One of the most acrimonious and unproductive political seasons in recent memory breaks for summer this week with calls from an influential Conservative for more “raw debate” and an end to stifling political correctness.
Kory Teneycke is former media chief for Stephen Harper. He is now vice-president of a fledgling all-news television network, Sun TV News, and is ready to take his talent for stinging invective to a larger stage — and, his critics fear, to accelerate the trivialization of our politics.
But in Teneycke’s view, existing political commentary — particularly on CBC, but CTV doesn’t escape his lash — is boring, polite, and so coloured by liberal bias it doesn’t even recognize its own prejudices. His remedy is a new channel, resolutely patriotic and culturally conservative, that will deal straight news by day and uncensored, lively opinion by night. (I should confess to contributing frequently over the years to what Teneycke calls the “play-fighting” on various CBC political panels; I’m usually wearing the pink shorts.)
His proposal is tantalizing given how careful, circumscribed and coded political discourse has become. So many urgent issues — from how to deal with deficits, to what to do next in Afghanistan, to how to fight climate change — are never dealt with head-on, for fear of upsetting some province or other, some segment of the population, some outdated orthodoxy. Instead, an inordinate amount of attention is devoted to busty hookers, $57,000 fake lakes and embarrassing, off-mic blunders.
But if, by “lively,” Teneycke means personally insulting, then the new channel will simply amplify the dispiriting and, ultimately, uninteresting politics of rancour that is already daily fare on the Hill.
It is not reassuring that Teneycke himself, like his old boss, goes for the jugular when challenged. When CBC’s Don Newman, respected for his encyclopedic knowledge of issues and his brook-no-nonsense interviewing style, publicly deplored the potential arrival of “Fox News North,” Teneycke flippantly dismissed him as “Canada’s Helen Thomas.”
This was beyond raw, given that Thomas, an 89-year-old White House press corps institution was forced to resign after suggesting that Jews leave Israel and go back to Europe. To compare that sinister sentiment with Newman’s disapproval of a certain broadcast style isn’t offering an alternate world view; it is just abuse, and ageist at that.
Outspoken Senator Nancy Ruth has also felt Teneycke’s contempt — he suggested that if she is Conservative, the term has lost its meaning — as have the hapless Helena Guergis and Rahim Jaffer, whom he dismissed as reality TV lowlife. (Indeed, non-complying Conservatives may have as much to fear from Sun TV as liberals.) And Ezra Levant, one of the proposed channel’s possible hosts, is vividly opinionated, but can hardly resist the casual slur, repeatedly referring to Liberal MP Irwin Cotler as a “porch Jew,” for example.
That said, Teneycke is right that political correctness is inhibiting real debate — but it is no longer the smug assumptions and unexamined naïveté of the liberal-left that is to blame. The new political correctness is aggressively enforced by the right, through ridicule, glib ad campaigns or orchestrated smears in the form of “member’s statements” just before question period begins.
And it works; it has often intimidated the opposition into strategic silence. Anyone who questions the treatment of Afghan detainees loves the Taliban. Anyone who doubts the effectiveness of the mission hates the troops. Anyone who challenges the government’s tough-on-crime agenda is an apologist for Karla Homolka. Anyone who champions a carbon tax (or any tax) despises Alberta. Anyone who even toys with the idea of a coalition is a separatist-loving socialist. And, anyone who criticizes the Israeli government is an anti-Israel extremist, which is code for anti-Semitic.
NDP house leader Libby Davies risks carrying that label the rest of her career because of highly critical remarks she has made about Israel — endorsing a boycott campaign and suggesting Israel has been “occupying” Palestinian territory since the Jewish state was founded. Bob Rae called the remarks “breathtaking” in their “hostility and ignorance.” Prime Minister Harper said she could be echoing the sentiments of Hamas or Hezbollah. Even her own caucus-mate, Thomas Mulcair, called the comments “egregious.”
Despite her official apology and re-affirmation of Israel’s right to exist, we may never know what Davies really thinks (although there’s been no indication that she harbours anti-Semitic views over a long career of anti-poverty activism.) But the fierce reaction to her remarks, deserved or not, will not encourage openness.
What our political life needs, more than shouting matches and name-calling, is probing, fresh ideas on emerging issues — and more original reporting. But reporting costs money; talk is cheap.