Seeing through the glass darkly

All political movements are like this — we are in the right, everyone else is in the wrong. The people on our own side who disagree with us are heretics, and they start becoming enemies. With it comes an absolute conviction of your own moral superiority. There’s oversimplification in everything, and a terror of flexibility.
– Doris Lessing

As I sit down to write today, news is breaking of a Trans-Pacific Partnership deal being reached. I haven’t heard any of the details yet but, as a general rule, I’m glad to hear that Canada manages to be part of such things. For all that we are, geographically, the second largest country in the world, being dwarfed as we are in all kinds of ways by the inherent power of our southern neighbour, I tend to think it is essential that we align ourselves with those who would create a huge trading block incorporating nations which account for 40% of the world’s GDP.

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What I should find surprising (the fact that I don’t has everything to do with what I believe I understand about election campaigns) is that anyone, even the NDP, would be willing to adopt the protectionist stance that says “no” to anything that, even potentially, affects any element of Canadian industry (the two big ones, in this case, being supply managed dairy and the auto industry) at the risk of being excluded from what would be the largest trade agreement in the history of the world!.

I’m sympathetic to those who might be affected negatively by any deal but to simply walk away from the table because of that is, to my mind, the worst of ideology triumphing over common sense. At the same time, I choose to believe that the positions being taken by the three leaders reflect the ground they have staked out as election day approaches. Stephen Harper presents himself as the protector of a robust Canadian economy that is the result of his decade of responsible economic management (so the line goes). Tom Mulcair insists that any TPP deal is entirely inappropriate, having been conducted in secret to the detriment of Canadians in the middle of an election. Hence, the government has no mandate to conclude a deal of any kind. Justin Trudeau takes the middle road, unwilling to condemn the deal without seeing the details but assuring all concerned that he wouldn’t let anyone ride roughshod over the country.

I’ve arrived at a place, personally, where the sheer length of this campaign has finally exhausted me. I don’t know how much more outrage or exaggeration I can take. In my last few blogs, I have circled around the topic of polarization in Canadian politics and this blog, hopefully, will be my last word on the subject for a while. For those who continue to believe that polarization isn’t an increasingly prevalent issue in this election, ask yourself how many careful, rational discussions you’ve had with anyone going into these last two weeks.

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This was brought to me over the weekend when I was talking to someone close to me who has always admitted to having little interest in politics – the details, at least – while, at the same time, wanting to vote and to do so with some confidence that she is doing more than just voting a certain way because a bunch of people tell her she should. I tried to explain to her that it’s tough. She told me how she had been in a room with a bunch of people whose opinions she respects and yet, when she broached the idea that she wasn’t sure how she would vote, no one tried to convince her of anything with careful explanations or reasons. Instead, scorn was heaped upon any choice that wasn’t the preferred of those in the room.

And the thing is, it’s tough to find any source that aims at balance since the media we rely on these days isn’t well-suited to that. That point was brought home to me listening to CBC in the car yesterday. I no longer even remember what the topic was but the speaker claimed that “90% of Canadians . . .” were opposed to something. And that was that. The interviewer didn’t even question the figure in passing. It was simply let slide. No reference to the source, the study, anything to corroborate such a claim. Radio and television are immediate and transitory in ways that written arguments are not and, as a result, they can rarely offer in depth analysis in the moment.

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Perhaps the best exception to that rule that I’ve encountered is CBC Newsworld’s “Power and Politics” hosted by Rosemary Barton. If you are looking for media that provides balance and real discussion, I would recommend this. Just be willing to sit for two hours a night. Barton challenges every empty phrase, platitude and gobbledygook non-answer that comes her way and it’s fun to watch, if you are looking for balance. Conservative, Liberal, NDP and any other pundits are equally skewered and/or challenged.

Experience (and ratings, no doubt) tell me that not many people are willing to take the time, five nights a week, to delve into the particulars of any party’s position on issues. As I mentioned earlier, in reference to the TPP, the parties’ positions are, in large measure, a product of the campaign environment. In our current, media-reliant world, the sound-bite rules.

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So, as election day nears, the rhetoric remains strident and absolute. I suspect, over the last couple of weeks, the volume might increase but little else will change. Depending on who is broadcasting, Harper will be characterized as dictator/destroyer of the nation or sound manager; Trudeau will be the inexperienced, wannabe, name dropper or the defender of the middle class and Canadian values; Mulcair, the angry radical outlier too like Harper (if you’re a Liberal supporter) or Trudeau (if you’re a Conservative supporter) or the face of a new politics, a new age even where Canada’s place in the world can be restored.

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As I’ve been arguing since I started this blog, oversimplification may be appealing but it serves no one well in the long run. It’s too late for this election. But then, maybe “too late” is just par for the course. Perhaps the only difference is that the media’s pervasive lens reveals that penchant for stark oversimplification that has always been there. But even then, you’ll only see it if you’re willing to look.

Change? Really?

“Real governing – governing on behalf of all is hard. So in modern politics you govern to win the next election. Governing is fully subordinated to the politics of winning – but win for what? Why, to win, of course. You win to win. You win so the other guys don’t win. You win not to lose. You win because you can.”
Graham Steele, What I Learned About Politics: Inside the Rise – and Collapse – of Nova Scotia’s NDP Government

The above excerpt, taken from the book by Nova Scotia’s former NDP Finance Minister has an eerily familiar feel to it. Anyone who knows me would be aware that I have long been a fan of George Orwell’s 1984, not for the popularly held notion that it outlines some kind of condemnation of communism and/or other forms of authoritarian control, but rather for the always evolving ways in which I come to understand certain of Orwell’s observations. Of necessity, his dark, dystopian tale deals in extremes.

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I’m happy to report that, in my opinion, we need not fear the advent of anything resembling the world of his novel. But, as I say, I have continually found elements that predict trends of a sort or, at the very least, that cause me to reflect on his general prescience. Consider the following explanation that O’Brien provides to Winston of what makes “The Party” different from all such entities that have come before:

The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power. Not wealth or luxury or long life or happiness; only power, pure power. What pure power means you will understand presently. We are different from all the oligarchies of the past in that we know what we are doing. All the others, even those who resembled ourselves, were cowards and hypocrites. The German Nazis and the Russian Communists came very close to us in their methods, but they never had the courage to recognize their own motives. They pretended, perhaps they even believed, that they had seized power unwillingly and for a limited time, and that just round the corner there lay a paradise where human beings would be free and equal. We are not like that. We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. Power is not a means; it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power.

To restate what I hope is the obvious: Graham Steele is not suggesting that we are on the verge of an Orwellian nightmare. But the parallel between his claim that “You win to win” and Orwell’s “The object of power is power” is striking, at least to me. And, I can add my voice to Steele’s in support of his contention that winning is all that matters in today’s political arena. I was elected to the NB legislature in September of 2010. Many times after that people asked me, especially as the next election was drawing closer, when the campaign began. My answer was always the same: “the day after the last election”.

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I don’t want to overstate this fact; if you have any hope of following through on promises, agendas or programs that you care about, being elected is absolutely necessary. At the same time, as Steele points out, the danger lies in forgetting all about the things that matter in deference to what becomes the more important and central concern of being elected or re-elected.

Unlike Steele, I’m not so sure that it has ever been much different, at least since the advent of modern democracies. The prerogative of being elected is inescapable when the very starting point of any hope for anything is dependent upon that reality. At the same time, such a point does not sit well with anyone, either in office, or from the outside looking in, when the rhetoric around politics concerns itself with matters of great significance to all of us, even to those don’t pay a great deal of attention to the specifics of government.

I was listening to Rex Murphy the other night and he was reflecting on the sorry state of public debate, a common theme these days. His particular interest was in attack ads and how they present such a dilemma. On the one hand, most people I know decry them as distasteful at best. At the same time, experience seems to suggest that they work.

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All of this was offered in light of the changing fortunes of the federal NDP. I’m not alone in wondering how the NDP victory in Alberta might affect the election this fall. I’ve been around politics enough now to realize that people are cynical to a degree that shouldn’t come as a surprise in this age of instant access and information overload. If you keep beating on any drum long enough, sooner or later, the sound will be heard by even those least prone to listen.

Dissatisfaction seems to be the prevailing trend. What interests me (and Rex Murphy and many others) is whether we have reached a tipping point. Are people sufficiently angry and fed-up with the status quo to lash out and consider a federal NDP victory? That would require all those who have never voted NDP out of a belief that doing so is a wasted vote to reconsider that view. Rex believes that the first sign of such a possibility would be a Conservative attack ad aimed at Tom Mulcair rather than Justin Trudeau. Interesting.

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If this fall’s federal election results in such a dramatic swing, no doubt a good many in the country will be looking expectantly for a sea change in the way things are done. For that to come to pass, the newly elected NDP government would have to abandon the notion of winning as their prime motivation. What’s the chance? We’ll have to wait and see.

While traveling with Rush and friends

“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.

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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.
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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.
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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).
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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.