Dispatch from the Front Lines: Let's try not to cause the next crisis while solving this one
Omicron. A party plane. And lots and lots of CBC.
It’s been a short week for us, but an interesting one, dear readers. We largely cleared the decks with our dispatch from Tuesday, where we dragged ourselves back to work after a too-brief rest and got crackin’ again. Most of what needed to be said, we said then. As housekeeping items, we’ll simply reiterate that you only have two more days to take advantage of our special offer for new subscribers. After that, we’re back to charging full freight for the foreseeable future. Also, this will be the last dispatch for the foreseeable future that is going out in full form to our paid and non-paid readers alike. On Monday, the paywall is coming up again — not just for the full version of the dispatch, but for other columns, essays and articles at our discretion.
Your due notice is given, friends. Join us today.
Now, down to the dispatch.
Please enjoy this week’s dispatch meeting video — and yes, we fixed the audio issues. Sorry. Last time, a wireless mic was left hot and was picking up background noise. Regret the error, etc.
We said on Tuesday that we’d keep monitoring the major indicators as Omicron continues to move through the North American population. There are indeed signs of staffing shortages caused by illness or isolation orders cropping up in the news; the Winnipeg Police seems to have having some trouble. We don’t have any particular wisdom to offer there. On the hospitalization front, Ontario has seen a record number of people hospitalized with COVID-19, though ICU levels remain well below historical highs. Ontario has ordered changes to how the data is reported; in the future, incidental COVID-19 cases inside hospitals won’t be counted. If you show up for a reason unrelated to the virus and are discovered to have COVID, that will no longer be counted as a hospitalized COVID case, which makes sense to us.
As we said on Tuesday, we don’t know what will happen. It’s still an open question whether Omicron’s increased infectivity will overcome the benefits of its established milder severity. We continue to watch and wait. What else can we do?
One of the things we have been watching, though, are growing calls for yet more pressure on the unvaccinated to get jabbed — including outright vaccine mandates. Your Line editors are conflicted on this. We want you all to get vaccinated and boosted. This is both because we care for you as individuals, and because we worry about the state of the health-care system — the unvaccinated remain a wildly overrepresented group among the most seriously ill. So sure, if someone has a specific proposal to make about how to encourage greater uptake, we’d love to hear it. Carrots, sticks, whatever. Tell us your plans and we’ll give you a fair hearing.
But there are two really, really big complicating factors that we also need to consider here.
First: time. As we keep telling you, Omicron is fast. Even if we came up with some brilliant new measure to convince or force every last remaining unvaccinated-but-eligible Canadian to roll up their sleeve, can we actually implement that plan in time? Omicron spreads exponentially, but we don’t add vaccination capacity exponentially, and indeed, there continue to be reports from around the country of difficulty getting appointments due to demand outstripping supply. Our realism must temper our idealism.
And second: blowback.
You might recall some of the columns Line editor Matt Gurney was writing for us here, around the time of last year’s federal election. Using polling data made available by John Wright, the EVP of Maru Public Opinion (and a friend of The Line), we looked at the convergence of an already alienated-from-the-mainstream fringe of Canadian society and the anti-vax movement. Not every anti-vaxxer is alienated from society, and we’re sure there’s a lot of whackjob anti-establishment loons who got vaccinated for their own health reasons. But the numbers did suggest growing overlap between these groups, and Maxime Bernier, of the PPC, seemed quick to realize this and try to exploit it. He didn’t win any seats, but he considerably increased his vote count. There is obvious danger that Canada’s fringe will be energized and capitalized by an influx of anti-vaxxers who are not otherwise political. Vaccine hesitancy (and misinformation) is a clear on-ramp for radicalization. Your Line editors have seen it these last two years with their own eyes. Someone starts with worrying that the mRNA technology is too new and ends up trying to crack the mystery of who really took out the World Trade Center. We wish we were joking. We’re not.
Concerns of some future populist revolt are no reason to simply throw in the towel on vaccination campaigns. But we would hope that our political leaders, and prominent commentators, are at least keeping this untethered-from-reality fringe in their thoughts, and, if nothing else, that they agree that we should not go out of our way to unnecessarily antagonize it.
Note that qualifier there — unnecessarily. We are not proposing to give the weirdest members of our society a policy veto. That’s no way to run a country. But words and actions that will further divide us and enflame the fringe, while achieving no meaningful public benefit, are unhelpful.
Like, just to pluck a totally random example out of thin air, imagine if Justin Trudeau were to give an interview where he just randomly asserted that anti-vaxers were also racist woman-haters. That would be counterpro — wait. He did? That actually happened already? He actually said that an in interview? Sigh Well, okay. Nevermind.
The pandemic will be over soon. We really believe that. But we’ll be living with the fringe for a long time. The next few decades, in many of the democracies, might involve a lot of hostage-negotiation-esque work to calm these people down without provoking them into doing anything stupid. Let’s not make things harder on our future selves for no benefit today.
Many people read and shared this article by Shannon Proudfoot in Maclean's this week. It demonstrated the reality — the sheer, utter inanity — of pretending that online schooling works.
In the wake of last week's announcement that Ontario would become one of the only jurisdictions globally to respond to the Omicron variant by closing schools until at least Jan. 17, a hashtag, #dontlogon, spread across Twitter, encouraging parents to simply refuse. Do not comply. Don't log on. Proudfoot herself said she felt that instinct, but decided against it.
"Eventually, I talked myself off that rage ledge because I realized it would have no effect beyond depriving my kids of whatever small benefits they might get from seeing their friends and teachers through a screen,” she wrote. “So we will do whatever we can do without causing tears to any of us, and no more."
In similar predicaments, we at The Line empathize greatly with Proudfoot, but when we read her piece, we couldn't help but ask ourselves: Who, exactly, is benefitting from online schooling? Certainly not parents. As her column points out, working while managing children in online school is virtually impossible.
Teachers and schools arguably do not benefit either. Studies have now shown that teachers are no more likely to contract COVID than any other profession; and the more parents are forced to rely on this sham of an educational replacement, the more the public-education system paints an asterisk over its own exceptionality and essentialism to society writ large. Already we're seeing affluent parents bail on the public system, and many more people are now beginning to question the status quo at an institution that was once untouchable.
Online school doesn't benefit society. There has always been a debate about the degree to which schools were vectors for COVID-19: children have never been efficient spreaders of the disease and outbreaks in schools were just as likely to be a reflection of community spread as a contributing factor to it. We aren’t saying that no transmission has occurred in schools. Schools aren’t magic. We’re simply saying the transmission doesn’t justify the downsides implicit in closing them en masse.
And yet they’re closed, again.
COVID-19 presents an incredibly low risk to children. Older children are vaccinated; younger children are now eligible, and many are getting jabbed. Shutting schools to save the elderly and unvaccinated when vaccines are widely available amounts to nothing short of an intergenerational crime at this point.
Online schools don't really benefit children, either. Even Proudfoot acknowledges that, at best, all they are getting out of this is some screen time with their friends. Maybe a fact and a few minutes of distraction will slip in there, but this presents such a marginal benefit it's hard to justify the effort in face of the trade offs.
And there is an enormous trade off.
Because closing schools at this point benefits exactly one set of people; the political class that wants to appear "decisive" ahead of a pending provincial election. Ontario premier Doug Ford has so botched his handling of the pandemic that closing schools is nothing more than a theatrical optics play. Online schooling only supports a bad policy decision made for shallow political reasons; it gives the paranoid and the political class the illusion of a palatable alternative.
As long as everyone can pretend that online schooling sorta-kinda works, school closures can be presented as morally acceptable alternatives to in-person education. And if that becomes normalized, it will be increasingly used as an option to manage crises. (The teachers unions are setting themselves up for a fall, here. If online classes are good enough in this situation, don't imagine they won't be touted as a viable alternative to manage future crises — like, for example, budget crises.)
But this only works if parents and kids play along. If they choose to obediently participate in an unacceptable schooling option for the benefit of their political leaders.
There is, therefore, a moral imperative to refuse to accept the marginal benefits presented by online education. You and your children would be infinitely better off coordinating rotating playdates with classmates than continuing to pretend that online schooling is OK. Find five other families; send the kids to each others' houses for one day a week. Parents will then have four uninterrupted work days; the kids will receive some real socialization, and no one will be able to pretend that the online schooling system is working.
We understand that individual circumstances will vary. Not everyone will be able to log off. But we have to imagine that just a little bit of independent coordination can provide a better alternative than this political sham.
If you can, refuse to play along. Refuse to accept what is unacceptable. Don't log on.
A quick update from Tuesday's dispatch. By now, most of our readers will know the name Tara Henley, the former CBC journalist who was vaulted from relative obscurity to sudden fame via a viral post explaining why she quit the MotherCorp. In short, she suggested that the extreme ideological shift to the left at the CBC over the last 18 months had made true journalistic inquiry all but impossible.
Predictably, Henley found herself plunk in the middle of a long-standing culture war on these issues, with various factions trying to portray her as either a brave hero, or deride her as a fraud, heretic and enemy of progress.
Three counternarratives against Henley have stood out for us, and we think they're worth both observation and comment.
The first is that Henley's post is just another white woman complaining about diversity. The second is that she's simply taking advantage of the anti-woke grifter complex. The last is that Henley was barely a legitimate CBC employee, and there seems to be no evidence that she did any significant work at the corporation.
Let's start with the first: There is nothing in Henley's original post that can credibly suggest that she is opposed to diversity. One can wholeheartedly support the need to bring more diverse voices into the media and still also enjoy a vibrant work culture where dissent, discussion and debate are championed as part of the journalistic process.
If you think that the work of diversifying a newsroom means simultaneously shutting white people up and narrowing the Overton window of acceptable topic and debate, well, that's a bit of a problem, isn't it? To conflate diversification with the desire for an open journalistic culture is to concede the point. If that is what's happening, then you're not objecting to Henley's observations, but rather to the fact that she stated them publicly.
Also, dismissing any complaint by a white woman because she's a white woman is race essentialism. If who we are matters more than what we say, we might as well abandon the journalistic experiment altogether and simply retreat into racial silos.
Point the second. We at The Line have been entirely candid about pointing out that the easy money isn't in Substack. Very, very few writers who start their own newsletters are making Bari Weiss or Andrew Sullivan money, anti-woke or no. Your Line editors have spent roughly 16 months building our brand from scratch; we're among the most popular Substacks in Canada. We make roughly enough money to account for a part-time wage apiece. And that's great!
Someone with a small profile like Tara Henley is very, very unlikely to bring in more money as a freelancer and Substack writer than she could bring in by simply serving time on the taxpayer dime via rolling CBC contracts. She's going to have to work to build and maintain a real audience of people who want to consume and support her content. She won't be able to coast on a billion-dollar government handout to produce journalism of interest only to a small, ideological subset of readers and listeners.
So who, exactly, are the grifters, here?
Lastly, there's a broad attempt to undermine Henley's credibility by noting she appeared to maintain only nominal roles at the CBC. Henley told us that she was a long-serving contract employee, and that her contract would have taken her to the end of this calendar year. She also told us that she was last employed in local current affairs radio in Toronto; previously worked as a producer on George Stroumboulopoulos's show, did stints in Vancouver and Toronto, and also produced documentaries for The Sunday Edition.
We haven’t been able to confirm this ourselves, but that sounds like a career that’s pretty typical of many CBC employees we know; she bounced around in various roles, yet never landed one of those coveted full-time permanent positions that effectively serves as a sinecure in a union-dominated shop.
Because, frankly, relatively few people land full-time permanent positions in Canadian media at all nowadays, especially in Toronto, and the CBC is especially notorious for leaning on endlessly renewed contracts. One, however, cannot extrapolate from this that Henley is unqualified to speak to her own experience.
The most interesting thing about all of these counter-narratives, however, is that all of them attack Henley in order to elide the essential truth claim of her resinatorial rant.
Has a major ideological shift happened within the CBC over the last 18 months; and has this shift made it more or less difficult to commit certain kinds of journalism there? Tara Henley may be an evil red-pilled grifting baddy. We don't know her heart. But even if she were, so what? Is her central claim about the CBC true, or is it not true? Journalists are supposed to care about such things.
And while we’re on the topic of the CBC, well, this was interesting.
The Conservative leader’s comments on the state of the CBC were obviously intended to ride the Henley wave; he had previously tweeted out her article and offered to meet with her. We need to see O’Toole’s comments here as part of his own political strategy. O’Toole is seen by many in his own party as essentially Liberal-Lite, and making a run at the hated CBC can only help him with his own base.
The interesting question is whether it’ll hurt him with anyone else.
Not so long ago, a Conservative leader openly calling for a mandate review would be courting allegations of extremism. He would alienate the hand-wringing centrists in his own party and galvanize the left in the CBC’s defence.
Does anyone think the CBC should not have a mandate review? Is anyone really happy with what the CBC currently is? Is there anybody out there who looks at what the CBC is today and thinks, “Yeah. Yeah. That’s exactly what we need and should be spending that money on.”
Your Line editors are not reflexive-CBC bashers and never have been. We aren’t sell-it-for-scrap libertarians when it comes to the Ceeb; and we have, for disclosure, done work for the CBC, and cashed the cheques. But a mandate review is absolutely overdue. The Canadian journalism industry has been absolutely devastated by the collapse of our traditional advertising revenues, and that’s only gotten much worse in recent years, as the pandemic has further accelerated those trends. This was an opportunity for the CBC to shine, to step up and fill gaps the retreating private-sector media was leaving open across the media landscape. The CBC has not done so, and seems more adrift than ever.
It’s traditionally been the right that has hated the CBC in this country, for reasons good and bad. The left, in contrast, has cherished it, or at least valued it. Does it still? We ask this question very sincerely. We’re sure there’s still a lot of people who tune into The Current out of habit, as part of their morning routine, but if O’Toole did come for the CBC, would there be much of a defence made of it? Is the CBC has it exists today something anyone would get fired up to defend?
We have our doubts, and again, we aren’t bashers. We are working journalists who see the CBC taking its public subsidy and creating some very fine journalism — and a whole lot of dreck that you’d find anywhere else. The private-sector operators aren’t proud of their dreck — it’s “not unacceptable,” in the memorable phrasing — but they at least have the excuse of being on the brink of total collapse. What’s the CBC’s excuse?
And then there is, indeed, what we were referring to above. We don’t know what Henley will make of her career now that she’s quit the CBC, and we can’t confirm everything that she’s claimed about the kind of workplace the CBC has become, but her version does generally fit what we’ve heard from other people we know, including many current and former CBCers. If you think we’re being hard on the CBC, get a cocktail or two into a CBCer, tell him if it’s off the record, and just sit back.
Believe us, folks, your Line editors have seen some toxic, miserable workplaces in our time, but yeeesh.
We don’t say this out of hate. There is room in this country for the CBC — but we deserve a better CBC. Just because it’s a conservative saying it doesn’t make it wrong. If the left want to be the ones who change it into something worth defending, time’s a wastin’. O’Toole or some other Tory will be PM eventually. You might not like their idea of a solution.
Lastly, one last word on the CBC — it's not all bad. Earlier this week, word came through the pipe that the Corp is going to shift its reportorial COVID focus from case counts to hospitalizations, and that's really good.
Case counts are needlessly alarming and, increasingly, misleading as they don't offer readers a contextualized understanding of the risk of COVID. For the vast, vast majority of individuals, the Omicron variant is equivalent to the risk of a flu. It presents significant challenges at the population level; but the virus shouldn't be causing you to cower in fear. So thank you for making that shift, CBC.
Lastly, did you hear the one about the planeload of Quebec influencers who partied their way to Mexico, only to land themselves in a shitstorm of derision, condemnation and moral opprobrium?
Of course you did, It’s been all over the international news for the better part of a week.
But for those who subscribe to The Line but also live under a rock or inside a Faraday Cage, here’s the gist of it. The day before New Year’s Eve, a Sunwing charter full of influencers, reality show stars and contest winners left Montreal for Cancun on what was supposed to be a week of fun in the sun, away from the stresses of winter and COVID and whatever else stresses influencers and reality show stars and contest winners.
Except a few of them made the mistake of posting scenes from their flight to Instagram, which made it clear that the flight down made a frat party look like your grandma’s sewing circle. Booze and drugs, vaping and crowdsurfing, partying in the aisles, you name it, they did it, while the flight attendants (so we are told) cowered at the front of the plane, powerless to stop the party.
But worst of all, they did all this unmasked.
The world being the way it is, things evolved more or less as you would expect. The story was soon all over social media, got picked up by the Journal de Montreal and soon made its way to the anglo MSM, even TMZ, and for the partiers things quickly went from Animal House to Fyre Festival. They were denied a flight home by Air Transat and Air Canada, the prime minister of Canada called them all “idiots,” and the federal health minister is now threatening them all with fines and possibly jail time.
In short, as Chris Selley has aptly pointed out, it is the perfect pandemic morality play. Sure they broke the rules, and sure there should be consequences. But let’s not pretend that this isn’t just another open front in the running battle between the vaxxed and the unvaxxed; the young and the old; the lovers of freedom and the defenders of lockdowns. This is the culture war we live in, and we’re all conscripts whether we like it or not.
Yet while acknowledging the recklessness and stupidity of the partiers, Selley warns us not to let it became a distraction from the real issues, which is the “systemic failures that are increasingly afflicting Canadians more than most other countries: closed schools, pitiful testing capacity, health-care systems so under-resourced that they’re brought to their knees just by projections of spikes in hospitalization.” In the Montreal Gazette, Alison Hanes likewise warns that while we should rightly condemn the partiers, the “shamelessness of the partying passengers is frankly nothing compared to the stupidity and selfishness of the deliberately unvaccinated” who are filling up the hospitals while we stew beneath an unwarranted curfew.
Maybe, maybe, maybe. But just as Freud or some other guy pointed out that sometimes a pencil is just a pencil, sometimes a bunch of dumb kids are a bunch of dumb kids. Social media is little more than the goat entrails of the digital age, and perhaps we should spend less time reading so much into it.
Besides, we think the last word belongs to this fellow, who kinda hit the nail on the head:
Only two items in the round up this week, folks, a column each from your Line editors:
That’s it! We’ll be back with more next week. Remember: last chance to sign up at a discount, and remember: come Monday, the paywall is going back up, higher than before.
The Line is Canada’s last, best hope for irreverent commentary. We reject bullshit. We love lively writing. Please consider supporting us by subscribing. Follow us on Twitter @the_lineca. Fight with us on Facebook. Pitch us something: email@example.com