Category Archives: Canadian Politics

Before You Become a Politician


IgnatieffNo, this isn’t about me. This is about federal politics. I never had an inclination for higher levels of politics, those other arenas, other battles, nor the lofty separation of politician from the electorate such roles entail. But some of it is relevant to those who want to enter municipal politics; indeed to all levels of politics.

It’s a letter from the former leader of the Liberal party, Michael Ignatieff. And a touching letter it is.

After an glorious entrance into politics, hailed as the next Pierre Trudeau, a towering intellectual giant among the pygmies, Ignatieff was eventually elected leader, then battled and buffeted by the political Pulcinellas – both internal and external – so badly he was turned into a caricature (as was his predecessor, Stephane Dion). And in the world of politics, you can survive being loved or hated, but not laughed at. His party failed miserably in the election.

Ignatieff resigned, then shuffled off ignominiously, back to academia. He now teaches at Harvard’s Kennedy School.

Still, I had great respect for him, for his intellect, and tremendous empathy for his travails. It’s hard to be a man with honour on that field.

In this letter, posted on The New Republic, he writes to an admirer who asked his advice about entering politics. Ignatieff opens by stating,

All I’d claim is that my thoughts come with what Scott Fitzgerald called “the authority of failure.”

I think as most politicians realize (or come to realize once in office), failure may not always be of your own making in a world of increasingly personal, negative and angry politics where blame is cast about like birdseed on a windy day. Even success can be framed as a failure by opponents, and the message spread by the channels of newspeak: social media, well outside the control of any politician’s spin.

Dissembling, combined with egregious nastiness, has long been a signature component of politics. Ignatieff seems not to have recognized this until he was already swimming with the piranhas:

I had the vocation for politics. What I didn’t have was any aptitude for political combat. I took the attacks personally, which is a great mistake. It’s never personal: It’s just business. It was ever thus. You can prepare yourself for combat by going in as a staffer, watching it from the sidelines, as I did when I was in my twenties, but believe me, when you step in the ring yourself, the first punch always comes as a shock. That’s when you’ll know, as you snap your head back into place, whether your first instinct is fight or flight.

I went into politics thinking that, if I made arguments in good faith, I’d get a hearing. It’s a reasonable assumption, but it’s wrong. In five and a half years in politics up north, no one really bothered to criticize my ideas, such as they were. It was never my message that was the issue. It was always the messenger.

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The mote and the beam



“Hide witch hide, the good folks come to burn thee;
Their keen enjoyment hid behind a Gothic mask of duty.”

Jefferson Starship: Mau Mau (Blows Against the Empire, 1970)

I was thinking about those lines recently. They seemed appropriate given the events in town since last spring. I was also thinking about what Gord Hume wrote in 2011:

“Explosive internet columns, blogs, and opinion pieces that do not seem to be overly-burdened with concerns about facts or accuracy are now being added to the traditional media mix, and have further aroused this toxic brew.”
Gordon Hume: Take Back Our Cities, Municipal World

Toxic certainly describes the political atmosphere in Collingwood these days. It’s been a rough campaign season, although I have to say thanks to the support I and some other members of council have received from residents. It’s good to know the poison has not seeped into every pore. Not everyone listens to the harridans of hatred.

Treason has done his worst: nor steel, nor poison,
Malice domestic, foreign levy, nothing,
Can touch him further.
Shakespeare: Macbeth

Coffee mugIt’s a sad day indeed for this community when any person is judged guilty solely on an allegation from a blogger, without any evidence, without even hearing his or her side. Just innuendo, rumour and gossip. And increasingly more often, outright lies.

What happened to our Canadian sense of justice and fairness?

A former politician recently called the attitude among the local negativists as a “lynch mob” mentality and referred to the madness of the McCarthy era. Both seem, sadly, true.

But I have to add: Honi soit qui mal y pense – evil be to him who evil thinks.

Who would have thought anyone in this small, quiet, beautiful town would be so shamelessly determined to hurt and demean others? I simply don’t understand that. It’s outside my ken.

I never understood bullying. And now we have the local cyberbullies pointing their fingers at us and call us bullies when we stand up to them and demand accountability; who damn us for asking questions of staff after they spent years castigating and accusing staff themselves.

Ah, the hypocrisy never ends, does it?

It sometimes disheartens me, demoralizes me. Maliciousness affects our families, our friends and neighbours. It is, as Gord Hume wrote, a toxic brew; and it keeps getting stirred by this small group.

Social media rewards partisanship. It is the nature of the medium that like-minded people talk to one another and reinforce one another. It is easy to dismiss any aliens who challenge your prejudices. Unquestioned prejudices shrivel into slogans and labels.
keller.blogs.nytimes.com

These attack posts, these accusations are not about engagement, or debate, issues, process, or even democracy. Never have been. Democracy comes with responsibilities; social media doesn’t. They’re not about civil debate; the mature exchange of ideas and views. They’re not the Collingwood way of engaging one another.

They’re simply about hurting someone else, about smearing them, discrediting them, demeaning and belittling them, getting revenge for a council decision they didn’t like. Just like in the school yard: bullies, grown up to be cyberbullies.

There’s always been a political agenda playing in the wings. This term it’s been replete with dirty politics, name-calling, smears, lies and self-righteous but groundless accusations. Some say it’s part of a generations-old feud between Liberals and Conservatives. Or just a longstanding personal animosity between some current and former politicians. Others say it’s big-city politics, or Harper politics, or American politics. Doesn’t matter: the relentless personal attacks, the denunciations, the accusations have continued unabated, their angry clamour growing louder with every week as we approach the election date.

Any opportunity for an engaging debate on the issues, even for simple explanation and exchange of views, was scorched away by the ongoing vitriol. Who can be heard over the continual schoolyard shouting, the lies and taunts?

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Canada Post writes its own obituary


National PostHeadline news this week: Canada Post moves to end home delivery.

End home delivery? For me, both as  a writer, a lay historian, and growing up in an era where letters were important for communication, business, family and for art, that’s just crazy. I mean really, seriously, way-more-insane-than-the-OLG crazy. But, in an age of declining letter writing – where the tyranny of the Twitterverse is reducing our literary skills to hashtags and cryptic abbreviations- it may be inevitable.*

Charlie Gillis wrote in MacLean’s wrote about the accelerating slide to digital communication back in  March, outlining both the challenges the postal service faces and some options for its future:

Robert Campbell, the author of a 2002 book on fixing postal services, led the review panel that recommended against the privatization of Canada Post. He says he suggested the reprieve, not as a permanent state of affairs, but as a temporary measure allowing the postal service to restructure to a new world of competition. “You’ve got what is basically a smokestack industry here that’s trying to modernize,” says Campbell, currently the president of Mount Allison University in Sackville, N.B. “It has huge legacy costs.”

Chief among its burdens: a $4-billion pension liability owed to current and retired employees that could hobble it in the face of leaner, private-sector competitors. Ottawa owes Canada Post the time—and possibly the financial assistance—to deal with that overhead before opening the field to its rivals, Campbell argues.

Well, Canada Post has shaken the tree of its own accord, sans the intervention of Ottawa (which, given the current government and its inability to deal with the scandals in the Senate or the PMO, might be just as well).

And on top of that seismic shift, CP will dramatically increase the cost of postage. So were they thinking, we’re  already losing money: let’s find another way to discourage users!

UK mail man, 1885(Okay, to be fair, CP should have raised the price quite some time ago. This history of annual one-two cent increases was never a good business model given Canada’s large distances and small populations. And given the value of the penny even when it was in circulation, a jump of five cents would hardly have mattered. But until 2011, CP was making money, so maybe it never occurred to them to squirrel away a little extra for the lean years.)

But what is happening to letter writing?

When I browse my book shelves I see collections of letters to and from some of the greats of history: Darwin, Einstein, Dickens, Wilde. I don’t imagine there will be many future books of great emails, great Facebook posts, or great tweets. Writing a letter takes thought, takes care, is an emotional and personal investment. Writing on social media is generally instant, immediate, thoughtless; a reflex, a reaction, not a considered act.

Blogs, of course, may sometimes be considered the exception – although counter-argument might be made that many blogs are just lengthier versions of the tweet, and others are simply a platform for a more vituperative – but similarly reactive – anger than a FB post. But even a blog does not involve the same sort of contemplative act that handwriting entails, simply because the technology allows us to revise and rewrite in a way that the handwritten word does not.

(Handwriting’s demise is really another topic, which I started on about months ago and now have to resuscitate that draft post to include this week’s news. On a personal note: although I blog and enjoy digital media, I also keep handwritten notebooks. Sadly, I too share the guilt in the decline of letter writing.)

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What’s it all about, Alfie?


Facebook image“What’s it all about, Alfie?” sings Cilla Black in the title song for the eponymous 1966 movie. But it could be the anthem for the human race, or at least those with a philosophical bent. “What’s it all about?” is certainly a question that springs to my mind daily as I listen to the news, read a paper or surf the internet.*

What “it” is all about was raised this week when the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal granted that atheism is a “creed” that deserves the same protections in law and public policy as any faith, equal under the Human Rights Code.

David A. Wright, associate chairman of the tribunal, made the statement that,“Protection against discrimination because of religion, in my view, must include protection of the applicants’ belief that there is no deity.”

A delightful victory for secular humanists and freethinkers. Atheists of all stripes should have the same right to spread their beliefs or proselytize like any other person who does it in the name of faith. Rights of expression should not be constrained by having no faith. By the same token, they have to obey he same rules as to where and when it is appropriate to do so.

Fair enough. But don’t expect to see atheists showing up at your front door wanting to give you a copy of Skeptic magazine, hoping to be invited into your living room for a chat about your salvation.

The decision also sparked a lot of lively debate about just what atheism is. What is “it” that deserves protection and is there anything definite, some commonality that clearly defines just what an atheist is? Spoiler: the answer is no.

It has also brought to the surface many misunderstandings about atheism – as well as general misunderstanding about what the words “religion” and “creed” mean. As reporter in the St. Catherine Standard, “Commission lawyer Cathy Pike argued in part the tribunal didn’t need to determine if atheism or secular humanism is a creed.” Quite right. But they did anyway.

The decision was a topic on the recent CBC radio show, Day Six, which asked “Is atheism a religion?” – a question not unlike asking “is a fish a bicycle?” Or as one poster on the CBC site wryly commented, “It has been variously said that atheism is a religion as: bald is a hair colour; “Off” is a TV channel, and; abstinence is a sex position.”

Many writers commenting on this decision share similar confusions over the idea of atheism, and mistake atheism for religion (a bit like mistaking a bicycle for a bus because they both have wheels). Perhaps most comments I’ve read come from writers who have a religion they want to defend and have a difficult time understanding a life without faith, so they need to put non-belief into a context they can comprehend.

For example, Licia Corbella, columnist in the Calgary Herald, wrote:

This may be a leap of faith, but here’s hoping that maybe now, atheists — many of whom have proven themselves to be a highly motivated evangelistic group accustomed to ramming their minority religion down the throats of the majority — will face the same scrutiny of their beliefs as traditional faiths have been undergoing for decades in Canada at their behest.

Corbella’s desire to punish atheists for their presumption notwithstanding, that atheism isn’t a religion can be proven by the semantics. While there are many variant definitions of what a religion is, Wikipedia’s is fairly good (emphasis added):

Religion is an organized collection of beliefs, cultural systems, and world views that relate humanity to the supernatural, and to spirituality. Many religions have narratives, symbols, and sacred histories that are intended to explain the meaning of life and/or to explain the origin of life or the Universe. From their beliefs about the cosmos and human nature, they tend to derive morality, ethics, religious laws or a preferred lifestyle. According to some estimates, there are roughly 4,200 religions in the world.

Dictionary.com adds this (emphasis added):

  1. a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.
  2. a specific fundamental set of beliefs and practices generally agreed upon by a number of persons or sects: the Christian religion; the Buddhist religion.
  3. the body of persons adhering to a particular set of beliefs and practices: a world council of religions.
  4. the life or state of a monk, nun, etc.: to enter religion.
  5. the practice of religious beliefs; ritual observance of faith.

Austin Cline quotes an “Encyclopedia of Philosophy” (undefined as to which publisher, since there are numerous such works) for this rather exhaustive definition:

  • Belief in supernatural beings (gods).
  • A distinction between sacred and profane objects.
  • Ritual acts focused on sacred objects.
  • A moral code believed to be sanctioned by the gods.
  • Characteristically religious feelings (awe, sense of mystery, sense of guilt, adoration), which tend to be aroused in the presence of sacred objects and during the practice of ritual, and which are connected in idea with the gods.
  • Prayer and other forms of communication with gods.
  • A world view, or a general picture of the world as a whole and the place of the individual therein. This picture contains some specification of an over-all purpose or point of the world and an indication of how the individual fits into it.
  • A more or less total organization of one’s life based on the world view.
  • A social group bound together by the above.

Almost all definitions state that a religion is a collection of formal beliefs that include a supernatural or superhuman agency. But what agency or organization determines or collates this collection for atheists? None.

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Christmas Creep in August


Xmas XcessOn August 22, we got the Sears “Christmas Wish” catalogue delivered to our home. It was a sunny, hot day that almost reached 30C. The sprinkler was watering the garden while we enjoyed a cold beer on the porch, sitting in shorts and T-shirts.

The last thing I wanted on my mind was winter. But there it was, two pounds of wildly-inappropriate seasonal shopping choices, refusing to be ignored. As welcome as a fart in a crowded elevator.

It seems every year “Christmas Creep” advances down the calendar, earlier and earlier. Last year I heard Xmas music in stores on November 1, right after Hallowe’en. I was told that canned Xmas crap played on November 11 – while we stood in silence during the Remembrance Day memorial service – in stores where no one takes a mere two minutes of silence to remember our veterans.

That’s seriously ugly and not a little demented. Are we so shallow, our values so twisted that we can’t stop marketing, can’t stop advertising and promoting for a mere two minutes of respect? This egregious commercialism is eroding our values, like the inexorable ocean waves erode the shoreline.

The Urban Dictionary defines Christmas Creep as:

Universally hated, market driven phenomenon that if left unchecked will eventually culminate in an uninterrupted decade of concatenated carol medleys, closely followed by a glorious moment of frantic arson destroying every Christmatastasized mall in America.

Add Canada into that definition, please. I’d call for boycotts, but it seems too tame after that.

Shoppers heard Xmas carols blaring through stores on Oct 27, in the American city of Frederick, in 2010, spurring customer complaints. Didn’t stop everyone from maxing out their credit cards, it seems.

That’s not the earliest, by the way. But shoppers may be getting immune to the hypocrisy, to the calendrical backstep that brings Xmas shopping earlier every year.

One day soon, I expect, we’ll hear Xmas music in stores right after Labour Day. Think I’m crazy? Groupon had “beat the holiday rush” coupons out in July, and Costco had Xmas decorations on display this August!

Despite what the calendar says to the contrary, summer is over for many retailers and Christmas Creep is in full swing.

In Australia, though, Charles Areni, a professor of marketing thinks getting out the Xmas decorations and playing the music the sooner the better is good for sales:

“Christmas carols are a very specific genre. They’re in a major key, they have nostalgic value, they have a reasonably fast tempo – generally they’re pretty happy. With Christmas carols it’s very much about getting people to think about buying Christmas gifts, so they have a very specific purpose.”

In addition, music is specially chosen to appeal to a shop’s target market. If people like the music, they are more likely to stay longer in the shop – the longer they stay, the more likely they are to make a purchase or spend more money.

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Believing is Seeing


Persuasion“He who permits himself to tell a lie once,” wrote Thomas Jefferson (in a letter to his nephew, Peter Carr, from Paris, France, 1785), “finds it much easier to do it a second and third time, till at length it becomes habitual; he tells lies without attending to it, and truths without the world’s believing him. This falsehood of tongue leads to that of the heart, and in time depraves all its good dispositions.”

Anyone following the ups and downs of federal and provincial politics would have no trouble believing Jefferson’s words. We often believe – without any evidence to support our belief – that politicians lie, simply because other people say so. But Jefferson’s words are a truism that ranges far further, into faith, into social interaction, into relationships and work. It’s all about persuasion, likability and “social proof” or consensus:

…human beings often make choices about what to think, and what to do, based on the thoughts and actions of others. Simply stated: We like to follow the crowd.

People also tend to say yes and agree with people they like (and who shares areas of similarity).

Robert Levine, writing in The Power of Persuasion, says this shows Jefferson “understood the act of taking a stance galvanizes the belief behind the stance.”

In other words, although the speaker knows it isn’t true, by saying it often and loudly enough, the speaker will come to believe it himself, regardless of the truth. Cialdini’s rules of “social proof” and likability come into play here, too, along with the notion of self-justification:

Cialdini says that we’re more likely to be influenced by people we like. Likability comes in many forms – people might be similar or familiar to us, they might give us compliments, or we may just simply trust them.

If you feel the speaker is “one of us,” likable or a peer, someone who shares some similarity with us, we are more likely to consequently repeat the content. We will then commit to that belief by repeating it often enough ourselves.* Continue reading

How should a municipality deal with cigarette litter?


Telegraph UK imageI was sitting on a decorative rock on the landscaping west of Loblaws, this weekend, waiting while Susan was inside and amusing myself at the bad driving habits of our city visitors in the parking lot. I happened to look down and saw what little, rough grass there was, was almost totally buried in cigarette butts. Toxic, non-decaying, environmentally hazardous and socially hostile cigarette butts. Ugh.

It’s not just there, it’s everywhere. Look along the streets, sidewalks, in the park grass. Thousands of cigarette butts, dozens, maybe hundreds of wrappers and packages every kilometer you walk.

An estimated two million cigarette butts are littered in the USA every day. Phillip Morris even notes that cigarette butts make up the first item of garbage on every American beach. It’s not simply a problem: it’s a disaster. This stuff is seriously toxic.

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