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Mark Holland makes a case for a more human approach to politics

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“This place needs to be more human,” Government House leader Mark Holland told a House of Commons committee during highly personal testimony on Tuesday.

In a narrow sense, Holland was making a case for the continued use of the “hybrid” arrangement that Parliament adopted shortly after the pandemic upended Canada and the world in 2020. At the most acute stages of the pandemic, allowing MPs to speak and vote remotely was a matter of safety. Looking forward, an openness to virtual participation could allow MPs to better balance their democratic duties with their personal lives.

In that respect, the conversation taking place in Parliament is not unlike the discussion that many workplaces have had about remote work.

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But it’s also possible that everything about our politics could stand to be more human — and that part of what ails modern politics is a lack of humanity.

“I think it would really miss what I’m trying to say to think it’s just about hybrid,” Holland said in a follow-up interview with CBC’s Rosemary Barton that airs on Sunday.

“I think that there is something broken in our discourse, there’s something broken in how [MPs] treat each other … and how we talk to each other about what we do.”

Although politicians are (with rare exceptions) — human beings, and although the debates they have and the policies they enact have very real implications for very real people, politicians don’t always act or seem like normal people.

That’s why moments of raw humanity — such as Holland’s testimony on Tuesday — are often seen as revelations. It’s not for nothing that commentators sometimes talk about efforts to “humanize” a politician.

Some of this might be unavoidable — the job is necessarily performative. Politicians are expected to lead and convey messages. They are a voice for others. To some extent, they have to entertain. They face constant and unforgiving media scrutiny.

Theatrics over humanity

As Holland noted, MPs spend their weekends racing around their ridings, going from one community event to another.

In short, there are many things about the life of a politician that would not be considered “normal” by most normal people. But politicians can also be captured by their own theatrics.

Consider, for instance, question period.

“I think we’re all seized with the decline in the quality of discourse, the incredibly aggressive and partisan nature in the way we question each other and interact with one another,” Holland said at another point during Tuesday’s committee hearing.

“… For most people watching, it doesn’t appear that we’re really acting like human beings, that we seem to be more interested in our partisan interest rather than the fact that we’re people who are attempting to do our best.”

For these and other reasons, it’s easy to be cynical about politics. It’s too often treated like entertainment or sport. But social media may have now reduced it to a video game — turning politicians and other voters into disembodied characters to fight or mock or get mad at.

Supporters of outgoing U.S. President Donald Trump clash with police at the west entrance of the Capitol in Washington D.C. on January 6, 2021. (Stephanie Keith/Reuters)

Research in the United States has found that Republican and Democratic voters dehumanize each other. They also assume that the other side takes an even dimmer view of them.

And though there may be several forces driving the toxicity that has shown up recently in Canadian politics — including the threats and harassment directed at politicians and journalists — it’s worth considering whether politicians’ own disconnection and a certain lack of apparent humanity is at least partly to blame.

Perhaps what we’ve lacked over the last few years are forums where — unlike question period or social media— voters and their leaders can act and interact like normal people.

Discord and theatrics in politics are inevitable and, to some degree, healthy. But in the continuing conversation about the future of liberal democracy, it’s worth reflecting on the value of politicians and voters seeing each other as fellow humans.

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Teams focused on politics performed worse at World Cup – FIFA’s Arsene Wenger

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AL RAYYAN, Qatar – Speaking in his capacity as FIFA’s Chief of Global Football Development, Arsene Wenger insinuated that teams which made political statements early in the World Cup saw their on-field performance suffer as a result.

The comments came at a media briefing for FIFA’s Technical Study Group, in which Wenger and Jurgen Klinsmann shared the group’s findings from the group stage.

 

In response to a question about the impact of the truncated preparation period in advance of the tournament, Klinsmann spoke about the importance of being able to “mentally and physically” adapt to the challenges of playing during a break in the European season and in the Middle East.

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“If you struggled to adapt, to come here and for whatever reason — especially mentally — were not able to adapt yourself to everything you find here and how dynamic this World Cup is, you will struggle,” Klinsmann said. “And you will get a negative surprise like we saw with Germany, we saw with Denmark and other teams.”

Those comments prompted Wenger to jump in.

“I would just add that the teams who were not disappointing with their first game performance — because when you go to the World Cup, you know not to lose the first game — are the teams who have experience,” Wenger said. “They have results in former tournaments like France, like England, like Brazil. They played well in the first game. And the teams, as well, who were mentally ready, like Jurgen said, that [had] the mindset to focus on competition and not on the political demonstrations.”

Though Wenger did not mention Germany by name, it was a clear reference to Klinsmann’s home country, who lost their opening game to Japan, before which the players placed their hands over their mouths during the pregame on-field photo. The gesture came in response to threats from FIFA to seven European teams that they would face sanctions if they wore the “OneLove” armband symbolising diversity and tolerance.

Wenger did not expand upon how he reached that conclusion, nor did he clarify if the comments represented his personal opinion or that of the committee he was on stage representing.

“Of course it’s important for us to do a statement like this,” Germany striker Kai Havertz told ESPN postmatch. “We spoke about the game, what we can do, and I think first it was the right time to do to show the people that — yeah we try to help wherever we can. Of course FIFA makes it not easy for us but we tried to show with that thing.”

Added Germany coach Hansi Flick: “It was a sign from the team, from us, that FIFA is muzzling us.”

After losing the first match, 2-1, despite outshooting Japan 26-to-12, Germany responded with a 1-1 draw against Spain and a 4-2 win against Costa Rica, but did not advance.

Earlier in the briefing, Klinsmann assigned blame for Germany’s elimination to the lack of a productive No. 9.

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Ministers decline request to testify on Afghan aid blockade as desperation grows

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Three Liberal ministers have declined invitations to testify in the Senate as the upper chamber probes why Canada still won’t allow humanitarian workers to help in Afghanistan.

Aid groups say Ottawa has told them that paying people in Afghanistan or buying goods there could lead them to be prosecuted under anti-terrorism laws.

Many of Canada’s allies have found carveouts so that aid workers don’t get charged with supporting the governing Taliban, which is designated as a terrorist group.

But Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has no explanation for why Canada hasn’t fixed the issue.

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The Senate’s human-rights committee will launch hearings into the issue on Monday and invited three ministers to attend, but all of them said they had prior commitments at the time of the planned meetings.

The United Nations says six million Afghans are now categorized as being at risk of famine, while another fourteen million are in critical need of food.

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When politics wasn’t a team sport

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It has all been downhill in America since the first six presidents. Western civilisation was never the same after ancient wisdom gave way to the sentimental Gospel. Roosevelt should have stayed out of that damn fool war in Europe and the Pacific. People are breeding too much. The state must stop them.

I like Gore Vidal so much that I involuntarily smile when I see the spine of his essay collection, United States, in my bookcase. Even before his dotty late phase, though, he was a reactionary kind of liberal. If his 1968 debates with the conservative William Buckley Jr still grip us, it is because of the two men’s underlying oneness, not the superficial Democrat vs Republican framing.

Best of Enemies, James Graham’s otherwise fine play about the duel of the drawlers, might have made more of this. I fear much of the audience leaves with the sweet notion in their heads that Vidal would today have been a woke ally. The play wants to suggest that his showdown with Buckley was a trailer for the culture wars, the partisan spite, of now. I have come around to the opposite view.

The debates marked the end of something good, not the start of something bad. It was the last time being politically hard-to-place was normal.

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Put it this way. If you tell me what you think about, say, the return of the Benin bronzes, I can infer with some confidence your views on public spending, the EU, rail strikes, immigration, working from home, climate change, Meghan Markle and much else. Nothing connects these subjects. It should be possible to be a small-government Remainer who thinks imperial loot is better off in western museums and who loses sleep to visions of a burning planet. But such a person would stand out now. To take a more concentrated example, lots of people should be anti-lockdown and pro-vaccine mandate. How many do you know?

I have aired Ganesh’s First Law of Politics before, but allow me a recapitulation. People do not work out their beliefs and then join the corresponding tribe. They join a tribe and infer their beliefs from it. The sense of belonging, the group membership, is what hooks people, not the thrill of being right or pursuing a thought on its own terms. Politics has become a team sport, goes the line on this. But even that is too kind. Sports fans are sardonic and irreverent about their own team. It isn’t so central to their identity as to require consistent adherence.

We have lost all sense of how weird it is to seek connection with others through politics. And how new. Watching Buckley and Vidal is a reminder of a less needy age. The former had his own credentials as an apostate of the right: his loose line on marijuana, his Catholicism, his Spanish-speaking intellectualism. Nor was the audience at the time much easier to place. Millions of whites were pro-New Deal and anti-Civil Rights in a way that stumps modern notions of “progressive” and “conservative”.

Noting the change since then is simple enough work. Accounting for it is trickier. One theory suggests itself. The rise of politico-cultural blocs more or less tracks the decline of church membership, trade unions and marriages that go the distance. An atomised population began to cast around for other kinds of belonging, didn’t it?

The mid-20th century voter was heterodox, yes, but heterodox in the way that someone with strong roots could afford to be. With such a firm social anchor, there was less need to seek emotional security in a political tribe. As I’ve used two metaphors for the same thing there, let us keep them coming. A rudder, a bedrock, a cornerstone, a north star: people used to find these things in their personal relationships. In their church, family, factory or town. As modernity scrambled those things, mostly for the good, the need to subsume oneself into a group was going to have to be met some other way.

That turned out to be politics. We live with the wicked results all the time now. The perverse consequences of ostensibly desirable change: Buckley would call this a conservative insight. And I, though a Vidalist, always thought he won those debates.

Email Janan at janan.ganesh@ft.com

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