Jon Stewart Skewered Stephen Harper on the Daily Show: Illustrating Cognitive Productivity with Twisted Canadian Politics

The Globe & Mail published an article yesterday morning by Lawrence Martin called “We need Jon Stewart to set Canada straight“. He wrote “Too bad [Stewart didn’t cover Harper]. Imagine the fun he could have lampooning this place?”

As it happens, on June 3, 2015 I sent Comedy Central an email urging them to cover Mr. Harper and to invite Mr. Mulcair or Mr. J. Trudeau to The Daily Show.

Well, it can be said that Jon Stewart did cover the Conservative Government of Canada —in his own way.

This being CogZest, I will weave cognitive productivity themes into the serious political fabric of this post, with a bit of zest. Reader discretion is advised.

Tags of “Bad Stuff Mr. Harper Has Done”

To make the job easier for the Daily Show, I provided them with a short summary of stuff that the Harper Government has done to this country. My email included a collection of URLs documenting a handful of those things.

Finding web pages on Conservative egregiousness was not particularly difficult because I use a resource-tagging system, which I wrote about in Cognitive Productivity. Two of the tags I use are “Harper-Bad-Work” and “Harper-Good-Work”. (One could split these tags into three: “Harper”, “Good-Work”, “Bad-Work”; but this wouldn’t quite capture what I’m doing here, which is cataloging blame/praise regarding Harper, blameworthy/praiseworthy work of Harper.)

My tagging system has helped me keep an open mind over the years. That’s important, because there are reams of research that demonstrate that we are all too prone to only look at confirming evidence. Sometimes, Mr. Harper might do things that do not violate Canadian values — you know, the type of values that were so clearly articulated by one of the three people to whom my book was dedicated, Pierre Elliot Trudeau. For example, Harper eventually spoke in favour of vaccination. Still, “let’s be clear” as Mr. Harper likes to say. The Conservative government’s ignoble actions cannot be counter-balanced by their occasional good work.

Tagging URLs

Tagging web pages is helpful for all kinds of research. So here are some tips you can use to tag resources, whether it be for political or other purposes.

  • Once you have tagged a bunch of URLs, you can quickly find them. One way to do this is to type “tag:\<tagname>” in OS X’s Spotlight window (without the angle brackets). For example, when I type “Tag:Harper-Bad-Work” in Spotlight, I get a long list of resources that have been tagged accordingly. The list is presented in a Finder window.
  • You can also use Ironic Software’s Leap or Yep to search for tagged files, and to quickly apply descriptions to them. There, you can also rename your tags, and bookmark your searches. That will also let show you, in the left side bar, all the other tags that have been applied to files with the given tag (such as “Harper-Bad-Work”). And you can sort the results by rating and other attributes.
  • There are many web-based tagging services. There are trade-offs to using these services. A plus is that some of them have both iOS and OS X support, so that you can tag and retrieve resources on multiple platforms. On the negative side: these services come and go. Do you want to risk tagging files for 5 years for a book or a Ph.D. thesis, and then discover that the company has gone under? Also, there are privacy and security issues. Your reading history can say a lot about you and your customer—including confidential information like your/their health. Do you want to risk this information being compromised? What if the company is purchased by a company in a country that does not have the same privacy laws as yours? Caveat emptor. Currently, I recommend the Pocket service for storing and tagging web pages. It has lots of third party support and seems here to stay. Unfortunately, its tags are not yet integrated with Finder tags. (CogSci Apps Corp. will address that.)

Apple has a support page on Finder tags.

Generating and Tagging PDFs from Web Pages

As I argued in Cognitive Productivity, web browsers are designed for surfing, not delving. (By delving I mean active, careful processing of information.) If the information on a web page is important, it’s a good idea to convert it to PDF and store it on your hard disk. I recommend you use a content management app that stores its files directly on the file system (as opposed to an opaque database like Evernote). (Services like Pocket can store your files in the cloud.)

You can then tag the PDF file using the Finder or Leap. If you tag it with Ironic Software’s Leap, it will file it away for you at the same time.

I also recommend you embed the URL of the original file in the PDF, so that you can quickly get back to it later. Should you take notes about the resource (i.e., create a meta-doc), you can also tag the meta-doc and/or insert the URL in it. Thereafter, you can quickly access the original file, PDF and/or web page with the tag, URL or other information.

If you adopt such systematic meta-information practices, you can later quickly develop and build your own research-based knowledge resources: emails, documents, videos, screencasts, presentations, etc.

But, Lawrence, Jon Stewart has Already Skewered the Canadian Prime Minister!

Back to the political theme of this post…

The premise of Lawrence Martin’s article for the (Globe & Mail) wasn’t quite right. That’s because Jon Stewart did skewer the Conservative Government of Canada — implicitly that is.

In his final episode, Stewart defined three types of bullshℹt that are by now familiar to well informed Canadians. I’ll only comment on two of them here and relate them to the Harper Government.

  • “BS Type #1: Making Bad Things Sound Like Good Things”: Compare the “Fair Elections Act”.
  • “BS Type #2: Hiding Bad Things Under Mountains Of Bullshit:” Compare Harper’s Omnibus bills.

Plenty of Conservative Government BS is called out in the next section.

Sample Links to Bullshℹt the Conservatives Have Said and Done

Here is a screenshot of an OS X Finder window that shows some of my files tagged as “Harper-Bad-Work”.

Using this information (in Leap, actually), I was able to quickly compile the following bullet list of documents regarding the Conservative government. (There’s much more!) It illustrates the point that tagging bookmarks (.webloc files) and other files speeds up review and research.

Keeping up with political news is essential but there is no substitute for a good book. Before the last election, Lawrence Martin published one that is still very much worth reading, Harperland: The Politics of Control.

Note that none of the recent former federal governments —e.g., of Jean Chrétien, Paul Martin, Pierre-Elliot Trudeau, and Joe Clark — elicited such a widespread stream of invective from progressive minds, at home and abroad, not even Brian Mulroney whose party was decimated in 1993.

No other government has made Canadians feel so uneasy about the first-past-the-post voting system.

Lest We Forget … : Using Tags to Store (War Mongering) Quotes

I also use a tag called “quotes” to store quotes I might want to use. Intersecting “quotes” and “Harper-Bad-Work” with Spotlight (i.e., typing “tag:quotes tag:Harper” in Finder’s Spotlight), pulled up a file reminding me that in 2003 Stephen Harper said

Today, the world is at war. A coalition of countries under the leadership of the U.K. and the U.S. is leading a military intervention to disarm Saddam Hussein. Yet Prime Minister Jean Chretien has left Canada outside this multilateral coalition of nations.

This is a serious mistake. For the first time in history, the Canadian government has not stood beside its key British and American allies in their time of need.

Admittedly, Mr. Harper wasn’t alone to believe Mr. Bush at the time. It’s nevertheless very important to remember that Mr. Harper vigorously advocated for a strategically terrible military engagement. Why? Because in power the Conservatives have systematically pursued a bellicose foreign policy that ended the traditional, laudable peace promoting legacy of Lester B. Pearson. For example, the Conservative government has been critical of President Obama’s attempt to ensure that Iran has no nuclear weapons. Many thinkers believe the Conservative foreign policy is designed to shore up their base, to obtain votes at the expense of the good of the country (e.g., from a large Ukrainian minority). No wonder Lawrence Martin and I wanted Jon Stewart to skewer[1] Mr. Harper.

Inline Tagging of Pertinent Information, Including Stuff with Which One Disagrees

Tagging resources is just one of many steps in cognitively productive workflows. When you have converted a web page to PDF, or are starting from an existing PDF, you will want to annotate it productively too. The problem is that most PDF apps are not very “cognitively potent”, meaning that they don’t make it easy for you to identify and learn from the knowledge gems a helpful PDF file might contain. Adobe Reader and Apple’s Preview, for example, are quite cumbersome.

Chapter 12 of Cognitive Productivity provides detailed tips for delving PDFs files and e-books. In particular, I recommend you not only highlight text but “tag” it systematically. That is, you can snips of text (or images for that matter), according to essential categories such as:

  • the thesis,
  • the argument (supporting propositions),
  • that which you disagree with,
  • that which you do not understand, etc.

Unfortunately, none of the major PDF or ebook apps support this. However, it so happens that Phil Winne, colleagues and I spent many years developing tools to support systematic “delving”. (We used these tools to study how learners learn.) But those tools are not yet commercially available.

However, in Chapter 12 of Cognitive Productivity, I described ways of co-opting and Apple’s to obtain similar benefits. That is, to tag text and quickly find (a) tags, (b) tagged texts.

I’ll illustrate this as follows. In the article to which this post is a response, Lawrence Martin went on to criticize the Liberals and NDP for not skewering Harper at the leader’s debate.

Any smart opposition leader would be trying to get this list to every household in the country.

Here, I’m not sure I agree with Mr. Martin. Michael Ignatieff, as leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, the Official Opposition, during the last federal election, rolled up his sleeves and fought a campaign on principles. Time and again he criticized the Conservatives’ assault on democracy. During the election, he shook more hands and talked to more voters than any other leader in the history of Canadian politics. He took questions. And he fought about principles.

It didn’t work. The problem is that an important part of the electorate is not responsive to principles and ideas, no matter how much they matter. Even smart people believed some of the misleading Tory attack ads against Mr. Ignatieff. Elections in Canada are normally won by parties who can convince the electorate that they are good stewards of the economy. Jean Chrétien took all but two seats in Ontario because he promised them “Jobs! Jobs! Jobs!”. And then Chrétien and Paul Martin delivered along with Bill Clinton. How can the Tories, with their atrocious fiscal and economic record, and their betrayal of the knowledge industry, convince a sizable portion of the electorate that they are trustworthy stewards of the economy? … I think that both J. Trudeau’s Liberals and the NDP have learned to speak to that which motivates Canadians’.[7] Will the electorate pass their rationality test this time around? It’s going to be harder, because the Tories have made it more difficult for many people outside their “base” to vote.

That’s the background for my very minor disagreement with Mr. Martin. So, here’s a screenshot of the window on the Lawrence Martin’s article.

There’s a list of my own annotations on the right, including:

  • Something I disagree with (prefixed with my tag for this, ,,~: ),
  • A very useful reference (prefixed with ,,Reference: ),
  • the web page from which this PDF was generated (starting with http://)
  • and an untagged note (which is however, color coded to mean ‘default highlight’)

Of course, if you had to write these tags out manually, it would be a drag. Fortunately, as I explain in Cognitive Productivity, you can use TextExpander. All you need to do is learn 10 to 30 abbreviations, depending on your taxonomy. If you’re a knowledge worker, you’re reading several PDFs every day, so within a couple of weeks this will be quite automatic. (I will soon be blogging more about SmileSoftware’s TextExpander.)

Now, after reading a document marked up in this fashion, you can quickly filter your notes to only show a particular category, such as things you disagree with (I use ,,~: for this). You can also add an annotation to your application of a tag. Double-clicking on a note in the Notes pane to auto-scroll to the snip of text to which it applies. Use the pop-up menu or “command-E” on a note to edit the note. Thus, by searching for tags in the Notes pane, you can quickly access both the original text and your annotations.

This was just a toy example. When you’re dealing with a big PDF file or many documents, inline tagging can save you a lot of time. It’s much easier to deal with inline tags than simple highlights or unstructured notes.

Information Pertinent to Comedians Wishing to Skewer Stephen Harper and the Conservatives

Jon Stewart has moved on; but it’s not too late for Trevor Noah (or other American comedians) to get a few laughs while making some grave points about Mr. Harper. Maybe that would help get Canadians riled up against the Conservatives. All kidding aside, the fate of this election is important not just for Canada but the entire world. Canada has a major impact on the environment and hence climate. Canada before Harper was a significant force of peace in the world — not any more.

Jon Stewart elicited easy laughs showing Stephen Harper’s fellow Conservative fishing buddy and former Toronto Mayor, Rob Ford, in action. (Caution: those links contain objectionable materials.)

Mr. Harper requires more refined skewering. He’s not a Mr. George W. Bush, who was psychologically analyzed in Keith Stanovich’s excellent book, What intelligence tests miss: The psychology of rational thought.. There, Dr. Stanovich made the case that the junior Bush was IQ smart but intellectually lazy. Mr. Harper is smart and does not seem to be intellectually lazy. Life of Pi author, Yann Martel, provided Mr. Harper (and all of us) with a large collection of recommended readings, What is Stephen Harper Reading. No answer from the PM as far as I know. Still one gets the sense that after working in the mail room at Imperial Oil, Mr. Harper learned to cherry pick not only data but also readings in political science — The Prince comes to mind.[6] What Mr. Harper seems to avidly read are internal Tory and government documents and media clippings.[2]

So, what is peculiarly particular about Mr. Harper?

My late luminous friend, Anita Hagen, expressed some opinions about Mr. Harper over the years. (Anita was minister of Education and Deputy Premier in BC in the early 1990s. She was a perfectly knowledge, skilled and fair parliamentarian.) She felt that a distinctive feature of Mr. Harper, compared to other prime ministers, is the firmness of his grip on his instruments of power. She used the word “control” a lot. (That is the thesis of Harperland and much other writing about Mr. Harper.) In particular, she bemoaned how Mr. Harper neutered the committee system. Committees in the Westminster system do essential work to ensure that legislation is vetted, debugged and enhanced before becoming law.

A friend of mine, who has a Ph.D. in Political Science, emphasized Mr. Harper’s deep understanding of the workings of organizations. He also emphasized Mr. Harper’s propensity and ability to reshape organizations. Compare how Mr. Harper shaped the Conservative Party and reshaped the federal government. This characterization fits with Anita Hagen’s and contrasts with the Mr. George W. Bush. Ardent control.[3]

Never has party discipline been so strong as with the Conservative government. Party members (MPs, Senators and others) initially felt it was necessary because Reformers had so frequently scared off the electorate. To gain and hold power, the Conservatives realized they needed to quiet their ugliest elements.

The Conservative government has taken this control to the extreme. They have relentlessly exploited the weaknesses of the Westminster system and transformed our implementation.

Do you recall reading about the days when Winston Churchill stood up in the British House of Commons to challenge its government? When I lived in Britain (during my Ph.D. years) I remember how members of the Conservative caucus would stand up and chastise their own government. To be sure, party discipline and the strengthening of the Prime Minister’s Office predates Stephen Harper. But under Stephen Harper, such internal opposition is unthinkable.[4] (Compare Harperland.)

We’re dealing with a Conservative government for which “The ends justify the means”. What are the ends? What are the values they stand for? Many Canadians now believe that power itself is the true end of the Conservative government. This end, however, is now indelibly blended with their more conscious objective of destroying the Liberal Party and thwarting the pursuit of liberal values.[5]

I sure hope that before the next election some comedian will convey, in a manner befitting Jon Stewart, the outrageous Tory record. I, for one, have found it very difficult to laugh about this.

An Aside On Titillating Titles and Allusions

Speaking of Jon Stewart, 14 min 39 seconds into this 2011 clip, “Ricky Gervais’s performance at the Golden Globes offends Jon Stewart”, Stewart exclaimed he was offended by Ricky Gervais’ performance at the preceding Golden Globes awards ceremony. Having been apprised of that, I hope you’ll excuse the obliquity of the current blog post’s title.

Politics on CogZest?

Why deal with politics on a site whose mission is to enhance the cognitive productivity and well being of its readers with cognitive science and information technology?

Answer: The Conservative Government of Canada has gone too far. When the Reform party merged with the Progressive conservative, they took the word “Progressive” out of the latter’s name and the concept out of their principles. There comes a point where one has to put country first. Stephen Harper has called the election early. It’s now time to take a stance.

More prosaically, it’s important to show that cognitive productivity principles apply not only to our professional lives, but also to politics, art and humor, all of which Jon Stewart so aptly blended.


Apologies: These hand-crafted footnotes are out of order; but the hyperlinks work.

1. In case the Conservative Party, ever fearful and paranoid, reads this, please note that “to skewer” is used figuratively: “To severely mock or discredit”. References to Mr. Harper are to be read as pertaining to the Conservative government of Canada, Mr. Harper being its leader.

2. According to Harperland, Stephen Harper and his team carefully studied Jeffrey Simpson’s Discipline of Power.. That book helped them develop their control strategies.

3. My learned friend responded to a draft of this post with the following:

[Harper’s] good at shaping, undermining or killing institutions, as he sees fit. An example of shaping = tight limits on the ability of scientists in public service to speak publicly, or changing the mandate of CIDA to promote Canadian interests along with addressing poverty.

An example of undermining = create new restrictions and regulations (e.g. on Insite and other supervised injection sites) or increased auditing of environmental and social justice organizations (so they spend lots of extra time and money preparing for audits).

An example of killing = Rights & Democracy (this began as a reshaping exercise, by stacking the board with people who disagreed with the organization’s work and mandate, which then imploded and led to its end).

4. Ultimately, however, the prime minister of Canada has power so long as members of parliament and the senate are willing to give it to him. The House of Commons in Canada still has the authority and the means to refute, resist and ultimately replace the prime minister. If the electorate votes Conservatives out, their ousted members should look back with regret and contrition at not standing up to their leader, or having held values that are consonant with his. Canadians might vote towards dollars but our descendants will judge our MPs and indeed us the electorate by the legacy of our governments. If the Conservative Party loses the next election, I trust the next government will fulfill their pledges to patch the weaknesses in the political system that Mr. Harper has so studiously exploited. If they do, we wouldn’t see another Conservative government for a generation. Knowing this, we can expect the Tories to hit harder than ever.

5. This fascinating tidbit from Harperland gives us a rare insight into Mr. Harper’s mind as it weighed the two goals that seem to later have become inextricably linked:

While at the organization, Harper gave serious consideration to making a bid for the Tory Party leadership, which became vacant in 1998. That he showed interest in heading up the moderate Tories was as an indicator of his willingness to compromise ideology for the attainment of power. Not surprisingly, this flirtation prompted ire in the Reform Party

Later, Mr. Harper found a way to have his cake and eat it too — until this October, at least.

6 See in particular chapters 15-18 of The Prince.

7. This is obviously an oversimplification. I’m not writing a book here. Different constituencies respond differently. Many of us are outraged by the the Tories. Still, I was aghast to see parents take the Tory’s tax “rebate” bait c. a decade ago. Tories target segments of the population that are easily hoodwinked—whether it be about crime, the economy, or national security—or whose values are simply hard right.

Published by

Luc P. Beaudoin

Head of CogZest. Author of Cognitive Productivity books. Co-founder of CogSci Apps Corp. Adjunct Professor of Education, Simon Fraser University. Why, Where, and What I Write. See About Me for more information.

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