Here's a curious thing: When the topic is federal politics, Conservatives argue that Canada is doing remarkably well in troubled times and credit goes to the Great Helmsman, Stephen Harper. Liberals disagree. Things aren't nearly so rosy as Conservatives claim, they say, and in any event the prime minister cannot take credit.
But when the topic is Ontario politics, the polarity reverses. Liberals argue that Ontario is doing remarkably well in troubled times and credit goes to the Dear Leader, Dalton McGuinty. Conservatives disagree. Things aren't nearly so rosy as Liberals claim, they say, and in any event the premier cannot take credit.
Now this might make sense if economic conditions in Canada as a whole were very different than economic conditions in Ontario. But they aren't, which isn't surprising given that one-third of Canada's population lives in Ontario. In a very meaningful sense, Ontario is Canada.
An alternative explanation? It's yet another demonstration of the distorting effects of political partisanship. To the truly committed partisan, reality has only modest influence on perceptions. Tribe is all: Whatever explanation makes my side look good, and their side bad, is ipso facto correct. No further inquiry is needed.
I'm as interested in how people think and discuss as in what they believe and say. Which is why I love reader email. Here's a recent exchange, prompted by this column.
I considered writing you a serious and well considered
letter of rebuttal after your recent column on how terrible and evil the
Harper government is. To paraphrase, why bother? You are simply put, ‘a
classic lump of gristle with a pulse’. It is astonishing how silly most
Canadian journalists, obviously including you are. Misguided, drooling,
dripping bags of grease. One can only hope you haven't been able to
You do realize that sending a string of vacuous insults in response to that
column is, shall we say, ironic? Or perhaps not.
Lump of Gristle
Do us both a favour and don't respond to this email. Just
continue wallowing and dripping greasily in your own smugness. Obviously
you are not able to respond to any criticism of your journalistic
ineptitude and lack of any original viewpoint. I am sure you will continue
to uphold the incredibly low standards of your newspaper. Before I sent you
an email expressing my opinion of you, I put your column on the bulletin
board at my workplace, along with my response to your column. A few people
commented that I was being too hard on you. By far, the majority commented
that me message to you wasn't harsh enough. Several people who read the
column used the word Buffoon. I told them they were in danger of receiving
a rather scathing, rather pompous email if you were given access to their
Here's the original ending of a recent column that got chopped up in production:
As a result of the prime minister's relentless fixation on the political, the damage Stephen Harper has done to the justice system is mostly superficial stuff. The foundations are untouched.
Which leads to a paradoxical conclusion: If the foundations of the justice system are to survive Stephen Harper, the prime minister must continue to obsess about short-term political gain and not think seriously about policy.
The esteemed psychologist Phil Tetlock needs your help.
Right now, Phil is preparing for an enormous, expensive, and unprecedented forecasting tournament. As part of that work, he is putting together a test of political knowledge. And he needs more questions.
Specifically, Phil is looking for questions which 1) have a clear and indisputable answer; and 2) are likely to engage a respondent's partisan or ideological inclinations.
For example:"The American economy grew faster during the eight years of the Clinton administration than during the eight years of the Reagan administration. True or false?" That's true. Which is a happy conclusion for Democrats/liberals. It's a much less happy conclusion for Republicans/conservatives. And so it's reasonably predictable that more Democrats/liberals than Republicans/conservatives will say "true." (In fact, surveys have often revealed such disparities. For example, around 1987, Democrats were much less likely than Republicans to say inflation had declined during the years of the Reagan administration; in 1998, Republicans were much less likely than Democrats to say the deficit had shrunk during the Clinton administration.)
Given that human fallibility is a key theme of Future Babble, it seems somehow appropriate that I made a silly mistake on the fifth paragraph. (It's also embarrassing as hell, but I'm trying to be constructive about this.)
I wrote: "Several years later, the celebrated Manchester Guardian journalist H.N. Norman was even more definitive. 'It is as certain as anything in politics can be, that the frontiers of our modern national states are finally drawn. My own belief is that there will be no more wars among the six Great Powers.'"
The quotation is accurate. The source is not. The deluded chap's name was "H.N. Brailsford."
How did I turn that into "H.N. Norman"? My source was a New York Times essay. I checked it. It got Brailsford's name right. But there, next to Brailsford, is a reference to another famous British journalist of the era, "Norman Angell."
So did I simply give the article a casual glance and muddle the names? No, it was more than that.
Elsewhere in Future Babble, there is a whole section on Norman Angell and his supposed prediction, made shortly before the First World War broke out, that war would never again trouble Europe. I did considerable research to demonstrate that Angell never made any such prediction. Indeed, even prior to the outbreak of war, Angell tried valiantly to stop that misinterpretation of what he actually wrote. "War is, unhappily, quite possible, and, in the prevailing condition of ignorance of certain politico-economic facts, even likely," Angell wrote to the Daily Mail in 1911. But still, it stuck. Everyone from Barbara Tuchman to Niall Ferguson has repeated the calumny that Norman Angell predicted eternal peace.
As you may sense, I became a little passionate about exonerating poor Norman Angell. Indeed, I had him on the brain. And sometime in the course of writing and re-writing, I inadvertently transformed "H.N. Brailsford" into "H.N. Norman."
As the newspapers say, I regret the error.
Or maybe not. Maybe it was really an elaborate meta-demonstration of a key theme. Maybe it was quite ingenious. Maybe I should congratulate myself. Sure. That's the ticket.
Ah, sweet. I can feel the cognitive dissonance melting away.