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Recovering backpacker, Cornwallite at heart, political enthusiast, catalyst, writer, husband, father, community volunteer, unabashedly proud Canadian. Every hyperlink connects to something related directly or thematically to that which is highlighted.

Saturday 15 September 2012

Occupy an Idea

"An idea is like a virus, resilient, highly contagious and the smallest seed of an idea can grow. It can grow to define or destroy you."

Occupy Wall Street “put inequality on the political agenda in a way that simply wouldn’t have happened otherwise,” said Carne Ross, a former British diplomat and author who is involved in the movement. “That is an extraordinary achievement, even if Occupy never did another damn thing.”

They are still disorganized - more of an idea than a movement.  Largely, it's still a group of frustrated people, not all clear on what solutions exist to the inequities they see.  Self-appointed, they represent the 99%.
They are Occupy.  And they've never gone away. 
Occupy has a lot of work to do and face several trials by fire as their mission gestates.  Of high priority for them is the crafting of key messages, developing clear asks that provide the elevator pitch to every citizen of why it is they should care.  They're already adept at tactics - now it's time to build a strategy.  Fortunately for them, there's plenty of precedent to work with.


Friday 14 September 2012

But ARE They Extra?

Which is absolutely true.  The same applies to volunteer activities, the kinds of things you do for free that serve as an expression of what your personal values are, as well as how committed you are to those values/what you will bring to a job.
Why?  Because the sorts of jobs we're hiring for these days don't involve punching clocks and building widgets.  They require creativity, focus, critical thinking, communication skills - things that you don't get to turn off when the whistle blows.  It's a fact, although a decidedly uncomfortable one, that you simply can't leave your personal stuff at home or leave work at the office - it's the same person society is now expecting to be a dedicated employee, a good parent, a social friend and yes, an engaged citizen.
Relying on the traditional models of motivating labour - financial carrots and sticks - is breaking the bank and isn't demonstrably getting the job done.  Pushing kids to be fully-formed students before they even get to primary school is adding an unsustainable pressure on everyone involved.  Worse, the friction society is facing by trying to force open a closing door is having a host of negative social impacts, including the well-recognized mental health crisis that's racking our workforce, our military, civil society and yes, our schools.  By trying to make every issues about salary and insisting that fights over wages is completely separate from other social woes, we're band-aiding the symptoms and ignoring the disease.  It's like spending billions trying to cure lead poisoning, yet ignoring the lead pipes we're drinking from.
We are increasingly demanding more from employees than just 9 - 5 paid labour; we want their passions, their spare moments, their social communication.  We don't want them to do a job, we want them to live a profession.  Even students are expected to be constantly absorbing skills if they want to stand a chance of success in life.  That kind of commitment can't be bought with dollars - it has to be earned with inspiration, accommodation and participation. 
There are lots of canaries in the coal mine adding credence to the notion that the work/life model we're relying on is past its best due date.   The question remains - are we paying attention, or do we still consider that planning ahead piece to be an extra-curricular activity?

Thursday 13 September 2012

The 14 Characteristics of Fascism

It's a fascinating list, this - primarily, to me, for what it suggests about the opposite.  A bit of Yin and Yang, here; what's needed to ground these polar opposites is a centre.

The 14 characteristics are:
  1. Powerful and Continuing Nationalism

  2. Fascist regimes tend to make constant use of patriotic mottos, slogans, symbols, songs, and other paraphernalia. Flags are seen everywhere, as are flag symbols on clothing and in public displays.

  3. Disdain for the Recognition of Human Rights

  4. Because of fear of enemies and the need for security, the people in fascist regimes are persuaded that human rights can be ignored in certain cases because of "need." The people tend to look the other way or even approve of torture, summary executions, assassinations, long incarcerations of prisoners, etc.

  5. Identification of Enemies/Scapegoats as a Unifying Cause

  6. The people are rallied into a unifying patriotic frenzy over the need to eliminate a perceived common threat or foe: racial , ethnic or religious minorities; liberals; communists; socialists, terrorists, etc.

  7. Supremacy of the Military

  8. Even when there are widespread domestic problems, the military is given a disproportionate amount of government funding, and the domestic agenda is neglected. Soldiers and military service are glamorized.

  9. Rampant Sexism

  10. The governments of fascist nations tend to be almost exclusively male-dominated. Under fascist regimes, traditional gender roles are made more rigid. Opposition to abortion is high, as is homophobia and anti-gay legislation and national policy.

  11. Controlled Mass Media

  12. Sometimes to media is directly controlled by the government, but in other cases, the media is indirectly controlled by government regulation, or sympathetic media spokespeople and executives. Censorship, especially in war time, is very common.

  13. Obsession with National Security

  14. Fear is used as a motivational tool by the government over the masses.

  15. Religion and Government are Intertwined

  16. Governments in fascist nations tend to use the most common religion in the nation as a tool to manipulate public opinion. Religious rhetoric and terminology is common from government leaders, even when the major tenets of the religion are diametrically opposed to the government's policies or actions.

  17. Corporate Power is Protected

  18. The industrial and business aristocracy of a fascist nation often are the ones who put the government leaders into power, creating a mutually beneficial business/government relationship and power elite.

  19. Labor Power is Suppressed

  20. Because the organizing power of labor is the only real threat to a fascist government, labor unions are either eliminated entirely, or are severely suppressed .

  21. Disdain for Intellectuals and the Arts

  22. Fascist nations tend to promote and tolerate open hostility to higher education, and academia. It is not uncommon for professors and other academics to be censored or even arrested. Free expression in the arts is openly attacked, and governments often refuse to fund the arts.

  23. Obsession with Crime and Punishment

  24. Under fascist regimes, the police are given almost limitless power to enforce laws. The people are often willing to overlook police abuses and even forego civil liberties in the name of patriotism. There is often a national police force with virtually unlimited power in fascist nations.

  25. Rampant Cronyism and Corruption

  26. Fascist regimes almost always are governed by groups of friends and associates who appoint each other to government positions and use governmental power and authority to protect their friends from accountability. It is not uncommon in fascist regimes for national resources and even treasures to be appropriated or even outright stolen by government leaders.

  27. Fraudulent Elections

  28. Sometimes elections in fascist nations are a complete sham. Other times elections are manipulated by smear campaigns against or even assassination of opposition candidates, use of legislation to control voting numbers or political district boundaries, and manipulation of the media. Fascist nations also typically use their judiciaries to manipulate or control elections.

Stephen Harper's An Economist - Right?

Here's the rub - economies are about more than just numbers - they're about behaviour.  If you can't wrap your head around how and why people make financial decisions in practice, you're predictions will always be off.

Political Staff: Work-Life Bleed

Here's an interesting one - political staff getting in trouble for using tax-payer used phones for off-work purposes.  There's also the fact that they're spending time engaging in activities with their boss on a volunteer, after-work capacity.  Are they, in fact, getting paid more to back the Mayor up in his after-hours activities?  Are these cagey staffers intentionally deceiving the public by using public paid-for devices to do this non-work?
There's one big conceit that this argument is based on; that political staff have on and off hours and that anything they do in relation to their boss has to be related to work, not personal life.  It's a false notion that we would do well to discard.
Politics is not a nine-to-five job.  Politicians have to be ready and willing to go to events off hours and on weekends.  They take calls from reporters at their homes, speak to constituents when they're stopped on the street or even at church.  As the operational end of any political office, it's no different for political staff.  In fact, political work can be even more time-demanding on support staff.  If there is a crisis, or a question, the public/press/opposition is operating on a 24/7 cycle, as are politicians.  When information is needed, it's needed in real-time - and it's up to political staff to get it.
Additionally, part and parcel of political work is capacity building - knocking on doors, barbecues, speaking engagements and the like where politicians learn about the concerns of constituents and express their own policy solutions.  You can't have politics, after all, without the politicking.  If politicians are in the business to engage and be engaged with, why can't that apply to their teams?  Isn't it possible political staff engage in after-hours activities with their bosses because they are like-minded and want to?
This isn't to suggest that there isn't an element in politics that pressures staff to do the extra-curricular and chastises them if they don't.  That actually happens a lot, as does pressure to donate to the partisan cause as a requirement of being part of the team.  We'd be foolish to think, though, that there aren't staff who go above and beyond simply because they've been ordered to; I'd argue that the best political staff are the ones who are wholly committed to the vision of their boss/Party.
I am writing, of course, as a former political staffer that still dedicates a lot of my time to both the partisan cause as well as related social causes that I believe in.  In my previous life, I was completely and constantly tied to my taxpayer-paid for blackberry, but this worked both ways.  There were calls for family issues that I took on that phone, but I also was doing research and making calls on it from a hospital room within hours of my son's birth.  Politics wasn't a profession for me, it was a lifestyle. I know more than a few staffers that have to juggle up to three blackberries due to the varied nature of their work/lives - they almost need Batman-style utility belts to keep them all in order.
I don't think the average employer really cares if their team uses their office phone to make dinner plans with friends, or even posts pictures of family events on Facebook during office-hours.  That would be because the average employer probably knows their employees will equally be dedicating after-hours time to finishing reports or supporting the company charitable causes.  What matters to them is that the work gets done as effectively as possible under the associated time constraints, with as much value-add thrown in as manageable.  The reason we look so negatively on this kind of activity in politics is, frankly, because we view politics as dirty. Political folk are all the same, they are in it for the money, rich friends, power, whatever.  When it comes to backroom operators like staff, they are surely up to no good with the resources we pay for them to have. 
Along the same theme, there's a significant problem with the political game of gotcha.  Parties in opposition are always looking for ways to tear down the brand of their opponents by any means necessary, even hypocritical ones.  The "your staff was inappropriately using public resources" is a fun one.  It's all a ruse, though - you can't be in politics without life imitating work.  Using public fax machines to send out partisan material and the like is one thing - we wouldn't want public paper being used to print out reams of paper for some kid's homework, either.  Getting mad because a flat-rate mobile device is being used as a staffer's sole mode of communication, though, is a bit much.  Again, perma-access is what we want in 21st Century politics; are we going to criticize a staffer for sending a personal email on a publicly paid-for  blackberry during work hours, but turn a blind eye when they're using the same device to do work-related research from their home at 10 pm on a Sunday? 
Well, folks, I would suggest that we can't have it both ways.  If we want our politicians to be on and answerable about everything 24/7, then their staff need to exist in a permanent state of engagement, too.  If we are paying flat, corporate rates for mobile devices to ensure these staff who don't get overtime are available at all times, is it really such an awful thing to let them to use those flat-rate devices for personal use as well? 
The reality of work is this - the wall between personal and professional life is gone.  Particularly when it comes to cognitive labour, we want people to be dedicating a bit of themselves to job-related activities every waking moment.  With that being the case, something has got to give on the other end, too.  So long as they're not being irresponsible - which, as political representatives, staff can't ever afford to be without impacting their partisan brand - I would suggest there's no harm in using flat-rate devices for personal use as well.
If you have a problem with that, then stop picking on your Councillor, MPP or MP on Twitter or bugging them on the street.  It's our demand for more delivered faster that's flipping the system on its head in the first place.

Teachers in Ontario

This is a difficult issue for me to write about; I consider myself a liberal, through and through.  I respect the hell out of Premier McGuinty and many, if not all, of his colleagues.  McGuinty's wife is a teacher; he hears about the slings and arrows of education every day, no doubt, so is not looking down on the problems within our education system from the 20,000 foot level.
On the other hand, I am married to a teacher; many of those in both of our families and many friends are equally teachers.  I also get to hear first-hand every day the realities of being a teacher.  My wife is one of the good ones; she looks at her students as extended family and invests herself in them to the nth degree.  If she comes home ebullient, I know that they had a good day; if she comes home on the verge of tears, I know that something has happened with one or more of "her kids."
Let's take a step back and ask ourselves a basic question - what is it we think we are paying teachers to do?  Drum information into our children's heads so that they can pass tests, with those tests enabling them to get access to other tests which will eventually get them jobs?  What does a teacher's job description look like - research, prepare and administer lessons, write and mark tests, communicate performance to parents and transfer knowledge to youth?  What about the other duties as necessary part?
Teachers, really, are all-encompassing mini-CEOs of classrooms; they're responsible for long-term strategy, mid-term planning, HR management, logistics, resource management, etc.  Except the teams they're trying to elicit performance out of aren't trained, hired staff; they're kids.  Teachers are on-the-job trainers as well.  They also have to stop fights, make sure their students have warm clothes for the winter and have sense enough to wear them outside and deal with all kinds of personal issues ranging from kids who pee their pants at school to kids who come to class with welts on their arms that they don't want to talk about.
Perhaps a better analogy - teachers are a bit like police officers.  It's nice to tell police that their job is to drive around town and enforce the law, but the reality they face is far more complex.  Police officers, in practice, end up being councillors, translators, therapists, diagnosticians, arbitrators and shoulders to lean on.  If there are ever challenges out there that nobody else wants to face, those challenges land in the laps of police officers.
The same holds true for teachers.  If kids are having emotional challenges with either friends or family, teachers don't get to say "look, kid, leave your personal baggage at home" - they have to work with that child to address the issue or build the internal resiliency necessary to empower that child to focus.  They also have to find ways to work with parents of various ethno-cultural and religious backgrounds that might not agree with the material a teacher is mandated to teach or approve of their approaches.  In some cases, teachers even have to work against cultural gender-biases in both parents and students. 
Teacher's don't have the luxury of firing kids who don't perform or behave in inappropriate ways or respect the teacher/student hierarchy; pressure is on them to keep kids in the system and deliver those test scores.  As such, teachers become anthropologists, psychologists, diagnosticians and tacticians, trying to decide which kids need to go to Team for special needs assessments, what strategies to use to get their stakeholders or teams to support the end-goal (education), etc.
Can you imagine any other workplace where the middle-manager was responsible for saying "employee X, based on an impartial assessment of your behaviour, I think you have a learning disability.  Let's arrange for you to see our in-house specialist team so that I can better modify my expectations and management style to suit your needs."  This happens in our classrooms all the time, and as specialized assistance by audiologists, etc. for special-needs students are being cut back, the expectation is that teachers will assume those roles as well, effectively becoming all things to all people.
As teachers scale back from extra-curricular activities, lots of parents are getting upset.  It's not fair, they say, that they now have to leave their jobs, perhaps losing chances at overtime, to go pick up their kids.  Perhaps they even have to start paying for private after-school programs to keep the kids busy until they get off work.  But - teachers don't get overtime for after-school activities, do they?  That's just one of those things we expect them to do because, well, they're teachers.  Really - ask yourself if that kind of expectation was put on you, how would you feel? 
Also consider how many teachers are parents themselves.  A large number of the parents whose kids are in the same daycare as my son's are parents; like everyone else, they have to pay for someone else to watch their kids while they go off to work.  Would it make sense to you to pay someone else to watch your kids while you were at work while having to watch someone else's kids in your free time because that's just the way society looks at things?  Teachers also face the constant battle of seeing their prep-time (time used for preparing lessons plans, writing and marking tests, etc) taken away from them for feel-good administration meetings or rah-rah assemblies.  Fighting against the elimination of prep-time is a key activity teachers' unions undertake, but it isn't one that gets a lot of attention.  Perhaps it should.
Sick days.  Warren Kinsella is right; nobody should be banking sick days - they should be there for use only when one is sick.  Of course, the teachers' bank isn't just about sick days; it's their bereavement leave, days to take care of sick relatives or visit prenatal doctors or deal with the contractor whose fixing broken infrastructure in their house days, too.  Perhaps those days should be broken down into categories so it's more clear to everyone what individual leaves are for.  Also, keep in mind that schools are breeding grounds for germs.  Kids get sick regularly given their exposure to others, developing immune systems, etc.  Sick students leads to sick teachers; do we want to have a system in place where a legitimately sick teacher runs out of days and has to come in and teach while at the same time fighting a flu?  Maybe we do; maybe we don't care if teaching while sick impairs their performance.
This brings us to workplace safety.  We all demand safe working environments - it's a human right, or something.  It's hard to get a job done when your health and safety are at risk.  Unless, of course, you're an afore-mentioned police officer or in far too many cases, a teacher.  I was in my wife's school yesterday - it was stifling hot, and this at a time when the weather is starting to cool down.  I couldn't imagine functioning at peak capacity - not producing, certainly not learning - when my brain is cooking.  That's the least of complaints for that particular school, though, which also faces a cockroach infestation.  It's all well and good to say don't bring your work home, but what if you have, in addition to homework, the daily need to make sure all your personal goods are hermetically sealed to keep from bringing cockroach eggs home?  Are we to assume that cockroaches are just a workplace hazard for both teachers and students?
What about this one - how easy is it to focus on studies when you have semi-regular lock-downs?  Again, back to my wife's school - there have been several murders in the area over the past few years.  One, from what's been released, was committed right on school property, after school hours.  Yup - that police line to the right is on the school property.  The murder was right there, where kids spend their recesses.  One was at a birthday party for students who go to the school - are those kids supposed to be leaving the horrors of their personal experience behind when they go to work?
Hopefully, by this point, you'll see that there are clearly different rules and conditions that apply to education than to other work environments.  Yet, it's our teachers we depend upon the most - we download education, personality management, moral and critical skills development and to a large degree, parenting to them.  There are more lucrative careers one can pursue if all you're really interested in is high wages or cushy benefits, and certainly jobs that come with less bang-head-on-wall frustrations.  In this respect, teachers are more like politicians - the best ones, the ones we want to encourage, do what they do because they believe they can make a difference.
So, yes, I think it is unfair and unwise to use the players within the education system as political pawns - but that includes students and teachers, and to unions and politicians equally.  To a much larger degree, however, it reflects on all of us.  As costs for everything are going up yet wages are lagging behind and as demand for productivity (and hours worked or lost to commuting time) skyrockets, we simply do not have the time to be all things - good employees, good parents, friends and parnters.  Equally, as the inefficiencies of our siloed system start to break our economic back - leading to less funds for things like social programs (like those that help kids overcome the challenges of poverty or the shock of witnessing murders) or infrastructure management (getting rid of those cockroaches), zeroing in on teachers as a stumbling block to societal success is facetious.
There are bigger, structural issues about how our systems are designed and how we prioritize our own time that needs to be revisited.  In this, perhaps teachers set an example for us to follow - we need to ask ourselves what really matters to us and start putting that first, perhaps demanding that our institutions start doing the same.  Maybe we all need to collectively take a look at the social contract we've signed on to - that's teachers, unions, government, civil soviety at large.  Perhaps we would all benefit from some time spent back in the classroom.

Wednesday 12 September 2012

Profit and Loss

In the world of pure free markets, all that matters is supply and demand.  Well, there's always a demand for something atrocious, somewhere; where there are no regulations, there's no stopping things like this from happening:

IBM and the Holocaust

Topf & Sohnne

The reverse is equally true - we have a habit of supporting dicatorial regimes when it suits our interests, or using folk like Werner von Braun for domestic programs no matter what their personal histories are.  All the cost of doing business in the competitive market, I guess.  As I hear all the time, you don't get judged on performance, just on results. 

When you put profit and competitive success before everything else, we all lose something. 

Qualities like morality and ethics, after all, are priceless.

Sowing the Seeds of Politics

When the bush is left untended, it grows wild and tangled.  Some plants consume all the resources, leaving others to wither.  Eventually, that kindling catches fire, resulting in the whole bush getting burned to the ground.  After the morass is cleared away, new growth starts to appear, restarting the cycle.
So it is in politics.  We've seen the system grow wild, leaving key demographic groups without access to the resources they need to sustain themselves - it's the big trees that are stealing all the sunlight.  Now, the kindling has caught fire with an angry vision of austerity.  There are places on the cusp of burning.
There's another way, though - we can plant the seeds of positive growth, manage the bush and keep it from growing beyond the means of the land to sustain it. 
Some folk recoil at the notion of "social engineering," as though unmanaged systems left to their own devices don't inequitably favour the most aggressive - which rarely includes those who mistrust social systems the most.  They fear paternalistic politicians attempting to treat the populace like sheep and lead them where they will, yet don't fear the hawks or marketers that do the same thing, just more subtly.
The best leaders aren't shepherds so much as they're gardeners, finding the right balance between plant, stone and structure. Gardeners nurture growth and seek balance.  So too should government.

Perscription for Canadian Politics


The Liberals, NDP and the Greens - and for that matter, the Conservatives - are wrapped up in tribal competition for dominance at the expense of the far-reaching policy solutions needed today.  That's politics, I guess.  When it comes to tribal warfare, it's hard to beat the Team Harper message of be lean and mean and keep internal and external threats at bay.  That's their game; progressives will never win playing by the rules of fear-based politics.
Stephen Harper clearly does have a vision for Canada - one where our economic brand is that of hauling water and hewing wood, our foreign policy is based on standing against while domestically, might makes right and dogma trumps reason.  Yes, Team Harper apparently will listen to carefully-presented business cases, but they are choosing to ignore a good deal of evidence that flies in the face of their policy choices.
The "progressive" camp, meanwhile, is caught in political gridlock, poking fingers in each other's eyes instead of developing a unifying progressive vision.  Just as the stereotype tells us Canadians define themselves on not being the US, opposition parties are defining themselves based on what they aren't - not the Conservatives and not each other.  They need some shared idea of what Canada can be to rally behind - but what could that vision look like?
Even if the progressives in Canadian politics do find a common vision to rally behind, it's not enough to have a narrative - you need a platform as well, one that appeals to voters across the country.  It would be nice to see a platform that is representative of all Canadians, particularly youth who don't see the reality of their future represented in today's policy (and therefore, aren't voting).  How can progressives bring the political conversation to young Canadians in a way that reflects their values and embraces their social tools  while simultaneously tackling some of our structural sustainability issues?
It's not an easy row to hoe, this working together and planning proactively business, but if you're in politics, go big or go home.  You'll attract the best talent when you give them something significant to be part of.
Let's say this happens; the progressives find common ground, unite behind a shared vision and craft a viable platform to keep Canada moving forward.  The Conservatives' spin machine would come in to play, hitting the fear and threat of risk buttons.  If the vision is grand enough and the direction concrete enough - and if it's sold well - that won't matter.  Team Harper would need to find some policy ideas to appeal to the middle-of-the-road voters who have given them their coveted majority, yet doesn't alienate their base.  Whatever could the Conservatives propose that is reflective of their values yet progressive enough to counter a united opposition?
There are great opportunities for each Party out there - they can even benefit Canadians as they improve their own fortunes.  They just need to think a bit outside the box.

Tuesday 11 September 2012

Jim McDonell Owes One Hell of An Apology (UPDATED)

I don't think there can really be any mistake here - Jim McDonell, MPP for Stormont, Dundas and South Glengarry is comparing Dalton McGuinty to Hitler.  Hitler, the mind behind the Holocaust. 
I'm hoping this was one of those statements the occasional overzealous, life-experience free and broadly ignorant young staffer throws in front of MPPs to say.  Even if that's the case, nobody put a gun to McDonell's head and forced him to read it into Hansard - you know, the kind of thing that happens under tyrannies.  I think McDonell's record speaks to him being a Party man first, a Constituency representative second, but this is truly beyond the pale.
Well, Jim, as someone whose grandfather is a survivor of the Holocaust and comes from the riding you're supposed to represent, I resent that little comparison of yours.  A lot.  You have no frickin' clue what you're talking about.  If there was really a Nazi regime in Ontario, you would already be on your way to the ovens.
How about you do some homework before you start rubbing salt in the wounds of people who have suffered under tyranny?  You can start here; on March 31, 2010, Liberal MPP Jeff Leal and Conservative MPP John Yakabuski paid tribute to my grandfather, his sacrifices as a soldier and the horrors he faced along with so many other innocents in Buchenwald Concentration Camp.  These gentlemen had no issues putting partisan games aside when it came to something as significant as war, loss and genocide.  Even your boss Tim Hudak, my grandfather's MPP, wrote a scroll honouring the occasion.  The MPPs there that day recognized we are all very privileged to live in a place where it's possible to bicker back and forth freely; none of them was going to make partisan light of the oppression suffered under the Nazis.
Among those who personally thanked my grandfather for his service was Premier Dalton McGuinty.  This secretive tyrant of yours opened up both his schedule and his office and gave very generously of his time and his compassion to an old man carrying deep emotional scars from what he endured for his country - for democracy.  This would be the same Dalton McGuinty that has done a hell of a lot for your riding and your township, as you bloody well know.
I thought you were better than this, Jim.  I'm very sorry that I was wrong.  SDSG used to have such great leadership.  I hope you're at least leader enough to apologize to Premier McGuinty, your constituents, your own leader for embarrassing him and those who have suffered through real tyranny.  I guarantee they won't find your crass little joke so funny.

And this is what McDonell considers an apology:

Mr. Jim McDonell: Speaker, I’d like to rise on a point of order to clarify a comment I made yesterday. As I got up to speak on Bill 50, it was brought to my attention about the anniversary of Canada’s declaration of war on Germany. I thought it was an important item to mention, and I tried to work it into my discussion. I certainly withdraw the comment if it offended the other side. There was no intention to it. It was more to highlight this important event in Canadian history, one of the more important events in the 20th century, as I understood it hadn’t been brought up yesterday. I apologize if it was misinterpreted in any way, but that was the intent.

"If it offended the other side?"  "Apologize if it was misinterpreted in any way?"  You called the Premier a tyrant and compared Ontario to Nazi Germany.  There was no misinterpreting your words, Jim.  Nor can there be any mistaking your refusal to take ownership and accountability for your words.

Not good enough, Jim.  The people of SDSG deserve better leadership than that - and the people of Ontario deserve greater respect.

Stephen Harper's Bad Example Don't Mix Confusion With Fear

Some folk used to say the same thing about learning multiple languages at the same time - it would muddle the brain, they said, and result in children learning neither.  Look at households, at classrooms around the world and especially here in Toronto and you'll hear that's clearly not the case.  The brain's a much more flexible machine than we give it credit for.
Of course, that's not the main issue here.  The reason why some parents have created a checklist of issues they consider uncomfortable for their children to learn is because of just that - certain subject matters make them uncomfortable.  I could be wrong in this, but I'm pretty sure that no religious text promotes xenophobia.  What else could be the purpose of excluding children from the broader education that will benefit their peers?  Is there some magical line down the road where these children will have enough entrenchment in their parents' beliefs that exposure to other viewpoints and opinions in this polycultural society of ours won't offend their sensibilities?
Canada is not a collection of cultural silos, ethnic and religious groups existing "equal but separate" from each other.  We have a long, proud, envious history of finding collaborative solutions to common problems, of finding strength in diversity.  This has been a key part of our national identity, this desire to work together.  We might never have been a military superpower but in times of challenge, our friends and neighbours always knew they could depend on us.
That's how it used to be.  Today, Canada is becoming a more insular place.  It is the politics of division, not exclusion, that define us and this traces right back to the very top.  Stephen Harper, Prime Minister of Canada, doesn't believe in the things people can accomplish when they work together.  He stiles dissenting voices in the bureaucracy, in Parliament, in critical groups of every stripe.  He doesn't believe in collaboration, in debating ideas, in reaching a hand out to those in need rather than simply targeting those who might be threats.
In his own way, Harper is as socially influential a Prime Minister as Pierre Trudeau was, leaving an undeniable imprint on our country.  Harper seems to feel things like facts might confuse us, that any foe left standing provides a threat to his vision of the country.  In his view, transparency really equates with opacity; accountability is anything but accountable.
And so we see a growing number of Canadians deciding it's not worth trying to make things work, to have open debates about points of contention.  Why learn to disagree when you don't need to engage with The Other at all?  A lack of exposure to the why behind the differences around us lead to the rise of conjecture, suspicion and fear.  We naturally fill in the dark spaces of our understanding with bogeymen.
True leaders bring their people together with a powerful vision based on shared beliefs.  The people find themselves reaching out in collaboration and wonder at what they have accomplished, together.  We've seen this before.  But in Harper's Canada, it's Jedem das Seine - we've seen how that's worked out in the past, too.

(CFN) Reminiscences of September 11, 2001 by Craig Carter Edwards 9/11/12

Reminiscences of September 11, 2001


Monday 10 September 2012

Allan Greg on Canada At Present

It's difficult to look at the evidence and deny the long-term trajectory of history, as laid out by Stephen Pinker in Better Angels; yet, we're damned-well going to try.  This is not to suggest the powers-that-be have ill-intent; they honestly believe the actions they take are in the collective best interest, whether the collective agrees or not. 
Allan Gregg sums up the why they fail far better than I've been able to, but he leaves out the turn of our social wheel that follows.  We will fall, as we periodically do.  We have to - it's through falling that we learn to pick ourselves back up.

Notes for Remarks to Carleton University – September 5, 2012
By Allan R. Gregg
In his novel 1984, George Orwell paints a portrait of a nightmarish future where rights that we now take for granted – the freedom of assembly, speech and to trial – have all been suspended. Acceptance of this totalitarian state is justified by the interests of stability and order, and by the needs a perpetual war. But what makes 1984 endure where other dystopian novels have been forgotten is that Orwell removed one more right that is even more unimaginable in a modern context – the right to think.
Instead of reason and rational discourse, Oceania is ruled by doublethink – “to know and not to know. To be conscious of complete truthfulness, while telling carefully construed lies … to use logic against logic: to repudiate morality while laying claim to it”. As Orwell summarizes…. “In Oceania the heresy of heresy was common sense”.
Emblematic of the regime is Big Brother’s slogan, repeated constantly as a means of thought control….
War is Peace
Freedom is Slavery
Ignorance is Strength
Even by the standards of the time in which he was writing, the juxtaposition of these concepts is so ludicrous, many believe that Orwell was using satire to wage his war against authoritarianism and the assault on reason. Anyone who has been to war knows it is anything but peaceful. Anyone who has been enslaved is more than aware that they are not free. But what about those who are ignorant? Do they feel weak … or strong?

Throughout history there has been a need to explain the unexplained. And for the greatest part of history, the bulwark against not-knowing has been superstition, dogma and orthodoxy. Can’t explain droughts? Blame God’s wrath. Why are we suffering from mysterious diseases? Witchcraft. And of course, economic downturns could be blamed on ethnic minorities. The response to these beliefs has been human sacrifices, burning at the stake and ethnic cleansing. This is the linkage that Voltaire made when he wrote … “those who can make you believe in absurdities can make you commit atrocities”.
Understanding the world or explaining phenomena through superstition, dogma and orthodoxy – instead of facts and reason – invariably leads to some very ugly and uncivilized behaviour. The reason for this is fairly straightforward – namely, beliefs that are rooted in superstition, dogma and orthodoxy are not sustainable … sooner or later their veracity will be tested by facts and evidence. Those who need these beliefs to sustain their interests and power therefore must enforce at the point of a sword or remove those who might prove them to be untrue.
Orwell’s claim that “Ignorance is Strength” might have been the clever writing of a satirist at the height of his talents but it was also much more than that. It is his most dire warning. Abolitionist and newspaper publisher Fredrick Douglas said that it was illiteracy more than the lash that gave slaveholders power over black men and women. Orwell was making a similar point… the suppression of knowledge and reason is the tyrant’s most powerful tool… and the greatest threat to freedom. “Orthodoxy,” he said, “means not thinking – not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness”.
Of course, the opposite is also true. The greater the knowledge and education of a population, the more difficult it is to oppress them. As Steven Pinker notes in his new book “The Better Nature of our Angels” … “The subversive power of the flow of information and people has never been lost on political and religious tyrants. This is why they suppress speech, writing and associations and why democracies protect these channels in their bills of rights” (p. 179).
In fact, in a triumph of his own research and command of reason, Pinker makes a compelling case that the hallmark of modern history has been a progressive decline in violence, accompanied by a steady upward trajectory of civilized, humane and peaceful behaviour. More than anything else, it has been the embracing of reason and enlightened thinking that has moved civilization forward.
In his 2007 best seller, “The Assault on Reason”, Nobel Prize winner and former Vice- President Al Gore made his own case for the protection of reason as the foundation of democracy. The basis of his argument is that the marketplace of ideas is open to all and the fate of those ideas is based on their merit (rather than birthright or finance). In this sense, reason reinforces equality. Moreover, when we engage in public debate, armed with reason, by definition, we are prepared to compromise and find common ground with those who might otherwise be our opponents. In this way, conflicts between individuals are resolved through words and ideas rather than the barrel of a gun. In the same way, it was only when ordinary citizens began to govern themselves using common sense, logic, and the best available evidence, that governments began to change and evolve without resorting to raw power and violence.
So it is important to remind ourselves why we value reason and why we should be very concerned when it comes under assault.
Pinker, like others, notes that democracies rarely, if ever, declare war on one another anymore and that the idea of one nation invading another to control sovereign territory has virtually become an anachronism. He explains the line between democracy and peace in this way … “Democratic government is designed to resolve conflict through consensual rule of law and so democracies .. externalize this ethic in dealing with other states. Also, every democracy knows the way the other democracies work, since they are all constructed on the same rational foundation rather than growing out of a cult of personality or messianic creed or chauvinistic mission” (p. 278). This mutual trust between democratic nations therefore mitigates against the need for any pre-emptive strike against one another.
And as important as peace and democracy are, reason also leads to a series of other beliefs and behaviours we now associate with our prosperity and fortunes.
Reason has taught us that it is cheaper and more efficient to enter into a commercial arrangement with our neighbours than to invade, plunder or colonize them. Trade of goods and services between nations, in turn, inflates and widens our empathy beyond kin and tribe and encourages immigration and pluralism.
Beyond empathy, science has revealed that all races and peoples share common traits and therefore deserve to be treated equally. This humanism and the placement of the rights of the individual on an even plane, above the rights of states, draws us inevitably towards concepts such as the responsibility to protect. While the scriptures might tell us we are all each other’s keepers, it is reason that compels us to behave in this way.
In fact, our entire notion of progress has reason at its core. As Ronald Wright reminds us in his brilliant lecture series, “A Short History of Progress”, this is a relatively modern concept. For most of civilization, people believed their station in life would be pretty much the same when they died as when they were born. And they believed this because it was true – mortality, health and wealth improved little for most of human history. It was only when we began to imagine that man and society was, if not perfectible, certainly improvable, that optimism and scientific endeavour sought to propel mankind forward.
And more than anything else, societal progress has been advanced by enlightened public policy that marshals our collective resources towards a larger public good. Once again it has been reason and scientific evidence that has delineated effective from ineffective policy. We have discovered that effective solutions can only be generated when they correspond to an accurate understanding of the problems they are designed to solve. Evidence, facts and reason therefore form the sine qua non of not only good policy, but good government.
I have spent my entire professional life as a researcher, dedicated to understanding the relationship between cause and effect. And I have to tell you, I’ve begun to see some troubling trends. It seems as though our government’s use of evidence and facts as the bases of policy is declining, and in their place, dogma, whim and political expediency are on the rise. And even more troubling …. Canadians seem to be buying it.
My concern was first piqued in July 2010, when the federal cabinet announced its decision to cut the mandatory long form census and replace it with a voluntary one. The rationale for this curious decision was that asking citizens for information about things like how many bathrooms were in their homes was a needless intrusion on their privacy and liberty. One might reasonably wonder how knowledge about the number of toilets you have could enable the government to invade your privacy, but that aside, it became clear that virtually no toilet owners had ever voiced concerns that the long form census, and its toilet questions, posed this kind of threat.
Again, as someone who had used the census – both as a commercial researcher and when I worked on Parliament Hill – I knew how important these data were in identifying not just toilet counts, but shifting population trends and the changes in the quality and quantity of life of Canadians. How could you determine how many units of affordable housing were needed unless you knew the change in the number of people who qualified for affordable housing? How could you assess the appropriate costs of affordable housing unless you knew the change in the amount of disposal income available to eligible recipients?
And even creepier, why would anyone forsake these valuable insights – and the chance to make good public policy – under the pretence that rights were violated when no one ever voiced the concern that this was happening? Was this a one-off move, however misguided? Or, the canary in the mineshaft?
Then came the Long Gun Registry. The federal government made good on their promise to dismantle it regardless of the fact that virtually every police chief in Canada said it was important to their work. Being true to their election promises? Or was there something else driving this decision?
Then, came the promise of a massive penitentiary construction spree which flew directly in the face of a mountain of evidence indicating that crime was on the decline. This struck me as a costly, unnecessary move, but knowing this government’s penchant to define itself as “tough-on-crime”, one could see – at least ideologically – why they did it. But, does that make it right?
Then came the post-stimulus federal budget of 2012 which I eagerly awaited to see if there would be something more here than mere political opportunism.
It was common knowledge that this government had little stomach for the deficit spending that followed the finance crisis of the previous years. And knowing that the public supported a return to balance budgets, it was a foregone conclusion that we were going to be presented with a fairly austere budget document. That the government intended to cut 19,000 civil servant jobs – roughly 6% of the total federal workforce – might have seemed a little draconian, but knowing what we knew, not that shocking.
As part of this package, it was also announced that environmental assessments were to be “streamlined” and that the final arbitration power of independent regulators was to be curtailed and possibly overridden by so-called “accountable” elected officials. Again, given the priority this government places on economic, and especially resource development, this was not necessarily unpredictable either.
`But when then the specific cuts started to roll out, an alarming trend began to take shape.
  • First up were those toilet counting, privacy violators at Stats Canada – ½ (not 6%, but 50%) of employees were warned that their jobs were at risk.
  • 20% of the workforce at the Library and Archives of Canada were put on notice.
  • CBC was told that it could live with a 10% reduction in their budgetary allocation.
  • In what was described as the “lobotomization of the parks system” (G &M – May 21, 2012), 30% of the operating budget of Parks Canada was cut, eliminating 638 positions; 70% of whom would be scientists and social scientists.
  • The National Roundtable on the Environment, the First Nations Statistical Institute, the National Council on Welfare and the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Science were, in Orwell’s parlance, “vaporized”; saving a grand total of $7.5 million.
  • The Experimental Lakes Area, a research station that produced critical evidence that helped stop acid rain 3 decades ago and has been responsible for some of our most groundbreaking research on water quality was to be shut down. Savings? $2 million. The northernmost lab in Eureka, Nunavut awaits the same fate.
  • The unit in charge of monitoring emissions from power plants, furnaces, boiler and other sources is to be abolished in order to save $600,000.
  • And against the advice of 625 fisheries scientists and four former federal Fisheries Ministers – saying it is scientifically impossible to do — regulatory oversight of the fisheries was limited to stock that are of “human value”.
  • To add insult to injury, these amendments was bundled in with 68 other laws into one Budget Bill, so that – using the power of majority government – no single item could be opposed or revoked.
  • On the other side of the ledger however, the Canada Revenue Agency received an $8 million increase in its budget so that it had more resources available to investigate the political activity of not-for-profit and charitable organizations.
Ok, so now the facts were beginning to tell a different story. This was no random act of downsizing, but a deliberate attempt to obliterate certain activities that were previously viewed as a legitimate part of government decision-making – namely, using research, science and evidence as the basis to make policy decisions. It also amounted to an attempt to eliminate anyone who might use science, facts and evidence to challenge government policies.
And while few in the popular press at home belled the cat quite this squarely, the pattern did not go unnoticed in other quarters. The editorial in the March issue of Nature criticized the Harper Government for muzzling and tightening the media protocols applied to federal scientists. Two weeks earlier, the Canadian Science Writers Association, The World Federation of Science Journalists and others send an open letter to the Prime Minister calling on him stop suppressing scientific findings and let them be freely shared, in keeping with the best practices of the discipline. And in July, in an unprecedented demonstration, lab-coated scientists marched on Parliament Hill to protest what they viewed as a systematic attack on evidence-based research by this Government.
In 1984, the abandonment of reason is twinned not simply with unthinking orthodoxy but also by the wilful dissemination of misinformation. Orwell makes this point in part by using ironic names for various government departments: the Ministry of Love is responsible for war. The Ministry of Plenty is tasked with parsing rations.
Again if this is satire, I can pretty much guarantee that Orwell’s intent was savage. Written in the shadow of the war, Orwell had seen this kind of misdirection used to mask evil intents, in real time and in real life. When Hitler circumvented the German Parliament and seized power in 1933, he did so under legislation named “The Law to Remedy the Distress of the People”. When the horrors of the holocaust were revealed, they were accompanied by the unforgettable image of the gate into Auschwitz with its Orwellian slogan “Work Will Set You Free”.
And today, more and more, we see this same kind of misdirection and news speak in the behaviour of our legislators.
A quick review of the some of the Bills passed or on the order paper of this session of Parliament gives you the sense that this government might have studied under Orwell.
Bill C-5 is entitled “The Continuing Air Service for Passengers Act”. Substantively, it offers no such guarantee but unilaterally extended the contract of the National Automobile, Aerospace, Transport and General Workers Union of Canada and removed any prospect of a lockout or strike.
Bill C-10 is “An Act to Enact the Justice for Victims of Terrorism” and sub-titled “The Safe Streets and Communities Act”. Again forgetting for a moment that there are more victims of swimming pool drowning than terrorism, this is an Omnibus Bill which, among other things, stiffens penalties for possession of pot and builds more prisons.
Bill C-18 is called the “Marketing Freedom for Grain Farmers Act”. It dismantled the Canadian Wheat Board.
Bill C-26 boasts that it is “The Citizens Arrest and Self-Defense Act” and it is the closest we come in Canada to replicating Florida’s odious Stand Your Ground legislation.
The purpose of Bill C-30 is stated to be “The Protect Children from Internet Predators Act” and it, among other things, forces ISPs to hand over their user names to police without a warrant. When opponents protested this deliberate obfuscation, Safety Minister Vic Toews famously countered that “you are either with us or the child pornographers”.
The thing that is disconcerting and unsettling about all this is not just the substance of these Bills, but why a government would want to disguise that substance. Maybe dismantling the Wheat Board; or pre-emptively squashing collective bargaining; or sending more potheads to jail is a good thing. But before we make those decisions, let’s look at all the facts; have a fulsome and rational debate; and make a reasoned decision of what is in the best interests of all the parties involved. For voters to determine whether these are measures they support or oppose requires that they know what is at stake and what the government is actually doing. Moreover, for the rule of law to work, the public must have respect for the law. By obfuscating the true purpose of laws under the gobbledy-gook of double speak, governments are admitting that their intentions probably lack both support and respect. Again, the lesson here is Orwellian … in the same way that reason requires consciousness, tyranny demands ignorance.
Raising this is not a question of right versus left. It is rather- in the words of Al Gore – a question of right versus wrong. And also make no mistake that this is not simply an attack on, or a claim that the sole practitioner of masking intent is The Harper Government. Jean Charest, introduced Bill 78 as “An Act to Enable Students to Receive Instruction from the Post Secondary Education They Attend”. Under some fairly benign circumstances, it basically bans the freedom of assembly. And under the pretext of another perpetual war – the so-called War on Terrorism – the President of the United States not only routinely orders the execution of foreign nationals, on foreign soil, without any semblance of due process whatsoever, but boasts that this as one of the greatest accomplishments of his Presidency. And the American media routinely applauds him for it. Now I know it’s not comfortable to offer suspected terrorists due process, but isn’t this exactly the kind of behaviour Orwell was warning us about?
Having conceded this, I DO believe that this particular government is pursuing a not-so-hidden agenda. It starts with the premise that the Canadian political pendulum has over swung in the direction of liberalism – that the political agenda and discourse of this country, for too long, has been hijacked by urban elites who do not represent the voice of hard working men and women who live in the burbs, shop at Canadian Tire and take their kids to the hockey rink every week. And I DO believe that Stephen Harper and his colleagues have set out to systematically right what they see as this wrong.
This view holds that parks are for tourism and campers, not for the flora and fauna that must be protected by scientists. Policy should be based on conviction and not bloodless statistics. Governments should be guided by what is morally right and not by reason and rational compromise. From this view, science, statistics, reason and rational compromise are not tools of enlightened public policy, but barriers to the pursuit of swing that pendulum back.
The problem is, notwithstanding a fairly widespread consensus around the orthodoxies of balance budgets, market economies and open trade, Canadians, by and large, still believe in tolerance, compromise, egalitarianism. We tend to see ourselves as each other’s keeper with a responsibility for those who are less fortunate. So to realize this agenda, it becomes necessary to pursue it by stealth and circumvention rather than through transparency and directness. This too explains the apparent obsession with secrecy, message control and misdirection.
But even if you accept this thesis, it still begs another question …. if Canadians are essentially enlightened liberals, and are not prepared to offer wholesale buy-in to this vision of politics and the nation, why do we not hear a hue and cry in protest over the direction we are being led?
At root, I think a big part of the problem is cultural. For decades following the Second World War, a progress ethos dominated North American thought. The next car was going to be faster, the next paycheque fatter and the next house bigger. This notion that progress was both normal and limitless, generated a series of beliefs that were universally embraced. Anyone of my generation will remember being told … “You my child, deserve more than I had when I was growing up”…. “If you work hard and put your mind to it, you can be anything you want” … and “A good education is the key to success”. This value system – and an experience that closely corresponded to it – created not only a sense of well-being but also a sense of good will. If the prospects of progress and success were limitless, then whatever success you enjoyed in no way threatened the amount of success that might be available to me.
Today – in sharp contrast – we seem to be living in a zero sum society, where the prevailing wisdom is that the rich are getting richer while the poor or getting poorer; that whatever prosperity might be available is being unequally shared; and for many, opportunity is actually shrinking. In the same way that feelings of well -being can generate good will, feelings of threat spawn envy and recrimination. This not only explains the anger of the Occupy Movement or the students protesting in the streets of Montreal but also the disdain that the middle class has for “pampered” public sector employees or the excessive obsession the rich seem to have about the poor “ripping off the system”.
Once the population starts to segment itself into “us versus them,” anyone with a vested interest in exacerbating the rift can easily till that soil. And that is clearly what is happening in the political process today. On one hand, political parties no longer see the need to reach out and expand their base beyond their core constituency, because their core constituency is often at odds with the voters whom they otherwise might want to attract. To the contrary, it makes more sense to vilify these voters, as a way to motivate your core.
A vicious cultural wheel therefore is turned by a political one. A fearful, divided citizenry fights off uncertainty by protecting its own turf; politicians exploit this division by choosing sides and offering simplistic solutions to address these fears; and the population seeks solace in the simplistic solutions. So instead of trying to bridge these differences through consensus and finding compromise based on reason, what we see all too often today is the politics of polarization, over-torqued partisanship and dogma.
Here is how the perfect trifecta of a zero-sum society, the politics of division and the assault on reason plays out in the real world of politics. In his acceptance speech to the Republican National Convention, this is the rationale that Mitt Romney offered as the most compelling reason to vote for him instead of his opponent …. “President Obama promised to slow the rise of the oceans and heal the planet. My promise is to help you and your family?”
What the f**k? As if the two are mutually exclusive? As if healing the planet means you can’t help families? Or that helping families means ignoring the planet?
Yet this was the biggest applause line of his entire speech. I guess for many, when you fear for your family, it is comforting to think that all you have to do to protect them is ignore rising ocean levels and everything will be alright. Once again, in the most perverse way, Orwell was right … Ignorance can feel like strength.
Many – from Noam Chomsky, to Neil Postman to Al Gore – have also laid the blame on the media. Either through sloth, sensationalism or the very pacifying nature of the medium itself, a culture saturated in trivia has become anesthetised to the larger needs of the world in which we live. Indeed, as Chris Hedges asks in his brilliant screed, The Empire of Illusion, when we come to believe that we are all only one audition away from celebrity, why concern yourselves with picayune problems like the homeless, let alone some arcane concept like the assault on reason? Most of this analysis however has been limited to the effect of television – the equivalent, of the ubiquitous telescreens of Orwell’s 1984. But instead of monitoring citizen activity, media today portrays an outside world that often in no way reflects reality beyond the sensational, the trivia and the pacifying.
But for whatever role television may have played in amusing ourselves to death in the past, we now live in a digital world where there is “evidence” for every and any view one might want to embrace. If I believe the world is flat, the internet now puts me in touch with legions of fellow flat earthers and reams of pseudo science to support that belief. As importantly, if I am so inclined, I never have to be exposed to any contrary views and can find total refuge in my community of flat earthers. The Internet therefore, offers me the opportunity to have a completely closed mind and at one in the same time, fill it full of nonsense disguised as fact. In a brand new way therefore, the internet democratizes not just individual opinion but legitimizes collective ignorance and spreads a bizzaro world of alternative reason. When this occurs, prejudice and bias is reinforced and the authority of real science and evidence is undermined or even more likely, never presented.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. History shows us that, over time, science’s authority always undermines dogma’s legitimacy and the persuasive power of reason will always trump ideology’s emotion. It’s true that if you want to follow a course based on dogma or ideology, it becomes necessary to remove science and reason. But the corollary also holds true – the best defense against dogma and ideology continues to by reason and science. And if it’s increasingly hard to find these qualities in the media or the political process, what better place to take a stand than in a University? This is where you come to seek intelligence; not belittle it. Where ideas are born; questions are asked; and thoughts collide. This is why so many have fought so long to protect academic freedom – to ensure that reason, inquiry and science cannot be assaulted by dogma and orthodoxy.
While the circumstance in Canada 2012 is obviously nowhere near as dystopian as what Orwell depicts in 1984, I really do think that there are some unsettling parallels going on here that we ignore at our peril. I also think it’s time to gather the facts….and fight back.