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Statecraft and Lawn Maintenance

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The second edition of Brent H. Cameron’s book, “The Case for Commonwealth Free Trade: Options for a new globalization” is available now on Amazon worldwide.

Many, many years ago, my father applied for a job at a lumber yard as a day labourer.

He had left home under difficult circumstances at age 12, and it would be a number of years still before he resumed his education, becoming a stationary engineer. At this particular point in time, however, that had yet to happen and he had not gone beyond the seventh grade.

Before he went into the interview, a friend had cautioned him to not mention the fact that the supervisor was missing a couple of fingers on one hand. He told my father that the man had lost them while attempting to fix his lawnmower.

So, Dad went into the interview, explained his work history – in construction and as a deck hand on a freight ship that plied the Great Lakes – and assured the man that he would do a good job.

The man was not interested. Dad, at the time, lacked a high school diploma and that was that.

My father tried to assert that a high school diploma was not really a precondition for carrying and piling lumber, but the man insisted it was.

Sensing that the job was not his, my father – true to his unvarnished self – got up and, I paraphrase, declared “Well, I might not have a high school diploma, but I’m smart enough not to stick my hand in a %$#@!* lawnmower and get my fingers chopped off!”

The man scowled at Dad, then snapped “Fine – be here on Monday!”

Dad would be there, off and on, for a number of years.

I share this anecdote partly because I miss my father, and partly because it illustrates the current mess we’re in – and why.

To borrow a phrase, we are lions led by donkeys, or – if you prefer – smug people who had a run in with a lawnmower.

Whether it be in Canada, Britain, or the United States, we have seen the rise of populist sentiment – of an antipathy toward elites. Commentators are quick to bemoan this ‘rise of the rabble,’ and how our world is being destroyed by the unsophisticated and the uncouth. We are told that democracy itself hangs in the balance. We are cautioned that the only way forward is to calm down, and defer to our betters. In other words, to know our place.

Between us, I would like nothing better.

You see, life is hard and complicated – work, family, and all of the commitments of modern life are difficult to juggle. Wouldn’t we all like to be able to not worry about the state of the world and just fixate on our kid’s braces, getting the oil changed in our car, or vacuuming the living room rug?

The problem is that the people who are supposed to worry about the ‘big things’ – the same ones who appear on our television screens and tell us not to fret over things we lack the ability to comprehend – have made a mess of it for more than a decade.

They were in charge of the Iraq War effort, and the 2008 economic crisis, and the hollowing out of the industrial heartland. They were in charge while people got poor, and began to die from opioid overdoses. They were in charge when Syria collapsed and the Islamic State rose to create the largest migrant movement since the Second World War. They were in charge when North Korea obtained nuclear weapons. They have been in charge during mass killings and all manner or horrific attacks.

They said that exposure to western capitalism would reform China’s human rights practices and transition them toward democracy. They declared in 2012 that Mitt Romney was paranoid about Russia, openly chiding him that ‘the Cold War was over’, only to have then spent tens of millions of dollars and two years to set out to prove (unsuccessfully) that the White House had been seized by a Kremlin asset in the 2016 election – a vote whose outcome they were unable to predict less than 24 hours in advance.

They predicted that Brexit would never pass (it did), and then they declared they could negotiate a good deal (they didn’t), and that it would be passed (it wasn’t) by the deadline (which will not happen).

In Canada, as a response to a simple question whether or not improper political pressure was being exerted to give SNC-Lavalin an easier ride on corruption and bribery charges, the Prime Minister’s Office – in its dismissive responses and serial trolling of critics through loyal partisan pundits – has poured high octane aviation fuel on a small wastebasket fire. A small matter has now dragged the judiciary, indigenous leaders, feminists, and others into a feeding frenzy in Ottawa that has caused a 10-15 percentage point shift in the polls in less than a month.

To be blunt, ‘smart’ people have been acting pretty stupid lately.

To err is human, and we all make mistakes, but the extent of the issue – both in scope and length – greatly exceeds the latitude that should be legitimately allowed.

If it were a baseball team, a player would first have a chat with the coach, then the trainer. Barring that, it’s some time on the bench. At some point, however, the player may find themselves pitching in front of a crowd of a dozen onlookers in a small town with a Dairy Queen, a Greyhound stop and little else.

But despite batting records of 0 and 200, their smiling, self-satisfied faces still appear on TV, their pearls of wisdom on the broadsheets of record, their dulcet tones on radio. And no matter the topic or issue, the message is the same – despite the absolute hash we’ve made of it all, we’re still smarter than you.

We read about college admissions bribery scandals, or the unremarkable child of a prominent person falling into a position, while someone with a master’s degree or doctorate drives a cab, and we shake our heads and sigh. You can only be outraged for so long before it exhausts you.

Most of us, however, lead lives like the ball player.

Our prospects rise and fall on the quality of our work. Screw up and you’ll pay the price. People get fired. Places get shuttered. Even when you have done everything right, things can go very wrong. And so the existence of some parallel plane where the laws of action and reaction, of cause and effect, is foreign to us. We do not understand a world where screw-ups don’t come with consequences. And we don’t trust it, or those who operate within it.

I wish I could be optimistic, but I’m not. For things to get better, our leaders need to get better, and they are all to often a disappointing and underwhelming lot. Nepotism and playing office politics works for the day-to-day, until that fateful day arrives when a problem arises that is so large and intractable that neither your father’s coattails nor your skilful manipulation of colleagues will sort it out.

People are crying out for answers and leadership, but all we get is one-part bewilderment and one-part vicious name-calling invectives.

I don’t know where it will come from – our salvation from this cavalcade of incompetence.

Right now, I think we’d be much better off if we went to the nearest lumber yard and did a roll call of everyone who still has all their fingers in tact.

About Brent Cameron

Profile photo of Brent Cameron
A writer and commentator on Commonwealth trade issues, Brent Cameron is the author of 'The Case for Commonwealth Free Trade' (2004, 2018) and numerous essays and articles. He is also a member of the Advisory Board of Commonwealth Exchange, a London, UK-based research group. Cameron worked as Telecommunications Coordinator for the Federal Ministry of Labour in Ottawa, Canada before joining SES Canada Research (now Nanos Research) as a Research Associate. He also worked as an assistant to former Ontario MPP Harry Danford, Member for Hastings-Peterborough and Parliamentary Assistant to Ontario's Minister of Agriculture and Rural Affairs. Cameron was a member of the Advance Team for Prime Minister Brian Mulroney during the 1988 Canadian federal general election. During the 2007 Ontario Referendum on Electoral Reform, he acted as Coordinator for the 'No MMP' campaign for eastern Ontario (excluding Ottawa). Cameron has also served as a member and contributing columnist on the Community Editorial Board of the Kingston (ON) Whig-Standard newspaper. He holds an honours degree in politics from Queen's University and a Certificate in Municipal Administration from St. Lawrence College (Kingston, ON). In 2014, Brent Cameron was elected to the municipal council for the Township of Central Frontenac, in southeastern Ontario, Canada, and serving as Deputy Mayor in 2017.

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2 comments

  1. Profile photo of Isaac Anderson

    “You can only be outraged for so long before it exhausts you.”

    Very very true Brent; this slow killing of Brexit is exhausting.

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