Wednesday, 17 June 2009

"When Hacks Attack!": Part One

I think it is now safe to say that the CPC's "Just Visiting" anti-Ignatieff ad campaign has become the most obsessively scrutinised shitzkrieg* ever mounted by a Dominion party in our history. Launched over a month ago, it haunts us still. It has certainly surpassed the P.C. Party's "Is This a Prime Minister" anti-Chrétien sally in '93 as an object of pundit-driven fascination as to its motivation, generation, and effect on voter intention.

The consensus seems to be that it is vile and unprecedented. That it is vile is arguable. That it is unprecedented is even more arguable. If it is unprecedented, it is only so in its timing and in its authorship.

For one may be surprised (and disappointed) to see such a thing occur outside of an election, and one cannot help but be surprised to see the battle-axe of populist class war taken out of the hands of the NDP, its traditional wielder, by the political helots of our affluent continentalist élite, but one cannot be surprised by the campaign's abject meanness, for, as I've been strangely delighted to discover (or re-discover, really), corrosive vitriol on the Canadian hustings is a venerable part of our electoral heritage that an aberrant three generations of relative civility have served to wipe from Canada's collective memory. We Canadians have nothing as famous and widely quoted as the Lincoln-Douglas debates to remind us that we were political beings before the invention of the refrigerator. If we did, we would realise that the rank partisan vindictiveness of the last four years has been not a cultural departure for Canadians as much as a recrudescence.

As part of my summer reading program, I've been delving into S.F. Wise's God's Peculiar People, a collection of essays concerning the political culture of pre-rebellion Upper Canada, specifically its surprising degree of chauvinistic messianism (something we naturally tend to think of as being inherently anti-Canadian). I suppose we should all be grateful that Canada's early 19th-century historical record is dominated by the contest between reformers and Tories, for the accounts of their murderously bitter reciprocal rhetorical eviscerations can be a joy to read and serve as some of the most genuinely compelling sparks of real life amid a record that is often (ignorantly) accused of being soporifically dry.

In one essay, Wise describes an 1834 by-election in Kingston, in which Tory community pillar Christopher Hagerman, expecting to walk into the seat unopposed, ended up being challenged by a quickly drafted Reform candidate from Toronto, one William O'Grady, suspended priest and editor of radical newspaper the Canadian Correspondent. The phrase, "Send in the clowns," doesn't even begin to approximate an adequate invocation for the circus that ensued.

The reform-minded defrocked preacher was apparently no media darling in the heart of Loyalist country. The Tory Coburg Star warned its readers:

"O'Grady, of the Correspondent, has been skulking about here for the last two or three days, by way, we suppose, of trying his sophistry among the Catholics; but it's a no go. The 'Gentleman in Black' can neither hide his tail nor his hoof".
And CPC acolytes whine about "media bias". Talk to me when the Globe and Mail equates Harper with Satan, guys.

O'Grady retaliated against this press persecution with a suitable though perhaps not focus-group-refined performance. He addressed a meeting, and, "holding a copy of the [Tory] Kingston Chronicle in his hand, [excoriated] 'this mean, low, pitiful and grovelling rag,' run by a Yankee editor who is 'an infamous liar and a despicable miscreant'". Goodness me. I think we've just found the patron saint of the blogosphere.

Anyways, once the campaign began in earnest, things really got ugly. At a public debate, O'Grady expounded upon his anti-Tory agenda in defiant and apocalyptic terms:

"It is a glorious thing to commence in this hot-bed of toryism the battle of reform...and though the Reformers may not, for the present, be able to slay the Goliath, is it not a glorious thing, that on examining the materials of the pedestal on which [Hagerman] stands and discovering their rottenness...we may anticipate the not far distant day...when public opinion will dash the proud Colossus in the dust?"
Note to Ignatieff: that, my loving patriot, is how to tell a guy you're going to mess with him until you're done.

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* Shitzkrieg: a neologistic portmanteau Dred Toryism, composed of a truncated form of "bullshit" (i.e. "nonsense", "gibberish") and "krieg" (i.e. "assault"); it denotes any political "communications" campaign designed to flood the media with trivia as a way of distracting the public’s attention from issues that matter.

26 comments:

Ti-Guy said...

Whatever the historical parallels, the campaigns in the past could not have been as juvenile as they are now. Modern media insists that they be juvenile because mommies and their children are exposed to them. And mommies and daddies think it's good for their children be exposed to these campaigns because they think they're learning about current affairs and democracy.

So as long as the content and the imagery never rises above the level of the schoolyard, it's acceptable.

That's what I detest. If you can make the argument that that's been the case in the past, please do and disabuse me of the impression that I'm witnessing something that, if not interesting, sophisticated, entertaining or substantive, is at least novel.

Sir Francis said...

And mommies and daddies think it's good for their children be exposed to these campaigns...

Really? I get the impression that today's parents negotiate their children's exposure to politics the way farming couples handle their children's exposure to the sight of rutting animals--as a "teaching" moment, an introduction to the "way of things" and the squalid world of adulthood but also a rather uncomfortable, embarrassing and unpleasant event that is best passed over in silence.

... please...disabuse me of the impression that I'm witnessing something that...is at least novel .

That's a tall order. For flamboyantly vacuous cant (most of it Grit, of course), the politics of our colonial era cannot be out-quacked. That cant was vastly more sincere than it is now, I will grant you, and, yes, quite a bit less juvenile. It was often just as mean and petty, though--as I point out.

SeanStok said...

It occurs to me that while people wrongly assume there was a golden age of polite and reserved politics, there is a sense that something has gone badly wrong in recent years. Maybe it's the extent to which we depend on government (among other structures - we live atomized social existences where our very survival depends on vast economic structures that are often beyond our knowledge, never mind our control). If I'm a farmer in the mid-1800's, and we're not at war and I'm not being taxed too harshly, the politicians can spin their wheels and froth at the mouth for all it affects my life. The same cannot be said today. Which might be why the absence of decorum and minimally shared vision is more disquieting.

But that's just a guess on my part - I'd be curious to know what you think, even if I'm dead wrong!

Ti-Guy said...

I will grant you, and, yes, quite a bit less juvenile. It was often just as mean and petty, though--as I point out.

So why are they so much more juvenile now?

Sir Francis said...

Sean/Ti:

Well, as a determined Chomskyite, I have a certain (perhaps too predictable) perspective on the callow nature of our political environment.

I do think, for example, that what infantilises our civic modalities most blatantly is the need for élites to put tight constraints on allowable discourse; they do this because a pluralistic, ethically nomadic populace can be mobilised and made to ratify the élite's agenda only when their options are made "manageable"; as you know, options are at their most manageable when they are trivial.

SeanStok said...

We're going to have to thrash out this whole 'elites' thing one of these days. :)

It suggests a coordination of interests, motives and strategy that I just don't buy - at least in the arena of Canadian politics. Or are the elites idiot savants who manage to achieve their outcomes without necessarily setting out to do so?

I'm not dead set against the idea (I've found use in Foucault's notion of power realized through control of society's language and categories), but it seems all too easy, at times, to fall back the star chamber explanation.

Ti-Guy said...

I do think, for example, that what infantilises our civic modalities most blatantly is the need for élites to put tight constraints on allowable discourse;

There an alternate thesis; that the infantilisation of our culture is a consequence of a consumer economy that has nothing left but to nurture, entrench and exploit the irrational desires of the type children and adolescents are seized by, since most real material needs and very many desires have been met and probably have been since the 50's.

I see more evidence for that going back several decades, but I've also seen (since I returned to Canada) a lot of evidence that the élite realises this and now exploits it shamelessly (for reasons you state), rather than model more sophisticated alternatives, which is what they used to do.

Can you imagine any other PM shamelessly hosting Ezra Levant and Mark Steyn at 24 Sussex, SF? When I think of juvenile in the worst sense, that's what I'm talking. Not child-like or irresponsible, but an unsophisticated, immoderate, petty high school clique.

Sir Francis said...

Sean:

Yes, well Foucault's views are notoriously incommensurate with Chomsky's, on a number of levels. For one thing, no one actually has social power for Foucault. Power/knowledge is the enabling condition for discourse, and no subjects (even the most powerful ones) can stand outside it.

On a more lay level, I don't espouse the conspiratorial "Star Chamber" view of things, but I do think that there is a broad commonality of interests that binds élite actors into what one could call an intentional community--not necessarily "coordinated", but certainly co-invested and co-involved.

Sir Francis said...

Ti:

I'm amazed at the number of people who fail to see to what extent Western economies are fuelled by the consumption of waste/excess rather than by actual production. We're a culture of seduction, of consumptive enervation, of a gluttony so relentless that it insists on consuming even the inedible.

Can you imagine any other PM shamelessly hosting Ezra Levant and Mark Steyn at 24 Sussex?

Um, did that actually happen? Please tell me that didn't actually happen...

Ti-Guy said...

Um, did that actually happen? Please tell me that didn't actually happen...

Read it and weep.

...Christ, Ezra's hideous.

I'm amazed at the number of people who fail to see to what extent Western economies are fuelled by the consumption of waste/excess rather than by actual production. We're a culture of seduction, of consumptive enervation, of a gluttony so relentless that it insists on consuming even the inedible.

I bring this up a lot, because I think the empiricism its analysis easily accommodates imposes greater scholarly rigour for the discussion of social dynamics and the human condition and produces more persuasive observations and conclusions than philosophy can, at least at this point. I think that's the reason philosophy never appealed to me. I was never convinced that, generally, the insights of any particular philospher were really true for anyone but the philosopher himself and that the philosopher wasn't uncovering truth, but creating and imposing it. Generally speaking...

But then, I'm a Chomskyite. No evidence? No reason to agree.

Sir Francis said...

Ti:

"Pure" philosophy can become (or seem) remote from real-world contexts. Chomsky and other like-minded humanists (like Habermas) have been very hard on post-Modernism for what they see as its irresponsible abandonment of praxis and its (alleged) inability to provide a stable point of departure for political engagement.

I think some of that criticism is misplaced; there are many ways of "doing" post-Modernism (or, more properly, post-Structuralism), and it really is, after all, a technique, not a position.

Certainly, though, Anglo-American pragmatism--perhaps the most superficially un-dogmatic of modern schools of thought--is much more user-friendly as a philosophical framework for lay political discourse, and it's thus no accident that most of our public intellectuals (a dying breed, as we've discussed) have been practitioners of that school.

Ti-Guy said...

there are many ways of "doing" post-Modernism (or, more properly, post-Structuralism), and it really is, after all, a technique, not a position.

A technique for what, exactly? I've seen it applied in literary criticism, sociology, political science, the pure sciences, visual arts, music, popular culture studies...cooking...and I'm not aware of any way in which it has advanced human understanding, except perhaps as an experiment in what happens when academics become unmoored from stable points of departure and abandon praxis.

What I find most tragic, though is the backlash resulting from the legions of mediocrities who subjected their students (unwittingly, I'm sure) to what amounts to intellectual fraud. The anger among this demographic is what has been feeding into the anti-intellectualism that has been surging and frothing in the last eight years.

Sir Francis said...

The anger among this demographic is what has been feeding into...anti-intellectualism...

Something tells me that Stephen Harper, Gary Goodyear and their torch-and-pitchfork hoplites throughout the 'burbs have managed to become the deeply anti-intellectual prats they are without need of the slightest exposure to Paul De Man or Derrida. My brother-in-law is rabidly anti-intellectual, and he probably thinks post-Structuralism is the clinical term for a sinus infection.

Every school of thought has been seen as high-flown tosh by contemporary antagonists, not all of them philistines. Many thoughtful lay Edwardians damned the term "stream of consciousness" for a bit of laughably pretentious jargon; today, even my brother-in-law could use William James' term unselfconsciously, without knowing anything about its role in James' psychological pragmatism.

Anti-intellectualism is an organic neurosis generated by the degraded cultural priorities of certain societies. In such societies--in America, for instance--even the most elementary and exoteric intellectual enthusiasms fall under suspicion. Pandering GOP thugs like Nixon didn't need the pretext of post-Structuralism to pursue anti-intellectual vendettas against the Adlai Stevensons and Alger Hisses of the '50's.

I'm not aware of any way in which it has advanced human understanding...

The fact that some scholars misapply and degrade the technique does not invalidate the technique being misused--any more than sloppy brain surgery invalidates the technique of brain surgery.

Post-Structuralism has suggested interesting things about language--most provocatively, that everything is language and that the semiotic units that signify the "real" for us may describe more about the system according to which they operate than the reality they appear to communicate so transparently.

The implications of this are huge, which is why so many thinkers have felt the need to at least encounter this issue and formulate a perspective on it. Yet, it is hard indeed to see how it has advanced human understanding, as we would need a few generations' worth of retrospective distance in order to determine anything on that score; the thinkers of the Enlightenment had no idea how they were advancing human understanding, or if they were—an uncertainty that drove Kant to give an essay the interrogative title, "What Is Enlightenment?". It's one thing to have a program (or technique); it's quite another to know what it's doing to your world.

Well, I'm off to the airport in four hours (after about three hours' sleep), then onto a plane for a six-hour trip. I shall be incommunicado until I'm back on our side of the pond (or, as Derrida would insist, the "pond").

Ti-Guy said...

Post-Structuralism has suggested interesting things about language--most provocatively, that everything is language and that the semiotic units that signify the "real" for us may describe more about the system according to which they operate than the reality they appear to communicate so transparently.

I've never been persuaded by this; the influence of "signifiers" could easily have been examined through conventional forms of criticism and analysis. Post-structuralism's agenda was overtly political; destroy conventional forms of inquiry and critique to remove the deforming influences of class, state and other entrenched structures in order to make way for "The New." A 1960's intellectual urban renewal, with about as much success.

Have fun on your trip. Come back less snippy.

Will S. said...

On a more lay level, I don't espouse the conspiratorial "Star Chamber" view of things, but I do think that there is a broad commonality of interests that binds élite actors into what one could call an intentional community--not necessarily "coordinated", but certainly co-invested and co-involved.

I've always found Joe Sobran's concept of "The Hive" to be quite intriguing; if one sees the elites as behaving as bees in a beehive do, one can observe patterns that don't require central control, to occur. (See here for an introduction, and here for a collection of articles on the subject.)

I think this concept can be useful in understanding how various different interests can coordinate without central planning, whether they be left or right, socialist, liberal, neoconservative, etc. In fact, I don't think the political orientation of the players matters all that much, when different groups may discover they have common interests, and end up as political bedfellows in spite of themselves. (Which really, is only to say, that the degree to which political affiliations matter in today's world, is rather low; that the differences between the different groups that jockey for power and position are exceedingly small.)

Sir Francis said...

Will:

Agreed. Elites everywhere and at all times have been quite apolitical in the strict sense--because they can always afford to be. They eschew beliefs and moral priorities, for such things would blunt the edge of their tactical versatility and render them less adaptable to the fluid environments in which they operate.

The Krupps of the world could never be made to care whether their buyers are communist, fascist or democratic--as long as they pay in cash, and promptly.

Sir Francis said...

...the influence of "signifiers" could easily have been examined through conventional forms of criticism and analysis.

Post-Structuralists would argue that what they're doing is conventional, insofar as they are merely doing what the Western logocentric tradition demands; their way of reading pushes texts to the limit but only because the texts are doing the pushing. Post-Structuralists don't see this as a radical departure but as the uncovering of a dynamic that has always been there (and which can be glimpsed in some of the pre-Socratics, before it was crushed by the juggernaut of the Platonic program).

Post-structuralism's agenda was overtly political...

Not really. Sure, some of them were soixantehuitards, but, really, everyone was (except De Gaulle, perhaps).

Post-Structuralism doesn't allow for a politics, as its detractors affirm. Foucault, for instance, endorsed French Maoism only to endorse Khomeini's revolution a few years later.

Post-Structuralism is political only insofar as it is denounced as reactionary by the Left and as nihilist by the Right. I think it is neither per se--although it can be used for reactionary and nihilist ends--as can Aquinas.

Come back less snippy.

Yes, Miss Ti-Guy. Is detention over now? May I go play with the other lads?

Ti-Guy said...

their way of reading pushes texts to the limit but only because the texts are doing the pushing.

And that's certainly easily proved when you can fabricate language to demonstrate that.

I don't know; I'm not an ignorant person. Yet, I've just never been persuaded that a text can (or should) have any more meaning than what its originator intended, either consciously, evidence for which can be easily provided or subconsciously, which limited interpretation, hopefully supported by meta-narrative evidence or, at the very least, clear and sound reason can demonstrate.

I suppose I'm just too utilitarian to see the point to all of this, especially as it has pushed out more conventional forms of analysis for undergrad core curriculum. leading to astonishingly confused, mystifying and post-literate university graduates, who then go on to write The Architectonics of Semiotics.

Ti-Guy said...

I hope your and Olaf's long absence from blogging means you're both collaborating on a killer blog post. The blog post to end all blog posts.

Jack Mitchell said...

Hear hear, Ti-Guy. Sir Francis deserves a good summer break, as long as he hasn't retired from blogging: the internecine strife to succeed him would tear the civilised Canadian blogosphere apart, War of the Roses-style.

Sir Francis said...

Ti-Guy & Jack:


I imposed this hiatus experimentally--in order to see what the world would look like if starved of regular Dred Tory updates.

As I feared, I’ve created a blighted, bleak, unforgiving, wind-swept wasteland.

Fortunately, the experiment’s effects are reversible, and succour is at hand...

Catelli said...

Fortunately, the experiment’s effects are reversible, and succour is at hand...

Phew! I was getting worried!

Now my only concern is what the F#$%#! happened to Olaf?

Will S. said...

You have to post some more, Sir Francis! KMG seems not to be active any longer; the baton has been passed. Somebody has to oppose the Harper Neo-Cons from the Old Tory Right, so it's fallen to you. :)

Jack Mitchell said...

"I imposed this hiatus experimentally--in order to see what the world would look like if starved of regular Dred Tory updates."

Two months is experimental, but three months, especially during this festival of hypocrisy, is cruel.

SeanStok said...

Cruel is too mild. Must we beg?

Sir Francis said...

Must we beg?

It might have helped! ;)

Seriously, the last few months have been unconscionable. It shan't happen again. I promise.