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 clich├ęs 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.