Cold Hard Wonk

No sentiment but politics

That and Five Cups of Coffee. . .0

Posted by JJ in Doubletake/Doubletalk, Vague Check, Strategic Planning (Sunday July 30, 2006 at 11:46 am)

Students often rank high on lists of the victimised. After all, following twelve or thirteen years of education at public expense, they’re actually required to subsidise the cost of further educational opportunities, taking on debt as though they were investing in their own futures. Weep, weep, those of you whose eyes still run dry, at the iniquity.

But what’s more, there just isn’t enough youth involvement in politics! The fact that “paper” youth clubs were a perfect basis for “instant Liberals” and domination of the party’s last Leadership contest means that the youth were used (victims again!), not embraced! Besides which, they’ve now cleaned up their act (which claim oddly enough involves both the hidden agenda gambit (criticism of youth politics means that you’re against youth politics) and admitting that there was a problem).

But surely low levels of youth participation must have something to do with an organised programme of victimization, rather than the failure of parties (now the keystone of the political process) to engage with them in any substantive way. Mustn’t it?

Why blame your inability to say anything of significance to a large pool of voters when you can blame matters on procedural obstacles like money? Students are poor, right? After all, with the price of feeding a daily coffee addiction climbing, there’s not much space left in that tight, tight student budget for frivolities like political activism.

Which explains why some people have suggested that the price of a youth club membership (generally, $5-10 CAD) in the Liberal Party was high enough to drive off potential members. Belinda Stronach, currently crusading for a cheaper party, takes this assertion seriously, arguing that her plan for $1 memberships is just the solution the party needs — why, everyone will join at that price!

But an economist, or indeed anyone concerned with exploring peoples’ decisions, might instead take note of this fact to point out the real problem. If this analysis is correct, it means that people would prefer five cups of coffee to membership in the Liberal Party. And if that membership isn’t worth ten dollars per year of deferred instant (or brewed) gratification, it just might be that the problem isn’t the price — it’s the product.

But let’s go with that other thing. The money. Gotta be. Poor, victimised students. . .

Two Steps Forward, Two Steps Back0

Posted by JJ in Vague Check, Strategic Planning, Golden Tacks (Saturday July 29, 2006 at 10:19 pm)

Sound like a square dance? That makes sense, because this particular problem is the joint product of noted square, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and note-worthy (sorry, puns run hot even for the Frozen Wonk) country star K.D. Lang.

Mr. Harper recently snubbed the outgames, an olympics-like event for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transexual (LGBT) athletes, by refusing to attend their inaugural running in Montreal (already underway). K.D. Lang, interviewed because of her status as Canadian, lesbian, and frontlining performer at the games, condemned the Prime Minister’s response:

“It’s a sad statement that the national leader of a country that’s one of the most progressive countries in the world chooses to support intolerance,” she told a news conference at the Olympic Stadium.

“They [the federal Conservative government] will probably make it (homosexuality) a political issues,” she said. “It’s not a political issue. It’s a human rights issue.”

Which explains why the Prime Minister, the political leader of the country, rather than the Governor-General, the head of the country, should attend. There’s no question that acceptance of LGBT lifestyles is grounded in a human rights argument, but saying that it’s not political is a transparent ploy. Recognising sexual preference and sexuality as a human right is highly political — it’s a core area of identity politics. And trying to skip the first step — recognition of the right — in order to claim that politics isn’t involved is not just misleading — it’s self-defeating.

As has been pointed out elsewhere, achieving recognition of certain rights in the courts doesn’t elminate the importance of working to gain public acceptance, because enforcing rights against the public’s grain tends to result in greater tension; and no one wants to have to run back to the courts every time rights are violated simply because the political groundwork was neglected in the euphoria of a favorable judicial decision.

But the foolish things entertainers say have been appropriately lampooned by others far more qualified. This is a place to lampoon dumb politics. And Mr. Harper’s reeks. Why?

Attending an event of this kind could resolve a major challenge for his party: the urgent need to prove themselves to the citified folk. Sure, the counter-argument exists: that spending time with LGBT groups could ruin their rep with core constituencies (anti-gay crusaders who haven’t worked their way up to being anti-bisexual/transexual yet); but it seems unlikely that anyone else stands to take that constituency from them. Given the chance that a few might be so committed to that particular issue to stay home rather than vote for a party that’s abandoned their principle, mightn’t it be mighty dangerous for Harper to give up the bad fight?

Not if you consider the possible trade-off. As part of a coordinated makeover strategy, it could sway enough old-school Tories back to a party they thought was captured by Reform. Moreover, if it makes enough of an impression to swing a few more urban seats, the loss of one or two in rural Ontario doesn’t seem so bad. It’s a gamble, no question; but it’s the kind of gamble (though not the only one) that Harper needs to take to transform his party from an acceptable alternative to a sought-after commodity.

His cowardly reaction can only lead to more of the same.

But the idea of an “Outgames” itself smacks of stagnation. Separate but equal was the hallmark of racism’s survival in the United States in the face of human rights (the 14th Amendment). And the idea of a separate set of Olympics for LGBT athletes falls right into that segregationist premise.

It makes two mistakes: it believes that self-segregation somehow improves awareness; and that having one’s own things doesn’t hurt becoming part of an integrated community. Neither is true. What Mark Tewksbury’s sexual orientation had to do with his Olympic medals is obscure at best; and the games’ claim to “overcoming difference” through sport seems spurious if it’s designed to only include those who are differentiated from society’s norms. It emphasises the difference and suggests that they need to be separate — quite the opposite of the point intended.

So while the ability to organise and host the Outgames must be a great boost to a community which has long had to deny its identity; the objectives the games profess to seek can’t be achieved by this action — they can only be obstructed.

Which, perhaps, offers some hope for the two parties to this issue — they have something in common than they may not have supposed: a penchant for rallying to self-defeating positions.

The First Rule of Peacekeeping Club0

Posted by JJ in Vague Check, By other means. . ., Golden Tacks, Crossroads of Culture (Friday July 28, 2006 at 3:22 pm)

It’s an excellent club for politicians. They get to make peace instead of making war, and the public at home isn’t usually sure whether you or the United Nations is in charge. That makes it the best of all possible worlds for a government, which can:

  • mobilize a military response, satisfying those moderates with just a touch of warmongering bloodlust but a mortal fear of the actual sight of blood
  • work with the United Nations, satisfying those moderates keen on multilateralism but reluctant to surrender sovereign control
  • help people (people who need help!), satisfying those moderates eager do good but vaguely uncomfortable with the “hippie” politics of some NGOs and utterly ignorant of the Red Cross Society

Which can, in many countries, be a winning coalition. It’s just good politics.

Which is what, one must assume, was the point of Bill Graham’s rebuke to Stephen Harper’s musings on the UN mission in Lebanon: UNTSO. After the Israeli bombing of one UNTSO position left Canadian Major Paeta Hess-von Krudener missing and presumed dead, the Prime Minister questioned the fact that the UN observers had not been withdrawn from the area, given the severity of the conflict.

This prompted the Leader of the Opposition to call the Prime Minister’s comment “completely unacceptable”, as reported in this article:

Graham says Harper seems to have forgotten that Canada has been part of UN missions for several decades.

That seems unlikely. The Prime Minister would be somewhat less likely to ask such questions if he thought Canada had little involvement. In point of fact, questioning the effective deployment of UN forces should really be the least the government does to ensure the safety of Canadians who serve in them, as at least one former observer pointed out.

Then why object so strenuously to the Prime Minister’s reaction? Should there have been greater condemnation of the Israeli army? The Liberals’ own statement on the subject does nothing of the kind, so that seems unlikely. It can only be an attempt to stand up for peacekeeping against those who would oppose it — a conclusion supported by Graham’s complaint that support for the Israeli position undermines Canada’s reputation as a peacekeeping nation.

But criticism isn’t always destructive or wrong-headed, any more than peacekeeping is always flawed. What the Liberal Leader is really trying to do is make the connection that, by criticising the conduct of a peacekeeping mission, the Prime Minister proves himself to be against peacekeeping. It’s a variant of the “hidden agenda” argument that’s become so popular in Canada of late.

Hidden agenda theories are popular because of the recent plague of ideological arrogance that has left much of the population, like zombies, aggressive, infectious, and sorely in need of brains. The ideologue can’t comprehend that another position could be valid (or that his could be better) — things are merely right or wrong (a point which all hues of the political spectra cry foolishly). It’s simply too hard to take the fact that an issue is arguable, or that multiple answers could be right, depending on perspective.

The result of admitting no argument is that criticism and counterpoints must be invalid by definition. If so, then they can only be explained in one of two ways. Either the speaker is too stupid to understand that he can’t be right, or she’s making the point for an unknown strategic reason. That unknown reason must be the real agenda, and is divined much as the unknown reason for lightning (a panoply of powerful pushers). Of course, many people who believe in hidden agendas don’t believe that Thor makes thunder; but it might just take a bolt out of the blue for them to make the connection.

What’s worse, given the reality of its existence and the immediacy of threats, debate over the validity of peacekeeping may not be as important as debate over its execution. There are real lives engaged in the activity, and an important way to safeguard them is ensuring that they are properly commanded. It’s not like the mandate for the operation is hard to find (the group in question is presently attached to UNIFIL):

  • Confirm the withdrawal of Israeli forces from southern Lebanon
  • Restore international peace and security
  • Assist the Government of Lebanon in ensuring the return of its effective authority in the area

Which raises the question: what part of the mandate was the group expected to undertake at the time? The UN’s subsequent reorganization of the mission as much as admits the truth of the Prime Minister’s complaint. It’s nothing to suggest that the situation become unsafe following the bombing — it was already unsafe at the time of the bombing, it’s just that either:

  • Command hadn’t realised it
  • or

  • Command hadn’t acted on it

Which of the two is acceptable?

Whether the attack was intentional or not is an argument for another site — the Chilly Wonk just doesn’t know; but it’s not the same issue as a real and important question about the work being done by Canadian soldiers abroad: are the UN missions being properly managed?

The question transcends troop safety and demands to know why the mission has failed at achieving objective 2, despite its frequent reports and demands to both sides? That, too, is an important question.

Asking important questions about the conduct of peacekeeping missions doesn’t go against peacekeeping, doesn’t go against the UN, and doesn’t go against Canada. It just goes against the first rule of political choices: never make the hard argument when the facile one will do.

Broken Telephones at DFAIT*2

Posted by JJ in Vague Check, Crossroads of Culture (Thursday July 27, 2006 at 3:34 pm)

In the wake of the Canadian government’s lacklustre rescue operations in Lebanon, there is no shortage of government policies to be reconsidered. Poor communication with Canadians in Lebanon was a serious obstacle, though the problem (whether understandable or not) wasn’t confined to Canadian efforts. But the evacuees have a suggestion, and the Liberal Party of Canada thinks it’s a valid option for the reworking of official communications:

But for many Canadians in Lebanon, one of the few sources of information is relatives back in Canada.

Many Lebanese-Canadians have expressed frustration that the government chose not to take advantage of these unofficial lines of communications and make details of their plan for evacuating Canadians available to the public as soon as possible.

Liberal Consular Affairs Critic Dan McTeague agreed with this criticism.

After all, there’s no more reliable means of communicating complex instructions than by broadcasting them publicly and having people watching them call their friends and pass along the message.

Consular Affairs Critic Dan McTeague was formerly employed (before the beginning of his mindnarrowingly insider political career) as the kid who stood behind that chubby kid in the schoolyard (you know, the one who talked about sex) yelling “Yeah!” encouragingly and offering authoritative confirmation of the details by way of his Swiss friend’s father. Which helps to explain the origin of his position on the unborn, same-sex unions, and rap.

That he panders shamelessly, that is; not that he learned it from the chubby kid (who is, the Frosty Wonk is told, quite the 50 Cent fan).

Look forward, under future Minister McTeague, to a major innovation in AIDS education — the chubby kid getting federal funding for his “condoms” bit.

*DFAIT-Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, the Canadian Foreign Service

Fact is Stranger to Fiction0

Posted by JJ in Doubletake/Doubletalk, The Elephant, Crossroads of Culture (Wednesday July 26, 2006 at 8:01 am)

Those who think President Bush doesn’t devote enough time to studying the problems he faces are wrong. He doesn’t devote enough time to watching TV.

A few more hours might give him an even chance of catching reruns of “Yes, (Prime) Minister”, whose politically-minded, policy-light title character might give him pause. Or at least might make him reconsider the likes of the following remark:

“Obviously, the violence in Baghdad is still terrible, and therefore there needs to be more troops,” Mr. Bush said at the news conference, held in the East Room after a morning meeting with Mr. Maliki in the Oval Office. “Our military commanders tell me that this deployment will better reflect the current conditions on the ground in Iraq.”

And as much as facile comparisons to Vietnam should be treated with the scornful physical comedy they so richly deserve, the offering of no solution but “more troops” was one contributing factor to the removal of General Westmoreland from command of that operation. Facile solutions are just as deserving.

But physical comedy is no substitute for a word fitly spoken; and those are Sir Humphrey’s sole legacy. Just imagine how much more sound the President’s decision might have been, had he arrived before his generals bearing in mind the Cabinet Secretary’s eminently diplomatic rejoinder:

Her Majesty’s government is not convinced that having more men with guns in London would make it a safer place.

Veto 01

Posted by JJ in Bad Press, Vague Check, The Elephant (Tuesday July 25, 2006 at 9:10 pm)

Those who worry greatly about these folks’ opinions might recall a bit of controversy over the correct party date some years back. Seems that, while counting up the years, no one seemed to realise that there was never a year numbered “0″. Fortunately, this affected few people’s plans.

A more recent counting error isn’t quite so benign. Much ado (in the form of long-bated column text) was unleashed by US President Bush’s long-anticipated veto of a bill to promote stem-cell research. Some suggested that this veto represents a revealing change in his Presidency — he no longer has even enough power to control a Congress controlled by his own party.

But what might be made out to be the first real proof of Presidential contempt for the legislative branch isn’t. It’s not even the end for American stem-cell research, which will benefit from State-by-State funding in response to Federal limitations. What it points to are two more troubling trends: bad reporting and long-standing contempt.

While it’s technically true that the current President hasn’t vetoed any Acts before this one, he has produced a whole lot of signing statements — simple documents by which he indicates his intended implementation (or not) of part of an Act. By stating that he believes a certain provision (like, say, the treatment of military prisoners) to be beyond Congress’s powers, the President doesn’t have to implement it; and, barring subsequent Court action, the provision just gets ignored.

What’s the difference between that and a line-item veto? Well, the line-item veto isn’t allowed in the US. Their Supreme Court seems to think that letting the President selectively alter legislation isn’t much different from letting him legislate.

And the effect of signing statements is about the same (or likely will be found so once challenged). Sure, you could argue that there’s a slight difference in the strength of the vires argument to be raised in each case, but you’d sound not so different than someone belittling partygoers on December 31st 2000.

How different? Well, the math geek who’s worried about counting years is passionately trying to shed light on something of no earthly significance — that’s merely sad. The commentator who decries the use of the so-called veto and fails to keep track of the countless effective vetoes is missing something of tremendous political consequence — that’s pathetic.

Diplomatic Chemistry0

Posted by JJ in Bad Press, Golden Tacks, Crossroads of Culture (Thursday July 20, 2006 at 1:16 pm)

There’s a paean of sorts here to what might be called the Canadian way in the world: “scrupulous neutrality.” The importance of this tradition is clear:

For half a century Canada has taken some considerable satisfaction in its credibility as an international good fellow on matters relating to the Middle East. That status flowed directly from Lester Pearson’s volunteering of Canada for a peacekeeping role after the disastrous 1956 Suez invasion.

Canada’s role then and since then has depended on a scrupulous neutrality in an area where neutrality was almost impossible to sustain. Neither side could point to Canada and say its neutrality had been compromised, so Canada could serve as mediator or peacekeeper. No more.

It’s gloriously self-satisfying to know that Canada could have served as a mediator or peacekeeper. It might have been noble to think that it actually had; but what did Canada accomplish with fourty years of that reputation? Did it broker the Israeli-Egyptian peace agreement? Was it the pivot on which the Oslo Accords swung? Or is it, perhaps, responsible for the current state of peaceful resolution?

The nobility of Canada’s position is of a different kind. Perhaps, like blue-bloodedness, it’s a mark of inaction. Or, like the noble gases, not much happens when Canada gets together with others.

Either way, and whatever the virtue or vice of the Prime Minister’s remarks, Canada’s history in this area isn’t anything to take pride in.

Hiding in Cowardice0

Posted by JJ in Doubletake/Doubletalk, Golden Tacks (Wednesday July 19, 2006 at 1:03 pm)

While beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, art is more than just one man’s opinion. After all, it takes two to tango. But ask two grown people anything and you’re likely as not to have differing opinions on the matter. Moreso if you wait a few decades.

That’s why you won’t see any golliwogs in shop windows these days; but sometimes time isn’t the source of controversy.

Consider, for example, this mural. Entitled “Dangers of the Mail”, it shows native americans scalping and killing whites, some male, others naked and female.

The debate over whether the work has any artistic merit is one thing. The argument over whether such pieces should be preserved for historical reasons is another. And then there’s this:

“It portrays Indians as cowardly. It’s an insult,” said Mooney.

It may well be an insult, but cowardly? Really? Those figures riding bucking horses, powerfully dominating victims, and confidently exulting in bloodshed seem cowardly?

What’s racist about the piece is clear: it depicts native americans delighting in acts of violence designed to threaten and destroy order (delivery of the mail). Depicting the female victims as naked adds a dimension of innocence and possible sexual tension, brutalising and severing the violence from any valid purpose.

What’s historically accurate is also clear: native americans engaged in scalping, whether of their own initiative or otherwise; and there were some attacks on those moving across the West, but these were few and primarily responses to desecrations of sacred lands and unwanted and hostile incursions into native regions.

So the real problem is that it portrays certain historical practices, cultural and real responses to invasion and hostile acts, as unprovoked and brutal acts of violence and domination.

What’s missing, then, is the context of the history, which would serve to explain both of these things and disconnect the accurate parts of the depiction from the racist parts. That would allow what is most badly needed: an honest and self-conscious appreciation of that part of American culture which sought to justify the treatment of native americans by depicting them as barbaric aggressors.

But again, cowardly? There are certainly plenty of native american stereotypes out there, but those uses of the native as sports mascot or food spokeswoman point to the same characterization as the native’s TV incarnations: strong, plain-spoken, and spiritually connected with nature. Doesn’t anyone remember this environmental message or this lovingly-rendered European cast of aboriginal tradition?

Whether these attributes are desirable, dangerous, or stupid stereotypes may be questionable; but cowardice isn’t one of them. Should we care?

Yes. Allegations of offense need to be properly explained, not to set bars to reparation, but to make it effective. The nature of an offense clarifies where it comes from and why, lets us understand the needs that bring it into existence and attack the problem at its root. Otherwise, we allow ridiculous allegations to masquerade as genuine concerns and don’t know quite how to counteract them (this one’s easy folks, the man’s a well-known professional fiddler and player of jigs — it’s an ad hominem suggesting that he’s a frivolous musician rather than a serious leader, so if anyone’s insulted, it should be musicians of every culture).

So suggesting that a presentation of cowardice is a problem is a double insult: it’s an insult to the Muses for mistaking the confident, powerful figures that fill the mural for cowards; and it’s an insult to their father, Apollo, for shedding darkness on an inquiry that should make us better people.

Dictionary in Action - Demagogue0

Posted by JJ in Doubletake/Doubletalk (Friday July 14, 2006 at 7:39 am)

In the first of what may prove to be an ongoing series, the Frosty Wonk invites Doctor Glaucon Equipoise, QED, to illustrate the meaning of a political term using current events. Dr. Equipoise?

Grazie, Wonk. Today’s term, chers lecteurs, is demagogue:

a political leader who seeks support by appealing to popular desires and prejudices rather than by using rational argument

We are fortunate to have, in Senor Lopez Obrador, who is fiercely contesting a narrow loss in Mexico’s Presidential election, an superb example of this phenomenon in action. From a recent interview:

Mr. López-Dóriga: Where is this going to end, Andrés Manuel? How far are you going to take it?

Mr. López Obrador: To the people.

Mr. López-Dóriga: How far is that?

Mr. López Obrador: As far as the people want and decide.

Mr. López-Dóriga: But you are driving this process.

Mr. López Obrador: Yes, but we are going to drive it democratically.

Thank you, Senor Obrador. So very clear.

That, meine freunde, is all I need speak (and hope to know) of demagoguery. Until we meet again, remember what Thucydides said of Pericles’s wrestling prowess:

When I throw him and get the fall, he insists that there was no fall, and by his powers of persuasion makes the spectators, in spite of their own eyes, believe him.

The Kindness of Strangers0

Posted by JJ in Doubletake/Doubletalk, All Politics, Full-Timers (Thursday July 13, 2006 at 6:37 pm)

We all depend on others. No more foolish phrase was ever uttered than “self-made man”. Others are responsible for nearly everything around us; and even if we don’t like to be reminded of it often, there are times when we dearly ache for their help. The guilt of that dependency can be crushing, no matter how slight, because it carries with it a force of obligation, often from one least able to oblige. This is why, in one man’s opinion, it is better for the giver to know the recipient than the other way around. Any way you choose to put it, reminding people of their dependency can shame them.

Many things can be debated about the Guardian Angels, an anti-crime citizen’s group that’s become more of a movement since its origins in 1970’s New York; but what can’t be disputed is that they give. They give their time, their energy, and their efforts; and apparently, some people believe in what they’re giving.

This week, seniors at the William Denison Seniors’ Residence, a complex managed by the Toronto Community Housing Corporation, had offered to host a graduation ceremony for the first Guardian Angels group to come to their neighbourhood. It was an initiative of the residence’s security committee, which hoped that it might improve local safety. Perhaps it would, perhaps it wouldn’t. The Angels will definitely be patrolling the area; but the ceremony was stopped. Representatives of the TCHC, getting wind of the event, which had been reserved as a “security meeting”, refused to allow it to proceed. The patrol was asked to wait by security guards, then asked to leave by police, when the latter arrived.

In explanation of which, the TCHC’s chief operating officer offered the following:

“It was not transparent what the space was going to be used for,” Nakamura said, adding it violates the use of space policy. “TCHC does not sanction the Guardian Angels.”

It was a bit non-transparent, it’s true. And seniors, you know, are just like children. If you don’t keep firm boundaries, anything could happen. Why, if you don’t punish them today for misdescribing a ceremony on a booking form, tomorrow they’ll be offering you a rock music that’s really rock’n'roll. The use of space policy, incidentally, suffers from a similar lack of transparency. Although it’s frequently referenced and its name turns up many times in searches of the TCHC website, it just doesn’t seem to be there.

But at the last, Ms Nakamura comes to the point: the TCHC won’t sanction the Guardian Angels. Neither will the City — the mayor has refused to meet with them. And that might be politically astute. After all, if they’ll be there anyway, he can step back from opposing them and still please their detractors with a public snub. But who pays the shameful price of a public snubbing? Why should the TCHC believe that allowing its tenants to endorse the group would be seen as an endorsement of its own? Maybe if it tends not to think of them as independent people.

Which is the real problem laid bare. It’s in the nature of the response — the way it’s been expressed, that’s most distressing. It’s condescending, paternalistic, and demeaning to rely on the technicality of room-booking forms when the obvious reason for shutting down the meeting is the City’s distaste for its tenants’ activity, expressed by proxy. Sending the police to do what a manager could have done is equally ham-fisted. The response robbed the tenants who so eagerly acted together as a community of any illusion of control over their own lives and home; and reminded them that they live at someone else’s sufferance.

That to make a petty and political statement. We should hope that the TCHC’s board reconsiders this style of management at their next meeting and affirms that people’s homes and pride aren’t to be used as extensions of municipal policy.

A Motto Usque Ad Morons0

Posted by JJ in Vague Check (Monday July 10, 2006 at 9:24 pm)

Arctic sovereignty has finally become a major issue for Canadians. Need proof? It’s come to changing the country’s motto from “from sea to sea” to “from sea to sea to sea“. This is no time for men to sit idly by while ice breaks, the Danes invade and adorable animals die! The hour of talk is at hand! Or should it be at hands? (Hecatonchires need not apply)

Because as we all know only too well, nations are defined by their mottos:

More than symbolism, as climate change melts the North’s ice and exposes its shorelines, the newly minted motto would help Canada assert its sovereignty over the Arctic, advocates say.

More than symbolism? True — it’s symbolism that no one cares about. After all, does “I wrote down what’s mine and what’s yours” ever make a compelling case?

But if an uber-celebrity like former Governor-General Adrienne Clarkson is for it, who can resist her case:

“It’s in European terms [the old motto, that is]: You go marching across [from sea to sea],” Ms. Clarkson said in an interview. “But going up, which more and more people realize is the way we have to conceptualize ourselves, is something that should be in our motto.

“It’s much more than symbolic; it’s real,” she said. “We have overlooked the North. Or we just haven’t thought about it.”

Which does raise the question: isn’t it largely by European incursions that the whole issue of sovereignty has been raised? Is it really a European mindset that ignored the Arctic? Weren’t Europeans desperately looking for the Northwest Passage? Well, maybe she overlooked that. Or just hasn’t thought about it.

Besides which, once the motto is changed, it’ll take its proud place alongside those other compelling images on the Coat of Arms, like the unicorn, which reminds us to. . .chase virgins; or the fleur-de-lis of Quebec, which have done so much to dampen separatism; or the Lion with a crown, a maple leaf, and permed leg hair which raises our consciousness of the annual “Mr. Sugarbush” competition held in scenic Shawville. Wait. Why do we still have a Coat of Arms? Isn’t it just a bit pretentious? After all, when a professor of Medieval Latin suggests the coat of arms should go, you can be sure it’s well past its best before date.

Mottos are the most pretentious part of a modern coat of arms for one reason: the only purpose of a contemporary coat of arms is to mystify whatever it’s on with a display of anachronistic pomp. The motto could be “two female horses get it on”, or “ollie ollie all are in free”, or even “if you’re reading this — get a life” (in a dead tongue, of course) without really affecting national status, pride, or whether those darn kids give a hoot (or whatever it is they give these days). Does anyone remember when they added the second motto on a garter to an armorial bearing already so cluttered an ally might mistake it for a sad attempt at trompe l’oeil on the battlefield? Not that it’ll ever see any use that productive. . .

But setting the change aside, isn’t consciousness of the issue raised merely by the debate? Isn’t it important to do just that?

Sure it is; but it’s not just a matter of debating — it’s a matter of having something to debate. The problem is that no one is disputing the only important point being raised: that the North must be considered and protected. There seems to be agreement on that. The problem is that no one agrees on what that means, and that’s the subject on which public discussion is so sorely needed. And “getting people talking” vaguely on topic doesn’t cut it. The mere fact that people are talking doesn’t mean that they’re saying anything.

Which raises the question: why bother? Either way, why care?

Because doing this is easy and a piss-poor substitute for having real debate or taking a strong stand on Arctic sovereignty; and those proposing it seem to be presenting it as the opposite. As the Chilled Wonk has said before, if you’re going to get all high-and-mighty as an Arctic people, you should pay the land more than lip service.

The Race that Launched a Thousand Ships0

Posted by JJ in Vague Check, Strategic Planning (Thursday July 6, 2006 at 4:38 pm)

With the news that the Liberal Party might reach over 150,000 members after the leadership recruiting drive, the idea that 50,000 members will suddenly rise out of Newfoundland seems more farfetched.

Until you read the Globe and Mail’s qualification of the numbers:

Before this campaign, the Liberal Party had about 80,000 members across the country — not counting Newfoundland and New Brunswick, where the party’s lists of lifetime members are massive and wildly inaccurate.

Wildly inaccurate? That’s a fair statement, even if you just go by the numbers (as some Frosty Wonk did earlier this week). But it does raise one question:

If it’s so obvious that old membership lists are “wildly inaccurate” that the Globe and Mail doesn’t fear libel for printing what is surely an unnecessarily harsh accusation, why would the Liberal Party executive approve the use of that list as it has?

There’s an obvious justification: the rights of legitimate past members shouldn’t be compromised because of the party’s poor record-keeping.

But that’s a justification, not a reason, and it’s one that cuts both ways. After all, isn’t the net effect to jeopardize the rights of legitimate current members by opening the system up to massive abuses? There’s no trade-off evident between the two, save the utilitarian argument that there are likely more legitimate members who will be adversely affected than there are who will benefit. Isn’t that a bit insane?

Moreso when you consider how few delegates are up for grabs in Newfoundland. With seven ridings and only a handful of student and other “clubs”, those 50,000 are going to be awfully crowded when it comes time to vote for just over a dozen representatives per riding.

Of course, something else curious is going on. It’s not just Newfoundland that’s got a problem with precision. Apparently, so does New Brunswick. Now, if that doesn’t strike you as significant, it should.

The reason being that it’s the home of leadership candidate Scott Brison. You know Mr. Brison as the MP who crossed the floor to the Liberals in 2003 after running for the leadership of the Progressive Conservatives. At the time, his move was hailed as a coup, bringing the Liberals a senior Maritimer, the perfect capstone to their increasing stranglehold on that region.

But coups seldom turn out as planned. Liberal popularity in New Brunswick increased from 41 to 44 percent between 2000 and 2004, but the Grits took one seat fewer in the latter election. In 2006, the Liberals returned to six-seat level in the province, but dropped five points in total votes received. What does that mean? Nothing. Which isn’t what you expect from a political catch significant enough to merit a quick boost into Cabinet (where Mr. Brison distinguished himself in certain undistinguished ways).

So why should the state of New Brunswick Liberal record-keeping matter?

No one expects Mr. Brison to win the party leadership — that’s too far out. But if he has a strong showing in the Maritimes (being the only native candidate), there’s a good chance he’ll have a large enough contigent to swing himself a sweet deal by jumping on board with someone else. Whether that comes before or after the convention, one thing’s clear: he’s been making noises about toasted front-runner Michael Ignatieff.

Not sweet nothings, mind you. Just little hints. Brison talks Ignatieff’s talk on a few issues, not least of which is Afghanistan. At the Winnipeg debates, both took flack over their support for the Conservative motion on extending the mission. Brison has no real shot at the top, but he’s certainly hitched his wagon to a moving train before. After all, he swung over to the Liberal side after “conversations” with almost-Prime Minister Martin.

If Brison stays true to form, he may just be the first lower-rung candidate to come to Ignatieff’s side. And if things are wacky enough in the Maritime wing of the party, that might just be what it takes to get Iggy over the hump and into the leader’s office.

How many memberships do you figure that’s worth?

Just Add The Rock!0

Posted by JJ in Doubletake/Doubletalk (Monday July 3, 2006 at 3:16 pm)

Instant memberships are always a hot topic, and there’s no Liberal leadership candidate hotter than the indefatigable Joe Volpe (under the collar, at least).

Which is why it’s no surprise that a recent decision in Newfoundland to allow 50,000 outdated members to reenlist nearly three months after the deadline to qualify to vote in the leadership race has him riled up. After all, it wasn’t that long ago that Liberal Party President Mike Eizenga boasted to the press that new rules would make it hard for candidates to sign up phoney members en masse.

Apparently, it was looking too hard.

What’s that, you say? Those 50,000 were all legitimate, active members of the Liberal Party? Really?

Population of Newfoundland: 512,000 in 2001 (let’s say 550,000 when those memberships expired). That means that one in eleven Newfoundlanders (at least) was not only a member of a political party but a member of the Liberal Party.

Feasible? Well, evidence suggests that only 1% of Canadians are members of political parties. On top of which, unofficial numbers taken at the time of the Martin leadership drive suggested that the total membesrhips across Canada was nearly 450,000, with 120,000 or so of that in Ontario and 10,000 in Manitoba.

Bearing in mind that the new leadership campaign is irrelevant to the numbers (since the memberships in question weren’t issued in it), something doesn’t quite add up here. Is it likely that Ontario, a province with fifteen times as many ridings, a much greater lead in the number of colleges and universities, and more than twenty times the population would have only two-and-a-half times as many memberships sold? Is it likely that Manitoba, with twice the population, would have only one-fifth the number of members? The election results in 2004 gave the Liberals roughly the same support in Ontario and Newfoundland, and the more recent one gave them identically the same level of support in Manitoba and Newfoundland. It seems unlikely that the level of active party involvement would differ that much from support levels.

Something’s fishy; and one thing’s true about Newfoundlanders: them boys know fish.

So what’s going on? Are the dead (including dogs) rising — a la Lucio Fulci — to vote Liberal in Newfoundland? Is this just another sad example of a democratic deficit in the Liberal Party of Canada?

Does anyone want to act to preserve the party’s credibility, or is this blatant reminder of instant memberships and haughty indifference to rules going to be another dashing step on the rocky road to nowhere?

Wedding Bells (and Whistles)0

Posted by JJ in Golden Tacks (Sunday July 2, 2006 at 7:06 pm)

Marriage has always borne with pretentious addresses. Hardly a ceremony goes by without them. But it should give thanks for its extension to same-sex couples for two reasons. First, for its reengagement with romantics; and second for its divisiveness, no less sharply wielded on the communities where it is proposed than on understanding the institution itself.

However bedecked and glamorous, marriage has, at its heart, a simple quality and singular purpose. Some might point to the forging of alliances among kingdoms; but really, Greeks and Romans got married, too. Forging alliances between families? Yes and no. There’s a common element at work here; and the alliances are superficial phenomena which stem from what marriage really does: define inheritance.

The crucial characteristic that makes marriage enduring (not a marriage) is precisely this. By fixing a public announcement of union and erecting laws not only to ban extraneous sex but also inheritance by its fruits, the question of who gets to take over property, titles, and work from whom becomes far easier to answer. Whether oppressive to women or to men really isn’t the important thing to note here. Rather, it’s the stability of a social order where transitions between generations can be undertaken in an orderly way. Once society marries a couple, it expects to believe that only children born of that woman are lawful heirs of both her and her spouse. With enough midwives, attendants, friends, and what have you, the system works pretty well.

But of course, how well it works or not depends on how well you sell it, which is why it is laden so with mystical significance, costly rites, and pomp, pomp, pomp. It’s an old, established rule (see Plato’s Laws — by no means the oldest possible source) that nothing butresses social norms like impressive public rituals; and that’s the romantic hook. Don’t mistake a Frosty Wonk for a Chill Spectre — it’s no hoodwink. It’s just that everyone wants valuable things and nothing looks as valuable as something that everyone else values. So public ritual has a multiplying effect: the more you add, the more important marriage becomes, the more desirable it becomes to have all that attention lavished on a young couple, and so on until infinity.

But the pomp itself has nothing to do with the institution. Christians may call on God to bless their marriages, but can’t possibly suggest that the Church came up with the idea. It’s just one of the more recent forms of ritual to bolster this ancient custom.

And that’s what’s so surprising about the Court rulings on gay marriage in Canada. Not that they support it, but why: finding that marriage serves an important social purpose.

Through this institution, society publicly recognizes expressions of love and commitment between individuals, granting them respect and legitimacy as a couple. This public recognition and sanction of marital relationships reflect society’s approbation of the personal hopes, desires and aspirations that underlie loving, committed conjugal relationships. This can only enhance an individual’s sense of self-worth and dignity.

Surely so much money, attention to things like bigamy, polygamy, adultery, and bastardry could only stem from society’s desire to recognise expressions of love and commitment. Or maybe society just gets really angry if it bets on the wrong horse (or brace thereof). But this is no piece for cynics. Having seen Parliament’s attempt at romanticism, it’s nice to know that at least one Canadian institution is filled with daydream believers and homecoming queens — even if they’re always in mourning.

Which is what makes the push for same-sex marriage such a romantic gesture — it’s about the allure of the bells and whistles. But that brings serious problems. The Courts’ imposition of same-sex marriage did everything to attach the binding legal force of marriage without providing those entering it with the exempting savings of divorce — a right which in itself took long to establish (something about man being insufficient to put it asunder, but that couldn’t be right — wasn’t it man that put it together?) And these protections had still to be put into place. Which is why the Court’s judgement simply wasn’t enough to provide same-sex couples with equal rights. Legislation was needed; and the government obliged — when pressed by the opposition.

But let’s hope that those who fought for gay marriage with bells and whistles in their minds (and love in the hearts — don’t deny it) aren’t mislead by the same things when brandished by politicians. Those Liberals who will fight so bravely against Harper’s motion for a motion were too timid to proceed themselves without asking the Supreme Court for marching orders (that pesky fourth question), which the Court wisely took as an opportunity to tell them to get a pair:

12 Question 4 raises other concerns. While it possesses the requisite legal content to be justiciable, it raises considerations that render a response on this reference inappropriate, as discussed more fully below.

The government has clearly accepted the rulings of lower courts on this question and has adopted their position as its own. The common law definition of marriage in five provinces and one territory no longer imports an opposite-sex requirement.

68 There is no precedent for answering a reference question which mirrors issues already disposed of in lower courts where an appeal was available but not pursued.

Translation? “If you wanted to find out, you should have had the courage to appeal the lower-court decisions that got you into this situation, despite the fact that it would have meant arguing against same-sex marriage. Can’t try to look good that way then come before the Supreme Court and ask us to play the bad guys to keep your noses clean. Wusses. (or as close as you come in judicial parlance)”

Similarly, the Conservatives so brazenly suggesting that the work be undone offer up a vote to their supporters which they know they can’t win: a free vote where the NDP and BQ are against them, the bulk of the Liberals opposed, and a few of their own members unwilling to say yes.

Ignore the bells and whistles. What, for society, are precious reminders of the binding force of committment, are in these men’s hands cheap baubles with which they hope to lure unwary romantics of every stripe.

A Day for Canada0

Posted by JJ in Golden Tacks (Saturday July 1, 2006 at 4:44 pm)

While you’re relaxing today (or driving yourself around like a dervish to celebrate properly), take a moment to think about the history behind Canada.

After a complicated enough history, four of the remaining British colonies north of the United States were amalgamated in 1867. Almost immediately, regrets and reservations were voiced. Separatism and cries to justify the union of ten far-flung and disparate provinces have not ceased, even after 139 years of somtimes tentative cooperation.

Far too often, the response to these arguments comes from a nationalism as vacant and devoid of purpose as that imagined Americanism against which a Canadian identity is so very often established. There is an identity, Canadians are assured, and it rests in multiculturalism and how the world perceives Canada. To the first claim, little charitable can be said; to the second, nothing does it like “d’uh”. If it’s social programmes you’re thinking of, does that make Canadians Swedes without a shared history, language, or culture?

But this is no reason for discontent or for false bravado. 139 years may be, and likely is, far too little time to pass to expect a national identity with the strength of those born in revolution (United States) or those whose visible monuments mark their age in centuries (England) or millenia (Greece). It is no shame to be grappling still with the adolescent fantasy of perfection, no matter how Canada’s younger cousins fare (Barbados, Australia).

What must be done is not to seek out a unifying vision in things past, for history will be found always to already bind the present. Canadians must find a reason to move on together — a way to use the strengths of their diversity, geography, history, and humanity to good ends.

The answer to separatism of every kind is not to deny the validity of its criticisms, nor to terrify its adherents with visions of what might have otherwise been. It is, simply, to say and to show what this strength may yet produce. That would be something to be proud of, and a worthy task for another 139 years of Canadians and their country.