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Prime Minister Mulcair and the Politics of Masculinity

Sometimes I feel shame when reading posts by my fellow NDP members about how great our party is. “Why can’t I do that?” I sometimes wonder. I really do want people to vote NDP next time. Obviously, there is something good enough about the party that I continue to support it despite a rocky relationship with it these past twenty-eight years. And I’m sure that some people will see this post in light of that likely-to-continue track record of disappointment, insubordination and occasional despair. But I honestly am writing this to express my enthusiasm for our leader and to emphasize my view that he has a real shot at becoming Prime Minister in 2015 — even without an electoral cooperation deal with the other opposition parties. Admittedly, I think that shot goes from about 35% with cooperation to about 8% without it but still…

Tom Mulcair has a real shot at becoming the first NDP Prime Minister because he, not Justin Trudeau, the Liberals’ inevitable future spokesmodel will actually tap into the force that elected Justin’s dad in ’68 and re-elected him in three times thereafter. And the contrast he presents to Justin — and yes, I am using the first name rather than surname technique typically used to demean female politicians here (more about that shortly) — will actually aid him in channeling that legacy.

When Mulcair won the leadership of the NDP, Canada’s political class waited with great anticipation to see what ads the Harper attack machine would run against him. The consensus, before the “risky theories” ads came out, was that the Tories would go for the most talked-about of Mulcair’s supposed character flaws, an angry, bullying, gruff nature combined with a short temper. And yet the Conservatives have made no mention of it; instead they have sought to portray him as professorial, secretive and distant.

For the same reason, I don’t expect to see any future attack ads using the December 5th 2012 footage of Mulcair bodily interposing himself between an enraged Peter van Loan and his house leader in the floor of the Commons. From the footage, it is clear that Mulcair is cussing-out van Loan and informing him that he would be only too happy to lead the next day’s news cycle being dragged out of the House for personally beating him to a bloody pulp in front of his chicken hawk Tory colleagues.

The last thing that the Tories want is to draw attention to what continues to make French Canadian men a potent force in English Canadian politics, even as the electoral relevance of Québec declines.

English Canada fell in love with Pierre Trudeau in 1968 because he angrily seated himself in the direct line of fire of bottle-throwing separatists, not with calm and decorum but in an obviously enraged response both to the separatist rioters and to the handlers who sought to whisk him off to safety. Trudeau’s healthy libido, ability to shamelessly date (and even marry) mentally unstable women less than half his age, his willingness to order the assault of protesters and roll out tanks in the streets of Montréal and his expressions of contempt, punctuated with the odd obscene gesture endeared him to crucial voting blocs in English Canada.

It was the actual Trudeau legacy that gave Jean Chretien three back-to-back majority governments, and would have given him a fourth if the Liberal Party constitution had allowed him the option of handling Paul Martin’s challenge through a single combat rather than a convention vote. It was not Chretien’s association with the Charter that won him all those seats in Ontario; it was his ability to beat intruders senseless with soapstone sculptures, joke about pepper-spraying people in unconstitutional mass arrests and put protesters in chokeholds that won him the respect of so much of English Canada.

It was not the intellect of Trudeau or the savvy political tactics of Chretien that made these men such towering figures in late twentieth-century Canada. These guys were elected and re-elected, first and foremost, for their public performance masculinity.

Since first wave maternal feminism gripped English Canada in the Victorian Era, our patriarchal authorities have come to a different cultural accommodation between ongoing rule by a male elite and the demands of feminists than those in French Canada. While both cultures remain patriarchal societies in which women fight to make inroads into the financial and political elite, the on-the-ground manifestation of this is very different.

In English Canada, men’s eligibility to join the elite is conditioned, in large measure, by their capacity to reflect the Victorian ideal of manliness exemplified in Upper Canadian culture. Like Hawaiians, Upper Canadians build their patriarchal culture around understated theatrical demonstrations of restraint, physical, emotional and sexual. Elite English Canadian men are not to shout; they are not to brawl; and, if they must engage in it, they keep their promiscuity invisible. Just ask the mayoral candidate who could have saved us from Rob Ford, Adam Giambrone, felled by what Torontonians called a sex scandal and what Parisians wouldn’t have called anything.

While I would never suggest that restraint and sensitivity have nothing to do with elite masculine status in Québec, I will suggest that they have much less to do with it. To non-elite men and women in English Canada, the relative freedom of powerful Québecois men from these standards is a powerful force, especially for non-elite men descended from Southern European immigrant communities that struggle to identify with the smallness and coldness of Anglo nuclear families and the disturbing bloodlessness of the surrounding culture. For Anglo chickenshits like Harper, aggression is often celebrated but when it is, it is always “serious business,” an exotic phenomenon; it takes a Chretien or Trudeau to indicate a real comfort with it by joking about violence (e.g. “I put pepper on my plate…”).

We remain a culture that is rooted in millennia of patriarchy. And generally, Canadians only hand majority governments to a party when one leader is able to embody the multiple definitions of masculinity that, together, comprise a majority, while the others are not. And, overall, the more bellicose, less restrained kind masculinity we find in French Canadian culture has resonance with more people in more places. It has resonance amongst working class Anglos in industrial towns; it has resonance on reserves; it has resonance in immigrant communities not yet domesticated to the passive-aggressive, restrained masculinity of neo-Victorian elites with its slut-shaming and excessive concern over female modesty. Really, the only place it doesn’t sell especially is Québec, where people are more used to it and, consequently, a good deal more tired.

But to us Anglos, a Trudeau, Chretien or Mulcair is a Tarzanesque figure, a creature from a world of which we know little, who has swung in on a vine to right wrongs and expose the hypocrisy, emptiness and veiled rage of the smug, little chess club patriarchs like Harper who run Anglo society. He can slam his fist on the table and threaten to break Peter van Loan’s nose if he steps an inch closer to Nathan Cullen — you know, that nice, mild-mannered House Leader, half a head taller than Mulcair and nearly a generation his junior.

Now, I’m sure some people will suggest this post secretly celebrates patriarchy through Mulcair and the other Francophones for whom, repressed, bourgeois Anglo men like me enviously vote from time to time. Others might suggest that I’m insulting my party and its leader by suggesting that we’ve turned against feminism. Neither is the case.

As Leonard Cohen wrote, “There is a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in.” Just as Trudeau presided over the largest expansion of women’s rights and opportunities since the achievement of suffrage, I have great hopes for the NDP when it comes to stopping the decline in women’s fortunes under Harper and creating the kinds of material innovations that lead to real gender equality, like the nationalization of Québec’s public childcare program. It’s just kind of funny that our best shot at that in our history comes from the fact that our leader, in the eyes of more and more Canadians, “knows how to be a man.”

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