Monday, December 8, 2008

D'Oh! Canada!

Can't resist urge... too tempting a target... must say it... Stephen Harper seems to be doing his best Robert Mugabe imitation. How could it happen you may ask, that a western democracy could sink to the level of an African dictatorship which also feigns democratic practices now and then. Well, watching the news from back home just seems to get more and more surreal. In October, it was the federal election in Canada, as the lemming hoard was lulled into repeating the same mistake they made on the previous trip to the ballot box and brought back a minority Conservative government. In times of economic turbulence such as these, most rational people would vote for change, but in the frozen tundra, the rules of logic don't seem to apply. Suddenly, a man who received a mandate from barely 20% of the eligible voting population has the means to effectively shut down parliament in order to maintain his grip on power.
Democracy in Canada is even stranger than the two-party farce known to their southern neighbours. It is best described as a Constitutional Monarchy where the highest ranking official in the land is an unelected hereditary monarch from a foreign power. Living so far away from her subjects, she (or he) is represented in the country by someone called the governor-general. While this monarch holds full executive powers in theory, the Prime Minister of this over-sized frozen land actually wields the real power. The PM is not directly voted for either; he or she is traditionally an elected representative of the party that has the most seats in the House of Commons, governing is a simple enough matter when this party holds a majority, but things get messy with a minority government...
OK, thanks for the Canadian electoral process lesson Shane, but didn't you say something about Mugabe and Harper being alike? Damn straight, here's what happened in Canada last week. The three opposition parties decided that enough was enough, had a meeting and decided to band together to form a coalition government by forcing a vote of non-confidence in the House of Commons. Since together they hold more than half the seats, Harper quickly got out his calculator and determined that they would succeed in removing him from power. After consultation with the nearest dictionary, he came up with a powerful new word, prorogue. What happens is he calls up the governor general and tells her that he's having some trouble with the view of the majority and needs a little time for his propaganda machine to convince the country that he is in the right. She is cowed, agrees, and in effect government is shut down for several weeks in order for him to avoid losing his office. Here's where the Mugabe/Harper comparisons start, alongside the seven forms of propaganda.
Robert Mugabe received 43.2% of the vote in the presidential election (the first this year, not the joke of a run-off where he received over 85%) whereas Stephen Harper's party garnered the support of 37.65% of the voters. While more people voted against them than for, both men claim to have the backing of the populace and therefore act as dictators. Both men don't play well with others. Witness Mugabe's inability to reach a real power sharing agreement with Tsvangirai's MDC and Harper's inability to compromise with the other parties. Here both men fall back on the glittering generality propaganda technique to lend credence to their cause; using slogans and catchphrases that no one can argue against, 'virtue words' that have different positive meaning for individual subjects, but are linked to highly valued concepts. "Canada's government will use every legal means to protect our democracy, to protect our economy" says Stephen, "We will never allow an event like an election to reverse our independence, our sovereignty, our sweat and all that we fought for ...... all that our comrades died fighting for" says Robert.
Another common and effective form of propaganda is name calling. As the name implies, this one is nasty, but effective in forming a connection between negative thoughts and your enemy, creating fear and arousing prejudice. The Nazi's were pretty good at this technique (and maybe some will point the finger at me for using it here...). Harper is and will continue to play on the western Canadian fear of separatists as he links the mere idea of a coalition government to the separatists. The support of the Bloc Quebecois is needed to carry a majority in parliament, which explains why Harper used the word 'separatists' four times in a five-minute speech to Canadians last week, as in, "This is no time for backroom deals with the separatists". Funny how in his attempt to whip up fear in the west Stephen forgets that the tacit support of the Bloc has been necessary for the government to function for the last couple years; or worse his memory loss as to a similar plot hatched between the right and the bloc back in 2000. At a time when the Prime Minister and the governor general may have created a mechanism that future prime ministers will be able to use to bypass the legislature when it seems convenient, the Conservatives claim that the actions of the majority elected to parliament are "as close to treason and sedition as I can imagine". Mugabe's version, well, instead of villainizing the French and the elected majority, he prefers to blame all his country's problems on the west, "Countries such as the U.S. and Britain have taken it upon themselves to decide for us in the developing world, even to interfere in our domestic affairs and to bring about what they call regime change".
Next comes card stacking. Here the propagandist tries to make the best possible case for his argument and worst for the alternative by only using the facts that support his side. While most of the facts presented are true, the danger lies in the omissions. While Harper's Conservative party has used this technique to do a lot of damage, perhaps none is greater than that done to the environment, Mugabe has lead his nation to the brink of starvation and epidemic; it's almost cholera versus oil sands. Back in 1998, Canada became one of the first countries to sign the Kyoto Protocol, it was ratified a little more than four years later. However, the fprevious election of a minority Conservative government in 2006 brought Canada's participation into question as part of the right's platform was to abandon Kyoto and come up with a 'made in Canada' solution'. This was necessary to satisfy their western voting base in Alberta, the province sitting on the biggest environmental disaster in the world, the tar (oil) sands. The costs of Kyoto to the nation's economic output were played up, the costs the environment of the tar sands, played down. When they tabled their first budget, the Washington Post wrote "The government's environmental plan -- one paragraph in a budget document replacing 25 pages in the previous government's budget". Zimbabwe was once Africa's breadbasket, but through careful manipulation, Mugabe has reduced her to a food importer, and one who can't afford the costs. His campaign to get rid of the white farmers through land redistribution was presented as one which would bring benefits to the people, without mentioning the fact that efficient farmers were to be replaced by army and party loyalists with no idea how to work the land. The situation in Zimbabwe has been worsening daily, as inflation has reached unfathomable levels (1.6 sextillion percent) with no slow down in sight. To make matters worse, cholera has made a dramatic return. In Canada, Harper stacks the cards against any opposition (do look at this excellent page), in Zimbabwe they're stacked against his own people.
Bandwagon and plain folks propaganda techniques can be seen working together. As the names imply the bandwagon technique seeks to convince people to do as the rest are and ensure those on board stay, while plain folks tries to make the user look like an ordinary Joe, one of us. In an effort to ensure everyone stays on board during these troubled times, part of Harper's government's economic update a couple weeks ago included a pledge to eliminate federal civil employees right to strike over the next couple of years!!?! As to being an everyman, well, the New York Times recently described Stephen like this, "Mr. Harper is not charismatic and often appears irritated, particularly when he is challenged", sounds like the perfect conservative. Harper's tricks are a little more subtle than Mugabe's methods of forced loyalty (including killing, raping and general marauding of opponents), but he does let you know how to join his team, "Those who seek unity must not be our enemies. No, we say no to them, they must first repent…. They must first be together with us, speak the same language with us, act like us, walk alike and dream alike". Speaking of teams, Bob leaves little doubt as to which one he plays for and often attempts to sound like a man's man, for example when speaking of Tony Blair's government, "I have people who are married in my cabinet. He has homosexuals, and they make John marry Joseph and let Mary get married to Rosemary. We are saying they do not know biology because even dogs and pigs know biology."
Last but not least, the testimonial and transfer propaganda techniques are quite similar and often confused. While testimonials involve the classic celebrity or authority figure lending his or her endorsement to a product or cause, transfer is more about tying symbols to one's cause. Harper seemed to understand the power of symbols in the unity debate in Canada and deftly defused much of the tension by turning the nationalist symbols of Quebec Canadian. He neutralized Quebec's argument that Canada was trying to negate Quebec's distinct identity by endorsing a resolution that recognized it. He then used the occasion of the 400th anniversary of the Quebec City to celebrate the birth of Canada. As to testimonials, what better way to show who would support Stephen than the short list of leaders who have prorogued in the past:

Yes, Mr. Harper, you've become part of an elite group, congratulations. Robert Mugabe has some neat tricks too, particularly transferring negative feelings and images to his political opponents, in this case the rival MDC, "We cannot discuss with allies of the West. The devil is the devil and we have no idea of supping with the devil", or speaking about Desmond Tutu, "He is an angry, evil and embittered little bishop", or even the PM of Australia John Howard, "They tell me he is one of those genetically modified because of the criminal ancestry he derives from". While it may be hard to find Mugabe supporters, everyone's favourite invisible friend is on his side, "Only God who appointed me will remove me - not the MDC, not the British". In case that's not a strong enough testimony, there's always Adolf, "This Hitler has only one objective: justice for his people, sovereignty for his people, recognition of the independence of his people and their rights over their resources… If that is Hitler, then let me be a Hitler tenfold".
Reading some of the sites from Canada this morning, one would expect to see that public opinion had galvanized against a leader who has gone to such an extreme measure to hold onto power. Sadly, propaganda is a powerful tool, money talks and shit walks as they say, the opposition doesn't even have the resources to properly produce a video message (bumbling fools, truly funny stuff). Yet, one of the measures Harper tried to push through was the elimination of a subsidy to political parties, which would have disproportionately affected the opposition as the rich tend to support Harper's conservatives with their contributions. The idea of completely destroying the opposition was one step too far after eliminating much of the government's support for the arts, eroding women’s rights for equal pay for work of equal value, and on and on. While Harper may not yet seem on a par with Mugabe, keep in mind that there is a slippery slope that we're on here. Both men have chosen to ignore the voice of the majority of voters in order to hold onto power; as Mugabe said, "We are not going to give up our country because of a mere X" (on a ballot). Once upon a time Mugabe was viewed by the world as a hero, it's taken nearly 30 years for the world to realize the extent of his evil; let's hope Canadians don't give Harper that much time.