Reading Martin

New PM confuses because he's our first postmodern pol


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When Prime Minister-still-waiting Jean Chretien took to the stage of the Air Canada Centre last weekend, he gave the country a chance to bid farewell to a vision of society all the rage – half a century ago. Chretien has won approval for his very au courant stance on in Iraq, gay marriage rights and AIDS drugs for the developing world. But he is nevertheless yesterday’s man, for the simple reason that he is, above all else, a Modernist with a capital M.

On the other hand, Prime Minister-still-in-waiting Paul Martin will quickly wear out his welcome as tomorrow’s man, for the simple reason that he’s a Post-Modernist with a capital PM. PoMo’s haven’t been able to explain what they mean for about 25 years, which may be one reason no one knows exactly what Martin stands for.

Leaving aside any political differences between Chretien and Martin, the shift from a Modern to Post-Modern attitude will change the conduct and content of Canadian politics. (Both sensitivities have supporters on the right and left). The change will also give Jack Layton’s postmodern NDP its best chance in a long time, while finishing off the pre-modern Conservative Party of Canada amalgam.

Modernism was about a world that defied limits, where human imagination, or arrogance, could rule supreme. Steel and concrete made for skyscrapers like the CN Tower and TD Centre. Mass production made the good things of life (and “good things” itself expresses Modernist materialism) accessible to the many, not just the few.

Medical tech conquered sickness without requiring us to take responsibility for mundane details of lifestyle or the environment.

Cars and planes collapsed time and space, creating a new aesthetic that turned roads filled with cars into “parkways” like the Don Valley (more properly the Don Valley Parking Lot).

And the Green Revolution promised food for all by means of new, engineered seeds. Who before the Modernists talked about seeds as engineered? Painting went abstract, poems went free verse, music and dance went every which way, all freed from the stuffiness of the past, and each advance was announced with a new manifesto on futurism.

A manifesto with sound and fury sounding something like this: “We have never been more confident. We have never been more proud. We have never been more sure of who we are. We have never been more eager, more prepared to take on the world.” This Modernist poem is from Chretien’s farewell speech but could have come from a pen in the 1920s.

Few other countries could match Canada’s receptiveness to Modernism. The “Dominion” in the Dominion of Canada refers to the dominion given in the Old Testament Bible to humans over all other species. The iconic role of Hydro Quebec and the massive James Bay project as images of the Quiet Revolution were, of course, known to a guy from Shawinigan.

Canada is one of the few nations dull enough to count the building of a transcontinental rail line as an historic epic, dubbed a “National Dream” by Canada’s most popular historian, Pierre Berton, who captured its mythic significance at the very moment Jean Chretien began his steady ascent in federal politics. Early in his term as PM, he launched a $6 billion infrastructure program. What else does a Modernist country need besides hard infrastructure? Certainly not a softie school meal program like all the other OECD countries.

Canada didn’t put much money into Africa during his term as PM, but it’s sunk a lot into the construction of massive dams in China. As former energy minister and as PM, Chretien was always a champion of nuclear power plants, which only Canadian governments are shameless enough punsters to call CANDUs even though they can’t do anything but spend government money.

Accepting the Tory free trade deal with the U.S., ramping it up to a North American Free Trade Agreement, denouncing any move toward Quebec independence or sovereignty association – these are the telltale signs of Modernism, which has no place for loyalty to place in its list of virtues, because place is about the earth-bound limits that have been conquered by new technologies of transportation and communication.

Little is known about Paul Martin’s mindset, because media attention has focused on his prolonged feud with Chretien, not the substance of either man’s ideas. Nevertheless, there’s not much doubt that Martin is a card-carrying PoMo. PM will be a PM PM: you read it here first.

PoMos reject the Modernist faith in progress, they reject grand narratives and they reject the belief that all people want the same things or are moving in the same direction. Respecting diversity is their strong suit. Centralized and universal government programs are not.

The diversity piece is easy to see, because Martin likes to show it off. As newly elected leader he announced right off the top that women will be well represented among Liberal candidates, a grand symbolic gesture to those who identify gender and other differences (class, ethnicity, etc) – and not the oppression or disavantage underlying them – as central to politics.

“Different strokes for different folks” leaves a lot of room for flexibility, and a lot of room for cunning, too. Martin favours parliamentary reform leading to a situation where there’s not one strong voice, and MPs will have more independence – a reflection of the diversity theme that could decentralize power or, alternatively, render his centralized power less accountable.

Martin can talk the good talk about cities in a way that Chretien never could. He’s willing to share power and money with them in a new urban agenda, he says. City lovers would do well to remember that Martin is a policy geek, and that it’s always been wise to fear the geeks, even those bearing gifts. They could find themselves with two cents on the gas taxation dollar directed to urban transit systems but no cents on the federal dollars that once went to unemployment insurance and social assistance.

It’s happened before, as when Martin was finance minister earlier in Chretien’s government and balanced the federal budget mainly by downloading expenditures to provinces and cutting off benefits, throwing cities into crisis. The intensity of Toronto’s housing, homelessness and hunger crisis speaks to the precision tools wielded by Martin’s cutting experts, the kind of tools much favoured by liberal PoMos – not the one big cut that everyone hears about, but the score of tiny cuts that work more effectively.

Wading through the tired and hollow phrases of his acceptance speech as Liberal leader is no way to find a PoMo nugget, but future historians will note the rote in his speech about opportunities and achievement, and the lack of reference to rights and needs.

Which is where Layton will have his field day, in a clear field he could never have achieved against Chretien, whose Modernism knocked out the NDP, which was left-Modernist until Layton converted it to left-PoMo.

Which gives one little indication of how the ground rules will change now that Chretien is gone.

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