Trudeau’s Useful Protestors

In any debate, the goal is not to convince your opponent, but to convince your audience.

Justin Trudeau is spending the first month of 2018 travelling the country in a series of town hall events, taking questions from Canadians and offering fairly well-rehearsed answers in return, in what is, admittedly, great PR. In many ways it’s theatre, a stage play.

Political events bring crowds, and crowds bring people who loudly disagree. From Nova Scotia to Ontario, the press has breathlessly covered every heckler to raise their hackles, their cameras swooping to focus on the security scrum while Trudeau gently admonishes them as only a teacher knows how.

I accept that each question at these town hall events is likely scripted and planned for by Trudeau’s team, but is it a stretch to wonder if these more raucous moments were gently massaged as well?

In the 2017 NDP leadership race, then-candidate Jagmeet Singh ‘calmly and positively’ responded to a woman’s emotional questions about the Muslim Brotherhood, and the internet ate it up. The moment went ‘viral’ (I loathe to type the term), and many saw it as a turning point that clinched Singh the leadership position. Whether or not this exchange was actually the race’s deciding factor, it doubtless won him a great amount of good-will. The optics were on Singh’s side.

It would be entirely reasonable for Canada’s Liberal party to hope to gain the same kind of buzz by showing our PM smiling affably as he suffers the verbal tirade of a disgruntled constituent. As above, these events are about optics, not politics, and ”smiling, reasonable liberal humours angry, irrational conservative” is a pat narrative, easily condensed into a news article.

What’s interesting is how the CBC’s treatment of protestors has shifted along with the party being protested.

In 2011, well into Stephen Harper’s tenure as Prime Minister, Canadian Senate page Brigitte DePape disrupted a throne speech by sneaking in and unfurling a ‘Stop Harper’ sign. She was promptly scuttled out of the senate, and into the CBC’s welcoming embrace.

If you're going to go to that much effort, plan your margins accordingly

Her protest led to immediate news stories and interviews. She was titled the ‘Rogue Page’ (and later the ‘Former Rogue Page’), and given a national platform to discuss her distaste of Stephen Harper. Long after her protest DePape remained a CBC celebrity. In 2013 an interview asked for insights on her favourite MP, and dreamily wondered if she had any plans to run for parliament. In 2015 she was again brought in to discuss her thoughts (ie. gloat) on the new Liberal Government.

Protestors of conservative governments are ‘Canadian Activists’, de facto political experts and spokesmen for the everyday Canadian. I doubt you’ll see many follow-up interviews on the CBC with the protestors escorted from Trudeau’s performance in London and Hamilton. Although just as angry and disruptive as DePape, they had the misfortune of being angry at wrong government, and are doomed to be cast as the villains in Trudeau’s play.

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CBC Thinks Justin Trudeau Is Just Dreamy

There’s an argument to be made that the CBC provides a valuable service to Canadians that justifies its billion-dollar annual cost. Canada is a geographically vast country with many isolated communities, and for many the CBC is the only easily-accessible source of news or entertainment. But surely the value of the content provided by the CBC should be factored into this argument. A strict adherence to journalistic integrity and ethics, and a commitment to always serve the public interest is what distinguishes Canada’s state broadcaster from the fatuous, idol-worshipping propaganda we see in foreign dictatorships, right?

Justin Trudeau recently visited Saskatchewan to promote his carbon tax, and stopped in at a Regina firehall for speeches and a staged photo-op. The local CBC branch was immediately smitten by photos of Justin half-heartedly donning a fireman’s jacket. Fair enough, for the heart wants what it wants. Not content to doodle in their trapper-keepers though (JT + CBC = <3), or maybe limit their Tiger-Beat fawning to an opinion piece, CBC Saskatchewan published a full news story to keep Canadians informed that “things got … steamy — at least on Twitter.

What’s slightly more embarrassing than the idea that this ‘news’ article was even considered in the first place is how far the author had to search to find corroborating opinions on Twitter to validate their premise. Without someone, somewhere, making a comment about Trudeau’s looks, the author wouldn’t be able to call this mash note ‘journalism’, and so they scoured Twitter’s feed just long enough to find sufficient evidence to adhere to CBC’s double sourcing guidelines. 3 accounts with about 1200 followers apiece, (only one of which it would appear actually belongs to a Canadian) represent ‘Social Media’ in the author’s opinion.

Thank you CBC. It’s good to know that you have Canadian’s backs when it comes to reporting on events that shape our lives in turbulent times.

Just be glad to know that the CBC is not a cheap date. Sweet talk and shiny gifts are nice, but at the end of the day nothing says ‘he loves you’ like cold hard cash.

Why A State-Run News Media Is A Bad Idea

Questioning the source of news stories is always a healthy practice, a beneficial cynicism we develop through years of experience. We understand that news programs aren’t produced by Samaritans with hearts of gold, but usually by corporations, for financial gain. That story at the top of the Camel Cigarettes News Hour, revealing that 9 out of 10 doctors recommend Camels Cigarettes for their smooth flavour and low tar probably isn’t Pulitzer material, and we’d be silly to think otherwise. Ulterior motives abound and should be scrutinized.

downloadIn Canada, one of our largest news organizations, the CBC, is funded not by a private corporation but largely by the government. That doesn’t make their motives any less deserving of scrutiny though. Even though an entity says it has your best interests at heart, it may not be telling the whole truth.

Consider the apparently pressing issue of incompetent financial investors. CBC raised the alarm in February that many bank employees, paid to give financial advice to customers, might bad at their jobs. Hidden cameras and flashy stacks of cash (and non-sequitur b-roll footage of babies on rocking horses) were deployed because that’s what news-y shows do, and otherwise the viewer might not believe that people might be bad at their jobs. The CBC introduced a dramatic problem that threatens the elderly, single mothers, and even you! But what can stop this villainous evil? Won’t somebody please think of the children?

Children

CBC then escalated the story in April, with concealed-identity interviews showcasing dark silhouettes and blurred faces dropping bombshells such as ‘Banks like profits’. With its foot in the door, the CBC ramped up its sales pitch. The only sure-fire, fast-acting, guaranteed effective cure to the scourge of financial investors? “Calling on the industry’s regulators across the country to implement something called a statutory best interest standard.”

bmo-insiderLest anyone think this was the CBC’s idea, they quickly published a follow-up news item citing polls that crow “89 per cent want the titles used by people selling financial investments to be regulated“! “It’s time for governments to stop discussing, debating and delaying, and start taking concrete action.” All the cool kids want regulations! You should too! Your friends and neighbours are doing it. You don’t want to be the last person on your block to demand government regulation, do you?

In short, a state-run media has gone out of its way to find a problem that not many people cared about, scare its viewers, and insist that it alone holds the solution, government regulation! What is the price of this miracle cure it’s selling? More laws, greater influence over the private sector, committees, studies, reports, debates, and new positions to oversee the whole works, employing government workers for centuries to come. All to fix a problem that could be addressed with Yelp reviews.

Private corporations are flawed, but at least we’ve developed a healthy skepticism for their tricks. Government has become so ubiquitous that we have a blindspot to the power we’ve granted it to feed us news, and the conflicts of interest that can create.

Thursday’s Child

G. K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday  was subtitled A Nightmare, because it follows a man struggling to navigate a world absent reason and logic in seeming isolation. Infiltrating a secretive network of anarchists, over the course of the story he gradually comes to realize that his co-conspirators and supposed enemies are in fact allies incognito, each equally afraid and convinced of their own solitude as he. His true enemy’s greatest weapon is deception, empowered only by the collective willingness of those who would fight for good to accept a lie without question.

Over a hundred years after its publication, political discussion has become similarly nightmarish, with those holding innocuous views ostracized and segregated through a deliberate attempt to make opposing opinions dangerous and shameful to hold. Rarely can discussion on a subject be left to the realm of facts and logic. Economic policy is quickly entangled with questions of sexism, so that anyone who argues against government intervention in a free market can be labelled a heartless sexist. Environmental issues are bizarrely conflated with racial concerns, so that one can’t argue against extreme environmental policies them without navigating the murky waters of race relations. Matters of immigration policy are tinged with concerns of homophobia, so that those who advocate for open borders can label as homophobic anyone who doesn’t immediately capitulate.

The goal in inserting emotional issues into unrelated political debate is to provide a powerful weapon to those whose side is otherwise inadequately armed with reason, and to shame into silence anyone who might dare disagree. They attach an unwarranted and unjust social stigma to uncontroversial opinions, and in doing so intimidate people who may share the same opinions to remain silent, lest they be similarly shamed. The result is that people feel too afraid of being labelled a sexist, racist, homophobe, or worse, to discuss pragmatic issues like economics, the environment, or immigration, and withhold valid criticisms. As fewer and fewer people speak in opposition, as dissent weakens, the false perception that more and more people agree grows in its place.

This imbalance produces a society where discussion of important ideas and topics that affect our lives in very real and immediate ways is silenced for fear of public recrimination, and faulty ideas are allowed to spread unchecked. Like The Man Who Was Thursday, people are reluctant to voice their opinion for fear of horrific consequences from their peers, and a false illusion of a much greater conformity is maintained. It’s important to recognize when unrelated issues are conflated for political gain, and to be willing to stand against this practice. The discussion of big ideas should be free from the fear of undeserved reproach from those who unfairly frame and structure the issues.

Talking freely with friends, family, and coworkers about matters both controversial and pedestrian, poisoned rhetoric removed, is important and rewarding. Often you’ll discover that, like Thursday and his co-conspirators, your enemies turn out to be allies engaged in the same fight as you.