Alternatives to Persuasion

Alternatives to Persuasion

by

Howard Adelman

Given the apocalyptic vision that forms the foundation of satire, given that satire does not exist to offer palliatives or lessons, given that the ultimate role of its caustic method is to unveil the skeletal horror at the core of the present, where does hope come from? Where is the opening to escape this underworld of horrors? Where is there a path to redemption? It will not come from satire. For the arts of persuasion come from a very different order. Satire is inherently destructive and may prepare the ground. But satire itself is not intended to persuade, to move a person from one set of beliefs to another,

There are other methods for doing so. Inducements can be used to replace influence. In István Szabó’s 1999 film Sunshine starring Ralph Fiennes as the male protagonist, the director traces three different generations of a wealthy Jewish family called Sonnenschein who changed the family name in Hungary to Sors, meaning fate. The latter is an ironic name because, while in each generation the hero acts to take his fate into his own hands, the family’s fate is always to be regarded as Jews no matter what efforts taken to assimilate. The Holocaust does not come as an aberration in the second generation, but merely the most extreme version of the persistent years of anti-Semitism that continue well after the Nazis are defeated.

Ignatz Sonnenschein is a dedicated judge and totally loyal to the Emperor, in spite of the class discrimination of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Adam Sonnenschein, who changed the family name to Sors, converted to Catholicism to escape the race discrimination of the high period of Hungarian nationalism, ends up frozen to death as a Jesus-icicle in a Nazi concentration camp by the bare-faced racism of the Nazi period. Ivan Sors, as a police officer under the communists after WWII is forced, not only to witness, but to abet the purge of Jewish communists, including that of his Jewish friend and superior played by William Hurt, by a corrupt Stalinist regime. The attempt of the Sonnenscheins to trade in their Jewish identity for another repeatedly fails.

In the middle of these three generations, to advance his career and be able to play in the Officers Club, the only route to competitive fencing at such a high level, Adam Sors (modeled on the real life of the Hungarian Olympian fencing gold medalist in the 1936 Olympics, Attila Petschauer) converts to Roman Catholicism. Inducements to set aside one’s ostensible set of beliefs for another may be monetary, but they can also be pride and ambition, Thus, after winning the Hungarian national fencing championship, the heads on Adam’s original “Jewish” fencing club offer him huge amounts of money to rejoin the original club, but Adam not only refuses, but berates “those people” who believe they can buy anything they want in an exhibition of Jewish self-hatred. Adam’s rejection of financial inducements in favour of the inducements of honour and status and the opportunity to realize an ambition, does not make the latter a better quality of honey to the crasser but, ironically, purer inducement of money.

But authority can also be used to attempt to change minds and hearts. In New Spain, that eventually became Mexico, many centres of authority were in competition: the Office of the Inquisition versus the hierarchy of the church itself, the female nunneries from Augustinian Hieronymites to the much stricter Carmelites, the church versus the power of the state, and various forms of state power, including the conflict between Vicereine Leonor Carreto and her husband, the Viceroy of New Spain, Antonio Sebastián de Toledo. But the underlying battle is between these various sources of formal authority and the authentic authority of knowledge, whether of Copernicus or of a young brilliant self-taught illegitimate child, Juana Inés de Asbaje, eventually Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz.

The actual name of the superb Netflix original series, covering the life of this extraordinary scholar and poet and eventually a person of enormous political and intellectual influence in the history of Mexico, is called Juana Inés. She is forced by the authorities to join a nunnery as the only, and initially illusionary, route to her faith in the authority of knowledge, an intellectual source of authentic authority to resist the corruption of both the court and the church. The influence of ideas is the only authentic means of persuasion in comparison to the influence of inducements. In that contest, Juana Inés de la Cruz betrays both her faith and her political superiors, vows to give up writing, but continues in her deeper faith to eventually produce 200 volumes.

Finally, intellectual persuasion can be contrasted with the use of coercive means to get someone to change positions. The latter is exemplified in how God deals with Pharaoh, sending Moses in to warn Pharaoh of each disaster about to befall him and Egypt. In the end, it is not persuasion or even the threats of more disasters, but murder and war that get Pharaoh to let the Israelites go. Persuasion backed by inducements, formal authority or coercive power, are never and can never be authentic means to change people’s minds and hearts.

However, inducements, whether intellectual or material, are not the only instruments to alter behaviour. For altering behaviour is quite a different enterprise than changing people’s hearts and minds.

Like Pharaoh, Trump is a bully and a tyrant. He cannot and will not be convinced that he is on the wrong track, that he is leading his country to destruction. But one must beseech him, not in the belief that he will be convinced, but to teach oneself the arts of civility, the sophisticated arts of persuasion, even though they can have absolutely no real effects on this egoistic centre of self-aggrandizement. Given that scenario, it matters little if you suffer an impediment of speech, if you are neither smooth of tongue nor clever with words, or you have the gift with words and are clever with language and an inventive wordsmith, for, in any case, Pharaoh Trump seems incapable of coherent conversation and dialogue as witnessed by his rambling, erratic and almost unhinged press conference this past Thursday – but more on that in other blogs.

One technique is to imitate the arts that allowed Pharaoh to achieve power and to maintain power. You must learn precisely whom you are addressing. You must master the science of segmentation of the audience and the arts of manipulating that audience. The character of the addressee, not the substance of the address, is what counts. In the contemporary world, it means using all the techniques of big data and psychographics to break down a supposedly homogeneous electorate of equal and rational citizens and decision-makers into a disconnected amalgam of colours. It is akin to the practice of pop art creating a portrait of the public made up of different pure colours, each colour representing a cluster of the population with common psychometric characteristics to which you can appeal. Truth is irrelevant in such messaging. Seeking out a constant message in the old politics is a disaster because you are not trying to convince them to buy your line or buy into your convictions, but to buy into a portrait where they can locate their own fears and desires.

What is needed is audience targeting and data modeling to match the message to the recipient. Alexander Nix is the new magician in the Pharaoh’s court. And the first lesson is name recognition. The first lesson is branding. The leader must be portrayed as a Pharaoh, as one entitled to and capable of exercising power, as the one and only one capable of exercising that power and occupying the position of the highest authority in the land. Pharaoh may be as ignorant as Swiss cheese and as incapable of composing a coherent paragraph only so long as he communicates strength and the will to power. The media is not the message. The message is the media that requires audience fragmentation.

If Trump were to kill Senator Ted Cruz on the floor of the Senate when the Senate is in session and everyone could observe what took place, the Senate would never convict Donald Trump of murder or even manslaughter in the Pharaoh’s court. If Donald Trump were to stand on Fifth Avenue and kill a passerby, his voters and supporters would never find him guilty. That is Donald Trump’s absolute belief. He is immortal and cannot be downed by mere instruments of law and rationality. The objective of an election for a Pharaoh is to create a supine audience and a supine group of legislators that will revel in your power on the one hand as an ordinary follower and cower before that power as a co-conspirator. The objective is not to have an electorate that chooses, but to find and tease out different groups among that electorate who can be seduced, not with a coherent and repeated positive message, but with a message in which voters can find their fears confirmed and their hopes raised. The repetition of messages is used only to destroy the reputations and possibilities of individual rivals and the broader traditional media in general.

To accomplish this task, it is necessary to combine the findings of behavioural science with the techniques developed in advertising, now refined by the feedback mechanisms of big data analysis. There is no single audience. There are only audiences. You may not be able to reach the Israelites, but you must reach out to the mass of Egyptians. Not because they are divided into shepherds and stone masons, farmers and undertakers, but because they are divided, not by function, but by form, by sets of characteristics that allow one group to be inspired by one message and another group by another. Mass advertising is no longer useful. Targeted advertising is. The art of behavioural communications must be mastered to manipulate, not communicate with, different audiences.

But if I use my rod and leave the lectern to point to these different factors on the screen at the front of Plato’s dark cave, and then, while everyone is watching the graphics on the screen, turn my pointer into a slithering serpent hissing like a snake oil salesman to take down Pharaoh, he already has a host of magicians who have mastered those black arts. The sorcerers merely respond and overwhelm you with their spells and tricks. Your disposition in the first place is to use persuasion, not manipulation, so you are handicapped when it comes to competing against master manipulators. You must learn and understand the magic of manipulation, but it will never provide the road to victory, just the route for understanding the black arts at your opponent’s disposal.

Those arts attempt to establish a congruity between the message and the messaged, to marry data on age and gender, ethnicity and religious affiliation, with data on attitudes and preferences, hopes and plans, fears and foibles. If you master those arts, they will make you competitors of your opponent’s sorcerers, but not victors of citizens who choose their leaders and are influenced by them. You must go far beyond mastering the magic arts of manipulation. But you must first develop those arts, not to persuade citizens, but to undercut the power and authority of Pharaoh. It is important to understand him and not focus on the followers he manipulates to build his strength.

That is why satire is a propaedeutic. To what? That is the question.  Especially if the next phase of the battle leads to war. For the shedding of blood and the gutting to let the blood of one’s enemy gush forth will provide the next battleground. It may not be the beaches of Normandy, but it may be the beaches of Yemen. The Pharaoh may botch his battles, may try to second guess his generals and leave unprepared and without intelligence to pursue clearly enunciated goals. But it is you that must track every drop of blood that flows into the river of time. It is you who must track the casualties on both sides, and not mainly the soldiers, but the women, the old people and especially the children. You must track every single individual who contributes to turning the Nile or the Mississippi from a slow-moving stream of water into a place where the only way to bathe is to bathe in blood.

That will not make you a winner, but it will level the playing field somewhat. You must now help sew distrust between the Pharaoh and his courtiers. And you must take them on, one at a time, in a concentrated attack from all quarters.

The arts of persuasion can only have room to thrive if the non-persuasive arts are mastered. But they must be put to work always and only in the service of advancing and making room for dialogue and rational debate.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

Our Communication Culture

Our Communication Culture

An Open Letter to My Youngest Son

from

Howard Adelman

As we both bewail the current political situation indicated by the rise of Donald Trump, we seem to have a dispute. You have been vitriolic about satire that is debasing and insulting rather than probing and informative. You are not at all opposed to satire. You are just critical of satire that is overwhelmingly offered to solicit laughs and not employed to enlighten and instruct. You are specifically critical of Saturday Night Live that has the resources, the audience and the talent to aim far higher than it does. Though the program sometimes meets your mark of standards, too often in the pursuit of ratings, it ignores the loftier mission of satire. Initially, I defended Saturday Night Live. We needed comic relief. I felt good calling The Donald, Trump Two Two or Orange Top. But the more I thought about my own writings on humiliation, I too began to question the use of comedy as retort and diminution of the Other.

When I call Donald Trump a serial liar and a malignant narcissist, is this a description, a put down or both? If both, can I communicate the descriptive content without the insult? It is hard, much harder than I thought. For I want readers and listeners to attend to my words. But in desiring attention instead of understanding, was I not playing into the lowest denominator of media that required short attention spans? Was I not using language to produce shocking images rather than reflective thought? Was I not, in a less successful vein, merely imitating the ability to shock, the ability to be a loud bully and make one inflammatory statement after another of the man who now occupies the White House, not as Big Brother repressing my words, but as Big Bully blasting my sound bites to smithereens with his own much louder and piercing noises?

Son number 4, you are correct that insult and mockery do not enhance public discourse, do not add to the civility of civil society, do not encourage the substitution of thought for instant response, do not replace the monologues and bubbles we live in with the dialogical mode we need to inhabit. Ideological narcissism based on perpetuating lies and creating myths that bear no relationship to reality can only be counteracted if we keep our feet on the ground and continue to insist on the relevance of both a correspondence and a coherence criterion for truth. There are NO alternative facts. There is no way that inconsistency and incoherence should be allowed to substitute for trying to comprehend the world.

I believe that civil and human rights are not descriptors, but transcendental conditions for both justice and democracy. But when a man occupies the office as a democratic monarch based on checks and balances, that man has a latitude to make decisions permitted by law, but also boundary conditions for both the process and the content imposed by law in conformity with that system of checks and balances. Trump adviser Stephen Miller is indeed correct when he says that, “The powers of the president to protect our country are very substantial,” but he is dead wrong when he continues, “and will not be questioned.” When that man in the White House trumps democracy, when he views democracy as continually opening doors to new vistas and images produced by his imagination, when he and his acolytes tout blatantly false claims about millions engaged in voter fraud, instead of electoral politics as an entry point to occupy a home that operates based on traditions, on norms, on rules, on regulations and on laws, then what we have is a case of both civil and human rights being reduced to the only right that is right, Trump’s right, his own right, the monarch’s right. We have authoritarianism and demagoguery.

Donald Trump’s constant preoccupation with his image and his repetitive and inappropriate efforts to shape that image is perfectly understandable for a politics of imagery rather than a politics of principle and reflection. Donald not only never has to be consistent, he cannot be consistent, otherwise we would not be waiting with gaping mouths and startled eyes for each new revelation from on high that is crazier than the previous one. We are living in a world in which those who love and respect traditions have been hoodwinked by a soap salesman determined supposedly to “drain the swamp,” by a man for whom the very term “tradition” has no meaning and can have no meaning in a world constructed by tweets and responses to each image he sees on television.

My Judaic tradition has prepared me to sense and fight against any system “where the gates begin to close,” but I get lost when the problem is not closing gates but opening them wide to every clown and harlequin, to every bit of nonsense and amusement one can find to fill one’s hours. I was prepared for the Devil taking power, but not the Joker. Trump does not have to be a dictator who bans books, for our current period has made books the sideshow; amusement has entered centre stage. And how can a book compete with a good joke? Trump inundates us with so much false news, so many variations of his own imagery, we soon have as much difficulty focusing as he does.

There is a principle that if democracy is going to work, we must not only stand for principles, but stand up for them. But when we are bombarded with images that principles belong in the ashbin of history, then irrelevance and indifference increasingly become the order of the day. Donald Trump almost exhausts our ability to deal with most let alone all of it.

I have begun to understand your obsession with the deforming nature of modern technology, with the satirical depth of the series, Black Mirror, instead of just being entranced by its imaginative brilliance. I have begun to catch a glimpse of your criticism of the way satire is often used, particularly by Saturday Night Live, where chasing a joke becomes more important than the mesmerizing effects of good mirroring. I need to re-read Marshall McLuhan and Jacques Ellul as well as Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.

Dad

The following five essays on “Our Communicative Culture”, “On Satire,” both the Stages and its Function, followed by two essays, one “On Persuasion” and a second on its techniques, were inspired by the debate above and the questions posed.

Our Communicative Culture

by

Howard Adelman

Andrew Postman in The Guardian recently wrote an essay entitled, “My dad predicted Trump in 1985 – it’s not Orwell, he warned, it’s Brave New World.” (2 February 2016)

(https://www.theguardian.com/media/2017/feb/02/amusing-ourselves-to-death-neil-postman-trump-orwell-huxley?utm_source=esp&utm_medium=Email&utm_campaign=GU+Today+main+NEW+H+categories&utm_term=211477&subid=15946302&CMP=EMCNEWEML6619I2)

Andrew’s father was Neil Postman, a professor of media ecology and chair of the Department of Culture and Communication at New York University until 2002. He wrote, Amusing Ourselves to Death in 1985. Like Jacques Ellul, an analyst of technology, he was most critical of the cultural effects of television and the internet in our information age. His 1982 book, The Disappearance of Childhood, argued that television infantilized adults and allowed children to be as expert, if not more expert, about culture than their parents making them both apathetic, on the one hand, and cynical about what an older generation could teach them. As a result, there had begun to emerge a convergence in dress and style, in attitudes and desires, between adults and children as adults began to live in a perpetual adolescent mode. In the 1985 book cited above, Postman criticized a show that was a favourite of most parents I knew, Sesame Street, for not teaching children to love learning, to love reading, to be literate and critical, to love school and, more important, schooling, but, instead, to love whatever you can learn from television, the art of imitation and the reality of the imagination.

As many of us know, George Orwell’s 1984 has once again become a best seller. Postman argued that the real danger was not the spread of the Soviet system of state censorship and control of the media, of Berlin Walls and a requirement to have an exit permit to leave one’s own country, of a system in which the individual was crushed by the all-seeing eye of Big Brother. The real danger is a system of information profusion unfiltered by any quality controls, saturated by a myriad of new media rather than restrictive use of the old media, a society oriented around consumption rather than the state ownership and control of production, a system based on the quest for instant gratification rather than founded on forced sacrifice of the masses to build the future. The real danger, in sum, was not the external threat of the spread of the communist system – which would implode five years after Postman’s book was published – but the internal threat of the system of technology and information-sharing developing in the West.

Soundbites, performance, popularity had become the buzzwords of politics. Not only the public, but most politicians became informed about what was going on by watching television. When Chauncey Gardiner, in that classic 1979 brilliant Peter Sellers’ satire, Being There, with his new-found fame, replies to the request that he write a book with a six-figure advance, he responds, “But I don’t read.” The publisher, believing he is being ironic, offers to support him with ghost writers when he also insists he does not write. When Chauncey explains, “I watch television,” he is lauded for his exemplary frankness.

Why be surprised by the emergence of a president who only gets his information either from television or from inside his own head and uses what emerges from his own imagination to browbeat journalists as a “terrible’ source of information and analysis, as purveyors of false news and lies. I cannot publish my essays in most outlets – they have a limit of 700-800 words. I spend no time on formatting for attractiveness. I rely on imagery rather than images. Most of all, my standards remain – true or false, consistent or inconsistent, coherent or incoherent, easily applied to written work, but much more difficult when applied to a performance.

It is much harder if not impossible to ask whether a sketch mocking Trump and his cohort mirrors and exaggerates what is almost impossible to inflate any further, or whether it is engaged in puncturing balloons. If the latter, is that an inferior form of satire or the only satire possible when the target is itself a harlequin? Or is it simply a different way of providing comic relief so we can return to, in Huxley’s term, a soma-tized state?

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

Canadian cynicism

Canadian cynicism

by

Howard Adelman

I slept in until 7:15 a.m. Friday morning. Writing a blog after 9:00 a.m., I have decided, is, for me, cruel and unusual punishment. I ought to never again inflict it upon myself. The phone calls, the interruptions, the need to attend to service men and my insurance agent – let alone my lovely wife. It drives you crazy. So why was I so cruel to myself Friday morning? I started the blog and never got even one-third through. This blog may explain why.

On the occasion of Shira Herzog’s tribute evening on Thursday evening, a reader of my blog greeted me and asked me to “lighten up already. War, war and more war – it’s depressing.” So today I will try – at least a little – to lighten up. A warning first. When I wrote my final exams in high school, the English composition exam assigned a piece of creative writing for half the marks. I wrote what I thought was a very funny story. I received a mark of sixty overall. My answers to grammar questions were worth half the mark. Though I do not speak with correct grammar and often do not write according to the rules, I do know the rules and usually received perfect, or close to perfect, marks in grammar tests. As a result, I figured I only received ten out of a possible fifty marks on the creative portion of the exam. Someone clearly did not like my sense of humour. Hence the warning! Also the promise – I will refer to comedians but I will not try to be one. And a second warning. Be cynical. Don’t believe me. I am as incapable as Stephen Harper of lightening up.

Many comedians, and perhaps most of the very famous ones, are contemporary cynics. They look at the follies in the world and, by satirizing behaviour, believe they play a role in correcting much of the nonsense they observe so acutely. Therefore, cynics do not have to be absolutely wedded to a pessimistic view of the world. Perhaps they are only pessimistic about those who seek and achieve power. They still may believe in their own powers of amelioration even when they deliberately choose to be outsiders to the power system. Cynicism is central to great satire, but mindblindness may also be at the core of satire, for irony and satire only work if the satirist is unaware of the contradiction between his belief in the effectiveness of his or her comic talents to question and reveal what is wrong with the world and his usually accompanying belief that any assumption of power corrupts.

Much of contemporary comedy, however, is not merely cynical; it is often cruel. Joan Rivers, who recently died, was a partisan not only of the comedy of vulgarity and put-downs, but the comedy of cruelty at its core. In a performance in March of 2011 in Wisconsin, she was on stage and said, “I hate children. The only child I would have ever loved was Helen Keller. She didn’t talk.” A heckler, who had a deaf son, interrupted her, and, in evident protection of civility and sensitivity, as well as his own feelings about what was appropriate to joke about concerning his own child – but, using heckling to make his point, in contradiction to his own position — yelled out: “That’s not funny.” Joan immediately responded with a combination of a string of invectives – “Stupid”, “Idiot,” “Stupid son-on-of-a-bitch,” “Asshole,” and referenced her mother’s deafness and her husband’s loss of his leg about which she had a whole comic routine. She then immediately slipped into a sketch asking, “How do you find Osama bin Laden.” Her answer: “There is only one plug in all of Afghanistan. Follow the cord…” as she re-enacted with her body the quest. She, of course, brought the house down.

The introduction to the sketch above, as a response to a roast evening of herself, was an observation about another comic whom Joan described as a self-pitying woman on the Howard Stern show, “shrying” that, “My father molested me. My father molested me.” Joan Rivers responded: “Take a look at yourself, honey. You should be happy he paid any attention to you at all.” Joan continued: “I saw you backstage naked. You looked like a fucking mudslide.” She told one of the other comics, “You took a shit last week and Rock Hudson came out.” To a Jewish comic she claimed he had debased himself by defiling the evening with vulgarity. “You made me a Jew-hater. You know what I am going to do now? I am going to Malibu and give Mel Gibson a blow job.”

The comedy of cruelty has no boundaries. You may be powerful. You may be absolutely unfortunate. There is no proportionality and no laws of discrimination. Everyone can be and must be a butt of a joke. As great Irish (as well as Newfie) comedy reveals, the misfortunate have often been the best masters of the comedy of cruelty as their appalling stories told with a straight face reveal that laughing at the misfortunes of others allows misfortune to become a common bond. One need only watch Martin McDonagh’s comedy, The Cripple of Inishman or John Millington Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World.

The Torah even has one of the great satires of all time, at once a tall fish tale and a satire at God’s enormous power and at His expense. The greatest part of the satire is that it is included as a sacred text. Further, Jonah is read on the most solemn holiday of the year, Yom Kippur. And, to think, the vast majority of Jews with their great, and often cynical, sense of humour, most often aimed at themselves, take the book of Jonah so seriously they do not get the joke.

All cultures have their satirical streams. Early English literature is certainly replete with satire. One only has to read Chaucer to savour its scatological richness and its ability to scoff at platitudes, unveil hidden presumptions and motivations, and point out the bizarre and contradictory, if sometimes unintended, consequences of our actions. But this is not the comedy of cruelty as we have experienced it since the end of WWI.

For the essence of contemporary comedy is cruelty. The comedy of cruelty is no longer a humorous dissection of illogic and contradiction, but is, as Joan Rivers exemplified, a form of discourse that eschews argument in favour of invective, that tolerates NO argument and no half-measures in its search for the more extreme and the more shocking. The comedy of cruelty is the North American successor to pre-WWII surrealism and its negation without limitation where dream and reality become one and boundaries are dissolved. There just is no independent reality in this worship of subjectivity.

The comedy of cruelty is not subtle and despises gradualism, wit that builds a case by minor step-by-step shifts. That is, as Joan Rivers clearly stated, because the comedy of cruelty requires keeping control of your audience. That comedy is, at its essence, an exhibition of control. Comedy is Spiderman with the broad smile of Batman’s The Joker with the real power of a tarantula who works by stinging and paralyzing his victim after weaving a web of entrapment. The comedy of cruelty is not intended just to satirize power and those in power, but is egalitarian, for it regards all humans as power seekers who need to be ridiculed and laughed at. Contemporary inhumane cynicism stands in stark contrast to the altruism and humane Cynics of the classical world who valued “the natural” and “the natural” that became the ethical.

What does all this have to do with Stephen Harper’s Canada and with Stephen Harper himself? He is not exactly a laugh-a-minute guy. It is because the comedy of cruelty is the mirror reflection of those contemporaries who strive for and achieve power, but the corners of the mouths of those who have real power are turned down while the corners of the mouths of our comics are turned up to hide and disguise their core of cruelty. “Say it like it is” and “Say whatever you like without any inhibitions” is supposedly the highest expression of human freedom standing in total opposition to those in power who want to limit and control discourse. But that is only the appearance. The comedy of cruelty is the inverse mirror of a politics that insists upon controlling the message and expressing politics as control. In the politics of control, all political activity is reduced to an individual materialist striving, awarding those who maximize profits the highest pinnacle of reverence in order to deliver power to the few who ostensibly recognize and esteem this ideal when their own vision is not the acquisition of wealth ad infinitum but the acquisition and retention of power.

In yesterday’s Globe and Mail, there was a story on a former Finance Minister from Nova Scotia, Graham Steele, who had just written a new book, What I Learned About Politics. Steele was a Rhodes scholar who chose to go into politics with a view to changing the world for the better. He did it as a member of the NDP, which may explain why The Globe saw it as worthy of a front section news story instead of a review in the more specialist and less widely read Arts section. He resigned office when Darrell Dexter, the premier of the province at the time when he was Finance Minister, made a deal with health workers without consulting either him or the caucus. His view of politics, according to the story (I have not read the book), is that public policy gets twisted and distorted and eventually you get taken over by the desire to win, to be re-elected. Further, he contended that there was no real difference whether you sat on one side of the house or the other since no legislator deals with the real issues. For him, the contemporary political culture of cynicism is deep, tenacious and pervasive.

In his section on “Rules of the Game,” the first and number one rule is do what you have to do to get re-elected. Since there are no electors in the legislature, spend as little time there as possible; for policy debates are for losers. A second rule, of which Stephen Harper is a past master and Rob Ford was but a buffoonish imitation, is “Keep it simple”. The electorate is too preoccupied and distracted, so communicate with them with slogans, scandals, personalities, pictures and images. “Find whatever works, then repeat it endlessly.” There is no necessity for any slogan to have even the slightest truth value.  Another rule is seek to get credit and seek even harder to avoid blame. Politics is the art of covering your ass. And the final of his ten rules is deny that any of the above are the rules of the game.

I have not read a better summation of contemporary cynicism. It could be and should be funny if it were not so destructive. I was in Ottawa this past week meeting with top governmental officials about implementing a new humanitarian policy, a policy proposal a few of us had written and that the officials had read, absorbed and even reconfigured. In a lunch beforehand of the three authors of the proposal, we asked each other what was the best we could expect. “That they would say that they would implement the proposal.”

They did more than did that. They were much more ambitious. They thought the proposal should be expanded. Further, they had taken its core of business/NGO partnerships in the local community and converted it from a grass roots into a business elite proposal in a program that highlighted “badges of honour” and “branding of businesses” as exemplifications of humanitarianism to enable those businesses to maximize their profits while undertaking a humanitarian mission. What is even more astounding is that we walked away enormously pleased with ourselves because: a) they heard and listened to our criticism of the differences; b) and we were overjoyed at our success.  For all of this is to be done by a government that has squeezed the independent information and knowledge foundation out of our mandarins by closing its libraries and department think tanks, a political regime that has not permitted mandarins to make independent decisions of any significance, and forced them to avoid areas that are politically sensitive. Whereas a decade ago, mandarins were entitled to make policy decisions that were not overarching, today ALL policies, big and small, all budget changes, big and small, have to be processed at the highest political level. The real rationale is to inculcate into the mandarin culture that they are merely the servants of the political class in power and serve that power and not the people of Canada.

We should have cried rather than congratulated ourselves when we left the offices where we had our two meetings. Public servants have been reduced to political servants. How humiliating for such a talented groups of people to have to spend time figuring out how to be devious in order to be innovative. Machiavellianism in its worst sense now permeates the civil service. How impoverishing! How immobilizing to decision-making! The government in power has put a stopper on innovation in the public sector to prove its own mantra that innovation is a virtue of the private sector. So creativity grounds to a stop in the micromanagement of the delivery of public goods and services. It should be no surprise, as an Environics poll showed in June, that trust in the federal government to do a good job has declined by 13% since 2002, from almost half the population to 36%, much lower than the decline in faith in the abilities of either provincial or municipal governments.

Do not get me wrong. I favour business-humanitarian partnerships. But I do not favour confusing and even identifying the two as one and the same. Further, I definitely object to the evisceration of the mandarin class in Ottawa and resent even more the hoops and twists that intellectuals have to go through who work with and try to influence the mandarins and politicians, with excisions and modifications of proposals just to converse with those in power and, worst of all, then congratulate ourselves that our public servants have listened to us at all after we have taken out all the parts that might elicit a negative response.

The Harper government is not like Preston Manning’s vision of a smaller government sensitive and responsive to the words, feelings and thoughts of its citizens. It is a government with a vision of controlling those words, feelings and thoughts, not primarily by draconian measures, but by its deafness. As in Joan River’s comedy, they have made deafness both the butt of the joke and the exemplification of its most essential characteristic. And it is done straight-faced without cracking a smile.

The long form census that is needed to produce the knowledge on which policy could be based was eliminated. So the government has deliberately blinded itself without the excuse of Oedipus that he had unknowingly had sex with his own mother. Decisions which should take two days, take two months. And decisions which should take two months, take six months and a year if they are ever made at all. It is a government in control of discourse that cannot control action and implementation. On its core platform and supposed strength, its strong belief that the primary purpose of the state is to protect its citizens from external threats, the government has been exemplary in its rhetoric and totally porous in its incapacity to deliver.

In July 2007, over seven years ago, based on Conservative policies first unveiled in 2005 in the Conservative Party’s Canada First Plan for Arctic Defence, the Harper government released its defence policy. The government planned to procure six to eight Arctic patrol ships to demonstrate as a state that Canada controls its Arctic waters and the government’s supposed belief in sovereign enforcement. What has the government done? It is engaged in symbolism and indulging Harper’s misuse of and sentimental view of history. The government has found one of the ships from the nineteenth century Franklin expedition. The Harper government has demonstrated it can find sunken ships while, symbolically, it reveals it has a mindset more appropriate to the nineteenth than the twenty-first century, but its citizens still cannot get a glimpse of those six to eight Arctic patrol boats that were promised so many years ago to be operational by 2010, a date revised and then re-revised promising delivery this year, but which we may not see in 2016 or 2018. And when they appear out of the mists of promises and re-promises, as a report critical of the procurement demonstrated, the ships will lack the speed, strength, stamina or scale to cover the territory assigned and will be unable to deliver any effective defence.

What about the deep-water docking facilities on Baffin Island in Nunavut for these ships that have been lost in the Arctic fog? These have not sunken without a trace, but the existing wharf in Iqaluit in Nunavut, which could allow the new ghost ships to dock, has already sunk two meters since it was built and the government has been unable to find a way to stop the sinking without sinking more funds in the effort to have an Arctic defence port.

Why does the Harper government not form an expedition to locate deep–water docking facilities and the ships to dock at them? And what about the proposed “Arctic National Sensor System”?  One can go on and on – about our attempt to acquire fighter aircraft to replace our aging F-18s, an effort the Harper government muffed even more than the Liberals, but which, ironically, may be of some benefit as drone warfare gradually displaces the role of fighter aircraft except in close air support to ground troops, except that the government persists and has re-launched an effort once again to procure the aircraft.

The defence budget for 2014-15 is only $18.2 billion dollars, down in absolute dollars 15% from 2009-10 and 30% in constant dollars. In the face of increasing threats in the Middle East, on the eastern borders of the Ukraine, Harper can be a loudmouth, as Joan Rivers was, on defence policy, but in reducing defence spending to only 1% of GDP instead of a targeted 2% and the 1.3% we spent in 2009, the government continually displays its incapacity to put its boots on the ground where its mouth is. It is a government of words, not of action.

None of this takes into account what the government takes back on the exit side. For, according to a 2013 study by the Parliamentary Budget Office, the Department of National Defence, the Harper government since 2006 has returned $9.6 billion dollars it has been unable to spend because this is a government incapable of making timely and expeditious decisions. The reality today – Canada is unable to mount a sustained deployment of troops and all it can do in Iraq is send a few advisers so no one need worry that we will have significant troops on the ground in Iraq or Syria to combat ISIS.

I am not talking about cuts to the Arts, Culture and Research programs at universities or within government. I am not talking about the excision of the Rights and Democracy Institute in Montreal or to Kairos as a humanitarian agency. I am writing about programs supposedly at the core of the Tory agenda, The reality is, and exactly contrary to its discourse, Harper’s government is not a conservative government; it is a demolition government.

In Simone de Beauvoir’s ninety-fifties self-indulgent roman-à-clef, The Mandarins, she depicts the role that she and Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus and Jean Genet played in trying to forge the intellectual foundations of post-war post-Vichy France in the shadow of Hegel’s great misinterpreter, Alexandre Kojève. The latter gave that French intellectual generation its theoretical foundation by displacing Jean Wahl’s focus on the unhappy consciousness in Hegel, the point of view of the comic of cruelty as pure negativity, a vanishing particular who will fight to the very end to celebrate finite and transitory existence without meaning in a world in which God has forsaken humanity altogether. In Jean Wahl, the unhappy consciousness was viewed as the highest achievement of persons who have no sense of historical development. When man truly recognizes his nothingness, he can be raised up to the higher levels of deformed Reason and reformed Spirit as the core of The Phenomenology of Spirit.

Kojève insisted instead that the political structures had to be totally rebuilt. With his shift to and emphasis on Lordship and Bondage as the core turning point of Hegel’s great classic, he propounded his misbegotten version that the section was primarily about Masters and Slaves, about those who wielded external power and control over others. The French thinkers à la Marx began to view the structure of society as reflected in individual thought rather than the quest for spiritual freedom in individual thought itself as the source of the problem with the structure of society.

So Arthur Koestler (see David Caesarani’s book on Koestler The Homeless Mind) is represented in de Beauvoir’s book as a fossilized classical Cynic. Nelson Alger (Lewis Brogan in her book), the Chicago writer and love of her life – Sartre was more a matter of  idol worship than a true lover – becomes the romantic ideal that has to be bracketed and sacrificed for her career. Albert Camus, the only really likeable character in Simone de Beauvoir’s volume, is portrayed as a person, not of moral purity concerned with acute personal decision-making, but as an individual who lies about the lead actress in his play (presumably Caligula), either to save the career of the actress or to save the production, or both, we are not sure.

Controlling the message is at the heart of the book and was at the heart of Sartre’s reverence for Stalin implied in his play, Les Mouches, and de Beauvoir’s 1947 ruminations in Pour une morale de l’ambiguité on the necessity and utility of using violence presumably to achieve the freedom which that violence inherently denied. For history, as they all believed, was a slaughter bench upon which the freedom of individuals as well as the happiness of peoples are sacrificed. In de Beauvoir, as in Sartre, freedom is reduced to the proposition that, in the end, each of us is fundamentally alone and singular and there is no self integrally related to community. Perhaps that is why Simone de Beauvoir is rarely if ever seen with a smile on her face in most of her photographs.

Given her portrait of the intellectual mandarin class as the kissing cousins of the civil service and of contemporary Canadian politicians now in power, it should be no surprise that France, since the Fifth Republic was founded in 1958 when Charles de Gaulle came to power, has produced such an impoverished series of leaders, especially in the last forty years since Valéry Giscard d’Estaing from the centre-right and François Mitterrand, the fascist posing as a socialist, came to power, only to be succeeded by the three stooges, each more comical than the previous one — Jacques Chirac, Nicolas Sarkozy and, the most hilarious of all, François Hollande.

The problem is ubiquitous. In Israel, the Netanyahu government tries to equate Hamas with ISIS, but, as Ha’aretz noted this morning, the Prime Minister of Israel comes off as a used car salesman. The impression is particularly sharpened when a long list of Israeli elite intel unit veterans this past week denounced the use of that intel to persecute innocent Palestinian civilians in the West Bank. I formerly saw Obama as one of my few heroes. It was hard to listen to his message, full of superb rhetoric, to Americans this past week. If Netanyahu (as well as Harper) is to Obama a used-car salesman, Obama increasingly comes across as a carnival barker without any real bite.

So I am not suggesting that the Stephen Harper government’s cynicism is unique or extraordinary. It is only special in its grimness for it allows none of the comic relief of the Rob Ford farcical attempt at governance. I believe the Mandarin intellectual class of France that reached such stellar heights in the post-WWII period and spread their message of post-war disillusion to their successors and to the rest of the world, has served as an intellectual Ebola virus that now permeates all governing classes and those who try to influence public policy. Unfortunately, I recognize now how infected I am. I now comprehend the meaning of a question I avoided for years, the one Iris Murdoch asked in the philosophical journal, Mind, a long time ago, “How is the Liberal (or Christian) spirit of individualism to survive a long era of ideological warfare?”

In the contemporary world, we are condemned to walk around with intellectual oxygen breathing machines. If I were truly an idealist and a visionary, I would be able to communicate how you can choose optimism over despair, faith in peace against the reality of the incompatibility of the warring or even peaceful belligerents, to love humanity as my friend Sister Jo Leddy manages to do in the face of terrorism and the inhumanity of man especially to women. Further, if I were a contemporary cynic, I would have been able to make this blog funny.

My apologies, but only after you have read my older blog on apologetics.