Resisting the pull of cynicism since 1969.

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Blogging partisans and partisan blogs

Last November, James Bow wrote a post about who he thought should win the various Canadian Blog Awards, and among other things, he said that I ran "the best NDP blog." Now, don't get me wrong, it was delightful to get an endorsement from someone I respect as much as I do James. But I had never thought of myself as writing an "NDP blog," and the characterization brought me up short.

I tried to tell myself that I was just splitting hairs--that I'm a New Democrat and I blog, so of course I have an NDP blog. Heck, I even belong to the "Blogging Dippers" blog aggregator. But something just didn't sit right about the label, and the more I steeped in it, the more it felt like a description that just didn't fit what I was trying to do with my blog. It reminded me of why I hadn't taken Greg Staples up on his offer to appear on his Bloggers' Hotstove podcast after the first time: I told him that if I could be sure it'd just be about shooting the breeze with a bunch of bloggers of different political stripes, that would be one thing, but if the extreme partisanship of a couple of his panelists was going to box me into the corner of Speaking For The NDP, I didn't want to play.

But still, I couldn't quite put my finger on why the idea bothered me so much until two posts came along: one that discussed the difference between blogging partisans and partisan blogs, and one that exemplified it. The first post, written by James Bow about the Wajid Khan floor-crossing, talked about how Conservative blogger Stephen Taylor had broken the story because sources inside the party had leaked it to him. The post then went on to muse about the pros and cons of partisanship in blogging, likening Taylor to Liberal blogger Jason Cherniak:

Just as Jason Cherniak has been co-chair of Stephane Dion’s blog campaign, and a reliable partisan blogger for both the Ontario and federal Liberals, Stephen Taylor’s work in organizing the Blogging Tories and his apparent relationship with insiders within the Conservative Party make him as much of a mouthpiece for the Conservatives as Jason is for the Liberals. And, indeed, I envy Stephen. He has himself a considerable plum to put on his resume, not to mention a possible future as an official within the Conservative Party — up to and including political candidacy. Like Jason, you’re looking at one of the future movers and shakers in this country.

Which should be fine, so long as, from this point forward, Stephen knows that he will be seen progressively more as a mouthpiece of the Conservative Party, and less his own man.
The second post, written by the aforementioned Jason Cherniak on his blogging anniversary, talked about the way Jason saw the direction of his blog in the upcoming year, and laid right out on the table the fact that he viewed his blog as a force to do good things for his party:
In the coming year, I look forward to a provincial election in Ontario. There may also be a federal election, but I'm not holding my breath. It will really depend on whether Harper wants to force one by putting forward a budget that no other party can support. Whatever happens, I will continue to do my best to help the Liberal Party because I believe that we Liberals offer the best option for Canadians.
Now, James talks about how he envies people like Stephen Taylor and Jason Cherniak their positions as bloggy conduits for their respective parties, but here's the thing: I don't, not at all. If the NDP were to come to me and offer me a similar deal, I wouldn't even have to think about it before turning them down. I find the very idea a little distasteful, in fact--for me, political blogging is about an individual or, in the case of a group blog, a group of individuals, writing up opinion pieces about whatever occurs to them. If I disagree with the NDP about something, I will do so respectfully, but I'm still going to write about it--reams and reams, if it's something I care about. If somebody from one of the other parties does something that makes the NDP look good, I'm not going to strain to find something to say about it just to spread the word. And most of the time, I'm going to be writing about things that aren't partisan ideas at all--things like electoral reform and election speculation and campaign strategy--because those are the kinds of things I actually have something unique to say about.

Don't get me wrong: I really am a partisan New Democrat. Like Jason and Stephen, I, too, want to help my party, and in fact I spend a lot of my free time doing just that. I'm just not interested in doing that with my blog. So if what you're here for are well-argued treatises on NDP policy or debunkings of all the ridiculous things that get said about the NDP by bloggers and the mainstream media alike, you're definitely in the wrong place. (For that, you actually want Accidental Deliberations, who writes the real "best NDP blog.")

I'll end by illustrating my point with a list of some of my favourite contrarian posts from partisan bloggers whose blogs are nonetheless not partisan. These are people who admit their biases upfront, but still aren't ashamed to call their parties out when they deserve it:

Political Staples
Bound By Gravity

Calgary Grit

New Democrats
Thought, Interrupted by Typos
Rational Reasons

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Postscript to the echo chamber post

If I had an "IP's greatest hits" sidebar, one post I'd put there is "Blogging, feminism, and critical thinking." I wrote it way back in November of 2005, in response to the last uproar over Canadian women bloggers.

If you've joined me since then (likely), and you're inclined to go back and read bloggers' old posts when they've been dubbed particularly good (somewhat less likely), it might interest you.

Monday, January 29, 2007

The cancer cure Big Pharma won't let you have? Maybe not.

The story's long gone cold by now, but I was very interested to read the posts from a little over a week ago about a potential cheap cure for cancer that Big American Pharma was ostensibly going to keep from us. "Very interested" because my very own partner is a cancer vaccine researcher at the National Cancer Institute in Washington D.C. (as well as a lefty Canadian who has no great love for Big Pharma), and she hadn't mentioned word one of this to me.

We had a bit of a back-and-forth about it, but in the end I decided that it would be better to let her guest-blog what she had to say than try to come up with a coherent post about something about as far from my area of expertise as, say, zero-gravity hockey for gerbils. So without any further ado, it's over to my girl. You can call her Christie. Oh, and I've told her you guys don't bite, so please don't make a liar out of me!

There's been a lot of discussion over the past few days about the cheap, readily available, putatively safe, potential cancer treatment, dichloroacetate (DCA). Never having heard of the compound, I did the first thing I always do when word of a new cancer 'cure' hits my Inbox and headed straight for my beloved Google Scholar.

DCA did shrink some tumours in mice. It did not, however, eradicate those tumours and its mechanism of action is such that it will frequently leave behind cancer cells to cause recurrences. In addition, the mechanism of action makes DCA largely ineffective against small metastases and it's the metastases that kill the majority of cancer patients.

The safety profile of DCA also requires more study. Peripheral neuropathy is extremely painful and is only a minor side effect if the alternative is death. I'd far rather lose my hair, vomit on multiple occasions, and deal with decreased blood cell counts--side effects of currently used cancer treatments--than experience peripheral neuropathy. In addition, DCA exposure is linked to both kidney and liver damage, the latter potentially leading to liver cancer, so patients might end up right back in the oncologist's office.

Leaving aside for the moment whether or not this is actually a viable cancer 'cure', it seems that some people are up in arms over their belief that Big Pharma will refuse to work towards getting DCA into the clinic because it's off-patent and they can't get even richer off of it. If that's what they end up deciding to do, it's a perfectly reasonable choice for those companies to make.

It costs a not insignificant amount of money to get a drug approved for use in the U.S., even when the drug is already being used for another condition or being used elsewhere in the world, and why should any company spend the money when every other company will start selling the drug as soon as it's approved, without making the same kind of investment?

Business owners, would you be willing to make a large financial outlay that all of your competitors will profit from, to the detriment of your bottom line? Would any of you be willing to pay to build a house and then let all your neighbours move in and live rent-free while you and your family camp out in one room? If so, you're a better person than I am.

It's also not automatically true that Big Pharma will stay clear of DCA. For one thing, the PR value of 'curing cancer' cannot be underestimated. Being able to claim to be the company that 'cured cancer' is worth money in the bank, even if everyone else will eventually be selling the same product.

Furthermore, if there is one thing drug companies excel at, it's finding ways to redesign drugs in order to extend a patent or to get a new one.

Most importantly for cancer patients and the people who love them, if there is any value at all to DCA in the treatment of cancer, the drug companies will go right to work creating new chemical compounds that work on the same pathways, only more effectively and with fewer side effects. Any one of those new compounds could prove to be a real cure for cancer and I trust that very few people who have been raising a fuss about DCA and the pharmaceutical companies will refuse the cure if they have need of it.

Finally, there's one very important point that I feel is being left out of this discussion: telling medical researchers what they must research can be as bad as telling them what they must not research. (*cough* stem cells *cough*) Perhaps I'm just taking this too personally, though. I'll tell you what I'll do: you can come over to my lab and tell me what to research next, if I can come over to your place of work and tell you how to do your job.

That echo chamber challenge again

I quit reading him back when his blog became All Gomery Bitterness All the Time, but apparently Warren Kinsella made a list of "the top ten bloggers", adding as part of the intro that "WE NEED MORE SMART FEMALE BLOGGERS NOW!" In response, then, complaints promptly rang out across the Liberalsphere that he just wasn't looking hard enough.

Big ol' smooches to all the Liberals who crossed party lines to mention me. But speaking of that, while I agree wholeheartedly with the objection--especially since Mr. Kinsella seems to have implied that the existing female bloggers aren't really all that smart--I'd be even more inclined to take note of the fact that almost all of the "top ten bloggers" according to Mr. Kinsella are Liberals. We really haven't even made a dent in that echo chamber, have we? How disappointing.

So assuming that we're not all actually interested in hearing our own opinions repeated back to us tenfold, here's the new, revamped challenge: If your blogroll contains only fellow partisans of your own personal stripe, find someone with different opinions and see if you can't at least find something in their writing to respect. If your blogroll contains only fellow Canadians, try picking up a British or Australian or American blog and look at the world from another direction. If your blogroll contains only (or even mostly) men, have a look at the above posts, or page through BlogHer, and see if you can't find a woman or two to add to it.

Come on, it'd be good for you. (And not just in that lima bean sort of way, either.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Fundamentally different paths? Prove it.

Over at pogge, Ian Welsh points us at a Thomas Walkom column in the Toronto Star about the Maher Arar fiasco. Walkom's thesis is this:

Ottawa's decision to compensate Canadian Maher Arar for its role in his unlawful imprisonment and torture contains a warning and a lesson.

The warning is that Canada and the U.S. are on fundamentally different paths when it comes to matters of terrorism and human rights. The lesson is that until Ottawa gets more aggressive with our friends in the war on terror, a Canadian passport won't mean much.
While I agree wholeheartedly with Walkom's criticism of the U.S.'s actions, I think he gives Canada way too much credit. Yes, it was a good thing that the Canadian government officially apologized to Arar, and compensated him financially. But we can never let ourselves become self-congratulatory about that simply because the U.S. is still treating Arar even more despicably than Canada treated him.

We can't forget that there was a reason an official apology and several million dollars in compensation were necessary. We can't forget that the very Canadian who issued that apology, when he was leader of the Conservative opposition, was one of the people who helped sow suspicion against Arar once upon a time, and that several people below him directly accused Arar. And most of all, we can't forget that being one step better than the U.S. in matters of terrorism and human rights is hardly something to pat ourselves on the backs about, but a terrifically unambitious goal.

An apology for contributing to the deportation and torture of a Canadian citizen is what needed to happen, but it doesn't come close to proving that "Canada and the U.S. are on fundamentally different paths." We only get that honour once we prove that we'll be willing to stand up to the U.S. and assure that nothing like this can ever happen again. And as far as I'm concerned, the jury's still out on that one.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

How not to write polling questions

Like at least one other blogger, I have been participating in the Innovative Research Group's Canada 20/20 online political surveys for over a year. Their most recent survey, which I filled out a few weeks back, focused on Kyoto and the environment.

I often find their questions somewhat difficult to answer, but there was one on the last survey that took the proverbial cake: choosing between "Canada must do its part to fight global warming, and implementing the Kyoto accord is the best way to do it" and "Canada must do its part, but implementing the Kyoto accord is just one way we can do it". If you believe, as I and many others do, that Kyoto is important but not nearly enough, what do you check?

After some deliberation, I finally checked the second unsatisfactory option. And what do we find today? A headline in the Ottawa Citizen (hat-tip to Political Staples) declaring that "Voters will forgive PM for ignoring Kyoto" (!) because "59 percent" say that Kyoto is "only one possible way to go."

*throws up hands*

From the "disgruntled westerner" file

Hear this, eastern and central Canadian readers: Alberta had a good three-week bout of -30 in November. The prairies had a blizzard last week. B.C. has seen so many out-of-season storms that they don't know from one day to the next whether they will have power.

Why am I telling you all this? To give you context for my annoyance at Canada's "national" Weather Network for declaring that WINTER FINALLY COMES TO CANADA because there's finally been a bit of snow in Ontario.

Bully for them that their country is so small. Mine is rather larger.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

"The most opaque nation in the world"

In many ways, my "blogfather" Ian Welsh is the classic U.S.-bashing Canadian that people like Larry Zolf mean when they bring up the stereotype about Canadians hating Americans. The difference between Ian and the guy who blindly recites smug platitudes about "melting pots and cultural mosaics," though, is that Ian not only thinks for himself, but he also lays out his arguments so convincingly that he makes it awfully difficult to disagree with him.

I have long thought that with a bit of editing, his posts should be required reading in U.S. high schools. He'd provoke people, sure, but he'd also get them thinking critically about their country and its ideologies, which could arguably help undermine the very characteristics he criticizes. And his comments section is pretty good, too.

(Hat-tip to Declan.)

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Electoral reform: what's likely and what's possible

I'm still catching up (it's amazing how out of the loop you feel after almost a month of complete radio silence!), but there has been some interesting speculation about the NDP demanding legislation on proportional representation in exchange for propping up the Conservatives' budget:

Scott Tribe says that the NDP is "in as good a position as at anytime during Martin’s minority tenure to demand it."

Green blogger Kevin asks "is the time now right for pro-rep, Mr. Layton?" and reminds us that Layton promised to make the issue "a big part of any discussion."

The Jurist points out that the Conservatives have "put forward a shorter process to evaluate PR and other democratic reforms - but also shown signs of rigging it against PR as an outcome."

Sinister Greg reminds us that while "the Tories are going to spend $900,000 to study electoral reform," there was actually already a study done by the federal government's Law Commission several years ago. (Aside: Fair Vote Canada took on a lot of copies of that study when Harper scrapped the Law Commission entirely a few months back, so if you're curious to look at it, you might want to contact them.)

My own thoughts about this run along three tracks:

First, I'm still not convinced that there's any one thing Harper can offer the NDP that will get them to support a budget that contains so many things they oppose. If, rather than offering a single full concession on one issue, the Conservatives were willing to compromise just enough on all of their positions enough for it to result in the kind of piecemeal centrism that tends to come from Liberal governments, I could see them having more success (albeit grudgingly from all sides).

Second, if we suppose that there is one single thing the NDP is going to be willing to bend on and damn the rest, that single thing is going to be serious climate change legislation, not electoral reform. This is both for policy reasons and for political ones. After all, as important as we poligeeks know electoral reform to be, it's still not as important as helping to save the planet, and even if it were, the public certainly wouldn't see it that way.

Third, if we enter the realm of full-fledged fantasy and suppose that the NDP would be willing to sacrifice everything else for electoral reform, any Conservative-NDP cooperation on making proportional representation happen would still get hung up on the form that reform should take. See, proportional representation is an issue on which it's easy to know the basics while still having a lot of misconceptions about the minutiae. And as long as the Conservatives persist in believing that a Mixed-Member Proportional system would necessarily allow party hacks to gain unprecedented amounts of power (not true), and as long as the NDP persist in believing that a Single Transferable Vote system would require large ridings (not true) or isn't really proportional representation (not only not true, but ludicrous), they're kind of at an impasse. Both the Conservatives and the NDP have a couple of MPs who know enough about the geeky details on the subject, but they're not the heavyweights, and the heavyweights don't seem to be listening to them. It's depressing to have the entire issue turn on misinformation, but it's the main reason why I don't see any real NDP-Conservative cooperation on electoral reform at any point in the future.

And a Happy New Year to you, too. Bah, humbug.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Reporting for duty

*peeks out from under rock*

*picks self up, dusts self off*

So. Anybody want to give me a rundown of what's been happening while I've been hibernating?