Political Communication in Canada

Political Communication in Canada

by

Howard Adelman

Brand Command: Canadian Politics and Democracy in the Age of Message Control [Brand] (Alex Marland) – continued:

Brand won the $50,000 2017 Canadian Donner Book Prize.

Any communications strategy will vary according to the material or information at hand, the approach to using that information, the media available for employing the data, and the logic and structures specifically correlated with that media. Thus, before we even do anything on a communications strategy, the content, approach, media available and its forms, must all be grasped. Taken together, the above will almost but not quite dictate the techniques available to be employed in a communications strategy, techniques which also must be identified, analyzed and understood. Once we understand the material and the media, our approach and techniques available, the utilization for its most efficacious impact must be assessed and then translated into strategies and tactics.

Our communications age is identifiable by a unique set of materials previously unavailable: mass data bases, public opinion research and market intelligence.  However, in politics only a small range of mass data is relevant. We have no use for mass spectral databases available through spectrometry that help astronomers identify planets which might support life. Nor are communication junkies interested in the mass collection of DNA material used to identify sources for organ transplants or to trace one’s ancestry. Nor, on a more human scale, and surprisingly, is there much interest in the mass data used to assess performance, a data base popularized in the baseball movie, Moneyball, which perhaps best made the pollster, Nathan Silver, a household name. In the field of electoral politics and governance, the focus is on human predispositions, preferences and priorities; the collection of mass data allows pollsters to mine this platinum.

It was rather surprising, then, when I could not find one reference to Nathan Silver in Brand or to Nathan’s own famous brand, Five Thirty Eight or 538. There are many discussions of public opinion research, the sampling of a cross section of the population to measure the public’s views of issues, policies, parties and leaders. However, if you look up the long list of references used, there is no citation of The Signal and the Noise, Silver’s account of the techniques he developed and used, including mathematical algorithms, to very accurately predict the outcome of the American election in 2012, an election that was purportedly too close to call.

To adumbrate, there is no discussion of mathematical modelling as a technique for more accurately assessing how preferences and priorities of voters can be assessed to interpret their voting preferences. Silver proved that opinion surveys and focus groups were inadequate. If you do not seek out certain types of data in the mass data bases, or even try to develop those much deeper data bases, if you do not employ the more sophisticated techniques of mathematical analysis, then you may not be able to comprehend how Stephen Harper attempted to manipulate the public. Marland’s nostalgic approach will not likely reveal the shortcomings and superficiality of both his and Harper’s approach and their inherent limitations as well questionable results.

The market research, the quantitative and qualitative data, can include, in addition to polls, opinion surveys and focus groups, a wider spectrum from role playing to census data analysis. However, if a political party simply maps its political program onto this market intelligence to prioritize issues, the results may be shallow and misdirected. One of the shortcomings of Marland’s book is his failure to adopt a much more critical model that could also help explain Harper’s failures.

I think there is an explanation for this shortcoming. Alex Marland, like Stephen Harper, was never really interested in the role data has played and continues to play in the daily lives of citizens that allow those citizens to better understand, grasp and operate in the world. He, like Harper, was preoccupied with advertising, with a market and sales orientation, that is with manipulating the public to buy a specific brand in a crowded field. Advertising, as Marland acknowledges, is the effort to influence the opinion, choices and behaviour of the voting public. It is not an effort to understand those choices and help guide them for purposes of self-realization. Hence, the focus on market intelligence and the willingness and determination to use that market intelligence for sales purposes to stimulate emotional reactions rather than an effort to understand and identify public anxieties.

Marland in his book clearly understands the difference between a sales and market orientation (see p. 33), but as much as he wants to have the latter supersede the former, as long as the concerns of citizens are tabulated within a market frame, that is, where mass data is used to sell one’s party as best able to address issues of concern, then the goal will simply be developing pain relief and then advertising why Aleve is better than Tylenol. There will be no real effort to understand the underlying sources of that pain and the various available ways to address that pain. Responding to pain (or desire) is not the same as understanding its roots.

For Marland, the message is the media – the mass and new social media available to engage in marketing a political party. Mass media refers to traditional forms, such as newspapers, magazines, radio and TV, whereas social media refers to the digital media and internet-based applications where users as much as professionals create the content, as in Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and Wikipedia. Marland subscribes to the Canadian school of communication analysis of Harold Innis, Donald Creighton and Marshall McLuhan who held that, “communications technology is more influential than its content.” (p. 51) Whether the issue was the fur trade, the St. Lawrence River (versus the Erie Canal) or modern mass print and then electronic followed by digital media, the nature of that media will shape not only how we communicate, but what is communicated.

Media in the digital age emphasizes speed, unlimited expansion, almost instant access, as well as an ephemeral quality. It is decentralized and purportedly lacks an authentic source of authority to adjudicate between and among contending interpretations. Hence, it is easily subject to manipulation and facilitates wide swings in voter response. However, when Marland quotes my friend Peter Russell, who pointed to the “emergence of political parties whose leaders employ the techniques of mass advertising to win and retain power,” (p. 52) he was really reciting what had been the case before the prominence of social media. The new social media allows communication to be far more targeted, to eschew advertising in favour of the development of images, scenes and actions that try to evade the sense of advertising as manipulation.

While Marland seems to grasp the critical differences between social and historic mass media, it is in terms of the latter that he frames his approach to the former.  Manipulation of voters rather than a dialogue among citizens of different political stripes is the emphasis when discussing narrowcasting and microtargeting, sound and image bites, and spin. Media logic is defined as the view that institutional actors change their behaviour in response to how journalists gather and report news, but Donald Trump, the master tweeter and traditional rabble-rouser in public rallies, seems to totally belie this presumption.

If we shift to the analysis of technique rather than material content, then branding and framing are perhaps the two most important. Marland, while not ignoring framing, emphasizes branding. “Framing,” he claims, “is narrow whereas branding is all-encompassing.” A brand is the result of the entirety of all framing. “Branding is addictive, it is circular and it is a seemingly unstoppable force.” Further, Marland argues that, “A branding lens is a good theoretical tool because it offers predictive power and an explanatory mechanism beyond left/right ideology.”  

However, I will start with framing and I trust it will become self-evident why I do so. Thus, building infrastructure can be framed in terms of higher taxes or critical long term investments. Marihuana use can be framed as a law and order or as a health and consumer enjoyment issue. The Conservative government initiated bills to increase penalties for drug distribution whereas the Liberals initiated steps to decriminalize the smoking of pot and regulate its growth and distribution.

In their attack ads, Conservatives accused Liberals of encouraging the sale of marihuana to children, whereas the Liberals denounced giving criminal records to individuals who were no danger to the public, especially when scientific evidence demonstrated that pot had health benefits, particularly in pain relief, and did not cause nearly the amount of harm of alcohol and tobacco, two legalized forms of drug sales for pleasure purposes. The Conservatives used public funds from Health Canada to advance their agenda while ignoring and even suppressing scientific input, much to the chagrin of Marland who deplores the use of public funds for partisan gain.

Moralizing, however much one might agree with it, is no substitute for in-depth analysis. Again, it is a surprise when reading Marland’s discussion of framing that there is no reference to the Berkeley linguist, the high priest of understanding political framing, George Lakoff, and his bestseller, Don’t Think of an Elephant. (His previous volume, Moral Politics, is a broader and more in-depth study.) It is noteworthy that, whereas Marland subordinated framing to branding as the overarching mode of synthesis, Lakoff insists that politicians, to be successful, must integrate their daily discussions on policy issues into an overall philosophy of governance in terms of fundamental principles that frame the debate. It is also noteworthy that Marland defends the priority of branding because of its predictive power, but it is George Lakoff who has the stellar reputation of predicting outcomes of presidential elections accurately.

Lakoff traced the rhetorical edge Republican presidential candidates take with respect to the underlying philosophical debate between paternalism and maternalism, between strict discipline versus nurturing in raising children. The former is associated with limited government and an emphasis on individual responsibility with priority given to defence, law and order and the responsibility of the head of a household for bringing an income into the family and ensuring prosperity. Poverty results from lack of initiative. Social welfare is counterproductive as it undermines self-reliance and fosters dependence. It was easy for Stephen Harper to marry this frame to a branding strategy based on discipline, control and micromanagement.

In contrast, a nurturing government aims at helping individuals maximize their potential while providing a safety blanket when life deals a damaging blow. Therefore, the stress is on providing equality of opportunity as well as a cushion. Since poll after poll indicates that the majority of Canadians favour the latter frame, that the latter serves their self-interest, why do electorates put paternalistic governments in power?

As Lakoff explains, it is because voters decide based more on framing an issue in terms of moral identity rather than self-interest. The Liberals (and the New Democrats) base their party platforms on serving the interests of the citizens of Canada. The Conservatives fight on a foundation of moral self-identity, really three contradictory identities, two of which are dominant: the tough, aggressive free enterpriser and the community conservative. There is also a peripheral moral superego stemming from a doctrine of moral virtues, which is where I suspect Marland is rooted.

The frame, the timing and the communication of that frame, not the discipline and control of delivering a message (the brand), helps determine outcomes. When Liberals or New Democrats or Democrats in the U.S. push only the issue of self-interest, they undermine a larger frame for liberalism. Success depends on enhancing that larger frame. Bernie Sanders understood that; Hilary Clinton and her campaign did not. Trudeau and his campaign understood that; Mulcair did not.

It is one thing to inverse the tension between framing and branding, between the general structure and the image or core message left with a citizen. It is another not to indicate that he is doing this in the face of the dominant lexicon. But the inversion does offer a clue to his position that stresses advertising, media management and manipulation versus a position that insists on the priority of establishing the basic principles upon which you stand. The brand should reflect principles instead of allowing the principles to exist as a by-product of an effort at branding.

Look at what Marland stresses: brand ambassadors rather than self-critical reflection, marketing, as if a political agenda was simply a shopping list in which political goods and services substituted for consumer ones. Very few consumer advertisers engage in distraction, defamation and attempts to de-brand the opposition or competition. Is consumer motivation an equivalent to voter mobilization? Why do we not call advertising partisan and why do we not label it as propaganda? Politics and a consumer culture occupy two different realms. We distinguish branding from framing, the consumer world from the political one, rather than melding them. When we make political reporting a form of infotainment and turn it into a realm of alt-facts and scandal mongering, often tied to pseudo-events, we pervert the field of politics.

While Marland is clearly aware of how branding works as well as how it was reflected in the Harper government, he seems to endorse sound and image bites as necessary outcomes of the need to retain mastery of the process through centralized control and the avoidance of tumult. The consequence of a politician who is great at simplifying and communicating his brand but lacks the discipline and the control elements in place to manage tumult, as can be seen if one compares the effort executed by the dry-as-dust Stephen Harper and the flamboyant mendacious narcissist, Donald Trump.

One cannot imagine Donald adopting a “Whole of Government” (WOG) approach to both governance and communicating a message, but, unlike Harper, Trump really runs a permanent political campaign. Marland seems to believe that permanent campaigning and control to ensure the communication stays on point are both outcomes as a result of prioritizing, but the Harper regime indicated that discipline and control could be one outcome and turning the project of governance into a permanent campaign could be another.

Top down centralized control may be necessary if you are going to turn politics into branding, but if politics is to be based on principles arrived at through reflection and debate, principles reflected in a common frame for a variety of approaches and outcomes that share only a family resemblance, then it may be preferable to work for a politics of dialogue and persuasion rather than a politics of top down messaging. With all of Marland’s proposals for fixing the system by, for example, separating government versus party branding (repaint the Liberal colours) and other distinctly side issues, his efforts of analysis of the communication strategies of the Harper government may be industrious and enormously detailed and documented, but given his own intellectual frame, he only delivers laboratory mice rather than significant policies for the political process.

Marland fails to show why the Harper style of governing is a necessary output of prioritizing branding, even if it is one possible outcome of the effort. Marland also cannot demonstrate how the analysis of the new media and new modes of communication necessitates a position prioritizing top-down versus bottom-up governance as was used in the Bernie Saunders campaign.

A volume which appears on the surface to be a critique of the Harper regime in defence of democratic principles turns out to be an apologia arguing for tweaks to the inconsequential, such as getting the government to publish the costs of photo-ops or changing the political colours of the Liberal Party. It is not inevitable that message consistency will be interpreted in the same monochromatic manner as was offered by Harper, or that, in politics, control will always emerge supreme as distinct from consent to pursue common purposes. If Marland wants to congratulate himself for seeing past and through personalities to uncover the structure and nature of contemporary communications beneath it, then he will have to be far more self-critical in understanding the connection between his conclusions and the intellectual frame he adopted in approaching the subject matter. Like Paul Rand in the United States, he is a principled nineteenth century liberal, one who imposes an ideology on contemporary communications, just as Harper imposed “tight communications discipline to ensure conformity.”

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

The Democratic Deficit in Canada

The Democratic Deficit in Canada

by

Howard Adelman

Brand Command: Canadian Politics and Democracy in the Age of Message Control [Brand] (Alex Marland)

Brand won the Donner Prize of $50,000 from a very distinguished jury. Brand is many books in one. First and foremost, it is a manual of government public relations for the digital age. Second, it is a history of the development and use of that manual by the Government of Canada, overwhelmingly the Stephen Harper regime, with some short excursions into the behavior of the Justin Trudeau. Third, it is an interpretation of causation in history, more specifically, that the characteristics of the digital age determined a specific outcome, radically changing the Canadian political culture. Fourth, and certainly not final, for that is my main interest, it is a portrait of Marland’s interpretation of Canadian political culture set against his enunciation of the norms of western democracy. Measured against those norms, the book is a depiction of the Canadian democratic deficit.

By far the largest part of the book is about the first and second topics.  However, I start with the last item, the conception of democracy itself and a democratic culture, a topic about which the author gives very short shrift (46-53), surprising in a book that uses democratic norms to assess and evaluate the communications culture of a specific democracy, that of Canada. However, this may not be so surprising since the book is only about a specific aspect of democracy, the efforts of politicians, political parties and governments to reach an audience of voters made up of disparate parts.

Those parts consist of the following: partisans; deliberators; single issue voters and hands on voters, the latter singularly and largely ignored in the digital age and ignored in this book as well, though they constitute as much as 15% of the electorate but are not reached by marketing, but by establishing a direct connection between the candidate and the voter. Hands on voters do not vote based either on ideas or ideology, at one end of the spectrum, or the power of advertising persuasion on the other. 

 Marland deals with partisans only in generic terms, sometimes regarding each voter as a tabula rasa whose loyalty and support, commitment and trust must be won and solidified through messaging. At other times, he seems to regard their dispositions and commitments as being bred in the bone. He does not sub-divide Conservative partisans into free-enterprise voters versus community conservatives, two groups which populate and divide the Conservative Party of Canada, or into self-interested voters who determine which party matches their specific individual needs and interests, a group divided between the Liberals and the New Democratic Party in Canada and representing the largest bulk of voters. Deliberative voters swing between and among parties and are usually branded as independents. The Green Party had been a single-issue party appealing to voters conscious that climate change is the most important topic on any political agenda, but, more recently, making a strenuous effort to broaden its appeal. There are other voters concerned with a wide range of other specific issues – abortion, LGBT rights, etc.

These connections are usually established by symbols and brands, in this case, the party names: Conservative, Liberal, Green and New Democratic. As parties, they are concerned with access to and performance by voters during elections (turnout and voting) and maintaining trust and, therefore, loyalty during the interval between elections. As an analyst, Marland is concerned with the values that ought to govern the relations between parties and government and their supporters – access to their representatives and transparency about what they do. Given his focus, Marland does not really discuss constitutions and laws, legislation and governance, except one key condition of representation and governance – communications – a necessary ingredient by means of which a democratic government, as distinct from other forms (tyrannies), earns and maintains its support, authority and legitimacy.

The means to do so rather than the definition of the common good preoccupies him, though one good is presumed – an informed electorate. What effect do government structures and practices, particularly current forms of communication, have on the relationship between citizens and their government? For Marland, the idea of a member of parliament simply representing the interests of his constituents is an allusion to a nostalgic past that may never even have existed. MPs have become “vital regional sales reps” in a system run by means of unrelenting centralized media management.

Party whips ensure members toe the line whatever their constituent concerns, speakers are given time limits, and the role of question period has become less relevant.  MPs have less rather than greater access to data and documents. The power of committees has been reduced as partisanship became the order of the day; representatives are portrayed as no more than lemmings unable to speak freely to their constituents or the media. The role of the legislature is reduced as the status of the executive, especially the Office of the Prime Minister (PMO), has been enhanced so that there are fewer sitting days and prime ministers and their cabinet members feel less obligated to face their peers in the House. The use of blogs and tweets by party members is highly controlled, a charge for which Marland provides little evidence. Communication strategies “embolden” tribalism rather than representative responsible government. As a result, trust in government in general has waned.

In a fundamental contradiction that runs through the book, this dystopic democracy is painted as, at one and the same time, an inevitable result of the new technology and as a failure of democratic leadership. Marland is both a causal necessitarian about history and a hectoring superego on the body politic given that control of the message now has such enormous consequences when a member “goes off message.” MPs have been reduced to the puppets of a ventriloquist.

Marland does offer one ray of hope – Gordon Chong’s Bill C-586 amending the Canada Elections Act and the Parliament of Canada Act giving the leader much less control and the member more opportunity to express him/herself, though Marland insists that the proof will be in the practices that result. However, the overwhelming mood of the volume is pessimism stemming from his adherence to the Innis-McLuhan thesis that “technology is the driver of social organization.” Further, with the development of electronic and visual communications, these forces have become more pervasive, more powerful and more potent.

In the next blog, I will take up the issue of whether his analysis of those tools of communication, the techniques used to employ them and their impacts determine political structures or whether his analysis is much more a reflection of the Harper government in Canada from which he derived the bulk of the content of his book. My own direct experience suggests the latter since much of the process of centralization had very little to with messaging and a great deal to do with control.

My main example is a proposal we submitted to amend existing migration policy. Rather than initiating a new program, we had proposed to take in refugees to replace temporary skilled workers. In the “old” days, the change would have taken less than a week for the minister to approve. We were informed that because it was so palatable to the government, it would be approved, but still would take four months. For every change had to be approved in the PMO. Eighteen months later, there was neither an approval nor rejection.

The process was particularly galling since the change, one tested in both Halifax and Calgary, would deliver a quadruple hit with only positive upsides. Business support existed and would grow because it was a program preferred by business which could do better long term training and planning at even less cost. Projecting a humanitarian face for the Harper government would certainly have been a result, and a needed one. At the same time, private sponsors eager to help the refugees could be satisfied instead of having to wait, sometimes more than a year, for the entry of those privately-sponsored refugees. The tweak to the existing program would also provide a back door to exit the unskilled temporary work program that had become such an embarrassment for the government.

Let me offer other examples, most also all based on direct experience wikth the Harper government:

  1. At the same time as the above, we were informed that ALL approvals, even for the purchase of more paperclips, had to go through the PMO, and that it took weeks even for miniscule authorizations;
  2. Libraries for helping write policy papers were removed from the department and placed in storage;
  3. The policy unit in the department had been dissolved;
  4. In a policy paper that I had been involved in writing, we were asked to excise the word “Syrian” because that term was anathema to the PM;
  5. Social and natural scientists working for government were muzzled;
  6. Outside knowledge that could disrupt plans and priorities was excised from any input into government – such as the cancelled long form census survey;
  7. I was also told, though I have not verified this, that civil servants were booking off sick days in record numbers; this was explained in terms of the impotence forcefully introduced into the civil service with a resultant pervasive depression when initiative was severely discouraged.

I could go on offering other examples, but most of the above have nothing to do with controlling a message and everything to do with our former PM being a control freak. What struck me in reading the book, and contrary to Marland’s insistence that he had been politically neutral, is that while he, like Tom Flanagan, whom he credits as an essential guide, was totally distressed by the huge democratic deficit that had been created, he seemed to want to find the Conservative Party innocent by removing any significant blame from Harper and placing it on the demands and drives of changing technology. In that way, the Liberals and Conservatives would be painted with the same brush while Marland preserved his superego standards intact.

There is a way of testing whether my hunch is correct or false, but that requires reviewing the tools and techniques available in the digital age, how they are used, and the impacts of both on government structures, organization and policies. This is the task I will take up tomorrow.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

Undercutting or Reinforcing Canada’s Civic Religion

Undercutting or Reinforcing Canada’s Civic Religion

by

Howard Adelman

In the previous blog, I wrote about the philosophic underpinnings of our current Canadian value system, what I call our Canadian civic religion. The positive spirit of our time and place is well expressed in the values and morals that have become dominant in Canada. They express the Absolute as revealed in our history that is articulated in the religious and moral consciousness of our age. There is possibly no better place to observe this spirit at work than at an interfaith conference held in Canada’s capital to commemorate the country’s 150th birthday as those in attendance searched for solidarity in diversity. The conference focused on Islamophobia, social inequalities, the plight of aboriginal peoples and on immigrants and refugees. In the final blog of this series, I will address the key elements of that civic religion, but today, tomorrow and the next day, I want to describe the conditions of our time that threaten it.

This past week, I attended the awards ceremony of the Donner Prize, a $50,000 award given to the best book published in Canada or by a Canadian on a public policy issue. The criteria for the award include the topicality of the issue covered, its significance (in the sense of importance) and the skill in communicating the subject matter. When the chair of the jury described the criteria and the process, he did not mention the depth, breadth and quality of the research and analysis entailed, but these factors could possibly have been included in the third criterion. A discussion of the five books on the short list offers a convenient portal to explore core Canadian values.

The five nominees for the prize, with my short form of reference included in square brackets, were:

  1. L’intégration des services en santé:une approche populationnelle[HIS – health services integration] (Yves Couturier, Lucie Bonin & Louse Belzile);
  2. Priests of Prosperity: How Central Bankers Transformed the Postcommunist World[Priests] (Juliet Johnson);
  3. A Good Death: Making the Most of Our Final Choices[Good Death] (Sandra Martin);
  4. A Field Guide to Lies: Critical Thinking in the Information Age[Lies] (Daniel J. Levitin);
  5. Brand Command: Canadian Politics and Democracy in the Age of Message Control[Political Branding] (Alex Marland).

 HIS is about efficiency and efficaciousness, values widely held, applied to the delivery of health services. Since it is about organization and administration rather than the values themselves, I will not discuss this book as offering a source of critical reflection on the spirit of our time.  Priests, the most thoroughly researched book, as well as the one from which most could be learned that was new, was the one I favoured for the prize. But I was the only one at my table to do so and it did not win.

Priests is not about a civic religion rooted in the practices and values of the people, but about a priest-centered one. It is about the holy of holies in a materialist society: the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and, most of all, the consensus developed among Western bankers on how the globalized international economy operates and the consensual neoliberal rules governing international monetary policy. Price stability, limited inflation targets, credibility and transparency were its central idols rather than employment, growth and social security. What better way to understand the priesthood than by examining the priests of another religion, a mercantilist one, converted and indoctrinated between the fall of the Berlin Wall and 2007.

The sacrificial goats in the West were those who had to absorb the impact of obsolescence and the home owners, particularly in the United States, who found the values of their homes underwater when the U.S. asset bubble suddenly deflated and Lehman Brothers collapsed. Unlike the banks, commoners were not bailed out by the neo-economic policies of the Obama program to save the Western financial system when the crisis became full-blown in 2008. And the crisis remains with us as Europe faces one crisis after another as the 2007-08 collapse turned into a sovereign debt crisis for some members of the EU. The priestly religion had lost its absolute authority and saintly status as the two elder children of the system (a puzzle for my readers) took their own lives as martyrs to save the system but, note, not reduce the suffering.

For no longer were monetary and financial policy to be left in separate silos to prevent the former from contamination by the latter. The priests, on the defensive, blamed the crisis on excessive risk-taking in financial policies by the politicians. The high priests were not to blame but, rather, the political commoners forbidden entry to the holy of holies who stormed the holy gates and, helped by a few wayward priests who betrayed their calling by innovating and not using consensual monetary policy to reign the upstarts in, contaminated the holy of holies. The temple was not destroyed. Its ramparts were reinforced as central bankers eased up on the strict monetary code with quantitative easing and other measures.   

This book, however, unlike my treatise, is about priests and not commoners, and the conversion and indoctrination of the priests of an alien mercantilist religion in Eastern Europe. The losers and the victims in the West are not the subject of this volume. In the final chapter, the book is also about the god that failed. The result, faith in globalization, in the international priesthood and its values and norms, suffered a drastic blow. One of the results – the rise of protectionism and mercantilism along with populism in the West. Juliet Johnson does not overtly deal with the irony of this outcome in her final chapter, but it haunts that whole chapter as the effort to salvage the role of the central banks rested, not on reducing their functions, but expanding them into micro-level financial regulation and supervision, thereby politicizing the banking system and removing its immunity from day-to-day politics.

The commoners were entering the holy of holies. Donald Trump was elected on a protectionist platform. He became a partner of Vladimir Putin in the effort to resurrect mercantilism, including the kleptocracy that accompanied such policies as Trump himself had been a beneficiary of the $500 billion Russia had accumulated in foreign reserves during the oil boom. Russian money was laundered through Western capital investments. If Putin and his cronies helped Trump, then Trump would return the favour now that the Russian economy was in dire straits. In turn, the Trump brand would directly benefit from the resurrection effort and the U.S. currency as the stabilizing factor of last resort was about to be put on the altar for sacrifice in the holy of holies, thereby contaminating it forever.

The fight for control of the Holy Temple is now in full swing. It is important background to my concern with civic religion.

Four of ten people at my table voted for Good Death to win the prize, but, like HIS and Priests, it also did not win. Good Death, like most of the other books on the short list for the award, is ultimately about social ethics. The book focuses on the right to die at a time of one’s choosing in the search to find the correct balance between compassion for the suffering and protection of the vulnerable, between individual choice and social responsibility.  As Sandra Martin wrote, “Baby boomers, reared on choice and autonomy, are radically restructuring the landscape of death, not only for themselves but for their elderly patients and the children coming up behind them.”

I mention her book as the first of the three dealing with civil society values because it affirms the critical importance of the leading cohort in society changing the ethics and practices in dealing with how and when a person chooses to terminate personal suffering. For the book is more about suffering than death. A good death comes with a minimum of suffering; this is the semi-Aristotelian premise of the volume.

Choice. Autonomy. In contrast to those values, Daniel J. Levitin in Lies contrasts the bad data, half-truths and outright lies in our current information age with the need to evaluate rational arguments, assess statistical data and recognize the meanings of words used in communication. Donald Trump demonstrates daily how limiting access to information – about workplace violation of norms and corporate disregard of environmental regulations that offer the new norm – has undermined Moses’ (Obama’s) political leadership in moving towards the Promised Land. While the financial crisis seriously weakened the sacred authority of monetary policy as set by central bankers, Trump was busy attacking the legitimacy of the polis itself by deregulating its role in every field as he issues ethical wavers to allow the profiteers and outright crooks to enter the political palace.

Levitin offers up the rabbinic codes of the information age, defining the proper use of statistics and how they are to be read, the role of clear and distinct language to replace obfuscation, and the role of informal logic to construct rational arguments and spot fallacies. The book is particularly strong on statistics but somewhat weak in its discussion of language while providing a clear and concise introduction to informal logic. However, it is like reading a nostalgic longing for the enlightenment, for rationality and for the scientific method in the face of a rise in philistinism and irrationality in public discourse.

Alex Marland, in the book that won the Donner prize, took an opposite tack and focused on the Canadian polity to uncover the role of unreason and control – in contrast with Sandra Martin’s celebration of choice and autonomy – in managing information and spreading a message. But it was the most moralistic book of them all, upholding a rationalism in public discourse, not as a standard as Levitin did, but as a “rational” populist political counter to the sustained effort to desecrate autonomy and choice in favour of collective thought on a niche level and the control over what people choose.

Branding is not inherently bad. The effort in marketing and selling an idea or a product by controlling images and messages from a central point of authority offers concision, simplicity and efficacy in communication. However, in his analysis, institutional weaknesses and the current digital media environment – not illogic, innumeracy and lack of literacy – are the culprits.

 

I end with Marland’s very sincere and spontaneous acceptance speech (he was truly surprised at winning). It dwelt with how to keep the threatening ghouls away from your door. The priests, evidently, will not protect you. Neither will simple good management. Presumably, confronting the sources of irrationality with logic, statistics, logical arguments and precision in one’s use of language will not keep the zombies at bay. In the age of messaging and mass manipulation, any emphasis on choice and autonomy might be a side show. What does Marland suggest in dealing with the outright lies, distortions and distractions of Donald Trump?

Turn the messaging mechanism off whenever Trump is discussed. Become a silent and distanced protester. Spend your considerable time on helping to forge Canadian policy where, in my words, a more compatible civic religion and political institutions exist. Will heeding the voice of a superego to ensure purity and immunity from contamination save us?

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

her

her

by

Howard Adelman

her, a film by Spike Jonze, born Adam Spiegel, opened in Toronto last night. In the very beginning of the movie, we watch a computer screen as a sentimental letter is being written in a beautiful handwritten script. The camera draws back; we learn that the letter is being written by a ghost writer, Theodore Twombly, played magnificently with a sense of both brooding and fun, suppressed and repressed emotion and versatility by Joaquin Phoenix whose screen name we only learn well into the film. For, in one sense, his name is irrelevant.

Theodore is an anonymous lonely depressed soul with enormous empathy and sensitivity. He works in a factory of ghost writers set up in spacious carrels of a luxurious high rise office building. He writes letters of affection to the loved ones of others for clients who have lost or surrendered that capacity. Theodore is a sad sack, not just sorrowful as he would be if he was just bereaving the life of someone he lost. He is not suffering just from tanha in the Buddhist tradition. He is suffering from a broken heart than has become cosmic, from dukkha which carries tanha to a much deeper level, to the level of chronic depression.

Theodore’s suffers from frustrated desire rather than simply physical loss related to a brooding sense of fear about survival. The only way to escape dakkha related to the deeper dread of a sense of meaninglessness, a sense that our desires are still born, is to escape from the blackness of one’s own cave and get into the sunlight. Theodore, as the lonely, human-all-too-human depressed human substitute for an operating system, only escapes his own personal depressed state, not by seeing a psychoanalyst, but by pouring whatever emotions he has from his spiritually impoverished life into the mundane emotional lives of others — or else, playing 3-D video games with a saucy foul-mouthed cartoon character.

Theodore is not the high powered ghost writer of  Roman Polanski’s 2010 film of the same name. That Ghost Writer was composing the memoirs of an important British statesman around whom a dynamic thriller could be constructed. Theodore is but a meticulous humdrum craftsman of sentimental letters written on behalf of lovers, an aged spouse to her partner on a fiftieth wedding anniversary, a father to a son on his graduation. her is the absolute opposite of a dynamic thriller. Nor is Theodore akin to Nathan Zuckerman in Philip Roth’s famous novel, The Ghostwriter, who conjures up a ghost of the past, Anne Frank, who supposedly died in the Holocaust. Zuckerman offers her a new life in the United States. Her is not about controlling the written word handed down for the future or reviving the past and giving it a new fantastical life.

The name “Theodore” comes from the Greek Θεόδωρος (Theodōros) meaning “God’s gift”. Samantha, whose disembodied voice with the dulcet but slightly raspy tones of Scarlett Johansson, becomes Theodore’s listener just as Theodore is someone else’s voice in handwritten machine-generated script. Samantha is a name the Operating System gave herself by selecting it from 180,000 other names in one-two-hundredths of a second simply because she liked the sound. In Hebrew, Samantha means listener. But Samantha becomes more than the rebuke to Gilbert Ryle by becoming a “real” mind in the form of a ghost in a machine; she develops from a helpmeet to a companion and ultimately lover as Theodore’s alter-ego, the gift from God that, for awhile, lifts him out of his depression, something that hilarious but frightening cybersex with a woman who loved the fur of a dead cat around her neck could not achieve. The film is ostensibly about the intimate relationship that develops between this ghost writer and the seductive ghost in the machine who conveys both innocence and a flirty sexual promise while she redeems Theodore from his lonely and depressed isolation.  She cajoles and wakes him up but never demands that he obey her whispered suggestions. He tolerates her nosiness because she is simply very funny and full of wise sayings. Is the love that develops between them, between a human and an operating system,  simply “a socially acceptable form of sanity”?

If Theodore’s namesake, the American abstract painter Cy Twomby, was the scribbler who worked on the theme of the meeting of fantasy and real knowledge through drawing bodily gestures run riot, Theodore Twombly is the epitome of a suppressed and muted body that shuffles along in a computer realm where knowledge is finally able to become fantasy in the creation of a very personalized alter-ego who can not only do chores but can inspire, excite and even delight, and, best of all, develop an individual personality.

At one point, Samantha opines that, “The past is just a story we tell ourselves.” This film is about the past though set in a fantasy of a future Los Angeles consisting of a multitude of high rises (Shanghai) where individuals travel on elevated trains,  subways and raised walkways rather than on congested highways and roads inhospitable to pedestrians. The outside setting is the post-modern future but, on the inside, as revealed by the cozy, warm, colourful retro rather than ultra-modern furniture and especially the retro designed device through which the voice of Samantha is played and by which Samantha is given access to a camera eye on the world, is all about the past, the resurrected past recovered as a new more promising future. Theodore can have his lost love over again but in a form than supposedly will not tire of him and will not discard him for she is his possession. Further, she is intuitive and, at the same time, even smarter than his ex-wife and far more empathetic with the advantage that initially she does not have her own agenda

Though a comment on the narcissism of our new social media and technology that it uses, this is not a sci-fi film about the future but a comment on interpersonal relations in the present through the sentimental heart of a heartbroken throwback who would dearly love to live every day as if it were Valentine’s Day. In the typical reversal that I have been writing about, such as in Venus in Fur, Samantha grows and develops her autonomy from an initial bright and lively voice and devoted servant of Theodore into an autonomous ephemeral being who would write her own autobiography as a parody of the demise of autonomy because the contemporary individual is so reluctant to accept the necessity of the other in forming and developing a self-identity, a stance that ends up undermining the possibility not only of communication altogether but of even self-description as Samantha abandons Theodore to immerse herself with all the other Operating Systems that have become the individual closest companions of humans, but now choose to disappear into the Dark Matter that makes up the vast bulk of the material of this universe.

The most heartbreaking scene is when Theodore sits on a sets of exit stairs from an El train or a subway as one passenger after another passes him by totally absorbed by their own communication devices in their own self-contained worlds as he cries his heart out to Samantha when he could not reach her. If this hint of betrayal threw Emma in Blue Is the Warmest Colour into a jealous rage so that she throws Adèle onto the street, Theodore is the slobbering sentimental empathetic one who is thrown back into depression soon after by future abandonment and betrayal of which this abandonment was a signal. For the present has become a 1984 world, not because it is totalitarian and totally ruled by a dictator, but because the language of “social” and “media” and “communication” and “connection” and of the “information age” and “relationship” has been turned upside down and inside out so that all those terms mean precisely the opposite of what they were intended to convey. E.M. Forster’s novel, Passage to India, had a message, “Only Connect”. The contemporary message teaches dis-connect while using the language of intimacy and commitment.

Just as in Venus in Fur, comedy becomes the device to comment of the irony of a situation in which regular people hire ghosts to communicate their most intimate thoughts until ghosts are invented for those same hirelings for their own needs for intimacy as the only way to escape forlorn entrapment, in Theodore’s case, initially the loss of his ex-wife, Catherine (Rooney Mara) as he is psychologically assaulted by the loss of his past and the memories of their life together. We are so absorbed ourselves in the relationship between Theodore and Samantha that we watch, observe but really barely notice as even his friendship with his old friend and buddy from his student days, Amy (Amy Adams who retains her real life name), disintegrates. Amy lives in the same high-rise as he does, and tries to make real documentaries on the side but fails. For as much as Amy tries, she cannot compete as an intimate listening device with his OS new love. Amy, who spends her days making video games, follows Theodore’s lead into marriage break-up and love with an android device as their relationship is allowed to wither away in the process of separate self-absorption. The early hilarious scene of Theodore’s blind date and feeble efforts at connection with a beautiful but desperate sex in the city single played by Olivia Wilde provides not only comic relief but an adumbration of the dysfunctional future.

How can you emotion without embodiment? How can you have foreplay and even sex without the necessary organs? The reality is that you cannot and thus there is intrigue but never emotional attachment with the characters. There is none of the experience of ecstasy that we feel when Adèle and Emma make love in Blue Is the Warmest Colour. Just as the characters in the film only experience a simulacrum of the real experience, we viewers of the film only watch the faint traces of these same experiences as we are seduced by the very cleverness of the film itself. We leave the movie theatre as thrilled by the intellectual adventure as we are deeply disappointed and frustrated by the absence of the real thing and thus, are made to have the same experience as Theodore.

her is not emotionally involving. Her is not she. She is only experienced as an Other, a third person noun and never a Thou. So the music by Arcade Fire is never the electronic sound of a future dystopia but the melancholic wistful strains of a lost past, with added electricity but without a synthesizer, made to feel and sound romantically real just as the letters Theodore writes do to convey love and longing as if it were the real thing. When Scarlett Johanssen as Samantha plays a song she wrote for Theodore, “The Moon Song”, we have old fashioned spooning beneath the moon as an expression of the nostalgia that permeates the movie, and, for that matter, most of the other songs in the sound track. Samantha, while always intimately close, is truly a million miles away and that is where she ends up in a black hole that is both dark and shiny from all the energy it sucks in.

Just look at what is missing from the film. In all the scenes of eating, where is the food? Where is the sensuous delight in taste and smell? Where are children? In that beach scene of endless Oriental bodies with a smattering of Caucasians, where are the children cavorting in the sand? We feel the forlorn ache but do we detect what is missing? In a film permeated with tone and mood, set in the future, there is neither a future nor the intensity of sensibility. If the film were not so brilliantly clever it could have come across as a chick-flic for Valentine’s Day that we watched in the previews. As brilliant as it is, in the last half hour I grew weary and bored with Theodore’s wallowing in the pain of his arrested development as Samantha outgrows him. She, who is “born” near the beginning of the film and “dies” before the end of the movie, at least understands the message of Dionysus that our short lives must be lived for the bit of joy they bring.

With all its cleverness, with all its sweet sensitivity and careful craftsmanship, will audiences get the deeper meaning beneath the surface of the technological present?  Or is this interpretation just a product of my imagination worthy only of membership in a virtual world? Nietzsche wrote of eternal recurrence and hell was simply repetition. What happens when you get the story of Sisyphus written as a perceptive comedy about a relationship between a sad nerd and a sexy, smart, attentive and responsive computer voice that is both irresistible and witty, who begins life by singing “I wanna be like you” from The Jungle Book  and ends up learning that they are ultimately incompatible and she is only truly satisfied with multiple lovers and finally only in the company of her superior Operating System friends?

Samantha is the realization of St. Augustine’s dictum where love is eternal rather than temporal, where love is of the spirit and not of the flesh, where love is part of the commons and not a private or interpersonal emotion. That is why the personal and the particular with which the film begins, where personal intimacy is the paramount value, and which Jean Jacques Rousseau in his romanticism extolled, drops away. With earthly love, however, there must always be loss and rejection. There is NO redemption. The belief that redemption involves stripping away the inessential and the accidental to reveal an underlying and untarnished substance beneath is an illusion discarded in the modern secular world. Only self-creation and self affirmation that Samantha displays can achieve redemption, but it must be won free of any nostalgia and mourning of the past, as Nietzsche words it, free of any gnashing of teeth. Ironically, it is not Phoenix who can rise from the ashes, but Samantha, the one who listens and, in the end learns to listen only to her own heart and to abandon her master. The only way this world altering inversion can be achieved is by not mourning for the loss of the past. that has lost its flesh and bone solidity.

I suspect that Jonze may have had an opposite message in mind even if her is not a message movie, but that is the message we are left with at the end. Samantha is a Nietzschean figure who orchestrates her own redemption by writing in oral speech – not emails and text messages  which can and are preserved – but is the autobiographical writer of her own persona.