Sunday, January 31, 2010

Why I don't like the Olympics. . . .

First of all, I really don’t care for organized sports in general, particularly large scale modern professionalized sport.  The modern idea of organized sports comes from the Romans who used it very specifically to placate the people.  “Bread and Circus” were all they thought one needed to maintain control and order. Well the modern sports have become more than the ‘opiate’ of the people, they have become the oxicontin! And the so-called Olympic ‘Movement’ is like oxicontin on crack. People become entranced by the Olympics, they have become some kind of ritual that borders on religion.

But the Olympics is profoundly objectionable from a number of viewpoints. The History of the modern Olympic movement is laced with fascism and anti-Semitism. More  than one IOC president has been an actual fascist, like Juan Samaranch who was a great supporter of Franco. But in recent years the Olympics has graduated from fascism to a form of mega-corporatism. Regardless of the naivety of most people, the Olympics is now primarily about money. Many Olympic athletes are well paid for winning medals and corporate sponsorship is the primary mover of the games. Large corporations and host countries make huge amounts of money from the games and if they didn’t we would barely notice them. In fact if there was not so much potential money involved you would find few countries that would make any effort to host the games.

And of course, all the money involved in the games means very simply that the richer countries have a monumental advantage over less developed ones. This runs contrary to what people constantly tell us that the games is supposed to be about. And this doesn’t even touch upon the question raised in recent years of whether the largest countries have been  getting around the drug tests, thus giving them even more advantage.

Then there is the question of patriotism. People become zombies who wave flags during the Olympics and chant national anthems. Now, besides the fact that I agree with Dr. Johnson that Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel, the Olympics and patriotism are a particularly bizarre combination. Though I despise most forms of nationalism, I can understand a certain degree of patriotism when we talk about the best human rights victories of our nation or the best cultural endeavors. But I just don’t follow how I am enhanced if some guy from High Prairie Alberta can skate faster than other people. Particularly when I consider that in most countries in the world there are no skating rinks.

The modern Olympics is little more than an exercise in corporatism. Nations and companies are hungry to make millions and the athletes have become their willing pawns who, in many cases, are hoping to make big money themselves with corporate sponsorships. There are, of course, still some athletes who have good intentions and try to live by the best aspects of sportsmanship (and sportswomanship – or should that be sportspersonship). But just like there are people who become soldiers with good intentions, these folks get unavoidably caught up in the corporate and nationalist interests  and their involvement turns them into something that they never intended to be.

It is time to put an end to the whole charade. 

Friday, January 29, 2010

Khadr, another nail in the Coffin of Canada' democracy. . .

Make no mistake, we have all lost today with the Khadr Supreme Court decision. What the Supreme Court decided today was de facto that the Canadian government can export prisoners to other countries and have them tortured with no accountability. Once they are not on Canadian soil the courts have no jurisdiction over our citizens. The Court agreed that Khadr's charter rights had been violated but said that it had no jurisdiction over a citizen that was not in the country. Therefore all the government has to do to hold people without charge and have them quickly export out of the country into the hands of a foreign government and then the courts can do nothing about it. If you think this is alarmist or an exaggeration, that is the kind of things German citizens said in the early thirties. 

This is the darkest day in Canadian democracy. The Conservative attack on democracy is ruthless and unrelenting and we all lose. Fascism is winning guys, watch it happen. 

Why I won't buy an ipad. . . .

Yesterday Steve Jobs stood in front of the world and sounded a little like a snake-oil salesman. "What this device does is simply extraordinary" he told us. Did that sound hollow to anyone else? Because it certainly did to me. The ipad is essentially just a large ipod touch, it is not even a fully functioning computer in tablet form. It doesn't have the power to, say, word process large documents. Now don't get me wrong, the ipod touch is remarkable technology and the ipad is the first step to a fully functional tablet computer. I am sure it will only be a couple of years until we see a good tablet computer that will do everything that our laptop can do. But we are not there yet. Furthermore, I don't see how this device will save the newspaper or the publishing business. I could already down load many books to my laptop as well as newspapers. The reason I didn't do this was not the device it was the problem of reading back-lit text. It is just uncomfortable to read a great deal of text that is back-lit. The ipad will do nothing to change this basic problem. E-readers, on the other had have significantly different technology with what they call e-paper. But of course e-readers can only read PDF or like-minded kinds of files. What we have here is a classic moment of being stuck between two technologies. The real challenge now becomes inventing a screen that is not back-lit but can still read and reproduce moving files like video. But I suspect we are a long way from this. 

Now don't get me wrong. The ipad (and the other tablets which will be out soon) would be great for a student or someone who travels a lot. A student could take notes in university classes on the ipad's virtual keyboard as well as use it to go online, listen to music, download movies etc. But unless you are using it while traveling or using it as a student I just don't see the any advantages to the ipad over a laptop except portability. I can go out a buy a decent laptop for 600 dollars or so and it will do quite a bit more than an ipad. As far as I can see, the only thing that is actually keeping Apple going is itunes. People, including me, are buying ipods largely because of itunes. If it were not for itunes I would have purchased a less expensive sony mp3 player. But this advantage cannot be maintained forever. And since I can purchase a laptop for about half of what an ibook costs, I don't see how Apple will emerge from a small niche market. In the absence of some tech breakthrough I don't see any long term success for apple because these smaller devices will surely be outmoded by other companies and when someone creates a truly universal itunes type of store ipods will loose their present advantage. 

Meanwhile e-readers are coming up fast and at the moment Apple has no stake in the non-back-lit market. I say leave the ipad to the students and the business travelers and wait for the next real breakthrough. 

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Coalition? What Coalition. . . .

A number of Conservative MPs, including my own infantile lap-dog of tyranny, Poillevre, are desperately grasping at straws as their popularity slips due to their own tyrannical behavior. Imagining that more obnoxious behavior will somehow reverse the trend that obnoxious behavior gave rise to in the first place, the Conservatives will attack anybody in an attempt to turn people's attentions elsewhere. One of the attacks takes the form of rehashing their old attacks on the idea of a coalition between the opposition parities. They don't actually say anything substantive, rather these attacks take the rather crude avenue of simply trying to slip reminders into any media moment that there was once such an agreement for a coalition. The assumption here is that by reminding people of an agreement in the past it will somehow indict all the opposition parties in the present as being somehow deviously attempting, presumably behind the scenes, to suddenly and nefariously take power illegally. Obviously media consultant has told the caucus that this is one good strategy to attempt to divert viewers attentions away from their own abuses of power. 

Beside the obviously crudeness and desperation of this strategy, it is absurd in so many ways. For one, it is like trying to make someone look bad for doing something which not only you have done yourself, but which is in now way illegal or even unfair or wrong. The fact is, or course, that the majority of established democracies in the world have some form of coalition government and it is a standard part of most parliamentary systems. Another reason such accusations are absurd is that such a coalition would actually represent the majority of voters in the country. But the biggest reason that such a strategy is absurd; there is no such coalition! It does not exist now, nor is it in the offing. 


Another Open letter to my MP, Poillievre. . . .

Merriam-Webster defines Hypocrisy as: a feigning to what one is not or to believe what one does not; especially: the false assumption of an appearance of virtue or religion.


Tell me, Mr. Poillievre, have you ever actually looked at a dictionary? Excuse my disparaging tone, but I am beginning to find it difficult to understand how you can function in such a wildly hypocritical manner and, going on the assumption that one should never attribute to malice what can adequately be explained by ignorance, I compelled to assume that you must simply be ignorant of the most basic facts and tenets of socially acceptable behavior. Thus I provide you with the above definition incase it has somehow missed your notice.

I mean, after all, your party was elected, albeit by a minority of Canadians, on a platform of more accountability and less power in the hands of the Prime Minister. And we must keep in mind that this issue of accountability was not simply a small side line of the Conservative stated agenda but was the cornerstone of the platform; something on which your leader and the entire Party constantly harped on as though the future of our political institutions depended upon increases in accountability.

Now, since I can’t assume that you are so blind or stupid that you cannot see that accountability under your government has decreased and the power of the Prime Minister has increased, I can only assume that you have entirely abandoned these principles or were never actually in favor of them in the first place.

And even if you and your Party were hypocritical in the assertion of these beliefs in the first place, this hypocrisy has reached epic proportions in your public statements regarding the prorogation of the House and the Afghan issue in general. You know, YOU KNOW, that if you were in opposition and the same things happened you would be condemning the prorogation and insisting that it is your responsibility to investigate the issue of Afghan detainees. YOU KNOW THIS TO BE TRUE! Thus you are in a constant state of hypocritical action by your statements. If you were in opposition you and your Party would be vitriolic in your condemnation of any action which undermines the power of the House and the issue of Ministerial accountability. But in government you do nothing but deny, divert, obfuscate, and sometimes downright lie about these issues. But not only do you do these things, you actually have the gall to use your energy to attack the opposition parties as being irresponsible and even soft on terrorists for upholding the very same principles that your party was supposedly elected to maintain.  This is the very definition of hypocrisy.

 Furthermore, you use every means at your disposal to manipulate the media and public opinion simply to retain and enhance the centralizing power of your government. You are at the very forefront of a movement to make politics not about actual issues but an exercise in public image and opinion. I have no doubt that past governments and parties have made movements in this direction but your government has pushed this further than ever before while at the same time claiming to stand for the opposite. Future generation of all political stripes will deeply regret these lamentable movements away from substance.

I am still an optimist Mr. Poillievre and imagine that people will see through the hypocrisy and crude political manipulation which you and your Party are constantly displaying. Because you simply cannot fool enough of the people all of the time. Many of those who supported you have already seen through the hypocrisy and more will in the future. Eventually you will lose the battle to centralize all power in the PMO and this country will deeply regret this period of profound hypocrisy the same way that Americans regretted their support of Nixon or Italians regretted their support of Mussolini. This is because efforts to centralize and maintain absolute power in contemporary society are inevitably undermined by the ubiquity of information and the tendency of tyrants to push too far.

I see that you can live with your hypocrisy but the Canadian public will not do so forever. Unfortunately, part of the Reform/Conservative hypocrisy was their abandonment of their stance on MPs pensions and since you have recently qualified for yours none of this really matters to you because you will be able to comfortably retire on the public system that you so hypocritically condemn. But life will eventually catch up with you and judgment will come to you as it does to all of us. Hypocrisy develops its own punishments.




Sunday, January 24, 2010

Canada's weak democracy. . . .

I am very tired of right-wing nut jobs who are so insanely desperate to see Stephen Harper stay in power that they would say or do just about anything. For the past year or more one of the things these drooling dunderheads have been constantly telling anyone who will listen that any suggestion of replacing the minority government with any kind or coalition (formal or informal) would amount to some kind of coup. Never mind that their own mindless, power-hungry little dictator,  attempt the same thing himself. And never mind that I heard talk from the right-wing all through the 90s when the right-wing was split about doing almost anything to bring the right to power including formal agreements. None of that matters to the power hungry right wingers. Now that they are in government there is some kind of sacred status to a minority governments and the idea of coalition governments are tantamount to the total destruction of democracy. Any kind of coalition would be "overriding the duly elected government and thwarting the will of the people" I have heard people on the right say it over and over like a mantra of fear and dishonesty. BUT IT IS A LIE!

Here is a news flash everyone. . . MINORITY GOVERNMENTS DON'T REPRESENT THE WILL OF THE PEOPLE - THEY REPRESENT THE WILL OF THE MINORITY! It is not complicated. The Majority of people in the country didn't vote for the government, ergo they don't represent the general will. And this situation is almost unique to Canada and Britain. In almost every other country in the world you cannot form a government without the majority of duly elected representatives. Which makes our system one of the weakest and least representative of all the world's democracies. This was the real point of the now famous article in the Economist. Could you imagine how crazy the right-wing would be if by some quirk of geography and constituency organization Jack Layton was elected Prime Minister in the next election with 30 percent of the vote? Andrew Coyne would have an epileptic fit right on the next broadcast of The National. Suddenly the right-wing would never tire of telling us that the government doesn't represent the will of the majority. 

It is about time for Canada's democracy to catch up with the rest of the world and institute reforms that would guarantee that future governments in Canada do actually represent the will of the majority, that the executive cannot rule more or less by decree, and that smaller groups of elected representatives have some sway in the legislative process. It is about time that we started taking some steps to ensure that our own political system is actually moving toward the ideal of democracy rather than away from it. 

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Novel, the follow-up. . . .

Now for those of you who feel it necessary to defend the Novel, as one comment already received has done let me say a few things. 

First of all the interesting thing about the comment that I received is that it unintentionally strengthens my case by pointing out that the changes made to the novels in recent years follow a kind of media pressure. In other words, they have begun to emulate television and film. Well, thank you this further strengthens my point. Novels will now always been in the position of 'chasing' the innovations that are coming from other media. In light of the argument I have made re. Jean-Paul Sartre I think the commenter undermined his/her own argument and makes my very point. 

Second, greater familiarity with the novel suggest that the innovations the commenter is talking about grew out of pre-war French literature with Surrealism and writers like Celine.(Celine's novel Journey to the End of the Night could have been written today and would still seem original) These innovations in 60s were expressed by very interesting writers like Richard Brautigan.  I think that the greatest innovation of the novel in the past 50 years or so has been magic realism.  But the real strength of these innovations were missed as the novel began to settle into the 20th century reading public which has demanded a certain group of  fairly standard formula novels of different genres such as sci-fi, fantasy, dramatic, romance, etc. The demands of the market has, in other words, limited innovations in many ways and held them in check the same way it has done to film and television. 

In the end the real issue is what status and role does the novel has play in the culture of our society.  But not just the novel - all of the arts. I believe that there is a much bigger issue at play here. I think that the arts have been falling into crisis for a very long time and this crisis is a symptom of a wider crisis concerning human meaning and identity. Nietzsche talked over a hundred years ago about the death of God and what he really was talking about was the question of how we are to live in a world where we have to create our own meaning. We have all been struggling with this in various ways in the arts, philosophy, and even science. The problem is that no one has really been able to answer the question adequately and instead the market has filled in the gap as though the only meaning we can find is commodity consumption. Thus it is not unexpected that the most vital and growing art forms will continue to be ones that can best be driven by big capital. The biggest dangers to art forms such as painting or the novel are the mechanisms of capitalism and the technologies that drive it forward. 

The death of the novel and other things. . . .

(today's blog is lovingly dedicated to Louli)

I was listening to Eleanor Wachtel on Writers and Company yesterday. I was a reluctant listener because I was driving and there was nothing else on the radio. I actually can’t stand the show because there is nothing more boring and obnoxious than listening to writers talk about themselves, particularly writers of fiction. For some reason many writers have it in their mind that they are the smartest people around. Listening to Writers and Company always reminds me of a Monty Python sketch in which John Cleese is interviewing a pompous, upper-class film director played by the great Graham Chapman and when the film director starts talking about his youthful days of struggle John Cleese just says “Oh.. . .. shut up.” That is what I want to say to most of the writers that Ms Wachtel interviews on her show. Other than the pomposity, another reason that Writers and Company drives me crazy is that the novelists that appear on the show don’t realize how little evolution the novel has undergone in the past hundred years or so and they are really under the delusion that the novel is still the meaningful art form that it once was.

On yesterday’s show Ms Wachtel was interviewing two authors about the subject of writing biographies. This is obviously something that interests me because I have a biographical work coming out later this year. The show was mildly interesting but what struck me in particular was a comment made by the guest Hermione Lee. Now Ms. Lee puts me off right away because she is so painfully upper-class that it is hard for me to listen to her accent. Furthermore anyone who is that upper-class and is a professor at Oxford (as well as visiting professor at such schools as Yale)  is probably so far out of touch with the lives of the majority of people that I am not really interested in much they have to say. Anyway, be that as it may, she made a remark, the import of which was that people who had predicted the death of the novel were foolish. This interested me because I have thought for a long while that anyone who doesn’t think the novel is largely dead is rather foolish. And if not foolish than just a wishful thinker. And Ms. Lee, who is such a high level academic, suggesting the novel is not dead just further convinces me that it is.

People who defend the novel will usually point to the fact that many novels are still being written, some very good, and people are still reading them; ergo the novel must not be dead. However, the persistence of an art form, regardless of the quality of its contemporary examples, is surely not the standard by which we are to judge the status of an art form. People still go to opera, many people still actively pursue the art of calligraphy, and millions of people are still engaged in the bizarre art of paper-toll painting. The fact that people still practice an art form is not the measure of its vitality. In his book Search for a Method, Jean-Paul Sartre contended that there is only one living philosophy at any one time. Now, while he may have overstated the case he still made a good point about the status of a ‘living philosophy.’ A living philosophy is one that is building on the past and moving the human imagination forward to new ideas and hopefully new ways of living. I think the same could be said about the arts. The novel is dead not because there are no good novelists writing or not enough people reading them. It is dead simply because it has stopped moving forward and ceased to play the role of a living art form which is pushing people and ideas into new frontiers. This falling stature is in large part because of the commercial imperatives that have taken over the publishing field. But it is also a result of the atrophying of the minds of that part of the public that regularly reads novels. (This is a bigger issue and one that requires a whole other blog) 

But the death of the novel is also part of a wider issue, and that is the repositioning of the arts in general. All the traditional arts are dying because they are not prepared to address the demands of a new, more technologically driven society. The art of painting could never be what it once was in a society where the poster becomes the primary form of household decoration. The novel cannot be what it once was in a society of television, film, and now video games which are beginning to become increasingly complex at the narrative level. Just the other day my 16 year old son was telling me about a new video game in which you are sent back into renaissance Italy to find ancient artifacts and you travel through the country and thousands of the ancient buildings are recreated and you can make virtual tours of them and get all the information about their construction and history. This seems to me the first step into virtual stories in which there is not long a ‘reader’ but an active participant. It has shadows of the Hologram-novels in Star Trek Voyager in which you enter what is essentially a real world and take part in a real story.

The arts constantly change and adapt to new technologies, new societies, and new ideas. It is nothing to be afraid of. When we are at the cusp of such changes it can seem difficult but mostly because we are melancholy creatures. I now I am. I come from what I think is the end of the generation of traditional painters and writers. And I still paint and write. I will see the publication of my first book this year, I am almost finished another and I hope to publish a novel in the next few years. And I have been an active painter for three decades. So I know I will never be part of the new arts the way my kids will be. But that is just life. I know when the printing press began to take over the role of the illuminator of manuscripts lots of people protested and complained, and even mourned the death of the art of illumination. But that is just the way it goes. I can imagine some ancient human painting on cave walls and complaining to a friend “my kids are no longer painting on the walls, they have some new thing called paper. But I think it is crazy to say cave painting is dead. When I was young, we used to make paint from the blood of the Woolly Mammoth and my parents. . . .” "Oh. . . Shut Up!"

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

What of Cynicism....

Recent years have seen me grow progressively more cynical toward politics. I have known it was happening for a long while and always hoped that some events would come along to reverse my cynical trend. I guess the trend really got started when I lived in Central America and met so many committed leftists who didn’t apply their principles of justice and compassion in their own daily lives. In San Salvador I lived in a sort of rooming house that was run by a man who had been a high placed commandant in the FMLN. He and the other guys who ran the house employed a great young woman named Rosa with who I developed a friendship. It didn’t take me long to realize that the guys who employed her paid her far too little and made her work unreasonable hours and really did nothing to make her life better. She lived quite far away and was forced to leave her young son with her mother for days at a time and they really didn’t care to work things out to make it easier for her. The circumstance disgusted me. I had always been suspicious of ultra-partisan types on the left or right. I had been involved with the Revolutionary Communist Party in England (almost out of morbid interest rather than a real political expectation) and I found them really just to be a bunch of social misfits who felt that they had found a home and they mindlessly rehashed an insipid political analysis, much of which they didn’t even understand. And as far as their real knowledge of Marxism and history it was pathetic. The leaders of the party reveled in their star status among the members but their analysis was not much better. Now given that this was really a Leninist group, I didn’t have high expectations because I never bought the whole vanguard argument and have always shied away from any elitist form of politics. Then I watched the Socialist Workers Party and found that the Trotskyites where not much better.

I remember a few years ago having a long conversation with a Trotskyite who desperately wanted to believe that her left-wing philosophy was not rooted in basic ethical assumptions – an idea almost too absurd to address with serious rebuttal. This woman, was not a bad person, and she really does attempt to live I a just and ethical way. However, the discussion brought home to me the fact that it must be basic ethical principles that guide us in our everyday as well as our political life and the tendency for people on the left to forget this is deeply troubling.

Since those years in Central America I have had far too many experiences with supposed left-wing people who are supposed to be upholding principles of justice and compassion but who are just as power-hungry and mean as anyone on the right who we are supposed to be opposing. These people have failed utterly to make their political principles personal. All of this has made me cynical because while I expect the right-wing to make excuses and pay lip-service to justice while maintaining a power structure that favors the rich and powerful and punishes the vulnerable, there was a time when I expected more from the left, even if some were misguided enough to support Soviet style communism.

Now I have no expectations anymore because there is a certain portion of the population who are attracted to power and they are corrupted and seduced by it. In the end it doesn’t really matter what side of the political spectrum these type of people are on, because in the end power allows them (or changes them enough) to become exploiters of the vulnerable and over time they get off on it. Politics doesn’t matter in such cases – it is power that matters. I still have no doubt that most average leftists are compassionate and good people but such goodness is not attracted to power. There power forms in the very hands of those who shouldn’t have it, and this happens on every side of the political spectrum. And the tendency of partisanship does the rest of the job by keeping even good people in line with the unreasonable demands of those in power. I don’t see my cynicism ending any time soon. 

Tragedy and Irony in Haiti . . .

There is a terrible and ominous irony unfolding in Haiti this week. Amid the awful tragedy of tens of thousands dying in the earthquake, numerous countries are vying to be seen by the international community to be the most active in bringing aid to the Haitian people. Chief among these have been, of course, Canada, the US, and France. The irony is not missed on anyone who has watched Haiti over the years. For decades now these countries have been actively partaking of the exploitation of the Haitian people. They have undertaken this exploitation economically, politically and militarily. The support of the Duvalier dynasty by these Western countries allowed them to rape this country of its money, its power, and its dignity. Huge amounts of resources have been sunk into Haiti simply to ensure that Haiti does not evolve a decent democracy or economy. In recent times Western Countries tacitly (and sometimes actively) supported a coup in Haiti by General Cedras and then ensured that he stayed in power until he had completely hollowed-out the political opposition and destroyed any hint of a trade union movement. Only then did they allow the return of supposed 'democracy' only to later actually kidnap the Haitian President. The most recent disgrace was the fact that Western manufacturers who use Haiti as a source of very cheap labor close to the US shores, used their influence to ensure that Haiti did not pass a minimum wage law (which, if my memory serves was only five dollars a day!). Now, after years of  abuse, the Western Countries are rushing in to aid the Haitians who they have so actively exploited. And already we are hearing stories of that aid being sidetracked away from those who need it most. The tragedy of Haiti is multifold and our governments are profoundly culpable. 

Sunday, January 17, 2010

The Threat of Prorogation. . . . .

Most people in the media and even in the blogosphere are putting the prorogation of parliament in its proper perspective and they see it for what it is; a blatant and ruthless attempt to avoid accountability by a Prime Minister who hates democracy and sees the majority of our elected representatives as a bothersome restriction on what he thinks is his God-given right to govern. I have, however, seen the occasional article suggesting that the prorogation is not a threat to democracy. One in particular I read in the Ottawa Citizen yesterday which attempted to make a point by point argument about why prorogation was no big deal. The problem is that no matter how extensively one argues the details concerning the role of Parliament, the Prime Minister, and the Governor General, you cannot overcome the most basic problem. The fact is that when the Prime Minister, or any government executive, has the right to shut down the legislative branch of government on whim simply to avoid pressing questions, democracy is at threat. This is particularly true when we understand democracy not as a fixed state of affairs but as an ideal toward which we are always working. When we see democracy in this light it is easy to see that any action that undermines the movement toward this ideal is, a priori, a threat to democracy. 

There is no question that under any conditions prorogation is a threat to democracy, and this threat is even more pronounced when the prorogation is undertaken by a Prime Minster who is feeling the heat and just wants to avoid political questions and further his political ambitions. To lesson the threat to democracy the power of the executive over the legislative branch of government must be curtailed and dates of legislative sittings should be fixed and only alterable by the general will of the house (preferably a two thirds majority). These are the kinds of things which would push us further toward democratic accountability and away from the arbitrary power of the executive. 

If you don't think that prorogation is a threat to democracy then you just aren't paying attention and you don't understand democracy. This is not to suggest that tomorrow we will find ourselves in a complete dictatorship. But democracy is always delicate and vulnerable, our gains must be diligently protected and we must always work for greater levels of justice, accountability, and participation. We clearly have a Prime Minister and Government who are desperately working to reverse the gains toward democracy that we have made and which, in John Baird's words, is looking to "replace accountability with corruption." There is no question that democracy is being threatened, the question is how will Canadians respond?  

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Weep for Haiti. . . .

Today I weep for the people of Haiti, steeped so long in terrible struggles for even the most basic human needs, now facing a disaster beyond the imagination. It is a beautiful country and the people deserve to enjoy all the pleasures that life affords. Please donate to the relief of the people of Haiti at one of the many recognized charities like the Canadian Red Cross or Doctors Without Boarders. 

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Conflating categories in Political Science. . . .

Reading the thoughts of some bloggers I continue to be amazed by the degree of confusion that exists concerning the basic concepts usually associated with political science. People are continually conflating different categories within the canon to the detriment of our basic understanding of the central concepts. For example, I read one blogger who claimed that Canada is ‘not a democracy’ but a constitutional monarchy. Here is a basic misunderstanding; a conflation of categories if you will. Constitutional monarchy refers, or course, to the central ways in which a government functions on a technical level. Democracy, on the other hand, refers to the method by which the government is chosen. You could, in theory, have a non-democratic constitutional monarchy, or a very democratic one. (Some one might, of course, try to make the argument that any form of constitutionalism implies some form of democratic process but suffice to say, given the history of constitutional monarchies, this level of democracy could be, like 18th century Britain, barely considered democratic).

Similarly some people seem to think that any form of democracy implies a priori some form of ‘market economy.’ Again this is a conflation of separate categories. If the constitutional monarchy refers to the technical functioning of government, and democracy refers to the method of choosing a government, a so-called ‘market economy’ refers simply to the way in which the production and distribution of the goods is organized. You could have a, for example, a Socialist Constitutional Monarchy with a high degree of democratic representation. You could also, as is the case with China, have a capitalist system of production with very little democratic process.

One of the most common conflations in this regard is that of ‘Capitalism’ with a so-called free market.  Even a close reading of Smith will make clear this conflation. Capitalism is a generalized system of commodity production in which firms employ labor in the production of goods or services and make a profit from this process while the state ensures the smooth running of these relations. A market, on the other hand, refers specifically to a system of distribution. People love to throw the words ‘free market’ around even though there is very little that is actually ‘free’ in our so-called market. This is because to ensure the smooth running of ‘capitalism’ the markets must be tightly controlled and regulated. The conceptual proof of this argument is found in the fact that you could have a fairly free market without actually having ‘capitalism’ per se. People could come to a market selling goods and services that they have produced on their own without the profit of surplus value procured from excess labor and make sales in this market. This would be a free-market without capitalism.

Anyway, no time now to expand on these issues. Just wanted to make the observation that the concepts of political science are becoming terribly muddy and this is resulting in some shabby analysis. 

Monday, January 11, 2010

Prorogation is just a symptom of a larger disease.. . .

I think the most interesting thing about recent political events is the fact that people are waking up to the fact that there is something seriously wrong with out political institutions as they now exist. The fact is that even though convention says that the Prime Minister shouldn't be doing many of the things he has done, the system allows him to do these things. Not only has he ignored the will of the House of Commons, he has denigrated the civil service and undermined the basic accountability of government. And with a prorogation undertaken in Machiavellian self-interest, people are starting to get upset at what Harper is doing. Many people (including myself) have suggested that Harper is undermining democracy, and in a way he is. However, in another way Harper is doing exactly what the institutions of our political system allow him to do. Harper is deeply wrong. But then, by association so is our political system. The lesson here for Canadians should be that our political institutions desperately need reform. Sure recent events might eventually destroy Harper's government and result in the changing of who holds the office of Prime Minister. But unless we change the system the next Prime Minister can do the same kinds of things, only with the experience of Harper on the books which will allow him or her to  even more effectively undermine the will of the house. And even more to the point, if Harper had a majority right now he would be able to be even more abusive than he has been and many of the issues that have come forward would never have seen the light of day. 

Reform is essential. A more representative voting system, less power in the hands of the Executive, properly written rules for the functioning of the House, institutionally fixed processes of accountability that will not let the government hide behind the institutions, etc. The Prorogation is just a symptom of a disease, and the disease demands to be treated. 

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Arbitrary power . . . .

The British historian G.M. Trevelyan, historian and nephew of the great Thomas Macaulay, wrote a great deal concerning the tyrannical, sometimes bizarre, state of the English justice system. Like many in the Whig tradition Trevelyan was an early opponent of the death penalty and was eager to demonstrate its history. 

"The haphazard list of two hundred crimes punishable by death," Trevelyan writes concerning the late 18th century, "had  not even consistent severity to recommend it. It was death to steal from a boat on a navigable river, but not a canal. To cut down trees in a garden was a capital offence, and also to slit a person's nose; but not so the most aggravated murderous assault which the victim managed to survive with nose intact." 

Trevelyan is reminding us that there was a time when, even in so-called civilized nations, the state possessed  absolute power and the ability to exercise it in  a completely arbitrary manner. In this regard the past should be a lesson to us. The would-be Tyrants that have populated the past decade in many Western Countries, like Rumsfeld, Bush, Cheney, Blair, and our own Harper, would love to have this arbitrary power back and they make every effort to do so. Let's remember to stand against them. 

Friday, January 1, 2010

A new Year a new level of Hypocrisy.. . . .

A new year and there is a gloom over the future of our race and our country. Capitalism sawa a major crisis but the reaction was not really to change it for the better but to give more money to the very people who have corrupted the system and are gradually destroying our humanity. CHarles Lamb dedicated the publication of his Works to his friend Samuel Coleridge and in this dedication he said that as we grow older 'life loses much of its poetry.' And perhaps the world itself is growing old and losing much of its poetry. Certainly we live in an age of cynicism and hypocrisy. And perhaps the greatest act of hypocrisy this year was the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to President Obama just as he was expanding a neo-colonial military conflict that has little or nothing to do with the defense of his realm. 

I suppose the simple definition of political hypocrisy is vehemently criticizing others for what you would fully support if your party undertook the same actions. And this has certainly become the normal process of things today. Bit it seems that we have gone a step beyond simple hypocrisy to a world of bizarre Owellian madness. Here in our country the Prime Minister has once again prorogued parliament specifically to gain a political advantage and to avoid difficult and pressing questions concerning a serious issue of War Crimes. Now if another party was doing this very same thing we wouldn't be able to hear ourselves think over the din of Conservatives telling us of abuse of power and the downfall of democracy. Indeed in 1997 Stephen Harper even wrote an article criticizing such things and  suggesting that successive government abuse of power has left us with little more than a benign dictatorship. Now the very thing the Conservatives claim to have despised are the very thing they have become. This is a grand demonstration of the level of hypocrisy to which we have reached. And the proof of the cynicism that we have embraced is demonstrated in the number of people who just don't care that we are watching democracy slowly corrode from within. 

Let's hope the new year brings a change.