Jen Gerson: A little crazy is fine, for a pundit. Not a premier
Danielle Smith's most significant personality flaw is her lack of discernment.
I had the great joy of catching up with an old friend the other day and the subject of our conversation came around to politics, as it sometimes does.
“It seems like the media is giving Danielle Smith a hard time,” she noted, implying that we had not given this woman so much as a week to establish herself as Alberta's premier before bearing our fangs.
I agree that “The Media” haven't expressed interest in a honeymoon period; however, I suggest a simple and straightforward explanation for this.
We know her.
After two decades in the public sphere, Smith ain't exactly an unknown quantity around here. I would even add that much of “The Media”, having met Smith, quite like her — even if they disagree with her.
There's a lot to like! Smith is highly personable and charismatic. Very few individuals come away from a face-to-face meeting disliking this woman. That's what made her a good personality, a good columnist and talk-show host, and a good politician.
However, one cannot have observed Smith's career for any length of time without noting that she brings certain weaknesses to the table, as well. I'm going to venture— and I suggest that this will play out over her tenure as premier — that her most significant personality flaw is her lack of discernment. Smith is smart. She's perfectly capable of listening to people, and of processing reams of information and data — and sometimes coming to novel conclusions, or generating interesting solutions. The problem is that she has no apparent ability to sort good information from bad. This is a “crap in, crap out” problem.
The talent for knowing when a good source is providing terrible intel; or when a typically poor one has found treasure— that is the skill of discernment. Not only does Smith not have it, but she is surrounding herself with individuals whose own ideological priors are so like her own that I expect she will regularly trip into her own blind spots.
One could go back over her political and journalistic career and find this fatal flaw on display again and again, from her ill-fated decision to cross the floor to join the Progressive Conservative party; to her history of buying into medical quackery. Note some of her recent comments on cancer. And, ironically, her history of extolling the health benefits of cigarettes. We've seen several examples of her lack of discernment in the past two weeks alone.
This week, Smith issued a statement on Twitter “categorically” condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine, noting that in the past she had “made some ill-informed comments” on the subject and that her “knowledge and opinion of this matter have drastically evolved since that time.”
I will note that this unequivocal apology came only days after a lot of Twitter moaning on the subject in which she complained about the NDP politicizing said comments, and about the media for generating clicks on the controversy. (This forces me to note the irony of a former radio talk-show host whining about the fact that the media, uh, covers subjects that are controversial and interesting to audiences.)
The comments themselves were posted on her Locals.com site all the way back in … spring. I'm happy to give journalist Justin Ling due credit, here; a disinformation reporter, he's been digging through Smith's archives so that I don't have to. What he's found is a hell of a lot garbage takes culled from absolute shite sources, including anti-Semitic blogs.
To be clear: do I think that Danielle Smith is an anti-Semite? I emphatically do not believe this to be true. Nor do I believe that she is deliberately spreading pro-Moscow propaganda. I genuinely do take Smith at her word when she says she is entirely sympathetic to Ukraine and her people.
She just genuinely thought that Russian apologia like "NATO has advanced an aggressive posture" was a credible contrarian position to take — despite the fact that NATO is a voluntary military alliance. The (at least nominally) democratic countries that join it are doing so because they want to be there: they want the protection of the West from the hostile imperialist powers to the east.
Smith also shared a link to a Tucker Carlson clip that spread the nonsense that the U.S. was funding "secret" biolabs in Ukraine. Only a few seconds’ worth of Googling would have revealed that the biolabs aren't a secret; the U.S. does provide funding to improve labs in many different countries to help mitigate the threat of infectious disease. However, there's no evidence that any of these are conducting secret programs to create bio-weapons.
Smith has also seemed to suggest that Ukraine ought to give up its nuclear weapons — something it did back in the 1994 as part of an agreement with the U.K., U.S. and Russia. The newly independent Ukraine agreed to turn over its arsenal in exchange for guarantees of its security and borders.
While we're here, even this tweet, sent out just days ago, is a bit of a cop out.
Ukrainians don't need peace. They need victory.
Russia is the aggressor, here. It is engaging in war crimes and massacres; Russians are shelling civilian apartment blocks and playgrounds; Ukrainian citizens are being sent to gulag-like "filtration camps"; Ukrainian forces re-entering Russian occupied cities in Ukraine's eastern provinces are finding mass graves, and reports of torture. It's not a stretch to call this a genocide.
Some kind of compromise-driven peace deal is not going to create a sustainable de-escalation given this reality. No matter how enamoured the far-right appears to be with Putin's creepy religious imperialism.
To make matters even more politically salient, Alberta is home to roughly 350,000 people of Ukrainian heritage. Ukrainians comprise just under 10 per cent of the province's population. Ukrainians are particularly prevalent in the province’s rural north, which makes Smith’s flub especially bizarre for a premier who claims a rural conservative style.
I will also note that this wasn't even an oppo drop. Those haven't even started yet; this was just "The Media" — mostly Ling — digging around on quasi-public pages. Just wait and see what happens when the professional opposition researchers begin.
After two decade as a columnist and podcaster, I have no doubt they're going to turn up enough content to keep us all busy until E-day.
And I'm sorry, but this stuff isn't just opportunistic "gotcha" nonsense, either. It's relevant. It's relevant because it speaks to Smith's key failing; her lack of discernment.
It's no sin to read Russian disinformation, to plumb unusual sources for information, nor to ask pointed and sometimes difficult or contrarian questions. But if these are the waters in which we wish to swim, we have to be willing to brutally assess our own limitations.
Some of us tread dark waters better than others. Some of us are naturally good at hearing something, and skeptically thinking that we should check that before accepting it. Some of us are naturally good at knowing when the person sincerely explaining the world to us knows what they’re talking about, or doesn’t. Some of us are smart about the people we surround ourselves with, or at least have realistic assessments of how credible the people around us are (or are not).
Some of us, though, can’t or won’t do these things. We all have weaknesses. Understanding them, and surrounding ourselves with people who can fill in the faults and gaps in our own intellect and personality, is crucial to anybody's success.
It’s all fine and good to play around with crazy ideas when you’re a libertarian pundit, but possessing the gut-level ability to know who to listen to, and who to ignore, strikes me as a key skill for a premier. Smith doesn’t have that. She needs it.
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