Canada

Online Extremism: Starring YOU

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BY: JAMES Di FIORE

The latest terrorist attack in Paris was different from previous terrorism related crimes perpetrated by Muslim extremists. There was a decidedly different feel to the crime itself, the reaction by the media, the posturing by western governments and, possibly the most transformative reaction, that of the public, especially in the online world.

In our quest to pair our personalities with technology via social networking profiles and smart phones, we have created a polarization unmatched by any real world interactivity. In the recent past, left and right wing ideologues were easy to spot. They were loud, brash, hateful, judgmental human beings. They targeted each other with dogmatic self-assuredness, recycling their own statistics, their own talking points and their scripted rebuttals to the counterarguments of their ideological opposites. They hogged the newsfeeds, the hash tags and the mainstream media coverage by following one easy to remember method: be loud. To the non-ideological, this became our entertainment and our sources of information. We may not have contributed to the noise, but we were following it intently.

Right wing zealots were always the easiest to spot online. They have very little time for politeness, very little need for opposing views. We used to watch them sing from the same playbook on issues like immigration, taxes, climate change and, of course, Islam. Before the Paris attacks, most of us shrugged at their repetitive musings about Muslims taking over the planet, and now many of us have joined in their chorus. Among these new members of the anti-Muslim flock are actually well minded people. They were not dogmatic conservatives-in-waiting, lying dormant until the piper played his flute. They were regular people, even progressive in their views, who reached their tipping point after seeing the macro reaction to the 129 dead Parisians. We will get back to them in a moment.

Left wing zealots, just as crazed and indignant as their right wing cousins, can sometimes be trickier to spot, mostly because centrists and some moderate conservatives hold many of their values. Their list of important issues includes the opposing viewpoints held by right wing zealots, especially in regards to climate change, and most especially in regards to Islam. To them, Islam is not just off limits, it is already a victim of worldwide disdain, and any criticism should be viewed through the lens of this ongoing state of victimization.

And so, post attack, both these groups were out in full force. Everything was fairly predictable. The right was posting memes, videos and photos that propped up their predispositions about the Muslim world. They referred to Syrian refugees as a poison being plunged into the veins of western societies and the eventual Islamafication of western cultures. The left were draping themselves in the French flag, virtually, and showcasing their humanity by demanding the world not criticize Islam in the wake of the tragedy.

Then it happened. Moderates and normally quiet onlookers began taking sides. Some questioned why countries like Canada were even considering taking in a single refugee now that all those people lay dead in Paris. Other moderates and normally quiet onlookers were openly accusing people of racism and bigotry for discussing the impact religion has on the world. In essence, those who normally watch were suddenly propping up the two fringes that normally take up all the oxygen. It was and continues to be a strange evolution in our online behaviours, where our opinions are now so extreme that they lose their value, their substance.

We should not have to run to the fringe when we want to talk about Islam. We should not be burning down mosques and beating up mothers for wearing a hijab. Simultaneously, we should not yell racism if we discuss the role of Islam in terrorism. Repeating tag lines like “Islam is a religion of peace” is a dangerous way of burying a problem, and not unlike the way we bury our brothers and sisters after a zealot decides to attack.

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Stephen Harper: Leading through Apathy Since 2006

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Some say it’s a weak opposition. Others say Stephen Harper is a centrist at heart. Heck, some even call him the most intelligent politician in Canadian history.

 

Or, just maybe, it’s a lot simpler than any of that.

 

Take this past week. First, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty unveils the federal budget for Canadians. The headlines are uniform in the daily papers of all political stripes: the budget contains very little details and no new information pertaining to several austerity-centric measures. It was as though he thought Canadians would shrug and move on.

 

And he was probably right.

 

Then, just a few days later, our media inundates Canadians with, wait for it, panda bears. Yeah, that’s right. Our prime minister is tight lipped about the budget which affects all citizens, but he rolls out the red carpet and puppeteers the media talking heads for the symbolic gesture of China loaning our country cute little panda bears.

 

Even Ron Burgundy would call that a slap in the face.

 

So why is Prime Minister Harper so blatant in his lack of details with the public on vital domestic issues? The answer is two fold. First, he believes Canadians are ruled by apathy and a lack of appetite for politics in general. History shows he’s probably right about that. Second, his entire style of governing depends on apathy. But that’s just the beginning.

 

In order for a government to run itself on the collective apathy of a nation, it must run like a bloated PR agency. While most governments use public relations and media speak when handling the press, the Harper government uses these tools to handle the citizens of Canada, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

 

They don’t even try to hide it anymore. During the days of a minority government Harper could afford to communicate just enough to get by, and even when he prorogued Parliament in order to stave off the warning of a coalition government, he simply retreated to 24 Sussex until apathy was in full force, then placed the blame squarely on the shoulders of separatists and their enablers.

 

With the cost of the F-35 fighters jets he stretched out an explanation for so long, Canadians practically begged the media to stop reporting. Same with changes to EI and the Canadian pension plan. Same with the Nexen deal. In fact, giving China an all-access pass to our most profitable industry without giving Canadians details was only topped by the condescending manner in which he defended Canadian interests: by passing new rules on foreign takeovers the week AFTER the deal was sealed.

 

After all, it would only be in the news cycle for a few days, then its off to Apathy Land again for Canadians.

 

The worst part about leading this way is not how insulting it is to ordinary people. That’s just the accent. The real stinger is how majority government status prevents Harper and Co. from even trying to appear as if he is genuinely interested in the pulse of the nation. He isn’t, and until that pulse reads anything other than “in a coma”, Canadians should feel ashamed and responsible for everything this government does, quietly or not.

Democratic Reform and Cross-political issues in Canada

By: James Di Fiore

Canada appears to be changing, segmented between traditionalists, progressives and radicals. This opinion is nothing new, but the evidence has finally caught up to the theory, especially in politics and social issues. Sprinkled in the middle are Canadians unfettered by ideology and partisanship, but they are surrounded by a growing number of ideologues who are being prodded and influenced by media hell bent on making money by evoking emotion instead of dispensing facts.

These new sects of extremists (the opinionated kind, not the violent kind), are still far less in numbers than the reasonable folks but they shout at a much higher volume, creating the false idea that they are speaking for the majority. But this is Canada, where the majority of people remain apathetic and frustrated with the system as a whole.

So, born out of apathy comes new ideas by Canadians who are beginning to wake up from their political slumber. Some of their ideas are gaining traction and discussions are finally taking place. For example, many Canadians are starting to talk more about our connection to the British monarchy, openly stating their disdain for what they see as an out of date relationship. An easy way to break open that conversation is to ask how Canadians feel about the prospect of Prince Charles on our currency. Traditionalists are just as eager to talk about our history and the vital role the Brits played in our progress as a nation. Both have valid arguments, but the real caveat is the stark differences not in philosophy but age. If you are a younger Canadian you are far more likely to want to disown our British stepparents, but if you are a senior you can’t fathom the idea of breaking ties. Age is actually the number one barometer in different political opinions, and the slight erosion of apathy among younger people is making the conversation a more interesting one.

There are also good arguments for changing the Senate procedures, creating term limits and even abolishing the upper house. Provincial powers are currently being tested both by federal legislation and pressure from municipal governments who feel burdened by legislation irrelevant to their riding. Conservatives are finding it difficult to balance their long held notion of abolishing the senate with the current conservative government’s partisan appointments to the upper house. A widespread opinion that appears to also be gaining traction is the eventual implementation of an elected senate. In either case we are years away from any significant changes now that our country is in a constant state of political campaigning. Time will tell what kind of ideas will eventually surface and if those ideas are from the people or government officials.

Interestingly, questions are now being raised among a wide spectrum of Canadians pertaining to personal liberty and privacy. The Ron Paul candidacy in the American GOP primary has forced the conversation. Americans and Canadians alike are finding common views with people who are politically opposite, fostering a new discussion between Canadians who do not normally debate the issues gracefully. The most glaring examples of this common ground are foreign policy and the war on drugs, two subjects that are yielding universal support and capturing the conversation among Americans. This kind of cooperation is leading some Canadians towards reopening the debate on proportional representation as ideas and philosophies become more complex and less ideological. The terrain is strange in Canada. As apathy shrinks, ideology grows. There is a debate as to whether or not they are related, but the end result means Canada’s political class is shifting.

As Canadian parties adjust to their new placement in popularity, Canadian people are becoming more savvy in who to follow, creating a potential new shift in the landscape and a continuation of a newly awoken Canadian electorate.

Open Letter to Jason Kenney

A public appeal to help save the Martinez family from almost certain demise

Mr. Kenney,

I write you today with worry and a heavy heart.

You know the case the headline refers to, so I will not reintroduce you to the particulars of those involved. What I would like to discuss is your deflection to the Citizenship and Immigration Canada, as if you have no power to help influence the decision to deport this family back to Columbia.

We both know that you are well within your rights, and certainly within your mandate, to protect potential victims from harm’s way if it is determined there is a possibility of violent retribution towards individuals seeking asylum.

Please take a moment and think to yourself what the headlines will say if this family is indeed killed by murderous henchmen from the organization known as FARC. Inevitably, it will fall on your desk and rival parties will no doubt lay blame at your doorstep, and rightfully so.

Your hands are not tied, and there is still time to allow the Canadian embassy in Columbia to send the family back. Be innovative and brave…stand up for these people who are clearly not a mennace to Canadian society. By doing so you may save their lives and becomes a real statesman to boot.

No disrespect, but right now you seem callous and arbitrary. This could change quite easily if you do something to help.

Sincerely,

James Di Fiore

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.

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.

War Reporter Jeremy Scahill Insults Canadian Military

Defends joke he made on Bill Maher as a swipe against Obama

American national security reporter Jeremy Scahill ridiculed Canada’s leadership role in Libya while visiting the HBO show Real Time With Bill Maher last Friday. Scahill, who helped expose criminal activity within the private military contractor Blackwater, appeared astonished that the NATO mission “is going to be handed over to the Canadian Mounties.” The comment clearly implied that Canada, a nation who has sacrificed 155 soldiers in Afghanistan, is a substandard military force not worthy of leading a mission. Perhaps Scahill forgets about the leadership roles Canada has been responsible for in Afghanistan, with no Mounties in sight (Mounties are federal police officers, not military servicemen), and with the praises of American military officials.

Scahill has been defending his comments on Twitter after being asked by this reporter to retract his statement. He claimed the joke “was about the US trying to use Canada to make the op legitimate.” If that was really the case, then why imply that Canadian military personnel aren’t up for the job? It’s possible, or likely, that Scahill isn’t a very good joke teller, but hindsight should give him enough pause to realize his comments made light of Canadian soldiers and their abilities. Whether you support the NATO mission or not, Scahill shows a lack of respect and an unapologetic stubbornness towards Canadian men and women who give their lives in battle.

 

Vancouver Olympics: Security Concerns VS Conspiracy Theories

Safety measures during The Games already in question

by: James Di Fiore

Let’s imagine for a moment a young woman was hired to babysit a couple of kids in England. She had a decent reputation, seemed to know what she was doing and came recommended. Unfortunately, she also had a habit of leaving the children unattended. While babysitting a brother and sister in downtown London, a criminal broke into the house and kidnapped the two kids while the woman was asleep at the switch.

Would you then hire this woman to take care of an entire nursery school in Canada? Probably not.

With the Vancouver Olympics kicking off today, organizers have hired Verint Systems Inc. to handle all security for The Games. On the surface, Verint seems like a solid pick. They are at the forefront of video and communications solutions, providing what they call “optimization and security intelligence.” The parent company, Comverse, had a plummeting stock value over the last few years and was seen as a has-been in the world of top-tier security systems. Why? They were responsible for the faulty surveillance equipment in the London Underground during the terrorist attacks on 7/7. The worst terror attack on British soil since the IRA’s heyday and Verint was essentially responsible for a complete system failure, preventing authorities from accessing crucial images and footage of the alleged bombers. The failure, which authorities have declined to explain ever since the attack, made investors nervous and almost dismantled the company’s security division.

That is, until Canada came calling.

Verint was given the contract to handle airport security during the Games, a curious decision given the systemic failures in London. The Internet is now loaded with posts from a litany of conspiracy theorists who are claiming this decision means Vancouver is now a target of what’s called a false flag operation – a government staged terror attack meant to mislead citizens into believing their country is under attack, likely by Muslim extremists. One must be careful however, as these same X-Files junkies will cling to just about anything to believe their liberties are under attack. One quick example is the often cited no-bid contract awarded to Verint for Montreal’s Metro system. Conspiracy theorists claim this is the handiwork of Mossad and the CIA to continue state terror attacks like the 7/7 bombings. A quick search, however, reveals that this contract was given way back in 2004, a full year before 7/7.

An easier angle to take is this: why on Earth would officials award the most important security project in recent Canadian history to a company that has proven itself unreliable during an actual security crisis? Forget conspiracy theories, this just doesn’t make practical sense.

Adding to the flavour is the recent discovery of 2 tons of missing ammonium nitrate from a shipyard in Surrey, British Columbia – the same explosive used to bomb federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995. Authorities believe the material went missing last fall and have stated they have no leads in the case.

While conspiracy theorists do their best to connect dots that may or may not exist, reasonable people still have legitimate reasons to be concerned about security in Vancouver. Estimates for costs of overall security during the Olympics ranges from $250 million to over $4 billion, depending on who and when you ask.

Whatever the costs, there is already good reason to worry about the safety of the people and reliability those in charge of protecting them.

Time will tell if the babysitter hired to take care of the kiddies has learned from her past mistakes.

This Week in Question Period – December 11th, 2009

By: James Di Fiore

Poor Peter MacKay.

Not since his heartbreaking split with nepotism-soaked heiress Belinda Stronach a few years ago have we seen such a flustered Minister of Defense. Peter McKay faced loud and sometimes obnoxious calls to resign by members of the opposition this week, capping off a week that brought the prisoner abuse scandal to a new level.

After years of steadfast claims that Canada has never acted improperly when handing detainees over to Afghan officials on the battlefield, a field report surfaced that showed one detainee had been photographed with Canadian soldiers before being handed over and subsequently abused at the hands of his Afghan captors. Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff lambasted both Prime Minister Harper and MacKay after General Walter Natynczyk acknowledged that the military had been aware that transferred prisoners risked being abused. The report contained a note from a Canadian soldier stating the following – “we then photographed the individual prior to handing him over to ensure that if the Afghan National Police did assault him, as has happened in the past, that we would have a visual record of his condition.” The field report is dated 2006 and was apparently only discovered on Wednesday morning by General Natynczyk.

The opposition leaders and back-benchers took turns calling for MacKay’s resignation both directly and through the PM.

Coincidentally, MacKay was scheduled to appear in front of a parliamentary committee concerning Afghanistan on Wednesday afternoon, where he once again faced scathing criticism from opposition members. The government has consistently stated they have no credible evidence of detainees being tortured after being in Canadian custody, and attempted to spin the controversy into ‘military bashing’ by the Liberals and other opposition parties.

This desperation tactic may be a watershed moment for the parliament as they head into the holidays. The new developments related to the military police complaints commission’s stated determination to begin hearings in March over Afghan detainees, but many on the Hill feel the Conservative government will not appoint a new commissioner in time. 340, 000 documents currently being reviewed and redacted may thwart the committee’s ability to uncover the underlying issues. The government has stated the redacted material are a matter of “operational safety” for the troops still stationed overseas. Michael Ignatieff sees it differently.

“This is a government that tried to strangle the military police commission from the beginning,” Ingatieff stated. He added, “The risk of putting anybody in operational danger is about zero . . . It’s too ridiculous to discuss.”

Harmonized Sales Tax Makes Lefties Turn Right

North America is a polarized continent. Liberal, Conservative. Bleeding hearts versus the heartless. Left versus right.

It is this kind of fodder that makes American cable news programs salivate. But this is Canada, where political stripes are drawn here and there by a complacent citizenry who may not even know what wing they tend to flap. And Canadians may be all the better for it.

Dalton McGuinty’s Provincial government’s harmonized sales tax is a perfect working example of how certain issues fall on both sides of the political sphere. Most Ontarians are against the plan – a tax that would see the 8% Provincial and 5% Federal GST merge for hundreds products and services. In any event, both Liberal and Conservative critics at the federal and provincial levels have criticized the bill, calling it a tactic of deception for a government who is trying to supplement their own inadequacies by pillaging ordinary citizens out of their hard earned cash.

So back to Left versus Right. Thankfully Canada does not have a Sarah Palin to really test my theory that most Canadians could care less what side we tend to gravitate towards. We do have perennial hacks like Alice Klein and Rachel Marsden – but they tend to preach to sparse, stupidity-addicted choirs who fall in line whenever ideological conjecture overrides stone cold facts. Other, more thoughtful individuals look at issues one at a time. You might be a weed smoking gun owner; an anti-war protester who believes Israel has a right to defend itself, or perhaps just a lazy musician who doesn’t want to get taxed if his burrito costs more than four bucks. Believe it or not, Canadians tend to hold beliefs that dance inside the vast political spectrum, only they have no idea what you mean when you tell them so. Good for us. Who needs the labeling of left or right to prevent us from speaking honestly on which issues we are concerned about?

Even McGuinty received help from Prime Minister Stephen Harper – two good old boys on the opposite sides of ideology – to pass this bill. If those two can put aside political differences and proceed to gouge consumers then I don’t see why ordinary Canucks can’t rally together and vote against their overall ideology in the next Federal and Provincial elections.

Ah yes, a harmonized electorate doing what’s best for Canadians.