The Man Who Said Too Little

Ok, I need to make a confession. There was once a time where I would say without too much reservation that, “I would be comfortable voting for John Tory as Mayor of Toronto.” I won’t specify how long ago that time was, but it was well before his campaign officially got under way. Back then the common objection would be that “he’s basically just a nicer Rob Ford.”

Well folks, it turns out that we were all wrong. I definitely wouldn’t vote for the loon, and he is nothing like Rob Ford. Today he really brought that home for me, when he unveiled his traffic and congestion plan. You can find a ‘story‘ about it here. What’s interesting about this, and his campaign in general is the breathtaking paucity of ideas that it encapsulates. Continue reading The Man Who Said Too Little

Crimea and Misdemeanours

Bad puns aside, the recent intrigue in Crimea has been responsible for more nonsensical political blustering than any single international incident in the past decade. It has been a curious exercise to sit back and watch everyone work themselves up and deliver half-baked analyses based on laughably outdated assumptions. Please note that all of my assumptions are fully baked.
Continue reading Crimea and Misdemeanours

Oh yeah, torture…

I’m not sure why this wasn’t more of a story during the election, but the Afghan Detainee issue has once again made the papers.

Afghanistan’s internal security service and police use torture and other abusive methods to extract confessions from suspected insurgents held in a number of detention centres around the country, according to a report today by the United Nations mission in Afghanistan.

Now, I don’t want to say that these are new allegations. They aren’t. The story here isn’t that Canada continues to turn over people (including children) for abuse; it’s about three things:

  • The abuse was plain to see.
  • It was easy to prevent.
  • The federal Government waited for years to clamp down on it, despite it happening in plain sight.
  • Oh, and of course that we re-elected a government that was complicit. There’s that too.

    The fallacy of the taxpayer

    This post has been percolating for a while, and I was motivated to write it by a Royson James column I read a couple of weeks ago. For the first time in a long time I actually have finished everything I needed to do this weekend, so I actually have some time to write. So I’m going to write about what I like to call “The Fallacy of the Taxpayer.” As a prelude, lets talk about fallacies.

    Generally, falacies are false notions or beliefs, but more specifically when it comes to discourse it is any type of reasoning or device which renders an argument invalid. In politics I like to define ‘fallacy’ as an argument or device which is deliberately used to reduce the level understanding necessary to form an opinions. Now I’m not going to naively argue that if we just argued factually and reasonably it would all be a better place. There is nothing in human history to suggest that this is remotely possible. But we can still work to maintain some level of intelligent discourse.

    Which brings me back to “The Fallacy of the Taxpayer”. To me the Fallacy of the Taxpayer is a device which seeks to re-frame a voter’s understanding of their relationship with government through the lens of taxes paid against services directly received. It’s a very simple device to use, and it is one that we all see more and more. We talk about ‘respect for taxpayers’ or, refer to the taxes that people pay without any rational discussion of what those taxes actually pay for. The point is that everyone does it now, because it has been so successful that people no longer think of themselves as citizens, but taxpayers. Lets take a look at the definition of those two words:

    Taxpayer: a person who pays a tax or is subject to taxation.
    Citizen: a native or naturalized member of a state or nation who owes allegiance to its government and is entitled to its protection

    Notice the differences there? The first describes only what a person does, whereas the other describes the relationship between the individual and the larger group. The thing to remember of course is that when politicians pitch to voters that each and every one of them is both a citizen and a taxpayer. We may not all pay income taxes, or the same amount, but it is impossible to live as an adult citizen without paying taxes in some way, shape or form. We pay taxes on the goods and services we buy, it’s a part of our rent or of owning a property, it’s skimmed from the top of our earnings, etc. If all voters are both citizens and taxpayers then, why the emphasis on the taxpayer angle?

    Lets be honest, nobody likes paying taxes, but we do. We understand that those taxes pay for the things that we value as a society, but that understanding is a tenuous one and susceptible to all kinds of influences. This endless ‘taxpayer’ dialogue is designed to weaken that understanding. When we looked at the definition of “taxpayer” and “citizen” we noted how one focused on the individual and the other makes reference to the group. If we only think of the individual then we begin to only think of those government-provided services that impact us directly, and by directly I’m not talking about roads and sewers, but those tangible things that we actively acknowledge in our days; think the hospital emergency room our your kids’ elementary school. The thing about this particular fallacy though is that it works so brilliantly because those other services (welfare, community grants, etc.) are either ‘invisible’ or we don’t see the direct relationship between their expense and our individual benefit, or they’re not the things that people want to avail themselves of even when they need them.

    As we hammer the “taxpayer” message into voters we isolate them from the services that benefit the society they belong to, which of course benefits the Conservative agenda overwhelmingly because Conservatives do not believe in the value of many of those services, and its a lot easier to get people to not think of the services their taxes pay for (or understand them) than to convince them not to have them; and that is the key to supporting the Conservative agenda.

    If a Tree falls on twitter, does it make a sound?

    I wanted to wait on this particular post for a little while to let peoples’ emotions die down a bit, but I would like to write about the death of Jack Layton. I’m not going to write about the man himself mind you, but rather the remarkable response to his passing. I will say this about Jack, he was an amazing Torontonian and his contributions to this city cannot be overstated. Others have eulogized him far better than I could. I am not a fan of his accomplishments on the national scene, but that is neither here nor there. What I really want to talk about is the widespread outpouring of grief at his death.

    There are two specific things which struck me about the way people reacted to his death. First (and less interestingly) is the response to Christine Blatchford’s comments on his final letter to Canada. Was Christine Blatchford’s op-end tasteless and poorly written, and chock full of the semi-demented goodness that colours most of her writings? Absolutely! That being said, she was right in one thing (I was so surprised about that fact that I had to re-read the entire thing to convince myself I wasn’t dreaming). She was right in saying that Jack’s letter was a partisan statement, and as such was open to criticism. Jack made specific and deliberate statements in support of the NDP and their policies. He made political statements and political statements are not sacrosanct. His message of hope and peace was brilliant and well-delivered, but if he wants to tie it to his political party then people of other political stripes are welcome to challenge that. Unfortunately the challenge came from the blunted pen of Christine Blatchford.

    What is more interesting is the grief and plaudits that came out as soon as his death was announced. Now, before you read any further I want to say that this is not an argument borne out of cynicism. What did get my cynical hackles up was the way that people started professing their admiration for a man that not six months ago had previously said they didn’t trust him, or wouldn’t vote for him because he reminded them of a used car salesman. I’m not going to name names, but I know a half-dozen or so people who did this, and others have commented on the same. However I don’t think this is a result of insincerity or people trying to cash in on a public trend (see, I told you I wasn’t being cynical.)

    What I think we witnessed when Jack passed was the result of two things: first, I think we are witnessing the first tangible Canadian example of grief by peer pressure. Quite simply, people were overwhelmed by the response of their peers, and their own reflections were influenced in the direction of a similar response. Secondly, I think that people were grief struck because Jack was ‘front of mind’ in a way that politicians usually aren’t. Roger Ebert summed it best in his review of Solaris:

    all of our relationships in the real world are exactly like that, even without the benefit of Solaris. We do not know the actual other person. What we know is the sum of everything we think we know about them.

    We ‘create’ people in our minds by interacting with them and then forming memories of the events and associated feelings. The more we ‘see’ them the more we build them up and the closer we feel to them. Jack ran a brilliant and positive campaign just months before his death, and his increased stature and public illness only increased his visibility. In brief, we became very familiar with a smiling, friendly and amiable Jack to the point that we all felt closer to him than we really were, and his death hit us hard (legitimately) as a result. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and I don’t mean to minimize the grief that people genuinely felt, but I do find it extremely interesting. Jack’s impact on the election was large, but we shouldn’t forget the fact that his accomplishments on the national stage were extremely limited to this date. In an era of a 24 hour news cycle, social media and short attention spans we are constantly bombarded with images of public figures, and the timing of Jack’s death combined with the fact that he actually presented a positive and gentle persona in public helped to create a bond with people that is largely unprecedented in Canadian history.

    Pig: the other blue meat

    Antonia Zerbisias is a columnist and tweeter that I often like and have ocassionally agreed with, her politics regarding Israel notwithstanding. In a twitter post earlier today she wrote: “DAMMIT JANET!: Evidence that some cops are indeed pigs” and linked to this article.

    I won’t go into detail on the original blog post, you can of course read it yourself. The incompetent and cruel behaviour that it describes at the hands of police is inexcusable and reprehensible, but that’s not what makes my blood boil. Perhaps it should, but I have to be honest and admit that it doesn’t have a personal angle for me. The use of the phrase “some cops are indeed pigs” on the other hand does, and I find it infuriating.

    Are all cops benevolent angels, totally innocent and courageous instruments of justice and peace? No. You’d have to be a fool to believe otherwise. Are all cops corrupt tools of a fascist dictatorship? Also no, although there seem to be more fools that follow this line of thinking. The reality is that some cops are bad. Some are downright rotten. This is a problem, but it is unavoidable because cops are also people, and as anyone who has ever been drinking with me knows, some people are schmucks.

    Of course the unique and powerful position that the police occupy demands that they be better than us, and in most cases they are. That being said, when cops don’t live up to that standard the damage they inflict can be devastating. Yes, cops can be corrupted. Some are corrupt to begin with. Corruption in policing is not as commonplace as it is in other fields, but it is exposed and eliminated in the same way: transparency and public oversight. Cops serve and police us, and the reality is that they need our help in policing them (whether they want it or not).

    All of which brings me to what really angered me about Antonia’s tweet, the blog it referred to, and the use of the term ‘pigs’. The defensive “blue wall” mentality of the police is the biggest obstacle to transparency and good governance, whether they care to admit it or not. Cops need to depend on one another, but the reflexive defensiveness which is endemic of police culture allows corruption and brutality to fester. And what is the worst way to eliminate this culture? By denigrating their profession and their very identities with slanderous terms like ‘pigs’ people like Antonia establish (or reinforce, depending on your point of view) the “Us versus Them” mentality which exacerbates this problem. At the same time it diminishes the work of the cops who do work tirelessly and put themselves in danger on a regular basis for our own protection. Do cops need better oversight? Absolutely. But surely a committed feminist such as Antonia Zerbisias should know that using a stereo-type laden pejorative like pigs only entrenches bias and hostility, and that it does nothing to addressing the real issues.

    Pity that.

    Repost: Destiny and Choice, and Battlestar Galactica

    Ok, excuse me for a moment while I get something geeky off my chest.

    Battlestar Galactica recently wrapped up after a tumultuous four-year run. Much to my surprise, the finale, which I considered some of the best made television I’ve ever seen, has been met by widespread frustration. For those who haven’t seen it, you’re better off not reading any further: if you’re a fan of the show you’ll spoil it for yourself, and if you’re not the following will probably be pretty boring.

    As I was saying, I found the response surprising. I realize that people tend to get emotionally invested in tv (or movies or books) for a variety of different reasons, so I figured that some people would be upset that a show they were attached to was ending, but that wasn’t what happened. Instead, the reaction was largely like this:

    Actually, the entire scene was quite different from what came before. It was quite a tonal switch. It was jarring to go from such lyrical moments to such exposition-y stuff. (And if you know what he looks like — and perhaps the majority of “Battlestar” fans don’t — seeing Moore in the scene was odd too. It took me out of the moment).

    I agree with the comment on Ronald Moore, but otherwise perplexed. The show ends with a montage of robots, but the conclusion that this ending implied that “everything that has happened before will happen again” completely misses the point of the show, and ignores what we’ve been subtly presented these past few years (and not so subtly recently).

    The show took up a theme that has dominated religion for millenia, the debate between destiny and free-will, and I think that the show made an interesting statement on free will that has largely been overlooked… Ronald Moore and David Eick must feel the same way because they practically spelled it out in the final minute.

    Head Baltar: But the question remains, “Does all of this have to happen again?”

    Head Six: This time I bet no.

    Head Baltar: You know, I’ve never known you to play the optimist. Why the sudden change of heart?

    Head Six: Mathematics. Law of averages. Let a complex system repeat itself long enough and eventually something surprising might occur. That too is in God’s Plan.

    Something surprising? If we accept that human “fate” is the closed system, and that is all a part of god’s plan, then what could the surprise be BESIDES free-will? On the other hand, the show states repeatedly that destiny is driving these characters. The revelation of the show (and certainly the final episodes) was that these two ideas are not irreconcilable. What if (the showrunners ask) destiny is more than just a series of predetermined events, but rather the path set out before us that serves to take us only to a place and time where we must choose? (It is worth noting that this is certainly not a new idea; but its rare to see a TV show embrace it in this fashion).

    The show’s “message” has been consistent from the start: Sooner or later, we must answer for the things that we have done. If there is no free will there is no “consequence”; events do not flow from those that preceded them, they simply unfold in a predetermined order. No, destiny is something else entirely… it is the events and “forces” at work which drive us towards an inevitable choice; one that only we can make. The show has never been just about what we’ve done, it’s about the choices we’ve made… and as Battlestar Galactica boldly suggests in its closing shots, we have another perilous choice to make. As in the lives of these characters, the choice we face and the decision we must make is never revealed to us; all we can do is learn from our experiences, “the things that we have done” and hope to do what is right when the time comes.

    Personally, I just wish that whatever forces were at work in my mind looked more like Tricia Helfer…

    Some Housekeeping

    In addition to a new database this blog also features an entirely new design that was cobbled together like Peter Boyle in Young Frankenstein.  I want to take this time to thank the various sources of creative content I used to put this monstrosity together.

    First, the theme is built on Viala by David Garlitz.  I’ve taken a hatchet to it, but the layout inspiration was exactly what I needed.

    Second, the “Wandering Jew” image, which is a reproduction of the original image by Gustave Doré, and is thankfully in the public domain because it is exactly what I wanted and I could never have afforded to purchase it.

    Third, the background image is from AbigelStock on deviantART.

    The rest of this was assembled through painstaking labour which looked something like this…

    Hazel hammers

    I will also be re-posting some select articles from my old blog, mostly because I like them.

    Official Relaunch

    Consider this the official relaunch of my blog, and in a half-hearted way my re-engagement with politics.  That may seem like a fairly empty gesture… but that’s largely because it is.  I haven’t stopped having opinions in the last two years (or even stopped sharing them in a condescending fashion), but I have stopped publishing them…  and that is an oversight I intend to correct.  I will be looking to connect with similar like-minded bloggers and affiliates, but most importantly I am hoping to do what I was never fully able to do with my last site, and that’s to engage generally with the internet population at large, not just the ham-fisted internet troglodytes that blogs attract.