It's been one of this little corner's favourite hobby horses for as long as I can remember. Public discourse. National conversation. Provincial. Municipal. Whatever. You want civic ambition, you need to look at the quality of the conversations people are having. (I'm focusing on civic ambition because in a recent piece, the Globe's ideologically reliable urban-affairs curmudgeon Marcus Gee was complaining about the lack thereof. More on that in a minute. )
It's easy, in an atmosphere like this, to focus on the braying tabloid press for the extent to which public discourse has become debased these days. Instead of calling Mayor Stupid on his bullshit, his enablers at the Sun defend him from the elitist bullies who've launched the War on Ford. Lies have become truth. Pointing out that they're lies and indicia of uncompetence is elitist condescension and the sign of sore losers. Up is down. Black is white. Oceania has always been at war with Eastasia.
Really, though, that's low-hanging fruit. It's like being in a room full of pinatas. Swing the stick, even blindly, and odds are you'll hit something. Not much of an accomplishment. Pointing out that Sun Media and Quebecor are contributing to the dumbing down of public discourse isn't exactly reaching. (Thanks, OB. Right beside your courageous and groundbreaking suggestion that we should all eat healthy and exercise regularly.) It's not hard to discern the techniques either: cultivation of stupidity, misdirection, demagoguery, shallow phony patriotism – anything that'll help take the focus off whatever they don't want you thinking about.
One could go on and on analyzing the Sun's agenda – anti-union, anti-regulation, demonizing the public sector, torquing phony culture wars and whipping up resentment of so-called elites – and pointing out how that agenda just happens to serve the interests of the dominant interests. The real owners, that is, not the spurious and artificially constructed elites it rails against. The 1 percent, if you like. So we know about the stupidifying effect of the Sun papers.
But let's talk about the Globe for a minute. The comparison isn't all that intuitive; the parallels may seem a little contrived at first glance, but both suffer from inherent contradictions. It's just that the Sun's internal contradictions are a lot easier to grasp. It poses as the voice of the hardworking lunch-bucket little guy, abused and sneered at by the condescending liberal elites, while in every editorial, every column, and every “news” story it chooses to torque, it just happens to be advancing the interests of the 1 percent who do more to fuck over the little lunch-bucket guy in a day than any tofu-eating latte-drinking downtown elitist will do in his or her entire life. Deconstructing that is relatively easy.
With the Globe, it's more difficult. Its pompous assumption of the moniker “Canada's National Newspaper” makes it an easy target for mockery based on exaggerated self-importance, but there's a danger in that: taking the easy shot obscures a number of truths that are both more subtle and more insidious.
And because the Globe carries all that gravitas, all that sobering and responsible legacy as The Newspaper of Record, discerning those truths means you have to dig a lot deeper. There's an element of class analysis, yes (really, OB? Well, duh ... ), but there's more to it than that.
Back to Marcus. In the context of a column pooh-poohing another survey showing that everyone hates Toronto, he complains about lack of civic ambition and loony antics at city hall. Sorry – loony antics at city hall? Really? Given Marcus's role in paving the way for Mayor Stupid, that's like an arsonist complaining about the smell of smoke.
As for civic ambition, well, it's not that we lack for it. The Fort York Bridge. Lofty and uplifting architectural themes. Inspiring thoughts from civic leaders not so long ago. Maturity. Confidence. Aspirational design on both a micro and macro level, in dozens of aspects, is all around us – you just have to look for it. And it needn't be all that abstract or complicated. Bike infrastructure, for instance. It's one of the signs of a mature and forward-thinking community. A civic commitment to it signifies a recognition that cities can't be built around private automobiles any more, and that sane and rational transportation policy has to embrace more efficient and environmentally friendly modes of transport.
But what have we got here? A ruling claque that, to this day, talks about inanities like the War on the Car. Something Marcus enabled, by the way, by helping to pave the way for Mayor Stupid.
But we didn't end up with Mayor Stupid by accident. Remember the megacity debate of the late 1990s? Why is it that municipal discourse is now dominated by people like Mammoliti, Denzil and Del Grande? It's hard to see how the quality of public conversation is improved by enabling people like this.
Once again, it requires a little more reflection and appreciation of history than you need when analyzing the Sun, but it's not that complicated. The Harris government needed to neutralize the old City of Toronto because it was a locus of resistance. How? By smooshing it together with "the suburbs" of North York, Scarborough, York, East York and Etobicoke. When you put five dogs in a room with one cat and tell them they can run things democratically, you can pretty much predict how they'll vote. Hence the lingering clusterfuck known as municipal amalgamation – which the Globe also cheered for, by the way, despite the clearly indicated wishes of the electorate.
Well, it was almost two decades ago. More recently, Marcus has taken his shots at Mayor Stupid, although it puts one in mind of the old saying about horses and barn doors. He's counselled caution and restraint on the Occupy Toronto question, although that's been coloured by a rather patronizing “let 'em freeze” tone that betrays a pretty sweeping dismissal of the Occupiers' motives and commitment. Again, though: does this elevate our understanding? Does it add to the discussion? Does it raise the tone of the conversation?
Whatever your answer to that might be, Marcus is only part of the pattern. Then there's the Life section. Never mind climate change, the growing inequality gap, the attendant class war, the disintegration of popular sovereignty, or the fundamental social and economic disfigurements imposed upon us by the last thirty years – am I eating at the right restaurants? How do I put on eye shadow? Where should I shop for expensive tchatchkes? Let's talk about next season's hot colours.
And then, let's talk about Margaret Wente. If you haven't bookmarked this marvellous site, you should do so right now. And then take a read through the most recent post on it, and the appended comments. In the Occupy movement, we have what's potentially the most fundamental challenge to the established social order and the truths we hold to be self-evident in more than half a century, and the best the Globe can do is ... Wente? Really, it's hard to discern anything constructive in anything she writes. She fashions an easy narrative, yes, but if it amounts to anything beyond smug condescension and the insularity that comes from a lifetime of privilege and no intellectual curiosity, it's difficult to see what that is.
The obvious question, then: how embarrassing does she have to get? The post referred to just now gives a detailed breakdown of just how egregious her journalistic misdeeds have been, but more generally, as one of the comments notes:
Margaret Wente is one of the most dangerous of people in society: a platform to disseminate opinions disguised as "facts" to an audience of people who haven't the time nor inclination to do their own thinking and research with apparently no rebuke from her employer. Is there any wonder why she could never identify with anyone in any of the Occupy movements?
Let's linger on that for a second: "no rebuke from her employer." Does the Globe believe that there's some purpose being served by letting Wente continue to get away with this? Shouldn't it at least be open with its readers about what that purpose might be?
So, no consequences. What are we to draw from this and the other incidents documented at Media Culpa? The fact that Canada's self-proclaimed National Newspaper continues not only to publish Wente's material, but to give her pride of place on the op-ed page, makes an unmistakeable statement about the Globe's intellectual probity and journalistic standards, and it ain't pretty.
Yes, the Sun's effect on the national discourse is pretty obvious. But the Globe's effect is just as damaging, and far harder to correct.
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- Media culpa: George Monbiot’s unedited letter to the Globe and Mail
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- A truly great newspaper ...