I once interviewed Shania Twain in a small room in the basement of Hamilton’s Copps Coliseum. I remember she’d brought her dog and her publicist made very clear that one was not to look at, touch or otherwise acknowledge the handsome beast (a German shepherd, if memory serves).
I recall little else. Except the realization that Shania Twain and the average human being have almost nothing in common beyond the fact that they are roughly of the same species. Not just because Shania Twain is—rightly or wrongly—admired and appreciated by millions, but because, not coincidentally, her life is insulated and managed by, quite literally, dozens of aides, advisors, experts and paid confidants, each representing a layer between her and what might be considered normal reality. This is probably recognized, possibly even taken for granted, by anyone observing celebrity. But maybe it’s not fully understood until you find yourself speaking to someone so far removed.
Anyway. I raise this only because interviewing Shania Twain is roughly equivalent to spending a day in the approximate company of Stephen Harper.
Setting aside the fact that the life of a national leader is inherently unlike the existence of the average human being and that all political campaigns involve insulating the candidate and stage-managing his or her surroundings, the degree to which Harper currently exists in a manufactured reality, entirely separate from yours and mine, is altogether remarkable. His staff—and they are numerous—are essentially producing a live-action motion picture in real time. Everyone in his midst becomes an actor, everything a prop, Harper the leading man moving from one carefully crafted scene to another. Everything is considered. No one enters his midst without purpose. No action takes place without calculated cause.
(As an aside, it’s increasingly hard to believe Harper is a reluctant participant. Not least after he allowed his office to arrange for photographers to be present when he walked his daughter to school yesterday. That was not the act of a man bound and determined to preserve some kind of a normal existence beyond his political life.)
But here’s the difference between Shania Twain and Stephen Harper (or at least the one of many differences that is relevant to this discussion). In Shania Twain’s world, the individual is celebrated for resisting the bubble, for maintaining or appearing to maintain some kind of authenticity amid the luxury and artifice. In Stephen Harper’s world, the bubble is celebrated, the candidate revered for existing in a properly constructed and peaceful sphere. This even has its own cliche—the self-aggrandizing idea forwarded by residents of the bubble that running a proper campaign means you can run a proper government.
This is probably preposterous. Or at least a really, really depressing statement on democracy. Unless this is still high school and the primary qualification for elected leadership is the ability to organize a kick-ass prom.
Of course, that’s not to deny that how a campaign manages its bubble doesn’t matter to voters. It seems to. Implicitly, people seem to apparently find some value in whether or not a party can organize a particularly meaningful photo-op. But is that because it actually matters? Or because the reporters, columnists, correspondents, strategists and anonymous senior Liberals who govern the proceedings tell us it matters?
This could go off on any number of pseudo-philosophical, thumb-sucking tangents. But here’s maybe the conundrum we keep coming back to: is politics sport or is it life? If this matters, in what way does it matter? Are we looking for the person who most skillfully plays the game or the person who best understands how the game relates to what we would recognize as reality? And is it possible to live in a perfectly structured bubble and still claim to understand what’s going on beyond it?