By John Swartz
I am tired of being nice, of being forgiving, of being tolerant of the intolerable. In case you haven’t noticed, our cherished Canadian society is sick. Among other events, the recent discoveries of graves at residential schools has shaken our concept of who we are, and who we have been. The knowledge always simmered just below the edge of our consciousness, buried by our assorted masks of self-affirmation and justification.
Think of our society as a garden meant to produce vegetables to sustain life. We must be on guard not to leave invading weeds unchecked or they will take over and choke out the very things needed to produce food. Yet, this is exactly what we have allowed to happen in our public discourse and political life. We have allowed inarticulate insanity to take over the game.
We are all, as humans, concerned about taking charge of our lives. In our parliamentary democracy we have come to accept that we should have a degree of control over our lives. When we lose control – or it appears we have lost control – we increasingly tend to irrationally lash out, instead of developing committees to challenge policies and practices in our country-province -village. But there is productive action and there is destructive action. The current spate of racist, sexist, and belligerent angst is hardly productive, but has become curiously tolerated by the rest of us.
We tolerate points of view by the weeds which are pulled out of thin air in support of their own fears and concerns. Some people are saying and doing things in public which just six or seven years ago others considered unthinkable, crass, or divisive. Reputations have been damaged and recently in London, lives lost because of this loss of control. There seems to be a deep divide between those tenuously clinging to a sense of humanity and those who have torn up all filters, and it has come to contaminate our lives, our politics, and our sense of who we are. We must take a different approach.
We Canadians have long worn the badge that we are the least offensive folks on the planet. Sorry, the veneer is wearing thin, and it turns out we are not. Those who like to think we are the good guys are mortified by warts previously hidden under iconic Timmins Dinner Jackets, now exposed for all their ugliness, and basking in the light of day.
On one hand, we now know who the racists, willfully ignorant, and destructive, power hungry gluttons are. We now know there are many more than we thought existed. But, on the other hand, it is destructive to families and friendships to know this information. It is destructive to our order of social harmony. It is costing us friends – and not just on Facebook or Twitter.
This open battle over what constitutes the common good has exposed the underbelly of our society. It has opened the door for ideological xenophobes and intellectual midgets on all types to ply their trade and wax illiterate. We see it every day – and it is a challenge. Critical thinking has gone the way of the dinosaurs because it is by design terribly inconvenient.
People with ugly thoughts are basking in self-glory now they have the center stage. You see it at freedom rallies (really, we need this in Canada?), anti-mask and anti-vaccine demonstrations, we-have-a-aright–to-go-to-church protests (otherwise known as anti-lockdown protests), and let businesses open so we can eat BBQ once again protests – the list goes on.
Those people are beyond happy that they are doing something to take charge of their lives, not realizing they won a battle against low-hanging fruit because the police aren’t charging them for defying stay-at-home- restrictions and they now control an intersection. You can smell the self-righteousness emanating. You can hear it in their claims of rights to speak, gather, not wear masks, not respect public health orders in general, not follow established convention and norms, and own guns. (Yes, we have gun rights groups in Canada.) Most of these ideas are imported from the United States, which has similar constitutional provisions as ours, and are at the same time quite different.
And that’s an interesting point; few, if any, of the things the weeds in our society postulate are their own ideas. All of it, every single bit, comes delivered to them by media – and not necessarily just American media; Canadian media is doing a bang-up job spotlighting abhorrent behavior without commentary about how ridiculous and counter-productive most of it is.
We also see it in every parade down Main Street with people sporting Confederate flags and Trump flags – in Canada! And sadly Nazi flags and symbols. These chuckleheads with their new-found righteousness don’t even understand they are in a different land. This brings us right to the point of the heart of the matter, which I consider both the spark and the fuel on this bush fire which needs careful watching and gallons of water – Trumpism.
He remains not just our neighbour’s problem. Even out of office, he still holds sway over a large segment of the population here and there. Why?
Every American kid has been told since the first time they fell down – you can grow up to be president just like anybody else. It is a simple fairy tale every kid can understand and believe, despite the evidence all presidents have been filtered through some bedrock institutions and networks most people can’t get near, much less into.
Canadians have had exposure to this same idea; we all live close enough to the border to watch American TV news every day, and we do. We all watch the same movies and read the same books extolling American myths. We watch so many of these programs and shows many Canadians think American legal principles are ours. Because our political system does actually make it a bit more possible to rise through the ranks and achieve powerful position, Canadian kids of all capacities believe they can rule too.
And guess what? The most ignorant and vile person one could imagine made it to the top and became President of the United States; and millions of people, including hundreds of thousands of Canadians, saw hope for their own shortcomings. They assumed permission to be just as ignorant and vile – permission to become the weeds in our society.
These weeds see reports in media recognizing misguided and ill-informed opinions being just as operational as real-world facts and evidence. They assume on-line approval of research they did on their own is equal to years of concentrated study and guidance by learned people. They fear the experts and intellectuals as much as any mob throughout history. They brought out all the ancient pitchforks and torches stowed by decades of civilizing policies because the rules were flouted by a few assuming the mantle of leadership.
Trump (and various pulpit-clones in our country) didn’t have to tell people those things are ok, despite sometimes he actually did. It is fact he became the most powerful person on the planet, the way he became so, the way he conducted himself while in office, which gave bumpkins from the intellectual outback the belief they too are models of success. Brains, intelligent use of those brains, decorum, oratory skills, and solid ideas are no longer criteria for elevation; one can be just as dumb and stupid as a bag of hammers and get to the same place.
This is where media enters the picture. Our nightly news loves dumb, stupid, and things that go boom. It’s spectacle on display and people watch not because it’s informative, but because it’s entertaining. People don’t turn on a television to think and learn something. They turn it on to dull their daily pain, fear or boredom and some lap up stories proving they are right, safe, not-like-those-others, or are soon to be wealthy.
Being informed is an accident of being entertained. It requires the viewer to think past the sound bytes of scant information provided and actually look for informative content. It requires research outside of the medium, which many people are now, sadly, incapable of wading through.
The new stars of the Parade of Idiots are Trump sycophants, the dumbest of the dumb, the most clueless of the ignorant, the vainest of the narcissists, the least self-aware of the monkeys in the cage, living, breathing examples of EEG flatliners. Why are they the stars? Because it’s entertaining. Many people have a good laugh at the utter stupidity while shaking our heads wondering how anyone from the Wit family (the brothers Nit, Dim and Half) could ever survive childhood being so stupid.
The 6 o’clock news was never about news it’s always been about entertainment. There used to be some brakes on outlandish commentary, and they were called editors. But the day editors lost the battle to marketing, advertising, and bean counters (accountants), was the beginning of society’s long descent to the plot of the movie, Idiocracy.
There are no Walter Cronkites, Edward R. Murrows, or Knowlton Nash’s left in nightly news. There are no newsrooms full of knowledgeable and thoughtful editors helping to make sure the talking head news readers appear intelligent. There are only entertainment managers at the helm. Whatever gets eyeballs is the news, not the things you really need to know.
The journalistic principle ‘show both points of view’ is a fallacy and corrupting. There is no black and white, yes and no, two sides of the coin – it’s all shades of grey and much more nuanced than appearances seem. Ignorance is not the other side of the coin of level-headed, reasonable thought. Making sense of nuance is time consuming and costly, two things bean counters don’t understand. (I never met an accountant who understood the value of anything, just the cost). It’s a slight-of-hand in which some person or group can spout any insane point of view and, because it’s opposed to empirical evidence, balance in reporting is achieved – but it sure is entertaining to watch troglodytes smash down professors.
We are in a battle of wits with the witless. It’s a battle we can’t win because we who have a world view, some compassion, a sense of fair play, diplomacy and decorum can’t bring ourselves to play the game at the level of those who never read the rulebook, or Miss Manners’ Guide to Contagious Etiquette.We go to a Tiddlywinks game in street clothes, and they show up in football pads and swinging hockey sticks because, “we’re going to own us some Libs.” And as much as we abhor that behavior, we are decent folks who can’t bring ourselves to shame them for their bullying tactics – that’s not Queen’s Rules.
I don’t know what the entire answer is but being above the fray isn’t one of them. Arguing with many populists and true believers is pointless. We have to lace up the gloves and deliver a few jabs and uppercuts, or things will get worse. They already are getting worse. At some point we must fight to preserve all that is good, or we deserve to lose it.
Our gloves are points of information; we are a good at obtaining information and using information. We are greater in numbers. Our one-two punch is a piece of paper stuffed into a ballot box. This is our fight, one we can win, but we must abandon some of our sense of fair play. We can counteract the true sheep in the room, those who blindly follow the self-serving sheepdogs telling them to go out and disrupt. We can drown out the bleats of the ignorant. But we cannot succeed in winning over the dependent thinkers without applying some of their own tactics.
Yet, we have an advantage we aren’t using; we can think. They feel stolidly comfortable, they feel, we think. We are the fittest in a survival-of-the-fittest proposition until the bats and guns come out. We must resolve to let them continue their merry way to the oblivion toward which they are marching and insulate ourselves from collateral damage.
We must always continue the dialogue, but also know we have passed the point where we can change their minds. Painful as it may be to let mom, dad, brother, sister, best buddy, or otherwise wonderful person wander off into the night, we must let them go. We must drive the racists, apologists for liars, and sanctimonious religious kooks, whoever they might be, back into the echo chambers they use for protection from their fears. Shed a tear, hope they see the light, but know they might not come back from their voyage to the abyss.
First, you turn off the TV. Then we take some ownership of our collective apathy and indifference toward political decision making.
• We hold each other responsible for letting things veer so far of course – and help each other participate, step up, become party members, and vote on nominees for elective office – and then vote in elections.
• We insist on real public policy as the pathway to representation – not pandering to the lowest common denominator for votes.
• We volunteer to be election workers, just to make sure the rules are followed because others will skirt them at every turn because they can’t win a fair fight.
• We inform ourselves and as many others as will listen of the facts on most issues – there are still some journalists who do the digging and present cases as they are, but they must be sought out, not delivered with a pretty bow and flashing lights.
The end of the tolerance rope is in view; we can’t play nice or be complacent any longer. If you don’t know how to find good information, ask a journalist; even lazy bullshitters know who the lazy bullshitters are. Or ask a librarian.
Taking the right action is never easy or cheap. It’s always staring us in the face, and we’ll always try doing the least taxing and cheapest things first, until we find out they don’t work. Then we might buckle and put a shoulder to the millwheel.
In the next 18 months we face three elections, municipal, provincial, and federal – and they will be decisive. We can either elect the same class of numbskulls like the Member from Kicking Horse Pass or the one from Lanark/Frontenac/Kingston, or we choose people who have a vision longer than the next election cycle. We can openly reject populists dangling cheap beer, safer web browsing, and speaking in incomplete sentences. We can replace them with determined, thoughtful people who have reasoned plans and the stomach and resolve to tackle big, contentious issues. People who understand the vocal fringes are not worth giving attention to.
But that requires a bit of work. Maybe you’ve been lazy in past elections. Maybe you’re worn out by the flurry of issues and constant distraction. Maybe you just want to get on with your life. But you are smart, and you and I can do it. We can weed the garden simply by demanding openness and honesty from our potential leaders and by taking an active part – however small – in the elections upcoming.
(Image Supplied – Pixabay) Main: Poisonous Giant Hogweed.