Tuesday, September 19, 2006

A New Years Resolution - Optimism

(Published Jan 5, 2006 as part of the Telegram Community Editorial Board)

(Update: I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge a rebutting post from Sue called Political Realist. Judge for yourself.)

I have trouble getting excited over every off-the-cuff remark made by mainland newspaper columnist. And I am mystified when people choose to respond with a level of political umbrage normally provoked by vicious racial attacks.

Let me be clear: I’m not a political naif, I’m a political optimist. So when I hear a rude or offensive statement about this province or its people, I can take it in without automatically assuming the comment is malicious. It’s far more likely to be clumsy, accidental or simply ignorant.

But what does the political pessimist hear? That person hears an offensive remark, assumes malice and concludes that anti-Newfoundland conspiracies must be at work. They believe that people and institutions are actively working to keep our province down and/or prevent us from getting our “fair share” (whatever that is). That response is more than cynicism. It is a peculiar form of political paranoia.

This would all be merely be a point of interest to an academic psychologist, were it not for the fact that this perspective is alive and well in Newfoundland and Labrador. It plays a large part in our public discourse. We read it on the editorial pages of our provincial newspapers, and we hear it on radio talk shows and in the debates of the House of Assembly.

Lately I’ve noticed at least two variant schools of political pessimism.

The first is the “it’s all their fault” school. This argues that agents outside the province - the federal government, foreigners, national media and/or international capitalists - are to blame for all our problems. They are our enemies: they look down on us, they are keeping us down, they are stealing our birthright. Collectively, these malevolent agents are responsible for the collapse of the fisheries, the closure of Abitibi, the elimination of the Gander weather office and the scattering of our children across the nation.

The second school of thought - “it’s all our fault” - is a form of political self-flagellation that writes the history of our province as a series of betrayals and repeated failures of ourselves and our children. The reasons vary. According to some, we have been historically passive and need to “take matters into our own hands”, or become “masters in our own house”, or some other pithy cliche that says little and means less. Other variants condemn our politicians (or the entire government) for “selling us out”, being “traitors to our people” or somehow benefitting themselves at our expense.

Both these attitudes are negative and bitterly corrosive because they define our province and people in terms of lack and loss, and characterize all of us as victims, either stupid or weak. They insist on seeing Newfoundland and Labrador as deprived and downtrodden, and believe us besieged by enemies, without and within. Concerned with pointing fingers, they prefer to apportion blame for the misfortunes we encounter and emphasize historical grievance over exploring future potential. They represent a political philosophy that, by definition, always leads to a dead-end. Because they define all social, economic and historical problems in this way they paint us into a corner where we can do little but rant, rail, vent spleen and spit bile.

These schools of political pessimism exact a huge economic and political cost. They preclude realistic appraisals of the issues facing our people and the assets we have to address them - and therefore prevent sensible exploration of possible solutions and future opportunities.

Here’s a resolution for our public debates in 2006: let’s be optimists instead.

We can get more done that way.

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