“He is not my Prime Minister!” the man shouted, his face flushed, eyes narrowed and lips pursed. His comment was clearly personal—not some passing remark made between mates at the local pub. It caught my attention right away; I was sitting two tables away from those men. As I looked up from the plate in front of me and peered over at them, my first thought, I’m afraid to confess, was highly prejudiced. I wondered who this ignorant low-brow was and why he was yelling in a family restaurant. In all fairness, the pub was only separated from the dining area by plants and a half wall. I suppose it’s easy to think that was a sufficient barrier to demarcate the kid-friendly area from where the adult conversations happen.
“Not my Prime Minister/President” is a phrase I’ve heard many times in recent years, yet the oddity of the statement never ceases to annoy me—sorry, intrigue me… I wanted to walk over and ask the man whose Prime Minister he was exactly? I’m not sure that question would have prompted a well thought-out or even a logical answer. But perhaps this is but the product of my own biases. I see those who understand and those who don’t, conservatives and liberals, good and evil people, the enlightened and the dullards, the givers and takers, the accomplished and the entitled; in short, us and them… Do I actually see them or is polarization so ubiquitous that I simply feel compelled to think in those terms? Are those men equally compelled, indoctrinated, is this simply the state of our society?
Much figurative ink has been spilled writing about polarization in our society. Some believe it was the 43rd American President, George W. Bush, who revived the sentiment. To be sure, he’s made a dent on the world when he famously said on the 20th of September 2001, “Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” As far as speeches go, it was neat, concise, deliberate and purposeful. And from a social psychology perspective, it was a brilliantly simple choice on offer—angel or devil, righteous or evil, freedom fighter or terrorist. It was a simple binary, us or them. And, of course, it works all the better if we ignore the false dilemma in the argument— ignoring any other possible alternative.
But let us not get hung up on the details. Polarization depends on our capacity to remain abstract in our vitriol. After all, Bush did have bi-partisan support and applause when he delivered that speech. That night he promised the United States was a country awakened to danger and called to defend freedom. He described American grief as metamorphosed into anger, and that anger transformed into resolve. George W. Bush went on to promise, “Whether we bring our enemies to justice, or bring justice to our enemies, justice will be done.” A promise that lived up to the now tried-and-tested political foreign policy of strategic ambiguity. Today no ambiguity is left; justice was served for the 2,977 victims who perished on September 11th, 2001, the single deadliest attack on American soil.
(Graph shows all American deaths by terrorism from 1970 to 2020 Global Terrorism Database)
When the dust finally settled over the grey Manhattan sky, the 2,997 mostly civilian lives lost on September 11, 2001 would be avenged over the next twenty plus years. The so-called war on terror became the longest war in American history, coming at an additional cost to American and allied military personnel. An estimated 2,298 US military troops, 1,145 allied troops, and approximately 3,900 US contractors would perish in the military response. If you are keeping score, though, the justice brought to the enemies would inflict approximately 156,000 deaths in Afghanistan and Pakistan—and an additional 249,000 deaths in Iraq, for a grand total of 405,000 people in three countries. Of those, according to the Watson Institute of International & Public Affairs at Brown University, approximately 280,000 were civilians. A lesson was definitely learned in the Middle East and surrounding regions.
The war on terror has been a permanent fixture in our Western psyche for over two decades. It’s shaped our discourse and altered our perceptions. This is really the undercurrent that contextualized the pub conversation which prompted my pontification here. From the othering of people from far-away lands to the contemporary policy of North American immigration bringing mostly brown faces to its shores, there’s a lot for us to unpack. The reality is our world is changing, the shades around us darkening, the culture shifting and, let’s face it, that makes some people feel very uncomfortable. From these circumstances rise the perfect conditions to incubate tribalism and build up the walls, ideologically in some places and manifested differently in others. Those men did not like the politics of that effeminate head of state who did not represent them. He was undoubtedly an other!
The history of democracy goes all the way back to ancient world, from Sumer to India and from the Greeks to the Romans, all the way until its resurgence during the enlightenment. Yet after traversing this vast expanse of time and space, we seem to have lost the kernel that makes it worth maintaining. And we see this clearly when we hear people say, “I don’t read non-fiction, who has time for all that history stuff, live in the moment baby!” But what does this have to do with these two men in the pub? Well, as their conversation continued, and I couldn’t help eavesdropping, they pulled out all the chart toppers” “Libtards,” “commies,” “turban-wearing politicians using TikTok as a platform” and “the 5% hijacked by those extremists who split the vote but do have somewhat of a point.” That PM who represents those “others” who are not really Canadian makes it impossible to voice thoughts openly because freedom is being threatened; and also the AR15 is an ideal choice for deer hunting, you know? Although if I’m being honest here, my favourite had to be the one about us only needing one party.
To be clear, the conversation could as easily have included commentary about country bumpkins colluding with the folks in the one percentile. About misogyny and the need to get “woke”, the out-of-touch traditionalists of gender and white hegemony. Somehow all of it culminating in the need to have one, just one, party so no one had to deal with these hold outs from a by-gone era. I guess I’m saying that left or right, up or down, the ticket there is enough tribalism to go around. It turns out everyone is always right inside their echo chambers, surrounded by like-minded friends and allies. All fighting the clear and present danger lurking around the corner by the “others”.
In reality, a quick TikTok-length tour through the history of just the 20th century would highlight the problems with the policy of One. From the one-child policy to the one-party system of governance, from the one great society to the one superior race to the one-drop rule. It might even provide some insight into the vilification of the evil other, those other-worldly mongrels who threaten our way of life, our culture, our traditions and our nationhood—the specifics of which, of course, are infinitely malleable to accommodate the zeitgeist of the times. Perhaps these Others have the wrong Holy Book or the wrong Holy Man, or maybe they even the wrong Holy Spirit. Perhaps they possess the wholly wrong skin tone or the wholly wrong ancestry. Perhaps their ancestors were too heavily subjugated or too unevenly privileged, too high in the caste system or so low they are outside of it. All one needs to know is the self-evident truth that wherever there is an us, there is inevitably a them, those others.
When our political parties get so tribal, we spend all our time voting out our adversaries rather than voting in the best options. It then becomes easy to lose the forest through the trees. The point of opposition is to allow dissent and meaningful discourse to elevate the value of all our policies, to come together in the end to create more inclusive governance that better serves all Canadians. Democracy is about compromise; it’s about the collective voice. It is the antidote to monarchy and authoritarianism, the guard rail against totalitarianism. We could lose sight of the forest and focus on the individual trees, but this democratic state of ours only works if we have the courage to keep it.
Or, I don’t know, we could just live in the moment baby!
Not My Prime Minister
“He’s not my Prime Minister”
The words echoed in the room
It all sounded sinister
Like a dark impending doom
But they stirred me from my reverie
Bore a hole into my brain
They seemed to drip with treachery
I quietly mouthed them again
“He’s not my Prime Minister”
Five words layered like an onion
A conundrum wrapped in enigma
From which a sermon could be written
The earworm continued burrowing
Down the rabbit hole I plunged
Had I lost my reasoning abilities?
Was I mentally challenged?
Perhaps I had unwittingly
Changed my geographical location
Did I no longer live in a democracy?
A blink-of-an eye migration
Has society become so polarized?
Sharply split between us and them
Division now romanticized
An ironic ad hominem
Why not build a bridge between us and them
A place of dialogue and discourse
Or is this universal absurdism
Leaving us with no other recourse?
He may not be your Prime Minister
But he represents the will of the majority
We may choose to assassinate his character
But we must respect his authority
We can malign the office bearer
Criticize all the tries to say and do
He is not a king, he’s no emperor
He’s accountable to me and you
But the Office that he represents
Is the seat of our democracy
And it is not by coincidence
We must “stand on guard for thee”
Just because we don’t see eye to eye
Just because we are “opponents”
Does not mean we are enemies
That is cognitive dissonance