Month: April 2011

Election 2011: How Canada is Replicating America’s Hyper Partisan Politics


 NDP surge means more than a political shift – it completes the national polarization process

By: James Di Fiore

As far as Parliamentary systems go, Canada once had an international reputation of demonstrating fiscal prudence, strong social policies and a peacekeeping military. It wasn’t too long ago when our national identity was predicated on our ability to differentiate ourselves, respectfully of course, from our American cousins. Canadians, a patchwork of various political leanings, had a reputation of not letting ideology trump civil discourse, even while their politicians took cheap shots or when Question Period looked like Romper Room. Americans, by contrast, treat politics like a blood sport, a tug of war between polar opposites fueled by cable news, conspiracy and the tendency to vilify opposing views. And while the two countries are easily separated by this political distinction, that gap is shrinking ominously.

The 2011 election has been preempted by deliberate tactics of aspersions meant to reinforce political differences rather than spotlight honest disagreements. This reinforcement seems logical on the surface; after all, this is an election of partisan ideas and genuine dissimilarities between the parties. But the tactical trends indicate an increase in hyperbole, demonization and vitriol between regular people, not just the leaders they support. Evidence of this new mindset among voters can be seen on social networking sites, the opinion sections of news outlets and in pubs and coffee shops across the country. The two sides are drifting from the center, espousing far right and far left ideals while warning their fellow Canadians of the perils of political views opposite from their own.

By attacking Stephen Harper on military spending, corporate tax cuts and perceived government secrecy, the Liberals and NDP are inciting reactionary rhetoric from their loyalists rather than a frank discussion on policy differences. Rooted in these talking points may be reasonable concerns, but the conversation is routinely fertilized with fear mongering and allegations of conspiracy.

The far right, disciplined in their ability to robotically stay on message, firebomb the left with labels like ‘socialist’, ‘fiberal’ and ‘anti-Semite’. The latter smear is telegraphed and eerily reminiscent of Evangelical America, the slur being delivered arbitrarily and deliberate. The term socialism, as the Obama era has demonstrated, is now the political equivalent of calling a person a Brownshirt, stoking a reaction among those conservatives who still cynically dub Canada ‘Canuckistan.’

Identical to American politicos in tone and delivery, these two groups have become the loudest voices during this campaign. Television broadcasts may not espouse or endorse the same kind of language, but journalists and pundits quietly recognize the behind the scenes trend of tar and feathering political opponents. As the Conservative base digs in, the rise of the NDP marches on. Ideologies are continuing to drift farther apart. The rhetoric provides the kind of cover that helps avoid the effective discourse needed to reconcile opposing views. You might never hear Stephen Harper publicly utter the word Canuckistan, but you can hear his base cackle enthusiastically when the term is used. Jack Layton probably won’t point and yell ‘Fascist!’ if Harper wins a majority government, but many of his minions are already wearing t-shirts bearing the message.

The chances of further polarization among Canadians is high. Engagement in politics is rising, moods are shifting and party strategists are encouraging an ongoing spirit of anger among their respective loyalists. Torches and pitchforks have been replaced with internet trolling and reactionary, inflammatory language.

Disinformation. Relentless name-calling. A dangerous and tragic replication of American discourse is being born, and many Canadians are unwitting, tragic accomplices.

To The Tree – The Baseball Diaries

I was a hellion as a kid growing up, just ask my former baseball coach. That’s the word he used to describe me not too long ago, and I agree with him completely.

By: James Di Fiore

I used to have this fear of being seen as needlessly controversial. And it was for that exact reason I always felt like I had perfectly good excuses to open my mouth. Coach had a very big job: keep Jamie in line and properly discipline him if he isn’t. For me, Coach’s stamp of approval was equal to his clear disappointment whenever I would act out, mouth off or get tossed from a game. He had the same role as my father, acting as the catalyst for that stinging feeling in my stomach simply by tossing a look or saying my name in a certain way. Along with my father, who I haven’t spoken to in years, he was likely the second most influential male figure during my teenage years. I just didn’t know it til years later.

I do have a few memories that have nothing to do with arguing with umpires or making my teammates feel edgy. One day my team had a 1pm game against Peterborough, our fiercest league rivals. Peterborough had a hellion of their own, a precocious lad named Jimmy, and one of us was usually given a verbal warning from the umpire or a scolding from one of the coaches. I’ll be honest, I fed off games like this. I needed to win, sporting the on-field demeanor of baseball’s Claude Lemieux, meaning I had skills but also wanted to get inside the heads of the other players. Many times I would merely mouth off for the sake of it. The adrenaline would manifest itself through stolen bases, a thrown bat, a strong throw or a profanity-laced strikeout. It all came from the same place, but Peterborough games were in a class of their own. These games were ceremoniously circled on the schedule and the date that morning was no different. It was July 9th, 1987 – my eleventh birthday.

That morning I woke up to the smell of ham and eggs, a pre-game ritual on the weekend. I had an extra spring of excitement in my charge down the staircase. Childhoods are made with those kinds of mornings. I took my ball and glove to the kitchen, rested them on the table and started to eat. My mother walked by the table and without stopping snatched the glove and ball, handed them to me, and asked me nicely not to use the the kitchen table as my personal locker. Baseball umpires may have been fair game for back-talk, but it was years later before I tried to pull that with my mother. I smiled at her as she brushed her hand through my hair and answered the phone.

My mother took the phone into the other room as I cleaned my plate. It was only 10am and we weren’t scheduled to be at the diamond for another couple hours. I was always so anxious on game day. I would pace the hallway and toss the ball into my glove and imagine throwing a runner out from center field or hitting a ball to the gap for a double. Time would just crawl by it seemed.

And then, sometimes, time can stand perfectly still. My mother walked back into the family room and sat beside me. I could feel her trying to find the words.

“Jamie…that was your grandmother. Your grandfather just passed away.”

My grandfather was my favourite person. There are not enough words, really, except to say that my childhood changed that day. When your favourite person dies on your birthday it can mess with the mind. A few minutes later I saw my father cry for the first and only time. A couple hours later I quietly slipped into my baseball uniform. My mother asked me several times if I was sure I wanted to play that day. In my mind it was never up for discussion.

I arrived at the ballpark. My teammates and coaches were already made aware of my grandfather’s death when it was decided my birthday party would be canceled that night. My mother telephoned all of my friends to tell them ‘there was a sadness in the family’. I was sullen.

The baseball diamond was perfect. The grass was cut, the lines were chalked and the wind made the tall willow trees dance at Peel Park. I said nothing except for a few thank yous during warm up as every teammate expressed their condolences.

Coach wore his sympathy for me on his bearded face when we sat down by the tree for our pre-game pep talk. My coach would yell “To the tree boys!” and we would jog over. Any walking would result in that look only a baseball coach or father can give. The tree was significant too. It represented comradery, strategy and the end of waiting for the game to start. Coach, like my mother, asked me several times if I was sure I wanted to play. I remember sitting with the team by the tree, looking at him and thinking about my father and what I had seen that morning. He probably didn’t know it at the time, but I had transferred my tendency to feel proud or ashamed based on his reactions to my behaviour, and that day I just wanted to make both of them proud. At the end of the pep talk he said “Ok boys, today let’s go out there and win this one for Jamie.” It was exactly what I needed. I was the last to leave the area near the tree, trying to steal a moment I think. I still have that moment, so I guess in a way it worked. I was eleven, wasn’t sure about god or what the right thing to feel was, but I looked up at the sky and imagined my grandfather watching me play baseball.

Memories are funny. At first it is photographic, then it becomes nuanced and filtered through the person you have become. I remember being choked up but have no memory if any tears left my eyes. And for once I wasn’t acting like a hellion on the diamond. I was humbled, went 2 for 3 with 2 doubles and threw a guy out trying to stretch a double into a triple. I sat the final inning.

I’m 37 years old. It’s been 26 years since my grandfather died, since I saw my father cry and when I first realized the importance of outside role models and teachers. I didn’t always show it, but that sting in my stomach never went away when I played for Coach. My attitude got worse, he stayed the same and it would be years until I would fully realize his role in my inner development. Sometimes I wish I had understood the importance of learning lessons as an eleven year old, but only a few get to hear the echoes of those lessons decades later. Fewer actually listen. I can still hear that afternoon quite well. Sitting with me beside that tree are my father, my grandfather and my baseball coach. Call it an omni present pre-game pep talk.

To the tree, boys. 

Debate Performance Measured on Harper’s Ability to Evade

Prime Minister’s media training leaves Canadians in the dark

By: James Di Fiore

Back in November I had the opportunity to attend the Christopher Hitchens/Tony Blair debate at Roy Thompson Hall. Hitchens, one of the world’s leading intellectuals, was masterful at creating context and tackling questions directly. Blair was no slouch either, braving a pro-Hitchens audience and delivering rebuttals succinctly and with specific examples to back up his thoughts.

By comparison, Tuesday’s federal leaders debate in Canada felt more like a public relations role playing exercise than an exchange of ideas, policy and leadership ability. Prime Minister Stephen Harper fended off relentless attacks by his three rivals, calmly staying on message and delivering his responses through a very relaxed tone. His inviting cadence aside, Harper was missing a key component from his responses; actual answers to the questions posed to him.

While Blair and Hitchens weren’t running for public office when they exchanged words and ideas (the topic that night was religion’s place in the modern world), their example is clear – debate victories are measured by one’s ability to sway an audience through compelling dialogue. In Canada, debate victories are being measured by one’s ability to spin, deflect and avoid answering questions. The Canadian media and Canadians themselves seem apathetic towards political non-answers, all but accepting this watered down version and waiting for poll numbers to tell them what people are really thinking. But for those of us with extensive media training or experience in public relations, last night’s debate was a buffet of transitionary phrases, rehearsed body language and masterful spinning. These tactics, while effective with the press, are not among the qualities of an honest debate. Harper played Canadians for children, relying on a collective lack of sophistication in regards to language, issues and the ability to spot obvious spin. The sad part is he may be right. The tragic part is it shouldn’t matter. Harper should show leadership qualities, not political savvy. He should be expected to prove to Canadians that he is not just a typical politician and rise above the media training and trickery, not to mention outright lies.

This notion, that debates are won by playing cat and mouse with answers, was echoed by former Harper colleague, Gerry Nicholls.

Politicians never or rarely answer questions directly,” Nicholls mused on his Facebook page. “I graded Harper based on how well the political game is played. In politics, a key skill is staying on message. He did that quite well.”

In other words, Harper did a good job at not being direct with Canadians. This cynical way of deciphering Canadian politics serves an elite political class who have been conditioned to believe there is an accepted amount deception one can get away with. Canadians, who are among the world’s most apathetic citizens to begin with, should take Nicholls words with a grain of salt. Not surprisingly however, it is only apathy that allows this ‘political game’ to even exist in the first place, meaning voter turnout and a competent media (sic) can realistically disarm politicians from using dishonest tactics when speaking directly to Canadians.

Public relations used to be about being concise with the public. Today, public relations has become an industry in politics for those who wish to cling to power and nurture their self interests. The worst part may be the general acceptance of this dishonest practice by those who have been inside the political game for decades. Like aging athletes, it may be time to tell the old guard to step aside. If that happens, the only casualty will be apathy itself.

Elizabeth May Too Politically Green to be Leader

Exclusion from debates a self fulfilling prophecy for Greens

By: James Di Fiore

Imagine if Elizabeth May were a far right leader who espoused ideas like eliminating the corporate tax altogether, privatizing daycare centers and making abortion illegal. Imagine she had the support of nearly 1 million voters in the last election but still did not hold a seat in Parliament.

Now, if you can, try to imagine all of her current boosters rallying to allow her air time during the televised, federal debates. Can’t do it, can you? Don’t feel bad, most of May’s supporters are left leaning, which is fine on the surface, but scratch away and you’ll find a facet of the electorate as important as voter apathy; complete and utter hypocrisy born from an ideological bent dressed up as a fight for democracy.

This new cause celebre is the latest example of Canada’s continuous erosion of political consistency, spotlighting a hyper partisan yet fractured electorate in the run up to the fourth election the nation has seen in the past 7 years. Say this to May’s boosters and you will be met with the disingenuous claim that they would fight the good fight even if Ann Coulter were the shafted leader of a seatless party. ‘We want proportional representation,’ they claim, and have no qualms over pretending the system is already changed before actually trying to change it. In other words, they insist on circumnavigating the process while simultaneously stating the process is unfair. How’s that for double speak?

This is an issue of process, not fairness. Proportional representation is a fight worth having, but allowing May to debate before winning that fight would be an act of collective civil disobedience rather than an exercise in democratic fairness. Indeed, this fight begins and ends with Elections Canada, an organization ripe for criticism by all federal parties, especially the current government who believe Elections Canada are out to get them. But the Greens, who sat on their hands since the 2008 election when they should have been trying to work cooperatively with the other federal parties to evolve our Canadian system, now expect to be given special treatment as they describe their exclusion as “arbitrary” and an “outrage”. Outrageous is an apt description for May’s claim that Canadians will be deprived of real democracy, implying that the debates are the best way for Canadians to make an educated choice in the election. Assuming this is true, it speaks volumes of May’s leadership when one considers her inclusion last time around garnered exactly zero seats in Parliament. And while a million voters are nothing to sneeze at, the actual number could be much lower if some Green supporters are now tired of a disorganized party with fractured support and no official voice in Ottawa. If May had been active in the pursuit of proportional representation she would be coming off more credible. As it stands, her old antics of flailing her political limbs and screaming ‘democracy now!’ is getting old…and obvious.

But hey, let’s not let something as arbitrary as ‘the system’ get in the way of a good publicity stunt. If support for the Greens decreases this time around then May’s days as leader will be numbered, and whoever replaces her will have to decide what’s more important: a chance to participate in televised debates, or spending the next few years championing the very system they need to justify their participation. Choose the latter and they will not only increase their political capital for the next election, but possibly save their party in the process.

Who Shot Ya?

A one on one interview with legendary hip hop chronicler, Ernie Paniccioli

By: James Di Fiore
















He may not be a household name, but Ernie Paniccioli may be the most prolific figure in hip hop history. In a scene wrought with complexities, simplicities and an ongoing battle of Real Vs Fake, there are very few true ambassadors who have been there since the genesis of hip hop. There are even fewer who are essentially front-proof, meaning they have been able to remain relevant despite both the pitfalls and advancements within the schizophrenic hubris of hip hop lifestyles. Old School vs New School – Playa vs Hater, Gangsta vs Emo…and the list goes on. But Ernie is beyond those superficial battles and has earned his spot as the night watchman of hip hop, capturing the history and the nuances through the lens of his camera.

Before we met in person, Ernie and I actually got into a heated exchange online regarding race and religion. I will spare you the details except to say that when the dust settled we were able to put those differences aside and come together through mutual respect and a common held passion – hip hop culture. Below is the result of what happens when two men from completely different walks of life recognize the importance of communication.  If you are a hip hop historian of sorts you will be both impressed and envious at Ernie’s life experience, and if you are a youngster still sifting through the crates please take heed and pay close attention…you just might learn something.