14 November 2014

The Ego-mentary #nlpoli

Danny Williams’ hockey team tried a little marketing ploy this week.  They sent out a bulletin to news media disguised as a news release. 

They claimed the hockey team was locked in some kind of record breaking attempt with a crowd of mainlander for the most sold-out games.  While everything was going well, apparently, there was a chance that this week’s first game would fall short of the glorious goal of yet another sell-out.

What’s interesting about this pretty transparent marketing ploy is that it worked with the CBC.  Popular opinion, including among the crowd at the Mother Corp is that they just don’t do that sort of thing.  Well, the opinion is wrong. The folks over on the Parkway are as big a bunch of suckers for a good “us versus them” narrative as the rest of the crowd in the province.

Danny Williams’ entire political career was built on an “us versus them” narrative.  He didn’t invent it.  Someone else did that.  But by the time Williams came along, the thing was so deeply ingrained in people that he just had to hint at a foreigner and the knees would reflexively jerk right across the province, from St. John’s to Corner Brook (he wrote hoping people get the joke.) 

The experience was Pavlovian. Or at least Larsonian.

The other hallmark of Williams’ political career was the ruthless suppression of any contrary voices.  Inside his party.  Outside his party.  Didn’t matter.  Anyone who was not lock-step in line with the official Williams view of the universe got the jab in the ribs or, in the case of people like Fabian Manning, the mighty heave-ho. 

Macleans magazine captured that quite accurately in their little piece on the National Film Board’s Williams’ new film titled “Danny”.  He keeps a “stranglehold on his own narrative” the subtitle insightfully declared. 

To illustrate the point, Macleans notes that  people like Williams’ ex-wife are conspicuously absent from the film.  The only people featured in the film are those who love Danny at least as much as Danny loves himself.  For such a crime, the crime of mentioning that Williams and his wife are divorced, Macleans earned a sneering dig from Old Twitchy himself at the townie premiere of the little feature.  His shoulder twitches when Williams gets riled but the love from the audience at the show,  the adoration he craves desperately, seems to have calmed his shoulder enough during the scrum that he didn’t risk knocking himself unconscious.

Anyway, Macleans started their piece with a bit of the film that is much more to the point. There is a confrontation with Stephen Harper.  It includes quotes of things that “Williams recalls Harper telling him.”

Williams recalls.

That’s the key point. 

The Danny Williams legend is entirely one of Danny Williams’ construction.  He remains the master of his own narrative.  This is not metaphorical.  Williams does not decide his fate or determine his future.  Williams literally tells us his own story as he sees it.

This movie by the studio that invented the documentary as an art form is the story of Danny Williams told by Danny Williams.

And a fine story it is.

The problem is that most of the story isn’t true.  It’s made up, either in whole or in largest part, out of the vivid imagination of the subject or his acolytes.
In the process, the National Film Board has invented a new form:  the fake-umentary. It is a hagiography,  a story that idealizes its subject.  In less polite terms, it is a pack of lies. What the producers delivered is exactly the work of fiction they promised.  It is similar to the mock documentaries about rock bands or folk music or dog shows except that “Danny” is not supposed to be a parody.  The people behind it take the whole thing very earnestly.

No one takes it more earnestly that Williams himself, of course.  In the advance publicity,  Williams offered that the film would help the people of the province understand their own history. There is no history in the film as near as anyone can tell.  This film is all about Williams himself.  So what was he on about?

Aside from Williams’ tendency to inflate his own importance in the universe, this is just a version of Williams’ claim after the 2007 election to the CBC’s Rex Murphy.  “I believe in my heart and soul,”  offered Williams without the slightest sense of self-awareness, “that I embody the heart and soul of Newfoundland and Labrador.”

L’etat, c’est moi, indeed.

“Danny” is political porn.  There is no shortage of felating. Most examples are trademark selfies, courtesy of the flexible, if geriatric, star. Others are from his fan club.  All celebrities have a fan club and Williams is no exception.

In places, “Danny” is parody.  Williams is reduced to talking about a political confrontation with public sector workers, this taking place, of course, long before he bought them off with massive raises.  In “Little fellow from Gambo” NFB cameras were actually at Confederation Building for a protest by university students. who actually wanted to get rid of the old fellow who was, at the time, getting a haircut.

“Danny” is also psychological cliche.  There is part of the film, as Macleans recounts, where Williams talks about surpassing his father.  In another sense,  even in the NFB film itself, Williams seems to be struggling to surpass his other father.  That would be the political nemesis his revered mother fought as a dedicated anti-Confederate, anti-Smallwoodite Conservative.

A fair-sized bunch of townies turned up to watch the premiere.  They staged the show not at a movie theatre but, in keeping with the oedipal subtext, across the province at the government-owned centres built during the last days of Smallwood’s reign.  Sure, most of the audience were charter members of the worshipful gang of Williams’ arse lickers and boot kissers, but they were there in considerable numbers.  That’s the key point.  Williams is gone from the political stage,  firmly rejected even by Conservatives in Virginia Waters, but there are still some who want to believe in all the old stories.

Undoubtedly, long after he has gone from this Earth,  there will be two factions of the faithful.  One will be gathered by the grotto containing his mortal remains, waiting fervently for his return, seated at the right hand of the Only Living Father.  The other crowd will be holding protests in the streets on special occasions just like that gaggle of lunatic Russians who want Stalin back.

There’s some symbolism in the fact that this fanciful account of Williams’ time as Premier appears just as the problems resulting from his key policies  - massive debt, chronic financial mismanagement,  Muskrat Falls - are coming plain.  The reality of Williams' legacy and the fantasy narrative pushed by Williams and his toadies are vying for public attention today, as they did day after day, week after week while Williams was Premier.

 And now, as before, the local media were more likely to help out with the Williams narrative rather than challenge it.  That job fell to the mainlanders, like the crowd at Macleans.

There’s no small irony in that either.  One of  the first interviews Williams gave as Premier was with Canada’s national news magazine. It revealed a great deal about him that was borne out by the experience.