The Inquiry Cost $250,000 More? Were We Lied To?

Hidden costsFormer councillor Tim Fryer is back on the agenda this coming week, making another delegation to the Strategic Initiatives Standing Committee about the true costs of the judicial inquiry (aka the Saunderson Vindictive Judicial Inquiry, or SVJI). I admire Tim’s tenacity at trying to get the truth out to the public about this debacle. My respect for him has risen considerably since he’s been off council, but I wish he had been such a bulldog for the truth when he was at the table (I wrote about Fryer’s last appearance in front of the committee here).

At the very end of the agenda, you can read Tim’s letter, starting on page 161* and continuing through page 166. What’s most interesting is that he included a letter from the town to EPCOR, included on pages 163 and 164. That letter shows the town agreed to pay EPCOR’s legal costs over the SVJI of $250,000 or more. Yet those costs do not show up on the town’s most recent official accounting of the costs for the SVJI (read it here) **

For a council eager to censor “fact-check” residents’ comments and letters so they conform to the party line, it seems highly hypocritical to find that the town itself isn’t forthcoming about the facts. Yet we now learn that $250,000 was mysteriously left out of the calculations. As Fryer writes,

I figured if a $4 Walmart or $8 Tim Horton’s expense charge could be included then certainly something like the $250,000 or more of EPCOR’s legal expense coverage, as per the Side Letter Agreement terms established with council after the CJI was initiated, should be too.

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We’ve Seen It All Before

“[They] are most easily recognized by their deliberate perversion of truth and fact. Their newspapers and propaganda carefully cultivate every fissure of disunity, every crack in the common front against fascism. They use every opportunity to impugn democracy… Their final objective toward which all their deceit is directed is to capture political power so that, using the power of the state and the power of the market simultaneously, they may keep the common man in eternal subjection.”

Bradley Hart's book coverSounds like someone knowledgeably writing about modern Trumpist Repugnicans, or maybe even any (all?) of the populist, conservative parties worldwide. It was actually written in 1944 by Henry Wallace, 33rd Vice-President of the USA. He was commenting on the American pro-Nazi fascists. Before WWII, they had millions of followers in organizations like America First, Silver League, the German-American Bund, and similar groups. Many of them continued their subversive activities even while the USA was fighting Germany.

It’s a part of American history detailed in Bradley Hart’s book, Hitler’s American Friends: The Third Reich’s American Supporters in the United States (Thomas Dunne Books – St. Martin’s Press, New York, 2018). It’s not the first book I’ve read on this dark chapter in American history, merely the latest, but what has always puzzled me is how the lessons learned in the 1930s and ’40s about the right and their subversive activities seem to have been forgotten: today, the pro-Nazi right is again on the rise in the USA.*

Hart draws on “recently opened archives and personal papers,” adding a new dimension to the story, documenting in eight chapters the various groups, organizations, and individuals who promoted and pursued various ideologies that, if not specifically pro-Nazi helped Germany’s aims. These include both American politicians, businessmen, university student organizations, spies, and religious leaders. The support for the Nazis in the USA was strong for many years. It still is, although today’s neo-Nazis are mostly sad, puerile imitators of that ideology, with little more than hate and a poor education to collectively sustain them.

It wasn’t just these organizations that promoted racism and fascism in the USA, but also several well-known personalities pushed it (or promoted aspects of it, like anti-Semitism): Henry Ford and Charles Lindbergh are among the most notable, but there were rightwing Christian pastors and churches working for groups like the Christian Front, a pro-Nazi religious-political organization run by the deeply anti-Semitic Father Charles Coughlin. Other pro-Nazi advocates at the time included the Kansas minister Gerald Winrod, Louisiana’s Gerald k. Smith, and others.

Today, the American, pseudo-Christian Talibangelists and fake Evangelists promote many of the same ideologies, although they focus their bile on Muslims more than Jews (when not promoting themselves and demanding money from their gullible followers). These are deeply anti-democratic, pro-authoritarian theocracy lobbyists. They still continue to promote Trump as the winner of the election he lost, and to spread Trump’s lies about election fraud.

Trump is not generally viewed as anti-Semitic, at least in public, although like his profession to Christian faith, it’s highly suspect. He has tweeted what many consider anti-Semitic remarks such as those he made in 2019:

In August, Donald Trump tweeted that Jewish Americans who vote for a Democrat are guilty of ignorance or “great disloyalty: “I think any Jewish people that vote for a Democrat, I think it shows either a lack of knowledge or great disloyalty.” Many commentators wrote that this assertion echoed the anti-Semitic trope that Jewish Americans have “dual loyalty” to Israel.

However, his anti-Muslim bigotry is well established in the public record. In 2017, he retweeted “…a series of anti-Muslim propaganda videos shared online by a high-ranking official in the ultra-nationalist UK political group Britain First” as CNN reported. By spring 2018, barely two years into his term, media had documented “86 Times Donald Trump Displayed or Promoted Islamophobia.”

The actual Nazis in Germany encouraged their American supporters and even launched an official Nazi political organization called the Gauleitung-USA, based in New York City, in 1931. However, after Hitler was appointed Chancellor in ’33, the organization was dissolved and replaced by the German-American Bund. That group included an armed wing modelled after Hitler’s Sturmabteilung (SA), trained to use force. Another group,  Friends of the New Germany, which had recruited around 5,000 members between 1933 and ’35, was also absorbed into the Bund.

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Post-election musings

Biden and TrudeauMedia reports suggest that, like me, most Canadians breathed a large sigh of relief when Joe Biden won the US election and ended the proto-fascist regime in the USA. Not that I think he’s some sort of saviour of American politics: for all the rhetoric the Trump campaign spewed at him and his party, the Democrats are not leftwing, let alone radical. The most “radical” of them all — Bernie Sanders — would barely qualify as a centrist in most Western nations. And most of the rest would be firmly in conservative camps. What Americans chose was not a leftwing president, but rather a more moderate rightwing one.

And to be fair, Biden is far better than any of the proto-fascist Repugnicans who have risen over the past two decades, including Graham, Cruz, McConnell, and others. What Biden will usher in is not a revolution, but a calming normalcy to American politics; back to the cozy, pro-corporate paternalism it’s been for many decades. While politicians take their handouts from the lobbyists, citizens will be able to forget politics for a while and get back to the things that matter to them: Instagram, TikTok, TV, the glitterati, fast food, porn, Snapchat, guns, and pro sports. What Americans want most is for politics to go away and leave them alone.

American is broken in many ways, not least of all its election process and the deeply flawed, racist-based electoral college. Trump’s polarizing presidency highlighted how badly broken the nation is, how divided it is, and how close it has edged to rightwing totalitarianism. His election loss didn’t turn that around, merely slowed the clock. Don’t expect to see any changes in the way American policies are dictated by gun, corporate, and industry lobbyists under Biden.

Of course, it isn’t over yet: the Trump regime can continue its reign of terror, incompetence, illiterate ravings, rage, and racism well into January, 2021, but it’s heartwarming to know the ongoing damage to the USA and its allies will be limited to a few months. Unfortunately, it’s likely another 100,000 Americans will die of COVID-19 in that period because the administration won’t do anything about the pandemic any more than it has done since it began.

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Bring Back the Salons

Salon culture
Today if someone mentions a “salon” you probably think about a haircut or manicure. But in the 18th century, prior to the French Revolution, salons were the focus of civil debate, intellectual curiosity, and culture. They were  centres of discussion on everything from manners to literature to philosophy to science. And they were run by women. Salons were the bright stars of the Enlightenment; cauldrons of intellectual, cultural, and social development.

More than ever, we need a salon culture today. Social media is driving us to ignorance, stupidity, rigidly polarized views, and a culture of confrontation and abuse.

Guests to salons were invited to attend by the salonnières who ran them, and meetings were held in the host’s home, often in her bedroom. Should a guest engage too loudly, exhibit bad manners while there, express themselves too foolishly or show ignorance of the topics under discussion, they were not invited back. And in a highly social society like 18th-century France, to be exiled from participation was a humiliating loss of face. To be well-regarded, one needed to be an active and engaging participant in the salon culture: you gained more points for being amusing, witty, well-read, well-spoken, and polite.

Participants weren’t selected simply for their charm or wit: hosts wanted challenge, lively discussion, and even controversy. They chose people who could offer contrast; those who could speak to opposing views and raise difficult questions for proponents to wrestle with. Salons were even places for musicians, composers, painters, and poets to show off their work and have them critiqued by the guests.

Salons were egalitarian: men and women both participated and engaged in the discussions, breaking away from the male-dominated society of the time, and providing both an informal education for women and an opportunity for them to develop their own views. Women could engage in political discussion in salons while they were barred from them outside. But they also allowed the aristocracy and the bourgeoise to mix and mingle; to engage in ways they could not do outside the salon, breaking down the social barriers.

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The Imperialist Economics of Blueberries

Blueberries from PeruThere was a cooler right at the front of the fruit and vegetable section of the local Walmart store packed with clear plastic containers of blueberries. Plump, dark, fresh-looking berries. And value-priced at $2.87 a container. I love blueberries on my morning cereal; these looked inviting, and so inexpensive! Who can resist such a bargain? I put a container in my shopping cart. Only when I got home did I read the label: product of Peru.

Peru lies more than 6,000 km away from me by air; more than eight hours’ flying time from Toronto, plus a two-hour drive north to here.  Not to mention the time to pick, package, sort, distribute, and shelve them. Yet here was a container of what appeared to be recently-picked blueberries selling for less than a cup of coffee, and less — perhaps less than half — than I usually pay at the local farmers’ market for a similar or even smaller amount. How can that be?

How is it possible to pick these fruit, wash, sort, package, refrigerate, ship to a warehouse, sort, distribute, ship to a store, then stock in that store for as little as $2.87? Along that route are hundreds of people, all of whom need to be paid, from pickers to loaders to pilots, drivers, and store personnel. There’s a whole chain of dependencies in getting them from Peru to my local grocery store while still edible, and a staggering cost in fuel.*

Peru, is, of course, just one South American country sending blueberries worldwide, but this year has become the largest exporter of blueberries: 165,000 metric tonnes in 2020, up from 120,000 in 2019. Half of which goes to the USA. Blueberries — native to North America, not Peru— are also grown in Mexico and South Africa. And how convenient for us here that they do so: we can enjoy these fresh fruit well outside our own limited growing season, as we do with so many other vegetables and fruit. And we can enjoy hundreds of others that can’t possibly grow here: limes, grapefruit, avocados, bananas, lychee, kiwi fruit; our grocery stores are well-stocked with all sorts of imports for our eating pleasures. And often so inexpensive.

Yet again: at what cost? Not to us, of course: our grocery and box stores are locked in a penny-pinching competition to offer us the lowest prices, to lure us in with bargains like these, understanding that while we’re here we’ll also buy more. Yet to enjoy our $2.87 package of ripe blueberries, we must accept that we benefit from the cheap labour and even poverty in the home countries where these are picked; wages we could not possibly live on here. And along with those low wages come predictable lower standards of health, quality, and safety: foods contaminated with pesticides and herbicides, or some noxious or even lethal bacteria are, sadly, rather too common (as of Oct. 9, 2020, the Canadian government site listed 4,012 food recalls; however not all of which are for imported produce).

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Socialism, Communism, and Liberalism

Trumpster fireWatching American political dramas like their presidential elections is both entertaining and frightening. Yet it is also strangely educational. it has taught me a basic tenet: Americans as a people know little to nothing about politics. Not just about international politics, but their own.

It is a commonly held belief outside American borders that Americans are remarkably unaware of the history, politics, leaders, or even existence of other nations, but are often equally ignorant of their own. There are far too many YouTube videos interviewing Americans about both the USA and the world for me to list them, but look at the site yourself to see what I mean.

Sure, many of the US politicians themselves seem to know how their government works (or should work), and may even be masters of their craft, yet from political pronouncements clearly many are also woefully ignorant of political realities. Which explains in part why the general populace is often confused about even things within their own governance system, like the racially-motivated electoral college, how the three branches of government work (or are supposed to work), how executive orders are made, or what the Constitution says (and not merely one or two amendments cherry-picked to support an ideological stance; even their president is remarkably ignorant of this document).

When, for example, Trump implements a tariff on imported goods, his supporters cry in delight that he’s “being tough” on some other nation (as if toughness and nationalism were worthier attributes than alliances and cooperation), without even the slightest understanding that they — his supporters and all other American consumers — will pay the price. Not the other nation, not some foreign government, not some third party like the WTO or UN. The USA is the most consumerist nation on the planet: it’s the consumers who will pay for tariffs because the cost of their goods simply goes up to cover the tariff. But Americans seem not to understand what a tariff actually is: a tax on the things they buy.*

It’s especially evident at election time when the Repugnicans throw around insults and accusations that their opponents are liberals, socialists, communists, and far-left radicals… ooh! Scary! As if America even had a left wing! It only has shades of right; its most moderate politician would still be considered a conservative in many Western nations. But the right will label that person radical, socialist, and even liberal because it’s a dog whistle for rightwing voters. Lions, tigers, and bears, oh my!

This is mere fearmongering akin to calling people witches or warning gullible voters that immigrants will take their jobs: it works best and most efficiently when the audience is ignorant of the facts or is already fixed in their ideology (as in a Trump rally). But like in the Dark Ages, the masses are always susceptible to simplistic rhetoric.

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Will communism as a dominant political ideology ever make a comeback

I took the title from a discussion on Quora about whether Communism is dead or will re-emerge, and if so under what conditions. I don’t believe that the author of the post (Susanna Viljanen, from Aalto University in Finland) who opens that discussion wanted to see Communism arise again, but rather is asking if it can, and under what circumstances. She clearly states at the beginning of her argument,

By now, Communism is dead and buried. Its failure was so spectacular, its achievements so appalling and its legacy so hateful and bitter that nobody in their sane minds – especially in the Eastern Europe, where it was brought by conqueror’s bayonets, want it back. The first round of Communism was the greatest tragedy world ever has seen.

I think we can all agree with that sentiment. Viljanen opens her post with a quote she says is from Karl Marx:

History has a tendency to repeat itself: first time as a tragedy, second time as a farce.

She then adds her own twist: “a third time as a melodrama.”* I won’t debate whether this is true, but Viljanen continues:

Communism and Nazism are basically each other’s mirror images. They appeal to same kind of people and they promise same kind of world – and deliver similar results. So as long as there will be Communists, there will be Nazis as well… But neither ideology can gain enough support as long as the society is a) stable and b) provides its members decent living.

By that logic I assume the reverse: as long as there are Nazis there will be Communists as well, a sort of balancing act between two extreme forms of totalitarianism. But I think that presumes a right-left axis, and I have to argue that for all the labels applied to it, Communism was not a leftwing ideology, but only masqueraded as one, just as the Talibangelists in the USA masquerade as Christians.

Viljanen continues:

…To win, both Nazism and Communism need an unstabilized society – one in chaos, civil war, bankruptcy, natural catastrophe or horribly divided.

She is suggesting, I believe, that the current situation in the USA is becoming (or has become) fertile ground for revolution (a belief shared by some researchers into income inequality; the USA is the fourth highest nation in the GINI inequality scale), but I would disagree: in a deeply consumer-oriented society like the USA, revolutions are rare. You can distract too many people from their political goals with a sale on iPhones (or, for the right, AR-15s) too easily. People in the USA will storm the breach to buy a discounted TV set in a Black Friday sale, but organize nationwide for political purposes? Unlikely (as long as that TV is working). A revolution requires a cadre of informed, dedicated ideologues at its core, and I don’t see them anywhere.

On the other hand, I think the USA is the womb of a rapidly-developing rightwing coup; more like the Nazi solidification of power post-1933 than their Beerhall Putsch. I think the alt-right which always portrays itself as the victim, as the target, as the underdog, is more likely to rise up, but in support of — not against — the totalitarian state because it supports the racist/xenophobic/misogynist ideologies of the alt-right.** But a Communist revolution? Never.

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Shakespeare’s Mirror

Grant that, and then is death a benefit.
So are we Caesar’s friends, that have abridged
His time of fearing death. Stoop, Romans, stoop,
And let us bathe our hands in Caesar’s blood
Up to the elbows and besmear our swords.
Then walk we forth, even to the marketplace,
And, waving our red weapons o’er our heads,
Let’s all cry “Peace, freedom, and liberty!”
Shakespeare: Julius Caesar Act 3 Sc 1.

I was thinking about this play and how well it related to the events of this era, a time when Trump’s domestic terrorists are killing their fellow citizens. A time when an armed teenager walks blithely past the police waving his assault rifle after murdering unarmed protestors. A time when the neo-Nazis in the Repugnican camp kill their fellow citizens for a twisted vision of freedom and liberty.

Casca’s description  of walking through Rome the night before Caesar’s murder is full of omens and portents. He asks Cicero what might be asked of politicians today, “Are not you moved, when all the sway of earth/ Shakes like a thing unfirm?” And in the antifa and Black Lives Matter protests, people today see similar omens and portents, see their fears and hopes in the flames.*

King TrumpI was thinking about how in this play Shakespeare showed us a nation polarized into two deeply-divided camps, surrounded by the swirling violence of mobs, as demagogues railed at the citizenry inciting them to madness. There’s a dictator who wants to be king, and those who fight to restore the republic. There are corrupt and honest people on both sides, opportunists and true believers. The only thing missing from the comparison between Shakespeare’s ancient Rome and today’s USA is the overt racism that motivates Trump’s followers.

Earlier in the play, Brutus mulls over the nature of tyranny and power, saying,

Th’ abuse of greatness is when it disjoins remorse from power.
Julius Caesar (Act 2, Sc.1)

Again, how well this could be applied to the narcissistic Trump and his callous disregard for the consequences of his actions, or for the victims of his blundering and misadventures (e.g. the 183,000 dead from his mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic). One could easily find more lines that relate equally well in this and the Bard’s other works. Like the line from Coriolanus, Act 2, Sc. 2,

“…there had been many great men that have flattered the people, who ne’er loved them…”

Or how about Queen Margaret, in Henry VI Part 3 (Act 3, Sc. 3) saying,

For how can tyrants safely govern home,
Unless abroad they purchase great alliance?

Now think about Trump and his kowtowing subservience to Vladimir Putin and America’s enemy, Russia, and all Trump has done to further Russian interests… or how about Pericles warning in Pericles, Act 1 Sc. 2, that,

‘Tis time to fear when tyrants seem to kiss.

And then consider Trump’s passionate, even homoerotic, affection for North Korea’s dictator Kim Jong Un…

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The Hermeneutics of Suspicion

Enough SaidThe title is a phrase I encountered while reading Mark Thompson’s excellent book on political rhetoric, Enough Said: What’s Wrong With the Language of Politics? Thompson’s book is both about the current and historic use of political rhetoric (from Aristotle forward), but also about the role of journalists in covering it. Thompson — a former new editor and executive in the BBC and now with the New York Times — maintains we are in  “a crisis of political language” that comes from a combination of modern media, social media use, and also in the changing way politicians speak (“characterised by lies, spin and demagoguery.”)

The phrase itself was coined by the French philosopher Paul Ricœur, in his book on the writings of Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, and Friedrich Nietzsche, but Thompson uses it to describe the mindset of suspicion and disbelief in modern journalists towards politicians, and the reverse shared distrust, as well as the public’s suspicion of the media in presenting its content.*

Personally, I believe a strong sense of skepticism and disbelief is necessary for a journalist to see through the spin and the bullshit to the hidden truths and the corruption below the surface. It’s necessary to have a skeptical perspective so as not to be conned by the blandishments and empty assurances of the corporate elite, too. Without skepticism, journalists are vulnerable to piffle in an age where there is so much disinformation and claptrap around.

In a speech given in 2008, Thompson said, 

…proportionate, rational scepticism is healthy and a civic good – as well as being a prime building block of good journalism… the evidence points rather the other way: the less you trust politicians and public institutions, the more likely you are to believe in outré conspiracy theories, not to mention witches and warlocks and so on.
What the evidence points to, I think, is of a large group of the population who feel outside a charmed circle of knowledge and power. Modern public policy is fiendishly complex and debates about it are conducted in a mysterious, technocratic language which – despite the best efforts of the BBC and some of the rest of the media – many people find hard to understand. This by the way may be why, as Onora O’Neill pointed out, the modern mechanisms of accountability, which are riddled with this impenetrable language, have not only failed to arrest the decline in trust but may have accelerated it.

And also in that same speech, he noted,

One of the tasks of a free press is to uncover public malfeasance. The media is right to be alert to it and to pursue and investigate any evidence that it is taking place. But no good – and almost certainly some ill – is served by exaggeration or endlessly crying wolf… However, this does not seem to be one of the main drivers of broader public disillusion…The biggest reason people give is because, in their view, politicians don’t tell the truth. People also think politicians “say what they want people to hear” and they don’t give straight answers – all issues related to the theme of truth telling.

Trust has to be earned by both sides, and is not a right or a given by either. It starts by being honest. Non-critical acceptance of political or corporate blarney by the media leads to the sort of banal, bland coverage (it doesn’t deserve to be called reporting) we get in the ideological media (like PostMedia and Fox “News”) where everything conservative is treated as wonderful and illuminating, and anything done, suggested, or spoken by a liberal or Democrat is vilified regardless of content or context. This reduces their content to a sort of Tarzan-Jane language of simplisticisms: “Them bad. Us good.” This, of course, appeals increasingly to a polarized audience that views complexity and intellectualism with suspicion and hostility.

Little wonder public disillusion with politicians has extended to the media**. We used to expect of our media to be the watchdogs of the greater good; trusted guardians of the public weal to give us truth and fairness. We also expected them to look deeper into issues on our behalf. Now we expect far too many of them to merely regurgitate the party line, shills for the shallow, self-serving ideology of their corporate owners.

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