On Political Venom (Redux)

(Update: 20:46): Since writing this post, I've learned that Mike Brock's readers may not have contacted the Liberal Party as I had supposed, but rather Don Beemer's non-political job at a private corporation. That changes my opinion as to what happened here.

I'm leaving the post below unedited as, aside from this critical piece of information, the points stand. I still believe that Don brought some of this on himself by his unprofessional approach, but the proper venue for complaint should have been the Liberal Party, and not a private corporation wherein Don's one line comment is otherwise irrelevant to his job.

It would be well out of proportion to the slight involved for Don to be significantly affected at his workplace for a single intemperate comment made on a blog.

Calming down a little from my incensed reaction to the allegations that Conservative party officials attempted to bribe independent MP Chuck Cadman into voting to bring down the government back in 2005, I should note that there are several factors can could do much to cool this story by the end of this week.

These include the lack of a paper trail turning this into a "he said, they said" type of story and the fact that the Conservatives could have been responding to perceived fears on Cadman's part about losing his insurance as an MP by promising him protection for re-election (complicated by the fact that the life insurance of an MP seems to be less than the $1 million quoted). However, the Conservative response to the issue has helped keep it alive. As Greg Bester notes, when your story changes from "we didn't do it," to "yes, we sort of did, but we did nothing illegal", you don't do much for your credibility with those members of the Canadian voting public who are paying attention at the moment.

But recently, a portion of this story took an interesting little detour through the blogosphere. While posting on other things, conservative blogger Mike Brock received a comment from a commentator who posted anonymously, saying in effect "One wonders how Brock can bear to seperate [sic] Harper's d——— from his mouth long enough to eat?"

Which is, of course, your typical unconstructive trollish comment that pollutes too much of the blogosphere today, not interested in engaging in rational debate, but interested simply in taking immature potshots at those they disagree with. I find, in my opinion, that Mike Brock is a bit more partisan now than he used to be, but that's no justification for such verbal abuse

But, Mike did something unusual. Something about this comment moved him to investigate further and, with assistance, he was able to identify the poster through his IP address as Don Beemer, the vice president of the Liberal Party of Canada's Manitoba executive. Mike, of course, posted his findings on his blog, and some of Mike's readers took great delight in contacting the Liberal Party to notify them of Beemer's activities.

This raised a bit of a firestorm, from conservative and progressive blogs alike, who felt that Mike overreacted, violated an expectation of anonymity, and threatened Beemer's job over a merely tasteless one line comment.

I have to agree that Mike's reaction seems an overreaction. Were I confronted with just that comment, I would simply shrug it off and hit the delete button. It's pretty easy to do and is no skin off my nose to ignore people with insufficient IQ to distinguish between a nuanced political argument and a schoolyard taunt. I moderate my comments, so this sort of attempted vandalism rarely afflicts my public blog. However, I feel that I must side more with Ian Scott's comment over on Stageleft. As I explained in my comment to Raphael:

I have less of a problem obtaining and publicizing information that is publicly available. For instance, if you purchase a domain name using your own personal contact information, without enabling any sort of privacy feature, then I think that you are at least partly culpable if that information comes out. Similarly, there is a certain amount of information that you can glean from an IP address with only a minimum amount of effort. I think that people should be aware of what an IP address can broadcast to someone. On the other hand, going beyond those measures, offering bounties, is something extraordinary. At that point, the person setting up the bounty should be asking themselves if they really have a sense of perspective about it all.

And I admit that my reluctance to entirely condemn Mike is partly predicated on who he netted here: someone who should have known better.

Back in 1988, during the Free Trade election, a young voter was writing letters to Conservative Party MPs and candidates, questioning them on their support of the Free Trade Agreement with the United States. Most responses, if he had any, were your typical form letters, but one was newsworthy. An anonymous individual wrote a lengthy diatribe against the individual, full of abusive language. The voter's family turned the letter over to the media and it became a story — limited somewhat by the fact that they couldn't trace the letter to anybody.

If I were to receive an abusive comment like Mike received, I'd probably just delete it, but if I found that the comment was from a political office, I would be very tempted to post my findings. If Mike was dealing with a factory worker or a teacher or a librarian posting on their own time, I would say that his reaction was way out of proportion to the offence involved. It's not like a few intemperate words is really relevant to the day to day duties of their job, and it would be unfair to drag their livelihood into this childish dispute.

But Don Beemer works for a political party, and he certainly violated the principle that one should not post anything on a blog that one wouldn't comfortably say at high volume in public with tape recorders present. It's ultimately his job to work for the voters. It's certainly his job to present the best face of the Liberal party to voters. He sabotages his own work if he fails to treat voters — including Mike — with respect. Therefore, his intemperate words on a voter's own blog is noteworthy.

But, intriguingly, in his comments over at Stageleft, Mike links this "outing" to the Cadman affair, saying:

"The primary reason is political. I will admit as much. The Liberal's (ie. Cherniak) have made a blood sport out of trying to generate scandal on a daily basis, out of what often amounts to nothing but frivolous evidence at best."

Well, first of all, I would dispute Mike's suggestion that this problem is just a Liberal one. We've already had a few instances where Conservative operatives have sent abusive e-mails while on party time — one of them in the privy council office itself. Mike is being a bit partisan in using this language without acknowledging that the lack of respect that some politically active individuals have for voters of different stripes is a sad statement that applies to partisans of all stripes — a fact shown by his classification of me as a "Liberal", simply because I as an individual am outraged at the possibility that Conservative party operatives may have attempted to bribe Chuck Cadman.

Secondly, this tit-for-tat justification goes nowhere constructive. Ignoring the fact that non-partisan individuals are perfectly capable of having valid concerns about the whole Chuck Cadman affair or any potential government scandal, turnabout is not fair play. There are valid reasons for highlighting the unprofessional behaviour of an individual whose job it is to engage in the democratic process, but if you're highlighting it primarily to get back at other people on the individual's side for perceived slights, you've forgotten what the democratic process is all about.

It is indicative of how some of us have lost a little perspective in the political world, especially on blogs. Perhaps the stress of two parties being tied in minority territory for so long is taking its toll. We are no longer seeing our opponents as individuals with legitimate differences on how to run a country, but enemies of flawed moral character. There is hope in the fact progressive and conservative alike are calling for some moderation, perspective and respect in the blogosphere, although it's somewhat dashed by the comments we tend to see everyday, and the senior Liberal Party operative who lived down to expectations.

Warren Kinsella noted the Chuck Cadman story and didn't really react to it. He said "You see, I worked in Ottawa. I lived in Ottawa. I know Ottawa. Hate to sound like a cynical old man and all that, but this kind of stuff happens in Ottawa with some regularity, folks", which is very similar to Dona Cadman's statement of "It was something that any party would have done)" in explaining how something like this could happen, and not prevent her from running for the Conservatives. This sort of thing happens so often, it has become expected. So we shrug our shoulders and just let it happen.

Ironically, it's Jason Cherniak, the blogger with whom I've had some strong debates on how politics should be done, who speaks out for the aspirations of the future rather than the cynicism of the present: "Really? Is that the best we can do? Political parties regularly offer people bribes for their vote, so we should just accept it? I simply cannot believe that this is the best answer we can come up with." He's talking about the easy dismissal of the allegations as something not important, but it applies just as easily to polarizing partisanship.

Going back through this contretemps, and the whole Cadman affair, the only politician or political operative who really gets to hold their head high is Chuck Cadman himself, who may or may not have been offered encouragement to bring down the government, but stayed true to his principles and respected the voters of his riding to the very end. We could use more people like him.

If we don't hold our politicians to a higher standard, we can hardly expect them to treat voters with respect, and if politicians don't treat all the voters with respect, how can we expect voters to treat other voters with respect? It's a vicious circle, and a tragedy in a realm where we are supposed to be aspiring to be better than we are.

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