So it’s been 5 days since the G20 summit wrapped up in Toronto. Does anyone remember what that was all about?
Last Saturday I switched on my television to be greeted by a live image I had never thought possible on the streets of my city. “Toronto the Good”, as the city likes to think of itself is known for its tolerance and multiculturalism. But last week I watched in horror and disbelief while a group of self-described anarchists ran wild and largely unchecked through the financial district, smashing windows at the nation’s top banks while a police car, parked in the middle of the intersection burned out of control. The images were streamed live over the internet and reprinted the next day on the front page of every major newspaper from New York to Mumbai.
Canadians often lament that the world ignores us tucked away up here on top of the giant and much more influential United States. Former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau once described our relationship to our neighbours as that of a mouse in bed with an elephant. To be honest, most of us like it that way. We’re quiet and unassuming by nature which makes those moments when the world does take notice all the more meaningful. Remember the Vancouver Olympics? But when the attention is negative, as it was last week the national embarrassment can be palpable.
For the last 5 days the story of the G20 has been all about that burning car. While world leaders were meeting just a few blocks away, making deals and pronouncements about such weighty issues as economic growth, international security and the health and welfare of women and children living in poverty the only story that seemed important (sensational?) enough to be shown on television was the fact that a few thugs decided to take over our streets in protest.
What should have been a story of Canada’s arrival on the world stage, while we brokered deals on deficit reduction and banking laws and committed billions of dollars to aid maternal health in Africa, is now a story about police brutality and the stifling of free speech. What exactly where the protests all about? Nobody knows. At least nobody is saying. To hear the media tell it, and the images on my television screen seem to back it up, the entire story is about the conduct of police.
In his 1973 novel, “Gravity’s Rainbow” author Thomas Pynchon wrote; “If they get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about the answers.” While I’m sure the quote is out of context this is pretty much how I feel about the media, the riots and the recent G20 meetings. Not only are we asking the wrong questions, nobody seems to care about the answers.
It used to be media’s job not only to show us what was happening but to explain what it meant. Today, in our culture of near limitless choice and competing platforms, media has abdicated that responsibility in favour of sensationalism designed to grab and hold our attention for as long as possible, or at least until the next commercial break. Gone are the days of long and detailed editorials that can engage the public’s thinking and affect real change.
At one point, while watching the riots un-fold I saw a banner in the crowd, which stated simply “Capitalism Sucks!” Really? Did you grow and weave the cotton for that bed sheet yourself? It was at that point that I knew the opportunity for intelligent discourse was lost, even if the author of that banner understood the real issues they didn’t have the ability to express themselves beyond a banal and meaningless invective. I found myself wondering aloud to my empty living room “where have all the smart people gone?” They certainly weren’t on my television that day.
This is the Art of Re-direction at its best or worst depending on how you look at it. David Copperfield beware, you’ve got nothing on the news media. The politicians know this and they count on it. How many of the protesters realize that they were actually playing right into everyone’s hands?
Torch a police car and suddenly nothing else matters. The politicians can make all the back room, closed door deals they want while the people are mesmerized watching the fire.