Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Cancerning John Ibbitson's front page commentary, “Obama Turns Left,” in the Globe and Mail

This is a re-posting of something I originally hung up yesterday, in which I suggested that there might have been racism at play in the matter under discussion. I have not repeated those comments because that’s not the issue of immediate concern. Besides, we can return to that aspect of things, and perhaps will, another time. My observations otherwise remain much the same. What I have added is more of what John Ibbitson said, and a link to the front page feature in the Globe and Mail. What have been lost are some asides, comments on the original post, and my responses. My apologies, FSJL.

I’ve blogged before about people who claim expertise but who really aren’t expert because they lack the attention to detail, the commitment to finding out what’s true, the bothering to check and double-check that identifies persons who care about their work, care about not misinforming those who repose confidence in what they say. Being expert isn’t easy and I’m glad that I make small claim in that direction. But if you say you are, then deliver the goods! If not, the price for those who believe you may end up being very high!

One presumes a considerable degree of expertise on the part of someone writing on politics for a major newspaper. I’m referring to John Ibbitson’s front-page piece, “Obama Turns Left” in the Globe and Mail of April 4. Before I make any comments, though, I have a story. It happened a while back, pre-election and just pre-Global Devastation, if I recall rightly. I’m watching a discussion on the Wall Street Journal’s website. I’m pretty sure that’s the source, but it doesn’t matter much if it isn’t. Can’t remember their names, but two men are discussing Barack Obama’s economic policies and one is describing European economies. He says they grow at about three percent annually, people are accustomed to taking four weeks or so of vacation time, workers are pretty laid back. These economies, the way of life, might be characterized by the word ‘equality'. While he’s talking, I’m thinking, “Good. Someone who sees the virtue of an economic engine with the goal of enabling producers to stop and sniff the flowers, enjoy their families, read, travel, have time to share stories with their children.”

Imagine my surprise when I discover this is not what’s being approved of at all. The European ‘equality’ approach is not such a good thing, it turns out, because it’s not the kind that allows for risk-taking, for the enterprise that has always been the engine of American industry and commerce, and underwrites the American way of life. It seems the American economy can be described by the word ‘liberty,’ its virtue being that people can take risks and become wildly successful entrepreneurs and concomitantly, production can grow, not by modest three percents but by leaps and bounds.

I’m relying on memory here but I’m pretty sure I’m reporting the essence of what was said. Certainly I was knocked over by the discussants not even admitting that the European approach had, as seemed obvious from their own descriptions, much to recommend it. Naaaah! I gathered that I was supposed to think that these economies might be ‘equal’ but were somehow less ‘free,’ and to be watchful lest Barack’s policies lead Americans down the backward paths to socialist unfreedom.

So now to John Ibbitson’s comments on Obama’s turning left. I quote Mr Ibbitson’s first two paragraphs:

“In the space of a few months, the United States of America has been transformed from the most entrepreneurial society on Earth to one so state-directed that even the Europeans are raising their eyebrows.

The government has become deeply enmeshed in the banking and insurance sectors, a chunk of which it now owns. It holds or guarantees $5-trillion worth of mortgages. It is directing the future of the automotive industry.”

Mr Ibbitson then refers to the [American] conservatives’ accusation that President Obama is a socialist and, in doing so, employs a courtroom device that we are all familiar with from crime shows on the TV. He proceeds to quote one conservative, thus…

' “The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics may be dead," Mike Huckabee, former candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, said recently, "but the Union of American Socialist Republics is being born." '

Ibbitson follows with the comment, “It's a wild claim.” But as in the case of the lawyer who asks and then withdraws a question when the judge rules it objectionable, the damage has been done. Obama’s policies have been tainted by the Russian connection (made by Huckabee, true, but effective nonetheless), and people have been frightened by the comparison between the USA and the USSR – an unthinkable one, prior to this!

There’s no space here to properly analyze the article and the accompanying graphics, and, thanks to the Internet, readers may see for themselves – sort of. The graphics were pretty grand! Suffice it to say that, were I still teaching English, this would be an excellent piece to take into the classroom for students learning about bias and subtle manipulation in journalism.

So those reading this post can see the feature themselves, here is the url: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/story/RTGAM.20090403.wobama03/BNStory/International/home

One buys the Globe and Mail because of some good news reporting and some good columnists, and because one can almost invariably count on fine letters to the editor. The readers were quick to pounce. Ian and Angela Trowell asked, “What on earth were you thinking when you blazed across your front page a red striped text and a blue cluster of hammer and sickles? To inflame Americans, who are inherently fearful of socialism in any form, is utterly irresponsible.” Janis Svipilis rebuked: “The parody of the U.S. flag may have seemed clever, but it's a deadly insult to the democracy south of us… As the son of refugees from Stalinism, I find your front page offensive and, worse, morally incoherent.” There were no letters published that supported Ibitson's analysis.

I suppose one can argue that policy can be interpreted at will, and so John Ibbitson is within his right – ha-ha – to paint Obama pink. Ha-ha some more – a doubly ironic guffaw this time. It would be an occasion for loud cackling except that this (Canada) is a nation presently being governed by ill-advised conservatives, voted in by a too-small percentage of the enfranchised. Many Canadians don’t vote. One must conclude that they don’t grasp what will happen if they fail to exercise the franchise. In such a context, the importance of responsible journalism cannot be overemphasized.

There’s no doubt that Ibbitson got one thing very wrong. Early on he remarks: “Mr. Obama is the most activist president since Lyndon Johnson. Mr. Johnson's presidency failed.” Reader Kurt D Lynn to the rescue, this time, to point out that Lyndon Johnson’s presidency cannot be deemed ‘failed’ by any stretch of the imagination. “Mr. Johnson's legacy includes the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Higher Education Act of 1965, Medicare (health care for the elderly) and Medicaid (health care for the poor). Moreover, with his focus on cleaning up America, it's not a stretch to say his presidency marked the start of true environmental concern.” Lynn allows that Johnson “expanded the war in Vietnam and that his public persona… left a lot to be desired,” but he concludes that Johnson’s “footprint changed the course of America's social consciousness.” All true. There’s evidence too that, but for some conniving on the part of Richard Nixon, the Vietnam War would have concluded on Johnson’s watch. Instead, Nixon’s intermediaries persuaded the South Vietnamese government to wreck all-party peace initiatives and kept the war alive so that it might be an election issue.

So, for those who know the runnings, i.e., how it really go, Ibbitson's comparing Obama to Johnson turns out to be flattering. If Obama lives up to anything like Johnson's legacy, he'd have done a great deal. Finally, one wonders how much John Ibbitson knows about Obama's chief economic adviser, Lawrence Summers. I do believe a recent Globe and Mail carried an article from the New York Times that should lay his fears to rest.

John Ibbitson and the Globe and Mail need to do much better next time.


FSJL said...

What happened to the comments?

clarabella said...

FSJL: I decided to revise the comments. There's an intro that explains – and apologizes to you. This time I've put a link to the article, and used some quotes from it, and fiddled with the insides just a little. The race comments I've omitted, though I want to revisit them. I didn't think fast enough to save both the post and the exchange. My very bad. Forgive.