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Tuesday, August 31, 2010

What, the goalposts aren't far enough to the right yet?


Between CTV and Canwest or whatever they're calling it nowadays, isn't there enough of a steady drumbeat of right-wing memes already? We don't have enough of these narratives bouncing around in the echo chamber? How much more do we need?

Ottawa police chief Vern White seems to have taken up the scaremeister-in-chief role for today, and found willing stenographers in CTV Ottawa. Terror is the new reality, apparently. Be afraid. Ottawa is vulnerable, and we don't know how many more scary brown people with funny names there are.

And so it goes. Citizens urged to be vigilant. 9/11. Let's not be lulled into a false sense of security. It's only a matter of time. Wonder how long it'll be until one of the Attack ParrotsTM trots out the old "we're fighting them over there so we don't have to fight them here" line?

Ridiculous as it is, it's also something to worry about. As the airwaves, newspapers and cyberspace fill up with these narratives – backed up by endlessly looping images of burning police cars, black-clad vandals and the like – there's going to be less room for thoughtful analysis, for nuance, for reflection, and for skepticism. Much as I'd like to think people want to devote themselves to the requirements of engaged citizenship, the sad reality is that not everyone has the time or inclination to seek out information, to think, to analyze, and to deconstruct the narratives we're being fed.

It's not especially comforting to think where it might lead. Keep people in a constant state of fear and insecurity, and sooner or later it gets easier to relieve them of their civil liberties and fundamental freedoms. Trust us, we're here to keep you safe. You don't mind all these cameras, do you? After all, if you've got nothing to hide ... Oh, and if your neighbour says something suspicious, don't hesitate to report it.

We saw this kind of thinking taking hold in the runup to the G20, and again in the aftermath. The Canadian Civil Liberties Association cites the example of a cop pushing a citizen into a van for transport to the Eastern Avenue gulag and observing "that's what you get for protesting." We've seen a lot of misguided argument similar to that, most of which goes along the lines of "well, you shouldn't have been there."

Two responses to this come to mind straight away. Firstly, the right to demonstrate, to protest and to assemble peacefully is an inherent right in an open and democratic society. No one – not the police, not the federal, provincial or municipal goverments, not private corporations – gets to take that away arbitrarily. And telling citizens who were tear-gassed, beaten, tasered or locked up that they shouldn't have been there in the first place is simply blaming the victim. When someone is sexually assaulted, do we still say "you were asking for it, you shouldn't have been there, you brought it on yourself dressing like that?"

Second, and more unsettling, is the cumulative effect that so many similar incidents have. It's not hard to discern a calculated strategy to demonize the entire idea of public protest. Keep repeating phrases like "black-clad vandals" and "riots in the streets" and showing the same images of burning police cruisers and smashed windows, and pretty soon the whole notion of protest, dissent and demonstration takes on pejorative overtones. Couple that with widespread police brutality and no effective institutional response or accountability mechanisms, and soon you have a cowed and fearful population.

It is in this context that the drive to establish a so-called "Fox News North" needs to be viewed. Not content with two major private conglomerates beating the drums, the Harper machine is moving to set up a propaganda channel of its own. What we've seen this summer, on everything from the census to the CRTC to the manufactured controversy over Homegrown, should be a pretty good indicator of what we'll be getting should this initiative succeed.

At the Nuremberg war-crimes tribunal, Hermann Goering supposedly told one of his interlocutors that
Naturally, the common people don't want war ... but after all it is the leaders of a country who determine the policy, and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. All you have to do is to tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in every country.
It's a story that's been repeated and possibly embellished over time. More detailed account here.

So yes, Vern White is right in warning us to be vigilant. But perhaps he's not telling us just what we ought to be looking out for.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Rationality, critical thinking and Phil Plait: the limits of civil discourse

As you can tell by looking over to the right a little, I follow quite a few blogs. Dozens, in fact. Lots of friends on Facebook and hundreds of tweeters as well. And sometimes I just go surfing, clicking on links without any preconceived objective, just to keep reading. So I can't really remember how I found this, but thank you to whoever pointed me to it.

Phil Plait - Don't Be A Dick from JREF on Vimeo.

Rather timely, I think, because it's hard to be a skeptic, especially given the institutional energy devoted to pushing packaged narratives and manufactured storylines. It's never been easy to swim against the current, let alone persuade others to do likewise.

What's particularly worthwhile about Plait's presentation, though, is the passage from which the title is taken (at about the 24:30 mark). As he argues, no matter how wrong people's beliefs are, you're not likely to convince them they're mistaken if you're insulting them. Mea culpa, therefore, given the tone of yesterday's post about Rob Ford's supporters and "suburban fury."

But it raises a number of issues, for me at least, about civility and civil discourse. I've written previously about the obligations of civic engagement, and how the tone of public conversation has been poisoned and corrupted, deliberately, by the likes of Fox Noise and the Rove / Murdoch cult. You don't have to dig too deep to see Stephen Harper, Kory Teneycke and the folks at Sun Media using the same playbook. 

One of the comments on Plait's presentation argues that debate isn't so much about changing your opponent's mind as it is about convincing as many members of the audience as possible. Plait himself alludes to that, I think, in his remarks about the "big tent." Whether you agree with that or not, though, it implies another question: when you're making an argument, whom are you trying to convince? And does it indeed suggest that a commitment to civil discourse implies an obligation to listen respectfully and hear out any and all opposing viewpoints, no matter how outlandish?

I haven't worked this out in full, but this, I think, is where I run up against the limits of Phil Plait's argument. One of the worst aspects of the Karl Rove playbook, and one we see the Harper government embracing with relish, is the calculated devaluing of science, evidence-based decisionmaking, and acquired expertise. The script is familiar: dismiss experts as elitists out of touch with real people, and insist on "balance,"and demand that people should hear "both sides of the issue." It's how the denialists manage to derail any serious attempts to address climate change, for example.  

The effect is to set up a whole array of false equivalencies based on two faulty assumptions: firstly, that complex issues can be reduced to a simple "he said / she said" storyline, and secondly, that both sides of this artificially framed issue are valid and deserving of equal time. Which is why we see entire social movements devoted to pushing creationism, and school textbooks forced to include disclaimers that evolution is just a theory.  

And this is where I get off the bus. Yes, civil discourse is preferable to inflammatory rhetoric, and yes, reasoned debate is better than screaming and namecalling. But there's no obligation to treat creationism, cultish superstition or other forms of manufactured stupidity with the same weight or serious consideration as the body of scientific, rationally tested and demonstrated knowledge we've developed since the Enlightenment. And if people continue to cling to it in the face of fact and evidence, out of laziness, dogmatism or sheer spite, they don't deserve to be treated with respect.

If that makes me a snobby condescending elitist, fine. Sue me.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Ford's ascendancy, explained

For the last day or so, I've been thinking about Alex Himelfarb's wonderfully thoughtful essay on why people vote against their own interests. Again, nothing I can say to improve upon it.

And now, a perfect illustration: from the Star today, it seems that Rob Ford is “tapping into suburban fury.”

So what is this “fury,” and why, since the Star never explains, should anyone take it seriously?

Is it just the usual “I don't wanna pay taxes for those condescending downtown elitists / lazy overpaid unionized thugs / tax-and-spend socialists / artsy-fartsy communists, yargle bargle bleghhh, drool ... ” horseshit?

If that's it, then fuck that and the people thinking it. A toxic brew of inchoate rage, ignorance and resentment is not the same thing as committed citizenship. And it's time we stopped coddling it and pretending it's something that needs to be humoured or respected.

Honestly, are people no longer capable of thinking except in clichés? Has anyone noticed how easily “mad as hell and not going to take it any more” morphs into “lazy, stupid, belligerent and unwilling to do anything that actually requires thoughtful engagement?”

That's why Ford's leading. That's what Stephen Harper taps into. That's why Sarah Palin is, well, Sarah Palin. And that's what's behind the outbreak of teabaggery to the south, along with a healthy dose of bigotry, racism, and well-orchestrated fear and scapegoating of The Other – all conveniently misdirected so that no one can see who really benefits from just how dysfunctional things have become.

It's a simple, easy-to-grasp narrative, unaffected by facts, devoid of context, and willingly propagated by the Fox Noise wannabes at Sun Media. An easily exploited, all-purpose current of spite, resentment and anti-social sentiment – in other words, the perfect basis upon which to build a healthy community. Not.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Read this post from Alex Himelfarb

Not going to try and summarize it here. Can't possibly do it justice. Here's a taste:
The new anti-elitism is, I believe, profoundly misplaced, strangely focused on politicians, public servants, experts, and knowledge workers rather than on those who have all the money and power. That’s certainly good news for those who have all the money and power.
Read it here.

I know I've gone on about the cultivation of stupidity and the celebration of ignorance, but this takes the analysis that much deeper. It's long, but it's worth it. Go. Read.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Bracing for another flood of bullshit from the PMO and its flying monkeys

From Ottawa, we learn that the Harper government is preparing to stave off another round of criticism over the F-35 deal. A breathless release from the PMO suggests that our brave flyboys took to the skies to fend off a Russian attack, narrowly averting a heinous violation of our precious bodily fluids  er, our pristine northern sovereignty.

Must be hard standing up for what's right nowadays. Defending our northern skies from the godless commies is child's play compared to defending the Harperites decisions to scrap the gun registry, kill the long-form census, undermine harm-reduction drug strategies, and pursue untendered contracts for expensive military toys.

I've written previously about Insite and about the census, but the kerfuffle over the gun registry is particularly interesting, given that it sets the Harpokons squarely against the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police. And indeed, the Attack Parrots™© at Sun Media are dutifully swinging into line, cueing up a chorus of ordinary hard-working tax-paying Real Canadians to target the CACP. Kory's certainly earning his pay.

OK then. The Harpokons' law-'n'-order agenda runs smack up against the police lobby.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Kory saves us some time

Oh goody.

Perhaps Kory knows something the court doesn't?

Not content with using Palinisms, the new boss of Quebecor's "news" operation and putative Fox News North supremo seems to have convicted Omar Khadr already. Hell, why bother with a trial? Due process is for wimps, I guess.

Couple of generations ago, guys who think like this were leading lynch mobs. Nowadays, this is more their style.

The Harpokons and Insite

I won't try to summarize Paul Wells' argument here. It's succinct enough on its own. The money graf:
This is not mere disregard for reliable data. It is an attempt by the state to put falsehood in the place of reliable data. George Orwell wrote books about this sort of thing.
Read it here.

Really, what more is there to say? I wrote recently about the damage that results from turning ignorance into a civic virtue, and here's a prime example.

And looky here: it seems some of Harper's fans don't like what Paul has to say. And they don't like what the peer-reviewed facts and evidence about Insite and harm-reduction strategies suggest. And, of course, they think that name-calling and sticking their fingers in their ears and going "la la la, I can't hear you" are the same thing as reasoned argument.

A couple of weeks ago Bob Herbert wrote about America's continuing abandonment of education as a public good. If what we're witnessing is the decline and fall of Imperium Americana, that's got to be a big part of the reason.

This is the road the modern right wants to take: knowledge, experience and expertise are no longer qualities to be valued, but indicia of condescending, out-of-touch elitists, to be reviled, disdained and demonized. How much hope is there for a political strategy (or a society, for that matter) based on the deliberate cultivation of stupidity?

(Update: Chet has some further thoughts on the matter.)

The approaching police state

Clayton Ruby represents Charlie Veitch, who was charged under the Public Works Protection Act in connection with the G20 clusterfuck. He's got some choice things to say about the Charter of Rights and freedom of assembly.

More at The Real News

Best suggestion: cut off the money. Isn't that reassuring?

More at The Real News

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Heart attack AND heartbreak

Oh, Poutini's.

Tempted this morning by the prospect of brunch poutine ... the usual ingredients, plus poached eggs, bacon and bechamel sauce. (Just in case there was any arterial clearway left.)

But no. They're not doing it any more. Why? Why?

Existential angst. If this is better for my heart, then why is my heart breaking?

The Rob Ford slow-mo train wreck

Staying up late to watch a replay of a mayoral candidates' debate from earlier this week on CP24.

Mea culpa: a few weeks ago, I was chortling at the prospect of Mayor Rob Ford because I thought how entertaining it would be. The guy's feet would be in his mouth so often, he'd need a welcome mat on his chin. Reporters would be fighting to get on the city hall beat. Every time he served up a gaffe, it would be a straight shot to the front page. It would make Mayor Mel look like Winston Churchill.

I hate to say it, but he's still got a way of capturing my attention. (No shit. Rossi's talking now and I don't even need to mute the sound in order to focus on the keyboard.) Unfortunately, he's capturing a lot of attention, and somehow he's turned into the frontrunner. And, as a comment on another worthwhile blog puts it, a certain columnist thinks he's the cat's pyjamas.

Not much point in writing about what an embarrassment he'd be. Other observers have made that point already. What's worth pointing out, I think, is the nasty current he's tapping into. It's one that Blatchford  rides as well, and is going to continue riding for as long as it puts kibble in her dog's dish.

Both Ford and Blatchford channel and exploit a mean-spirited, anti-intellectual approach to politics, a small-minded worldview that shuns reflection or nuance and champions gut reaction. It's the mindset of the torches-and-pitchforks crowd. Catching Ford lying or contradicting himself or seemingly failing to understand the normal complexities of municipal governance doesn't matter to people like this, because all it does, according to Blatchford, is burnish his "regular-guy" cred. (You want to see the same dynamic at work in another setting? Watch Don Cherry on Coaches Corner sometime.)

While visceral reactivity may have a momentary emotional kick, though, it's no basis for well-considered public policy, and listening to people like Ford and Blatchford, you start to understand where mob rule begins. There's a point beyond which the rejection of the complex for the simple veers into simple-mindedness, and they're both well past it. But there's something else at work here as well, and it ties into currents that go well beyond the confines of Toronto's current municipal election campaign.

Once upon a time, ignorance, stupidity and belligerence used to be character flaws. They were things to be ashamed of, things you wanted to hide, things to work on, things to overcome. Nowadays, they're actually celebrated as evidence of authenticity, of Real American / Canadian character. It's part of the explanation for Sarah Palin's ascendancy, and it's a big part of Rob Ford's shtick too. And thanks to the extent to which the Fox noise machine and its wannabe Canadian counterparts at Sun Media have managed to push the boundaries of civil discourse, pointing that out doesn't matter any more. It's just another example of the snooty left-wing liberal urban elites, sneering at hard-working Real Canadians while showering their hard-earned tax dollars on effete theatrical festivals that glorify Islamic terrorism.

Rob Ford may well self-destruct over the next couple of months, because I don't see him growing his drooling base, but reversing a political and cultural movement that's turned ignorance into a civic virtue is going to take a hell of a lot longer.

Keeping the faith, keeping up the fight

One of my favourite bloggers, a guy whose work I've followed for several years, had a sobering post this week. You can read it here.

Well, whaddayagonnado, as Tony Soprano might say. Morons, racists, assholes, and charlatans. (And Rob Ford, for that matter, but more on that in a minute.) They'll always have big money and big influence behind them because they serve certain interests and help advance certain agendas.

So how to explain their current ascendancy? I don't have a comprehensive explanation, and I doubt I could fashion one without going into a lengthy deconstruction of how capitalism and imperialism need to control and distract the proletariat, yada yada yada. But I wanted to reach out to him because I've also felt the same kind of discouragement and futility on occasion.

Auberon Waugh once wrote that
There are countless horrible things happening all over the world and horrible people prospering, but we must never allow them to disturb our equanimity or deflect us from our sacred duty to sabotage and annoy them whenever possible.
Dude, they haven't won, OK? They may have more money and more job security and more of an audience, and they may be getting their way for the moment, but they haven't won, and you know why? Because people like you are still there and still mocking them. I've been reading your stuff for several years now, and I still forward it to my friends. I almost pissed myself laughing at your toon setting up Ann Coulter as a rabid dog. I still laugh at it, in fact. Even now, when I get to the final panel with the dad sadly handing the kid the shotgun, I can't help but embellish it by pantomiming the pump action. Your stuff keeps me going, and inspires other people.

They won't win unless guys like you give up. Don't give up.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Always amenable to correction, from the proper perspective

An "ahem" from Antonia is worth a grad-level course from anyone else.

So it might not be as easy to stack the CRTC as Harper would like.

Doesn't mean we shouldn't be vigilant, though, and doesn't make him any less of an autocratic scumbag. And if there are ways to get around those checks and balances, I wouldn't think he hasn't started exploring them already.

Harper's Pravda, the absent opposition, and a little late-summer serendipity

How does the bus even move, with so many people underneath?

Can't remember where I saw this gem* earlier this week.  It was a reference to a noxious habit we've been observing from the PMO: demonize, smear, fire and/or squeeze out people who go off-message. Even if they're professional public servants whose careers have been devoted to impartiality. (Perhaps not "even," but "especially.")

Writing in Thursday's Globe, Lawrence Martin suggests that the latest official in the Harper gunsights is CRTC chairman Konrad von Finckenstein. Something to do with the CRTC not moving quickly enough to grant the kind of broadcasting licence being sought by Sun Media for its new "Fox News North" network. We all know, by now, who's behind that.

This shouldn't, of course, come as a surprise to anyone familiar with the Harper modus operandi. It's not as if he's demonstrated much tolerance for opposing viewpoints, or for people who don't jump fast enough when he snaps. But as one of Martin's sources argues, do we really want a society in which the ruling party gets to decide who gets broadcasting licences? As one observer suggested, this is Maurice Duplessis stuff.

I'd like to think that on top of the G20 clusterfuck, the self-inflicted wounds over the census, the idiocy over Homegrown, and the lies about the coalition, this might be the tipping point, but I'm not going to hold my breath. Least of all because in the current political landscape, I'm not sure what the tipping point is, or whether there even is such a thing any more. It's not as if Harper's drooling base is going to walk over any of these things.

The only thing that gives one pause about Martin's column is his observation that Harper
must have been pleasantly surprised that the developments at the Sun chain caused barely a ripple of opposition from other Canadian media.
Really, why would the rest of the corporate media say anything? So another conglomerate wants to set itself up with a broadcast operation? It's not as if we're going to start hearing new voices and new perspectives that the owners and managers don't want us to hear. The whole script about the "liberal media" ought to be evident as the transparent Rove/Ailes contrivance that it is. 

But back to the tipping point, if there is one. A few days ago Silver Donald Cameron, in a column that will no doubt be caricatured, misrepresented and misinterpreted because of its reference to the Nazis, wondered when Canadians would start to worry about the Harper government's ruthless manipulation, arbitrary proroguing of Parliament, contempt for the Supreme Court, and systematic assaults on the infrastructure of democratic institutions.   

Authoritarian, vindictive, contemptuous, ideologically driven and arbitrary. Not to mention how stupid they clearly think we are. So what can we do? 

The answer clearly isn't in Parliament. The Liberals vote with the government whenever it matters. Collectively, the opposition parties don't have the courage or the organizational wherewithal to force a non-confidence vote (Um, Iggy? You know this is a minority parliament, right?), and in the unlikely event that they actually develop spines (or discover e-mail), Harper can just prorogue again. It's painfully clear how easily he can get away with it.

Back to Mr. Cameron, who suggests, quite reasonably, that the opposition must come from outside parliament. Not sure how easy that's going to be, given that dissent seems to be bringing jackboots on the stairs in the middle of the night or riot-squad gorillas, but it's a start. And yes, he's probably right about how effective signing a petition is going to be, but perhaps he's also onto something when he wonders whether the latest series of embarrassments might nudge more Canadians out of their apathy. As he puts it, 
This is an odd point to be drawing a line in the sand, but if that’s where the push-back begins, so be it.
A critical mass? A coalescence of opposition? A collective realization, finally, of just how dangerous this gang of thugs is?

A guy can dream ...

(Update: tip of the hat to Chet for the Pravda reference, and to *Cameron for the bus analogy.)

(Update 2: reworded to more accurately reflect relationship between Quebecor and Sun Media. Hat tip to Antonia.)

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Cops with cameras, or cops on camera? A modest proposal

Via OpenFile, a report that Toronto police are considering the use of body cameras – small digital cameras that can be clipped to an officer's ear, headgear or uniform. Spokesman Mark Pugash casts the idea as something that would contribute to public and officer safety, as well as accountability.

Nebulous and flexible notion, that accountability thing. An official at the Canadian Civil Liberties Association wonders how much discretion individual officers would have regarding when the devices are turned on and recording, and wonders how long such recordings would be kept and what they would be used for.

And bluntly, Toronto police haven't exactly distinguished themselves when it comes to accountability. Indeed, the organization, its managers and the leaders of its union have a pretty sorry record of conflict and dysfunction, both internally and with their civilian overseers. If it's a question of reforming an outmoded organizational and occupational culture, one really has to wonder whether body cameras are going to help.

What needs to be looked at is the broader issue of videotaping police, period. Again, reduced to its essence, this is a struggle over narrative. This is all about controlling the story and how it gets told.

Remember Said Jama Jama and Roy Preston? In August 2003, Preston, a lying thug who happened to be wearing a police uniform, hauled off an unprovoked sucker punch on Jama Jama, knocking out a couple of his teeth. Jama Jama was subsequently charged with assaulting police and at one point was even facing the possibility of deportation. The truth only came out because someone happened to videotape the incident. The judge at Preston's assault trial described Preston's conduct as particularly cowardly and reprehensible. After Preston was sentenced – to 30 days, mind – the head of the Toronto police union complained about the media coverage, as if that were the problem.

So, in sum, we have a cowardly abuse of power, a lying asshole cop backed up by his buddies, and a failed cover-up. Does anyone seriously think things would have turned out this way if someone hadn't been there with a video camera?

And then there's Robert Dziekanski. It seems that the RCMP tried to seize the infamous video. Can't really blame them for trying. But again, if someone hadn't been there to tape it, those taser-happy SOBs would have been able to tell their lies and get away with it. The Braidwood Inquiry found that the four cops who tasered Robert Dziekanski to death were not justified in using the taser and that they deliberately misrepresented their actions. In other words, they zapped the poor guy for no reason and then lied about it. I've written previously about the futility of waiting for a meaningful institutional response, but at least in the wake of the inquiry, the cops who killed Robert Dziekanski were held up for the public scorn they deserve.

Most recently, from the G20 summit in Toronto, we have more examples of police misconduct than I can count. I've linked to this video before, but particularly instructive is the passage about Lisa Walter's arrest that begins at about the 6:40 mark.

As the video shows, she isn't doing anything except watching and documenting a brutal arrest, but what happens? She gets arrested for “obstructing” and "causing a disturbance." Bullshit charges that probably wouldn't stand up in court, but it's not as if anyone's going to have to answer for laying them in the first place, let alone the disgusting sexist and homophobic treatment she was subjected to afterward. It's not the first time cops have objected to having their actions recorded, either. You can read about it here, here and here. (I'm tempted to pull the old “well, if you've got nothing to hide ... ” shtick on them, but I'll resist the temptation for now.)

So, I have a proposal for Mark Pugash, the Toronto Police, and the suppliers lining up to sell them these cool new toys: Fill your boots. Buy as many of these as you like. Have your fun. But I don't ever want to hear another cop complaining about being videotaped again.


Monday, August 16, 2010

The Khadr saga and what it says about the Harper legacy

I've been on for some time about citizenship and its attendant obligations: essentially, being a citizen carries responsibilities as well as rights. Several previous posts have gone into that in a fair bit of detail. (By no means am I suggesting that those are the last word on the subject; as always, whatever I argue here is intended, more than anything else, to spur dialogue. Healthy democracies require several things, not the least of which is discursive and civic engagement.)

That said, the tragic and infuriating saga surrounding Omar Khadr brings the corollary into sharp relief. In brief, it's the rather obvious truth that citizenship also confers certain rights, not the least of which is that you get to count on your government to look out for you. If citizens have responsibilities, then so do governments, and what could be more fundamental than any government's obligation to safeguard the rights and interests of its citizens?

The circumstances surrounding Omar Khadr and how he came to find himself in front of a U.S. military tribunal in Guantanamo Bay are all pretty well common knowledge. Regardless of his religious and political beliefs and his family background, he is a Canadian citizen and as such he is entitled to expect the Government of Canada to come to his assistance with whatever legal and diplomatic resources it can muster.

That the government of Stephen Harper can simply blow off its obligations in this regard is perhaps the most appalling part. Never mind the dubious and nebulous "illegal combatant" status under which he and other prisoners at Guantanamo are being detained. Never mind the overarching context for all of this, namely the U.S. government's ill-starred imperial misadventure in Afghanistan. Never mind the shabby, racist and Islamophobic political calculus underlying the Harper government's conduct. How can a government of any political stripe blithely and arrogantly shrug off its responsibilities like this and not suffer lasting and fatal political damage?

Since when does a democratic government get to pick and choose which of its obligations it has to honour?

Since when does a democratic government get to pick and choose which of its citizens it stands up for? As Alex Himelfarb argues,
What matters here is that basic rights, the legal rights of one of our citizens, are being denied. These legal rights are about protecting us and our liberty from the intrusive and coercive power of the state. We are all in trouble here – wherever we sit on the political continuum – if any one of our citizens is denied the right of a fair and just process when their liberty is at stake. When this happens, the value of our common citizenship is diminished.
In truth, it's depressing as hell that we even have to go through this. It's like having to explain first principles all over again, when any informed and thoughtful conversation should  must, in fact  be based on mutually agreed-upon ground rules. Further evidence, I'd submit, of just how far the goal posts have been moved, ethically, legally and politically.

This diminishes us all. I don't mean to sound sententious, but it's hard to believe that any polity can sustain this much vandalism to its moral fabric and not lose something of its soul.

Not just the deli king, but also a mensch

Mensch: A "mensch" is a particularly good person, like "a stand-up guy," a person with the qualities one would hope for in a dear friend or trusted colleague. According to author and Yiddish popularist Leo Rosten, [A] mensch is someone to admire and emulate, someone of noble character. The key to being "a real mensch" is nothing less than character, rectitude, dignity, a sense of what is right, responsible, decorous.

Additional references here, here and here.

Karma being what it is, I'd like to think you can't do one without the other. But what do I know?

Friday, August 13, 2010

Harpokon hatred and the lessons of history

Further to Wednesday's post, Chet Scoville made an excellent point yesterday about the moral and political myopia infecting the Harpokons.

That they're motivated by spite and malice isn't really in dispute. It's the target and the historical focus of their bile that makes this consideration worthwhile;  as Chet argues, they seem convinced that all the bad things they've come to hate – progressive legislation, a social safety net, expansion of the body politic beyond the subset of white men who own property – started with Pierre Trudeau in the Sixties.

Any objective and reasonably comprehensive survey of Canadian history should reveal, however, that that just isn't the case. For a worldview like that to make sense, you'd have to believe, in essence, that the years before the Trudeau era were the Golden Age of feudalism. Men were men, serfs were serfs, women and peasants knew their place, and the advent of industrialization did nothing to alter the fundamental class order of society.

But to believe that you'd have to ignore the Industrial Revolution, the French Revolution, the Progressive movement, the New Deal, and probably even the Protestant Reformation for that matter. (Hey, I'm a big admirer of the Protestant work ethic. I also like those little finger sandwiches ... ) And as Paul Wells argues, much of what we've seen over the decades suggests that 
major social change happens incrementally and through stealth, rather than through the kind of romantic Thatcherite Big Fight for which some of my colleagues are so often nostalgic.
He goes on to suggest that that's what's really motivating Harper's assault on the census. It's not really about intrusiveness – after all, this is the same government that's installing full-body scanners in airports – so much as it is about removing the factual and statistical basis for much of the debate that precedes and surrounds policy initiatives.

A valid argument, so far as it goes, and it's not the first time it's been made. When you combine and consider the suggestions cited above, though, a number of observations arise.

Firstly, Paul is onto something when he contrasts policy advanced through electoral politics with policy advanced through things like the Court Challenges Program. Things like that have always been red meat to the Harpokon base; naturally, Birkenstock-wearing-tofu-eating-gay-Muslim urban elitists can't win at the polls, so they use our tax dollars to get what they want from activist judges, yargle bargle bleghh ...

The thrust of Paul's argument, however, is that the census kerfuffle reveals Harper's readiness to employ  exactly the same tactics that he was always ready to condemn the Liberals for using. If you can't advance your agenda through the political arena, you use "back channels" like the courts program, or simply emasculate and silence whatever sectors of the public service or NGO sector provide aid, comfort or factual backup to your opposition. Perhaps the ultimate goal may indeed be the dismantlement of the welfare state as we know it.

If that's the calculation behind the assault on the census, however, it's based not only on a misreading of history, but also of the Liberal Party's role in advancing the developments the Harpokons and their base have come to hate. As Chet argues, the Liberal Party didn't spearhead those developments; it reacted to popular sentiment, it co-opted initiatives from more progressive sectors, and it built its electoral success on aligning itself with fundamental Canadian values as they emerged and developed over the decades.  In his own words:
In none of these important cases did the Liberal Party make us who we are. On the contrary, they stayed in power for decades at a time by usually following our lead, and by reflecting (always imperfectly) the centre of the overall values of Canadians as we saw ourselves in the larger world. When they failed to follow our lead, they typically suffered at the ballot box, and then rebuilt by reconnecting with the electorate. In other words, the values that Harper's base mistake for Liberal ideology are no such thing.
Also, as Paul humourously suggests, the policy mechanisms associated with the hated "welfare state" can prove quite useful to governments of various ideological bent. Perhaps, once the census is rendered statistically and politically useless, future Harpokon governments can begin arranging 
the realignment of massive state action to serve the electoral interests of the Conservative Party. If one day we have no idea how many rock-ribbed family-values farmers and small tradesmen of Icelandic, Ukrainian, Scottish and Irish descent there are between Kenora and Kelowna, it will be easy enough for Tony Clement and Stockwell Day to claim there are 147 million of them and every one needs a tool-belt tax credit and a little something extra to help raise the kids.
So, what to take from this? It goes beyond Harper's hypocrisy, and certainly he's not the first politician guilty of talking out of both sides of his mouth, and occasionally out of his ass. Ultimately, though, if he's out to rewrite fundamental Canadian character, he's in for a disappointment. What we have to worry about, more than anything else, is how much damage he's going to do the social fabric in the attempt.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Conservatism, stewardship, and Edmund Burke

I cannot conceive how any man can have brought himself to that pitch of presumption, to consider his country as nothing but carte blanche, upon which he may scribble whatever he pleases.

It's worth taking a few moments to reflect upon the words of Edmund Burke. In the late 18th century, Europe was in the midst of the social, political and intellectual ferment stirred up by the French Revolution. Burke was presented to me, during my early years at university, as one of the greatest figures in conservative political thought. The passage cited above is from his Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), and continues:

A man full of warm speculative benevolence may wish his society otherwise constituted than he finds it; but a good patriot and a true politician always considers how he shall make the most of the existing materials of his country. A disposition to preserve and an ability to improve taken together would be my standard of a statesman. Every thing else is vulgar in the conception, perilous in the execution.

I'm choosing to cite Burke for two reasons. Firstly, his warning about “presumption” has always resonated with me, not just because of its integrity and principled eloquence, but also because of the way he uses the word. In this context, the word embodies everything we've come to dislike about “leaders,” whether they're in politics, business, academia, or anything else. It carries noxious connotations of arrogance, single-mindedness, disdain for opponents, condescension, authoritarianism, high-handedness, arbitrary behaviour, and entitlement.

Secondly, because he's been cited, so regularly, as one of the paragons of conservatism. Just so we're clear, I have no problem or complaint with principled conservatism, at least as I understand it. If it means you argue for the preservation of worthwhile traditions and retaining the best parts of our character, our history and the lessons we've learned from it, you get no argument from me. While I prefer not to throw too many labels around, that's also part of the way I've always understood the term “Tory.” Especially of the pink or red variety. It may not coincide with the dictionary definition, but at least in terms of the connotations it's acquired, the Tory tradition – indeed, conservatism itself – is a proud and honourable framework from which to address whatever issues one is confronted with. It embodies all the best things about citizenship: decency, respect, caring, and acceptance of obligations to one's society, community, and fellow citizens.

So what is to be preserved? One can't really do justice to it in the space of a single blog post, but I'd like to consider the question of character: in particular, the qualities of the Canadian national character. Yes, much of it is based on stereotype and caricature, and yes, in real life we may frequently fail to live up to it, but at a minimum, I'd like to believe that they include:
  • generosity
  • civility
  • tolerance
  • respect for different points of view
  • a wholesome ethic of common provision
  • deference – perhaps we are, in truth, a tad too deferential, but I'd submit that our readiness to accommodate is also a measure of our character.

Obviously this is just scratching the surface. And just as obviously, any one of these could spark extensive debate. It's an off-the-cuff enumeration, rather than an exhaustive or definitive list. Given that our real-life history is full of examples wherein we have fallen short of those qualities, perhaps the enumeration borders on the mythic. And perhaps I'm betraying an attachment to that myth that may even be a little excessive.

Be that as it may, however, it is for that reason that I will not refer to the present collection of Harperite / Reformist thugs and their media lickspittles as conservatives. They aren't worthy of that. They are not conservatives, they're pale U.S. Republican wannabes with a revolting extra layer of teabaggery. They and their ideological bed partners have hijacked the good name of conservatism and bent it to one of the most destructive and antisocial currents in recent intellectual and political history.

Over the span of generations Canadians have created, through our democratic institutions and processes (flawed and vulnerable though those may be), one of the most generous and envied societies in the world. Health care, education, a social safety net – all informed by perhaps the most fundamental principle in Judeo-Christian moral teaching: the notion that we are our brothers' and sisters' keepers. (I'm not suggesting, of course, that this notion is unique to the Western European Judeo-Christian heritage.) In other words, a body of character, tradition, and established social convention that we've collectively decided, over the decades, are worth preserving. That ought to warm any conservative heart.

So how is it that we have entrusted the care and stewardship of our country and our character to a man who has built his entire career on contempt for those very principles? On his disgust for everything we are and everything that defines us? In a blog post today, Chet Scoville writes about contempt. But it's not just, as he suggests, contempt for us as people and as citizens. It's contempt for us as a society, as a body of tradition and sociopolitical culture, and of everything we've built and everything we stand for.

But let's linger for a moment on stewardship. At its core, it's the idea that we have an obligation to care for our society, our environment, and our fellow citizens, so that what we pass on to succeeding generations is in as good a condition as the way we found it.

When you go camping, you don't leave the campsite a mess for the next person.

When you use public space, you clean up after yourself.

When you find a source of clean water, you don't hoard it all to yourself and you don't pollute it or ruin it for others. Simple good manners. Everything we know about sustainability, about avoiding profligate consumption or resource exploitation, about taking what we need and leaving enough for others, is related to the idea of stewardship.

When you're entrusted with a mandate to govern, your every action should, in my submission, be informed by an awareness of the responsibilities inherent in stewardship. That's the definition of good government in one sentence. You're inheriting something that generations of Canadians have built, have poured their lives, their hearts, their work and their souls into. You don't get to piss on it, tell your audiences how worthless or contemptible you think it is, or demolish it in favour of a pathetic attempt to remake it in the image of the worst aspects of U.S. Republican legacy.

Again with the coalition fearmongering?

Can we give it a rest, for Christ's sakes?

In their seemingly endless quest to generate bullshit stories and manufacture controversies (honestly, don't these people have better things to do?  Like, maybe, I don't know ... govern competently?), the Harpokons are reviving the moldy and discredited spectre of a coalition among the opposition parties.  Stand by for the usual flood of crap:  anti-democratic, coup, seizing power against the will of the people, yargle bargle bleghhh ...

It's beyond me how this nonsense continues to find any traction. As anyone versed in even the most basic civic principles knows, this is how parliamentary democracies work: you get to govern only as long as you can command the confidence of Parliament. Once you lose that, your mandate is gone.  Moreover, coalition governments function all over the world, anywhere there are parliamentary democracies. They're a fact of life. Describing the possibility of a coalition as anti-democratic isn't just disingenuous -- it's a lie. A Pants-On-Fire lie. Plain and simple. It is a deliberate and calculated attempt to mislead.

And yet, in the poisonous atmosphere of partisanship and misinformation that seems central to the Harper government's modus operandi, that simple fact has been transformed into a rhetorical cudgel used to beat the opposition and the media. Pointing out the facts about how things work, or citing parliamentary convention, isn't merely a statement of fact any more. Now it's taken as evidence of bias and partisanship.

Never mind their sustained and systematic assault on the infrastructure of democracy for the moment. Among the Harpokons' many acts of vandalism against Canadian civil society, that's got to be one of the worst. The goalposts defining civic discourse have been moved so far that the simple act of telling the truth in the face of lies and bullshit is now not merely a risky act -- it's taken as evidence of disloyalty. The farther down this road we allow them to take us, the harder it's going to be to get back.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Sun Media leaves another mess on the sidewalk

I've never been fond of the news business's predilection for describing the late summer as the “silly season” It implies that there isn't any real news happening, which is patently not true. And it provides a justification for manufactured bullshit stories.

That's what we're seeing in the “controversy” surrounding Homegrown, one of the plays on the bill for the current SummerWorks theatre festival in Toronto. Apparently we're supposed to consider it objectionable because it portrays Shareef Abdelhaleem, one of the so-called Toronto 18, in a sympathetic light. And we're supposed to be even more pissed off because the festival got some money from Ottawa. Cue the braying from the Fox wannabes at Sun Media, the Levantines, the Corians, and the rest of the perpetually angry flying monkeys of the right.

As J. Kelly Nestruck points out, the festival got perhaps $35,000 from the federal government. When you do the math and consider how that was divided up among various productions, promotional costs, etc., he suggests that this particular play might have gotten around $850 or so. (Well, I can certainly understand the outrage. How many tasers and cans of pepper spray could have been had for that kind of money?)

Sun Media hack Brian Lilley has been the point man on this. He's taken issue with Nestruck's accusations of censorship in a blog post today, in which he takes the predictable tack of posing as a hard-working dogged reporter, crusading for the rights of the hard-working little guy, bristling at the sneering condescension of media elites, yada yada yada. We've heard the cliches so many times we can probably recite them in our sleep. As he puts it:
There is no right to arts funding, a point that many supporters of the performing arts just don’t understand. Just because a play is written doesn’t mean it should be funded. Just because a theatre company wishes to put it on does not mean it should receive a grant.
Nestruck, Toronto city councilor Adam Vaughan and other defenders of Homegrown would prefer it if the hoi poloi, the great unwashed would just pay the bills and shut up.
Apparently the issue is about public money being spent on things Brian Lilley and his bosses don't like. Well, boo fucking hoo. Can we talk about how tiresome and fundamentally anti-social that line of argument is? “Yargle bargle bleghh, I don't want my tax dollars spent on things I don't agree with.” Straight out of the teabaggers manual.

To anyone who still wants to dance to that music, I say tough shit. You're a citizen of a democratic society. It's not your money, it is society's money – to be allocated in accordance with publicly determined priorities. You get your say in how those determinations are made through your inherent right to participate in the political process. And if you don't get what you want through participating, you don't get to simply take your marbles and go home. I don't think the Canadian military should be in Afghanistan. I don't think public money should be spent on billion-dollar summits or paying cops to beat the shit out of peaceful citizens, but I don't get to withhold my tax dollars on that basis.

As for Brian Lilley, his argument is disingenuous bullshit. What he and his Sun Media paymasters have done is taken one play – one play, from a festival staging more than 40 plays – which may have gotten a tiny little percentage of the money allocated to this theatre festival and built a cynical and contrived narrative of “glorifying Islamic terrorism” around it for the sole purpose of working their knuckle-dragging, drooling readership into a frenzy. Another textbook demonstration of how right-wing operatives manufacture controversies.

What's worse, though, is the insult to our intelligence, with the wide-eyed, innocent “we're not advocating censorship, we're just asking questions about the funding” script. (Yeah, right. I'm not saying your sister's a whore, I'm just asking why she has sex with strangers for money.) They're not just asking. They've poisoned the debate before it's even started by framing this as a story about our hard-earned tax dollars coddling terror-symp artists who don't work for a living because they're milking our socialist government for grant money. It's faux-populist crap.

One last question: did Lilley actually talk to Nestruck, or Vaughan, before penning this load of shite? How can he presume to tell us what they would prefer?

But that's standard procedure for Fox / Sun operatives. Their object isn't to inform, it's to inflame. Just because it's late summer doesn't mean we can afford to relax our guard. The stupidity virus is a nasty one. If we're not vigilant, we could end up here.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Narratives, from the personal to the political

I keep harping on this, I know, but it's for a reason – acknowledging the importance of the stories people tell themselves and the weight they attach to those stories is frequently the first step in effecting change, whether it's at a purely personal level or at the macro/social level.

Those stories, whether they're accurate reflections of fact or fucked-up dysfunctional compensations, form touchstones. They are the scripts whereby we live our lives. They provide the cues and the guideposts we use in responding to events, to new information. They provide the internal filing systems we use to organize what we know and what we learn and slot it into categories; how we react to things depends very much on how they fit into those categories. The stories may or may not be true. They don't have to make sense or even appear coherent to external observers, objective or otherwise. As long as they make sense to us, we hang on to them.

So much of your identity and sense of yourself is wrapped up in that narrative, in fact, that it provides a psychic and emotional touchstone. To have it challenged, in whole or in part, is akin to having your psychic anchor taken away. The more you have invested in your storyline, the more resistant you're going to be to any attempt to redefine or rewrite it. And that's true, I'd submit, regardless of whether you're talking about a single person attempting to deal with personal issues or a defined group attempting to deal with social and political change.

Could that be part of the explanation for Susan Crean's account of her encounter with Stephen Harper in 1992? She recalls:
When the man learned that she had co-authored a certain book about American domination of Canadian and Quebec politicians, the man responded: "You should not have been allowed to write that book."
The man: Stephen Harper. Crean never forgot his words, but especially the word allowed. The room full of writers in Ottawa issued a gasp.
Crean later elaborated on the encounter. "Harper spoke to me first and asked if I had written 'that book.' I asked which one, and he mentioned Two Nations, which I wrote with Quebec activist/sociologist and well known independentiste Marcel Rioux. ... Harper was clearly still angry about having had to read it at university. In his view, I took it, the book was treasonous. I was so shaken by his words, and his open hostility, that I immediately left the dining room."
-- Lawrence Scanlan, A less proud country, Ottawa Citizen, July 28, 2010

Perhaps Stephen Harper has a different recollection of the encounter. I'd be delighted to hear him share it. Scanlan argues, however, that the exchange suggests an impulse on Harper's part to suppress and control viewpoints with which he disagrees, and that his government is being criticized, almost two decades later, for exactly that.

I haven't read the book in question, and I've never met either Susan Crean or Stephen Harper. What I'd like to believe, however naively, is that we can affirm our individual and collective rights to disagree among ourselves, and to advance the storylines of our choosing -- without bringing the coercive power of the State down upon our heads, and without inviting the rhetorical bludgeons of the Sun Medias / Fox News Corporations of the world.

Disagreement and dissent are fundamental to citizenship in open societies. They're inseparable from civil discourse, free speech and free inquiry. In these times, remembering that is more important than ever.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Oh, so now they believe in statistics?

The guy who thinks men walked the earth with dinosaurs was at it again today.

Stockwell Day says crime is way up, so that's why the Harpokons need to drop $9-billion on new prisons - part of a policy initiative even Conrad Black has trouble with.

Well, where to begin?  How can this guy, and the government he's part of, speak with any credibility to any public-policy initiative whatsoever?  Especially given their wooden-headed insistence on scuppering the census, in the face of near-universal public condemnation and opposition from virtually every sector of society?  If the facts don't back them up, it seems, the Harpokons' first response is to neutralize the nation's most comprehensive collector and organizer of facts.

Second response, apparently, is to make up your own "facts."

A few years ago, Julian Fantino used to suggest - especially when the police budget was being discussed -  that crime was rising all over Toronto, and that we weren't safe in our homes, and that criminals were everywhere, and that the police weren't getting enough gratitude and appreciation.  This despite the fact that the crime rates were actually dropping once the data was analyzed and set out systematically.

When ideology leads you toward a punitive and vindictive view of the world, facts can become inconvenient.  When your focus groups tell you that that punitive approach plays well with your knuckle-dragging base, facts can become downright bothersome.  So when the facts get in the way of your fearmongering or race-baiting, well ... the Harper government's response  to that is now appallingly clear.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Safari extensions: so far, a big 'meh'

Well, it's a start, but so far nothing really earthshaking.

Would be really nice to see something like this ...