Wednesday, October 25, 2006

The Canute Complex

There was a time when all Canadian school children studied British history. That was a long time ago; and I would hazard a guess that most students do not look back on the experience with a great deal of fondness. However, there was one incident which I am sure any student of British history remembers vividly. That is the story of King Canute's attempt to stop the ocean dead in its tracks.

According to legend, Canute had his throne bearers transport his throne -- with their master seated atop it -- to the seashore, for the purpose of providing his subjects with a demonstration of his divinely anointed status.

Sitting on the throne and raising his hand, he commanded the waves to cease and desist. Unfortunately, they had the audacity to ignore him. In the short term, Canute's failure didn't do his public image a lot of good. In the longer term, it did nothing to enhance his career prospects. In fact, the story is usually considered one of the first steps on the road to the Magna Carta.

I remembered Canute the other day when I read a small story in the Toronto Star. Stephen Harper had agreed to appear on the Mercer Report. But when the Harper team discovered that Mercer and Company had hired Dave Chan, a photographer who has worked for The National Post, The Globe and Mail and other newspapers for twenty years, they insisted that Chan be dropped from the project. It seems that during the recent evacuation of Lebanese Canadians from Beirut, Mr. Chan had offered the opinion that, if all media personnel were banned from the Prime Minister's plane, that ban should include the Prime Minister's personal photographer. After all, if the purpose of the ban was to clear as many seats as possible for the refugees, the PM's picture taker could fly back to Canada using other means.

Besides, said the Prime Minister's Office, they could provide the CBC with all the pictures they required. In fact, this strategy is part and parcel of the Prime Minister's press operation. Earlier in the year, Harper's office insisted that it had the right to choose, before any press conference, which reporters and which questions it would deal with. When the Parliamentary Press Gallery refused to operate by these rules, Harper simply stopped answering their questions.

The assumption that the Prime Minister's Office has the right to control the flow of information to the public is particularly arrogant. Behind the assumption is the conviction that if you keep feeding the public the same line, they will eventually believe it. But in this age of rapidly expanding communication technology, it is also a profoundly foolish assumption. If you shut down one method of communication, another will take its place.

Harper need look no further than his neighbour to the South. The Bush Administration has tried mightily to control the information coming out of Iraq and the government bureaucracy. And for awhile they succeeded. They refused the press's request to photograph the flag draped coffins of soldiers being shipped home for burial. And they leaked information to reporters from Time Magazine and The New York Times in attempts to silence critics of the war. But as Bob Woodward's new book, as well as recent books like Fiasco, by Tom Ricks and Cobra II, by Micheal Gordon and Bernard Trainor illustrate, trying to control and restrict information is like trying to control the oceans. The information always finds an outlet, even when it has been pent up for a long time. It either trickles out or bursts its levees in a flood of destructive proportions.

The new breed of conservative seems to operate in a fact-free universe. In such a universe, the act of articulation is tantamount to telling the truth. Saying so makes something true; and commanding that a policy be implemented gives it legitimacy. That seems to be the thinking underlying The Clean Air Act, a particularly Orwellian title, given the fact that, under its provisions, the government will not set standards for industrial pollution before 2050. As the late Senator Daniel Patrick Monahan said, in response to a senatorial colleague who stood steadfastly on his right to hold to his opinion, "You have a right to your own opinion; you do not have a right to your own facts." Likewise, Mr. Harper has no right to ignore the facts. King Canute tried that 1300 years ago. Like Canute, Mr. Harper's career prospects get dimmer with each passing day.

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