O tempora, o mores!

Nihil est incertius vulgo, nihil obscurius voluntate hominum, nihil fallacius ratione tota comitiorum.

Marcus Tullius Cicero wrote those words in the short book about a Roman court case, Pro Lucio Murena (For Lucius Murena). They mean, in English,

Nothing is more unpredictable than the mob, nothing more obscure than public opinion, nothing more deceptive than the whole political system.” *

Cicero, Delphi ClassicsIn 63 BCE, Cicero successfully defended Lucius Licinius Murena on the charge of bribery or in Latin, crimina ambitus as a means to garner votes. The wealthy Murena had won his election as consul and the charge was filed by the losing candidate, Servius Sulpicius (also a lawyer, who would be elected consul 11 years after this trial).

It’s a fascinating document that says much about Roman history, politics and law. And like everything Cicero wrote, it’s full of quotable bits.

I came to this from watching, of all things, some episodes of the TV series, Boston Legal. What I find intriguing about the show is the legal scenes; the courtroom arguments, the banter in front of the jury, the way the lawyers approach each issue, and how they make their defence. There are some tricky moral issues raised in those scenes that are deeper than the rest of the show, which is really a soap opera set in a lawyers’ office (albeit with some funny dialogue).

So, my head full of ideas, I turned to Cicero on my Kindle, and started reading online what others had to say about this particular piece.

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The Crow and the Pond

Fat CrowOne day, the crafty old crow was sitting in his nest while his pack of pet doves brought him breakfast and plucked out their own chest feathers to make sure his nest was soft and warm. He happened to glance down to the forest floor and saw a large pond at which deer and other animals were drinking. The water was clear and inviting.

“That’s a mighty big pond,” the old crow thought to himself. “I’d like to bathe in it. I’d like to drink from its clear waters. But not with so many other animals around. I want it all to myself. And if I can’t have it, no one should have it.”

At the far side, beavers were busy shoring up the dam they had made to create the pond so all the forest animals could drink from it.

“Beavers,” muttered the crow. “I hate beavers. They’re always doing things for other animals. Always making this and that, fixing things, helping others. They’re everyone’s friend. Can’t stand beavers.”

Then he looked at the deer around the pond. “Don’t like those deer, either. They’re too friendly with the beavers. Can’t have that in my forest. Beavers and deer should never be close like that. It’s unnatural. I’ll have to put an end to that pretty damned quick.”

So the crow called his friend, the fox, and said to him, “Foxie, this isn’t right. Those beavers are damaging the forest. They’re making a mess. And they must be doing it for some nefarious reason. Am I right? It’s not right to let them build things like this. I need you to stop them. Dig something up. Do it and I’ll tell you where the doves nest and lay their tasty eggs.”

And with that, the fox ran into the woods and returned with the carcass of a dead squirrel that had been buried for several months. That night, when all the animals were asleep, the fox placed the smelly, dead squirrel on a rock beside the pond. When morning rose and the animals came again to drink, but drew back when they saw the dead squirrel.

“See this poor dead squirrel?” The fox shouted at them. “The beavers killed it. They were hiding its body and using it to poison the water. But I found it and brought it here to warn you. You better leave here now or you’ll get sick. Or worse. Maybe they’ll kill you next!”

The beavers, hearing the fox, tried to protest, and tell the animals they were innocent, but the old crow flew overhead and cawed so loudly he drowned out their protests. The animals only heard the fox, only saw the carcass. Many of them got scared and ran away.

“But where will we go?” asked the deer. “We’ve used this pond all our lives. We are friends with the beavers. We work well together. Surely they won’t harm us!”

The crow flew down to the ground and paraded in front of them. “Nonsense. The beavers are plotting against you. I have heard their whispering. You aren’t safe around them. I know a place where you will be safe from these vicious beavers. And you’ll have all the fresh water you can drink. Just follow me.”

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The ‘Sharing Economy’ is a Hoax

Time MagazineStop calling it the sharing economy. It’s an oxymoron, like ‘creation science’ or ‘sustainable capitalism.’ It’s not collaborative: it’s the new indentured servant economy. If you believe these corporations are all about sharing and collaboration, then you’re mightily gullible. You’ve been had.

These are big, multi-billion dollar corporations whose executives are millionaires. They are more akin to drug cartels than to cooperative economics. The economic similarities are evident: both use others – the users or subscribers – to break the law for them, to generate their wealth for them, to do their dirty work, then leave those users to face legal, moral and social ramifications – and costs – on their own.

What, you think the CEOs of Uber rent their own BMW’s or Audi’s seats out to strangers and drive them around when they’re not in the office? That the CEOs of Airbnb rent their spare rooms – and they have a lot in their mansions – to strangers for weekend stays? No: you do it for them so they don’t have to take the risks. They’re laughing at you all the way to the bank.

And to icing the cake: these firms get their service providers to put their own property and even their lives at risk – and the lives and safety of their customers – without having to compensate them for it! It’s a capitalist wet dream! A gold mine of cash flowing one way into the corporate coffers. Open another bottle of that bubbly, James, we’re expanding.

As Dean Baker wrote in the Guardian in 2014:

…this new business model is largely based on evading regulations and breaking the law… If these services are still viable when operating on a level playing field they will be providing real value to the economy. As it stands, they are hugely rewarding a small number of people for finding a creative way to cheat the system.

You’re not getting to “share” your home or your vehicle: you’re working for a company to help buy someone a new yacht. Someone who doesn’t give a shit about your welfare, safety or income. You’re contributing to the 1%. Shame on you.

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De Officiis: Cicero on Political Obligations

Cicero: On Obligations

No phase of life, whether public or private, whether in business or in the home, whether one is working on what concerns oneself alone or dealing with another, can be without its moral duty; on the discharge of such duties depends all that is morally right, and on their neglect all that is morally wrong in life.

Cicero wrote that in 44 BCE in his last work in his last year of life: De Officiis, or in English: On Obligations. The translation from Book 1.4 above comes from the Perseus Project (the 1913 Miller/Loeb translation). In the 2000 edition (Oxford University Press, reprinted 2008, and recently added to my library), translator P.G. Walsh renders that piece thus:

There is no aspect of life public or private, civic or domestic, which can be without its obligation, whether in our individual concerns or in our relations with our neighbour. Honourable behaviour lies entirely in the performance of such obligations, and likewise base conduct lies in neglecting them.

The main theme of Marcus Tullius Cicero’s book is stated here, at the beginning: we are all bound by obligations to one another, and if we are honourable people, then we must act on, and never forget, those obligations. Of course, he has a lot more to say, but that’s the gist of it.

The 62-year-old Cicero watched as Rome was taken over by the followers of the recently assassinated Julius Caesar (whom he criticized). He watched how the republic was subverted to the rule of the autocrats and tyrants (whom he also openly criticized). The result of his speaking out was his being named an enemy of the state. Marc Anthony ordered Cicero’s execution and had his severed head and hands displayed in the forum. Such is the way tyrants deal with dissent.

Cicero’s world and life have parallels in today’s politics: his words still have meaning and relevamce today. One need only look at today’s Republican candidates’ struggle for supremacy, or locally to see what has happened to our own council, to understand those parallels.*

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The Political Agnostic

party politicsWatching the American political debates, especially the increasingly vituperative and acerbic Republican debates, reminds me again why I am a political agnostic when it comes to party politics. I simply cannot believe that any single political entity, any party or person, has all the answers or can dig us out of whatever hole we’re currently in.

And America, with its rigid, two-party system, has seen its electoral options, choices and opportunities reduced to caricature status. On one side, a group of frighteningly racist, homophobic, xenophobic, gun-fanatic Christianists. On the other, a woman with no clear policies but a sense of entitlement.

And then there’s Bernie Saunders, who is the closest thing to an independent I’ve seen in years. He’s the best and brightest hope American politics has seen since JFK. And unlikely to be chosen as the Democratic candidate by a political system in which both parties are built on money, graft, corruption, corporate lobbying, and catering to the lowest common denominator.

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Oh, Ann, You Do Make Me Laugh

Ann Coulter, harridanAnn Coulter, that spewing harridan of hatred, bigotry, malevolence and xenophobia makes most thoughtful people cringe. Hell, she makes even rabid, right-wing frothers cringe. She makes the Westboro Baptist morons cringe. She makes the Duck Dynasty wingnuts cringe. She out-froths them all.

Coulter represents the worst of human behaviour and thought in so many areas, blackening the eyes of even the most fervent right wing, which she alleges to defend. But you have to admit this thick-as-a-brick viper is sometimes good for a laugh.

Coulter recently endorsed Donald Trump as the Republican presidential candidate. Which isn’t surprising: they are siblings in vehement hate speech. But I bet it made all the other candidates relieved: her endorsement would be the kiss of death to any reasonable or moderate candidate (yes, that description is a stretch for the lot of them: they are only moderate in comparison to the frontrunners… that doesn’t reduce their collective reprehensibleness…).

It would be a better political strategy to declare themselves atheist, gay and stricken with Ebola than to accept Coulter’s endorsement. That, at least, might appeal to some voters.

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Cowboy Noir

John Wayne

I hadn’t previously considered western movies as film noir – I always thought of them as crime dramas – until I watched The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance over the holidays, perhaps my third viewing of the 1962 movie. The gloomy shadows, the dark sets, the agony of the characters. And then it struck me: cowboy noir.

But why not? Noir is, after all not a theme as much as an atmosphere. As one reviewer of cowboy noir put it,

Noir is like a disease. Its symptoms are moodiness, despair, guilt, and paranoia… The tropes of the Western—sunlight, open spaces, nature—would seem to immune to the noir disease. But make no mistake, the Western caught the disease. A genre that seemed to be the quintessence of American optimism, a genre that seemed to embody the notion of moral clarity, slowly gave way to darker themes and more neurotic characters.

Yet among his eight films chosen, TMWSLV isn’t to be found. In one IMDB list of 100 western noir films, it squeaks in at number 99. In this one and this one, it doesn’t even rate a listing.

Imogen Sara Smith, writing in Bright Lights film journal, 2009, noted,

…westerns have always encompassed more complexity than the simplistic “oaters” made for children’s matinees,2 and after World War II some westerns took on a new tone, borrowing the themes, plots and look of film noir.

For me, it’s a classic, close the being the classic, western and certainly I think John Ford’s best western. Others differ (The Guardian, for example, doesn’t include it in its list of top Western films). Some dismiss it as a failed attempt. Me, I enjoyed it more this time around than any viewing in the past.

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Mao: The Unknown Dictator

Mao, the Unknown StoryAlthough I have read many biographies of the European dictators, and many histories of Europe and the Americas in the first half of the 20th century, I hadn’t read much about modern China until recently. Mao: The Unknown Story (by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday) was the first full-length biography I’ve read about Mao Tse Tung (Mao Zedong) and it is a remarkable work about a time and place in history that remains veiled to most of us even today.

Mao’s rise to power and his leadership that won the Communist Party its iron-fisted rule in China has often been portrayed as one of courage, sacrifice, determination and brilliance. Western journalists like Edgar Snow helped make Mao a sympathetic, even heroic character in Western eyes. But it was a sham. Snow was fooled into creating an image by being fed carefully doctored material. Mao’s image in the west was whitewashed in an effective propaganda campaign (one is reminded of the story of the Potemkin villages…).

According to Chang and Halliday, Mao’s life and political career has more in common with that of Josef Stalin than any other political leaders. He was, they write, a monster, responsible for the deaths of at least 70 million Chinese,more than any other international leader (I have read claims for higher figures about Stalin, however), mostly during the catastrophic “Great Leap Forward.”

I have to admit I struggled a bit trying to keep track of a host of characters with whom I had no familiarity, especially those who appear at the start of Mao’s career and don’t last its length. Of the roster of Mao’s friends and foes who appear later, I only really knew from my previous reading about Chou En Lai,  Liu Shaoqi and Lin Biao; and not really all that much about them.

I knew a little more about Jiang Qing, of course, because Madame Mao got Western media coverage when the Gang of Four fell from grace after Mao’s death. Most of my previous reading on China has been about its classical philosophers and poets. I knew more about Li Po, Tu Fu and Lao Tzi than about Mao and his minions. But I am trying to educate myself in China’s modern history.

Reading about Mao’s “Cultural Revolution” in this book, I thought about several Western novels: Orwell’s 1984, Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and Golding’s Lord of the Flies, all of which have some resonance. I also thought about Jan Wong’s excellent biography, Red China Blues, in which she found her youthful idealism for Mao’s China dissolved in the hypocrisy she discovered when she went to live there.

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Proportional Representation in Canada

[youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=laUPeXZlPEg]

Another Canadian election has gone by where the majority government is formed by a party winning only 40% of the popular vote. This has political watchers and pundits increasingly vocal about changing the electoral system. But most of them agree it needs changing.

So far, however, the Liberals are mum on how their campaign promise to reform our electoral system will be implemented. And while I have faith our new Prime Minister will be true to his word, since it will come from a committee effort, one can only wonder what sort of camel that horse will be.*

Over the past few years, I have become increasingly interested in election reform and the institution of a better, more equitable and more democratic form of representation. With the passage of the voter control legislation by the Harper Conservatives – a law that represses voter participation in our democracy, rather than encouraging it – I became concerned that unless we change the system, we are doomed to continuing abuses in our less-than-representational governments.

However, I have yet to see proposed a system that, in my mind, works efficiently. Proportional voting has three distinct methods, and a couple more sub-methods, none of which strike me as entirely satisfactory. But all seem more fair than our current method in giving Canadians real representation. Fair Vote Canada notes the goal of proportional representation is…

…to balance the benefits of introducing some element of proportionality with the capacity to maintain accountable government, most notably as a direct link between elected politicians and their constituents.

Back in 2007, there was a referendum in Ontario for a mixed-member proportional system. It failed (36.9%) to garner the support, probably because the proposed system was simply too damned complicated. Selling a new voting method to the public is never going to be easy easy, but this one sank itself by being so hard to articulate. Plus the process of explaining (and selling) it was poorly organized. As Wikipedia notes:

A June Environics poll showed that 70% of those polled were not familiar with the proposal, including over 50% who knew nothing at all about the upcoming referendum… Citizens were expected to get the information they needed from various websites or from the press. Remarkably, although the Citizens’ Assembly had produced a shorter version of their report and a short leaflet further summarizing it, Elections Ontario distributed neither, to the surprise and disappointment of the Citizens’ Assembly.

As it notes on the Fair Vote Canada site, there’s more than a change to to way we count votes in a proportional method:

PR Systems MUST have multi-member districts: One key feature of PR voting systems is that they use electoral districts that elect two or more MPs. PR-list and STV do this by combining current single member ridings into larger multi-member ridings. If five ridings are combined into one, then all voters in that new riding will help elect 5 MPs for that riding.

Recreating election districts for the whole nation is not an inexpensive proposition. Plus I expect it to be fraught with controversy as such changes in the past have been. However, I trust the pain will be worth the gain in strengthening our democracy.
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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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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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