Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente writes thousands of excellent words a month. Almost all bring the fresh scent of common sense. Many are contrarian in a way the makes me wonder how they ever became the contrary rather than the norm.
Given her stellar record of journalistic good work, then, it seems borderline churlish then to pick nine words from today's column as evidence of what is wrong with the world. Yet it must be done. If the greatest poet of the day walks into a bank and says the four small words "this is a stickup", his flowing yards of iambic pentameter will not save him when the flatfoots arrive.
Just so, neither can Ms. Wente be exonerated for writing, in an otherwise laudable and laudatory column about Danielle Smith, that Alberta Wildrose Party leader "has no interest in dragging social issues into politics."
How could any journalist, never mind one of Ms. Wente's clear intellect and mastery of prose craft, write such a thing? What, precisely, would such a journalist think politics are about if not social issues? Aristotle: "Man is an animal whose nature it is to live in a polis . . . He who is unable to live in society, or who has no need because he is sufficient for himself, must be either a beast or a god."
A municipal council debate over rezoning land at the corner of Pork and Beans is the mechanics of politics being put to work on a social issue. A parliamentary debate over weights and measures is the political process determining how a society calculates its goods—and itself.
Oh, but of course, in the context of the Alberta election, Ms. Wente isn't really talking about such practical social issues. No. She means those social issues. You know. The "hot button" ones. The ones so abhorrent to current political discussion that we dare not speak their names. Yes, I'm talking about gay marriage and abortion.
Doubtless, Ms. Wente would protest she was only paraphrasing, albeit approvingly, what Ms. Smith has been quoted as saying: that the limited time of a busy political party can't be taken up talking about such purely social matters.
If Ms. Smith did say such a thing, and I don't doubt she said something like it given the nature of her thought when we worked together at the Calgary Herald, then it is a compounding example of an extremely intelligent person saying something very foolish. Surely it is the job of a journalist, particularly one of Ms. Wente's high calibre, to twit politicos who say such foolish things. Isn't the duty even greater when what is being said makes absolutely no sense?
For if it is too much of an imposition on a political party's time to discuss abortion and gay marriage, how is it that the laws regarding them were changed in the first place? Did the necessary discussion occur in some kind of chronological cryogenic chamber where time itself was frozen and then restored without having passed? Or was it somehow just slipped in between teeny, tiny gaps in every political party's busy schedule?
Uh, no. Those of us who remember as far back as yesterday recall how the proponents of such legal changes monopolized vast swathes of political debating time. Nothing, they claimed, was more important or more deserving of our time and full attention than their particular causes. Their claim was perfectly justified. In a democracy, those who gain the agenda are those who gain results.
But if time and attention were afforded the proponents of these "social" changes, how can those necessities be denied the opponents who maintain society has suffered because of the transformation? How can there be no equivalent political time for them to press their case? It doesn't make sense.
Or, well, maybe it does if what is really being said in an elliptical and excruciatingly polite Canadian way is: "Sit down. Shut up. We won. You lost. Get lost."
That would be a horribly churlish thing to say, of course, even in a polite Canadian paraphrase. Worse, its implications for democratic debate, indeed democracy itself, would be frightening. Perhaps some common sense journalist somewhere might find the words to express what would happen to us if it were to become the norm.