Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Greens and Sound Bites


As you know, the federal green party (the greens) is especially concerned with nature, CO2, radioactive waste and so forth...

Our first female prime minister, Kim Campbell, said, "An election is no time to discuss issues." Correct. Then her political rivals, and a multitude of media characters with a vested interest in sound bites, all tried to condemn her. They tried briefly, but then had to resort to laughing at her, laughing with barely a sound bite of explanation to justify their position. Since then, down the years, I've read of at least one reporter admitting they were wrong, and Ms Campbell was right.

She was just as right as the man who said, "The price of democracy is year round vigilance." In Canada at any time of the year a surprise federal election may be called. (There are sound reasons for not having fixed election dates.) During the hurly burly of a swift election there is barely room for a medley of sound bites, let alone room for any person to carefully paint an "essay landscape" of balanced and composed thoughts. Such carefull efforts should be all year round.

If sound bites were beautiful, if brief was good, then Shakespeare's anti-fascist play would still have the same impact if he left out the first act- and therefore left out the words "hurly burly." Furthermore, he would then have the same impact if he only included the instruction of the final act, or if he included just the moral of the final scene. "Alas, what fools these sound bites be."

The folly of briefness is demonstrated every time some poor working man tries to become self educated by reading a yellow striped Coles Notes. A bare bones summary, picked clean of all but a little pile of sound bite bones, can offer no morsels of wisdom. No food for thought.


To share their brief simplified bits of "wisdom" the federal party leaders met, during an election, for a nationally televised debate. Imagine a small group of old white guys. One of the old guys was from a party that had been around a while but had never elected anyone to parliament- not a single seat, not from any riding anywhere, not anywhere in a sprawling nation of five and a half time zones. I am referring to the green party. As you know from English class, every second of camera time is precious: so why was he even invited to share in the precious debate time? Probably because "he" was in fact a young "she."

The others said to keep her out because, in sound bite terms, "her party had no seats." But they had to bow to pressure. The optics of excluding a pretty young lady were bad, and, more importantly, an election gave them no time to discuss the issue of why they said "No." The implication of "a party with no seats" requires not a sound bite but an essay.

I wonder: Do the greens discuss issues? This sounds like a silly question, "Of course they do!" but I will get back to it.

All around the world democratic elections involve organized parties, not just individuals. A party -or a reform movement within a party- is born when a few people get to talking around the kitchen table. They talk at length; they don't merely throw sound bites at each other.

"Transportation!" says one fellow "We need good people flow!" "You betcha!" the others say loudly. Then comes conversation and calm give and take. Let's think. Purely cars? As one fanatic wants? Could "everybody and their dog" drive a little bubble shaped car, something like a Volkswagen beetle? Purely public transit? As another fanatic wants? Could everyone take something out of The Jetsons? Or take busses, electric trolley busses, subways, little jitney cabs and electric trains? Say, if we do favor cars, could there be a little bike lane? A big bike lane?

As they soberly kick ideas around, with respectful regard for what their beloved but less fanatical, less political neighbors would think, they would end up with very few "pure and fanatical" ideas, but instead a realistic mix of transit options- rather like what we have now, in fact. As most greens would know, compromise can be seen everywhere in nature.


If you don't discuss? Well, if having "idealistic purity" means your neighbors feel disrespected... if they think "politeness," "compromise" and "common sense" are not in your vocabulary... then you will get no seats in parliament.

A variation on "discussion" is the idea of "caucus." This is a meeting for "party members only," a meeting with serious intent. First they close all the doors and windows. Then they agree, before any discussion even starts, that each individual in attendance will be bound by the agreements, to be achieved, of the caucus. Only then do they formally "go into caucus." To me this requires both self discipline and faith. Self discipline means that if I don't like the result of what my caucus decides then I won't act like the spoiled kid in the park one summer evening: I won't "take my ball and bat and go home." (Leaving the other kids with nothing.) Faith means I stand by my democratic creed that most of the people, most of the time, will do the right thing, provided they have the information.

A party's various agreements are the planks that go to make up the party platform upon which members will stand on for talking to the rest of us, telling us what they stand for, telling us not insultingly but respectfully. A brilliant science fiction writer and party member, Robert A. Heinlein, said he will vote for a well meaning dullard from his own party before he will vote for a genius independent. The dullard, if subject to party discipline, can be trusted to try to carry out Heinlein's wishes.

When members of the green party are standing on their platform I am not sure if I can trust them to respect me and my capitalist friends. When they say, "the people" I am not sure if they are actually disrespecting and excluding some of "the people," such as those rich folks a little further down the road. When they preach at me with hasty sound bites it's as if they don't respect me enough to have faith in my democratic ability to listen at length... to new information and reasoning.

...But in fact I do listen to the farmer's friends: the CBC and National Public Radio. A queer note: While watchers of the idiot box despise "talking heads," listeners to the radio enjoy people speaking at length. It's as if radio is for the brain, while TV is "chewing gum for the eyes." Perhaps people who believe in the boob tube will prefer sound bites. Such a pity. Incidently, newspaper film critic Roger Ebert has noted that "inevitably" immigrant taxi drivers have their car radio tuned to NPR. Note to self: subscribe to a newspaper for grown-ups ASAP!...


Maybe greens don't really intend to be sound-bite-preaching at me—maybe they just get bored more easily than people in other parties. My pet theory? I think greens feel this hasty disrespect, about me and their neighbors, because they haven't discussed things enough with each other, not enough to reach a deep bedrock of healthy respect for their own platform. Slogans such as "don't be fuelish" are no substitute for putting heads together in thought.

So I ask again: Do greens discuss? Or do they merely do sound bites and outbursts?

In this small world I happen to know socially not one but two federal green party candidates. One of them, an old friend, was being interviewed in community halls in small towns. I asked her privately what her green party's platform was. Surprise: the party told her "don't worry" and to just use her own judgment. (Cue reggae song: Don't Worry, Be Happy) I wasn't too happy but at least I didn't have to worry: This was a party that had figuratively decided in advance not to win any seats. Note: this was back in 2001; I'm sure the party has evolved since then.

I believe that without discussion there can be no grounding in reality. Some of my best friends are eccentrics, and they are splendid in their solitude, but still, I am convinced the friction of discussion encourages one to think and to research. Sound bites fall away in the face of humility. This can mean humbly burning the midnight oil studying.

I need to go to the library and do some green research myself. Right now Alberta is putting carbon dioxide (CO2) into the sky by burning fossil fuel, irreplaceable coal, in order to generate electricity province-wide. Is coal cheaper than smokeless uranium? I wonder what the difference is between one of our CANDU nuclear reactors, exported world-wide, and the communist one at Chernobyl? Or the ones on U.S. submarines? And does the second largest country in the free world have any practical place to store radioactive waste? What is the Chalk river reactor doing with its waste, that Ontario reactor which is now supplying 70% of the world's hospitals with medical grade isotopes?


I feel a touch of sadness, but no real sorrow, to think that if I asked Joe from the green party... he wouldn't know. If Joe lacks the self-discipline to discuss atomic electricity, or to go find out, if Joe and his green buddies lack the willingness to make such an effort, then you can forget them making any effort for party discipline. Forget about them going into caucus. Such a pity. It was Stephen R. Covey who said that private victories, such as effort and self discipline, must precede public victories.

Once I may have been a young know-it-all, with fixed values. Not now. For the rest of my life I will be engaged in an ongoing effort to re-state, revise and refine those values. This labor can't be done briefly. Nor can it be explained with a sound bite. In good time my values become my guiding stars, stars that guide me to a good orderly direction for my efforts: both for my private life and for my country. Ideals, yes, while my involvement with others keeps my feet on solid ground.

You can steer a ship by starlight but not by sound bite. I just can't imagine Joe Green and his pals, lacking any private victories, having the guts to try to steer the good ship Canada through rising winds, building seas and with a gale warning in effect.

If, someday, my peers elect me to parliament then that will be a priceless certificate of credibility, both for me and my party. If I have such credibility then I can justify going off to do an expensive prime time TV debate. If not, then not.

This essay has required over 1,800 words, over seven pages double spaced, over 12,000 "bites." (12 kilobytes) Now imagine those poor party leaders feeling forced to try explain all this in a single sound bite... The pressure to force those leaders to include a green party leader in their televised debate was a pressure most unworthy.

It was undignified. ...


... Ladies and gentlemen: let's raise a toast to Kim Campbell!

Sean Crawford

trying to be crew not passenger,

host not guest,

in my club, my community and my nation.

February, 2009

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