21 November 2016

Poor Russell's Almanack #nlpoli

​Pity Russell Wangersky.​

Somebody is telling Russell he is part of the elite and Russell doesn't like it.

Not me, writes Russell, in one of his columns last week.  

No elite here.  And to prove the point, he rattles off the mundane list of things that make up his typical day.

All wonderful stuff and all necessarily irrelevant since Russell is precisely what he denies being.

Russell is a well-known local journalist and author.  He has been managing editor at the Telegram, even if he doesn't have that job at the moment.  Russell frequently turns up on expert panels commenting on politics in the province and, of course, he has a regular column in the Telegram that now also appears in other Transcontinental newspapers in Atlantic Canada. For years,  he's been telling people what is news and what they should know about what is happening.   

Russell objects to being called part of the elite and associates that with being rich.  Russell is not necessarily rich, although he might well be by local standards.  Being a part of an elite doesn't mean you are rich.  

Political scientists talk about elites as groupings of people who share certain qualities in common, mostly related to power.  An elite wields some form of power and authority in society. Political elites, for example, are the group of people who are most knowledgeable about, most educated in, and most active in politics. 

The media elite would be the group of media owners, editors. and individual journalists who wield power, usually as influence over public opinion.  They decide what appears in their newspaper,  on their television news program,  on their website or on their radio station. That's a lot of power, right there.  The authority they have doesn't come from a law but from the way other people look at them as knowledgeable about something. Often with media folks, the public tends to treat them as experts on all sorts of things simply by virtue of the fact their words appear in print or they turn up on the news every evening. 

Another part of their authority comes from recognition by other groups.  Take academics as a good example.  They are acknowledged experts by virtue of their education and title.  When someone like Russell turns up on a panel in the economics or political science departments as a commentator on politics,  one group of acknowledged experts is recognising the knowledge and influence of a person outside the group.   

Those people may share other common qualities.  They may live in the same neighbourhoods and socialise with each other.  Their children may go to the same schools.  Once upon a time, they might have attended the same church.  That used to be a status symbol.  These days other things tie folks together as being part of the same social and political and economic layer of society.

Mentioning this sort of thing about Russell bothers Russell,  even though by any reasonable appraisal it is all true. What's disconcerting about Russell's column is that he is being disingenuous.  He is doing what lots of influential folks do when something is going a bit off the rails:  they deny their own agency, the structure of the society in which they operate, and their place within it.

Put that Friday column together with one on Saturday in which Russell expresses alarm at the recent reports of racist comments  in Newfoundland and Labrador.  The existence of racism is "obvious from something as simple as the regular website comments at a daily newspaper that there are those who have been waiting for any sign that others might approve of them spouting their ideology. And they’ve been given that opportunity,"  writes Wangersky.

"But I like to believe there are still good people — and on the whole, more good people than there are racist ones -  good people who are both disgusted and outraged that it could look like we’ll have to fight a fight that should be long gone. There are, of course, racists in Canada, from those who just fear anyone who’s different to those who cloak their hatred in a twisted nativist position they somehow equate with pride in our nation."

There are, of course, racists in Newfoundland and Labrador. There have been for some time. They are rearing their heads again because, as Russell rightly notes, there's someone out there saying the sorts of things they agree with.  


But that line "fear anyone who's different"  and "twisted nativist position they somehow equate with pride in our nation."  just clangs against the reality of politics in our own province very recently.  A strong, proud, determined nation fighting against foreign enemies and a legacy of foreign domination and oppression.  People who tell minorities to shut up and "go back where they came from."  It's not like we didn't have a government program to pay cash to women for giving birth, justified  by a politician saying "we can' t be a dying race." 

To be fair, the crowd at the Telegram did cluck disapprovingly in 2013 at the go-back-where-you-came-from stuff when aimed at Brad Cabana.  But they basically said we should only get concerned when someone prominent said something naughty. Otherwise we should just make an example of the odd bigot and just go about our day.  Most of us, across Canada, are just nice folks.

The thing is that all those folks may be emboldened to express their views more loudly when they see them reflected in the news media or coming from politicians.  But they are not otherwise irrelevant, insignificant, or an anomaly.  The thing is that when enough people share generally similar views they take office.  They spew their venom far and wide.  They make decisions based on their skewed views.

And they get away with it because those in a position of influence deny they have any ability to influence things or, worse, actually agree that the politician is doing a good job.  The thing is that there is fundamentally no difference between telling a recent immigrant from Syria to put up with the gore of Hallowe'en or go back where she came from or telling a white guy like Brad Cabana to shag off back to the Prairies.  Both are rooted in ignorance and fear.  Both come from a place that is, at its heart, bigoted, prejudiced, and racist. 

Pedants will respond to such an idea by distinguishing between races and ethnic groups and what have you.  Others will just agree on the one because the people are dark-skinned  - that's racist - while Cabana is white like "us" so that's just an opinion.  And besides,  them mainlanders are just looking down their noses at us anyway as they steal all our wealth.  

Morally wrong ideas aren't suddenly rendered appropriate because someone believes them. Ranting about plots by "Quebec" isn't justifiable because people believe them to be true,  often despite evidence to the contrary.  People who voted for Donald Trump believe all the things that folks here imagine that the electricity regulator in Quebec was part of a giant conspiracy to screw Danny Williams.  

And just for all those who are rolling their eyes at the mention of Williams, yet again, in this corner, just cool your jets.  Williams had the support of lots of people in this province who shared his views. They endorsed what he said, every time he said it.  They ignored the dying race comment in 2007 because "we know what he means" and accepted the justification of Muskrat Falls in 2010 and 2012 as vengeance against "Quebec."  

Russell Wangersky may be from Nova Scotia, but he fits right in the local society. Everything is fine here, except for a few miscreants emboldened by the actions of evil foreigners.  And when feeling pressured about something, he says that he has no ability to do anything about it.  Except write a column in the local paper that tells us both those utterly untrue things.