Welcome to the two minute hate: Canada-style

“As for politics, well, it all seemed reasonable enough. When the Conservatives got in anywhere, [Judge] Pepperleigh laughed and enjoyed it, simply because it does one good to see a straight, fine, honest fight where the best man wins. When a Liberal got in, it made him mad, and he said so,–not, mind you; from any political bias, for his office forbid it,–but simply because one can’t bear to see the country go absolutely to the devil.”
― Stephen Leacock, Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town

Harper 3
References to certain features of George Orwell’s 1984 are common; I have used them in my own musings on more than one occasion. Today I’m thinking about the “two-minute hate”, that detail in Orwell’s novel where members of the party are invited to watch a two-minute video on their enemies and summon up as much vitriol as they can and direct it at the screen. As with so many of the features of the book, it might seem improbable in its details but, in its observations re emerging trends in politics, I’m not sure how far off the mark it really is.

I’m referencing the response I tend to hear from any number of friends when the subject of our current Prime Minister comes up. At the mere mention of his name, or even a general reference to the federal government, I’m liable to hear “I hate Harper” as a preface to whatever is to follow. Chances are the face twists into a frown and a certain real passion is evident as a brief elaboration on all that is wrong with Steve follows. Mind you, I’ve learned not to ask for details. The response seems to be largely visceral, a generalized abhorrence not necessarily connected to anything specific; rather, it’s a felt sense of “something wrong”, that some fundamental core principle at the heart of Canadian democracy is being violated constantly. “Dictator” seems to be a favourite word when summarizing the overall impression of the man himself.

Harper 1
This bothers me, not because I’m a defender of Stephen Harper and his government, necessarily, but more for what it says about the regard we have for the system in which Stephen Harper operates. If you’ve followed my recent blogs regarding the niqab and Bill C-51, you would know that I’m not some right-wing conservative ideologue trumpeting the majestic achievements of our current federal government. At the same time, I am appalled at the readiness with which otherwise rational people suggest that Canada is on the verge of descending into a morass of failed democracy, a disenfranchised population, and a place where fundamental freedoms are sacrificed on an altar dedicated to the establishment of a secret police equal to those found, either currently or previously, in various authoritarian regimes.

Harper 2
The thing is, I can’t pretend that I’m surprised. I started this blog to counter what I see as the rampant oversimplification of a cornucopia of complex issues in the world today. The “us vs them” mentality – and a very stark version of it – dominates public debate (or the reporting of it, at the very least) whether it is environmentalists vs pipeline builders and supporters of hydraulic fracturing, liberals vs conservatives, criminals vs law-abiding citizens, pro-life vs. pro-choice, etc. I’m sure you could add a few more if you wanted to. In almost every case, the rhetoric is heated and the arguments tend to the “my way or the highway” version of debate which, to my mind, really isn’t debate at all.

Harper 4
But real debate requires thought and careful consideration and we are not designed for that these days. When complex events are boiled down to the 2-minute newscast or, even more, the “tweet” that is delivered with breathtaking immediacy, a mentality takes hold that, I suspect, is unavoidable. We are buried in an avalanche of unfiltered information. Is it any wonder that, out of a desire to be heard above the noise, those with a message would feel compelled to boil it down to the memorable phrase, regardless of how much such a phrase might fail to represent the nuances of a position/theme/subject? We live in an age of slogans and acronyms, anything that will stick in the mind and deliver the “essence” of whatever we are being asked to consider.

I believe this is poisonous. When we seek to understand the often-rancorous proceedings of the House of Commons, the NB legislature or, for the most appalling example, the United States Congress, we need some introspection. The political class in Canada – a country where our sitting Prime Minister could be turfed this year and would, without question, bow graciously and congratulate the inheritor of the position – behaves as it does because we have made it that way. Having sat as an MLA not so long ago, I can’t help but ask: when your awareness of the business of government is garnered largely from the 2 minute clip of question period, a feature which lasts one half hour out of a six to eight hour legislative day, how informed are you? Also, if those participating in Question Period know that this “proceeding” has the greatest potential for shaping people’s opinions, is it any wonder they would seek to use it for greatest advantage?

Stephen Harper is participating in Canada’s political sideshow, one that people mistake for the actual business of government. Go ahead and disagree with the policies and laws that his government has instituted. Even better would be speaking up and critiquing those laws and policies, but without the stridency that has become the hallmark of so much of what we see and hear. And finally, if you look beyond the “show” that is conducted and the extremes of positioning that result, please recognize that Canada is a remarkable country that is, by and large, governed better than or, at least as well as, any other country in the world.

harper 5
A great deal of hand-wringing occurs when it comes to voter turnout in the country, especially when it comes to the young. Ask yourself: how attractive can voting be when the loudest voices consistently condemn our political system as broken, as undemocratic, and your vote as a waste of time because nothing changes? I’d like to hear some voices raised celebrating a system that is, certainly, imperfect but that has, nevertheless, given us 200 years free of war within our own borders, a standard of living surpassed by few and better than 80% of the rest of the world, and a culture that is largely tolerant, compassionate and welcoming of all. In the meantime, it’s time to cancel the two-minute hate, no matter who is the target. Today it’s Stephen Harper. Next? Get in line.

The elusive in-between

“It seems the only way to gain attention today is to organize a march and protest something”.
– Billy Graham

While online today, I was invited to sign up for an upcoming rally opposing the implementation of Bill C-51, the federal legislation that will expand the powers of various agencies tasked with combating terrorism, ostensibly in an effort to make the country safer. According to the invitation, I would be attending an event designed to oppose the Harper government’s intention to establish a “secret police” force within our borders. I have no plans to go.

protest 2
I do, however, have questions myself about the efficacy of C-51, this latest salvo in the “war against terror” here in Canada, but I am equally unimpressed by this group that wants a “national day of action”, as though a bunch of people waving placards and chanting (no doubt) a variety of slogans is the best public response to just about anything they don’t like. As I remarked to a friend this morning, what chance for discussion is there when those opposed to something have already branded those they oppose as Canada’s version of the Gestapo?

It’s a sad day, really, but it has been a long time coming. The impatience that society seemingly has with anything that requires subtlety and careful attention cannot be overstated. Simply put, it is much easier to attend a rally and carry a sign than it is to take the time to read and understand a proposal or, for that matter, to just think about it for a while without jumping to conclusions or following whoever has adopted a resolute response before you. Never underestimate the power of the bandwagon effect.
protest 1
Please note that the federal government is essentially employing the same tactic in their approach to seeing that the bill is passed. Riding a wave of popularity as the result of their perceived hard-line in the face of terrorism, the feds are pushing ahead with the bill in its current form more, I suspect, to reinforce their image as strong and resolute than because of any deep and abiding conviction that C-51 is the best possible way to confront whatever threat might exist within Canada.

I use the word “might” conscious of the impact it could have. In the current atmosphere surrounding this topic, I’m liable to be singled out by some as an apologist for terrorists, as though, again, anything other than enthusiastic support for dramatic and tangible opposition is equivalent to being an ISIS sympathizer. Outrage tends to be what makes the news after all. Few are those who want to pause and reflect and subsequently seek out other opinions in order to develop a more nuanced and careful approach to any topic. “Us” vs “them” is the paradigm that dominates discussion (or conflict that passes for discussion) of just about any overarching issue these days.

We shouldn’t be surprised when we see this tactic employed. My experience has convinced me that the average person pays little attention to things beyond the purview of his/her day-to-day living. As a culture, we have become so “busy” that we have very little time to pause, to survey, to consider and to reflect upon the issues that we face. For that matter, the speed with which technology advances doesn’t allow us time to assess the most recent “next big thing”. Within six months of its introduction, that next big thing is largely obsolete, more often than not.

protest 3
When politicians and groups seeking public support for a position appeal stridently for the simple yes or no, arguments are inevitably reduced to the “us” and “them”, namely, those who support our position and those who oppose it. Rarely are even the simplest of things readily reduced to such terms. We might, for example, establish clear boundaries for our children but the process of growing up is an unfolding story of prohibitions being qualified, changed and, even, abandoned altogether. When dealing with our kids, we realize that maturity brings deeper and subtler understandings of many things.

How I wish we could apply a similar standard to our understanding of the larger issues of our day. In the case of C-51, I’m not sure what the answer is. By and large, Canadians are concerned about radicalized Islam, especially when ISIS and al-Qaida go out of their way to identify Canada as a prospective target. Add to that events over the last year, and fear is to be expected. At the same time, do we need a national lockdown and expanded powers for our national security agencies? I don’t pretend to have the strategy to address either the situation or the questions it raises. I do, however, believe that we need to do something. The federal government has chosen to move in a particular direction that causes me unease, but, as I said earlier, I won’t be attending the protest on the weekend.

protest 4
More than anything, I wish we could find a way to engage people that didn’t demand such oppositional posing. In a world where so much information is available, you might think that being informed would be easier. Unfortunately, the sheer volume is problematic but, even more, the indiscriminate nature of the information itself is the greater challenge. How does one distinguish between the pertinent and the irrelevant when a search on Google reveals 171,000,000 hits on C-51? Is it any wonder that people are so often content to focus on the concerns of their individual worlds? Eventually, though, the larger world will inescapably intrude. We need to be ready for such eventualities, even if we must continually challenge just what being ready means. Contrary to what the “no” voice shouts so frequently and so persistently, Canada remains a democracy. However imperfectly that concept might manifest itself here, to borrow from Robert Frost: “I don’t know where it’s likely to go better”.*

*”Birches” (1913-14)