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Federal Politics

Harper's Newspeak

He loves naming laws with false slogans. (So do fascists.)

Andrew Nikiforuk 31 Aug

Andrew Nikiforuk is an award-winning journalist who has been writing about the energy industry for two decades and is a contributing editor to The Tyee. Find his previous stories here.

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In 1995 the Italian writer Umberto Eco, who grew up in Mussolini's Italy, wrote an essay on the eternal threat of fascism for the New York Review of Books.

Eco explained that fascism, like any totalitarian system, depended on certain features to poison the political landscape.

It could sprout, warned Eco, like an invasive weed in any place where careless citizens let liberty erode.

To Eco the central ingredients of eternal fascism included a cult of heroism; an irrational worship of technology; a faith in action and action plans (politics as permanent warfare); a fear of difference (all fascist governments are racist); leadership that bullies the masses; an obsession over some kind of international plot (such as ISIS taking over the world) and a belief that parliamentary government is rotten to the core.

A fascist government also bent plain language into Newspeak to converse with the people. Whether engineered by socialists, capitalists or dictators, all Newspeak, noted Eco, must make "use of an impoverished vocabulary, and an elementary syntax, in order to limit the instruments for complex and critical reasoning." In essence, fascism suspends thinking with lies and false language.

George Orwell, who coined the term Newspeak, understood that political chaos danced with the decay of language and that political language "is designed to make lies sound truthful and murders respectable and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind."

Just about every modern institution and political party employs Newspeak to one degree or another. Many U.S. universities have become experts at closing minds with deceptive language.

One notorious university library guide advised students that the rich are really "people of material wealth" and the obese are "people of size."

In addition, said the guide, the poor are no longer poor but just individuals who "lack the advantages that others have." Old people are not old or senior but individuals of "advanced age."

Still, the Harper government, which has shown deep disdain for the traditions and trappings of a parliamentary democracy, has outdone U.S. universities and, on some days, even Chairman Mao with its deceptive sloganeering.

It routinely anoints every piece of legislation and policy with grand, Communist-sounding titles.

A government budget is no longer a budget but an "economic action plan."

Bitumen mines and leaky pipelines aren't carbon liabilities but triumphant models of "Responsible Resource Development."

Laws as slogans

In particular, the titles of Canadian legislation now bear no resemblance to their substance and have become pure marketing wind.

In 2012 the government, for example, introduced Bill C-30. Although the "Protecting Children from Internet Predators Act" did not mention children or predators by name, it did sanction government Internet surveillance of Canadian citizens largely for political reasons.

Despite its feel good name, the bill was widely opposed as a government power grab and the Harper government later withdrew it. Nevertheless, then-public safety minister Vic Toews famously defended the bill by noting that citizens are either "with us or the child pornographers."

C-377, a bill that directly infringed on provincial labour legislation and was clearly designed to hamstring the basic functioning of unions with the kind of red tape conservatives supposedly abhor, was presented to the public as the "Union Transparency Bill." No such transparency bill has been proposed for political parties.

A crackdown on human smuggling morphed into a marketing sensation with the grand title of "Preventing Human Smugglers from Abusing Canada's Immigration System Act."

Dismantling the Canadian Wheat Board against farmers' protests became a heroic gesture in the government's liberation struggles: "Marketing Freedom for Grain Farmers Act."

Bill C-38, a notorious 400-page omnibus bill that repealed or amended 70 federal laws, including 10 of the country's most significant environmental laws, was innocuously called the "Jobs, Growth and Long-term Prosperity Act."

Elizabeth May, leader of the Green Party, dared to call the bill what it actually enabled: "The Environmental Destruction Act."

Next came the Fair Elections Act. Bill C-23 promised "sharper teeth, longer reach and a freer hand" for Elections Canada, in the words of the minister responsible for democratic reform, Pierre Poilievre.

But the act muzzled the agency and even prevented it from talking about low voter turnout or robocalls. It also rewarded unfair funding advantages to the Conservative party. Just about everyone now calls it the Unfair Elections Act.

Crime, fear and propaganda

The Nazis excelled at this sort of deception. In 1933 the party introduced its "Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service."

The bill sounded lofty and industrious. But in reality it systematically expelled Jews and critics of the Nazi party from Germany's civil service.

This is not, of course, to equate what Canada's Conservative government has done with the special category of horror perpetrated by the Nazis.

However, as Eco noted, fascism -- its ideals and practices -- crawls along a spectrum, demanding close attention. Harper's impoverished vocabulary in naming of laws earns a place on that spectrum.

The worst examples are the crime bills. Between 2006 and 2012 the Harper government introduced 69 "crime" bills on the false premise that crime was increasing in Canada. Meanwhile criminal lawyers argued that the best evidence showed that it had been declining since 1992.

As a consequence, all the laws basically targeted crime-fearful Tory supporters as a form of constant political marketing.

Simple amendments to the Criminal Code, for example, got a dress-up and morphed into "The Safe Streets and Communities Act." In reality the act merely stiffened penalties for pot possession and supported the construction of more prisons.

The "Increasing Offenders' Accountability for Victims Act" sounded like more justice for victims but imposed additional penalties on offenders with no ability to pay.

Another bill pretended that it was all about "Protecting Canada's Seniors Act." But the legislation did nothing to protect seniors. It merely contained 24 words informing judges that sentences should be more onerous if there is "evidence that the offence had a significant impact on the victim, considering their age and other personal circumstances, including their health and financial situation."

In a Toronto Star opinion piece the late criminal lawyer Edward Greenspan called this ongoing lying silly and stupid, if not destructive.

Thierry St-Cyr, a former Bloc Québécois MP warned about the dangers of Harper's Newspeak in the House of Commons as early as 2010:

"The average person will rely on what he is told the bill does. If he is told the bill protects people against murderers, he will say it is a good bill. Who is opposed to protecting people against murderers? The answer is obvious. But the public is being deceived and fooled by the government."

'Assault on reason'

The sloganeering, of course, continues unabated. In 2015 the government championed Bill C-51, another notorious omnibus bill, as the "Anti-Terrorism Act." Yet the bill strengthened the ability of government to spy on (and terrorize) its citizens with little government oversight or review.

Several former prime ministers and mainstream newspapers warned that the offensive legislation would not end terror, but it would erode the democratic rights of Canadians.

The government, however, defended the passage of the bill, with elementary syntax and outrageous rhetoric: "This legislation highlights our government's continued commitment to taking swift action to combat jihadi terrorism and protect Canadians."

Allan Gregg, a former Tory pollster, denounced the government's Newspeak in a sharp tongued 2012 essay titled "The Assault on Reason": "The thing that is disconcerting and unsettling about all this is not just the substance of these bills, but why a government would want to disguise that substance."

Gregg added that "for the rule of law to work, the public must have respect for the law. By obfuscating the true purpose of laws under the gobbledy-gook of double speak, governments are admitting that their intentions probably lack both support and respect. Again, the lesson here is Orwellian... in the same way that reason requires consciousness, tyranny demands ignorance."

Fascism, said Eco, did not always arrive with black shirts and staged rallies: it could appear "sometimes in plainclothes."

And even in a country like Canada.  [Tyee]

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