By Trevor Busch
Politics has always been a read-between-the-lines kind of game, in Canada or in any other nation under the sun. It’s often what’s left unsaid, inside the veiled innuendos, beyond the punch-counterpunch of public discourse — that really matters. Navigating beyond the rhetoric and the lighted stage, the pulpit pronouncements and the pontificating posturers, can be a skill that takes a lifetime to master.
And be suspicious of anyone that claims to have actually mastered this skill, because make no mistake, those that do must certainly be fools, unless they’re politicians themselves. Some would argue the two words are virtually interchangeable. While others may claim to have personally mastered the art, discerning fact from fiction as the prevaricating political class pistol-whips us into submission with another obvious factoid or 20-second soundbite dripping with manipulation probably strains the political abilities of even the most gifted Joe Six-Pack.
Last week, we saw Canada’s Tory premiers and our Liberal prime minister both claim victory over a provincial carbon tax ruling. While this is hardly unique in the annals of Canadian politics, it is being witnessed with increasing regularity.
Talking out of both sides of your mouth — our former Prime Minister Jean Chretien was often accused of this, both physically and politically — or lying with two tongues are some of the more charitable aphorisms applied to the political art. Dispensing the “truth” in great, copious globules of pre-packaged puritanical language, strung together to ensure that honeydew and moonbeams seeps from every gilded syllable, is indeed an art form. Whether propaganda can be art, or art propaganda — one pictures club-footed dwarf Dr. Josef Goebbels limping up to the podium to harangue the crowd about those philosophical merits — is another question; suffice to say drilling down to the heart of an issue still sometimes escapes the powers of this political prognosticator amidst Ottawa’s mealy-mouthed hypocrisy, or in hearing the promises of Edmonton’s steely-eyed missile men who plan to rocket the province’s cash-strapped economy into the stratosphere.
So while parsing through the folds of flowery language and fantastic promises is far from an exact science, that doesn’t mean you give up and hang up your skates. In the past, in fact, people usually trusted journalists to collate the answers and provide them with the “truth” about a given issue. However today, with Donald J. Trump in the White House, journalists are routinely referred to as “enemies of the people”, and many — not just Trump’s adoring base — are inclined to believe it. While this must be galling to the majority of dedicated, ethical and in most cases vastly underpaid journalists across North America, even we are aware the profession is far from perfect. And for every unethical, sensationalistic journalist out there blackening the reputation of the profession, hundreds more who actually care about the work will be lumped in with them. One rotten apple spoils the whole bunch, as the adage goes.
What seems remarkable is that anyone — aside from fascist radicals or communist extremists — might want to live in a world where the Fourth Estate has been purged completely. Even the most repugnant propagandists of the 20th century — Goebbels among them — would never have argued for the elimination of the media. What is needed is total control and manipulation of the media, instead of allowing the press to drive their own narrative. Preserving a previous reputation for truth-telling and the facts is an especially nice touch. Goebbels managed this with the German people when his Propaganda Ministry took over pre-existing newspapers and radio throughout Germany. Selling lies packaged in the trappings of legitimacy was a propaganda masterstroke for the Nazi regime.
One suspects this is what Trump means when he labels the media “enemies of the people.” To this observer, Trump usually seems most enraged by the media when they’re actually exposing things about his personality, background, reputation, and business dealings that might not paint the president in the best possible light. If it’s critical of anything I do, it isn’t true, says Trump. If it’s laudatory of myself and my regime it’s the best journalism anyone has ever witnessed.
Trump of all people should understand that media manipulation of reputation and image has been one of the keys to his success, and probably played no small part in vaulting him into office in 2016.
Interesting, then, that Trump has hinted darkly about potential restrictions on a free press in the United States. Expect that package of initiatives to be heading to Congress post-election in 2020, perhaps along with an abridgement of the Constitution to allow presidents to serve unlimited terms in office. President for life will probably have to be put off until 2024, or until Trump actually dies in office from advanced old age. Think that’s just a little semi-comical satire? Don’t put anything past the bouncing boy from New York. And while voters, an impeachment-hungry Congress, and just simply people less crazy than Trump might have something to say about that, victory in the next presidential battle royale is probably far from a hard luck prospect for the geriatric Donald.
Complain loudly and at length about your hatred for the media, if you so desire — most of us have hides far thicker than an elephant — but understand that a world without a free press is probably destined to be a grim and gray monstrosity akin to something out of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.
You may not like what you read, or what you see — but you don’t have to read it, or in most cases see it in a free society if you don’t want to. A free media goes hand in hand with preserving freedom of speech. Without one, it would be difficult to see how you could have the other.
Or, at least, that’s how it used to be. Today, suspicion of the traditional media is at an all-time high as Trump and others use the fake news sideshow to undermine critics and trumpet their own feckless policies and initiatives. And while traditional media sources were once where the widest percentage of citizens got their daily dose, today social media reigns king, and people can seek out the messages and slogans that most agree with or support their own opinions.
But that’s hardly journalism in the strictest sense of what that word once meant, and it doesn’t allow for people’s opinions and beliefs to be challenged when every conversation begins and ends with an affirmation of those beliefs amidst communities of like-minded individuals. It’s easy to convince yourself of your own righteousness and the purity of your own cause when surrounded by others who believe the same thing. We should be very concerned as a society if we are creating citizens that see the world in such stark terms of black and white, who are unable or unwilling to engage with others in debate, and are bereft of an ability to think critically about their own ideologies and political viewpoints.
Circling the wagons back to our own politics in Canada it’s not hard to understand why people are increasingly confused by it. The contradictions are endless. Both sides, left or right, claim victory and the moral high ground on nearly every issue. At the same time, we know that both sides can’t always be right and neither side has a monopoly on good ideas.
While there are few alternatives to democracy that give people the fundamental ability to choose for themselves, we see increasing evidence that the idea of bilateralism — working together as separate parties and ideologies to achieve better results for all — is dying a slow death in Western democracies, as increased radicalization, even from inside democratic systems, is polarizing populaces to a degree that hasn’t been witnessed in decades.
When both sides claim victory over an opposing issue — which is beginning to be seen with a disturbing regularity — we should begin to question the self-constructed realities some of these politicians inhabit.
Take the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal’s constitutional ruling on the federal carbon backstop noted earlier. Both sides — conservative premiers and Trudeau in Ottawa — claimed victory in the decision. The nation’s premiers fobbed it off as a split vote that is likely to end up in the Supreme Court, and they’re probably right. Trudeau basically called it the first blow struck to maintain federal supremacy over carbon policy, but ignored the implications of a 3-2 vote with a strong minority judgement.
Somewhere between those two positions, behind the ideological walls and the martial language, lies the meat of the issue. What seems clear is that many Canadians are less and less capable of stepping outside the swirling ambiguity of politics to drill down to that meat, or indeed retain or possess the skills to critically analyze those issues.