Political Discourse in Alberta: Seen through Orwell’s Lens

“Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”—George Orwell

It was fascinating to consider Jason Kenney’s comments on two issues that arose this week in the context of George Orwell’s commentary on political discourse.


George Orwell

The first issue was Mr Kenney’s response to the latest bozo eruption, the second issue was his plan to save Alberta’s energy industry.  Mr Kenney’s comments illustrate the political bafflegab Orwell calls a “catalogue of swindles and perversions”.

“Making lies sound truthful”

Last week three UCP nomination candidates running in an Edmonton riding posed for pictures with the Soldiers of Odin, a white nationalist, anti-immigration group originating in Finland with links to neo-Nazis in Europe.

Two of the candidates said they didn’t know who the SOO were.  The third candidate knew exactly who they were but gave them the benefit of the doubt because they were polite.

Jason Kenney’s response to the incident was, umm, creative:

  • The SOO “crashed” the event (they RSVP’d in advance and checked with the venue to make sure they could wear their colours)
  • The SOO could have been mistaken for a baseball team or motorcycle gang (or they could have been recognized as the SOO from their regalia)
  • The incident was “an act of political mischief” by the Alberta Independence Party who apparently associate “with various kooky organizations.” (google the AIP, there’s no reference to the SOO or their ilk; the AIP supports the LBGTQ+ community but shares the UCP’s belief that parents should be aware of any extracurricular activity (including GSAs) their children participate in).
  • Premier Notley was wrong to say the fact the UCP allowed eight people who expressed racist or homophobic views to run for nomination indicates a “pattern of behavior” that shows the UCP is open to extremists. Kenney said this is “gutter politics” (gutter politics is rooting around in someone’s personal life to dig up dirt to discredit them, it is not the same as stating a fact, namely that eight UCP candidates expressed extremist views and the party continues to attract extremist supporters like the SOO).
  • Notley should have “stood in solidarity” with the Aboriginal candidates who were the “victims of this situation” (why? because they’re women? because they’re Aboriginal? because they were duped? because they’re standing for a party that attracts extremists?)

Orwell says politicians who speak without precision: (1) have a meaning but can’t express it, or (2) inadvertently say something they don’t mean, or (3) are “almost indifferent as to whether [their] words mean anything or not”.

Given that it’s not true the SOO “crashed” the event, there are no facts to indicate the AIP set it up as an act of “political mischief”, a white nationalist, anti-immigration group can be described as many things but “kooky” is not one of them, and Mr Kenney’s attack on Premier Notley is based on an incorrect understanding of the meaning of “gutter politics”, one can only assume Mr Kenney is “almost indifferent” about whether his words mean anything at all.

“Giving the appearance of solidity to pure wind”

When Mr Kenney wasn’t dealing with bozo eruptions he was telling the business community he’d fix Alberta by “hitting the ground running” and sending a message that “Alberta is open for business again”.

He says his government will be a champion of the energy industry.  He’ll move from “being on the defence” to a “fight-back strategy” (I guess that’s supposed to be an offense strategy but fighting-back sounds defensive to me).  He’ll set up “a well-resourced war room in the Ministry of Energy to respond in real time to every lie and myth told about our energy industry here in Canada or around the world.”  He’ll set up satellite offices if necessary.

Orwell calls this “pretentious diction”.  It’s used to dress up a simple statement, namely that Mr Kenney intends to increase the bureaucracy by hiring more people to man a “well-resourced war room” in the Department of Energy and its satellite offices to respond to “lies and myths” wherever they arise.

How will they respond?  Presumably by writing papers and op-eds, attending speaking engagements, and monitoring and responding to comments made in the mainstream media and social media by other governments (including First Nations) and special interest groups.  It is unclear whether the plan includes showing up at conferences and demonstrations to deliver the energy industry’s message to those that oppose it.

It’s a nice piece of corporate welfare but it’s just talk and will have no impact on the federal regulators and courts that approve interprovincial pipelines or international organizations like OPEC that impact global supply and thus prices.

Orwell warns that hackneyed phrases are meaningless; this is particularly true when they’re code for hiring staff to do something that will have no impact on Alberta’s economy.

Orwell’s message

George Orwell made his comments about political discourse in the middle of WW2 while “highly civilized human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me.”  Alberta’s situation is nowhere near as dire, but Orwell’s observations are still relevant.

Albertans deserve more than political language designed to make lies sound truthful and give substance to meaningless fluff.

Jason Kenney’s off-hand dismissal of the SOO fiasco and his promise that a UCP government will send the message that Alberta is open for business simply doesn’t cut it.

This week Mr Kenney said nothing more than what Orwell described as a string of hackneyed phrases “tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated hen-house.”

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17 Responses to Political Discourse in Alberta: Seen through Orwell’s Lens

  1. Dwayne says:

    Susan: Thanks for another in depth and very informative blog. I think the UCP cannot make the claim that they do not know who the Soldiers of Odin are. This is reinforced, when the Soldiers of Odin RSVP’d to a function that the UCP were holding and made it clear who they are. The Soldiers of Odin were in the news before. They clearly are a racist organization. This was not any sort of setup by anybody. The UCP knew who this group was prior to them attending the function. The UCP has a pattern of candidates and MLAs saying and doing totally unacceptable things. They do this to themselves. An MLA was comparing the carbon tax to the Ukrainian famine, induced by Joseph Stalin, in the 1930s (Holodomor). Another MLA had was involved with reckless driving and was shooting game on private property. He tried to cover it up. Then, there was an MLA involved with sexual assault. The leader of the UCP, Jason Kenney was making comments about the Alberta PCs, diversification projects, calling them neo-Stalinist. This is an offence to people who had relatives which perished under Joseph Stalin’s brutal dictatorship. Jason Kenney also made a statement on social media where he said that Faith Goldy was welcome to Alberta anytime. (She is a racist and a hatemonger, who is trying to run for the mayor’s job in Toronto.) The media has rightfully denied her any coverage. There are many other examples. This will not bode well for the UCP. The Alberta PCs had a problem with Ralph Klein saying and doing so many bad things, that they did not give him a glowing approval rating at one of their annual leadership conventions. Ralph Klein decided to leave politics. Had he stayed, people would have finally had enough. The Wildrose faced a similar situation, with their candidates, MLAs and leaders of the Wildrose saying and doing very bad things, including making racist statements, and Brian Jean making a misogynistic joke, at some type of a conference, with the press in attendance, and people laughing. At this rate, the UCP will sink. I also sense some Reform or Social Credit style politics creeping in to the political landscape. Peter Lougheed was not a fan of the Reform Party of Canada. He said the party was just like the Social Credit Party that he worked so hard to defeat.
    In relation to the pipeline, and the oil industry, what is Jason Kenney going to do differently? He already mentioned that he supports the carbon tax. Also, he said that he was in support of the government purchasing the pipeline. Yet, he claims that the carbon tax has chased away the oil industry (and other industries) from Alberta. Jason Kenney is aware, but will not accept the fact that oil prices are beyond the Canadian government’s control. It was 4 years ago when oil prices took a nose dive. Todd Hirsch, I believe, has said that oil prices will slump further. The other thing is that oil that Alberta produces is not the same as in other parts of the globe. That is also a factor in relation to things. Furthermore, the oil companies were the ones who also in favour of a carbon tax, when no one thought that Rachel Notley and Justin Trudeau would be in power today. I remember when oil prices were much greater than they are today. Jason Kenney was part of a majority CPC government. What on earth did he do to help get a pipeline built, that went to tidewater? Also, whomever is on the NEB panel, were put there by Stephen Harper. What other industries are leaving Alberta? When I see the news reports, I see reports of businesses coming to Alberta. Also, why is Jason Kenney making such doom and gloom claims, when Alberta’s economy is the best in Canada, currently, and will get better next year, despite the oil prices remaining low.

    • Dwayne, thank you for your wide ranging commentary. Let me focus on the Soldiers of Odin stuff, apparently the international leader of the SOO, Kimmo of Finland, told the Edmonton SOO that they had to choose between politics or the SOO because they couldn’t do both. The Canadian leader of the SOO told the Edmonton leader he had to step down, he said “Nope”, (see link). In the end the Edmonton SOO “disbanded” and rebranded itself as Canadian Infidels. They say they “want to exemplify freedom of speech according to those Charters and prove that Canada is heading in the possible direction of becoming a radical Islamic State”, Yep, that sounds a whole lot less Islamophobic doesn’t it. Here’s the link: https://www.vice.com/en_ca/article/xw9pwj/soldiers-of-odin-edmonton-chapter-shuts-down-rebrands-as-canadian-infidels

  2. Munroe Scott says:

    Susan, you are so correct — as was Orwell. Political baffle-gab is destroying our neighbour to the south and is obviously getting a toe-hold in Canada. And not just in Alberta. Thank you for reminding us that words matter.

    • Thank you Munroe. All of the quotes for this post come from a little book by Orwell called Why I Write. It is packed with gems like this one: “political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible.” Orwell gives an example of how someone might defend Russian totalitarianism. Since people can’t say “I believe in killing off your opponents when you can get good results by doing so”, they’re more likely to say: “While freely conceding that the Soviet regime exhibits certain features which the humanitarian may be inclined to deplore, we must, I think, agree that a certain curtailment of the right to political opposition is an unavoidable concomitant of transitional periods, …blah, blah, blah.
      It was bad in 1939, it’s even worse now.

  3. david says:

    Essential analysis in this time of cynicism, very limited meaningful political intercourse, emphasis on image and generalized anxiety about our precarious future…

  4. David says:

    Mr. Kenney is better at conveying the impression of precision than say Trump or Ford, but that only means he is a better actor. He is really more of an old style politician than a populist, so I suppose he could have easily come right out of the time of Orwell. He sort of reminds me of that Napoleon character.

    However, like the more obvious populists, Kenney does tend to recklessly gloss over or perhaps run over the truth. His saying the Soldiers of Odin “crashed” the event is a good example. I realize the modern world is not familiar with the finer points of Emily Post, but really RSVPing is not the same as crashing – it is the exact opposite. Unfortunately, some in the mainstream media here are more cheerleaders for Kenney than willing to call him to task for such obvious contradictions. Perhaps they are hoping for a nice cozy communications position in that Ministry of Energy war room, as opposed to an uneasy one working for that media monopoly that tends to lay off more people with depressing regularity and seems to be eventually going in the direction of Sears.

    I suppose the Ministry of Energy sounds better than the Ministry of Truth, but what Kenney seems to be proposing here reminds me of a rehashed or warmed over version of what the PC’s already tried before and failed. I recall they spent lots of money about all that Alberta was doing about climate change, when really it was not much if anything at all. It didn’t fool many outside of Alberta and didn’t impress many in Alberta either. It was really a waste of money. I am sure a good communications person would tell Kenney that without a solid message, spending money on communications is a waste.

    Sure Kenney can spend a lot of money telling the rest of Canada or the world how environmentally conscious Alberta is right after he cancels the carbon tax and extends the life of coal fired plants, but those ads will probably cause most outside of Alberta to either roll over with laughter or rush off to join Greenpeace in anger or disgust. In any event, it will sure not make it any easier to get any pipelines built.

    • Dwayne says:

      David: Jason Kenny has stated that he supports the carbon tax. He also supported his former federal colleague, Jim Prentice, when Jim Prentice wanted to shut down coal fired power plants in Canada.

    • carlosbeca says:

      Jason Kenney supports anything that promotes his career and his bank account.

    • Bob Raynard says:

      Jason Kenney and his disciples like to point out how social license was not successful in getting a pipeline built. His response seems to be to destroy social license. i am sure revitalizing Alberta’s reputation as a bunch of rednecks will convince everyone that pipelines will be a good idea.

    • David I agree with you. I think Kenney’s announcement that he is going to create a ministry of deregulation to “cut red tape” bears out your comment about Kenney being an old style politician. Cutting red tape is a tired trope used by politicians who have no vision and no clue about how to move into the future. And sure, unnecessary regulations that no longer serve a purpose should be eliminated but it’s not as simple as saying for every new regulation we pass three old regulations will be eliminated. That’s just stupid.

  5. Bob Raynard says:

    Any talk of Jason Kenney and George Orwell reminds me of when I was in junior high school and our teacher showed us an animated version of George Orwell’s Animal Farm. There was one scene where the commoner animals all rushed to the barn where the principles of the animal revolution had been posted, because they thought one of the principles was ‘No animal shall sleep in a bed’. When they got there the principle actually said ‘No animal shall sleep in a bed without sheets’, the paint still dripping on the phrase ‘without sheets’.

    That scene immediately jumped into my head when Jason Kenney did his about face on his Grassroots Guarantee, and all the media types rushed to Kenney’s taken down website.

    Thanks for another great column, Susan.

    • Bob, that’s a great story. For the life of me I don’t understand why anyone would feel comfortable voting for the UCP. Other than his “if the NDP built it, I will tear it down” promise Kenney has said nothing of substance. He reaches back in time to old time politicians like Roger Douglas for inspiration. Douglas was a New Zealand politician from 1984-90 who believed Reagan/Thatcher had it right. By the time Douglas was done with his economic reforms he’d decimated the rural population with a 40% drop in farm income, created a 50% drop in the value of farm land, implemented a policy to pay farmers $45,000 to leave their farms, and saw unemployment rise to 12% from the 4% it had been the year before. And this is Kenney’s economics guru. I wonder how rural Albertans would react if they knew the whole story, not just the meme.

  6. Carlos Beca says:

    I am not sure I can comment anymore on Jason Kenney because I have to confess that I have a profound dislike for all these so called populists that are nothing but crooks in Halloween.
    I am starting to wonder about our general mental health in general.
    Here is a very short part of an article I get from the Masthead of the Atlantic magazine.

    ‘What you should know: Whenever a vehicle or factory burns gas, oil, or coal, it releases microscopic pieces of soot into the air. These tiny pieces can cause devastating health effects when inhaled: Public-health research going back to the 1990s has shown that they increase early mortality. In a now-famous study, Harvard researchers found that American adults living in cities with higher levels of particulate matter were more likely to die of lung cancer, heart failure, and other cardiopulmonary diseases. More recent research has shown that these pieces of soot cause more than 150,000 cases of diabetes a year in the United States. The scientists behind that study told my colleague Olga Khazan that the EPA’s current limits on particulate matter may need to be cut in half to protect Americans’ safety.

    This form of air pollution also causes huge, measurable declines in intelligence, according to another recent study. The Yale researcher who led that work said inhaling too much soot is akin to losing a year of education.’

    I am seriously wondering if what is happening around the world, outside of the social/political environment is related with a fall in general intelligence levels. It certainly looks like it.
    By the way this is not sarcasm – I seriously believe we have now polluted ourselves to lower levels of intelligence and as a consequence affects our reasoning, our beliefs and our capacity to understand reality.

    • Carlos, you raise a very interesting point. My daughter and I have been trying to figure out whether humanity is getting stupider, particularly in the developed countries that have all the advantages but seem to be slipping back into tribal beliefs. The air pollution explanation bears looking into, although I hold out little hope that the Trumps and Kenney’s of this world would “sacrifice” the fossil fuel industry for the greater good.

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