Resisting the pull of cynicism since 1969.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Who's Canadian enough, take three

I'd like to start this post with some kudos for Stephen Harper and his government. No, really, I mean it. Despite the incredibly daunting task of removing 8700 some-odd Canadian citizens from Lebanon over the last couple of weeks, they came through. There were some snags (some would say a lot of snags) but despite repeated protests of "undeservingness" from the likes of Garth Turner and various right-wing talk show hosts, our government went to great lengths to make sure every Canadian who wanted to be removed from Lebanon was brought to Canada at the government's expense. It wasn't just the right thing to do; it was the only thing to do, given current Canadian policy on these matters. As I said in my last post on this subject, current policy doesn’t state that if you fail to take advantage of the right to live in Canada, you don't have the right to be evacuated from a war zone along with the Canadians who are just visiting. And as I'm sure most of us will agree, the middle of a humanitarian crisis is hardly the time to change a long-held policy.

Now that the immediate crisis has abated somewhat, though, Harper's government is thinking about reconsidering the rights that go along with Canadian citizenship. They're not, it should be said, thinking about dividing Canadians along the lines of immigrant citizens and non-immigrant citizens; they're saying that any Canadians, whether they were born in Canada or not, should have Canadian residency if they want to be evacuated from war zones at Canada's expense. On the face of things, this seems like a perfectly reasonable change--it favours those who have really "made a commitment to the country" over those who've "put other allegiances first." Nonetheless, I'd strongly encourage the government not to give in to the pressure to rethink the current policy. And in order to explain why I feel that way, I'd like to describe my own journey toward becoming a Canadian. This is important, I think, because there seems to be a popular notion that an immigrant's journey is simply "too damn easy," and many of the people making assertions about that don't have much first-hand knowledge of what goes into making a new Canadian.

It was 1993 when I first decided that I wanted to emigrate to Canada. I'd known for a while that I didn't want to spend the rest of my life in the U.S., but it took a trip to Ottawa during the momentous federal election that occurred that year for me to stop looking across the ocean and start looking north. Unfortunately, I was a graduate student at the time, preparing for an academic career in a very narrow field in which there are usually no more than two or three jobs
world-wide in any given year. And while I really did want to come to Canada, I knew that realistically I had to go where the jobs were. To make a long story somewhat shorter, I happened to be ready to go on the job market during a year where one of the two available tenure-track jobs was in Edmonton, and I was fortunate enough to get it. Because the process of attaining permanent residency is so long and complicated, though, I initially came to Canada in 1997 on a temporary work permit. This permit allowed me to work here, but threw up a number of obstacles in my path at the same time. My U.S. credit history wasn't recognized, for example, so I couldn't buy a house or even qualify for a credit card. To get a bank account, I had to get a letter from the chair of my department detailing my salary and the fact that he intended to keep me on. I was required to get a Canadian driver's license, but because I wasn't a permanent resident, it had to be renewed yearly rather than every five years. And finally, I also needed to renew my work permit each year.

Because of these bureaucratic tangles, I was especially eager to apply for permanent residency. I spent a few months getting the extensive paperwork together and finally sent in my application that fall. I was a bit nervous, though, because of Canada's rigorous points system. To obtain permanent residency, immigrants have to qualify as skilled workers, which means coming up with at least 67 points awarded for factors such as educational background, work experience in fields Canada needs workers in, age (young people are drastically favoured), ability in one or both of Canada’s official languages, et cetera. In my case, I had a Ph.D., a tenure-track academic job in Canada, I was twenty-seven years old, I spoke English natively and some French as well--and yet I still only barely made it over the top because I was straight out of graduate school and had no real experience in my chosen field. Definitely a bit nervewracking.

In addition to my worries over the points, I also had to be concerned about money. The non-refundable application fee is $550 for each of the principal applicant and any accompanying family member over the age of 22, and once the application is processed, they require an additional $490 from each immigrant in the form of a "right of permanent residence fee." There are also hidden worries in terms of qualifying for residency medically (you’re out of luck if you have any serious or costly medical conditions), the list of the names and addresses of every organization you’ve ever been a member of that you have to make and let the government comb through, and being fingerprinted by the police in every country you’ve ever lived in and allowing all of those governments to do a lengthy background check. For me the whole process took only a little over a year, but due to stricter requirements that were put in place a few years ago, it can now take up to three or four years. And I was also very lucky in that my employer helped me out both financially and in terms of moral support. When I think about the many people who go through all that without the benefit of a secure job, and usually with much fewer financial resources, much less of an education, and much poorer language skills, I can't help but be impressed with their tenacity.

After receiving permanent residency, I was required to wait three additional years before I could apply for citizenship. Because I travel quite a bit for work, however, and because every day spent outside of Canada counted against my residency requirement, I had to wait much longer. I not only had to submit to yet another lengthy background check, I also had to justify every single trip I'd ever taken outside of Canada, with a detailed assessment of the specific dates I'd been gone and my reasons for being out of the country. I finally had all my paperwork ducks in a row a few years later, and sent in my application (along with yet another application fee). After about six months, though, my application was returned because there had been some errors in my residency calculation and I was being asked to correct them and resubmit the application from the beginning. I did so, and another few months after that, I was finally sent the study guide for the citizenship exam in the mail.

Next came the studying. Despite my clear advantages both linguistically and in terms of educational background, there was still an awful lot in that guide that I didn't know, and I did have to spend quite a bit of time preparing. All together, it had been just shy of two years before I was informed that they were ready for me to take the test. (I lucked out here, too, by the way--if you're not a native speaker of one of Canada's two official languages, you get called in during this time for an interview, during which you have to prove sufficient proficiency in one of those languages. This can prolong the process.) I detailed that experience in an old post, but to sum up: I passed the exam, waited another month or so, and finally received Canadian citizenship in September of last year.

At this point, I think it would be difficult to say that I haven't proven my loyalty to Canada. I've paid my dues (literally and figuratively), and I've jumped through all the bureaucratic hoops they required of me. I've held a full-time job in Canada for nine years, paying Canadian taxes all the while. I've participated avidly in Canadian society (I hold a position in my political party of choice, and I've worked on five campaigns, four of which were before I was allowed to vote), and I shout from the rooftops to anyone who will listen about how thrilled I am to be living in a country I can respect. I even swore a loyalty oath to Queen and country. But the fact is, I still have an academic career to think about--one in which we all have to go where the jobs are. And if one of the top U.S. universities in my field made me an offer I couldn't refuse, I'd have to give it a lot of thought. I'd rather stay in Canada, of course, but depending on the offer, it would be an awfully hard decision.

Let's imagine, then, that I did get offered my dream job somewhere in an American "blue state" I could bear living in, and I reluctantly went back to the U.S. to pursue my career aspirations. And let's imagine that a few years after I had done this, the U.S. became a terrible war zone in which cities were being bombed daily and the countryside was plagued with a lack of edible food and potable water. Under those circumstances, I'd absolutely want to chuck my career out the window and come back and rebuild what was left of my life in Canada. And I ask you, would the few years I'd spent back in my country of birth really negate the huge commitments I've made to Canada by this point? Enough that you'd want to tell me that I didn't quite count as Canadian enough for the country I spent all those years in to spend taxpayer money to save my life? Honestly? People say that dual citizens should appeal to their other country of citizenship to bail them out, but in such a dire situation the U.S. would be facing bigger problems than how to get me to Canada. And for anyone who wants to claim that my situation is different--that not every dual citizen has the extenuating circumstances I've described--I can only say this: you're right, it is different. The difference, though, is that I have a ready-made audience and the ability to tell my personal story to get my point across, while the Canadian citizens that got bailed out of Lebanon are nameless, faceless masses that people can project any generalizations they want onto.

No matter what people say, the facts remain: coming to Canada as an immigrant isn't at all easy, and attaining Canadian citizenship on top of that isn't exactly a cakewalk, either. In fact, just being an immigrant here can be difficult as well--you have to cope with cultural expectations that are different from what you're used to, and with practical problems like recognition of your foreign credentials and starting from zero on your credit rating. The people who go through all that don't do it because they're masochists with too much time on their hands; they do it because they care enough about this place to devote the necessary money, time and energy to earning the right to stay. And if for whatever reason some of them eventually decide that some other part of the world needs them more, that decision doesn't make them any less Canadian than those who stick around.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

A somewhat more familiar "death cult"

Many other lefty and centrist bloggers have already expressed their outrage over a post made to the Western Standard blogs by RightGirl, as well as over the comments both on that post and on the post of the one Western Standard blogger who dared to disagree. I'm not going to add to the pile. But I have to admit, I'm puzzled by one thing. RightGirl's original post and her comments in the ensuing discussion state that Islam is not a "religion of peace" because:

  • many people have committed violent acts in the name of Islam
  • some of Islam's followers are told that if they commit those violent acts, they will be rewarded with a delicious fantasy
  • many people believe that Islam's ideals are supreme and are willing to fight for those ideals in various countries around the world
  • the only "good" Muslims (i.e., the ones who don't do the aforementioned terrible things) are those who don't follow the orthodox tenets of Islam, and orthodox Muslims don't consider them Muslims, which only proves that Islam proper is bad and dangerous
Her conclusions from these observations are as follows:
  • Islam is not a real religion, it is a cult/corrupt ideology that has been afforded the status of a religion
  • Islam should be banned
  • Islam's places of worship should be "turned inside out and upside down" and "shaken until the skeletons come out"
What puzzles me is this: By RightGirl's own logic, she should be making precisely the same arguments about Christianity. Because if you're looking for the commission of violent acts in the name of a religion, elders telling their followers that they'll be rewarded by a delicious fantasy if they commit those violent acts, a willingness to fight for their religion's tenets in many countries around the world, and people getting denounced as infidels for not adhering to the orthodoxy of their religion, you don't have to look as far afield as Islam.

I'm not saying she'd be right to make those arguments about Christianity, mind, but if she wants to be consistent, it would seem to follow naturally.

Canadians vs. Americans on freedom of the press

Clicking through some old links, I accidentally stumbled upon an ancient discussion that took place in the comments section of this equally ancient post by the U.S. blogger Bitch, Ph.D. The context was "World Freedom of the Press Day," which happened to occur smack dab in the middle of the sponsorship scandal and the egregious American misunderstandings about Canadian press freedom that came out of that situation. The conversation is primarily between two commenters: American "PorJ" and Canadian "Andrea." And between them, they manage to say everything I tried to say about the differences between press freedom in the two countries back in this post--but in dialogue form.

PorJ starts out with absolutes:

I'm an idealist. I also know the work of Gramsci, Foucault, Derrida, and Chomsky, and other theorists you would throw out to convince me what a sham the concept of a "free press" is. But don't waste your breath on me. Tell it to the Chinese or Iranian kid who dreams of one day running her own newspaper. Or perhaps she dreams of starting a blog to talk about how much she hates her academic job in the middle of China and wants to move to a big diverse city to raise her little boy. [...] Canada? I don't think we can say a state with legally-sanctioned "publication bans" has a free press.
It's this point where Andrea steps in:
PorJ, I think you need to learn a bit more about Canada and our publication bans before you can make sweeping generalizations about Press Freedom here. Contrary to what that one article seems to think, oftentimes they are imposed to protect the privacy of victims or families giving difficult and personal testimony during a trial. The salacious details of a woman's rape should not be fodder for a sensationalistic press; whatever is dragged through the courts should not then be dragged through all of society. And while we may have a temporary publication ban on the Gomery inquiry, we don't have secret military trials conducted without virtue not only of press coverage, but of any due process of law. In December we will see all of the reports and testimony from that inquiry. When are you going to find out what's happening in Guantanamo bay? In 50 years when it's declassified?
But PorJ is undaunted:
We agree: I'd take the CBC over any American news network right now. But I'm not talking about the performance of the press. I'm talking about the pure idealism and optimism that undergirds the American system. [...] Our government cannot ban anything "temporarily" except in extreme circumstances. The Pentagon Papers case took care of that. That's why last Sunday evening on "60 Minutes" over 20 million Americans heard Sgt. Erik Saar, a former Guantanamo Bay translator, talk about the bizarre, sadistic torture of detainees in Guantanamo. Now, if American politicians had recourse to a "temporary publications ban" whenever something scandalous threatened to bring them into disrepute, do you think we would have heard Sgt. Saar's accusations? [...] I'm not trying to be offensive here - I'm just pointing out the hypocrisy of supporting some "publications bans" and not others. We've already taken care of that problem: Thank You, First Amendment.
At this point, Andrea corrects some of the misconceptions PorJ has about Canada's publication bans by listing off the rather explicit criteria that need to be met for a publication ban to be permitted, describing the openness of the trials in question (with press and public present), and reiterating the impermanent nature of any ban. And then finally, she goes on to criticize the practical results of the U.S.'s rigidly ideological press freedom laws:
What has that optimism and idealism gotten you? A prostrate press that publishes pentagon-produced news stories as fact; planted reporters in press conferences spewing scripted "questions"; reporters banned from press conferences for daring to ask unscripted questions. That doesn't sound like freedom of the press to me, nor does it sound like "optimism and idealism"; it sounds like cynicism and hopelessness. [...]

If you actually read the [sponsorship scandal's publication ban] ruling, you'll see that it's not "the government" hiding anything. Justice Gomery decided to implement the ban, not "the government;" and it took some convincing, too. The publication ban is quite limited and at least we know when we're going to find out what happened. Meanwhile, secret military trials are being conducted in the US. (I'm not talking about the torture, which fortunately has become public, though I fail to see that's had any real impact; I'm talking about the related secret military trials). You don't have "publication bans" on them, which would at least permit the press to be present and record the proceedings for future broadcast. You don't even have lawyers or due process of law. Read this and this. Then tell me you don't have "publication bans." Not only have you lost freedom of the press, you've lost due process of law, to boot. [...] So you'll have to pardon me if I do find it objectionable to have the US held up in front of me as a light for the rest of the world to emulate in this regard.
Culture clashes like this are always fascinating to me, because I understand so well where each side is coming from. On the one hand we have an American arguing that the ideas that underlie the U.S.'s First Amendment are good ones--whether or not they work--and that things are better in the U.S. because those ideas are better. From the Canadian perspective, though, we hear that if the ideas don't work in practice--if they're not efficient, as Joseph Heath would say--they're not worth the paper they're written on. These days I tend to err on the side of Canada's "efficient society," but as a former free speech ideologue, I'm more than familiar with the forces that must have shaped PorJ's arguments as well. These are the kinds of cultural differences that can sneak up on us and have each side screaming at the other: "You're not making any sense!!!" When two cultures look so similar on the surface, it can surprise everyone involved when the people who have been shaped by them come from such opposing stances.

One point that Andrea did try to make throughout, but which I'd like to highlight since it seems to have gotten lost in the shuffle, is that it's the very absolutism of the ideology behind American press freedom laws that allows things like secret trials to happen. When there's no possibility of a middle ground like a temporary publication ban, and your government feels the need (justified or not) to hide what goes on in a courtroom from public view, then the only way to do that is to lock it away permanently. This can be done by closing the courtroom to journalists and outsiders and swearing anyone inside the room to secrecy, as in the Valerie Plame case, or by hiding the existence of the courtroom in the first place,
as in the Guantanamo trials Andrea points out. It was this realization that finally broke me of my own prior ideological stance on this subject: when absolutist ideals lead to exactly the situation you're trying to avoid, then those ideals are fundamentally flawed, no matter how good they look on paper.

As a final word (and at the risk of sounding like some sort of a scary stalker-type) I should mention that Andrea impressed me enough that I checked out her own blog, where I ended up disappointed to discover that she doesn't talk politics and culture there. If I ran one of those group political blogs like the blogscanada egroup or pogge, though, I'd sure as hell ask her to join it and at least occasionally share her wisdom with the rest of us. Because holy cannoli, is she ever good.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Bloggy copyright

While I'm already talking about blog culture, I feel like I should say something about this odd little mention I got in the Toronto Sun last Friday. The whole piece is essentially a reprint of my "Who's Canadian enough, take two" post with a few cosmetic changes, but if a fellow blogger hadn't pointed it out, I'd never have even known about it, as there was no direct link.

Caught between feeling flattered and feeling a little weirded out that they used so many of my words without asking permission or even letting me know, I turned to my friends for their opinions. Some of them said that the Sun was justified under "fair use," especially since I'd clearly written the post to be disseminated. Others, though, said I should be annoyed, and that I'd
even have grounds for a lawsuit.

Now, I have no interest in suing a major newspaper over something that was clearly well-intentioned, so that's right out. What I did take away from the experience, though, is that if I ever feel like taking an article from the Toronto Sun, removing a few sentences here and there, changing a couple of the words and the title, and republishing it in my blog, I should feel entirely justified in doing so. :-)

Combatting the echo chamber: a challenge

By the standards of the Truth Laid Bear's Canadian blogs community, I have a "midlist" blog with a pretty average-sized readership. It fluctuates somewhat, of course, with less traffic in the summer and more during an election or when I write something that gets linked around a bit. But for the most part, the audience for Canadian political commentary just isn't all that big, and even the bloggers at the top of that list have to be satisfied with a few hundred hits per day.

I've been aware that things look a little different south of the border--I mean, I've heard Markos Moulitsas on the radio talking about how his Daily Kos gets between five hundred thousand and a million hits a day. But last week, when my post about the cultural implications of George Bush massaging German Chancellor Angela Merkel got linked by an A-list American blog at the same time that blog got linked by the Washington Post, I had my first brush with the kind of traffic that some of those folks get on a regular basis. (It's more or less back to normal by now, although I'm still getting dozens of hits per day from all the google traffic--I'm apparently in the top five hits on "Bush groping," and number one for "president bush touching woman.")

Now, I admit that my first reaction was to be pretty excited--after all, if we bloggers didn't care about being read, we'd be writing our screeds in our personal diaries and hiding them under our pillows. It didn't take long, though, for the excitement to give way to a sort of irritation. I like to think that I've written at least a handful of decent posts over the couple of years I've been doing this, but I slap something up there with the words "george bush" and "groping" in it, and I've suddenly made the big time? All at once I had a lot of sympathy for Just Society's observation that when you write "Michael Ignatieff" or "Warren Kinsella" in your post, you get a lot more traffic than when you write about things that actually matter to you. More frustrating even than that was the fact that most of my visitors were from the U.S., and pretty much none of them stuck around to read anything else. And apart from making a few snarky remarks to my friends about that annoying tendency Americans have of ignoring anything that's not about them, there wasn't really anything I could do about it.

Picking on the Americans isn't really the point in this case, anyway, because the whole damn blogosphere is like this. The mainstream media has leveled a lot of criticism at us bloggers in the last couple of years, and among the most apropos is that we're nothing but an echo chamber. Let's try an experiment: Raise your hand if you regularly read a blog written by someone with someone with a very different political perspective from your own. Keep it raised if there's more than one. Keep it raised if you also regularly read at least one blog written by someone who lives in another country. Keep it raised if that country is not the United States. Is there anyone left with their hand still raised? I'm betting pretty few. And when it comes to political and cultural blogs, this is a particularly damning assessment because it means that we're using the full power of the Internet not to expand our horizons, but to narrow them. When all we do is listen to our own opinions magnified a dozen times in others, then this is precisely the sort of behaviour that entrenches our unconscious confirmation bias (hat-tip to Andrew and Jim Elve) beyond repair.

I've written in the past about the importance of resisting the Balkanization of the blogosphere, and over time, I've tried to put my money where my mouth is. My blogroll (visible on the front page) contains not only fellow NDPers, but non-partisans and partisans of various other stripes, and not just fellow Canadians and Americans, but bloggers from several parts of the world. With this post, I'd like to challenge everybody who reads this to do the same. If all bloggers saw to it that we could keep our hands raised in my little experiment above, then we might not change the world, but we'd at least think a lot more interesting thoughts and have a lot more interesting conversations. Human nature makes it awfully easy for bloggers to Balkanize, but luckily for us, the nature of the Internet makes it just as easy to resist that tendency if we so choose.

First the bumper sticker, now the book

There's a new book coming out in September called Wait! Don't Move to Canada: A Stay-and-Fight Strategy to Win Back America.

Damn, I think they're on to our little scheme.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Alberta's one-party state: why you should care, and why there might be hope

We've all heard it before: Alberta is a one-party state in which conservative voices are king. To be fair, this is in large part the fault of our first-past-the-post voting system, since Ralph Klein and his caucus didn't actually win the support of 50% of Alberta voters in the last election. But it's certainly true that when your party's got a full 73% of the seats in the legislature, you can pretty much do whatever you want. Including changing the start date of the legislative session so that you can go fishing. Including...well, I've written that post already.

Now, I can see some of you out there shaking your heads and thanking your lucky stars you don't live in a place like that. But the thing is, Alberta's one-party state affects you too--and that's true whether you're sitting in front of a computer in Toronto, in Boston, or even in Europe. See, Alberta has the second-largest oil reserves in the world. Since most of that oil is in the form of tar sands, removing it from the ground wreaks havoc on the environment. The immediate impact of this is most obvious in the form of damage to the landscape, but far more damaging to the planet as a whole is the sheer amount of greenhouse gases that get pumped into the air for every barrel of oil produced. You know those Kyoto targets Canada failed to meet? Alberta's doing. These effects can be felt not only in Alberta, but across Canada and across the planet--and yet nothing's being done about it because that same Alberta government that can do whatever it wants has rejected decades of scientific inquiry into the climate crisis outright. And of course, the one-party state makes sure the opposition is too weak to stop it from happening.

Depressed yet? Welcome to the Albertaverse. But one other thing we're constantly hearing about Alberta lately is the sheer number of people flocking to this province to look for work, and I have to admit, that has my attention. When we're talking about the population growing by 25,000 people in every single quarter, aren't some of those folks going to be bringing their political culture along with them? Surely not every single one of those new residents is a die-hard conservative who fits right in with Ralph and his buddies, right?

Since I have easy access to the second-largest library in Canada, I decided to do a little sleuthing to see whether the existing political science scholarship would support this theory. And to my utter astonishment, there seems to be nothing at all published on this topic. [Political science students desperately trying to come up with a topic for your MA thesis, take note! You can thank me in your acknowledgements. :-)] But evidence from the UK (McMahon, Doreen et al., 1992, "The electoral consequences of north-south migration," British Journal of Political Science 22, 4: 419-443), Australia (Charnock, David, 1994, "Internal migration and elector turnover in Australia," Australian Journal of Political Science 29: 292-301) and the U.S. (Gimpel, James et al., 2001, "Interstate migration and electoral politics," The Journal of Politics 63, 1: 207-231) certainly seems to suggest that internal migration can lead to a change in voting patterns. The changes aren't always in the direction that we on the political left would tend to like to see them go in--many political scientists credit internal migration for the realignment of the U.S.'s south toward the Republicans, for example--but they're there.

Now, there are those who will argue that Alberta's been importing people from across Canada for decades, and that's never had much of an impact on voting patterns. The Gimpel article even suggests that because the people who move are the ones who can afford to do so, internal migrants are more likely to support the parties that look after the interests of the wealthy. But Alberta's current boom is like nothing we've ever seen, which makes comparison more problematic. Up until now, most of those "new Albertans" have been coming here to work in the oil fields, which means that they've been mostly young, working-class, and very very busy--classic nonvoters. These days, though, this province is importing not just oilfield workers, but everyone. There are labour shortages in every sector, especially in Calgary and Edmonton, and the resulting astronomically high wages are attracting people who previously would have never considered moving to Alberta. I've already met one Cape Bretoner who, when faced with the prospect of having to relocate to Alberta for work, purposely chose Edmonton because of its relative political diversity (and Edmonton-Strathcona because of its propensity for voting NDP)--and where there's one, there are probably more like him. I'm only an armchair political scientist, but as an informed amateur, I think it could be a perfect storm that just might shake up Alberta's sure thing.

Whether it will happen quickly enough and decisively enough to reverse the damage being done to the planet is another story, of course. But at the very least, if I'm right, it's going to be awfully interesting to watch.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Who's Canadian enough, take two

Okay, once more, with feeling.

What do you call someone who was born in Lebanon, came to Canada as a refugee in the 1970s, adopted Canadian citizenship and built up a successful small business, and then 20 years later decided to expand that business into the now much calmer Lebanon, living part-time in Canada and part-time in Lebanon?

What do you call someone who was born in Canada to Lebanese immigrant parents, married a Lebanese man and moved to Lebanon with him in order to invest in and rebuild that country? Even if she "considers herself Lebanese" as well as Canadian?

What do you call someone born in Canada, who decided to go to university in Lebanon so as to pursue a degree in Middle Eastern Studies with some hands-on experience? Even if he didn't work or pay taxes last year in Canada, or vote in the 2006 election?

If your answer to any of those questions is anything but "a Canadian," you'd better be able to explain why. And you'd better be willing to accept the consequences of that line of reasoning, and support changing our current policies to correspond with it. Because at the moment, we have only one class of Canadian citizenship and one set of rights and responsibilities that go along with that citizenship. At the moment, if you're a Canadian, you don't have to choose between being that and being something else. At the moment, dual citizenship has no influence whatsoever on the rights afforded you as a Canadian. And at the moment, Canadian citizenship grants you the right to live in Canada; it doesn't say that if you fail to take advantage of that right, you will suddenly become less Canadian than those who currently reside somewhere between Victoria and St. John's.

The "dividedness" of the Liberal Party

Much hay has been made of how divided the Liberal Party is these days--or to put it in a somewhat more neutral way, how prominent party members and leadership candidates have taken opposing sides on various issues. These issues have ranged from the Canadian military presence in Afghanistan to the Conservative Accountability Act. The conclusion seems to be that this is yet another piece of evidence that the Liberals are in complete disarray, because they can't even come up with a common position on important issues. And Stephen Harper is some sort of political genius for exposing this Achilles heel.

Exactly why is this a problem again?

I'm aware that this is one of those Ignorant American questions that I work so hard to avoid having to ask, but I've thought and read about this for more than a month now, and I'm quite honestly flummoxed. I mean, I know this isn't the U.S., where divided votes are an everyday occurrence. I realize that it's common to toe the party line on most issues in a parliamentary democracy, and I also realize that there are actually good reasons for this. But if you're not allowed to take differing positions on various issues during a leadership race, when are you allowed to do that? They'll eventually have to prove they can unite behind their new leader, whoever that ends up being, but
at a time when leadership candidates are supposed to be distinguishing themselves from each other, whipping the party into some false unity would seem unnecessarily harsh and restrictive. And wait a minute, didn't the old Reformatories--of which our new prime minister was once a proud member--think free votes/divided votes were a positive thing?

I'm also finding myself scratching my head that none of the party's PR people doing damage control on this image problem have simply said: "issue x has two sides to it, and our party is large enough that we have members who stand on either side of the line. This is a good thing!" Even in the blogosphere, where you can generally find every opinion under the sun, only Far and Wide comes close to that position. There's got to be some piece of cultural context I'm missing, some bit of tradition or some slice of history. Anybody want to take a shot at explaining it to the Silly Immigrant?

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Blogging in a war zone

I haven't said anything on this blog about what's going on in Lebanon. One of the advantages of writing an "occasional in-depth commentary" blog instead of a "daily news" one is that I get to keep my mouth shut and just listen to everyone else when I don't know enough to say anything informed.

But a local friend, a Lebanese-Canadian, has directed me to the Lebanese Bloggers, a blog that's co-written by several different Lebanese citizens. The posts are moving, but it's the comments that are the truly fascinating bit of blog culture. It's being read by people in both Israel and Lebanon, and both sides are commenting on current events in real time as the missiles fly.

I wish courage to the Southerners. Is the shelling targetting residential areas? Please keep us updated, the MSM can be painfully slow.

Bush's touching cultural faux pas

As an American teenager living in Germany for the first time back in the 1980s, one of the hardest things for me to come to terms with was the fact that Germans don't touch each other very much. Oh, sure, you touched your boyfriend or girlfriend, but mostly when you were alone. And apart from the handshakes that happened whenever you greeted an acquaintance, there was essentially no casual touch--no hello or goodbye hugs, no giving someone a cuff or a gentle poke in the arm to make a point, no laying a reassuring hand on the shoulder of an emotionally distraught friend. Among the worst faux pas I made as a fifteen-year-old exchange student was reaching out to touch the necklace of one of my teachers and telling her that I liked it. Touching a teacher--someone with stature--was one of the worst things I could have possibly done.

At first all this felt cold and distant, and I resented it. But eventually I had to realize that this was no fairer on my part than the Germans' charges of Americans' "superficiality" that resulted from similar kinds of misunderstandings. It was a different culture, and they simply had different ways of expressing universal human emotions. This is the sort of lesson any American in Germany has to learn: any business executive, any diplomat, and certainly any politician. Unfortunately, it seems to be a lesson President Bush has utterly failed to wrap his mind around, given the fact that he felt perfectly justified in coming up behind Chancellor Merkel and giving her a little massage during the G8 summit in St. Petersburg.

Taylor Marsh refers to the incident as "groping," and Germany's infamous Bild-Zeitung certainly did try to make it sound titillating. Given the Germans' tendency to reserve casual touch for intimates and the sub-tabloid's tendency to sensationalize, this is perhaps unsurprising. The headline reads "Bush: Love Attack on Merkel!" and the text of the article translates as follows:

This political love is proverbially gripping! The U.S. president George W. Bush at the G8 summit in St. Petersburg. From behind he creeps impishly toward Chancellor Angela Merkel and surprises her with a quickie massage. You can see how the chancellor reacted to Bush's "love attack" here: Chancellor Angela Merkel was talking to Italy's prime minister Romano Prodi when George W. Bush came into the hall ... Merkel was having a conversation with her neighbour, without realizing the Bush was coming at her from behind ... suddenly the U.S. president laid both hands on Merkel's shoulders ... began his Texan one-second-massage ... the appalled chancellor winces and jerks her hands up, not knowing who grabbed her from behind ... and after the joke, President Bush heads for his conference table with an innocent air. Merkel sees the surprising love attack with a sense of humour, and smiles.
That's the Bild-Zeitung, though, and an editorial called "Alone among men" that appeared in the Berlin-area regional newspaper Märkische Allgemeine came much closer to nailing what really happened:
Although it was her first appearance there and although she was the only woman in the mega-macho-club of the G8, Merkel didn't let on at all that Jacques Chirac, Tony Blair and the other alpha males might have even tried to take away what was rightfully hers. Only George W. Bush didn't quite get it. While his fellow leaders were sitting at the table at the opening meeting, he came and caressed Angie's shoulders. She reacted as if it had been a natural disaster.

Nothing like that would ever have happened to Vladimir Putin. As long as you don't approach him with questions of democracy and criticism of his neoimperialistic ambitions, he abides by a strict sense of etiquette.
Far from showing his great "love" for the chancellor, what this event really illustrates is Bush's appalling insensitivity to the fact that not everybody else's culture is just like his own. In Germany, this will be perceived not as a joke, but as a man showing a woman her place. Don't look so shocked, Mr. President--there are actually places in the world where you don't get to massage the shoulders of a woman (and a fellow world leader) whom you barely know. After six long years of hobnobbing with the international elite, I'd think you might have figured that out.

(Hat tip to Majikthise.)

Update 21 July: The Berlin-based daily newspaper Der Tagesspiegel now has a column on the incident, as well as on the reaction back on Bush's side of the Atlantic:
It took a few days for the first shock to recede, for the Internet to finally fulfill its function as a trading post for pictures and to present Bush's assault in endless variety. "Bush gropes Merkel" is the catchphrase, though it's important to pronounce it the American way: "Mörkel." But was it a form of momentary sexual harrassment? Or was the President just behaving like a typical Texan uncle at a family barbecue?
Update 27 July: Willkommen, Spiegel-Leser. Eigentlich hätte ich gedacht, der Inhalt meines Beitrags wäre schon klar, aber offensichtlich zählt man automatisch zu denen, die das als sexuelle Belästigung aufgefasst haben, wenn man auf der anderen Seite des grossen Teichs steht! Als Erklärung dann also: glaube ich, Merkel hat Buschs "Blitz-Massage" als sexuelle Belästigung gesehen? Nee. Glaube ich, Merkel hat das als (wahrscheinlich unbeabsichtigtes) Zeichen davon gesehen, dass Bush sie als ein etwas minderwertiges Mitglied der G8 sieht? Das schon. Damit stehe ich eher an der Seite der Märkischen Allgemeine als an der Seite der amerikanischen Blogger (oder--um Gottes Willen--an der Seite der Bild-Zeitung, die das ganze offensichtlich ein wenig "versexen" wollte).

Aber noch wichtiger: ich sehe Bushs grossen Fehler hier nicht als den Fehler eines Frauenfeindes, sondern als den Fehler einer falsch behandelten Kulturkollision. Nach langer Auslandsaufenthalt kenne ich die deutsche Kultur sehr gut, aber ich kenne auch die texanische, und es ist schon wahr, dass jemand in Bushs Alter sich dort viel eher solche beiläufigen Berührungen erlaubt als in Deutschland. Peinlich ist es, dass der Mann, der vor seiner Präsidentschaft kaum im Ausland gewesen war und erst recht keine Fremdsprachen beherrscht, auch so unbeholfen mit den Sitten und Gebräuchen anderer Länder umgeht. Und das zu sagen war Sinn und Zweck dieses Beitrags.

Monday, July 17, 2006

The silver lining

Calgary Grit points out an interesing little tidbit from this depressing Globe and Mail article about how the Tories are planning for a majority:

Conservative nomination rules have been posted and every riding will have a nomination meeting, Mr. Plett said. Former candidates, even those who are now sitting as MPs and cabinet ministers, will have to win the right to run for the Conservatives.
Interesting--sitting MPs facing nomination battles in safe ridings? The likes of Rob Anders and Cheryl Gallant having to work to save their hides? Break out the popcorn; this is going to be fun.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Women in Parliament: unvoiced assumptions

Stephane Dion's proposals on how to get more women into Parliament have provoked a lot of buzz about just that topic in the blogosphere lately. democraticSPACE, Calgary Grit, and Jason Cherniak each take Dion's proposals one step further (in very different directions), and Vues d'ici relates the discussion to the still-palpable sexism female politicians experience. However, it's notable that none of them lay out why electing more women is important, and this is true not only of these bloggers, but also of the NDP, the Canadian Women Voters' Congress, Equal Voice, and the Research Centre on Women and Politics. It's simply taken as a given that while we might disagree about the best methods of accomplishing the goal of electing more women to Parliament, sensible people already know that the goal itself is important.

The thing is, evidence seems to suggest otherwise. In the June 18th Bloggers' Hotstove podcast, Conservative blogger Greg Staples argued the precise opposite (toward the end of the podcast):

Let me be a Pollyanna here. There's only one reason that you elect someone--they're competent. It has nothing to do with their gender, the colour of their skin, how long they've been a party hack for, whatever. None of that makes an iota of difference. [...] The day we can get past all that is the day the world is a much better place. That kind of stuff, it frustrates me.
Did this assertion meet with an immediate lynching from Staples' Liberal, NDP, and generic progressive co-panelists? Nope. Sinister Thoughts' Greg Bester even essentially agreed, attributing the interest various parties show in women and minority groups to nothing more and nothing less than the way the game is played in this country. There's clearly more than one smart, well-meaning person out there who isn't sure it's actually important to elect more women, or who thinks it's probably important but isn't quite sure why. This makes the absence of explanations from the aforementioned bloggers and organizations all the more problematic. As long as there are people in the world who say things like "the only thing we need is the right person for the job," and mean it, we need to be able to counter those assertions not just with more assertions, but with explanations.

What several of the aforementioned bloggers and organizations do offer are statistics saying that women are one half of the population but a much smaller number of politicians. But two unvoiced assumptions stand between those statistics and the conclusion that we should try to elect more women. The first is that a successful representative democracy isn't just about choosing the best person in each individual constituency, but about making sure the resulting legislative body actually comes close to reflecting the makeup of the Canadian population. The second is that a group of white men aren't going to be able to make adequate laws for a diverse population of women and minorities because they won't be able to wrap their minds around everybody's issues. Conservatives and classical liberals will often counter these assumptions by saying that it's not about Parliament as a whole, it's about each individual politician. But people aren't just individuals; they're also members of groups, whether they realize it or not. We already recognize this when we talk about geographic representation and the rural/urban split, which is why those elements are built into our electoral system. And just as we don't want western or rural Canadians represented by a government made up mostly of Torontonians, we can similarly expect a certain kind of expertise to be lost when the 50% of Canadians who are women are represented by a group that's made up mostly of men.

Research in social psychology has shown us that we all have biases we don't even know we have, and that these biases affect the decisions we make, no matter how well-meaning we are. Malcolm Gladwell's Blink details the story of how the Munich Philharmonic systematically excluded women until they started doing screened auditions, and a 1994 article in Social Psychology Quarterly showed that men tended to be biased toward job applicants with male names when distinguishing between candidates with average but slightly different academic records. A look at history tells us that the effects of these tendencies are apparent in the political arena as well: it was all-white legislative bodies that enacted the U.S.'s Jim Crow laws, and all-male, all-upper-class legislative bodies that denied the right to vote to all adults regardless of race, gender, and socioeconomic class until appallingly recently. And these findings, combined with what we already know about the demographics of Parliament, should lead us to wonder about the way some of these issues might be playing out in today's political parties. Is it really the case that the repeated choice of "the best person for the job" just happens to end up producing a group filled with white male lawyers? Isn't it possible that something else might be going on?

It should be said that none of this points to some sinister plot on the part of white male lawyers, but to simple human nature. I'd even go so far as to say that it would be unfair to expect a relatively homogeneous group to have all the information they need to make the best policies for everyone. It's not impossible for white male lawyers to be aware of the issues of groups other than their own, of course: a white male lawyer married to a female immigrant from Haiti, and who spends a lot of time listening to his wife talk about the issues that immigrants, black Canadians, and women tend to have, is almost certainly going to know an awful lot about those things. But it's undeniable that we human beings tend not to know much about the issues of groups we don't have much contact with, and while this doesn't necessarily mean we'll just willfully neglect their issues, we may simply never be aware that they exist. It only stands to reason that Parliament would do a much better job making laws for all Canadians if a proportionate number of MPs were women, immigrants, people with disabilities, and people of different religious backgrounds, socioeconomic groups, and sexual orientations.

And it's in everybody's best interest not just to do what we can to help that to happen, but also to offer explanations to those who might not yet understand why it's important. Without scorn, and above all, without unvoiced assumptions.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Trauma is "easy"?

This post is a collaboration between Idealistic Pragmatist and Respectful of Otters.

Think of the most terrified you've ever been. Heart pounding, mouth dry, sweat beading on your forehead, muscles locked rigid, violent or frightening images flooding your mind, screaming so loudly on the inside that you're barely aware of your surroundings. Now imagine being dropped randomly into that state a few times a day, every day, triggered by some innocuous thing or nothing at all.

This is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), an anxiety disorder in which a person who has experienced or come into close contact with serious trauma later experiences crippling levels of anxiety, combined with vivid re-experiencing of the traumatic event and an intense desire to avoid anything that might bring the trauma to mind or trigger anxiety symptoms. PTSD is known to have a strong biological component; severe stress causes lasting alterations in brain neurochemistry. Trauma appears to damage specific receptors responsible for regulating catecholamines, which are hormones essential to the stress response. In people with PTSD, these stress hormones are elevated, leaving them constantly on the verge of a neurochemically-induced panic. "It's not fashionable," according to Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente, to be derisive of people going through that experience. But she courageously does her best all the same.

Wente's column (accessible through the google cheat) has been attracting favourable commentary even from bloggers who are ordinarily thoughtful and intelligent. In it, she suggests that PTSD in soldiers and veterans (and especially in the Canadian forces) is exaggerated and overdiagnosed, and insinuates that servicemembers diagnosed with PTSD are either whiners ("War is hell. But life can be pretty rough, too. You don't need battle trauma to cope badly with it.") or goldbrickers out for an easy life on disability benefits ("some people will abuse the system if it is financially attractive"). Her claims demonstrate little acquaintance with the scientific literature on PTSD; instead, they are heavily based on arguments by an American psychiatrist named Sally Satel, who is affiliated with and funded by the ultra-conservative American Enterprise Institute.

Satel's--and, by extension, Wente's--claims about PTSD are baseless. Let's look at them one at a time.

Claim 1: PTSD rates among recent servicemembers are too high.

It's hard to know exactly what Wente means by this. We doubt she means that it's a terrible thing that so many servicemembers are suffering, although if she did, we would certainly agree. At times, she seems to mean that soldiers didn't used to suffer from PTSD, back in the high-moral-fibre days of World War II. She treats an elevation in rates over time as prima facie evidence that current diagnoses are overinflated. In fact, although PTSD has always been with us--previously it was called battle fatigue or shellshock--military strategists argue that aspects of the military and social context of modern wars increase the likelihood of PTSD. The increase in PTSD diagnoses is also due to changes in diagnostic criteria. Prior to the Vietnam era, psychiatric diagnosis was vague and tended to be based on Freudian theories rather than observable symptoms. Modern diagnostic systems, based in empirical research, have led to wider agreement about who has specific psychiatric illnesses, including PTSD.

Claim 1a: Therapists encourage veterans to blame everything that goes wrong in their lives on combat stress.

Wente implies that veterans who have moral or behavioural problems, such as a violent temper or an inability to hold a job, are encouraged by therapists to attribute their problems to PTSD rather than trying to fix them--thus, also, inflating PTSD diagnosis rates. But PTSD simply cannot be diagnosed without the presence of the three core symptoms listed in the second paragraph: intense anxiety, vivid and intrusive memories of trauma, and avoidance symptoms. You don't get to just go to a doctor and say "My life problems are caused by PTSD, now fork over a cheque."

Claim 1b: Servicemembers and veterans are just faking PTSD to get disability benefits.

Wente cites no evidence for this, which is probably because there is none. The Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma demolishes this claim completely:

Matthew J. Friedman, M.D., is the executive director of the National Center for PTSD, a division of the Department of Veteran's Affairs. In an e-mail to the Dart Center, Friedman said that Satel's argument was based on a "misreading or inability to appreciate the meticulous process by which personal reports of combat exposure were verified by military records" in the 1990 National Vietnam Veterans Readjustment Study. Friedman noted that the vast majority of veterans surveyed had not applied for medical disability because of their PTSD.

The notion of veterans falsely claiming to have PTSD is also contradicted by statistics published by the U.S. Department of Veteran's Affairs. In 2002, 65,154 Vietnam veterans claimed 100 percent disability for "Psychiatric and Neurological Diseases" (about 2.1 percent of the 3.14 million soldiers who served in Vietnam). A total of 202,183 Vietnam veterans claimed a partial level mental-health disability (about 6.4 percent of all Vietnam veterans).
The National Vietnam Veterans Readjustment Study found that 31% of Vietnam vets met full diagnostic criteria for PTSD. Given the low percentages of vets actually receiving benefits for psychiatric disability, there can hardly be an epidemic of false claims. And if Wente is going to claim that things are different in Canada, it is incumbent on her to provide proof. She hasn't. She can't.

Claim 2: Therapists are brainwashing PTSD patients into believing that they'll be disabled for life.

The vast majority of cases of PTSD either resolve on their own or are responsive to treatment. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders--the very manual used by the mental health establishment that Wente denigrates--half of all cases of PTSD resolve within a few months. Another 20% of cases resolve within the first year after the trauma. Even among chronic cases that last for years or decades, treatment is often effective in reducing the severity of symptoms and allowing people to return to normal social functioning even if symptoms of anxiety continue. (A good overview of treatment options can be found here.)

But early identification and intervention are critical. According to the U.S. Veterans Administration:
Extensive research indicates that early distress and symptoms of PTSD are not very good predictors of a long-term prognosis. Thus, while Hoge et al. (2004) reported that 18% of soldiers newly redeployed from Iraq have PTSD--a rate that is alarmingly high--it is likely that this rate will decrease over time. Studies suggest that in the face of severe military service demands, including combat, most men and women do remarkably well across the lifespan. [...]

For those soldiers who don't recover, the most troubling aspect of military-related PTSD is its chronic course. There is evidence that once veterans develop military-related PTSD their symptoms remain chronic across the lifespan and are resistant to treatments that have been shown to work with other forms of chronic PTSD. Thus, it is vitally important to provide early intervention to reduce the risk of chronic impairment in veterans.
Unfortunately, the prejudice and derisive attitudes of Wente and her American counterparts stand in the way of these servicemembers getting the early intervention they need.

Claim 3: PTSD is just like normal worries and stresses, and sufficiently "resilient" people get over their worries and stresses without help.

Conservatives never seem to get tired of belittling severe traumas by pointing out their superficial similarities to minor traumas. (Remember the "fraternity hazing" analogies about Abu Ghraib?) There is no excuse for this kind of unconscionable dishonesty. It's as if Wente were to dismiss and minimize the consequences of blindness based on the argument that sometimes everyone has to strain their eyes to see in dim light. Even if you're heartless enough to doubt the testimony of people with PTSD, the altered neurochemistry is undeniable.

None of this information is hard to find, even without the resources of one of Canada's largest newspapers. The entire first page of Google hits for "Satel PTSD" are either articles by Satel (Wente's only "scientific" source), or articles debunking her claims about overinflated PTSD diagnoses. Wente really had to work hard to avoid evidence that Satel is not credible. Either she's so incompetent that she can't manage a Google search, or she has an agenda. We vote for the latter.

Interestingly, this column isn't the first time Wente has written about PTSD in the Canadian military. Back in May of 2005, the Globe and Mail published a different column of hers that could have been the current column's more inflammatory cousin. The arguments were identical, although the tone was even more openly derisive: there are so many cases of PTSD these days that they must all be faking it, many of those cases sound absurd on paper (especially when the paper is the Globe and Mail and the columnist describing the cases is Margaret Wente), isn't it obvious that they're all just in it for the cold hard cash. Her closing line was even "But resilence is out of fashion. Besides, it won't get you a cheque." One underresearched, ideology-laden column might be a passing fancy, but two certainly smacks of an agenda, or even an obsession. We can't help but wonder what might drive Wente to write what amounts to the same column twice--could it be that she didn't manage to convince anyone a year ago, so she decided to tone down the rhetoric and recycle her original words once the casualties in Afghanistan had started mounting and the polls had started indicating a dip in support for the mission?

Although Wente is quick to declare that doubting the validity of PTSD is "unfashionable," in fact, with her commentary, she joins a whole framework of American conservatives with close ties to the Bush Administration who are currently engaged in an effort to discredit the entire concept of PTSD--particularly the notions that it is common and frequently disabling. Why do so many conservatives in both countries want to deny the reality of PTSD? On the American side, many are motivated by a reflexive disapproval of federal spending, and a corresponding desire to decrease spending on psychiatric treatment and disability benefits for servicemembers and veterans. Others fear that honesty about the prevalence of PTSD will hurt the war effort:
Dr. Susan Mather, a former top [U.S. Veterans Administration] official who retired in January as its chief public health officer [says that] "They already have a recruitment problem...the parents of these youth, if they think their children will come back from the military experience changed forever--which they undoubtedly will be; not only changed but disabled by the experience, mentally as well as physically--they are going to be a lot less anxious to have these kids join up. And there's a feeling that if this gets too much publicity and appears to be too widespread, it will hurt recruitment."
But neither of those pragmatic reasons explains the fervor of their attacks on PTSD-disabled vets, or the contempt that drips from Wente's words as she writes about young soldiers in trouble. It seems that there are deeper ideological factors at work. Generally speaking, any argument that individuals may be helpless to escape their life circumstances is threatening to the conservative ideology of personal responsibility. Social psychology research demonstrates that conservatives are more likely to hold the implicit worldview that bad things don't happen to good people, or, conversely, that the troubles people suffer are generally deserved. Finally, conservative discomfort with PTSD is also motivated by the perceived need for aggressive support of the war effort. It's as if they believe that negative effects of war must never be acknowledged, or the case for military action will collapse. In Canada, this is currently being expressed as denial that Canadians are even engaged in war in Afghanistan--the preferred conservative terminology is "peacemaking." (Hello, Orwell!) Clearly, that case collapses if large numbers of Canadian troops engaged in such a mild, inoffensive activity are found to be suffering from major psychiatric trauma as a result.

But the hysterical denial of war's negative effects is most common among conservatives who are far removed from the actual work of combat. Lieutenant Colonel Dave Grossman--a retired U.S. Army Ranger and a professor at West Point, the eminent U.S. Army military university--paints a very different picture:
It is essential to acknowledge that good ends have been and will continue to be accomplished through combat. Many democracies owe their very existence to successful combat. Few individuals will deny the need for combat against Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan in World War II. And around the world the price of civilization is paid every day by military units on peacekeeping operations and domestic police forces who are forced to engage in close combat. There have been and will continue to be times and places where combat is unavoidable, but when a society requires its police and armed forces to participate in combat it is essential to fully comprehend the magnitude of the inevitable psychological toll.
Exactly so. If you believe that war is sometimes necessary, then it is your special obligation to be aware of the human cost of what you are asking your soldiers to do, and to mitigate the damage--with early treatment, when possible, and a supportive safety net for those who don't respond to treatment--to the greatest possible extent. More and more, the military recognizes that. Why don't the conservative hawks?

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

An open letter to the Liberals

A few weeks ago, on the Bloggers' Hotstove podcast, an audibly frustrated Jason Cherniak said that NDP voters should realize that even if we didn't like either the Liberals or the Conservatives, the Conservatives were still worse. This rhetoric is nothing new, of course--the Liberals have been making that same argument ever since there's been an NDP, and sometimes it's even worked. Unfortunately for you, though, those days are over. Poll after poll has shown that your best-case scenario is that nothing has changed since the election, and several other scenarios have been far grimmer. Perhaps more importantly, there's been nothing at all in the numbers to indicate any significant movement to the Liberals from the NDP, despite all your efforts to paint us as the source of all your problems. Bill Graham and company have failed to get through to the million and a half voters your party lost to the NDP because you've failed to take one important fact into account: when those voters look at the last two parties' records on the things they care most about, they find that both look equally bad.

It's true that the Liberals were marginally better on the environment: greenhouse gas emissions may have skyrocketed on your watch, but hey, at least you managed to come up with a couple of halfway decent programs like EnerGuide, while the Tories have produced a big fat nothing. The Conservatives, on the other hand, have been marginally better on ethics and accountability: while the Liberal government ended up embroiled in a scandal in which millions of taxpayer dollars were stolen, the Tories' own scandal "only" meant taxpayers footing the bill for a single convention, and on the other side of the coin they at least came up with a few decent provisions for the new Accountability Act. Neither party has a good record on willingness to cooperate in a minority government situation: the Conservatives were willing to make some of the suggested NDP amendments to the Accountability Act, but unwilling to compromise at all on child care or the environment, and the Liberals allowed the NDP to play a role in your budget, but only after first trying to govern as if you'd had a majority and getting your backs shoved up against a wall. On childcare, the Conservatives produced nothing but a glorified baby bonus, while the Liberals spent a dozen years promising to come up with a plan that you didn't get around to trying to implement until the final hour. The Liberals couldn't manage to do anything on the softwood lumber file, while the Conservatives could only come up with a lousy deal. Neither party has done anything significant to protect public healthcare, promote democratic and electoral reform, or reduce the cost of higher education. The list goes on.

Now, I realize that this sort of reasoning makes Liberals crazy. What you want is for NDP voters to accept at face value the assertion that Stephen Harper is going to destroy Canada as we know it, and that this should logically lead us to vote for the "only viable alternative" (which happens to be your party). But when we really look at the two parties' actual records, what we see are two governments that have been pretty equally out of synch with what we want to achieve. And here's the rub: no matter how much you disagree with us about that, if you want to win our votes, you need to use arguments that will actually appeal to us rather than recycling the same ones that work on Liberal stalwarts. We're a lot more practical than you think we are, and we actually do realize that we're not going to get our ideal government no matter what happens. Historically, those of us who live in ridings where the Liberal candidate needs our vote to defeat a Conservative have been willing to hold our nose and vote for you when you've made a case we could buy. So in the spirit of the sort of intraparty cooperation I've often preached about, here are five things you could do that might actually sway us.

1. Woo us, don't threaten us. Tell us why your guy would be so great; don't just concentrate on why the other guy is so awful. I realize that this is hard to do when you don't know yet who your guy is, but there are plenty of problems you're going to want to solve regardless of who wins the leadership race, right? Tell us what you stand for, because at this point, we honestly don't know. It may well be that you don't know, either, so work on that first, but then don't forget to come back and tell us about what you figure out. The Liberals aren't the default anymore, and you need to make a case for why your vision is a good one.

2. Distinguish yourselves not just from the current Conservative government, but from the past Liberal governments that did things we didn't like. The two biggies here are government ethics and broken promises. At this point you really can't minimize the lingering aftereffects of either your scandal-ridden past or the fact that you've continually promised things you haven't even tried to deliver, so your best bet is to convince us that the next Liberal government would be entirely different. This will be a tricky political play, since it means taking responsibility for your past while at the same time distancing yourselves from it, but choosing a new leader gives you an unprecedented opportunity to do just that. Don't squander that opportunity by trying to pretend none of it was all that important.

3. Stop painting the NDP as the reason why you guys lost the last election. We're not stupid; we know perfectly well why you guys lost the last election. Trying to pass the buck just makes you look like you're not willing to take responsibility for your own mistakes, which is exactly the image you don't want to be projecting. For that matter, when you talk about how awful the NDP is, then we--the very people whose votes you want to lure away--are the folks that you're painting as the enemy. Don't call the woman you're trying to seduce a bitch to her face. We're sick to death of Liberal vinegar, but we might respond much better to a little bit of honey.

4. Ban anything that smacks of entitlement from your collective vocabulary. It might have been the sponsorship scandal that started your slow decline, but it was your "natural governing party" strutting that slammed the final nail into your coffin. To win the next election, you do need to act confident and united behind your new leader, but at the same time, you can't appear even the slightest bit arrogant. You have to paint your new leader as a regular guy with some uncharacteristic humility, not somebody who thinks the only rational choice is the Liberal Party.

5. This one will be hard, but it might just make or break you: during the next election, send a sign that you'd be willing to work with the NDP in the case of a Liberal minority win. Yes, Jack Layton will be charging at you with all his might, but do it anyway. This may sound counter-intuitive, but think about it: it would look pretty appealing to the voters in those Conservative-Liberal swing ridings who really want to trust the All-New-Liberals, but can't quite bring themselves to do it. You might even want to throw the term 'coalition' around--you know, the word that means "both the Liberals and the NDP get to sit on the government side of the House." Yes, it's an unappealing scenario to a party that used to be able to take a majority government for granted, but times have changed. And believe me, if NDP voters had the impression that casting a vote for a Liberal could produce a cabinet that consisted of members of our team as well as yours, that'd go a long way toward making that option more attractive.

The Liberal assumption has always been that NDP voters would inevitably prefer a Liberal government to a Conservative one. It's a logical one to make, but only if you're looking at nothing but the location on a left-right spectrum of the various parties' proposed policies. The problem for you guys is that we've gotten wiser, and have started taking a lot more into consideration than election promises when casting our votes. In the last election, I actually wanted you to lose, and I certainly wasn't alone in that. But while I won't be voting Liberal myself next time (there's no convincing anybody these days that voting Liberal is the best way to oust the Tory in Edmonton-Strathcona), I genuinely hope that I can go back to hoping that you guys win. Whether or not I do, though--and more importantly for the outcome of the next election, whether or not a million and a half other NDP voters do--depends entirely on you.

Slap your national identity on your car

My goodness. There's even a bumper sticker. Who knew?

Sunday, July 02, 2006

And the Tories suck too

While I'm already shamefully repackaging other people's posts as my own, I might as well add that I'm afraid I also have nothing new to add on the Conservatives' cheque-swapping scandal--but Tim at pogge, Cathie From Canada, and Right of Center Ice have it covered.

I'll be back with more original content by next week at the latest, I promise.

Has the NDP been giving the Tories a free ride?

Over the last couple of days, between the zillion and one other things I've been doing, I've been jotting down notes for a post that would repudiate the Liberal accusations that the NDP has been concentrating on attacking the Liberals and ignoring the Conservatives. I was going to use this rabble poster's analysis as a springboard, and lift relevant quotes from Question Period.

I'm scrapping plans for the post, though, because my fellow oxymoron over at Accidental Deliberations has put it much better than I would have anyway. Go read it, and then vote for it over at Progressive Bloggers. This one needs to propagate beyond the Blogging Dippers.

[Update: Apparently, the best Liberal bloggers can do to refute the Jurist's fine analysis and the data from the rabble poster is to regurgitate a Larry Zolf editorial. What, no original words at all? No facts, no specifics, no evidence? Come on, guys, you're not even trying, here. How disappointing.]

[Upperdate: The Jurist at Accidental Deliberations is back with an equally excellent debunking of the assertions in the Zolf editorial. You can move that post up in the Progressive Bloggers rankings here.]