Sunday, 7 December 2014

Newspeak: A Harper Government Lexicon

"‘When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.'
‘The question is,' said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things."
‘The question is,' said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master—that's all.'"
- "Through the Looking Glass", Lewis Carrol

Just like Humpty Dumpty, and the Big Brother Government in 1984, Stephen Harper and those who read his PMO talking points attempt to change our understanding and use of language. Stephen Harper is certainly not the first leader in world history to work to change the meaning of language to suit his own ends. But he is the first to do so in Canada so intensively, and backed by such a legion of psychology-based spin doctors and communications specialists, as well as several thousand paid trolls whose role it is to attack, disrupt and change the conversation on social media anywhere criticism of the government might be found. So, as a handy guide, I provide you with a partial glossary of CPC Newspeak, so that you might be prepared to engage your critical thinking when these terms come up.

CLEAR/CLEARLY: This is one of Harper's favourites. "Let me be clear" or "Clearly...." The party ran on a platform of transparency and accountability in 2006.

However, when Stephen Harper says, "clear" or "clearly", he is not prefacing transparency. It means he is about to either a) say something so convoluted it is impossible to follow, but sounds good, or b) he is going to make up something, such as , "Let me be clear, this government is first among G7 countries in job creation (or environmental responsibility, or whatever).

FAIR (as in "Fair Elections Act" or "Fair Taxation for Families"): When I think of the concept of fairness, I think of something that levels the playing field in some way. Something that makes it possible for those with fewer advantages, to compete with those who have more advantages. The dictionary defines fair as:

By the traditional definition of "fair", a fair elections act should make elections potentially winnable by any party without systemic barriers to any, and should make all potential voters equally able to vote. However, by the CPC definition of "fair", a fair election is one in which they have a marked advantage over any other party and those voters least likely to vote for them may encounter barriers preventing them from exercising their franchise. This is a page straight out of the American Tea Party playbook. In recent years, the far right in the US has appeared to be working hard to devolve their democracy back to an age where only white men with property could vote.

What the CPC have done is change electoral ridings, splitting hard-core CPC support ridings in two to add seats to their side of the house. They have opened the doors to increased campaign spending, knowing full well they are the only party with enough money to take full advantage of this, and they have brought in new ID requirements for voters which may not be accessible to all eligible voters, particularly the young, the poor, First Nations... groups that typically would not vote CPC.

Throw in changes to the powers of Elections Canada, or rather, removal of powers from Elections Canada, which makes it harder to get people out to vote, prohibits the teaching of school children about elections, and makes it impossible for EC to investigate suspected election fraud, and the CPC seem to have stitched up the next and every subsequent election in their favour. This is clearly a new meaning of "fair".

By the same token, a fair taxation program for families should set tax benefits to allow less affluent parents to provide their children with advantages similar to those available to more affluent parents. Sounds good, right? But, under the CPC definition of fair, it means something quite different. Their fair taxation for families plan will only benefit the top 15% of Canadian families who also adhere to the 1950s value set of staying together and having one parent (usually Mom) stay home with the kids. Nothing for single parents. Nothing for two-income families where both parents make a similar amount. Nothing for those who are struggling. The income-splitting plan is a reward to families like Harper's. No one else. Only in the CPC dictionary is that "fair".


According to Wikipedia:

A Special Interest Group (SIG) is a community within a larger organization with a shared interest in advancing a specific area of knowledge, learning or technology where members cooperate to affect or to produce solutions within their particular field, and may communicate, meet, and organize conferences. The term originated on CompuServe, an early online service provider, where SIGs were a section of the service devoted to particular interests.

And yet, in the Harper lexicon and increasingly in common use, a special interest group is an obstructionist entity whose motives are deeply suspect. In the past, corporations or industry associations would send "lobbyists" to Ottawa. These lobbyists would try to get the ear of a Minister and influence government policy-making in ways that would benefit their company or industry. Under Harper, corporate groups are now "partners",  as in, "The Alberta Department of Education is now partnering with the oil and gas industry to develop curricula for K-12 schools in the province". (Yes, it's true). On the other hand, groups of concerned citizens, such as First Nations bands who do not want a pipeline or a mine on their land, or Veterans who want better access to care, are now "Special Interest Groups". They are linked with the spectre of "foreign funding", radicalism, and possibly terrorism. Never mind that much of the oil and gas industry is foreign-owned or funded, Conservative think-tanks like the Fraser Institute receive vast donations from the likes of the Koch brothers from the US... No, according to Harper, the real threat to our country is citizens trying to protect their land and their rights. Something is very wrong with this. Citizens are not "special interest groups", they are people trying to live in the country with the advantages of clean air, water, environment, safe roads, good schools, and good governance.


 Now we all think we know what facts are, right? Just to be sure we are starting at the same point, facts are defined as:


So a fact is something real, true, indisputable. Facts are used to justify or validate a position. Increasingly, however, we see Harper and his party spokespeople professing "facts" that are completely disputable. Many are difficult for the average citizen to check. "The fact is, Canada has the most stringent rail safety regulations in the world." Unless you are a rail safety expert or have a great deal of time and fluency in many languages, you are not going to be able to verify this. Other "facts" are less obscure. One can google reports from outside Canada to see where Canada stands in comparison with other G7 or OECD countries on many criteria. And when one does this, one finds that the "facts" so assertively stated by the CPC are simply not accurate. Does Canada have the strongest post-recession jobs recovery in the G7? No.Check the story here: Fact-Checking Jobs Numbers   Is Canada the best-performing economy and the envy of the world? No, not really. See an analysis here.

To cut to the chase, here is Canada's ranking adjusted for the essential factor of population growth (often ignored in Harper government calculations):

So, what does "fact" mean to the Conservative Party of Canada? A clue might be found in this 2011 ad from Craigslist seeking professional CPC-oriented trolls to disrupt progressive discussions in social media:

"Ideally you can find or make up facts and statistics to stir controversy." 

"Make up facts and statistics" Let that sink in for a moment. 

If a "fact" is made up, how can it be a "fact"? 

If you follow this line of thinking through to it's logical conclusion... If our government feels facts are whatever plausible statement that is advantageous to say at the moment, then what are they basing their policy decisions on? If facts are irrelevant (evidenced by the elimination of the long-form census, the suppression of scientists and the refusal to accept expert testimony and empirical evidence), then is our country being governed based on whatever Harper wants to do? Whatever whim pops into his head?


Closely related to facts, evidence, and empirical knowledge, is the concept of academic or intellectual expertise. At one time, people respected those who had worked hard to learn all they could about a subject, conducted research, experimentation, engaged in debate with other experts in order to further a field of study. There is both a vilifying of academics (used by Harper to discredit Michael Ignatieff, for example), and a perceived leveling of  the knowledge base. The attitude that "My ignorance is as good as your expertise" may make the average person feel comfortable talking about issues like climate change and the economy, and it is important that we all have those discussions, but it becomes dangerous when it has real world implications. For example, the In-Site Safe Injection Program in Vancouver has been shown in longitudinal studies to reduce harm, save lives and help otherwise hopeless people access services that lead to improvement in their lives. The CPC have been trying very hard to shut them down because they don't agree with the program. It offends them to help people with addictions, rather than punishing them by throwing them in jail. So, on the one hand we have evidence-based facts, and on the other hand, we have dogma and opinion. The right-wing view does not believe in harm-reduction, or, generally, science. Fortunately, the Supreme Court still does. The uninformed gut response of Harper and his right-wing base is to shut down In-Site because it offends their personal sensibilities, and that would almost certainly result in deaths, which is demonstrated by the scientific evidence. 

To put it another, maybe more accessible, way: you wouldn't ask some random person you met on the bus to take your appendix out, would you? Why not? If everyone's ignorance is as good as those academic elites' knowledge, then certainly that guy that works at Wendy's is just as qualified to perform surgery as a surgeon. Right? 

No? So maybe, those who have studied specific fields intensively for many years maybe, just maybe, might have an edge on your gut feeling.

But those who know things, because they have studied and conducted experiments and gathered evidence, often disagree with the Harper Way. So, it is useful for him, if not for Canadians, to influence the common perception of academics, scientists, and intellectuals to make sure people see these individuals in a negative light, and their advice, statements, and studies as discredited and irrelevant. 


Unions are one of the favourite bogeymen for the CPC, especially when fundraising. "You should send us money...because UNIONS!!!!!" 
There are several large unions in Canada that have negotiated good wages, good benefits and good retirement packages for their members. It's a strange thing that some people resent them for this. It is similar to saying, "It's not fair, my car wouldn't start this morning but my neighbour's car did. To make things fair, my neighbour's car should not start either." To put it another way, if you and another employee at the same company have identical credentials and experience, have been in your identical jobs the same amount of time and you find out the other person makes more money than you do, do you demand that their pay be reduced to match yours? Or do you demand that your pay be increased to match theirs? Does it not make more sense, and result in a better situation for everyone, if people work to gain better working terms for themselves and their co-workers, rather than spending time resenting others who have already managed to improve their circumstances? 

A second issue that makes it easy for governments to vilify unions is that union actions are disruptive. They are inconvenient. This is the power behind the labour movement. They can leverage good wages, benefits and retirement plans because workers united can exert pressure on employers in ways that individual workers cannot. In a capitalist system, the owners of the means of production hold all the cards, unless the workers organize to require that owners share the fruits of the workers' labour. So, yes, strikes are annoying. They make everyone's life difficult. And people, in general,  have lost sight of the higher purpose of these actions.

Before the labour movement began, there were no limits to how long people were required to work each day. There were no requirements of giving employees days off - the weekend did not exist in any meaningful way. There was no minimum wage. There were no workplace health and safety regulations. No pension plans. No prohibition on child labour. Employees could be fired for anything, or nothing at all. There were no rules about sexual harassment. Labour unions did not only improve things in their own shops, they also pressured governments into legislating fair working conditions for all workers, unionized or not. 

Some people say, well, we have all that now. There is no need for unions anymore. But this is simply not true. There are still those who would like to see minimum wages reduced or eliminated. Companies come up with clever ways to get around workplace standards, to the detriment of workers. One of the Conservative think-tanks (the Frontier Centre on Public Policy) has just begun advocating a return to child labour and a reduction of wages to compensate employers for taking on workers with no experience, i.e. children. Read about it here

Attacks on the gains made by the labour movement are all around us. Temporary Foreign Workers, governments legislating unions back to work (thus removing their power to negotiate for their members), the loss of full-time jobs with benefits in our economy (replaced by cheaper, part-time jobs without benefits).... The gap between the rich and the poor is expanding. Jobs are harder to find, especially for young people. Vast multi-national corporations are controlling more and more of the economy. We need unions as much now as ever, because people as individual workers are becoming even more powerless. 

The Harper Government is certainly not the first government to find unions troublesome, but it is arguably the most viscerally opposed to unionization. Unions give power to the common people. Harper does not like to share power with anyone. Unionism and all that comes with it - minimum wages, health and safety standards, etc. - cut into corporate profits, and that is anathema to Harper. It is not true that paying people decently and providing benefits makes consumer goods more expensive. At least it doesn't have to be true. Corporations already making obscene profits should not, in good conscience, make the argument that increases in wages will have to be passed on to the consumer. But among such groups it is a form of extreme sacrilege to suggest that the cost of treating employees decently should maybe be offset by a slight reduction in the profit line.


Canadians do not understand their own system of government. Harper is exploiting this. He can say anything he likes about how government is meant to work and so few people actually know the reality of how it is suppose to work, that he is rarely challenged. This is evidenced by a poll conducted by the Dominion Institute here.  Francis Russell does an excellent job of explaining the issue and I encourage you to read her article here. The long and short of it is, coalitions are a perfectly valid form of government in a parliamentary democracy, but Harper made it sound like an evil, illegal plot. This is yet another example of how Harper will exploit the imperfect information available to Canadians to achieve his own goals.

In Conclusion...
The main point I am attempting to get across in all this, Dear Reader, is that not only is Harper trying to change our economy, our justice system, our health care, and our social programs. He is trying to change how we THINK. And he is doing this by carefully manipulating the meaning of words. Language is key to the tools we have to examine issues and reach conclusions about them. The CPC have a huge team of advisors from the US who are especially skilled in manipulating meaning. Nothing that comes out of the mouths of the Harper team, either read directly from the script, or recited, is accidental. Just as in war reporting, terms like "assets" and "collateral damage" are used to sanitize the information, making living breathing soldiers who are someone's sons and daughters into an inventory item (assets), and similarly make living, breathing people who are injured or killed by our soldiers into  a vague term (collateral damage) that expresses nothing of blood and pain and loss, so too are the words used by our government meant to make certain unpalatable ideas easier to accept, and make other, previously accepted and valued ideas into negatives. CPC spokespeople are taught key words and how to use them. When they speak, pay attention. Think critically. Look for independent confirmation of their assertions. Don't take them at their word, because it probably doesn't mean what you think it means.

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