The Garret Tree
Sunday, August 20, 2006
  The scourge of booaphobia

There was news of a threatening syndrome at the AIDS 2006 conference, although it wasn’t reported in the hundreds of scientific papers. And it is only slightly related to AIDS.

It’s booaphobia.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper isn’t the only senior politician around the planet over the years who has refused to go to an AIDS conference. Jean Chretien, a decade ago, wasn’t at the conference in Vancouver (and despite what conservative columnists and bloggers say now, Chretien was roundly condemned at that time).

Brian Mulroney, to his credit, did go to an AIDS conference. And was booed. His Irish side was able to take it in stride. I hate to say it, with his record on the environment and AIDS, Mulroney is beginning, perhaps, to look better than any of his successors in either major Canadian political party.

On Friday, Canadian Press reported on Health Minister Tony Clement (reprinted in The Globe and Mail, available online for two weeks)

During a candlelight vigil, he was heckled by members of the crowd as he lit candles in honour of different groups in society that have been greatly affected by AIDS. By week's end, Mr. Clement said he'd had enough, given that Canada has doubled its domestic funding for AIDS and is about to announce additional funding beyond its current $800-million commitment to the international effort.

As I said in my Thoughts on AIDS 2006, there were a just couple of hecklers at the vigil, and they didn’t heckle for long. They were ssshed.

Today’s image conscious politicians don’t want to appear on television being heckled and booed. Although at the AIDS conference, both Bill Gates and Bill Clinton were able to handle it. Clinton took care of some protestors demanding more support for health care workers simply by saying, “I agree with you.”

Politicians of many political stripes, in many countries, have developed booaphobia.Politicians should be booed in a demoracy when a citizen feels it is justified.

For more than 2,500 years, handling hecklers was part of the job description. And why not? If you couldn’t handle the hecklers, if you couldn’t bounce back from boos in a public forum, it was a good sign you couldn’t tackle the job you were after.

Go back to ancient Athens. Read, if you haven’t, if you have reread, The Persian Wars by Herodotus, and especially The Peloponnesian War by Thucydides, about the fierce public debates that first democracy had over vital issues or war, peace and mismanagement of war.(And there were likely equally fierce debates in various tribal councils for thousands of years before that).

Or the Roman republic where the campaigns were held in the open, in the public forum and not only did the aspiring consuls and candidates for lesser offices have to deal with boos from the crowd, they had to deal with hecklers hired by opposing factions (as well as hiring their own paid hecklers). Imagine a candidate for consul refusing to come on a stage at the forum because he might face a few boos.

With the rebirth of democracy, first in England, then in some parts of Europe and later in North America, once again the aspiring politician had to face the public forum. Those meetings were loud, raucous and more often than not fueled by liberal amounts of alcohol (and bribes to boo).

Until the adoption of the secret ballot and even after, Election Day was marked by loud arguments, bribes, drunkenness, attempts (often successful) at ballot box stuffing, rousing platform orations to get out the vote (or to shout down those orations).

I am sure that few if any of today’s “Blogging Tories” (and their Liberal and NDP equivalents) who are so outraged at a couple of hisses and boos at their party meetings or election town halls have ever read an account of a political meeting in Canada in the nineteenth century when Conservatives booed Liberals and Liberals booed Conservatives and often got into fights that spilled out into the street. (Or in the U.S. where Republicans booed Democrats and Democrats booed Republicans).

The pamphleteers beginning in the seventeenth century with the advent of the printing press and then the partisan papers of the nineteenth century make most of today’s strident bloggers, blow-hard radio hosts and self-satisfied columnists look like contented housebound pussycats.

Radio changed the dynamics, but not by much. Election rallies were often broadcast live, Franklin Roosevelt had his fireside chats and politicians from Adolf Hitler to Winston Churchill to the dull William Lyon McKenzie King addressed their nations by radio.

But in the democracies the politician who wanted to get elected still had to face the public, hence the whistle stop rail tour.

Then came television. The live broadcasts of the U.S. political conventions didn’t come across well. It was one thing, apparently to take part in the exciting atmosphere of the event and another thing to watch it on television.

So politicians began to retreat to the studio or carefully controlled events, with carefully screened guests.

The image managers and spin-doctors took over, and they were paid a lot of money to make sure their clients looked good. And clients didn’t look good if they were even challenged, and looked worse if they were heckled or booed.

These days it is a fact of life that politicians require bodyguards. But is it the job of the bodyguard to stop hecklers as has become common? Our nineteenth century ancestors would likely have been appalled if the police dragged a heckler away from a political rally. If it looks like a heckler is going to turn violent, the bodyguard should make sure their charge is safe, if a faction is causing so much trouble that it could become “a breach of the peace,” then the police should intervene. But otherwise there should be respect for the democratic tradition and let the boos bloom.

There is also an apparent feeling these days that we should be polite to politicians, even though in most polls the majority of politicians rank lower than used car salespeople.(Journalists don’t rank that well either)

It’s time politicians, especially those who have a loud and persistent fondness for the good old days, began to measure up to their political ancestors and take the boos in stride.

Standup for democracy. Boo a politician.

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I write in a renovated garret in my house in a part of Toronto, Canada, called "The Pocket." The blog is named for a tree can be seen outside the window of my garret.

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Name: Robin Rowland
Location: Toronto, Canada

I'm a Toronto-based writer, photographer, web producer, television producer, journalist and teacher. I'm author of five books, the latest A River Kwai Story: The Sonkrai Tribunal. The Garret tree is my blog on the writing life including my progress on my next book (which will be announced here some time in the coming months) My second blog, the Wampo, Nieke and Sonkrai follows the slow progress of my freelanced model railway based on my research on the Burma Thailand Railway (which is why it isn't updated that often) The Creative Guide to Research, based on my book published in 2000 is basically an archive of news, information and hints for both the online and the shoe-leather" researcher. (Google has taken over everything but there are still good hints there)

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