Justin Trudeau: Just Another Quantum Politician?

Like many other world leaders, PM shows how to be true and false at the same time.

By Crawford Kilian 23 Apr 2016 | TheTyee.ca

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

It was great theatre: The good-looking Canadian prime minister, standing before a blackboard full of equations, taking a spitball question about quantum computing and belting it out of the park.

Never mind that it was probably a setup, with a reporter primed to ask Justin Trudeau about a topic he'd just been intensively briefed on. If nothing else, it showed the former drama teacher is a quick study who doesn't need to read his talking points off a sheet of paper like most of our parliamentary clods.

The online media went into a predictable tizzy: Not only cute, not only a boxing punchmeister, not only a good feminist husband and dad with six-pack abs and a cool tattoo, but he also does standup comedy about quantum computing.

Trudeau's not the first Canadian to startle audiences with such wit and fluency. Mark Rowswell, a tall white guy, went to China to improve his Chinese. He got so good that he turned up on Chinese TV in 1988 as "Dashan," doing a comedy shtick called crosstalk, swapping rapid-fire gags and puns with a native Chinese speaker.

Half a billion Chinese TV-watchers fell out of their chairs laughing -- not because he was bad, but because he was really good. If anything, he spoke better putonghua -- common speech -- than they did. Rowswell became an instant star and made a tidy fortune appearing on TV and opening new shopping malls. China fell in love with him because unlike most westerners, he'd taken the trouble to listen to and learn their language and speak it like one of them.

That should tell us as much about the general doltishness of westerners in China as it does about Rowswell's linguistic skills. And the reaction to Justin Trudeau's quantum-computing crosstalk tells us how little we expect from the people we hire to run our affairs.

When he ran for president a few years ago, John Kerry's fluency in French was actually held against him. The French were a bunch of cheese-eating surrender monkeys who didn't want to get into the Iraq War. And while most U.S. presidents in the past century have graduated from Ivy League universities, not many since John F. Kennedy have bragged about it. (Barack Obama graduated from Columbia in 1983, 21 years after I did, but I've never heard him reminisce about those golden days on Morningside Heights.)

Who's the best?

Both the U.S. and Canada began as strongly class-defined societies, with wealthy landowners at the top. The ''best man'' to run the country by definition was upper-class and highly educated. ''Democracy'' means rule by the lower classes, a horrifying thought. So the Americans elected a string of genteel slave-owning aristocrats like Washington and Jefferson. Then democracy took over and Andrew Jackson got in.

That yahoo robbed the Cherokee and other First Nations of their land and deported them to Oklahoma on the Trail of Tears. Other yahoos saw that winning the yahoo vote could let you steal not just from the natives but also from your fellow-yahoos.

It wasn't always that way. Just as Jackson was about to take power, Alexis de Toqueville toured the 1830s United States and was vastly impressed with its people:

"In New England, every citizen receives instruction in elementary notions of human knowledge. ... He is made familiar with the history of his country and the principal features of the Constitution that governs it. ... When I compare the Greek and Roman republics with their libraries full of manuscripts and crude populace to the republics of America with their thousands of newspapers and enlightened citizenry ... I am tempted to burn my books to make sure that I apply only new ideas to such a new social state."

But de Toqueville immediately added: "The farther west or south one goes, the less educated the people are. In the states along the Gulf of Mexico there are people, as there are in France, who are strangers to the most basic elements of human knowledge."

Those states, almost two centuries later, boast scores of universities; even so, those states in 2016 seem poised to vote for Donald Trump.

The yahoos who elected Jackson also created a powerful anti-intellectual stream in American politics. The anti-immigration politicians of the 1840s who wanted to repel the Catholic Irish were proud to be called "Know-Nothings." Their descendants want to build a wall on the Mexican border. (Canadian border too, if need be.) They embody the famous observation of science writer Isaac Asimov: ''…the false notion that democracy means that 'my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.'''

Ever since then, even the American aristocracy has had to pretend to be ordinary folks. Blue-blooded Teddy Roosevelt never let himself be photographed playing a sissy sport like tennis, just as his cousin Franklin was never photographed using the wheelchair polio had put him in.

And by the time Yale graduate George W. Bush got into the presidency, he had the Texas drawl down pat and suckered the yahoos into donating their sons and daughters for a $2 trillion war in Iraq. Hey, you could imagine having a beer with Dubya. Al Gore would swill a latte while he told you to trade in your SUV for a Smart car.

'I'm not a scientist, but...'

Ironically, advances in science and education have only entrenched the yahoos in their ignorance. They can watch TV and roam the internet, but they don’t understand the principles behind such technology, and they don’t trust those who do. In fact, they don’t trust educated people very much at all, so they’re fond of climate-change denial.

But in the process, the very concept of a highly educated, highly intelligent president or prime minister has become unwelcome. It's OK to speak French in Canada, but a fluent Spanish-speaking president would keep his fluency to himself. (Can you imagine Hillary engaging in Chinese crosstalk with Xi Jinping, or bullying Angela Merkel in fluent German?)

This attitude has also enabled untold numbers of American politicians to tell their voters, "I'm not a scientist, but..." and then win an election to implement grossly ignorant policies on climate change, health care, and restrictions on firearms. Hence the United States, the greatest scientific superpower the world has ever known, has allowed climate change to accelerate and millions to suffer and die because yahoos don't believe in medicare or gun control.

We've absorbed some yahooism from our noisy neighbours. But Canadian yahoos put up with Pierre Trudeau (for a while) because he clearly pissed off so many of his fellow Quebecers. He was also a jock, teaching his kids to ski and canoe. But until his son came along, Pierre's successors were guys you'd be glad to hang out with at the pub or the ice rink or the local Tim Hortons.

Now our young Justin has sized up the situation and staged a little standup comedy gig, just to impress the media (themselves pretty yahoo, if truth be told). But he's also impressed the scientists. His routine about quantum computing actually inspired an editorial in the august British journal Nature, which wistfully asked:

"Why the eruption of reaction, one is entitled to ask? Shouldn't we expect all our elected representatives to be so conversant with the scientific issues of the day that explanations of quantum computing by any one of them should barely twitch a cat's whisker?"

And then the editorial answered its own question:

"The problem is that science, if done properly, rarely comes up with the sound-bite certainties and expedient spin that politicians demand -- nor the ability to say one thing while meaning something quite different. So perhaps it is not so surprising that the latest brave attempt by a politician to grapple with science involves the quantum world, where it is possible for something to be both true and false at the same time."

If Justin Trudeau turns out to be just another quantum politician, we may at least understand how a feminist PM can sell weapons to the misogynist Saudis, or talk green while promoting pipelines... that is, how to be true and false at the same time.  [Tyee]

Read more: Federal Politics

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