Friday, July 13, 2012

Romancing the Bethune

Canada’s intellectual and political elite have a dilemma: how do they deal with Dr. Norman Bethune’s legacy?

On the one hand they desperately want to praise Bethune for his so-called “humanitarian” and innovative efforts as a surgeon, but on the other hand there’s that nasty little historical fact concerning the good doctor’s sordid political beliefs, i.e. he had a crush on Joseph Stalin.

Stalin, recall, is infamous for  butchering millions of people, for creating one of history’s most brutal dictatorships and for ruthlessly terrorizing half a continent – and that’s when he was in a good mood!

Yet Bethune the “humanitarian” thought Stalin was the bee’s knees, so in 1935 he joined the Communist Party.

That’s right instead of joining his local Rotary or Optimist Club, Bethune thought he could best help society by doing such things as advocating cockamamie economic theories, waving red flags and whistling L'Internationale.

Now in the 1960s and 1970s, this Stalinist past actually wasn’t much of a problem for Bethune worshippers. Those were the days, after all, when supporting the communist ideal was still trendy in left-wing academic and media circles.

Sure communism wasn’t perfect, they argued, but anything was better than capitalism, which simply didn’t work and which they confidently predicted would collapse in or around 1985 due to its own obvious internal contradictions.

Yep the super-geniuses in academia had it all worked out.

Except reality didn’t co-operate. In fact, after 1991 it sort of became clear that capitalism was in reality far superior to a system whose existence required generous doses of barbed wire, secret police and Siberian gulags.

Even Ivory-tower-ensconced university professors couldn’t help but notice the Berlin Wall toppling, the once mighty Soviet Union dissolving and China adopting a decadent, non-progressive, quasi-market-oriented system.

The only truly Stalinist state left was North Korea and aside from its snazzy military parades, it just wasn’t all that cool. It’s kind of hard even for intellectuals to idealize a society where the chief leisure activity is known as “Trying not to starve to death.”

Consequently by the onset of the 21st century communism lost much of its cachet.

Which brings us back to Bethune. For better or worse, the guy will forever be tied to a discredited and blood-drenched ideology, yet oddly, there are still those in Canada who seek to romanticize his life.

And to do so, Bethune groupies have come up with two ways to overcome the "Bethune was a tyrant-admiring communist" problem.

One way is to simply ignore his communist ties. This is the method, for instance, Treasury Board President Tony Clement used to justify his government spending $2.5 million to build a Bethune Shrine in his riding. (Coincidently his riding is also the official federal repository for all things to do with Public Pork and Gazebos.)

Well, all I can say to that is ….hey, wait a minute! … did Clement actually call Bethune, the Stalin-loving, Mao Zedong-adoring communist,  an entrepreneur!!!??

Maybe I’m wrong about Clement. Maybe he isn’t a Bethune groupie at all. Maybe he is actually using clever irony to insult the dead doctor.

I mean calling Bethune an entrepreneur would be like calling Thomas Mulcair a member of the Calgary Petroleum Club. As a good communist, Bethune regarded entrepreneurs as bourgeois enemies, as exploiters of the proletariat, as the people who would sell Stalin enough rope to hang everybody.

The best place for entrepreneurs, in Bethune's view, was is in front of a firing squad.

So this leads to the question: why is the supposedly pro-free enterprise Conservative government paying homage to guy who regarded free markets the way Dracula viewed a crucifix.

Well it seems Prime Minister Stephen Harper is really desperate to impress Communist China. The Chinese Communist Party recently gave him a few cute pandas, so the least he can do in return is lionize Mao’s favorite Canadian.

Of course, before the Conservatives could glorify Bethune in this manner they had to first set aside certain facts.

They had to set aside the fact that Bethune supported Mao Zedong, a man who surpassed Hitler in the All-Time Mass Murderer Rankings.

They had to set aside the fact that Bethune turned a blind eye to the horrific atrocities that took place in Stalinist Russia during his lifetime.

They had to set aside the fact that Bethune embraced a totalitarian ideology that had as its goal the destruction of Canada’s democratic values.

And oh yeah, there’s one more thing the Conservatives had to set aside: their principles. 

But I digress.

Let’s get back to whitewashing Bethune’s communist past.

As I said, you can ignore it like Clement did or the other method is just to pretend it never happened.

This is the strategy Globe and Mail columnist John Ibbitson used in a recent column in which he paid homage to Bethune.

While describing all the supposedly wonderful qualities of the doctor, Ibbitson nonchalantly declared Bethune’s “communist taint” has been “rinsed away.”


And exactly how and when did this miraculous cleansing take place?

Did historians discover Bethune really admired Groucho Marx and not Karl Marx?

Did any of Bethune’s letters recently emerge in which he wrote something like: “I tried to contact some of my comrades in Russia today, but found out they had all been purged after a series of show trials. Apparently Stalin had them all tortured and then shot. Yikes! I know this might sound bourgeois and all, but it got me thinking that perhaps this working class struggle bullshit isn’t all its cracked up to be.”

If such a letter exists it’s news to me.

Maybe Ibbitson will provide evidence of it in a future column.

In the meantime, I will continue to oppose my government using my money to honour a man who was not only on the wrong side of history, but on the wrong side of morality.

You see unlike Bethune’s apologists like Clement or Ibbitson, I have no difficulty in judging the communist’s legacy.

Nor, I suspect, will history.

Friday, July 06, 2012

Reviewing the CTF Pension Pitch

Call me crazy, but one of my hobbies is dissecting fundraising letters, which I believe are under-rated forms of communication. A good fundraiser has to be informative, concise and most of all persuasive. And believe me, getting people to donate hard-earned cash with written words aint easy.

At any rate, every once in a while I like to review such letters. In the past, I have reviewed a New Democratic fundraiser and one from the National Citizens Coalition.

Now it's the Canadian Taxpayers Federation's turn. Here's my take on a CTF letter that recently turned up in my inbox. My comments are in bold italics.

Dear Supporter,

MP pension reform is a campaign we’ve been waging for over 20 years and we firmly believe that this summer is the last window of opportunity to give this issue the boost it needs.

This opening is OK, but dull. A letter needs more oomph at the top. Why not start with a little outrage over Bev Oda's pension? After all, the retirement of such a wonderful target to a lavish pension is a once in a lifetime opportunity that shouldn't be wasted. Something along the lines of:

"Dear Supporter:
Did you hear the news? Cabinet Minister Bev Oda, who made headlines with her reckless spending on things like $16 glasses of orange juice, has retired and will soon enjoy a massively rich pension!

It's true!

Soon Oda will get a super-rich pension payout that you and I in the private sector can only dream about!

We estimate her pension to be worth a whopping $700,000!

This must never happen again. The gold-plated pension plan must be reformed!!"

OK, that's a little rough but you get the idea.

Prime Minister Harper has committed to bring forward reforms to the MP pension plan this fall.

Why say this? I mean it might be true but it takes away from the letter's urgency. A reader might say,"Well if the PM is going to bring forward reforms this fall, why should I bother making a donation now". Never give a donor an excuse to bail.

If the politicians don’t hear from taxpayers over the summer you can bet that any changes introduced three months from now will be underwhelming.

OK -- but again, a little limp. Why not something a little punchier:"If you and I don't put pressure on this government soon, they won't reform this obscene pension".

That’s why with your support we’re hoping to launch a national billboard campaign this summer.

This is good. Always helps to garner donations when you give supporters a chance to contribute to something concrete and tangible ie a billboard ad. But why not include link to a graphic of what the billboard will say and look like? Make it real. Also don't say "hoping to launch" say "we will launch."

As reported by the CTF on June 28th, the most recently released numbers for 2010-11 show that for every $1 an MP contributed to their pension fund, taxpayers kicked in $24.36.

Would have added a little emotional jab after this fact: It's outrageous!

We were reminded yesterday of just how ridiculous this pension plan is with embattled cabinet minister, Bev Oda, resigning her seat effective July 31st. Ms. Oda who was first elected eight years ago in 2004 will instantly start to collect an annual pension we estimate at $52,183. That’s $701,464 by the time she reaches age 80.

Again, Oda is introduced too late.

Making it worse, unlike a normal pension fund, the MP pension fund isn’t actually invested. The federal cabinet has simply ordered taxpayers to pay the “fund” a 10.4% annual interest payment. No doubt many Canadians who lost their shirts in 2008 would have liked that deal.

That’s the message we plan to take to taxpayers and politicians alike this summer: For every $1 an MP puts into their pension plan, taxpayers put in $24.

All good stuff. Gives the letter some meat. Makes it credible. And the populist appeal about Canadians losing their shirts is a nice touch.

Can you chip in $24 to add your voice to MP pension reform? We hope this will be the last time you contribute $24 towards MPs pensions. You can make your donation through our donation website:

I really like this. Asking for a $24 donation to match what taxpayers kick into the pension plan is a great gimmick. On a campaign I worked on in the US, we asked people to contribute $17.76. Get it? But this ask should be explained a little better to lead the donor with a logical progression.

Something like this:
"To make this campaign a reality we need your financial help. You are forced to contribute $24 to the MP pension plan, but we are asking you to voluntarily contribute $24 to our billboard campaign. Make your voice heard!!"

If we don’t push back on this plan now, it could be years before we get another opportunity.

Needs a stronger conclusion: If we don't win this battle now, we never will! 

Thanks for all you do,

 Troy, Scott, Shannon and the entire CTF team

Posting all the names of staff is cute, but it kind of destroys the illusion that this is a letter from one person to another person. Makes it less personal and thus less effective.

P.S. If we don’t take action this summer, MPs will come back in the fall and rush through some minor changes. Moving from $24 to $1 down to $18 to $1 or $12 to $1 isn’t good enough. Join our effort to demand taxpayers match MP contributions for their pension $1 for $1. Donate $24 here:

Always a good idea to include a PS. But at least when it comes to letters on paper, you should assume the PS is the only thing a donor might read. (Often it is) So it should be a stand alone message that gets your point across succinctly. In this case the PS is more like a continuation of the letter. In fact, this stuff should have been in the heart of the letter.

Now if I seem a little too critical of this letter, please understand, I actually like it. Overall it's well written and it gets to the point with clarity. Plus it's focussed. And getting it out while Oda is in the news shows a good understanding of the importance of timing.

It should raise the CTF some dough, which when you come right down to it is the main thing.

Sunday, July 01, 2012

Now That's An Awesome History

Today  is Canada Day.

Amid the hoopla, I hope Canadians remember Canada Day is more than just a holiday; it's also a day to remind ourselves we live in a country with the world's most boring name for a national holiday.

I mean come on, with all the government grants we dole out to writers and poets, you would think somebody could dream up a holiday name that was a little less generic-sounding.

I asked my son to suggest a better name for the holiday and he came up with an excellent idea -- "Awesome Day."

Now that's cool.

But of course, the holiday's name doesn't really matter. What truly matters is on July 1 we salute the fact that 145 years ago, a new nation was forged; a nation dedicated to shutting down the oilsands, raising taxes and bringing back the gun registry.

Oops, sorry that's Canada Day according to the NDP.

What I mean to say is Canada is a special and wonderful place -- a place where people are free to follow their dreams, a place where beautiful landscapes delight the eye and a place where everyone regardless of race, creed or colour has the right to cheer for NHL teams that fail to win the Stanley Cup.

And yes throughout our history we have overcome many challenges.

In the 1970s we endured the "Trudeau Years" when former prime minister Pierre Trudeau sought to impose the Cuban economic model on the country through a program of socialist experiments, bigger government and a poorer Alberta.

As if that wasn't bad enough, Trudeau also gutted our military, alienated our allies and dated Barbra Streisand.

We also survived the Mulroney era. Whereas Trudeau tried to wreck our economic system, former PM Brian Mulroney shattered our domestic peace in the name of granting Quebec the constitutional status of a "distinct society."

Mind you, this was done with the noblest of intentions: To win votes in Quebec.

And so, Mulroney pushed the Meech Lake and Charlottetown accords, both of which enjoyed the backing of the country's media, intellectual and business elites; and so naturally both accords failed.

Mulroney did succeed, however, in unleashing years of tortuous, nation-dividing and pointless constitutional debates which culminated in the 1995 Quebec referendum on independence.

Ultimately Quebecers voted -- by the narrowest of margins -- to continue accepting multi-billion dollar transfer payments from Canadian taxpayers.

After Mulroney, Jean Chretien of the Liberals assumed control. Unlike his predecessors, Chretien stayed away from grand economic and constitutional schemes meaning his government was free to focus on other more important matters, such as corruption.

So scandal-ridden was the Chretien government that Liberal fundraising letters noted donations to the party could be made by cheque, credit card or cash-stuffed envelope.

But we survived that too.

The point I am trying to make is that despite the best (worst) efforts of our politicians, Canada is still the best country in the world.

Yes we have our problems, but can you really think of any other place you would rather live? (Okay maybe southern California, but that's about it.)

Now if only we could change the name of our national holiday to Awesome Day.