Thursday, September 22, 2011

Character assassinations in Ontario election

Last evening I was invited on an episode of Dyscultured, which had a special theme. Anthony Marco, one of the founding co-hosts of the show, put his name into the race to run in Niagara West-Glanbrook for the NDP in the Ontario election.

The Liberal party, or at least some misguided spokespersons, have decided that taking comments out of context to character assassinate political opponents is an appropriate campaign strategy. You can see the type of embarrassing crap coming out of the Liberal Party of Ontario on Newswire.ca: Liberals Call on NDP to Dump Candidate, The Full Anthony Marco Text - Which Part Does The NDP Believe Is Misrepresented?, and More from NDP's Anthony Marco - Ontarians are "lazy".

The comical aspect of this is that the "Which Part Does The NDP Believe Is Misrepresented" press release contains an exert that makes clear that Anthony did not say what the Liberal party is alleging he said. Unfortunately, there will be many people who won't read even that tiny exert to realize the Liberals are playing dirty pool. This is a sad part of politics: that few spend the time to learn the facts, and shallow immature political rhetoric all too often wins a debate.

Anthony is a complex multi-dimensional person who has been expressing his ideas online for many years. I had been listening to a few of his podcasts for a few years already when he totally blew me away at PAB back in June.

The first thing that came to mind with this smear campaign is how we need to mature politics from what the Liberals are doing in a world where more people are living their lives in public. Words and ideas that may have been quickly forgotten a few hours after people went home from the social event, are archived forever online. Some people like to talk about this as a problem for youth, but for people like Anthony or myself we have been living in a long-term publicly archived space for much of our lives. You can still read some of the silly questions I asked about copyright back in 1992, when I was first joining the Free Software movement. Someone could easily take that question, pretend it was asked recently, and ruin my credibility as someone who has spent much of the last decade dedicated to learning about copyright in order to help with forward-looking policy proposals.

The last thing we want is allow politics to be something that can only be done by stick-figure people with no real history, and who have never spent time thinking about complex issues. Even though Anthony is running for the NDP, I would vote for him if he was in my riding based on him being a real person who has given some real thought to real issues. Many of his podcasts include him thinking out loud about real issues of the day, something that I think should be seen as a requirement of a good politician : not something to avoid.

Reading a few more articles about the issue, it turns out that the smear campaign was largely launched by Liberal candidate Bernie Farber who is running in Thornhill. Mr Farber was previously the CEO of the Canadian Jewish Congress (CJC), which made this smear campaign seem all too familiar.

I have run into the CJC a few times in the past, and always in the context of attempts at censorship. Their general policy seemed to be to use (or abuse) the legal courts and the court of public opinion to try to stop people from talking about anything they didn't like to be said, including people questioning whether censorship is a good public policy. I had some personal experience with this type of campaign in 2001 when a few individuals (with the support of the CJC) were trying to censor the words of David Icke. They alleged his words were anti-Semitic -- and as a result of the Streisand effect I read and found that he was really just a kook that should have been left alone in obscurity. I knew, from asking my Jewish friends what they thought of the policies of the CJC, that these pro-censorship policies were not representative of the views of the wider Canadian Jewish community, but really only of the executive of that specific association. It is very unfortunate that one of this executive has taken his campaign as part of this election.

Like Anthony, I am a strong believer in free speech. A support of free speech doesn't mean supporting speech you like, but fighting to defend the right of people to say things you personally feel are disgusting. When I tried to promote free speech a decade ago I ended up being accused of being anti-Semitic, and separately had people threatening to sue me for defamation for simply documenting what these opponents to free speech were doing. These folks didn't care at all what damage they did by falsely accusing people of being anti-Semitic, or accusing people of being apologists for genocidal activities.

While I strongly disagree with Bernie Farber's long-standing political views, I still support his right to express them. There are, however, appropriate limits to free speech in a free society when it comes to defamation and specific political tactics. Will Mr. Farber's harmful and selfish political campaign damage Anthony's reputation or cause problems at his job? He is a high-school teacher, and I know how the school boards can sometimes not adequately support staff that get caught up in unfounded controversies.

My hope is that more people will read past the bogus headlines to see what is going on. It is not the credibility of Anthony Marco, or his suitability to be a politician, that should be being questioned. We should be questioning whether we want to have people like Bernie Farber elected to represent us in the government, given how little respect he offers to fellow citizens. We also have to question whether the Liberal party of Ontario is still fit to govern, given how willing they have been to stand by and promote this smear campaign. I live in Ottawa South and have asked for some feedback from Liberal candidate Dalton McGuinty about whether he condones this smear campaign. Unless he comes out clearly against what Mr. Farber and supporters have been doing, there is no way I can consider him a credible candidate for my vote.

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