Most men buy a red sports car for their mid-life crisis, or start dating a gorgeous blond who is precisely their age divided by two. I didn’t take that route, unfortunately. I got into politics. And to this day — a day in which I gaze out the window of my log cabin into a shroud of Chinese pines, karst rock formations and mountain fog — I wish I had opted for the car. Or the blond. Hell, and the blond. Anything but politics. I think my marriage could have survived a blond or two and an idiotically expensive car. Politics? Not a chance.
You know that old solidarity rhyme that goes: “First they came for the . . . and I was not a . . . so I didn’t speak up . . . Then they came for the . . .” Well, I was the first one they came for and, Jesus H. Christ, I should have spoken up and gotten the hell out. By “they,” of course, I mean the Liberal Party’s goons, the ones too homely and too Machiavellian even to be politicians. They run things behind the scenes. Who am I kidding? There are puppet masters in every party, even the ruling Conservatives, so it’s probably fair to say these goons run the entire country.
Anyway. I’m a human rights lawyer, by trade. Well, to be precise, an international human rights lawyer — one rung further down the ladder from the rainmakers of Bay Street. I could have gone into private practice, I suppose. I would have made more money. But human rights law just seemed more noble. Noble and profitable, mind you. I’m not a fucking social worker. And it does involve a lot of interesting travel. Flying into Kinshasa, for example, to consult with the United Nations mission there, talking about launching a class-action human rights case against the Congolese government for failing to enforce the right to “freedom from rape.” The funny thing, of course, is this: Nothing is declared a human right unless there’s monumental and incredibly violent difficulty in enforcing it. “Freedom from hunger” in Ethiopia, for example, or the raft of unenforced rights in Darfur. I feel like Sisyphus, destined for all eternity to push his boulder to the top of the hill and watch it bounce down again; the only difference is that when I watch it bounce down again, I hear a loud though admittedly unjust “ka-ching!” echo off the surrounding peaks. And, unlike those we seat in the witness box, I leave the courtroom and return to a life and a home that is material and real, guaranteed by rules and laws based on private property and money. The real rights, in other words. Unfair but true.
I have a good life. Sorry, had a good life. My wife’s name is — was . . . Geez, I’m not sure what tense to use. Anyway, it’s Gail. She has brown hair and an oval face, green eyes. She’s sweet and teaches first-year English literature at a second-rate university in downtown Toronto. Roughly nine years ago she gave birth to Noel, a cute kid. People say he looks like me. We kicked soccer balls around in the yard. Played with the dog, Edward. That sort of thing. It was tranquil, peaceful. We lived in midtown Toronto. Sure, the house was expensive. What house isn’t these days? But even if it was by no means a mansion, the trees on the street were huge — massive oaks that turned the neighbourhood into a sea of yellow and ochre in October. My bike rides to the office always started off with that sickly wet smell of foliage. That would dissipate as I made my way south along Huron Street, replaced with wafts and clouds of incense as I pedalled through Chinatown. By the time I got near the office, I was being honked at, choking on fumes and risking my life. But it always started nice. I came to realize everything starts nice. My bike ride, in a sense, is kind of a neat metaphor for everything that happened next. Started pleasant, turned exotic, then became absolute shit.
I’d always voted Liberal. Well, since I got a real job and returned from jaunts overseas (I lived in India for a year and studied in China). By the winter of 2011 I had just come off two high-profile human rights cases. One was a Canadian citizen who was tackled as he was getting on an Air Canada flight, stripped naked and thrown in a cell. They thought he was another underwear bomber. Turns out he just had a massive package. Perhaps unfairly to the less endowed, he ended up with yet another massive package — this one from the government, to the tune of thirty-five million dollars. Put that in your underwear and smoke it. The other was a female Muslim high school student who had only arrived in Canada with her illiterate parents from Afghanistan three years prior. An idiotic teacher said he wouldn’t teach her math if she didn’t take off her niqab. I spun about twelve million dollars out of that one — systemic racism, etc. Last I heard, she was building a mosque and a radical Islamist community centre right next to the school. Serves ’em right.
I presume they sought me out because my name was in the papers. “They,” again, being the Liberals’ backroom ass-faces. I was being quoted saying all sorts of stuff, much of which I had actually said — surprisingly.
“If she isn’t allowed to learn math in her niqab, then I shouldn’t be allowed to defend her in my pants,” John Cookson told The Toronto Herald in an exclusive interview on the courthouse steps. “This isn’t just about the niqab and math, both of which aren’t really that cool. It’s about her right to learn that course, or drop out, or whatever, not wearing my pants!”
Well, that was one of the early ones. Eventually I hit my stride. And the fact that the airport guards frisked my other defendant only to discover a massive dong armed my closing arguments with enough double entendres to flog a dead whale off a beach and back into the sea.
The Liberal hacks arrived the following Monday morning. They showed up unannounced. There were two of them. I was just looking over prospective cases and reading all the congratulatory emails when Nancy, our firm’s secretary, clacked her way into the room on six-inch heels. “John, there’s two weird-looking men outside in very expensive but ill-fitting suits. They appear not to be Conservatives. Not tweed, so definitely not NDP. Probably Liberals.” Odd, I thought, that anyone should swing by unannounced like this. Usually, the type of people who come to see me are starkly one type or another: either they’re all hijabs and flowing robes, or else French cuffs and tie-knots with a circumference as thick as the equator (meaning they were on the board of some organization or another). This was neither. It should have been my first sign that this was nothing but a boatload of debilitating trouble.
“Hi, John. I love what you do. You’ve been magnificent, really. My name’s Harold.”
“Hi, Harold. I’m John Cooks —”
“Absolutely magnificent, John. I’m Stephen,” the other one said, sweeping up between us until he was about an inch below my chin (he was short). “You can call me Steve. What you did for that poor, poor man. And that girl! Poor, poor girl. Absolutely terrific. We could use someone like you. The Liberals, I mean, could use someone like you.”
“Uhh . . . I’m not sure you have the right —”
“Listen, there’s a byelection in the city’s east end. It’s a Liberal riding, held by Papadopoulos — the current public works minister. Shouldn’t be too hard. But the Conservative candidate is gaining steam. They’ve got a law-and-order type guy. In the west end, that shit wouldn’t fly. But this is the east end. And not the fashionable east end, either. It’s totally working class and yucky. This Conservative dude, Ted Harrison, he’s an ex-cop, a shoot-from-the-hip-and-let-the-NDP-and-social-workers-sort-’em-out kind of guy. That sort of thing.”
“Yeah, I’ve heard of him.”
“Exactly. That’s why we need you. So whaddaya say? You’d be perfect. Urbane, family man, smart, but not CEO smart. Kind of gay, but not actually gay. Confident. Humble. We need you.”
This was a blatant lie, of course. They didn’t need me. They wanted to use me. Like anyone else, even my own company, I suppose. But politics, and especially political parties, use you in a different sort of way: they are unusually capricious beasts, kind of like female praying mantises. They take what they want from you by fucking you and then ripping off your head and eating you. That’s what politics felt like, pretty much. Cynical, I admit, but true.
So I agreed; specifically, to run in the upcoming byelection. I would be Liberal candidate in the riding for Toronto East, a hardscrabble formerly Greek district that now has more halal Coffee Times than authentic Greek restaurants. I had little in the way of a profile in that community (I didn’t even live there and barely had any reason to go), so I set about polishing my human rights credentials, which always seems somehow wrong — like helping a granny cross the street when you see someone you know. And I toured the neighbourhood constantly, accompanied by a grizzled, bearded campaign veteran named Dane and a political intern named Natalie, both of whom had been sent from Ottawa. Dane, a smoke-faced old hand, had a moustache, which says something of his experience by dating him to the 1970s. Natalie had an ambition so stimulating it didn’t seem to allow her to look into another person’s eyes for more than two continuous seconds. Needless to say, in the shisha-hazed café shake-and-greets, I was the one doing most of the shaking and greeting, as they stood outside consulting maps and BlackBerrys and relaying our progress to a jittery HQ in Ottawa.
One night, about two weeks before the election, we were having a brainstorming session in my sitting room when my brain nearly detonated. We were polling pretty terribly. Community response, which had started to look promising, had blown up in my face after some local youth decided to paste supportive signs bearing grimly anti-Semitic messages. The powwow started in the afternoon and stretched into the evening. Gail came home with Noel at a particularly tense point, when Dale and Natalie were lecturing me. To defuse the situation, I got up and kissed Gail, opened a bottle of wine and asked her to come sit with us as we spoke.
“Your social media presence is pretty weak,” Natalie deadpanned as I sat down.
“I see. Are most middle-aged Liberals on Twitter, then?” I asked, temperature rising.
“You’re missing the point,” she said. “We need chatter online. We need to at least feign momentum. If you’re not on Twitter, strong, tweeting about breakfast and that sort of thing, then people notice. They do. I’m not lying.”
“Feign momentum? Notice my breakfast? This is idiotic,” I replied, standing up. My patience — a frayed rope pulled taut — had just snapped.
“You just don’t get it,” she replied.
“Fuuuuuck!” I yelled, then launched into what had been on my mind since the beginning. “I didn’t seek you guys out. You came to me! Maybe I don’t get it because I get it all too well and avoided politics because I knew this would fucking happen. This whole process has been a disaster from the start. I don’t know why I agreed to stall my career and hitch onto this absolutely shit bandwagon in the first place.”
Gail, fed up with my antics, got up and left the room. Dane, used to bigger egos than mine, pretended to check his BlackBerry. Natalie, who was used to social media status updates and not actual emotion, seemed terrified — though also, somehow, bored. I was furious. I sat back down in a huff and continued absorbing their pointers — politics by reluctant osmosis. Election day was a week away.
Gail was waiting for me in bed, reading, when I finally made it upstairs. I was hoping she’d be asleep, as she had been for the past few months, when I rarely climbed into bed before one in the morning, tired and broken.
“Why are you doing this?” she asked icily. “Noel and I haven’t seen or heard from you in weeks. When you are at home, they’re here. And when they’re here, you’re not yourself.”
I stared at her for a few seconds before answering, partially because I didn’t really know. “I’m not terribly sure,” I began, sitting on the bed but facing the wall. “I thought it would be a new direction. One we could take together. I admit it’s been a bit rough. I’m sure it will slow down.”
“Slow down? Do you really expect that? You’ve said yourself this is a high-profile byelection, imbued with all sorts of idiotic significance, and that you’re being looked at for a cabinet post. This is ridiculous. We’ll either have to move, or you’ll spend all your time there. And there’s no academic postings in Ottawa,” she said, breaking down. “Everything will fall apart.”
She was weeping now. I leaned over to touch her arm, but she pulled away and clicked the light off. For about half an hour, with my hatred of politics bubbling in the dark, I conjured up images of my punk rock, anarchist past; of gleefully hurling chunks of paving stones at the State and its visored defenders; of opening my duffel bag in the laundry room of my suburban home and smelling the sour, vinegary smell of a bandana-turned-homemade gas mask from a faraway city. I fell asleep smiling, but still awoke a total, stinging sellout.
Election day fell in late autumn, as sunrises and sunsets began to draw themselves out, practising for the darkness of the Canadian winter. I was up at 4:30 a.m., waiting anxiously for some semblance of the sun with the blackest coffee I could muster. By this point, Gail had already moved out with Noel and was staying with her parents, annoyed by the eternal, droning electioneering that had descended on our house: the early rises, the late-night drop-ins, the brainstorming sessions, the white-board electoral zone diagrams, the various polling printouts, the constant phone calls. And she was annoyed with me, obviously; hell, I was annoyed with the whole thing too, but was too far down the rat hole to quit — it would have been a pinprick to the inflating balloon of my professional career. I held the mug, leaned on the counter and wished for defeat.
It didn’t come, which was no surprise. Victory was as swift as my wallowing in disappointment. In widely reported remarks the night before, my main opponent, the unfortunate Ted, had been surreptitiously taped saying the following to an aide: “Since the Arabs moved in, this place has gone to shit.” Needless to say, although he gained an awkward foothold among the demographically unimportant “angry white working class vote” of this gentrifying immigrant enclave, the statistically much more important African Muslims, Liberals, and pretty much any Regular Person Who Isn’t Racist, came out in force and voted strategically. For me. Damn them.
“In the end, he was his own worst enemy,” Dane muttered as he watched the evening newscast that night. My opponent was pilloried in the headlines of the city’s dailies the next day. Victory was mine.
I was catapulted into Parliament. Gail showed up for my election-night victory speech, but disappeared soon afterward, leaving behind the world of visitation rights. They gave me a huge office, obviously, and some staff. I became a minister — of Indian and northern affairs. Natalie became my press assistant. I was the loneliest person in the world. The novelty of meeting the prime minister every day soon dissipated: he was a controlling bastard, and I had no autonomy. My department was stuffed with people bearing what I termed “Ottawa face” — formlessly plump and educated, but with an indifference to any ambition beyond pension and easy retirement. I settled into the drudgery, got used to being berated in the press, and then I fucked up.
I was having lunch with a law-school friend of mine, at an Italian restaurant in Ottawa’s Byward Market, when the conversation turned to Afghanistan. On this, we both agreed: the situation was totally hopeless. So hopeless, in fact, that we began joking about it — within earshot of a particularly brash Ottawa bureau chief for a national broadcaster. “Afghanistan may be a tragicomic exercise in the absurdity of foreign policy, but it is our exercise. And ours alone,” I said in a mock politician’s voice, hand over heart, laughing. I was oblivious not only to the journalist’s presence, of course, but to the substance of the previous evening’s newscast: the deaths of four Canadian soldiers, shot by Soviet invasion-era Kalashnikovs while defending the burned-out shell of a girls’ school, which had been destroyed for the fourth time. The substance of that evening’s newscast was my ill-timed and poorly received gaffe. The substance of the phone call later that evening was that the substance of my agenda for the following morning was suddenly cleared up. In fact, it consisted of only one task: tendering my resignation to the prime minister. I did so gladly, though I hid my smirk. Politics had ruined my life, as it had ruined the lives of countless others. My last semi-official act — in that it took place in my office — was calling an old friend of mine who worked for a supply chain consultancy in Shanghai. Could he buy me a plot of land in the foothills of Anhui province — a beautiful though impoverished mountainous region just north of Shanghai? He could. I bought it, and arranged for the comparatively cheap construction of a cabin (the Muskokas this was not), which I was sure would be branded eccentric should anyone find out. And so, my political life in tatters, I flew up and away and down through the Asian brown cloud — to write this memoir and study history until the awfulness of what politics had wrought had turned to dust and been blown away.
Illustrations by Gavin McCarthy