Saturday, January 31, 2009

The dumbing of America, part MCCVII

The University of Vermont is set to have the well-known self-promoter and charlatan Ben Stein deliver the commencement address this May. Stein, for those not in the know, is the maker of a dishonest little film called "Expelled," in which, inter alia, he blames Darwin for the Holocaust. (A devastating review of this creationist effort may be found here.)

Now, producing and flogging a mendacious documentary is one thing. All of us have watched Saturday morning cartoons at some point without having our brains turn to mush. But for a university to give academic aid and comfort to this sort of nonsense is quite another. Stein has made a lot of noise about creationism being shut out of academe: and that noise has obviously worked for the folks who run UVM. (I wonder what its science faculty is like? Thoughts of incantations, cauldrons and athanors leap to mind. Is that where all the Hogwarts graduates end up?)

Well, why not, a cynic might ask. A majority of adult Americans already reject the theory of evolution. In 2006, fully one-quarter of the American people thought that the Rapture would take place in 2007.

Only about a fifth of Americans, however, think that the sun revolves around our planet, so there may be grounds for cautious optimism. But "cautious" is the operative word--especially now that academia is throwing open its doors and welcoming in the barbarians at the gate.

[H/t PZ Myers]

UPDATE: Reader and blogger Alison notes that he's getting an honorary degree too. Gaudeamus igitur.

UPPERDATE: (February 2) Stein pulls out. [H/t CC]


Back in September, I asked this legitimate question: Could this whole business be a cruel confidence job?

One of the comments in response was:
"Well sir, you should read the judges decision - NOTHING in there about me setting them up.In FACT the judge said MOST of what I said was CORROBORATED by intercepts anyway and concluded the evidence was OVERWHELMING. As to your claim that I sold the clip to NEFA --- many of your words have had to be eaten already?An ELATED and VALIDATED Shaikh."
purported signed by himself.

Today the same
Alison@Creekside posted this at The Galloping Beaver:
Mubin Shaikh on Friday:
"I thought that if the RCMP didn't tell me I couldn't do it, I inferred that I could do it," Mr. Shaikh testified.Lawyers for Canada's first underage convicted terrorist argued in court Friday that without Mubin Shaikh, assigned by CSIS and paid by the RCMP, there would have been no terrorist conspiracy at all.
Go read the whole blogpost.

Bus strike musings

The 51-day Ottawa bus strike is over. We are told by Alain Mercier, OC Transpo boss, that the buses won't be rolling as usual until April or May, if you can believe it. Somehow, idle in their yards for the past seven weeks, 287 buses have become unroadworthy. April or May. Wow.

Recriminations are ringing out everywhere. The facts should point us to the right targets, but they don't always do so.

I read local municipal correspondent Randall Denley with considerable respect, but once in a while he goes completely off the rails. His column today on the recently-ended OC Transpo strike--out of synch even with the generally anti-union
Ottawa Citizen's own editorial position--is an unfortunate example, thankfully rare in his case, of abandoning the facts to bias.

Over-eager to point the finger, Denley gives our fool of a Mayor a complete pass, along with Mercier, and puts all the blame for this extended dispute on the union, ATU Local 279.

"What did people want [Mayor O'Brien] to do, roll over and argue to give the union a blank cheque?" he asks, rather disingenuously, because he knows full well that this strike has never been about money. I am frankly surprised that Denley hasn't mastered the scheduling issue that was the heart and soul of this dispute, but here is an explanation of its complexities for those interested.

He himself reduces the scheduling issue to this: "[T]he city's position on scheduling is to make sure that everyone does a full day's work for a full day's pay. Unreasonable?"

Why no, Randall, except that this was not the crux of the matter, as you well know. The dispute has to do with the City's demands for rolling back an agreement reached in 1999, for which ATU members accepted a 2% wage concession, that would allow members to bid on the available work, with the more pleasant routes going to those with the most seniority. The work itself is management determined, and always has been.

And then this:

As the chief spokesman for one side in a labour dispute, O'Brien was hardly in a position to rise above it all and broker a deal. He was not, as people assume, the city's negotiator in this matter. He wasn't at the table at all

The reference here is to yesterday's Citizen editorial. Normally as rabid about unions as Denley, the editorial board penned a remarkably conciliatory piece, but did have this to say about Hizzoner:

Residents also need to explore the role of the mayor in this dispute. Our top elected official represents the city as a corporation as well as all Ottawans. It was in no one's interest -- not transit workers', civic officials' and most certainly not the public's -- for this dispute to occur. Larry O'Brien should have put himself in a position to rise above the conflict and broker a deal in the interest of all. Instead, he fought and grandstanded. Thus, the mayor failed himself and us. The federal government had to bail him out. He is diminished by this dispute as is the government he represents.

Denley is dead wrong, by the way, about the Mayor not being at the table. He insisted upon intruding there, in fact (scroll down), besides sidelining his team by negotiating in the media.

And he fails to mention not only the Mayor's public posturing, including his nutty suggestion for hiring scabs to run the buses, but the bone-headed advice O'Brien and his staff gave to Minister of Labour Rona Ambrose. They fed her the old "the union is out of touch with its members" goop, and delayed things by more than two weeks while a forced vote of the members took place. That went well, didn't it?

Alain "the buses won't be in full operation until April or May" Mercier also wins some of Denley's fulsome praise. This is the fellow who reacted to the union's request to explain the scheduling issue to a meeting of City Council by threatening ATU with an unfair labour practices complaint, while having no difficulty having his own office contact individual ATU members directly to urge them to vote against their bargaining team.

Well, who's left?

The real villains in this dispute were the leaders of Amalgamated Transit Union 279. While they told the public the dispute was all about scheduling and how it would affect their lifestyle, they weren't prepared to take reasonable offers on wages and benefits to reduce the scope of the dispute. These are times when everyone needs to take a bit less. The transit union wants to be exempt from that reality.

ATU members would be doing themselves a favour if they replaced president André Cornellier with someone who can articulate their positions and improve their public image. To top it off, Cornellier left Thursday's press conference at City Hall in a stretch limo. Quite a representative of the working person.

As I pointed out to Denley in an email some time ago, if the City had bent on the scheduling issue, the union would have moderated its wage and benefit demands in a heartbeat. But they were simply never given that chance. The City kept on presenting the same old offer, again and again, pretending each time that it was a new one. There was no movement on the scheduling issue whatsoever.

As for
André Cornellier, his job is to serve his members, and he does it well enough to have their strong support. I'm sure Denley's advice will be given all the attention that it merits the next time ATU 279 elects its executive. No, Cornellier is no diplomat: he has a speaking style that would scrape paint off a wall. But he represented his people with force and unremitting energy. That's what union leaders are supposed to do.

And as for the dig about the stretch limo, some drivers chartered one to celebrate the end of the dispute, but Denley insists on spinning this as the old "union boss" stereotype--lucky for Cornellier that he wasn't smoking a cigar at the time.

Personally I'm glad the strike is over. It caused unimaginable hardship to countless area residents. Horror stories abound. But we should all now move on. If some insist that a finger of blame should be pointed, however, I have a few suggestions:
  • Blame the Mayor for his inept, macho, brainless handling of the dispute from the get-go. He never wavered in his stupidity. One thing you have to admit, the man is consistent.

  • Blame City Council for putting up with O'Brien's horrendous performance. Councillor Doucet warrants some admiration for breaking ranks, but that was remarkably short-lived.

  • Blame OC Transpo head Alain Mercier. He did nothing to bring the parties together with his on-going "take it or leave it" approach. Threatening to take the union to the Canada Industrial Relations Board simply because the latter wanted to explain a complex issue to City Council was pointlessly obstructive. And now the strike is over, full service won't be resumed for three or four months. Who's responsible for this continued delay? The buck stops with him.

  • And blame the media--not only the rednecks at CFRA whipping up the mobs, but the more professional commentators who could not grasp the scheduling issue, helped to feed popular misconceptions and prejudices throughout the strike, and failed the public miserably thereby. Although, in fairness, there have been some honourable exceptions.
Comments, particularly from local residents, would be most welcome.

Friday, January 30, 2009

The Tories' "gotcha" moment...

...and just look at who's doing the getting.

Warren Kinsella has come in for a spanking because of a silly comment he made about going to his favourite Ottawa Chinese restaurant and ordering up some "BBQ cat." Not his finest moment, certainly, and I can well understand some folks in the Chinese community being upset, although Warren obviously relished the dish himself. An apology, certainly, would have been in order,* and that would have been that.

Except, of course, that it wouldn't have. Because we in the blogosphere have upstanding unbigoted folks like Ezra Levant and Kate McMillan** to be all over this like, well, white on rice. (At least Kathy Shaidle avoids the faux-outrage thing, which is probably just as well.)

And now a Conservative MP, Alice Wong, has apparently leapt into action. Of course, she has every right to be concerned by Kinsella's comment. But at this point, I'm beginning to think that the well-worn phrase "Pot. Kettle. Black." needs a soot-measuring corollary for comparison purposes.

*UPDATE: In fact Kinsella did apologize, in Chinese and English, here (see comments).

[H/t Devo]

**UPPERDATE: Yes, that Kate McMillan. Nice catch, Kaplan.

More Blogging Tory bigotry

Quite the squawking of faux-outrage on the starboard side of the 'sphere over the decision by a New Brunswick school principal to abandon the custom of singing "O Canada" (or "Oh Canada" if you're a shrieky illiterate) at the beginning of the school day. There's the usual dreary character assassination by Ezra Levant, and then the predictable turn by his ideological cohorts to outright bigotry:

Who are these "fake" Canadians who do not want to sing our national anthem? They spit in our faces and we let them.

This is Blogging Tory "Hunter," informing us that Jehovah's Witnesses aren't "real" Canadians.

The initial media report of the foofaraw is here. First, the principal:

Different families have different beliefs. There are people of particular faiths who would say the Lord's Prayer should be brought back. Other people of particular faiths or beliefs say they don't want their child to sing the anthem. It's not up to me as a school administrator to subject kids to something their parents don't want them exposed to. I have to protect the minority rights as well as the majority rights.

And then the mother who complained about the principal's decision:

The principal tells us he doesn't want to see children have to sit it out.... How about every other religion that has to sit things out like school dances, or there are books some parents don't like their children reading.

We have Baptists and Catholics and Pentecostals and Jehovah's Witnesses and there are many different values and beliefs out there but we are all Canadians.

It's fairly clear what happened here. The principal made his decision after a couple of JWs asked for the usual exemption for their kids (to "sit it out"). The mother refers specifically to this religious group, the only one she mentions that objects to having their kids sing anthems.

Jehovah's Witnesses are non-violent opponents of nationalism. In the words of one of them:

Jehovah's Witnesses give our allegiance to Jehovah God and his Kingdom Government, over which he has appointed his Son Jesus Christ to rule as King. (Isaiah 9:6, 7; Matthew 6:9, 10) We are a global community serving as Ambassadors or Envoys for that Kingdom, therefore we choose not to participate in divisive nationalistic practices such as singing a national anthem of any nation.

The JWs have had a long history of persecution in Canada. During the Second World War, "Jehovah's Witness children who refused to sing the national anthem and salute the flag during patriotic exercises in public schools were often expelled from class, and in a few cases, removed from their parents' care and placed in foster homes and juvenile detention centres."

How far we have come! But imagine just how far things would revert if bigots like "Hunter" ever achieved the government of their fevered dreams.

[H/t CC]

UPDATE: Meanwhile, unsurprisingly, Ezra's commenters are calling for the school principal to be fired, and beaten up as well. Remember that comments at Ezra's are moderated.

UPPERDATE: (January 31) More on this non-issue here.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

CHRC staff cleared of theft of communications

Buckets nailed it!

Another blow to the credibility of the slavering Speech Warriors™!

From the findings of the Privacy Commissioner:

An individual complained that the Canadian Human Rights Commission (CHRC) improperly collected and then subsequently used her personal information. Specifically, she complained that the CHRC accessed her wireless internet connection to log onto and post messages to a white supremacist website during the course of an investigation.


The investigation found no evidence that the CHRC ever collected any personal information about the complainant or in fact that the CHRC had any knowledge about the complainant prior to the allegations made in the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal public hearing.

There is no evidence that the CHRC ever collected or improperly used, disclosed or retained the complainant’s personal information.

If CHRC employee Dean Steacy were to take appropriate action against those who have libeled him, I, for one, would be willing to send him a substantial cheque--no PayPal button required.

Darwin, Dawkins and I

As a former biology student--but that was many moons ago, in the time of Theodosius Dobzhansky--I've been watching, listening to and reading about the current "debate" over evolution vs. so-called "Intelligent Design" (creationism's new mask) with mounting frustration. It's less a debate than a dialogue of the deaf. My regular sparring partner in the comments and chicken-wings buddy Peter has challenged me to post something on this, and now is as good a time as any.

My very first post ever was called "The Theory of Unintelligent Design," but I was using the concept mostly as a metaphor for the foibles, vices and stupidity that win the race against virtue almost every time. Surely, I suggested, this can be no accident. Are we genetically programmed through evolution to make dumb choices, like propping up the Harper government, or were we made out of fingerpaint, flour-and-water paste and construction paper by a kindergarten god? Or--am I really saying the same thing twice here?

As I grow older, and experience a few unexplainable phenomena in my own life, and read about near-death experiences and the like, I find myself retreating from an aggressive atheistic or materialist position--at least, from the way that these positions are presently framed. And at the same time, I dislike the current debates intensely, because it seems to me that a number of errors are being made by all of the participants, and there is little room to widen the discussion.

I'm an unreconstructed Darwinist, as appalled by the pseudo-scientific shenanigans of Denyse O'Leary and the intellectual dishonesty of Ben Stein as anyone in the atheist/materialist camp. And, while I reject utterly the fundamentalist religious "explanations" for our existence, and find myself equally appalled by the credence given to stealth Catholics like Margaret Somerville, who abandon religious imagery but not the perfidious imperatives that underlie it,* I'm not much happier with the polemical Darwinist materialists among us.

I'm simply not in the Richard Dawkins camp, or even in the same place as the wonderfully entertaining PZ Myers. I won't put up the scarlet "A" that appears on many of the websites of those I generally respect. That's too much a statement of faith, it seems to me (although not as much a leap as belief in a God or gods), and it closes off debate. And, while some might argue that there really is no debate as such, because the two positions (materialist atheism v. theology) are incommensurable, I believe that a third approach is possible, and that there is indeed a valuable debate to be had, but on a different footing.

I rather liked Marylynn Robinson's review of Dawkins' The God Delusion (Harper's Magazine, November 2006), because she points, with some sophistication, to a fundamental flaw in his approach that applies equally well to the creationists' position--in a word, reductionism. Much of the current discussion has become a binaristic Us v. Them approach that fosters just that. It's God or Matter and nothing in between.

What if we simply abandoned both concepts, each of them as metaphysical as the other? And what if we demanded logical consistency, such that we would not expect science to answer metaphysical questions and not demand that metaphysicians subject their claims to scientific "proof?"

Science cannot refute the metaphysical--it simply proposes to do without it. I would go further, and argue that science is a technique, not an ontology, and there are plenty of scientific instrumentalists who would agree with me. But, by the same token, those who enjoy the metaphysical speculation that religion entails should not (in the moral sense) require confirmation of their truth-claims in the "phenomenal world." It seems to me to be a weak strategy to confront scientists on their own turf. It's compounding the naturalist felony, in a way, to attempt to derive the existence of a God/non-material realm from natural facts. It makes as little sense as asking a scientist to define the Holy Ghost in scientific terms, and to explain of what the sin against it consists.

What if we were to establish, as a departure-point, that nothing about natural evolution refutes the existence either of a God or of a greater "reality" than the phenomenal one? There are plenty of religious who find evolution and metaphysics compatible--Teilhard de Chardin comes immediately to mind. Why the urgency to refute evolutionary theory and look for the hand of a Creator in nature using scientific observation? One might as well look for "goodness" with a telescope. And why the equivalent urgency to reject all religion and with it the profoundly human impulses that it codifies, blaming every human ill upon it (although, in fairness, organized religion seems to be rather too much of this world, replacing actual religious experience with systems of command and control)?

It seems that we are too prone even in the twenty-first century to look for "theories of everything." Fundies do it; so do scientists; so do crass materialists. It appears to me that we can avoid a lot of the traps that abound in current discussions by accepting that even seemingly immutable categories like "life" and "death" and "time" and "space" may be artificial constructs; that we exist, perhaps, in all of the constructed realms of our philosophy at once, and that what really matters is wonder and openness.

Space does not permit even a superficial discussion of consciousness; suffice it to say that attempted scientific "explanations" of it seem deeply unsatisfactory, at least to me. In Derek Parfit's seminal work on identity, he just shrugs the question off as unimportant. But religious "explanations" are equally unsatisfactory. So what if--imagine this--some of the greatest mysteries simply can't be reduced to "explanation?" Including what we are?

Perhaps the debate worth having is the degree to which we can flourish without the need for a battle for supremacy of what can only be seen as partial and all too often flawed systems of explanation. Whether it's crude, mouth-breathing creationism, its (relatively) more sophisticated and politically savvy sibling, "Intelligent Design," or a reductionist scientism that misses so much and so much, current engagements do little more than entrench positions that either lack coherence and sense (in the case of creationism/ID) or fail dismally to address the full scope of our existential humanity (in the case of over-extended science).

The worth of science as a productive procedure is, or should be, self-evident. But the varieties of religious experience cannot easily be reduced to a set of scientific observations. (For that matter, neither can our relatively mundane experiences of pain or pleasure.) Must we caricature and debase both by turning them into polemics and counter-polemics when--just perhaps--they are both important facets of what it is to be human?
Somerville seeks to prove, for example--or, rather, she simply asserts--that same-sex marriage is wrong, that adoption is unnatural, that abortion is unacceptable, and that we should depend upon such profoundly objective criteria as "the yuck factor" to make our moral way in the world.

On impartiality

The director general of the BBC, Mark Thompson, is still hanging in there, defending his "impartial" ("fair and balanced"?) decision not to broadcast an appeal by a coalition of national charities for humanitarian aid for the people of Gaza. The reaction to this blatantly political move continues to build.

My earlier post on this travesty is here, including a link that casts considerable doubt on any pretensions of "impartiality" by Mark Thompson himself. He would appear, in fact, to be somewhat parti pris on Middle East issues. But what about this notion of "impartiality," anyway? Does it have any merit?

Independent columnist Mark Steel points out the patent absurdity of the BBC's position here. I can only observe that the casualties in Gaza, regrettably, did not take place in an impartial manner--indeed, they are inconveniently one-sided. But I would personally have no objection, if this was indeed the deal-breaker, to the distribution of some aid to the families of the 13 Israelis killed, five by "friendly fire."

Impartial comments welcome, as always.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Ignatieff folds...

 an expensive suit.

Shorter Iggy: "Canada is in a mess. We're holding this government responsible. And we're going to keep holding, and holding, and holding..."

Dziekanski inquiry: RCMP response "unprofessional"

More information is now coming out in the Braidwood inquiry into the killing of Polish immigrant Robert Dziekanski. And the behaviour of the four Mounties involved is looking even worse than it did before.

As many of us who viewed the video suspected, once Dziekanski went into cardiac arrest the cops did nothing whatsoever to help him. According to first responder Richmond Fire Capt. Kirby Graeme, their response was "unprofessional." Not only did they fail to administer first aid, but they actively obstructed the firefighters who first arrived to help.

Dziekanski was lying motionless and face down after the assault. He was in handcuffs. Const. Kwesi Millington refused to remove the cuffs when asked to do so, making it impossible to assess his condition. When pressed by the lawyer for Dziekanski's mother, Graeme stated that the cops "were not assisting the patient in any way."

Graeme testified that this was the first time that he had ever arrived at the airport in an emergency before the on-site Emergency Response Services, which could have reached Dziekanski quickly. It appears that the ERS was never called.

The four RCMP officers remain on active duty, and are facing no charges. Maintiens le droit.

Celebrating another American tradition

Shorter Conservapedia: "We won't come right out and say it--but wouldn't it be nice if a sniper took out all those Democratic Senators in states with Republican governors?"

[H/t CC, JJ. I-I-I!]

The budgetary magic show

The curtain rises. It’s good old-fashioned prestidigitation, and we’re hypnotized right off the bat by the sheer size of the budget numbers. Transfixed, we watch the man in his elegant cape wave his magic wand. Money is flung into the air, handful after handful, and seems to hang there. Stimulate us, we cry. Give us confidence. Let investors once more invest, and consumers consume.

The man puts his hand into his top hat, and pulls out--tax cuts! Lots of tax cuts! Whee! All the less to spend on childcare, education, health and social security, but what a neat trick! And the best thing about those cuts? The rich benefit too!

Why, there’s a pittance for nearly everyone in this budget. Abracadabra! $400 million for social housing for low-income seniors! Nicholas Gazzard, of the Co-operative Housing Federation of Canada, told me he was pleased to see money for this sort of thing, plus social housing retrofitting and the like. I asked him how much one social housing unit cost: $50K. Quick math—why, that’s a whopping 4,000 new units for the entire country in each of the next two years.

He paused and frowned. "Well, it's a good start."

Education! Hey, presto! But Katherine Giroux-Bougard, of the Canadian Federation of Students, was "underwhelmed." While the new US president is busy unveiling a wide and comprehensive plan to support post-secondary education, she said, this budget focuses narrowly on graduate students and summer jobs.

James Turk, Executive Director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, agreed. For him the budget was "very disappointing, filled with half-hearted measures." Funding for post-secondary education doesn't meet the needs in that sector, he said. No core funding for colleges and universities. No new money for the provinces to provide it. And, in contrast to Obama's planned expenditure of $12 billion on research, Harper’s budget offers a paltry $137.9 million over three years. The net result, says Turk, will be a brain drain, as talented academics head to the US, encouraged by Obama's research-friendly approach.

Student debt is now a staggering $13 billion, yet there's no new money for undergraduates. And the money for 500 doctoral and 1,000 master's students ends in three years.

$2 billion in post-secondary educational infrastructure! The man flourishes his cape and waves his wand again. We rub our eyes. Not so fast. Projects have to have matching funds from the provinces--which are getting no additional money for post-secondary education, while experiencing shrinking revenues--or from the institutions themselves, which have no money to give.

Bottom line, says this audience sceptic: the Liberals should demand amendments to the budget, and if these aren't forthcoming they should defeat it.

The man in the cape decides on a well-worn old turn to still the muttering—public sector union-bashing. OK, keep the right to strike, people! he says. We’ll just suspend collective bargaining instead. Unsurprisingly, PSAC National President John Gordon, many of whose members settled just a few days ago, isn’t happy. 30,000 of his members, employees of the Canada Revenue Agency, may find themselves subject to an actual wage rollback, while other groups are still in negotiations. Canadian Labour Congress President Ken Georgetti couldn't see how cutting back on wages would encourage people to spend, an objective of a stimulus package. Neither union leader was enjoying the show.

The President of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, Michèle Demers, was having a better time of it, at least at first. She liked the $40 billion stimulus package. The extension of EI support will ease things for the unemployed, she said (although nothing has been done to relax eligibility requirements, meaning most people paying into EI still won't be able access it when they need it). She believes that some of the proposed infrastructural stimulus project money will be injected into government departments, and her members will benefit.

Yet, she says, those very members, who will be instrumental in helping these projects along, are being dinged yet again on the collective bargaining front. "We're still being treated as part of the problem, not part of the solution," she said. "We need respect and the tools and resources to get the job done." More of her members' jobs are on the line with an on-going "strategic review." 1,500-2,000 of them face an uncertain future. Layoff? Relocation? No one knows.

Women in the audience were growing restless as the man in the cape pranced around the stage. What about pay equity? someone shouted. I'll make the current complaint-based system disappear, he boomed. Shazam! We'll set up union-employer negotiations instead, in a framework to be determined. You didn’t like the slow pace of the current system, did you?

So pay equity, once a principle, will now be something to be negotiated, with one side holding all of the legislative cards. But even that may be an illusion. Gordon points out that job classification, the source of so much of the historic pay inequity in the federal public service, cannot legally even be brought to the bargaining table.

His Program Administration group, 85,000 strong, did win some contract language recently that allows pay equity issues to be addressed in a joint classification review. If that doesn't pan out, the matter can now be grieved. To a neutral third party? Maybe, maybe not. Other members involved in on-going pay equity disputes have even less hope to cling to.

Beverley Jacobs, President of the Native Women's Association of Canada, sank into gloom. Aboriginal women aren't even mentioned in the budget, she said. She foresaw an uphill battle trying to access any of the funds set aside for First Nations to use in projects and ventures that will benefit women on the reserves. Jody Dallaire of the Child Care Advocacy Association of Canada points out that the budget keeps Canada solidly in last place among industrialized nations with respect to early childhood learning and childcare. Yet women need a comprehensive national childcare program to allow them to access training and participate in the job market.

A good portion of the audience, it seems, was less than impressed. Will the show go on? Will it be updated and made more appealing? Or will the man in the cape get the hook? At this point, it must be said, the suspense has become the most entertaining part of the performance.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

If the Liberals support this budget ....

A really strange thought crept in, ever so quietly.

If Michael Ignatieff directs his caucus to support the budget and to vote with the Conservative minority government, isn't that a recognition Stephen Harper is the best leader the Liberals never had?

On greed, incompetence and conflict of interest.

Linda McQuaig has articulated an opinion about the current economic debacle that is rarely expressed in current analysis about what happened and who is responsible.

Let's imagine, for a moment, how different the public debate would be today if it had been unions that had caused the current economic turmoil. In other words, try to imagine a scenario in which union leaders – not financial managers – were the ones whose reckless behaviour had driven a number of Wall Street firms into bankruptcy and in the process triggered a worldwide recession.

Needless to say, it's hard to imagine a labour leader being appointed to oversee a bailout of unions the way former Goldman Sachs CEO Henry Paulson was put in charge of supervising the $700 billion bailout of his former Wall Street colleagues. .... how odd it is that the financial community has emerged so unscathed, despite its central role in the collapse that has brought havoc to the world economy. ...

But so influential are those in the financial elite – and their hangers-on in think-tanks and economics departments – that they continue to appear on our TV screens, confidently providing us with economic advice, as if they'd played no role whatsoever in shaping our economic system for the past quarter century.

Of course, we're told there's been a major change in their thinking, in that many of them are now willing to accept large deficits in today's federal budget, in the name of stimulating the economy..... In fact, financial types have always accepted deficits – when they liked the cause. Hence their lack of protest over George W. Bush's enormous deficits, which were caused by his large tax cuts for the rich and his extravagant foreign wars.

What they don't like is governments going into deficit to help ordinary citizens – either by creating jobs or providing much unemployment relief. .... So the Canadian financial community has been urging that the stimulus package consist mostly of income tax cuts – even though direct government spending would provide much more stimulus and do more to help the neediest.

What they don't like is governments going into deficit to help ordinary citizens – either by creating jobs or providing much unemployment relief.
And if you had any doubts about Stephen Harper's agenda and whether he governs as our Prime Minister, to protect and serve the public interests and not the interests of the privileged, his recent appointment of Sheila Weatherill says it all.

Doughnut-eating pigs with thin skins

Come on, Speech Warriors™--won't you step up to the plate on this one?

Small dumb animals

A little diversion before I vanish into the budget lock-up today.

Shriek!!!! It's a joke, isn't it?? Has to be!! No, I don't think so!!! Scary!!! The Democrats have become a cult!!!!

Obama's Little Blue Book.

Paul, at
Celestial Junk:

[T]hese people are for real, they are dead serious.

Here's a sample from inside the Little Blue Book.

"In order to master the President's ideology, it is essential to study many of the basic concepts over and over again, and it is best to memorize important statements and apply them repeatedly. Learn earnestly and diligently."

From Lin Piao's foreword to the Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung (this was before Lin became a bandit and counter-revolutionary):

In studying the works of Chairman Mao one should have specific problems in mind, study and apply his works in a creative way, combine study with application, first study what must be urgently applied so as to get quick results, and strive hard to apply what one is studying. In order really to master Mao Tse-Tung's thought, it is essential to study many of Chairman Mao's basic concepts over and over again, and it is best to memorize important statements and study and apply them repeatedly....It is our hope that all comrades will learn earnestly and diligently, bring about a new nation-wide high tide in the creative study and application of Chairman Mao's works, and, under the great red banner of Mao Tse-Tung's thought, strive to build our country into a great socialist state with modern agriculture, modern industry, modern science and culture and modern national defence!

Next up: Jack Layton's Little Orange Book. Elizabeth May's Little Green Book. Michael Ignatieff's Very Long Book.

Last word to Mao: "A frog in a well says, 'The sky is no bigger than the mouth of the well.'"

Monday, January 26, 2009

Business as usual

Beyond their smoke-screen tactics of "leaking" information about the budget, Harper and Flaherty are likely to provide Big Business with some hefty corporate welfare. Brigitte Bureau at Radio-Canada has looked at some classic behind-the-scenes Flaherty maneuvering.
Le ministre fédéral des Finances, qui présentera son budget mardi, a récemment créé, pour le conseiller, un conseil consultatif sur l'économie, composé surtout de chefs d'entreprises. Les compagnies de quatre d'entre eux sont inscrites au Registre fédéral des lobbyistes, ce qui fait craindre à certains que les conseils offerts ne reflètent pas les besoins de l'ensemble de la population. Des onze membres nommés par Jim Flaherty à son conseil consultatif en décembre dernier, neuf sont des dirigeants d'entreprises. Les compagnies de quatre d'entre eux sont inscrites au Registre fédéral des lobbyistes. Il s'agit de Research In Motion, le fabricant du BlackBerry, Woodbridge Company, de la famille Thomson, Corporation Financière Power, de la famille Desmarais et J.D. Irving. Selon le registre, ces entreprises font du lobbying, entre autres auprès du ministère des Finances, notamment sur la question des impôts.
Basically 9 of 11 places on Flaherty's advisory committee are CEOs. Four of those corporations have registered lobbyists who have met the minister of Finance with the intent of securing tax breaks for their clients. So the orchestration of timely "leaks" from the inContinent Harpercrats may have been a strategy to divert attention away from the generous tax cuts that will be directed to the private sector.

At the other end of the country, Chrystal Ocean's radar has been tweaked, too.

Like rehabilitates like

Former Hitler Youth member Herr Joseph Ratzinger has just given his official blessing to a Holocaust-denier.

And we're supposed to be surprised?

Dan Gardner's fears

Dan Gardner, an intelligent columnist who writes for the Ottawa Citizen, took a poke at me yesterday for my article about police and Tasers--and then had a go at the blogosphere as a whole.

Dan is all about hard science and statistics, and his recent book, Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear, is a refreshing antidote to what might accurately
be called a popular culture of fear (addressed in a more post-modern fashion by Brian Fawcett in his Public Eye: An Investigation Into the Disappearance of the World [1990]). It seems that my comment "The cops have citizens literally running scared, from coast to coast" caught his attention.

All this from a mere two incidents, he scoffs. Well, no: as any regular reader of my blog knows, I have dealt with numerous such cases, and have linked to sources covering many more. Vancouver, Edmonton, Saskatoon, Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, Digby--and points in between--all have had their policing problems in recent memory.

Does that mean (as Gardner suggests) that I am saying that cops are essentially rotten people? Of course not. The common thread in all of these incidents, and in many more that can be found in various media archives, is the lack of mechanisms of accountability, coupled with a culture of impunity that rarely sees these serious incidents properly addressed. Even when cops are found guilty of something, their punishments tend to be a joke.

It's not that cops are bad. It's that bad cops are rarely held accountable to the communities they serve. There are simply too many examples to count, or recount.

But then Dan turns around and commits the same sin of which he accuses me. Here he is on the blogosphere:

What bothers me -- what worries me about the Internet -- is that this sort of tendentious and extreme reasoning is utterly routine in both hemispheres of the blogosphere. It is seldom criticized because partisans and ideologues have segregated themselves into camps in which confirmation and group polarization (key concepts from psychology) fester and make discussion steadily more extreme and unreasonable -- to the point that otherwise intelligent people who would laugh at such silly reasoning come to accept and even expect it.

To the extent that there is criticism, it comes from the occasional raiding party despatched by the opposing camp -- and given the source, the criticism only generates derision in return. The resulting clash strongly resembles the hooting and chest-puffing of agitated bands of chimpanzees.

There are exceptions, thankfully. But to the extent that shared media space is giving way to a Balkanized Internet, I worry.

Now, this is nonsense from top to bottom. Of course there is political polarization in the blogosphere, as there is in the meatworld. There are echo-chambers everywhere--take, for example, the editorial boardroom of the Ottawa Sun, the lock-step screaming meemies at CFRA, or, for that matter, Police Services Boards across the country. Like attracts like--nothing new there.

But the blogosphere is also a place where civil discussions can be had among people of widely varying politics. My blog is one of those places; David Thompson in the UK runs one of the most literate and elegant blogs I've ever seen, and, despite the considerable daylight between his views and my own, I have been made welcome there.

I know--only two examples. But that's two more than Dan Gardner offered, despite his little hedge about "exceptions."

On to "Balkanization." I've been puzzling over that one. He seems to mean that bloggers talk past each other, secure in their bunkers, dens and basements--those mini-republics with virtual citizens, enclaves in a permanent state of warfare. We are immune to the normal processes of criticism, he suggests, and so we run wild, losing our own critical abilities in the process.

But if there was ever a place where criticism--from reasoned rebuttal to gutter-insult--abounds, it's the blogosphere. The newspaper for which Dan writes, on the other hand, suppresses letters to the editor that criticize its editorial stances. Some bloggers play that game, too, but many more have lively comboxes where the issues of the day are hashed out to a fare-thee-well.

We talk about the port and starboard sides of the blogosphere, but we're more co-dependent than Dan recognizes. And I mean that in a good way. Taken overall, the blogosphere is more like one crowded room than a collection of foxholes. We engage. The cramped confines of the traditional media simply don't, or won't, permit the energetic multivocality that is the defining characteristic of the blogosphere.

Fear not, Dan. Cyberspace is liberty, not merely licence. The best and the worst can be found in it, as in the real world, but it all happens faster. A critique based upon one cherry-picked statement from a "popular left-wing blog," for example, can be rebutted in a matter of hours. Others can weigh in, restricted only, at least here, by my general insistence upon civility.

Is the blogosphere "Balkanized," readers? Over to you.

UPDATE: Is the Internet making us stupid? [H/t Dan Gardner in the comments]

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Being Gazan

Tens of thousands are homeless. More than 1,300 are dead, half of whom are civilians, including a large number of children. Another 5,000 have been wounded. Many have been burned to the bone with white phosphorus, or hunted down with a collection of spiffy new ordnance, and the lives of Gazan children are presently threatened by unexploded bombs in their backyards.

And the slaughter continues during the current "ceasefire."

Gaza is in shambles. But an appeal for humanitarian relief by a coalition of national charities has been banned by the BBC because it would compromise the Beeb's "impartiality."

The facts, it seems, have a pro-Gazan bias.

[H/t CC, Chrystal Ocean]

UPDATE: Beeb execs ignore the First Rule of Holes.

[H/t Chrystal, in the comments]

UPPERDATE: (January 26): The BBC editor-in-chief
, still digging, responds. The ensuing comments tell their own story.

[H/t Blind Man with a Pistol]

UPPESTDATE: Sharp-eyed commenter "forgot to buy tinfoil" discovers more about the BBC editor-in-chief's commitment to "impartiality." (Scroll to comment #998 at the BBC link.* The original 2005 story in the Independent is here.)

*No, don't. The comment, which merely referenced the Independent article, has been removed because "it broke the House Rules." Good grief.

They kill immigrants, don't they?

Off-duty cops in Vancouver are alleged to have robbed and severely beaten a deliveryman, saying as they whaled on the guy, "We don't like brown people, buddy."

“Thank goodness the city workers were there and someone called 911,” said Phil (Firoz) Khan, 47, his head bandaged after being repeatedly kicked by three assailants early last Wednesday in front of the Hyatt Vancouver hotel.

“I was lucky they were there,” he said. “I prayed to God. If this had happened in a back lane, I would be dead.”

At least they didn't use Tasers. But they apparently threatened to.

Other police arrived--and handcuffed the victim.

New witnesses have now come forward. Note the mention, once again, of Tasers:

"I wanted to jump in and get the one guy who was doing the punching off of the victim," said [one witness].

"But when they said they were police, I thought it's the last thing I want to do is get involved with this. What if they pull out a Taser and use it on me?"

"This investigation is being pursued aggressively and fully," says Vancouver police chief Jim Chu.

That would make a nice change. We'll see.

Apparently the whole thing is on a hotel security videotape, which has been seized by the police. How long does it take to watch it, I wonder?

The cops have citizens literally running scared, from coast to coast. In New Glasgow Digby last year, it was more off-duty officers, piling out of a van and chasing two young Blacks down a street for no apparent reason. A cop threw a punch at one of the men, who didn't cower submissively but fought back, knocking him out.

This was all caught on film. Members of the Black community who saw the tape shortly after the incident say it supports the young men's side of the story.The videotape is now safely in the hands of the RCMP, and will not be made available to the public.

The man who decked the cop was Tasered and charged with "resisting a police officer." The cop was charged too, and sat at a desk on full pay until this past Thursday, when charges against both men were dropped.

Cops with Tasers. Making Canada a safer place.

UPDATE: (January 27) Well, well. Police chief Jim Chu's rapid response makes a refreshing change from business as usual. A new broom sweeping clean?

Holding Israel to different standards

Why, yes indeed.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Rights talk

Globe & Mail columnist Jeffrey Simpson dabbles in philosophy this morning. His theme is rights and responsibilities, based upon some elements in Barack Obama's inaugural address. It's a cringeworthy read.

We live in an era of "rights," he says. He's none too keen on that. He appears to regard rights, a word that he usually encloses in shudder-quotes, as an alibi to advance material claims. And then he proceeds to insist that rights are tied to responsibilities--which is demonstrably false.

There is no connection. None whatsoever.

Think about this. Are rights something one consumes? Are they earned? Do they have to be paid for? Are they a reward of some kind? What about the rights of a child? Of people with grave illnesses? Of criminals and lunatics?

To state the obvious: rights are for everyone--including the irresponsible. They have nothing to do with responsibility. Without tracing the history of the notion of rights, or exploring their uncertain ontology, let me simply note here that the current concept arises from the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In the wake of the state-sponsored annihilation of millions of people in Nazi death camps, the Declaration was in fact an agreed statement of the obligations of states to their citizens.
Rights are, as Simpson somehow manages to observe, the reciprocal of these obligations. Rights are universal, not because they are given from on high, but because states are universal.

It is certainly the case that the word "rights" can be, and too often is, misused. I don't have the "right" to a parking space, or the "right" to public transport, or the "right" to know, in the crude journalistic sense. Moreover, in the daily political struggles in which we engage, we tend to assign particular names to general rights, giving the impression that we are inventing new ones.

The human rights set out in the Declaration do not include a "right" to same-sex marriage, or a "right" to abortion, for example. Strictly speaking, these are subsumed in existing rights: equality under the law and security of the person, respectively. Those of us in the struggle for "reproductive rights" are fighting for gender equality.
Those who promote "gay rights" support the extension of existing rights to gay citizens.

Assigning special rights that apply to some but not to others is a slippery slope, subverting, in fact, the very notion of rights. The left is falsely accused of that, but we sometimes leave ourselves vulnerable,
perhaps, by failing to place specific struggles explicitly in their wider context.

But in any case the proliferation of rights claims, some well-founded, some less so, requires a set of analytical tools that has nothing to do with notions of responsibility.
"Those trained in the law," says Simpson, "understand the links between 'rights' and 'responsibilities'." Nope. They don't. Because there are simply no such links.

Simpson's entire case is moral, not analytical. It is all assertion and no argument. "Rights," he says, "are fundamentally about me; responsibility is mostly about us. And we live in a 'me' society, with the sense of 'us' and responsibility and duty somewhat obscured by the 'rights' talk all around us."

This is utter rubbish. And dangerous rubbish, to boot.

Rights are all about "us." Rights are enjoyed by "us," defended by "us," fought for by "us," and died for by "us." If ever there was a collective notion, "rights" are it. Simpson, however, reduces rights to a kind of selfishness. Perhaps in some cases an appeal to rights is part of what conservatives like to call the "entitlement mentality." But guess what? We are entitled. That's the whole point. Rights aren't contingent upon character.

Responsibility is a different matter entirely. A moral call for responsible citizenship holds considerable appeal for progressives. We are, after all, social beings. But Simpson doesn't go very far with this.

'[R]esponsibility' means something different from those conservatives who use the word in a punitive way: that someone must be held 'responsible' for misdeeds or criminal acts. This is a narrow, stunted view of 'responsibility,' not wrong in and of itself but far too limited.

Not to come to the aid of my adversaries, but conservatives, like anyone else, know the difference between accountability and responsibility, and no conservative I know restricts the concept of responsibility in this absurd fashion. Simpson is just putting up a straw man here. Some of the better debates between conservatives and progressives, in fact, turn on profound differences about what responsibility entails ("social" versus "individual" responsibility, for example, or the notion of duty, or the role of the state).

I agree with Simpson that we have obligations to each other, and that a society is strong when we take those obligations seriously. That's a trite observation with which few would disagree. But our rights as citizens have nothing to do with our degree of engagement. And to suggest otherwise threatens the very foundation of those rights.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Size Queens Anonymous

Michael Ignatieff is a subtle guy, not prone to hyperbole as some of his political adversaries are. In this photograph he is illustrating:

1) the breadth of his love for Bob Rae.
2) the size of Stephen Harper's ... err, ... brain.
3) the amount of bourbon he wants, straight up.
4) ---------------------------------- .

Update: Yesterday, I couldn't think of a title. Today, it seems so obvious.

Too much information


Start at 1:50. Definitely NSFW.

Trust FauxNews.

[H/t Red Tory. Nice catch!]

Conservative scumbucketry 101

"'I was troubled, troubled certainly, that Mr. Khadr had placed Mr. Arar at an al-Qaida training camp,'" [Defence Minister Peter] MacKay said, without elaborating further." (emphasis added)

[H/t Kerry Pither. Join her Facebook group!]

Blogging for choice

The theme of this year's pro-choice blogburst is: What is your top pro-choice hope for President Obama and/or the new Congress?

Despite what the right-to-lifers are now ludicrously claiming, the word "choice," even in the present context, embraces more than simply the right to terminate a pregnancy.

With respect to the latter, obviously my hope is that Congress passes, and the President signs into law, the pending Freedom of Choice Act.* Stand up to the bullies, both institutional and individual, and just get it done.

But there is more to reproductive freedom than abortion. Pro-choice activists have always insisted that freely available contraception and sex education are the long-term solutions to unwanted pregnancy. So I have the audacity to hope that decisive measures will be taken in both areas.

One might have thought that the so-called "pro-lifers" could hold hands with us on this one, but as we all know, their agenda is not merely anti-abortion, but pro-natalist. They represent nothing less than the continuing backlash against feminism. If they weren't so dangerous, their nostalgia would be touching. But they are.

Here's what the Catholic Church is doing, for example, to cause further suffering of women and girls who are the victims of human trafficking:

A new lawsuit says Catholic bishops are wrongly imposing their beliefs on victims of human trafficking by not letting federal grant money be used for emergency contraception, condoms or abortions in programs they administer. The American Civil Liberties Union filed the complaint Monday in federal court in Boston against the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, claiming HHS, which distributes grant money to help trafficking victims, has allowed the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to limit the services its subcontractors provide to female trafficking victims. The government estimates 14,500 to 17,500 people —- mostly women —- are brought into the United States each year and exploited for labor, often prostitution.

It shouldn't be up to a private institution to take on such harmful, vicious religious dogmatism. It's time for President Obama to put an end to this sort of abuse and issue the requisite executive orders. Policies governing the operations of the US civil service should be set by the government--not the Vatican.

But anti-choice activism doesn't only impact within American borders. I would like to see the new President and Congress make some bold international moves as well. First, get rid of all of the anti-choice riders on international aid bills, junk the abstinence non-option, and generally get real. Then, in the name of whatever gods there be, do something about Africa.

Because the war against choice is causing enormous collateral damage. Africa is suffering and dying from an unimaginably dire AIDS pandemic. Try to grasp what it must be like to live in a country where more than a quarter of all adults have HIV/AIDS (Swaziland). What could save literally millions of lives? Condoms. What could save literally millions of dollars for anti-retroviral drugs? Condoms, again. And what is the creaky yet powerful Catholic Church doing when it isn't claiming that homosexuality is worse than global warming? Standing foursquare in opposition to the use of condoms in Africa--and lying about their effectiveness.

Mr. President, stand up to the Church and promote an end to the horrendous suffering of Africa. And stop palling around with pastors whose "anti-AIDS" work is an outright fraud--ditch Rick Warren and his genocidal friends, and set a new tone and a new direction for America in the world.

The opponents of choice are the opponents of humanity. We on the pro-choice side need to realize that the war in which we are involved is bigger, much bigger, than the fight for abortion rights, or even the wider campaign for easy access to contraception and quality public-school sex ed. It is nothing less than a struggle for human liberation on all fronts, against forces that would sacrifice the lives of millions of Africans, and the safety and well-being of countless women and girls there and elsewhere, on the bloody altar of patriarchy and the frankly evil religious dogma that props it up.

Being pro-choice is not just a position, but a moral duty and a call to arms. It's time for all of us--and that includes you, Mr. President, and you, members of Congress--
to answer that call. Unimaginable numbers of lives, minds, hearts and souls depend upon it. "Yes we can"? Yes we must.

UPDATE: (January 23) The blogburst round-up is here.

*UPPERDATE: (January 24) I don't know how I managed to leave out the disgraceful Mexico City Policy (aka the "Global Gag Rule"), but President Obama clearly didn't need my prompting! :)

To coalesce or not to coalesce

Reading the pundits and parsing the Delphic utterances of Michael Ignatieff, I find myself unable to make any firm predictions about the outcome of next week's budget debate. An election? A coalition? A seaworthy budget that the Liberals can support, if only by resorting to the discredited Dion strategy of permanent abstention?

It depends upon whom you read.
And that's a glorious repeat of the old saga about the blind men and the elephant.

Don Martin asserts today that the Liberal-NDP coalition "must die," which is encouraging for those of us who thought it was already dead:

With the shrug of his shoulders Wednesday, Mr. Ignatieff seemed to acknowledge its passing-on as an inconvenient truth. He declared himself repulsed by the thought of foisting a needless and unpopular election on Canadians and is well aware the Liberal party's sudden recovery in the polls is contingent on officially divorcing from the coalition.


To force an election or fake a coalition are childish actions best set aside. Parliament's recession-fighting challenge cries out for adult supervision.

But Ignatieff himself isn't quite so clear as Martin surmises. Seen as the centre-right Liberal, as opposed to Bob Rae's relative progressivism, Ignatieff seems to have been positioning himself closer to the left over the past few days, supporting federal anti-scab legislation at least in principle (although, with his predecessor, he joined the Conservatives in torpedoing Bill C-257 two years ago), and demanding the repatriation of Omar Khadr. As for the coalition?

"A coalition if necessary, but not necessarily a coalition, meaning that I need to look at this budget carefully," says Ignatieff, channelling Mackenzie King.

The polls are looking pretty good right about now for both Ignatieff and--in a stunning turnaround--for the coalition, which, never mind Don Martin, now enjoys the support of 50% of the public. The only thing that Ignatieff has been completely clear on is that an election in the near future is not in the cards: Canadians, he says, need another election "like a hole in the head." That leaves only two alternatives.

At this point the budget is taking shape somewhat like a collective agreement, with two parties at the table (and be assured that the table in this case
is not a metaphorical one), and timed public utterances. The resulting document will either be a "final offer" that the Liberals cannot abide, or a "win-win" compromise with considerable water in everybody's wine.

This kind of detailed engineering is politics at its best, and it would be interesting to be a fly on the wall during the on-going back-channel negotiations. The stakes are high for both Harper and Ignatieff, and with the new polling numbers brinkmanship is inevitable. Ignatieff could find himself a relatively popular new Prime Minister, but there are obvious risks involved in forcing the issue. Harper could retain power, but at considerable cost to fiscal conservative principles.

The "win-win" option, a compromise budget, might not in fact be the best solution for the Conservatives. For Harper, already wobbling a little on his base, giving in to Liberal pressure might be a worse long-term solution than being Opposition leader for a while and playing the "coup" card. But for Ignatieff, a political tyro, heading into the uncharted waters of coalition politics during an economic recession might prove to be more hazardous than playing it safe and supporting the Conservatives.

Quite the game of chess--or is it poker? I'll be in the budget lock-up on Tuesday, so I'll provide an early report on its contents. It promises to be a fascinating document. And what follows is anyone's guess.