October 26th, 2020

Political leadership and elites

By Lethbridge Herald Opinon on December 3, 2019.

By Peter Heffernan

All of Canada’s current provincial premiers are white males; among its territorial premiers are a white male, a MŽtis female and an Inuit male; Canada’s prime minister is a white male and the governor general of Canada a white female. As want of modesty in one’s consideration about one’s capabilities, sometimes characterized as high self-opinion, is perhaps more evident in generally privileged than in poor, marginalized and minority groups, it is perhaps unsurprising that Canada’s political leadership is predominantly what it is.

When uncredentialed enters the equation, as is the case for Alberta’s Premier Kenney, a political lifer with no other experience and who dropped out of university without completing, one suspects he possibly diminishes those who have. Albertans (51.4 per cent of whom hold college diplomas, university certificates/diplomas below a bachelor’s degree, and bachelor’s degrees or higher) are in sync with other Canadians (www150.statca.gc.ca), who have the highest education rate among OECD countries. Wise parents always counsel ample formal education and wise societies consistently value those who meet significant, educational benchmarks. While there are cynics and petty-minded here and everywhere, Albertans on the whole quite clearly value education and (point of pride) want and are willing to pay for highly qualified individuals across the spectrum. We ask much of ourselves; why not also of those who guide our ship of state?

In the interim, overt proclamations of disdain for so-called elites, which some now identify as experts or specialists, have become common since the latter decades of the 20th century. In other times, royals out of touch with their subjects were seen as being heartless elites and met their fate at the guillotine (the French Bourbons) or before the firing squad (the tsars of the Romanov dynasty) or were dethroned/exiled by their own people (the last shah of Iran’s Peacock dynasty). So-called elites of our times are mercifully spared such excesses but, alas, being more willy-nilly identified as such; the bar for who is or is not a reviled elite is being set more arbitrarily and consistently inconsistently. How so?

While not as excessive, quite a lot of our era’s wrath directed toward those identified as elites is still malicious and soul-destroying, not only for those who are the targets but for all of society (as the smut recently clandestinely painted on the outside wall of Ottawa MP Catherine McKenna’s campaign office attests). As for arbitrary, some who by objective standards might be considered elites, including prime ministers (among whom former PM Stephen Harper) and presidents (among whom billionaire U.S. President Donald Trump) unusually exclude themselves, play their countries’ citizens for fools, and have the seeming cheek to identify not themselves but rather whomever they object to as being elites. The trend is disquieting.

The word Žlite is an abused term borrowed from another language, place and times, much as “yellow vesters” recently became an odd, western riff on gilets jaunes. If so-called experts and specialists are the target, let’s simply say so and call a spade a spade. Yet, as the skill sets of many are limited, as is the case for the author, too, he considers medical practitioners, fellow intellectual workers, furnace and heating specialists, plumbers, farmers, oil and gas workers, along with journalists and others experts in our complex, highly advanced, organized society in which we may think we don’t but inevitably often do depend on their skills for the good of all of us. None of them warrant our disdain.

If by elites, we mean the highfalutin and the pretentious, then let’s call those things out as such and not as something other than what they are. Of course, we all know from experience such types: politicians, religious leaders, educators, doctors, boasting friends, co-workers and family members we’re not all that fond of, and sometimes even ourselves (in a weak moment and on a bad day). Perhaps we should replace the word “elite” with “hoi-polloi,” the meaning of which points to both the common, everyday person and, alternatively, the so-called high in society: plutocrats, prime ministers and presidents. Then, whatever their station, hold each to account for their integrity, grit and wit and stop abusing and manipulating.

University of Calgary political scientist Melanee Thomas, in a fall 2018 study, reported that rural and urban Albertans’ social and economic values tend toward the centre, not too hot, not too cold, not too right-wing nor too left-wing. The author’s and most Canadians’, too. All a bit like the baby bear in the story for children. Our differences are miniscule compared to what unites us, what we share in common. The cynical simply discombobulate things in our minds and sow unnecessary dissension where there are other options. It doesn’t have to be this way.

We must take care in these momentarily heated times not to be duped by false premises and exaggerated, sometimes even entirely phoney arguments disingenuously being flirted with and given odd credibility by those temporarily in high office. Perhaps even self-described, self-made men are being a bit too loud than warranted. If they wish to keep their job, they must grow much and defer more to the counsel of sage others (who are in no single political party nor occupation). Some suggest that having credentials for any field of work is no guarantor of wisdom. Perhaps even more surely, neither is having no serious credential a basis of one’s enlightenment nor wisdom in any office. Our world we now live in shows us that.

Peter Heffernan is an emeritus professor and former member of a past University of Lethbridge senior administrative team.

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