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Tuesday, August 31, 2010

What, the goalposts aren't far enough to the right yet?


Between CTV and Canwest or whatever they're calling it nowadays, isn't there enough of a steady drumbeat of right-wing memes already? We don't have enough of these narratives bouncing around in the echo chamber? How much more do we need?

Ottawa police chief Vern White seems to have taken up the scaremeister-in-chief role for today, and found willing stenographers in CTV Ottawa. Terror is the new reality, apparently. Be afraid. Ottawa is vulnerable, and we don't know how many more scary brown people with funny names there are.

And so it goes. Citizens urged to be vigilant. 9/11. Let's not be lulled into a false sense of security. It's only a matter of time. Wonder how long it'll be until one of the Attack ParrotsTM trots out the old "we're fighting them over there so we don't have to fight them here" line?

Ridiculous as it is, it's also something to worry about. As the airwaves, newspapers and cyberspace fill up with these narratives – backed up by endlessly looping images of burning police cars, black-clad vandals and the like – there's going to be less room for thoughtful analysis, for nuance, for reflection, and for skepticism. Much as I'd like to think people want to devote themselves to the requirements of engaged citizenship, the sad reality is that not everyone has the time or inclination to seek out information, to think, to analyze, and to deconstruct the narratives we're being fed.

It's not especially comforting to think where it might lead. Keep people in a constant state of fear and insecurity, and sooner or later it gets easier to relieve them of their civil liberties and fundamental freedoms. Trust us, we're here to keep you safe. You don't mind all these cameras, do you? After all, if you've got nothing to hide ... Oh, and if your neighbour says something suspicious, don't hesitate to report it.

We saw this kind of thinking taking hold in the runup to the G20, and again in the aftermath. The Canadian Civil Liberties Association cites the example of a cop pushing a citizen into a van for transport to the Eastern Avenue gulag and observing "that's what you get for protesting." We've seen a lot of misguided argument similar to that, most of which goes along the lines of "well, you shouldn't have been there."

Two responses to this come to mind straight away. Firstly, the right to demonstrate, to protest and to assemble peacefully is an inherent right in an open and democratic society. No one – not the police, not the federal, provincial or municipal goverments, not private corporations – gets to take that away arbitrarily. And telling citizens who were tear-gassed, beaten, tasered or locked up that they shouldn't have been there in the first place is simply blaming the victim. When someone is sexually assaulted, do we still say "you were asking for it, you shouldn't have been there, you brought it on yourself dressing like that?"

Second, and more unsettling, is the cumulative effect that so many similar incidents have. It's not hard to discern a calculated strategy to demonize the entire idea of public protest. Keep repeating phrases like "black-clad vandals" and "riots in the streets" and showing the same images of burning police cruisers and smashed windows, and pretty soon the whole notion of protest, dissent and demonstration takes on pejorative overtones. Couple that with widespread police brutality and no effective institutional response or accountability mechanisms, and soon you have a cowed and fearful population.

It is in this context that the drive to establish a so-called "Fox News North" needs to be viewed. Not content with two major private conglomerates beating the drums, the Harper machine is moving to set up a propaganda channel of its own. What we've seen this summer, on everything from the census to the CRTC to the manufactured controversy over Homegrown, should be a pretty good indicator of what we'll be getting should this initiative succeed.

At the Nuremberg war-crimes tribunal, Hermann Goering supposedly told one of his interlocutors that
Naturally, the common people don't want war ... but after all it is the leaders of a country who determine the policy, and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. All you have to do is to tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in every country.
It's a story that's been repeated and possibly embellished over time. More detailed account here.

So yes, Vern White is right in warning us to be vigilant. But perhaps he's not telling us just what we ought to be looking out for.


  1. When someone is sexually assaulted, do we still say "you were asking for it, you shouldn't have been there, you brought it on yourself dressing like that?"

    Sadly, in too many cases, yes we do.

  2. When someone is sexually assaulted, do we still say "you were asking for it, you shouldn't have been there, you brought it on yourself dressing like that?"

    Yes, surprisingly often that still happens.