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September 29, 2011 / amanda stratton

Dear Janice Kennedy


At the beginning of this week, I noticed an Ottawa Citizen opinion piece by Janice Kennedy being floated around Twitter. It wasn’t by any means the first time I’ve seen a very biased and unsupported article being flouted as indisputable fact. I doubt it will be the last. I don’t normally engage with the people who float them around, and I only very seldom comment on the articles themselves, which are sometimes in online newspapers or other magazines, and other times just blog entries from respected individuals.

So I don’t intend to attack any particular individual writer. In fact, I don’t even blame the writers of these articles for the problem I think is becoming endemic among people who want to be—and usually appear to be—politically-minded citizens. But to illustrate my point, I’m going to address Kennedy’s piece, because it’s popular and timely.

The thing about the article, titled “I don’t recognize this Canada” and available here, is that almost none of the opinions are supported with even loose facts. It’s rhetoric and misrepresentation on the scale of the best political smear campaign, and twice as dangerous because people assume that a journalist adheres to some ethical code that would prevent such a thing.

I wouldn’t want to take anything out of context, so the entire article is quoted here, with my comments interjected at relevant points. Any bold font, excluding the title, has been added by me merely in order to draw attention to the particular points I’m addressing.

I don’t recognize this Canada

Parliament resumed this week. So did the profound nuttiness.

It is no coincidence that, also this week: a Mexican refugee claimant and mother of two Canadianborn children was ordered deported – despite credible fears for her safety from an abusive ex-partner, a Mexican police officer; Walt Natynczyk, Canada’s high-flying top general, faced questions about his taxpayer-funded $93,000 Caribbean vacation flights; unionized Air Canada employees were, for the second time in under three months, effectively deprived of their right to strike.

Really? Because that sounds like exactly what a coincidence is. But using the phrase “it is no coincidence” gives the whole thing an air of conspiracy. Even if perhaps, at most, Air Canada and its employees felt the pressure to conclude their negotiations before Parliament could get around to back-to-work legislation, which would mean it’s not a total coincidence, phrasing it the way Kennedy did implies that there was something malicious at the heart of this confluence of events. I’d have to venture to say there wasn’t.

And did I mention the resumption of Parliament?

Parliament is the stage for Stephen Harper’s Conservative agenda. And this week’s news stories about labour abuse, top-brass entitlement and screwed-up immigration priorities are all, not coincidentally, mirror reflections of the Harper Conservative perspective.

(Note: I did not say “conservative perspective,” certainly a legitimate political option. I refer to the narrow focus of a prime minister who seems bent on creating Texas North, a man who once called Canada “a second-tier socialistic country.” “Harper Conservative” means something specific.)

Yes, yes he did. ELEVEN YEARS AGO. And taking that line out of context is a move straight from the Liberal mud-slinging playbook of 2006, when it was already outdated. And let’s not forget that was the same campaign in which the Liberals ran an ad claiming that Harper was against abortion and wanted to criminalize it. It is a total coincidence that as I write this, some of Harper’s own backbenchers are taking a rare stand against him because they think he’s too strongly in favour of a woman’s right to choose. So, let’s not take our journalistic cues from attack ads, hm?

This is all not to mention, of course, that the quote is generally taken grossly out of context, from what I gather. Originally published in the National Post, Harper’s article containing the phrase seems to have been scrubbed from the face of the earth, but one source gives some insight into what he really meant and why he said what he did.

Under the Harper Conservatives, it’s fine to threaten back-to-work legislation even before a strike is called, even when no essential services are involved. It matters not a whit that this country has, and believes in, labour rights. With a sleight-of-hand well practised at turning black into white, the Harper government professes to respect those rights while persistently stomping all over them. This is nuttiness.

I can’t keep up with who I’m supposed to hate. Weren’t we pissed that the government didn’t interfere with the postal strike fast enough? Cause frankly, I didn’t really consider that an essential service. There are not so many things that go by Canada Post that couldn’t just as easily have found their way by some other route. The same is not true, in my opinion, of Air Canada’s service.

So is the Harper Conservative promotion of military imagery, which flies in the face of its own truth. Even as lower-ranked members of the armed forces remain underpaid and overworked; even as returning combat veterans remain undertreated; even as ombudsmen who champion their causes get swiftly replaced – the brass get to take pricey free vacation flights. (Ignore the PM’s chastising rhetoric this week, the hasty retort of someone obviously reacting to an embarrassment.) Black is white.

First of all, the end of this paragraph has nothing to do with the beginning of it, and I just don’t know what to do with that. There’s a sort of metonymous manipulation here, in which Kennedy attempts by way of juxtaposition to paint all military affairs and policies with a brush that ought really only be applied to some.

Also, everything mentioned is vague and the assessments aren’t supported by any kind of fact. I read A LOT about politics and I only know what two of the references in this paragraph are to, and them only vaguely. I’m sure Janice Kennedy did her research. I’m not sure everyone who passed this article around the digital world has any idea what she’s talking about. And I’m also sure Janice Kennedy knows that.

And yes, of course, ignore the PM’s recent comments and all current political stances and goings-on, but whatever you do, DO NOT ever stop bringing up that eleven year old comment and misrepresenting it.  Good advice from the journo world, right there.

Under Harper Conservative nuttiness, which maintains “getting tough” as sacred mantra, lists of immigrant bad guys are trotted out with great public fanfare. Meanwhile, immigration authorities show just how adept they are at getting tough – not by rejecting unskilled 17th-cousins-twice-removed of members of vote-rich ethnic communities, but by ordering the deportation of young mothers with credible scare stories. Black is white, and the result is nutty.

With the Harper Conservatives back in the House in full majority finery, we have returned to the politics of naked emperors praised for their shining raiment. Everything is haywire as they trot out their daily distorted realities.

This paragraph in particular (and the article as a whole) hits one of my least favourite sensationalist scares: the idea that democracy is dead. And of course, Stephen Harper single-handedly killed it. It’s not dead. This isn’t our first majority government. Everyone keeps acting like this rodeo has never been in town before and all the locals are getting swindled by the cowboys. That’s really, definitely, without a doubt, NOT what’s happening.

What really bothers me about the Death of Democracy argument is that it’s intended to sell newspapers and embitter citizens against individuals, and the people who propagate it either don’t realize or don’t care that it’s an ultimately nihilistic stance that discourages people from being engaged with politics and government. It demoralizes and disheartens, and leaves people apathetic. Continually declaring the death of democracy is the very thing that’s killing it.

But I digress…

On the military front – and despite the disproportionate sacrifices of our soldiers – Afghanistan is sinking back into a Taliban quagmire. Yet Harper glibly capsulizes the mission as “a great success.”

How nutty is that?

Yep. Know where he said that? Kandahar. Know who he said it to? The troops serving there.
If you were standing in front of people who just flew across the world and put their lives on the line for something, to borrow a phrase from the inimitable Howie Mandel as Bobby, what word would you say?

I’m not sure how Kennedy knows he was glib about it. Maybe he was. I never saw a video tape.

Furthermore, the comment is again taken entirely out of context. My point is not to argue about Afghanistan and how successful the mission there has been. My point is that there is a context in which this comment doesn’t mean what Kennedy wants you to think it means. But I’m going to encourage you to make up your own mind. You can read a lot more about Harper’s address to the troops here or here or even here. And probably a number of other places to which our mutual friend Google would be willing to direct you.

Internationally, the possible recognition of Palestinian statehood at the United Nations is not even considered, thanks to this government’s knee-jerk support for Israel. True, it’s a delicate and complex issue, and Palestine is probably not yet ready for statehood. And true, Israel is a longtime ally that must be respected as such. But no Canadian government should be so craven as to reject absolutely the truth that Israel is often far from blameless, and that Arab nations are not always villainous.

I don’t think anyone, at least not on behalf of the government as a whole—or even just Harper’s Conservatives—has done that. I certainly don’t see where that’s happened. I’d be happy to have Kennedy show me, or anyone really, if it’s happened. I’m just at a loss here.

As an aside, perhaps some modifiers are just dangling, but is Kennedy trying to imply that the Canadian government with its “knee-jerk” reaction has single-handedly decided the stance of the entire United Nations on Palestine? Surely, she’s not even trying to slyly imply that to those not reading critically enough to catch such an unintentional overstatement.

What distorting Canadian lens renders our current Middle Eastern policy so un-nuanced and lopsidedly predictable? For that matter, what blindness must exist for a government to repeatedly ignore any and all Muslim interests, at home or abroad?

Any? Yes, I entirely agree.  There’s an issue that needs attention. I sure as heck don’t know what to do about it, but I guess she’s right that the government doesn’t much address certain things that it perhaps should.

All? At home and abroad? I strongly disagree. Again–if there’s some evidence of what’s being suggested, I’d be more than happy to admit my error.

Then there’s the environment. With disastrous evidence all around us, it cries out daily for action – and is ignored by a government that sees few political brownie points on that front, in Albertan tarsands or anywhere else.

Instead, we get nuttiness dressed up as public policy. A massive new omnibus crime bill is introduced – with no price tag – even though the unConservative reality is that crime rates are actually down. Lots more jail time will be served, despite overwhelming evidence from the United States that this approach has been catastrophic. At the same time, thanks to political optics and archaic rhetoric lifted from the U.S. reverence for “the right to bear arms,” Canadian gun control is about to be loosened.

I don’t know that I’d have called it nuttiness, but I respect the theme and stylistic choice. I also agree with most of what Kennedy is saying in this paragraph. I would note, though, that I don’t think the decision to scrap the long-gun registry has anything at all—not even a smidge—to do with the American right to bear arms. It seems to me that Kennedy is intentionally and erroneously playing on the hard-wired Canadian desire to be anything but American.

There are so many things wrong with our national picture these days, from empty swagger to lost compassion to a tragically eroded sense of international diplomacy, that it is no longer even recognizable. It is a picture that now looks not only mean, but stupid.

How did this happen, this paleolithic official mindset with its darkly Disneyfied world view? The Tea Party wannabes who control Parliament represent no more than a third of Canadians, and yet they’ve put their stamp on all of us. Their counter-intuitive politics have become our mark of Cain.

The tragedy here is that a good country is being steadily turned into a bad joke. And that is nuttiness at its most disturbing.

I guess Kennedy isn’t as good with mathematical logic as she is with rhetoric, since the Harper Conservatives have 39.6% of the popular vote. Let’s give her the benefit of the doubt and assume she just has trouble with fractions and wasn’t deliberately misleading anybody in an effort to play on the Left-loved “They Shouldn’t Have Won” post-election dirge.

I’m just going to let the rest of these paragraphs, in all their rhetorical brilliance, lie. Because it’s really just a summary conclusion and not worth addressing separately.  But in eleven years, someone please remind me to refer to “Janice Kennedy who once said Canada was becoming a ‘bad joke’.”  Thanks.

MY POINT?

People seem to love being nihilistic and angry. They swallow whatever pseudo-political gruel is put in front of them because they think that if they’re upset, that must mean they’re knowledgeable and that they care. This is my opinion, anyhow, and it’s based entirely on observation and not on any psychological expertise I certainly don’t have.

I don’t think most people know what Stephen Harper or John Baird (Don’t we love to hate those guys? Sure sells newspapers!) do on an average day. I don’t think most people know what Parliament does every day. I don’t think most people have any idea what the MP they voted for does every day. The civilian involvement in politics is being reduced to a too-easily manipulated swaying of opinion.

And that’s dangerous. The principles on which democracy functions are being destroyed in a fire of propaganda that, sadly, starts at the grass roots, where truth is expected. We should be able to rely on news media and certain pundits and public figures to provide relevant information and not just the best stories. I think they’ve let us down.

More importantly, I think we’ve let ourselves down. I think we do every time we read an article and decide whether we believe it or not without questioning any of the facts behind it. I think we contribute to the problem every time we pass that article on and add our own uneducated ascension to it. I think we’re all responsible. That’s how democracy works.

I’m nobody’s opinion leader. I know that. I’m a girl who’s just smart enough to know she doesn’t know enough. But if there’s one thing anybody would ever listen to me about, I hope it’s this: ask questions, look for facts and learn to distinguish them from opinions, and engage with your government, not just with politics.

To do otherwise is just plain nuttiness.

 

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