On October 14, 2008, Stephane Dion, the leader of the Liberal Party of Canada which was in opposition, was decisively defeated in a general election. He was widely respected as a “nice man” and probably a good academic but too much of a wimp to be Prime Minister of Canada. The main issue in the election campaign was his proposal of a carbon tax – a tax on gasoline and diesel fuel – which many economists welcomed but which the Conservative Government derided as unworkable. Dion had been an able Minister of the Environment in the previous Liberal government.
In his powerful column last Sunday (September 20) in The New York Times, Thomas L. Friedman observes that, while Americans display plenty of military machismo when deciding to use force in Iraq and Afghanistan, and possibly in Iran, they do not have the guts to introduce a tax on gasoline and diesel fuel that would unquestionably make the economy healthier and reduce the deficit.
There is something wrong, he writes, when our country is willing to consider spending more lives and treasure in Afghanistan, where winning is highly uncertain, but can’t even talk about a gasoline tax that is win, win, win, win, win – with no uncertainty at all. And yet, even talking about such a tax is definitely off the table in Washington.
It dropped off the table, for the moment anyway, in Ottawa as well when the gutsy “wimp” Stephane Dion went down in defeat.
“Little never-hurt-a-fly Denmark,” writes Friedman, got tough after it was hit hard by the 1973 Arab oil embargo. It imposed a carbon tax and made vast investments in energy efficiency. It no longer gets any oil from the Middle East. It was also lucky – it discovered oil in the North Sea.
Until recently the people the Americans regarded as wimps par excellence were the French whom they derided as “cheese-eating surrender monkeys.” It is time they restored the French in French Fries in the Congressional dining room,” Friedman writes. The French generate about 80% of its energy from nuclear power plants and have managed to deal with radioactive waste issues without any problems.
Cheese-eating surrender monkeys? No one with any historical sense would take such a taunt seriously. Were the French wimps in June 1940 when they surrendered?
There are a hundred explanations for the surrender, most of them do not cast a favorable light on the politics of the Third Republic since 1918. But wimpishness is not one them. In the Third Republic, General de Gaulle rose to emerge as one of the greatest non-wimps of the twentieth century.
And was Marshall Pétain, the victor of Verdun, a wimp? No – he represented an ancient aspect of France, the royalists militarist Catholic aspect that opposed the Dreyfusards at the turn of the century. Whatever the royalists were, they were not wimps. France was not divided between wimps and non-wimps.
Stephane Dion represents an important aspect of Canada – the decent, non-flamboyant, thoughtful aspect, with a lot of inner strength. Even if it may be conceded that the political game was not his strong suit, he is no less of a wimp than General de Gaulle.