Saturday, July 10, 2010

More on heroes and prime ministers

Roderick Benns gives us one upside the head:
I was disappointed to read Professor Andrew Smith’s blog on how wrong it is for Canadian prime ministers to be considered heroes, and for your support of its content. Thanks for hearing me out on this one.

As owner of Fireside Publishing House, which is committed to the Leaders and Legacies series on Canada’s prime ministers and other Canadian leaders, we are of a decidedly different mindset.

According to Oxford, a hero is “a person distinguished by courage, noble deeds, outstanding achievements, etc.”

John A. Macdonald and Wilfrid Laurier were not heroes under this definition? It boggles the mind that anyone could say otherwise. (You will notice the definition does not cite infallibility, for Macdonald and Laurier, like the lot of us, would surely falter.)

Professor Smith’s comments are among the worst kind of tall poppy syndrome comments I have read in some time. To think that talent or achievement might distinguish one person from another!

He writes “my own preference would be to abolish the official residence, cut the salary of the Prime Minister to the average male wage, and give the guy a bus pass.”

What would this teach our young people? That political public service is not really valued? That we, as Canadians, need not have any faith or respect for our own institutions? This truly is disrespectful.

He also writes, “…naming a street after a historical figure implies that they are a hero, someone to be praised.”

Yes, we would not want any praise for our leaders, please -- we’re Canadian! Why should Macdonald be recognized for “courage, noble deeds or outstanding achievements” like, say, facilitating the birth of a nation or manifesting the longest continental railroad in the world, among a dozen other key planks.

Do the Americans take it too far? From our standpoint, of course they do. But it’s in their blood and it’s their country. If a U.S. president stopped to take a pee somewhere you can find a plaque about it. And good for them.

Our prime ministers (and other types of leaders) are people who provide living evidence of personal sacrifice, service to country, and, yes, ambition. From my standpoint, I want children to know this is possible for them. I want them to know that serving one’s country will not invite ridicule or disdain but rather respect and appreciation, assuming their intent is in the best interests of their fellow Canadians.

I don’t want to live in a country where we have ‘EveryMan Avenue.’ Give me Macdonald Blvd – or even Wellington – any day of the week.
Some years ago I wrote -- amazing where a historical career will take you -- a Guide to the Gravesites of the Prime Ministers (downloadable pdf here) for Parks Canada, which was marking each of them with a plaque and a flag.

It was a nice little project. But I was left with a certain doubt. Could we imagine ourselves, at some distant future date, visiting the gravesite of Stephen Harper or (should events run that way) Michael Ignatieff. Don't we squirm a bit?

Roderick Benns makes strong points. Of course achievement should be honoured. Still, there is much to be said for the idea that prime ministers are citizens like the rest of us, partisan and proud of it, given a position of responsibility by the elected representatives of the people but capable of being returned instantly to private life when the legislature's preferences change. If we make too much of prime ministers from the past, does it encourage an unhealthy deference to the current ones?
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