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Sean Speer: Cynicism seems sophisticated. But that doesn’t mean our politics needs more of it

Commentary

Earlier this year, Howard Anglin wrote an article for The Hub that warned against the conceit of contrarianism. His basic case was that although the contrarian instinct can be useful in the world of politics and public policy, it needs to be wielded with care. Excessive contrarianism or contrarianism as one’s default setting tends to lead in bad directions. Sometimes—in fact, most of the time—the consensus is probably right. Real contrarianism must be discerning enough to know when it is and when it’s not. 

An intellectual cousin of contrarianism is cynicism. Political commentary is marked by the cynical outlook—perhaps even more so than contrarianism. It’s the modus operandi of so many of today’s opinion leaders, commentators, and pundits. Twitter is their preferred stage for cynical takes and where they deliver their best (or worst) performances. 

A healthy dose of cynicism, like contrarianism, can be useful. The complete absence of cynicism is an empty idealism or even dangerous naivety that can cause one to misread the motives and outcomes of politics. A bit of cynicism is a good defence against succumbing to mere sentimentality. 

But cynicism similarly needs to be constrained. Excessive cynicism is boring and unproductive. The cynic is quick to identify problems but incapable or unwilling to commit him or herself to solutions. Their cynicism is a device to avoid ever making informed bets about ideas, candidates, or policies that may actually contribute to progress. It’s invariably a politics of stasis and a politics of snark. 

It’s not just that they let the perfect become the enemy of the good. It’s that they even refuse to see or accept the good because it might puncture their cynical narrative that politicians are dumb, lazy, or corrupt and the political system is therefore irrevocably flawed. 

Yuval Levin has referred to this outlook as “sophisticated cynicism.” The sophisticated cynic is highly effective on Twitter but ultimately ineffective at statecraft. They’ve chosen the easy yet unsatisfying path of detachment and critique over the imperfect yet rewarding process of trade-offs and incremental progress. 

Another problem with such sustained cynicism in political commentary is that it’s actually unrepresentative of most people. It reflects an intellectual poise that seeks to detach oneself from his or her fellow citizens and sees their principal role in highlighting the various flaws present in society. Roger Scruton put it this way: 

People who self-identify as intellectuals and thinkers also want to identify themselves as in some way outside of the community. Standing in judgment on it. Gifted with superior insight and intellect. And therefore inevitably critical of whatever it is that ordinary people do by way of surviving. So we have created an intellectual class which by its nature doesn’t identify with the way of life around it. And tries to gain another identity by its critical stance.

Such a stance is unlikely to find much resonance with the broader public. People can certainly be pessimistic as recent polls show. But they’re not cynical. They generally believe that their country and the people who inhabit it are good and decent and although their society is far from perfect—and in fact faces real challenges—it’s not rotten to its core. 

I was thinking about this recently in listening to an episode of Ezra Klein’s New York Times podcast with Tom Hanks. It’s a must-listen. 

Klein framed the conversation around the insightful (and persuasive) observation that Hanks’s tremendous success as an actor is due in some part to his rejection of the cynicism of his social milieu. His career has instead been imbued by a view of American society that’s based on the premise that people generally think well of the society, their fellow citizens, and their country. He’s instinctively understood that notwithstanding the common narrative of negativity and polarization, most people are positive, patriotic, and even sentimental. 

One way that I’ve come to think about the dichotomy between intellectuals and the rest of us that Klein and Hanks discussed is through the popular television show America’s Got Talent. The former would likely sneer at the overproduced sentimentality of the show which is full of stories that seem a bit contrived, pre-packaged, and intentionally sappy. But the latter—including me—just like nice stories. 

There’s a reason why it’s been among the most popular shows on television for several years. We prefer positive over negative. We like to believe in something or someone. We don’t mind sentimentality. We’re drawn to sincerity. We want to feel good. 

It’s the same reason why the Apple show Ted Lasso has resonated so much in recent years. It’s kind of a silly plot when one thinks about it. An American football coach getting hired to coach professional soccer in London as part of a revenge plot against an ex-spouse is far-fetched to say the least. The storyline is a bit cliched and the jokes can be hokey. But it’s highly successful precisely because it’s deliberately rejected sophisticated cynicism—it’s intentionally anti-cynical—and the audience has overwhelmingly responded. 

Same for Tom Hanks, who agreed with Klein’s interpretation of his personal outlook and how it has shaped his career. As he explained in their conversation: 

I think it’s because we have entered into a realm of cynicism that seems to be much more of a default position for an awful lot of cultural exchange…. 

But what I did not give in to was an ongoing type of cynicism that said, “It’s all corrupt, that it is all worthless,” because, even then, I was coming across people that were honest, and forgiving, and willing to sit down and discuss the differences. 

Hanks’ message here has real application for politicians and political commentators. There’s clearly a large yet untapped market for a politics of anti-cynicism. Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America” is still a far more compelling political proposition with most people than Donald Trump’s “America carnage.” 

Here in Canada, Justin Trudeau found a Lasso-like politics in the 2015 election campaign. Ever since, however, he’s devolved into an increasingly cynical stance that’s much more about making the negative case for his opponents than the affirmative case for him and his government. He continues to win but only by turning himself into an uninspiring version of his former self. It’s an inherently unsustainable basis for political power. 

A key lesson here is that Canadian intellectuals shouldn’t segregate themselves too far from the people and society that they critique. A mix of sentimentality and sincerity is still a powerful political ideal. Tom Hanks may ultimately understand Canadian voters even more than our elected officials or political commentators themselves. 

Harry Rakowski: Bill C-18 is an impending disaster for Canadian news

Commentary

The Liberal government’s Bill C-18, now known as the Online News Act, is being promoted as a way to help save a Canadian news industry in crisis.

And it is certainly in crisis. Advertising revenue has shifted dramatically from traditional news publications to online platforms such as Google and Meta. Print publications are consolidating or dying. The proposed merger of Postmedia and Toronto Star owner Nordstar has fallen apart.

Online platforms act as intermediaries that don’t produce content but rather direct users via search engines or links to existing content produced by others. Currently, these digital platforms negotiate financial compensation directly with individual news providers. Bill C-18 would now force a government-mandated formula for compensation that is estimated by the Parliamentary Budget Office to add $329 million in additional revenue to Canadian news outlets and broadcasters that employ at least two journalists. The PBO estimated that about $247 million would go to broadcasters such as the CBC, Rogers, Shaw, and Bell, while newspapers and online media would get about $81.5 million a year.

The goal was to shrink the imbalance in negotiation between Canadian news outlets and large dominant digital platforms by forcing a system of negotiated compensation. If parties are unable to reach an agreement as to the compensation for used content, forced “final offer arbitration” would ensue, meaning that an appointed arbitrator would choose between the final offer proposed by each party. The winning party could go to court to force payment if necessary.

In addition, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission would be given new powers to oversee the process by creating an enforceable code of conduct that would guide negotiations, determine which companies the act applies to, manage complaints, award penalties for non-compliance and have the regulatory power to govern administration of the Act.

The concept superficially sounds good. Get more money for Canadian news sources and limit the influence of disruptive giant tech companies that have dominated how people now get their news. So why is it looking more and more like an impending disaster?

The only way the Act could work is if Canadian content is important enough to news intermediaries that they will pay considerably more for it and that the regulations don’t impose intolerable restrictions and potentially unlimited forced compensation.

David killed Goliath because he fought the giant on his own terms, fighting at a distance with a slingshot that he was highly experienced in using. If you think you can win the battle between a Canadian David and the Goliaths of Google and Meta, you better have a slingshot and a stone big enough to fell the giant.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said that “these internet giants would rather cut off Canadians’ access to local news than pay their fair share is a real problem, and now they are resorting to bullying tactics to try and get their way. It’s not going to work.”

Is it bullying tactics or normal negotiations that take place in the business world? The government thought that Canadian content was so important that they could impose their will and rules on anyone they wanted to. It fits with their repeated political strategy of control and regulation. While the bill is promoted to help keep small outlets in business and be fairly compensated, about three-quarters of the financial benefit calculated by the PBO would go to media giants like the CBC, Bell, and Rogers/Shaw.

Do we really need to focus on finding more funds for the CBC? Canadian Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez has said that “a free and independent press is fundamental to our democracy.” The CBC is not independent. It consistently shows its bias favouring the government hand that already feeds it only too well.

There are of course viable alternatives to Bill C-18. We could facilitate fair negotiation between large news providers and media platforms based on the true value and use of the information. This covers the $247 million that Bill C-18 might direct to Canadian media giants.  We could also set up an annual fund that would promote Canadian content and better reward those whose content is of greater interest to Canadians and beyond.

The internet media giants could contribute the $89 million estimated to flow to print and other small contributors, supplemented by larger government tax credits to news media and redirection of some of the $1.2 billion in federal funding that the CBC gets. The Public Policy Forum has suggested that such a fund should be administered by a not-for-profit corporation at arm’s length from federal government interference.

Compensation for print media and small outlets can be based on a baseline level of support as well as on the number of clicks to their content. This can be done without the big stick of government control with the ability to change rules as it sees fit. The challenge of gaming the system by “clickbait” that artificially builds payable views can be overcome by AI analysis of views, likely by an algorithm cheaper than the $52 million spent to develop the ArriveCan app.

The government has boxed itself into a political corner that is hard to get out of. Rodriguez is now trying to negotiate a compromise with Google and Meta. Google is still talking but unlikely to accept the deal. Meta appears to have walked away from negotiations. Meta stated that “we have repeatedly shared that in order to comply with Bill C-18 … content from news outlets, including news publishers and broadcasters will no longer be available to people accessing our platforms in Canada.” When you offer a take it or leave it ultimatum without the leverage to make someone take it, they likely will leave it and let you suffer the consequences.

Canadian journalism will now likely pay the price of the government’s hubris and miscalculation.