Category Archives: Politics

Houses of Cards

Francis UrquhartWhile there are parallels between them, there is no direct, simple comparison between the original, British mini series, House of Cards, and the American series of the same name. The latter, aired 13 years after the original, owes much of its first-season content to the BBC’s production, but it quickly went its own way. Like its contemporary, The Bridge, the American version took on a life of its own – and a very distinct, American character – and can’t be considered a simple adaptation. Both are excellent shows.

In part, the vast differences between American and British political systems compound the problem of comparison and understanding.

Canadians, on the other hand, will easily understand the machinations of the characters in the British show because our system is quite similar, but they are more opaque in the American version. From the outside, American politics seem designed to increase confrontation and partisanship. And political venality (it seems all American politicians and votes are for sale to the highest bidder…), but that’s not my point here. Americans might find the British version equally incomprehensible.

We finished watching season three of the American series recently and began to watch the British series again, after several years hiatus (it remains one of my favourite series). The latter is somewhat dated – aired before the internet and cell phones – but still well worth watching: the acting is superb. As are in most British series. But the cast in the American House of Cards is, for the most part, among the best I’ve seen in an American series (Kevin Spacey excels).

The British version has more humour, albeit dry, wry wit. It might be best described as either a political satire or dark comedy. I’m not sure everyone will appreciate its subtlety.

The American series has some of this in the first season, but less as it progresses. It’s more of a drama-cum-soap opera with less satire. Underwood speaks to the camera a lot more in the first season than in later ones. And that’s too bad because I think it adds to the viewer’s engagement.

The main characters – Francis Urquhart in the British (Ian Richardson), and Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) in the American – are very different in style and behaviour. Urquhart speaks more to the camera than Underwood, and offers more knowing, sly glances and smiles than his American counterpart. Underwood is far more about raw power; the underlying tongue-in-cheek attitude of the British politicians is absent.

The roles and the power associated with each leader is very different, too. Urquhart has to be more cunning than Underwood because his system is very different from the American. Underwood can sometimes batter his way through to success, where Urquhart has to squirm.

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The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproduction

I have been reading the essays of the late critic, Walter Benjamin, most famous for his 1936 piece, The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproduction (an earlier translation of this essay is available here). Wikipedia notes of this essay that it has been,

…influential across the humanities, especially in the fields of cultural studies, media theory, architectural theory[1] and art history. Written at a time when Adolf Hitler was already Chancellor of Germany, it was produced, Benjamin wrote, in the effort to describe a theory of art that would be “useful for the formulation of revolutionary demands in the politics of art.” He argued that, in the absence of any traditional, ritualistic value, art in the age of mechanical reproduction would inherently be based on the practice of politics.

While Benjamin writes of the authenticity of a work of art and how a reproduction lacks this (and how this affects the experience of the viewer), it came to me that some forms of art – novels in particular, but also the book in which his essays are reproduced – are meant for mass reproduction. Without the technology of mass reproduction, printed material was limited in its influence and reach. This in turn limited literacy itself.

Benjamin also mentions the lithograph as a technology that reproduced art, both of which are related to the printing revolution. He doesn’t mention its contemporary technology, steel engraving, which was developed at the same time. Lithography is a chemical process, while engraving is mechanical.

But what I think he ignores is that neither was intended to reproduce a piece of art, but rather to create a unique piece that could be reproduced with integrity (for example, illustrations in a book, but engraving was also used extensively for printing money). The artists who perfected these forms meant for their work to be copied and printed. Only when the plate or stone wore out from use, and finer details become smudged or lost, would the piece begin to lose its authenticity.

Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be. This unique existence of the work of art determined the history to which it was subject throughout the time of its existence. This includes the changes which it may have suffered in physical condition over the years as well as the various changes in its ownership. The traces of the first can be revealed only by chemical or physical analyses which it is impossible to perform on a reproduction; changes of ownership are subject to a tradition which must be traced from the situation of the original.

Benjamin was not merely commenting on art, but on politics and society. He opens with a somewhat mixed Marxist analysis, rambling a bit before making the point that modern reproduction takes art from its original use as religious and ritual items to the realm of the political. Mechanical reproduction removes art from its role, and in doing so changes the viewer’s aesthetic appreciation of it. In the essay, he gives the example of a photograph of a cathedral, which removes the viewer from the emotional and religious experience of being in the actual building.

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The Five Dysfunctions of a Team

The ModelYou can’t help but think, when you read that title, of five block-thinking, dysfunctional members of Collingwood Council. But, relevant as that description may appear in our political sphere, it is actually the title of a book by Patrick Lencioni, about how teams fail to coalesce and work together. I found it at a local bookstore this week and read it in a single night. Unlike many of the self-help books on management and leadership I’ve read over the years, this one actually made sense and explained itself well.

As I read it, I realized quickly that Lencioni’s model of team dysfunction applies equally well to politics as to business. And, of course, it applies to Collingwood council as much as to any management team in the private sector. Everyone but the sycophant bloggers observing this council recognize that ours is a highly dysfunctional council. It is not a team, as much as it is a collection of angry, inept ideologues. And it suffers greatly from the dysfunctions Lencioni has outlined.

Now, I’ve long said that in non-partisan municipal politics, we elect a group of individuals, not a team. A team is built, not elected or appointed. Creating a team takes work and commitment, neither of which is in great quantity at council, with a couple of notable exceptions who had some previous experience on council.

As much as the groupthink slate of candidates tried in the campaign to present a coherent platform, all they really offered was ideological opposition to everything the former council stood for. Those who gained a seat in the election have proven both calamitously unable to collectively articulate – let alone implement – a vision for the community, or practice any sort of leadership. They flail, they flounder, they bluster. They have no common, shared vision. They do not function as a team.

Back in 2007, I wrote on my old blog comments that have relevance today:

There’s no real sense of teamwork here because we weren’t elected as a team. Personally, a municipal team at the table is the pig’s ear while the individual freethinkers is the silk purse.
Despite what some special interest groups imagined they were getting when they promoted a slate of what they assumed were their pet candidates, they didn’t get a team. Personal agendas, private goals, independent visions all come into play to make this more like a nine-person tug-of-war. Sure, sometimes we all tug in the same direction, but that’s not necessarily a sign we’re a team, merely that we collectively agree at that moment that the direction is the most appropriate.

Management consultants often like to raise the metaphor of a sports team when trying to build a team from a group such as our council. In Collingwood’s case, imagine if you will its members each wearing the gear of a different sport – one in hockey gear, another in football, one in cricket, one with an oar, another with a bat… then put blindfolds on them all, put them in a room full of balls, pucks, nets, hoops, bases, trampolines and wickets, and tell them to figure out what the rules are. The winner is the last one standing.

That’s the sort of “team” we have in this council. Most of them still haven’t learned the basic rules of procedure yet and blunder about, doing more damage to our municipality than good.

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Time of Use Billing

Bill shockUntil I sold my business, a few years ago, and started working from home again, I didn’t realize how much of an aggressive assault on many Ontarians – especially seniors and stay-at-home parents – our hydro time-of-use  (TOU) billing is. I had a naïve belief that it was fair. A user-pay balance. A tool to encourage us to conserve and use our appliances more wisely. And I’ve always been a big believer in conservation.

But time-of-use is not what we hoped. It targets the people generally least able to afford it. Hydro rates have risen rapidly under the current government: we in Ontario already pay more than what similar users in most provinces pay for electricity, sometimes more than double! Ontario hydro rates are higher than anywhere else in Canada! Regardless of anyone’s efforts to conserve and with the province trying to sell Hydro One, they will go through the roof. Time of use won’t change that, just punish us more.

The flogging will continue until moral improves. That’s the provincial government’s attitude towards our hydro and its costs. Fleece residents until they submit.

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More Chinese Wisdom: Confucius and Council

AnalectsI was reading The Analects, this weekend, in the recent Penguin Classics edition translated by Annping Chin, a book I acquired on my recent mini-vacation in Toronto (one of about 30 books I purchased – a good trip for me). Confucius – Master Kong – is remarkable for his relevance to today’s politics and his insight into human behaviour, especially in a bureaucracy. Chin’s version is wonderfully clear and accessible, and her notes help clarify the passages where Westerners like me might find difficulty in understanding context (historical and cultural).

My purpose in reading The Analects this time is to seek the wisdom in these ancient words that can apply to today’s politics, with particular emphasis on local council politics. I’m going to quote some of the sections in her work and try to explain why I feel they have local resonance. For anyone interested in philosophy, politics or Oriental studies, I highly recommend her translation. I have also added alternate translations from Muller’s excellent online version because they add clarity.

And, of course, I recommend everyone in politics read them. No one can ever learn too much about how to behave.

9.25: A person should stay close to those who do their best and are trustworthy. He should not befriend those who are not his equals. And when he makes a mistake, he should not be afraid to correct it.

Muller translates this as, “Base yourself in loyalty and trust. Don’t be companion with those who are not your moral equal. When you make a mistake, don’t hesitate to correct it.”

In other sections, Confucius warns his followers not to judge a person by his or her popularity (or unpopularity), no matter how many people like (or dislike) the person. What matters is their trustworthiness, their respectability, their honesty, their uprightness. And here he again advises people to judge others on their trustworthiness.

People who lie, spread gossip and rumour, defame others are not trustworthy. They are not your equal. And if you make them so, you only lower your standards to their level. People are judged by the company they keep.

These lines are the same as the last three lines in 1.8. However, in that section, it also says:

If a man of position does not have integrity, he will not inspire awe. And when he tries to learn, he will not persevere to the end.

Residents are willing to forgive mistakes and flaws in their politicians, as long as they believe those politicians have integrity. If politicians make a mistake and admit it, people respect them. If they try to cover it up, ignore it, gloss over it, they will lose public respect.

Integrity, he adds, is also linked to perseverance. The person who does not persevere in learning has no integrity. People expect their politicians to learn to do their job properly. That means study and reading, not just showing up to meetings. That means learning all the Acts that govern them, too.

Similarly, in 16.4, it adds:

It would do you harm to be friends with those with practiced manners, an affected sweetness, a glib tongue.

Muller translates this as: “Friendship with the deceptive, friendship with the unprincipled, and friendship with smooth talkers are harmful.”

We all know people with attributes like these; they include some former politicians who, like spiders in their webs, still try to influence local politics from the shadows. They appear outwardly likable, affable, loyal and trustworthy, but it’s a sham. They are false friends, seeking only to further their own interests and ensnare others. The charming manners are a thin patina on ugly self-interest, dishonesty and lies. They will betray your trust because their interest lies not in your welfare, nor in the community’s well-being, but in their own goals and agendas.

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The Continued Rise of Anti-Intellectualism

I dream of a world where the truth is what shapes people’s politics, rather than politics shaping what people think is true. Neil deGrasse Tyson on Twitter*

BizarroAnti-intellectualism Is Killing America, says the headline in this recent Psychology Today story. The subtitle reads: Social dysfunction can be traced to the abandonment of reason.

I wrote about anti-intellectualism as the new elitism back in late 2013. Since then, it seem the trend has not only increased dramatically, but the backlash against it has grown. However, the opposition trying to restore reason is neither organized nor has the same sort of shiny baubles to attract adherents the anti-intellectual side has. Cold reason cannot compete for attention against the Kardashian derriere or UFOs on Ceres.

The article’s author, David Niose, wrote:

America is killing itself through its embrace and exaltation of ignorance…

I read that the same hour I read a press release that starts, “James Van Praagh Opens His New School of Mystical Arts.” It opens:

Talking to Heaven has just been brought closer to home. After thirty-five years of talking to the dead on television, radio, and through live demonstrations, New York Times bestselling author, psychic medium and spiritual teacher James Van Praagh is making dreams come true for his students and fans. In May of 2015, Van Praagh launched The James Van Praagh School of Mystical Arts, an online academy where students can tap into their psychic, intuitive, healing and mediumistic abilities, and be personally guided and mentored by the popular medium.

Clearly when this sort of egregious claptrap garners any uncritical attention, the anti-intellectual side is winning. And if anyone is daft enough to shell out $1,600 USD for an eight-week course on fairy dust, they have already lost their ability to think critically and clearly. Or perhaps they never had it – the skills of logic and reason are, apparently not taught in public school.

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Openness and Transparency?

Closed door policy

Legitimacy is earned through accountability. Accountability is produced through transparency.

Those words are from an opinion piece by Ian Lee, published in the Ottawa Citizen, back in 2008. Important words; words that should be carved above our own council table in large letters.

Although it seems like he was writing about Collingwood Council, Lee was actually writing about the need for more accountability and openness in the public sector, especially about stating expenses and costs of federal government projects and initiatives. Lee wanted to “…ensure the accountability of public policy expenditures to Canadians – who pay the bills – thereby ensuring the legitimacy of our democratic system.”

Prescient words they are, given the current investigations into the Mike Duffy and the Senate entitlement, spending and expense scandals currently in the courts.

But of course, his comments have parallels here, in the local municipal sphere.

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Jade Helm 15 and the Madness of America

FactsFor a guy who gets great entertainment from reading the wild and wacky conspiracy theories that sprout like mushrooms online, I was surprised that I missed the rapid growth of the Jade Helm 15 conspiracy. I only noticed it as a surface ripple until this past weekend, when I realized it had blossomed into a full-blown madness.

Jade Helm 15 goes beyond the usual tinfoil-hat conspiracies: it’s full tinfoil body armour stuff.  And it’s been raised to the level of a hundred voices in an audience all screaming ‘fire’ in a crowded theatre – that being, of course, the internet. But there’s no fire. Not even smoke: it’s all in their imagination.

From the outside, it’s as zany and illogical as chemtrails and creationism, but it plays to a very specific American mindset.* That mindset – a heady mix of isolationism, xenophobia, racism, fundamentalist Christianity, paranoia, suspicion and guns – has been around, brewing up conspiracies since at least the Civil War days. It is the same mentality that created the Red Scare – not once, but twice in US history. It’s the mindset behind the armed Grant’s Pass insurrectionists in Oregon right now. It’s the fuel for the New World Order conspiracies.

Not surprisingly, the adherents of these conspiracies all seem to be white Republicans. I’m sure Democrats believe in some wacky things too – medicare, livable wages, a clean environment, taxing the rich, that sort of thing – but they don’t get the social media play that the Republican conspiracies garner. Maybe there are more paranoid Republicans than Democrats. Or maybe there are simply more paranoid Republicans on Facebook.

As a recent NatPost story tells us, the Jade Helm 15 conspiracy has reached full-blown craziness that scares outsiders:

It’s a window into a worldview where malevolent forces are supposedly preparing to seize control of the United States — and its adherents are extremely grateful to Texas politicians for promoting their cause.

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