A Haunting Fear

Philip Cross
June 4, 2015
H.L. Mencken defined Puritanism as “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, is happy.” Confirming Mencken’s diagnosis, a resident recently complained to the Milton, Ontario city council about a neighbour’s Halloween display. Phillip Cross compares the killjoy instincts of progressive scolds with the live-and-let-live views of conservatives.

By the very nature of their philosophy, conservatives are disposed to be more optimistic and fun-loving than liberals. Liberals (a short hand I’ll use to cover the political spectrum on the left including progressives and socialists) base their outlook on causes, whether eradicating social injustice in our society, eliminating human suffering around the world or saving the planet and every species on it. Try smiling with all that weighing on your psyche when you wake up in the morning.

Conservatives accept that the world and its occupants are fallible, and therefore are not as distressed by every manifestation of this imperfection. They know life isn’t always fair, outcomes are unequal and people and nature adapt to changes in their environment. It follows that conservatives are more optimistic because they can imagine how free people are capable of responding to challenging circumstances, rather than being limited by a sense of grievance about past transgressions. This was most evident in U.S. President Ronald Reagan’s legendary sunny disposition, but also was apparent for Margaret Thatcher, Brian Mulroney, George W Bush, Mitt Romney and David Cameron. Even Tim Hudak, while running doomed campaigns for Ontario Premier, never stopped radiating the optimism many conservatives instinctively embrace.

The different dispositions of liberals and conservatives were reflected in a recent Statistics Canada survey of how satisfied Canadians were with their lives. The most satisfied were in rural and conservative regions such as Quebec City, Saguenay, Saint John and Saskatoon. The least happy? The liberal bastions of Toronto and Vancouver (these results hold up even after adjusting for things like age and income). It is hard to be happy when you have to be relentlessly “on message” with whatever is deemed politically correct at the moment. Conservatives are more tolerant of a diversity of views since they know there is no one right answer, and the empirically-based right answer usually changes over time.

The kill-joy instincts of liberals were on full display in Ottawa during the Senator’s improbable drive to the NHL playoffs. To celebrate the totally unexpected success of 27-year old rookie goalie Andrew “The Hamburglar” Hammond, fans starting throwing hamburgers on the ice at the end of games (a player even picked one up and took a bite while saluting the crowd). However, the fun quickly ended when the head of the local foodbank scolded fans for wasting food, as if demand for its services had any relation to a physical shortage of food. As one local scribe noted, “those who would characterize a random, fun gesture as symbolic of our society’s indifference need to get a grip.” There is a reason Ottawa is called “the town that fun forgot.” P. J. O’Rourke made fun of the whole mentality that wants everyone “to grow all our own food, use only fair-traded Internet services with open code programming, heat the house by means of clean energy renewable resources such as wind power from drafts under the door, and knit our children’s clothing with organic wool from sheep raise under humane farming conditions in our yard.”

By comparison with progressive scolds, even taciturn conservatives have their lighter moments. Famous as a man of few words, Republican President Calvin “Silent Cal” Coolidge was once offered a bet by another guest at a dinner party that she could induce him to say more than three words during the evening, to which he replied, “You lose.” Another anecdote earned him an unlikely place in biology and psychology books for the “Coolidge Effect” that describes the effect new mates have on male sexual desire. When President and Mrs. Coolidge were being shown separately around a farm, she noticed the rooster was mating frequently. She asked the attendant how often that happened and was told, “Dozens of times each day.” Mrs. Coolidge said, “Tell that to the President when he comes by.” Upon being told, Coolidge asked, “Same hen every time?” The answer was, “Oh no, Mr. President, a different hen every time.” The President replied, “Tell that to Mrs. Coolidge.”

The template for witty conservatives and dour liberals goes back at least to the battles between Benjamin Disraeli and William Gladstone to lead Britain in the 19th century. Disraeli led a full life, raising a family, writing poetry and books while leading the birth of the modern Conservative party. Famous for his barbs, Disraeli was once asked what was the difference between misfortune and a calamity: “Well, if Gladstone fell into the Thames that would be a misfortune; and if anybody pulled him out, that would be a calamity.” Meanwhile Gladstone, when not trying to pass home rule for Ireland, earnestly tried to reform prostitutes one at a time. Dubbed the Grand Old Man of Liberal politics, Disraeli chided him as God’s Only Mistake.

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Conservative political leaders are more approachable for ordinary people because of how conservatives view the acquisition of knowledge. For liberals, knowledge is data-driven and acquired only at school, which helps explain why the previous two leaders of Canada’s Liberal party were deadly serious university professors (Stephane Dion and Michael Ignatieff, both with disastrous results). Justin Trudeau seems headed down the same road with his regular references to data- and evidence-based policymaking, although in his case it may be to rebut the impression that intellectually, he has little else to work with.

Conservatives allow a role for knowledge to be acquired by experience, history and folk lore as complements to evidence-based policymaking. Drawing on the past as a guide to future action allows conservative leaders to project a more folksy image, instead of beginning every sentence with “Studies show that…”, as if campaigning was an elaborate graduate exam. Some liberal leaders get this point, like Jean Chretien and Bob Rae. But they are being replaced by an increasingly technocratic approach that assumes building a society is the same as constructing an abstract academic model. The technocratic approach to coalition building in 2008 (“we’ve got the votes!”) blinded its practitioners to the devastating optics in English Canada of getting in bed with the separatist Bloc Quebecois.

Leftist leaders can be unintentionally funny. Green Party leader Elizabeth May’s rambling, profanity-laced meltdown at this year’s annual press gallery dinner, which she called “an attempt at comedy that misfired,” was hilariously bad. And she was not the first left-wing leader to bomb on that stage; former Bloc Quebecois leader Gilles Duceppe once provoked reporters to throw buns at him (which prompted the joke that waiters removed all the buns during May’s tirade). It’s hard for earnest people to suddenly switch to humour.

Holding fewer illusions about life and their fellow human beings, conservatives are less likely to be disappointed. Naomi Klein in her recent book This Changes Everything recounts having to comfort a tearful eco-warrior disillusioned by President Obama’s failure to deliver at the 2009 Copenhagen Conference on climate change. Sure, Alberta conservatives were disappointed with the performances of all their recent leaders – from Ed Stelmach to Alison Redford to Danielle Smith to Jim Prentice – but nobody cried about it. That came later, with the election of an NDP majority government.

Conservatives only sighed when Premier Wynne seized on the trendy push for pricing carbon to hike energy taxes, but without offsetting cuts to other taxes its proponents had intended. Conservatives knew that asking the Wynne government to curtail its need for tax revenues is like expecting sexual modesty from former IMF head Dominique Strauss-Khan (in court, he defended his predilection for orgies as a demonstration of restraint because “I only attended four per year over a three-year period.”) He would have made a splendidly typical Socialist President of France.

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Conservatives are less constrained by political correctness in poking fun at particular individuals, groups or themselves, the basis for most humour in this world. John Crosbie apparently has dedicated his life to this proposition while serving in many federal and provincial cabinets and as Lieutenant Governor of Newfoundland and Labrador. He rankled opponents by christening the “Four Horsewomen of the Apocalypse” in reference to long-time foes Sheila Copps (for whom he later wrote an introduction to her biography), Mary Clancy, Dawn Black and Judy Rebick. Questioned about whether being unilingual was handicap when running for the leadership of the Progressive Conservatives in 1983, he replied “It is better to be honest and sincere in one language than a twister, a trickster and a twit in two” in a not so subtle dig at Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s fluent bilingualism and loose command of the truth.

No discussion of conservative political humour in Canada can ignore the contribution of the National Post, especially the Financial Post section. FP Comment editor Terry Corcoran and I were mulling over why we had unexpectedly received Queen’s Jubilee Medals in December 2012. I suggested maybe it was for antagonizing liberals, and realized there was a way to test that hypothesis: “Ask Peter Foster (a regular contributor to FP Comment) if he got two Jubilee medals.” If you want a good example of Foster’s satirical ability, read his review of the film version of Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, which he titled “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Harper.” Corcoran seriously considered entering the 2013 by-election in Toronto Centre, already a media circus due to the presence of two high profile candidates in the NDP’s Linda McQuaig and the Liberal’s Chrystia Freeland. The intent, like William F. Buckley’s 1965 candidacy for mayor of New York, was to publicize the conservative critique of liberal myth-making in the nation’s media centre. Like Buckley, if unimaginably Corcoran had eked out a win, his response would have been “I demand a recount.” Ultimately, he did not throw his hat in the ring, but we should hope he decides to lighten up – and enlighten – some future election campaign.

Judging by our current crop of leaders, humour coming from the political class is increasingly passé, the victim of managing the 24/7 news cycle, social media amplifying every mistake, and a suffocating political correctness (imagine a politician today repeating John Diefenbaker’s characterization of fellow Conservative MP Flora Macdonald as “the finest woman to walk the streets of Kingston since Confederation”). Prime Minister Stephen Harper showed he inherited a least some of the humorous legacy of Sir John A. Macdonald in a speech where he recalled Pierre Berton’s claim that a real Canadian knows how to make love in a canoe: “Now I think of myself as a real Canadian… I just prefer to say that I’m not much of a canoeist.” The nickname “Angry Tom” Mulcair has stuck because of his chronic state of outrage. As for Liberal leader Justin Trudeau, most of his humour seems inadvertent, as when he expressed admiration for China’s “basic dictatorship,” or tin-eared, as when he joked that Russia invaded Ukraine because it was in a “bad mood” after losing hockey gold at the Sochi Olympics.

Modern political humour is almost exclusively the domain of professional comedians today. Our political debate, and the rapport politicians have with the public, is the worse for them abdicating the field. A quick wit is usually the product of a quick mind. We need more of both in politics today.


Ottawa-based commentator and consultant Philip Cross maintains an economics website called InsidetheNumbers.org.

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