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Why aren't Canada's lefties ready to rumble?

Friday, late afternoon. Like most people I'm trying to wrap up and vamoose.

Next thing I know, I'm glued to Power & Politics on CBC NN. From the vantage point of a CBC studio somewhere out West, Ezra Levant is shouting. "I didn't want to talk about Frank Graves, but he is a damned liar," he barks. "His polling is junk. He is a junk hack." In the studio in Ottawa, panelists Paul Wells of Maclean's and Ian Capstick of MediaStyle respond - tamely, with exasperation. As the conversation (such as it is) continues, it becomes clear they find Levant beneath contempt, not worth the effort. Wells looks particularly bored.

Typical. You want feisty, biting political punditry and insight on Canadian TV? Look to the right. Ignore the left, ignore the rest. Everyone's too polite, except those with a pro-Conservative Party bias.

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The subject of the mini-debate on Power & Politics was, obviously, EKOS pollster Frank Graves's advice to the Liberal party, as revealed by Lawrence Martin of this parish, last week: "I told them that they should invoke a culture war. Cosmopolitanism versus parochialism, secularism versus moralism, Obama versus Palin, tolerance versus racism and homophobia, democracy versus autocracy. If the cranky old men in Alberta don't like it, too bad. Go south and vote for Palin."

What is a Culture War? Clearly Graves envisaged what has evolved in the U.S. That is, a bitterly fought war over cultural values that plays out endlessly on TV and on the Internet. Fox News' vicious blitzkrieg against the Obama administration, and cheerleading for the Tea Party movement. Jon Stewart ceaselessly mocking Fox for getting its facts wrong. Keith Olberman on MSNBC issuing thundering denunciations of Fox, the Republican Party and the Tea Party crowd. Commentators on countless TV shows pummelling each other in sound bites, sarcasm and bullying pronouncements. Yes, it is off-putting to some people. But, by heavens, it has vigour and vim.

The illuminating aspect of that debate on Power & Politics was the fact that it encapsulated what Graves was talking about. This little version of a Canadian Culture War featured a loud, braying windbag from the right (that's Levant, co-founder of the Western Standard, former adviser to the Reform and Alliance parties); one from the left (Capstick, who is described on MediaStyle's website as "a proud and dedicated New Democrat"); plus a journalist from the mainstream media, Wells, who would probably be described as a centrist. While Levant barked, the others could barely be bothered to respond. They looked like the essence of a liberal media elite bored by the tedious hillbilly rants of a right-winger.

What I saw was cowardice, a failure to engage with the outrageous rants of Levant. Wells mentioned with disdain that Levant had recently referred to Irwin Cotler, former Minister of Justice and Attorney General, as "the Liberal Party's porch Jew, Irwin Cotler." Levant promptly repeated the phrase. It was a "come on, buddy, let's rumble" attitude. No rumble ensued, mind you.

On TV panel after TV panel, from CBC NN to CTV's Question Period, debate is dreary, if it exists at all. What's happened on TV is that the Conservative party and its representatives grasp this, and take advantage. On CBC, the recent addition of former Conservative spokesman Kory Teneycke is a fascinating development. Teneycke is sharp and very, very good at pushing the Conservative agenda. Whip-smart about TV, he never hides his allegiance and is adept at gazing-directly-at-the-camera sincerity. His opposite numbers are amateurs in comparison and seem utterly unwilling to stand for any principle.

On Sunday I watched CTV's Question Period. All good and earnest, apart from a silly indulgence in the William Shatner for Governor General non-story. Two talk-radio guys, Charles Adler and John Tory, appeared to talk about the public reaction to the Helena Guergis/Rahim Jaffer affair. Both Adler and Tory are right-of-centre guys. Both dismissed any impact from the scandal and praised the Prime Minister for his handling of it. Well, duh. A later panel, with James Travers of the Toronto Star and Mia Rabson of the Winnipeg Free Press, seemed engaged by the William Shatner thing, but little else. As television, it was tedious.

I'll let others brood on whether Frank Graves's advice to the Liberals is sage or foolish. Fact is, as this column sees it, a culture war has been unfolding in Canada for years. On TV and on the Internet. The Conservatives, small-c or not, are winning it, because the other side has wimps for commentators. On TV, the war's been won already. And TV would be better if the war was more closely fought.

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Airing today

Memory Lanes (CBC, 9 p.m.) is a pilot for a possible CBC sitcom, and the fact that it's being burned off right now - in a pause between hockey games - indicates this is the last you'll see of it. Produced and created by Ryan Stiles (The Drew Carey Show, Whose Line Is It Anyway?) and Sean Masterson, it's about two estranged brothers who inherit a bowling alley. Janet Wright from Corner Gas is also in it.

It's followed by B Team (CBC, 9:30 p.m.). The plot: "An ambitious young Canadian Secret Service agent attempts to move up in the ranks but is thwarted by her under-resourced and incompetent B Team. " It stars Natalie Lisinska and Rémy Girard, and it seems to be another failed pilot.

Law & Order: SVU (CTV, 10 p.m.) features Sharon Stone looking hot as a predatory, man-eating assistant DA. It is alleged, anyway. Tight skirts and high, high heels you can be guaranteed.

Check local listings.

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About the Author
Television critic

John Doyle is The Globe and Mail's television critic. His column appears in the Review section Monday to Thursday and on Saturday. He has been the paper's critic since 2000. More

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