The Big Chill

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So even Jean Chrétien has joined the dissenters to raise questions about the sources of terror. True, he got some finger-wagging from Stephen Harper and others, but that’s the cost of challenging received opinion in this society — even if you’re prime minister.

Hell, it’s one of the perks. You’d have to say it shows debate here has been fairly healthy on the subject. You couldn’t say the same for the U.S., where Bill Maher opened his mouth to say the September 11 bombers were not cowards and lost his TV show. We’ve done reasonably well discussing September 11 and its upshots.

That was the conclusion of a panel I sat on last weekend in Ottawa about Dissent in a Time of Crisis. I was pinioned between Jonathan Kay, editorialist for the National Post, who happens to be the son of a high school friend of mine, and Alan Borovoy, of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, who once was my camp counsellor.

It felt weird, and not just because we generally agreed. Our problem hasn’t been suppression of the debate about terror and September 11, it’s been suppression of many other debates and usurpation of their space by that one. It’s a chill of a different sort: blockage by perpetual diversion.

Like what? Well, does anyone remember globalization? That debate had finally clambered into mainstream discourse, after years of kicking around sit-ins, teach-ins and the Internet. Then came Seattle, Washington, Quebec City, Prague.

It had become the main international issue and, in the cumbersome way such things happen, problems were getting clarified and people were gradually taking sides. Now it’s slid back down the scale as terror became the main preoccupation in discussion of world affairs.

Take another story, here in Ontario: the crisis in public schools and the takeover, at the start of the school year, by provincial appointees, of boards that refused to harm kids in order to meet their budget limits.

Education always cuts deeply with citizens; this situation is very tangled and people seem to be earnestly searching for clarity. It’s even something that intersects with globalization via the claim that we need to lower taxes and privatize services in order to be globally competitive, etc.

A week ago came news that the three appointed supervisors will be paid more than $500,000 between them — for cutting special-ed programs, music classes, making schools share principals etc.; a detail like that has the ability to unfuzz a whole complex mess and create an Aha! moment that helps people see what’s going on and how they feel about it.

In a less terror-obsessed media environment, I imagine it would have run on Page 1, giving readers the cue to have a strong reaction. Instead, it ran inside.

This is what I mean by the suppression of debate via perpetual diversion. The “war” on terror is a perfect vehicle for such diversion, because, as Susan Sontag has said, it is only a war metaphorically. It will never end, the way every real war does, any more than the “wars” on poverty or cancer will. There’s always somewhere else for it to go.

Take the current “Iraq” phase of the “war”. No one knows what Washington’s true motive is. Some say ideological; some say military; others say economic. The U.S. line keeps shifting and is only tied to terror tenuously. They don’t even try very hard to show a connection.

The point is to keep the ball rolling; if the Iraq gambit fails, they can move to other faces of the “war”: Iran, Syria, who knows? What shows how useful and flexible terror is as a diversion is that the arrest of six guys from a sorry suburb of Buffalo gets about the same play and gravity as bombing Iraq.

You can fill in the blanks with almost anything in this game — even go back to Afghanistan, especially if it’s been abandoned before any new political order was ensconced. Meanwhile, matters that loomed large, like Enron, corporate malfeasance and all the questions they raised, don’t vanish, but they fade to the margins of debate.

It hardly matters whether this is the conscious intent of those with power. It functions to keep other issues off the public mind, or way down the list. The result is what counts. That’s why you can say there is a system at work politically, which serves those with power, apart from particular individual efforts.

Even when “they” don’t manage to suppress dissent, dissent still gets suppressed, in a way that’s useful to them. At the end of our panel on dissent in a crisis, Jonathan Kay joshed that things were fine because “Rick here” was still dissenting and hadn’t been sent to a gulag yet.

It is an oddity of Canadian public life that those who question American influence over Canada stand in danger of being accused of disloyalty while those who argue for everything American rest comfortably with no fear of being shipped to the gulag, nor would I wish it.

Still, the ironies are widely understood. The audience at our panel had a good laugh. The nature of real power in this society hovers like a subtle backdrop behind all of us: you, me, the Prime Minister . . .

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