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President Obama:
Here comes the new boss…same as the old boss?


I’d been thinking of writing something about new U.S. president, Barack Obama, for a while -- and with his recent visit to Canada (his first official foreign trip as president) this seemed like a good time. Now writing about politics might seem a bit outside the theme of this website, but I think it’s a fair topic because it still ties into what is, after all, at the root of conversations about Canadian film and TV: namely, Canadian culture, identity, and Canada’s place in the world (and its relationship to the U.S.).

And just to further any pop cultural thread, I’ll be liberally making use of pop references as we go.

The thing about Barack Obama is not so much that he is the new president, or being regarded favourably by most people, but that he is being crowned as a veritable messiah who has come to save America -- and the world -- and cure all our ills. And there’s a part of me that would like to go along with that. But I’ve spent too much of my adult life twisting myself into a cynical, skeptical personality to quite let myself be swept along in that stream, however easy and comforting it would be to do so. Like Captain Kirk slamming his fist into a table and shaking off the effects of the euphoria inducing plant spores (in the Star Trek episode “This Side of Paradise”) I just find myself stubbornly holding onto that thing called free will.

(And yes, that was pop reference #1 -- there’ll be more).

Obama is eloquent and idealistic and saying a lot of the right things, a lot of encouraging things, and with luck, he’ll be the real deal. But at the same time, this almost religious adoration has to be put in context. And that context is eight years of George W. Bush. Frankly, the Americans could’ve elected Howdy Doody as president (with Charlie McCarthy as his Secretary of State) and the global community would still be doing the Munchkin dance and singing “Ding Dong…” The recent U.S. election being viewed by the international community a bit like a twister and Obama the house dropped on the Bush administration.

The last eight years caused a lot of soul searching in a lot of people. In Canada, where the relationship with the U.S. has been an eternal source of debate as to how close and intimate it should be, one could argue George W. Bush did a great deal to foster and strengthen a Canadian sense of identity removed from the U.S. Even Canadians who were once happy to view their country as little more than a 51st State were distancing themselves from a nation that seemed more and more to be acting like the rogue state it was warning (and warring) against.

But now with Barack Obama, it seems that is all drifting away. After eight years of Canadians thinking for themselves and defining their values and goals, we now seem to be sliding into a stage where we are told it’s okay, we can relax, we don’t have to think for ourselves anymore. Obama is here and all is right with the world. According to some blogs and message boards, already those involved with the CBC espionage series, The Border, have made it clear that, with Obama as president, there will be a significant warming of the tone in their series’ next season as regards the Canada-U.S. relationship -- this before we‘ve even seen how or if Obama will be changing things.

See, one might have viewed the last eight years as demonstrating the dangers of an unchecked U.S., and a president with too much power and too few, serious, safeguards on his authority. But, instead, what almost seems to be emerging is a belief that the problem was not the system, but simply the wrong man was in charge of that system.

And that’s pretty dangerous. Again, to quote Captain Kirk: “The trouble with the Nazis wasn’t simply that their leaders were evil and psychotic men -- they were. But the real trouble was the leader principle.”

I’m reminded of an old Frantics comedy sketch in which a guy (Dan Redican) is in line at a check out. Ahead of him, the clerk (played, if I recall, by Paul Chato) is ringing through other peoples’ orders, adding a hefty “Stupid Person Tax” onto their bill. When Redican reaches the counter, he says there’s no such thing as a Stupid Person Tax. Without missing a beat, the clerk says that since he knows that, he’s not stupid and the tax doesn’t apply to him. Satisfied, Redican lets his eyes wander over to the magazine rack and, seeing this, Chato unobtrusively says: “However, there is a ‘Not Paying Attention’ tax”. Redican, still focused on the magazines, shrugs and says, “Yeah, sure, whatever.”

So will Obama be the new broom...or simply the Not Paying Attention tax?

What happens when it is Barack Obama who stands before the U.N. brandishing false reports of WMD and terrorist ties and saying: “hey, kids, let‘s invade someone“? Will people say, hey, wait a minute? Or, since it is Obama and not Bush, will our eyes have wandered over to the glossy magazine rack and everyone will simply nod compliantly?

And yes, I know: the assumption is that Obama won’t do that. That if he calls for the ol’ Shock and Awe, it’ll be for a damn good reason. But what if that assumption is wrong? I mean, Obama is frequently being compared to John F. Kennedy…a president who in just three years managed to oversee The Bay of Pigs, the escalation of the Vietnam War, and the Cuban Missile Crisis (though at least the latter ended successfully). Not to mention Kennedy was an advocate for the proliferation of nuclear weapons, obsessively determined Canada should become a nuclear weapons power.

You see, not wishing to be overly contumacious, but contrary to the view promulgated by the American media and happily parroted by Canadian cultural tsars, there are differences between the U.S. and Canada -- and, indeed, the U.S. and most western democracies. The U.S. is, in a lot of ways, a more conservative country (at least so public surveys, as well as a comparison of some laws, seem to indicate). In fact, the common wisdom in Canada is to see the U.S. Democrat Party as analogous to the Canadian Liberal Party, and the U.S. Republican Party as analogous to the Canadian Conservative Party. But I would argue the comparison is probably more like the Democrats are comparable to the old Progressive Conservatives and the Republicans to the old Reform/Alliance (which assimilated the PCs, Borg-like, and re-Christened itself simply the Conservative Party).

In fact, contrary to what many Canadian editorialists originally claimed, Democrat Obama’s election is probably the best thing that could have happened to Canada’s Conservative prime minister, Stephen Harper. Harper, who has won two back-to-back elections, and still has yet to win enough converts to land a majority government, was seen as having hit a glass ceiling of conservative support in Canada. And a big anchor around his neck was his close identification with George W. Bush, with whom he shared many ideological values -- an association the opposition parties were quick to exploit. But now with Obama in power, Harper (and the Conservatives) can continue to pursue a policy of being the president’s Mini-Me (an editorialist once wrote -- approvingly -- that Harper’s #1 priority is to keep the U.S. president happy) only now with a president that is more popular in Canada than any Canadian politician. Sure, that can have benefits -- Harper who spent years echoing Bush’s climate change denials has, now with a “green” president in power, done a stunning about face and claimed he’s all keen to tackle the issue. But for those who doubt Harper’s sincerity, his ability to hitch his wagon to Obama’s horse no doubt has the Conservative Party already smelling a majority government in their near future.

And Barack Obama, for all his liberal airs, is still ultimately a product of a system that is keen to appease hard line conservatives. Obama has gone on record as supporting the death penalty…when most western democracies abolished capital punishment years ago. And while Canada has legalized same sex marriage, Obama engaged a minister who had publicly campaigned against gay marriage to speak at his inauguration. Obama is progressive…but only in the context of America conservatism.

Even the notion of an inauguration, I’ll admit, is just a little…creepy. But that’s because the American political system is, in some ways, archaic, suffering from a certain arrested adolescence. It’s understandable. When the American government was first being devised, the idea was to democratize the only model they had: the monarchy. So they came up with the idea of electing a king. But when the British (and its commonwealth nations, like Canada) subsequently reformed their governments, they did so be de-powering the monarch and shifting authority to the more bureaucratic parliament. But America has continued to chug along with its elected king, living in his ostentatious castle, who is feted with a grand inauguration when elected.

There is an undercurrent of reverence Americans hold for the presidential office (if not always the man who holds it) that is different from the way Canadians regard their prime minister (or their Governor General). When the first President Bush publicly mentioned his dislike for broccoli, American broccoli farmers were incensed, fearing a negative impact on sales. If a Canadian prime minister were to say the same thing…would anyone care? Would any newspaper even bother reporting it?

Comedian Jebb Fink once made the comment that in the U.S. you’ll see baby T-shirts that read “Future President”, but you don’t see Canadian T-shirts saying “Future Prime Minister”. As Fink quipped: “Canadians hope for something better for their kids.”

Personally, I’ve long thought we should do away with the term “election” and replace it with a less grandiose phrase like, I dunno, “Consensus hiring”. We don’t “elect” a politician…we hire ‘em, just like we hire a plumber, or an accountant. They are an employee, hired to do a job. Or, put more melodramatically, as “V” in V for Vendetta said: “People should not be afraid of their government…governments should be afraid of their people”. (Well, he said it in the movie -- can’t remember if he said it in the original comics).

But this American reverence is contagious, and explains why Canadians are regarding Obama with an almost religious adoration. Even though, as mentioned, in some ways, Obama’s politics are not necessarily as liberal and progressive as Canadians are when they are just being middle-of-the-road. Heck, despite Obama’s declaring his “love” for Canada, the appointment of Hilary Clinton as secretary of State sends a mixed message -- Clinton being a Democrat hawk whose foreign policy views often seemed best defined as “When in doubt…blame Canada” (as she has, falsely, for both the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the massive blackout in August, 2003).

Yet, as mentioned, the mood sweeping through Canada, through editorials, through blogs, and I suspect soon to be reflected by our storytellers, is that after eight years of squirming under George W. Bush, everything’s okay now and America is ready to reassume its position at the head of the global table. Daddy’s home and we can all go back to being children at his feet.

Barack Obama himself declared that America is ready to lead once more.

Personally, I don’t want America to “lead”. Or rather, sure, it should lead when it has a good idea or policy…but it should be prepared to follow when someone else has a good idea. But that often doesn’t seem an idea that sits well with American governments. They’re happy to play on the team…as long as they can be captain and coach. Otherwise, they’ll sit on the bench in a surly huff. But games are won by assists as much as by being the one slapping the puck into the net. What the world needs is not America to be an arrogant leader…but an America that is willing to be a humble friend and ally.

“Don't walk behind me; I may not lead. Don't walk in front of me; I may not follow. Just walk beside me and be my friend“. ~ Albert Camus

But Americans have happily embraced the notion that they are the world’s leader, the world’s role model -- embracing a variation on the old British Empire adage about the White Man‘s Burden. And that mythology has been embraced by many people in other nations, including Canada. And most troubling, it seems to have been embraced by Barack Obama himself. It’s not true, of course, as a quick perusal at the way American laws and policies are often out of step with other western democracies will show.

But most bizarrely, it runs contrary to the very genesis of the U.S. After all, the major impetus for the American revolution was “No taxation without representation” -- in other words, the American colonists felt they could not support a government (the British) which was not answerable to them. Yet Americans happily embrace the idea that their president is “leader of the free world”…even though the world can’t vote for him. It is expected -- nay, demanded -- that he should be regarded as our leader, even as he is not answerable to us. That’s not democracy…that’s a dictatorship. At best it's Apartheid, where a leader governs a country where the majority are not allowed to vote.

Which is where this adoration of Barack Obama breaks down. He is not the leader of the world…he is the president of the United States. When push comes to shove, he will do what’s in the interests, not of the world, not of Canada, but of the U.S. And that’s how it should be. He was elected -- well, hired -- by the American people to safeguard their interests. So I’m not faulting that. But it behoves the rest of us, whether they be the Canadians flocking to see him visit Ottawa, the editorialists waxing poetic about the great man, or the makers of The Border drafting scripts for next season, to remember that.

Otherwise, he really will be the Not Paying Attention tax, the new boss will be the same as the old boss (as The Who sang) -- and the last eight years will become the next eight years.

That's all for now,
The Masked Movie Critic

Feb. 28, 2009

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