Into the Political Wilderness – Part 2

    To read Part 1, click here.

    Seeing this form of media self-censorship and bias play out before my eyes, I began to take everything the legacy media said with a grain of salt. Don’t get me wrong, my father and step-mom are both life-long journalists, and I truly believe the vast majority in their profession seek the truth as best they can. But the pressures to conform to a socially acceptable range of opinions can be both intense and unconscious, especially in a highly politically polarized environment. If the mainstream media had gotten so many things about covid wrong, what else could they not be trusted about?

    After taking a media sabbatical, I began tuning in to more alternative media. Podcasts like Lean Out (hosted by Tara Henley, who quit the CBC and penned a much-read essay explaining why) and The Unspeakable (hosted by another mainstream media dropout: former LA Times opinion writer Meagan Daum) became my staple. I found a community of people who were thinking like me – Daum called them “heterodox” thinkers. People willing to colour outside the lines, and talk about a growing list of things that the mainstream media considered out of bounds. I turned to Substack – a new platform for writers and podcasters that subsisted on a paid subscription model instead of advertising and, critically, did nothing to interfere in the content of the creators on its site – more often than mainstream outlets. Whereas once I had described myself as a CBC junkie, now I could barely stomach listening to more than a few seconds of its radio broadcasts. The narrow range of topics it covered and the total predictability of the angle it would take on any given story offended my sense of intelligence.

    And I found an alternative media that was questioning more than just covid issues. While both Henley and Daum described themselves as “coming from the left”, they often interviewed guests who raised doubts about leftist dogma around culture war issues. Sometimes these guests were openly conservative, other times they were progressive but dissenting on certain issues. They were spinning new ideological configurations, drawing from both sides of polarized debates in ways that accorded with their own sense of logic rather than the received wisdom of one tribe or the other. I found it intellectually invigorating – a huge breath of fresh air in an otherwise stale and oppressive media landscape.

    Then, in the late winter of 2022, the trucker protest descended on my hometown of Ottawa, and everything I had been following and thinking about just got ratcheted up another level. Here was a group of people brought together by their frustration over the collection of covid policies that had been shoved down their throats for the past two years. Many of them were right-wing – that being the side that had chosen to defy these policies – but many others were simply working class people who had had to deal with covid on the front lines, not from a cosy home office. A good number of them were right-wing and working class, a combination that seemed unthinkable 20 years ago, but now seemed the norm. How had the left largely lost the working class?

    My new alternative media heroes had an answer: because the left had become obsessed with identitarian politics – those culture war flashpoints mentioned earlier, promoted as the most important lenses through which to view politics – and had largely forgotten about class. Yet the working class is not defined by their skin colour or sexual identity, they are defined by their lower economic status. While the left had been arguing over pronouns, wealth inequality had risen to historic levels. Is it any wonder that millions of them voted for Trump, when he said to hell with all this race and gender shit – I’m going to bring good jobs back to America?

    Why had the left become overly focussed on issues other than class? Perhaps one answer is that a focus on gender and racial identity is less of a challenge to the capitalist status quo. The very wealthy are fine with women, queers, and people of colour gaining more power, as long as their stock holdings are not threatened. But demanding a more equal portioning of the economic pie does target the thing they hold most dear – their wealth and the power it confers. That is why the wealthy donors to the Democratic Party could accept a candidate like Barak Obama, but not Bernie Sanders, or why corporations can easily voice support for Black Lives Matter. Campaigning against racism or transphobia doesn’t directly challenge their position in society in the way that fighting for more income equality would. Racism and transphobia are issues that need fighting for, but when class is left out of the equation, the working poor can see these issues as distractions from their biggest struggle: not enough money. They suspect middle class liberals of “virtue signaling”, and attitudes towards race and gender can become a wedge issue differentiating themselves from those with more economic privilege. Then the right can swoop in with their anti-”woke” ideology and poach the left’s former main voting bloc. The left, instead of being the voice of the working class, becomes a bastion of the “laptop class”.

    We saw this play out in the trucker protest. The worst name the left can call you is not a dictator, not an oligarch, not a tycoon, but a racist. Because you can call anyone white, rich or poor, a racist. And that’s just what the left-leaning Canadian media did to the truckers and their allies. They piled on relentlessly. There were some white supremacists there, for sure, and the media predictably put all their attention on them. But they ignored the vast majority who were simply working class and fed up with being told what to do by an elite they felt had long ago abandoned their interests. The media failed miserably in their job to try to understand the roots of this protest, and instead immediately wrote them off as crazies and bigots.

    As a farmer – someone who works with my hands – I felt a certain kinship towards the protesters. I can tell you that ten years of working hard to grow food for little money has changed me in ways I didn’t even realize until this protest materialized. Seeing people work cushy desk jobs, with all the benefits, and easily make double my income, all for doing a job that looks from the outside as mostly unnecessary (one in five people believe their job is meaningless, by the way), while I work outdoors in all kinds of weather, with risk of physical injury, and no safety net, in the service of providing a clearly needed good, makes you see the world differently. I’m not complaining – I probably could have chosen the cushy desk job route, and instead I chose farming, and I’m glad nearly every day that I did. But I can still understand the resentment that those who work hard for little money can hold against their more pampered fellow citizens.

    And so I felt a degree of solidarity towards the protesters and sympathy towards their frustrations. Not enough to ever go and join them, but enough at least to see how unfairly the media was treating them.

    It was hard to know who to believe: my Ottawa friends and the media who universally complained about how rude and all-round awful the protesters were, or other friends who visited with the protesters and found them to be as friendly as could be. I did drive by once and was gifted with some free samosas through my car window. Probably the protesters’ personalities morphed depending on if they felt like they were dealing with a friend or a foe, just as people’s attitudes towards them altered depending on the degree to which they agreed with them. Everybody seemed to look past the nuanced reality of an assortment of different people from across the country uniting in common action over a multitude of complex issues, and instead saw just black or white.

    While the Canadian media was monolithic in its condemnation of the truckers, they actually got a fairer hearing in the last place I expected to find balance: Fox News. Fox, in my mind, had always been the enemy of everything good in political commentary and unbiased coverage – the driver of a toxically polarized media landscape in the US. I was grateful that its counterpart had failed to take hold in Canada. Yet this polarized media environment provided a space to tell a completely different story about the trucker protest than the single message we heard in Canada. I was a little shocked when my sister sent me a video of Tucker Carlson opining about the protest – I had never watched him before, and I felt a little dirty pressing play. But he does have the most watched cable news show in America, so, I told myself, I should watch at least one clip. I did find him to be a skilled rhetorician, and his perspective on the protest was refreshing, pointing out the hypocrisy of a supposedly left-leaning government clamping down on a working class protest. But I also found him to be unnecessarily combative and divisive, and I don’t think I’ll be going back for more. But Fox News has become a home of sorts for people of different political stripes who have been shut out of other mainstream media organizations.

    In the end, I felt like the trucker protest was a little too interesting for Canada, especially for that most staid of cities, Ottawa (its residents actually rallied around the slogan “Make Ottawa boring again”). For a brief period, the world, including even our more exciting cousins south of the border, found the news coming out of Canada enthralling. Then we declared a national emergency and put an end to those bouncy castles and hot tubs. Party’s over.


    Stirring the Pot: Left, Right, Centre, Woke

    Before the pandemic swept away all my progressive certainties, I always associated the left with being on the right side of history, with justice, challenging authority, altruism, pacifism, and a belief in the inherent goodness of human beings. The left was the side that spoke truth to power, was creative, free-thinking, and held an almost exclusive monopoly on humour. They were the hippies and artists and radicals and thinkers and Bohemians. They were cool. The other side lived within an intellectual and emotional straitjacket, seeing things in narrow moralistic terms of black and white, and as a consequence could rarely rise to the level of being funny.

    But, in the last few years, it seems all that has been turned on its head. It began before the pandemic, perhaps in the mid-Twenty-Teens, but I only noticed it when covid brought it to the fore. The right – who derive their designation from where the monarchists sat in the National Assembly during the French Revolution – has become the revolutionaries, seeking to overturn established powers. The right is talking about things the left dares not mention, defending free-speech. The right is championing – at least rhetorically – the interests of the working class. Trump and his MAGA supporters are actually against US military adventurism. The right advocated for less “hair on fire” approaches to dealing with covid, in line with what Sweden was doing. Sweden!

    The left, meanwhile, seemed to distrust people and saw a racist in everyone. The left’s war on intolerance made them intolerant of almost everyone, tearing themselves apart in an arms race to purity. While the right used to call for the banning of things they found offensive, now the left spearheaded a ferocious cancel culture. The left fell in love with the government and even the FBI, and became xenophobic towards the right’s old bogeyman: Russia. The range of questions one could ask in leftist circles was circumscribed, as were the range of acceptable Halloween costumes. Perhaps worst of all, having gone down their own rabbit hole of moralistic thinking, the left lost the ability to be funny, and provided the right with the material they needed to create truly brilliant satire. The right was laughing at the left! What had the world come to?

    This is not to say that I’m about to become a card carrying member of the Conservative Party of Canada. Most of what comes out of the mouths of people like Pierre Poilievre or Ron DeSantis I still find repulsive. But I don’t reject it out of hand like I used to. I am more willing to at least consider that what they say may have some merit. Maybe we shouldn’t assume that all anti-abortionists, for example, are in thrall to the patriarchy; maybe many of them simply have a different notion of when the autonomous life of a fetus begins. Part of getting over the intense polarization that plagues our politics is to not assume the worst of those with different views. Maybe we actually agree on most things, such as values like protecting the life of children, and just differ on the finer points of how to go about that. Our beliefs have less to do with our moral character than we tend to assume; they’re often more the practicalities of reaching an end goal than the end itself.

    At the same time as I’m slightly more open to ideas coming from conservative voices, I’ve also had to question many of the tenets of liberal belief that until recently I never doubted. For instance, most liberals voice unconditional support for immigration. If you’re anti-immigration, the thinking goes, you must be a racist. But again, that is ascribing the worst motivation to your ideological opponent. There are possibly good reasons why someone might not be gung-ho about allowing a lot of new people into a nation state. If you value a certain amount of cultural homogeneity and the bonds that can create, then you might be hesitant about watering that down too much with new arrivals. This is a tension across much of Europe, where people have deep cultural roots that are important to them and add to their sense of collective solidarity and happiness; people with different cultural traditions can sometimes undermine that sense. Of course immigrants can bring a lot of creative dynamism to a society and ultimately make for much more interesting social landscapes, but if you value connection to the familiar over novelty, you could be both anti-immigrant and not a racist. Canada prides itself on its diversity, but it can also be a place lacking in communal connection in the way that many older European cultures share.

    Another reason you might be against immigration, if you are working class, is you could see these new arrivals as competitors for scarce housing. Canada is in the midst of a severe housing crisis, which is driven largely by a lack of supply, and yet the government is committed to bringing in half a million new people every year. It says these people are needed to fill the labor shortage and keep the economy growing, yet it is mostly the well-off who reap the rewards of increasing GDP, while the poor suffer with higher rents. One could argue that neoliberalism has outsourced jobs to poorer countries while at the same time bringing in more people from those same countries to compete for the remaining jobs in Canada, driving wages down and rents up. You can see how the working class might feel betrayed by this approach and not overjoyed at the prospect of massive immigration. The laptop class, meanwhile, can safely support immigration from the sidelines, content in the rising value of their houses and the continuation of a low wage service sector.

    So while I think Canada, as a relatively safe haven in the world, should accept a lot more refugees, I’m not sure I agree with the policy of bringing in the number of non-refugee immigrants that we are currently. Germany and Japan both have enviable economies without growing populations.

    Besides immigration, the list of issues up for debate in my mind is long: has there been a downside to the many gains achieved by feminism? Are young men now actually worse off than young women? What, if any, are the differences between women and men? Are declining fertility rates a good thing? Can you have too much personal freedom? Are universities still a place for free and open discussion and having your beliefs challenged? How can the media regain trust, and how can we start believing in a common reality again? How important is family? Or religion? Should we be encouraging teenagers to take hormone blockers and delay puberty when they feel their sex doesn’t conform with their gender identity? Should we censor hate speech? Was #MeToo a success? Is the history of European and American imperialism so bad that we should basically give a free pass to the imperialism of places like Russia and China? Is Critical Race Theory helpful? Who’s to blame for the rise of Trump? Is war ever justified? I have more questions than answers.

    In order to try to answer some of these questions, I have another question: what media do I trust? Where do I get the information that will form my opinions? Although I spilled a lot of ink in this essay being critical of the mainstream press, I do still believe it is an excellent source of information on a wide gamut of topics (as indeed many of my links in this essay attest). There are some blind spots, to be sure, and a fair amount of bias, but if you can consume it with a critical eye, you can still get a pretty good picture of what is going on. I then turn to my alternative media to fill in the blanks and offer a different perspective. One is not necessarily better than the other – the alternative press is not held to the same fact-checking standards as large media organizations trying to avoid lawsuits, and, depending on the integrity of the source, they can be rife with inaccuracies – but the two can complement each other. We should strive to read, watch, and listen to as widely as possible any news sources that you trust not to completely lie to you. No one source holds a monopoly on the truth.

    Ideally the mainstream media would offer this diversity within itself. “The major legacy media already have very robust policies in place for racial diversity,” points out Tara Henley. “If the concept of diversity was expanded to include geographic diversity, diversity of political viewpoint, and even perhaps — although this would be harder to do — educational diversity…Our whole business has gone from being a working-class trade, which really is what it should be — it’s not rocket science to go out and talk to people — to becoming an elite profession.” Perhaps mainstream journalism can get back to that kind of diversity of viewpoints.

    My mind now pried partly open, I’ll strive to keep it open. The purpose of the media should not be to confirm what we already believe, but to teach us something new. The world is too big and complex for our understanding of it to not be continually evolving; if you ever think you’ve got it all figured out, you’re deluding yourself.

    The last few years have certainly stirred the pot. While in some senses polarization has seemed to increase, the neat boundaries between left and right have also blurred. Leftish natural living hippies suspicious of vaccines have made common cause with gun-toting libertarians suspicious of anything coming from the government. Dreadlocked digital nomads invested in Bitcoin support Trump because he wants to weaken the state. Environmentalists angry at how the rich and powerful are destroying nature get lost down the QAnon rabbit hole. In Europe, populist political parties, such as Marine Le Pen’s National Rally, combine traditional right-wing antipathy to immigration with a strengthening of the welfare state. My journey is just a less extreme version of this same intermingling.

    Some commentators have proposed that instead of thinking about left versus right, we should look at the current political dynamics playing out in countries around the world as the margins versus the centre. The centre – made up chiefly of a vaguely liberal middle to upper class – has done alright during the last 40 years of neoliberalism, but everyone else, whether they skew right or left in ideology, is growing increasingly dissatisfied with the status quo. This could explain how the left and right sometimes unite in common cause against their common enemy: the complacent status quo.

    Another way to look at it might be to say that left and woke are two different things. That is certainly the contention of philosopher Susan Neiman in her book Left is Not Woke. She argues that woke-ism goes against some of the central values of the left, including a commitment to universalism. By focussing on certain groups that have purportedly suffered more than others, we divide society into those who deserve justice and those that don’t. Neiman, who is Jewish and critical of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories, says that Benjamin Netanyahu is the culmination of this kind of thinking, where the extreme injustice perpetrated on one group becomes a justification for their own perpetration of injustice on another group.

    But for me, the enemy is not people with different beliefs – whether left, right, centre, or woke. The enemy is shuttered thinking, self-righteousness, and the judging of others based on their beliefs. If we can meet each other in respectful dialogue, we can defuse the polarization and animosity that’s eating away at our democracy like a cancer, and move forward in tackling together the many problems that face us.


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    2 thoughts on “Into the Political Wilderness – Part 2”

    1. I always appreciate your ability to dig deep and explore multiple viewpoints to an issue.

    2. Great article Sean. I’ve been on the same journey. I’m down to 0 mainstream media now, but I seem to remember that the globe and mail used to accept well written opinion pieces. With a bit of editing, I would consider selling this one. I’m sure there are many like us, and your style of writing is accessible to the intellentsia. Thanks for your well written thoughts!
      Ps. The firing of Tucker Carlson is really interesting. He was the only mainstream figure questioning mainstream narratives.

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