Sunday, 4 November 2012

Conrad Black – various UK interviews – October 2012

 “… I’ve been persecuted half to death.  I don’t have any shame.  I’m proud of what happened.  I’m proud of having been in a US federal prison and survived as well as I did… Let me tell you something, I’m proud of having gone through the terribly difficult process of be falsely charged, falsely convicted and ultimately almost completely vindicated without losing my mind, become irrational, ceasing to be a penitent reasonable person and actually being able to endure a discussion like this without getting up and smashing your face in, which is what most people would do if they had been through what I have been.”

“99.5% of prosecutions in the US are convicted – the whole system is a fraudulent fascistic conveyor belt of a corrupt prison system”

 - Conrad Black speaking to Jeremy Paxman (BBC Newsnight, October 22, 2012) 

Perhaps Conrad Black is not known for his subtle demeanor or firm grip on reality, but many of his recent comments seem even more beyond rationality and sound judgment than usual.  At the core of some of these blustering and caustic statements seems to be an attempt to rehabilitate a somewhat tarnished public image.   If Black is to be believed, and I have no idea if he should be, he has been wronged by an American justice system that is corrupt to the core and aggressively out of control.  He has repeated countless times that he is innocent and would not have been convicted anywhere outside of the United States.  And even if we take the former newspaper baron at his word when he claims to have been wronged, his tactics for expressing this belief have ranged from simply hostile to outright fanciful. 

What is particularly funny is that this type of ‘I was wronged by the system’ defense is just the type of thing right wingers claim to despise (although this has not prevented the lazy right wing media in both the UK and Canada from parroting Black’s sketchy ‘the entire US legal system is corrupt’ arguments).  I guess it is all about maintaining order and being tough on crime until one of your ideological brethren run afoul of the law.  And when Black claims to be the victim of a “smear job” one has to wonder precisely who is out to get him?  The government?  Former business associates?  The dreaded left-wing media?   The entire legal system?  All of the above? 

What is most astounding is that when Black makes his claims (of being innocent and his right to remain in the House of Lords) he thinks nothing of evoking the names of such figures as Mandela and Thoreau.  In his interview with Paxman, Black, without a trace of irony, states, “I put myself in the camp of Henry David Thoreau who said that in a society that routinely sends innocent people to prison, the place for innocent people is in prison.”  Are we to assume that Black’s personal problems, and potential injustices against him, have taken on such an epic proportion?  Funny I just never think of Black as a martyr.

It seems fairly clear that Black’s main defensive tactic is to have a strong offence.  When it came to recent interviews the idea was to show who is in charge – who is controlling the message by speaking the most forcefully.  In the case of the Paxman interview this involved belligerence, name-calling and uttering thinly veiled threats.   But somehow, even is this era when public bullying is increasingly under the microscope, such hostile and quasi macho behavior is accepted (or expected?) from Black. One can’t help feel that by agreeing to be on certain shows this whole situation was constructed to give Black a soapbox as, protestations aside, there was no way he was expecting an easy ride in some sectors of the UK media.  What better way to show you are back on top than to put some of those uppity and pretentious reporters firmly in their place.  This is heroics through cantankerous sparring and a simplistic critique of the “ghastly American justice system that any sane English person knows is an outrage.”  By this logic might (even the hollow and hectoring variety) equals right and there is no such thing as bad publicity.  Black isn’t so much arrogant as simultaneously cunning and oblivious.

Of course Black is no stranger to re-writing history – from the exaggerated and glorified activities of Margaret Thatcher to the would-be noble actions of Richard Nixon.   As with Black, Nixon was just another decent and gifted public figure who has been wronged.  In a recent editorial Black notes that, “He (Nixon) was one of the country’s 10 or so most talented and successful presidents,” adding, “The impeachment counts, except for the grey area of payments to defendants, were defamatory claptrap; the congressional proceedings were a partisan crucifixion; Woodward and Bernstein are self-serving myth-makers.”   One presumes that Hollinger would never have employed such tenacious journalists. 

As with his own story, our not so trusty editorialist believes that the combination of selective details and forceful speech will result in the reevaluation and redemption of Nixon.  One is left to wonder how Black feels about the late president’s stance on crime.  Perhaps I have a selective memory as well but doesn’t the genesis of the ‘war on drugs’, and the subsequent explosion of convictions and incarcerations (which Black now so vehemently decries), date back to this period?  Maybe the ever-selective and one-dimensional Black just doesn’t see a connection between his heroes such as Reagan and Nixon (not to mention some of the rhetoric that came out of Hollinger newspapers) and the prison industrial complex.   

Sunday, 8 July 2012

David Warren – ‘Our moral software is pre-installed’ (Ottawa Citizen, July 8, 2012)

“For two generations or more, the vanguard of the Left have been working tirelessly, through every government department or other agency they’ve been able to infect, on re-coding our moral software.  They hope to replace the old, back-ward, out-of-date human, through social engineering, with what we might call ‘the new Soviet man’ – collectivist, feminist, multiculturalist, homophile, and so on.” – David Warren       

If I have it straight, the aim of David Warren’s current editorial is to make comparisons between technology and ‘progressive’ politics – both of which are presented as dead end moral vacuums.  What is most disturbing about Warren’s editorial is that he equates what he imagines to be left-wing politics with a virus – something debilitating and corrupting which runs counter to our true natures (as if this innate ‘moral software’ is something we can define and all agree on).  I can’t help but be disturbed by the use of words like ‘infect’, ‘recoding’ and ‘social engineering’– as if the left are unleashing some sort of sinister global disease to corrupt our timeless moral selves.  Blame things on those newfangled ‘homophiles’ – because surely history shows that homosexuality didn’t exist until quite recently.  This is the kind of inflammatory language is latched on to by right-wing extremists who also pine for some sort of imaginary hand-picked past golden era.     

But if the problem is, as Warren suggests, only two generations old, does this mean the ideal historical point of morality (as if such things can be defined by periods) is the Second World War?   If we are undertaking the dubious idea of talking about time periods, this epoch was clearly the worst of the worst.  Was that when technology was ok?  Bombs, poison gas, machine guns?  Not only the era of war, but also the period of pre-civil rights – is this the past Warren would have us return to?  And if those supporting multiculturalism, feminism and collectivism are trying (however unsuccessfully) to prevent the reoccurrence of this dark period I say more power to them.  And if we are talking about environmentalists (the true conservatives out there), again Warren should be embracing the current period rather than thoughtlessly deriding it.  Was everything better two generations back?  Really?  And going even further back, are we to assume churches and ancient regimes knew nothing about ‘social engineering’?  Perhaps Warren isn’t the student of history he claims to be. 

In solidarity with Warren I’m a bit of a technology skeptic myself.  I’m so old-school I actually purchase print newspapers (much to my dismay helping to pay Warren’s salary).  I suspect I’m the last person in my city to not own a cell phone, and I generally question the need for endless development.  I would venture that I trust the endless expansion of capitalism (which is what we are really talking about) even less that our editorialist.  Warren seems to question the uses of technology but not really.  For instance he mocks computers and software but doesn’t seem to question, or analyze, how his own product gets to market.   Perhaps newspapers in their current form have been here since the dawn of time.  Perhaps all newspapers have been benevolent?  From this muted standpoint the technology I use is ok but the stuff other folks employ is bad.  It is just like the right-wing take on immigrants – immigration was ok up until the point when my family got here. 

What is interesting is that Warren always excluded himself from the topics of his editorials.  Yes, he will give personal anecdotes, but somehow he is above the fray of the subject at hand.  This is why he has no need of ‘value judgments’.  Ultimately there is no questioning of his preconceived notions – those ideas he merely considers natural and timeless.  In his worldview there is only black vs. white, right vs. wrong or past vs. present.  If all is ‘pre-installed’ there is no need to question or even think.  From this tidy perspective, in a time of countless church and corporate-related scandals, it is less complex to blame education, technology and the so-called progressives for all of our contemporary ills – a type of automaton logic.  What Warren takes to be moral certainly I take to be simplistic binary positions.   Perhaps I’m merely jealous that I don’t have all the answers – easy or not.  Maybe, when it comes to potential solutions, I’m as skeptical about the past as the present and future.  I guess, knowing a bit about our history, I will lean toward the side of progressive rather than regressive. 

Sunday, 24 June 2012

David Warren – ‘A voice against passive collusion’ (Ottawa Citizen, June 10, 2012)

In his June 10 editorial David Warren picks up on a phrase he read in a Terry Eagleton interview – the expression being ‘passive collusion’.   For Warren this axiom summarizes what it wrong with contemporary society.   According to his line of thinking, ‘passive collusion’ is what we get when we have the combination of humanism and a neo-managerialism.   Warren wonders, “Why does (Eagleton) not see the relationship between the ‘neo-managerial ethos’ we both utterly detest, and the triumph of what is wanly called ‘secular humanism’?  That, whether in its ‘socialist’ or ‘capitalist’ manifestations, the whole progressive project consists of  managing people as an atomized mass, while exploiting the innate human propensity to passive collusion?” 

Most of this sounds good to me – at least on the surface.  Of course one can’t help but wonder where the evidence is for the so-called ‘triumph’ not to mention the ‘innate’ part.   Of course with respect to contemporary society it seems that one could (and Warren has) made the case the problem is a decline in deference and a fracturing of beliefs and societal norms – which to me is the very opposite of ‘passive collusion’.  Warren’s thinking seems to be that people should think for themselves yet somehow not be curious and skeptical individuals.  More generally, as far as I can tell, we can’t even decide on what the key problems are let alone potential solutions – again the very opposite of ‘passive collusion’.  

Even the possibility of us being an ‘atomized mass’ suggests something other than collusion – passive or otherwise.   Plus, generally, it seems to me that Warren isn’t really a fan of those opting not to collude – for instance some of those very ‘incomprehensible’ students and professors he so loves to ridicule.  Even Eagleton, who generally receives praises in this editorial, can’t, according to Warren, be a real Marxist or literary critic because he is capable of thinking for himself.  As is typical of this style of punditry Warren paints himself as a rebel yet has the most conventional of views.   Parrot-flock chatter indeed.   

In typical fashion Warren builds a column around the writings of Terry Eagleton but displays that he clearly doesn’t know much about the topic.  For instance if Warren had made even the most minimal of enquires he would have discovered that Eagleton had indeed covered similar ground – although one has to say that Eagleton’s writing has a great deal of more depth and nuance (not to mention humour).  Recently speaking specifically about capitalism, the British literary critic noted, “A society of packaged fulfillment, administered desire, mangerialized politics, and consumerist economics is unlikely to cut to the kind of depth where theological questions can even be properly raised, just as it rules out political and moral questions of a certain profundity.”

While Warren chides Eagleton for not making the connections (which if Warren had bothered even a cursory look he would have discovered) one can’t help but feel that it is our not-so-ambitious editorialist who is failing to make links.  While I have no bone to pick with religion, if I was asked to come up with an example of ‘passive collusion’, ‘atomized masses’ and ‘neo-managerial ethos’ the very first thing that would spring to my mind would be the Catholic Church.  To call this history, or at lease the vein of it linked to abuse, shameful is an understatement.   While the acts are appalling it’s the endless cover-ups which are truly toxic.  Perhaps if Warren had done a bit more digging he would have unearthed the following Eagleton passage: “Yet it is most certainly Christianity itself which is primarily responsible for the intellectual sloppiness of its critics.  Apart from the signal instance of Stalinism, it is hard to think of a historical movement that has more squalidly betrayed its own revolutionary origins.”  Meanwhile, for Warren, always yearning for simplicity, it is just easier to take befuddled potshots at students, professors and universities. 

It is particularly telling that Warren avoids the opening topic in the sole Terry Eagleton piece he draws from.  In the Oxonian Review interview Eagleton answers a number of questions about Why Marx Was Right – his book which makes an interesting companion to some of his critiques in Reason, Faith, and Revolution.  Perhaps this is just a step too far for Warren.  Still, if he doesn’t want to be seen purchasing Why Marx Was Right, he could always check it out from his local library – assuming, of course, that libraries are not a part of the sinister ‘nanny state’ he endlessly rails against.   So while Warren’s on-going tirades against the ‘nanny state’ may provide some sort of antidote for neo-managerialism, they also seem like a viable recipe for an atomized mass.  

“The rich don’t need to rely on government for parks or education or medical care or personal security – they can buy all these things for themselves.” – Joseph Stiglitz (former Chief Economist of the World Bank, professor of economics at Columbia University)

Sunday, 27 May 2012

David Warren – ‘In Defence Of Real Sex’ (Ottawa Citizen, May 20, 2012)

While reading David Warren’s column from May 20 one is struck by his casual admission that he has not attended the ‘Sex: A Tell-All Exhibition’ at the Canada Science at Technology Museum.  Clearly he doesn’t need any first hand experience to form his opinions when a single account written by someone else will suffice.  I guess Warren is indeed a true professional.  He just knows (perhaps one of those miracles he has described in past columns) that “there is nothing new or unusual” at the exhibition.   Warren also knows, simply knows, that the exhibition consists of “the standard, glib, materialist, amoral, happyface approach to sex.”      

Our columnist also notes with scorn that the museum is partially subsidized by tax payers.  He writes, “…the use of my impounded money to finance something that directly insults my values involves real tyranny.”  Directly?  I’m not sure how the absent editorialist could have been ‘directly’ insulted.  And if Warren is indeed a minority on this issue as he seems to suggest when describing our overall decline in values, then perhaps the use of taxpayer money is in fact evidence of democracy rather than tyranny (a ludicrous, inflammatory and lazy word to be using no matter how you feel about the issue).  As well, I’m guessing pretty much everyone in Canada has at one time or another had their values challenged or undermined by government decisions or programs.  One could, for instance, imagine people having the same reaction to the purchase of F-35 fighter jets regardless of their price.  Still, as with many self-professed social conservatives, Warren is only concerned about his own values as there cannot possibly be any other valid ones out there.  And what is Warren calling for here?  Surely not the intervention of the so-called nanny state he claims to abhor.      

Warren does adopt an interesting tactic in the second half of his column.  The notion he puts forward is that he is actually defending sex from all those who would degrade it – in particular pornographers (because, of course, he is certain that pornography is the issue at hand).  In his rudimentary opinion “this has everything to do with the sexual revolution, launched in the 1960s.”   Wow, hard to believe critics are still trotting out that ancient right-wing chestnut.  Anyway, not for a second does Warren consider that his isn’t the only conception of sex.  I guess he just knows the ‘real sex’ which needs defending.  By his way of thinking it would be impossible for anyone, male or female, to derive pleasure from pornography as the whole thing is “barbaric” and “degrades people morally, materially, spiritually and intellectually.”  And if anyone does consume pornography (a term I can’t even properly define let alone fully comprehend) they are a party to “a form of sexual assault.”  No guilt induction there (and I won’t even get into the willfully blind ills of the Catholic Church in recent decades).  What’s more, according to Warren, pornography is a “purposeful invasion of human serenity.”  I guess the implication is, contrary to all evidence, our natural state is one of tranquility. 

Still, I guess it is always easier and tidier for social (and fiscal) conservatives to blame the 1960s specifically rather than capitalism more generally.  While Warren makes a joke that this is a rare column of his which will not critique the so-called nanny state, one wonders where exactly he sees fault other than the (now some 40 years in the past) sexual revolution.  Warren makes veiled references to trade and advertisements but he studiously avoids using the word capitalism.  Perhaps Warren is really making a Marxist argument about how commodities are invading all aspects of our social and private lives.  Our columnist sounds like Karl himself when he laments, “At so many levels of our society, thanks to amoral, irreligious, technological view of life, the glossy and virtual have defeated the real; the machine method has defeated the human.”   And if Warren doesn’t think this is what Marx was on about I suggest he start doing more homework.  Still, as he makes abundantly clear in this piece he is allergic to homework – why do any work when intuition is all one needs.  Warren might claim to be standing up for a real or imagined past, but he is a truly contemporary opinion writer. 

The only questions I was left with after reading ‘In Defense of Real Sex’ were about the quality of journalism today.  How is a single anecdote (overheard on a streetcar no less) a substitute for rigorous analysis and detail?   How is it acceptable to club together a bunch of exhausted and self-righteous clichés and pass them off as viable content?  This column would make an undergrad blush.  And if there is a decline in our moral values perhaps one could make a similar and parallel argument about newspaper writers.  The technological or ‘machine-method’ victory displayed in this case is writing done by the numbers.   

Sunday, 18 March 2012

David Frum: Conservatism for Liberals? – CBC Radio One, Ideas, March 8, 2012

David Frum sketching his general political outlook: “I’m a conservative, I’m a Republican, I believe in limited government and markets and reduced business regulation and … national security, these kind of issues.  Now what has happen though … where I and the Tea Party have sort of met at cross purposes and bounced off and recoiled from each other, has been the way we reacted to the present economic crisis...” 

Frum describing the rise of the Tea Party movement: “The United States had a lot of difficult economic times during the 2000s, during the Bush years.  The expansion from 2003 to 2008 was one of the weakest and least satisfying economic expansions in recent times.  The typical wage earner was actually earning less, adjusting for inflation, in 2007 than seven years previously.  Then the sub-prime housing market goes into trouble in the summer of 2007, then the banks, who had financed the sub-prime lending, begin to hit trouble.  There is an important bankruptcy in the Spring of 2008.  Then Lehman Brothers goes bankrupt in September and the whole financial system seizes up in October.”

In mid-March I was listening to a CBC re-broadcast of the program ‘Ideas’ from last November.  As Max Allen interviewed David Frum, for an episode titled ‘Conservatism for Liberals?,’ I was reminded of my impression from the original airing.  On the surface Frum sounds very logical and flexible in his general ability to see the weaknesses within both ‘left’ and ‘right’ politics in the United States.  Although he is a self-described conservative, he is not above pointing to the short-comings of the Tea Party movement and aspects of the Republican Party.  These sentiments seemed both astute and fair-minded especially as they were emanating from a former George W. Bush speechwriter.  Frum seemed to be making an effort to move beyond dogmatic ideology and was expressing a desire for obtaining solutions which matched problems.   Who could argue with that variety of pragmatism?  Yet, after both listens to ‘Ideas’ I was left with the feeling that something remained unstated. 

I think what in retrospect struck me most about the Frum interview was his inability to connect dots.  His dogged support of the Republican Party did not exactly align with what he describes as the most overt problems of our era – crime, inflation, failing Cold War, etc.  He points out the conservative ideology was the solution for the problems of the mid to late 1970s while ignoring precisely who was in power in Washington during this period.  Frum reports that it was precisely this set of crises of the 1970s that initially coloured and shaped his political views.  Yet, what is conveniently left out is that many of these problems were brought on by the actions of the Republican Party – who held the US presidency between 1969 and 1977.   If conservatives were coming up with solutions, a pretty big if, they were reacting to problems of their own making. 

The interview also made me think about Frum’s critique of the how the inflexible ‘left’ too often looks to the past and comes up with inappropriate social and economic answers for the here and now.  Again, there is an element of truth to this observation.  He even goes on to make the case that the right in general and the Tea Party in particular, suffer from this same looking-to-the-past-for-solutions tendency.   But what Frum fails to point out is that this faith in yesteryear, and notion of universal solutions, is at the very core of conservatism.   Perhaps Frum is looking for ‘progressive conservatives’ - a political ideology which barely survives even here in Canada.   I noted with interest that Frum never uses this expression even though this notion seems to be precisely what he is after.     

At one point interviewer Max Allen recalls that the journalists on the ‘right’ seemed to be untouchable political stars of the 1960s.  Frum agrees when Allen recalls, “I remember this – at the time that Bill Buckley was writing, commentators, critics on the right in the United States could write circles around anybody on the left.”  Again, one immediately notices the absences in these observations.  Were there non-conservative journalists or commentators on network television during this period?   To which writers is William Buckley being compared?  In retrospect, one is struck by the rarity of events such as Buckley’s 1969 ‘Firing Line’ interview with Noam Chomsky.   The talk points out how inadequate, willfully obtuse and ill-prepared Buckley was when it came to contending with points-of-view which challenged his conventional assumptions.  Interestingly enough, David Frum seems to have fared little better with Chomsky in panel discussions around the 1988 Massey Lectures.  At times Frum, then associate editor for ‘Saturday Night’ magazine, came off as an embarrassingly ill-equipped amateur who did not understand even the most basic aspects of Chomsky’s talk. 

Frum describes how many contemporary conservatives fail to fully understand the current economic crisis.   He points out that the solution, at least in the short-term, is not to slash benefits or government spending as these programs put money in the hands of consumers and can actually drive the economy forward.  According to this line of thinking it is not so much that the government is spending too much but that it has increasingly limited sources of revenue.   Needless to say this is not exactly conservative conventional wisdom – and might be it’s exact opposite.  Either way, while the long-term objectives remain the same – smaller government, less regulation of industry – the short-term requires another customized set of solutions.   But what Frum doesn’t seem to acknowledge is that ‘limited government’ and ‘less regulation’ is at the very heart of our current economic woes.   If Frum was genuine about preventing future downturns why wouldn’t he call for larger government - which, after all, appears to be the only way to regulate financial institutions as the ‘invisible hand’ of increasing self-regulation has been something of a disaster.  It is Frum’s long-term notions which are the problem – the short-term ideas he offers are merely reactions and temporary band-aids.         
Frum’s proposal seems to be that government only needs to (re)act when the economy is under duress.  It is apparent that he sees such problems as we are currently facing as temporary blips on an otherwise naturally functioning and self-correcting set of markets.  Indeed, the sequential and matter-of-fact manner in which Frum describes the events leading up to the 2008 sub-prime crisis suggests a series of unfolding inevitabilities.  But the problem with inevitabilities is that human agency is left out of the equation.  There is a failure to acknowledge that markets are man-made rather that naturally occurring.  Contrary to Frum’s descriptions, history is not a set of predetermined steps where one event automatically leads to another.  This belief that markets are predictable and natural is why Frum believes in short-term tinkering rather than long-term reconfiguration.   So, yes, wages are declining and income is increasingly unevenly distributed, but there isn’t anything one can do about that.  But, of course, as he points out on multiple occasions during the interview he is not an economist.  So while he feels free to dole out endless ideologically-driven economic opinions he always has the fall-back excuse of not being a trained economist.         

“No matter how much theory is disguised or repressed, there is no practice without theory” – Terry Atkinson

Saturday, 11 February 2012

Sarah Palin defending Newt Gingrich - Fox News/Fox Nation - January 29, 2012

When recently asked about how Newt Gingrich, given his 20 years in Congress and role as Speaker of the House, could be portraying himself as a Washington outsider, Sarah Palin responded: 

“Yeah how can he say he is not part of the establishment? Well look at the players in the establishment, who are fighting so hard against him. They want to crucify him because he has tapped into that average everyday American Tea Party grassroots movement that has said ‘enough is enough of the establishment that tries to run the show that tries to tweak rules and law and regulations for their own good and not for our nation’s own good.’ Well when both party machines and many in the media are trying to crucify Newt Gingrich for bucking the tide and bucking the establishment that tells ya something.  I say, ya know, you gotta rage against the machine, at this point in order to defend our Republic and save what is good and secure and prosperous about our nation, we need somebody who is engaged in sudden and relentless reform and isn’t afraid to shake it up. Shake up that establishment.  So, if for no other reason to rage against the machine vote for Newt, annoy a liberal. Vote Newt. Keep this vetting process going, keep the debate going…”*

Of course what one first notices is Palin’s ability to not answer the question put to her – the sign of a true Washington insider if ever there was one.  That aside, the notion that she is ‘raging against the machine’ is just flat-out amusing.  Palin and Gingrich don’t want to eliminate the machine – they merely want to be at the helm when that machine is programmed.  And it is not a question of the machine being re-programmed (or the call for ‘relentless reform’) it simply needs a slightly altered emphasis.   Remind me again exactly how Gingrich is ‘bucking the tide’?  It is easy to say you are going to ‘shake up the establishment’ (talk about co-opting the ancient leftist language) but how exactly this is to be done by a person such as Gingrich is another question entirely. 

In a style that is typical of the contemporary conservative politicians, the aim is to portray both yourself and the person you are defending as victims or oppressed little guys.  Are we are to assume that Newt is an injured party merely because everyone – including Republicans – is picking on him?  How the treatment Gingrich has received is different from any other presidential candidate is unclear (and those of you with long memories will recall that Newt is not above mud-flinging with the best (or worst!) of them).  Still, utilizing the most excessive language available Palin claims that the media and political parties are aiming to “crucify” Newt.  It is nice to see Palin has not lost her ability to be subtle and levelheaded (and religious).

Perhaps most amusing of all is that Palin thinks the prime goal in all this is to annoy liberals.  That sounds like a solid foundation for political policy!  Presumably she is talking about those mythical bogeyman liberals who run both the media and Washington.  According to this view the liberals don’t represent anyone in the United States – yet somehow they remain all-powerful.  Perhaps it is for the best that Palin doesn’t even try to explain how this mysterious magic works.  And while I’m not exactly sure what publications Palin reads, or which television networks she watches, but it seems as if someone needs to tell her that Gingrich is not running for the leadership of the Tea Party.  I can’t help but feel this will be news to her.  

A brief reminder about the grass roots establishment-bucker from yesteryear…

Noam Chomsky, Z, January 1995:

Gingrich represents Cobb County Georgia, which the New York Times – reasonably enough – selected in a recent front-page story to illustrate the rising tide of “conservatism” aimed at ridding us of the “nanny state.”  The headline reads “Conservatism Flowering Among the Malls,” in this wealthy suburb of Atlanta, one of several that “offer – particularly to whites – a sense of prosperity and safety, conservative southern values and a relaxed, friendly way of life.”  It’s a “Norman Rockwell world with fiber optic computers and jet airplanes,” Gingrich comments with pride.  With its “history of inhospitality toward blacks,” Cobb county is scrupulously insulated from any urban infection so that the inhabitants can enjoy the fruits of their ”entrepreneurial values” and market enthusiasms in “the conservative heart of a conservative region,” defended in congress by the leader of the conservative triumph.  

A small footnote: Cobb County receives more federal subsidies than any suburban county in the country, with two exceptions: Arlington Virginia, effectively part of the federal Government, and Brevard County Florida, the home of the Kennedy Space Center.  When we move out of the state system itself, Cobb County is the leading beneficiary of the “nanny state.”  Its largest employer is Lockheed Aeronautical Systems Company, which is designing the F-22 advanced tactical fighter and other military aircraft.  72% of the workforce are in white-collar jobs “in expanding areas of the economy like insurance, electronics and computers, and trade” – all carefully tended by “the nanny state.”  It’s remarkably easy for conservative entrepreneurial values to flourish while one is feeding happily at the public trough.  Meanwhile praises to market miracles reach the heavens, notably where “conservatism, is flowering among the malls.”

* - I’ve corrected a few obvious errors from the transcription on the Fox News website – although the inclusion/interpretation of words such as ‘ya’ and ‘gotta’ is from their webpage. 

Monday, 16 January 2012

Conrad Black – Margaret Thatcher’s controversial policies have stood the test of time (Ottawa Citizen, January 7, 2012)

I guess it was to be expected with the release of new film The Iron Lady that a lot would be written about Margaret Thatcher in early 2012.  One can’t help but presume that Thatcher herself would appreciate the all-out forms of hype and marketing which surround the release of contemporary mainstream films.  While I’m not a fan of the Labour administration that preceded or followed the 1980s Conservative period I can’t help but take exception to any piece which paints an entirely positive picture of Thatcher’s administration.  Conrad Black’s gushing and fawning commentary falls squarely into this category.  Quoting himself (no excessive ego there) Black refers to the former British Prime Minister as “one of the great leaders who has arisen in a thousand years of British history.” 

Anyone with a shred of balance would recognize that Thatcher’s relationship with media barons such as Black was highly problematic.  For all of the claims that Thatcher was responsible for ridding England of the class system, the Prime Minister cultivated relationships with some pretty lofty, wealthy and influential people.  As well as Black, think Jeffrey Archer and Rupert Murdoch.   One can’t help but notice, to put it kindly, the shaky legal ground Black and Archer have occupied and Murdoch seems to be sinking into.  Regardless, they do share a certain single-mindedness and an ability to maintain their morality-tinged rightness even when facts suggest contradictions.  Why let pesky particulars get in the way?  Even while Thatcher was in office she utilized her relationship with Conrad Black in an attempt to influence leadership outcomes within her own party. 

If one can get through all of Black’s over-the-top praise the most relevant information comes at the very end of his commentary.  The disclaimer bit reads, “Margaret Thatcher was a senior member of the Hollinger International Advisory Board from 1991 to 2002, was Conrad Black’s sponsor at his induction into the House of Lords in 2001 and gave a toast at Black’s and Barbara Amiel’s wedding dinner in 1992.”  Who says Thatcher hasn’t been busy since her time in office?  As well, it is nice to see that everyone was keeping a critical and professional distance.  As for Rupert Murdoch, well, let’s just say he is an even bigger Thatcher fan.               

In recent days Black and others have made the point that Thatcher was a no-compromise and non-wavering leader.   She is known and frequently praised for her single-mindedness.  For some reason (even though one could argue that the essence of politics is compromise) these traits are presented as honorable and an indicator of clear vision.  Is such a robotic stance on issues possible ... or even desirable?  Either way, the former Prime Minister is presented as being steadfast against an ocean of communists, lefties and terrorists.  Black assures us that Thatcher had a “starring role in winning” the Cold War.  But even here a bit of retrospection gets in the way of simplistic claims. 

One could argue that the Thatcher administration exaggerated the threat of the Soviet Union to gain political loyalty.  I seem to recall the Kremlin stronghold crumbling overnight without a shot being fired – something that would have been unimaginable if Reagan and Thatcher were taken at their respective words.  As well, there is evidence that the so-called Iron Lady wavered on a number of topics from how to deal with the Apartheid administration in South Africa to appropriate measures when confronting the IRA.*  Even Thatcher’s record on taxation and government spending is not as clear cut as the rhetoric of that time (and since) would suggest.   

From the early 1980s, I recall a great deal of oratory about individuals and how there was no equality of ability merely equality of opportunity.  All hard workers could, and would, succeed.  A part of this logic entailed a paring down of the government and the deregulation of financial institutions (which, according to neoliberal ideology, were self-regulating and in no need of monitoring or correction).  The economy was presented as a natural rather than human-made entity.  Much of this market-oriented speechifying was ideological (and it is ideology rather than heaven sent) code for lower taxes and less accountability.  One can’t help but laugh out loud when Black claims that Thatcher “forced democracy on unions”.  What is willfully missed in my view?  That ‘equality of opportunity’ is clearly a myth and that these forms of economic-speak promoted a type of dehumanized cynicism which continues to haunt us all.  Anyone could also write a book about how the ongoing financial crisis has its roots is this era of less accountability and decreased regulation.  What else do Black and the neoliberals/neoconservatives conveniently leave out?  That Thatcher, in part, fell from power while trying to put through a tax increase.   

Perhaps ironically Black and other Thatcher supporters seem to suggest that the so-called Iron lady had a monopoly on loving freedom.  Of course this notion ignores such obvious questions as: freedom for whom?  The perspective that freedom is subjective and multi-faceted is largely ignored.  It is Black’s oversimplified and one-dimensional view of Thatcher which hints at the very problem with contemporary media – and ultimately does a disservice to the subject herself.  According to this take, all of Thatcher’s foes were merely wrong-headed or worse, hated freedom.  Needless to say Black (and a similar 2010 piece by Rupert Murdoch) avoids addressing the potential pitfalls within the cozy relationships between political leaders and media barons.  Never mind, it is only democracy at stake.  Also, one also wonders how Thatcher feels about receiving raves from her old friends/convicted criminals.  She was all about law and order – but what happens when your friends and biggest boosters run afoul of the law?  Perhaps these details just don’t matter.  In Conrad Black’s commentary, and many of the articles I read around the new film, it is easier to rely on stereotypes and clichés than dig for potentially messy and contradictory details.  Perhaps Black should go back to his day job. 

* This blog is named after a song which, in part, addresses London’s highly dubious relationship with the IRA.  While the Gang of Four song likely predates the administration in question it reminds me that there was ‘dirt’ behind the initial Thatcher ‘daydream’ that a sharp dose of law and order would solve all in Northern Ireland.  Long Kesh was the Abu Ghraib of its day. 

“In some quite obvious and undeniable ways, the whole point of Thatcherism is to clear the way for capitalist market solutions, to restore both the prerogatives of ownership and profitability and the political conditions for capital to operate more effectively, and to construct around its imperatives a supportive culture suffused from end to end by its ethos and values.  Thatcherism knows no measure of the good life other than ‘value for money’.  It understands no other compelling force or motive in the definition of civilization than the forces of the ‘free market’.” – Stuart Hall

“Over the past thirty years, capitalist realism has successfully installed a ‘business ontology’ in which it is simply obvious that everything in society, including healthcare and education, should be run as a business.  As any number of radical theorists from Brecht through to Foucault and Badiou have maintained, emancipatory politics must always destroy the appearance of a ‘natural order’, must reveal what is presented as necessary and inevitable to be mere contingency, just as it must make what is previously deemed to be impossible seem attainable.” – Mark Fisher

“As neoliberlism converts every political or social problem into market terms, it converts them into individual problems with market solutions.” – Wendy Brown

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

SUN NEWS PRESENTS… – a series by Joanne Richard

I guess there is nothing wrong with a little cross-pollination … a little cross-marketing … a touch of the old synergy.  Lately I’ve been reading in the Sun pages the ‘Sun News Presents…’ pieces by Joanne Richard.  Clearly the strategy is to promote the growing Sun Empire by profiling their on-air personalities.  In recent weeks Richard has written pieces on Krista Erickson, Ezra Levant and Brian Lilley.  While the profiles read like introductions composed in grade 5, I detect some clear patterns among these features.   Without fail these journalists are freedom loving, salt-of-the-earth, job-loving, tireless, family-oriented, straight-talking yet funny, CBC haters.  And yet they are also all victims – victims of political correctness, government monopolies and obtuse viewers.  

It is amusing that in all three profiles there is an emphasis on the ills of the CBC – almost as if the supposedly individualistic and unconventional Sun journalists all think in precisely the same manner – or were all led in the same direction.  That can’t be right for a group of free-thinking individuals can it?  I guess when your bosses hate the CBC you hate the CBC … although given the circumstances it hardly strikes one as a rebellious stance.   Party discipline holds – even when people like Erickson used to work at the CBC and Levant has appeared on the national broadcaster many times promoting his wares.  Presumably those were the rare instances when the institution was not “run with your money by a bunch of unaccountable, secretive and arrogant bureaucrats.”    

According to the headline for Richard’s December 18th profile, Byline host Brain Lilley is ‘Sticking up for the little guy.’  In an effort to further establish his non-elitist credentials, Lilley himself claims to be “just the guy who lives next door…” In his household there is a wife, four kids, two dogs and two cats.  He has had all kinds of jobs, is a devout family man, and is both Catholic and pro-life. Lilley is interested in stories that matter to the “little guy” and Byline is about “providing a strong voice for the average Canadian.”  That all sounds good (if unnecessary) to me … except when it comes to the list of Lilley’s favorite interviews.   These include, Mark Steyn (the journalist/author who seems to have a contract with Sun TV to flog his website, books and … yes… CDs), the former Vice-President of the United States Dick Cheney and Avigdor Lieberman (Israeli foreign minister).  Yep, no elitism there – they all sound like average Canadians to me.  And who does Lilley want on the show – why Stephen Harper of course, because the Prime Minister is “always fascinating.”  This doesn’t much match with Richard’s claim that Lilley is “cheeky” and “bent on shaking things up, making waves.”  

The headline for Ezra Levant is ‘Pumping up the volume’.  Both Richard and Levant himself try to make ‘volume’ and ‘noise’ into virtues.  Why bother with nuance and thoughtfulness when you can shout down your perceived, and invented, opponents.  Richard tells us that Levant is “an informed, funny and feisty (loudmouth)” who “won’t shut up or back down until he gets results.”  Just which results she is referring to goes un-discussed.  A large potion of the profile is dedicated to Levant’s willingness to publish the controversial Danish Muhammad cartoons.  Levant comments, “That was an important fight for free speech, the independence of the media and the separation of mosque and state.”  Wait a minute, did he say ‘mosque’?  Yes indeed, because much of Levant’s recent pro-Christmas rhetoric suggests he doesn’t actually believe in the more all-encompassing separation of church and state.  Clearly his respect for religion is highly selective.  Still, even though Levant and the others assert that they represent mainstream Canadians, as with Lilley, Richard claims Ezra really “likes to shake things up…”   Only a character such as Levant, when he reissued Richard’s profile on his website, would remark, “Yours truly, done up in-house celeb profile-style.”  No elitism or ego there Mr Celeb!  No humor either.  Still, I guess he is at least honest about what the profiles are.               

Canada Live presenter Krista Erickson is, according to the December 11th headline, a ‘Rebel with a cause.’   Not to be outdone by her supposedly edgy colleagues, Richard states that Erickson is “shockingly controversial.”  She is also “spirited” and “opinionated” and offers “her own brand of hard news delivery.”   While she is against both government subsidies and the CBC, Erickson managed to hang on to various positions at our sinister national broadcaster for a mere 11 years.  In the profile we learn that Erickson has a great relationship with her mom, a serious boyfriend and a Jack Russell named Winston.  The face of Canada Live likes “living on the edge” and Mom says she is “unconventional” and “strong willed.”  And just like Ezra she is “feisty.”  And speaking of Ezra, for all of her maverick-like “boundary pushing” Erickson seems to adore the Sun Empire and her coworkers.  Richard writes, “She embraces her good fortune, being associated with people like Ezra Levant, Charles Adler, Michael Coren and Bill Lilley.”  Wait, what were those names again?  What times are they on the air?  Ever the free thinker Erickson herself goes on to add, “They’re all brilliant in terms of their analysis, their points of view, their understanding of the world; they’re also brilliant showmen and I just have so much respect for them.” And guess what?  Yep, “She’s out to shake up the mediascape…”

Now, I realize we are talking about SUN opinion commentators (at least in the case of Levant and Lilley) rather than reporters. Opinions are free – and don’t require facts, details or subtlety.  Still, two quotes you won’t read in any of these pieces are ‘I try to see many sides to issues’ or ‘While I disagree with them, I’m sympathetic to counter-opinions’.  No, much easier to ridicule your perceived opponent, invent or inflate outlandish adversaries, and use them as a source of comedic fodder, rather than address a variety of nuanced counter-opinions.  The old right wing stumbling block: how to be a common-sense every-day person and a rebel at the same time?  The funny part is that instead of presenting Levant, Lilley and Erickson as complex and varied individuals, in these profiles they come off as interchangeable group-thinking corporate drones.  Aside from the colorful family and pet bits they all fall into line in a completely assimilated Borg-like fashion. Given their forced and seam-showing humor, and by-the-numbers personal tidbits, they are the Borg sans the whimsy.  And, of course, I can make any of these less-than-flattering comments because I’m merely presenting my opinion.  I’m simply a showman.  And for those of you that care I’ve no children, no dogs or cats … so, you know, clearly I’m a nasty person.