'Bob from Calgary' reflects on his 15 minutes of New York Times fame

It's been three weeks since Bob Summers from the University of Alberta revealed himself as the man behind the most popular comment ever posted on the New York Times website. Now he looks back at being thrust in the limelight, and provides further insight into why his comment triggered strong reaction from readers.

Top New York Times commenter urges Canadians to resist politics of anger and ignorance

Weeks after revealing himself as the New York Times commenter 'Bob from Calgary' (who is actually from Edmonton), Bob Summers reflects on his time in the spotlight and what he hopes for the future of Canadian politics. (Submitted by Bob Summers)

A few weeks ago I was thrust into the national media spotlight as "Bob from Calgary" (though I'm actually from Edmonton).

For those who don't know the story, check it out here, here and here.

To make a long story short, I had a very popular comment in the New York Times and followed that up with a New Year's Day commentary in the Globe and Mail. In both pieces I argued that Canada was a progressive country where the vast majority of people are happy to pay taxes in order to provide a just and fair society that looks after those in need and to provide opportunity for everyone (albeit not completely equally).

I learned a few things through my experience.

First, when one receives their 15 minutes of fame, it's a wild ride. I went from having a quiet end to 2015 to doing 16 press interviews in the first few days of 2016.

My email started filling up and my Twitter account went crazy. Hundreds of people were contacting me. And then, as quickly as it took off, it died down and life was back to normal. 

When one receives their 15 minutes of fame, it's a wild ride.– Bob Summers

As much as I was happy for things to get back to normal at that point, I admit I missed it a little. It's not often that a whole country cares about who you are. My daughters, however, were glad when it all ended, as I finally got to take them skating, as I promised I would do on New Year's Day.

There were other lessons as well.

A quietly proud majority

As my commentary was going public, I braced myself for an onslaught of critical comments. I expected the apologists on the left to scold me for not recognizing all the flaws and failures of Canada, and those on the right would be unhappy at my suggestion that taxes were anything but destructive.

I was sure that I was going to feel the same anger that I see in the comment sections of newspapers every day.

As my inbox filled with dozens of messages and my phone buzzed with Twitter comments, I began reading with great trepidation.

The first email I received was from a woman in Ontario who thanked me for "articulating the common values of Canadians so effectively." The next was from a professor from Montreal who "agreed wholeheartedly," and on it went through dozens of emails and hundreds of tweets.

Perhaps it was just an echo chamber of people who agreed with me, but I get the sense that it was something more, that my comments represented the quiet majority of people who are proudly compassionate and who believe in equality of opportunity as a core Canadian value.

'Too smug about Canada'

There were a few challenges.

First, in an interview on an AM talk radio station, the host made assumptions about my politics, presuming I was strongly "left wing," only to discover through conversation that we agreed on some things (she is a staunch conservative) and disagreed on some others.

A column in the Toronto Sun challenged my New York Times post as being "too smug about Canada" by greatly distorting many of the points I made in my commentary.

Similarly, in online comments, many people seemed to want to identify me with some kind of extreme position. It was difficult for them to accept that I was "progressively" in support of taxes, but I was also "conservatively" concerned that some of those tax dollars were not being used efficiently.

I was a centralist, and centralists in this country usually are quiet — they tend to sit out from the loud and aggressive debates.

U.S.-style rhetoric spills across the border

I've had a few weeks to consider the whole experience, and what I can draw from it. 

I've always had an interest in politics and this has reinforced my belief that Canada is best served by a diversity of political parties that reflect the widespread key core values that are held by the majority, such as compassion for those in need and a belief in an equity of opportunity for all. 

For those unfamiliar with the term, demagoguery is an appeal to the emotions and fears that manipulates people.–Bob Summers

There is plenty of room within that frame for a diversity of opinions and approaches. There are legitimate debates, for example, about the role of private service providers in the health system, or indeed the role and influence of unions in such services.

These types of debates are what the NDP, the Liberals, the Conservatives and other parties should be having in a healthy Canadian democracy.

However, in recent years, and certainly in recent months, we've seen an increased use of demagoguery, such as that recently put forth by Kevin O'Leary.

For those unfamiliar with the term, demagoguery is an appeal to the emotions and fears that manipulates people in a way that circumvents rational thought.

It takes advantage of people caught up in situations that are difficult, such as those being laid off in a tough economy, and co-opts them, often resulting in an angry and poorly informed electorate. This has been behind the rise of people like Donald Trump and Ted Cruz in the U.S.

Rise of anger and ignorance

When American-style rhetoric spills over the border and Canadian conservatives begin to mimic the American right wing, I worry for two reasons:

The first is that we won't have an effective right of centre party to ensure a good, healthy, centralist democracy in Canada. Second, that we will see the rise of anger and ignorance in Canadian politics, something that would have generational consequences.

Some may be reading this and thinking that I'm just some left-wing "progressive" academic rallying against the Conservatives, but that's not the case at all.

I have often voted for Conservative parties federally and provincially, and I've been an on-and-off member of the PCs in Alberta. My hope is that the PCs in Alberta and the federal Conservatives return to Canadian conservative traditions of a balanced and informed platform.

Either that, or they fade from relevance as new parties rise up to supplant them on the centre right of the political spectrum.

Robert J. Summers is an instructor and researcher in urban planning and geography at the University of Alberta.


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