Harperism author Donald Gutstein replies to swipe from Andrew Coyne

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      In the pantheon of memorable debates, this will not rank up there with Lincoln versus Douglas or even Kennedy versus Nixon.

      But in the context of Canadian politics, it's worth paying attention to.

      This week, I wrote a feature article on adjunct SFU communications professor Donald Gutstein's provocative new book, Harperism: How Stephen Harper and His Think Tank Colleagues Have Transformed Canada (James Lorimer & Company Ltd.).

      Deep within the piece, I mentioned that Gutstein focused on the role played by Postmedia columnist and weekly CBC commentator Andrew Coyne.

      Gutstein devoted five pages in the book to Coyne because, according to the professor, he "occupies the interface between think tanks and media, crucial territory in the neoliberal war of ideas".

      That prompted the following retort over Coyne's Twitter feed:

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      Gutstein responded with this salvo:

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      I have read the book, including pages 68 to 73, which focus on Coyne. His columns appear in Postmedia newspapers across the country, including the Vancouver Sun.

      Gutstein reports that between January 5 and January 24, 2013, Coyne's columns advanced a number of neoliberal nostrums, including weaker school boards, opposing academic Pam Palmater's emphasis on collective advancement of First Nations, and letting the market determine TV viewing preferences.

      In addition, Gutstein notes that the Donner Foundation invited Coyne to a meeting of conservative journalists and academics, where Coyne recommended a magazine be created.

      "It was two years later, with a Donner grant of $1.4 million, that the Next City commenced publication, with Coyne as contributing editor," Gutstein writes in Harperism. "Margaret Thatcher was the magazine's patron saint. Next City published articles calling for parent-run charter schools, the privatization of Medicare, and an end to government subsidies to the arts."

      Gutstein also points out in his book that Coyne has been on the council of advisors for the Manning Centre for Building Democracy, which is nurturing the conservative movement in Canada.

      "Perhaps most importantly, Coyne became a trustee of Peter Munk's Aurea Foundation, putting him along with [Rogers Publishing president and former National Post editor] Ken Whyte and Nigel Wright [former chief of staff to Stephen Harper] at the forefront of funding for neo-liberal think tanks and single-issue advocacy organizations like the Canadian Constitution Foundation," Gutstein writes.

      He then raises question in his book about Coyne's reporting on think tanks that Aurea may have funded.

      I asked Gutstein what goes through his mind when he reads Coyne's columns.

      The professor replied that he knows that he must take a very careful look at what Coyne writes because "it's kind of masked."

      "He has a way of promoting conservative neoliberal ideas without really being seen to be strongly behind them," Gutstein claimed.

      How so? According to Gutstein, Coyne brings forward ideas and then constructs debates around them within his columns.

      "Embedded within the debates are ideologies," Gutstein said. "So it would be very hard for a reader or a listener or a watcher to really deconstruct what he's saying."

      Coyne supported the U.S.-led attack on Iraq in 2003. More recently, he wrote a column suggesting an "unpleasant likelihood...of a shifting, open-ended conflict engaging different Islamic extremist groups at different times and in different places, probably for decades: a long, low war of attrition, or perhaps triage, not a short, sharp war of conquest".

      Moreover, Coyne claimed in the column that nothing can be done about this because extremists have already made it "brutally clear" that "they will fight us."

      That prompted the following tweet from Gutstein:

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      Chapter 8 of Harperism delves into the ideas of Leo Strauss, a philosopher who escaped Nazi Germany and ended up at the University of Chicago.

      According to Gutstein, Strauss argued that political order can only be maintained in the face of an external threat.

      "Liberal secular society was untenable for Strauss," Gutstein writes, "because it led to the 'isms'—individualism, liberalism, and relativism—traits that encourage dissent, which in turn could weaken society's ability to cope with external threats. What people need most, Strauss believed, are religion and perpetual war."

      I asked Gutstein if he's ever been invited to write a column for the Globe and Mail. He laughed and said "No."

      I didn't have to ask him if he's ever written for the National Post because there was no point.

      Comments

      19 Comments

      Common Sense

      Oct 2, 2014 at 4:39pm

      "Gutstein reports that between January 5 and January 24, 2013, Coyne's columns advanced a number of neoliberal nostrums, including weaker school boards, opposing academic Pam Palmater's emphasis on collective advancement of First Nations, and letting the market determine TV viewing preferences."

      None of those are neoliberal and opposing Palmater is usually just a matter of good policy.

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      Forest

      Oct 2, 2014 at 8:37pm

      As someone who has had the misfortune of participating on a televised "debate" with Coyne, I have to say that Gutstein is right to be wary. The man Coyne is no intellect nor a creative thinker, but he does have the swarmy demeanour of someone who believes he's special. Coyne is, above all, one of the original neo-liberal pundits, albeit a much less unimpressive version of Thomas Friedman.

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      OMG

      Oct 2, 2014 at 9:04pm

      Let me get this right the problem here is that a 'journalist' has been championing a way of thinking by constantly writing about it and hoping to change public opinion towards his cause, and doing it in a clever way.

      Why does this sound familiar to me?

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      wTrombone

      Oct 2, 2014 at 10:38pm

      I love the debate on Coyne. It is always hard to decide who is louder, the "Coyne is a left wing media hack brainspwashed into constantly criticizing the Harper government" or "this guy is a neo-liberal spin doctor fascist /apologist for the smug regime of Harper and his corporate cronies.

      I guess that is what comes of taking each issue separately and calling it as you see it.

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      Boris Moris

      Oct 3, 2014 at 6:54am

      The more consumer goodies you have on offer, increasingly more powerful vehicles are a perfect example, the more likely the consumer, and those that aspire to consume, will want to believe the climate change deniers, the war mongers and the tax cutters. We've been played masterfully by the military/industrial complex. How else do you get the most privileged societies on the planet to ignore the destruction of the enviroment and the carpet bombing of innocent civilians unless you dangle a wide variety of 400 horsepower penis substitutes for their ego gratification? For the less fortunate all you need is 24/7 junk food and non stop celebrity gossip.

      How is this not a waking nightmare? If you were able to administer a truth serum to Harper, or one of his Republican handlers, but you could only ask one question you would certainly want to discover something that would put it all into perspective and would wake up the masses. I would want to know if AIDS and Ebola have been weaponized. Others might want to know if the use of depleted uranium weapons was part of a plan to depopulate the strategic regions from Afghanistan to Iraq.
      Thanks, Coyne. You're such a useful idiot.

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      MD

      Oct 3, 2014 at 9:38am

      OMG
      "Let me get this right the problem here is that a 'journalist' has been championing a way of thinking by constantly writing about it and hoping to change public opinion towards his cause, and doing it in a clever way.

      Why does this sound familiar to me?"

      Well, you know, it isn't wrong when "we", or the "correct" people do it.

      The left - especially those who stand outside the electoral process and lecture and finger point at everyone else - are just as good as it as the right.

      Maybe they will one day realize that kind of parochial sanctimony undercuts their own positions and turns most people completely away from anything else they have to say.

      I doubt it, though.

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      James Blatchford

      Oct 3, 2014 at 11:53am

      I take Coyne with grain o' salt and don't shrink from the fact that sometimes he's bang-on. His criticisms - and they've been scathing - of the Senate scandal have been caustically aimed at the credibility of Mr. Harper's version of events...essentially calling him a big fat liar. Say what you like about his core beliefs, his smarmy demeanour, or anything else you can't stand about him; when he's right, you gotta give it to him. Full stop.

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      OMG

      Oct 3, 2014 at 11:58am

      @MD

      Thanks for the explanation. I was wondering if that was the case, given the teacher strike coverage.

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      sylvia ray

      Oct 3, 2014 at 1:35pm

      I am never sure whether Andrew Coyne is changing his opinion to have a great laugh on his audience or if he really believes the drivel he spouts. I will agree when he decides to make us believe he's not the bogie man he can pull your leg with the best of them, or is he serious.. ?

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      James Blatchford

      Oct 3, 2014 at 5:51pm

      Of course, we can just apply labels to people we don't like or trust and be done with them...easier that way. Works well in the Middle East.

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