Resisting the pull of cynicism since 1969.

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

All eyes on Alberta

As of yesterday evening, Bill C-38 has passed, and soon women will be able to marry women and men will be able to marry men everywhere across this country. Same-sex marriage had already been legal everywhere but Prince Edward Island, two of the northern territories, and Alberta, so it's not as big a deal here as it would be in some other countries, but it's still a very nice step forward for Canada. While I'm not personally interested in availing myself of this new right, I'm quite happy for those queer men and women who plan to do so, especially here in Alberta.

As for this strange little corner of Canada, all eyes will be turned in our direction while King Ralph "considers his options" on how he and his government can get around this new little problem. There's talk of trying to take the government out of marriage altogether, which,
if you ask me, is kind of a hilariously radical idea. If they really want to push for it, it will be kind of fun to watch the current government turn into radical libertarians and try to convince Albertans that they really don't care about being legally married unless they've had church ceremonies. It'll certainly make the next provincial election a little more interesting. In the end, though, if it's been declared a Charter matter and the federal government has legislated on it, I really don't see what they can do. Though I suppose only time will tell; maybe they'll pull a rabbit out of a hat yet.

The sidebar on this CBC Edmonton story offers up a recent history of the battle for the rights of queer Albertans, ranging from the employment discrimination case of Delwin Vriend through to last night's ruling. I arrived here in the summer of 1997, so in reading through this, it occurs to me that I've watched all of those things happen: the 1999 ruling that allowed same-sex couples to adopt, the 2000 amendment to the Marriage Act, the 2004 decision on the part of Alberta Tories to fight the federal legislation once it passed. Historically I've been a veritable gypsy and not at all likely to live in one place for this long, so this kind of stocktaking makes me feel very entrenched here. It's a very strange feeling, but not at all a bad one; even here, so much has changed in such a short time. The Alberta political culture is an odd mixture of traditional conservatism, small-town laissez-faire attitudes, and a touch of Wild West radicalism that always leaves me feeling both quite foreign and very, very fascinated.

In any case, here's hoping Alberta does the right thing in the end, even if it's for the wrong reasons.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

When an apology is not an apology

The linguistic field of discourse analysis offers up an extensive body of research on what makes an apology an apology, and the first and most frequently cited work in that area is John Searle's 1969 book Speech Acts. Way back in the year of this idealistic pragmatist's birth, Searle laid out the criteria a statement has to fulfill in order to qualify as an apology, and in layman's terms, we can say that it requires two parts: 1) regret (the "I'm sorry" or "I apologize" part), and 2) responsibility (some explicit statement that you were the one who did the thing that's being apologized for). The statement "I'm sorry that I borrowed your jacket without asking," for example, meets both of those criteria. There are several other conditions which will disqualify a statement as an apology if they're not also met (for example, if you don't actually regret the thing you're apologizing for, and are only saying you do in order to curry favour with the apology's recipient), but I won't even get into that here. The basic form is pretty darn basic: regret, and responsibility. They've both gotta be there, or else it's not an apology.

Often, people will use a rhetorical trick in which they make a statement that has a lot of the superficial trappings of an apology, but without one or both of those basic criteria of form. I call these statements "fauxpologies." One classic type of fauxpology is to say something like: "I'm sorry that you're upset about me borrowing your jacket without asking." This fulfills the regret criterion, but not the responsibility criterion, since the speaker is expressing regret not for an action, but for someone else's emotion. Another classic type of fauxpology is to say something like: "I'm sorry if I borrowed your jacket without asking." The responsibility criterion is similarly missing here, since the speaker is expressing regret only if a condition is true, but weaseling out of any admission that it is true. The effect of statements like these, if used skillfully, is to make recipients feel as if they should feel apologized to, despite the fact that no actual apology ever took place. They're not apologies, but rhetorical tricks for weaseling out of taking actual responsibility.

A truly excellent example of a fauxpology can be found in a recent post by Laurie Hawn (the Conservative candidate currently attempting to unseat Anne McLellan in Edmonton-Centre) called Jumping to Conclusions. When several bloggers and a bunch of people over on asked him to apologize for referring to Jack Layton as a "National Socialist", he responded by saying, and I quote: "I'm sorry if capital letters confused some people." Ingeniously, this statement actually manages to function as both of the aforementioned types of fauxpology at once, since it a) doesn't take a stance on whether (his) capital letters did confuse people, and b) expresses regret for something that someone else felt. It isn't an apology, but it is a rather clever little rhetorical trick, one that does seem to have succeeded in confusing some folks out there into thinking it was an apology.

As for this particular idealistic pragmatist, I never took a stance on the whole "apologize" issue--waiting, instead, to hear what Hawn had to say about his reasons for phrasing things that way. And if, as he now says, he actually meant "federal socialist leader" (the head of the socialist party nationally) rather than "National Socialist Leader" (Führer Jack), then I still think what Hawn wrote was pretty darn imprudent, but it wasn't necessary for him to apologize to anyone. But Hawn would certainly paint himself as a far more sympathetic character if instead of blaming everyone but himself and issuing grudging fauxpologies, he were to write something like: "Whoops. I didn't mean to call Jack Layton a Nazi, though looking at it now I can see why people might read it that way. I'm rewording the original post so that it will look less ambiguous." I'd have thought someone who wants to represent one of Canada's most hotly contested ridings might take a little more care with that sort of thing, but I suppose sometimes it's more important to evade responsibility than it is to come off as a nice guy.

Saturday, June 25, 2005

No comment

The Canadian blogosphere exerts a lot of peer pressure on those bloggers who choose not to turn comments on. One-sided monologue, the accusations fly. Newspaper columnists posing as bloggers. And it is true that most of the political bloggers who don't have comments turned on are either professional political journalists like Andrew Coyne or Paul Wells, or other political personae like Warren Kinsella or Monte Solberg. Most of them have explained their choice by voicing a fear of being held legally responsible for what others say on a site with their name on it. And then there's this blog, which also hasn't ever allowed comments, but my reasons behind that choice are a little bit different.

Some of the more minor ones include the following:

1. I really don’t like the way commenting is set up on most blogs. On personal journaling-based sites like livejournal or some more professional-looking blogs like Daily Kos, the comments are threaded so that you have a choice of commenting either on the post or on one of the comments. At livejournal, your comment is even emailed to both the owner of the journal and to the person being responded to, which makes it much easier to keep a real conversation going without having to check back on every one of the ongoing conversations you're involved in. And after all, the only reason to turn commenting on at all is to get real conversations going. Otherwise, why bother?

2. I welcome respectful disagreement, but I see very little of that in the political blogging world. Most of what you see in comments is either fawning agreement or rude hit-and-run disagreement, neither of which I like and neither of which I
particularly want to court here. There’s a lot that goes on out there that I’d rather not have in my backyard, so to speak. And I actually think people are more likely to say what they really think in a respectful sort of way if they’re not performing for others, i.e., if they're sending private email rather than posting comments.

The third and most significant reason, though, surpassing both of those other reasons combined, is that I never really intended to become a political blogger. I enjoy reading political blogs; I actually was a regular commenter on various other blogs for about two years before I ever created this one. I was also already writing regular pieces on various topics and sharing them with my friends anyway (which is why a lot of the posts here are older than the site itself). Eventually, a couple of those friends convinced me that I should really consider creating a blog for my various politically oriented rants so that a wider audience could read them if they wanted to. Because I was already feeling a little annoyed at not having something to put in the "URL" line when I commented on other people's blogs, I wasn't all that hard to convince.

I decided from day one not to take it particularly seriously and only to throw things out there that I was already writing to share with my friends, mostly because I didn't want to feel pressured into writing more regularly than I wanted to. That decision lasted about two weeks. See, the first thing I noticed was that people were suddenly taking the comments I was making on theirblogs a lot more seriously--they were actually generating discussion! Having a recognized name in the blogging community, even a pseudonymous one, seemed to be a free ticket to exactly the sort of thing I was trying to do--have discussions with some of these bloggers whose work I enjoyed--and the more I wrote, the more recognized my name became. And as a side effect, occasionally people would like reading the stuff I had to say, too...and, frankly, it's fun to be read. Gradually, I started developing a greater commitment to this little blog than I'd originally wanted to have. I'm having fun with it, but it takes away from all of the other things going on in my busy life, and I'm not always sure how I feel about that.

So I suppose what I'm saying is that in a way, not having comments enabled is sort of my way of remaining in denial about the fact that I'm now a real political blogger. On the more rational end of things, comments are one more thing that takes time...time I don't necessarily have to spare. I have a limited number of minutes in the day to spend on blogging-related activities, and since my original intention was to be a voracious reader and only a very occasional blogger, most of me would rather spend that time reading and commenting on other people’s posts than responding to comments on mine. I could always just refrain from responding to comments–a lot of bloggers do–but again, why allow them at all if you’re not going to promote genuine back-and-forth conversation?

At the same time, though, I'm also sensitive to the fact that whether it was my original intention or not, I'm now a member of a community, and it's a community that strongly values the option to comment. I understand and respect the reasons behind this, so I'm going to experiment a little with turning comments on. I don't know yet how I'm going to feel about the results, especially given reasons one and two above, so I may turn them back off again. But I want to at least give it a chance.

Friday, June 24, 2005

Laurie Hawn: "Heil Jack!"

Laurie Hawn is a prominent Alberta Tory who almost succeeded in unseating Deputy Prime Minister Anne McLellan in 2004. He is unapologetically right-wing, even for today's Conservatives, and he's won the nomination again for the upcoming election. So imagine my surprise to read a post about health care and the military in his blog this morning and find him referring to Jack Layton, of all people, as a Nazi:

Okay everyone, hands up all who think that the Duty National Socialist Leader, Jack Layton, would put himself at the back of the queue if he (or his wife) needed an MRI. I didn't think so.
There are two possibilities here. One is that Mr. Hawn doesn't realize that the moniker 'National Socialist' has historically referred to one and only one thing, namely a member of the NSDAP, or National Socialist German Workers' Party, known colloquially as Nazis. If this is the case, then I have to seriously question his knowledge of basic political history. The other possibility is that he actually did mean to refer to Jack Layton as a Nazi, in which case I have to doubt not only his judgment, but his sanity as well.

Closure for C-48, closure for us

Apparently, we have a budget. Last night, with support from the NDP and the Bloc, the Liberals invoked closure on the C-48 budget amendment and then subsequently passed it 152-147. Stephen Harper ended up tasting very sour grapes indeed:

So I guess what it should remind Canadians is that when push comes to shove, the Liberals will make a deal with anybody. It doesn't matter if it's with socialists, or the separatists or any bunch of crooks they can find.
Some words of advice, Steve: using 'socialist' as a dirty word and then tossing 'socialists', 'separatists' and 'any bunch of crooks' into the same very odd-tasting pot makes you look like some sort of angry right-wing ideologue. Last I heard, you were trying to dispell that image. Just a thought.

Whatever your political persuasion, though, you've just got to love this Globe and Mail shot. All the backbenchers whooping it up, Libby, Ed, and Alexa with these "woo-hoo!" looks on their faces, Jack applauding sedately, and curmudgeonly Bill Blaikie all: "yeah. so. and you doubted me? that'll teach you."

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Drive-by Paul Wells funny

Still swamped. Still unable to blog properly, probably until next week. Just dropping in to link to Paul Wells' utterly hilarious post from last night:

We've just heard that Pat O'Brien may vote against the government in tonight's confidence votes.

In other news, Pat O'Brien is rumoured to have appendicitis, an ovarian cyst, and a trick knee from college football.

Rumours on the Hill, unverified at press time, suggest Pat O'Brien has been approached by Tim Murphy and Ujjal Dosanjh with thinly-veiled offers of a cabinet appointment; an ambassadorship; or Nina Grewal's hand in marriage if he votes with the government.

Nina Grewal had no comment.

It goes on from there. Read.

Monday, June 13, 2005

Health care and electoral reform

I came home from my summer holiday last night to find Tommy Douglas's dreams torn asunder, and now there's this from Ed Broadbent on the possibility--now non-possibility--of a citizens' assembly on electoral reform on the federal level:

We concluded from that that ultimately the practical decision making of the details, as opposed to the principles, should be made by elected people.
Et tu, Ed? I think I liked it better when I had my head under a nice, sunny, wine-flavoured rock in Kelowna.

I'll be spending most of this week catching up on the work that built up while I was gone, so in the meantime I'll direct you to
Fair Vote Canada on the electoral reform front, and on the health care front to American blogger Ezra Klein's research on different health care systems. I reached a somewhat different conclusion than he does based on my experience living in the U.S., Canada, Germany, and the UK, which I may blog about if I have a chance (the conclusion, that is, not the experience) but it's interesting to see how the bare facts stack up alongside each other. Thanks to Scott Tribe for the tip.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

A bitter pill

I was all ready to post something witty and profound about the news that the NDP is now running nearly even with the Conservatives, and has surpassed them in Ontario. But then the Amazing Wonderdog came along and put it far better than I ever could:

It is a bitter pill to swallow that a party run by a gang of slavering, half-rabid fools and employing a communications staff composed chiefly of baboons, a party which has embarrassed itself at every turn with its manifest incompetence, and a party which has snatched ignominious and final defeat from the jaws of victory with a few badly edited tapes is somehow neck and neck in the polls with the only party in Parliament that counts adult Homo sapiens among its MPs.
Read the whole post. It's rare that a fellow blogger makes me laugh out loud, but this one had me rolling. And it's smart, too.

Monday, June 06, 2005

The strange, narrow world of Pat O'Brien, former politician

Okay, here's the thing. I support equal rights for everyone, including for committed relationships of gay people, straight people, bisexual people, or any combination of the above. This means, among other things, that if women can marry men, I think they should be able to marry women, too--simple logic. In the interest of full disclosure, I'll also state that I'm queer myself, so hypothetically I could stand to benefit from any laws that extend more rights to queer people. But I can't help but react with some amusement to the fact that in a day and age when we're dealing with the threat of international terrorism, people being killed overseas in wars and genocides, various scary environmental crises, and all parties in Ottawa save the NDP acting like children most of the time, the single issue everybody in the friggin' country has a strong opinion on is...whether a certain segment of the population should be allowed to legally marry. I mean, isn't that just a little bit silly?

Oh, I can understand reactions of mild pleasure over this issue among supporters, (since any new rights that we didn't have before are good things), and I can see reactions of mild distaste among people who would rather not be reminded that queer people exist in the first place. But I don't get why anybody's legal marriage should arouse feelings of outrage or ecstacy in anyone. It's just a relationship contract, people. A private relationship contract that affects no one other than the people who decide to sign it, and only changes a few minor life circumstances for those people, too. Either way things go on Bill C-38, no one's going to die, and nobody's going to be saved. It's not going to bail anyone out of a horrible fate, and it's not going to condemn anyone to one.

This is why I can't react to Pat O'Brien's defection with anything but laughter. If he really thinks this one little issue is worth torpedoing his career over, then he's even more of an idiot than I'd realized.

Sunday, June 05, 2005

Packing your bags vs. erecting a firewall

Among the American centre-left, one of the coherent narratives that emerged through the teeth-grinding and wailing after Bush's reelection was "I'm going to move to Canada." For some it seemed to be simply a way of venting frustration, while for others it was probably quite serious, but either way the sentiment was strong enough to cause a backlash, with progressive writers making up lists of the top ten reasons not to do it. I did my part by offering up unsolicited advice from someone who's been there, but mostly I just I found it sad and yet fascinating to watch, in a "boy, am I glad I'm not you" sort of way. What Americans may not realize, though, is that a similar sort of thing is going on right now for Canadian right-wingers. It started after the 2004 federal election when the Liberals managed to win despite the whiff we were already getting of their current scandal, and it only got stronger when the current government managed to survive the May 19th no-confidence vote.

The right-wingers are politically and ideologically my diametric opposites, and yet can't help feeling a sort of affinity for them thorough this--I am, after all, no stranger to political disenfranchisement. It's not an easy thing to be a Canadian right-winger. The closest thing they've got to a fit with their preferred policies--the Conservative party--seems permanently stuck at no higher than 30% in the polls, the same old "scary" memes haunt them no matter how far left they veer, and their archenemies, the Liberals, seem to have a lock on power even through what is arguably the worst corruption scandal in Canadian history. I know just how that sort of thing feels: you want to scream WHY as loudly as you can, or at least shake the other side until they start making sense to you. So despite myself, I find myself nodding and sympathizing when I listen to them, right up until the point where they start talking, not about emigration, but about secession. at which point my evidently still far-too-American brain goes: "what the ... what?"

As with the American liberals, some of them are clearly only seeking a valve for their frustration (see the comments sections here, here, here and here, and things like this post and this Café Press shop), while others sound quite serious indeed. But I find it quite puzzling that both the knee-jerk and the reasoned responses centre not on removing oneself from a less-than-optimal sociopolitical situation, but on removing entire regions. Despite the fact that there's a culturally and geographically similar country nearby that already encompasses many of the conservative values they espouse (and a free trade agreement with that country that makes moving there comparatively easy), I'm not hearing a single angry voice shouting about how they're going to up and move down to Bush country. Not a single acquaintance, not a single blogger, not a single journalist.

See, the much-reviled "love it or leave it" sentiment has always made a certain amount of sense to me. Not in an angry, "how dare you breathe the same air as a True Patriot" sort of sense, but as a calm, reasoned response to social and political disenfranchisement. If you don't love the country you live in, why wouldn'tyou leave it, or at least give it some serious thought? I left, and it was one of the smartest moves I've ever made. Secession as an answer to political disenfranchisement, by contrast, seems like an attempt to use a chainsaw to perform brain surgery. Not only would the end result probably be a series of bloody civil wars, assuming you actually got that far, but it also just seems like it's a ridiculously difficult goal to try to achieve, especially for Canadian right-wingers. Public opinion isn't exactly on their side (even in the region they're proposing should secede), and even if it were, there are all sorts of legal roadblocks that would make actual success extremely difficult if not impossible.

For an armchair anthropologist like me, especially one who's already been through a lot of the thought processes involved in situations like this and come up with a very different solution, this is a fascinating cultural difference. And yet the explanations that immediately leap to mind are cliché-laden and full of holes. While Americans are Rugged Individualists who Remember Their Immigrant Roots, Canadians Think More As a Collective. (I hardly think the independent-minded right-wing Albertans would agree with that characterization.) Americans are Generally More Mobile, and therefore More Willing To Think of Moving as a Solution Than Those Stay-Put Canadians. (While there may be some truth to that, that hardly seems to be an adequate explanation, especially given that Canadians actually tend to travel more to other countries than Americans, not less.) Any pat answers like that are necessarily going to ring false, because getting at the roots of this difference involves teasing out the answers to four questions: one, why don't the Canadian right-wingers talk about emigration; two, why do they talk about separation; three, why don't the American left-wingers consider secession; and four, why do they consider emigration.

I don't think I have a complete handle on it, but I think a lot of the difference lies in the two countries' rather different cultural histories. While the Americans already had their bloody civil war, Canadians haven't "been there, done that," and are therefore possibly less likely to reject secession out of hand. The American left also already had the experience, during the Vietnam War, of fleeing to Canada and being taken in, so there's precedent there. And on the Canadian side of the coin, there's the Quebec model--many westerners, even those who would never support secession, react to the entire "distinct society" concept by saying: "well, but we're a distinct society, too!", and there's a federal party with an awful lot of seats in Parliament based entirely around the notion of Quebec separation. Disenfranchised western right-wingers may see the Quebec separatists' success--not in terms of actually achieving their goals, but at least in terms of using them as a powerful political tool--and think: "Why can't we have some of that, too?" By contrast, historical reasons why Canadians have gone to the U.S. have been economic rather than ideological: along the lines of "nurses get paid more down there, so I'm going to go work there for a while," and since so much of the Canadian identity is tied up in not being American, few would consider it as a permanent move. And in the U.S., while there may be plenty of jokes about Jesusland, there's never been a serious movement for, say, an independent California.

I'm sure there are a lot of factors I'm missing, though, so I'd love to hear from you if you have further thoughts. I am endlessly fascinated by this, and I think I'm only just beginning to understand it.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

He meant that Grewal should wipe his feet gently

Say what you will about Tim Murphy, but there aren't many guys out there who could compare the Liberal party to "a welcoming mat with lots of comfy fur on it" and not be laughed out of the room. It's quite impressive, really. I mean, how difficult must it be to win prizes for ethical misconduct and the worst metaphor ever in one fell swoop?