Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Intellectuals, Hstoric Blocs and the Robocall Scandal


Do I have anything even moderately new to add to the unfolding discussion of the robocall scandal? That might be an open question so I'll leave it to you folks to decide. What's not new is complaining about “the media” and political spin doctoring. Everyone does it. Everyone complains that “the media” does not treat them fairly. Everyone spin doctors. Everyone complains about corruption and politics. I've already tried to think a bit about corruption and how we might look at it as a political system. Hopefully, I'll have something more intelligent to say about corruption then what I've already said.

In terms of the Robocall scandal itself, what I would like to do, however, is to devote some attention to “the media” and what its response tells us about historic blocs and political formations. I'll again lean a bit on the late Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci (just to cite my sources).

First, there is no such thing as “the media.” I know I've used the term and it can be a convenient short had that captures the field of force of reporting and punditry. But, if we want to move our analysis a bit beyond where it is, we need to acknowledge that “the media” as a singular institution does not exist. Instead, there are various communicative strategies and technologies that use a range of media. The media don't take any one side in a particular debate or on a particular issue since they don't exist. Instead, different people use the media to get their message out. A successful historic bloc (political formation) will need to do precisely this.

Why? Not because the media necessarily convince people of anything because people are not sheep. But, because political movements need to influence the way people think. In Canada, political parties have long recognized this. If we go back to another day and age, we'd find that political parties virtually ran newspapers themselves. “Getting the message out” is a way of influence the way people think. Ah ... someone might say, Nurse you are condescending ordinary people who can think for themselves. Yes, but if the use of the media to promote messages were not effective, no one would do it. The fact that people do it – whether they be political parties or advertisers – is an indication that it must have something going for it. If it didn't ... why do political parties spend millions of dollars on it.

This money does not by one control of the media but it does get one's message out. The media in Canada are a fractured bunch. There are influential national newspapers and newscasts and radio stations, but there are a bunch more outlets from local papers to community radio to the predilictions of different pundits on national newscasts. What we have, then, instead of a singular institution that we can call “the media” is a vast network of communicative strategies that includes TV, radio, newspapers, magazines, etc., that articulate a range of different perspectives.

Note, I did not say that all these media were equal to one another. The Globe is more influential then out local paper here in Sackville and perhaps rightly so. The point is not its rightness; the point is that it is fact. This vast fractious communications system, then, is also riven with inequalities. When people talk of “the media,” they are usually referring not to the local paper here in Sackville but to the biggest and most powerful media (The Globe, Maclean's, CBC's “The National,” etc.).

In his writings on politics, Antonio Gramsci talked of a group of people he called “intellectuals.” Intellectuals were not smart people (although they can be) but people who articulate the views of particular political movements, historic blocs, parties, etc. There can be some movement between intellectuals and politics. Pierre Trudeau, for instance, began his political career as an intellectual. Again, not defined by his smartness but by the fact that he articulated – along with a bunch of others – the views of an emerging political formation. I've called this “civic nationalism” elsewhere in this blog.

Today's Conservatives have their own intellectuals. People who articulate views that are congenial to them. That is what intellectuals do. Margaret Wente would be an example of a Conservative intellectual, someone whose job it is to write – articulate views – and to so from a particular political perspective. No self-respecting individual reads Wente to get “the truth” (since her biases are pretty evident) but, here is the catch, she needs to present what she is saying as “the truth” because otherwise she would not be taken seriously. Hence, she cannot be too closely associated with a particular political party even if she writes from a perspective congenial to that party.

The robocall scandal and Wente's most recent column indicate how this works. If you've not had a chance to read it, don't worry. In it, Wente tries to argue that the concern ove the robocall scandal is seriously overblown. She is, of course, against political corruption (a pretension to speak “the truth”) but the opposition attacks on the government make it seem like we are in Putin's Russia. They are seriously overblown and, what is more, are done for petty reasons. This is not even a partisan debate. The Liberals and NDP are over-blowing this issue because they just cannot believe that ordinary people would actually vote Conservative.

What does Wente do with this column and what sense should we make of it? A number of things because intellectuals do a number of things. First, she provides re-assurance to core supporters. This is not to be dismissed. Core supporters must be kept supporting the political party. An intellectual, then, must give them reasons why they should do so. Normally, in a non-scandal situation, the work of an intellectual is more sophisticated. You don't just take pot-shots at the opposition. Instead, what you need to do is to articulate a range of social interests and link them to a particular party. For instance, a Conservative intellectual should articulate party perspectives in ways that draw in different constituents (say, people concerned about jobs, regional interests, class interests, etc.). This is important for political parties and particularly important in as diverse a society as Canada. It is only by being able to successfully link together a series of interests outside one's core base that one can hope to win an election. Part of what Wente is doing, then, as an example, is to write for a very small audience. She speaks to core supporters so that their faith does not waver.

Another part of what she is doing, however, is to try to articulate other interests and link them to Conservatism. Wente's latest column is not particularly good at this but it does serve as an example of the way intellectuals work in Canada today. For instance, she is trying to mobilize class politics in support of Conservatism. Her point is that the Liberals and the NDP just cannot believe ordinary people think for themselves. They are a paternalistic elite that favour a big brother approach to public life that will limit freedom. Hence, in this way, she speaks to a wide audience: those who do not identify with Conservatism but whose interests Conservatives want to link to their party to maintain their historic bloc.

This might sound like complicated stuff. Its not. Like anything worth while, it just requires a moment of thought. My point is this: we should not be upset at Wente. She is doing her job as a Conservative intellectual. Under the guise of journalistic objectivity, she articulates a view that re-assures the political base of conservatism and mobilizes class prejudices against the opposition so as to articulate them to the Conservative Party. The response of Wente and others to the robocall scandal, then, is not media spin (or, not just media spin). It demonstrates the work of intellectuals in an historic bloc,.
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