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Ricky Gervais and award show politics: cancel culture ain't dead yet! – Varsity

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SKYLAR CHEUNG/THE VARSITY

Of all the things Ricky Gervais declared while hosting the Golden Globes in early January, his signature line, “I don’t care,” is perhaps the most unpleasant.

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However, I think that we’re in need, culturally, of a little unpleasantry — and not just for comedy’s sake.

What Gervais “doesn’t care” about is, on the very surface, the risk of offending big-time actors, producers, and the film industry at large. But more than that, he has suggested that he doesn’t care much about their politics, at least not while they’re on stage, all dolled up and grasping their little gold statuettes. I, too, am losing faith in the performative politics of award shows.

Now, I’ll admit that in a certain way, I love celebrity culture. I love to see films and television shows compete against each other, I love to see what I love win, and I love to watch acceptance speeches — especially if they’re teary, and especially if I think that said tears are warranted.

But another part of me, some part of me that is political, despises it. Maybe even disgusted by it: sometimes by the choice of the winning film, sometimes by the volume of tears, but most of the time by what I believe are political performances.

This is the age of the quasi-presidential speech at award shows, those short  — or long, if they’re mega-famous — calls to action, filled with the repetition of “we must” and customary finger-wagging. For Gervais, celebrity culture is deserving of no praise because no celebrity deserves to cry political tears. For Gervais, celebrities are deserving of ridicule, the sort that comes from a political place. It’s a sort of disbelief; a “shut up, you don’t really care.”

Gervais’ message is a difficult one. In a way, it is one that might suggest that celebrities have no business talking about politics. However, I don’t think that he would like to undermine the good that celebrities can do with their respective platforms; there is no doubt that they can do good, since causes can, and have been, brought to light by Hollywood.

But as of late it can’t be denied that the intersection of politics and celebrity has been dark and disappointing. His is not an apolitical plea, but a request. Brash as it is, Gervais wants Hollywood to understand their problem with virtue signaling — that disconnect between their personal politics and that of the awards season.

I think that Gervais is speaking to a kind of cultural complicity of a Hollywood that has rubbed shoulders with the likes of Harvey Weinstein and Jeffery Epstein. It seems that he exclaims, “Shut up, I know he was your friend, but I don’t care” to those who are easily roused for superficial political causes, but slow to make sustained contributions outside of the Hollywood bubble; to those who are slow to give up their ties to exploitative corporations and people and things.

Commenting Apple’s new drama, The Morning Show, Gervais declared that it is “a superb drama about the importance of dignity and doing the right thing — made by a company that owns sweatshops in China.” We should question the very clear divide between public and personal politics; it is that divide that manifests as the hollowness I have felt when observing the celebrity culture of recent years. 

But still, many were displeased by Gervais’ hosting job: how dare he try to discourage political commentary? To that I say: he’s certainly not the only one.

Soon after what would be Gervais’ fifth, and latest, Golden Globes gig, it was announced that long-time collaborators Tina Fey and Amy Poehler would be hosting next year’s awards. Collective sigh? Well, Fey has something to say about political speeches, too. She expressed a similar sentiment about the 2016 Oscars, where she told Howard Stern, “Halfway through I was like, ‘This is some real Hollywood bullshit’… Why are you yelling at me about corporate greed? You’re all so rich!”

And Joaquin Phoenix, who won the Globe for Best Actor in a Motion Picture, Drama, suggests in his winning speech: “Sometimes we have to take that responsibility on ourselves, and make changes and sacrifices in our lives… We don’t have to take private jets to Palm Springs.”

Phoenix received no pushback, perhaps because he occupies a space in celebrity culture that someone like Gervais does not. Or perhaps it was simply because Phoenix is charming in a way that Gervais is not.

But also, Gervais is the comedian host. His quips were anticipated, besides the one on Judi Dench.

This is Gervais’ brand: curmudgeonly, cocksure, apathetic. In no world would he have come on stage to swoon and worship and ‘ooh’ and ‘ah’ about the art of acting and the magic of cinema.

In that regard, Gervais’ comedy is diametrically opposed to that kind of high-minded praise we see for the industry, those praises that verge on being pretension, and become, I believe, dangerous when we face real crises. There is no more room to pontificate, no more room to pay lip service to the cause of the hour, to present and perform those politics that are fashionable.

I am reminded of the 2015 Golden Globes, where then-hosts Fey and Poehler mention the recent marriage of George and Amal Clooney, and then proceed to list Amal’s achievements in the realm of human rights. They concluded, “So tonight, her husband is getting a lifetime achievement award… Hollywood!”

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Ministers decline request to testify on Afghan aid blockade as desperation grows

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Three Liberal ministers have declined invitations to testify in the Senate as the upper chamber probes why Canada still won’t allow humanitarian workers to help in Afghanistan.

Aid groups say Ottawa has told them that paying people in Afghanistan or buying goods there could lead them to be prosecuted under anti-terrorism laws.

Many of Canada’s allies have found carveouts so that aid workers don’t get charged with supporting the governing Taliban, which is designated as a terrorist group.

But Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has no explanation for why Canada hasn’t fixed the issue.

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The Senate’s human-rights committee will launch hearings into the issue on Monday and invited three ministers to attend, but all of them said they had prior commitments at the time of the planned meetings.

The United Nations says six million Afghans are now categorized as being at risk of famine, while another fourteen million are in critical need of food.

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Politics

When politics wasn’t a team sport

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It has all been downhill in America since the first six presidents. Western civilisation was never the same after ancient wisdom gave way to the sentimental Gospel. Roosevelt should have stayed out of that damn fool war in Europe and the Pacific. People are breeding too much. The state must stop them.

I like Gore Vidal so much that I involuntarily smile when I see the spine of his essay collection, United States, in my bookcase. Even before his dotty late phase, though, he was a reactionary kind of liberal. If his 1968 debates with the conservative William Buckley Jr still grip us, it is because of the two men’s underlying oneness, not the superficial Democrat vs Republican framing.

Best of Enemies, James Graham’s otherwise fine play about the duel of the drawlers, might have made more of this. I fear much of the audience leaves with the sweet notion in their heads that Vidal would today have been a woke ally. The play wants to suggest that his showdown with Buckley was a trailer for the culture wars, the partisan spite, of now. I have come around to the opposite view.

The debates marked the end of something good, not the start of something bad. It was the last time being politically hard-to-place was normal.

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Put it this way. If you tell me what you think about, say, the return of the Benin bronzes, I can infer with some confidence your views on public spending, the EU, rail strikes, immigration, working from home, climate change, Meghan Markle and much else. Nothing connects these subjects. It should be possible to be a small-government Remainer who thinks imperial loot is better off in western museums and who loses sleep to visions of a burning planet. But such a person would stand out now. To take a more concentrated example, lots of people should be anti-lockdown and pro-vaccine mandate. How many do you know?

I have aired Ganesh’s First Law of Politics before, but allow me a recapitulation. People do not work out their beliefs and then join the corresponding tribe. They join a tribe and infer their beliefs from it. The sense of belonging, the group membership, is what hooks people, not the thrill of being right or pursuing a thought on its own terms. Politics has become a team sport, goes the line on this. But even that is too kind. Sports fans are sardonic and irreverent about their own team. It isn’t so central to their identity as to require consistent adherence.

We have lost all sense of how weird it is to seek connection with others through politics. And how new. Watching Buckley and Vidal is a reminder of a less needy age. The former had his own credentials as an apostate of the right: his loose line on marijuana, his Catholicism, his Spanish-speaking intellectualism. Nor was the audience at the time much easier to place. Millions of whites were pro-New Deal and anti-Civil Rights in a way that stumps modern notions of “progressive” and “conservative”.

Noting the change since then is simple enough work. Accounting for it is trickier. One theory suggests itself. The rise of politico-cultural blocs more or less tracks the decline of church membership, trade unions and marriages that go the distance. An atomised population began to cast around for other kinds of belonging, didn’t it?

The mid-20th century voter was heterodox, yes, but heterodox in the way that someone with strong roots could afford to be. With such a firm social anchor, there was less need to seek emotional security in a political tribe. As I’ve used two metaphors for the same thing there, let us keep them coming. A rudder, a bedrock, a cornerstone, a north star: people used to find these things in their personal relationships. In their church, family, factory or town. As modernity scrambled those things, mostly for the good, the need to subsume oneself into a group was going to have to be met some other way.

That turned out to be politics. We live with the wicked results all the time now. The perverse consequences of ostensibly desirable change: Buckley would call this a conservative insight. And I, though a Vidalist, always thought he won those debates.

Email Janan at janan.ganesh@ft.com

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Politics

Can coal be a pivot toward ‘normal politics’ in Alberta?

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“Normal Politics”: I encouraged my students to embrace and practice this type of politics. Bernard Crick, a British political theorist, imagined this concept decades ago. He believed healthy democratic politics demanded empathy for your political opponents and searching for policies able to reconcile or bridge competing positions. At its best, normal politics is about finding or creating and implementing consensus. It invites political opponents to recognize they have some shared values and to work together to realize them. 

Sadly, normal politics rarely characterizes politics in today’s democracies. Its antithesis is too common in political debate. In Alberta recently, the executive director of Take Back Alberta, an interest group that helped propel Danielle Smith into the premier’s office, accused the New Democratic Party of promoting a “toxic and disease-ridden ideology.” Such extremism slams the door on Crick’s hopeful view of politics.   

With the legislature back in session, I don’t expect to see a lot of normal politics on display. But, in her recent television address, Premier Danielle Smith told Albertans she “must be humble, listen and continue to learn from you.” Alberta’s coal debate issue gives her an exceptional opportunity to back that commitment up with meaningful action.   

Coal has been one of Alberta’s most contentious issues over the past several years. It’s an issue where a consensus exists, a consensus that could be strengthened. As hard as it may be for some residents of the Crowsnest Pass to accept, most Albertans don’t believe coal mining should have a future anywhere in the Rockies and foothills of Alberta’s Eastern Slopes. Impressive majorities of Albertans have said as much in public opinion polls, the Grassy Mountain coal mine hearings and the Coal Policy Committee consultations.  

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Smith’s government should listen to and implement this consensus. In this legislative session, the premier should introduce legislation guaranteeing that coal mining proposals in our southern Rockies and foothills cannot be revived.  

But I think Crick would want the premier to go one step further. I think he would invite her to try to broaden the consensus, to try to bridge the gulf between coal mining opponents and supporters. Identify positions those camps share; build on them. Community prosperity in southwest Alberta is an obvious candidate here.  

So far Alberta’s debate about coal has offered thin gruel when it comes to what economic future could be built in southern Alberta without coal mining. The UCP and NDP alike must pay serious attention to nurturing in the southwest the range of economic activities central to Alberta’s developing post-industrial society.  

What does this perspective recommend? Begin to craft a regional development strategy. Several paths lead in this direction. One would be to establish a Southern Alberta Sustainable Economic Opportunities Forum. Invite leaders from Alberta academia, business, the federal government, First Nations, labour and municipalities to join it. Task them with thinking about how, without coal, healthy and prosperous livelihoods may be delivered to the people of southwest Alberta. Or, strike an all-party legislative committee, chaired jointly by the UCP and NDP, to do something similar. If this venture bears fruit, it could be replicated for other regions in Alberta.  

Coal offers Smith the opportunity to pivot toward normal politics and show her commitment to listening to Albertans is genuine. Coal has opened the door to privileging conciliation in politics. If the premier goes through that door, she may be able to deliver what all sides of Alberta’s coal debate seek: good, healthy livelihoods for the people of southern Alberta.  

Ian Urquhart is professor emeritus of political science at the University of Alberta. 

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