Politics, humour and Ontario teachers

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The Internet rescues political humour. I don't mean humour about politicians, which is doing fine. I mean the gormless putative humour voiced by politicians, that reporters often describe with one of journalism's most irritating words, quipped. ("They said they're furious? That's too bad," quips Mayor Ford.) Take Hillary Clinton, running four years ago for her party's presidential nomination. Her laugh itself -- a self-conscious attempt to prove she had a lighthearted side -- became a joke. But social media came to her aid through YouTube. Using the famous scene in the film Downfall, set in Hitler's bunker, with Hillary as Hitler, she lambasted her staff, via subtitles, for failing her against Obama: : ". . . like he's the second coming of Jimi Hendrix . . . if you want to see a real bloodbath just wait for the convention when I blow myself up. It'll make 9/11 look like the teacups at Disneyland . . ." It sounded like something she probably did bark, in her campaign bunker, while the guffaw was being refurbished for further public deployment.

This year we got a Hillary-positive version of her humour, again through social media, on a tumblr site, Texts from Hillary. She sits slumped, surrounded by empty seats on her huge plane, texting grumpily, sunglasses shielding her eyes. Obama messages from his couch, "Hey Hil, Wachu doing?" She deadpans, "Running the world." Jon Stewart hopefully texts, "Daily Show this week?" She icily replies, "Already booked Colbert." Her predecessor, Condoleezza Rice, texts to ask if any glasses were found in her old desk. Hillary, breaking no expression, her eyes invisible behind the shades, answers, "Sorry Condi, haven't seen them."

It sounds like her, but a part of her she'd never reveal publicly. So it's intuited by intelligent amateurs on the Internet and put in her mouth. The professional comics, like late-night TV hosts, can't do it; they're filtered the same way she is. Stewart and Colbert are exceptions, but they're cable, and feed off their audiences as their audiences feed off them. What's amazing is the result doesn't demean elites like Hillary; it humanizes them, despite themselves.

Teachers and tactics. It seems to me that Ontario teachers' tactics like largely withdrawing from extracurricular programs or staying away from Meet the Teacher nights are counterproductive, but they don't lack a context. They're the fruit of about 125 years of "business unionism," in which many unions -- including public sector ones -- have viewed themselves on the model of businesses that exist for the good of their owners or shareholders and use any means they can to maximize their profits versus the competition.

But there's another model. It sees unions as social organizations of people with common interests, all embedded in a larger society. On that model, a union's strength lies not in its intrinsic power but in its ability to recruit support from beyond itself. The basis of strategy isn't wielding your "clout"; it's building alliances. For teachers the best way to do that isn't by withdrawing from contacts with kids and parents but using those contacts to explain their view of the conflict, as well as how everyone's interests dovetail -- morally and practically.

I understand that teachers feel angry, disrespected and don't want to just take it. But in pulling back from kids and parents instead of reaching out and communicating, they're showing disrespect too. They apply blunt force the way the government applied it to them, hoping there'll be a knock-on effect up to the political level. But that's not very social or humane, and it's ridiculously hard to calibrate or control the effects. Toronto garbage workers found out in 2009, that it might have been better to help people bring their garbage to collection sites and talk to them as they did so, than make them wait in the heat.

It's in confusing, emotion-ridden situations like this, that leadership can be crucial. But the teachers' union leaders seem to have been vague, or to have hinted in the blunt-force, knock-on direction. I have no doubt their goals are social and worthy: they want the good of the kids and society. But their tactics seem to belong more to old-time business unionism, in these new times.

This article was first published in the Toronto Star.

Image: Doug Millison/TheConcreteJungleBook.com/Flickr

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