PHOTOS: Helloo, Farm Boy! Welcome to Taber, Alberta, sin city of the southern plains, a place obviously badly in need of correction (1988 photo by Harry Palmer found on the Internet). Below: the Taber sugar beet refinery; a truck selling Taber corn.
Taber gets the ridicule and Ottawa gets the glory. What’s with that?
To put this more politely, what conclusions can we draw from the oddly juxtaposed way the mainstream media and public have reacted to troubling efforts by two governments, widely separated by significance and distance but motivated by much the same impulses, to use unconstitutional and likely ineffective measures to control threats to the community, real and imagined?
It would be the easiest thing in the world to heap ridicule on the effort of council members in Taber, an unprepossessing community in Alberta’s Deep South Book-o-Mormon Belt previously best known for corn and sugar beets, to impose a “community standards bylaw” on their neighbours. Indeed, ridicule is exactly what Taber Town Council got in the visceral outpouring of opposition on social media when its legislative efforts were discovered.
The bylaw would outlaw use of profanity in public, spitting on the street, the presence of young people outdoors after 11 p.m. and, particularly troublingly, assemblies of more than three people deemed by a local constable to be up to no good.
Presumably this lets the congregations of the local Christian-themed houses of worship, of which there are several in Taber, off the hook when they exit on a Sunday morning, an event churchgoers know can be surprisingly rowdy.
Obviously, a lot of this is straightforwardly unconstitutional on the grounds of both jurisdiction and fundamental rights, and the town council will be wasting their taxpayers’ money if they proceed and end up trying to fend off ambitious out-of-town lawyers who see an opportunity to get some publicity while doing good.
This is especially true if, as has been alleged by some, the real target of the bylaw is Mennonite youth from the region outside the town’s boundaries, members of a Christian sect different from the ones that predominate inside town limits.
That possibility notwithstanding, a lot of the mockery of the past few days came from the fact Taber’s leading townsmen are battling social transgressions that don’t seem very serious in the great scheme of things. This makes the bylaw sound very much like a quixotic effort to turn the clock back to the social conditions of the 1950s. (I can personally attest to the fact Taber was a very nice place in the 1950s.)
This is exactly the way both mainstream and social media have been framing the story, to the point the good burghers of Taber are starting to complain they’re suffering from injured feelings. “It hurts my heart,” said the chairperson of the town’s police commission, apparently unaware of how goofy this makes him sound. Moreover, when the weather got stormy, councillors ducked, refusing to return the media’s calls.
Despite the public health and aesthetic merits of a $75 fine for spitting on sidewalks, council’s effort to turn back the rain of F-Bombs prevalent in our society with $150 fines is quixotic at best, if not deluded. It brings to mind King Canute’s famously unsuccessful effort to order the tide to reverse.
Meanwhile, in another parochial little town on the Rideau River, a few miles east of Taber, a group of elected officials is trying to impose an equally unconstitutional and considerably more dangerous law in the name of fighting terrorism.
Whether the measures in Bill C-51 will prove any more effective in countering actual terrorist activities is unclear, but it will certainly be useful in spying on law-abiding opponents of the government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper and its petrochemical-pipeline schemes, which many Canadians suspect is the real motivation behind the legislation.
Regardless, the government of Canada is treated with cautious respect and impeccable balance for this effort by the same media that is making one-sided fun of Taber town council. Moreover, the same media regularly reminds us that public support for Bill C-51 is very high.
These two dissimilar outcomes are related, it is suggested here.
The Harper Government in Ottawa is widely acknowledged to have in its employ many masters of spin and wedge politics.
Indeed, Prime Minister Harper’s descriptions of clothing associated with some branches of the Islamic faith is a classic example of a mean-spirited wedge issue designed to enhance the electoral prospects of his government even at the risk of stirring up hatred in the country. This instinct should come as no surprise, we have seen Mr. Harper’s government do the same thing in other areas, for example, its attack on sensible controls of firearms ownership.
Could it be that the widespread support for Bill C-51 is based in significant part on the deferential treatment the bill receives from mainstream media, just as the mockery of Taber’s effort at social control is picking up on media disrespect? Of course it can!
Another factor for which the media bears direct responsibility, of course, is the Canadian public’s profound ignorance of the harm Bill C-51 will actually do to our freedoms.
An infamous Angus Reid survey last month quoted and re-quoted by mainstream media purports to show 80-plus-per-cent support for the bill, but also reveals that about the same percentage of respondents know very little about the details of the law. Moreover, some 36 per cent of respondents said they were barely aware of the details and another 20 per cent admitted to never having heard of it before the pollster called!
So the public reactions in opinion surveys and on social media to these two pieces of legislation suggest two things:
- That public distrust of the kinds of measures contained in Bill C-51 runs deeper that the present level of public support for the bill in the current atmosphere of cultivated ignorance and hysteria.
- That spin and mainstream media attitudes alike continue to exert a powerful influence on public attitudes.
So the government of Taber town is dismissed as malevolent clowns while the government of Canada country is held up by the same people as motivated only by the happiness, health and safety of the nation.
In reality, the biggest difference is that when it comes to unconstitutional laws, the legislators in Ottawa have the help of professional spin-meisters and the aid and comfort of the mainstream media. The ones in Taber do not.
Same stuff; different towns.
This post also appears on Rabble.ca.