I take my title from Juvenal, a Roman poet and satirist who lived from 60-130 AD. You know a writer is good when he influences Horace, so I’ll round up the various Canadian political scandals at each level of government and see them from an older perspective to remind people that duplicitous, corrupt politicians are anything but new. In his words, “there’ll be no scope for new generations to add to our record of rottenness; they will be just the same in their deeds and desire. Every evil has reached a precipice.”
To borrow a cadence: when our mayor is alleged to have smoked crack, and drug dealers supply a picture of him with citizens newly murdered or imprisoned; when Montreal’s mayor originally tasked with fighting corruption now fights 14 counts of corruption charged against him; when a political party’s partisan decision costs taxpayers more than a half-billion dollars, and evidence of the consciousness of the wrongdoing is destroyed before it can come to light; and when “fiscal” Conservative Senators line their personal bank accounts with tax dollars and not only deny and elaborately cover it up, but then have the gall to impugn the opposition leader for working for charities, it’s hard not to write satire. But my natural response is a cool and detached outrage that is indeed mad, but can laugh at the scandals for their hackneyed predictability. I might be chided for finding serious abuses of public money and trust amusing, but I don’t think any serious person can be surprised by it. Think about it: nobody really denies politicians everywhere are voracious liars and avaricious pigs, yet each time we learn this is in fact the case it’s treated like an aberration.
It all has to do with what kind of person becomes a politician. They will answer that they’re inspired by a desire to facilitate social progress. Essentially, that their cities, provinces and countries improve for being managed by their competent hands and for being in proximity to their robust souls. Are we to expect that politicians aren’t enticed by the power, status, and prestige, and also the salary with incredible benefits and pensions? Why else work in such a toxic, pressure-filled atmosphere that guarantees not just public scrutiny but scorn? Does anyone believe that if politicians’ exorbitant salaries were reduced to the national average that they’d simply remain in office, their concern for constituents compelling them onward, that they wouldn’t simply flee in a mad dash for the exit, taking in flight only their pensions and severance packages? If you clear out the troughs, the pigs will go away, though it’s not only money but power they crave, too. Still, detailed disclosures of the gorging will no doubt outrage us, but nobody should be surprised to learn that the trough attracts hungry pigs.
This isn’t a result of a broken system: people everywhere need to be governed and the scandalous class is attracted to, and formed by, positions of power in general, not just a specific type of government. It’s way beyond conservatives or liberals–it’s not even confined to politics. People in a dominant position, either in rank or in circumstance, usually dominate. Lip service to rules or ethics be damned. Cops beat protestors, bosses yell at assistants…the list is endless.
Canada’s scandals reminds me of a quote from Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, written in 1835: “When inequality of condition is the common law of society, the most marked inequalities do not strike the eye; when everything is nearly on the same level, the slightest are marked enough to hurt it.” Replace the idea of inequality for scandals and you have my view of Canadian society: we notice some fraud here and there and freak out because much worse behaviour isn’t routine, or even entrenched in law, like in so many places. After wearying of Middle Eastern problems, Mordecai Richler called Canada “mostly empty, unspeakably rich, sinfully misgoverned.” Yup.
Change is incremental, small gains are huge, and Canada is wonderful by comparison. People freely criticize Stephen Harper but fear at worst a gang audit, not their lives. The Ontario Liberals blew half a billion dollars, but at least they plan to recoup it–albeit, the plan consists of getting more money from the people whose money they’ve wasted by hugely expanding (“modernizing”) gambling. Yes Mayor Ford has been agonizingly brief and vague with reporters about the crack allegations, but he cannot stop anyone from freely walking into city hall meetings to the assembly where he and his peers make the decisions that shape our lives. Compared to daily death tolls of Jews and Arabs, Richler “yearned for some Canadian homebrew farce.” There’s something to be said for this.
Still, big or small, objection is the only possible reaction to a scandal. But some scandals are pretty! Look closely at the postcard monuments of civilization, those advancements that apparently ennoble us above other animals, and you’ll see what we’d now term scandal not far behind. Giza’s Great Pyramids were built by slaves. The Roman baths also were built by non-union workers, and even after completion required poor people to work in brutal and dangerous conditions feeding furnaces heating the water above so patricians could spa. Better to be a chimney sweep than get a factory job during the Industrial Revolution. 21st century Dubai attracts foreign workers to build impossibly gaudy monstrosities by promising good employment, then upon entry steals their passports and takes them hostage. These things wouldn’t pass in today’s Canada. We are thankfully immune from that kind of scandal.
Other ways to get “world-class” are ugly too. Young Canada doesn’t have the legacy of the Medici’s of Florence or the American gilded age, where old-money imprinted their legacy on a city by bestowing incredible sums into public investments that distracted everyone from how broke they were. We don’t have skyscrapers like New York or Chicago or privately donated art galleries made situated in former residential castles. These things in and of themselves are truly wonderful, but today we’d object to the severe inequality that birthed them. It may be harder to object to scandal when it’s in limestone or acrylic paint, but this is like the partisan politician who objects only when scandal doesn’t favour his party. Because Canada is young and Canadians have an aversion to slave labour and rampant inequality, neither our scandals nor our cultural monuments are truly world class. This is a funny connection but I think it’s real, and much to our credit. Better to live in a place like this, where it’s fundamentally safe and we get the big ethic issues right, and fly elsewhere to visit.
So really, I think the best response to Canadian scandal is to demand improvement and accountability on the surface, but to realise scandals are largely inevitable. It’s best to look reality in the eye and laugh at the absurdity and hypocrisy, all the while appreciating that our leaders’ scandals don’t kill people–disappointment is inevitable, but remember the scale and keep it in proportion. There’s one hope. Mencken said a good politician is quite as unthinkable as an honest burglar. They just want money. Well, my plan isn’t foolproof and I don’t expect to see it implemented tomorrow, or ever really, but we might get reasonably honest politicians the day they, the politicians, table legislation that readjusts their income to match the average Canadian’s. Then, when politics isn’t lucrative but all the negatives of political life remain intact, we might hope the position attracts dedicated civil servants and statesmen, not hypocritical perverts.
Jeff Halperin is a Toronto-based writer. You can follow him on Twitter @JDhalperin.