Tuesday, April 28, 2009

On symbolism and political pinheads

For people who ought to understand the importance of symbolism better than most, politicians certainly can be pinheaded at times. Sure, they grasp the simple stuff: when you hold a press conference, be sure there are lots of flags visible in the background; when giving a speech in the house of commons, make sure the seats surrounding you are filled elbow-to-elbow with dutifully smiling subordinate MPs; be sure to show up at the Calgary Stampede in a cowboy hat (even if you look preposterous in it) but never allow yourself to be photographed in a hair net inside a food processing factory, and so forth.

But when it comes to a more sophisticated understanding of the power of symbolism, two events of the past week demonstrate how lacking elected officials can be, and highlight for me some sublime reasons why polls routinely show that most voters have minimal respect and considerable contempt for politics and politicians. The first was a decision made by the administration of Barack Obama, someone that I certainly thought would have had more sense. On April 27, in an ill-conceived publicity stunt the President's plane (the famous Air Force One) buzzed Manhattan, escorted by military jets. Apparently it was done to provide somebody with a photo opportunity, but the White House forgot to inform New York City officials in advance.  Unsurprisingly, when New Yorkers saw a large passenger aircraft escorted by fighters flying low toward the city's skyscrapers, panic ensued and people began fleeing office towers. Red-faced White House officials had to quickly offer an apology; the mayor of New York was understandably furious. For an administration that prides itself on getting 'optics' just right, it's hard to imagine a stupider blunder.

Canada's government would not allow itself to be outdone. Yesterday it was revealed that the small, plastic Canadian flag pins that adorn every federalist politician's lapel, and which every MP's office doles out by the bucketload, have lately been made in China. With behavior that has become tiresomely regular in Canadian politics, Heritage Minister James Moore* responded with half-truths, obfuscations and fibs. With the cameras on him in the House of Commons, Moore proclaimed with faked pride that the latest government contract for these pins was proudly awarded to a Canadian company based in Quebec. And this was true - the government did indeed pay nearly a quarter million dollars to a Quebec firm, which promptly subcontracted the actual making of the pins to a company in China. When pressed, Moore then concocted a story that it was the parliamentary gift shop that was getting its pins from China.

There are a several layers of irony to flag-pin fiasco. The first is that the current federal government never misses an opportunity to drape itself in patriotism (you lose count of the number of maple leaf flags behind the Prime Minister when he does a staged press conference (hopefully the flags are still made in Canada)). Second, I find it hard to imagine that the American administration - even one capable of panicking New Yorkers into thinking that another 9/11-type attack was under way - would be so idiotic as to allow official US government star-spangled-banner flag pins to be outsourced to a foreign country. Further still, the Canadian-based manufacturer that actually makes these pins for the parliamentary gift shop, and that would like to sell them to the government as well, is located in Pickering, Ontario. Pickering is a community where employment is closely to the failing auto sector and where many are already out of work; it also happens to be a few minutes drive from the office of Canadian finance minister Jim Flaherty. I suspect Flaherty isn't pleased by the symbolism. 

I won't belabour my point any further, except to say God help the government should Don Cherry get wind of this one.

*Where else on the internet will find Moore and Obama mentioned in the same blog? Yet another reason to continue reading This Geographical Life! 

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