Open Letter To Our Teenage Sons

As I watch you develop and grow, and I think back to my childhood, I’m amazed at what you are accomplishing in life.  Whether it’s school, sports, guitar, cooking, your ease with technology, or simply just who you are becoming as exceptional people, I’m often in awe.  But I’m also concerned.  I’m concerned because, well, frankly, you have advantages in life that I didn’t have. And, yes, that concerns me.

Let me start by saying that this is not about being happy.  Happy is the most important, but it’s a bigger topic for a different day.  Today is about earning your way in life.  That’s one element of being happy, but it’s just that – one element. Let’s be clear, I’m not saying that our life is easy, but it is privileged. You kind of came along after much of the adversity was behind us. That concerns me, because I’ve come to believe that adversity is important.  It’s how we develop and grow.  It prepares us for the variance that is life. It doesn’t seem like it at the time, but the struggle is what makes us successful.  It’s what makes life good.

And our life is pretty good.   So I think it’s important that I offer you some advice. I’ve been waiting a while to say this — until you were old enough to understand.  Now is that time. So here it goes.

Have you noticed that we’re rich? Not rich rich, but rich enough that we have a nice house, nice cars and we generally we have a nice lifestyle.  We go to Hawaii, or somewhere nice, every year. Life is good. But here’s the thing. We’re not all rich. Put another way, your mom and I are rich, but you’re not.

Now, that’s not surprising, as you’re just 12 and 15, but it is important that you understand that you’re not rich. Sure, it seems like you’re rich, as you live in the same house as your mother and I do, ride in the same cars and vacation wherever we go. But that’s our lifestyle. You enjoy it because you’re living with us, but after you move out, after school, once you start working, you will most definitely realize that you’re not rich. So I’m offering this advice to give you a head start.

Sure, when the time comes you’ll get a job, or start a business, and you’ll have money for rent, food, an iphone and who knows what, but that’s not “inner city house paid for” money, not luxury car money, not Hawaii money.  If you want that — if you want that lifestyle — you need to achieve that on your own. You need to earn that.

That means more than getting good grades just because you can, choosing what’s easy over what challenges you and much more than believing that good, is good enough.

You need to work hard, really hard, at whatever you do. Sure, you get to play video games, watch TV and relax, but that should be the break from the hard. Good at math? Be great. Good at cooking “for your age” — be great for your age, be great period. Guitar, football, whatever you choose to invest your time in, go all out.  Be curious and don’t be put off. Speak up and care about whatever you’re doing.

Look, I don’t know what you’ll be passionate about when you’re older, and I’m sure you don’t yet either, so just be open to every opportunity and work to be great at whatever you do. Do that and one day you’ll wake up to discover that your dreams are coming true.

Then you’ll be rich. Probably not rich rich — but then again you never know.

Posted in Character, parenting, Personal Development | Tagged , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Deciding Who To Vote For? It’s Easy, Just Focus On What Matters….

For most of us election campaigns are spectator events. The parties attack, defend, feint, outflank, retreat and sometimes hunker down in the bunker.  All the while we watch — or ignore the antics.

Our role as spectator changes, however, when we head off to the polls and a poll worker hands us a ballot. Suddenly we’re on the field. Participating, if only for an instant, with the ultimate power. The power to elect.

If you’re in Alberta and haven’t taken advantage of the advance polls, you have the opportunity to participate in the provincial elections on Tuesday. In PEI you get to vote April 23 and all voting Canadians can have their say this fall. Which brings me to an important question.  If it’s not too personal, how do you decide who to vote for?

As a participant you have a decision to make. Not a ‘2% vs skim’ decision. A decision that actually matters. You are deciding which of your neighbours, who have offered themselves up to serve, should be entrusted to represent you and your other neighbours in Edmonton — or Ottawa or City Hall.

And while voting is important, how we make our voting decisions is equally important, for three main reasons:

  • First, understanding how voters decide, allows those who work on campaigns to be more effective. Pushing policy on someone who votes based on character is like shouting into the wind.
  • Second, it allows us to understand voting behaviour, even when it may otherwise appear illogical. You can actually explain to someone who would never vote Trump, why so many others did. This leads to the world making more sense, which increases our engagement and buy-in to the concept of making society better.
  • Finally, understanding what drives our vote is important because it allows each of us to make a better choice when we’re handed that ballot.

I blogged about a similar topic in 2015 here: https://calgaryrob.com/2015/10/01/we-better-get-used-to-prime-minister-trudeau/.  In that blog I predicted a Liberal victory in the federal election.  But that blog was more specific to the factors in that election, where the country was tired of the Conservatives and the ballot box question came down to whether it was safe to vote for one of the alternatives. Today, I want to look at a broader range of drivers for how and why we decide who to vote for.

How We Decide

We can start by acknowledging that there may be an infinite number of ways people decide how to vote, but let’s not give up.  A very high percentage, I’d estimate 90-95% plus, decide by one of the following methods.

Party Loyalty. Some folks vote for the candidate running for their preferred party. No matter what. This is sometimes referred to as tribalism, although it gets more complicated when parties merge, which is why so much effort is usually expended to make the combined party appealing to members of both prior parties.

Competence/character/leadership. Some people vote based on which Leader, or group of candidates, they believe will make the right decision when faced with the inevitable challenges that arise while governing. This can be hard to assess, especially if you prefer one party over another, as confirmation bias often leads us away from conclusions that someone more objective might reach.

Personality/Likeability. Others vote based on who they like better, whether it is the Leader or their local candidate. Sadly, this is why campaigns often resort to personal attacks on their opposition. Likeability matters more than you think, and arguably played a major role in the last federal election where Harper and Mulcair engendered some degree of animus outside of their respective bases, while Trudeau was much more personally popular at the time.

Policy. Some, though in my experience a depressing minority, delve into the policy issues of the day or those likely to confront the government going forward. To be fair, the task can be daunting. Whether it’s the economy, health care, education, taxation or social programs, when it is so hard to find objective information and the experts can’t agree, the voters can hardly be faulted for giving up and choosing a different method of assessing the choices. Even divisive social issues like funding abortions, equality issues and safe injection sites, where preferences are often more internal/intuitive than inquiry based, become pretty muddy after all of the misinformation that gets pumped out by the parties and candidates.

Single Issues. This is really a subset of the Policy category, and comes into play when a voter cares about one issue to a degree that they will vote based on which party they believe will best represent their view on that issue. This tends to be more important during leadership races and nominations, where the smaller pool of voters (party members) give single-issue voting blocks greater impact than during a general election.

Name recognition. Some people vote for the only name they recognize. Sad but true. Lawn signs matter.

Strategic Voting. This describes the practice of voting for your second (or third, fourth, etc.) choice, because your first choice can’t win and you would rather your second choice win than the candidate you are trying to defeat. This becomes a bigger and bigger category each election, primarily because social media and the internet has made it possible to organize effectively. Arguably, this isn’t really a separate category, but more of a way to bring about a preferred result with the preference having been formed based on one of (or a combination of) the other categories.

Of course, decision-making is a complex process, and most of us decide who to vote for using an amalgam of different considerations, but often one ends up being more important than the others. Once we understand the drivers, it becomes a lot easier to understand behaviour — ours and others.

In the US Democrats often tweet that they can’t understand how anyone could vote for Trump.  The most likely explanation is that Trump’s voters are using a different criteria for making their voting decisions than the person expressing disbelief. If a Republican voter cares only about party loyalty, they will vote for the Republican nominee. If the policies Trump promises align with a voter’s view of the world, and that’s how they decide, they will vote for Trump. If closing America’s borders to immigrants and asylum seekers is their sole issue — Trump. Want to stop Clinton? Once he was the nominee, you had to vote for Trump. If any of those drivers are a voter’s dominant, or only, consideration, then that voter’s decision to vote for Trump was logical.

If those aren’t your drivers, if you are a voter focusing on Trump’s character (and disregarding the concerns about Clinton’s character), or centrist policies you prefer to Trump’s, you’re likely to assess the Trump vote as illogical. And it certainly appears to be, if you don’t put yourself in the Trump voter’s mindset. And of course it cuts both ways. Many Trump voters can’t begin to fathom how anyone voted for Clinton, for all the same reasons. While interesting, how the drivers affect your decisions is more important than understanding how others decide, unless you’re a campaign strategist.

In that vein I’d like to say that there is no right or wrong way to decide. I’d like to, but I can’t. I can’t because the wrong way to decide is to allow others to decide for us. That often takes the form of effective manipulation by a candidate, party or special interest groups. So when others try to manipulate, and we don’t resist, it may unduly influence us. We are submitting to their tactics — tactics that may cause us to make decisions in line with their goals, rather than our own priorities.

Such tactics are identifiable, often just by listening and employing common sense; and once identified, they can be factored out. Call it the My Cousin Vinny approach to evaluating political rhetoric. In that legal classic, Vinny, defending his cousin in a one-sided murder trial, prevails by picking apart the prosecution’s case, with simple logic applied after paying attention to the evidence and gathering relevent information.

When Republicans characterize Democrats as wanting to open America’s borders to let terrorists in, that should be a huge red flag, because it isn’t logical. Why would Democrats “want” that? Answer: they don’t. They are concerned about human rights, the cost of the border wall, and other issues.

Similarly, when Democrats accuse Republicans of wanting to make sure that low-income Americans don’t have health care, stop and tilt your head. Is that really what Republicans “want”. Of course it isn’t. What they want is a system that is less expensive or perhaps more efficient.

Border issues and health care are important, and should be debated. But how can the issues be debated in a way that advances society, when we start with a lie, and all too often a lie on both sides. Is it any wonder voters have focused less and less on policy?

If nothing else, keep in mind that the more outrageous the claim the more likely it is false and only being made to torque your emotions. If you react emotionally to a candidate’s comments, ask yourself if that was what they were intending? Is what they are saying accurate, or simply designed to move you to action? Action that benefits them, not you. Most every fundraising letter you receive, whether political or not, is guilty of this. Increasingly there is an array of sources that fact check campaigns, or at least the major candidates. Take the time to seek them out. If Vinny could figure it out, surely we can.

Understanding how you personally make your voting decisions is key in resisting the manipulation.  If you are undecided heading into any election, take a minute and run through the list. How did you make your voting decision in the last election? How did that work out for you? Would a different category have served you better in making your decision? By better identifying what is important to you, you have a chance at making a decision more in line with your interests and values, and with society’s interests.

Even if issues don’t affect you directly, they might be important to you. Perhaps it is education, even if you’re older and don’t have kids or grandkids headed into the system. Or maybe it is more personal to you. Perhaps the economy is your main driver, because you lost your job. If you view one party as able to deliver on whatever is important to you, at least better than the other, they’re likely to get your vote. That may be true even if you have character concerns with your local candidate or the Leader. Maybe stopping a party you believe will be harmful (to the economy, to society, etc.), or ineffective, is top of your list. Whatever it is, make your decision consciously.

Perhaps it goes without saying but, however you decide, vote. It is trite, but if you don’t like what you see in public life, then you have the power through voting to change that. Conversely, when you disengage, sign off, refuse to participate and, in particular, fail to vote, you give that power back to those you’d like to see out of the system.  Voting is the ultimate exercise of power.

Oh, and the next time someone questions your voting decision feel free to send them my blog and ask they how they decided who to vote for — if it’s not too personal.

 

Posted in Character, Donald Trump, Politics | Leave a comment

Why Online Mobs Supress Discussion About Violence Against Women

 

So a political cartoon was published last week and there was quite a reaction. By various turns it was judged by many to be offensive, grotesque, insensitive, and so on. Cringe-worthy. Truly objectionable. The artist’s head was called for. Required in fact. There were demands that he withdraw it. Apologizing was the least he could do. No doubt other acts of penance were demanded, though I didn’t see them as I quickly lost interest in the absurdity.

The stated “problems” were numerous, but at base the allegation was that it was atrocious to make light of violence against women. And of course the picture clearly does that. But does it? Let’s break this down.

First, let me digress. While I haven’t been on stage in years, I am a stand-up comic. When I was learning the craft, I delved deep into the techniques that make a joke funny. There are many general rules, but three key rules are:

1) Every joke has a “target”. In a self-deprecating joke, I’m the target. I can also make fun of my kids, specifically, or perhaps an entire age group, like Gen X’ers or Millennials. Targets can also be behaviours; like hypocrisy or bullying, or social conditions, like poverty or privilege. Quite common targets are beliefs — racism, homophobia, sexism, the possibilities are endless.

2) Editing is important. The fewer words the better, provided that you don’t lose the meaning during the editing process. This is critical, as you have to be able to convey your idea to the audience. If you fail, so will the joke.

3) A good joke has to be surprising. There has to be an ‘ah ha’ moment. That point when you “get it”. It is the sudden surprise or shock of getting it, that delivers the laugh. If you see it coming, you might smile, but that’s about it.

For a while I questioned these concepts. I actively sought out jokes without a target. It seemed cruel. Many laugh-less evenings later I concluded that the rules were correct. Perhaps target is too strong a word, but the joke had to skewer someone, something or some idea, and to do that it had to have a point of view.

Henny Youngman is famous for one of the shortest jokes ever written: “Take my wife … please”. “Take my” can be a way of introducing an example “take my brother, he’s the best runner ever…” But in this joke the twist is that he is instead actually asking you to take his wife. He conveys that with the simple request “please”. But the target is his wife. He wants you to take her for a reason, but the reason remains unstated. He’s unhappy with her, is about all we get.

So let’s now look at de Adder’s comic. https://twitter.com/deAdder/status/1096409886425038848 Who or what is the target? What is being skewered? It’s not actually a difficult question. The target is Trudeau’s behaviour in the #LavScam scandal, and more specifically how Trudeau is treating the former Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould. That’s it.

What the comic skewers is the fact that Trudeau keeps giving statements that suggest the former Minister wasn’t being directed or pressured to go easy on SNC Lavalin or even that she might be at fault for not speaking up if she felt pressured. And he is doing so while she is prevented from responding. She is prevented from responding because as the Justice Minister at the time she was the government’s top lawyer and is arguably prohibited from speaking about the interactions by solicitor-client privilege. And here is the kicker. That privilege belongs to the government. To Trudeau. He could easily waive it, allowing her to tell her side. But he hasn’t. Instead he speaks for her, while effectively gagging her. Hence the cartoon.

The target is not Jody Wilson-Raybould or, more relevant to the furor, violence against women. Trudeau is attacking Minister Wilson-Raybould’s reputation in real life. He implies that she must have misunderstood, while he deigns to speak for her. The reputational violence is a secondary target, and is also skewered. The restraint on speaking may be legal and not physical, but it is a gag. Her hands are tied, and it is within Trudeau’s power alone to untie her, to allow her to speak. Trudeau’s chief advisor, Gerry Butts, is “in his corner” urging Trudeau to keep beating her up. The comic is not offensive, grotesque or obscene. Trudeau’s behaviour is though, and that is the point. Frankly, I think the comic is brilliant.

But none of this is the problem. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, and we can disagree. We’re all free to express our views how we want (as Graeme MacKay did in a virtually identical cartoon that same day in the Hamilton Spectator, with little push back. I’m not making this up). Or at least most of us are. Apparently de Adder wasn’t supposed to express his opinion on Trudeau’s behaviour, because some readers found it offensive.

But to be clear, it wasn’t de Adder’s actual point of view that attracted the ire, it was the fact that his cartoon used violence as a metaphor and that Jody Wilson-Raybould is a woman. But herein lies the real problem. Some small number of readers may have interpreted that to be making light of violence against women. They expressed those views which then snowballed. But, of course, he didn’t. He depicted physical violence against one person as a metaphor for the verbal violence that was actually being used against that specific person. And she happens to be a woman.

If you have a problem with that, then attack that. Say you can’t use a depiction of violence against a woman, even if it is to defend and support that woman. In this case, you can’t satirize an obscene attack by someone in authority if the victim happens to be a woman, because that somehow trivializes physical violence against women. Is this where society has descended to? We have to hope not.

Now combine this “through the looking glass” experience with the current rage: online lynch mobs. What could possibly go wrong?

For inspiration I turn to J.P. Sears social commentary on the pre-Christmas hysteria about the song “Baby it’s cold outside”. Seemingly appalled he skewered the well-publicized outrage in a long rant including my favourite tongue in cheek line:

“If my interpretation of the song is correct, and I know it is because I’m really angry…”

And even more recently when he satirized lynch mob campaigns against self-interpreted “hate speech” [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=agIIDGRspKY]:

“…her life is destroyed, which means that you successfully dealt with hate speech with your hate and remember, the more people you can get on board with your emotionally charged outrage, the better.”

Sadly, he’s nailed it. Real lynch mobs existed because the psychology of mob behaviour made unconscionable acts a reality. No one had to take responsibility, because “the mob” was doing it. Victims died. The modern online equivalent is dangerous in a different way. Groups are bigger and even more anonymous. There have been deaths — online mob driven suicides, but the trend is destroying reputations; destroying careers; destroying lives.

It is just too easy. Misinterpretations, exaggerations or outright lies are repeated until they become accepted fact. The target is fixed and the onslaught escalates. Facts are spun to suit the argument. At best, their reputation is wounded or perhaps destroyed, but they still fight hard for the truth. At worst they capitulate and surrender. They validate the lies by apologizing which, at least in part, justifies the attacks. The mob is sated, and can’t wait for the next transgression, real or imagined.

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good [people] to do nothing.”― Edmund Burke

Which brings us back to Michael de Adder. He apologized over the weekend. Why? I expect we’ll never find out, but someone found the mob pressure too much. What did he apologize for? For offending women. Did he offend women? No, he offended some women (and some men). His apology, of course, offended others.

I’m not offended either way. For years now I’ve believed ‘it is what it is’. Still, I’m sad for de Adder, who I don’t know and have never met. Political cartoonists tend to be opinionated and fearless. That’s what makes them great. Whatever caused him to apologize, whatever caused him to take responsibility for some people being offended, well, it’s not just a shame for him — it’s a shame for society.

If we want to combat violence against women we need to be able to freely talk about it. Forcing an apology, not for joking about violence against women, but for using the imagery of violence against a person who happens to be a woman, is a horrible precedent.

Mob behaviour diminishes the #MeToo movement, it does not enhance it. It diminishes us all, and robs us of important opportunities to discuss violence against women. It does so because people start to self-censor and self-censorship is the worst kind of censorship. Fear of starting or entering into the discussion just feeds the problem. It is trite to note that violence against women flourishes in the shadows.

So next time you see a mob, behaving like a mob, don’t join in. And if you’re really feeling frisky, analyse it independently, exercise your own judgement and then let the mob know what you think. Who knows what might happen….

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Remember When the Truth Used to Matter?

Whether you love him or hate him, and there appears to be few in between, you have to admit that the chaos created almost daily by Donald Trump is infinitely interesting. But setting aside the entertainment value, it is important to understand what Trump is doing.

Is he crazy, or crazy like a fox? It is the failure to understand the answer to that question, more than any other, which has caused so many Trump opponents to play into his hands. So if we need to first understand Donald Trump, what better place to start than by examining the movie Bull Durham? O.K., perhaps that requires some explaining.

If you haven’t seen Bull Durham, it is a great movie.  In a nutshell, Kevin Costner is an aging catcher who is acquired by a minor league baseball team so that he can mentor Tim Robbins, a young pitcher with a “million-dollar arm”. Costner is intelligent, savvy and experienced. Robbins, while talented, is immature, self-centered and lacks emotional control. There are two scenes in the movie that go a long way toward explaining what Trump is doing.

In the first scene, Costner, having conditioned Robbins into following his lead, calls time out in a game and then approaches the mound. He tells Robbins that with his next pitch he should hit the team’s mascot, standing 30 or 40 feet away from home plate. Robbins doesn’t understand why, but goes along. The next pitch is straight at the mascot’s giant costumed head, knocking him down. The batter is understandably shocked, Costner starts laughing and then:

Batter: “This guy’s crazy”

Costner: [laughing] “Yup, I wouldn’t dig in there if I were you. The next one might be at your head.” Then earnestly, “I don’t know where it’s gonna go. Swear to God”.

The rattled batter then doesn’t dig in – or presumably do anything else he is supposed to do – and promptly strikes out.

Sound familiar?  Trump’s team may, or may not, know where his next pitch is going to go, but so long as the rest of us believe that he’s crazy and might do anything, then we will be off balance. We won’t dig in, making our actions easier to disrupt, to Trump’s advantage.

Trump also employs a variation of good cop, bad cop, but even then he has a twist.  In attacking Trudeau after the G7 he was clearly bad cop, but at intervals he is also good cop. He praised Trudeau a short time later in another tweet, saying he liked him and calling him a friend. Then, bad cop returned with a tweet that Canadians will “pay dearly” for Trudeau’s mistakes. What will Trump do next? Who knows? By simultaneously attacking and praising, Trump sows confusion as he pursues his goal, whatever it is. If he gets it, perhaps good cop will reappear.

Another scene that channels Trump occurs a bit later in the movie, once Robbins concludes he has much he can learn from Costner. During a long bus ride, he asks Costner: “Teach me something new man. I need to learn”. Costner then instructs him on how to “interview”, by teaching him a series of clichés he can respond with, no matter the question asked of him.

Clichés are pure Trump. Everything he approves of is “great” or “huge”, the “biggest or best” ever, with equivalent denouncements when he disapproves. But that’s not why the cliché scene is important. The essence of what Costner teaches Robbins is what to say to accomplish his goal; in the movie that’s to escape the interview without giving anything up.  But there is no discussion, or even consideration, about the truth. Are the clichés true? Who cares – the unstated premise is that all that matters is whether they are effective.

And clearly that is the core of the Trump playbook. What does he need to say, or more likely tweet, to bring about the result he desires?  Whatever it is, he’ll do it. And it often isn’t clear what he’s doing, as he frequently tweets something outrageous to create a new controversy simply to change the channel. Time and again he has used that technique to deflect attention from some other scandal which was damaging Trump or his agenda.

In this paradigm, truth isn’t just insignificant, it is irrelevant. Trump appears so comfortable lying, that it is not clear whether he can tell the difference. Falsehoods become so commonplace that they are no longer news. That means they have little to no “cost”. Having created that state of affairs, the only question then is what he needs to say to achieve his goal in the moment.

In a strange way his lies work better than the truth. As Trump’s opponents fixate on the lies, and debate why anyone believes him or why the lie isn’t the story, they ignore completely the tactical reason for the lie. It is the political equivalent of not “digging in”; of being unprepared for the pitch. Sadly, Trump’s shtick will continue so long as it works. Only by responding with an effective counter can his tactics be neutralized.

With some history now to look back on, many of Trump’s most oft used tactics are simply variations on bullying.  That is important as it suggests the correct response. Bullies are, at their core, cowards. It’s not that they respect force – they are afraid of it.

So what is Trump afraid of? It’s not tariffs. Those won’t affect Trump personally. It’s not the fight. He lives to fight. But he is afraid of losing. He’s afraid of being embarrassed. He’s afraid of being exposed.

Figuring out how to take advantage of those fears means ignoring what appears crazy and focusing on what would be effective in response. Look, if you care enough to stand up to Trump, care enough to do it right. Don’t rise to the bait, that’s what he wants. And don’t vent just because it feels good. Above all avoid the temptation to preach to the converted. That makes you and them feel better, but it accomplishes nothing.

Start with a plan. Comment thoughtfully and without anger. It’s trite, but critique ideas instead of people. Ridicule convinces no one. Create balanced commentary that is more accessible to the undecided – only those who are already onside enjoy reading a rant.

This advice goes well beyond Trump and applies to all parties. But if Trump is your project, ask yourself: what was Trump trying to accomplish? What channel was he trying to change? Those are key questions in formulating a response. Answer them and you can figure out how to stay on the “channel” that Trump seems desperate to get away from.

It’s not actually a new approach. Staying “on message”, has been the gold standard of political communication since campaigns were invented. But it demands discipline and focus. Above all, it requires that you acknowledge, at least to yourself, that Trump is not crazy. Most everything he does has a purpose. Recognize that and you can safely “dig in” and respond with purpose. Do that and you just might start improving your batting average.

Posted in Character, Donald Trump, Politics | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Tearing Democracy Down, One Brick At A Time

I’ve taken a step back, or more accurately multiple steps back, from politics over the last couple of years. I didn’t get tired of politics and I still believe that politics is important. I just got tired of the lying; of what I saw as the increasing trend to say whatever would be effective, without any regard to whether it was true – the Trumping of politics, if you will.

I find this trend to be both frustrating, and also scary. Scary because it appears, at least to me, that voters care less and less. I call it Trumping, but of course it has been happening for years in Ottawa, Edmonton and at the civic level. And truth is not the only casualty. The attacks have become so personal. Innuendo has morphed to accusation. No one is ever mistaken, they are always “lying”. Their motives are always “improper”. The debate isn’t about policy. It’s just smear. And it drives good people to leave politics or, increasingly, to shun involvement in the first place. And so long as we don’t demand better it will get worse.

You see it in the current civic race, for Mayor and Council. It starts between candidates. The most common and basic lie is to misrepresent another candidate’s position or record. Misrepresent their position and then tear it down – suggesting their “position” was improper for good measure. It’s only a small lie, right? Follow that up by promising what you know can’t be delivered. You’ll try, right? So it’s kind of true? It gets uglier from there.

As an infamous Alberta organizer once advocated: “It doesn’t matter if it’s true, only if it’s believable”.

Anonymous troll twitter accounts pop up. Accusations are floated. There is never any evidence, let alone proof. There is name calling, accusations, lies, and smear of all description. Apparently every candidate is either a “commie” or a “fascist”. It is so destructive and beyond explanation.

It is beyond explanation, because it is so short-sighted. What mandate does a candidate have if they only win by lying? By personally attacking the opposition, by making things up, by promising what they can never deliver? Lower taxes and more services? Of course. It seems absurd, but we vote for that shtick. But what then?

Inevitably winning candidates who can’t possibly live up to their impossible pledges fall out of favour, with no one to blame but themselves. And once elected they will become the new target. The next victim in the dishonest blood-sport they helped to further legitimize.

Candidates need to do better, but voters need to demand better. A good start is to question what you hear and read. If it seems “incredible”, it likely is – lacking credibility. Ignore the personality attacks. Ignore the labels. And in particular ignore candidates when they tell you what the other candidate believes. Just ignore the smear.

On the positive side, try to elect good people – people who study issues with an open mind, who consult and debate. People who listen. People who strive to make policy choices that we can afford and that are supported by those who elected them. We can elect people who seem open to the best solution possible and genuinely interested in taking their constituents’ interests and concerns forward on their behalf. But only by supporting candidates with those traits.

Of course we can be critical in our political discourse. But criticize policy or relevant performance. As an example, I’m critical of my Councillor, Druh Farrell, who is running for re-election. I believe she should be defeated. I believe she has been a very poor Ward representative on Council. Specifically, I am critical of her record which suggests that she believes that she knows what should be done without seeking input of those she was elected to represent. Having just lectured you on advancing unsubstantiated claims, I’ll set out what I have witnessed first hand.

Last year we had neighbours seeking to tear down their fairly modern two story house and one story garage and replace it with a three story house and a detached two story garage with a separate suite on the upper floor. Oh, and a basement and an elevator in the garage – all of which strikes me more as a second house on the property.

To start, I don’t have views on laneway suites, as in I’m neither for nor against, and I have a general view that one should be able to do what they want on their own property. In this case, however, the existing city Bylaw didn’t allow the two story garage and suite as the neighbours’ lot wasn’t wide enough for a laneway apartment. Even if that were not the case their lot wasn’t zoned to allow for a secondary suite. Their plans, which clearly violated both the Bylaw and the zoning, were not supported by the Community Association (which often supports secondary suites). We and 25 of our neighbours wrote letters of opposition to the project. Only the applicant was in favour. So, it violated zoning, it violated the Bylaw and there was overwhelming opposition from the surrounding neighbours. Case closed; right? Not exactly.

Despite all of this, the application moved forward with Ms. Farrell’s strong support. That concerned me, so we contacted Ms. Farrell’s office on more than one occasion to try and schedule a meeting with her, or even just to speak to her, to ask why she was supporting the project and to discuss our concerns. To my shock, she refused to meet with me. She wouldn’t even speak to me. As her staff worked hard to get the project approved, my representative wouldn’t meet or speak with me to discuss why we and the community were overwhelmingly opposed to the rezoning.

In the end, having refused to meet with us Ms. Farrell voted to change the bylaw, she voted to rezone the lot, and and a year later construction is now nearing completion. The neighbour on the east property line was so upset he put his house on the market a few days after Council rezoned. He sold his house within weeks and quietly moved away. This whole issue was no where near that important to me, but then I didn’t live next to the project.

Immediately after the vote Ms. Farrell approached me in the Council Chamber and offered to meet with me. So after it was over, after it was too late, she was willing to meet with me. Why? Presumably it was to try and convince me to support what she had already done.  In other words, she was willing to meet with me for her benefit, not to hear my concerns.

I believe that this story, small in the scheme of things, is exactly the kind of performance issue that should matter in an election. It is not personal. It is about how a candidate performed in the job while holding the very office she now seeks to be elected to. And past performance is the best indicator of future performance. During my personal interactions with Ms. Farrell’s staff (as Ms. Farrell wouldn’t contact me), brief though they were, I concluded that Ms. Farrell didn’t care what I or the other neighbours thought, as she knew what “should” happen.

Typically that is not a long-term problem. Politicians who believe that they can just decide what is right without taking residents’ views into account, usually get voted out of office. The electorate gets the last word. If the Councillor refuses to meet or speak to Ward residents who have concerns, there is an election every few years. But voter apathy and vote splitting have allowed Ms. Farrell to hold on to her seat on Council. In 2013 less than 40% of eligible Calgarians voted in the election. Of those who did vote Ms. Farrell got just 37% of the vote, while two strong challengers, including her closest opponent in the current election, Brent Alexander, took 28% and 26% respectively.

Will that happen again? There is a strong risk that it will. In a poll taken in early October Ms. Farrell again had 37% of the vote, with Brent Alexander right behind with 34%. Unfortunately, three other candidates collected just over 28% between them, allowing Ms. Farrell to hold the lead, despite close to 63% support for those running against her (in that poll). With that said, voters are becoming more savvy, and increasingly try to identify and vote for the candidate who has the best chance of defeating the candidate they are seeking to replace. If that happens here it looks like Brent Alexander could be the beneficiary.

But here is the thing. Notice that I didn’t call Ms. Farrell any names? I have strong views on Ms. Farrell’s performance as a Councillor, but I didn’t question her motives. I didn’t suggest she was doing anything improper. And I didn’t do any of those things because Ms. Farrell didn’t do anything improper.

I disagree – fundamentally – with Ms. Farrell’s record of failing to represent the views of her Ward residents. I don’t think it was OK to ignore what the community was telling her, in this instance almost unanimously. I also believe that, at the very least, a Councillor should meet or at least speak with their Ward residents and try to understand what they want and why. Even if Ms. Farrell had pre-determined that this project would have her support.

Do I think Ms. Farrell should be replaced? I do. Do we deserve a Councillor who is willing to at least speak to us if we ask? We do. But I’d rather see Ms. Farrell win again, than to sling mud against her, to call her names or see her brought down by lies. Because when that happens, there are no winners.

Posted in Character, Politics, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments

What Matters Now? (My Third Open Letter To My Teenage Sons)

When poker professionals head into the second last day of a major tournament they are keenly aware that they can’t win the tournament that day, but they can lose it. Most amateurs understand that to mean that they need to survive that day at all costs; only by surviving will they have the opportunity to win on the final day. That’s close, but not right.

What professionals understand is that the risk had better be worth it. The upside better clearly outweigh the downside. And that concept can be hard to put into practice because, well, poker players like to play poker. Every hand we are dealt offers us that opportunity. But folding doesn’t satisfy that desire. Playing does. And all we have to do is call or raise the bet before us and we get to “play”.

It is that desire to play that can get us into trouble. The urge for instant gratification. The largely destructive urge for instant gratification. For many players that urge colours their assessment of the cards or the situation. When to play, and when not to.  We make decisions that satisfy that desire for instant gratification, and we lose.

Turns out teenagers and poker players have much in common. You can view life through that same matrix. Boiled down, you need to be aware of What Matters, What Matters Now and the siren call of Instant Gratification. It may not be the secret to the universe, but if you can master these principles success is all but inevitable.

What Matters

What matters is easy. And fun. This is where we get to dream. Want to travel? Europe? Asia? Get a university degree? Have strong friendships? A life partner? Kids? Play guitar for a living? Play in the NFL? Start and grow your own business? Run for office? Save the planet? As teenagers you couldn’t have a more blank slate. You get to create and then direct your future.

Dream big, or dream small. Dream constantly if you like. Don’t know what you want? Don’t hesitate. Pick a goal, make mistakes and learn from them. Land somewhere and then change your dreams as you grow and accumulate life experiences. I bet you know what you want next month, so start there if you have to. But picture your life as you’d love it and write it down when you settle on something you actually care about.

“The only person you are destined to become is the person you decide to be.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

You may wonder if you can you do absolutely anything you can think of? To be honest, there are limitations. But you can do far more than you realize. And the real question is what you want to do in your heart – not What Matters, but What Matters to you. More likely than not, you can do that.

This is really the “what”. The long-term story of your life. Long-term could be years, but it could also just be weeks, or even days, for smaller goals. And as I say, it’s the easy part. The devil, as they say, is in the details.

What Matters Now

This is where the challenge is. This is where the hard work begins, and sometimes it seems that it will never end. This is because the steps you have to take to get to What Matters have to be taken Now. They can’t be taken in the future, because the future doesn’t actually exist. Only Now exists. So you have to decide what to do Now. Not this week. Not today. Not this afternoon. Now. What do you need to do to advance towards What Matters? What are you going to do right now?

That is the most important decision you’ll make today, and you’ll make it repeatedly — if not infinitely. Every decision you make will alter your life. Most don’t alter it much, but when you add them all up, your decisions determine, with almost mathematical precision, whether you will ever get to What Matters. It all comes down to Now. What Matters Now, and whether you have the will to do it, determines if you are some day going to get to What Matters.

Instant Gratification

The third element of your life, instant gratification (IG), is commonly depicted by Hollywood as a little devil standing on your shoulder. This may be the one thing that Hollywood gets right. Instant Gratification is almost always either fun or easy. It is a real and constant option. It often involves doing nothing because “doing” entails effort or risk. IG triggers endorphins, it’s what you want to do, what your friends want you to do. It is truly that little devil standing on your shoulder.

By contrast, What Matters Now is rarely fun or easy, and while it can trigger endorphins, they are hard earned endorphins and rarely instantaneous. IG can be achieved by watching videos, snap chatting, Facebooking, consuming junk, drugs or alcohol, listening to music, playing video games, hanging with friends during your spare instead of studying, ditching a work shift to go to a movie, skipping a workout because there’s a party, losing your cool and unloading on someone, not practicing guitar until you’re told to, sleeping in, staying up late, quitting studying when you’ve done “enough” to get by, or even just doing nothing because you’re too tired to do What Matters Now. The list is practically endless.

By now it should be apparent that there is a war going on and it really doesn’t involve What Matters. It’s between What Matters Now and Instant Gratification. Those are the only players occupying the space of Now. The devil, and angel, on your shoulders. The decision you have to make in any given moment is between What Matters Now and Instant Gratification. So what does that mean? How do you win the war?

It means you need to be intimately aware of What Matters Now. Step by step. It may be trite, but you can’t chose What Matters Now if you don’t know What Matters and the steps to get there. You have to break it down and make a plan.

Want to go to university? You can’t just do that. That is the end result of a million smaller actions; actions that only take place if you make the right decisions and then act on those decisions. Decide what you think you want to study – it may change, but who cares? Which are the best universities for that program? What city do you want to spend 4 years of your life in? What courses do you need to have to get accepted to that university? What grades do you need in those courses? What other courses, or outside activities or reading, would assist you in getting the grades you need in those core courses? It doesn’t end there.

What outside activities do those universities consider in their admissions criteria? Which of those activities do you care about and can commit to? How are you going to pay for university if you didn’t win the parent lottery (travel, lodging/food, tuition, books, fees, beer money)? Scholarships? What are the criteria for those? When are the application deadlines? Savings? Do you have a job now? Will you need summer jobs? Will you have to work while you attend university? Will you need, and can you get, student loans? How and when do you apply? Do you qualify?

The list for this one goal – this one “What Matters” – is virtually endless, and perhaps daunting, but if you want What Matters, you have to start with the roadmap to how you get there. That determines What Matters Now, which gives you the tasks that stand in opposition, every minute of every day, to Instant Gratification.

“I have been impressed with the urgency of doing. Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Being willing is not enough; we must do.” – Leonardo da Vinci

This is really important, because IG has the upper hand in every situation. It will always appear appealing because it is fun, or easy or just what you’d rather do, instead of researching the scholarship application deadlines at UBC or Western. It is doubly hard if you are addicted to the endorphins that come from Snapchat, or beer, or even Tim Horton’s ice caps. And don’t kid yourself, we’re all addicted to things that are bad for us. And if “addicted” seems too strong, chalk it up to habit, but don’t discount the power of habit. To win the war you have to break habits that stand in the way of What Matters. If you find yourself turning to video games when you’re stressed, change it up. Take the dog for a walk instead. Work through the problem while you’re walking. Come back with a different frame of mind, instead of just distracting yourself with a screen or a substance.

So figure out What Matters to you. Then plan out What Matters Now. But most importantly you have to commit to choosing What Matters Now over Instant Gratification. At that point the work starts, as you have to follow through on your commitment.

Can you relax? Hang with your friends? Snapchat? And still succeed in life? Of course you can. Relaxation and recharging are not only OK, they are healthy and necessary. Your health requires balance.  But your decisions on how to spend your time need to be conscious and reasoned. Otherwise you’re likely giving in to IG.

And be clear, success isn’t perfection. But it also isn’t just trying. Success is progress. It is choosing to do What Matters Now – and denying Instant Gratification – more today than you did yesterday, and then a little more again tomorrow.

Success is doing what needs to be done right now to advance your life. And you have to do it day after day with What Matters as a final destination. A destination you have chosen as being part of a great life. A destination worth working for Now. Because what you decide to do Now is all there is.

Posted in Character, parenting, Personal Development | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

Is It Time To Talk Seriously About Whether To Unite The Right?

The last couple of years have not been kind to Alberta. Natural gas prices have remained low for 8 years now on a sustained basis. Oil prices followed suit and started to collapse in June of 2014, after averaging roughly $110 a barrel for more than 3 years. By late 2015 prices had dipped below $30 a barrel.

This has led to deep cuts in the oil patch, including sweeping layoffs. It also caused significant reductions in royalty and land sale revenue which, combined with the new government’s commitment to an ideological approach to governing, has resulted in a record deficit. Estimated cumulative deficits over the course of the NDP’s current 4 year mandate now top $56 billion. Those are the Government’s own estimates. Alberta was debt free just a few years ago.

In some quarters the status quo is leading increasingly to desperation. The NDP have to go – for the good of humanity. OK, that may be overstating it, but in a poll released last week by Lethbridge College’s Citizen Society Research Lab just under 20% stated an intention to vote NDP. Put another way, 80% would vote for another party if the election were held today. That’s pretty conclusive.

The rest of the poll results are also important. The PC Party is in first with 38.4% and the Wildrose Party (WRP) is 12.7% behind at 25.7%. The more interesting question  was whether Albertans favour “uniting the right” in time for the 2019 election. Turns out that two thirds of Albertans are in favour of uniting the right.

Predictably, the PC’s now claim that the WRP has stalled and that the PC’s are the Party to beat the NDP. Equally predictably, Jason Kenney argues (and Faron Ellis, the lead pollster, seems to agree) that the PC Party has surged ahead on the strength of Kenney’s candidacy and his promise to unite the right.

So, the solution is simple. Unite the right. Right? PC and WRP support combined is 64.1%. The NDP is has fallen to 19.7%. Problem solved.

But what if it’s not that simple? What if “uniting the right” means different things to different people? Perhaps we should figure that out.

Just after the 2015 election I blogged on the topic of funky math and tribalism here:

https://calgaryrob.wordpress.com/2015/05/12/if-you-build-it-they-will-come/

The problem, in a nutshell, is that when you combine the WRP with the PC Party, you may discover that the resulting “Party” is appealing to neither base, instead of both. Then what happens? Who wins the election if the united right turns out different than what the electorate wants?

That was in part what happened in the lead up to the 2015 election. The WRP leadership moved en masse to the PC’s, and the public reaction was very negative. The focus on deals and backroom politics, instead of, for example, the economy, went over like a lead balloon. The PC’s were decimated in the ensuing election, leading to the province’s first ever NDP government.

The problem with combining parties is most easily illustrated by WRP leader Brian Jean’s recent comments on the topic, as reported in last week’s Herald article by James Wood:

Wildrose Leader Brian Jean, speaking to the Rotary Club of Calgary Tuesday, said he is in favour of consolidating conservatives but that over the last decade he’s seen little “that would suggest the PCs are actually conservative.”

In other words, he’s happy to merge the WRP with those few PC’s who occupy the same place on the spectrum as the existing WRP base. To be fair, the approach of many PC’s is the mirror image of that. They argue that the elected WRP MLA’s, and the base that elected them, are unacceptably intolerant and that their views don’t reflect the majority of Albertans. In other words, they’re happy to merge with those few WRP members who are actually PC’s.

So what would a combined Party represent? What policies would find favour with enough of both bases that you could build an electoral coalition with a stable foundation? Equally important, what policies would have to be avoided at all costs, lest they drive large blocks of voters, on the right or in the centre, out of the combined Party and into the arms of the other political movements on offer?

Those aren’t just interesting questions, those are the key questions. Because if defeating the NDP is the only common goal, and if the two bases don’t share a common policy bent or a common value system, then “uniting the right” will be little more than a spectacular sham. A PR exercise designed to euthanize the existing leadership of two parties and then magically unite two disparate bases into one Party. A Party that stands for..…. what exactly?

And that brings us back to the recent poll. I believe that many of those Albertans in favour of “uniting the right”, favour it because they believe that’s synonymous with defeating the NDP.  That’s what they are being told by various opinion leaders, including Jason Kenny and those promoting his campaign. But what if it is actually the opposite? What if the NDP’s best chance of winning the next election is if the PC’s are folded in favour of a new “Conservative” Party? What if once the PC Party base gets a good look at a new Party that is “conservative enough” to satisfy the WRP base, a large chunk of the, larger, PC Party base starts migrating to a moderate option? Isn’t that really what happened in 2015? Didn’t enough of the traditional PC Party base either stay home or vote NDP? They may not admit it today, but that’s how the NDP won the first time.

Be clear, the whole “unite the right” equation rests on the premise that the PC base and the WRP base are ideological equivalents, or at least fellow travelers. But they’re not, and we don’t need Brian Jean to tell us that. We just need to look at how the 2015 election played out after the WRP leadership crossed the floor to the PC’s. Their base wouldn’t follow. There’s no reason to think the PC base will follow Jason Kenney to the WRP, even if they brand it the Conservative Party. In fact every other declared PC leadership candidate is currently opposing a merger.

So long as the discussion continues to be about how the Parties can win power, expect Albertans to tune out and walk away. Lougheed had it right. He focused on how he could make the province work better. On character. On hard work. On earning trust. His approach was pragmatic, not ideological. He led by example and his focus was on improving people’s lives.

That’s what most Albertans want, and the leader that gives them that kind of pragmatic focused leadership will win the next election. And they won’t have to make a deal with anyone to pull it off.

Posted in Character, Politics | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

Will the Next Leader, Be a Leader?

Would you like to lead the Conservative Party of Canada? There is a vacancy. Prime Minister Steven Harper stepped down as leader following the 2015 federal election. The race to replace him is now underway.

If you’re actually interested, you’ll ask the question that everyone asks before they run. Can you win? That’s a mistake. The better question is: “should” you win? Put another way, do you have what it takes to lead? If so, and if you want it, then run. Let fate decide if you can win.

Having been involved in politics off and on for 44 years, a number of friends and fellow travellers have asked me who I’m supporting in the pending leadership races. Usually the question is “Who do you like”? Or, “Who do you think will win?” I suppose those are fair questions, but, really, I don’t know. I do, however, have fairly definite opinions about who “should” win.

It all starts with identifying the qualities of great leaders. I’ll suggest there are three that dwarf the others. Each quality is necessary. Missing one? Then you should really give it a pass. So consider this carefully.

Given that each is absolutely necessary the order doesn’t matter, so here it goes.

You have to be competent. This may seem trite, but it’s not. And don’t confuse this with education, experience, intelligence or other similar sub-qualities. It can be argued that those are necessary, or at least important, attributes for a leader to be competent, and there is some weight to that argument. But however you develop it, you must be fundamentally competent to lead. If you are not, why are you running? And be clear, I don’t mean you have to appear competent, I mean you have to actually be competent. Usually, but not always, this involves having a track record of accomplishment.

You have to be open minded: Again, don’t confuse this with being tolerant. Tolerance may be an asset, but I’m referring to having an open mind on every issue. Generally, this means that you make decisions based on information, expert advice, vigorous debate and thoughtful reflection, rather than a pre-existing ideology. Left, right, it really doesn’t matter. Ideologically driven decisions are often bad decisions. I’ve written on this before https://calgaryrob.wordpress.com/2015/06/06/even-good-ideology-makes-for-bad-government/. And while we’re talking about ideology, be clear that having an open mind is a sign of strength, not weakness. Are you committed to approaching every challenge you’ll encounter in office without a pre-determined course of action? If not, you’ll head down the wrong path more often than not.

You have to have character: This encompasses many sub-qualities as well. It starts with uncompromising honesty, but it is more than that. Are you committed to doing the right thing and putting the interests of others before your own? Do you have a prodigious work ethic? Do you seek power so that you can make life better for everyone? Are you willing to make difficult decisions? This is character. But be clear, I’m not suggesting that you promise these things to others. Promise them to yourself. And follow through. This means being honest all the time, not when it is convenient. It means doing what’s right, even when it is unpopular. Doing what is best for others, despite the cost. Ask yourself, have you spent your life working tirelessly even when you’d rather not? These are but some of the attributes of character. The list is endless, but honesty, working harder than anyone else, doing the right thing and putting others first is a great start.

And that’s it. That’s who you have to be.

But what about being a good public speaker? Coming from the right region? Having the support of some key demographic? Is it time for a woman? Time for a man? Are you bilingual? Do you have a great story? Did you work on a fishing boat to put your siblings through college? Doesn’t this matter?

Frankly, none of this matters, other than perhaps being bilingual due to the unique nature of Canada. Most of this is superficial, or spin or worse. Otherwise these are just talents or circumstances, not fundamental traits. When these “key” factors fail to make a difference, as they do, the pundits rush to explain why they didn’t matter “in this case”. Perhaps they just don’t matter.

But what about policy? Surely policy is important? It’s really not. And it is less important today than ever before (though don’t confuse policy promises to win elections, with sound policy decisions when you govern – the latter matters). The sad reality is that promises no longer matter, because no one believes politicians anymore. Credibility is at an all time low in modern history.

Promises just don’t get you elected anymore. At least not as much as they used to. Be a great leader. That will make you a great candidate. People will trust you to address whatever comes, and make the right decision. Voters today assess what they believe you will do, and what you may promise to do doesn’t factor much into their analysis.

This is really the crux of it, and it goes a long way towards explaining the Donald Trump phenomenon. Forget what he is promising. A 40 foot wall from the Pacific to the Caribbean, that Mexico will pay for? Barrels of ink have been spilled on why this will never happen. But people are voting for him anyway. So it’s not because of what he is promising. They are voting for him because of who he is, or at least who they believe he is.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s weird. After making so many absurd and obviously untrue statements, you would think that Trump wouldn’t be able to gather a dozen votes in his home state of New York. But the voters believe. They believe he hates the establishment. They believe he’ll blow it up. They believe he’ll be tough on illegal immigrants. They believe that he hates what they hate. That makes him authentic to them, at least on one level. And that’s why Donald Trump is winning – for now.

Do I think he “should” win? Of course not. He may be a competent land developer, but I’m aware of nothing to suggest he’d be a competent President. His character attributes are, by any objective standard, non-existent. I do actually believe he is open-minded, despite the ideological rhetoric he was peddling to win the Republican base during the primaries, but that’s not nearly enough. One out of three doesn’t do it for me. That said, he could win. Time will tell if he can overcome Clinton’s early lead in the polls.

Hopefully we’ll have much better options in Canada, and maybe you’ll be one of them. If you are not running, we can start talking about who “should” win. Who should be the next leader in Ottawa – or Edmonton, if you’re more provincially inclined? Who has character, competence and the open-mind necessary to lead effectively? That’s not yet clear to me, but we should all try hard to determine who has these qualities.

I’ve got to be frank though. If someone like that does run, I’ll be even more interested in discovering whether we have the good sense to elect them.

Posted in Character, Politics | Tagged , , | 1 Comment