Thursday, May 11, 2006

Let there be political peace in our time, or at least intelligent debate

Given that two lines in a post I made four days ago seem to be part of a mini-kerfuffle in the blogsphere today, I should probably comment a little further on the Bob Rae Munich Pact story.

For the record, here’s the exact transcript of his remarks. CTV’s Mike Duffy Live ran the video today in this clip, where three party strategists discuss the remarks. Also, in this clip Duffy’s media panel weighs in.

“…it’s true for softwood lumber which is an issue that I’ve been working on for the last little while. Now Mr. Harper might like to say that’s a wonderful deal. Don’t forget, Neville Chamberlain came back from Munich, and held up a piece of paper, and said he had peace in our time. He was wrong. So is Mr. Harper. Really wrong.”

Sitting in the back of the hall and hearing that my eyebrow rose and I jotted down a note on my notepad. I didn’t think of if as an earth shattering faux pas; I thought of it as a cheap and lazy political smear. Frankly, I was surprised someone of Bob Rae’s intelligence and intellect couldn’t come up with something better.

Yes, I know he didn’t say Bush was Hitler or that Harper was Chamberlain. I get the point he was trying to make. I was a history major. I see the analogy. But why even go there? The insinuation, even if unintended, was obvious. He didn’t need to connect the dots for anyone.

Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and say the only illusion he wanted to draw was simply to an agreement that seemed like a good deal at first glance but later proved disastrous and didn't settle the dispute it was intended to settle. Bob Rae is a veteran politician, and a very smart guy. He knows better than to touch the Nazi card with a 10-foot pole.

And whether he wanted to play it or not, playing the Nazi card has become an all too common political crutch for people of all political persuasions. It’s a quick and easy way to demonize your opponents, and it’s usually reserved for those too dumb or too lazy to come-up with something more intelligent.

I’ve been smeared with the Nazi card myself, in my then community paper by a director of the local Conservative riding association. He was also, more astoundingly, a social studies teacher at the local high school. Luckily for me, I wasn’t in his class when I was a student there.

At the time, I was communications director of the local Liberal riding association, and having brought some media experience to our rural riding we were in the midst of an aggressive communications campaign to challenge our incumbent Conservative MP in the lead-up to the 2004 campaign.

Used to having their MP get a free pass and not be challenged on his statements and record, the regular letters to the editor and media comments seemed to rankle local Conservatives and this fellow, not identifying himself as a Conservative director, wrote a letter to the editor accusing us of following the example of Adolf Hitler’s “Big Lie” and compared me (he didn’t say my name but we knew who he meant) to Nazi propaganda minister Josef Goebbels. Yes, he did actually say Nazi, Hitler and Goebbels.

Besides being a bit tickled by the fact we’d gotten to them that much I frankly found the whole thing sad and pathetic, and wrote a letter back soundly condemning his remarks. Really though, his own remarks made him look dumb enough without my help.

I realize people are going to disagree with me on policy and the best direction for Canada, but I'd like to think we can disagree while still respecting each other’s opinions and believing we both want what we believe is best for the country.

My point being the intellectually lazy of all political stripes play the Nazi card too often, and it should stop. It just makes you look like a dumbass.

And it’s not just the Nazi card. It’s calling your opponents evil, or saying they’re with the terrorists, or that you want to wipe them off the map, and so on. Name-calling seems to have replaced intelligent argument in our political debate. That’s goes doubly in the blogsphere. Call me idealistic, but I think we should strive for a higher level of political discourse in this country.

Bob should apologize, and then we should move on. It was a stupid comment, but it wasn’t malicious. It was just lazy. I know he can do better. I know we all can.

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Mark Dowling said...

With Michael I's orange hooded stalkers, Bob R's use of a "Reductio ad Hitlerum" and Carolyn B allowing a loose statement to be construed as anti-stay home mothers this campaign is getting more interesting by the day!

Red Tory said...

Craig Oliver thought it was rather clever. I'm not sure whether that should be taken as a good thing or a bad thing.

It was dumb when Graham made the same remark in the House the other week and it was dumb of Rae to use the same analogy. But it's hardly a big deal by any means.

S.K. said...

Using any Nazi analogy is really realy lame. It should never be done by astute politicians.

It is insulting and degrading to everyone who was involved.

Sticks of wood are not human corpses. Mr. Rae would be wise to remember that.

Anonymous said...

Amen, brother! Your blog has become THE best. Thank you. I guess the mark dowlings of the blogosphere will be unable to make that growth step to peaceful discussion though.

Yappa said...

Hi Jeff,

I enjoy your blog. Thanks for writing!

Another way of looking at this is to remember that Rae is an expert in US-Canada trade and s-w lumber in particular; that he was choosing his words very carefully; and that he's not prone to wild innuendo... and then to think about why he used such inflammatory language.

I think the reason is that he wanted us to get that this is an extremely important situation: the US is not playing fair, we do not have a good deal in the FTA, and there will be more problems down the road. This is a situation worthy of pulling out the Big Gun analogies and even creating a little controversy.

Anonymous said...

I was talking to my mother in Saskatoon about this very thing today and she said her take on it was it was poor communication on Bob Rae's part. She said a lot of people are too young to know what he's talking about. It's that old NDP tub-thumping oratory style coming through. She thinks he needs to update his political references.

Anonymous said...

The analogy relates to appeasement, not Hitler. It used to be used all the time during the cold war by the right, and the objection had nothing to do with Hitler, but the accusation of appeasement.

And given today's Star article, appeasement would appear to be the right word in this instance:

Anonymous said...

So Rae can refer to the Conservatives as Nazi's and all he should do is apologize and everything will be fine and we should move on? Why not apply that same logic to Maurice Vallecott. He apologized so should we not move on? When a Liberal says something stupid it is either "taken out of context" or "he or she really didn't mean it". When a Conservative says something stupid
. . . find the nearest tree and hang 'em.

Jeff said...

Actually anon, in Rae's poor choosen analogy the Conservatives would be the British.

Jeff said...

Red, I'm not a big Craig Oliver fan but as I said I don't view the remark as a major incident, just a stupid anology to make. He should just say he regrets it and move on. As I said it's not a major deal, just sadly typical of what our political debate has sunk to.

Yappa, I do see the anology he was trying to make, and intelectually there's merit. But he knows better then to come close to bringing the Nazis into it. Putting aside the obvious reasons why to do so is abhorent for a moment, it also doesn't get you anywhere. It allows your opponent to play the victim and completly ignore the likely legitimate point you were trying to make. So, you end up looking foolish, AND your argument doesn't get advanced.

Demosthenes said...

The problem is that modern political discourse is dominated too much by analogy to WWII. There are lots of other examples Rae could have used instead of defaulting to WWII... but when that's the rule, it's hardly surprising.

After all, it's certainly used enough by those supporting Bush.

(One could argue "well, yes, but the Islamists are fascists". No, they're actually theocrats. Fascism is a blending of nationalism, nativism, anti-leftism and corporatism.

That's the reason why the left likes calling Bush 'n co Fascists... they see the Republicans as fitting all of these elements. I disagree, but it's a closer fit than is sometimes comfortable.)

Scotian said...

Anonymous at 11:46am is really into revisionist history. I read Vellacott's resignation letter and there was nowhere in it any apology whatsoever, let alone for his placing words in the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada's mouth. The reason Vellacott got in trouble was because he said these aren't my words, she said them herself. It would have been one thing for him to point to the relevant part of her speech and say this is how it comes off to me, but that was not what he did. No, he slandered the Chief Justice by claiming she said something she clearly had not said.

Then he resigns, but instead of taking responsibility for his mistake there he claims his comments had nothing to do with his resignation but that it was all the fault of the Liberals on his committee. He blamed them for being too bitterly partisan and for reminding people about his comments in the Saskatoon case of the police leaving aboriginals out in freezing cold to die by exposure and providing a false theory of partying in a shack by the aboriginals despite no evidence to support said theory ever provided to police.

So he made no apology whatsoever for any of his comments, be they about that aboriginal matter nor about what he lied about the Chief Justice had said. So nice of anonymous to come here to lie on behalf of his party of integrity and accountability.

As for Rae's comments, I tend to agree with you BCer, but at the same time while history majors and those of us with interests in history can think of other less inflammatory examples of appeasement this example is probably the most well known/(in)famous in the general public's consciousness so it is very accessible. I would say that it is important to consider whether this comparison is accurate, whether it matches up well on the respective points being compared, and whether the use of Nazi comparisons is something typical of the person in question.

So I have mixed feelings here, because your arguments against it are good ones with plenty of truth in them. The only thing I do know is that the uproar I had seen from some Conservatives about this is definitely overblown, but as you so correctly point out the use of any Nazi analogy makes this easy to do as a deflection from the merits of the analogy itself. I am inclined to say that your approach is probably the best one to go with at this point, but I do think this time the analogy may actually be a proper one given the implications of selling out the NAFTA dispute resolution mechanism in the deal.

Still, you raise a very good point and one that should not be lightly dismissed. While I am not in complete agreement with you in this specific case I certainly have no problems seeing and acknowledging the merits of your position here.