Sunday, April 28, 2013

Is the Media a Bully?

There's a bible verse that asks, "Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?"

That's a good question for all those media types wringing their hands over those Conservative Party ads and flyers which target Liberal leader Justin Trudeau.

We keep hearing from columnists, reporters and editorial writers about how the campaign is an awful outrage.

A recent news story, for instance, wondered out loud if the Conservative campaign was actually designed to subconsciously plant doubts in the minds of voters about Trudeau’s manliness.

Some have even gone so far as to suggest the Tory attack is “bullying.”

Now I am not going to defend or try to explain the Tory strategy; instead I’d like to point out how the media isn't exactly as pure as the driven snow when it comes to attacking a politician’s masculinity or looks.

In fact, if anything, the media is often obsessed with a politician’s image.

Just consider how media types totally embraced Trudeau after he thrashed Conservative Senator Patrick Brazeau in a boxing match.

It was Trudeau’s toughness, his martial appearance, his talent with his fists that made him a media star, not his policy ideas.

Indeed, for the media that boxing match has achieved an almost mythic status.

The Huffington Post’s Althia Raj even made that fight the defining narrative of her Trudeau biography.

And just in case anyone missed the point, the cover of her ebook features a cartoon drawing of a heroic looking Trudeau wearing boxing gloves.

One might wonder if the media is trying to subconsciously plant the idea in the minds of voters that Trudeau is an alpha-male?

Certainly that would help the Liberal leader politically, since martial prowess appeals to that primitive part of our brain which still thinks its living in a prehistoric world, a world that needs physically strong leaders to protect us from marauding raiders and hungry saber tooth tigers.

But more to my point is that just as the media will paint politicians they like as warriors, they will also paint  politicians they don’t like as wimps.

Think of how, during the 1972 federal election, the media published an unflattering photo of Progressive Conservative leader Robert Stanfield dropping a football.

Many consider it one of the top “gaffes” in Canadian political history.

But was it also a case of the media subconsciously planting doubts in the minds of voters as to Stanfield’s masculinity?

If he can’t catch a football he must be a nerd, nerds are weak, weak people are bad leaders.

Or how about the time the CBC’s Rick Mercer launched a petition during the 2000 federal election to get Canadian Alliance Leader Stockwell Day to change his first name to “Doris?

Was that funny or was it bullying? Was the subtext of Mercer's "joke" that Day was something less than a man?

Certainly it got voters laughing at Day.

Nor is Prime Minister Stephen Harper immune. Remember the mockery over his cowboy outfit? And the Huffington Post and journalists on Twitter once got a real “chuckle” over how Harper wore a hat.

Isn't that like school yard bullies picking on a kid because of  his or her clothing? I might even suggest the subtext of such attacks is that people who wear funny clothes are oddballs and thus are unfit to be our leaders.

And more recently, the media has taken to openly mocking Toronto Mayor Rob Ford because of his weight.

The Toronto Star, for instance, once posted a video on its site of a woman laughing at Ford as he ordered a meal at a KFC restaurant.

Is that cyber-bullying? Is it right to mock a man because he doesn't have Trudeau’s physical appearance? Does obesity make you less of a leader?

So it seems the media is more than willing to mock and degrade a person if it suits their purpose.

Now none of this is to suggest we should feel sorry for Ford or Day or Stanfield or Harper. Like it or not, mockery and attacks have always been a part of democratic politics; that’s why it’s not a business for people with thin skins.

Yet if those who work in the media are going to throw stones at negativity in politics, they should at least realize they live in a glass house.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Coyne, Negative ads and Freedom

National Post columnist Andrew Coyne has consistently (and rightly) castigated the Conservative government for discarding its conservative ideals.

Yet Coyne himself is passionately advancing a cause which would ultimately undermine those very same principles.

I am talking about his stance against so-called negative political ads, which Coyne despises with something akin to religious fervor. 

In a recent column, for instance, he declared that negative ads “pollute debate and coarsen the culture,” which ironically is an awfully negative way for him to make his point.

At any rate, although Coyne doubts these ads actually change people’s minds, he nevertheless wants to impose government regulations to discourage their use.


Because he doesn’t like their inflammatory “tone.”

As a result, he favours forcing political party leaders to narrate their ads.

The theory behind this idea is that a leader would be reluctant to voice negativity.

As Coyne put it, “If any of this filth came out of their own mouths, they’d have to be accountable for it. Their public standing would suffer. Indeed, they’d sound ridiculous.”

Coyne also asserts such a provision would not limit free speech, since politicians “Could still say what they liked. They’d just have to own it.”

Me, I’m not so sure about that. After all, having the government decide who can narrate an  ad is, in my view at least, an infringement on free expression.

What's more, it would give one party an advantage over the other depending on which leader has the better voice.

Can you imagine Jean Chretien narrating an ad?

But let's set such issues aside.

Would this result in our election debates getting more positive and more reasoned?

Don’t bet on it.

For one thing, political parties would just intensify their negative attacks through avenues besides TV and radio. They would, for instance, send out more nasty messages via emails, direct mail pieces, and robo-calls.

And by the way, such “under the radar” attacks are usually far more vicious than the TV variety.

Also Coyne’s plan would not stop “Third Parties” from running their own negative ads between elections on behalf of political parties.

Would any of this lead Coyne to argue for restrictions on partisan groups and for limiting other forms of political communication?

I am not sure it would, but it illustrates the danger of even minor infractions on freedom; when they don’t work, they often lead to more draconian measures down the road.

Indeed, Green Party leader Elizabeth May is already arguing for a complete ban on all political advertising during elections.

Now let me say, I fully understand that May and Coyne’s views on negativity are shared by many.

But we should also remember that democracy works best when there is a free market place of competing ideas and arguments.

And any attempt to restrict or muzzle or control free speech distorts that market and undermines democratic debate.

That’s why it’s better, in my view, to allow negativity than to censor or regulate opinion.

Besides, why do we need to control or ban political ads, when we can simply let the free market decide?
If negative ads are “corrosive”, then Canadians won’t buy their messages and political parties won’t use them.

It’s that simple.

In fact, Liberal leader Justin Trudeau has vowed to stay positive because he says Canadians are sick and tired of negativity.

So why do we need nanny-state-style laws to control politicians or to protect voters?

In the meantime, people like Coyne who object to negative ads on aesthetic grounds, already have a way to deal with them.

Whenever they see one on TV, they can just turn the channel.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Is Trudeau Anti-Fragile?

There’s an odd thing about political columnists.

Although they are usually bright people with highly informed views about politics, they generally tend to have a blind spot when it comes to negative attack ads.

Not only do they generally dislike such ads (National Post columnist Andrew Coyne calls them pollution) but they also don’t understand what makes them effective.

A case in point is the recently released Conservative Partyads which feature clips of Liberal leader Justin Trudeau performing a mock striptease and executing a dramatic operatic bow.

These ads opened to almost universally poor reviews.

National Post editor Jon Kay called them “disappointing;” Post Media columnist Michael Den Tandt said the ads marked a “new low” and that they were “mean-spirited, dishonest and incompetent”; while the Toronto Star’s Tim Harper predicted the Conservatives won’t “find any traction in mocking Justin Trudeau’s pretend striptease.”

At the root of their criticism is the idea that Trudeau, to use the Nicholas Taleb’s term, is “anti-fragile”, that is Conservative attacks will only make him stronger.

As Den Tandt put it, “Trudeau has further branded himself as a ‘positive’ force, adopting the mantle of democratic reformer and someone who intends to ‘do politics differently.’ The more savagely his opponents attack him, the more he will point to their tactics as proof of the truth of his narrative.”

And the Star’s Tim Harper noted, “Every time he is criticized for being a celebrity, his political stock is sure to rise.”

Now if Den Tandt and Harper are correct then the Conservatives and the New Democrats are indeed in trouble; a politician who only grows stronger from attacks would be a formidable opponent.

And yes, politicians can be “anti-fragile”. Take Toronto Mayor Rob Ford. The more the left-leaning Toronto Star attacked him during the last mayoralty campaign, the more it mobilized and energized his base.

Yet, it’s also true that every politician has a weakness and every weakness can be exploited.

The way I see it, Trudeau has three main weaknesses: a) he lacks political savvy, b) he is inexperienced at the leadership level, and c) he is known more for his dramatic flair than for his intellect.

The Conservative ads not only masterfully exploit each of these weaknesses, they also manage to do so with strong visuals and just as importantly with humor, meaning it doesn’t come across as a typical nasty political ad.

In the process the Conservatives are planting in the minds of voters the idea that Trudeau is “in over his head,” and that he just doesn’t have what it takes to run a government.

They make him, in short, look silly.

And for the life of me, I can’t see how such an attack would make Trudeau stronger.

Voters will forgive a lot of flaws in a politician, but one thing they won’t forgive in their potential leaders is incompetence and it doesn’t matter if the inept politician is likable or positive or a celebrity.

That means if Canadians start to view Trudeau as a clown, he’s finished

And given Trudeau’s lack of a resume, his lack of experience, his tendency to say ill-considered remarks, there’s a good chance the Conservatives’ branding of Trudeau will resonate.

Plus any rookie mistakes Trudeau makes in the upcoming weeks and months will only serve to reinforce the Conservative narrative.

I suspect, for instance, that Trudeau “bleeding heart” comments in the wake of the Boston bombing about needing to seek out the “root cause” of terrorism, will provide fodder for the next round of Tory attack ads.

So despite what the columnists are saying, the Tory attacks should concern the Liberals.

Friday, April 12, 2013

NDP Resolutions to Keep an Eye on

This weekend delegates from the New Democratic Party will be converging in Montreal to debate and adopt new policies.

As a public service, I've decided to highlight six key resolutions:

Here they are:

Resolution #500  - The impediment of  Facial Hair

WHEREAS the soon-to-be new Liberal leader is as cute as a button and ever so charming,

BE IT RESOLVED that NDP leader Thomas Mulcair adopt a younger, less threatening visage by shaving off his beard.

BE IT RESOLVED that he visit a unionized barber.

Resolution #501 – What’s Love Got to Do with it?

WHEREAS politics is a death sport,

BE IT RESOLVED that hate is sometimes better than love, especially when it comes to TV ads.

Resolution # 502 - Military History for Dummies

WHEREAS the NDP’s efforts to expose the roots cause of World War One was so successful,

BE IT RESOLVED, we will endeavor to reveal and highlight the capitalistic origins of the War of the Spanish Succession, the War of the Roses and Star Wars.

Resolution # 503 - What’s in a Name?

WHEREAS our party is more than 50 years old,

BE IT RESOLVED that we stop calling ourselves “New” Democrats.

Resolution #504 - Quebec Power

WHEREAS in the next election we might have trouble winning new seats outside Quebec,

BE IT RESOLVED that Quebec get 200 more seats in the House of Commons.
Resolution #505  --Getting with the Times

WHEREAS socialism is a word that conjures up images of parading, goose-stepping North Korean soldiers,

BE IT RESOLVED,  that we drop “socialism” from our constitution and replace it with the Canadian equivalent, i.e. Economic Action Planning.

If these awesome resolutions, don't get you to watch the NDP convention, I don't know what will! 

Monday, April 08, 2013

Margaret Thatcher RIP

With the sad passing of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, I thought I'd reproduce a column I wrote four years ago.

Canada Needs a Thatcher

After each federal election, I always ask myself the same question: Why can’t Canada produce a leader like former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher?

The key word there is “leader.” Even if you don’t support her conservative ideology, you have to admit that Thatcher exemplified leadership.

Sadly, leadership is a rare commodity these days in politics. All too often, our political leaders don’t lead, they follow. They follow the whim of public opinion as determined by the latest polls, or they heed the dictates of strident special-interest groups.

That’s not leadership.

As former U.S. president Harry Truman once put it, “How far would Moses have gone if he had taken a poll in Egypt? ... It isn’t polls or public opinion of the moment that counts. It’s right and wrong and leadership.”

Thatcher understood this.

During her years as Britain’s first (and only) woman prime minister, she consistently took stands on issues not because they were popular, but because she believed they were right. Often, this was not easy. Remember, Thatcher took the reins in the late 1970s, when years of socialist misrule had turned her country into an economic mess.

Turning the British economy around meant that Thatcher had to take tough action. It meant dismantling elements of the welfare state; it meant de-nationalizing state-run companies; and it meant taming Britain’s all-powerful labour union bosses.

And that’s exactly what Thatcher did.

Eventually, her policies rescued the British economy. In fact, future Labour governments even copied many of her measures. Maybe that’s not so surprising. As Thatcher once put it, “In politics, if you want anything said, ask a man. If you want anything done, ask a woman.”

But her success did not come overnight. Indeed, in 1980, in her first full year in power, two million Britons were unemployed and a recession still gripped the country. To a lot of British voters at that time, Thatcher’s free-market economic policies did not seem to be working. Opinion polls showed support for her

Conservative government had fallen to record lows and her personal popularity was dropping sharply. Consequently, she was under tremendous pressure from the public, from the media, and even from within her own caucus to do a “U-turn” and drop her tough measures.

But Thatcher had the courage to stand by her convictions.

In a famous speech to a Conservative convention, she declared: “To those waiting with bated breath for that favourite media catch-phrase — the U-turn — I have only one thing to say: You turn if you want to; the Lady’s not for turning.”

Needless to say, her determination to hold the course despite the bad polls led many at the time to conclude Thatcher was committing electoral suicide. Yet not only did she survive electorally, but she went on to win to two more majority governments.

So why can’t we have strong, principled leaders in Canada?

Well, perhaps it’s because Canadian politicians of all stripes base their electoral strategy on what’s called the “median voter theorem.” In his book Harper’s Team, Tom Flanagan, the former campaign manager for Prime Minister Stephen Harper, defined this theorem thus: “It shows mathematically … parties will converge on the position of the median voter. A party that stations itself away from the midpoint yields more than half the potential voters to the other party and thus will lose the election.”

In other words, chasing the median voter means adopting policy platforms that will appeal to the greatest mass of voters possible. Canadian politicians shun policies that might be considered too controversial or ideological.

Thatcher, on the other hand, didn’t see politics in terms of mathematical theorems. Her brand of politics was much more basic: Inspire voters by providing a vision.

Or, to put it another way, she realized that voters respect a politician who has the guts to stand up for principles and values.

Voters want true leaders. That’s what the success of Margaret Thatcher teaches us.

It’s a lesson Canadian politicians would do well to learn.

Thursday, April 04, 2013

My Letter to the Queen

Green Party leader Elizabeth May sent a letter to Queen Elizabeth, asking her to investigate robo-calls. So I figured, if she can write the the monarch, why can't I?

See below.

Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II
Buckingham Palace
London SW1A 1AA
United Kingdom
August 30, 2012

Your Majesty,

I wish to write to you regarding a matter of grave importance to Canadians, and I request your assistance with this matter.

The problem is we here in Canada have a loopy leader of a loopy fringe party, named Elizabeth May, who keeps doing really, really dopey and embarrassing things.

If she’s not extolling the virtues of a Dark Ages lifestyle, she’s kissing up to the Liberal Party or writing completely off the wall insane letters about the state of Canadian democracy.

I write to request that Your Majesty take some action in this matter.

Of course, I realize you can no longer put troublemakers in the Tower of London, but perhaps you can have her exiled to some other region of your Empire…perhaps to some mountain top in Nepal.

Believe me, your Canadian subjects would be much appreciative.

I have the honour to be, Madam, Your Majesty’s humble and obedient servant.

Gerry Nicholls


I wouldn't mind getting one of those Diamond Jubilee Medals, if you have any kicking around the palace.