Significant Areas of Significance….

By Douglas Ord | June 18, 2004

When first I learned that a consortium of TV networks was barring Green Party involvement in the pre-election leaders’ debates, I thought "How appalling that a few unelected TV executives should claim the right to exclude the most policy-distinctive party from access to a national audience." Now that the leaders debate has been held, I’m still appalled at this, but only on principle.

Concerning the exclusion itself, I can’t help but wonder whether in practical terms it will actually help the Green Party, because their candidates will not be associated with that gruesome snorefest which, as a Canadian citizen, I felt obliged to sit through.

Or at least I sat through most of it. Or, um, much of it. Because I found myself nodding off frequently, and at so inordinately early an hour, I made use of the remote control, on occasion, to perk myself up.

My digital travels took me most frequently to poor cash-starved PBS, which for once was not showing geriatric rock&rollers, or conducting a fundraising drive.

Instead, it was presenting a documentary on the warming of the Alaskan boreal forest, much of whose permafrost is rapidly melting, and three of whose four main tree species — white spruce, poplar, and paper birch — are widely succumbing to insect infestations brought on by higher year-round temperatures. Cheering stuff, in other words.

Flip back to the Canadian leaders’ debate, from which the one party that has made such matters as global warming central not only to its platform but to its very existence, had been excluded. By an unelected consortium of TV networks.

And yet: would Green Party leader Jim Harris have come across as distinctively different if he, too, had been standing behind what looked like a particle board podium, in a suit and tie, in front of that bland grey background, trying to shout his own message over the other four? I’m not so sure, because there was so much about the debate that was relentlessly flattening and homogenizing. The same was true about Monday night’s debate in French, which — conscientious citizen that I am — I strove to watch as well.

By about forty minutes into that one, I had the feeling that the four participants were putting not only me to sleep, but one another. And putting me to sleep with a strangely somatic torpor, out of which it was difficult to pull myself, even once the debate was over.

It was even worse on Tuesday night, perhaps because my expectations had started out higher. There was a numbing homogeneity to the format, and to the drone of the four overlapping voices that seemed to over-ride any distinctiveness in what they were saying, and to make for a somnolence so heavy I could barely move.

This was, I’ve got to say, no ordinary boredom. Even the CBC seemed to concede — inadvertently I assume — the degree of excitement when, on its website, it introduced an account of the "passionate" debate with the sentence "Undecided voters looking for an easy winner in Tuesday night’s party leaders’ debate could be forgiven for going to sleep with their minds still not made up."

Um, "for going to sleep" when, guys? After the debate? Or during?

Maybe this retreat of compelling content before sheer soporific format was why Paul Martin’s (no doubt likewise unintentional) tautology so stood out: "There are significant areas of significance… "

Sure thing, Paul.

I do find myself wondering, though, whether these debates were so numbing because of a couple of contextual factors that went, and are likely to continue to go, unconsidered. One of them, of course, was the exclusion of the only party that is speaking directly to questions that may affect the very survival of human civilization.

And another, on a slightly different scale, was the existence of that illusorily power-granting but actually rather disorienting remote control, which with the press of a button took me visually not only to the deteriorating boreal forests of Alaska, but — say — to CNN, where Paula Zahn was talking to the legal counsel for one of the soldiers accused in the Abu Ghraib prison scandal.

A Texas lawyer who said, with a straight face, that he did not consider what happened in Abu Ghraib morally wrong, because — and I’m sure I heard this correctly — if the prisoners had been declared not to have any rights, and if there was the possibility that they might have information which would help protect US forces, then extreme measures, including the staging of humiliating photographs, were justified. Even Paula Zahn looked a bit shocked at that zinger. I sure was. But did, ironically, perk me up. The further irony was that when I quickly, guiltily flipped back to the Canadian leaders’ debate, I heard even less of what they were saying over top one another, along what seemed an even more hermetically sealed single register, than I had heard before.

The CNN story also highlighted a third contextual factor that I suspect contributed to the physical enervation I felt while watching the leaders debate: Canadians live in direct proximity to a nation that is not only the most wealthy and militarily powerful in the world, but is going through a trauma of mythic scale, and is mustering its every resource — including a capacity for immense and compelling visual sophistication — in the service of its own survival. Among the subsets of this capacity is a penchant for such wrenching, jumbo-scale self-dramatization that not only Americans, but people around the world feel obliged — or seduced — to watch, and so, implicitly, to come to care about.

Consider, for example, the sheer media mythologization of Ronald Reagan that took place during the lead-up to his state funeral. This is a mythologization from which, as it unfolded on the major networks, mention of such awkward embarrassments as the Iran-Contra scandal and the disaster of trickle-down Reaganomics was consistently missing. It was a mythologization, culminating as it did in a spectacular ritual merging of church and state and the staged fly-in of the body into the setting sun over California , that was relentlessly TV-friendly.

Paul Martin said, in the course of the English-language debate, that his own main priority is reduced waiting times for health care. That’s very nice, Paul. But I’m afraid it all came out sounding like "There are significant areas of significance…" even as, oddly enough, a really potentially significant fact went unmentioned in the debates: the prospect of the next Canadian census being run, courtesy of the Liberals, by the American armaments giant Lockheed-Martin.
Is it possible that, secretly or subconsciously, this is the sort of connection that a lot of Canadians, including even some Liberals themselves, really want?

So that they, too, can be part of the mythic drama?

Now where’s that remote control got to, anyway.

June 18, 2004 1141 w.


  • Douglas Ord

    Douglas Ord is a novelist and historian whose most recent book is a critical history of the National Gallery of Canada, published by Mc-Gill-Queen's University Press in 2003. He also produces the website Lear's Shadow at

Posted in:

More from Douglas Ord: