6.03.2011

arash azizi and stephen james kerr: inexperienced ndp mps will be just fine

The media has had a jolly old time ragging on the new, young, inexperienced Members of Parliament in the NDP caucus. Even the most casual observer of mainstream Canadian news will note the mocking, smirking stories about the "latest gaffes" by the Jack Layton's "gang of rookies".

By contrast, in the US, inexperience is often a huge selling point for candidates. Non-politicians are often (and often falsely) hailed as "outsiders". Anyone who can claim "outside the Beltway" status - meaning the Washington, DC area, that is, not entrenched in the culture of politics - beats it like a drum and is thought to have an edge on her opponent.

I have mocked this attitude myself, wondering in what other profession one would regard inexperience as a positive quality. Would you seek an "outsider" brain surgeon? An inexperienced lawyer? A carpenter or housepainter who wasn't well-versed in her trade? Likely not. But I'm not worried about the NDP caucus - at least not because they're young. Here's why.

Arash Azizi, a 23-year-old NDP organizer, wrote an Op-Ed in the Toronto Star: "Young NDP caucus will be a strength, not a weakness". It's worth reading, but here's an excerpt.
Today, our Parliament is far closer to being an “exact portrait” in terms of gender, ethnicity and sexual orientation. We have elected MPs from widely diverse ethnic backgrounds, from African Canadians to turbaned Sikh Canadians (the first in the Western World) and several openly gay MPs. And even though we rank 52nd when it comes to female representation in political office, we have just elected a Parliament in which a quarter of the members are female — a record.

Can we then say that we are close to having an “exact portrait” of the Canadian nation on Parliament Hill?

Certainly not.

Far from being “one of us,” Members of Parliament often are lawyers, businesspeople, journalists or experts of one kind or other. Even when they are not, they often adopt lifestyles so widely different from the rest of us that too often they lose their common touch. In short, perhaps to the dismay of Adams, legislatures in Canada, as in other liberal democracies, are in no way an “exact portrait . . . of the people at large.”

That the New Democratic Party has fought to challenge this status quo should come as no surprise. . . .

The mainstream media have raised a hue and cry in targeting the humble origins of all these new NDP Members of Parliament. After all the earlier fuss about low voter turnout, especially among youth, pundits now seem unhappy that young people actually have been elected to Parliament.

Our new MPs in Quebec are under attack every day because of their age, their “inexperience” and their humble origins. Often the $157,731 salary of a MP is mentioned in a condescending way as if they were not talking about our elected representatives but some kid who has just hit the jackpot in a casino!

Young New Democrats in Ontario and around the country welcome this new swath of MPs who are much more of an “exact portrait” of us and the working people of this country.

It is our fervent hope that after the hours of bureaucratic “preparation” they are currently undergoing they will not forget the sense of purpose and guiding principles that led them to join the NDP.
Stephen James Kerr, writing in X-Ray Magazine, looks at the question from a philosophical vantage point. In his analysis, the idea that political judgment is "a specialized skill, given only to a few" is "a steaming heap of bullshit."
The recent spate of hand wringing over the youth and "inexperience" of some of our new Members of Parliament is risible, scripted, and campy.

“They’re young, they’re NDP, they’re MPs and they’re coming this way!” reads the newspaper headline.

“What are we going to do?” screams the panicky pundit.

“Hide the children!”

“But they ARE children…”

For some people, the election of a handful of previously-unknown-to-the-general-public NDP MPs under the age of 30 is “Attack of the 50-Foot Woman” scary.

Far scarier are the arguments of their critics, and the lack of conviction shown by some of their defenders.

For their detractors, and even for those who would defend them, these youthful voices in the democratic debate come without much “experience” and hence without much value.

And so they can be mocked. The May 4th edition of the National Post caricatured them as the “Layton Bunch” riffing with the Post’s usual heavy hand on the 70’s Brady Bunch sitcom, featuring Jack as the father, and MPs as kids.

More troublesome however has been the response of some of the MPs’ well-intentioned defenders. It suggests that they are unable to marshal our best arguments in defense of democracy.

These weak defenders often shift the focus of the debate onto the so-called “star” NDP candidates from Quebec; Francoise Boivin, Tyrone Benskin, Romeo Saganash, et al. It’s as if they’re conceding a point to the anti-democratic enemy: not just anybody can govern themselves or others.

. . .

Everyone is missing the point. Their error goes back to the very philosophical foundations of the conflict between democracy and oligarchy.

The fundamental philosophical argument against democracy is that political judgment is a specialized skill, given only to a few.

This is the argument of Socrates and Plato in the Republic: that the Athenians allow simple sailors and tradesmen to lead them, and so are led to ruin. Plato relates how Socrates taught that political skills are analogous to a trade, and so government should be left to “the one who knows.”

Their followers, admirers of anti-democratic Sparta, staged two bloody coups d’├ętat based on this idea. This has been the intellectual last line of defense of every King and of every tyrant since. It’s at the root of the Fuhrerprinzip. But it has also corrupted our own modern notions of democracy, plagued by self-dealing, “indispensable” specialists at every turn.

It’s also a steaming heap of bullshit.
Read it here.

14 comments:

James said...

By contrast, in the US, inexperience is often a huge selling point for candidates. Non-politicians are often (and often falsely) hailed as "outsiders".

Anyone can be hailed as an outsider, with the media's help. John McCain ran as an outsider, and now Newt Gingrich is trying to present himself as an outsider.

laura k said...

Gingrich as outsider! That's even crazier than McCain.

James said...

Gingrich as outsider! That's even crazier than McCain.

When Gingrich did his "Reforming Medicare isn't the way to go" -- "Anyone who quotes me on that is lying" flip-flop last week, his press secretary had this to say:

The literati sent out their minions to do their bidding. [...] Washington cannot tolerate threats from outsiders who might disrupt their comfortable world. The firefight started when the cowardly sensed weakness. They fired timidly at first, then the sheep not wanting to be dropped from the establishment’s cocktail party invite list unloaded their entire clip, firing without taking aim their distortions and falsehoods. Now they are left exposed by their bylines and handles.

John Lithgow did a dramatic reading of that for the Colbert Report.

impudent strumpet said...

Is this...what's the word I'm looking for...disparagement/cavalier dismissal/denigration of young adults' adulthood a recent thing, or has it always been around? I've noticed it a lot in recent years (other examples include recent changes to Ontario driving rules, and calls for universities to have more of a custodial responsibility over their students every time something bad happens at a university) but I don't remember it around when I was younger, although I'm not sure whether or not I would have noticed it when I was in my teens or younger.

laura k said...

Good question/observation. In my opinion, yes, always. Young people are apathetic - they're irresponsible - they're selfish - superficial. Then they turn 30 and all that magically disappears and the next generation has the same evil traits.

laura k said...

I once heard the author of this book give a talk about his research. He showed that everything said in the media about youth is true of society at large - meaning that all the problems attributed to young people (drugs, crime, apathy) are found in nearly the same amounts, if not more, in the general population.

I haven't read the book, but his talk was very impressive.

impudent strumpet said...

I wonder if they did the same thing during/shortly after WWII, when they needed all their young people to go do a job that needed to be considered heroic.

laura k said...

I wonder if it began as a reaction to youth rebellion culture. From the Beatniks and then Hippies, and on from there.

Nitangae said...

Azizi's article is really good. On the whole, I think Kerr may over-sell his point. I think it is good to have career politicians, and even lawyers, in disproportionate numbers in the house. But I also think all this excitement about the young NDP caucus is silly, in much the same way that much of the talk about vote splitting is silly.

Quite beyond everything else, the good people of Trois Riviere knew long in advance that Brousseau was an assistant manager in a bar who spoke poor French who was taking her holiday in Vegas (did anybody in Canada not know this?), just as the Liberals of Northern Vancouver Island knew perfectly well that the race was a close one between the Conservatives and the NDP. The Liberals of Vancouver Island, however, decided not to vote for either the two likely winners (good for them), and the riding went to the Conservatives. The people of Trois Riviere ignored massive coverage about the hilarious Brousseau, and voted for her. They have had their say, and the rest of us should now shut up about it:-).

This isn't even starting on the good people of my home province, who vote for anything with Conservative beside his name. There are Alberta MPs who are actually evil, have been serving in the house for ever, and yet are still incompetent and incapable of saying anything sensible. On the whole, I think Trois Riviere beats Calgary in terms of good judgement.

laura k said...

Thanks for the perspective, Nitangae. Great stuff.

have been serving in the house for ever, and yet are still incompetent and incapable of saying anything sensible

Excellent observation. Not unlike many members of the media who are harping on this nonsense.

Nitangae said...

When I say that I think Kerr's article is a bit over-stated, I don't mean that I think it is a bad thing that we now have a lot of new and young faces in the House of Commons. But I think that Layton is right to mention that the NDP have very experienced Quebec MPs as well. It isn't so much that political judgment requires certain types of people, but that we need progressive politicians who know the ropes at least as well as the corporate lobbyists. I think that is often the problem with term limits in the US.

Nitangae said...

"inexperience is often a huge selling point for candidates. Non-politicians are often (and often falsely) hailed as "outsiders"."

By the way, that is also true in Canada, provided that the outsiders (or pseudo-outsiders) in question are also conservative and probably from Western Canada.

Youth was also a great asset when the young people were members of the Reform Party. Helena Guergis's husband (once my honourable member, but I cannot remember his name off-hand), Ezra Levant, and a number of others, were hot, innovative, not-stuck-in-the-mud-like-you-socialist-baby-boomers, proof that the new generation would vote Conservative, etc. This was how they were described in the National Post, I think. If someone could find the reference I would appreciate it.

Ezra Levant even wrote a book called Youthquake to discuss this phenomenon. I won't link that piece of garbage, but it is on Amazon.

If Brosseau and a number of the new NDP representatives were new Conservatives, I expect most of the media discussion would be focused on how extremely attractive they were. We would be told how, in contrast to you bad feminists who vote NDP, Brosseau is a fine-looking blond who is not afraid of her femininity and doesn't complain about sexism; Rathika Sitsabaiesan would be a woman who is not afraid of traditional family values and a sign that the Conservatives were in-tune with the "very ethnics," and also hot; Alexandrine Latendresse would be a quirky and in-your-face libertarian type, and also very hot. That would be the coverage.

Rona Ambrose used to get non-stop coverage on her looks, as did Helena Guergis; a bit like Palin, actually. I suppose we can be glad in a sense that they are letting up on this sort of sexism in the case of the NDP.

laura k said...

I think that is often the problem with term limits in the US.

I certainly agree that we need experienced progressive representatives, but there are no term limits in the US on the federal level, except for president. There's a dire shortage of progressives, but not of experience. :)

laura k said...

Oh yes, I had forgotten about the phony outsiders from western Canada, and that nutbar's book. As with so many things, the same theme exists in Canada, but to a lesser extent than in the US.

On your other point, when we first came to Canada, the media was all atwitter over Belinda Stronach. There was a lot of horrible sexism around anything she did. She changed her hair colour and it was front page news on the G&M.

But we also saw very strong public reaction against the sexism, much more so than we were used to from the US.