19 August 2007

The bonfire of the vapidities

It's called a strawman. [Right: The ultimate strawman, Guy Fawkes, is set alight in one of the annual celebrations of the defeat of The Gunpowder Plot. Photo: Daily Mail.]

Effectively, a strawman is a caricature of a position taken by ones opponent in a debate or discussion. In order to defeat the argument, one builds a strawman - a convenient caricature - and then sets it alight by explaining how foolish or ridiculous or misguided the opposing argument is.

Except you aren't really dealing with the argument at all. You are dealing with a fiction, a fantasy, a fabrication. It's an illusion.

The Telegram's editorial page editor, Peter Jackson, does a fine job of building strawmen in his column this week on the decision by the provincial government to establish Sir Wilfred Grenfell College as a second university in the province.

He starts out with some generalities about the evil news media assuming politicians have bad motives. Then he praises Brian Tobin for "decisively" ending denominational education and for building The Rooms.

With that armature built, Jackson then builds the strawman:

It has become de rigueur among many political observers of late to characterize absolutely everything Premier Danny Williams does as a Machiavellian attempt to manipulate polls. While it’s true certain spending initiatives and photo ops are tailored for maximum impact, one can hardly assume that a continued hold on the reins of power is the sole motivation behind every government decision.
Let's set that vapid statement alight before it goes any farther.

"A continued hold on the reins of power" is most decidedly not "the sole motivation behind every government decision" and Jackson constructs a rather flimsy strawman in this paragraph. Nor is it a townie versus baymen thing, as much as the provincial government has tried to paint it that way. Jackson picks up that thread at one point, although using the more politically correct phrasing of Grenfell as an issue affetcing a "rural" constituency.

Rather, the point often made at Bond Papers and elsewhere is that the communications component of a decisions is less about providing information to foster discussion and more about creating an illusion of some kind or of simply justifying a decision already taken. It's the media blitz that is designed to help goose polls.

For good measure, Jackson then attempts to caricature those who have raised questions about the Grenfell decisions, labelling then as either "the same administrators on whose deaf ears Grenfell’s pleas for more consideration fell for so long,"...or "those who have nothing but contempt for anything remotely associated with Danny Williams."

Again with the strawmen and, in effect another vapid statement. Jackson ignores the process involved in arriving at the decision on Grenfell, just as he ignores the detailed arguments involved in the debate. in fact Jackson conveniently ignores anything of substance in the debate. He skips on to his own simplistic view:

Those who oppose the provincial government on this issue are either the evil oppressors of the noble people of Corner Brook or those who, to borrow a phrase, believe that Premier Danny Williams can't walk and chew gum at the same time. Or was it tie his own shoe laces correctly?

in any event, Jackson then praises the existence of a discussion on Grenfell's future, ignoring entirely that he just finished identifying those who question the provincial government's decisions as not warranting attention. After all, they are either The Man or The Cynics, as Jackson has so conveniently populated the world of straw in which the "discussion" takes place. Why pay any attention to them?
It is a debate that has simmered for some time, but has exploded since the government announced its plan to forge ahead with restructuring.

It is a debate that will likely go on for some time.

This can only be a good thing. It is important that the pros and cons of autonomy be thoroughly discussed in the public arena.
Unfortunately, Jackson's world exists almost entirely in his own head. He manufactured the various positions and just as simplistically manufactured the good of a "debate" which in fact does not exist.

The deal on Grenfell is done and has been done since before the consultants were hired. It would have been important to discuss the Grenfell issue publicly before the decision was made. It would have been important to hear all sides, rather than cavalierly dismiss valid criticisms, as Jackson does here. The debate Jackson praises is as much an illusion as the strawmen he vanquishes.

And as for the accusations of politicking, one would be naive in the extreme to simply leave them unexamined in any major decision taken by any government anywhere at any time. Politicking, it should be noted is not synonymous with partisanship, Jackson's main armature. In the case of Grenfell, one suspects that another politician of another party in the same situation might well make the same decision: and without any of the niceties of debate, discussion or even a plan to hinder the drive to make a particular constituency happy irrespective of the viable alternatives or the cost.

It's not like we haven't seen that before, say, in the case of the Rooms.

Just as it isn't like we haven't seen the strawmen and the bonfire before.