I don’t really believe in the Precautionary Principle. The honest truth is that our next major technological developments are going to involve massive, uninsurable environmental risk, if we are going to continue our roughly linear/exponential path (with epicycles) into technological transcendence and posthumanity. The attempts by greenies to demand that technology be “sustainable” is nothing other than an attempt to impose a dreary, eternal, “sustainable” sameness upon the human race. Self-replicating machines and radical genetic engineering of reproducing life-forms are the next technological bleeding edge. We either risk “grey goo” (although probably not) or proceed into decline and a slow, boring extinction, perhaps to be replaced in a few million years by a more adventurous lot—-who would have to make do without as much fossil fuel, so for their nonexistent sakes we should really make good on our sunk costs, as it were.

In any case, any kind of robust precautionary principle has to go. Onward and upward!

(This actually the third in a long-suspended series of “bad environmentalist” posts).

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Leave those kids alone

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Halloween kid.jpg

Remember “Spring Spheres?” Somewhere in Seattle a school supposedly banned the term “Easter eggs” because it was felt to be “non-inclusive.” The usual suspects were enraged. Those of us on the side of a somewhat more robust form of “inclusiveness” cringed and looked away.

It was most likely a hoax. But the point is, it might not have been. Add one more site of struggle for the so-called culture wars, the “War on Christmas Now Easter Is Nothing Sacred” traditionalists versus the “Kumbaya We Are The World” includists. And watch how life has imitated art.

Hallowe’en is out. “Black and Orange Day” is in. In fact, this has been going on for quite a while. The exact-same justification for the “Spring Spheres” is offered, but without the trace of a knowing smile. Here it is, from the Toronto District School Board.

  1. Halloween is a religious day of significance for Wiccans and therefore should be treated respectfully.

  2. Peer and social/media consumer pressures target all children and their families as consumers of costumes, makeup, food products, etc. Many students and their families can feel this socio-economic marginalization keenly.

  3. The images and icons associated with consumer-oriented Halloween can come into conflict with some students’ and their families’ religious beliefs.

  4. The food products that are marketed heavily during the Halloween period can come into conflict with students’ and their families’ dietary habits.

  5. Some students have had first-hand traumatic experiences of violence that make talking about death, ghosts, etc., extremely alienating.

  6. Many recently arrived students in our schools share no background cultural knowledge of trick-or-treating or the commercialization of death as ‘fun.’

If it weren’t so all-fired non-inclusive, I’d be tempted to yell, “Jesus Christ!”

It is precisely this sort of earnestness that certain folks, imagining that they’re being progressive, wear like self-applied, entirely consensual shackles. It has nothing to do with inclusiveness, of course, except of the most shallow sort. It’s no more than moral self-pleasuring. They offer up an embarrassing caricature, one that falls like manna into right-wingers’ laps, feeding their delusions and justifying their ever-present paranoia.

So, for the anthropological illiterates, a few quick points.

First, culture is contestation—people continually interpret and reinterpret the symbols that define their society. It is not a thing, but a signifier that refers to a process. Consider some well-known cultural markers in the Inuit community. Square dancing (from visiting whalers). Syllabics (developed by a white missionary, used by Inuit other than Inuinnaqtun speakers who use Roman orthography). Soapstone carving (almost unknown until the late 1940s, when a white man, James A. Houston, encouraged Inuit to engage in it). Inuit, with full agency, made these aspects of their cultural life their own.

Blues and jazz, both originating from Black slaves, were adopted by whites. The Japanese “adopt, adapt, adept” is almost a cliche. New ideas, artifacts, images and forms of expression sometimes originate from a member of a group and sometimes arrive as “imports” that are then vernacularized and re-purposed. Either way, they can be appropriated by the group as a whole, and become part of its “culture.” All culture is appropriation. No “culture” resembles what it was a century ago, or even fifty years ago. Think of the historical blink-of-an-eye acceptance of homosexuality, or choice on abortion.

There is, then, no essence of “culture” to be protected—either “Canadian culture” or what immigrants bring with them. There is only the ceaseless interpersonal dynamics of a society. Authorities who try to interfere in that process, no matter how well-meaning, do not have a glowing record of success. “Cultures” are complex. If we can learn from history, they should neither be imposed nor protected from on high. Nor can they be. The people will decide.

The second point is that “inclusiveness” can mean many things, like the word “solidarity.” As an old union hand, I always rejected the notion of a “solidarity” based upon papering over differences among the membership. That kind of “solidarity,” ignoring as it did the specific concerns of women, people of colour, the LGBTQ complex and so on, was only powerful on paper. A more lasting, deeper solidarity is built upon the active recognition of those differences of perspective and life-history, and the sharing of common goals predicated upon them.

“Inclusiveness” doesn’t mean avoiding differences while pretending to acknowledge them. It means the full participation of everyone in social and cultural life, not a weak liberal universalism that submerges all differences in a formless grey sea of non-contestation. If inclusiveness can only be achieved by excluding and marginalizing everyone—banning Hallowe’en, for example—then I want no part of it. It’s just the wrong way to go.

You can’t force a narrow, bureaucratic definition of culture upon people with any success (Pauline Marois had a go at it, but it didn’t get very far, and wouldn’t have worked even if she’d won the election), but you can’t get away with the opposite, either. Imposing differences from above, which is what official “multiculturalism” tends to do, is just as misplaced. These differences are just as fluid, just as contingent, as the “culture” of the majority. Reifying and fetishizing them is no more conducive to healthy social dynamics than attempted assimilation.

We can all agree that there must be protections in place against discrimination—full civic participation requires them. We can’t ignore the power dynamics at play in our society, and even identity politics may perhaps have its strategic uses, although I remain sceptical. But in the instant case—come on. It is condescending and patronizing to “protect” kids from different backgrounds from the imagined cultural oppression of Hallowe’en.

Let them be.

And so tomorrow, as in every other year, I shall be greeting children of every imaginable creed and colour at my front door, and oppressing them with sugar.

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Matthew 6:5

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“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.”

Stephen Harper gets his photo-op at Cpl. Nathan Cirillo’s funeral.

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Purity was never

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Just as an aside, but I’ve been meaning to post a link to this wonderful “Medieval Persons of Colour” blog since forever. This blog travels extensively though art to point out that even in the “typical” medieval European periods depicted in film and present-day literature, there is absolutely no justification to whine and demand that all characters be “white” or to accuse works that include a non-white character to be some kind of inauthentic tokenism in se. Yeah, this goes for Tolkien and Co.

The blog author’s most recent posts are on 1800s art, which are most certainly not medieval by conventional definitions, but that’s only after an enormous quantity of pieces posted from times past. It’s an extensive bank of evidence that “white” Europeans have always interhabited with persons of colour who were not merely or always transients and servants. Of course, some of us always knew this, but check it out.

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Canada halfmast.jpgThis past week, there have been two lethal attacks on Canadian soldiers right here at home, the two perpetrators are dead, and we’re drowning in words.

The shootings in Ottawa, taking place as they did in areas so familiar to me (the War Memorial and the Centre Block), are still very much with me, as they are with so many others; and, as the dust settles, all-too-familiar memes are being imposed upon those events.

Being human, we like to make sense of things. We crave explanations. Out of a dust-cloud of reports, stories, rumours and unanswered questions, some of which remain that way —How did the shooter get his weapon? How did he hide it while he was at a local shelter? How did he get into the Centre Block?—we hope that the outlines, at least, of a coherent story will eventually emerge. But we are not always interested in digging too deeply to get one. An official narrative will do fine for most people.

What would that look like? First, it would contain a threatening Other. Second, it would be another chapter in a clash-of-civilizations-type narrative of terrorism—there are no neutrals in that Manichaean conflict. Third, it would reject rational explanation-seeking in favour of a primarily moral discourse. It would be a tub-thumping, mobilizing narrative, imbued with a politics of patriotism that would wave aside serious analysis as a distraction.

So, first of all, the accounts of the shape-shifting, malign Other, variously identified as Aboriginal, “South American” coloured, “Arabic”-looking, and so on, came fast and furious. This author was quick off the mark: the perpetrator’s ethnicity, apparently not sufficiently “neutral,” became a focus of Wednesday’s reportage. When the man’s photograph appeared, though, he just looked like a scruffy white guy.

The two killers (Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, né Michael Joseph Hall, and Martin Couture-Rouleau who ran down a soldier in Quebec earlier) were strikingly similar in many respects. They were both born in Canada. Zehaf-Bibeau was a down-and-outer who had found a berth at the Ottawa Mission. He had a petty criminal record, and had done a little time. Couture-Rouleau ran a small pressure-washing business. Both were relatively recent converts to Islam, expressing their admiration for ISIS on Facebook. Zehaf-Bibeau was not considered high-priority by CSIS and was not on the RCMP’s 90-person watchlist. His application for a passport had, however, been red-flagged. Couture-Rouleau was on that list, and his passport was confiscated as he tried to leave the country for Turkey.

The authorities were alerted to Couture-Rouleau by his own family. This being Canada, police officers visited him, with family members and his imam, over a period of four months to try to talk him out of his beliefs. To the “false flag” nutters who have begun to emerge from their hidey-holes—sorry, folks, COINTELPRO this ain’t.

Hardly the dark-bodied aliens that pose an eternal threat to Our Way of Life, these were native-born Canadians instead, both with little to show for their lives, spending too much time on the Internet, rather too easily mobilized by psychopaths overseas urging them to make themselves count for the Greater Good. I expect that, had they survived, we’d be hearing in the future something very like what Mark Chapman had to say about his killing of John Lennon: “I am sorry for being such an idiot and choosing the wrong way for glory.”

But their adoption of Islam and ISIS will, in any case, suffice to mark them as Other, even if it’s a mere cloak of Otherness worn by a pair of otherwise nondescript Canadians.

Moving on to the terrorism frame, certainly both killers terrorized people, even if, atypically, they concentrated on military, not civilian targets (unlike, for example, Obama’s dronemasters, who don’t count as terrorists). For whatever reason, they had both recently converted to Islam, but to a crazed form of it that Canadian Muslims, and indeed Muslim countries, by and large reject. Even Wahhabist Saudi Arabia, which routinely beheads scores of people for crimes such as “sorcery,” finds ISIS a bit much.

In any case, these men were weaponized by ISIS, if indirectly, and did what was expected of them. Their brutal acts will accomplish little in themselves except to strengthen the hand of our Conservative government to bring in repressive new security measures and speech restrictions that will further erode our civil rights. If the terrorists truly “hate us for our freedoms,” I suspect they’re about to hate us a little less. We’ll almost certainly get more of this kind of thing on the ground, and, as people are told to report anything unusual to the police, stories like this will cease to be amusing. When these changes on the horizon do come to pass, then, the effectiveness of terrorism—to bring about major changes with minimum effort—will once again be demonstrated.

But the notion of terrorism is also a moral one. If you see the world as divided into two eternally warring camps, black versus white, Us versus Them, then everyone is involved. These two rather undistinguished Canadians now take their place as soldiers themselves, for the other side. Unwittingly, then, we’ve given them everything they wished for: instead of a well-deserved ignominy, they have won the recognition they were seeking.

Which brings me to my third point: want to step back and look at these events in a wider context, inviting others to do the same? Don’t even try: this kind of stupid rejoinder, from people who should and likely do know better, is typical. American civil liberties expert Glenn Greenwald gives it a shot here (written, it’s important to note, before the Ottawa shootings); but this amounts, we are told, to “justifying” these attacks, to saying that Canada “had it coming.”

At first, I suspected reading incomprehension—or a deliberate political smear job from people with apparent axes to grind. There’s certainly some of the latter at play. The American commentator Joshua Foust, for example, whose personal hatred for Greenwald knows no bounds, certainly not those of decency or civility, immediately accused him of “celebrating terrorism”—a blatantly dishonest misreading of what Greenwald actually had to say.

On reflection, however, I think that in many cases it’s literally a matter of talking past each other. There is a problem here of incommensurable discourses, the moral and the analytical. Where Greenwald says that we shouldn’t be surprised our involvement in war for the past 13 years might lead to this sort of thing, an eminently commonsensical, even banal, observation, others hear “Canada had it coming,” and see a pointed finger of “blame.” But those last are moral observations that Greenwald isn’t making. As he puts it himself, it’s not a question of justification, but of causation: telling a 4-pack a day smoker that he will get emphysema is not a justification of emphysema.

But as a case in point, a rejoinder by Professor Stephen Saideman of Carleton University is worth a look. He mockingly retorts that Greenwald’s article is just a re-run of the South Park episode, Blame Canada. And he proceeds, with a blend of ad hominem, distortion and tendentious interpretation, to completely miss Greenwald’s core argument.

Unhappy with Greenwald’s view, one widely shared, that the word “terrorism” means at this point whatever states want it to mean, Saideman sidesteps the key point that it never seems to apply when Western powers terrorize Muslims. Telling us that terrorism is most often found within a group (Muslim on Muslim violence, for example) only reinforces Greenwald’s point: the term hasn’t been used to characterize the state terror recently unleashed in Egypt, for example, with its tidal wave of death sentences. Even in that context, then, the label continues to apply only when the West so chooses.

Saideman continues: “One point Greenwald wants to make is that the CF personnel targeted on Monday were legitimate targets.” Greenwald “crow[ed] about how earned this violence was,” he claims. But here is what Greenwald actually says: “There is a compelling argument to make that undeployed soldiers engaged in normal civilian activities at home are not valid targets under the laws of war.” This is the explicit opposite of what Saideman so confidently asserts.

Saideman concludes—tellingly—that he is “not sure what the take away should be from Greenwald’s argument.” And he can’t resist a parting ad hominem: “his trolling of Canada is probably aimed at inflating the number of clicks he received. His intent clearly is not to inform.”

Saideman seems suspiciously familiar with what Greenwald really wants to say (the opposite, it seems, of what he actually says), and what he intends. He is ostensibly using an analytical frame to counter Greenwald’s arguments, but it quickly becomes clear—in fact, right from his “Blame Canada” lede—that in tone and substance he is actually putting up an indignant moral response to rebut something that isn’t there.

One final note: let’s jettison for all time the notion of the “lone wolf.” Nobody ever acts alone. Our speech and our acts are the complex product of the society of which we are a part. So, for example, when Marc Lépine gunned down sixteen women at the École Polytechnique de Montréal, his personal rage was clearly shaped by widely prevalent misogyny and anti-feminism. To point that out at the time, though, was to invite the rejoinder that he was just a “lone crazy,” somehow detached from the wider social milieu, and that it was being unduly “political” even to suggest that we examine that milieu in the wake of his murders. (As an aside, what will the foaming nutjobs who keep reminding us that Lépine’s birth name was Gamil Rodrigue Liass Gharbi make of Michael Zehaf-Bibeau’s birth name—Michael Joseph Hall?)

This was a cop-out by people who didn’t want to take on the task of addressing sexism in society—and in themselves. (Had he singled out and slaughtered, say, Jewish students, I suspect there would have been somewhat less ambivalence.) But in any case, the two killers this past week found something in a grotesque parody of Islam to motivate them and give their lives meaning. Unlike the Montreal event, however, there is no culture war raging in Canada for us to address here. Instead, we need to look at what social and psychological factors are involved in the kind of disaffection and alienation that both of these men demonstrated, and how best we might counter the outcome, by nipping it in the bud. But we also need to face the possibility that it can’t always be done, whatever measures we put in place.

In a country of 35 million, the 90 people on the RCMP watchlist are a vanishingly small part of the population, an indication that we as a society are already overwhelmingly successful in rejecting violent and destructive extremism. But as we have seen, one single person can do unspeakable damage, not only to other people, but, on an on-going basis, to the delicate balance between state power and citizen freedom. It’s not too soon to ask if ever-tighter security measures and restrictions are the way to go: but given the not-surprising tough talk from the government at the moment, the two feckless individuals who killed two soldiers this week are continuing to wreak their havoc on the nation.

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The shades of night

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Parliament night.jpg

Two connected items of interest in the past few days. First, Harper sends his CRA squadristi to harass a bunch of birdwatchers who dared write to a couple of Ministers to express concerns about the effects of neonicotinoid pesticides on bees. Of course, he says it had nothing to do with him. Ah, if only the Tsar knew!

Have to keep tabs on those radical environmentalists. But, speaking of radicals, how about the fellow who ran down two members of the Canadian Forces, killing one? “Federal authorities have confirmed that there are clear indications that the individual had become radicalized.” The RCMP issued a very similar statement: “This individual was known to federal authorities including our Integrated National Security Investigations team in Montreal who along with other authorities were concerned that he had become radicalized.”

After a lazy few hours, the corporate media shook themselves out of their comfortable torpor and filled in a few blanks: the assailant had “jihadi sympathies” and a Facebook page wherein these were expressed. Ah, that kind of radical. But that’s not the language used by the PMO, or the RCMP, or Harper in the House this week.

One can never pay too much attention to wording. From a close focus on “Islamism” to the even scarier “Islamicism,” the powers that be have now zoomed out to “radicalism,” a category that has the advantage of capturing in its linguistic driftnet everything from jihadists to a covey of elderly birdwatchers.

And the corporate media are snoozing on the job. Indeed, one could argue that snoozing—inducing snoozing, at least—is their job: I’m not talking tinfoil-helmet stuff here, but groupthink. Their incessant lullabies soothe the already weary. Nothing to see; move along. It can’t happen here. Sleep, little ones, sleep. Every new outrage can be explained away, or, if not, simply brushed aside: the birdwatcher story, broken by the CBC, has been ignored by the corporate media. Beneath their notice? Or just too difficult to incorporate into the prevailing narrative that nothing is really amiss?

Even for columnist Andrew Coyne, one of the very few pundits with some intellectual heft, there’s just nothing there. It’s all mere style. Progressives are hysterics who imagine we’re already living under fascism.

As I’ve said before—no, we’re not. But the complacent denials that anything could possibly be wrong with Harper’s governance other than its trademark brutishness and disregard for Parliamentary convention are becoming a little too much for me. The default position of our MSM is positively Panglossian. That’s no more helpful than alarmist cries that fascism is already upon us.

Journalists and pundits, your stock-in-trade is words. Start paying attention when the official vocabulary changes, rather than acting like bloody stenographers.

NOTE: After I began writing this, chaos broke out on Parliament Hill. Reports at this stage, as you might expect, are confused. Downtown Ottawa is pretty well on full lockdown, and at least one person is dead, likely a suspect, inside the Centre Block, while a soldier at the War Memorial was shot in the chest. A second suspect was said to be on the roof of Parliament.

The ability to mobilize violent nutcases from afar by telling them to give into their psychotic impulses for The Greater Good is obviously amplified by the instantaneous communications provided by social media. I will admit, though, that I never thought it would be this easy.

I will not speculate either about this series of events (including the hit-and-run in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu) or the political uses to which it may be put. Let us hope, however, that the media do not succumb to calling these new murderous lunatics “radicals.”

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“[T]he authority of the State must absolutely, I repeat absolutely, be re-established in Sicily. If the laws still in force hinder you, this will be no problem, as we will draw up new laws.” ~B. Mussolini

I first realized how insidious a process fascism could be—and I mean the word literally: more, much more, in a moment—when I discovered the propensity of “conservatives” to defend/rehabilitate the far-right Spanish dictator Francisco Franco, who managed to shock even Heinrich Himmler with his bloodthirstiness. Greatly misunderstood, they said. Kept his country out of the Second World War. Not a member of the Axis. Just…a conservative, really.

Time was, I used to blog about the fuzzy distinctions between the politics of certain types of conservative and openly neo-fascist or even neo-Nazi movements. I gave up—there were just too many examples. In any case, here’s what our own David Frum had to say in response to the neo-Francoists.

Now Don Martin is the first national journalist to use the f-word in relation to Stephen Harper. And needless to say there has been much finger-wagging from the chattering classes.

But to begin with, let’s stop confusing fascism with the Holocaust, or even anti-Semitism. Fascism is a top-down corporate state that is supposed to work “organically,” but as history indicates, police and paramilitary thugs are on hand to intimidate and control in order to make that “organic” thing happen. In Mussolini’s model, labour was supposed to be part of this universal harmony; in practice, it was reorganized into nationwide company unions with few rights and little or no independence from the state.

The militarization of the state goes hand in hand with fascist statism in general, which relies upon patriotism and national triumphalism to replace the notion of class solidarity. Filippo Marinetti, one of the founders of Italian fascism and co-author of The Fascist Manifesto, was clear: the new revolutionaries would “destroy the museums, the libraries, every type of academy….We will glorify war—the world’s only hygiene—militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of freedom-bringers, beautiful ideas worth dying for, and scorn for woman.”

Now, we can make superficial comparisons—Conservative heavyweight Jason Kenney’s evident hatred for the Roma, for example, comes to mind, along with his designation of Hungary, notorious these days for its semi-official anti-Roma and anti-Semitic policies, as a “safe” country, clearing the way for the deportation of desperate refugees back to their persecutors. His admiration for a pro-Nazi Croatian war criminal could be just a quirk, of course, like former Public Safety Minister Vic Toews’ rather-too-obvious taste for cruelty. One really should avoid the f-word to describe a whole government simply because it is home to a few sketchy individuals. Right?

But just as these comparisons by themselves prove nothing, let us beware of the superficial distinctions that will inevitably be drawn by the bien-pensants among the punderati. No, we still have civil rights, if somewhat eroded; we continue to have a robust court system that has rebuffed many of Harper’s more egregious moves; independent labour unions continue to survive and even flourish; there is a dissident—if not very dissident—press; and we are not, as the luckless Italians and Germans once were, being governed under some sort of never-ending state of emergency.

But fascism doesn’t happen overnight. Like the proverbial frogs in a pot, people gradually get used to what was once unimaginable. Authoritarian tendencies show themselves in not only the institutions of governance, but in its style and what one might term its affect. Parliamentary conventions are ripped apart. The opposition has no real power, and even the right to speak and debate becomes heavily circumscribed. Lively political discourse, a vital element of democracy, is replaced by crude insults, bluster, intimidation and a low discursive style that any student of history will easily recognize. Democratic accountability gives way to what is effectively one-man rule, and a leadership cult emerges, aided by the Leader’s narcissism.

So we should take a look at the Harper government’s policy and direction as a whole. We might begin with its hyper-surveillance of Canadian citizens and the media, including a relentless push to engage in warrantless surveillance of on-line activity.

Just as worrying, much of this activity is coordinated directly between industry and government. Representatives of Big Oil, the National Energy Board, CSIS, the RCMP, and CSEC, all sitting down together to strategize against environmentalists? A tinfoil-hat delusion, one might think, except that it’s been happening. In true corporatist fashion, representatives of what amounts to an interlocking directorate of government, state apparatuses and industry have literally been meeting in one room. In addition, oversight watchdogs have been stymied at every turn, and some of them are seemingly in the bag.

This misuse of state apparatuses by Harper is, in fact, becoming a virtual hallmark of his regime. In addition to all of this spying and strategizing by government and big business, we should not forget the misuse of the nominally arms-length Canada Revenue Agency to go after progressive charities and think-tanks, in order to cripple their operations; nor a concerted attempt to do the same thing to weaken Canada’s independent labour unions. The muzzling of scientists and artists, the destruction or suppression of data—which can almost always be counted upon to run counter to narrow ideology—are also highlights of the Harper regime. This “bringing into line” of people and institutions is hardly unknown in history.

The Harper government’s use of the yappy SUN media as its unofficial state propagandist—which may be curbed somewhat after its recent acquisition by Postmedia—should also be noted. The Toronto SUN called for the mass-murder of Tamil refugees, and SunTV broadcast a hateful racist rant: once unthinkable, this sort of thing is now an all-too-common feature of what passes these days for political commentary. Consider them trial balloons for a, er, non-traditional kind of politics.

Then there is the appeal to militarism: the huge and stupid expenditures on commemorating the War of 1812, when Canada didn’t even exist. The wars that Harper, from the safety of 22 Sussex Drive, has involved us in, to a baying chorus of media commentators and editorialists. In sickening fashion, he even has the temerity to ape his betters—the ones whose lives are actually being put at risk.

Add current efforts to remove Canadian citizenship without appeal, and the latest move to appropriate media commentary for its own (mis)uses, and the government is offering us a nauseating political stew indeed. “Flirting with fascism?” Looks more like heavy petting from here.

We should keep in mind, however, that there is nothing inevitable about fascism or any other political revolution. It is possible to recognize the early signs of a slide into statism and autocracy, and do something about it. But, like alcoholism, the first step is to accept and admit the problem. No one will be prancing around with swastika armbands or building gas chambers: and there’s no need for a coup d’état when first-past-the-post, new electoral laws, unpunished electoral fraud, and the extraordinary powers of a Canadian Prime Minister are more than sufficient. The foundations are already laid for a person of malign intent—and perhaps I might be forgiven for detecting just that in our current PM.

Stephen Lautens put the matter well earlier this week, to hoots of derision, of course, from the usual suspects. I prefer Maurice Ogden’s take on Pastor Niemöller, myself: “I did no more than you let me do,” says the Hangman, laying waste, unopposed, to an entire town.

Don’t let him. Time, I think, for an uprising of the premature anti-fascists.

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Why is this man smiling.jpg

The Harper government wants to legalize theft—the appropriation of newsclips without permission for political advertising.

So much for property rights, eh, fellas? But that’s always been a bit of a code term anyway, meaning ours and not theirs. Just ask any First Nation whose ancestral lands have been drilled, fracked and dug up by outsiders, backed up by cops and courts when folks dare to protest. The powers that be will whine about property missing from the Charter and put a pipeline up your backyard at the same time. But when the Conservatives want to hit their opponents below the belt, they come up with an utterly self-interested exception to copyright law to make it all legal.

Copyright can be, and certainly has been, used to stifle free expression, in Canada and elsewhere. You can be sure the Conservatives will use that argument to advance their dubious cause. But the issue here is not so much their helping themselves to the labour of others—it’s the potential (and actual) abuse of the material itself that should be at the centre of the debate.

Permission from news organizations (undefined at this point—could this include blogs and news aggregators?) acts as a filter, however imperfect, against that sort of thing, if only because they have professional reputations to maintain. But as Michael Geist pointed out yesterday, the proposed exception to the law is not subject to the fairness analysis that current “fair dealing” provisions require. Since when, however, has the Harper government ever played fair?

Those of us who have had first-hand experience with the mainstream media know, of course, that there is no inviolable guarantee of decent treatment at their hands, to put it mildly. Just ask Stéphane Dion. I once gave a half-hour interview to a CBC radio reporter back in my union days, which went very well, other than a fifteen-second bit of awkwardness on my part. Guess which fifteen-second segment the CBC aired?

But what we are now faced with is far more serious than politically-motivated media ill-treatment. By way of explanation, let us cast our eyes south. In 2010, a US federal official named Shirley Sherrod was targeted by a far-right blogger, the now-deceased Andrew Breitbart, who ran edited clips of a video to give a completely false impression of statements she had made to an NAACP meeting. This led to her firing by the White House and a denunciation by the President of the NAACP, both of whom later had to apologize to her and retract when the truth became known. She is now suing the Breitbart estate—but this is an expensive and after-the-fact option, and it is not inevitable that that she will win.

What is being proposed is nothing less than the legal facilitation of Breitbarting by the PMO short-pants brigade. Any clip of a political opponent would be subject to “editing” at will, which could (and knowing these guys, likely would) stretch, distort, even reverse the intent of the original message. There would little practical recourse against this grossly deceptive practice, next to nothing to hold Harper’s whiz-kids back. While Dion eventually won his case against CTV with the Canadian Broadcasting Standards Council, no such avenue, weak as it is, would be open to the various targets of Harper’s regal wrath. And, unlike the media, the Harper boys and girls have no prudential concerns at all about professionalism or ethics.

“[A] strong communications plan will be required to manage vocal stakeholder reactions,” says a Cabinet memo on the subject. I can just imagine. But the chief stakeholders here, with respect, are not the well-heeled news corporations and their journalists, but those on the Harper government’s growing “enemies list” and the Canadian electorate in general. Time to get vocal, folks. Think political discourse in Canada has already sunk to the bottom of the barrel? Guess again.

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The great tuition debate

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QC manif education.jpg

I posted an intemperate comment on Twitter about this article by economist Stephen Gordon, who supports tuition fees for post-secondary education. He challenged me to defend my position—a no-tuition policy—in a blogpost. So here we go.

More technical versions of Gordon’s arguments appear in his blog, here and here. His bottom line is that free post-secondary education is essentially a gift to the rich. Worse, it would do little to improve over-all access for the less well-off, although it would have some marginal effect, but at a considerable cost. Hike tuition, he says, save the government money, establish a system of grants for students from low-income families. The result? Anyone qualified can go to college or university, and look at the redistribution of wealth achieved: the well-to-do would be subsidizing the poor.

I won’t say that this approach lacks appeal, and to dismiss it out of hand as I did was wrong. But his argument rests upon some faulty assumptions, and is not borne out in real-world experience elsewhere.

Gordon appears to assume that the current demographic snapshot of university students is fixed. As he says, university enrollment is dominated by upper-class students: “people from the top quarter of the income distribution are roughly twice as likely to go to university as those from the bottom quarter.” There are, of course, a lot of reasons for this besides the costs. The class system generates sets of values and practical discouragements that limit the horizons of less-well-off students; the pedagogical supports in our schools for encouraging an expansion of those horizons is lacking; and streaming, still very much alive, reinforces practical and attitudinal barriers to higher learning for working class kids.

But let us not minimize the obvious barrier that high tuition in itself presents. It’s a lot of money, and graduating students face a mountain of debt through the student loan system. Others are simply discouraged from attending at all.

By contrast, the European experience is worth looking at. Germany has just returned to free post-secondary education, after apparently noticing the effects that tuition fees—modest by Canadian standards—were having on young people from disadvantaged backgrounds.

At present, France, Denmark, Finland, Norway and now Germany have free post-secondary education. Tuition is free in Scotland: in the rest of the UK, by contrast, raising tuition fees has ended up costing more than it brings in, because of high levels of default on student loans. It has also resulted in a significant drop in enrollment, with particularly high numbers among part-time students and mature students—who are more likely to come from the lower end of the socioeconomic scale.

Tuition increases have also been shown to adversely affect visible minorities.

Free education? The naysayers are already at the mic in Canada. Wouldn’t work here, harrumphs Colin Busby of the C.D. Howe Institute. We have no history of it. Taxes would increase. Lots of financial supports already there anyhow. No proof more young people from poorer families would attend anyway.

The first argument is the “we’ve never done it before, won’t work” stuff that we get from the usual cane-shakers. No doubt there would be tax increases in the short term, but given the increased incomes (and therefore income taxes) earned by those with a post-secondary credential, there would be a continuing future offset. Nor is the increased tax revenue the only return here. If education is seen as a public investment, as indeed it should, then we should look at the play of analytical, synthetic and communicative skills of graduates in problem-solving, productivity and innovation, all of which contribute to our community life and the progress of our country, not just the GDP.

Financial support to students these days is primarily in the form of student loans. It is not surprising at all that young people from a background of relative disadvantage will be more reluctant to acquire large debts, essentially mortgaging their futures. Even those who manage to cover the costs and become students are more likely to choose specializations that lead directly to jobs (engineering, vocational training, pharmacy, etc.) instead of studies in the liberal arts, for example. Yet the latter are also social investments, if largely impossible to quantify in dollar terms, and so waved away as a kind of indulgence by the “hard-headed” types. We have seen the invidious effects of this type of thinking at the National Research Council, which has moved away from theoretical investigations into applied research of direct value to business. Do we want our society to become so narrowly focused on mere profit and loss?

In any case, we are wasting the potential of too many young people who might have made significant contributions to scientific theory, the arts and the humanities, but for reasons already discussed will be denied that opportunity.

Perhaps a system of outright grants, which Gordon is proposing, would—ideally—have a similar effect to universal free access. But there are sound arguments for the latter, nevertheless. Gordon is right that the immediate effects of abolishing tuition would be a windfall for better-off students. But universal access based upon merit would have the effect of changing the student demographics over time (we have, after all, already seen the reverse effects flowing from tuition increases). Combined with educational reform at the secondary level (no streaming, for example, and more attentive pedagogy), we could see a significant shift. In such a case, young people from all classes would share more proportionately in the windfall.

Would Gordon’s alternative be a better one in the long term? Here two progressive social principles are brought into conflict: redistribution of wealth versus universality. Gordon wants grants that are effectively paid by rich students or their families to poor ones, through high tuition fees. But looking at the wider progressive agenda, narrowing the gap between rich and poor (contrary to current trends) is a core objective. In this context, universal programs are to be preferred over the long haul.

Primary and secondary education have been universal for quite some time. Why not return to fee-paying for those earlier levels of education? Would the same arguments not apply? It’s true that in that instance the education is largely mandatory, and besides (as the C.D. Howe spokesperson might say) we have a history of it, but higher levels of education do benefit society, and disproportionately so in comparison to grade school, given the specialized skills and knowledge acquired. Why wouldn’t it be sound public policy to treat tertiary education the same as primary and secondary, developing the capacities of our citizens to their fullest without regard to their socioeconomic status?

Education, in brief, is a public good. It should not be means-tested, any more than medicare or our highway system should be. It should be available on an equal-opportunity basis to all citizens, as a sound investment in the future of our country. An alternative to Gordon’s alternative, raising the income tax (which is, after all, progressive and redistributive), seems far preferable from a policy standpoint than a privatized redistribution of wealth—if a more equitable society with egalitarian values is truly our aim.

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Godwine's law

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Somehow I accidentally stumbled on this G&M article on the apparent popularity of Canadian icewine in Asia, and while I suspect that any comment thread that comes here will eventually descend into a discussion of booze (Godwine’s law?), what struck me was the utter nonchalance of this bit off-handedly mentioned towards the end:

Debbie Inglis’s Niagara Vintage Harvesters is one. A professor at Brock University, Inglis inherited the 20-acre property, which is in the Four Mile Creek sub-appellation. Planted in 1981, it’s one of the oldest blocks of Riesling in Niagara. Inglis—who was named Niagara’s “Grape King” in 2010 for the quality of her vineyard—manages it with her husband, Rob. Inniskillin contracts her to net off four acres of Riesling for icewine and to deliver 3,000 litres of juice at between 38 and 40 Brix. If she’s paid for juice by the litre (rather than by the grape tonne), that would be as much as $90,000, three times what a regular fall harvest would fetch.

It’s the third week of January and the temperature’s supposed to fall to -10 or -11 by midnight. The wind chill puts it at -22. When I arrive at the vineyard at 11 p.m., Rob looks me over and says, “Is that the coat you’re wearing?” I have layers on, but it’s decided I need another coat to put underneath my coat. They lend me snow pants too. They’re not wowed by my two sets of gloves, but I’ll have to live with them.

The harvesters—an all-Vietnamese crew numbering about 18—arrive at midnight. A tractor lifts a bank of floodlights high, to shine down on the rows. A supply of flimsy wooden baskets gets unloaded and distributed. Debbie has chicken soup on the stove, meant for her husband and Steve, a winery hand, some time in the morning. The workers will get a meal break too, but the crew boss prefers they eat outside in the wind.

It’s a brutal, burning wind. After a thaw earlier in the month, there’s no snow on the ground, so the wind tries to lift the dirt. It’s already knocked down the sign at the entrance to the property, and now it balloons the chests of the scarecrows made from hazmat jumpsuits and Javex-bottle heads, and sends the paper hawks above spinning. After workers dump the grapes from their baskets into a bin, they toss the baskets high against the black sky and let the wind carry them to the next row.

Well, it’s the Report on Business…but it is remarkable still. Should the reporter get credit for mentioning that the crew boss wants the (Vietnamese) workers to eat outside in the comically inhospitable weather? It’s hard to know where to begin, there are so many awful flavours here that taste awful together.

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