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The Death of Discourse

The Death of Discourse

In 2000, John McCain ran against George W. Bush in the Republican primaries. A correspondent with Rolling Stone magazine tagged along on the McCain2000 trail. We know that McCain lost to Bush, but the article that would eventually hit the pages of Rolling Stone offered some insight as to the loss of political dignity that has sapped the electorate of any motivation to take an interest in what any politician has to say: ‘It’s painful to believe that the would-be “public servants” you’re forced to choose between are all phonies whose only real concern is their own care and feeding and who will lie so outrageously and with such a straight face that you know they’ve just got to believe you’re an idiot”. The Rolling Stonecorespondent just so happened to be David Foster Wallace, one of the greatest literary minds of the past half-century. I wonder, if DFW thought things were bad then, what would he make of our political situation today?

On October 2nd, Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi walked into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul – he didn’t walk out. For two weeks, The Kingdom denied any knowledge of Mr. Khashoggi’s fate. Then on October 20th the Saudis’ released a statement that the journalist had been involved in a fist fight at the consulate and had died as a result. To go back to David Foster Wallace, they lied so ‘outrageously and with such a straight face that you know they’ve just got to believe you’re an idiot’.

In The Sound’s September issue, I wrote about Canada’s hypocrisy calling for human rights on one hand, while allowing a lucrative Saudi arms deal on the other. Now it seems America’s turn to find some creative double-speak to justify support for the Crown Prince and his regime – and trust me, they’re trying. The U.S is loath to put billions of dollars in military contracts on hold for something as trivial as murder. To-date, Angela Merkel of Germany has been (as usual) the only head of state to go further than hollow condemnation, and take action that sends a clear signal to The Kingdom that such behaviour will not be tolerated. In the meantime, Khashoggi’s murder is being transformed into some kind of political theatre of the absurd – complete with body doubles and forced handshakes with Khashoggi’s own children.

The whole rank stench of today’s politics is making me misty-eyed for the good ol’ days when politicians use to put a bit of effort into lying. Regan had ‘plausible deniability’. George W. even went so far as to prepare a big elaborate slideshow to convince everybody that Saddam really did have WMDs (weapons of mass destruction). Even if deep-down we knew they were lying, they at least gave us an out. Some kind of material to justify us giving them the benefit of the doubt. That’s no longer the case. Russian tanks roll into Ukraine and Putin can stand in Moscow looking perplexed and saying, ‘invasion? What invasion?” Trump did a ‘great job’ after Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico and in Canada, don’t worry, building a pipe line and increasing oil sands production – so not going to impact our climate goals. It seems politicians really do believe we’re idiots. So much so that breaking a sweat to cover-up state sponsored terrorism or political assassination no longer seems necessary.

You would think that technological developments like the internet and mass communication would have made us smarter, not dumber. Yet here we are, so many of us slopping up the gruel being dished out and like little Oliver Twist’s asking for more…Sir. So what happened to our basic political dignity? That line politicians knew not to cross, or a least if they were going to cross it, knew enough to try and cover their tracks.

A few months back I received some fan mail, and by ‘fan mail’ I mean hate mail. It was concerning a piece I had written slamming Trump and Ontario’s newly elected premier Doug Ford. The writer was obviously toward the far right end of the political spectrum, and to me at least, seems to represent a way of thinking that has become endemic in today’s political discourse. The author of this particular piece of mail suggested that I move to Yemen, or ‘swedestan’ (whatever the fuck that is) if I can’t abide by what they termed the, ‘Moral Majority’. Essentially, stupidity and it’s advocates have come up with a clever feedback loop that replaces fact with bias, and promotes what the public is interested in, as opposed to what is in the public interest. It’s nothing new, and was used in this particular attack on me. Seeing as I seem to be on a David Foster Wallace kick, I’ll turn to another piece of his writing that makes the point.

In 2004, DFW penned the essay Host. The piece examines the business of outrage politics in political discourse. At the time he wrote it, social media was but a twinkle in the eye of society. Since publication, Twitter, Facebook and the blogosphere have increased the volume of hate’s eco-chamber. Wallace identified what my troll dubbed the ‘moral majority’ as ‘moral clarity’. DFW makes the point that, “extreme conservatism provides a fairly near, clear and unequivocal template with which to organize one’s opinions and responses to the world.” Without the constraints of journalistic integrity or facts, far-right hosts present their opinions as revealed truth. It’s easier to elicit outrage than it is reason, so what sounds good becomes what sounds right.

This way of thinking is how my troll (and other far-right knobs) are able to reduce sex education to tolerance for child molestation. Due process and rule of law (two principals upon which our society is based) become acceptance of jihadist terrorism and so on and so forth ad nauseam. It’s far simpler to say, ‘ban refugees!’ than it is to explain our international obligations or how providing due process to refugees is representative of our most basic civic values. Finally, this kind of political environment makes it easier for politicians to straight-face lie – it’s not like anyone is paying attention to the details. Those who are, can be drowned out as ‘fake news’.
In his last article, Jamal Khashoggi called for more freedom of the press throughout the Arab world. The heart-wrenching reality of today’s political discourse, where fact can be spun as fiction, begs the question: even if there was greater press freedom, would it even matter? It’s not surprising that Khashoggi was targeted, or that the Crown Prince would believe he could get away with it. Donald Trump has for some time been stoking the fires of fake news. Telling Americans, and by extension the world, that the press is the enemy of the people. Should we be surprised that the world’s most recent political assassination was that of a journalist?

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