More relevant words from Nixonland

Harper as NixonOnce again, as I continue to read through Anthony Summers’ biography of Richard Nixon, The Arrogance of Power (Penguin Books, 2000), I am struck by the uncanny resonance of many comments quoted within it to local politics. It’s like people living in the 1950s had a device through which they could view the politics of today, see the politicians on our own council and were reflecting on them, instead of their contemporaries. Some time viewing device right out of science fiction.

Of course, we know they are speaking and writing of Richard Nixon and his activities, but nonetheless… the word uncanny keeps springing to mind. Like I said in my last piece on this book, I am astounded at its local relevance.

Nixon was despised early in his career for his dirty tactics, lack of morals and ethics, his underhanded tricks and his incessant lying. He was unscrupulous in his bids for power and didn’t waste any sentiment on those whose reputations and careers he despoiled. Sound familiar? Like anyone you know on council or in town hall? Like the background for the previous municipal election campaign? Isn’t that resemblance scary?

Even though these words below were penned more than 60 years ago and on the other side of the border, I can’t get over how eerily they fit the local political scene. How well they can be snapped into any critical comment or editorial (should local media ever develop the spine or other parts of their flaccid anatomies to write one…) about Collingwood politicians and their blatant skullduggery.

So much so that, if I ever thought any of The Block actually read anything with more words than a stop sign, I would suspect they had read a biography of Nixon and chosen him as their role model.

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Demagogues and dictators

Lenin, Stalin & HitlerI’m not sure why they fascinate me, but I’ve been reading about demagogues and dictators for many decades now and still can’t seem to get enough of them. Of course, it’s in part because I like to read about politics in all its forms and fashions, but there’s something more than just celebrity watching with these. There’s the psychology of propaganda and mass movements, the inoculation of widespread ideologies, the use of technology and mass culture.

The period between the two World Wars in particular intrigues me because it was an era of great social change. Upheaval, really. The rise of the automobile, the telephone, radio, film… technology changed the world in ways no one could have predicted before WWI. And it was the first time mass propaganda was used to propel politics. Effectively, too. The old pre-war social orders and empires crumbled and new ones emerged. Democracy blossomed, too, albeit not without conflict.

But while many of the issues may have changed since then, the methods and the styles of today’s demagogues, how they appeal to the masses and spread their message, are much the same as they ever were. Watching Donald Trump in action as he campaigns, I can see echoes of his predecessors back into the 1920s and ’30s.

There’s a certain fusty notion of political correctness not to play the Hitler card or the Stalin card in these comparisons, but they are there and people would be foolish not to see the parallels in methods and popular appeal. After all, those who forget the lessons of history…

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Yellow Journalism

Yellow journalismHere’s an interesting approach to developing good relations with your print media advertisers: take their money, publish their full-colour advertisement, then challenge their content, their integrity and their claims in a story that doesn’t present all the facts.

Then wonder why your other advertisers may be nervous about this tactic… and wonder why print media is in trouble.

That’s just what the Collingwood Connection did recently. They accepted and ran an ad last week from Collus/Powerstream – an innocuous, non-political, full-colour ad that modestly promoted the utility and its partnership with the town – then challenged it in an piece this week (the original, online piece was later updated, as I understand it, after complaints were made to the writer).

Not surprising if the folks at the utility are seriously pissed off at the Connection and feel betrayed, either. (update: I’ve been informed that the ad ran twice and wasn’t cancelled and ran twice… but I didn’t see it in the paper where the story ran…)

As Wikipedia tells us, yellow journalism is…

…a type of journalism that presents little or no legitimate well-researched news and instead uses eye-catching headlines to sell more newspapers. Techniques may include exaggerations of news events, scandal-mongering, or sensationalism. By extension, the term yellow journalism is used today as a pejorative to decry any journalism that treats news in an unprofessional or unethical fashion.

Is it ethical or professional not to ask the basic questions reporters are taught to ask: who, what, where, when and why? Or to rely on unnamed sources? Those practices certainly look like yellow journalism to me.

Now, anyone who has followed local politics is aware of this council’s unrelenting attacks on our utility services and their staff. And you’re probably aware that the utility’s side of the story has never been covered in any local media, even though pretty much everyone in town is talking about it.

Local media seem content to look the other way and pretend it’s not happening. Investigative journalism? Not welcome here…

You also know how council broke the water service away from the electrical, and what a miserable dog’s breakfast that situation is now. The 150-year old mutual service relationship was torn asunder, and in almost two years the town has failed to craft a new one, although it should have taken an hour at most… but this council never intended to renew the agreement.

The experienced, respected professionals on the water utility commission were tossed overboard and replaced by a group of ideologically-motivated, inexperienced and inept councillors and pet staff. After, of course, deciding to so so without public input at a meeting behind closed doors.

And yes, they refer to themselves as “Our Group.” I, personally, prefer the term “Politburo” since it better captures that Stalinesque odour about them, but let’s use their own appellation for this post.

Since then, staff morale in water has plummeted. I’m told the utility is in chaos, the unions are squabbling, everyone is complaining, resumes have been sent out by the dozen, and no one is happy. Except for “Our Group,” of course. Another story whitewashed in the media.

Having basically destroyed one utility, “Our Group” has actively and aggressively pursued doing similar destruction to our electrical utility.

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The Myth of Persecution

Myth of PersecutionI just finished reading The Myth of Persecution by theology professor Candida Moss (Harper One, New York, 2013). I picked it up because of my general interest in theology, but also my more specific interest in early church history. I didn’t realize when I started to read it that this book was at the centre of a huge kerfuffle in the Christian community over its message and its accuracy.

In short, Ms. Moss argues that while the early Christians in the first four centuries were often the victims of violence, and even some persecution, they were not the targets of systematic persecution by the Romans for the duration. In fact, the periods of legislated persecution were short and intermittent. She tries to distinguish between persecution and prosecution, and identifies situations where Christians were among the groups, but not singled out, targeted for oppression by various Roman emperors and their edicts.

Further, she argues that the majority of stories of martyrs from this time are fictional, not historic records, created to serve a political or social purpose. She deconstructs some of them, looking at historical records, literary records and internal logic.

And, she concludes, the modern cult of persecution – such as the faux ‘War on Christianity’ promoted by several right wing commentators recently – is based on both a flawed view of history and a dangerous perspective on world events that prevents dialogue and compromise between people. That perspective, Moss writes, is based on the defensive and dangerous notion of persecution and martyrdom. In a film review posted on The Daily Beast, Moss called modern Christian belief in its own persecution a “paranoid fantasy.”

With which I pretty much agree. While not by any means a scholar, what I have read over the years about the creation of the early church, the battles between sects and cults to frame orthodoxy, the arbitrary way the canon was cobbled together, the exclusion of the Gnostics, and the whole business of pseudepigrapha and fake documents supports her contention that the early stories of martyrs were part of this process.

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Two conferences and a show

Windsor: Ontario Water Conference

I had the honour and the enjoyment of attending two municipal conferences last week. While no longer directly involved in politics, I am able to keep my finger in some of the political pies through my current work for an NGO. Plus, I like to remain informed and up-to-date about politics and governance, and am always looking for opportunities to increase my knowledge and understanding of pretty much any topic.

The first event was the Ontario Water Conference, in Windsor. While predominantly a technical and operations event for facility managers and operators, it also has a good political component where utility board members and politicians can learn about initiatives, developments and government updates.

I sat in on presentations over two days, learning about levels of service and risk models; improvement actions from frozen services; eco-fiscal challenges to building resilient communities; business case for a one-water approach; updates from the IESO, the MOE, MOECC, Drinking Water Advisory Council and Safe Drinking Water Branch of the MOECC. From climate change to electricity prices to algal blooms and utility board governance… I learned a lot.

The great majority of workshops were, however, technical, and well out of my depth of knowledge. It also has a large trade show where attendees can see the latest updates in water-related technologies and discuss their implementation with the vendors.

As the website tells it:

The Conference continues to be the premier drinking water event in Ontario, consistently attracting over 900 delegates from all areas of our industry: operators and owners, manufacturers and suppliers, consultants, academics and regulators. The Trade Show has more than 100 exhibitors representing the manufacturers and suppliers of products and services to the water industry. This is a great opportunity to network, and keep informed about technical, regulatory, and equipment development which affect the industry.

I would have assumed that any politician who sits on a water utility board or any public member of such board, who is dedicated to their role and cares about water would have at least made the effort to attend these sessions. After all, they are personally liable for the quality of our water and can be sued for not maintaining it.

I guess if you don’t read the Clean Water Act, this might not concern you. (Hint: it’s crucial reading for members of water utility boards like ours…)

However, there were not many politicians in sight, although I did encounter a few. While I recognized several water utility employees from Collingwood, none of its water utility board (which consists of five inexperienced, neophyte politicians) was present. You would think someone who knew nothing about the subject would be eager to learn about what they have the responsibility over, but perhaps I expect too much from them. Ignorance is bliss, they say.

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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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