The danger of empty rhetoric

By now I've reached the point in my career where I have a sizeable collection of half-written articles on issues that once seemed important that a search party couldn't find today. I don't expect my dusty files to command your sympathy, but spare some alarm for our collective attention deficit disorder. When we quietly forget trendy policy concepts without analyzing their failures properly we don't learn, we just flit about posing.

Consider the Japanese economic model. Remember when the land of the Rising Sun was going to show us all how crony corporatism beat free markets hollow? Or Germany, or Europe? Heck, I'm old enough to remember when the Soviet Union was a superior model for Third World development. These ideas sure look silly now. But emptying an old closet full of snake oil isn't like quietly purging your bell-bottoms and big glasses.

In this context please ponder Haiti. I've been getting more than 100 press releases a week on the devastating earthquake. Of course I'm not criticizing the urgent humanitarian response to a massive disaster. But surely the people really busy helping out have no time to draft, edit, proof and send out a flood of generally self-serving publicity as though it constituted some important form of international first aid.

The time politicians spend passing each other notes is time not spent digging through rubble or handing out water. Besides, it tends to create the unpleasant impression they are wasting scarce brain power figuring out how to pose to best effect against a riveting backdrop of human tragedy.

Most press releases have at least resisted the crass impulse to use the crisis as leverage for a favoured policy change. But, within two days, the Bloc Québécois demanded a "Marshall Plan" for Haiti as if the Marshall Plan were not, very famously, a successful initiative to rebuild advanced industrial economies devastated by war rather than a plan to promote development where it had not previously taken place.

Six days later the head of the IMF, who has a PhD in economics, repeated this inane demand.

Such bloviation is not harmless. The latest rhetorical trend is self-satisfied and misleading rhetoric about a 10-year effort to help Haiti as though we had any genuine idea how to do it. Remember, an equally powerful earthquake near San Francisco in 1989 killed 63 people rather than 200,000. The lethal difference is that Haiti is an "underdeveloped" country. We've been trying to help such countries since long before poverty was renamed "the Third World" with surprisingly little success.

And, while there are some clear lessons from decades of failed development aid, we don't seem able to focus on them. Indeed, a month from now I expect Haiti will have disappeared from my journalistic inbox as completely as, say, effective reform of Canadian health care.

Or aboriginal policy in Canada. Once a hot topic, it too has gone almost totally cold despite occasional tragic or alarming news stories. Which does not, I hasten to add, mean it's not still a major problem. Indeed, it means it's likely to get a lot worse.

There are a number of reasons why progress on the aboriginal front is difficult, from a deep background of historical tragedy, to aboriginal leaders' stridently impossible demands to oily and nebulous mainstream politicians.

I don't mean politically impossible; I mean metaphysically. History cannot be undone and the white man will not get back on his ship and go "home" to Europe. Any mainstream politician who tries to engage the Indian Industry in real discussions courts policy failure and PR disaster. But that does not begin to excuse their lack of imagination or courage.

Here I'd like to insert a plug for the riveting new novel Uprising by my colleague Doug Bland, chair of defence management studies at Queen's University (full disclosure: my wife and I are credited with helping in the editing). Uprising combines page-turning action with a sympathetic portrayal of many points of view including frustrated aboriginal radicals. The one group Doug's vitriolic pen fully dissolves, and rightly so, are politicians who ooze their way to the top with emptily smug rhetoric. With no vision beyond seeing themselves re-elected and advancing in ministerial rank, they will not speak hard truths to voters or aboriginal activists, and cannot bring themselves to make major policy changes that might avert the drift to disaster.

The scary scenario Doug outlines is a warning, not a prediction. But it is horrifyingly plausible in many ways. And when it reaches its disastrous conclusion, Ottawa is reduced to a pitiful attic full of abandoned files on forgotten initiatives.

For a journalist that's just life. For a nation it's a major problem.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson