Resisting the pull of cynicism since 1969.

Tuesday, May 31, 2005

More on the liability of the Christian right

This is even less statistically sound a sample than the Macleans end-of-year survey, of course, but the Globe and Mail's online poll for today reads: "Do you think politicians should let their religious beliefs guide them in their legislative decision making?"

At last count, the 'nos' had it by a pretty wide margin.

Monday, May 30, 2005

More on the Balkanization of the blogosphere

In several places, most recently in his request for new members of the Alberta Bloggers blogroll, The Grandinite has put forth a theory that geography should be a more meaningful uniting force in the blogosphere than political alignment:

Some potential members have expressed concerns that the blogroll would be dominated by right-wing bloggers, and have stated that they would prefer not to link to blogs of the opposite end of the political spectrum. I say that this is precisely the divisiveness that Alberta Blogs hopes to overcome. Instead of focusing on where people are divided politically, I think it is imperative that we focus on common ground. Everybody has something in common, and by sharing that we can be engaged in more civilized and enlightening blogosphere communication.
While I did, in fact, join the Alberta bloggers, I don't quite buy into this theory, and there are two reasons for this. The first is based in the very nature of the Internet, which serves to break down geographic boundaries rather than reinforcing them. The many advantages of Internet-based communication include the ability to exchange information quickly across great distances and the ability to do this without the need to coordinate where geographically the communication occurs. If we were primarily interested in joining forces with people based on physical location, we'd be meeting up at a local bar or joining a club; we wouldn't be broadcasting our thoughts into the big, wide world. If anything, I think there is too much geography in the blogging world--Canadians, for example, will tend to read only other Canadian blogs with the occasional American one thrown in, but most would never think of reading a British or German or South African one. Americans are, if anything, even more provincialist than that (rendering the analysis that even otherwise excellent bloggers try to offer about other places embarrassingly superficial). Really, we'd all learn a lot more if we looked beyond geography to broader horizons.

My second reason is that classic forms of patriotism, whether they be national or regional, have never made much sense to me. I can feel lucky that I get to live in a particular place, I can feel appreciation toward it or even a sense of duty, but I can't feel loyalty. Oh, I'm all for the attitude that if the government of a province (or a larger jurisdiction such as a country) has done great things for the people who live within it, those people should try to give something back. But the fact remains that jurisdictions such as provinces and countries are pretty mutable (if you don't believe that, just ask a former resident of East Germany or Yugoslavia). If the place I live turns out to stand through and through for things I can't support or respect, I need to reserve the right to reject it and consider the alternatives. I chose Canada because its political culture encompasses values I felt I could support and contribute to, but if that were to change irrevocably, I would absolutely consider going somewhere else, just as I did when I moved here in the first place. Call it treason, but I call it a reasoned and sensible response.

So essentially, I think geography is fairly meaningless in the blogosphere, and my loyalty to any geographic location is always going to be circumspect at best anyway. But that doesn't mean that I think surrounding yourself with political clones of yourself is the answer, either. I've argued against the Balkanization of the Canadian blogosphere before, and as the eclectic mixture of names on my blogroll will indicate, I do regularly read people whose political opinions differ from my own. Since the Grandinite's challenge, I have been making an effort to expand my horizons even more. And really, what I'm looking for in a blog is a smart, thoughtful blogger who has interesting things to say and can write about them well. While it can in fact be gratifying to read a post where someone puts his finger on a viewpoint I've been trying to express myself, that's quite secondary.

If anyone wanted to start a blogroll called "Smart, Thoughtful Bloggers With Interesting Things to Say," well ... I don't know if I'd quite qualify, but I'd still try to comply with the rules!

Sunday, May 29, 2005

Justin Trudeau performs a miracle

One of my favourite books in the history of the universe (because one cannot be too superlative about this lovely thing) is Richard Lederer's Anguished English. My dad bought me mine on a family trip to New York City when I was about nine, and my sister and I took turns reading bits from it across the table to each other, making the whole family collapse into rather inappropriate giggle fits in a much-too-fancy restaurant. One of the chapters consists of a section of blooper headlines (all disturbingly real), such as "Grandmother of Eight Makes Hole in One" or "Doctor Testifies in Horse Suit" or "Iraqui Head Seeks Arms" or "Miners Refuse to Work After Death." Anyway, that's what the current top Globe and Mail headline made me think of: Justin Trudeau ties knot in Montreal. (Can't you just see the little ink sketch that would accompany it?)

What I want to know, though, is this: does that mean that, say, the neighbourhoods of Westmount and St. Henri are now folded on top of each other? Is this a new effort on the part of the next Trudeau generation to intermingle les anglais with les français? If so, he's even more innovative (and bolder) than his father.

Friday, May 27, 2005

The liability of the Christian right

The Globe and Mail has an article by Gloria Galloway and an editorial by Jeff Simpson today about the role of Christian activists in the Conservative party. The main thrust is that Stephen Harper has to worry about how much clout is given to them, as there's a looming danger of reinforcing the public perception that the Conservatives have a "hidden agenda":

From the Simpson editorial: The result must be to give these religious conservatives at least greater influence in a party that already has several handfuls of such men and women in the parliamentary caucus. Their candidacies pose a difficult political challenge for Stephen Harper, who must give some solace to these conservatives on a few issues without appearing to be beholden to them.

From the Galloway article: "The difficulty, from a party perspective, is that it begins to hijack the other agendas that parties have," said Ross Haynes, who lost the Conservative nomination in the riding of Halifax to one of three "Christian, pro-family people" recommended by a minister at a religious rally this spring in Kentville, N.S. Candidates who are running on single issues such as opposition to same-sex marriage "probably can't get elected because they certainly don't represent any mainstream population view," Mr. Haynes said.
I'm sure there are lefties and Liberals across the country who react to pieces like this by wringing their hands at the prospect of right-wing Christian candidates, but this immigrant can't manage more than a satisfied grin. See, the very fact that these candidates are a news story rather than par for the course pleases me endlessly. It brings to mind the Macleans year-end poll for 2004, which indicated that the concerns of Harper and Haynes on this issue are not misplaced. One of the questions they asked was: "Do you think political leaders should be using their religious beliefs to guide their actions at all times, sometimes, or never?" and the responses were: "At all times," 9%, "sometimes," 24%, and "never," 65%. Sixty-five percent is a pretty telling number. The truly fascinating statistic, though, was what emerged when they looked at the results from the poll responders who had already identified themselves as evangelical or born-again Christians. At that point the numbers looked more like this: "At all times," 18%, "sometimes," 30%, and "never," 49%. Nearly half of the born-again Christians sampled stated that politicians should never use their religious beliefs to guide their actions.

To someone who grew up in a country where even Democrats need to flash their Christian credentials to be considered electable, that's nothing short of astounding. Just thinking about it still makes me giddy. I get to live in a country where even the leadership of the Conservative party has to consider social conservatives a liability. I get to live in a country where not only the general public, but also Conservative leaders worry about things like this, and think they're a problem. Maybe someday I will stop feeling like a kid on Christmas morning about that, but it's not today.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

A love song to Edmonton

I have joined the Alberta bloggers, as I both have a blog and live in Alberta. According to their procedures for joining, I'm obligated to write a post announcing to the world that I am a "proud Albertan." Unfortunately, my feelings about Alberta are a little too complex to squeeze into a pat little phrase like that, and as an immigrant I'm not sure I'd qualify as a genuine Albertan anyway. So I'm hoping they'll accept this little piece about my adopted city instead:

At the time I came to Edmonton for my job interview, I was a candidate for two positions, one at the University of Alberta and the other at an Ivy League university in the United States. Back then I was sure I'd prefer the latter one--while immigrating to Canada had been a long-term dream of mine, my fantasies had always placed me in Ontario. It only took a walk down into the river valley, a trip on the LRT, and shopping in Old Strathcona to make me change my mind. I remember thinking, on the very first day: "If I never get to come back to this place, I will be very sad." Now it's home, in a way no other place
in the life of this gypsy has ever quite been.

I love the ethnic and cultural diversity, I love the festivals, I love the rainbow of restaurants, I love the music and theatre scenes, I love the farmers' markets. I love the proximity to the Rockies and the wide open spaces that surround it
, I love the almost complete lack of noxious insects. I love the sometimes frustrating but never dull political culture, I love the way each neighbourhood is different from the last. I love the river valley and the ravine and all the city parks and the glorious bridges. I love the skyline: new flanked by old. I love the kitchy riverboat ride and the elegant glass walls of the Muttart Conservatory and the silly-but-educational Fort Edmonton Park. I love the university in all its crazy enthusiasm. I love the queer community, I love the cycling community. I love that it's just big enough. I even love the things I don't care about: the hockey and football and baseball teams, the military base, the museums and galleries, and the goddamned West Edmonton Mall. I love that this is a city diverse enough to be loved by people who aren't like me at all.

I love the weather. Yes, you heard me right. There's something just plain glorious in seeing it still sunny in the dead of winter, and blowing on the snow on my car windshield and actually clearing it that way still makes this old Midwesterner laugh. And you can argue, but you won't convince me that anywhere in the world does summer like Edmonton: sixteen hours of daylight, a different festival every weekend, skies the colour of sapphires and even more beautiful, and the frenetic energy of a million other people who are as ecstatic as I am to be right here, right now, and nowhere else. It's probably a few weeks yet before I'm legally a Canadian, but I've been an Edmontonian since the day my moving van arrived here eight years ago.

If I were a poet, I'd write this place a sonnet. Since I'm not, this'll have to do.

The darker side of last week's vote

Everywhere I look, people are telling me how thrilled I should feel by last week's vote. They have a point. The NDP managed to implement some of its core principles in C-48, and in the process they also got to look like the only mature beings in the whole of Ottawa. No immediate election means that several bits of important legislation on the table are much more likely to pass, most obviously the same-sex marriage bill. For me personally, it probably means I'll be able to vote when the election does finally come around (I'm "thisclose" to attaining official Canadian citizenship, and thereby full voting rights). All truth, and yet the "thrilled" feeling never quite hit. In its place has been, as James Bow also noted, a feeling straight out of the "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" musical: Where do we go from here?

Part of the reason for this is, of course, purely a matter of coming down from the excitement of the past six weeks. I'll refrain from the most obvious and lewdest of analogies, but I think we all know that there's something profoundly dissatisfying in being all ready to go, only to find that you're actually going to be in a holding pattern for an unspecified length of time. But even more than that, I can't help feeling that this was a hollow win. I'm becoming more convinced with every additional bit of Gomery testimony, with every additional dirty trick the Liberals pull to stay in power, that this government needs to go down. While I certainly wouldn't hold every single Liberal politician personally responsible for the sponsorship scandal, it's become more than evident that the whole mess penetrated so many different parts of this party that it's impossible to tell the clean from the dirty. They're going to need to clean house, and by that I mean get rid of not only the ministers and staffers who were directly involved, but everybody who was a minister or a key staffer during either the Chrétien or Martin eras. Some people will say that this is throwing the baby out with the bathwater, but it's the only way to make absolutely certain the party is clean.

Because in the end, what's at stake here is so much bigger than the fortunes of one single political party; it's about people's faith in the entire political process. This scandal has made your average Joe on the street even more mistrustful of politics and public servants than I would have ever thought possible, and that's not just loathesome, it's frightening. I have spent so very much time in the past few weeks arguing against the notion that all politicians are inherently corrupt, power-hungry bastards who shouldn't even be allowed to walk the earth. Smart people are of course aware that it's a cliché, but it's one they're feeling more and more comfortable in supporting, and that scares the crap out of me. And while my conniving pragmatist on the one hand is thrilled that the NDP will be able to milk that situation and probably win over some new voters, my idealist still believes that a healthy country has a system that supports a whole spectrum of viable political options.

See, my biggest complaint about the political situation in the U.S.--and the thing that ultimately made me want to leave--wasn't about the fact that the Republicans tend to win more elections than the Democrats. Not really. It was much more about the fact that in a two-party system bunched up toward the right wing of the spectrum, there's simply nowhere for politically active social democrats to go. I'm seeing something similar going on right now for Canada's centrists, and while I'm glad for the NDP to gain a few reluctant, nose-holding votes in the process, it shouldn't have to be that way. People who are primarily aligned with Liberal principles shouldn't have to choose between voting for arrogant corruption and voting for policies they don't support. In the long term--and this has been an exceedingly long term--that only leads to more political disillusionment.

My greatest fear if the Liberals win another election is that this kind of disillusionment will become a permanent fixture on the Canadian political scene. For that reason alone, the Liberals should lose the next election. This is not a party that's going to clean house without being forced to, and they're not going to come back renewed without a good long time-out. And I really wish I could sit down with all the progressives who are wibbling about how Prime Minister Stephen Harper would spell the end of the goddamn world. I'd get them to weigh a couple of years of a weak Conservative minority government with no viable coalition partners against a tired, corrupt Liberal government holding onto power in perpetuity by tooth and claw. I'd ask them which of those is really better for Canada in the long term.

So yes, everyone is right: last Thursday was a victory. A lot of good things will happen as a result, and a lot of bad things will fail to happen. But I still can't shake the feeling that this victory will end up being more Pyrrhic than genuine.

Sunday, May 22, 2005

Coyne disables comments

While I rarely agree with journalist-cum-blogger Andrew Coyne, he has, with only one exception, always impressed me with his well-considered arguments and clear, focused writing. The comments section of his blog, however, has become a Canadian Free Republic, a haven for the right-wing fringe to spout intolerant, irrational garbage. Well, apparently, Coyne has had enough of this, and is disabling comments:

The comments have frankly gone to seed, overrun with western separatists, Bilderberg conspiracy theorists and various other cranks. Last night I spent several hours weeding out a quite disgusting thread speculating on the sexual preferences of various politicians, and the secret gay network that had supposedly infiltrated the Canadian government, and I have no wish to ever soil my hands that way again. [...] I have no desire for this site to serve as a clubhouse for hard-right wackos, usually anonymous, with way too much time on their hands.
He'll almost certainly be getting his share of hate mail, but I for one support this measure. For someone who has distinguished himself as a rational, thinking conservative, it has to have been increasingly uncomfortable for him to have people like that riding along on his coattails. Good for him.

Saturday, May 21, 2005


Jack Layton: "Naturally we have concerns about any conversation that suggests or even begins to discuss even the remotest of possibilities explicit or otherwise that there would be positions available or not available in exchange for votes. That is the kind of thing that causes real consternation amongst Canadians."

Jack! Put down the Ph.D. and back away slowly!

Peter MacKay: "I'm going to go home and maybe walk my dog. Dogs are loyal."

Psst. Peter. The "my heart is so broken" approach worked better than the "these grapes are so sour" one.

Friday, May 20, 2005

The longest election campaign in Canadian history

So the Canadian government has survived a confidence vote, and has lived to see another day. How numbered their days are, however, is still an open question. The Toronto Star's Chantal Hebert calls today "the first day of the longest election campaign in Canadian history," and that couldn't be more apt. For weeks now, the major parties have been holding nomination meetings, choosing candidates, gathering funds, and candidates and strategists on all sides were poised and ready for an election to be declared for the end of June. And with the excitement and drama behind us now and Ottawa heading back to business as usual, I know I'm not the only one thinking: "If not now, then when?"

There are no answers to that; only more questions. In approximate chronological order:

* Conservative leader Stephen Harper filed a notice of motion last week that proposed a no-confidence vote on the upcoming May 31st opposition day (specific days on which the opposition is allowed to set the agenda in Parliament). He isn't required to stick to this, and almost certainly won't if he doesn't think he can win, but this is would be the next opportunity they have to attempt to bring down the government, and he still hasn't ruled that out. If the government fell then, we would be looking at an election in early July.

* In addition to the May 31st date, parliamentary rules dictate that there must be at least four other opposition days before the summer recess on June 26th. And as with the May 31st date, those days can be used to put forward no-confidence motions.

* The two budget bills that passed yesterday also still haven't reached their final stage; they still need to come back for the report stage and third reading. If the sands of opposition fortunes shift between now and then (for example, if they eked out a surprise win in the May 24th Labrador byelection, or if a Liberal MP could be convinced to cross the floor), they could use that opportunity to attempt again what they tried yesterday.

* Another confidence vote that will take place before the summer recess is the one where the House is asked to approve the regular government spending for the year.

* If the government survives until after the summer recess, there will presumably be more opposition days in the fall session that could be taken advantage of if the timing seemed right.

* At the very latest, Paul Martin has promised to call an election within thirty days of the final Gomery report, which is currently scheduled for release in mid-December. Presuming he would wait the full thirty days, that would give us an election call in mid-January, and an election somewhere around the end of February.

The election reprieve could therefore last anywhere from another few weeks to nine long months. Given the Liberals' strengthened position with Stronach at their side, however, the later dates seem likelier than the earlier ones. Then again, when was the last time anything has happened in Canadian federal politics that's been *likely*? Anne McLellan could still decide to run away and become a Buddhist monk. The Liberals could serve tainted salmon at a party fundraiser that could permanently indispose five or six MPs. Paul Martin could decide to divorce his wife and marry Cheryl Gallant, and she could cross the floor as a wedding gift to him. At this stage, I'd believe anything.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

The fictionalization of the no-confidence vote

It's becoming clear that there are a bunch of closet political fiction writers over at the Globe and Mail, and it's frankly looking more like John Wells' "West Wing" than Aaron Sorkin's. This morning's second-tier headline: "MacKay pleaded with lover Stronach into wee hours". The article--i.e., NOT an editorial--also unironically and without quotation uses the phrases "made a confession that ripped out his heart," "pleaded with his ambitious colleague and lover" and (I am not making this up), "nurse his heavy heart." It also refers to his home in Nova Scotia as being located near "gentle rolling hills and a soaring pine forest under a blue sky." In addition, they also have a series of photographs outlining the key players in today's no-confidence vote, introducing them as if they were characters in a film, and one of the other headlines spells out "The plot thickens as critical vote looms."

There are pros and cons to having an election now, and there are pros and cons to having an election later. But either way the vote goes, today we're going to be in for some marvelous political theatre. So grab some popcorn, kick back, and enjoy. We'll worry about the practical repercussions of it tomorrow, but today is all about the action, suspense, mystery, and, yes, romance that is Parliament on May 19th, 2005.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

In B.C., 'yes' has the edge

With all eyes on the fate of Belinda Stronach's relationship, something truly unprecedented may be happening in British Columbia. And I'm just a little stunned.

See, most of the time I think I've got a pretty good grip on what developments are likely to actually occur and what ones are not. Sometimes, though, something wonderful and completely counter to expectations threatens to happen, and I start feeling like I'm really some closet pessimist in idealistic pragmatist clothing. From the Globe and Mail:

The Yes forces in British Columbia's battle for electoral reform are demanding the newly re-elected Liberal government press ahead with changes to the voting system, despite incomplete results in Tuesday's referendum. Ballot counting was suspended early Wednesday with the Yes side leading in 72 out of 73 ridings that had reported results so far. The province has 79 ridings. To succeed, the referendum proposal that would give Canada its first system of proportional representation needs a simple majority in 48 ridings and a 60 per cent majority in the provincewide popular vote.
On the other hand, the last time something like this happened, I went to bed thinking the federal NDP would almost certainly hold the balance of power in the House of Commons. So I'm just going to go hide with my head under the pillow for a while, would somebody wake me up when all the votes are counted? Thanks.

[Update: The initial counts indicate a majority that falls short of the 60% threshhold, with a final vote count to follow on the 30th.]

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Belinda's choice and some of its consequences

In case I have a reader or two who happen to live on the other side of the moon and haven't heard about this yet, let me start by pointing everyone at the story of the day. In a nutshell: Conservative MP Belinda Stronach has crossed the floor and is now sitting as a Liberal.

This would be a big deal any day of the year, but it's a far bigger deal a mere two days before a vote of no confidence based on some rather precarious math. To recap: There are 308 seats in the House of Commons, but one riding is vacant, which means that whichever side ends up with 154 votes is the one that wins the prize. The alliance between the Conservatives and the Bloc has 153 votes, and the Liberal-NDP pseudocoalition has 150, so both sides fall short of the magic number. This leaves the three Independents. Most recently, Carolyn Parrish has said she would vote with the Liberals and the NDP; Chuck Cadman has said he'd vote according to whatever his constituents tell him in a poll, the results of which should be in tomorrow; and David Kilgour has said he's inclined to vote to bring the government down, but will vote to support them if Canada commits 500 Canadian combat troops to help protect refugees in Sudan. The prime minister seems disinclined to do that just to please David Kilgour, so it's been looking pretty certain that the Liberals would lose on Thursday by at least one vote (i.e., Kilgour's), and possibly two (i.e., Kilgour's and Cadman's).

So what does this mean politically? Well, the most important thing, of course, is that it makes the math precarious again. It's looking less and less likely that the alliance of the Conservatives and the Bloc will have enough votes to defeat the government on Thursday. The Conservatives have already said that if they're not successful, they will let sleeping dogs lie and stop trying. The prime minister has also promised, in his highly publicized television address, that he will call an election himself within thirty days of when the Gomery inquiry reports. We don't know exactly when this will happen, but it will be sometime later this year. This puts us in a situation where we might have an election as early as the end of June, but we could also have one in July, August, or even sometime in the fall.

Just so that the process story doesn't overshadow the actual practical consequences of this, let me also bring up a couple of other possible political consequences of Stronach's move. The first thing that comes to mind is that if the existing Liberal government survives through June, the same-sex marriage legislation will pass. If it survives longer than that, we could still see the Liberals' national child care plan come to some form of fruition, and even the decriminalization of marijuana, currently stuck in committee. And of particular importance to this proportional representation fan, it's interesting to note that Stronach is now a cabinet member, and one of her new responsibilities is Democratic Renewal. She's also far more open to entertaining the possibility of proportional representation than just about anybody else on that side of the aisle. This may be almost enough to offset the huge loss the movement will sustain by having the eyes of the media entirely on Stronach instead of on the B.C. referendum. Here's hoping.

Monday, May 16, 2005

In B.C., the 'yes' vote is climbing

I'm on the executive for Fair Vote Edmonton, the local chapter of Fair Vote Canada (a multi-partisan citizens' campaign arguing for a voting system that incorporates at least some measure of proportional representation). At our annual general meeting last month, we discussed the fact that the current referendum in British Columbia on the STV form of proportional representation was almost certainly to fail, though not because people were necessarily against it, but because they didn't know enough about it to vote yes. Among those who did know about it, we were told, there were more in favour than not, but unless more British Columbians informed themselves before Election Day, the likelihood of reaching the 60% threshhold necessary for it to pass looked pretty slim. I figured this was unlikely to change in just a month, and therefore haven't really been paying regular attention to polls on the subject.

Apparently I gave up too soon. With the B.C. provincial election now twenty-four hours away, things may finally be moving out there in Lotus Land. According to journalist-cum-blogger Andrew Coyne (a fellow supporter of proportional representation):

In the last couple of weeks, interest has surged. And as people have informed themselves, support for electoral reform -- the particular model before the voters is called the single transferable vote, or STV -- has grown. The latest Ipsos-Reid poll puts the Yes ahead 55-45. That's still short of the 60% needed -- plus a majority of the vote in 60% of the province's ridings -- but it's getting closer.
I'm still not holding my breath that this is going to work out, but I'll have all my limbs crossed until the end of the day Tuesday. I still prefer mixed-member proportional to STV, but if B.C. makes this happen, the chances of citizens' assemblies on voting reform being established in other provinces (and maybe even federally) suddenly shoot way, way up.

Tangentially, I have to add that one of the exciting things about being involved in the push for proportional representation has been the non-partisan nature of the issue. There's something really kind of wonderful about sitting in a group of people whose views are diametrically opposed to yours in almost every way, but still agreeing to put aside your differences for the sake of this one conviction you have in common. Coyne, who's clearly been paying more attention to B.C. than I have, says this seems to be the case there as well:
Meanwhile, a grassroots Yes campaign has made the case for reform through the media. And I mean grassroots: both business and labour have largely stayed out, in terms of any largescale mobilization of money and manpower. Indeed, the whole debate has crossed party and interest-group lines. There are New Democrats who love STV, and union leaders who hate it; conservatives in favour and business leaders opposed; and every other combination.
Now if only we could teach Ottawa a thing or two about playing nicely with others!

Sunday, May 15, 2005

The naiveté of cynicism

Given the current political climate in Canada, it's perhaps unsurprising that there have been a lot of songs sung in praise of cynicism these days. From the teeming masses to Rick Salutin (who seems to have assumed the position of the Globe and Mail's patron saint of cynicism), everybody's been pretty quick to agree that politicians are simply a corrupt lot, and it's therefore unfortunate but unsurprising that the Liberals have been caught doing naughty, naughty things with taxpayers' money. As someone who has little time for cynicism (see tagline above), my first reaction to the pervasiveness of this attitude was despair, and my second one was anger. But then a realization set in that melted all that away. You see, cynicism, for all the respect it gets from an awful lot of pretty smart people, is actually pretty ... naive.

I mean, think about it: Idealists get a bad rap for not being able to critically examine evidence and draw hard conclusions based on it. But this kind of universally-applied scornful negativity demonstrates at least as strong an inability to think critically or draw any kinds of nuanced conclusions. The assumption that politicians are all inherently bad because some politicians have done some bad things is a hugely flawed way of perceiving the human condition. Politicians are human beings, and as such they're possessed of the same flaws and the same merits as any of the rest of us. This implies that like the rest of us, they'll be doing good things some of the time, and some other part of the time they'll be either screwing up or screwing people over. But apart from clinical psychopaths, no one is as self-serving as a true cynic wants to make them out to be. And I'll even take it one step further than that: those who choose to demonize or dismiss entire groups rather than asking hard philosophical and psychological questions about what makes us all do bad things sometimes don't even deserve to call themselves thinking people.

While I certainly agree with Justin Trudeau that the Liberals need a good long time-out, I have no illusions that replacing them with the Conservatives or even the NDP would give Canada a government that would do the right and ethical thing all the time. On the other hand, I also don't believe the fact that politicians are human beings implies that voting or campaign work is a complete waste of time. We may not be able to divide the world into the black and white of "good guys" and "bad guys," but there are certainly better policies and worse policies, acceptable behaviours and unacceptable ones. And if, while we're working to elect the people who genuinely want to serve the public and whose ideas and ideals we can respect, we simultaneously take a long, hard look at the things about our system that make it easier for fallible human beings to take advantage of it, then real improvements suddenly look a whole lot more likely. Dismissing politics as a whole by saying that no decent candidates really exist and that true systematic reform is impossible isn't merely cynical; it's sloppy thinking. And while sloppy thinking may well make for the occasional amusing political cartoon, newspaper column or blog post, it's certainly not the foundation we want to be building the future of the country on.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Peak oil perspectives

Anybody who's been a part of the left wing of the political spectrum for any length of time has always been at least dimly aware of the concept of an impending global oil shortage. Until fairly recently, though, it's been discussed as one potential environmental catastrophe of many. Maybe our landfills would overflow and encroach on our cities, maybe we would pollute the air until it became unbreathable, maybe we would run out of water, maybe the oil wells would run dry. Which one would happen first was never an issue because we could stave them off for a while by recycling, supporting green power, using low-flow shower heads, and driving less frequently. And besides, all of these horrible things would probably all happen after we were long dead anyway, so they wouldn't have an impact on us personally.

These days, though, an impending oil shortage has gotten a lot more press, and is being discussed as something that might well be imminent, if not already happening. For about three years, a growing group of people has been using the Internet to spread the word about what has come to be known as the "peak oil" movement and how it could change the lives of us all. A few Canadian bloggers have recently started paying attention to the issue, and I myself started sinking my teeth into it last fall. From what I've learned, there seem to be five major perspectivs in this debate, each of which has a very different outlook on the near future. This website, which does an excellent job summing up the differences between them, has respectively dubbed them the "Pollyanna scenario," the "optimistic scenario," the "plateau scenario," the "pessimistic scenario," and the "Head for the Hills scenario."

So what does this particular idealistic pragmatist think? Well, first off, I really don't think the Pollyanna scenarios--the ones that have the oil not running out and us living in a world full of ever-increasing industrialization and oil consumption without any immediate repercussions--seem terribly credible. Most of the online material I've read from these folks has been incredibly sarcastic, as if it were more important to make fun of the people who believed in the more pessimistic scenarios than it was to say anything of substance, and even the more serious stuff has an air of "la la la I can't hear you" about it. But leaving those scenarios out still leaves a pretty wide range of possiblities, each of which I think is as likely as any other to actually happen, ranging from the "we're going to be crunched, and the future is going to be hard, but we'll eventually make it through and maintain a high-technology, low-energy society" perspectives through to the "most of us are going to die, very soon, and those who survive will end up living in a post-industrial wasteland" perspectives. Mainly, I think we don't know, and can't know, exactly what's going to happen, and while the great minds of the world will theorize all they want, nothing they say is going to change that simple fact. When it comes to the peak oil question, I am deeply suspicious of anyone who claims to have all the answers, and equally suspicious of points of view which seem to be inexorably tied up with a particular ideology. Anyone who tries to predict the future from a knee-jerk political stance is going to automatically going to be granted somewhat less credibility from me from the get-go, even if I'm sympathetic to a lot of what they stand for.

In practical personal terms, this means that I don't believe in making drastic changes to my life based on potentially false assumptions about what we think might happen, but sticking my head in the sand isn't an option, either. I might not know precisely how the future is going to change, but I am convinced that it will change, and I believe that there are things I can do now to make some of those potential futures a lot easier on myself. I can decide to eat healthy foods and exercise regularly now, so that I won't be as likely to have any self-inflicted disabilities if life suddenly were to get a lot harder. I can learn skills now that could be of great benefit under a more pessimistic scenario and which wouldn't hurt me to have under a more optimistic one. I can list and develop skills and traits I already have that could be of use in a post-industrial economy. I can decide not to take on any more pets after my current ones die, so that I won't be responsible for any small furry beings who might live twenty years into an unknown future. I can decide to see the world and spend time with faraway people I love now, because someday it might not be feasible or even possible. But no matter how much thought I give this stuff, it still all boils down to the fact that we just don't know what's going to happen. If, like some of my friends, I could convince myself that the more pessimistic scenarios were right on the money, it would actually be freeing in certain ways, because if you know how things are going to go, you can actually make plans. You can decide to quit your job, sell your house, and live off the land in a commune to try to make the inevitable future a little easier on yourself when everybody else wants to join you in another ten years. You can decide to move to a warmer or a cooler climate where you won't need heat or air conditioning when the worst happens. You can decide to quit donating to and working for causes that matter to you, and stop worrying about conserving power because hey, no matter what you do right now, you're all doomed anyway. I really think that kind of thinking is a trap, though, because not only do you end up working yourself into an unnecessary frenzy, but you're virtually certain to be wrong about some pretty major things. And where does that leave you then, not to mention the rest of the world?

So for now, I'm just going to keep reading, keep thinking, keep learning, and most of all, keep enjoying the life I have, whatever that life ends up being. (While I go on recycling, supporting green power, using low-flow shower heads, and driving less frequently, of course.)

Web references:

Books written for lay audiences: Academic papers:
  • Bunger, JW. 2003. Peak oil production. Oil and Gas Journal, 101 (40), 10, October.
  • Bunger, JW, Crawford, PM, Johnson, HR. 2004. Is oil shale America's answer to peak-oil challenge? Oil and Gas Journal, 102 (30): 16, August.
  • Campbell, CJ. 2002. Petroleum and people. Population and Environment, 24 (2): 193-207, November.
  • Duncan, RC. 2003. Three world oil forecasts predict peak oil production. Oil and Gas Journal, 101 (21) 18-21, May.
  • Edwards, JD. 2001. Twenty-first-century energy; decline of fossil fuel, increase of renewable nonpolluting energy sources. American Association of Petroleum Geologists, 74: 21-34.
  • Kelleher, K. 2004. How long will the oil age last? Popular Science, 265, 2, August, 33-4.
  • van Mourik, M; Shepherd, R. 2004. Investment incentive concerns overlooked in peak-oil debate. Oil and Gas Journal, 103(10): 18, March.
  • van Mourik, M. 2002. Peak oil and economics: some lessons from offshore. Energy Exploration and Exploitation, 20-1 (6-1): 61-69. Special issue.
  • Williams, B. 2004. Next big thing: peak oil. Oil and Gas Journal, 102 (15): 15-15 April.
  • Williams, B. 2004. Peak-oil, global warming concerns opening new window of opportunity for alternative energy sources. Oil and Gas Journal, 101, (32) 18, August.
Web-board or interactive blog discussions on the topic:

Why Stephen Harper should be worried today

As anticipated, last night's House of Commons vote passed a motion calling on the government to resign. Stating that this is was not procedurally a vote of non-confidence (and technically, they seem to be correct in that), the Liberals have refused to step down.

The real story here, though, isn't in the overall outcome of the motion, but in the details of a few individual MPs' votes. As I've mentioned before, the math of this matter is such that the fate of this government will ultimately rest in the hands of a few Independents. And it seems that both of the Independents who were present (David Kilgour and Carolyn Parrish) voted to keep the government in power. The only reason this particular motion was able to pass was because of the absence two Liberal MPs and of Independent Chuck Cadman (who was in the middle of a chemotherapy treatment at the time of the vote, but who has previously stated he would likely vote with the government). If all three of them had been there to vote with the government, then the motion would have been a tie, which would be broken by the Speaker, who is a Liberal:

Two Liberal cabinet ministers, Irwin Cotler and John Efford, missed the vote, as did Independent MP Chuck Cadman, who is recovering from chemotherapy. Mr. Cotler was in Montreal at the funeral of a close relative, and Mr. Efford was having medical treatment in Newfoundland.

Mr. Cadman said he has yet to decide how he would vote on a no-confidence motion and said he would need a few days notice if he were to attend a vote in the future.

Had all three been in the House and voted with the Liberals, the Speaker likely would have broken the tie by siding with the government. Last night's numbers suggest the Tories can't be assured of future wins on no-confidence motions.

The Tories flew in two MPs who have cancer, Dave Chatters and Darrel Stinson, who got standing ovations from all parties when they rose in the House for an earlier vote.

Independent MP David Kilgour voted with the Liberals, but said he will do so on a future no-confidence vote only if the government takes strong action in Sudan.

So what this motion really does is remove some of the mystery surrounding the way Independents like Parrish and Kilgour would likely vote on an official no-confidence matter, and the results suggest that if the Liberals can get everybody to Ottawa on the day it happens, we may not be seeing a spring election after all. Politically the Liberals look pretty bad today, but unless Harper can get Cadman on his side, this vote was anything but good news for the forces who are calling for Paul Martin's head on a platter.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Another case for proportional representation

A Globe and Mail editorial published today makes a case today for a tweaked version of MMP, or mixed-member proportional representation. This is similar to the system I brought to people's attention last year as "the German system." I'd still prefer the actual German system, but it's great to get some of these ideas out there. The editorialists outline the findings of the Pepin-Robarts commision in 1979 to add 60 seats to the House of Commons to introduce a degree of proportional representation while preserving the direct links between voter and representative at the heart of a single-member constituency system. The purpose? Resolving regional underrepresentation and alienation, which "corrodes national unity." The Globe then explains that in 2004, the Law Commission of Canada proposed a system in which two-thirds of the seats in the House of Commons would be allocated as they are now (with elections within ridings and the winner taking the seat), and one-third would be selected proportionally.

As the Globe goes on to say:

Essentially, such a mixed electoral system is the approach this newspaper endorses. Canada would benefit from an injection of proportionality into its single-member constituency system. While such a blended system introduces its own challenges (not all members of Parliament are equal; some have constituents and some don't), it is probably the least of the many potential evils out there. The presence of some MPs without constituency business should help raise the quality of committee work, an important check on the power of the executive. Moreover, these "proportional" MPs would also have to face the voting public, albeit by region rather than by riding. And by introducing regional representatives directly into the House of Commons, the mixed system produces a recipe for Senate abolition (though that abolition would require reopening the Constitution). [...]

Many proponents of electoral reform are looking not just for greater proportionality but for cultural change. They prefer minority governments, believing they will promote coalitions and consensus-building and thereby introduce more representativeness and civility into legislatures. While civility would be a welcome development, we prefer a system that, while more proportional, still allows for strong governments led by coherent parties. Last week's budget shenanigans in Ottawa should be warning enough of the perils of letting small parties gain disproportionate leverage over large ones. Making this the rule rather than the exception would be bad reform. [...]

The advantages of a mixed electoral system are many. Voters would still know their local representative and could petition him or her on issues of concern. Election results would more closely approximate overall intentions without rendering majority governments an endangered species. New parties would have a better chance of gaining entry to Parliament, but, with a threshold of 5 per cent in any region to qualify, the bar would be high enough to discourage extremely narrow parties. Accountability would be preserved.

The art and science of journalistic narrative

I could hardly be a bigger fan of American journalist Brian Montopoli. His analysis over at the Columbia Journalism Review blog of the way the U.S. news media covers political events is always unusually astute, and his scathing critique of my beloved (and much-missed, since my emigration) National Public Radio may have broken my heart, but it couldn't have been more accurate. But although his latest piece roasting the new boss at U.S. news channel CNN is as well written as ever, it seems to circle his point without ever quite hitting it. This is because Montopoli is missing a crucial element: that of the art and science of narrative.

Montopoli begins by telling us that the new CNN president, Johnathan Klein, has been lauded as a hero of the journalistic revolution because he's bringing the public more news and less spin by emphasizing the character-driven story, or narrative arc, in the events CNN reports. Then Montopoli shows us how this theory actually plays out in practice, offering up the example of how the 24-hour news station focused almost entirely on the runaway bride story in hour after hour of coverage over this past weekend. This isn't news, Montopoli argues, this is the quest for a classic narrative arc without any regard for substance:

Klein claims that CNN has "been working hard to find provocative, character-driven news stories. We've been emphasizing storytelling." If it wasn't before, it's pretty clear now what Klein means by "character-driven": he wants stories with clear narrative arcs, with heroes and villains whose roles can be conveyed in twenty-second blocks. The problem with this philosophy is that neither news nor life is ever so neat.
The key missing piece here is that the narrative arc, based on what linguists and psychologists have learned in researching the phenomenon, is an inherent part of the way the human brain makes sense of personal experience. This structuring of life happens every time a child tells his teacher about why his homework is late and every time one spouse tells another about the crazy antics of the boss that day, and remarkably, narrative exhibits the same basic structure across languages and across cultures. Although people certainly vary in their skill at recounting stories, all narrative of personal experience has a central conflict, a build, and a point or a "punchline" when it can be declared finished. One thing we learn as young children as a part of the acquisition of our native language is how to pick and choose among our experiences to sort them into a narrative; in other words, how to recount only the things that are deemed relevant for the story to flow into an arc. When people tell stories about the boss tripping over his shoelaces, for example, they will leave out things that don't move the story toward the Big Payoff (like the secretary being absent that day or the fact that it rained that afternoon). And the preferred ordering of events in a narrative of personal experience often isn't chronological, but the way that makes for the best build to a climax.

As Elinor Ochs and Lisa Capps point out in their brilliant work of psychology and linguistics Living Narrative: Creating Lives in Everyday Storytelling, this structure isn't merely optional; it's essential. When people recount the events of their lives to others, they don't spout off disjointed details; they transform those events into narratives of personal experience with a clearly identifiable structure, every single time. When a witness testifies in a courtroom, the ordering of the questions the lawyers ask and the way he structures his responses help both participants co-structure events in to a classic narrative. Studies in the nursing profession have found that nurses who are able to transform the daily events of their job into narratives not only have a better chance at avoiding burnout, but they also tend to be better nurses. And in the realm of psychology, learning how to sort events into a narrative arc with a clear beginning and an end is a key component in how sufferers from post-traumatic stress disorder recover, and how people with learning disabilities can learn to cope with their neurological problems. Narrative can't be dismissed as a mere journalistic oversimplification of life; it's a crucial part of the way the human brain works. And when journalists write up news stories as narrative arcs, they're doing what every last one of us does on a daily basis: making sense of the world around us in the very best way our brains are equipped to process it.

The real problem isn't with the journalistic practice of teasing a narrative arc out of otherwise disjointed events, and it's not that "neither news nor life is ever so neat." The problem is that when CNN offers up an endless parade of runaway bride relatives as news, what they're peddling is more akin to the narrative arc of a bad romantic comedy than the narrative arc of a Booker Prize-winning novel. And as Canadian journalist Paul Wells regularly points out, it's not just the obviously superficial stories that are the culprits, either. When political journalists provide news consumers with an endless loop of stories telling us that the outcome of the anticipated no-confidence motion against the current Canadian government could "all come down to Chuck Cadman's vote!" and recycle the same tired old clichés about "explosive testimony" at the Gomery inquiry, they're not giving us astute political analysis, they're giving us a popcorn flick. And while the latest episode of "The Libranos" may well be entertaining enough to keep newspapers flying off the stands and all eyes glued to the CBC for a while, it's not going to teach us very much about how exactly things got the way they are or what this tells us about our political process, and it's not going to outline the steps that whoever forms the next government can take that might prevent things from going the same way again.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Can I be Slovenia?

It was only about a year ago that I was bragging to Rivka of Respectful of Otters fame about how lovely it was that the Canadian blogosphere wasn't splintered ideologically the way the U.S. one is. What a difference a few months makes. What we're seeing happening, right before our eyes, is the Balkanization of that blogosphere, starting with the Blogging Tories and followed up by the Blogging New Democrats and then the big-umbrella left, the Progressive Bloggers. In a few years, we'll all be analyzing how it all happened, so take notes while you can.

I find the whole phenomenon both exciting and sad. Exciting because it's made otherwise invisible blogs suddenly visible, which is a wonderful thing. Sad because it seems we're destined to turn into the echo chamber that the U.S. blogosphere is, and I don't like that one bit. Blame it on the polarization of the current political climate, blame it on the rapid growth spurt of Canada-specific political blogs, blame it on something else altogether, but I'm already feeling kind of nostalgic for the good old days when everybody but everybody was reading Andrew Coyne and Warren Kinsella even if they didn't agree with a thing they said.

To counteract this trend, I'm going to go out of my way to keep reading my daily dose of right-leaning blogs alongside the usual suspects, and I'd encourage others to do the same. Let me recommend Andrew Coyne, Colby Cosh, and Bound by Gravity; I rarely agree with anything they say, but that doesn't stop me from being continually in awe of the way they say it. And Balkanization may be inevitable, but I'll keep fighting the lousier side effects of it as long as I can.

Monday, May 02, 2005

In the news: no to spring election, yes to proportional representation

A spring election grows less likely all the time. Chuck Cadman is now saying he'll probably vote with the government on a no-confidence vote, and if that doesn't work, Martin may try wielding the Sword of Senate Appointments:

Sunday on Question Period [the television show, not the parliamentary procedure], independent MP Chuck Cadman indicated he will likely vote with the Liberals and the NDP on a non-confidence issue. If two other independents -- both former Liberals -- also stick with the government, it's unlikely that a Conservative-Bloc Quebecois motion could pass. And there might be other moves in the works to deplete the opposition's strength. CTV's Ottawa bureau chief Robert Fife reported Sunday that Liberals have been talking to four Conservative MPs about accepting Senate seats in the coming weeks.
And the Globe and Mail is indicating that even some Conservatives are starting to doubt the need to unseat the current government, and even their deputy leader Peter MacKay seems more chastened than anything:
Tory deputy leader Peter MacKay struck a similarly ambiguous tone . "I wouldn't call it inevitable," he said yesterday. "I think that the leader will still want to hear from caucus and get a cross-section of feedback from right across the country." Mr. MacKay noted that, given the balance of forces in Parliament and several cases of ill health among MPs on both sides, the Tories may not be capable of toppling the Martin government.
As if that weren't enough, there's been a flurry of interest in proportional representation over the past few days. Be still, my MMP-loving heart. Last night on CPAC there was a documentary called "A Fair Race" (including Ed Broadbent declaring that we'll probably have MMP here in Canada within two elections). The Globe and Mail is also doing a huge spread on it this week, and to kick things off, we've got an editorial arguing "if it's broken, fix it":
Critics say all this talk about voting reform is a waste of time. The voting system works fine as is. If it ain't broke, why fix it? In fact, our current first-past-the-post system has grave failings. It is time to change it. [...] Federal elections regularly produce wildly disproportionate results. In the 1979 Pepin-Robarts report, the Task Force on Canadian Unity observed that in every federal election since 1896, the winning party had ridden to power with more seats than its portion of the national vote would have suggested. Slight shifts in voting could translate into massive seat accumulations, as in 1935, when the Liberals nearly doubled their seats from 91 to 173 even though their vote shrank by half a percentage point.
In the same paper, Geoff Read argues that the alliances we're seeing among federal parties lately are how things *should* work, and are in fact actually what the public wants:
Despite the predictable outcry from Canadian conservatives, the present alliance between the NDP and the Liberals is, in fact, the logical expression of the electorate's will. Were the Canadian electoral system more truly democratic, utilizing a form of proportional representation, the seats held by the Martin Liberals would have been significantly reduced and the NDP's increased. The Liberals would then have faced a choice between forming either a coalition government of the centre-right, incorporating the Conservatives, or the centre-left, in co-operation with the NDP.
Voters in British Columbia are in the middle of an election that includes, alongside the main aim of electing a new provincial government, a referendum on whether to stick with first-past-the-post or opt for a form of proportional representation. Polls have shown that the yes votes are in the majority among people who know about the referendum, but since an astonishingly low number of people do know about it, it's seemed doomed to failure. Here's hoping this sort of thing serves to educate a few more people.

Sunday, May 01, 2005

Why I *can* join the Progressive Bloggers

The debate surrounding the emergence of the Progressive Bloggers has been really interesting to follow. I'm sympathetic to the argument Greg at Sinister Thoughts makes that "Liberals do not share the same point of view as New Democrats, who also have differences with the Greens," and in fact, I'm generally pretty opposed to unite-the-left movements. I still hopped on the bandwagon, though, and I don't see that action as inconsistent with my views. See, to me, the blogosphere is more about ideas than it is about parties. I am a partisan New Democrat, but this is not a New Democrat blog; if I hold an opinion that's out of synch with the party line and feel like talking about it here, I'm not going to let a party membership stop me from doing that. On the other side of the coin, I'm not going to stop being critical of the Liberals simply because I share a blogroll with some of them. Group blogrolls are about nothing more than making it easier for your blog to be found by people who might want to read it. Anyone who wants to read anything more into it than that is squinting too hard, as far as I'm concerned. Besides, do the NDP-leaning bloggers really want to let the Liberal-leaning bloggers lay claim to the term "progressive"?

By the way, I've also tried to join the
Blogging New Democrats, but despite the fact that I sent Robert of MyBlahg fame my URL several days ago, I haven't gotten a) added to the list, or b) a response to my emails. Is anyone else having this problem?

The quotable ... Mr. Murphy?

Did anyone else notice that today's Globe and Mail is the first one since Jean Brault's testimony that didn't have anything about Gomery or Canadian federal politics above the fold? Maybe everybody involved has secretly gotten together behind the scenes and declared an unofficial Day of Rest, a moment to catch their breath.

What we do get is Rex Murphy's column about how things were destined to explode in this way because we didn't have hockey season this year, which is actually more amusing than annoying for once. It also includes this little gem:

The radiations from the Gomery commission keep the whole play in motion. Warnings from Alfonso Gagliano — that Paul Martin, by initiating the Gomery inquiry in the first place, has inevitably set the stage for the breakup of Canada — rewired chutzpah from the ground up. If the sponsorship mess has renewed the separatist cause, it is a truly bold ingenuity to blame the inquiry into the mess for what that mess has so perversely achieved. I hope no doctors were watching. Illness will now be the fault of diagnosis; we'll blame the Band-Aid for the cut, and the cough on its syrup.
Show of hands, now: how many of us were already thinking something much like that, albeit somewhat less clever?