Jen Gerson: God Bless the Dean
Justin Trudeau is right. We are fishwrap. We wouldn't have it any other way.
So, a funny thing happened on the way home from the G7 summit in Cornwall, U.K.: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau offered a telling little joke (gaffe? potshot?) during a press conference at the conference of the self-proclaimed leading economies.
"The work we got done here today, at a time when the G7 is more united than ever before, more focused on the responsibility we wield collectively as some of the world's leading economies not just to our own citizens but of citizens around the world, at a time of duelling crises of the pandemic and of climate change — the impacts of this G7 will be felt long after the newspapers you write for will have been used to wrap fish."
Smirk, awkward smile. When asked to repeat en français, he declined.
"Maybe I won't do the newspapers and fish thing. I might get in trouble for that because we respect the freedom of the press and the independence and the work that you all do in a very important way."
The groans from the fishwrap class were barely audible in the background. Despite being worth little more than a poke and an eyeroll, the clip was hashed and re-hashed (or re-hash-tagged) excessively on social media. To be honest, the defensiveness about the clip from the TruAnon crowd was far more interesting than the clip itself.
Bluntly, the media generally doesn't, nor should it, lather itself up over the odd potshot from a prime minister. If anything, "fishwrap" is the kind of gallows humour that we frequently use amongst ourselves to deprecate our own work. "Don't worry about the correction, kid. It's all tomorrow's fishwrap." This is healthy. It forces perspective. Likewise, it's healthy for a political leader to have a strained relationship with its press corps.
All prime ministers should maintain a moderate contempt for the newspapers that cover them. That's how it's supposed to work.
The fishwrap crack doesn't seem to have distressed very many people in the media; but it did strike a nerve with people who had invested in Trudeau's grandiose mythology. If you see the prime minister as the holy warrior of the Western liberal order, the guy who is going to bring Canada "back" from that media-hating edgelord whose name starts with H and rhymes with sharper, well, then, yeah, the clip was a touch off brand. I imagine such people will go to lengths to ignore the self-evident contempt in that smirk, and to avoid the question about why Trudeau was worried about getting into trouble if he said those words in French, but not in English.
Personally, I think this set is setting itself up for disillusionment when they must eventually come to the conclusion that Trudeau is a human politician, like any other; perfectly capable of petty spite as most other politicians before him.
The Trump factor plays into this dynamic as well. Indeed, that demagogic shithead elevated the "trash the media'' game into a high dark art. So much so, that perhaps we've forgotten in these long, godforsaken years, that an adversarial relationship between press and leader is the ordinary state of affairs.
Justin Trudeau is right. We are fishwrap. We the media are fattened fans who live on the sidelines, and we exist only to whine at the players and trash the ref. None of us have any idea of how difficult it is to be on the field — that's not our role in the process. Our role is to say what we think, and then to have that observation be forgotten. Frankly, it's easy and it's fun.
Trudeau's role is to be the leader of the goddamn country. He has power beyond anything mere mortals possess — he can make policy changes and cement for himself a real and lasting legacy. There is a balance of powers at play here; we get to speak with impunity, but we're mostly quickly forgotten. The political class maintains real power, but as a price for that power, must occasionally duck a volley of rotting fruit from the plebes.
Thus, the equilibrium of the universe is maintained.
"So," the one-eyed toothless beggar-woman wrote, eagerly polishing her squishy, bug-ridden apple. "What were the grand, generational impacts of this year's G7? The ones that will be felt long after this column rightly falls into the digital oubliette?"
Well, the top line appears to be corporate tax reform, which strikes me as a good idea in principle. In an effort to avoid racing competing jurisdictions to the tax bottom, the G7 has committed to a 15-per-cent corporate tax minimum. It would be helpful if China and India cooperated, of course. I'm not sure what further ability we have to punish tax havens abroad that we aren't already pursuing, but count me on board with "do those."
On the climate file, the accomplishments seem thin.
Meanwhile, the real missed opportunity lies in our vaccine situation. The G7 promised to donate a billion doses of COVID-19 to poorer countries. Better than nothing, but as others have pointed out already; it's grossly inadequate to the task at hand, and on too slow a timeframe.
There is no better place for the wealthy world to park its money right now than in COVID-19 vaccines. In addition to the lives and productivity lost by the virus, we have a clear, vested self interest. As long as the virus is raging anywhere, we risk the emergence of some monster vaccine-immune variant that would undermine our own vaccination efforts.
Further, aggressively contributing to the global vaccination effort could help shift the locus of diplomatic power back to the West.
I will quote one of this week's leaders in the Economist: "If a group formed to wrestle with big international threats cannot resolve to make such a no-brainer of an investment on humanity's behalf, what can it do?"
Not much, apparently. Have at 'er, China.
If the G7 was short on generational wins, what about Canada's successes? The most memorable bit for Trudeau from this summit was this devastating, near-cruel write up from Bloomberg:
"In the company of such heavyweights, the leader of the smallest G-7 economy cuts a marginal figure in spite of efforts to be the new ‘dean,’ as he became known among the Canadian delegation at this weekend’s summit in Carbis Bay on the southern English coast."
To be counted as a senior figure among the G7 was always an ambitious goal for a country that was included in this club because the Americans wanted an ally to counteract the political heft of an organization too heavily weighted in Europe. But someone really should warn future Canadian delegations of a near-universal human maxim: You don't get to choose your own nickname.
In short, I don't think Canada secured any great wins here. Nor did it lose anything by attending. This was exactly the outcome you'd generally expect from a summit, but someone had to be there and watching it all from afar, I'm reminded of what an ugly, awful drag public service must be.
I'm increasingly convinced that Trudeau's electoral success is rooted in the fact that he has nailed our national character. We want to be seen as the virtuous and wholesome honest broker, but we're not willing to do the work or make the necessary sacrifices. As long as our fellow nations observe the niceties, our leaders show up in the family photos, and our own pretensions are maintained, we're generally quite content to coast on the economic and diplomatic momentum of our betters. It's enough, for us, to look good.
Imagine all this pandering. The inflated domestic self-conception, the royal dinners, the bone-catching, backroom politicking, snickering over images, gaffes, while maybe squeezing a few incremental policy shifts for the trouble. It all sounds, bluntly, bloody awful.
God bless you, Trudeau. I'll take fishwrap any day.
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