We’ve already begun another wild modern election ride during which outrageous old social media posts have and will come back to haunt candidates and the political parties that nominate them. But what happens when the outrage is misplaced and the goal seems to be to shut down legitimate differences of opinion?
Let’s begin with a pop quiz. During the 2015 Canadian federal election, how many candidates for the highest offices in our land were hoist by the petard of their own social media posts before voters could say yay or nay to them at the ballot box?
On a roll? Then let’s go international. And get more detailed. In one single week, ending May 4, 2019 — which happens to have been less than two-and-a-half weeks before the actual Australian parliamentary elections on May 18 — how many candidates were fired, forced to quit or embarrassed beyond amusement by their own social media ramblings?
And now for the office-pool, winner-take-nothing question. How many candidates in our own upcoming federal election will find themselves gonged before they could have been crowned?
Last question. And the most difficult to answer. How many of those dumped will be dumped, not because they did or said something truly outrageous, or offensive, or outrageously offensive, but because they dared to raise uncomfortable issues that offended powerful vested interests?
The answer to that last question will probably depend on your personal political view of what’s offensive and what we need to discuss.
I have a few candidates of my own for the latter category but, before journeying there, a few answers for our pop quiz.
The one-size fits all answer would “too many,” and “way more than you would have guessed.”
Some more specific answers.
A Canadian Press round-up two weeks before the 2015 Canadian election listed 21 “candidates and party officials who have made headlines during the federal election campaign because of various gaffes.” Twelve of them were no longer candidates at the time of writing. Their firing offences ranged from the silly (one young Bloc Québécois candidate, when asked in a survey what she would need with her in the event of a nuclear attack, wrote: “my cellphone, a penis and chips”) to the is-there-a-statute-of-limitations-on-offensive (one young Liberal had to drop out of the race after someone uncovered four-year-old tweets in which she suggested one adversary should have been aborted with a coat hanger and encouraged another to “go blow your brains out”).
And, in that Australian election earlier this year, one media report counted up the carnage from just that one week of their campaign and came up with the names of a dozen once-candidates no longer even in the running. As in Canada, the offenders crossed genders and party lines, not to mention many other lines. One female candidate, for example, got the heave-ho (after initially being defended by her leader) for this bit of anti-Muslim-women twitter hate/advice to Donald Trump: “Round them up Donald, cut their clitoris’ off & sell them to Muslims in Muslim countries & cancel their passports. You’ll make a mint.” A male candidate quit after The Australian discovered he’d shared pornography and rape jokes online when he was a 22-year-old seven years before.
And so it went, so it goes, and so it will undoubtedly go until we finally go to the polls on Oct. 21.
But not all controversial tweets are created equal. And there does seem to be a pattern in our politics of punishing those candidates who do not toe an apparently monolithic and official multi-party line on the Middle East.
Last week, the target was Hassan Guillet, a member of the Council of Quebec Imams who is best known for a powerful speech he made in Quebec City honoring victims of the Quebec mosque shooting.
That may have been one of the reasons the Liberal party thought he’d be a good candidate for them. Until, that is, B’nai Brith Canada rummaged through his social media posts and found two it considered “anti-Semitic.”
In one, Guillet congratulated a Hamas-connected “frontier-fighter” who’d just been released from what Guillet described as a “prison of occupied Palestine,” and he prayed for his success in liberating “all of Palestine.” (Guillet says he congratulated the man on his release because the man had protested the closure of a Jerusalem mosque. He insisted he wasn’t aware of his Hamas background at the time.)
But even if he was, those comments hardly seems surprising not only for an imam or a Muslim, but also for many progressive Jews and otherwise thoughtful Canadians who recognize there can never be peace in the Middle East without a fair solution of the Palestinian question.
While we may not all agree with the notion of liberating “all of Palestine,” it is really just the other end of the continuum to Israel’s latest one-state-and-that-would-be-Jewish-Israel solution. Neither are good solutions; we need to be able to discuss both.
In a second social media post from 2016, Guillet posted — and later deleted — an argument that “the Zionists control American politics.”
Note he didn’t say Jews control American politics. Guillet appears to be talking about the power of the Zionist-Israel lobby, which does not represent the views of all Jews but — let’s face it — wields an out-sized influence on American politics.
Not to forget on Canadian politics.
For his own part, Guillet insists he is not anti-Semitic. “On the contrary, I campaigned and I will always campaign against all forms of racism, including Islamophobia and anti-Semitism.” According to Guillet, federal Liberal party officials had known about his old social media posts for over a month and even had plans to work with him on an outreach to the Jewish community to explain and discuss.
B’nai Brith pre-empted that.
Within hours after it had released its “findings,” the Liberal party not only decided Guillet’s comments were “insensitive” but that he was also… well, gone. The party revoked his candidacy.
If that isn’t a sign of the power of a Zionist lobby, I don’t know what is.
And it fits a pattern of call-and-respond that goes well beyond the Liberals, and also pre-dates this election cycle.
In 2015 in Nova Scotia, for example, we also had the New Democrats and Morgan Wheeldon. Wheeldon was supposed to be the party’s federal candidate in the Valley.
But the year before, he had written a long and since deleted “one-could-argue…” Facebook post in which he suggested Israel intended to “ethnically cleanse” territory it occupied.
Wheeldon, a former journalist, says he was simply making the point that your perspective about the Palestinian issue might be different “depending on your sources of information.” In fact, Wheeldon himself insisted at the time “my position on Israel has always been that they deserve a safe and secure state, one that works with Canada, and I also agree personally with the two-state solution in the NDP platform.”
No matter. NDP knees jerked and it was Goodbye Morgan.
More recently, the NDP played the same recruit-and-release with another Nova Scotia candidate, Rana Zaman, a Muslim and human rights activist.
Zaman had posted impassioned social media posts about Israel and its treatment of Palestinians, most of them within the bounds of respectful discourse. And she also has a an enviable track record for trying to bring communities together. As in…
According to a 2016 story in Canadian Press, Zaman had complained to police after seeing a Halifax police officer make horrific Islamophobic comments on social media, accusing “Mussies,” as he referred to them, of trying to recruit child sexual abuse victims. When Zaman reposted the officer’s tweet on social media, she blacked out the officer’s name and photo because she didn’t want to start a “witch hunt… My heart does not want to have this person fired or degraded in any way, but seeks the opportunity to speak with him and perhaps others of the police force who may share similar sentiments.”
She got her wish. The Halifax police department’s equity and diversity officer organized a meeting between the two during which Zaman says she discovered the officer had been dealing with what the story described as “personal issues and a ‘personal loss’ at the time.”
Without excusing his behaviour — for which he’d offered a written apology — Zaman noted that the officer’s comment “is coming out of pure anger, and there’s something behind it, there’s pain and anger behind that comment.”
It was the beginning of an ongoing discussion. Zaman organized meet-and-greet sessions for Halifax police officers to allow them to ask questions and get to know members of the Muslim community. She even invited the officer who’d made the original Islamophobic comments to a meal during Ramadan.
That seems to me to have been an action on which to build both community bridges and the basis of a powerful political campaign.
Instead, the NDP caved. And B’nai Brith crowed.
B’nai Brith “commend[ed] the NDP for acting responsibly in terminating Rana Zaman’s candidacy, and urge it and all other Canadian political parties to take similar action against any other nominees who breach the internationally accepted definition of anti-Semitism.”
Their accepted definition. Which seems to include any and all criticism of Israel.
Me? I think Guillet, Wheeldon and Zaman all got shut down because they dared to raise uncomfortable issues that offended powerful vested interests.
And that should make us all uncomfortable.
This column first appeared in the Halifax Examiner September 9, 2019.