Sunday, May 31, 2009

Sonia Sotomayor and "identity politics"

Why is the "identity politics" card played
so often by the Right when a non-white/non-male is nominated for something, or running for election as something? President Obama's Supreme Court nomination of federal appellate court judge Sonia Sotomayor has, with wearying inevitability, come under withering fire from the usual suspects. She is Hispanic; what's more, she has the temerity to believe that this allows her to bring a different perspective to the practice of law.

White males, it seems, are the only folks who lack ethnicity. Once merely the unmarked norm, we have now vaulted to the status of "post-racial." "He didn't pick a post-racial candidate," complained Abigail Thernstrom, described by Peter Baker in the New York Times as "a leading conservative scholar on race relations." "She is a reflection of Barack Obama's own racial identical [sic], his own bigotry. That's why she was chosen," says the Oxycontin-popping blowhard Rush Limbaugh. "[The] Latina woman racist should...withdraw," says the family-values guy, Newt Gingrich.

Anyone need a racism decoder ring?

Of all the justices of the Supreme Court of the United States, past and present, all but four have been white males--the folks blessed with no ethnicity, remember. Had Obama picked another one, would there be any talk of "identity politics?" Do that little thought-experiment. Just don't be long about it.

Combing through everything Sotomayor has uttered since Grade Two, the ravening Right managed to find this:

"I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experience would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life."

"Oooo! Racist!" shriek the--well, racists, for want of a better word.

I don't have much time myself for real identity politics, founded upon the metaphysical, essentialist notion of bounded ontological wholes--Blackness, Hispanicness, Frenchness, maleness, etc. Culture is fluid: "cultures" and genders are illusions when they are reified in this manner, and "race" is a category of practice, not a category of analysis. I don't see much essentialism in Sotomayor, though. Rather, her words convey the eminently practical idea that law, already subject to ceaseless interpretation under ever-changing circumstances, can benefit from a broader range of interpretation that better reflects the diverse make-up of the society governed by it.

Justice Thurgood Marshall put the matter plainly: "What do they know about Negroes? You can't name one member of this Court who knows anything about Negroes before he came to this Court. Name me one." His frustration was more than evident. Experience, we all assert, is a good thing, a necessary thing, the difference between a qualified practitioner and a tyro. Yet some quail at the notion that experience of discrimination--racism, sexism, homophobia--is an asset to those who might be called upon to make judgements in the area. Such experience on the bench, however, has already reaped dividends.

Some still imagine that the practice of law is almost divine in nature--that there is no humanity in it. Not only should it have no trace of subjectivity, but no context, either: good judges are detached, we are asked to believe, from the world in which they live and the one in which they grew up. They have privileged access to an objective realm of abstract reasoning that has nothing to do with flesh and blood--their own, or that of the lawyers who appear before them, or of those caught in the law's toils: the plaintiffs, the prosecutors, the defendants, the respondents.

Well, here is Sotomayor's entire speech. It's reassuringly commonsensical: different life experiences, she says, give us different ways of interpreting the world--and the law. A justice system should reflect some of that diversity of interpretation. I don't agree with everything in the lecture--the notion, if not embraced at least entertained, of "inherent...cultural differences" is anthropologically illiterate, and her infamous statement, even in context, is clumsily phrased--but my objections are mere quibbles.

Sotomayor was, after all, talking about discrimination, in society and within the legal profession. She provided facts and figures to buttress her case, and was clearly making the over-all point that, in judging cases involving discrimination, the point of view of someone in a racialized minority is to be welcomed, and carries its own lived authority.

That's not the essentialism of identity politics, but observation securely anchored in experience. What would we prefer, after all, in a judge with awesome power over others: abstract, other-worldly theorizing, or human-centred legal reasoning that breathes a vital spirit into the letter of the law?

Sotomayor is simply more honest, or at least more conscious, in offering us the latter. Because it's not really a choice, despite the way I just put it. We can't have the former, no matter how much we clamour for it. That approach is a pretence: underlying it we find yet more profoundly subjective interpretation, some of it, furthermore, not guided by experience but by prejudice.

Opening up the theatre of interpretation to different, experience-based perspectives is threatening only to those who fear that their own interpretations might be challenged. And challenged they will surely be. Let's hope, for the sake of a better, wiser, more inclusive justice, that Sotomayor is quickly confirmed.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Organized religion and child abuse, Part 3

We're equal-opportunity opponents of inadequate institutional responses to child abuse, so here you go:

According to the Muslim Parliament of Great Britain, imams were not taking their duty to protect children seriously and were exposing young girls and boys to lasting damage.

It said that failure to tackle this taboo and implement a transparent, co-ordinated child protection scheme could leave the community open to “an avalanche of child sex-abuse scandals” similar to those of the Roman Catholic Church in the 1990s.

The MPGB revealed that up to 40 per cent of teachers in madrassas hit or scold their children and that between 15 and 20 cases of sex abuse occur each year.

There is an important point to be made, however, before we all go further down this road. The difference between the Roman Catholic Church and other organized religions is this: it's one organization, not many, under a centralized authority and a rigid hierarchy. Given that we have been discussing institutional responses to child abuse, not child abuse per se, the RCC's sordid history of enabling, cover-up, prevarication and resistance to victim claims is frankly in a class by itself. It's taken place, not to put too fine a point upon it, on a frankly industrial scale.

Individual mosques, synagogues, Chassidic organizations, etc., no doubt have much to answer for with respect to child abuse, as do secular institutions like public schools and the Boy Scouts. But I do see a difference between outrageous acts here and there in highly decentralized organizations and what has been going on within the Catholic ecclesia, whose hierarchy rules over every single Catholic Church in the world, and which, therefore, is the accountable body when things go haywire.

If we were to move beyond defensive reactions by outraged Catholics (who too often appear to care more about the reputation of their institution than about its tens of thousands of child victims) to a consideration of massive institutional failure, we might all get further ahead. Simply attempting to make moral equivalences won't excuse the violation of a single child's innocence, much less the well-documented, disgraceful actions of the Church when these violations become known.

[H/t commenter Peter, whose use of an atheist website does surprise me a little.]

Harper's brave stand against the disabled

Once again our government is purporting to "represent" our interests abroad, this time by beating up on disabled people. (Unfortunately, the latter seems to be an all-too-popular pastime for some conservatives.)

Read Cory Doctorow's account of what's going on right now in Geneva. The current meeting of the World Intellectual Property Organization is considering a copyright treaty that would extend rights to certain copyright users:

The main aim of the treaty is to allow the cross-border import and export of digital copies of books and other copyrighted works in formats that are accessible to persons who are blind, visually impaired, dyslexic or have other reading disabilities, using special devices that present text as refreshable braille, computer generated text to speech, or large type. These works, which are expensive to make, are typically created under national exceptions to copyright law that are specifically written to benefit persons with disabilities...

Needless to say, the corporate publishers are opposed, and have mounted a fierce lobby against this access for the disabled. And Canada, naturally, has fallen into line, along with the US, Australia, New Zealand, Norway--and (here I'll bite my tongue) the Vatican.

This treaty could be lost unless world-wide reaction is quickly felt.

Says Doctorow:

Activists at WIPO are desperate to get the word out. They're tweeting madly from the negotiation (technically called the 18th session of the Standing Committee on Copyright and Related Rights) publishing editorials on the Huffington Post, etc.

Here's where you come in: this has to get wide exposure, to get cast as broadly as possible, so that it will find its way into the ears of the obscure power-brokers who control national trade-negotiators.

I don't often ask readers to do things like this, but please, forward this post to people you know in the US, Canada and the EU, and ask them to reblog, tweet, and spread the word, especially to government officials and activists who work on disabled rights. We know that WIPO negotiations can be overwhelmed by citizen activists -- that's how we killed the Broadcast Treaty negotiation a few years back -- and with your help, we can make history, and create a world where copyright law protects the public interest.

Let's help get the word out.
There's no time to lose.

[H/t boingboing via psa]

UPDATE: (May 30) A partial victory! The matter has been put on hold until the Fall. That gives us more time to shame the Harper government into supporting the treaty--let's get on it.

Camera-shy cops target photographers

It's been called the "Robert Dziekanski syndrome." After the killing of the Polish immigrant was captured on video and flashed around the world, giving the lie to official RCMP statements about the incident, police seem to be reacting more aggressively to being filmed during the performance of their duties.

In Winnipeg, just a few weeks after the Dziekanski video, a CBC cameraman had his camera seized and was formally charged with obstruction for filming an incident in a public place. That same month--December, 2007--Vancouver police detained Channel M videographer Ricky Tong, demanding that he give up his tape.

This past April, Vancouver police officers took down Vancouver Province reporter Jason Payne, threatened him with arrest, and confiscated his camera. The resulting outcry forced an apology from police chief Jim Chu. A month earlier, a witness to a fatal police shooting, Adam Smolcic, alleged that police grabbed his cellphone and deleted images before handing it back to him.

Not that this began, of course, with the Dziekanski video. A New Brunswick blogger was arrested in June, 2006 during a protest he was covering at the NB legislature. His camera was taken away, and images were erased by the Saint John police. The cops' Swiss-cheese defence can be seen in all its glory here. Bogus charges of "obstruction" against the blogger, Charles LeBlanc, were dismissed, partly because a CBC cameraman caught the incident on camera, and the tape contradicted police testimony.

And who can forget the sadistic RCMP Staff Sergeant Hugh Stewart, hosing down peaceful protesters--and a CBC cameraman--during the APEC protests back in 1997? (In the natural course of events, "Sergeant Pepper" was promoted by the RCMP, and has recently been brought out of retirement to run RCMP security planning for the Vancouver Olympics in 2010. Heaven help us.)

Nevertheless, these incidents appear to be taking place with more frequency of late. This past Wednesday in Ottawa, a protest was held at Lansdowne Park against an arms bazaar sponsored by CANSEC. Members of the Ottawa Witness Group, a civic volunteer organization that observes protest events in the national capital, were on hand, taking notes and filming. The OWG has been around since 2002, coming into being a few months after police misbehaviour during the G-20 protests in November, 2001. Members work in pairs, and wear distinctive purple T-shirts.

At one point during the CANSEC protest, police turned aggressive. And, as the short video above demonstrates, they were none too happy about being recorded. Note that the first person deliberately pepper-sprayed by an officer is a member of the OWG, his T-shirt clearly visible. He had been moving forward to record a police takedown but was at some distance from it. The police officer rushes forward to spray him in the face, and then turns his attention to two other protesters.

At this point it seems that, if we are to be protected through public exposure against police excesses on the street, even camerapersons need camerapersons. In this case, the other photographer wasn't spotted by the cops. There has been no word as yet of any action to be taken in response to this latest example of police camera-shyness.

[Disclosure: I am a member of the OWG, although I was not present on the day in question. The opinions expressed here are entirely my own, and not necessarily those of the OWG. --DD]

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Too bad Brian Mulroney...

...wasn't an award-winning sculptor living from hand to mouth. Yeah, yeah, it won't happen again. Would you take that to the bank?

Spread the word!

English is apparently nearing its millionth word,
not, of course, without controversy. A new word, we are told, is birthed every 98 minutes amongst a community of 1.5 billion speakers. To make the list of Paul Payack, president of the Global Language Monitor, a word must have 25,000 citations across a wide range of sources and geographical locations. There are only 176 words to go until the million word mark has been reached.

This is a shameless plea to help me join the millionth word sweepstakes. My word, in which I take a certain pride, is "sado-politics," used to describe the right-wing political penchant for inflicting pain and generating vicarious enjoyment of that pain as a political ploy. From Vic Toews' proposal to jail ten-year-olds, to former Ontario Premier Mike Harris' slashing of welfare benefits and setting up snitch lines to harass the poor, to the eliminationist rhetoric with which we are all by now drearily familiar, "sado-politics" has become the hallmark of a certain type of conservative.

Not, of course, that this doesn't have historical antecedents. From gladiatorial combat in panis et circenses
Rome to gruesome executions at the stake and on the wheel, rope and rack for the delectation of the masses, there has always been a predilection on the part of the powerful to play to the baser instincts of the people.

we know, thanks to B.F. Skinner, that positive reinforcement is the most effective means of altering behaviour. Yet the powers that be have always preferred the inefficient and yet crowd-pleasing alternative--punishment. If those fearful and bloody mediaeval spectacles (which actually went on much later) were truly meant only to instruct the people in proper behaviour, one wonders why the better choice was virtually never made. Returning to the gladiators, however, it is clear that there is something distressingly attractive to many in observing the suffering of others, or even being a party to it.

And the infliction of suffering, it seems, is as politically saleable today as it ever was. From capital punishment restorationism to war talk, from excusing torture to self-righteously killing off a pauper, to urging addicts to off themselves, to the lipsmacking enjoyment of the death of a political opponent, it is abundantly evident that unvarnished sadism has infected the politics of the Right to the point that decent conservatives (for example, frequent commenter "Peter") are left shaken and appalled.

We need a word to describe this kind of politics, and, with all due humility, I believe that I have contributed one. Come on, bloggers and tweeters--let's get cracking.

UPDATE: Give scurmunging a shot.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

CTV slime

Already covered, by many good bloggers. No harm repeating.
Never mind the powers that be: the blogosphere doesn't have to play by their rules.Good decision, CBSC.

More fundamentalist religious child abuse.

Some readers incorrectly accused Dr Dawg of promoting the view that the Catholic Church holds the patent on child abuse by its clergy. This article from Haaretz should disabuse them of that notion.

Inside the grand ballroom of the Midtown Hilton in Manhattan, Agudath Israel of America's annual dinner was unfolding according to plan. Men and women dressed in traditional yet elegant clothes dined on salmon and listened to Senator Charles Schumer and Mayor Michael Bloomberg pledge their fealty.

Outside, a storm was brewing. A dozen protesters stood in front of the Hilton's parking garage and waved signs that said "Agudah: Stop protecting pedophiles." Most attendees waved off the protesters or ignored them with a look of distaste.

But Agudath board of trustees member Israel Lefkowitz rolled down his car window to chastise the protesters. "I am against sexual harassment for all the children," Lefkowitz said. "But you don't do this in public."

The angry exchange outside the annual dinner May 15 for Agudath Israel, a national ultra-Orthodox umbrella group, encapsulates the escalating battle within the Orthodox community over sexual abuse of children by rabbis, yeshiva teachers and other religious authority figures.

On one side, a band of loosely organized victims of sexual abuse and their supporters are crying out for community leaders to take a tougher stand against pedophilia. On the other side, many powerful leaders regard any public airing of sexual abuse allegations in the Orthodox community as hillul Hashem, a desecration of God's name.

One of the protesters, Mark Appel, yelled at Lefkowitz in his car: "Your children are being molested, and you know that [names of officials from Agudath] are not doing anything about it."

Why such explosive, public display of anger expressed by the members of a community that traditionally avoids drawing attention to itself?

The protesters' ire was aimed at Agudah's opposition to a bill now before the state Legislature that would extend the statute of limitations for civil and criminal claims of child sexual abuse and create a one-time, one-year "window" during which victims of crimes committed beyond the statute of limitations could file civil claims against their alleged abusers and the institutions that harbored them. ...

Agudah's official position is that it supports lengthening the statute of limitations, but opposes the one-year window because it could allow plaintiffs to file decades-old claims.

"Reasonable people can disagree on this," Agudah spokesman Rabbi Avi Shafran said inside the dinner hall. "We have no problem with extending the statute of limitations, we have no problem with anything preventative, we only have problems with the so-called 'window' provision."

Rabbi Yaakov Perlow, the Novominsker Rebbe and Rosh Agudath Israel of America, took a harsher tone in his dinner address, chiding "the bloggers and the picketers, presumptuous promoters" for the notion that "they know better [than Agudah's Council of Torah Sages] what is good for the Jews." Perlow called child sexual abuse "a serious issue." He acknowledged a need "for correcting the past - and for addressing the future, creating means to guide against wrongdoing to children."

The protesters find Agudah's statements short on specifics. They accused Agudah of a conflict of interest. The organization is named as a defendant in sex-abuse lawsuits involving Rabbi Yehuda Kolko, accused of molesting dozens of students, including boys at an Agudah-run summer camp, and would likely face more lawsuits if the window legislation passes.

Different fundamentalist, ultra-orthodox religious institution. Same hypocrisy? Same impunity? Discuss. As always, your comments are welcome.

The photograph was found at this blogsite.

CSIS follies and Cannon law

Withholding information? Lying to the court? Say it isn't so.

Federal court judge Simon Noël, presiding over the Mohamed Harkat case, has just excoriated
our secret police for what appears to him to be a troubling pattern of malfeasance. It seems that CSIS witnesses may have engaged in "prevarication," and that material germane to Harkat's legal defence has been withheld by CSIS for no good reason.

In a letter to the Court, prepared by lawyers for Public Safety Minister Peter Van Loan and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney, it was acknowledged that the material should have been provided to Harkat's lawyers earlier, and that CSIS' "failure to do so is a serious matter."
Noel ordered that the file be turned over to Harkat's lawyers forthwith, even though a CSIS informant is named in it.

This comes in the wake of an earlier ruling by Justice Noël ameliorating Harkat's bail conditions after a nuisance raid on his home by Border Security agents, who turned over the premises for six hours, and then seized family photographs and confidential legal documents.

In other news, Abousfian Abdelrazik has a new airplane ticket. On June 12, he is scheduled to fly home to appear before the House of Commons standing committee on foreign affairs. A civil society delegation is planning to fly to Sudan to accompany our fellow citizen home. Yet, says MP Paul Dewar, whose motion to call Abdelrazik before the committee was adopted, "Minister [Lawrence] Cannon told the committee on Monday that he is not going to issue the necessary travel documents for Mr. Abdelrazik’s return. Why is the Minister putting himself in contempt of the committee?"

I think we know the answer to that. Cannon and his Justice Department mouthpieces have already said in Federal Court that the Minister can effectively do anything he wants, and that no court has the right to challenge him. The next two or three weeks should be interesting.

You can see here how excruciatingly embarrassing this all is for the diehard conservative loyalists expected to swallow the government's story whole. I'm trying not to enjoy it, but the National Post's discomfiture is something to behold. Kudos, in the meantime, to Abdelrazik's supporters on the ground and to Dewar for keeping this issue alive.

She cut out his heart and stomped on it!

Well, no, better--she gobbled it up, or at least a piece of it, right there on TV. Michaëlle Jean, our Governor-General, eats 'em raw. Solidarity with the Inuit. She gives whole new meaning to "seal of approval."

All Sarah Palin ever did was shoot wolves from helicopters. Big deal. Canada kicks ass!

Did the Queen's representative set upon the beast and claw the still-beating organ from its chest? Don't believe everything you hear from PETA and the European Union. On the other hand, maybe she did. Hey, you got a fricken problem with that?

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Korean tweets

As reported in the Globe and Mail today, Dear Leader Kim Jong-il of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea is now tweeting--or, at least, his government is. What purports to be his personal site, in which he describes himself as the "Official Twitter" of the DPRK, is empty. Are we being twitted?

Truth to tell, I didn't find the page all that interesting--same old, same old--but then I happened upon another North Korean Twitter page, belonging to someone calling himself "bannerofjuche."

Quick background note: the "juche idea," originating with the immortal Kim Il-Sung, replaced Marxism-Leninism as the state ideology of North Korea. I've never quite grasped it. A mixture of national self-reliance and idol worship, from the sound of it. The Dear Leader himself is little short of a god. In the DPRK, you don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.

Now, no mere North Korean citizen, spending his waking hours out foraging for grass and tree bark to feed his starving family, has the time, the money or, more importantly, the official permission to tweet. So what we have here is a spokesperson for the regime. Indeed, his website appears conclusive in that respect.

"DPRK Patriot," as he calls himself, has an interesting bio:

I like kimchi, Dear Leader, social network, songun politics. I dislike Amerikkka, capitalism, international jew, jazz.

The implied preference here for pickled cabbage over Kim Jong-il does not appear to be a hanging offence. As for the apparent anti-Semitism, no fear. The "international jew" reference no doubt has suffered in translation, because "DPRK Patriot" suggests, if I have the syntax right, that Barack Obama is Jewish. And that's clearly untrue--everybody knows he's a Muslim.

Amerikkka is recently steal Dear Leader prized satellite and put in ocean! Death to Obama the brigandish jew capitalism warmonger dog!

"DPRK Patriot"'s latest tweet describes Pyongyang as a "worker paradise of fruit and piano." We are directed to a video that shows how North Koreans live today. Could I be wrong about that "
grass and tree bark" thing?

All of which makes this video entirely believable. I've asked "DPRK Patriot" if the project is still on schedule. Stay tuned.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Progressive bigotry

Anything at all is "progressive" these days, according to the moderators of Progressive Bloggers--including anti-Quebec sneering and calling elderly people with Alzheimer's disease "cotton heads." According to Head Moderator Scott Tribe:

I've already forwarded the complaint to the moderators.. and unanimously they tell me they don't believe this post to be "actionable" or that it puts Prog Blogs in any danger of besmirching itself by keeping his blog on the affiliation, and I'm inclined to go along with them. If you still beg to differ, you may spell out your reasons why to them, if you want to try and change their minds on the matter.

Res ipsa loquitur
, so I for one have nothing to add--except to point out the colossal ignorance of the blogger with respect to therapeutic clowning. It's no surprise that he's also an enthusiastic defender of the benighted Ottawa Mayor Larry O'Brien.


The Braidwood Chronicles: the RCMP's Hail Mary pass

At almost the last moment of the Braidwood Inquiry, the RCMP has managed to dredge up a "forensic video analyst" from the US, Grant Fredericks, who claims that by counting pixels in the video frame-by-frame he can assert that Dziekanski was advancing towards the officers with a stapler in his hand when he was Tasered for the first time.

As the CBC's Terry Malewski reports, Justice Braidwood showed considerable impatience--in fact, to this observer, mounting irritation--with the testimony of this surprise witness, and Malewski himself, who has been covering the inquiry from the beginning, indicates considerable scepticism himself.

Here's the Dziekanski death video. Go to @3:50 and judge for yourselves.
Do you believe this desperate last-minute pixel-counting--or your own lying eyes?

UPDATE: Under cross-examination by the lawyer for Poland, Don Rosenbloom,* Fredericks found himself unable to specify with any certainty whether Dziekanski was moving forward or downward. As I post this, a short break has been called. Probably just as well for Fredericks, who is showing signs of strain.

UPPERDATE: The Taser connection. [H/t commenter Frank Frink]

*Name corrected, with thanks to commenter P. Kealy.

The Speech Wars: episode 3,116

[F]ree speech doesn't mean we should go out of our way to provide a platform for every jackass who has a mouth and plans to use it. --commenter "One Truth" at Free Dominion

Nor, as commenter Todd mentioned in an earlier post on the subject of Bill Ayers and his exclusion from an academic gathering in Canada, does it mean that we should all have equal access to the means by which free speech is exercised. But in fairness to the FD folks, they aren't monolithic on the Ayers matter.

Free speech is one of those concepts that on closer inspection gets a little blurred. Should it apply to non-citizens who want to enter Canada solely to exercise it? Should something for which a speaker was acquitted four decades ago serve as grounds for exclusion? And then we have the Dick from Calgary, who's been wittering on here on the same matter, claiming that it's all or nothing: all speech or no speech, and anything in between is hypocritical.

But he doesn't really believe that, of course. I may be assuming too much, but I expect that not even Dick would defend incitement to riot, or libel or slander, or loudly swearing during a church service. A line, except for the purists who live in another world, must always be drawn. OK, where?

Dick has denounced those like myself who called for the Phelpsbrood to be banned from the country. Same thing, he says. I'm picking and choosing. Well, yes: but there's nothing arbitrary about that. The Phelpspawn wanted to enter Canada with the express purpose of breaking Canadian law. Ayers wanted to talk about education. Can you see a difference? I can see a difference. And, as my just-previous link indicates, some of my traditional sparring partners were entirely on-side on the Phelps issue.

I'm satisfied to have a very wide range of opinion expressed in word and deed, and giving offence isn't necessarily a qualifier, except among those of us who prize civility and good manners. But of course you can't legislate the latter. I draw the line, however, at deliberate hate propaganda directed at vulnerable members of our community. I see no reason whatsoever for tolerating vicious verbal assaults on our fellow-citizens because of their sexual orientation, or their "race," or their gender, or their creed.

Neither Ayers nor the pompous George Galloway were threatening to do any such thing. They were excluded because the Harper ideologues disagree with their politics. It's really as simple as that. How nice to see that some of Dick's fellow commenters over at FD have been able to grasp the obvious. And how predictable that he himself remains incapable of it.

[H/t Buckets]

Standing aloof in giant ignorance

In the wake of the defeat of the Single Transferable Vote in BC, the latest would-be gravedigger for proportional representation, Quebec-based journalist Lysiane Gagnon, weighs in today with a handy compendium of anti-PR falsehoods and misrepresentations. I'm left wondering: is this all they've got?

Smug, blasé journalists like Gagnon played a decisive role in the defeat of proportional representation in both Ontario and BC. They have consistently misinformed the public on the issue. For those who looked to the media for information, traps were continually sprung, and now the journos are engaged in mopping-up operations.

I'll get into why this is in a moment. But first, Gagnon's column, which, all in one place, manages to bring together almost every anti-PR cliché and folktale for the delectation of the credulous and the naive.

First, this juxtaposition is interesting:

Perhaps the voters felt they just didn't need to change a system that, by and large, works rather well despite its flaws. Most likely, the sight of what's happening in Ottawa, where three successive minority governments have led the Commons into a mess of partisan bickering, gave them reason to pause.

So creaky old first-past-the-post "works rather well," but it's given us three successive minority governments, with its attendant "mess of partisan bickering." We are to assume that the latter was unknown previously. (For some reason this reminds me of Social Credit leader Robert Thompson, rising in the House back in the sixties to complain that Parliament was in danger of turning into a "political arena.") In fact minority Parliaments, with their additional checks and balances, are not quite the disaster that Gagnon suggests. Imagine Harper with a majority. QED.

"Indeed, any kind of PR system inevitably leads to minority governments," says Gagnon, but this is of course blitheringly false. What it does lead to is coalitions, "fragile" perhaps in the case of Israel, but stable and long-lasting in the case of Germany and many other nations. And with coalition-building comes a political culture more attuned to compromise than to, well, "partisan bickering," and a stability unknown under FPTP, where a minor shift in public opinion can result in a sweeping change of government.

Gagnon also ignores the fact that the existing "big-tent" parties are in themselves coalitions, as national parties in a country of regions have to be. Interests are balanced against interests, priorities against priorities, ideological preferences against other ideological preferences. In microcosm, the internal party dynamics now present provide examples of compromises and brokering that would merely be extended in the case of coalition governance.

All the proposals for PR in Canada, Gagnon says, including STV, are "various mixtures of PR and the existing first-past-the-post system." Plain wrong. STV retains not a trace of FPTP. Nearly every vote cast accrues to a winning political candidate, in multi-member constituencies.

Gagnon notes some instances of FPTP "disparities" in Quebec:

In 1973, for instance, the Parti Québécois received 30 per cent of the vote but ended up with only six MNAs. In 1998, the Action Démocratique du Québec had just one MNA with 12 per cent of the vote, and the PQ formed the government even though it had received 28,000 fewer votes than the Liberal Party.

Such "disparities" are common in national politics, too: seemingly endless false majorities, in which a minority of voters are rewarded with majority governments that the majority voted against, have been a feature of the Canadian political landscape for decades. But Gagnon thinks that FPTP "works rather well despite its flaws." For whom, exactly?

Says Gagnon, the cost of representation in the House of Commons that reflects actual voter preference on the ground is "too big."

The first byproduct of PR is a string of minority governments that engender instability and endless negotiations between parties. Secondly, PR creates second-class representatives, who are beholden to the party's bureaucracy rather than to the voters. Thirdly, it encourages the formation of small, single-interest parties, which would be content to elect three or four vocal representatives without feeling the need to influence the major parties, which are the only ones who can really act on a problem.

Stuff and nonsense. Coalition negotiations are hardly a bad thing in themselves, but in any case, most industrialized democracies have some form of PR in place, and few of them have notably unstable governments. This is classic scaremongering, based upon nothing concrete whatsoever.

The second objection, once again, doesn't remotely apply to STV. Mixed-member proportional systems are open to this criticism, especially with closed party lists, but even MMP can put everything in the hands of the electors with open lists (in which electors themselves choose their preferred list candidates) and regional primaries (in which electors can play a role in assembling the lists in the first place).

STV positively discourages single-issue parties. In the process of rank-ordering their preferences (first choice, second choice, etc.), electors would effectively eliminate such parties from consideration. The threshold, i.e., the number of votes required to be elected, is actually quite high: in a four-member constituency, for example, with (say) 1000 ballots cast in total, the smallest number of votes to guarantee a win is 201 (the so-called "Droop threshold.") That's just over 20% of the ballots cast in this case. And even with MMP, established thresholds of 4% or 5% work against the single-issue and nuisance parties (check this out for yourselves--no Marijuana, Natural Law, Rhino, Family Coalition or CPC-ML candidates have ever achieved even that level of votes).

A fuller exposition of myths about STV in particular may be found here.

Moving on: why do so many political journalists (with honourable exceptions like Andrew Coyne) rush to defend the status quo? In truth, I can only speculate, but I would say first off that Gagnon's sneering reference to the "cherished cause of many political science profs" is a dead giveaway--it's classic anti-intellectual inverse snobbery. Obviously she is making out that her journalistic knowledge of politics, acquired in the school of hard knocks, is superior to that of Dennis Pilon, for example, who has merely laboured for years in the field of electoral systems, obtaining a PhD and publishing a raft of articles on the subject along the way.

The PR debate, in fact, exposes the Achilles heel of many journalists--their intellectual insecurity. They cover a number of issues, and have to pick up the background knowledge required on the fly. Established in their profession, some of them begin to imagine that they really are masters of all trades, and yet the real experts are always there to confound them. It's too easy in response to dismiss them with a casual, anti-intellectual hand-waves, as Gagnon does.

Anti-intellectualism is a winning political card in the US (Rush Limbaugh, anyone?), although Stephen Harper, who has tried to import that approach most recently in the case of Michael Ignatieff, is finding it a tougher sell here, other than in the backwoods where his base howls and prowls. Nevertheless, unless an expert is trundled in by the media to bolster a particular point of view, as a fleshly argumentum ad verecundiam, people who actually know what they're talking about tend to be quickly categorized, in arch-knuckledragger George Wallace's words, as pointy-headed intellecshuls.

In addition, those accustomed to rubbing shoulders with the political elites--which oppose PR, as a rule--come to take on the same aura of smugness and unassailability. They come to think of themselves as courtiers in the palace of power. Those
with no political power have less credibility in their eyes than those who do. Gagnon typifies that type of journalist, but she is far from alone--Margaret Wente springs to mind--and in fairness she is far less offensive than, say, the insufferable Mike Duffy, who has now gone to his reward. Nevertheless, the stunning ignorance displayed in her column today gives anyone familiar with the issues considerable pause.

As an afterthought, I am beginning to wonder if matters like PR are best addressed through referenda. It's not that I am anti-democratic: I simply question whether the issues involved can be boiled down to a simple yes or no on a ballot. A more profoundly democratic process was proposed some time ago by Ed Broadbent: take public input from coast to coast, not on electoral systems, but on the values Canadians would like to see expressed in such a system. Look for a consensus or at least a majority view. Then draft appropriate legislation, with the help of an all-party committee, to create an electoral system that best embodies those values.

Electoral reform is essential if we are to call ourselves a democracy, even in the formal sense of the word. Parliaments should reflect, in their political composition, the composition of the electorate. I believe that few Canadians, other than old pols who have done nicely under the undemocratic FPTP, and their political and media hangers-on, truly prefer minority rule and wasted votes and hyper-partisanship and the exacerbation of regional differences, all of which are fostered by the current system. PR will be back: rumours of its death, spread for effect, are very much exaggerated.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Christ 1; Church 0

Her priests have violated my law, and have profaned mine holy things: they have put no difference between the holy and profane, neither have they showed difference between the unclean and the clean, and have hid their eyes from my sabbaths, and I am profaned among them. --Ezekiel 22:26

Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles? Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit. A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit. Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire. Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them. --Matthew 7: 15-20

I'm not a Christian, so let's get that out of the way. I "read the Bible for its prose" and, after a couple of "anthropology" courses that were really classes about the religious experience delivered by a practising Tibetan Buddhist, I'm prepared to concede that there's more to existence than what meets our phenomenal eye. I'm sceptical, agnostic, but (particularly after some odd events in my own life and in those of people I know or knew) open-minded.

The people who start religions--or around whom religions accrete, like layers of silt--are already in a space where other people yearn to be. They are simply there, without following rules, bowing down to high priests, memorizing scriptures, or wasting time in temples. Setting aside two millennia of interpolation, mistranslation and outright fraud, it is fascinating to read the sayings of Christ (and I include such apochrypha as the gnostic Gospel of Thomas) and realize that he inhabited the world in a different way than do most of us.

In his parables, the familiar world of his contemporaries is recast, to become something new and strange--people showing up late for work receive the same wage as the early birds, layabouts are treated with more favour than their dutiful siblings, his Kingdom is like a mustard seed, and friends and family, we are told, should not be invited to your dinner-parties. Yet, at least in my reading, Christ isn't describing a world to come, but the one we are in, one that we can learn to experience all over again.
His parables are like Zen koan: the listener must actively engage with them to achieve enlightenment.

But those religious who do not inhabit the Kingdom by living differently on this earth move in precisely the wrong direction. They bind, rule over others, enslave the spirit and the person. William Blake put is squarely:

I went to the Garden of Love,
And saw what I never had seen:
A Chapel was built in the midst,
Where I used to play on the green.

And the gates of this Chapel were shut,
And 'Thou shalt not' writ over the door;
So I turn'd to the Garden of Love,
That so many sweet flowers bore,

And I saw it was filled with graves,
And tomb-stones where flowers should be:
And Priests in black gowns were walking their rounds,
And binding with briars my joys and desires.

All organized religion does this. There appears to be a universal compulsion on the part of the religious to confine the flashes of enlightenment offered to the world by extraordinary individuals, to build their churches and hierarchies, to interpose themselves between the common people and the vision. But if there is enlightenment to be had, it will come from looking inwards, not from following the commands of others:

Jesus said, "If those who lead you say to you, 'See, the kingdom is in the sky,' then the birds of the sky will precede you. If they say to you, 'It is in the sea,' then the fish will precede you. Rather, the kingdom is inside of you, and it is outside of you. When you come to know yourselves, then you will become known, and you will realize that it is you who are the sons of the living father. But if you will not know yourselves, you dwell in poverty and it is you who are that poverty."

It will come from learning to see things differently:

Jesus said to them, "When you make the two one, and when you make the inside like the outside and the outside like the inside, and the above like the below, and when you make the male and the female one and the same, so that the male not be male nor the female female; and when you fashion eyes in the place of an eye, and a hand in place of a hand, and a foot in place of a foot, and a likeness in place of a likeness; then will you enter the kingdom."

No wonder the powers that be cast aside the so-called Gnostic Gospels, accepting only those texts that appeared to give them a worldly authority over others.

Which brings me to the Roman Catholic Church today. I felt that I needed this lengthy preamble to anchor my views. Not only that, I needed some time to compose myself after being made nearly physically ill yet again by new revelations of the obscene behaviour of the Church, this time detailed in a five-volume report on its depredations in Ireland. Children were the target, as they so often are when the Church goes looking for prey. "Give me a child until he is five and he'll be a Catholic for the rest of his life." And too often the traumatized victim of unspeakable horror and abuse as well.

The wretches who ran these sexual concentration camps, including nuns, priests and the Christian Brothers (remember them?), will never be made accountable for their revolting acts of depravity. Both the government and the courts in Ireland swung ponderously into action to keep the names of the small army of pedophiles and sexual sadists secret, and to cap the Church's liability for settlements with their estimated 30,000 victims.

There seems no end to this dreadful on-going saga. Stories like this one have been repeated in Canada, Australia, the US, Hong Kong, South Africa, New Zealand, Mexico, Austria,
Italy, Belgium, Brazil, Croatia, Poland, France, Germany, Peru, the Philippines--every part of the world, it seems, where the RCC has laid its filthy paws.

Almost inevitably, governments have moved to defend the Church and to nickel-and-dime its victims. Power feeds on power. The Church itself has eeled around, prevaricated, temporized, made excuses for itself. Apologies, when they have come, have been grudging and half-hearted. And throughout it all, the Church hierarchy has continually covered up, reassigned child molesters to other parishes to obtain new victims, stonewalled investigations.

I don't want to hear any talk about how most priests are decent folks, etc., etc. It's true. That's not the point. The institution itself is corrupt: the good people who cling to it have no say whatsoever in how it is run. It is the institution that has taken extraordinary measures to protect the "bad apples," to the point that the whole barrel is now oozing. It is the institution that has nurtured depravity and sadism in its bosom, not by neglect, but by conscious design. And, like a fish, that institution is rotting from the head.

Attrition may kill this foul organization in the long term. But in the meantime, it's high time to tax the Church, at the very least. As matters stand now, we taxpayers, by virtue of the Church's charitable religious exemption, are forced to subsidize the vile activities of its officials. We become collaborators in evil in spite of ourselves. And if the Vatican has the gall and shamelessness to resist, as it no doubt will, then as far as I'm concerned we should simply expropriate its lands, abolish the separate school system (well, we should do that anyway), and, whatever its response, ensure that the vulnerable are kept safe from its "brotherly love," by any means necessary.

Extreme? Think of the children.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

We are not amused

For the second time, a prominent US educator, William Ayers, has been barred from speaking to academics in Canada. by the Canada Border Services Agency. The CBSA answers, of course, to Once again, we can thank Jason Kenney*, the current King Abdullah of what appears to be Canada's very own Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice.

Thanks to Kenney and his Conservative predecessors,
we have been protected against dangerous women peace activists in pink, rescued from the gaseous presence of George Galloway, and immunized against dangerous radicals promoting democracy and education. Domestically, the King has cut off grants (but no heads, at least as yet) to an organization that he felt was disrespectful of His person.

And those voices that have been crying loud and long for the unfettered freedom of Nazis and homophobes to spout their hate at top volume across this country are curiously silent. Well, not entirely: that other gasbag, Ezra Levant, applauded the barring of Galloway, saying it wasn't a free speech issue but a sovereignty issue.

Of course (unless you are deliberately exiled by the King's brother, Lawrence Cannon), we Canadians do get to say what furriners come into our own yard. But somehow I had the impression that Speech Warriors™ were all about the traffic in ideas, however distasteful, and how the mighty organs of the state should do nothing to impede that flow.

There's even the wisp of an argument there, if only it were consistently applied: to SLAPP suits, for instance, and nuisance defamation actions that at least one of their number likes to indulge in, or to the suppression of left-wing campus clubs, or to posters advertising a week of events on the subject of Israel. Somehow, though, as I've noted before, the Warriors' enthusiasm seems to wane when the contested speech involved is liberal or further to the left.

Like those of us who favour freedom of speech as a strong principle, yet find we must draw the line at hate speech, the Warriors run aground on shoals of their own making, in their case patently ideological ones. Indeed, even their avowed anti-statism seems rather suspect:
the CBSA and Minister Kenney have been far more successful in maintaining barriers against free expression than human rights commissions, but they've been getting a pass, or even a defence.

Do ideas, then, have nationality? And do those who hold them necessarily pose a threat to national security? Is Ayers such a threat? "Of course not," CBSA border officials told him the first time he was banned--and they laughed. But they had their orders.

Kenney's mutaween: keeping our minds safe from troubling foreign notions of peace, democracy and learning, and our country secure against those who express them. Long live the King.

UPDATE: Ottawa Citizen columnist Leonard Stern, not known for his progressive views, takes a strong stance against the ban.

*Commenter Sian correctly notes that the CBSA is the responsibility of the Minister of Public Safety, Stockwell Day. But there is in fact a shared responsibility between the two Ministers when it comes to admitting people to Canada, with the issuance of entry visas, for example, under the authority of Minister Kenney. Kenney also has the power to overrule CBSA on immigration matters more generally.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Racism in Thunder Bay

A seven-year-old Aboriginal child was assaulted by a teacher's aide at McKellar Park Central Public School in Thunder Bay, Ontario. And the local Crown Attorney claims it would not be in the "public interest" to prosecute. (Video)

I'm a member of the public. The Crown doesn't speak for me.

Northwestern Lad has the full story--and all the right questions--here. But it's worth underlining the fact that the Crown once again has acted as the enemy, not the friend, of the First Nations. The resonances of the residential school system--that instrument of torture used by the Crown to "kill the Indian and save the child"--are almost palpable in this case. And even white man's law, in this case the Criminal Code, makes plain that what was done to this child was assault:

265. (1) A person commits an assault when

(a) without the consent of another person, he applies force intentionally to that other person, directly or indirectly;


(3) For the purposes of this section, no consent is obtained where the complainant submits or does not resist by reason of


d) the exercise of authority.

On the face of it, the Crown Attorney who made the decision not to prosecute seems to be wilfully ignoring the very law that he is sworn to uphold. Why is that, do you think?

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Swine flu at the National Post

Check out this article in the National Post about female doctors in Canada. Seems to me it's high time to dust off that venerable term, "male chauvinist pig," and fast-pitch it Post-wards.

Maclean's magazine is a mite defensive this week. Seventeen months ago, it published an in-depth report about female doctors, and the pressures upon them:

Journalists Cathy Gulli and Kate Lunau examined how professional, personal and domestic demands create a perfect storm for many female physicians, who cope by working fewer hours, taking on fewer patients or leaving medicine altogether. They also reported on the premium care provided by many of these doctors, which has made them more sought-after by patients and, paradoxically, more overwhelmed and susceptible to burnout. Leading experts called for various solutions such a increased medical school enrollment, Canadian accreditation of foreign medical schools, and benefit packages for physicians. No one blamed female doctors or recommended curbing their numbers. [emphasis added]

Maclean's took some heat, perhaps unfairly, for that. But today the Post deserves whatever blowtorching it gets for its treatment of a new study on the issue.

Let's begin with the hed: "Female doctors hurt productivity: report." Good grief, need one read further? Why didn't those chicks stay home or just stick to nursing?

And it's all laid out afresh in the first paragraph:

The growing ranks of female physicians in Canada will slash medical productivity by the equivalent of at least 1,600 doctors within a decade, concludes a provocative new analysis of data indicating that female MDs work fewer hours on average than their male colleagues.

In fairness, this isn't quite the tack taken by the new study's lead researcher, Mark Baerlocher. Acknowledging that female doctors do work shorter hours, without delving into why this might be the case, Baerlocher suggests the obvious: the current doctor shortage should be tackled by training more doctors. Well, as the kids say, duh. (Another positive move might be to resolve the current credentials problem encountered by foreign-trained physicians.)

the president of the Canadian Medical Association, Dr. Robert Ouellette, responding to the report, notes that the quality as well as the quantity of physician care is important. There is evidence, he says, that female doctors "spend more time with patients, are better communicators and offer more preventive medicine."

But, although the news story contains much of interest, including Dr. Ouellette's remarks, the Post's own bias is glaring. Using a purr-word like "productivity" and a snarl-word like "hurt," the tone is set from the beginning. It's all the women's fault, clogging up our medical schools and then dogging it once they graduate. They're displacing men who are willing to put in the time it takes. And meanwhile the patient waiting-lists grow.

We know why women work shorter hours, of course: it's the old "double day" syndrome. In 2009, they still carry the lion's share of household responsibilities, even when they hold demanding jobs outside the home. Maybe the male partners in the picture--not to mention the insufferable chauvinists at the National Post--could do their parts to solve the female "productivity" problem by learning to push a broom, cook a meal and change a diaper.

Sri Lanka's revenge on the Tamils begins

The victorious government forces in Sri Lanka have lost no time placing more than a quarter-million Tamils in concentration camps. While jubilant Sinhalese celebrate a national holiday in Colombo, these Tamils face, according to the government, imprisonment for up to two years.

They should live so long. International aid groups, including the Red Cross and the United Nations, are being denied access to the camps to provide humanitarian assistance. The situation is already grave: one-third of the mothers and children who have been interned arrived there already malnourished.

"You can't expect five-star treatment," said a government spokesperson, while claiming that the prisoners will receive basic necessities. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, however, has confirmed that the Sri Lankan government is barring emergency aid, and the Red Cross has stated that vital shipments of supplies are now being been blocked by government forces.

Meanwhile, Tamil paramilitary groups allied with the Sri Lankan forces have been allowed free access to the camps to abduct children. The word is that the kids are either being ransomed, to extract any remaining valuables from interned Tamil parents, or being questioned about their involvement with the Tamil Tigers. No doubt children will break more easily under interrogation.

Canada decided, for whatever reason, to choose sides in this conflict, which has claimed 100,000 lives over two decades. It named the Tigers "terrorists" in 2006, while tacitly supporting the equally bloody-minded Sri Lankan government. Now, as that government turns its baleful attention to the ethnic Tamils it is holding behind razor wire, will we turn a blind eye? May the mass traffic-stopping protests continue.

UPDATE: (May 22) Reports are now emerging of slaughter in the camps.

Discrimination: the name game

Readers will recall some spirited conversation with sometime National Post writer "Raphael Alexander" on the subject of Canadians vs. "Canadians." The latter are folks with the misfortune to have funny-sounding names, and who "will never be wholly Canadian because no person born abroad can ever fully understand what it is to be Canadian."

As it turns out, Canadian employers tend to agree with "Alexander" that names are important. It seems as though those "Canadians in law only" have been falling to the bottom of the hiring pile. UBC economics professor Philip Oreopoulos has prepared a working paper, released yesterday, showing conclusively that equally-qualified Canadians are unequally treated--based upon name discrimination. (Oreopolous discusses his findings in a video, here.)

Young people entering the labour market are 40% more likely to be called to an interview, Oreopolous indicates, if their names are (say) "Brenda Martin" or "Bob Smith" instead of (say) "Abousfian Abdelrazik" or "Abdihakim Mohamed." And this onomastic prejudice is visited upon the Canadian-born descendants of immigrants as well. Says Oreopoulos:
"The findings suggest that a distinct foreign-sounding name may be a significant disadvantage on the job market even if you are a second- or third-generation citizen."

Given the learned professor Tom Flanagan's bald-faced assertion two days ago that the wise and benign market will cure the discrimination problem, this study is timely indeed. Rather than eliminating discrimination, the market appears to be thriving on it. What's in a name? More job opportunities--if you have the right one.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Goo Goo G'joob

First it's blogger "sooey," asserting that middle-of-the-road blogger Marky Mark and the wretched anti-Semite "arthurdecco" are one and the same person--and that they're probably both that other wretch, "shlemazl."

Now the latter (if it isn't the former too) is claiming that Canadian Cynic and Aryan Nations associate "anarchore" (no link from me) are one and the same as well, and maybe I'm Marky Mark, for good measure. (I think the latter is meant humorously, but with Russians you can never be sure.)

Yes, we are all one. I do believe we're trembling on the brink of emergence from samsara into the pure state of bodhi, right here in the blogosphere. You heard it first from me. No, wait a minute--maybe I heard it from you.

Verily, now is the time at the Dawg when we sing.

Tropes of tyranny

The father of Malawi, Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda, whose longevity in years and in office might well depress opponents of Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe still further, is currently the subject of a posthumous personality cult, reports the Globe & Mail's Geoffrey York.

I don't like the notion of universal traits--I'm too much of a cultural relativist for that--but three comments in the article by ordinary Malawians gave me pause.
  • "He built hospitals, schools, universities - it's all because of him. The roads you travel, the development that you see in Malawi yesterday - it's all because of this man."
Why, regardless of place and culture, do people insist upon this bizarre synecdoche, which is even permitted to become almost literal in the case of Dear Leader Kim Jong-il and his god-like father--all other North Koreans being, in effect, little more than their bodily extensions? Bertold Brecht had a thing or two to say about that:

Who built Thebes of the seven gates?
In the books you will find the names of kings.
Did the kings haul up the lumps of rock?
And Babylon, many times demolished
Who raised it up so many times? In what houses
Of gold-glittering Lima did the builders live?
Where, the evening that the Wall of China was finished
Did the masons go? Great Rome
Is full of triumphal arches. Who erected them? Over whom
Did the Caesars triumph? Had Byzantium, much praised in song
Only palaces for its inhabitants? Even in fabled Atlantis
The night the ocean engulfed it
The drowning still bawled for their slaves.

The young Alexander conquered India.
Was he alone?
Caesar beat the Gauls.
Did he not have even a cook with him?
Philip of Spain wept when his armada.
Went down. Was he the only one to weep?
Frederick the Second won the Seven Years' War. Who
Else won it?

  • "Most of the atrocities in that time were actually done by people around him," [a caretaker at the Banda mausoleum] told a group of tourists. "When he was angry, he would say, 'I don't like this person, remove him.' People would misinterpret it and torture the person and jail him."
The classic Henry II defence: but lacking in cathedrals and knights, the Malawians had to make do with the more mundane police-stations and dungeons that are also, like the exalted notion of leadership, a near-universal feature of the modern nation-state.
  • "He himself was very good, even if his followers were bad."
"Ah, if the Tsar only knew." The trope of distancing, the fear of the gap between a leader and his people at once metaphorical and literal. Kafka raises that to the level of nightmare:

An Imperial Message

The Emperor—so they say—has sent a message, directly from his death bed, to you alone, his pathetic subject, a tiny shadow which has taken refuge at the furthest distance from the imperial sun. He ordered the herald to kneel down beside his death bed and whispered the message to him. He thought it was so important that he had the herald repeat it back to him. He confirmed the accuracy of the verbal message by nodding his head. And in front of the entire crowd of those who have come to witness his death—all the obstructing walls have been broken down and all the great ones of his empire are standing in a circle on the broad and high soaring flights of stairs—in front of all of them he dispatched his herald. The messenger started off at once, a powerful, tireless man. Sticking one arm out and then another, he makes his way through the crowd. If he runs into resistance, he points to his breast where there is a sign of the sun. So he moves forward easily, unlike anyone else. But the crowd is so huge; its dwelling places are infinite. If there were an open field, how he would fly along, and soon you would hear the marvellous pounding of his fist on your door. But instead of that, how futile are all his efforts. He is still forcing his way through the private rooms of the innermost palace. He will never win his way through. And if he did manage that, nothing would have been achieved. He would have to fight his way down the steps, and, if he managed to do that, nothing would be gained. He would have to stride through the courtyards, and after the courtyards the second palace encircling the first, and, then again, stairs and courtyards, and then, once again, a palace, and so on for thousands of years. And if he finally did burst through the outermost door—but that can never, never happen—the royal capital city, the centre of the world, is still there in front of him, piled high and full of sediment. No one pushes his way through here, certainly not with a message from a dead man. But you sit at your window and dream to yourself of that message when evening comes.

The "imagined community" of a nation has displaced the literal community: and, in its sheer magnitude it constantly threatens alienation from those who rule and speak in our name, and this is the case even under more democratic regimes.

Why, then, are the tropes of tyranny seemingly transcultural? Perhaps the answer, or at least a partial one, is this: as is the case with our current "universal" understanding of human rights, the modern nation is itself universal, and its construction, bearing a frankly Western institutional legacy, brings with it certain values and understandings that cross all borders. Simply look at the attire of the man above, who opened a replica of Eton College in his country in order to teach his impoverished people Greek and Latin.

But what, some might ask, do Western values of liberal democracy have to do with tyranny? Quite a bit when you think about it, and I'm not even referring to the sordid fact that our standard of living and the cheap imports that sustain us depend to a large extent upon tyranny at the source. Even tyrants (Stalin, Saddam Hussein) somehow required the validation of popular "elections"; their leadership, with its
stylized gestures, are different only in their local context and degree from (say) that of a Prime Minister who keeps a large portrait gallery of images of himself, or another one who says, "Just watch me."

In the modern tyrant we see as in a distorting mirror the everyday images of Western governance: elections that change nothing substantive, aloof leaders, social and economic hierarchies, a coercive state apparatus. To be sure, fear is generally replaced by that other political calming mechanism, apathy (unless you find yourself in a state of exception like Abousfian Abdelrazik or the various unfortunates Canada has rendered to other countries for torture, or holds on security certificates). But somehow Dr. Hastings Banda, in his three-piece suit and tie under the blazing African sun, seems rather too familiar, in ways that should trouble the genuine democrats among us.