Category Archives: Politics

Essays on politics and current events.

Jagmeet Singh’s Charm Offensive

His nice words don’t quite square with nasty realities

✎  Wayne K. Spear | October 5, 2017 ◈ Politics

T

HE HEADLINES trumpeting Jagmeet Singh’s NDP leadership win each conformed to one of two themes. Either his victory as a “non-white” candidate was unprecedented, or it could be credited to the very-much-precedented appeal of charisma, GQ-worthy style, and handsomeness. The American papers in particular didn’t fail to notice that another Trudeau had arrived on the scene, ending the Prime Minister’s cornering of the charm market. Nor does the ringing of familiar bells end there. Kesh and kara aside, the new NDP leader is political boilerplate: a lawyer from Scarborough who speaks (cautiously) in both official languages and who celebrates Canada’s diversity and wholesomeness in, no doubt, focused-group-tested terms.

Jagmeet SinghCanada’s newest GQ leader

But, of course, he isn’t just another politician. He’s Sikh, and he is now leader of a federal political party, and as such he’s nullified a barrier to political office we should be glad to see nullified. The Charisma War can now begin, and how discouraging this prospect must be for the Conservative leader, Mr. Scheer, whose New York Times headline said: “Canada’s Conservatives Choose Andrew Scheer as Their New Leader.” In the meantime we all know how these battles are going to be fought, and that is with the ammunition of buttery words shot at the hardworking families of the middle class. Gone are the days when a political party might actually have something to fight for or about, such as proletariat revolution or tooth-and-claw capitalism. It’s three parties for the middle class, comrade. So who do you think has the nicest suit?

There are still things in this world for which and over which people fight and kill and die. The recent history of the Indian and Pakistan Punjab, birthplace of Jagmeet Singh’s parents, comes to mind. Since the British withdrawal from the region in the 1940s, the Punjab and Kashmir regions have been among the world’s most dangerous and volatile. The sectarian hatreds of two nuclear states and their diverse internal populations have engendered horrific violence, and while it may be true that none of this registers with the average Canadian, some of the old-world baggage has found its way to places like Brampton and Surrey and Vancouver. Canadians ought to care about that, more than they do.

There was a time when obscure causes like an independent Sikh state of Khalistan (obscure from a Canadian perspective) made headlines from Halifax to Vancouver. On June 23, 1985, Sikh terrorists associated with Babbar Khalsa put a bomb on Air India Flight 182 as well as on a plane bound for Japan—the latter detonated at the Japanese airport, killing the baggage handlers—one member of Babbar Khalsa having vowed that “we will not rest” until they had killed 50,000 Hindus. There are Sikh nationalists who to this day celebrate as a martyr the man behind this crime, the largest-ever mass murder of Canadian citizens, Talwinder Singh Babbar.

What has this to do with Jagmeet Singh? Nothing, really. But at the prospect of questions about Khalistan and Sikh extremism and the “martyrdom” of Talwinder Singh Babbar, the charming bespoke Jagmeet Singh fade into the curtains to be replaced by a cagey and defensive and lawyerly Jagmeet Singh? Why does he demand that all questions along these lines be submitted in advance and all transcriptions of his answers vetted prior to publication? Probably all the reasons one asks for these things: to prepare an answer, to avoid surprises, to make the best possible impression.

Screen Shot 2017-10-05 at 10.52.32 AMA headline from Sikh Siyasat News

To his credit, Jagmeet Singh appeared on the October 2nd episode of Power and Politics despite Terry Milewski’s refusal to grant Singh’s terms. There, Milewski asked, “Do you think that some Canadian Sikhs go too far when they honour Talwinder Singh Babbar as a martyr of the Sikh nation?” Singh argued, falsely in my view, that Sikhs and Hindus co-exist “in peace and harmony, and we need to celebrate that.” (I ask you: how on earth can you square this idea with the Flight 182 bombing?) Pressed further, he said:

So, it is so unacceptable that violence that was committed—the heinous massacre that was committed—is something that Sikhs, Muslim, Hindus all denounced, the violence as perpetrated against innocent Canadian lives, is something we all denounce. I regularly denounce it on the anniversary. It’s something that we all collectively are opposed to. There is no question about this, that innocent lives were killed and it is completely unacceptable and needs to be denounced as a terrorist act.

He never answered the question, “Do you think that some Canadian Sikhs go too far when they honour Talwinder Singh Babbar as a martyr of the Sikh nation?” But he did answer two questions that Terry Milewski didn’t ask. Again I am reminded of Trudeau.

One Nation Under Theocrats

In Trump’s America everything depends on the manner in which Republican factionalism is resolved. In Alabama we may have come closer to a resolution

✎  Wayne K. Spear | September 28, 2017 | waynekspear.com

HOURS AGO, as of the time I write these words, the President of the United States deleted his endorsements of Luther Strange from the Twitter account @realDonaldTrump. Now, in the untidy corner of social media he alone controls, let the record show that the President is and always has been a Roy Moore guy.

The likelihood has increased that Alabama will send a theocrat and conspiracy theorist to Washington in December. There he’ll join fellow-travellers Trump and Co. in the work of stirring a witch’s brew of fake populism, culture war, and white resentment. (I can’t resist observing that, if Trump had won the day, it would be a Strange Brew.) An irony of the Strange-Moore contest is that Trump backed the lesser-Trumpist candidate and the more-Trumpist contender won. Moore is just what the Republican party needs in 2017—another Bannon-and-Mercer-backed extremist who loathes the government and who comes to Washington not to build but to destroy.

Alabama Capital Steps | Photo by sunsurfr (Creative Commons)

Across his career Roy Moore has agitated to “bring the knowledge of God back to the United States,” whatever that means. Eighty-six percent of Alabama voters self-identify as Christian, half of them as evangelical Protestants, and still Mr. Moore deemed his fellow citizens sufficiently god-stupid that he commisioned a 5,000-pound Ten Commandments granite memorial for the state’s Supreme Court building. Ordered to remove it by unanimous resolve of the Alabama Court of the Judiciary, Moore refused. This was the first occasion of two dismissals from public office—in 2003 and 2016—for (among other things) disregarding a federal injunction, abusing administrative authority, and demonstrating an unwillingness to follow the law. And so, to return to the theme of fellow-travelling, one can hope that if Moore goes to Washington, he might well go at the moment the President is facing dismissal on similar charges.

The only law Mr. Moore recognizes is the law of God. Under the law of God same-sex marriage is “the ultimate destruction of our country” and homosexuality is “an inherent evil” and the deaths of September 11, 2001 and Newtown, Connecticut are deserved punishments for America’s waywardness. Under the law of God Muslims are not fit for office and lesbians are not fit for parenthood and the laws of mere mortals may be ignored. It’s worth noticing that the victorious Alabama Republican primary candidate for the US Senate holds views that would be unremarkable in a Wahhabist-jihadist training camp. Also, why do these God people always have sex on the brain?

Beginning in the 1980s the Dixiecrat Alabama of George Wallace slowly morphed into the Republican Alabama of today. Here political diversity does not take the form of parties, but rather of Republican rivalry. It is easy for outsiders (and especially for northeastern urbanites) to sneer and condescend at Alabama, but what is happening in Alabama matters because it is happening everywhere. One need look no further than Washington, D.C. for confirmation. Conservatism has split into two principal factions, one grounded in political norms and institutions and the other in theocracy and resentment and the culture warfare of ethnic-nationalism. Everything depends on the manner in which this factionalism resolves, and in Alabama the nation just took another step closer toward resolution.

Fake News, Real Money

We have all heard the President say that the news is fake, and we have seen this assertion take root and spread like a kind of conceptual weed. The phrase “fake news” contains within it the connotation of counterfeit and thus the insinuation of an act of wilful deception. Or, to use a more plain word, lying. If I were to spread around the claim that the Prime Minister of Canada is addicted to Xintopan, the way that Hunter S. Thompson did of Ed Muskie and Ibogaine, it could be correctly said that I was spreading fake news. The presumption that something like this is widely taking place in the dominant commercial media, each and every day, could only be maintained by the most credulous and lazy. A news outfit that deliberately fabricated would soon find itself discredited and driven out of business. And yet there is no denying that news is a manufactured good, like bicycle tires or washing machines or laxatives. The news does not drop from heaven, it is made. What is it then that the media are doing, as makers of a mass-consumer product called news?

When I was a boy the news was something trotted out by three news stations each weeknight between 6 and 7. This was before the cable networks invented the 24-hour news cycle. Where once it had been accepted that a one-hour dose of news per day was sufficient, the cable universe substituted the proposition that news is something requiring round-the-clock attention and comment. Whatever else this substitution may entail, it is beyond doubt a scaling-up of manufacture. To go from one hour of news a day to twenty-four is more than a quantitative change: it is an admission that something arbitrary is at work, untethered from any underlying principle or logic. News is only another product that can be made in batches small or large. Here I do not mean to equate the manufacture of a product with fabrication in the sense of lying. I mean only that the news is made up in the way that a book or song or photograph is made up. It is a matter of perspective and of discrimination. An outbreak of war or the assassination of a public figure will be obvious instances of news to most people, but many daily events will necessarily occupy a grey area which only subjective considerations will resolve. It is someone’s job every day to scan the landscape and to package up a selection of found objects for this thing we call the news.

I have been claiming that the news is a product, but in a sense this is misleading. While news is packaged, the media do not deal in the business of selling news. The actual product of the news media are the eyeballs of their audience, which the industry sells to advertisers. And just as every audience constitutes a market, with exhaustively studied desires and beliefs and tastes, so too the media audience is a market. Everything produced by a news corporation will defer to the interests of advertisers by taking pains to court the market they are selling, because that market is the fruit of their efforts, hence their chief product. The specific character of a news outlet is a reflection of this ongoing and often imperfect effort to attract and to hold viewers. It is possible to parse the various news outlets into the grammar of their respective markets, taking into account matters such as aesthetics and social class and political assumptions. Here are some rough examples off the top of my mind, of the respective markets targeted by media outlets, to demonstrate how this might look:

PBS Newshour: “I believe there are two sides to every story and so it is important that we seek out balancing points-of-view in a rational and civilized manner. I’m a pretty informed and intelligent person and I think of myself as open-minded and highly educated. I think the great malaise of our time is partisanship. The parties must work together to find compromises that serve the broader public interest.”
New York Times: “To me America is an imperfect country whose history is marred by hubris and miscalculation, yet it remains a beacon to the world. I care about the arts and humanities and I don’t apologize for wanting sophistication, and I like my news to be informed and thoughtful. Our system is unique in history and to protect it politicians must be held to account, in particular by media.”
FOX News: “I’m sick of the establishment. It’s corrupt and must be brought down. The GOP is Republican In Name Only. Liberalism is ruining America. I am angry as hell and it’s time to fight back to reclaim the real America our forefathers fought to protect. I love this country and I love God and I am not ashamed to call myself a Patriot.”
National Post: “There’s nothing worse than Social Justice Warriors and the Culture of Entitlement. Taxes are too high and free enterprise plus individual responsibility will solve most of our problems, if anything can. Most politicians are clowns, and we would be better off without them, but Canada remains the greatest country in the world and our system is fundamentally sound and just.”
The Rebel: “I love this country and I care about what happens to it. We’re at war with Cultural Marxism and Islamic terrorism, whether you want to admit it or not. Political correctness be damned. Radical feminism and the fascist left are huge dangers today, and the mainstream media is either too weak or too biased to see it. If we don’t act now, our civilization will be lost.”

These sketches are of course caricatures, but even a caricature projects the recognizable outline of a face. What the media share among them is an unspoken but firm assumption that “our way of life” is fundamentally sound. This is why no allowance is made for outside-the-system cranks and revolutionaries, even on a more extreme network such as Fox. The media target and trade in, above all else, aesthetic differences, from the calm establishment tit-and-tat of PBS to the fringe-establishment agitation of Fox. The New York Times marketing department knows exactly what ads to put in front of the people who read it, and in the main they are ads for “luxury” watches and automobiles and not for obesity medication or adult diapers. Even the PBS fiction of a publicly-funded broadcaster has a marketing/aesthetics impetus, aimed as it is at upper-middles whose tastes lead them to abjure anything they regard as vulgar capitalism. Because the PBS NewsHour ads come at the end of the program, disguised as public-service announcements, the viewer may enjoy the wholesome illusion of an organic, free-range, untainted media.

To appreciate how thoroughly the news is market tested and market formulated, one only has to spend some time watching a program that makes no accommodation for one’s tastes and outlook. To begin with, the aesthetics and the social-class markers will be all wrong. You will either find the program too loud and uncouth, or you will find it boring and pinheaded and elitist. The villains will be wrong, as will the heroes. A Marxist-Leninist will be unable to consume any of the widely-available news except critically and oppositionally, as imperialist-capitalist propaganda, because in capitalist societies Marxism per se does not exist as a market. The same is doubtless true for white-power fascists, who until the arrival of Mr Trump saw little in the media tailored to their obsessive hatred of the elites, and especially of establishment race traitors. In recent years however outlets such as Breitbart and The Rebel have courted what might be termed under-served markets. As the media markets further segment and diverge, we approach the point at which the news can refer to a widening range of subjects, for example Tucker Carlson dedicating weeks of programming to a Hillary Clinton scandal from the past. Presumably there is a sizeable chunk of America that wakes every day enraged at and obsessed with a woman who is not a politician and who is no longer pursuing public office. It follows that such a person will be deeply unsatisfied by news that doesn’t take up as its operating premise the notion that Ms Clinton remains America’s foremost menace.

It is easy to conclude that the news is so much fabricated, or fake, nonsense if one’s assumptions and tastes and prejudices go unserved. The final ineluctable truth of every human life is that it is brief and pointless and of no enduring consequence, but only a person of mental instability would seek out a messenger and a message emphasizing this point day upon day. For reasons having to do with our animal survival, most of us prefer to believe reassuring if also distorted propositions about our own intelligence, beauty, rightness, and significance. In the same way the news is forever serving up a workable and reassuring version of the world, even when it is delivering word of the latest political scandal or humanitarian disaster. Mr Trump objects to the “fake news” for the simple reason that much of the press is neither workable nor reassuring from his perspective, both practically and psychologically. He is a pedlar of emotions and not of arguments, and if the facts do not serve his emotional needs then they are in a sense inauthentic. It goes without comment that Mr Trump runs what amounts to a media platform, via Twitter, that has all of the New York Times‘ reach but none of the fact checkers or editors. Much of what he claims in public would not pass the hastiest edit, because the standards of even a small-town paper exceed those of the Commander-In-Chief. But facts are not what the Trumpists have in mind when they complain of fake news. What they have in mind is a different test: “Do I like what I am hearing?”

Beyond this is another consideration, the fact that the President is so far outside the norms of American politics that it is impossible to say whether political norms will move him, or vice versa. What is clear is that the liberal-centrist-consensus media markets, which have long been the dominant markets, are under an organized attack that shows no sign of relenting. As a celebrity media personality, from roughy 1980 to 2015, Trump got what he needed and wanted from the media by providing them outrageous and therefore attention-getting tidbits to distribute, which they faithfully did and continue to do. Only, Mr Trump is no longer in the celebrity business, or perhaps is in it but in another business also—a business where his provocations and broadcasts can lead to international scandal, impeachment, violence, and war. Under the former dispensation, both sides got what they wanted, that is to say celebrity-and-profit-promoting click-bait. Now the President wants something more. He wants media that are supplicants of his reign. And there is no reason to assume he won’t get it if, in exchange, the media get eyeballs and clicks and dollars.