Jean Chretien, the Master Cynic

‘Only in Canada’ is not the jingle for a beer ad. Perhaps only in Canada can one say without smudging one’s conscience that: “Still, the planet actually is becoming a fairer place, if slowly.” (Toronto Globe and Mail, editorial comment on “Jean Chretien’s radical chic”, September 13).

And only have neighbors in such good standing as Canadian leaders had the privilege of being left out of the US/UK tandem to spread hate, death and terror. In the months after September 11, Canadians complained bitterly of being forgotten by their southern brethren in their expression of thanks and recognition for the support brought to the dead. Their Prime Minister, Jean Chretien, led these voices.

Canada has often been sidelined as a partner owing to an undeniable tendency among Liberal Party Prime Ministers to be unabashedly against the long arm of American militarism. Liberal PMs have gone on to reject US foreign policy dictates. Simply witness Canada’s prosperous relationship with Cuba. Or glance at another of the late former-PM Pierre Elliot Trudeau’s ice breaking acts, which was to meet with Mao half a year before Kissinger even hinted to Nixon that such an encounter could only enhance his own stature internationally.

Yet upon hearing what Jean Chretien declared in an interview — shot in July but only broadcast by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s English-language television network on the eve of the 9/11 commemorations — , most Canadians froze. It was as if Chretien had broken a taboo, in the not unsubtle manner he often uses to great effect. What he drew was a link between intensified world poverty, the arrogance of US power and the September attacks. And he stammered this in his distinctly upper-Saint-Lawrence French-Canadian drawl.

Many political analysts in the US claim that in the course of his first term an American President focuses primarily on his congress’ re-election, followed by his own. Under such pressure four years can be a short term, indeed. Policy planning looks easy in comparison. By contrast, the second term is left for the President to leave a stamp, or stain, on history.

This specific ambition for a Canadian Prime Minister is reserved for the third term. Pierre Trudeau, Canada’s philosopher PM, led the country from 1968 to 1983, with a short halt in 1979. (These things happen in a parliamentary system that affords minority governments.) He spent his last months in power globe hopping in a determined effort to bring peace to a world faced off by Reagan and any of his short-lived Russian Communist Party cohorts. Trudeau was steering his rudder at a time prior to Gorbachev and 1989, a time when two nuclear powers daily threatened to blow each other up and the planet along with them.

Whatever the success of his campaign Trudeau did renew the picture of commitment to peace again. Peace had by then been relegated to TV ‘Remember the sixties’ programs. Canada itself had lain low on the topic after greeting an estimated 30,000 Vietnam War draft dodgers above the 46th parallel in the course of the seventies. So, shortly after the UN mobilized the world in 1982 to demonstrate in favor of disarmament in NYC, Trudeau seized the opportunity. His journey had stop-overs on all continents, having him don the traditional dress of Bedouin tribesmen here, and meet with Communist apparatchik there. The most memorable shot was his dismal departure from Washington D.C. amidst a verbal scuffle with Ronnie Reagen.

No historian can fail to be thrilled by Marx’s astute comment on historical repetition. A historical event first occurs as tragedy, then as farce. If Trudeau’s 1983 venture did not end in the type of tragedy whose meaning is the only one still known to most North Americans, he clearly butted heads in brilliantly idealistic fashion against the inertia of world power structures. In hindsight, the world showed readiness for some profound change as the democracy movements in Latin America and then in East Europe were soon to bear.

Current Federal PM Jean Chretien is the veteran politician on the G8 scene. A Liberal party member to the marrow, he was Trudeau’s protege and anti-separatist henchman in Quebec for its referendum in 1980. Twice re-elected, he has set a record for most terms served consecutively in Canada’s short 135-year history as an independent nation. With the failure of every new attempt by party lieutenants to oust him, Chretien’s tenure takes on a character of tyrannical rule, albeit a benevolent one.

Do Canadians actually support him, despite his missteps and the alleged influence-peddling in his home riding? With growth expectations yet again gliding above the US’, what a deeply materialist social democracy like Canada votes for is economic prosperity. It falls far less for populist banter. After swankily axing his star ex-finance minister, Chretien has been the man around every corner to take credit for the boom.

Where he has failed miserably has been on the social frontier. A balanced and surplus budget has led to salary stagnation, weakened the Canadian dollar internationally, and, especially, has doomed the country’s health care system to a propensity for privatization. There may be less Canadians unemployed, but the reason why so many young professionals are fleeing south to the hi-tech jobs allowed them by NAFTA is that they are paid less at home (in terms of purchasing power) than they were two decades ago. In fact, most of the time one can only wonder how the most social-democratic of G8 nations could have changed course so drastically in its economic vision. The virtual monopoly by two right-wing business groups over the country’s media outlets provides prompts for a quick and effective answer.

Canada, like most countries that adopted the Washington Consensus doctrine on market liberalism, now looks wistfully at a largely privatized state. Canadians themselves clearly believe that the American way of life is better and more exciting_whatever that means_than their own, or the Scandinavian lifestyles of Norway and Sweden to which they are most akin. To keep the perplexed puzzled, the latter two have usurped Canada’s position from the leading position of the UN Human Development Index, one that turned the maple leaf from red to gold for eight consecutive years.

Toronto and Houston may be similar indoors, but on the outside Canada is a cold country. Throughout the 20th century, with the advent of progress in energy and insulation technologies, cold countries were the ones to most thoroughly give their populations equality and parity in purchasing power. Now with global warming, Toronto tourism entrepreneurs are already half-mockingly projecting a future of cruise ship tours steaming through the North-West passage and Arctic circle to explore the planet’s newest hot spots.

It is not a crime, or act of treason, to be a socialist in Canada. Admittedly, it gets the casual designer-set intelligentsia upset. This is why there is something quite humble and natural to Canadian social commitment which is not subjected to the constraints in the south of having to ply ironically in self-defense under threat of civil disturbance.

Sure, Americans take turns bashing Canadians for readily loving the benefits of the market economy, while rarely ever admitting it. Further still, an interminable line has been repeated by the US since WW2, and uttered again recently by the current US Ambassador, to the effect that Canada ought to built up its arms supplies. As this would consist of buying more heavy-gear material from American industry, Canadian nationalism has seen through the menace. But contrary to past comfort, such indignant isolationism actually proves that Canada’s humbleness is vanishing from the horizon.

In 1999, Canada and Brazil started having it out over the success of the latter’s regional jet industry, spearheaded by Embraer. Canada’s Bombardier is one of the most successful transport corporations in the world. Starting off as the maker of the ‘skidoo’ snowmobile, it has expanded into subway cars, trains and aircraft. Bombardier also has been good, very good, to the Liberal Party.

The Canadian federal government went after Brazil on the ‘illegal’ subsidy front, clearly countering their usual commitment to stimulating growth in the developing world. In the same stroke, it swiftly forgot the subsidies Bombardier swallowed on its way to being no.1. Brought to the WTO the litigation was bitter. It first saw Brazil on the accused and guilty bench. But over a year later Brazil’s fate switched sharply thanks to Canadian fumbling with a NAFTA ban on Brazilian corned beef, and finally by the Federal government deciding to provide cheap-interest loans to future American buyers of Bombardier RJs. Brazil ended up marching out victorious from the WTO amidst this not unsubtle aping of US-style aggressive trade posturing.

The incident dampened Canada’s international reputation. Still, responding to a very vocal civil society lobby, the Liberal Party has often paraded around as the G8 government most inclined toward debt relief for the poorest countries. Two years ago, beaming through his budget surpluses, Finance Minister Paul Martin had proposed lifting the debt from the extreme burden suffered by some African nations. It was a lot of talk, of course, cynically bouncing off the deaf ears of his counterparts.

This is mainly why it is so hard to read anything more into Chretien’s own commitment, voiced at the U.N. on Monday September 16: “the continued marginalization of Africa from the globalization process and the social exclusion of the vast majority of its peoples is profoundly contrary to the global interest. Helping Africa get on it feet is in our interest from the perspective of our common humanity. From the perspective of creating a more prosperous world with new markets. And it is profoundly in our self-interest from the point of view of our own security.” At least he was honest enough to use the term “self-interest”.

Yet there is nothing shockingly new to this commitment in the course of Chretien and the Liberal party’s international stance. One’s ears have to be attuned to both the skeptic’s rejection and the pragmatist’s dead-ends. Chretien seemed to have had a similar aim in mind during the G8 meeting Canada hosted in the month of July. With the meeting over, and the small number of protesters pepper-gazed by the RCMP, the CBC held an interview with the Prime Minister whose answers were nonetheless controversial.

Were it not for the CBC, Canada would be a carbon copy of the US. In a move which can only be Machiavellian in intent, or Gramscian, the public station withheld on broadcasting the interview during the summer months. At that time even the sparse crowd who does watch its news programs would be lounging away, sucking back at the brews and beating off mosquitoes in Cottage country. Instead, the CBC waited for September. The impact the interview would have could not have left its producers unaware.

That’s because during the interview, Chretien draws a direct link between the state of world poverty and 9/11.

His statement was undoubtedly loaded for a leader of a developed country, and intimate ally of the US. Chretien spoke out against the arrogance of might: “You cannot exercise your powers to the point of humiliation of the others (sic). And that is what the Western world — not only the Americans but the Western world — has to realize.” Feeling chatty, he went on to reveal his hobbies: “It’s always the problem when you read history — everybody (sic) doesn’t know when to stop. There’s a moment when you have to stop, there’s a moment when you are very powerful.” To top things off, he gave the golden boys on Wall Street a lesson in moral philosophy: “I said that in New York one day. I said, you know talking, it was Wall Street, and it was a crowd of capitalists, of course, and they were complaining because we have a normal relation with Cuba, and this and that, and, you know, we cannot do everything we want. And I said…if I recall, it was probably these words: ‘When you’re powerful like you are, you guys, it’s the time to be nice.'”

And then the bomb fell: “And I do think that the Western world is going to be too rich in relation to the poor world. And necessarily, you know, we look upon us being arrogant, self-satisfying, greedy and with no limits. And the 11th of September is an occasion for me to realize that even more.”

Canadians were deeply affected by the September 2001 attacks. Though 24 Canadians perished in New York City, a whole nation grieved and trembled from fear. I would like to pretend that the latter is a caricature, but it is close to the truth. While there are no clear stats on this, I would not hesitate to say that a higher proportion of Canadians have visited the Big Apple than of any other nation, including perhaps the US itself. Canadians are in no greater mood than Americans to hear what might be the broader historical and social-political backdrop to the attacks.

As militarized a society as the US is, its power lies primarily in corporate coercion. We catch casual designer suits, MBAs and Nikes buying out the little guys much more than medals and Westpoint beating on the bullies. One step removed, Canadians perhaps have a better chance to assess how they are witnesses before history and historical repetition. They can have an easier go at inching out from the determinism of ‘it had to happen, because it happened’. It is important to realize that the ‘world’s only superpower’ is an imperial power, and its vector, at least most of the time, is the suit tie and Adidas chevron instead of the tomahawk missile. After all, these are symbols the Canadian business class has partially left as its own imprint on soft imperialism for their colleagues of the Washington Consensus to appreciate.

Toronto’s Globe and Mail referred to Chretien’s comments as “a little radical chic for a new century”. As surely as Chretien’s comments were drawn out of context — uttered after the G8 Africa file, and not specifically in reference to 9/11 — they betray far more cynicism than anything radical. They show just how intricate a cynicism is woven into today’s political language. Intelligently, it resembles Secretary Powell’s trendy militaristic humanism, as easily dictated on MTV as to the War Party.

Forget Machiavelli. Today’s leaders and influence-peddlers speak Diogenes’ tongue in Athens, B.C. Lantern in hand, they wander the streets in broad daylight claiming to be seeking a man. If there is any sense to lend to Thomas Friedman’s recent hurrah of ‘going our way’, it has to be this one. It is only from up-on-high that he can giggle in his glide in the comfortable superiority of a Stealth bomber. Above is the only place apart from heaven itself that the ten of thousands of Iraqi deaths are blotted out, the only realm from which all human grief and suffering vanish. Up-on-high beamed straight into your living rooms.

Chretien may not be terribly welcome in the parlors of D.C. But in terms of Canadian political life, his policies have only reinforced an economic plan clearly recognized by the Washington clan, endorsed as the right way, the best way. With the poor lining up out of ‘self-interest’ behind the pearly gates, little Chretien can say from behind its shut doors can shift the implications of his speech. That’s because, as ardent students of the Vatican know well, today’s democracies use the promise of brighter days ahead. It has become the key excuse to policies that have made avowals of ‘the rich only get richer, and the poor only get poorer,’ also uttered by the PM, the keenest way to claim that the situation’s beyond all control.

This is nothing new for cynicism at its core, just that now it’s the lingo best suited to painting it all white. Now there’s something chic: some postmodernist politics for lives no different than deaths. It might just have been a thought in Jean Chretien’s New York state of mind.

NORMAN MADARASZ is a Canadian Philosopher. He welcomes comments at: