Modestly Resisting Political Amnesia

Catherine recently posted a reminder that the Harper’s government’s scandalous and wholly unfounded attack on the Chief Justice of Supreme Court has faded from public view without any satisfactory resolution of the matter. On May 1 2014, Harper impugned the integrity of the Chief Justice by falsely suggesting that the Chief Justice had wrongly tried to contact him to discuss possible problems with his proposed appointment to the Supreme Court. Despite being pressed by hundreds legal academics and lawyers to set the record straight, Harper has steadfastly refused to even acknowledge that his remarks were inappropriate, let alone apologize for them. Regrettably, Harper’s decision to stubbornly carry on as though he has done nothing wrong is a reflection of some cynical but probably accurate calculations about the half-life of this kind of political scandal. My guess is that Harper and his political advisors have calculated that the controversy about disrespecting the Chief Justice will be forgotten before it has the chance to do any real political damage. On this approach, it does not matter whether the PM’s conduct was, in fact, wrong and disrespectful to the Chief Justice. Nor does it matter what is true about who did what and when. All that matters is that in today’s rapidly changing news cycle, the story will grow stale. Reporters will quickly stop pressing awkward questions about the PM’s ethically dubious decision to insinuate that the Chief Justice acted improperly. (A similar logic underlies the mendacity of the Hudak campaign that Joe recently discussed. Admitting that the central plank of your platform is predicated on a simple mistake in arithmetic is politically unwise. After a short while, most of the media will drop the matter and the electorate will forget. So simply obfuscate the matter and characterize the issue as a ‘difference of opinion’.)

Of course, Harper is not the first politician for whom a commitment to common decency is easily trumped by narrow partisan calculations. Ordinary people often know when they have wrongly insulted others and can manage to sincerely apologize for their transgressions. Even kids in kindergarten know how to say sorry. Why then is it so difficult for politicians to acknowledge mistakes and apologize for them? (BTW, the politician’s “apology” that takes the form of saying “I am sorry if you misinterpreted my remarks to be insulting” does not count as a real person’s apology.) Part of the answer lies in the perceived political cost of admitting mistakes. One’s political foes can be expected to seize on the admission of error and press that admission for any political advantage that can be wrung from it. But part of the answer also lies in the fact that politicians know that ordinary folks will soon forget their transgressions if there is never any sincere acknowledgement of the transgression in the first place. Since apologizing is usually politically costly and since problematic behaviour is often quickly forgotten, it’s easy and generally politically expedient for politicians to refuse to admit error in the first place.

One does not want to exaggerate the moral gravity of Harper’s unrepentant attitude to having disparaged the Chief Justice. The attack on the Chief Justice is unprecedented, shameful and petty. But it’s far from the worst of political sins. (The Fair Elections Act is much worse for Canadian democracy.) Nonetheless, I am curious whether we can do something to resist the political amnesia that Harper is expecting most of us to fall prey to. In my view, political bullshit thrives in a climate of amnesia. So in what will probably be a quixotic experiment in political mnemonics, I will from time to time simply post a statement on the blog of the days that have elapsed since Harper insulted the Chief Justice. (Those who remember Walter Cronkite’s sign-off from the CBS Evening News during the Iran hostage crisis from 1979 to 1981 will recognize the source of my inspiration.)

June 11 2014, the 41st day that PM Harper has failed to acknowledge and apologize for impugning the integrity of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.




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