Why does Harper insist on playing the nerd?

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Stephen Harper's been singing again. In Israel this time. And, boy, was it unhip.

As always, the Prime Minister's performance was strange and embarrassing, reminiscent of the elementary school fairs when a band of neighbourhood dads would take the stage and belt out a few oldies to the great shame of their kids. No, it wasn't dignified. And it certainly wasn't the behaviour of a world leader on a major state visit. In fact, Harper has never looked more like a dork. But, of course, Harper's "concerts" aren't supposed to be cool, collected or classy. They are calculated acts of geeky pantomime. And they are insidious.

In a blog post last October, Maisonneuve magazine's Eric Andrew-Gee made the case that Harper has worked hard to project a bland, straight-laced, uncool image -- a play right out of the handbook of former President Richard Nixon. It was an astute comparison, but there's an important difference in the way the two leaders wielded (and in Harper's case continues to wield) their lack of cool.

Dick's squareness was a defiant stand against the changing social and political mores of America. While liberals were championing free love, free expression, civil rights, pro-peace and anti-corporatism with the help of handsome Kennedys and hip celebrity Democrats like Dustin Hoffman, Simon and Garfunkel and Paul Newman, Nixon designated himself a glowing beacon of 1950s-style Republican values, for all those frightened citizens who weren't buying into the zeitgeist and just wanted the world to go back to the (supposedly) uncomplicated place it had been.

Meanwhile, Harper's geeky image is a façade designed to dull the impact of policy, diplomacy and his, you know, running of the country.

One of the first times we saw our PM mangle a Beatles song, it was at the 2009 National Arts Centre Gala, when he still faced controversy over a plan to defund "objectionable" art, and not so many months after he excised $45 million from arts funding. Suddenly the PM was a patron, and star, of the arts world he had once dismissed as elitist. Not on paper or in policy, mind you. Just in front of the cameras.

Last year, Harper deflected a question about marijuana by saying his severe asthma inhibited his ability to smoke anything. Discussing drugs with the rhetoric of a geek trying to get out of gym class ("I can't. I have asthma.") would have been pathetic if it weren't such a perfect way for Harper to temper his accusation that Justin Trudeau is, essentially, the cool kid hanging out in the parking lot, trying to get your children to do drugs.

Count the ways in which anecdotes from Harper's nerdy personal life have seeped into Canadian headlines. Remember the time we found out he wears spectacles? What about the time he showed up at the Calgary Stampede looking like a BDSM Howdy Doody?

Don't for a second think those stories were incidental. The perpetual motion of the Conservative campaign machine doesn't produce anything it doesn't think will win votes in some way. At best, the promotion of the Harper-as-nerd image is vacuous pandering. At worst it seems designed to actively distract from aggressive policy manoeuvers. This serenading of Jerusalem, for instance, which was a major shellacking of inoffensive nerdiness over a volatile diplomatic move.

Having just become the first Canadian Prime Minister ever to speak before the Israeli legislature, Harper might have chosen to conduct himself with a bit more decorum. Or, at least more decorum than comes with busting out your rendition of "Hey Jude." ("Hey Jude," as in "Hey Judea," get it?)

But, for the purposes of Harper's trip, it was better to play the doofus doing glorified karaoke than the politician on a mission to discuss matters of literal life and death. And, sure enough, the concert for Shimon Peres was the story that played around the world. Not Harper's increasingly one-sided approach to Middle Eastern conflict; and certainly not Harper's pledge of support for Israel in language usually reserved for the God of the Old Testament.

Granted, the ploy of concealing serious politics with a soft, nerdy side is used by a lot of politicians. The ones we love and respect do it too. But what rankles about Harper's Huey Lewis-level of squareness, is the stunning hypocrisy of it all.

How many times have his election campaigns used some idiosyncratic thread to unravel political opponents? In the last election, the Conservatives labeled Michael Ignatieff an ivory tower egghead because he had been an academic. Prior to that, Stephan Dion's language barrier and stiff delivery were twisted to portray him as whiny and weak. Justin Trudeau is already being dismissed by conservative Canadians as an ineffectual pretty boy, too slick to lead.

Harper has carved this weird little niche for himself in which he plays both extremes of the junior high social order against each other. The persona he puts out to the world is that of an economist with a predilection for JC Penny sweater vests, who still knows how to have (very clean, rather nerdy) fun. He's neither an egghead nor a dandy. He's a humble, friendly geek.

That's what this commodification of cornball banality is all about: hunkering down in the middle ground, pulling attention away from hardline policies and casting it instead toward the sing-alongs.

Don't get sucked in by nerdy Harper's antics. They're insubstantial -- bubblegum and candy wrappers. Beneath it all is the real Harper, a very savvy man who knows just how to leverage public perception and media attention. He's the one who's leading our country. And despite the sweater vests and glasses and straight-laced warbling, he can strong-arm better than any of the so-called bullies. 


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Peter Goffin is a writer and recent political science graduate living in Toronto. His work has appeared in The Toronto Star, OpenFile, and This magazine.

Photo: flickr/Jerad Gallinger

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