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So where’s the beef, Bermuda?

The House of Assembly ¬ Photo by David Skinner

The difference between propaganda and reasoned argument is the difference between a beef bouillon cube and Kobe beef.

Like their counterparts elsewhere, Bermuda’s politicians and their surrogates have a tendency to tailor their preferred public relations narratives according to what a great man called “that obstinate craving for unity and symmetry at the expense of experience”.

Consequently, the respective party lines tend to completely gloss over the fact that governing rarely amounts to much more than an unhappy choice between the potentially catastrophic and the merely unpalatable or utilitarian.

Instead, each side prefers to elevate itself to demi-god status while deriding their opponents as the fountain heads of all evil and social injustice.

Thundering from their various bully-pulpits, they selectively pick and choose facts to support predetermined, spin-dictated conclusions. Never do they allow all of the evidence to hand to lead to more logical, if often less melodramatic, deductions — and, by extension, to more logical choices for a better informed electorate.

Government proposals and Opposition counter-proposals, good, bad or wholly indifferent, are not promoted — or scrutinised — according to their actual merits. Every initiative from either side is routinely presented as a new gospel, as utterly incontrovertible and irrefutable as if it had been handed down atop Mount Sinai. Of course, critics across the partisan divide claim these self-same plans represent the cutting edge of some fiendish design intended to subvert and utterly destroy the Bermudian way of life.

When every pronouncement from either side is invested with the sort of absolutist certainty and conviction a Jesuit might envy, rational, deliberative debate and a balanced approach to the issues of the day becomes close to impossible.

Politicians, of course, have a vested interest in encouraging voters to hand out simple-minded rewards and punishments at election time. So their marketing strategies suffer from a certain overcontrivance — and an overreliance on what they clearly assume is the collective and deeply entrenched gullibility of the electorate.

They frame every argument and every position around what their marketing consultants call a “central organising idea” — an organising idea predicated on painting themselves as inviolate, their opponents as the advance guard of extreme reaction and blinkered obstructionism.

In an Island this small, the political environment is as delicately balanced as the natural one. So such an unyielding emphasis on polarising and destructive dogma at the expense of energising and constructive engagement between our political parties cannot help but take an ongoing toll on our stability.

The causes of, and possible solutions to, our economic, social and cultural ills can never all be explained by a single party political doctrine; things are never all one thing or all the other. Certainly our elected officials, or at least most of them, are more aware of this than most.

There are simply too many variables at play, too many interlinked and interacting causes, for any one-size-fits-all-eventualities ideology to reduce even tiny Bermuda’s civil affairs to a nice, neat, organised system; that is the stuff political advertising campaigns are made on, not pragmatic politics.

However, precisely because electioneering — often little more than glorified name-calling and mud-slinging — is less taxing than crafting coherent policy for the difficult period we have entered in the wake of the financial crisis, Bermuda is now in what amounts to a never-ending campaign cycle.

In the advertising-and “Gotcha!”-driven environment we now inhabit, votes are routinely swayed by deliberate and systematic misrepresentations of the facts; everything from violent crime to economic retrenchment to the legal status of tinted crash helmet visors becomes the subject of superheated rhetoric and vitriolic parliamentary exchanges no matter how much common policy ground actually exists between the political parties; and “My party right or wrong” has come to all too frequently trump choosing basic right from wrong.

It’s fair to assume the overwhelming majority of Bermudians, regardless of their party affiliation, want their elected representatives to work collaboratively to build a safe, durable and stable community. Yet no such community can be easily forthcoming in an atmosphere where mutual mistrust, scepticism and sometimes outright nihilism are actively encouraged by partisan propaganda masquerading as informed analysis.

Legitimate disagreements as to the best way forward will always exist when it comes to all issues, great and small; and, frankly, a state of permanent consensus is no more attainable than it is actually desirable given all voices and opinions need to be heard in Bermuda’s civic discourse.

However, our political dialogue has been overly dominated by the ephemeral, the contrived and the attention-grabbing but entirely meaningless for far too long in recent years. Propagandising, posturing and peacocking have little to recommend them aside from some scant, usually unintentional entertainment value; they are certainly no substitutes for content and substance.

So ask yourself, Bermuda, and certainly ask your Members of Parliament: where’s the beef?