Archive for the ‘debate’ Tag

Rants. A Long, Vaguely Coherent Rant.

I feel a rant coming on. And I think I’m just going to run with it – to purge out everything that might come out, so if this reads like a rambling stream of consciousness type post, well, either enjoy, or don’t read, whatever suits.

Dear America:

What the hell is wrong with you people? How are your election campaigns this… disturbing?

I’ve been trying to understand the mindset of the Republican voter for a very long time, especially in the context of the red/blue state thing. I don’t get it. I can’t wrap my head around it at all. The only way that Republicans can get any support, obviously, is by getting people who are so poorly informed that they can’t see that their interested are not represented by the GOP to vote for them. I guess xenophobia, scapegoating of the poor, and outright lying really do work. And it’s amazing, as an outsider, to see it happen. Nothing stuns me more than watching the right rail against the “liberal media”, which is just a giant myth that they’ve created. In their mind, in their narrative, “liberal media” means any outlet that will not simply spin a story exactly the way they want it. They seem to lack a basic understanding of what actual journalism, which I think is a dying art, is all about – to look at the story from as many angles as possible and to report it accurately. There’s no such thing as “conservative news” or “liberal news”. Or rather, there shouldn’t be.

I console myself a bit by realizing that generally, the worst of the commentators (regardless of their alignment on whatever political spectrum you want to use) are really only ever preaching to the choir. If you’re listening to the screed of the likes of Rush Limbaugh, it’s not like you’re an informed, intelligent, politically pragmatic character. In all likelihood, you’re listening to him, because the message – the racist, anti-woman, xenophonic, right wing message is already something you believe. I’d like to think that a rational person hearing Limbaugh for the the first time would simply laugh and say, “What’s this guy’s problem?” or dismiss it as some sort of poorly executed satire. But I guess I’d be wrong.

To me, though, it makes no sense why their ideas would get support. The reality of conservatism is that it absolutely needs low information voters. It needs ignorant, easily manipulated minds who can be sold a vision of an alternate reality that they then think voting Republican (or any conservative party, since it could happen anywhere, it’s just the USA is such a great ilustrator, and probably the worst case of  it) will actually give them access to this world. Americans, as I understand it, grow up believing in the “American Dream”, the idea that hard work will make you successful. The grow up with the idea that they can become one of the so-called “one-percent” if they just work hard at it. It’s a lie. Well, not totally. They may well just end up lucky, but most of those people, they come from old money. The best way to become rich and powerful in the USA is to be born into it. Joe Sixpack, the ignorant, Rush-listening trailer trash living in the backwoods of Georgia? It’s not going to happen for him. And voting Republican, as he likely does, is only going to help ensure it doesn’t happen for his kids, or their kids.

Conservatives, for all their bluster about hard work, initiative, and personal responsibility, seem to view the working family as some kind of parasite, or drain on the system. This has never been put out more clearly to the American electorate than last week when Romney’s “47%” video emerged. Who are those 47% who don’t pay taxes? Senior citizens who paid taxes all their working lives and now are living on the Social Security they contributed to. Young families who’ve availed themselves of tax credits and other fiscal incentives to keep them prosperous (which were lauded by the likes of St. Ronnie Raygun himself), and people who work for minimum wage or just above it – the people who clean your schools and offices, who work unskilled labour jobs, who serve you food, do your laundry, pump your gas, and so on. These people are the invisible underclass on which the prosperity of the richest depends.

I don’t want to start sounding Marxist or anything, because I’m not. In broad terms, capitalism, individual initiative, and free markets have for the most part been responsible for providing those of us lucky to live in the industrialized world the great standard of living that we have. In fact, even many of the poorest dregs of American society are still far, far better off than most of the world. I’ve been in Afghanistan for almost eight months now. Think you’ve seen poverty? Think again. And things here aren’t even as terrible as they are in some places in the world. The concept of a social safety net, as miserable an existence as they may well be in North America, does not exist in most of the world. People starve to death, freeze to death, try to eke out some sort of existence in most of the world. However, there’s a definite class division. And the idea of social mobility – that you can earn your way into the sort of upper crust that goes to $50,000/ticket fundraisers to hear politicians mock half the population of a country? That’s a fairy tale. It’s possible, but so unlikely that you’re better off trying to win the lottery. And on that subject, winning the lottery only proves the point more. Even having money can’t get you into that circle. If you didn’t have the right parents, go to the right schools, and so on, that’s a world that simply is not open to you.

That’s not to say there’s no point to working hard. My father was an immigrant. Granted, he came from England, and was likely a few steps ahead of immigrants today – he looked like Canadians, spoke the same language (albeit accented), and shared a cultural heritage with them. But he came to Canada with a few dollars, a job offer, and that’s about it. He didn’t have an advanced education. Never went to university. He left school as a teenager and started working, and realized that England in the 1960s was a bleak place. He got married, worked, saved, had a family, and is now enjoying a modest retirement. Well, less modest than many. While I was growing up (I’m 32 now), most of my friends’ mothers didn’t need to work for their family to enjoy a decent standard of living – or worked part-time, as my mother did. It was not the norm as it is now. I went to school with many children of very recent immigrants – tradesmen, many of them, or autoworkers. They worked hard and pushed their kids hard to succeed so they could have a better life. And it seems, mostly, like that worked. Now I have to wonder.

That said, the days of going and getting a good paying job without a lot of education seem to be gone. North America is deindustrializing. It’s no shock. The industrial revolution has spread to the developing world, and with cheaper labour costs, it simply doesn’t make sense not to globally rationalize production. That leaves North America (and perhaps, to a lesser extent, Europe, as manufacturing seems to remain very viable in countries like Germany) to figure out what to do next, economically. Here, we should be focused on what we’ve always been good at – innovation, development of new, better ways to live life and do things, invention, research, and developing knowledge-based industries. If we don’t stay ahead of the curve there, we’re going to be in for a world of hurt. It’s often noted that Chinese and Indian universities are churning out engineers at a far higher rate than North America, and soon, innovation will all come from them. That giant underclass? It’ll become all of us, because you can’t base an economy on selling hamburgers to each other (I can’t remember who I got that line from, but it’s not original, and if you know, let me know so I can attribute it properly).

How does a party manage to succeed on a platform that’s entirely based on ideas that not only have failed in the past, but that don’t even sound reasonable or logical?! Romney’s “platform” seems entirely based on the same tired ideas. “Let’s give big tax cuts to rich people, so that they’ll create more jobs.” Of course, since he is one of those plutocrats, who was born into the right family and is insufferably out of touch with the average American, he’s going to benefit from that, but let’s leave that aside. Why do people think that this will work? Even if there’s any merit to the Laffer Curve, the concept the idea is based on – it all depends where on that curve (it’s actually a parabola) you are. There’s no reason to believe it will work all the time.

And then there’s the GOP’s ideas about healthcare. They clearly live in a dreamworld. Only what, yesterday(?) Romney actually said something like, “Everyone has access to healthcare, they can go the ER.” The most expensive form of care available, only available as a last-ditch intervention? This is a brilliant plan. So our folks (30+ million of them) who don’t have health insurance are expected to go get emergency treatment. Then they’ll get the staggering bill, and they won’t pay. So who picks up the cost of this incredibly expensive, too late care? Everyone. Because prices go up while hospitals try to recoup the cost.

This. Makes. No. Sense.

This is the whole problem in the healthcare debate. You want to save money? Make sure everyone has access to care, to good, effective, preventative care. That won’t guarantee that everyone will use it, but over time, it will save money. It works in pretty much every other industrialized country, since they all manage to spend less public money on healthcare, and yet insure everyone.

But we’re not seeing this discussion in American politics. Instead, we’re talking about personhood, slut-shaming, and how ridiculous the idea of improving access to contraceptives is. All bullshit issues. And all generally aimed at women, who it seems conservative men seem to think they can make decisions for. Again, common sense should prevail. Oh, you’re pro-life (read: antichoice)? Don’t like abortion? Great, then why don’t you get behind making comprehensive sexual health education available to everyone, and access to contraceptives simple. That will reduce the demand for abortions! But of course, this doesn’t make sense to these people. They’d rather try to push “personhood amendments” and actually seem to believe that criminalizing abortion (which they’re not helping demand for by making it harder for people to prevent pregnancy!) will make it go away, instead of pushing it into shadows with real consequences to those who decide they have no other option. Nonsense. Sheer lunacy.

This brings me back to my original question. Who the hell supports these people and why? Why is it that the “47%”, who overwhelmingly seem to live in Red States which mooch federal tax money off of Blue States, are voting for a party which seems to despise them. What do they see being offered to them? What is to gain for them in supporting a party that thinks that people who find themselves unemployed, or who want to further their education but don’t have rich parents to fund it for them, or who are raising a family are just freeloaders? And that “47%”? It’s not a static population. It’s fluid. People pass through periods of unemployment for brief moments, generally. They may get tax credits for having kids and learning lower income for other brief moments. In fact, I’d wager the only people who stay in that bracket a long time are senior citizens, availing themselves of benefits they paid toward for their entire working lives.

The Red/Blue thing always makes me laugh. Want to piss off a rabid Red State Republican? Highlight that California subsidizes their state. They love to rant about how California is “broke”. At the state level, their fiscal position is a mess, thanks in large part to stupid populist ideas like Proposition 13, but also due to some of the demographic challenges they face. And yet, they send far more money into the Federal Treasury than they get back. Where does that federal tax revenue go? To prop up Red States. This is the perverse fiscal reality. And if they don’t believe you, there’s myriad sources that will support it. From notoriously liberal sources. Like, er, The Economist. In fact, just Google. There’s plenty of sources.

So what’s the way forward? The way I see it, it’s pretty simple. First, drop this horseshit talk about yet another war. Sorry right-wing Americans, you don’t get to complain about the national debt (by the way, You Built That!) while at the same time crying for war with Iran to protect the interests of a third party. Wars are incredibly expensive, which is why the Bush Administration was so keen to keep the Iraq War off the budget books. And stop talking about “uncertainty” as though electing a plutocrat who doesn’t have a plan is going to fix that. What is dragging down the economy is demand slumps. It’s pretty simple. People who feel unsure about their future employment prospects put off purchases because they don’t want to deplete their savings, or they don’t want to take on more debt for them. Less demand means companies need less labour, which causes unemployment to grow. It’s a rather vicious circle.

So, what can be done? Well, let me take you back to Macroeconomics 101. We start with a simple equation:

Y = C + I + G + NX

Y is GDP (or national income, more technically, in some books). C is consumption (consumer spending). I is investment – capital investment, essentially. G is government spending. NX is net exports. Pretty simple identity.

That whole thing also can be used to assess something called Aggregate Demand. That’s what’s dragging down the US economy. And probably a lot of other places. So how to we spur more demand? How do we make people feel more confident to open their wallets and buy durable goods, or go out to dinner more, or travel, or otherwise just put money into the economy? What could be done?

Well, the US (and everywhere else) has something called an Infrastructure Deficit – that is, a valuation placed on the amount of work needed to be done to maintain or upgrade infrastructure. Roads, bridges, railways, ports, all sorts of things. All these things are vital to the function of the economy. Remember “you didn’t build that”? The out-of-context remark that the GOP seized on? Among other things, like education, President Obama was talking about that infrastructure. In the United States, this deficit is in the trillions. So, let’s flesh this out. What would happen if the government, instead of handing yet more tax cuts to the rich, instead plowed money closing this gap?

Yes, they’d have to borrow the money. But that’s not manifestly evil. Hell, if the Republicans are cool with borrowing money to go to war, they should be cool with borrowing money to invest in economic growth. And if not, well, why listen to them?

Doing this work would require the employment of a large number of people. Some of the jobs will be unskilled, simple construction jobs, and to jobs producing raw materials. Some will go to engineers, skilled tradesmen, etc. Regardless, that will put money in people’s pockets. They’ll feel some security, and they’ll start spending money. They’ll eat out occasionally. They’ll buy coffee while they work, beers on Friday night. They might actually feel secure enough to buy a new car, or replace their washing machine.

And then something awesome kicks in. It’s called the multiplier. See, each of those businesses that those workers are now patronizing, they’re seeing demand. They’re making money. And they’re either paying wages to workers they need, or maybe it’s a sole proprietor who now too feels some security to start spending a little. Estimates on the size of the multiplier vary, but somewhere between 1.25-1.40 seem common. So gradually this growth in demand will becomes self-sustaining. As the infrastructure deficit closes, you’ve got some demand that’s replacing it.

But why’d I put that equation up? Well, the “I” is often the problem. Critics of stimulus will readily point out that private capital investment can be “crowded out” by government spending. Except that right now, “I” is low. Firms are sitting on their cash because they don’t see much value in investing in capital they don’t need. So crowding out isn’t likely to be a real problem. There’s just not much to crowd out.

Doing this – basically Keynesianism – requires an understanding that the money borrowed now equals future obligations to be collected through the tax system. That’s where Keynesianism breaks down for people – and why I argue it’s never actually been done – Keynes said that spending to stimulate the economy in bad times was important – but he also highlighted that you need to use the surpluses in boom times to retire that debt or save for the next bust. That doesn’t happen. Surpluses in Canada were used to give tax cuts to people (with little stimulative effect) instead of to retire the national debt back before the last big crash. Then the government made some big stimulus investments and leveled the economy out, but ran massive deficits that are harder to recoup because raising taxes is a lot less easy to do.

If we actually had an informed citizenry, this might be something that could be debated, discussed, shaped into something resembling a plan that most reasonable people could support. Then, if the US had a legislature that actually cared about doing its job rather than just trying to jockey for position in the next election (again, not likely), maybe they could actually work together to craft a solution and push it through. I’m pretty sure what the vaunted but oft-misquoted or misrepresented Founding Fathers were going for looked a lot more like that than that blind partisanship to the detriment of the national interest that pervades ow.

Unfortunately, I’m too cynical to believe that’s actually possible. I know that Joe Redneck Sixpack will not be swayed from his moronic talking points, because thinking for himself requires an effort he’s not prepared to make. I know that the media won’t be able to sway people either. And I know that most people just won’t put the thought it takes to write something like this into choosing which box to put the X in or what lever to pull or however it is you folks decide elections, so we’re stuck with a system that’s horribly broken. Or are we?


The Long Gun Registry Is About To Die

The one thing that I was happy about when the Conservatives won a majority in the last federal election was that they would finally be able to get on with their long-standing promise to abolish the long gun registry. The registry, a massive white elephant, is quite possibly the most useless piece of legislation that was ever conceived of in this country, in that it was a knee-jerk reaction to a perceived problem, which has been patently ineffective at dealing with the problem. Add to that it was a massively expensive program, costing far more than it ever was claimed it would, and really delivering nothing in return for the money.

I’m hoping that the money saved might be diverted to programs that might actually deal with gun violence effectively.

What makes me laugh – and cry – is simply this: the chief defenders of the program are basically totally ignorant of anything to do with firearms, and thus generally are woefully unable to discuss anything about them. They cannot make any significant intellectual arguments in the matter. They instead would like to paint Canadian gun owners as a bunch of nuts who want no laws at all, which is frankly completely ridiculous. Most realize that owning firearms is a great responsibility and a privilege, and that some manner of legal controls are necessary in the interest of society. That’s why we have mandatory safety training, licensing systems, and we make certain types of firearms harder to own and use. Of course, some of those restrictions are rather silly (like the restriction on any AR15 derivative, while similar firearms that aren’t “black and scary” aren’t restricted), but in all, most are not unduly onerous.

What I’d like to see, now that it looks like the LGR is done, is some of those resources directed instead to things that might work – better education, diversion programs to keep kids away from things like gangs and crime, and hey, I’m cool with better licensing rules and more intensive application processes to screen out more problems. In the rare event that legal gun owners commit crimes with their firearms (like, for example, Dawson College shooter Kimveer Gill), I have to wonder if a more thorough investigation of applicants for firearms licenses would have kept them from buying the guns in the first place.

On Marriage Equality

It was fascinating to follow the saga of equal marriage legislation in New York, particularly after a series of Twitter exchanges with people, most of whom opposed the concept. One in particular was pure comedy gold for the way he tried to present his argument against allowing LGBT people to marry.

In Canada, gay marriage became legal several years ago – if I remember right, in 2004, following a fairly long battle. It wasn’t a legislated thing, really, it was actually the product of court challenges, and creative efforts to circumvent existing laws. Without doing a ton of research, it was actually a church serving Toronto’s Gay Village that started the push by realizing they could use an old concept called publication of the banns to get around the need for a marriage license which couldn’t be issued to gay couples in the Province of Ontario. Once Ontario had equal marriage, other provinces eventually followed suit. The history, though, isn’t the point. The debate is.

Before this all happened, I guess I fell into the “defend traditional marriage camp” to a certain extent. It wasn’t that I had any particular interest in denying anyone any rights, but I think the way I saw it was “give them all the legal rights, etc, but call it something else. That to me was a rational position at the time.

Then I started to wonder why that mattered – why does the same matter? It doesn’t really. It’s a term to which we as a society attach some value, even if it’s just a semantic value, but it’s in no way compromised by allowing LGBT people to marry. In fact, what I came to realize fairly quickly is that whatever it was called, whatever it was, it didn’t matter to me. At all. If a gay couple can get married, its impact on my life is absolutely zero. If they can’t, however, there is an impact because it means I live in a society that accepts some manner of discrimination based on an inalienable feature of a person. That isn’t good.

What I’ve come to now is the realization that there simply are no good arguments to discriminate against LGBT people. It’s pointless. It’s stupid. It’s wrong.

The fact that it’s stupid is what trumps everything. I simply can’t get over the depth of stupidity that comes with all of the arguments made by homophobes. It’s not like they have intelligent arguments that can be debated. They’re just idiotic.

They claim that allowing gays to marry will destroy the sanctity of marriage – the sanctity that leads to half of marriages failing, you say? Okay, whatever. They seem to suggest that it’s some kind of harbinger of societal downfall. Really? In Canada, it’s done nothing of the sort. In fact, more people couldn’t care less, it’s not a debate that anyone hears anymore. The deal is done, and everyone’s moved on.

Then it gets into other absurdities. Gays can’t reproduce so they shouldn’t be allowed to marry since marriage is for procreation. Okay, well, what about all the straight couples that can’t have children? Or choose not to? I’ve absolutely no interest in having children, and yet I’m married. Does my childfree marriage in any way impact someone else’s? No. Not at all. It’s pretty simple.

Then you get into more ridiculous arguments, like “slippery slopes”, suggesting that somehow there will be a broad push to expand the definition of marriage more. Why? Marriage is still between two consenting adults, no major, realistic effort exists to change that. It’s also not something most people will accept, whereas SSM isn’t really controversial, or shouldn’t be. I also found some other bizarre arguments – some moron on twitter named @WordGuru seemed (in a ridiculously long winded blog post) to believe that gay people getting married would subject him to some sort of outbreak of public gay sex (interestingly, he didn’t have an issue with lesbians), somehow stripping him of his right to be “free of perversion”. Well, I’m confident that won’t actually happen, because again, it hasn’t here.

See what I’m getting at? No one has made a single, decent argument against gay marriage that I can consider worthy of any intelligent debate. It’s really something that there’s no reason to find controversy over. Allowing equal marriage rights just makes sense.

My Early Musings on #elxn41

So, the 41st Canadian Federal Election is now passed into history, with some results that are simply described as historic. Conservative Stephen Harper finally won his long coveted majority government, winning 167 of the 308 seats in the Canadian House of Commons with 39.6% of the popular vote. The Bloc Quebecois was all but extirpated, wining just 4 seats as Quebec voters shifted their support to the New Democratic Party primarily. This was the shocker – the NDP for the first time becomes the Official Opposition, winning 102 seats and 30.6% of the popular vote. The Liberal Party of Michael Ignatieff was walloped as well, falling to just 34 seats with 18.9% of the popular vote. Another interesting twist, the Green Party’s leader, Elizabeth May, won her riding of Saanich-Gulf Islands, giving them their first ever seat in Parliament.

Not shockingly, as is the custom in Canadian politics, both Ignatieff and Gilles Duceppe of the Bloc resigned. Neither of them won their seats, either, so it is fairly safe to say their Canadian political careers are more or less over.

It seems the results shocked a lot of people – it certainly surprised me because I had figured most of the polls I was watching were fairly accurate, and they were suggesting a Conservative minority. That to me was probably the only palatable option.

This election seems to be an excellent demonstration of why the First-Past-The-Post system isn’t great, but it is worth reminding Canadians upset about the results that the last time a Canadian election was won by a leader who got more than 50% of the popular vote was in 1958 when John Diefenbaker was re-elected. Even Pierre Trudeau never got over that hurdle. The popular vote is essentially irrelevant, it’s where the votes are cast that mattered. In the 40th Parliament, for example, the NDP had double the Bloc’s share of popular vote count in the 2008 Federal Election, yet 11 fewer seats. While the Greens took almost 4% of the popular vote they got one seat of 308.

I used to think that FPTP was great because it allowed for majorities that could actually “get things done”, but I think they as parties become more polarized, the sort of “permanent minority government” status that some form of proportional representation would create is becoming more attractive to me. It is the fear of this that had Stephen Harper’s attack ad machine cranking out the fear of coalitions, because if Canadians came to believe they worked, then Harper’s Conservatives, who lie to the right of the ideas of most Canadians, would never, ever be able to get a majority.

With his majority, Harper will probably get to work right away on his priorities, passing the budget introduced before the election and a series of law and order bills which contain some ideas that, having been failures in the US already, are idiotic. Things like building new prisons when crime rates are falling don’t make a lot of sense. I don’t see a bright future for Canada under a Conservative majority sadly (or under any majority, for that matter), so hopefully I’ll be proven a pessimist. In the meantime, I’m going to start dusting off all the stuff I have about PR systems, and get involved in consigning FPTP to history.

On Afghanistan

I got into a brief Twitter chat with someone today about Afghanistan, and I think it prompted me to write a bit on my perceptions of how the Afghanistan experience has impacted Canada – impacted me personally, my family, my friends, and the sense I have of its impact on Canadians broadly based on my observations.

I remember exactly where I was on September 11, 2001. I was in third year university, living in a house with three friends. That Tuesday morning, I was awoken by one of my housemates just after the first plane hit the World Trade Center, and I managed to collect myself and get out of my room in time to see the second hit. I spent the rest of that day watching television, trying to figure out what happened and what was going to be done about it. That night, being an Officer Cadet in the Canadian Forces Reserve at the time, I headed off to my Armoury and down to a meeting previously scheduled which was overtaken by discussion about the topic. Later I sat in the Junior Ranks Mess of my home garrison with various other people, and I said, “We will all remember where we were this day.” As we watched replay after replay of planes hitting the Twin Towers, I then thought, “This is our Zapruder film.”

Canada eventually sent a battle group built around the 3rd Battalion, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry Battle Group (3VP BG) to Kandahar to help destroy Al Qaeda’s safe havens in Afghanistan and rout the Taliban regime which had mostly controlled that failed state and provided that haven. It didn’t make a lot of news until April 18, 2002, when two USAF pilots bombed a 3VP group training at the Tarnak Farms Range Complex near Kandahar Airfield, killing four Canadians: Sgt Marc Leger, Cpl Ainsworth Dyer, Pte Richard Green, and Pte Nathan Smith and severely wounding eight more. The outcome of the inquiry into the event would be a massive post in itself, but suffice it to say that not only was it basically the end of the USAF pilots’ careers, but one received a stinging reprimand for his dishonourable conduct in trying to evade responsibility for a decision that was in no way justifiable. In short, he claimed that he acted in self-defence, but he actually turned back to drop the bomb after being well out of danger and was not cleared to attack.

The Patricia deployment wrapped up without any further casualties, and the follow on was a deployment built around the 3rd Battalion, The Royal Canadian Regiment Battle Group (3 RCR BG). They went to Kabul, established a large camp (Camp Julian) and got to work on local security and some of the foundational work on establishing Afghan National Security forces – new Army, Air Force, and Police for the country. Things went fairly smoothly. There were no casualties reported until October 2, 2003, when what we would come to know as an “IED” or landmine blast struck a patrol traveling in an Iltis jeep in Kabul, killing Sgt Robert Short and Cpl Robbie Beerenfenger. When a suicide bomber killed Cpl Jamie Murphy three months later, a national debate began about the adequacy of the equipment Canadian soldiers were being sent to Afghanistan with. The Iltis jeep, a small, unarmoured patrol vehicle long due for replacement became a focus in the media, but many, many other items were viewed as deficient and the Liberal government of Jean Chretien began spending a lot more money on improvements.

Canada’s mission in Afghanistan stayed relatively quiet until the summer of 2005, when it was decided to redeploy the force from the relatively stable capital of Kabul to the restive province of Kandahar, one of the strongholds of the Taliban, to which 3VP were initially deployed back in 2002. Settling into Kandahar Airfield, Canadian soldiers began to become involved in a lot more “outside the wire” work, doing battle with insurgents in Kandahar’s vineyards, orchards, and fields. The Panjwaii District, located along the Arghandab River west of Kandahar City, was one of the Canadian Areas of Responsibility. Panjwaii would become a name known to many Canadians starting in 2006 when the fighting became much more intense, and Canadian casualties began to mount starting in the spring of 2006.

The only other deaths before then were road traffic accidents, a sad hazard of any place, but losses grieved no differently.

The first casualty of fighting was Pte Robert Costall, a member of the 1st Battalion, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry (1VP). Costall’s deal was later revealed to likely have been a friendly fire incident during a pitched gun battle with insurgents. On April 22, 2006 a roadside bomb blew up a Mercedes-Benz G-Wagen, one of the vehicles bought to replace the Iltis jeeps that had been so controversial, killing four Canadians. May 17th saw something new to Canadians – a female Forward Observation Officer from the 1st Regiment of Royal Canadian Horse Artillery (1 RCHA), Captain Nichola Goddard, was killed by a rocket propelled grenade which struck her LAV-3 while she was calling in artillery during an offensive operation. She was the first Canadian officer to die in Afghanistan, and the first female combat casualty in Canadian history.

It became clear to Canadians that we were in quite a fight and there was a real cost – I think, from my recollection, it was Capt Goddard’s death that hit home for many.

Through the summer and into the fall of 2006, fighting in Panjwaii was intense. August 3 saw a fierce fighting kill four members of 1VP, and fighting during September was similarly costly. September 2, 2006 saw the 1st Battalion, The Royal Canadian Regiment Battle Group (1 RCR BG) launch Operation MEDUSA, a major effort to drive the Talian out of Zhari and Panjwaii districts. 1 RCR suffered the single worst day of the war to date for Canada, September 3, 2006. That day, four fell, including two Warrant Officers and an Engineer Sergeant very experienced NCOs, and many others were injured. The following day, a friendly fire airstrike hit members of 8 Platoon, Charles Company, 1 RCR, killing Pte Mark Graham and injuring several others, one of whom was a close friend of mine. The Crazy Eights, and indeed Charles Company itself, was rendered basically combat ineffective at that point. MEDUSA ultimately was a tactical victory for ISAF, but at a cost.

And so it went from there. I could recap the ensuring campaigns, but that’s not really the point. Following 2006, things became much more dangerous in Afghanistan, and many more would fall. April 2007 saw a massive bomb kill six Canadians, a feat the Taliban would repeat in July of that year. Most were due to pernicious improved explosive devices, planted by a cunning and crafty enemy that studied our tactics and learned how to defeat them. I did want to actually stick to my original concept for this, to try to make some observations on how the public responded to the events, and how it changed their view of the CF.

Many Canadians held a sort of romanticized view of the Canadian Peacekeeper – a UN Blue Beret-sporting friendly sort of armed Boy Scout off to try to save the world in various places, standing between disputing parties to keep them from fighting. Canada basically invented the concept in response to the 1956 Suez Crisis, the idea of a neutral party keeping to sides in a conflict who genuinely wanted peace apart while they learned to trust each other. Canadians patrolled the divided island of Cyprus for many years in this role, among other places. A TV commercial, a “Heritage Moment”, played up this cultural myth. When the world watched the horror of the meltdown of Yugoslavia, it was Canadians in blue helmets who raced off to Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina to try to stop the bloodshed there.

However, two black marks would come to influence that view dramatically, the failure of the world community to prevent genocide in Rwanda, and a series of incidents in Somalia in 1993 which overshadowed anything else the Canadian contingent deployed there did – a small number of soldiers from a unit riddled with leadership and discipline problems engaged in some atrocious crimes, then tried to conceal them, which failed. In what one writer (regrettably, I can’t remember his name) referred to as a “great act of self-effacement”, the unit involved, the Canadian Airborne Regiment, was disbanded completely, even though most of its members from that era had since moved on. These events certainly cast a pall on the view that many Canadians took of soldiers – in cases they were harassed, even told not to commute to and from work in uniform lest they be recognized according to some stories I’ve heard.

Around the same time, the Liberal government of Jean Chretien came to power and set upon wrestling the great deficit dragon that threatened Canada. When I talk to Americans and Britons about the fiscal challenges their countries face, I am proud to tell them that we went through this before, and it eventually gets better. Chretien began a program of slashing spending, including cashing in the so-called “peace dividend”, downsizing the Canadian Forces and its budget. This came to be referred to by many as the “decade of darkness”, a phrase made most popular by the charismatic Chief of Defence Staff, General Rick Hillier, who made it public. Through the 1990s, bases closed, including the mass movement of 1 RCR from London, Ontario to Petawawa, Ontario, and the closure of Canadian bases in Europe. Little was invested in training or equipment.

The sun began to come out through some unusual circumstances, according to many of the stories I’ve heard – the Red River Floods in Manitoba in 1997 and the Ice Storm in Ontario & Quebec in 1999 were emergencies where Canadian military personnel came out in droves to help communities, and suddenly people began to think more warmly about the military. It was again possible to wear the uniform with pride. It was shortly after this that I, a university student, presented myself at the Canadian Forces Recruiting Centre in the spring of 2000 to apply to join the Reserve. I was sworn in January of 2001 as an infantry Officer Cadet, beginning a journey which would become a defining feature of my adult life.

Prior to 9/11, no one really noticed us much. We were just ordinary people it seemed. After that, particularly when Canada got involved in Afghanistan, people actually started to take a little more notice. We started to actually have people approach us in public to say “thanks” and acknowledge us, people started paying for our coffee at Tim Hortons, things like that – all wonderful gestures, if a little awkward.

If you’re reading this as an American, understand that the sort of “aggressive” flag-waving patriotism and love of the military that you’d consider normal does not generally exist in Canada. Canadians tend to be much more reserved, to the point that we often find the contrast frankly uncomfortable. The attention was a little weird for many people.

Something else happened, though. Something so incredible that no one would have anticipated it, and what made it so amazing is that it emerged from nothing, as just an idea of ordinary people that caught on.

When a Canadian soldier is killed overseas, there is a process followed. The remains are brought to Canadian Forces Base Trenton, an air force base about 80 miles east of Toronto, which is essentially the air hub for all Canadian Forces operations. From there, they travel to the Coroner’s Office on Grenville Street in Toronto for the normal processing before the remains are released to the family.

The trip travels along Ontario Highway 401, a major expressway. At some point, when word got out that these funeral corteges were passing by, people started to gather on highway overpasses along the way. Eventually, paramedics and fire departments would park on the overpasses and pay tribute to the fallen as they passed. Every time it happened, the turnout got larger and larger.

My first time seeing this, I had just returned from a course at the Infantry School at CFB Gagetown, a sprawling army base near Fredericton, New Brunswick. My flight home into Toronto’s Pearson Airport was mainly made up of military personnel, most of whom were from the Gagetown based 2nd Battalion, The Royal Canadian Regiment Battle Group, returning to Afghanistan after their mid-tour leave. As I and another reservist were picking up our baggage several people approached us and offered the thank yous which we politely deferred to those headed back to Afghanistan. It was June 23, 2007, and Sgt Christos Karigiannis, Cpl Stephen Bouzane, and Pte Joel Wiebe, killed by a roadside bomb on the 20th, were being brought home. Driving east along Highway 401 home, I noticed the fire trucks on a couple of overpasses, and saw the flags, but I had no idea what I was seeing. Then the cortege passed us coming the other way from Trenton. I suddenly understood.

That night I moved into a new condo we had just bought in Oshawa, not far from the 401, and we made a point of making sure that whenever a family was making the journey down what had come first informally but now legally to be known as the Highway of Heroes, we would be there – to stand, to honour, to bear witness to the sacrifice of our brothers and sisters. We would return many times, never in uniform, never drawing any attention to ourselves, just to join the crowds.

It became even more real to me on the morning of December 5, 2008. That morning I received a phone call informing me that a roadside IED had killed three Canadians, including Cpl Mark MacLaren, who at the time was serving with 1 RCR. Mark, or Chinaman as we knew him, previously served in the same Reserve unit as I did. He had also been one of the Crazy Eights wounded during Op MEDUSA on his first Afghan tour, while still a Reservist. He came home and immediately transferred to the Regular Force, returning to Afghanistan two years later.

I had chatted with him on MSN a couple of weeks before, a brief exchange where he told me about an ambush he’d gotten in. Long after his death, we learned that he was to be awarded the Medal of Military Valour for his actions during that ambush, and subsequently, that along with Captain Goddard, he would be having a new Coast Guard ship named after him as well.

I attended Chinaman’s repatriation the following Monday in Trenton, and after his funeral, attended by some 800 people including many from the community who didn’t know him personally but wanted to pay tribute, we boarded buses for Ottawa and Canada’s National Military Cemetery. Ottawa’s firefighters and the public also lined the streets in the same way as the Highway of Heroes, and I then understood what the sight must be like to the families of the fallen – how much it must mean to them.

Around that time calls went out to for Reserve augmentees for 3 RCR BG’s next rotation. Fresh off the final qualification hurdle I had to jump, I put my name in and started the process to get ready to deploy. Around that time I joined twitter with some grand plan to eventually microblog the experience. Just before the work up training period was to start I learned I wouldn’t be going. Life works that way sometimes, and there were some silver linings to the cloud.

Throughout those times, when things started heating up and the faces of young Canadians lost in Afghanistan became sadly common on the front pages of Canadian newspapers, there was a shift in public opinion, a palpable change in how the military was viewed. At the same time there was much debate – how we got into this war, who put us there, to what end, when would we leave, what was the mission about, etc. Not long after the decision was made to move from Kabul to the relatively more dangerous Kandahar, the Liberal government of Paul Martin was replaced by the Conservative Stephen Harper, and many people came to suggest, completely erroneously, that somehow Harper had changed the nature of the mission or was somehow responsible for the casualties. That simply wasn’t true, and served to cloud any rational discussion for quite a while.

What was clear, though, is that regardless of people’s opinion of the mission, they asked questions and took interest – and they started to treat people in uniform very differently, in a way that made me uncomfortable. I now live in a “military” town so it’s not really a novelty to see someone in uniform, but before moving last winter, it was. I remember walking into a Dairy Queen of all places with a friend, both in uniform, to grab some quick dinner – someone in the drive-thru line paid for our dinner having seen us walk in.

There’s been a lot of war weariness, too, especially as casualties mounted and people didn’t see any sign of progress in the media. From people I know who’ve been and seen progress over multiple tours, I am confident that the picture is nowhere near as grim as some might glean merely from media reports – though it’s often noted that the prospects for really sorting things out there are still not great. Dealing with a tribal population with staggering rates of illiteracy and little in the way of a viable economy in most of the country makes the prospect of building a functioning, unifying state very difficult indeed. Add to that the influence of the drug trade and general corruption, and things look bleaker still. I would hypothesize that a generation of Afghans will need to grow up without war and with education before you’ll see any real progress there, but it is possible when you consider what Afghanistan was like before the Soviet invasion.

In the end, it seems our decision is made – combat operations in Kandahar province will wind up this summer, and we’ll pack up and move back to Kabul, shifting from a combat role to training and development of Afghanistan’s security forces. It will still be a mission fraught with risks, but it will be less taxing on the nation in many ways. However, we now need to look at the situation in the world and decide “what next?”, because there certainly are challenges to face abroad that we can make a difference in.

A Primer On Canadian Politics

Another election is coming in Canada, and a few American Twitterers (is that the proper noun) are interested in what’s going on up here, so I thought I’d put out a quick primer on Canada’s electoral system, how things work here, what’s going on, and what might happen in the election. To the best of my ability I’m going to try to frame this as a comparative piece to the USA’s political system to try to make it more understandable for our cousins to the south.

So, where to begin…?

Canada uses a multiparty parliamentary democracy based on the Westminster system used in the United Kingdom. The Parliament consists of two chambers: first the elected House of Commons, which consists of 308 seats. Each of the 308 Members of Parliament are elected by voters to respresent their electoral district, which is called a “riding”. For example, I presently live in the riding of Cumberland-Colchester-Musquodoboit Valley, which covers a large but fairly sparsely populated geographic area of the Province of Nova Scotia. I’ll actually probably reside in another riding by the time the election happens, as the dates being batted around are May 2nd or 9th, and I’m moving on May 1 to take up residence in the riding of Halifax West. The second is the Senate, an appointed body of 105.

Theoretically each riding is supposed to represent a comparable, proportional amount of the population of Canada, but in practice that’s not quite accurate. Prince Edward Island, for example, is home to about 0.5% of the population of Canada, but has four electoral ridings – more than double what they should have proportionately. Ridings are modified as needed, which usually gets at least some hackles raised about gerrymandering, but such is the nature of our system.

There are several major differences between the Canadian and US political processes. Canadians, first of all, do not vote for anywhere near as many people as Americans do. Since our legislative and executive functions are fused, we vote solely for our Member of Parliament. Whichever party wins the most seats is customarily invited to form a government by the Governor-General, the Queen’s Representative in Canada. That party’s leader then becomes Prime Minister and forms his cabinet to run the show.

There are no fixed election dates in Canada. A government may serve for up to five years before an election, but in practice it’s rarely longer than four. At a time of the government’s choosing – or sometimes not (I’ll explain below) – the Prime Minister pays a call to the Official Residence of the Governor-General at Rideau Hall to request Parliament be dissolved and an election called. This is known as “dropping the writ”.

Another difference: Senators in Canada are appointed, not elected. This is a rather controversial topic in some circles, but I don’t see any significant Senate reform on the horizon in Canada. The Senate of Canada is called the “Chamber of Sober Second Thought” and rarely originates any legislation. It also rarely interferes with legislation from the House of Commons. When it passes a Bill, it then goes to the Governor-General for Royal Assent, which makes it law. While theoretically a Governor-General can refuse Royal Assent, it just doesn’t happen, since the G-G is an appointed position, and is primarily ceremonial.

There are four major political parties in Canada holding seats in the House of Commons. The Conservative Party Of Canada, led by Stephen Harper, held the largest plurality of seats after the last election, but not a majority. This situation is referred to as a “minority government”, because the governing party doesn’t have sufficient votes in the House of Commons to pass whatever it wants, therefore it must work with opposition parties to get things passed. The Liberal Party of Canada, led by Michael Ignatieff, is the second largest party and is Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition. The Bloc Quebecois, led by Gilles Duceppe is the next largest. The BQ is something of an enigma. They only run candidates in the Province of Quebec, and their platform is mainly built around furthering the interests of a sovereign (read: independent) Quebec. Finally, there’s the New Democratic Party, lead by Jack Layton. Interestingly, in terms of “spectrum”, the parties start on the right with the Conservatives and move consistently to the left, the NDP being social democrats.

Back to the minority government issue – when there’s a minority government, they are vulnerable to something called a motion of non-confidence. That is to say, they serve as the government so long as they have the confidence of the House of Commons. If the opposition parties see fit, they can bring down the government by voting against anything deemed a confidence measure. Budgets (“money bills”) are always confidence measures. Lately, PM Harper’s used confidence measures as a form of political brinkmanship with the opposition Liberals. Today, the 40th Parliament found Stephen Harper’s government in contempt for failing to disclose information related to some big ticket purchases, and passed a motion of non-confidence, ending the second minority government of Mr. Harper.

And so, in about a month, Canadians will go to the polls to elect another Parliament. For now, it looks like there will be very little change to the composition of the House of Commons, meaning Harper will return as Prime Minister, still with a minority. It is for this reason that there’s some debate likely about the wisdom of an election when there’s going to be no change. There is, however, a possibility that the Liberals, the Bloc, and the NDP could agree to form a formal coalition which would have more seats in the House and could present themselves to the Governor-General as being most suited to lead. This would likely make Ignatieff the Prime Minister, but whether that will actually work/happen is doubtful, because the idea of anyone colluding with the Bloc Quebecois to get power isn’t particularly palatable. It was suggested in 2008, when Harper used a procedure called prorogation to stave off a confidence vote that he was almost certain to lose. At the same time, his party ramped up attack ads on the idea of a “coalition with socialists and separatists”. There was much controversy. In 2009, a second prorogation happened, with some speculation that it was to deflect attention from inquiries into the handling of detainees in Afghanistan, but with the “official explanation” being that it allowed politicians to participate in the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.

This is just a starter piece. Please comment with any questions or gaps you see and I’ll work to build it up a little more!

On “Fox News North”, Mostly

I’ve been busy as all hell lately and keeping on updating this blog has been difficult. You can partially blame the incredibly frustrating WordPress iPhone app for that too, because it’s been pissing me off to know end to get really into writing something and then have it crash on me. No autosave feature? Really? That’s what we’ve been reduced to in this day and age?

I’ve got one post I’ve been tinkering with since January 22, one that’s now pretty much worthless, and now I’m going to try to bang something out in 30 minutes or less because I’ve got stuff to do tonight to prepare for the weekend, I’m off to Toronto to take care of some business and have to pack and so on.

There’s been so much ridiculousness in the world lately. I was paying so much attention to the events that started in Tunisia and have spread throughout the Arab world that I lost track of some of the developments in my own country, which have been rather disturbing as I catch up on them.

Last year, the Canadian media giant Quebecor/QMI, which owns Canada’s Sun chain of newspapers and a large stable of local newspapers including the one in my old hometown of Peterborough, Ontario, decided to apply for a license to start up a cable news channel, Sun TV News. They wanted it to get special treatment to essentially force cable companies to carry it. It was pretty clear given the slant and (lack of) journalistic quality of its other media outlets what it was going to resemble, and it didn’t take long before it was being referred to as “Fox News North”. Quebecor is run by the Péladeau family, one of the most powerful families in the country, and fairly obviously supporters of the Conservative Party of Canada. Furthering the controversy was the fact that the chief spokesperson for Sun TV News is a guy by the name of Kory Teneycke, who before taking the job happened to be Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Director of Communications. What a job to have before becoming a lobbyist, no? Eventually he departed, only to return later. Quebecor decided to press on with their effort to launch the channel as a Category 2 channel, meaning that carriers are not required to carry it, they may choose to.

It all gets intriguing though, when the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (which basically regulate everything from telephony to internet to licensing TV and radio stations) announced they wanted public feedback on a law that would soften existing laws about false news, basically making it legal to make false or misleading statements in the news media so long as they weren’t going to cause a danger to the public. Essentially, it would be okay to report just about any bullshit you want if it wasn’t a direct threat to public health and safety. Not surprisingly, Canadians responded with outrage and the CRTC promptly declared the idea DOA, and expressed some sort of relief, because, not shockingly, it has emerged that they were basically directed by a Parliamentary committee to study the change. Now, who would want to be able to report false or misleading news? Whose agenda would that serve?

It only gets more ridiculous when my former Member of Parliament, Dean Del Mastro, Parliamentary Secretary to The Heritage Minister, told a CBC interviewer that the changes were being studied because apparently his constituents were complaining to him about “attacks on free speech”. Maybe I’ve missed something, but when did being able to report false news become a free speech issue to most Canadians? Oh, right. Never. This, by the way, is the man whose great legacy to his riding is an effort to bring commuter rail to the city of Peterborough, a project that seems to make very, very little economic sense for a variety of reasons I won’t get into. The first federal election in which I refused to vote for the Conservative Party of Canada was the first one in which he ran, because when I saw him speak and got the chance to talk to him it became readily apparent that we had nothing in common. He also happens to be the champion of the equally idiotic (and strangely undemocratic and fiscally unconservative) Senate bill S-10 which among other things sets mandatory minimum sentences for some drug offences and was sped through our unelected Senate without any debate (and without any Liberal Senators present to vote against it, either, if I remember right). Again, my contempt for Canada’s Senate is another issue.

So I guess I’ll have to just carry that one forward to another entry.

What It Is To Be A Recovering Conservative

As my number of followers on Twitter grows, I keep getting comments on my bio post about being a “recovering conservative”, and I thought it must be time to make a serious post on a serious topic.

Conservatism is a disease. It is a disease that is insidious, infecting our communities, destroying families, ruining futures, and taking a terrible toll indeed with its iron grip on people’s lives.

My name is Nick, and I am a recovering conservative.

I’ve been thinking for myself now for probably about seven or eight years. I don’t perfectly keep record anymore, but that’s okay. This is a horrible affliction and it requires my constant vigilance not to fall off the wagon and I am grateful for the support I often receive to do so. When I think of how horribly conservatism has affected the lives of my friends, my family, and my community, I find the strength to keep my sanity.

It starts so innocuously. For me it was in high school,being bombarded by news of recess ion, of how immigration was going to ruin our country, my future prospects and everything around me. It’s been long enough that I don’t remember who first introduced me to conservative thought, but I remember the euphoria of that first read of some campaign pamphlet, of Ayn Rand, and so on. It all seemed so simple, so effective.

Soon though I couldn’t get enough. I read Friedman, I learned about libertarianism, and how those damned socialists planned to take all my initiative and effort and hand it to lazy slackers who didn’t deserve it. They even planned to import lazy slackers from other countries for me to give handouts to, the bastards!

People tried to intervene to help, I pushed them away. Didn’t they realize how great the invisible hand was? Why did we need government when we had the free market to look after us? Our consumption decisions aggregated charted the best path forward for us, didn’t they?

I thought I was in control, I thought I knew better as I spiraled into supply-side economics, Ontario’s Common Sense Revolution and more monetarism. I dabbled in libertarianism. I hung out with more and more shady characters, social conservatives, Tory Youth and so on. We thought we were kings of the world.

Then, suddenly, it all unraveled, I went to university, I was forced to read about other ideas. I was order to think, challenged to defend ideas I opposed, even to affiliate with some of those people from abroad we were importing. I even got blasted by that insidious “gay agenda” at my liberal school, forced to endure a message of tolerance and their horrible ideas about being treated like human beings – horrible then, anyhow. I started to fall apart. I couldn’t handle the stress so I went looking for more and more conservative thought but it just didn’t work anymore. I couldn’t get the fix I needed, that smug feeling about being right, about being intellectually superior, it just didn’t come. Nothing worked.

Eventually, the inevitable happened. I hit a sort of rock bottom, and I found that those people whose ideas I had rejected actually had something to say worth hearing. Even when I didn’t agree I could still at least draw something from them. I started l realize how my conservative problem was affecting me and those around me and I realized I needed help. So I read more. I got surrounded by people who had different ideas. I started forming my own opinions. I even voted for the Green Party in a couple of elections, though that was mostly to stop relapsing.

I’ve come to realize there is life after conservatism, that you can cope with the disease if you seek help, and there are people out there who will help. It’s just a matter of taking that first step. You can think for yourself. You can form your own opinions. You can realize that talking heads don’t have answers.

As a recovering conservative, I offer the following advice. Start small on the recovery – pick one or two issues and ideas and explore then and eventually you’ll start to see how conservatism fails. Maybe it’s marriage equality. Maybe it’s abortion. Whatever issue it is that fuels your problem most, start there. Realize that recovery is painful and embrace it. Eventually it gets easier to have an open mind, to think critically.

It’s okay to be different, to keep your own ideas. I can interact with people just fine believing that fiscal responsibility makes some sense, that accountability is key, and that generally free markets are optimal, just as long as their shortcomings are corrected by prudent intervention. It takes time to handle it all: do go slowly.

The most important thing is you are not alone – people will help you. No one cares how you fell down, they care about how you pick yourself back up and they will help. That message is key.

My name is Nick. I’m a recovering conservative. You can beat this. You deserve to.

On The State Of Civil Society

Several years ago as an undergraduate, I wrote an essay about the importance of an educated, informed, and engaged civil society to the function of a democratic government. The right to vote, I argued, was worthless to those who failed to take an interest in the issues of the day and actually engage in the process.

I get the impression that my supposition is largely proven by watching what has happened in recent years in several societies, but the United States and to a lesser extent Canada provide ample evidence. The implications of the decay of civil society are somewhat horrifying.

No clearer insight can be provided than last weekend’s events in Tucson, Arizona. Regardless of what actually motivated the shooter, Jared Lee Loughner, to commit the terrible act he did, the various responses are what I want to look at. They are what is most important to consider.

I was late to see what happened, as I was out of the country and without access to the internet or TV one becomes understandably disoriented. I didn’t learn of the murders of six people and wounding of several more until a couple of days later and the blogs and media were already afire about the roll of things like rhetoric, talk radio, and whatever else in motivating the incident. Even the local sheriff made some probably hasty pronouncements but I have to think that they were apt.

There are, I submit, two main problems that are happening. The first is that what debate we have has degenerated in quality substantially because despite the availability of information to all, the impact of “spin” is severe. One cannot help but notice that while watching debates all too often the discussion becomes completely divorced from actual reality. You need only look at things like “death panels” to see this. And the only rational explanation I can make is that this is largely a product of the highly effective agitprop machine that serves the right primarily.

Talk radio has long been the domain of the right particularly it seems. It’s never really been a feature of the landscape in Canada, at least not with such polemic personalities so I didn’t really have much exposure to the concept until I started university and getting more interested in politics of our neighbours to the south. The first shining example of what it represented was a troll on a forum site I used, a “dittohead” or “unthinking Rush Limbaugh drone” as you might better describe it. I didn’t totally understand the concept other than by trying to research Rush a bit and realizing that beyond talking points this individual had no actual understanding of the issues about which he was so passionate.

It is in relatively recent times with the emergence of agitprop machines like Fox News that the quality of civil discourse has really degraded, and I would suggest that this is in a large part because Fox created a much larger audience for its message than talk radio knobs could ever dream of. It makes the presentation of opinion and misrepresentation of fact seem like genuine news to the point that the average Fox News viewer truly doesn’t realize that they are being fed highly spun nonsense. Add in the laughable “fair and balanced” tagline and they really are hooked.

We’ve seen this happen again and again, in the debate on climate change, in the debate on healthcare reform, on the economic situation in America. Remember when all of the sudden the term “homicide bombers” appeared? That laughable revision of the more conventional “suicide bombers” term was a product of Fox editorial policy if I remember correctly.

Fox ushered the right wing blowhard set onto TV screens – the Bill O’Reilly types that consider shouting down an opponent to be an acceptable victory condition in a debate. They brought us the incredibly delusional Glenn Beck and have made the confused historical revisionism he spouts a part of national discourse.

I don’t question Beck’s patriotism. I don’t question his desire to be successful, and in fact I must admit a measure of respect for someone being so forthright about his challenges, struggling with alcoholism, drug use, and what must have been a very difficult childhood. The issue is that he has introduced into political dialogue a number of ridiculous and poisonous ideas and historical revisionism that are not in any way improving the quality of discourse within civil society.

What we have come to is a point where an increasingly ignorant populace is debating ideas increasingly distant from reality or any productive purpose. We are seeing corporate interests primarily shaping discourse to suit their interests with a very powerful machine doing so.

The second, perhaps more disturbing problem is related to the first one. It is the disturbing tone that a lot of political rhetoric has taken in recent times – a shift from discussing issues to making wild accusations about one’s ideological opponent. This trend seems to create a vicious circle, a swirling of the drain – and it impedes the ability to discuss any issue in a productive way.

Ad hominem is nothing new to politics – but generally the attacks have historically been relatively benign and easily dismissed. In recent times they have gotten more pronounced, and the more dark attacks have moved from the fringes to the mainstream sources of opinion. The candidacy of Barack Obama – first as a primary candidate for the Democratic Party nomination for President and then as a general election candidate for example dragged out all sorts of racism, and blame can be applied everywhere. It was fellow Democrats who started the meme of using his middle name, without comment of course, to stir up a racist or anti-Islamic sentiment (the latter became laughable when debate moves to the opinions of the guy in charge of Obama’s church). The problem is that when attacks replace discussion of issues – when campaigns “go negative”, we start to lose that necessary precondition of functioning democracy.

In Canada recently, opposition parties came up with an idea to form a coalition which would have allowed them to oust Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper from power and allow the Liberal Party of Canada to resume governing. Rather than offer any justification about why he should remain in office, Harper and his party simply attacked the coalition as some sort of unholy alliance because it included the Québec separatist Bloc Québecois Party and the social democratic New Democratic Party. The rhetoric was made to suggest that what they were doing was somehow “wrong”, notwithstanding the fact that it was completely within the realms of parliamentary tradition and the Constitution to do so. In the end the Conservatives made use of an obscure procedure to stave off the vote that would have toppled them. A move arguably far less democratic.

This sort of thing has been amplified though to the south of my home in Canada, particularly in the run up to and aftermath of the midterm elections in the United States. The emergence of the populist “Tea Party” movement has seemed to be a catalyst for a lot of disturbing rhetoric in the USA. As much as they have denied it there is an apparent fantasy with disposing of a legitimate, democratically elected government. We saw this emerge with the birthed movement, with the guns at town halls, and with the emergence of disturbing allusions to violence in campaign rhetoric.

Despite the vociferous claims from those talking heads on the right, they are a part of the problem. Already one attempted murder case is turning on slanderous claims about the Tides Foundation made by Glenn Beck. We had nutty candidate Sharron Angle in Nevada talking about “Second Amendment remedies” and “taking out” her opponent. There has been a suggestion that such rhetoric might have inspired the vile act in Tucson last weekend. I don’t know that that is the actual case, but nevertheless it is worth talking about the potential impact.

Words matter. They have consequences. And there is to me no clearer evidence that the right knows this too than their efforts to claim that isn’t the case. Sarah Palin’s desperate and pathetic video plea, idiotic terminology aside, illustrates to me an effort to claim what everyone knows is nonsense. I don’t think that anyone is going to claim that Jared Lee Loughner was doing Palin’s bidding, but it is not a stretch to suggest the possibility that particularly in the minds of someone unhinged words can fan flames.

Does this mean that all speech must be ridiculously politically correct? No. The use of metaphor as rhetorical device is nothing new in political discourse. “Setting sights” on opponents, coming into a campaign “loaded for bear”, things like that are clearly figures of speech and are not the problem. What is a problem is when the discourse is first charged with lies that turn an ideological opponent into some sort of existential threat to civilization, and then figures in that discourse need only imply that drastic measures might be necessary. Beck didn’t need to tell Bryon Williams that he should go murder people at the Tides Foundation, nor suggest to the morons who comment on his website The Blaze that shooting Frances Fox Piven would somehow save the republic. He merely needs to imply it. Letting the punters do as they will, he must figure, absolves him of responsibility.

What then is the solution? I submit that there is enough to debate in the realm of ideas on how to run a country or any other political entity that we need not deal with misrepresentations, distortions, or outright lies. I think media has grievously failed us in this respect, and a clear solution isn’t simple other than to make efforts to engage as many people as possible with reality, truth, and facts.

Further though, the call to action is simple. Speak the truth. Treat even those whose ideas you might despise with a modicum of respect, and discuss ideas not people. Recognize that the system we use to decide the course of our politics is the ballot, and fantasies about armed revolt are not part of that process. Ever. Lastly, accept that words matter ad own what you say.

Perhaps these ideas seem pedantic or simple but I think they are lacking and somewhere to start.

Early Thoughts On Wikileaks

I’ve been trying to sort out my position on the latest release by Wikileaks and on the site and its concept in general since it all made headlines. I’ve looked at some of the cables revealed, as well as the many other things they have released since they came into existence. It is something fascinating and thorny to me to try to come up with a position on.

Conceptually the answer should be simple. I believe in the importance of civil liberties and that free speech should trump virtually all concerns about the content of the speech, saving exceptions of course for libel, slander, and spreading hatred or false news. That should make it rather simple for me to say that Wikileaks has done nothing wrong.

I do, however, believe that rights imply responsibility and that it is important to use them judiciously in the interests of society. This is where the problem arises with Wikileaks.

I should say that I am no real fan of Julian Assange. He strikes me as a genius but also something of an egomaniac as interested in his own status as he is in the ideals Wikileaks claims to uphold. I’m not going to say much more about him, because what matters is the site, the info, and its impacts. The reality is that whatever becomes of Assange is ultimately irrelevant. He is not Wikileaks, he is merely the most public face of it and many others stand ready to pick up where he has left off I suspect.

I understand, at some level, what it is that Julian Assange thinks he is accomplishing. Wikileaks seemed originally to be put together to shine light into dark corners, to illuminate those things that go on that most of us simply don’t know about. The first time I went to the site it was sort of a clearing house for every imaginable sort of document and inside information. The idea seemed to be to fill in what journalists have failed to do, to expose more of the world. In principle this is a good thing I think. Exposing things like Scientology is good.

Then came the Collateral Murder video, which was released to highlight the more grisly side of the war in Iraq. It was in my eyes more a tragic illustration of the fog of war and the risks that journalists take to get stories out. It is my understanding that the soldiers involved were not found to have done anything wrong in the tragic event, simply to have acted on the basis on their understanding of what was happening.

The main concern raised by opponents of the leaks recently concerning Iraq, Afghanistan, and the US diplomatic cables is a perfectly reasonable one. Sources face great risk in giving information to diplomats or military personnel because of the potential for those they provide information on to threaten them or their families. In Afghanistan, for example, ISAF relies on many HUMINT (human intelligence) sources for information on what the Taliban is up to, how their networks operate, etc. These sources are absolutely vital to the mission and deserve protection of their identities because the threat to them and their families is very real. You can be quite sure that when the Afghanistan files were leaked, the Taliban’s leadership was very quickly studying it to add to a list of collaborators to be targeted for execution as soon as possible.

Similarly, the diplomatic cable leaks have the potential of discouraging normal flows of information in the diplomatic community though I consider this risk low as most of the cables seem to contain information that is innocuous. The sort of frank off-the-cuff assessments seen about world leaders and other personalities and so on is what diplomats get paid to produce. There is some embarrassment perhaps about the raw cables being aired but realistically there isn’t much to get worked up about.

The assessment the takes the form of trying to objectively assess the benefits offered by the leaks against their consequences. The trick is that I’m not sure how to assess any tangible benefit to the leaks but plenty of consequences from some of the things released, particularly raw leaks that are potentially untrue. There was for example a document leaked about Afghanistan suggesting certain Canadian casualties were victims of friendly fire which were quickly refuted by others who were there. The releases were factually incorrect early assessments.

In the so called “Cablegate” releases there has been an effort with various media outlets to manage the leaked information and to remove some details which may cause problems like names. I don’t know how effective that effort will be because some really simple analysis might still reveal the identities of some of the sources. Intelligence types call this sort of thing “mosaic theory” – cobbling together tidbits from open sources which allows them p surmise the content of the gaps better. Particularly juice bits of intelligence may have their sources hidden but it’s not hard potentially to determine who would know the info and thus deduce the source of the leak.

As far as the leaks allegedly attributable to Bradley Manning, the Americans have some culpability. Allowing some many unfettered access to this information has proven disastrous. A pretty basic principle of information security is to keep things to those who need to know. The dispersion of all this info was a response to hoarding of info and I understand why that was done but it still seems striking that so much was available to one low level functionary.

So what to think of Wikileaks at this point, then? What have they accomplished? At this point I’m not totally sure that they have done anything particularly positive, and I see at least a potential for significant negatives. I guess I have to keep myself listed as ambivalent about the whole thing for now.