Monday, May 25, 2009

Apologism, Defined

Lorne Gunter offers excuses for Conservative attack ads

In Canada's media environment the National Post is treated as Canada's predominant conservative newspaper.

If often receives a bum-rap for being exclusively conservative or reactionary -- often willfully overlooking the contributions made to the paper's Full Comment blog by individuals such as David Akin, Stephen LeDrew and, in the past, Warren Kinsella. Even mainstays such as David Frum aren't nearly as reactionary and dogmatic as the Post's detractors would have people believe.

There's little question that the National Post does, indeed, lean right. Sometimes it even makes good on its reputation. Such is the case today when, on the Full Comment blog, Lorne Gunter has seemingly settled for making excuses about the Conservative party's recent batch of anti-Michael Ignatieff attack ads.

Gunter does this by recounting the Liberal party's own litany of offences against political civility in Canada, and their historical tendency to wrap themselves in the flag while denigrating the patriotism of their political opponents:
"Not a fan of government monopoly health care? You're un-Canadian. Not big on easy unemployment benefits, official bilingualism, dismantling our military, beggaring our economy in the name of environmentalism, coddling criminals, huge public debts, activist judges, multiculturalism, foreign investment reviews, national energy policies and so on? Shame on you for being so un-Canadian."
There's little question that the Liberal party has indulged itself in these kinds of tactics often in Canadian history.

One recalls that the Liberals opened the 2005/06 federal election campaign by questioning Stephen Harper's alleged unwillingness to gush over his love of this country -- although his tendency to close his speeches with "god bless Canada" speaks well enough of his love for his country.

But Gunter is making the error of insisting that the Liberals' past misconducts excuse the ads the Tories have deployed against Michael Ignatieff:
"Now the Tories are using the Liberals' own tactic against them and the Grits are sputtering with indignation.

The clear implication of the Tories' current attack ads -- the ones pointing out that Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff lived outside the country for 34 years and during that time frequently scoffed at this country'simportance-- is that Mr. Ignatieff does not care enough about this country to be entrusted with leading it.

The big problem for the Liberals is that the Tory ads, while exaggerated, are largely true: Mr. Ignatieff left the country, more or less permanently, in the 1970s, lived away most of his adult life and showed no intention of returning until he was seduced back by the idea of becoming Liberal leader in 2005.
Of course, the problem with this particular assertion is that the Liberal party was not yet in search of a new leader in 2005. Paul Martin expected not only to win the federal election early in 2006, but had previously expected to win the largest majority government in Canadian history.

Few Canadians actively expected the Harper Conservatives to defeat the Martin Liberals in the 2005/06 campaign. One has to remember that, adscam and all, they very nearly didn't.
"While he was away, Canada seems barely to have crossed his mind. For instance, in The New York Times, where he wrote opinion pieces for a time, he referred to 'we' Americans.

As recently as 2004 -- just a year before his opportunistic return-- Mr. Ignatieff said on C-SPAN, the congressional cable channel, 'Look, this is America and you have to decide what kind of country you want. This is your country as much as it is mine.'

During the 2006 election, when he was first seeking a seat in Parliament, he told The Harvard Crimson newspaper that if he lost he would move back to Massachusetts. If Canadian voters did not embrace him, he apparently had no intention of making his home here or working for the betterment of the country.
All of this may well be true. Michael Ignatieff may well have made career plans contingent on a possible electoral defeat. Any wise political candidate does.

Michael Ignatieff may well have spent the surplus of his adult life outside of Canada, and some of Ignatieff's comments could certainly be spun to suggest that he cares little for this country.

Certainly, the Liberals have rarely declined to spin any comments made by their political opponents into something more damaging to the public perception of their patriotism -- many Liberals continue to milk Stephen Harper's 1997 speech to the Council for National Policy, even though the full text of that speech demonstrates those comments to be far less than malignant.

They've even gleefully played the George Bush card when desperation left them with little else to work with:
"The Liberals like to say, still, that Tory Prime Minister Stephen Harper is George Bush's biggest fan. Yet, while he was head of a human rights institute at Harvard University, Mr Ignatieff was a bigger defender of Mr Bush's war on terror than anyone else currently in Canadian politics."
All of this may well be true, and those with a taste for politics as a political bloodsport may all for the wild ruminations made in the Tories' anti-Ignatieff ads.

But the looming question is: does past Liberal misconduct truly excuse these ads?

Gunter offers his answer thusly:
"Now here's where the Liberals are their most hypocritical about the Tories' ads: Imagine their reaction if it were Mr Harper who had spent 34 years outside the country, moved back only to take a shot at being PM, said the only thing he missed while away was a provincial park and referred to himself as an American many times.

Other Liberals were saying the same things the Tories are of Mr Ignatieff just two-and-a-half years ago. While running against him for the Liberal leadership, Joe Volpe said no one who had been away for more than three decades could be an expert about his party or this country. Bob Rae complained 'there are things about a country that you don't learn from a book,' that can only be learned by being here and being at the centre of tough constitutional or economic debates. In other words, someone should only seek to lead this country if he has 'Canada in his bones.'

Now the Liberals are purple with rage at the Tories for saying pretty much the same things.
Certainly, the Liberals wouldn't hesitate to infer such things about Harper, or any other conservative leader who had done such things.

While some of Canada's most rabid partisan demagogues will offer no end of excuses for these transgressions, every Canadian who has paid so much as a modicum of attention to Canadian politics knows this.

Even the Liberals' own deployment of such such arguments against Ignatieff doesn't excuse the Conservatives' stooping to this level, as Gunter seems to infer:
"Again, I ask, imagine the Liberals' indignation and self-righteousness if it were a Tory leader who had spent very little time here in nearly four decades, who had (as Mr Ignatieff did) once told a British paper our flag reminded him of 'a beer label' and who, most significantly, had referred to himself as an American on several occasions.

In the 2006 election, Mr Harper proposed a rebuilding of our military. For that 'American' idea, the Liberals accused him of plotting to militarize our cities. They ran ads saying that were the Tories to be elected there would be 'soldiers, with guns. In our cities. In Canada.'

They claimed they were not making this up, but clearly they were. If they could spin wild conspiracies about military coups from a simple promise to rearm our military, it's not hard to speculate what they would make up to smear a Tory politician with the same CV as Mr Ignatieff.

Their ads would make the Tories' spots look like public service announcements for the Christian Children's Fund.
The point that seems to be lost on Lorne Gunter is that, if the Liberals' past conduct was truly so disgusting -- and there is no doubt that it absolutely was -- then we must expect our other political parties (and especially our alternative government) to be better.

The recent batch of Conservative campaign ads have demonstrated decisively to Canadians that they are not. Whatever other reasons Canadians have to support the Conservatives -- a stronger foreign policy, superior fiscal priorities and an all-around better nose for the current needs of the country -- moral superiority in political campaigning is no longer one of them.

Lorne Gunter's apologetics do nothing to change that.


  1. Patrick,

    Good post. Does this mean you'll be burning your Tory membership card soon? :)

  2. Nope. I don't have a Tory membership card, and even if I did, I'd feel secure in criticizing the party from within. Sometimes a person has to.

  3. What's good for the goose is good for the gander. Sure, it'd be nice for the Conservatives to turn the other cheek. I get the impression that they don't want to, and they are purposely playing on the same level as the Liberals.

    Think of the strategy: Everyone is comparing the current Conservative ads to the past Liberal ones. It's a great way to prove that the Liberals aren't above slinging mud either.

    And with the apathy that's out there in Canada, the Conservatives may just win the next election because of that strategy.

  4. That's one way to think about it, one supposes, but fewer people are going to think about Liberal ads slinging mud when the Conservative ads are doing it right in front of them.

  5. Just to add an additional thought, what's good for the goose may be good for the gander, but that doesn't make it right.


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