Confronted with criticism of his plan to combat global warming, John Baird was easy to complain when the environment minister said "I'm the arena."
It seemed a curious choice of words: “in the arena.” Only those familiar with bygone political oratory—or the pages of a wellthumbed Bartlett’s—likely recognized the phrase as part of a century-old speech by Theodore Roosevelt. “It is not the critic who counts,” the 26th U.S. president said. “The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly...” * The quote has endured as a political salve not only in the United States, where Richard Nixon had the passage distributed to his campaign team each time he lost an election—fire up the ditto machine again, Rose Mary!—but in Canada and beyond. No words, other than “Here’s your massive severance package and obscene pension,” or possibly “Hey, look, Sheila Copps just retired!” have provided more comfort to elected officials—Baird among them, apparently—or done more to convince politicians of the rightness of their cause, the nobility of their actions and the hugeness of their brains. I am the hero in the arena, the brave warrior drenched in sweat and blood. My critics are big fat losers. Roosevelt said so, and his face is on a mountain.
In truth, Roosevelt was offering a meditation on the destructive influence of apathy and cynicism, not mere criticism. More broadly, his lengthy address—delivered to the Sorbonne in 1910, about a year after he left the White House—served as an examination of the role of citizens and of leaders in a democracy. The Canadian politicians who find solace in Roosevelt’s image of the man in the arena ought to read the whole speech: the words might help them figure out why they’re
held in such contempt by voters, non-voters and our more intuitive domestic pets.
“The main source of national power and national greatness is found in the average citizenship of the nation,” Roosevelt told his Paris audience. “Therefore it behooves us to do our best to see that the standard of the average citizen is kept high; and the average cannot be kept high unless the standard of the leaders is very much higher.”
Very much higher, you say? Uhh, that could
It’s the counterpoint to a car crash: try as we might, we cannot fight the urge to look away
be problematic. The current session of Parliament, now creeping miserably toward its summer hiatus, has been a bonfire of reputations—a ritualized diminishment of character that has spared no one. Spin has given way to outright lies (Stephen Harper and Gordon O’Connor), healthy conflict to poisonous quarrels (Stephen Harper and Stéphane Dion), and dressing yourself has given way to paying a clairvoyant to select your necktie (Stephen Harper only). Opposition outrage has been manufactured in such quantities we could market the surplus to the Chinese as a bargain-priced cologne: Futility for Men. And reasoned discourse has been thrown under the bus of partisan hysteria, which has sped along with the Prime Minister at the wheel, steadfast in his belief that if he takes his foot off the pedal then the whole thing will explode—denying him both a sequel and a caring squeeze of the shoulder by Keanu
Reeves. The whole sad spectacle has been the counterpoint of a car crash: try as we might, we cannot fight the urge to look away.
Those who’ve forced themselves to watch have endured the gall of Harper casually tarring his rivals as Taliban sympathizers, the absurdity of Stéphane Dion’s Question Period queries (Will the Prime Minister admit he is the worst person in the history of human existence and resign immediately and please also move to Antarctica or some other stupid place?), the hilarity of Jack Layton assailing the unprincipled nature of all backroom political deals in which he is not an active participant, and the fingersnapping thrill of Gilles Duceppe’s cover version of the Clash’s Should I Stay Or Should I... Crap, I Guess I Should Have Stayed.
Using the 39th Parliament as a gauge for what Roosevelt called the “standard of our leaders,” we can reasonably expect the “standard of the average citizen” to resemble the climax of Dawn of the Dead. So please don’t hold it against your zombie neighbour when he comes over to feast upon your flesh—he’s just doing his democratic duty.
Our leaders demand fair hearing while shouting down their opponents. They call
for civility while wrist-deep in the mud. “The preacher of ideals,” Roosevelt told the Sorbonne, ‘must remember how sorry and contemptible is the figure which he will cut, how great the damage that he will do, if he does not himself, in his own life, strive measurably to realize the ideals that he preaches for others.”
Perhaps it’s time for those “in the arena” to stop quoting the wisdom of great leaders past—and instead start acting on it.
* The Roosevelt quotation in full, and a link to the speech, can be found at www.macleans. ca/feschuk. Warning to observers of Canadian politics: the quality of Roosevelt’s speech, the clarity of his ideas, the poetry of his words—these will depress you. M
ON THE WEB: For Scott Feschuk’s take on the news of the day, visit his blog www.macleans.ca/feschuk
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