On the origin of specious journalism

Sunday, 14 March 2010 — 1:45pm | Canadiana, Journalism, Science

I read something dumbfounding today. You could say it was founded on dumb.

On first inspection, John Ibbitson’s article in Saturday’s Globe and Mail (“Core support keeps the PM in thrall”) is an ordinary, forgettable opinion piece that uses the recent silliness over the lyrics to the national anthem as a springboard for restating the obvious: the Conservatives can’t win a majority because every time they’re close, the mythical Republican-style rabble-rousers lying in ambush in the tall grass of the Alberta prairie celebrate with a premature volley from their unregistered firearms, and the rest of the country begins to have second thoughts about whether letting them win is a good idea.

Never mind the questionable statistical basis for linking one issue to the other. This isn’t news to anyone who follows Canadian politics in a sound state of mind, nor is Ibbitson’s sensible identification of the Tory core as moderate centrists (however incongruent that may be with partisan caricatures from both the left and right). There’s nothing here to see.

But the way he puts it is bizarre:

The great political irony for the Conservative Party is that, while it must avoid estranging core conservatives at all costs, extreme core conservatives keep the party from winning a majority. They are the social Darwins.

[…]

Most of the time, these right-wing nuts are ignored. But whenever Mr. Harper appears to have enough support to form a majority government, the base starts to get excited and aggressive, and social Darwins “bare their teeth and embrace things that the majority of Canadians don’t want to see,” says Mr. Turcotte. This frightens enough centrists to keep the Liberals in the game and the Conservatives confined to minority governments.

For those of you who are unaware, I am presently writing from what must surely be the Darwin capital of the world. It’s wall-to-wall Darwin here. All year long I have bathed in the most glorious talk of the literary Darwin, the proto-feminist Darwin, the abolitionist Darwin, the invalid Darwin, the patriarchal Darwin, the imperialist Darwin, the epistemological Darwin, the analogical Darwin, the cultural Darwin, the impressionist Darwin, and Quentin Blake’s cartoon Darwin. I am a stone’s throw away from Darwin’s letters, Darwin’s Plots and the Darwin College bar. I’ve seen the poor fellow’s name used and abused in every imaginable way.

I don’t have the foggiest idea what John Ibbitson means by “social Darwins.”

This is an original coinage of his. A Google search for “social Darwins” (excluding suggestions of Darwinism or Darwinist) returns a few scattered results from web forums and other wretched hives of scum and villainy, but the phrase’s appearance in Ibbitson’s article is a media first.

So far as I can tell, it’s a semantically vacuous slur, and obloquy of the laziest kind. It raises the spectre of social Darwinism, that strange appropriation of the legendary naturalist’s name to describe (with frustrating looseness of fit) the fascistic belief that the disadvantaged or inferior should be left behind to die. Now, I’m not convinced the hard-right hooligans who think Stephen Harper is a pandering sellout who doesn’t reverse enough gay abortions in the name of God are necessarily social Darwinists at all, but let’s give Ibbitson the benefit of the doubt. How, exactly, does one get around to calling them Darwins? What magnitude of scientific illiteracy does it take? And what, if I may ask, is being Darwinized here? In what universe, what nonstandard logic, what Wittgensteinian language-game, do these hypothetical bearded chimeras of right-leaning frenzy do anything to guide the selection process that favours the survival of centrist species of government?

I don’t have a horse in this race and I’m not about to foam at the mouth about how The Globe and Mail is a dirty Liberal rag, or whatever they call it these days in the faraway places where The Calgary Herald is regarded as a reputable newspaper. But anyone who accuses Ibbitson of meaningless mudslinging is, in this case, absolutely on point. It is a sophomoric writer who presumes to toss a name like Darwin into the fray and expects the readership to take it as an inherently bad word. This is exactly what many on the right do with the word “liberal” and what some on the left do when they refer to the Tories as “the Cons”—and it’s a pollution of political discourse.

Only here, it’s worse: it promotes a misconception of evolutionary thought, which is already so ill understood to the detriment of science in the public eye. One wonders if Darwin had journalists in mind when he wrote of the descent of man.

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3 rejoinders to “On the origin of specious journalism”

  1. Occam’s Razor suggests that social Darwins is a mere lapsus calami or incorrection for social Darwinists.

    Sunday, 14 March 2010 at 7:33pm

  2. I think so too, and I hope you’re right. But it happened twice in the same piece, it doesn’t appear to be a Cupertino, and this is the Ottawa Bureau Chief we’re talking about. I’d hate to see this become a fixture in the style guide.

    And even if we substituted social Darwinists, the relevant passages don’t make considerably more sense. In the way they were presented in the article, how are the fringe right-wingers Darwinists—least of all in the function that was described, i.e. pushing the general populace leftward to stabilize a centrist equilibrium?

    Sunday, 14 March 2010 at 8:24pm

  3. Jones

    The Darwin College bar is quite a lot of fun, btw. For what it’s worth, I think the Grope & Maul has declined substantially in the quality of its output and sanity over the past year or two.

    Sunday, 14 March 2010 at 8:37pm

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