Sunday, January 04, 2009

Believing is Seeing in Politics and Life

The very quotable Marshall McLuhan once said “I wouldn’t have seen it if I hadn’t believed it.” We are all subject to this subjectivity and selectivity in how we allocate our time and attention and our opinions. We will also tend to ignore new information or contrary data that does not fit our preconceived notions, beliefs and opinions.

WARNING! This is a longer post than relax and reflect with me for a few minutes.

Reading Lorne Gunter’s column in the Edmonton Journal this morning gave me a chance to reflect on just how this can work. Lorne is a noted columnist of the “right” persuasion and a fan of conservative policy and ideology. When you read him you can clearly see that frame of reference. What was interesting me this morning was to consider what he sees when he looks at certain events and what he concludes from them given what we know about his political beliefs. This is not unique to Lorne. We all do it but we should all try to be aware of it and try to be open to other points of view. Especially if you are trying to run a country with a minority government.

The Conservatives think they unconditionally won the last election. But they do not have a majority and therefore have to learn to govern with a compromising consciousness. Unlike the last Parliament, they now have to accommodate enough opposition objectives or they risk defeat. This is a bitter pill for Harper to swallow. His recent FU Canada (Fiscal Update) showed that he not only gagged on the bitter pill of policy compromise and political accommodation, he damn near choked on it. As a result he enabled and emboldened a Liberal–NDP coalition that was ready, willing and able to defeat and replace him. Harper cut and ran to the Gov Gen and begged her to prorogue Parliament to avoid a non-confidence vote he was destined to lose.

In that context I read the Gunter’s piece and about what he sees and seems to believe about Ignatieff and the coalition. To reinforce McLuhan’s comment, I offer some of my own believing is seeing observations on the same issues and events. I too have a filter and a lens through which I view the world. Go figure.

Lorne’s piece invites us to “…assume the coalition is dead (and 99.9 percent is)” and that “...Ignatieff is keeping the possibility of a coalition alive rhetorically because without the threat of the coalition toppling the Tories…the Liberals’ bargaining position would be greatly weakened.” “It is not…in Ignatieff’s interests over the next three to six months to keep the collation alive.”

It seems both wishful and wistful thinking to invite us to assume the coalition is dead. There is still a signed agreement outlining it terms and conditions of the coalition and how it would operate. In that sense it is very much alive and full of political potential. Its sole purpose is to be a threat to topple the Tories, and then govern, if necessary. If the Tories don’t govern like a respectful minority government there will be a non-confidence vote to turf them. The coalition may not form the next government as a result of defeating the Tories. What if the GG decides there should be an election instead? Given that possibility, the coalition is hardly a "power grab" by some opposition political leaders as Harper's hype would try to sell us.

Besides, this possibility of a coalition is exactly how our parliamentary system of government works. It is not a sinister plot by Ignatieff and Layton. It is their duty as opposition to keep testing and trying the government. So keeping the coalition alive, even if it is in hibernation for the winter, is very much in Igantieff’s best interest in his duty to keep the government on it toes or to cut the toes off if they cross the line.

Lorne implies Ignatieff is more American than Canadian referencing a “…old New York Times column championing American empire and referring to ‘we’ Americans."

My gosh how defensive can you get? Ignatieff has returned to Canada, run for a party leadership, coming in second, and the successfully ran for parliament and is now the interim leader of choice of the Liberal Caucus and party elite. Besides he has already effectively responded to the context of such “we” American slurs in subsequent essays and interviews. In the globalized reality and our closeness to the Americans, one would think Ignatieff's education, expertise, international and first-hand American experience would be an asset. Surely it ought not disqualify him from Canadian politics.

This is typical and tired Conservative rhetoric akin to American Republican Karl Rovarian tactics. If anyone has been American in their approach to governing Canada it has been Stephen Harper. His foreign policy and economic policy totally aligned with the Bush White House. This is well documented. His adoption of a presidential style of leadership is also renown, even to the point he now speaks to us on policy issues and events through a Press Secretary, just like President Bush.

Lorne suggests Ignatieff will “…have to live down his signature on the coalition agreement.” The reason is because the “…first line talks about the coalition begin in the best interests of ‘Canada and Quebec,’ as if the two were separate nations already.”

Interesting admission that there is an actual coalition agreement that exists don’t you think? So lets deal with the merits of the comment. Stephen Harper set up his last election run by publicly acknowledging “Quebec as a nation.” He also said, contrary to all the evidence, that there was a “fiscal imbalance” against Quebec’s interests within Canada and that he would resolve it as Prime Minister. Both of these are soft-nationalists hot buttons and have been used for political pandering purposes for decades, all the way back to Mulroney at least.

Cynical political opportunism was at the root of Harper’s pandering to Quebec in this way. By the way, Harper conveniently ignores the historical fact that he came into federal politics through the Reform Party. Reform started as a political force partly in reaction to such federal government pandering to Quebec.

The Reform Party had a platform plank about too much political control in central Canada. The Reform mantra Harper also espoused was “The West Wants In.” He actually fans the flames of separation in Alberta every time he does this Quebec pandering. His recent political tactics toward Quebec have had that effect in Alberta recently.

Ironically Harper was one of the signatories to the famous Alberta Firewall Letter encouraging Premier Klein to extricate Alberta from some core Canadian policies and programs. Talk about living down signatures and engaging in political opportunism! Harper’s name comes up more often than anyone else’s in recent history if those are your criteria for criticism.

There more. But my point is Lorne’s lens focuses on issues and events but only in a certain context. We all do this and it is our right to speak out in a free and democratic country. What citizens need to be aware of and careful about is taking some time to get more media literate.

As traditional media’s effectiveness and even its viability is being threatened by fragmentation, competition and recession, its capacity to gather and give us the news is diminished. The Internet’s influence as a news source is growing. According to Pew Research, it is ranked and the #2 new source now, behind TV and ahead of newspapers.

If the Web is now a significant news source, where will the authoritativeness and authenticity of the “reporting” we can trust come from? How will we know we can trust and believe news and information when we actually see those items that capture our time and attention? Who will help us understand what is important and critical versus what is trivial and superficial? How will know if something we see, hear or read is just misleading spin or pure and dangerous propaganda?

We all have more data and information than we can handle. Where will the wisdom come from to help us make sense of all those inputs? How will we be able to put it all into a meaningful context in ways that creates some useful knowledge that we can believe in if and when we see it?

Beats me! Anybody out there got any ideas?