“Democracy requires citizens to see things from one another’s point of view, but instead were more and more enclosed in our own bubbles. Democracy requires a reliance on shared facts; instead were being offered parallel but separate universes.”
― Eli Pariser, The Filter Bubble: What the Internet is Hiding From You
While travelling by myself in the United States last week, I managed to kill a few hours on the road by tuning into a favourite distraction of mine whenever I’m enduring the monotony of traffic on the interstate: talk radio. For anyone who is a fan of CBC, please do not confuse Canada’s public broadcaster with what I’m referencing. Specifically, I had two days of Rush Limbaugh supplemented with one morning where I got to listen to a guy subbing on the Glen Beck “program”, not “show”, the latter term, I’m guessing, having been judged too frivolous for something as weighty as a Glen Beck product.
If you’ve detected a measure of derision in my tone regarding these two luminaries of American media, good for you. Listening to these guys and others of their ilk is a perilous journey from frustration to dismay to occasional laughter and any number of other responses. The two programs and their respective hosts share certain oft-repeated themes: President Obama is responsible for – through such things as Obamacare, efforts to conclude a trans-Pacific trade deal and the like, his handling of ISIS and foreign policy in general – all that is wrong with America; the “American Left” doesn’t care about America or the constitution; questions regarding the conduct of police throughout America are an affront to law enforcement and entirely misplaced. You get the picture.
Just about everyone talks about their guilty pleasures; well, this is one of mine. I find these guys fascinating. Rush was the one, in particular, that I managed to listen to for the better part of six hours over two days and, as I said, my responses can’t help being all over the place. A friend of mine, when I told her what I had been up to, commented that I must have been swearing and exclaiming all the way down the I-95 and she was spot-on.
Someone might rightly ask at this point: why do you bother? As I said, though, “fascinating” is the best adjective for how I regard the experience. At times, the extremity of opinion seems to me to be so far from any intelligent regard for the facts that I can’t help exclaiming “are you serious?!?” For example, in Rush Limbaugh’s world view, as far as I can figure out, racism is not a factor in any dealings the police have with African-Americans. Such purported racism does not, in fact, exist and that is all there is to it. Also, in case you were wondering, no good idea can conceivably emerge from a Democrat. Rush, therefore, admits he is mystified that some Republicans have come out in support of President Obama’s approach to trade. In Rushworld, such support is prima facie evidence of derangement, something akin to making a deal with the devil, as far as I can tell.
For all that I find it funny in a certain way, I can’t help reminding myself that this guy and others like him represent a certain mainstream element of public opinion in the United States, however crazy and extreme such opinion might seem to me. And, when I listen to such programs, every once in a while, something is said that has a kernel of truth or good sense, even if the truth or sense has been distorted by the bizarre way in which the Rush Limbaughs and Glen Becks choose to talk about such things. When I consider the polarization that so many have remarked upon as being a defining feature of the political culture of the USA, I am thankful that we haven’t gone so far here in Canada.
At the same time, I am worried by the trends I see at home. More and more, there is a tendency in public discourse to paint things in the stark and simplistic terms that have triumphed in that bizarre radio world I was listening to last week. Stephen Harper is a dictator and the federal Conservative Party is engaged in an ongoing assault upon the very core of our democratic principles; Justin Trudeau is nothing but the pretty public face of a party that is fundamentally morally bankrupt and without ideas; Tom Mulcair (if you’ve even heard of him) and the NDP are in the pockets of large unions and will sacrifice everything in pursuit of a socialist agenda. Conversely, the Conservatives (and Harper) are the only party that can be trusted to manage the economy, protect families and keep us safe; the Liberals are the only ones who can reassert cherished Canadian values, heal our violated criminal code and restore Canada’s standing in the world; the NDP alone can ensure justice and fair treatment for the middle class, protect the environment, and bring about the change the electorate constantly seeks (apparently).
Happily, Canadians, by and large, don’t seem as easily drawn to the rank partisanship that has become so frequently displayed in the United States. At the same time, as we approach a federal election in the fall, I am concerned about the increasing trend toward such divisiveness. Columnists, advertising, and news reports more frequently portray our choices in stark, oppositional terms. Trying to understand why we are so drawn to this model had a great deal to do with my starting this blog in the first place.
Rush Limbaugh’s view of the world has the virtue of simplicity. In his bizarre take on just about everything it all comes down to “us vs. them”. The basic service he offers involves defining who “they” are so that we might position ourselves very clearly on the “us” side. When our world, however you might define it for yourself, changes as rapidly as it does these days, it’s nice to have some kind of anchor that reassures us all is right with that world. However, while the simplistic characterizations of people and of events so frequent in the USA can be comforting, they are fundamentally destructive. They breed a deep and abiding cynicism that is, itself, evidence of gross oversimplification and a failure to consider issues in depth.
Canada may not be there yet but I fear we are on the road to that place. I hope the campaign to come federally proves me wrong. I hope Canadians realize that the choices before us are variations on a theme rather than between virtue and vice. The parties have to take some responsibility for ensuring that such is the case but I believe we all have a responsibility in this regard. Each of us, like it or not, is a testament to the truth that we only and always get the government we deserve. At least in a democracy we do, and we are lucky enough to live in one.