various parts of his great play “like puppets, playing out his scenario.”

It has taken the intervening years for historians to view Kissinger in a more objective light. He had many accomplishments, some of them brilliant, but the world he attempted to create eventually crumbled in on itself. His approach was too geopolitical and not local enough. It was heady stuff but lacked the intrinsic knowledge of “on-the-ground” realities in the countries he was playing off against one another. Regions that weren’t at odds with one another suddenly were, but as long as the American interest was served it was acceptable.

Many will disagree with me, but I have come to the conclusion that our present federal administration is attempting to work Kissinger’s model, with one key difference: the present government has substituted “geo-national” for “geopolitical.” Everything is domestic, with even foreign policy deeply rooted in the attempt to win constituency groups back home. Regions of the country are played off against one another in a kind of sleight of hand movement that is only useful if it builds or maintains the Conservative base. In such a world, everything (yes, including the colour of Christmas lights) becomes political – everything. In Ottawa you can’t escape politics, but the city once used to boast of containing the best and brightest policy minds, most found in the bureaucracy. Now entire ministries are politicized.

Politics has been sliding in this direction since before the Harper Conservatives came to power – for two decades too much power has been centered in the PMO. But they have turned it into an art form, like Kissinger, that leaves every sector fatigued while power plods on relentlessly. Every department in government is exhausted – wearied by endless political manipulation that undercuts years of research and attempts at renewal based on that research.

So, yes, in such a world power even reaches to the level of Christmas decorations. Everything is examined for political implications.

Ironically, this entire scenario isn’t about colour anyway. The grand political tapestry is actually one of monochrome – the vibrancy bled out of institutions and in its place subdued tones and lengthening shadows. The effects on Canadians are far deeper than low voter turnout. Imaginations have been dampened, ambitions undermined, unities fractured and tolerance shortened. We pine for those days when Canadians believed their country could do anything because its people were energized by the possibilities a responsive government could provide them. We rarely have such dreams anymore. In their place is a kind of greying stupor, devoid of life and lacking in brilliance.

The dictionary describes “monochrome” as “something in black and white” or “varying tones of only one colour.” Both fit our present situation. Something happens to a people nationally when their horizon is constantly grey. Eventually they stop looking for spring and just hunker down to live with lower expectations. This was never the Canada our parents envisioned. Nor did we. Through such a political lens Christmas isn’t blue, orange, green or red; it is monochrome and our spirits match that reality. Colour will only return as citizens demand it; politics Kissinger-style can no longer throw open the drapes and let in the light.

Francis Bacon once observed, “Anger may make dull men seem witty, but it keeps them poor.” There is far too much anger in politics nowadays because politicians are dulled by partisanship. Generosity of spirit wanes. Anger leads to poor choices. Only engaged citizens can change that scenario, bringing colour to a drab political landscape.