Thursday, 22 November 2012

Opt-Out Gate: Dangerous Demagoguery

Note: This post was initially intended for publication right after Remembrance Day. The research took longer than expected. 

The Winnipeg Sun: Home of all that's unfit
for print.

Image Source: Google Streetview
image of the Winnipeg Sun Office
In the lead up to Remembrance Day, the Winnipeg Sun ran more than a few articles on the extremely rare opting-out of Remembrance Day ceremonies by a small number of students. This story started out in Alberta - receiving attention from some media outlets in Edmonton. Eventually Alberta Premier Redford opportunistically chimed in with her disappointment.

Shameless demagoguery over symbolic slights is fodder for conservative politicians. Many conservative politicians lose on real issues. Thus phoney populism over minor slights works better for them than real populism over major public policies.    

The story, about an exemption in laws governing Remembrance ceremonies at public schools - that had existed for quite some time -, probably sprung up as reporters desperately sought out topical, ratings grabbing content for Remembrance Day. The Sun dailies, particularly the Winnipeg Sun, saw this as an emotions grabbing story in line with their basic MO of stirring up manufactroversies over perceived affronts to tradition. They realized that, if Alberta had such rarely used exceptions, other jurisdictions must have them as well. Manitoba, it turns out, is one such jurisdiction.

Retired master corporal Dave Desjardins, paralyzed from the
waist down.

The retired corporal's criticisms of Ottawa's handling

 of Veterans affairs, claiming they were abandoning
 disabled veterans, was reported in The Province 
on Nov. 11, 2012.

The Winnipeg Sun website was filled with talk of
Opt-Out Gate on Nov. 11.  But retired master corporal
Desjardins complaints have received less attention. 

Image Sources: Top photo from The Canadian Press.

Bottom a screenshot of a search query for corporal
Dave Desjardins.
 There's certainly quite a bit of similarity to this overemphasis of a symbolic issue and the Sun's hissy fits over "Happy Holidays". The Sun's coverage of both "Happy Holidays" and Opt-Out Gate filled up space that could have been better used covering REAL issues. Space going to "Happy Holidays", for instance, would be better used covering the poverty afflicting many Manitoba families that makes Christmas an un-merry time of the year for them. Opt-Out Gate took space that would've been better used discussing the psycho-social and economic issues affecting veterans returning from Canadian wars as well as the  Harper CON cuts to veterans programs. In both cases, demagoguery over symbolic issues allowed the Sun to ignore real, flesh and blood human beings.

The fact that this law has existed before, without resulting in empty school gyms come Remembrance ceremonies, was of little importance to the Sun.

The complex matter of when the government's public policies should supersede religious privileges (and I do think there are cases, particularly when it comes to children's medical care) was brushed off with the argument that Remembrance Day isn't an inherently religious event. Remembrance certainly isn't an explicitly religious comemmeration, but individual religions can still object to it for weird reasons (as some of the religious do to contraception or blood transfusions - neither of which most rational people would regard as inherently religious).

The Winnipeg Sun obtained many "people on the street" interviews by Nicole Dube for their (and Sun Network "New" 's) videos of the story. They did not, however, even attempt to get at what religious or political beliefs inspire people to opt out of Remembrance Day.

This Mennonite Brethren writer Norman H. Fehr has an explanation for (some) his colleagues' distaste of Remembrance Day.
"Do Mennonite Brethren not celebrate Remembrance Day?" 
The question was probably prompted by the lack of red poppies.

No, the Mennonite Brethren denomination, as I know it, has never made a celebration of Remembrance Day. It may be mentioned during a Sunday service, but very few of us go to celebrations in the parks because the memories of stories told by our older folks of what they saw and experienced are still with us. Just the sight of decorated military men sends shivers through our veins. To remember the fear and uncertainty when I stood before a military court, to remember army officers bent on killing everyone that did not walk or think their way, to remember what thousands of others of our faith have experienced from merciless soldiers--these are enough to persuade us not to take part in a Remembrance Day celebration.

There is nothing worthy in war to celebrate. If anything, Remembrance Day should be a day of great mourning and repentance. There is no victory in war.

("Do Mennonite Brethren not celebrate Remembrance Day?".Norman H. Fehr (Oct. 23, 1998).M.B. Herald: Vol. 37, No. 20: Making Peace)
Manitoba Premier Greg Slinger

Criticized by Winnipeg
Sun reader & letter to the editor
feedback writer for supposedly
confusing remembrance and
religious freedom.

Image Source: Ministerial Conference
of the Canadian Francophonie
Many Mennonites came from Russia to Manitoba to avoid military service as part of their religious freedom. The notion that military matters - even if in the softer form of remembrance - can be linked to religious freedom (as Premier Selinger asserted) seems to baffle the Winnipeg Sun's readers and editors. Perhaps reading some more history lessons would help, for while I'd bet most Mennonites don't have a strong aversion to Remembrance Day or the sight of military personnel like Norman Fehr, some do. This probably contributes to the extremely rare opting  of Remembrance services in our province.

But what do the Federal Conservatives think of this? They're making a whole "Office of Religious Freedom", after all. Many socially conservative Mennonites in Manitoba, a few of whom no doubt have  similar views to Fehr, vote in CON MPs like "Minister of Family Values" Vic Toews.

Morning @kenneyjason! We're talking about schools allowing students to opt-out of #RemembranceDay. Ur thoughts on this?…

Federal Immigration
Minister Jason Kenney.

Actually responds to Sun
attempts to stir up
Opt-Out Gate yet doesn't
seem to be publicly calling
for his gov't to treat
disabled veterans better.

Image Source:
Wonder if Jason Kenney will tell various Mennonite Brethren members like Norman Fehr that they better not "opt out" of Remembrance if they don't opt out of "freedoms secured by the war dead". Or, better year, walk straight into some Brethren congregations in Winkler and tell them that any me members with Fehr's attitudes shouldn't vote CON next election.

The Winnipeg Sun's demagogic coverage of Opt-Out Gate, while shallow and distracting from serious issues facing veterans, also posses a danger to the rare children who do opt out. This is especially the case because the paper ran an editorial framing the issue as kids using lame excuses ( "Political beliefs, religious objections, bad hair days — you name the excuse, kids can use it to get out of attending the service, and school officials are pretty much powerless to do a thing about it.") to get out of Remembrance services.

A veteran and 40 year Legion member has a great post expressing dissatisfaction with the media's creation of "opt-out-gate" while touching on the risk it posses.

I’m starting to get a feeling of dread each year as Remembrance Day approaches. Not at the observance itself, but at what kind of twist the media will use to create to create some kind of type of news story related to it, the new angle to exploit, instead of simply reporting the after the fact on the events that take place.


I suspect that all the media coverage of what a small handful of students do in regards to school ceremonies will no doubt now be seized on by all manner of mal-adjusted youth as a means of in-your-face expressionism. Something that is done for no other reason than it can be. 
("The usual suspect news". Nov. 10, 2012. WpgNewsReview)
The writers at the Winnipeg Sun, Sun Network "News", and other Sun dailies really should think long and hard before stirring up manufactroversies. They should especially think long and hard if there's a risk of said manufactroversy leading to school bullying.

But, atlas, it seems that the RAG machine and rightwing politicians care less about real, living, flesh and blood human beings than they do for symbolic affronts.

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  1. Opt-ing out should come w/ a price. Students can sign up to not participate in Remembrance Day services, BUT each will receive a punch in the nose from current & retired military members. Sounds like a fair trade off.

    1. Yes, what better way to honour and appreciate the fact that we live in a country where political disputes don't have to be solved violently than to violently punch kids in the nose.

      The Wpg Sun should really be careful, since thuggish people like you read that paper.

  2. The Brandon Sun has been plugging a similar story about Selinger defending opting out for the past 2 weeks. In related news, one of the BS reporters has left to become a fluffier for Pallister.

    1. I guess it's only a matter of time before Quebecor buys the Brandon Sun.