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The Cardus Daily

Where is this Ship Headed, Captain?

Brian Dijkema  |  October 12, 2012  |  Games, Institutions, Politics

As you cut through the hype and horror of the daily news cycle surrounding the daily movements of Justin (no formal titles among friends), and read his opening speech, you get a picture of a candidate who—despite landing a punch or two in his day—prefers to downplay the blood, blows, and sweat of politics, and emphasize things that we can all get behind.

The watchwords of his speech are intended to be non-threatening and romantic; inspirational even. It started with the quote from the father of German romanticism and continued in that stream—love, trust, listening, open minds, big dreams (his and yours!), and youth. I got a sense that Canada was the Dead Poets Society, with Justin as O Captain! My Captain! This is, of course, good politics. It’s hard to motivate the masses with a level-headed realism.

But, then I read this:

the only ideology that must guide us is evidence. Hard, scientific facts and data. It may seem revolutionary in today’s Ottawa, but instead of inventing the facts to justify the policies, we will create policy based on facts. Solutions can come from the left or the right, all that matters is that they work. That they help us live—and thrive—true to our values.

What do we make of that? Is Justin a level headed realist, or a romantic? How do you square big dreams with big data?

But, at second glance, there is no contradiction. Justin remains a romantic. Why? Because only a romantic would imagine that he can have access to pure, unadulterated facts, unscathed by the dirt and grime of politics; only a romantic would imagine that he is beyond the purview of a worldview. As Dan Gardner notes,

Ideology is simply “a system of ideas or way of thinking,” as the OED puts it. It is the lens through which someone perceives reality . . . We all possess a more or less coherent ideology. We couldn’t function without one. Sometimes we are aware of our ideology and think carefully about it, but more often it is implicit in our thinking and we give it no more thought than a fish gives to the water it breathes. Of course what Trudeau meant to say, but did not, is that if and when ideology conflicts with evidence, he will go with evidence. [But] evidence comes in all shapes in sizes.

It’s an important insight. Even if Justin wants to govern according to the “facts”—which, I guess, is much better than making stuff up—he still must come to terms with the “fact” that politics isn’t a science lab. It’s not a math classroom either. Nor will empty talk about dreams and purpose and progress do the job.

Politics is a place where hard decisions need to be made in the face of a wide variety of contradictory variables. We all want the things he wants—good jobs, greater unity, opportunity for the youth and the vulnerable. I’d go out on a limb and say that the NDP and Conservatives want those too. The question is only how to achieve those things, and what decisions you will make to get there. Which institutions can best serve us? What sort of choices are we not willing to make, and according to what framework?

Facts and dreams don’t tell you which homeless program you should fund or cut, or how much the government should invest in the arts, or when a human life is worthy of legal protection, or whether we should send troops to Turkey’s defence, or whether to raise taxes.

No, as Jonathan Chaplin notes, “Each of these clusters of issues raises vexing but urgent questions of how the public realm should be ordered justly, and how its interactive spaces, avenues of opportunity, and material benefits should be made available equitably and safely to all.”

Justin talks a lot about dreams, which suited him well in the ducking, lunging, punching, and blocking of the boxing ring. But everyone, including his followers, should be looking for policies to judge, not his agility or hairstyle.

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