Sunday, September 30, 2007
It's actually quite a fun piece to read, if only to see the particular type of argumentation that Warren specializes in--and the increasing desperation of the "No MMP" forces.
Warren, being a pontificator by trade, doesn't actually get to his anti-MMP assertions until the middle of his tract. He begins by describing the MMP voting process, which we should worry about, he says, because its advocates think it will operate "fairly." (At least, wisely in my opinion, he doesn't try to defend the proposition that FPTP works fairly.)
Then the familiar spectre of "sectarian, fringe and fruitcake parties" is invoked, in which he includes the Greens (currently at about 10% in the polls--that's some fruitcake) and the Family Coalition (Warren's description is more apt in this case: his own political values, as it happens, are just about identical with those of the Family Coalition).
First Past the Post, Warren avers, eliminates these groups in favour of broad-based parties in which differences are hashed out internally. But none of this really matters anyway, because unaccountable law-school elites have taken over the legislative function in Canada. Still, on principle, we should stand up against the menace of MMP and what it represents.
He proceeds to lump MMP in with every other form of proportional representation imaginable, and then to claim that all of them make government less accountable to the public. Now, in Ontario since the 1930s, every single majority government has a) been elected by a minority of the voters, and b) been able to do pretty much what it wanted between elections. Hence government after government has broken promises it never meant to keep in the first place, has effectively ruled out of the Premier's office, and has been accountable to no one at all for most of its term, taking comfort in the knowledge that it will require only another minority to re-install them in the next election. Accountability under FPTP is a joke. The old saying that our system is a "dictatorship punctuated by elections" is, I think, pretty accurate.
The political strategy under this system has been to ensure that another type of fringe group--the swing vote--is kept happy when E-Day rolls around. Because, under FPTP, a very modest shift in public opinion can mean a major political upset.
But finally, to Warren's specific claims:
1) Minority governments are nearly inevitable. This means that every special-interest party "can hope for a direct place at the public trough" in return for "shutting up about what is most important to it."
To return to Warren's original comment about broad-based parties, these too, of course, are coalitions. The Liberals can accommodate everyone from Hedy Fry to Tom Wappel; the Conservatives, everyone from Peter MacKay to Rob Anders. Leaving aside the inconvenient fact that minority governments are springing up all over the place under FPTP, the experience with MMP elsewhere, as in Germany, has been that coalitions are hashed out and prove to be quite stable. In one way or another, then, compromises are made across a range of political philosophies and positions, whether under FPTP or under MMP. Nor it is a wise political strategy for parties seeking coalition partners to form shaky alliances with fringe parties: the experience has been that coalitions of moderate parties are the rule.
2) Large parties will stack their lists with the very people that the electorate despises.
Perhaps I'm a political neophyte, but it occurs to me that a better strategy for electoral success might be to ensure that the list candidates have been chosen in an acceptable manner and comprise people of whom the electorate will approve. In Germany, the vast majority of list MPs have also run in constituencies, and do their share of constituency work. They are known, in other words, to the electors. I suggest that being despicable may not be a recipe for electoral success, on or off a list.
3) MMP makes it impossible to throw out a corrupt government entirely: parts of it will always return in the next coalition. This encourages corruption: we've seen it all across Europe.
In Germany? In Scotland? Is New Zealand famous for its corrupt governments? Some examples of MMP-fostered corruption would be welcome, but I suspect Warren doesn't have any. In the absence of concrete instances, in any case, one cannot carry this argument further. One might note, however, that FPTP right here in Canada has produced grossly corrupt governments (Jean Chrétien's Liberals, for example) that have been returned time and again against the wishes of a majority of the electors.
4) Repulsive party members will be spared the bother of having to campaign; they'll just be put on a list. The "shallow charmers" in the party will be the ones who run in constituencies, and they'll have no influence when the government is formed.
At this point, we're entering the realm of the surreal. Again, it doesn't seem to be much of an electoral strategy to stuff the lists with reptiles, and sideline the majority of the legislative caucus who were elected in constituencies when it comes to Cabinet formation and the like. A party that committed such offences against the electorate would disappear from the political map. Hint: parties need to court the electors, not insult them. Governments need to keep their support, not destroy it. Rival parties would be given heaven-sent opportunities to win hearts and minds if any party behaved in this hypothetically suicidal fashion.
5) MMP will allow divisive, sectarian parties to get easy representation. Reasonable minorities will be sidelined, because mainstream parties will be spared "the trouble of arguing with them internally."
I'll try to follow this. First, FPTP, not MMP, exacerbates divisiveness. Regional differences are over-emphasized, as parties try to shore up their votes in specific constituencies, knowing that a good showing evened up across all ridings may deny them even a single seat. Hence the Reform Party, voicing so-called "Western alienation." Hence the Bloc Québécois. Rather than promoting some kind of operating consensus among very different regions, the current system encourages the exaggeration of those differences as a political strategy.
The second point is virtually incomprehensible. I think Warren is suggesting that the broad-based parties will no longer have to sort out their internal differences, but can ignore the reasonable minority positions in their own ranks in favour of forming opportunistic alliances with fringe parties in coalitions. If I have this right, I have no idea how it would work. There is apparently a role for "intimidation and 'political correctness'" as well. I don't know how that would work either. At this point, some examples would have been appreciated.
6) MMP will "create unforeseeable constitutional and bureaucratic headaches." Accepting it will lead to further innovations.
The thing about the "unforeseeable" is that it's, well, unforeseeable. But, just as those who invoke the "silent majority" always seem to hear their own politics through the silence, so too Warren appears to be able to see the unforeseeable very well indeed.
However, I am happy to find, at last, a point of agreement with him. If MMP succeeds, people will no longer see "the system" in the same way. They will realize that they themselves have the power to change their governance. And, no doubt, that will encourage constructive public debate about other changes: should the Premier be chosen by a party and elected in a single riding? Should the Cabinet be appointed at the pleasure of the Premier? Can we do more to ensure accountability of governments between elections? When governance is not simply part of the natural order of things, but for the people to determine through active participation, we might indeed see further changes in a democratic direction. I for one welcome such future public debate.
Two final points: Warren's knowledge of civics is apparently deficient. MMP does not require a constitutional change, so his referring to it as a "quick constitutional fiddle" is politically illiterate. And if "changing public opinion" is the challenge to which we should all rise, as he claims, then I would respectfully suggest that MMP, unlike FPTP, at least offers us a level playing field, allowing the full political expression of public opinion by making all our votes count.
Saturday, September 29, 2007
Dear fellow bloggers:
In my previous post I outlined some of the facts in the case of Darcy Don Bannert and his partner in crime. In an important update, blogger and lawyer Bob Tarantino confirms that Bannert will likely be prowling the streets in three years. His spouse, of course, hasn't been jailed at all for her role in the prolonged torture of a four-year-old child.
The Crown Attorney in the case, Shelley Bykewich, seems to be a remarkable person, steadfast, decent and caring. She has appealed the wrist-slap sentence given to Bannert's spouse. She must appeal the second wrist-slap given to Darcy Bannert.
Do we want him out in three? Or do we want a punishment that more nearly fits his hideous crimes? Please join me in sending politely-worded messages to the Crown Prosecutor:
Shelley Bykewich, Crown Prosecutor
Crown Prosecutors Justice and Attorney General
6th fl John E Brownlee Building
10365 - 97 Street
Edmonton, AB T5J 3W7
Phone: 780 422-1111
Fax: 780 422-9756
And please spread the word across the blogosphere. This is one issue that should not divide us along political lines. Let our common decency speak.
Thursday, September 27, 2007
The charming fellow pictured here is named Darcy Don Bannert. He tortured a four-year-old girl for pleasure, over many months in 2005, with the active complicity of the child's mother, who assaulted her as well. He withheld water, to the point that she drank from the toilet and once tried to drink liquid Miracle-Gro fertilizer: he thought it was amusing to squirt the thirsty kid with a water bottle as she was being fed dry food. He handcuffed her to furniture, and locked her in the basement for long periods. He punched, slapped and kicked her. He made her watch pornographic videos. He regularly sexually assaulted her when she was in the bath.
Well, he and his disgusting partner were duly convicted. And here's where things get interesting, if that's the right word. The defence lawyer, who was just doing his job, argued that Bannert should get eight years minus time served, which amounts to a little over five years minus any time off for good behaviour. He cited no-doubt relevant facts: Bannert himself was an abused child, once beaten by his stepfather with a baseball bat to the point of hospitalization, and sexually assaulted while doing community service work. The prosecution wanted fifteen years. The judge sided with the defence, citing something called the "totality principle" [more on that below]. The mother got a conditional sentence--no time in jail at all. The Crown Attorney is currently appealing this wrist-slap, but not, it appears, the other one.
To listen to the judge, you'd think that the sentence for this wretch was life in prison without parole. He showed no remorse, she said. The courts must send a very strong message, she said. Translation: he'll now get to watch TV and eat three square meals a day in one of our fine penal institutions, for maybe three years or so if he watches the way he behaves in the joint and says all the right things to the prison counsellors.
The child, now six and in foster care, is suffering from long-term post-traumatic stress disorder and, not surprisingly, reactive attachment disorder, an inability to form bonds with others. She's on medication and undergoing intensive psychotherapy.
Certainly Bannert had a hard life. But so did the little girl. Nothing that happened to her was her fault. She had nothing to do with any trauma he suffered as a youth. I'm all for changing social conditions, in fact radically, to eliminate such trauma. But in the meantime, the defence lawyer's argument has been pushed too far. What do we do with such victims (meaning in this case Bannert) who have not (yet) committed any bestial crimes? Preventive detention? Ankle-bracelets? And if the Bannerts of this world are not responsible because they were once ill-treated, does that mean that someone who kills this creep isn't responsible either--just another puppet of impersonal social forces?
Meanwhile, by pure happenstance, I was cruising around Darcey Jerrom's place yesterday and found this cheerful little item from his colleague, Shere Khan, which didn't improve my mood. I had begun to hope, after exemplary sentences for child abuse recently that certainly satisfied my personal thirst for justice, that the courts were getting it. But if so, the getting is pretty patchy at present.
What does "getting it" mean? That courts should behave with raw emotion, rather than principle? No. It means getting a grip on the notion of justice in the first place--in fact, on several notions.
There are three dominant models of criminal justice current today. Sometimes they are seen to be in competition; I shall argue that they need not be. The first of these is retributive justice. This is not "eye for an eye" justice, but the focus is on punishment, which, according to ill-defined notions of "proportionality," should fit the crime. The second is "restorative justice," in which the emphasis is on the victim and the community being made whole. Aboriginal sentencing circles are an example of restorative justice in action. The final model is transformative justice, which takes a systems approach to offences. Nelson's Mandela's Truth and Reconciliation Commission is an example of that approach.
What should be noted right away is that these three models are not mutually exclusive. They are all social models that seek a single outcome: the well-being of society. But they apply in different circumstances. In South Africa, a simple retributive approach would have led to possibly catastrophic consequences for the entire society. Where victims and victimizers and their society can come to an agreement over positive measures by which the victim is made whole and and the victimizer reintegrated into the community, as in the model of restorative justice, everyone benefits substantially.
But what of cases in which the victim simply cannot be made whole? What of victimizers like Bannert on whom restorative justice would be utterly wasted? In such cases, the only conceivable model that applies, in my view, is retributive justice. An appropriate punishment, following the notion of proportionality, is called for, because members of society must feel that egregiously evil acts get punished. The social contract, in part, depends upon such understanding. Allied with that is the notion of protection of society: we want some assurance that he will not be given the opportunity to repeat his crimes.
The judge in this case applied what is called the "totality principle": this article from an Australian jurisdiction gives a sense of what that means, in theory and in practice. In layman's terms, it's supposed to be about tempering justice with mercy. But what claim, we might rightly ask, do Bannert and his spouse have on mercy? And what are the chances that someone like Bannert can be genuinely rehabilitated (rehabilitation being that problematical concept tied to mercy), rather than simply learn the right things to say to prison officials, therapists and a parole board?
In this matter both the victim and the victimizer may well be beyond repair, and society demands a punishment that fits his monstrous crimes, and some guarantee that he will not be able to repeat them. The judge no doubt looked at the whole pattern of sentencing in Canada to guide her in arriving at a "proportional" sentence. But what happens if the pattern is disproportionate as a whole? In as little as three or so years, this creature will be walking among us once more.
I would like to see a broad discussion across our country, not solely among judges, of what proportionality means concretely. We know intuitively that, for example, seven years for pushing a hall monitor at school--the way justice is still dispensed to Blacks in Texas--is disproportionate. But four and a half years for the 1994 Ottawa thrill killing of Nicholas Battersby by Brian Raymond is also disproportionate. And five years tops for Bannert, not to mention simple house arrest for the mother in the instant case, is clearly disproportionate.
This is not to say that justice should be confused with vengeance. The emotion of the moment is no basis for justice. As an opponent of capital punishment, I would still lose no sleep if someone shanked this monster his first day in the joint, and I know I'm not alone: the dispensation of law, however, needs to be somewhat more detached than that. But the connection between that dispensation and the needs of society seems to be in some need of repair. How do we fix it?
UPDATE: (September 27) Bob Tarantino confirms that Bannert is likely to be out in three years. In a personal communication, he writes:
(1) he's sentenced to eight years for sexual assault (it's not clear from the news coverage that he was convicted of any other crime);
(2) he gets the "standard" two-for-one credit for time served which gets him to five years eight months (we should note at this point that there is no obligation on a judge to credit for time served, nor to credit at the "two-for-one" rate, but most judges do it anyways);
(3) five years and eight months is 68 months total;
(4) statutory release (see here: http://www.csc-scc.gc.ca/text/faits/fac03-04_e.shtml) requires that an offender serve the last one-third of his or her sentence "in the community" - which means he would almost certainly be released after about 45 months (45 being 2/3 of 68) - I've never been clear on whether this is calculated based on the TOTAL sentence (8 years) or just the portion served after sentencing (5 years 8 months), but I don't think you end with a radically different result either way;
(5) even before being entitled statutory release, he could be entitled to escorted or unescorted day release (see here: http://www.csc-scc.gc.ca/text/faits/fac03-02_e.shtml), and/or day parole (see here: http://www.csc-scc.gc.ca/text/faits/fac03-03_e.shtml) though the distinction between the two in practice continues to elude me.
Sentencing in Canada is its own weird animal, and even criminal law text books don't spend a lot of time on it. This may help (taken from Kent Roach's "Criminal Law" (1996), p201): "A prisoner will generally receive earned remission, which may reduce his or her sentence by a third unless it is revoked for disciplinary reasons. In addition, a prisoner is generally eligible for full parole after serving a third of the sentence, and may be eligibile for day parole after a sixth of the sentence. For example, a prisoner sentenced to six year's imprisonment would be eligible for day parole after one year and full parole after two years."
All of which is to say, if this guy isn't out on the streets for one reason or another after three years, I, for one, would be surprised.
Thursday, September 20, 2007
Briefly, white high school students in Jena, Louisiana, were in the habit of congregating under the tree pictured here. A new student in town, who was Black, asked the principal if Blacks were allowed to sit under the tree as well. The principal said yes, and a couple of Black students did just that. So some white students hung three nooses in the tree, to make what is still a pretty obvious point in Louisiana. While the principal thought they should be expelled, the school board said it was just a prank, and the white kids got off with a slap on the wrist.
Chapter Two: some Black students held a peaceful protest under the tree. Local law enforcement freaked out. A school assembly was called, with police in attendance, and the local District Attorney, one Reed Walters, threatened the students sitting in the hall, Blacks on one side, whites on the other, telling them (and attendees said he was looking at the Black students when he said this), "With one stroke of my pen I can make your life disappear."
Chapter Three: Fights began to break out among students. Someone set fire to a wing of the school. A 16-year-old Black student, Robert Bailey, tried to go to a party attended mostly by whites, and was beaten. The next day, Bailey confronted one of his attackers in a convenience store. The white boy ran to his truck and pulled a shotgun on him. The Black kid and his friends wrestled the gun away from him, and Bailey took it home. Bailey was charged with theft and disturbing the peace. The white kid wasn't charged with anything.
Then Justin Barker, another white student, was overheard laughing to friends about Bailey. That got him a beating by six Black students: he was knocked unconscious, but was well enough to go out that evening to a high school ring ceremony.
Chapter Four: The local DA, who must have been sleeping when white kids beat up Bailey, and confused when one threatened him with a shotgun the next day, leaped into action, and had the Black students charged with second-degree murder. Only one student, Mychal Bell, a star school athlete who was sixteen years old at the time, has actually been tried, on reduced charges of aggravated battery (assault with a weapon--his tennis shoes). He was convicted before the usual good ol' boy white jury--his court-appointed "defence" attorney didn't mount a defence at all, resting his case as soon as the prosecutor was done--but his conviction was thrown out by an appeal court, which ruled that he should have been tried as a juvenile, not an adult. He remains in jail, where he's been since last year. His family can't afford the $90,000 bail imposed by the judge.
Chapter Five: Today, tens of thousands of outraged civil rights protesters converged on Jena, pop. 3,500, to let the locals know that they aren't living in a time warp. The DA has apparently hired a PR person to write his address to the media there assembled, because it sounded literate, if not particularly convincing. Nope, racism had nothing to do with it. Let's not forget the victim in this case. Putting those nooses in the tree was downright "villainous," though.
But he's not letting the kids off the hook--he's still in full control of that pen of his. One boy remains charged with second-degree murder, one is headed to juvenile court, and three others are facing aggravated battery charges; Mychal Bell's successful appeal is being appealed to the Louisiana Supreme Court. Somehow, though, I don't think these kids are going to disappear anytime soon.
(The tree shown in the picture, while all of this was going on, has been chopped down. I hardly know what to make of this. It resonates, though, doesn't it?)
Here in Canada, we see a drearily familiar response from the right side of the blogosphere: stony silence, or posts like this at Small Dead Animals. The Reverend Jesse Jackson, annoyed at Barack Obama who has kept himself at an opportunistic distance from the fray, said that Obama was "acting white," an obvious reference to the bad old days when some were able to "pass" for white and avoid the racial hard stuff. But this was too much for the crowd at SDA, beginning with Kate herself, mimicking a Black accent ("aksing"), and followed by comments such as these:
I would say that Jesse Jackson is more of a burr head; that from his perspective, everyone looks white. Maybe Obama needs to poppa cap in Jesse's ass and wear some more bling to be more palatable for the black community...
Jesse Jackson won't consider anyone authentically black unless they're an ebonics-speaking, knuckle-dragging, nappy-headed, ghetto-dwelling, gold-toothed gangsta-wannabe.
Move over Reed Walters--you've got company. Maybe Jena's more mainstream than we like to think.
Wednesday, September 19, 2007
A mere three days after it went into effect, an Ontario court has quashed a controversial adoption law, the Adoption Information Disclosure Act, brought in by the Ontario legislature in 2005. The new law prevented birth parents and adoptees from filing a disclosure veto to keep their identities confidential.
Noted civil rights lawyer Clayton Ruby launched a constitutional challenge to the law last year, arguing that it violated the privacy of birth mothers who did not want their identities disclosed. And it's not as though the McGuinty government hadn't been warned. Privacy Commissioner Ann Cavoukian protested strongly at the time, but the government, bowing to the wishes of the "I-want-to-know-my real-parents" lobby, went ahead anyway, allowing the ghosts of the past to threaten the security of women who had long ago given up their babies under the assurance that their confidentiality would be maintained.
In many ways, the law was already moot. Even Cavoukian acknowledged that few birth mothers or adoptees these days would opt for a disclosure veto. It isn't much of a stigma in 2007 to have a child outside traditional marriage. There is nothing wrong in theory with adopted children and their birth mothers knowing who each other are, although some of the reasons for adoptees trying to track down their birth mothers ("I want to find out who I really am") strike me as frankly neurotic, based upon notions of blood and lineage at which I took a critical look in my previous post about Margaret Somerville. But birth mothers gave up their babies under a set of rules that guaranteed their anonymity, and it was plain wrong for these rules to be changed retroactively--that is, broken--by the Ontario legislature.
Common sense, a rare commodity these days, has prevailed. Let us hope that the McGuinty government spares these women the uncertainty and psychological pain of an appeal against the ruling.
The other day, she wrote yet another op-ed piece that was published in the Ottawa Citizen. This time she wasn't peddling her usual covert theology dressed up as ethics--her social conservative, anti-choice and anti-same-sex-marriage agenda. Instead, she decided to take a shot at adoptive parents. And to do so, she invoked mystical notions of blood that echo (sorry, Mike Godwin) the discredited Nazi doctrine of Blutsgefühl (blood feeling). That takes a little explanation, and here it is.
The article, entitled "The rights of the unconceived," is primarily concerned with so-called "genetic orphans": the product of embryos donated to couples who wish to have children but for various reasons cannot conceive. Somerville argues that the rights of the pre-conceived are being violated: that "a growing number" of people conceived in this fashion have been "speaking out forcefully against the way in which they were brought into being." She offers no statistics or references, and only one actual quotation: from a person who refers to a "genetic bond" that one allegedly "can't annul." From there, she segues into the "loss of genetic kinship" felt by some adoptees. This sense of loss has led, as we all know, to the formation of find-your-real-parents lobby groups that were recently successful in obtaining changes to Ontario's adoption legislation, which now effectively allows all such unhappy adoptees to track down their birth mothers. (These changes were challenged in the courts under the Charter, and the challenge was upheld literally minutes ago--I'll be blogging on this shortly. --DD)
"Genetic relationship," Somerville asserts, "goes to our deepest roots of who we are and to whom we bond." "We have ethical obligations," she claims, "to heed these sentiments." And finally, "We have also 'known for a long time' that, in general, children do best when they know their biological mothers and fathers, and are reared by them within their own immediate and wider biological families."
Now, as an adopted child myself, I missed out, somehow, on the mysterious DNA-to-DNA yearning that, once satisfied, is supposed to tell me who I am. And as a stepfather, I have found it possible to raise children in a loving environment without a mystical bond of blood. On the issue of adoption, and not to argue for its superiority but merely to counter Somerville's unproven and unreferenced assertions, one might point out that adoptive parents spend more money on their kids, find more time for parent-child activities, are more likely to involve their kids in extracurricular activities, and also more likely to be involved with their children's school.
But there is more to this than poor argument and glib pseudo-science. Somerville's arguments are frankly dangerous.
The reduction of humanity to one's biology--sociobiology, now called evolutionary psychology in some quarters--is a suspect notion, used (among other things) to buttress the claims of racial supremists such as Phillippe Rushton and anti-Semites like Kevin McDonald (who argues that Jews are genetically programmed to subvert white Christian culture). I suggest, with the authors of an article that Somerville dishonestly dismisses as "politically correct," that we are far more than the prisoners of our genes, and that we can love and rear children without any biological connection whatsoever. I have seen no evidence to the contrary, and Somerville produces none in her article.
This would all seem self-evident, in fact--unless one attributes almost supernatural powers to blood and lineage, which Somerville seems to do. Talk of "genetic relationships" that "go to our deepest roots of who we are" dismisses culture and society in one fell swoop, and offers instead a metaphysical (and hence unprovable) claim that who and what we are as individuals and as a society is reducible to sequences of amino acids. But at the same time, and perhaps paradoxically, underlying this reductionist scientism is a frankly mystical notion of blood bond. Somerville applies it in this instance to families, but it was, once upon a time, attributed to entire "races." Those who accept Somerville's arguments and assertions too readily, because they happen to conform to social conservative and theological prejudices, should pause and consider for a moment just where such "philosophy" has taken the world in the not-so-distant past.
UPDATE: (September 19) Harper's up to number 10--right after Robert Mugabe. Keep those votes coming, folks!
Tuesday, September 18, 2007
Meanwhile, remember sleepy old Jena, Louisiana? This story is enough to make the older folks positively nostalgic. Some Black kids wanted to sit under a whites-only tree at their school. Nooses appeared on the tree as a warning: this led to a slap on the wrist for the students who placed the nooses, and a few fights. A white kid shouted some racial slurs and got himself beaten up, although he was well enough to go to his graduation ring ceremony the same evening. The county prosecutor charged the six Black students involved with attempted murder.
One of the "Jena Six," a 17-year-old convicted as an adult of the reduced charge of "aggravated battery" by an all-white jury, just had his conviction thrown out by an appellate court, which ruled that he should have been tried as a juvenile. He remains in jail, however, where he's been since last year, because the DA and the judge failed to show up for a bail hearing. The other five kids are still awaiting trial. A rally that promises to dwarf the population of the town is heading to Jena to have a word or two with the good ol' boys there.
Finally in today's news, a student at the University of Florida at Gainesville, imagining that he had the First Amendment right to freedom of speech at his university, tried to ask visiting speaker John Kerry some questions. As the video of the event indicates, this is not permitted in Jeb Bush's Florida: the young man was mobbed by several cops, and Tasered in the chest after he had been thrown to the ground and restrained. Perhaps the worst part of the video is the sight of the other students just sitting there letting this happen, like a bunch of anesthetized sheep--a reprise of Stanley Milgram without the lab. Meanwhile, FauxNews anchor Gregg Jarrett praised the police, saying that the student deserved what he got. Hey, America, I know you're busy exporting freedom to the four corners of the earth, but leave a little for the folks at home, OK? (H/t Rob Maguire.)
Sunday, September 16, 2007
Jim Moroney, Executive Director of the Alberta UFO Study Group,
This generation "
Perhaps further hypnosis will be necessary. But not to worry. One participant in the conference put his finger on the nub of the thing. Perhaps we've all been abducted, he suggested, and just can't remember it. The theological and epistemological dilemma posed here is surprising profound. The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard wrestled with the problem of revelation without certainty; we have here, perhaps, the limit case of the Kierkegaardian leap of faith.
But back to earth for a moment. Even in the post-modern twenty-first century, too many of us still strive to read the cosmic entrails, to receive our wisdom and knowledge from on high. It's at this point that the conservative value of self-reliance and the progressive notion of collective democracy should ideally combine into a liberating scepticism. We shouldn't simply question authority--we should reject it utterly. It's an outmoded fetish, one that badly needs to be replaced by democratic, human-centred, non-hierarchical social relations based upon mutual accountability. Any "authority" in our governance must be by permission; any "guidance" should be a collaborative, interactive project.
We must not imagine that belief in alien abduction is a fringe phenomenon. Once we recognize the trope, we can see it everywhere: in jihad, in America's endless "missions," in the benevolent, dependency-creating state, in the media reliance upon "experts." We see it as well in notions of "objective reality," with which some claim a privileged relationship amounting to yet another form of revelation.
Indeed, we've all at one time or another been "abducted," just as the fellow at the UFO conference said. All of us have assented to truth dispensed by high priests. When it comes to knowledge and guidance, we are not encouraged to place confidence in ourselves or in each other, but rather in various incarnations, personal and institutional, of an all-knowing parent, of God, of a benevolent alien visitor.
We will never be truly free, I think, until we can shake off the chains of hierarchy and hierarchical thinking, the latter being, of course, what all of this "abduction" stuff is about. We must take on the formidable responsibility of being our own and each others' guides, mentors and friends. If it's signs we need, we should make them ourselves. Until then, we may as well prepare for many more encounters of the third kind.
Saturday, September 15, 2007
The House Committee, representing all four parties, unanimously asked M. Mayrand to change his ruling that veiled Muslim women do not have to reveal their faces when they vote. He rightly refused to do so, citing the unambiguous wording of the Canada Elections Act, and the fact that he had twice brought the implications of that wording to the attention of the parliamentarians engaged in drafting the legislation.
The Act specifically allows alternatives to photo identification of voters (indeed, the Minister's second reading speech stressed the need for alternatives to photo ID). The danger to the rule of law posed by the conduct of various members of the House Committee is obvious: they were in effect asking a public employee to ignore the law and to take their political direction instead. His response was measured, respectful and firm: the Committee is not Parliament, and cannot amend legislation-and neither can he. After this exercise in Civics 101, which some Committee members, particularly on the government side, apparently found difficult to grasp, M. Mayrand went off to supervise three Quebec by-elections.
Little has been said up to now about what else was at stake during this exercise, namely the integrity of Canada's federal public service as a whole. Political impartiality has been a cornerstone of the public service since the beginning of the twentieth century. While this has often simply been taken to mean that political partisanship must be avoided in the appointment process and in the conduct of duties by public employees, a reasonable interpretation would extend to, and exclude, political interference of any kind in the carrying out of those duties.
In that light, the House Committee disgraced itself by attempting to circumvent the rule of law and to strong-arm a public employee into making what was, in effect, a political decision. Had M. Mayrand bent, he would have compromised not only his own ethics, but the integrity of the entire public service. A values-based public service is considered integral to public service modernization, and every public employee must adhere to a Values and Ethics Code for the Public Service, which states, in part:
Public servants must work within the laws of Canada and maintain the tradition of the political neutrality of the Public Service.
Public servants shall perform their duties and arrange their private affairs so that public confidence and trust in the integrity, objectivity and impartiality of government are conserved and enhanced.
By upholding the law and insisting upon his duty to do so, in the face of unconscionable political pressure, M. Mayrand also upheld that Code. He is the epitome of what a public employee should be. Shaken by recent scandals like Adscam, the public needs to be reassured. And it is precisely his sort of exemplary courage and integrity that may begin to restore the public's trust in its own institutions.
UPDATE: (September 19) Commenter Mark Collins is correct in stating that, strictly speaking, M. Mayrand is not a "public servant" (he is an Officer of Parliament) and hence is not bound by the Values and Ethics Code, but, instead, the Conflict of Interest Act as it applies to reporting public office holders. (His office, however, does come under the Code.) But in the public mind, M. Mayrand is a senior civil servant: and by standing up as he did he defended the principles of public service independence and neutrality that are enshrined in the Code.
Thursday, September 13, 2007
Summoned before the House of Commons Committee on Procedure and House Affairs to "explain" the obvious--that the Canada Elections Act doesn't require veiled Muslim women to remove their veils in order to vote--he was told by the indignant MP that he was thwarting the will of Parliament.
In paraphrase, this was the subsequent exchange:
Mayrand: Parliament? I don't see Parliament here.
Lukiwski [looking around wildly]: You don't?
Mayrand: Well, with respect, no.
Lukiwski: Your ruling goes against the whole purpose of the Elections Act!
Mayrand: No it doesn't.
Lukiwski: Yes it does.
Mayrand: No, again with respect, it doesn't. The law says what it says. And Parliament didn't say any differently when it passed it.
Lukiwski: Aw, you could change it if you really wanted to.
Mayrand: Well, no, I can't.
Lukiwksi: Yes you can.
Mayrand: No, I simply can't. Parliament makes laws. As an agent of Parliament, I can only uphold the law.
Mayrand: Now, if you don't mind, I have three by-elections to run.
M. Mayrand was too much the unflappable public employee and gentleman to break into snickers and guffaws, so let's do it for him. And thanks, Tom, for setting a new IQ benchmark for Conservative Members of Parliament.
As Chris Selley asks, "What the hell is going on in this country?" I wish to hell I knew.
But defending a neo-Nazi party crosses the line. And here we have just that.
Let's talk a bit about the Vlaams Belang (Flemish Interest), a couple of whose leaders got nabbed by the cops in Brussels for participating in a racist parade and resisting arrest. Their party slogan, found in the title of this post, translates as "Our People First!"
Vlaams Belang is a Flemish separatist party that was founded by Nazi collaborators, arising from the Vlaams Blok, outlawed in 2004 by a Belgian court. Its current leader is Filip deWinter, one of those arrested in Brussels. He's no dummy: in the European context, his tactical championing of Jews as European culture-bearers, and his defence of Israel, have muddied the waters sufficiently for the credulous to imagine that he's a mainstream, if cranky, supporter of all that is politically holy. After all, he despises Muslims, doesn't he? He stands for something, but he's not one of those...neo-Nazis, is he?
Jewish leaders in Belgium aren't as gullible as Kate McMillan: they see Dewinter for what he is. Brussels Liberal Party Parliamentarian Viviane Teitelbaum Hirsch, for example, says:
I think we have to act strongly to be the guardians of democracy and never leave any important principle to be defended by the extreme right, because we know their way of caring for it is not sincere.*
Underlining the obvious and cynical political calculations behind deWinter's philosemitism, Vlaams Belang has joined a coalition in the European Parliament that's bursting at the seams with anti-Semites and Holocaust deniers, including the party of Mussolini's grand-daughter and the openly anti-Semitic parties Ataka (a Bulgarian formation) and the Greater Romanian party. A lovely bunch: read all about the latter two here.
A far-right, racist party defended over at Small Dead Animals? Some might say it was only a matter of time. But frankly, I'm sorry to see it.
UPDATE: (September 12) I guess I shouldn't be surprised: one of Kate's regulars in the comments defends child-abusing fascist Mario Borghezio, arrested on the same demonstration.
*The link hits a subscriber wall when pasted in, but the entire article, including this quotation and others from Belgian Jewish leaders, can be found by Googling "How the European far right learned to love the Jews", the title of the article, by Sarah Wildman in the New Republic.
Wednesday, September 12, 2007
This is the style of Canada's "New" Government. There's nothing new about it, in fact, to anyone with even a superficial knowledge of history. Our Prime Minister is, not to mince words, an authoritarian thug, a liar and a bully, he's been that way from the get-go, and Canadians are paying the price--at home and abroad.
Let's review. Over the past 20 or so months, we have watched Stephen Harper demand control of which members of the media are allowed to ask questions at press conferences. We have seen clumsy and probably illegal attempts to supplant sitting MPs with Conservative "go-to" stooges. We have seen one spectacular example of imperial air rage. We have been embarrassed on the world stage by Harper's description of the carnage visited upon Lebanon last year as "a measured response," and his insistence on blind, uncritical support for Israel. His slavish kow-towing to the US on everything from foreign policy to softwood lumber has become a hallmark of his reign. His racist opposition to the UN Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, motivated by his political co-religionist John Howard (presently sending in the army to pacify those troublesome Abos) deserves far more attention than it has received to date.
Now he is lying through his teeth about the wording of the Canada Elections Act, demanding that Elections Canada do a legal makeover to suit his own prejudices. It has become abundantly clear that Harper doesn't believe in law or democracy. His vision of government is one-man rule; his ministers are a pack of muzzled dogs.
Heading up a minority government, Stephen Harper has been little short of a disaster. The thought of what this dangerous, shallow, power-hungry control freak would do with a majority is one that should keep us all awake at night. Can't happen here, eh? Don't count on it.
Tuesday, September 11, 2007
I'm not usually on board with the editorial positions of the Globe and Mail, but today is an exception. Bravo, G&M. Kudos.
I offered some thoughts on the trumped-up controversy over niqab before, and the band-wagon reaction of some European politicians. But now the matter has taken an ugly turn here at home. The political chiefs of three parties are busy selling bigotry for votes in Quebec by-elections, while the NDP quietly wrings its hands and mumbles instead of speaking out forcefully. And Muslim leaders are left scratching their heads.
A senior public employee, Marc Mayrand of Elections Canada, is under sustained attack for daring to uphold the law. The man deserves an Order of Canada for his grace under pressure. Stephen Harper is at his hectoring, bullying best from halfway around the world, and Stéphane Dion has revealed himself to be a shameless panderer and weakling—no surprise there, alas.
UPDATE: (September 12) The trash-talking ignorama Sheila Copps weighs in. Someone pass the tequila....
Sunday, September 09, 2007
Osama's best friends, according to the video (besides Allah, of course), are Noam Chomsky, supporters of Kyoto, critics of the use of nuclear weapons on Japan, anti-war activists and the usual anti-corporate, anti-globalization suspects. But while Osama is delivering this big, wet, sloppy kiss of death, he lets the mask slip--just for a moment. Many Americans are reeling, he says, under the burden of "insane taxes." "There are no taxes in Islam," he thunders, "but rather there is a limited Zakaat (alms) totaling only 2.5 percent."
Whoa. Ever see taxation under fire on the port side of the street--ever? But here is this fellow on a glorious roll, trying to claim common cause with us progressives, suddenly veering off into his rightful territory (no pun intended). A flat tax? He's starting to sound like the boffins at the Fraser Institute.
Suddenly it all makes sense. We know that extreme forms of Islam, typified by this Qur'an-thumping lunatic, are the very apotheosis of hateful homophobia, oppression of women, bone-headed fundamentalism, anti-choice social conservatism. It should be no surprise that the mad mullahs are ideologically conservative on taxes too. If it weren't for their unremitting and murderous anti-Americanism and opposition to Israel, Muslim extremists would be the darlings of the Right, the Mormons of the East.
Indeed, an alternate-universe history is begging to be written, in which Bush Jr. and Osama are allied in a struggle against Progressia, a left-wing enclave north of the US border co-chaired by Avi Lewis and Maude Barlow. (Anyone want to get a mosaic novel started?) In the meantime, though, let's stop the rhetorical nonsense alleging an alliance between the Left and Islamic extremism, and call a spade a spade, and a neo-con a neo-con. Osama's one of theirs, not one of ours. Always has been. No new taxes, he promises: instead, he'll give us major tax cuts. Read his lips.
Thursday, September 06, 2007
Comments have been turned off to encourage participation over at the Great Canadian Debate site.
Mandatory voting is one of those issues that has, until recently, been just off my radar. I have a left-libertarian dislike of mandatory stuff replacing what was formerly a matter of choice, and I don't think in any case that mandatory voting is an appropriate response by itself to declining voter turnout. Making people do the right thing doesn't trump having them do the right thing all by themselves. But the more I think about it, the more I see mandatory voting — like mandatory taxes, mandatory serving on juries, mandatory schooling and mandatory licensing of physicians — as a safeguard of citizenship and society. So I'm for it, but not without conditions.
Let me note some objections to it first. As noted, mandatory voting replaces free choice with a legally enforceable obligation. But why shouldn't free citizens have the right to refuse to take part in a process if it's not to their liking? To use an analogy, shouldn't freedom of association include the right not to associate? Perhaps we don't trust government or politicians, like most citizens in fact, and want no part of the electoral system. Maybe some of us believe that "voting just encourages them." No matter who you vote for, as the adage goes, the gummint gets elected.
Additionally, why force someone to vote if they don't like any of the candidates? And wouldn't mandatory voting shore up the status quo, given that apathetic voters, herded to the polls, are not likely to support radical or even not-so-radical alternatives to what we already have? Besides, isn't refusing to vote in itself exercising a kind of vote?
All of these arguments seem, at first blush, compelling. But I think most of us are looking at the question wrongly. It's not simply a matter of forcing unwilling people to the party, no pun intended. It's a matter of fostering a democratic political culture.
After all, why is voter turnout so abysmal? Shouldn't we be looking at the causes, rather than treating the symptoms, of this disease of the body politic? What is wrong with our current political culture? Why the apathy, mistrust and cynicism about the current political system? Shouldn't we be looking for ways in which ordinary citizens can be given, and feel that they possess, a stake in the governance of this country?
Hence, this question can't be looked at in isolation. I wouldn't support mandatory voting in a one-party state, for example, because the vote would be meaningless. And I assuredly do not support it under the current voting system, first-past-the-post. FPTP is frankly undemocratic, rewarding parties with a minority of support a majority government, again and again and again, sometimes with a second-place finish in the popular vote. Literally millions of votes are simply wasted under a winner-take-all system. I see no reason to force people to cast even more pointless ballots in such an exercise. They're already cynical enough. Making them take part in a futile exercise will merely turn apathy and distrust into active resentment. It will encourage neither genuine grassroots involvement nor good electoral decision-making.
But suppose we had a system where a vote actually counted; where a variety of voices now excluded could be heard in Parliament; where groups such as First Nations, women and visible minorities could, in theory at least, be properly represented. And, more important perhaps than all of this, what if we had a political culture in which people felt genuinely involved in their political system, a vital part of it, and could hold those who speak for them accountable in ways that we can’t even dream of at the moment?
This may seem, perhaps, a kind of Utopia, although I believe that it is one that isn't outside our reach. Clearly the last part describes a mature political culture, one that doesn't simply leap into being overnight. But if we were to set the stage for it to develop, by changing from our current electoral system to a more democratic one, for example, we offer at least the possibility for all citizens to be heard, and for their views to have real effect in shaping public policy and governance.
Now, this won't happen, of course, simply by changing the electoral structure. Nor, indeed, am I one of those who thinks that proportional representation will necessarily improve voter turnout all by itself. But PR sets a minimum democratic threshold, guaranteeing at least the possibility of a more democratic culture. Life, however, has to be breathed into the new system; and sometimes that means that the old mold needs to be broken. Just as eliminating old patterns of systemic discrimination sometimes required bold affirmative measures (even quotas when all else failed), rather than mere formal or legal changes, so too does a new, more democratic voting system need to be kick-started.
Mandatory voting will, in the short term, produce the proportional legislatures that we reformers have been working for, and legislatures that every citizen will have had a hand in building. The latter realization could be the beginning of real and lasting political and civic involvement.That doesn't mean, though, that mandatory voting should be a temporary measure. In a truly democratic system, voting should be seen as a civic duty, like paying taxes or serving on a jury. As the political culture develops, as citizens become aware of the power in their hands, the notion of not voting will begin to appear as anti-social, and mandatory voting on the other hand as good common sense. In Australia, election day is a day off; beach barbecues and other such holiday activities are the norm. Voting is seen as something one simply does, and rarely are the nominal fines enforced. This brings me to my final point.
In debates like this, questions of high principle can get in the way of mundane realities. Let's look practically at what mandatory voting entails. It's not forced labour, it's a trip to the polling booth once every few years. If you fail in this without an excuse, the worst you can expect is likely a small fine. If you don't want to vote for any of the candidates/parties on the ballot, what happens in the privacy of the polling booth is your own business. This is not the dreadful colossus of the State slapping the citizenry around: it's a just a law to encourage citizen participation in their own governance. Can that be such a bad thing, if their legislature really does reflect the way their ballots are cast?
Wednesday, September 05, 2007
For those who don't know, this self-made millionaire businessman is the Mayor of Ottawa. He won a crushing victory over rival Alex Munter last Fall. We have another three years of this guy to put up with. Three more years.
Watching him fumble and blunder his way from gaffe to gaffe has aroused a certain Schadenfreude in progressive quarters. But his unsavoury combination of staggering ineptitude, unruffled self-confidence and adolescent tough talk is little short of a tragedy for Ottawa.
We supported Munter; the majority did not. Munter was and is a thinker, a progressive, intelligent man who managed to attract the support of smart, curmudgeonly Ottawa Citizen commentator Randall Denley because he was hard-working, bright, did his homework, and had a workable vision for the city's future. He was also gay, and we shouldn't underestimate the subterranean electoral effects of that. A local Citizen columnist wondered aloud if a person who drinks out of a juice box had the, er, stuff to be a leader. You don't need a decoder ring for that sort of thing.
Be all that as it may, vox populi vox dei, although God does indeed work in mysterious ways. We could have had Alex Munter. Instead we ended up with a buffoon, not to put too fine a point upon it. O'Brien is a man with no judgement, no tact, no leadership ability, no political smarts, in short no talent for the job: a man given to wild flailing and thrashing on a nearly weekly basis, with a trademark smile that's starting to look a little fixed these days--it reminds me a bit of Mr. Sardonicus. One can almost see the bubbles rising through the roiling murk. Throw the man a rope! On second thought, don't.
We often bemoan politicians who are all form and no substance--and the list is a long one--but Larry O'Brien sets a new benchmark. From the very start, he has been little more than a large, bald, smiling image. A successful businessman! A friendly and folksy sort! A hard-headed, no-nonsense, take-charge guy! He'll give us a "city with swagger," just like Larry himself!
And what did we get? A hefty self-awarded salary increase, right off the bat. The light rail project up in the air, with a huge lawsuit coming from the builder, to be settled, of course, by the taxpayers. A hemorrhage of staff, including the bright and talented Walter Robinson. A Council revolt that even has political co-religionists openly talking about sidelining him for the good of the city, after he decided to take over some of the duties of the city manager. Wild flip-flops, as on a 2% capital levy, first dismissed as "frivolous" and then supported after somebody explained it to him. A comparison of homeless people to pigeons. Gleefully voting to abolish the crack pipe program, thinking that a few hypothetical bucks from the province for a 48-bed treatment facility would solve the problem. A dumb promise (the one that probably got him elected) to hold taxes to 0%, now abandoned after he got mugged by reality--and that takes a heap of mugging, by all accounts.
No one can work with the guy. He shoots from the lip, acts completely on impulse, alienates colleagues on sight, couldn't build political bridges to save his life. The man can't even achieve consensus with himself. He's a blowhard, a braggart and a bully. He won by a landslide. Three more years. Good grief.
Andrew Coyne was spot on the other day, offering us a cri de coeur about the sheer stupidity of Canadian politics. Vacuous, he says. Shallow. Boorish. Moronic. The only thing he forgot to mention was that this oozes right down to the municipal level. And Larry O'Brien is here to prove it.
Saturday, September 01, 2007
permit me to inform you
of my desire
of going into business transaction
i got your name and contact
from the ivories
chamber of commerce and industry
i prayed over it
and selected your name
among other names
due to its esteeming nature
and there commendations
given to me
as a reputable
and trustworthy person
that i can do business with
and by there commendation
i must not hesitate
to confide in you
for this simple
and sincere business
i am ken quattara
the only son
of late mr. koffi quattara
was a very wealthy
the economic capital
of ivory coast
my father was poisoned
by his business associates
on one of their outings
on a business trip
my mother died
when i was a baby
and since then my father took me
before the death
of my father
on march 2005
in a private hospital
he secretly called me
on his bedside
and told me
that he has the sum
of seven million
five hundred thousand
united state dollars
in one of the prime bank
in ivory coast
that he used my name
as his only son
for the next of kin
in depositing of the fund
explained to me
that it was because of this wealth
that he was poisoned
by his business associates
that i should seek
for a foreign partner
in a country of my choice
where i will transfer this money
and use it for investment purpose
such as real estate management
or hotel management
i am honorably seeking your assistance
in the following ways
to provide a bank account
would be transferred to
to serve as a guardian
of this fund
since i am
only 25 years
staying my pastor
to make arrangement
to come over to your country
to further my education
and to secure a resident permit
in your country
i am willing
to offer you 30%
of the total sum
for you effort
after the successful transfer
of this fund
into your nominate account
you indicate your options
towards assisting me
as i believe
that this transaction
would be concluded
within short period of time
you signify interest
to assist me
to hear from you
and god bless