What happened to the American Dream? It moved North.

September 29th, 2011

(This article was published recently in Trinity News – www.trinitynews.ie)

 

There are two prerequisites that must be met in order to have some career success in American political life. Firstly, you must profess, over and over, that the United States is the greatest and most exceptional country ever to have been conceived; secondly, you must regularly express your faith in a higher, celestial power.

What is remarkable about this double expression is that the former – an absolute, unquestioned loyalty to the American Dream – is far more faith-based than the latter – the public expression of religiosity, often for political gain. The nominally secular notion of the American Dream has millions of devotees, all trying to find heaven on Earth. Thus, to knock it is to sign your own political death warrant. The American Dream is a religion for theists and atheists alike.

Look around you. Where is the new wave of Irish emigrants heading? Most of the usual suspects (Australia, Britain, Canada) have lined up at their airports to stamp Irish passports and working visas, but in this recession – our first since the 1980s – the United States has taken more of a back role. More Irish graduates and unemployed persons are moving to Canada and, fortunately for them, they are the ones who will get a real chance of enjoying the American Dream.

The numbers support this claim. Compared to the U.S., Canadians work less, live longer and enjoy better health. With a lower unemployment rate, a stronger dollar (from a position in the 1980s when the Canadian dollar was worth 69 American cents) and less sovereign and individual debt, Canada is now a better place to make money. Canadians – traditionally seen as deferential to their southern neighbours as they sloshed around in deep pools of capital in an entrepreneurial paradise –now view that same land, with its tattered economy, bloated debt and paralysed political system, more with pity than in awe. In a recent Nanos research poll of Canadians, 86 per cent said that their country holds more promise for prosperity.

That prosperity has come with shorter working hours and more time off, allowing Canadians to enjoy themselves more. The Canadian news weekly magazine Macleans has found that in recent years as Americans toil away, working to pay mounting bills, Canadians are spending more time with friends or travelling. Canadians play more golf than any other nationality in the world and have more sex but fewer teenage pregnancies, sexually transmitted diseases and divorces than their American counterparts. They also drink more but have fewer illnesses and live longer.

Median income for Americans and Canadians is almost exactly the same, but in 2005 it was found that in Canada the average amount of personal debt per person was US$23,460, as opposed to a whopping US$40,250 for Americans. This means that, although they may have slightly smaller homes, Canadians have a lot more real wealth. Those figures are from before the American housing market descended into chaos, likely making for an even greater disparity in per capita debt just half a decade later. Canadians have a different definition of freedom.

Meanwhile in the U.S., debate within the Republican Party in recent weeks has focused on immigration as potential presidential candidates fall over one another in a race to see who can build the biggest wall in the shortest amount of time across one of its two land borders. Green cards, once handed out like confetti to immigrants, many Irishmen and women among them, are now far harder to obtain. The post-9/11 decade has seen American politicians tending to view immigration through the lens of terrorism or national sovereignty rather than as an opportunity to add dynamism and flexibility to the labour market. The popular image of the penniless immigrant arriving on American shore and “making it” through hard work and bright ideas is redundant if the system won’t allow it. On the other hand, Canada now accepts more immigrants per capita than any other developed country.

During one of those aforementioned debates in Florida, fanatics in the audience shouted ‘let him die’ as Republican Senator Ron Paul of Texas attempted to justify his belief that a hypothetical 30 year-old patient with life-threatening injuries or disease should not receive care unless he was wealthy enough to pay hundreds of dollars per month for private insurance. This is the not-so-small print of the modern American Dream.

Look the headline above and note the capital ‘D’ in ‘American Dream’. Why is it so? More than anything, it is now a brand – an idea that can be sold to men, women and children; something into which they can invest their money and emotions, even if the winners are almost always those already at the top. Canada, meanwhile, is no longer a blander, watered-down version of the U.S., though that reputation will take longer to change than the reality. While Americans have been busy pursuing happiness, Canadians have been living it. If anything, it is the true land of opportunity in North America.

Children at your feet

June 15th, 2011

Watch this. It’s a video of last night’s New Hampshire Republican pre-primary debate. The main battle seemed not to be over healthcare, the military, education, jobs or the economy, but over who was responsible for bringing more American children into the world. Michelle Bachmann thought she had won with 28 — five to which she had given birth plus 23 fostered — until Ron Paul came in with over 4,000. It’s a truly bizarre debate.

Why Obama went to Ireland

May 27th, 2011

Between the 19th of May and the 26th, US President Barack Obama went from a rather public falling out with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to toasting Queen Elizabeth II in Westminster. In between, he managed a quick visit to Ireland. It is time to reflect.

sober (adj.):  1. not affected by alcohol; not drunk. 2. serious, sensible, and solemn.

It is unlikely that, in the history of Ireland, the presence of one person on the island for half a day created so many column inches, and Barack Obama’s visit this week – arriving after sunrise and leaving before sunset – went as close to perfectly as both nations’ governments could have hoped. But there was a corporate bounce to boot, most notably for Guinness and the company that owns the black stuff, Diageo, who could not have dreamed of the kind of PR that Obama gave them through images like this one.

The most popular and iconic political leader across the globe was in Ireland drinking with his wife while cracking jokes and seemingly genuinely enjoying himself. For the Irish, this was an almost drug-like occurrence. A natural high, an unpolished euphoria, and maybe even some jobs, somehow, somewhere, would come out of it.

Within a matter of hours, the news arrived that Guinness and Diageo are going to cut jobs in Ireland. People had every right to be ecstatic while President Obama was in town, but only while he was in town. If they still felt high after he left, they ought to notice now that most of it was hallucinogenic. Jobs continue to be lost, notwithstanding the mother of all PR boosts.

And was it not slightly odd, ironic even, that Obama delivered his magnificent speech in Dublin in front of the headquarters of the Bank of Ireland, a bank to which most people in attendance share in having given billions of euro in rescue packages? Was this message of hope not delivered before a symbol of Ireland’s recent failures?

offset (v): 1. counteract (something) by having an equal and opposite force or effect.

It is pretty much accepted by all in the know that President Obama did not just have an Irish audience in mind as he was in Ireland. Rather, his primary concern was likely how the visit was perceived by voters back home in the States. All politics is local, and if it isn’t, most of it is.

A few days previously, Obama had mentioned “1967”, “borders” and “Israel” in the same speech. This was bold. Not ‘go sit in the corner and think about what you’ve done’ bold, but more ‘put on your seatbelt, I’m about to go over the speed limit’ bold. In doing so, however, he managed to annoy a large swathe of American voters and the influential AIPAC group.

There will be an election next year, a contest in which Obama has already declared he will run. Obama’s folksy persona in Ireland may stand him in good stead with a fraction of voters. The dots are easy to connect.

Bin Laden and Hannibal

May 10th, 2011

Did you ever hear the one about the man who smashed a herd of elephants into two skyscrapers? Or the one about the man who flew a fleet of aircraft through the Alps over two millennia ago?

Of course you didn’t, because these are two impossible actions. If we do a little switch around though and talk about the man who flew commercial aircraft into some of the most iconic buildings in history and the man who marched a herd of elephants across a huge frozen mountain range, one immediately knows what and who we are discussing.

The people of Rome and the United States had not considered these feats in advance, as daring, destructive and outrageous as they were. The hours upon hours of amateur video footage from downtown Manhattan on the morning of 9/11 shows people – most of them suited up and commuting to work – standing there watching, trying to figure out the fleetness of events in the world that was now surrounding them; trying to get information while trying to avoid getting information, simply because the reality was so utterly shocking. The most natural reaction – standing with a gaping open mouth – was the most telling.

Bringing elephants over the Alps was not so much a military manoeuvre as it was a propaganda one; it is often forgotten that most of the animals perished on the journey. It did, however, create an aura of invincibility around the man who made it happen and, perhaps for the first time, a national feeling of weakness in Rome. What Hannibal and Osama Bin Laden did was find their enemy’s kryptonite, but that is just the beginning of the extraordinary similarity in their stories.

The Roman Senate rallied after the disastrous battle of Cannae and appointed a dictator (under the Republican constitution, temporary dictators could be appointed in times of national emergency), Fabius Maximus, while the American public gave a massive boost to President George W. Bush’s approval ratings and a renewed mandate in 2004. Both of these mandates were given largely for those leaders to go after public enemy number one: for the Romans, Hannibal; for the Americans, Bin Laden.

Hannibal was in Italy for 15 years. After a series of early victories – leaving parts of the peninsula mass graves of Roman bodies – his campaign stagnated, resulting in retreat. Bin Laden did not personally invade U.S. territory so much as occupy the public consciousness and define American foreign policy around him for a decade. Both men loved being wanted, perhaps even hated, and both became not just political and military leaders, but also brand names.

Death was always so close. Imagine knowing that, of all the people in the world, you are most likely the person who most people would wish departed. The remarkable thing was how they managed to hang around for so long and, perhaps more astonishingly, how surprised people were when news got to them that their nemesis or hero was no more.

Rome believed that the war against Hannibal and the war against Carthage were one and the same thing – kill the man and you kill his quest – and in the early months of the Bush administration, the public relations campaign focused on that same idea. “We’re gonna smoke him out,” said the President. After Hannibal’s death it took half a century for Rome to finally win the war against Carthage, and any U.S. government, present or future, should note that.

Two men from the other side of the (known) world, living over two millennia apart, attacked a rising superpower where it did not think it might be attacked, in doing so creating a new kind of nationalism whereby the enemy united around their government and retaliated by going to the other side of the world to wage war. A bounty on both their heads and their faces and names etched into the consciousness of one and all. The assignment of blame for complex organised actions ultimately was placed upon one individual, and the initial aim of war was to get that individual, dead or alive. When they were found, it was someplace in the East and they were shown to be vain, paranoid, and ultimately human.

Sont des mots qui vont très bien ensemble, très bien ensemble…

February 8th, 2011

In the past 24 hours, two curious little events have brought the issue of the French language and the Conservative Party of Canada right back into the media radar.

First, there was Prime Minister Stephen Harper giving a joint press conference with President Barack Obama in Washington. The usual pleasantries were exchanged, beginning with Obama saying that their relationship was not only strategic, but also based on friendship. Harper replied in English, agreeing with that sentiment. For American viewers, this is what they heard before American news networks cut their coverage of the press conference: “Well, first of all, thank you, Barack.  Both — thank you for your friendship both personal and national.  And thank you for all the work you’ve done and all of your people have done to bring us to our announcement today.”

So why would the news networks, and I mean not some of them but all of them, panic and cut to studio discussion of what is going on in Egypt? It’s because Harper suddenly began a lengthy monologue in French. Uh-oh. Harper is perfectly cabable of speaking English; in fact English is his mother tongue, with his fluency in French being a more recent acquisition following more cumbersome efforts two decades ago as a Reform Party MP. So why did he give the lion’s share of his speech in Washington in French, in doing so forcing Obama into making bad jokes and leaving a bunch of journalists twiddling their thumbs?

The answer can be given in a simple way or a more complex way. First, the simple way. Harper is Prime Minister of a minority government that currently holds only 10 of 75 seats in Québec, the only province with a predominantly French-speaking population. These are facts. Another fact is that the last federal election was in 2008, so every day that passes is one day closer to another round of voting. Harper knows that grabbing, say, a dozen or 15 Québec seats at the next election could be the difference between remaining as Prime Minister or not. That’s the simple explanation, but it’s not as straightforward as that.

The major federal parties in Canada have come to realise that it is not clever politics to have a unilingual leader. Rightly or wrongly, leaders need to be not just bilingual, but conspicuously so. They need to slip some French in while in Saskatoon and slide a bit of English in there while in Québec City. The Conservatives, Brian Mulroney aside, have traditionally been inept – sorry, suicidal – when it comes to the sensitive politics of language. What would you think if I told you that George Drew, Conservative leader in 1950s, actually called French Canadians “a defeated race” and labelled the Quebecois “French Canadian bastards”? Does that sound like good politics to you? Since the 1980s, Harper has moved from the Drew school of thinking to a far more pragmatic style of leadership. That’s why he gave his speech in Washington in French. Sure, the vast majority of viewers and people in the room had no idea what he was saying and probably thought ‘oh look, here’s some Canadian again with his fancy French that I cannot understand,’ in doing so reinforcing the widely-held view in the USA that Canada simply does not matter. But Harper had only one constituency in mind during that press conference, and it wasn’t Obama or CNN viewers, but rather Canadian voters. More specifically, Quebecois voters. That’s what makes him such a formidable politician – he is simply magnificent at knowing who he wants to speak to and staying in power.

That same weekend, however, Harper’s Québec lieutenant, MP Maxime Bernier, told a Nova Scotia radio station that there is no need for Bill 101 in Québec. This Bill is the one that, among other things, legally established French as the predominant language in business, economics and politics in the province in the 1970s. It is the main reason why I have always thought of the Parti Québécois as ‘un parti conservateur de la gauche’ – a left-wing conservative party. The Bill works in a zero-sum sort of way, with the tipping of the scales in favour of French being at the expense of English, and can be seen as reactionary. Many Quebecois embrace this reaction. So was it good politics for Bernier to publicly oppose the now-entrenched Bill 101 on the same weekend that Harper forewent the opportunity to butter-up an American audience so that he could appeal to Québec voters? Indeed, did Harper and his team decide to go French in Washington so as to limit the damage that Bernier might have done? Do the two cancel each other out? Are the Conservatives going to mess up on Quebec forever? Whatever the case, conservative commentator Tasha Kheiriddin credits Bill 101 for saving Canada even though she doesn’t actually like it. So there you go.