There’s a magnificent comedy sketch, most famously done by the Monty Python’s Flying Circus crew, called the Four Yorkshiremen.
If you haven’t seen it, it’s four wealthy businessmen, sitting around, reminiscing about how they came from terrible poverty and miserable childhoods. Each one-ups the others by giving more and more outlandish details.
Key exchange: “There were a 150 of us, living in a shoebox in the middle of the road!”
“You were lucky!”
I think about this sketch a lot while I’m watching political coverage lately.
The Four Yorkshiremen sketch is a form of class posturing. All of them are obviously wealthy and massively successful. But they try to emphasize how they came from nothing. That’s a rhetorical tactic that almost everyone employs at one time or another.
Ultimately, we all come from nothing, or our ancestors did. Go back 200 years and about 90 per cent of people were farmers. Everyone’s ancestors had dirt under their fingernails, unless your name is Windsor, née Saxe-Coburg Gotha.
I’ve seen these up-from-nothing rhetorical postures used in high-level political debate, and in random internet arguments about science fiction novels. Seriously, this kind of thing is everywhere.
The problem is that politicians frequently try to use a humble, or at least average, background as part of their narrative. Thomas Mulcair has been emphasizing his middle-class upbringing, and I fully expect Stephen Harper to do that too – after all, Justin Trudeau is the only candidate in the race who comes from money.
Emphasizing that you weren’t born with a silver spoon firmly planted in your mouth is a good tactic. For all that we believe in bettering ourselves economically, we’re often suspicious of the rich, especially those with inherited wealth. After all, if they’ve never had to work hard or go without, how will they understand those of us who have?
But a disproportionate number of our politicians and business leaders come from money. Even if they increased their family wealth, like Donald Trump or Conrad Black, they didn’t exactly start out shoeless, begging for nickels in the gutter. They began from a position of relative wealth and privilege, and used it as a springboard to something greater. (In both those cases, “greater” might be the wrong word.)
Some people can’t claim a middle class background, no matter how hard they try. This leads us to the “regular guy” persona, as adopted by many, many American good-old-boy type politicians, and by Rob Ford here in Canada.
This changes the argument from economic (“I understand your issues because they are mine”) to purely cultural (“I like hockey! You like hockey? Vote for me!”).
Although the “regular guy” argument is more obviously false, I’m suspicious of both. Just because you were born poor or middle class doesn’t mean you still hold those values. It’s possible to take almost any two individuals, put them through similar circumstances, and to have them come out with vastly different political ideals.
It’s harder, but we have to interrogate politicians not just on where they come from, but on the lessons they learned. It’s entirely possible that, like the four Yorkshiremen, they may have become a little bit detached from reality in the years since their humble beginnings.
Read Bob Groeneveld’s Odd Thoughts online this week at LangleyAdvance.com