Hyperbole Overload

Steve Saideman worries that with the proliferation of media sources comes more distracting noise and fewer real insights.

By: /
25 June, 2013
Stephen Saideman
By: Stephen Saideman

Paterson Chair in International Affairs, Norman Paterson School of International Affairs

Sometimes I worry that the growth of blogs, Twitter accounts, and other “new” social media will have the same impact that the 24-hour news cycle and the proliferation of cable news networks has had. It used to be the case that there were a few sources of TV news, they all had significant standards for what was a news story, they presented mostly the facts, and people tended to have a shared conception of what was going on. With CNN, FOX, MSNBC, and other sources in the U.S. competing with each other and needing to fill 24 hours with “content,” the quality of the programming suffered greatly. Now we mostly see pundits yelling at each other, trying to be outrageous enough to attract eyeballs.

This morning I was struck by two posts at one of the very best sites on the web – foreignpolicy.com – that suggest that the internet may have hit a tipping point – that there is so much content out there that the hyperbole is overshadowing the reasoned argument. To be sure, I may just be extra cranky today, but let’s take a look at the two pieces and see what we can learn.

First, there is “Leaning Away” by David Rothkopf. He argues that the real failure in international relations is not the plethora of failed states but the retreat of the United States from its global responsibilities. While there is something to be said about the limits of the American approach to global warming, the context of this piece is really Syria. But given that the U.S. has spent the past 10 years engaged in numerous wars (Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Somalia, Philippines, and so on), expending an incredible amount of money, exhausting its forces, and bleeding quite a bit, it is not clear how much of a retreat is happening. Yes, the U.S. is now out of Iraq and is on the way to scaling back much of its effort in Afghanistan. But the pullout of U.S. forces in Europe is being matched by efforts to build up a presence in Asia with a new base in Australia and similar efforts elsewhere.

Rothkopf argues that there is a “lack of strong international institutions” but the cup is very much half full here. NATO, for all of its warts, still makes a difference both in Europe (the Alliance is still present in Kosovo) and beyond (helping remove Qaddafi, fighting a long, costly war in Afghanistan). The international financial crisis could have been far worse if not for international cooperation. We tend to notice things that occur more than things that do not happen, but those who study the Great Depression will note that the Great Recession lacked the pernicious policies that deepened and lengthened the hard times of the 1930s. The global structure of the international economy did not solve the crisis, but did help to contain it.  While weapons of mass destruction are proliferating, this is happening at a much slower rate than one would have otherwise expected. We can still count the number of states with nuclear weapons on two hands (U.S., Russia, China, U.K., France, Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea). Iran still hasn’t gotten there in part because of how engaged the U.S., Russia and others have been, working with the International Atomic Energy Agency.

If this is retreat, then I wonder what Rothkopf would call overreaching? The reality is that the U.S. is financially strapped and is facing a domestic political crisis, but this is hardly isolationism.

Second, there is “Oh, Canada” by Andrew Nikiforuk, which suggests that Canada is a “rogue, reckless petrostate.” Yes, it is true that the Canadian economy increasingly relies on its oil exports and the Harper government has a far less nuanced foreign policy than previous governments. But this piece is just chock full of hyperbole, playing on stereotypes that do little to inform. As an American living in Canada for more than a decade, I am offended by the “boring” “hockey fans” stuff, trotted out here as symbols of the country’s good old days. I can only imagine how Canadians feel about this tripe. Canada was never as perfect and upstanding as it is often portrayed, but it is not Chavez’s Venezuela, Putin’s Russia, or Saudi Arabia either. Yes, the Harper government has been hostile to science, especially science that detects problems with an oil-based economy. Is the U.S. also now a rogue petrostate since it has discovered new reserves?  Is Norway? Is Scotland?

Nikiforuk’s article lacks any perspective. Yes, Harper increased the military budget, but the country was fighting a war in Afghanistan at the time. The military budgets of the future will decrease, not increase. Yes, Canada’s debt is large, but again some perspective: the country has less debt compared to pretty much every other advanced democracy. This particular problem is not a petrostate issue, but a challenge that all of the major democracies are facing these days.

Canadians are a “fat and apathetic people”? Please. In my time here, I have always been impressed with how knowledgeable and interested Canadians are in the world around them, particularly compared with my fellow Americans. Indeed, last night, after a game of ultimate frisbee, my teammates started asking me questions about the state of the world over beer. And, oh, the popularity of ultimate, like hockey and other sports, means that Canadians are not a fat people, again, especially compared with their friends to the south.

There is much we can say about the negative consequences of mining the oil sands – that it is bad for climate change, that it is bad for the local environment, and so on. And there is much that we can criticize about the Harper government’s approach to this issue and to science in general. But this piece has so much wrong with it that it distracts from the core issues. Because Harper’s political base is… in Alberta, his stances are pretty clearly driven by ordinary domestic politics and not the petrostate logic that is reputed to be at play here. The problem is that Canada is not a one-commodity country, as it has many other industries that do well in the international economy. So while the oil business is a key sector, it is not the only one, nor even a dominant one when compared to the entire economy. Politically, it means a great deal, but because Canada developed economic and political institutions long before the oil boom, the petrostate arguments simply do not apply. What Canada faces now is a domestic political conflict over priorities and where the different regions of Canada have different stances on this issue.

I am not saying that we should never criticize the U.S. or Canada for their various positions. Of course we should. But the over-the-top portrayals in these pieces serve as distraction sauce, shifting attention away from the core issues. The take away from the first piece is that the U.S. is becoming isolationist, which is patently untrue. What people will remember from the second piece is that Canadians are fat and apathetic, which, again, is not true. So, I am left to worry that the need for online outlets to compete with all of the noise forces them to produce more noise than insight.

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