SETHITOR’S NOTE: I recognize that this post is untimely given Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, and the trucker-led obstructions discussed in this post have moved along. Nevertheless, I present it here because I have been slowly accumulating my response to the media response to the trucker protests, and I would like to house it here for future reference.
In a perfect world of protest analysis, the media over-lookers who guide our responses would attempt to give us material to help us contemplate answers to the following crucial moral questions:
(1) Do the protestors have a point?
(2) Are the protestors’ actions a reasonable and fair means of making that point? And
(3) At what point, if any, is it appropriate for our government and police to intervene?
These are not easy questions, and so the media (on both the right and the left) tend to avoid them, and instead, they choose to answer this question:
(4) Are the protestors the sort of people with whom we’d like to be associated?
Recall the American Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests of 2020. The predominantly progressive-stream media in my neighbouring country of Canada were—as far as I could observe on a daily basis—desperate to demonstrate their racially-conscious bona fides and so—in lieu of asking whether the protestors had a point—they assumed the righteousness of the political objectors. They assumed, as the protestors claimed, that individual occasions of police violence towards Black individuals in a country of 330 million people were not only, by definition, racially motivated, but also proof of widespread systemic racism perpetrated by police across that country, and then across its continent, and then across the Western world.
Not once in my daily listening did I hear Canadian progressive flagbearer, CBC Radio, consider the work of the Harvard economist Dr. Roland G. Fryer, whose analysis of ten American cities suggested that, while Black and Hispanic suspects were more likely to be handled aggressively during police confrontations than White suspects, Caucasian persons of interest were either equally or very slightly more likely to be shot. (This single study does not disprove BLM’s contentions, but perhaps it indicates that these issues aren’t as simple CBC Radio’s reporting implied.)
Nor did CBC Radio stoop to interview any legitimate critics of BLM, such as The War on Cops author Heather Mac Donald, who contended persuasively that BLM-2020’s call to #DefundThePolice might successfully provoke a reduction in law enforcement efforts (especially in predominantly Black neighbourhoods), which in turn might cost lives (especially Black lives). Perhaps Mac Donald was wrong in her further assessment that most citizens in poor Black neighbourhoods actually want more police to protect them, but ignoring Mac Donald’s daunting-to-refute argument demonstrated to this observer that Canadian progressive media cared much more stringently about signalling their affiliation with BLM than actually looking into the matter of protecting vulnerable Black lives.
Now let us look at how the truckers protest objecting to various Canadian government health mandates has been viewed by our predominantly progressive Canadian media. The ethical questions these protestors are proposing, like those of BLM, are heavy ones that ought to be checked by our journalists and pundits for reasonableness.
I, myself, have been agnostic about all government policies since the beginning of the pandemic. This is not a boast: taking the middle position on any political dispute is often the easy way out of putting one’s ideals on the line. But, as a non-expert on the most significant matters at play (from epidemiology to vaccine technology to economics to social crises resulting from isolation), it has always seemed to me that no matter what decisions the government made, they were in a precarious ethical position. If they were right that their health mandates would save lives, then not invoking them might have been a moral blight; yet simultaneously, by enforcing various restrictions, they limited freedom, suffocated the economy, and increased social isolation which critics suggest costs lives, too. So, embarrassingly, I have long raised my arms in uncertainty about the government’s actions because these questions seem too complex and elusive for a non-expert like me to have confident answers.
However, what is clear to me is that the majority of Canadian media decided early on that—in lieu of exercising their crucial role as eternal questioners of all government policies—they preferred to signal that they were evolved, scientifically-minded folk who were willing to defer to the government’s public health experts. They did not ask our political leaders tough questions about contrary scientific experts and evidence (merrily adopting the phrase “follow the science” as if the actions and evolutions of a novel virus were clearly “settled”). They did not ask the political leaders if there were any limitations on their moral right to restrict their citizens’ behaviours. Most crucially, they did not ask whether the damage to the economy and social flourishing was perhaps being neglected for the sake of safety that their measures weren’t guaranteed to protect.
While it may be the case that all Canadian governments perfectly balanced all needy considerations at all times, I submit that political leaders are less likely to pursue such an equilibrium if it is not asked of them.
So now we’ve had a trucker convoy that travelled through Canada, landed in various Canadian cities, and then blocked and/or disrupted vital pathways for commerce. Once again, I don’t know if the truckers were morally right or wrong in their arguments and conduct, but I do know that I was glad to see someone publically making the case that Canadian rights to freedom of movement should be considered, too.
So I would have loved to have heard the Canadian media asking that vital question, Do the protestors have a point?
But our Prime Minister told the media not to. Instead, Justin Trudeau spotted the approaching criticism, and announced that the truckers were “fringe,” “racist,” “misogynistic,” and possessing “unacceptable views.” Not only was Trudeau unwilling to consider the arguments of his citizen critics, but he also demonized them with accusations that required no evidence and then dismissed their critical point of view with that one terrifying word, “Unacceptable.”
Mr. Trudeau, you are the Prime Minister of all Canadians. Some of these citizens may not be the sorts you would take home to meet your mother, but to dismiss them as fringe is to divide your constituents into two classes: those worthy of civil dialogue and those not. Sir, are you not the party of human rights, delivering us the charter of rights and freedoms? And do those protections not apply to everyone? In 2015, Canadian citizen Omar Khadr (who had been convicted of “murder in violation of the laws of war” when he threw a grenade at American soldiers in Afghanistan) was paid ten million dollars by your government because Canada hadn’t sufficiently defended his human rights during his detention in Guantanamo Bay. While I emotionally disagreed with your decision to settle with Khadr at the time, I could respect your judgment to take into account the human rights of even violent criminals.
In contrast, Mr. Trudeau, your dismissal of disruptive but peaceful truckers as “fringe” is a shocking abdication of your responsibility to look out for all of us, regardless of whether you like us or not. Assertively explain your position to them and Canadians? Great. Tell them why you’re confident in your policies? Sounds good. But to suggest certain dissenters are not part of the mainstream, and therefore unworthy of consideration, is an anti-enlightenment position, which ought to have provoked a convoy of critical editorials from our mainstream punditry. They might have asked, for instance:
Whether one agrees or disagrees with the truckers, is it appropriate for the leader of a liberal democracy to determine which citizens’ opinions are allowed and which are not?
Instead, in my observation, most in the Canadian media dutifully followed Trudeau’s instructions to demonize the protestors, and offered various versions of, “We’re seeing swastika flags and Confederate flags at these protests.”
Now, first of all, reporting from independent media indicates that the flying of the swastika flag may have been misconstrued. According to the now exiled former host of CBC Radio’s Cross Country Checkup and currently trucker-sympathizing pundit, Rex Murphy, the Nazi symbol was an accusation that Trudeau’s government was behaving like a fascistic tyrant. This may be a vicious and indecent comparison, but note that it’s the same criticism that Mr. Trudeau was levelling at the protestors.
But even if the swastika flag does turn out to have been an endorsement of genocidal fascists, that does not disprove the argument of an entire protest. Dear media, have you ever been to a protest about anything anywhere? There will always be wild, irrelevant contentions presented by a few in every bunch of protestors. Even at a rally of Geologists for Earth, you’ll probably find at least one flat-earther. Consider how some BLM-2020 protestors were violent and a few of them were even murderous. Surely those heinous actions do not make BLM’s argument, itself, intrinsically “unacceptable.” So, if there were one or two evil symbols included in the truckers’ diverse display, that unfortunate inclusion does not disprove the message of the group, who as far as I can tell, disavow racism as wholeheartedly as their prime minister does. (In fact, according to independent reporting, they chased away the confederate flag-waver.)
Rupa Subramanya of the conservative-leaning National Post said in an interview:
“I spent three weeks at the protests every day, sometimes twice a day, sometimes late into the night speaking to everyone I possibly could, and I didn’t encounter a single racist, white supremacist, or even a misogynist. These were some of the warmest and friendliest people I’ve ever met in my life in Canada in the… more than two decades that I’ve lived here. So it was quite unusual that my perspective as a person of colour who went into the protests was so different from what the mainstream coverage of it was and… that there seemed to be this total disconnect between what was being said about them and what I personally experienced.”
That description neither proves that the protesters were all nice people nor that their cause was right, but maybe it—along with many other such testimonials from independent broadcasters—might be worth considering before sheep-ily accepting Mr. Trudeau’s assessment of who’s worthy of consideration.
But accusing the truckers of being bigots was our Prime Minister’s best option to avoid acknowledging their complaints. Recall that in 2020, Trudeau defended the right of farmer protestors in India to march on their government, stating:
“Let me remind you, Canada will always be there to defend the right of peaceful protest. We believe in the importance of dialogue and that’s why we’ve reached out through multiple means directly to the Indian authorities to highlight our concerns.”
Love or despise the convoy, it seems clear to me (from the fact that the trucker-criticizing media hasn’t, in my viewing, produced any evidence to the contrary) that they were a peaceful lot. Annoying to Ottawa citizens? Sure. Loud and disruptive? Yes. But violent? It doesn’t seem so.
It was much easier for Justin Trudeau to go against his own advice to the Indian government by creating a media-backed character profile of the truckers as a white supremacist underclass so devoid of good Canadian values that they didn’t deserve the protection of Canadian values.
“I have attended protests and rallies in the past, when I agreed with the goals, when I supported the people expressing their concerns and their issues. Black Lives Matter is an excellent example of that. But I have chosen not to go anywhere near protests that have expressed hateful rhetoric, violence towards fellow citizens, and disrespect not just for science but of the frontline health workers and, quite frankly, the 90 percent of truckers who have been doing the right thing to keep Canadians safe to put food on our tables.”
Mr. Trudeau, Black Lives Matter was the required view of any public person at the time you supported it. Standing beside such an unquestioned movement does not show great conviction. Instead, it is like a judge who’s accused of being too harsh in their sentencing, saying, “Nuh uh. Look how easy I was on my popular friends when they were accused of crimes.”
Yeah, I don’t think you’re making the point you think you’re making, Mr. Prime Minister. The measure of a leader is not how well they treat protestors with whom they ideologically align, but how fairly they respond to those with whom they disagree.
Even if one is convinced that the truckers are loaded with Nazi-sympathizers and cheerers-on of slavery, I reiterate that our best bet as a liberal society is to zoom our public focus on whether their actual argument has any merit, and whether their actions are lawful. But, by taking part in the demonization of protestors’ characters, our media facilitated Trudeau’s extreme means of resolving the conflict.
Deputy Prime Minister/Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland led Canada’s way down the path paved by our media, explaining that Canada was now criminalizing financial support for the protestors with adjustments to Canada’s financial laws—adjustments that she said she intended to make “permanent.”
“The illegal blockades,” she said, “have highlighted the fact that crowdfunding platforms and some payment service providers they use are not fully captured under the Proceeds of Crime and Terrorist Financing Act.”
Wow. Again, I understand that the truckers were disruptive and causing pain to the Canadian economy. But so, too, were the government mandates which provoked the protest. Perhaps the latter has more merit than the former, but surely a liberal society wants its citizens to have the option of expressing their disapproval of government policy peacefully. Maybe there’s a point at which the government should take serious action to intervene on disruptive behaviours, but treating peaceful protestors (and their financial backers) like organized criminals and terrorists is not a de-escalation strategy designed to move protestors along; it’s a punishment and a warning against civil unrest in future.
Then our Mr. Trudeau—backed by the supposed workers-party leader, Jagmeet Singh—activated Canada’s most powerful tool, the Emergencies Act, to take on the protestors. (This high level of response has only been used three times before, during each world war, and in response to the October Crisis in 1970, which had featured bombs, kidnappings, and murder.)
Along with allowing the police more stringent powers to remove the irritating convoyers, the high-level powers enabled the government to direct financial institutions to review their relationships with anyone involved in the protest and report them to the RCMP.
“As of today, a bank or financial service will be able to immediately freeze or suspend an account without a court order,” explained Freeland. “We are today serving notice: if your truck is being used in these illegal blockades, your accounts will be frozen.”
Wait a minute. Even if you think the trucker protest was full of jerks who shouldn’t have been allowed to set up shop in Ottawa, do we really want a precedent created where the government can financially neuter public dissenters? Dear progressive-leaning thinkers, would you be comfortable with a future conservative government not only breaking up peaceful left-wing protests but also financially wounding anyone even tangentially involved?
The Ottawa police chief, Steve Bell, put the point more starkly:
“If you were involved in this protest, we will actively look to identify you and follow up with financial sanctions and criminal charges, absolutely. This investigation will go on for months to come.”
So it isn’t sufficient to defeat the protestors: we must punish them until they learn to never publicly disagree with their government again. Count me in if the protestors were violent or even if they damaged property, but again I’ve heard no such accusation. Instead, because the protestors were not in ideological agreement with our leaders, their disruptive actions were unworthy of a proportional response.
As it is, Trudeau’s hierarchy of values appears to be this:
(1) Citizens have the right to protest for racial justice (regardless of whether protestors contravene health mandates in doing so).
(2) The government has the right to impose health mandates (regardless of whether health mandates disrupt the economy).
(3) Government has the right to protect the economy by invoking the Emergencies Act (regardless of whether such actions impede the rights of protestors).
Now, to their credit, Canada’s progressive-leaning media seemed, from my channel-flipping survey, to be more interested in the vital question of how much power the Canadian government should exercise to break up peaceful obstructions. For instance, CTV News included an interview with a leading lawyer with the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, who argued that the threshold for invoking emergency powers had not been achieved and, therefore, its use here was a setting a dangerous precedent. (And, to my surprise, the CTV interviewer didn’t even accuse the lawyer of being a hate-monger.) But, while such inquiries into civil rights are welcome, their effectiveness was muted, I suspect, by the media’s previous parroting of Trudeau’s demonizing of those truckers’ initial right to complain.
Somehow, the progressive media seems to have been so hypnotized by Trudeau’s soft-spoken and noble-sounding delivery that they have trouble seeing the antidemocratic tendencies within his words.
When first elected, Trudeau “progressively” chose his cabinet on the basis of qualifications such as race and sex, and when asked why, he simply told us that the date was 2015, and that was an end to it. If our media had followed their professional obligation and asked him some tough ethical questions about his discriminatory principles, it wouldn’t have been so easy for him to run wild with them. And, when Mr. Trudeau referred to his own citizens as possessing “unacceptable views,” if a reporter or two had asked the government how they defined which anti-government criticisms were acceptable, maybe Trudeau would have had no choice but to stop answering irrelevant questions such as whether protestors were the sort with whom he wanted to associate, and instead considered, “Do they have a point?”