lundi 14 septembre 2009

Inspiring speeches

From todays Globe and Mail Life Column

Harper v. Ignatieff: once more, with feeling


Early last week, U.S. President Barack Obama delivered a speech to students intended to inspire them to do their best. The down-to-earth talk referred to his own challenging upbringing, and was genuinely touching in places: "Every single one of you has something you're good at," said the President. "Every single one of you has something to offer. And you have a responsibility to yourself to discover what that is." It's hard to know how well the speech succeeded, what with conservatives frothing about the President interfering with their children, and students' natural allergy to character-building pep talks.

But Mr. Obama's speech got me thinking: What would happen if our two top political protagonists decided to "inspire" students? They both seem notably on edge, in the midst of what the media is calling "election fever" and what the Canadian public, faced with the prospect of another vote, simply refers to as "kill me now." Could Stephen Harper and Michael Ignatieff restrain their political ambitions and call on their own childhood experiences to deliver a touching classroom homily?

Let's listen in as Mr. Harper gives it a go.

"Hello kids, I'm Stephen Harper, the legitimate Prime Minister of Canada, not just for now but hopefully for a good long time to come. Some of you may have heard from your parents that there is a danger of me being voted out of office and replaced by a socialist/separatist coalition, but that's not what I'm here to talk about today. I'm here to talk about winning! "I love hockey. You may love football or soccer, but there's a reason in almost all sports that they have an 'offence' as well as a 'defence.' Offence means you decide what you have to do to win and you go do it." "Let's say you want to be student-council president but someone else wants it too, and this person, my friends, has some serious flaws, the most serious being they are not you. My friends, you've got to hit him before he hits you. If your opponent has transferred from another school - maybe he's been at some hoity-toity elitist school in another country - you can say he's 'just visiting' or 'in it for himself.' The means not only justify the ends but the means may have to be really mean. . . . Anyway, in the end all that matters is what God thinks of you.

"What, you've never heard of God in this classroom?"

Hmm, maybe not so much. Let's try Mr. Ignatieff. As a former prof, surely he knows his way around a classroom.

"Hello my budding fellow Canadian academics. As well as being the future PM of the country, but only at a time and place of my own choosing - I already turned it down once - I am also a teacher, so I think I know how you feel today - both excited and scared about the new year ahead.

"I studied hard and see where it got me: I had this really groovy time away in England where they called me "the thinking woman's crumpet" - it's a kind of a muffin, but it really means women find you rather endearing - and then I ended up at Harvard! Although, let me say, there are some perfectly good schools here.

"Now I'm back, but politics, I've discovered, is a far tougher game than being a writer or a thinker. You've got to 'show fight' as I said just the other day in The New Yorker, so hear me loud and clear: I am prepared to mess with Stephen Harper until I am done, but also to walk back down the hill if necessary and then up again and down again and then up again until . . . where was I, metaphorically? "Oh yes, our new slogan in French is, "Nous meritons mieux ." It means we deserve better. We can mean 'you,' but it can also mean 'us.' The Liberals. Running the country is really what we do best and I should know. Both sides of my family were part of the ruling class. You could say we were once the boss of you, and well, noblesse oblige is not such a terrible thing if you're the one noblessing.

"But enough about me, kids. Work hard, give full rein to your creativity, hey here's an idea, why not create a scary new video game called The Two Mr. Harpers - about a man with two faces? A man who's just plain wrong for Canada. . . ."

Okay, perhaps I am being cynical, but just imagining these two guys trying to talk candidly about themselves, let alone impart any life lessons, makes me realize that we have largely come to know them only by their negatives as defined by each other.

So Mr. Harper is the cold, calculating, take-no-prisoners partisan and Mr. Ignatieff is the overly intellectual, entitled elitist, back to graciously save our sorry souls? Seen this way, neither is remotely appetizing. Which is why no one wants an election. Who cares! We know more about Mr. Obama's childhood struggles than we do about theirs.

So here's a crazy idea: What would happen if they both publicly told their life stories honestly, without partisan cant or ideology? At least we'd know who they really are.

If either of them got up and told the true story of themselves and what they really value, they'd inspire more than students. We might even feel like voting for one of them.

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