Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Eat, Pray, Love - McGuinty's malaise

I never read the ubiquitous bestseller by Elizabeth Gilbert for reasons which I hope are obvious, but I believe I have picked up the gist of it through osmosis, after witnessing thousands of women power through it on public transit. A high-powered, successful, type-A, New York career yuppie childless sort of woman embarks on a year of travelling to explore sensory pleasures (food, Italy), spiritual pleasures (yoga, India) and some love story crap (Indonesia). It is hard to say what element of a book resonates with the zeitgeist to explode as this one did, but I suspect it was the mix of the pseudo-enlightened, the pseudo-spiritual, and the narcissist reality-based drama that you can see doing such brisk business in a variety of afternoon and primetime TV vehicles that the book contained. And it was successful despite a lot of self-justification, a lot of assumptions about the audience, and a lot of corny emotional appeals. These things, generally considered no-nos when you want to endear yourself to people, did not hurt the author's sales, but they may harm Canada's largest province's government's electoral prospects.

I see parallels between the Premier of Ontario and the author in that, in the past, they have both convinced millions that they are knowledgeable saviours worth listening to. I also think that the title of the book, which describes one way of dealing with an existential crisis, is an apt way to describe the Ontario government's approach to appealing to citizens and staying in power


The inspiration for this bit-of-a-stretch correlation came from the advertising that I've been seeing in increased volume the past few years trying to make local (as in local to our over 1 million square kilometre province) food seem like an important and vital part of everyone's lives. The effort is commendable, but the waste of taxpayer dollars is not. It is a waste because sadly, la gastronomie (the art of selecting, preparing, cooking, and dining on quality foods and superb ingredients) remains a hopelessly middle-upper class, bourgeois pursuit. No amount of advertising by the government will convince poor people to stop eating frozen pizzas, TV dinners, McDonalds and drinking pop; nutrition, like education, can only be fostered by a supportive and balanced home/family environment during childhood. As much as this do-gooder government would be loathe to admit it, there is effectively nothing in the North American marketplace to incentivize making healthy choices, and why would people renounce habitual consumption of foods that are designed to feed the brain's "reward centres" (sugar, salt, fat, starch) just because the government very subtly suggesting so, especially when they are so aggressively marketed?

Is the hopeless cynic at me glad that fruits and vegetables remain stubbornly unpopular among lower classes? Of course not. I am directing my cynicism to the government, who really are distributing these materials not to po' folks but to the educated classes, who they guess are the urbane, the sophisticated, the enlightened, in hopes that they will make themselves appear concerned and knowledgeable to them, because its their votes they desperately crave (not poor people's, who abstain from voting in much higher proportions than their more well-off counterparts). I suppose it’s better than not promoting local agricultural products, but choosing them whenever possible should go without saying. If you don't know that, is something that says "Paid for by the government on Ontario" right on it going to make you conscious of it? I'm inclined to think that it will not. Independent fruit and vegetable producers have enough trouble getting by and do not have the millions to fight conglomerates like McDonalds, Coca cola and everyone else on TV and on the billboards, so why doesn't the government take serious legislative steps to somehow curtail their activities (such as, not letting Nestle bottle its water for a pittance at Aberfoyle) instead of wasting money on a David v. goliath fight they cannot win. Probably because they are impotent and scared in front of these powerful interests and that is how they choose to be and how they want to be.

And that is why I am picking on this government today. Because their actions and their publicity, however well-intentioned, are not about improving the lives of Ontarians, or making hard decisions for the future, or making our province "green" and "modern". They are about perception and image. They would have you believe that they are hard at work doing these things but as soon as, the minute, anybody in McGuinty's entourage catches a whiff that they might be offending the status quo, business interests, or the suburban middle class, this government immediately does one of two things.

1) Reverse their position and backtrack on their initiative (which, hilariously, does nothing to placate the people who hate them in their first place while offending those who might otherwise be supportive)
2) Take no position at all and hope that it comes out in the wash (which just pisses everybody off)


This is the part of the government's strategy I describe as "praying" because how else could they think that people could be so stupid not to see what they are doing and the pathetic hypocrisy and spineless relativism in their track record? In football, when a series of blunders have given your opponent an insurmountable lead over your team, the last-ditch, buzzer-beating play is known as a "Hail Mary". A prayer. Praying is what human beings do when were f***ed, except Muslims who do it 5 times a day. I can just see the Hail Mary huddle happening in Queen's Park right now.

"All right guys, four years ago we beat our opponent who wanted to treat all religions equally by funding all their schools by sticking with the status quo and only funding one religion's school board. Now, our task is much bigger. We've said we wanted to develop alternative energy sources but we snuffed out the biogas plant in Oakville at the first peep from NIMBYists. We wanted to reduce toxic chemicals in Ontario's water systems but we reversed the taxes on the most toxic products as soon as the public heard about them. We wanted to educate kids about sexuality in a way appropriate to 21st century norms and morals but scrapped it within 24 hours at the demand of conservative evangelicals and Charles McVety. We wanted to reduce emissions and gridlock but we cancelled a bunch of transit funding for Toronto because the Toronto Sun complained about the deficit which was largely caused by bailing out GM and Chrysler. We wanted to reduce wait times so we spent a lot of money telling people they had health care options near them even though 25% of them don't have a doctor and we have the highest (the highest) hospital bed occupancy rate in the developed world. We wanted to give the OMB power to reduce sprawl, yet the sprawl is worse than ever and municipalities have learned from Durham that they can openly flout the OMB. We wanted to decrease child poverty by 25% and instead increased it by 11%, while still finding the time every week to give speeches to the Conference Board, Chambers of Commerce, and Bay Street luncheons about what sound footing our province was on. And we wanted to be a transparent, responsible government that listened to citizens so we secretly passed 11th hour, unconstitional legislation to help the Prime Minister hold his billion dollar G20 wack off session."

"Now let's join our hands in prayer and implore our Catholic School God to brainwash the people of Ontario into thinking we really are a progressive, caring, honest, one size fits all best choice to govern them."

Those were all examples of #1. #2 would be refusing to comment on Muslim students holding massive prayer gatherings in public school cafeteria in Flemington Park, refusing to comment on the potentially explosive issue of Caledonia, refusing to answer why the province has double the ministries and bureaucracies and a fraction of the power to confront double the problems…


Of course the government is counting on the public’s dislike/lack of awareness about its two opponents (Hudak Conservatives and Horwath NDP) to translate into love and votes for it. Believe me; I don’t want you to vote for either of these people any more than I want you to vote for McGuinty. If anything, this province would be well-served by a completely inexperienced, unknown bunch of deer in the electoral headlights who could do no worse than the waste and mismanagement we’ve seen under 16 years of McGuinty/Harris rule.
The real irritant for me about this government, though, is they want you to be in love with Ontario, not because your home, not its particular characteristics that only you as a resident can be truly acquainted with, but with this fabricated image of it created by them.

An example of this idealistic pandering is some hilarious ads I've seen about Ontario's creative industries, with the painfully lame and unhip header "We've Got it Going ON" (as in, the abbreviation for the province...get it?) Someone forgot to tell whoever made 80 thousand dollars to write that phrase that there is nothing hip or happening about the uniformly white, staid, middle-aged sanctimonious provincial liberal cabinet, especially when they use the title of a 1998 Backstreet Boys hit to describe our economy. But of course, again, their language and imagery ("books, movies, art, and music...and that contributes 300,000 jobs and 12.5 billion a year to the Ontario economy") demonstrate that they would like to have everyone believe (or rather, the well-intentioned, semi-enlightened middle-upper class people they really hope will vote for them) that Ontario is mostly powered by film festivals, rock singers, and really sleek and suave young people in downtown Toronto with ipads and skinny jeans working as graphic designers and independent publishers. Forget all thousands of enterprises and employees in Ontario manufacturing plastic, steel, cars, toxic chemicals and our daily burning of coal, gridlock commutes, and clear cutting of forests. Thanks to Ontario's government, we are working in a "knowledge" and "skills-based" economy! If you don't get your bread and butter from this overflowing abundance of bubbling creativity and wonder why you work at the Reitmans in the big box development beside your suburb for minimum wage, it's probably because the techy creative hip job that would allow you to afford local strawberries that cost 3 times as much as the ones from California hasn't trickled down to you yet.

I want a government in this province that is honest, hard working and lives within its means, not one that constantly glosses over this province’s challenges (and potential) with platitudes and bullshit. No wonder so many people were driven into escapism with Elizabeth Gilbert’s travel memoir. My jibes at her aside, she did take destiny in her own hands, a leap forward, and changed her fate for the better. Something this province, after eight years with this premier, is fundamentally incapable of doing.

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