01 April 2019

Gaslighting a society #nlpoli

Saturday morning and Facebook delivered a video clip of Peter Mansbridge accepting a lifetime achievement award.

After the obligatory thanks to everyone, Mansbridge delivers a scripted couple of minutes about journalism in the age of fake news and alternate facts.

"Journalism is under threat," Mansbridge warned, "in a way we haven't witnessed before."

"The very principle that we stand for is under attack."

"Truth is under attack."

Finding truth and presenting truth is important, according to Mansbridge.

Challenging power and those who wield it is important for "power unchallenged too often becomes power abused."

No sooner was that clip over than Twitter delivered a link to a piece on the local CBC website,  touted later in the morning by the web editor as "insight".  "Rethinking Confederation" with some references to Brexit by a well-known local writer.

There was no truth in any of the writer's comments about Confederation. None.  Just lies and more lies and half-truths, which are the more insidious kind of lie.  All the familiar horseshit that the pseudo-intellectuals in Newfoundland like to bathe in.  Long disproven fairy tales, time and again discredited, but still they bring them back.  Somone compiled them into a book not so long ago so Toronto publishers could make money off an enthusiastic public display of ignorance by a popular comedian.

It wasn't just CBC and it wasn't just the past. NTV got a retired political science professor from Memorial University to talk about the provincial election due sometime before the kids get out of school.

He didn't like the timing of the election.  Manipulation, you know. "There's a question about the power of premiers, which is connected to Muskrat Falls...", which he tied to a lack of "open, public" debate about the megaproject. Huge problem of democracy in Newfoundland and Labrador this Powerful premier thing.  A long, rambling, disjointed comment but no-debate-on-Muskrat-Falls-because-the-Premier-didn't-allow-it came through loud and clear.

Truth is there was no public debate in Newfoundland and Labrador about Muskrat Falls because the people of the province did not want it.  People like the professor, safe from being fired and with a comfortable salary from the public purse, kept their mouths shut.  There was an Annieopsquotch mountain of information readily available for anyone to raise all sorts of questions about the project and to disprove the claims made about it. Anyone who read this corner of the Internet after 2003 knew that.

Lots of information.  No shortage of facts.  But you don't get debate when any business owner, union boss, or worker who stood to make a buck off it plus the politicians and their lackeys in all three parties didn't want to hold up their cheque any longer than necessary.

The handful - quite literally five or 10 people - who did raise the odd objection were met with savage attacks.  By 2012, after the thing was launched but before we were all chained to the rock and shoved off the wharf, the ordinary foot soldiers of reaction insisted we had debated enough.  Get on with it, they cried. Like the fellow who had a column in the Telegram for decades.  Proud Muskrateer, among other things, he trotted out a familiar pack of accusations about the Known Critics, as Kathy Dunderdale called them:
It’s almost as if opposition to Muskrat Falls, in all its many guises, is being used as a cover for something else, something deeper and far more sinister, something which won’t become apparent until such time as the Lower Churchill project is permanently shelved and that small window of opportunity open to us now is slammed shut on our fingers.
Conspiracy, Tony cried.  Agents of a foreign power, those anti-Muskrat people.  The same lie whispered inside Nalcor itself about the project's critics,  whispers that eventually became government talking points among those who had come to power on the spiteful rhetoric of imaginary conspiracy and exploitation that is the hallmark of the Newfoundland anti-Confederates  and "nationalists."

Except for the handful, though, there was only silence where there might have been debate.

Memorial University professor Robin Whitaker's contribution to that recent resume-padding exercise The democracy cookbook is a brief piece on the tendency of people in small communities to remain silent. In Newfoundland and Labrador, she might have said,  "Go along to get along" is embroidered on the inside of our swaddling clothes so the words are pressed deep in the flesh before we are off the tit.

People want to fit in with the crowd so they keep their mouths shut.  The silence is political, she argues.  It underpins the ability, Whitaker contends, to talk about what "we" did but it serves really just to hide the specifics of what was done and why and to whom.  Whitaker touches on the changed perceptions of the past in Newfoundland and Labrador,  the difference between what we believe now about things then versus what people thought of them at the time.

Hers is an essay that touches gingerly on very deep and very sore issues.  It is silent about much.
Whitaker nods to David Cochrane's  superficial idea that something he called "patriotic correctness" mutes dissent. "But Cochrane and I... occupy positions of privilege so the direct risks [of speaking out] are small,"  Whitaker says.

The silence in that sentence is in the way Whitaker does not talk about what "we" - Whitaker and Cochrane - did about Muskrat Falls or anything else despite their positions of privilege.  The irony is suffocating.

You see, the sentence itself is a lie of omission.  It leaves the reader to assume that people like Whitaker and Cochrane have spoken critically to power while others may not. That assumption would be wrong. They did not speak critically then or now. 

But what they did individually is unimportant except that it is typical of others who hold similar, privileged places in our society.

The group behaviour - in this case the group's silence - is important.

Their silence is political.

Their chatter is political too.

The chatter-lies by the pseudo-intelligentsia, by the artists  and  academics, by the media and politicians and activist-gadflies about Confederation,  the Atlantic Accord,  Equalization, Muskrat Falls, and Quebec, about plastic shopping bags are political. 

They are political because they influence what our society values, what goals its governments set,  where its precious and scarce resources go, and who benefits from them.

The silence and the chatter is political because they are the means by which those in privileged positions hold their place. They are the tools used to gaslight an entire society.  The gaslighting has been going on for so long, though, that on many of these issues the purpose is not to induce doubt in individuals about their competence,  about their power, but to sustain their impotence.

The lie that Confederation involved the surrender of control by Newfoundlanders sustains the politicians who cast themselves in the role of avenger solely in order to gain political power and control over the resources.

 The provincial government has a huge financial problem because it spends way more than the people of the province can afford in ways that do not meet public needs or expectations.  Yet the story you will hear from politicians and bureaucrats -  former Premier Tom Marshall, former auditor general and finance deputy minister Terry Paddon, or even Dwight or Ches today - is that we do not get enough hand-outs from the federal government through Equalization and the Atlantic Accord. 

They replace the truth - they sanctioned overspending and refused to change things - with a lie.  The lie protects them from criticism.  And others take up the same lie because it protects them or their friends from difficult decisions that would come if, for argument sake, the people of Newfoundland and Labrador acted like the independent, sovereign people they supposedly wish to be and handled their own financial problems themselves.

"The real question," Whitaker said at the end of her short article, "is how citizens can be empowered to take on the public silences that encircle lives much more vulnerable..." than hers or that of people like her.

Again, Whitaker poses a false question that masks the truth with silence. After all, the real question is about what people like Whitaker failed to do and continually fail to do.  If those in privileged positions  - those with knowledge,  influence, and power - not only remain silent but lie, or enable others to lie repeatedly, how is it possible for any else to find the power within that society to bring about meaningful change?

The experience of Newfoundlanders and, for the first time, Labradorians, in 1948 shows the impact the gaslighting has in changing how democracy works in this place..  As Raymond Blake and Melvin Baker point out in their newly published history,  Newfoundlanders debated the merits of Confederation extensively over the decades from the 1860s to the late 1940s. But by the middle of the 20th century concepts of citizenship changed.

Blake and Baker contend that a then-new model of citizenship,  a new relationship between citizen and the state that was globally popular in the 1930s and 1940s took hold in Newfoundland and Labrador. It was this new social citizenship,  based on social and economic as well as political rights, that lay behind the Confederate movement.

Confederation offered a society that would provide Newfoundlanders and Labradorians with a basic level of well-being out of which would come a social, economic, and political participation to which many were unaccustomed.  In Newfoundland in the 19th and early 20th century, after all, governing was the preserve of the country's professional and social elites, argue Baker and Blake, who held directly or through their agents a " client-patron relationship"  with voters.

The other significant change in 1948 compared to earlier elections in which Confederation played a role was the extension of voting rights to women in 1925.  Thus it was that in 1948, "Newfoundland's most vulnerable families and workers, especially those in outport communities, including a large number of women, especially mothers, were determined to put their well-being and that of their families first."  Eighty-eight percent of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians voted in the first referendum and 84% in the second vote held in the middle of 1948.

Taken in that light, the continued gaslighting of their descendants by the privileged is not insight but travesty, not democracy but oppression and abuse.

By the same measure, the suppression of informed public debate over the past decade and a half by local elites makes a mockery of the restoration of Responsible Government represented by Confederation.  It is no coincidence that those who lie about Confederation were and are the same liars of Muskrat Falls,  the Atlantic Accord,  and Equalization.  And by the same measure, it is no coincidence that these liars are themselves tied,  if not by blood then merely by sympathy,  to those who dominated the country before 1934 and succeeded in bankrupting the country all the while scapegoating the supposedly ignorant baymen for the deed.  That same lie - of ignorant outharbour residents duped by con-artists and traitors - is a central feature of classic anti-Confederate rhetoric and survives in new guises to this day.

The lie tells people that they have no power themselves and that they need saviours.  The saviours beg for their votes at elections.  Then, when the saviours' schemes go bust,  the ordinary men and women of Newfoundland and Labrador hear from the saviours and their enablers that the fault is with foreigners or with traitors or with some other made-up demon.

No wonder that people who are told repeatedly that they are powerless do not use their power by participating in public discussions, contributing to political parties, or by running for office.  Little wonder, either, that they continue to believe these things that are not true since they are repeated over and over.  All the people who should be telling the truth - Mansbridge's crowd are just one lot, after all - prefer the complicity of silence or lies, whichever suits the purpose best.

Finding truth and presenting truth to the widest audience is difficult,  as Whitaker notes.  It is difficult because it is important. Challenging power and those who wield it is even more difficult in a small community.  But it is even more important because in a small place, power unchallenged too easily becomes power abused in deeply human,  profoundly personal ways.

Too many Newfoundlanders and Labradorians knew the miserable fact of unchallenged power all too well in their pre-Confederation country.  Too many of their descendants have been made familiar once more with the consequences of  unchallenged power in the country they voted to unite with Canada. It is not Canadians who wield this unchallenged power and abuse them 70 years after their exercise of democratic rights and hope.  Rather it is their fellow citizens who gaslight them. 

To change that will not take mere tinkering with political contributions  or the number committees in the House of Assembly. To achieve the society Newfoundlanders and Labradorians sought 70 years ago will require something far more unsettling to the way things are today.


Revised 05 Feb 20 to clarify some sections.