Shouting Sophists

Note: This was originally published in February 2014, in Vol. 56, Issue 8 of the Strand, which you can read here. Linking to individual articles on ISSUU, the publishing format that the Strand uses, isn’t possible, so I’ve reposted it here for the sake of direct linking. I encourage you to read it by clicking the link, as you’ll be able to see it included with the illustrations.

“Moderately Successful Businessman Displays Misplaced Sense of Superiority” sounds like an Onion headline, but that’s exactly how one would describe what happened last week when Kevin O’Leary celebrated capitalism as an effort game, one that he is very good at (if his shady accounting tactics and overstated earnings aren’t considered cheating), on his publicly funded show on Canada’s publicly funded network. See the irony? O’Leary obviously doesn’t, because he keeps talking. O’Leary has made his pop culture name recently playing venture capitalist for kids on CBC’s Dragon’s Den as well as playing Jekyll to esteemed, educated and credentialed financial reporter Amanda Lang’s Hyde on The Lang O’Leary Exchange. He’s brash, argumentative, full of vitriol — and, a quick Google search will tell you, often flat-out wrong. So why do we give him such attention and vilify him as a professional role model, so much so that somebody thought it a good idea to publish a book of his life philosophy? In short, why do we give a shit?

The same question can be asked about “7th Greatest Canadian” Don Cherry, of Hockey Night in Canada fame. He of many blindnesses — pattern, colour (but certainly not race) — has a firm seat in Canadian living rooms every Saturday night for 8 months of the year. He’s generated plenty of controversy over the years due to racist and ignorant comments, as well as a generally violent and unforgiving disposition. By decrying things that make the game safer for players — such as visors and stronger penalty enforcement — under the guise of toughness and grit, he’s putting the legions of kids who worship all things hockey at risk of injury while giving them the idea that tough is good. Anybody with half a hockey sense smells right away why he only coached for 6 years even in the notorious old boy’s club that is NHL coaching — his fetishization of brawn over scoring ability, his dismissal of “skill players” (read: Europeans) couldn’t win when the game sped up in the 1980’s, but it sure gets people talking when caretaker Ron McLean gives him his weekly half hour outside of the home.

Which is what defenders of people like Don Cherry and Kevin O’Leary argue: it gets people talking, so people watch to stay conversational around the water cooler, so networks can leverage their higher ratings to advertisers for more cash, so the pockets of the private owners of these networks grow bigger. TV is a business, and the “loud man says controversial thing” formula for ratings isn’t unique to the CBC. In fact, the two people who come to mind most often when said trope is mentioned share our grammar but not nation: Britons Gordon Ramsay and Simon Cowell. The latter was arguably the architect of the asshole archetype, with his smarmy dismissals of amateur singers chasing their lifelong dreams shaping American Idol into a cultural staple. With Simon, Randy and Paula slowly cementing themselves as the id-ego-superego of America’s psyche, Idol’s wild success has lined Cowell’s pockets as a showrunner as well as a judge. Similarly, Ramsay played Satan in the proliferated cooking show universe of American television, and his popularity has skyrocketed since. Both men are not only qualified in critiquing and cooking, respectively, but producers of their shows and chief capitalizers of their brands. The morality of playing a mean character under the guise of your own personality is questionable at best, but other than the muddy definition of “reality TV”, it’s fruitless to get angry over two men using the spectacularity of rudeness to sell a product — just exercise your opinion by not buying. Some people listen to the loudest person talking, and these guys are making a living off of that fact. They often don’t claim to be right about anything societally significant; cuisine and chorus are two of the most subjective things in the public consciousness. So why draw distinction between these shameless shysters and a couple of good ol’ Canadian lads?

The CBC is a publicly funded network. That’s the reason, boiled down to a single sentence. Why does this matter? Well, besides the complete inability to imagine a classified idiot holding fort on the holy grail of public media, the NPR, the purpose of public media must by definition be different from that of private media, or else it would have no reason to be. Tune into any CBC Radio station; watch any (admittedly, not always strong) CBC sitcom; do either at 6pm weekdays; the common thing that underlies these various mediums is the public good — whether that be education, cultural expression, or dissemination of news. That is to say, none of the reasons that would justify having someone like Cowell or Ramsay on publicly funded broadcasting. O’Leary is touted as an economic intellectual; he doesn’t even have an undergraduate economics education. Cherry is said to be the all-knowing Father Hockey; his resistance to almost every change in the NHL over the last ten years, from safety visors, rules to speed up the game, and European players, have been only that: resistance and fear toward inevitable change, not the much-needed integrity checks he’s so fond to loudly give the game. People tune in to the CBC not to just be entertained, but to be informed. The government has much more direct ways of making money than running the CBC as a profit vehicle, and that’s why it does not. So it should not be held to the same standard as a profit vehicle normally would — we look to it not just for entertainment but to be informed, and it is its duty not just to entertain but to inform.

O’Leary and Cherry should not be paid by taxpayer dollars to spread their highly misinformed and biased opinions, and by continuing to give these men both money and airtime the CBC is committing moral felony. Strong words, but these men’s opinions are not only wrong but dangerous. Cherry’s fetishization of violence has encouraged the 600,000 kids enrolled in minor hockey to play a game that is far more dangerous than it needs to be. O’Leary’s belief that the richest 85 people in the world own just as much wealth as its poorest half — that’s 3.5 billion — speak to his blinding ignorance and was deemed “appalling” by Forbes magazine. As public broadcasting, from our democratic government, we expect democratic and fair dissemination of information. O’Leary and Cherry’s opinions are made all the more dangerous when delivered over the public spectrum, as they take on the form of fact and cultural representation. This then teaches the uninformed that these views are held by the CBC, which as a governmental representation we take to have the views of the government, of our people. We’re witnessing firsthand how the truly outrageous parts of Canada are what the rest of the world judges us by through the Rob Ford scandal; anybody on a global scale who catches wind of the dinner for schmucks that is an evening on our only national public broadcast channel would not be irrational to conclude that those people are who we listen to and trust in the Great White North. In short, carrying their words in the vehicle of the CBC looks bad on us because it is bad on us.

Not everybody has the time or the resources to take well-thought-out and critical approach to the media they consume. It’s up to the CBC to try and improve our collective cultural and intellectual landscape, not cater to our inability to look away from a train wreck. If Kevin O’Leary yelled and no camera was around to record it, would anybody give a shit?

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