Stories of Gomery and Montgomery

There was an undercurrent to the Rosa Parks funeral and memorials that challenged the story as often told: that a simple, black woman with tired feet refused one day in 1955 to give her seat to a white man on an Alabama bus, leading to the civil rights movement and segregation's end.

The tale was challenged for lacking context: Rosa Parks had worked for years in political groups. A decade before, she refused to enter a bus by the rear door assigned to blacks. There were previous bus protests. The Montgomery boycott lasted a year. Even after victory, Rosa Parks lost her job and moved to Detroit.

The well-known version also lacked in politics: The triumph was due to education, debate, strategy, leadership and, above all, grassroots organizing. It was not due to one sudden, brave, individual act. That notion is false but also dangerous, since it misleads people about how change actually occurs and leads almost inevitably to discouragement and resignation, which, in turn, lead to things not changing.

So even in a case like Rosa Parks, storytelling has limits. Consider Bill Clinton, a great storyteller. At the Parks funeral, he told how he and two nine-year-old pals in Arkansas, impressed by Rosa Parks, decided: If blacks can go to the front of the bus, we whites can go to the back. A fine story.

Yet, as president, he failed to even try to organize constituencies that most needed change, such as blacks. He inspired them but didn't mobilize them. So his one grand initiative, health care, simply died, victim to powerful forces already in place. For the rest of his tenure, he never took on real power. The only mobilization that occurred was a sort of anti-puritanical uprising during the Lewinsky affair that rallied behind him despite his bungling behaviour.

Now take a lesser case of politics in danger of being reduced to storytelling: the Gomery report. Andrew Coyne in the National Post inconsolably repeated “culture of impunity” about the Liberals. As if this saga must and will grow ever more sickening.

Even darker — befitting his Catholic background on the Rock — Rex Murphy of CBC's The National moaned mockingly about Paul Martin as “the lone saint in the brothel.” He said the sole valid ending to this epic will be Liberal defeat. It's as if politics amounts simply to reacting to stark tales that have readily identifiable heroes and villains, and gratifying moral endings. It's not about doing things in the world, it's about achieving catharsis. I'm not saying that's wrong. If it's what you want to make of politics, okey-dokey.

But for a different approach, it was bracing to watch the post-Gomery press conference by Jean Chrétien.

He reminded us that there remains some context to Canadian politics beyond Gomery. If, for instance, as prime minister, he had decided to join the war in Iraq, “today we would not be talking about the Gomery report. We will be dealing with the body bags coming back to Canada of young Canadians.” He didn't deny the corruption but didn't wax hysterical, as Paul Martin and many pundits have. “So there are errors made, and I apologize for that. It's too bad.” A little brusque. Could have sounded more penitent.

But look, the total the Liberals ripped off for party use was a paltry $1.14-million. And the Chrétien government brought in the first serious campaign finance reform law we've had. That's what I mean by context — and politics.

It seems to me this is what citizens who don't reduce politics to a matter of passionate storytelling and emotional over-identification must conjure with. Do you vote for a corrupt Liberal Party plus national child care, or for a non-corrupt (or future corrupt) Conservative Party, with no substantive child-care policy? I'm not saying it's an easy choice.

I even wonder about Rex Murphy. Is he willing to turf these guys for the sake of a rewarding end to the Gomeriad, at the price, say, of his own employer, the CBC, going defunct, as the Conservative culture critic at least hinted in the recent lockout? Rex sounds like he'd embrace that outcome, though it seems perverse to me, even fanatical. But hey, perverse is human, like politics.

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