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Electoral Phobias, and Other Fishy Subjects

I’ve been finding the current Provincial election in Ontario pretty hard slogging. Partly this is because contemporary politics seems to consist of answering questions everyone already knows the answer to, or asking questions no one wants the answer to. But the other reason I’m not enjoying it is that I agreed to canvas the poll I live in for Rosario Marchese, who’s a highly competent MPP and the older brother of my closest friend in Toronto, Graziano Marchese, who owns Dooneys Café.

I am, you see, the victim of two mild phobias. I can’t bear to talk to strangers unless they already know who I am, or are in a place where both the strangers and I have consciously agreed to be. This is a fairly mild form of xenophobia, and one that I live with comfortably enough in normal circumstances that I’m usually unaware of it. I control the phobia by not wandering too far from home, by pretending that I’m either Rick Salutin or George Bowering when strangers ask me who I am, and by letting my wife, Leanna, do a lot of the talking when we’re out in public. But canvassing involves knocking on strangers’ doors, asking them to vote for my candidate, and then trying to argue them out of their inaccurate voting patterns when they give the wrong answer. I’m two weeks late on my canvas, because what I’ve been doing is going out, knocking on a half-dozen doors, doing what I’m supposed to do—and then returning home in a state of nervous prostration that lasts at least 48 hours.

Earlier today, I was at a press conference for NDP leader Howard Hampton that was held at Dooneys. The place was full of, and surrounded by, shouting, placard waving party workers, and it was all I could do not to bolt. That’s my agoraphobia at work, phobia #2, similarly mild. I have trouble at most large gatherings of people who aren’t sitting down (baseball games, for instance, are no problem, although whenever a crowd decides to do the “wave”, I get a little edgy). I got through the press conference by standing behind the bar with Graziano, pretending I was a waiter, and by sitting with Lynn Spink, who’s one of the Dooney’s regulars I particularly like and trust, and who just happens to have been former NDP premier Bob Rae’s first executive assistant. She doesn’t like crowds very much, either, and has a dim view of the hysteria of party politics that makes her more acerbic than usual when a political crowd is around.

As Hampton was leaving at the end of the press conference—he shook my hand both coming in and leaving, for some reason—Lynn did something quite uncharacteristic. She called out Hampton’s first name as he was leaving, and momentarily seemed as cheered by his presence as the political groupies. Since she’s an unusually dignified woman, and anything but an NDP groupie even though her politics are firmly on the left (she has a long history of working for trade unions), I asked her what was going on.

“Oh,” she said, “I really like Howard.” Then she told me why. Early on in Bob Rae’s government she’d been on a plane in Northwestern Ontario with Rae, his bodyguard, and Hampton, flying to some small town north of Fort Frances. Rae, who was an avid but amateur fisherman, was being given chapter-and-verse on the fish populations of each lake they passed by Hampton, who is also an avid but not-at-all amateur fisherman. At the time, Lynn had been struck not only by how knowledgeable Hampton was on the subject, but by his demeanor: confident, calm, and lovingly intimate with the countryside they were flying over. He was a human being, and she liked him for it—for knowing practical things, and being able to articulate them accurately and in useful detail. That’s what human beings are supposed to be like.

What she didn’t have to say was that politics as we practice them doesn’t involve any of the things people like Howard Hampton really are and know. There, it’s all about party slogans, and staying within the acceptable policy box. It’s about shouting, and about sound bytes for the media (who nowadays try to make any political leader to the left of Oswald Mosley look like either Stalin or Mosley himself), and about leaders who are either cartoons or cardboard figurines and who can’t or won’t risk being human in their appeal to the “general public”, whatever the hell that is. Our politics are almost wholly based on appeals to a public “mind” that is, when you really parse it, a string of lowest common denominators based on group self-interest and group exclusions. It’s about cardboard politicians and their handlers treating people as if they’re idiots.

I don’t think people are idiots, so I guess I believe that the way we practice politics is fundamentally demeaning to everyone involved. Personally, I’ve been working for Rosario, however badly, because I like him and trust his intelligence, not because I like the NDP and support Howard Hampton as its leader. But at least when I go out in the next few hours to canvas another six houses, I’ll be able to say that I like Howard Hampton. If anyone asks why, I’ll say it’s because I saw him pointing out lakes from a plane, and because he knew which ones contained pickerel, and which had small-mouthed bass. I won’t say I wish our politics accounted for the fine details that make human beings interesting. That wouldn’t be politic.

September 30, 2003, 1000 words

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Brian Fawcett

Brian Fawcett

Brian Fawcett is a Toronto-based writer.

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