Once again Canadian democracy is in crisis, as our government has prorogued parliament to avoid a scandal concerning the torture of detainees in Afghanistan. Public opposition has found a home on social media like Facebook and Twitter, which pose a challenge and opportunity for creative leaders to emerge and possibly even rescue our democracy from death’s door.
The nature of a minority government like ours is that no single party controls the lower house of parliament, and as a result gory details about the use of torture in Afghanistan were about to be revealed due to the diligent work of the opposition parties. In proroguing Parliament, Prime Minister Stephen Harper is able to prevent (or more likely just delay) the public from learning more and thus ensure the survival of his government for at least another two months.
A crisis like this presents an opportunity to expand the democratic process and include more people in politics as a whole. However, it’s hard not to snicker at the fact that joining a Facebook group to show opposition to something has become the ultimate cliche. While such a group does raise awareness and cross over into mainstream media with front page headlines, I am not alone in wondering whether it actually accomplishes anything.
Even worse, why is the alternative to this kind of virtual action doing absolutely nothing? It’s as if it has already become such strong orthodoxy that if you don’t join, or even worse complain, you’re regarded as a nay-sayer and are also responsible for providing alternatives.
The justification for this staid strategy is that it helps to raise awareness and provides an outlet for new initiates to the political process. However I don’t believe that awareness alone makes a difference, but rather it is the larger process of mobilizing to action, and evading marginalization.
The response to this would be to point out the rallies that are being organized as an extension of the growing Facebook group. Yet I’m also not convinced that rallies, at least configured as they have been, accomplish anything greater than a Facebook group would.
While both give fodder and statistics for the news media to report on, they also allow for the compartmentalization of this story as being all about protest, rather than the larger issues. By allowing themselves to be framed as protesters, rally participants play right into the governments strategy of marginalizing and ignoring their critics.
Instead we need to move away from raising awareness to embracing a diversity of tactics that include all sorts of creative and autonomous actions.
These can include multimedia and propaganda that still seek to raise awareness, in addition to rallies and theatre that bring politics into public space. However they could also include new types of approaches that move away from protest and instead focus on relevance.
In embracing relevance you can find ways to connect Canadians around common issues and concerns, focusing on how prorogation damages our ability to govern ourselves and maintain a stable society. Relevance also acknowledges the attention deficit culture we live in, and that people may not have time or interest for that which you see as being important. So instead relevance can be achieved via multiplicity that sees many voices and approaches to social change.
Comedy for example is such a powerful social force that we all admire, yet few of us embrace as a political tool. While protest is easily framed and marginalized, comedy transcends cultural differences and unites people around the pleasure of laughter. Further, political comedy is often untouchable, and the type of dissent or criticism that governments have the greatest difficulty repressing.
This is particular demonstrated by Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show which regularly holds power accountable, more so perhaps than any other mainstream American media. Millions of Americans (and Canadians) cite Stewart as their primary source for political news and commentary. In fact he’s so effective, that politicians and government officials gladly go on his show to be grilled and derided in hopes of gaining favour and legitimacy with an ever fickle and hostile public.
Contrast this with our primary political satirist, Rick Mercer, and you can see why the Harper government is able to be as arrogant and aloof as it has. Rather than really go after the political establishment, Mercer seems more interested in kissing their ass.
Sure in the safe confines of Toronto’s graffiti graced alleys he will rant about this and that, but when it comes to wielding genuine comedic power, Rick Mercer is not willing to do the job. The government has nothing to fear from him or his former colleagues at 22 minutes who while giving it their best shot, are typically Canadian when it comes to their insecurity and careerism. (Of course they have the freedom to live their own lives as they wish, yet their position and privilege should come with the responsibility to do more than they currently do).
Instead the task of saving our bullied and neglected democracy comes to a group many refer to as the “Creative Class,” which I tend to see as embodying the creative potential in all of us.
For the problem our fading democracy faces is not only one of apathy, but also fantasy. The electorate and democratic system as a whole suffers from a severe case of dementia in that the political discourse is entirely disconnected from reality.
The Conservative Party of Canada takes advantage of this by campaigning and winning elections on illusion and deception. Their opposition scratches their head and wonders why this works, as they continue the valiant effort of respecting the intelligence and common sense of voters.
The problem of course is that enough voters have joined the government in deciding that fantasy is much more appealing than reality. The Liberals are still in denial that they are no longer the natural governing party, and the NDP try to keep it real which is equally absurd in such a surrealist situation. At least the Bloc Quebecois deserve credit for basing their entire identity around the dream (their fantasy) of a sovereign and independent Quebec.
The challenge therefore is to simultaneously be real and fantastic. Embrace the surrealism of our times while also returning honesty and transparency to government. Reach out to an alienated public and give them a reason to not only be aware but contribute their own spontaneous creativity.
The key is to avoid the media’s perpetual attempt to frame these political actions as protest, and instead transcend all boundaries until the power to set the agenda is achieved. At that point you are no longer protesting, but much closer to governing.
For example the Canadian government is about to introduce full body image scanners at major airports across the country, in spite of findings that they are not as effective as claimed, and would not have detected the explosives used in the recent failed terrorist attack. This is a great example of how prorogation has damaged our society’s ability to understand and regulate new technology, transcending simple protest to connect to issues that are currently impacting Canadians vacationing this winter.
Yet this is just one issue, one example, the challenge is to connect the potential of democracy to all issues, throughout the news cycle and our society’s fleeting attention span.
It is crucial to avoid that protest ghetto, and any ghetto your political opponents try and place you in. Instead find the issues and opportunities that allow for movement into new political spaces in which democratic agitating would not only shed light, but also open them up to further participation.
If you’ve finally realized that preaching to the choir may not get you what you want, then the harder task becomes finding who to speak to and why they might listen. Even better, include the choir and unusual suspects in your song and you never know how infectious it may become.
This is why I see culture, and explicitly comedy as such a powerful means of accomplishing social change. People often have no time for protests, but will make time for a funny web video. Plus you don’t need a Facebook group to promote your events or get people to watch and share the media you produce. Focus on the substance and the rest will follow. While the internet is indeed leveling the playing field, I can’t help but wonder why we keep standing around instead of moving the game up-field.
This is why the goal should never be awareness alone, but rather something larger, more substantial, and more meaningful to the massive task we have before us. This blog post was partly a response to some discussion I was having on Twitter, and in particular inspired by Shawn Micallef’s suggestion that what we really need is an anthem. I could not agree more, other than to suggest we need many. From all sorts of voices saying all sorts of things, that together unite into a single message, that we are the people, we will not go away, and we demand a government by the people for the people.
Jesse Hirsh is an internet strategist, researcher and broadcaster based in Toronto, Canada. He blogs at JesseHirsh.ca.