Sunday, September 26, 2010
Amusing Ourselves to Death
This week in Quebec we were treated to an extraordinary performance of political theatre and the media's role of reducing politics to spectacle.
This week, the parade of the witnesses in front of a national audience watching the televised proceedings of the Bastarache Commission investigating allegations of political meddling and influence peddling in the nomination of judges in Quebec could not have been better.
First off was the statesman like grandfatherly figure of a former member of Quebec's National Assembly and Deputy Minister corroborating the nature of the allegations of influence peddling against the current Quebec government, followed by the testimony of the two principal Liberal fundraisers, and then an extremely rare event, the testimony of the current Premier of Quebec.
The week began as expected. The principal actors performed well. The critics were satisfied and we were all looking for the dramatic showdown between the Premier and the lawyer charged with grilling the Premier with a pointed counter-interrogation that would surely force the presiding judge to intervene repeatedly to bring order to what promised to be a series of heated exchanges.
Then the unexpected happened. The fireworks fizzled. The fiery exchange never materialized. Instead, the horror, the two men actually engaged in a relatively polite debate on a substantive matter concerning the role of the Premier in the process of nominating judges as prescribed by the law and the norms surrounding the process of political appointments.
What a let down. We can't end the week that way after all the hype we pumped.
Fortunately, in a brilliant scoop, Maclean's magazine came out with a provocative cover for its extremely well-timed weekly publication that stole the show and shifted the entire narrative that had been built up and then lost into something much more entertaining and potentially cathartic for a population in the process of realizing how pathetic its democratic institutions had become, the emotionally laden topic of Quebec bashing.
I couldn't believe it. The Maclean's cover actually bumped the Premier's testimony. On both Radio Canada's and TVA's nightly newscasts, the two leading televised newscasts in Quebec, the top story featured the Maclean's cover that said Quebec was the most corrupt province in Canada and appropriated the Quebec Carnaval's mascot for the visual image
I was flabbergasted. As someone who works in strategic communications, I had predicted that the lawyer leading the counter-interrogation would purposely push the presiding judge to shut him down, and then he would walk out and make a public statement lambasting the Commission for being blatantly partisan.
The intervention from Maclean's was totally unexpected and it made for great political theatre.
As could be expected there was little if any sympathy in the media being directed towards the Premier, despite his stalwart performance on the witness stand, with regard to the possibility that he might have been wrongly accused. Instead, the strongest emotional statements came from the Carnival of Quebec, who were outraged that their mascot had been defiled.
Intrigued, I set out early this morning to buy a copy of Maclean's magazine at Gatineau's largest newsstand, but to no avail. They were sold out. Undeterred, I crossed the river into Ottawa to buy and read the latest edition.
Having read the article, I found it to be pretty even-handed, not at all the Quebec bashing that Quebec politicians made out to be. However, the real power and the absolute brilliance of this edition, aside from the masterful timing of its publication, emerge from the headline and artful use of an iconic image on the magazine's cover.
To come out and actually say that Quebec is the most corrupt province in Canada took the prevailing political discourse out of its analytical approach of trying to tie credibility with performance on the witness stand and placed it squarely in the emotional minefield of Canada/Quebec relations. In short, this simple, bold assertion was like a kick in the crotch to Quebec's collective psyche, forcing it to attend to a disturbing state of affairs at an emotional level instead of trying to determine rationally which of the two political rivals is telling the truth.
Second, and more importantly, the image of the mascot holding the valise overflowing with cash symbolizes to me what is the real political malaise in Quebec.
In my opinion, the situation at hand is not a result of the obsession with sovereignty or the excessive growth of the state.
Political pundit Pierre Foglia correctly identified the nature of the problem in his column Saturday by noting that despite an intense week on the political front, the revelations of the Bastarache Commission and the Quebec government's u-turn on the question of charging user fees for health services, the story that was getting the most mileage in Quebec during the week was the lastest performance of the Montreal Canadiens goaltender, Carry Price.
Without question after two referendums on independence, Quebecers have become weary of politics. Participation rates during elections have plummeted.
Unfortunately, we are no longer paying much attention to politics and we certainly are not as politically engaged as we once were. As a result, given the amazing success of our cultural industries, we have replaced the passion of politics with the pleasure of being entertained. To use Neil Postman's method of analysis, we are amusing ourselves to death.
In other words, having failed to asserted our collective identity through political means, we have chosen to do so through our support and participation in cultural activities that strengthen our bonds to a linguistic community. On a daily basis, those bonds are reinforced whether following les Canadiens, watching our favorite television programs, listening to music on the radio, laughing with our comics, going to the movies to see the latest Quebecois film, flocking to the salon des livres, attending festival after festival. The list goes on.
In some ways, we have become political victims of our own cultural success. While we are being busily entertained, there are those who make off with more than their fair share of our common wealth and this has serious consequences.
It means that we let things pass that we shouldn't let pass. It means that we remain passive spectators when we should be active participants. It means that we settle for second rate education and second rate healthcare. It means that we are going to pass on an unmanageable debt to our children and our grandchildren.
If anything the image of Bonhomme Carnaval walking off with the cash tells us that we need to manage our affairs better. It's time to re-engage in the political sphere. Indeed, we need to let go of our previous terms of political reference and redefine the nature of our political community so that we are up to meeting the challenges of our common future.