Liberal Canada could define itself more sharply with conservative media to provide the antithesis to its thesis.
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. A name not mentioned much outside of philosophy classes, and even then with a certain perplexity. Hegel was an early 19th century German thinker best known for his obscure thoughts and bad writing. But he had one really good idea: the dialectic, the notion that history is an arena in which opposing concepts, which he called the Thesis and Antithesis, do battle, with a Synthesis emerging that combines the elements of both the opposing ideas. It then struggles with a new Antithesis, produces a new Synthesis, and so on. Freedom and truth are advanced by a “cunning of reason” wherein these opposing forces let slip the dogs of ideological war.
So why is this difficult German philosopher in the news, you might ask? He’s not, but the issues raised by the dialectic most certainly are. At least since the dawn of the Republican regime of George W. Bush in 2001, there has been a long and bitter culture war between the right and left in the U.S., over such issues as the war on terror, taxing the rich, the role of religion in political life, abortion, and gay rights. This culture war gets played out nightly on cable TV, with FOX News batting for Team Conservative, and Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert (ironically) for Team Liberal.
It goes without saying that almost everyone filters the news, information, and theories they take the time to watch and read about through the engines of cognitive dissonance. We read books by people we already agree with, watch cable news networks whose ideological message meshes with our own. Even academics do this – radical feminists attend conferences where all the presenters are fellow feminists, theologians read only papers by fellow theologians, biologists ignore deconstructions of Victorian novels. We are looking-glass selves, who love to see our own values reflected back to us by others and by the media.
So as an erstwhile member of the left, I have to say my gut reaction to Quebecor president Pierre Karl Péladeau’s proposal of a new conservative cable network for Canada was one of skepticism. Dubbed the “FOX News of the North” by media types not used to complex arguments, Péladeau, whose company owns Sun Media, promised to relegate the “boring, smug, and condescending” news found on CBC and CTV to the sidelines with a network offering a menu of feisty “straight talk.” The new network would be called Sun TV News. His henchman Kory Teneycke, a former Tory apparatchik, went on to argue that the reportage offered by the old networks is condescending, irrelevant, and politically correct, boring news suited only for bureaucrats and elites.
Though I’m a daily listener to CBC radio and admire most of its programs, Péladeau is right that it can be at times too smug and politically correct. It’s actually quite painful to listen to Jian Ghomeshi, our country’s best interviewer, sweating and squirming on Q when he’s trying to avoid offending a guest or saying something critical about a minority group. I just listened to a radio report about the London Public Library playing classical music to shoo away the lumpenproletarians who gather at the front entrance. Both the interviewer and the library official effectively chalked up the main purpose of the street cleanup campaign to the politically innocuous dangers of second-hand smoke, managing to avoid saying what everyone who has ever visited the library knows: that scary people with more tattoos, piercings, and addictions than jobs are deterring “normal” folk from the book depository.
Yet just when I was ready to write off this new network as yet another organ of the ruling class, the Geist of Hegel whispered in my ear, “Remember the dialectic …” Luckily, I had enough schoolboy German to understand him. Why is Jon Stewart funny? Because he has the absurdities of FOX News and the Republican right to mock. Why is Stephen Colbert funny? Because he has conservative pundits like Bill O’Reilly and Glenn Beck to parody night after night. Stewart and Colbert would lose at least half their targets if conservative punditry were to disappear. More importantly, liberal America can define itself more sharply thanks to the rough grindstones provided by conservative media. No FOX News, no Daily Show, no Colbert Report. The thesis needs an antithesis.
Of course, contradictions abound even in the announcement made by Péladeau and Teneycke. First, the notion that there’s such a thing as “straight talk” independent of all ideological presuppositions is absurd. What, for example, would Sun TV News’s “straight talk” about the G20 protests be? No doubt that Toronto was attacked by “criminals and hooligans” without a coherent or meaningful political program. Yet that depends on one’s point of view: if you see global poverty as a form of violence instituted by the rich post-industrial nations against what used to be called the Third World, then what the protestors did doesn’t seem so irrational.
Second, Teneycke claims that joined to this straight talk would be an approach that is “unapologetically patriotic” and “controversially Canadian.” Besides the fact that rabid patriotism is often the scoundrel’s last refuge, what would Sun TV News do if one of their straight-talking guests suggested, for example, that the Afghan mission will have little effect in the long run and that Canadians soldiers have died for nothing? Which would win, the straight talk or the patriotism?
Third, Teneycke argues that we don’t need another network “catering to elite opinion.” Isn’t that the very job description of conservatives, catering to the opinions of the corporate elite? Isn’t that why they fund business schools and private think tanks like the Fraser Institute? Teneycke is obviously confused on this point: I suggest a revisiting of his notes from Political Science 101.
Yet we have to actually hear what conservatives think before we can point out such contradictions and absurdities. Despite a long tradition of cutting satire going back to SCTV and the Kids in the Hall, Canada has no Stewart or Colbert. Rick Mercer offers some lukewarm chuckles on his show, but languishes in obscurity. The left needs an antithesis to summon up its critical courage.
So to Sun News I say, bring it on. Hegel and I are waiting.