Wednesday, October 03, 2007

The "Stéphane Dion" construction

Stéphane Dion. Except for the die-hards, what attributes does the name conjure up? Weak. Indecisive. Nerdy. More at home in some ivory tower. Not a leader. Just a few moments ago, he came to mind for no particular reason. "Weak," I thought. "They're going to have to replace him."

I'd just been reading John Ivison, who takes a good, hard poke at Quebec and then goes after Dion. A "failure," he says. He quotes the fair and balanced Tom Flanagan: "People don't just vote for good ideas; they vote for potential rulers whose character they can trust and who can inspire passion of loyalty and support." It seems that Dion falls down on all counts.

But how, I suddenly wondered, do I know all this? I've never met the man; I've never even seen him except through TV glass. I would never vote for him, no matter what he was really like--the Liberals aren't a political party, as a veteran journalist once said in a closed meeting I attended, but an elaborate distribution system for the spoils of office. After the last Liberal convention, it was a case of different captain, same old ship. But I digress for a reason. This has nothing to do with Liberals, really; and everything to do with media constructions.

We need to be wary of a number of the home-truths about Dion. First, most of us don't know him. Secondly, the question of what a leader is or should be is something we might like to decide for ourselves, rather than having various journalists and commentators with axes to grind define it for us.

We sometimes take the profession a little too seriously. In spite of ourselves, we find ourselves assenting to mediated views of the world that may bear no relation whatsoever to what we might see ourselves if we only looked or had the opportunity to do so. When journalists deal with a subject that we know something about, we see right away how shallow and foolish many of them are. I read the coverage of Pitcairn Island's recent woes; at the time, Desmond Morris was quoted as an anthropologist, for goodness sake. When they want to talk about ethical questions, they go running off to that fountain of Catholic natural law, Margaret Somerville. They love authorities, these scribes and chatterers, and they almost inevitably pick spurious ones with a great flair for the sound-bite.

And they are great at offering
unlettered, wiseacre analyses, too. All you have to do is read these folks on MMP, something on which most of them have done no research whatsoever, by the look of it--just read and listen to the half-truths and outright lies they are telling, on their own or possibly on others' behalf. That alone should be enough and to have us all scrambling furiously for other ways to learn about any topic these folks happen to cover.

Let me qualify the above with two observations. First, journalists work to deadline, have a busy schedule, and cannot be expected to be experts on everything. Secondly, they are not a conspiracy, and hardly monolithic in their views or ideology. But they do tend to converge on a lot of things, feeding off each other and taking no risks. They don't have a lot of time (and too often little inclination) to reflect and think for themselves. So the banks of received wisdom are tapped for a few column-inches, or some pithy TV commentary, the usual suspects are interviewed as "experts," and we come to share in and accept the wealth of idées, both fixes and reçues, that constitutes most reportage and editorial commentary today. Do they hold up a mirror to the world or do they create it? If the former, which I for one do not accept, we see through a glass very darkly indeed.

Now when it comes to assessing a leader, I don't know how we fix the problem. I watched the media (assisted by some of her own caucus) take down Audrey McLaughlin a few years back: she was "not a leader" either. She rejected the prevailing notion of leadership, in fact: too macho, too simple, too mystified a notion. She liked consensus. She liked working with people so that all of them got heard. Obviously she wasn't cut out for the job.

So when I see the forest of media knives out for Dion, structural problems in the Liberal party all attributed to him, every move he makes being spun, and spun, and spun, I
start to get suspicious. Sure, he might be all of the things that the media construct "Dion" supposedly replicates. Maybe he's precisely what the "pundits" (and I shall always use shudder-quotes in deploying that word) are telling us that he is. But people who are thoughtful and reflective, and answer questions in more than ten-second clips, are the natural prey of reporters and commentators. Maybe he does lack the killer instinct. Maybe he needs better flaks.Or just maybe he's doing a different kind of leadership.

And therein lies the nub of the question. We need to look at precisely what we mean by a leader, and what kind of leadership we want. Do we want Tom Flanagan's "rulers?" Do we go on accepting the mystical concept of the "leader" as a kind of avatar, summing up in one incarnation an entire political party, its principles, its policies, its program and its history? When that is done a little too obviously, and such people start to sum up their nations as well, we flinch and use upper-case: "the Leader." But are we really so far removed from this invidious notion?

The media transmit the image of an ideal leader as an articulate, tough-minded, decisive authority figure. As I stare at those words, I find myself asking if we really want "leaders" at all. Perhaps we should all be encouraged to be tough-minded decision-makers. Perhaps anyone who claims to speak for us should, to do so legitimately, be delegated that authority by us, and be accountable at all times to us. And on what basis might we cautiously delegate such authority? On the ability to deliver sound-bites? On the skills of a CEO--coordinating and managing from on high? Or on the ability to reflect, to imagine, to think, and the companion ability to communicate and to create enthusiasm, based always upon his or her delegated authority to represent and to speak for others?

There are no definitive answers to such questions. But they should be asked, and they seldom are. The world is constructed for us, mediated, pre-digested: and questioning the "natural order" thus manufactured is not encouraged. Indeed, it is very difficult to do. It's more than getting to know St
éphane Dion, or any other political figure of whatever stripe. It's what we demand of such a person, of anyone who seeks to stand for us, or represent us, or perform that odd, mysterious task of "running the country" in our name. Perhaps asking that fundamental question might better help us to create our own radically different assessment of individuals who seek to perform that role. Or to recast, or even reject, that role altogether.

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