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Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Iran, twitter and the retweet seen round the world


In the past few weeks there have been two revolutions going on, both with profound implications for the future of our global society. The first has been the large and sustained democratic protests in Iran in response to the sham election results that had the unpopular incumbent president scoring an extremely improbable 2 to 1 victory over a rival that had been surging ahead in election polls in the final days of the campaign.

The second revolution has been that of social media sites such as Facebook, Youtube and Twitter that have been able to keep the increasingly tragic news events in Iran reaching the outside world. Thanks to these sites, as well as the now ubiquitous cell phone camera, the outside world is able to bear witness as the Iranian autocrats shed any pretense of decency and assault and murder their own citizens.

In what has been dubbed the retweet (RT) seen around the world the shocking murder of Neda Agha-Soltan, has generated worldwide anger and contempt for the theocratic thugs who are in charge of Iran. Neda who was a young philosophy student at the University of Tehran was shot in the back. The shocking images of her death posted on Youtube and linked to on twitter have galvanized and united the civilized world in a way not seen since September 11, 2001.

In a speech given on June 23rd, US President Barack Obama called the video of Neda’s murder “heartbreaking” and said it made clear the violence against the protesters was “fundamentally unjust.”

President Obama then went on to state that, “In 2009, no iron fist is strong enough to shut off the world from bearing witness to the peaceful pursuit of justice.” In this regard Obama was not referring to the mainstream media outlets whose reporters in Iran have been arrested, intimidated, or ordered to leave the country. The President was instead referring to those brave Iranian citizens who were continuing to video with their cell phone cameras the brutal crackdown by Iranian police on peaceful protestors, Twitter the location of upcoming rallies and get their videos and comments posted onto the worldwide web through a variety of proxy sites.

The brave efforts of these democratic protestors are all the more impressive given the increasingly desperate measures the Iranian government is enacting to try and prevent the world from seeing these images. Thus the sudden importance of Twitter – which cancelled a scheduled shut down of its site for routine maintenance in response to an urgent request from the U.S State Department.

Technology, once the feared ally of despotic communist and fascist regimes, has now advanced to the point where it is now the ally of democratic citizenry the world over. Whether it is four RCMP officers Tasering a man to death in a Vancouver airport or a young women shot to death by police in the streets of Tehran, the age old police policy of lie and deny is no longer working because people around the world will be watching, tweeting and posting.

Mike Geoghegan is a government relations consultant who can be reached via his website at www.bclobbyist.com or on twitter at bclobbyist.

This story has also been posted at Vancouverite and on the Western Standard's Shotgun blog.

Friday, June 12, 2009

If you don't want your politicians to act like sheep stop condemning them for being human

I am old school enough to still subscribe to my local daily newspaper. Sure much of the news in it I have already picked up on twitter or by reading various blogs, but it still provides me with a good overview of the day’s (or yesterday’s) events and sometimes the layout itself reveals the dichotomies within our society.

For instance on June 11th I could not help but notice the juxtaposition of an editorial cartoon showing cabinet ministers being turned into sheep above that of a thoroughly unreasonable article calling for federal minister Lisa Raitt's resignation.

For those of you who may have missed the latest Ottawa tempest in a teapot Ms. Raitt had the exceedingly bad luck to have a young staffer who was prone to leaving briefing papers and tape recordings of her minister where the media could find them. Worse yet, this same staffer also inadvertently taped a private conversation issue where Minister Raitt was discussing the shortage of medical isotopes as being a politically “sexy” issue.

Of course once this conversation was released by the media, it took only moments for a great wail of indignation and outrage to be vented over Raitt’s brazenly human remarks by the media, opposition politicians and anyone and everyone who has ever had cancer.

Such was the hysteria that Raitt’s remarks were even presented as meaning somehow the Minister thought cancer was sexy. This is of course a gross distortion of the truth. A politically sexy issue (for those of you who did not take politics 101) is of course something that is politically salient and that the media is paying attention to. Thus the challenge and opportunity of solving a real problem that had national media attention was what Ms. Raitt found sexy.

I personally found that refreshing as the inclination of an increasing number of politicians is to run away from real problem or try and delegate them to someone else. Raitt even took to task in a relatively mild manner in this same private conversation a colleague who was pursuing exactly that strategy.

As a former BC political chief of staff, I am appalled at the sheer incompetence of Ms. Raitt’s former political staff person. She has been fired and justly so. As a former staffer I can tell you that cabinet ministers can and do vent in private their frustrations about other people and situations just like every other human being I have ever met. And just like every other human being politicians also say very concerned and caring things about other people in private as well.

What I found most troubling of all was that when Raitt received her public flogging, with the notable and commendable exception of Christie Blatchford in the Globe and Mail, not one other member of the media bothered to note the fact that Raitt's own brother died of cancer when he was only 37. Such is the heights of ignorance and hypocrisy our national sense of outrage towards any and all politicians has become.

The bottom line is this if we do not allow our politicians to be human, then they will have no choice but to act like sheep. They will be mild mannered sheep that will never cause offense while real leaders with their all too human foibles will either stay hidden in the backrooms or more likely far far away from politics all together.

Mike Geoghegan is a government relations consultant who can be reached via his website at www.bclobbyist.com or on twitter at bclobbyist.

Please note that this blog has also been posted at Vancouverite and on the Western Standard's Shotgun blog.

An ambitious politician? The horror!

An ambitious politician? The horror!

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By John Robson, The Ottawa Citizen June 12, 2009

Oh, here's a sexy story. A cabinet minister was caught privately calling a difficult problem "sexy" and an opportunity for career advancement. We journalists would never do that.

Get caught, I mean. We certainly have blunt private conversations about our colleagues' failings and the way certain tragic events make for great copy. And we could not do our work at all if every editorial discussion made it into print.

People in public life are equally unable to function without space for frank private conversation. Especially about the things they must be most smoothly hypocritical about in public.

Would it not be terrifying if politicians' private talk presented the same appalling mix of fake outrage and smothering vacuity as their public utterances?

Defending embattled Natural Resources Minister Lisa Raitt in question period, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said "This minister has been working around the clock to make sure we get a greater supply of isotopes. That's what this minister is doing, that's what this government is doing, not playing cheap politics." But we do not think members of cabinet work around the clock and never sleep, nor do we want them to. Surely the PM doesn't either.

Even if politicians often are as vacant as their more polished utterances suggest, it is no excuse for the rest of us to turn into bellowing buffoons just because a politician has been detected smelling opportunity in a crisis. There are far worse ways to advance a public career than solving problems; watch question period and you'll see what I mean.

It took a ridiculous comedy of errors for Ms. Raitt's infamous remarks to become public.

But honestly, if she does solve the medical isotope crisis, wouldn't you be willing to promote her even if you knew that's why she'd done it?

Just as you'd pay a mechanic to fix your car even if you knew he'd done it for the money.

In perhaps his most famous passage, Adam Smith said: "It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages."

And the same is true of politicians, if we are smart.

Some people honestly think politics is less grubby than private enterprise. Stephen Leacock satirized one utopian socialist for depicting office-holders as "sagacious and paternal ... free from the interest of self and the play of the baser passions" who "work ... as work the angels". But, Leacock snapped, "let me ask in the name of sanity where are such officials to be found?"

Not, clearly, in our Parliament.

In a classic piece of standardized outrage over the Raitt affair, Michael Ignatieff snarled, "The cheapest politics here is to call a crisis a career opportunity." As if he did not treat every Conservative misdeed, real or imagined, as both a massive crisis and a stepping stone toward 24 Sussex. I certainly hope he and his inner circle are aware of what they are doing, and honest about it in private. Cluelessness is not a desirable quality in a politician. Or in a citizen.

In the name of sanity, then, let us take James Madison's advice, in Federalist #51, that to secure liberty and check the appetite of the authorities for power, "Ambition must be made to counteract ambition."

Ambition is part of human nature, especially among those drawn to public life. As Madison also said, "If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary."

Politicians might have us believe they are so exceptionally public-spirited and virtuous that we may dispense with checks and balances in our political arrangements. But to borrow another phrase from Adam Smith, those who make such claims are by no means such fools as those who believe them.

It is the beginning of wisdom in public affairs to reward politicians who solve problems and punish those who do not. That way we harness their mighty ambition to our well-being, instead of prompting it to work for our undoing.

In this case, I grant, Ms. Raitt's instinct for advancement seems to have come unhitched from any functioning instinct for self-preservation. But that's just one more thing I hope, and trust, her colleagues are discussing privately in salty language.

Politicians alert to career opportunities!

Partisans exploit crises!

Ministers backbite!

It's as sexy as rutabaga. So stop the presses .... and don't start them again until we get a grip on human nature, political ambition and the fundamentals of political economy.

John Robson's column appears weekly.

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