How Marx Presaged Today’s Canada

“The bourgeoisie has through its exploitation of the world market given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country,” wrote Karl Marx and Fredrich Engels, in 1848, in the Communist Manifesto.

I came across this paragraph in Prof. David Harvey‘s book, A Companion to Marx’s Capital, recently and the quote from the Communist Manifesto struck me as very modern; one that presaged our current internationalism and the changes affecting Canada today.

No one on this continent has been unaffected by the rampant, unchecked, corporate globalism that has seen thousands of North American factories closed, jobs discarded, and production moved to Asia in order to render more profits for shareholders and bigger bonuses for CEOs. This utterly ruthless and unrestrained capitalism is the one politicians on the right proclaim as the only viable economic policy to pursue.

We think of this as a recent trend, and yet Marx warned about this more than 160 years ago:

…it has drawn from under the feet of industry the national ground on which it stood. All old-established national industries have been destroyed or are daily being destroyed. They are dislodged by new industries, whose introduction becomes a life and death question for all civilised nations, by industries that no longer work up indigenous raw material, but raw material drawn from the remotest zones; industries whose products are consumed, not only at home, but in every quarter of the globe. In place of the old wants, satisfied by the production of the country, we find new wants, requiring for their satisfaction the products of distant lands and climes. In place of the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction, universal inter-dependence of nations.

Doesn’t that sound like something written about modern globalization? It’s important to understand what Marx meant by capitalism, too: production and trade for the sole source of accumulating wealth (capital). He wasn’t criticizing the market economy, the buying and selling of commodities, the exchange of goods, and a free market. It has nothing to do with your ability to buy a flat screen TV or an iPad or a $250 pair of running shoes.

I’m not sure what he would make of eBay and Kijiji, but I suspect he would have approved of the ability of the individual to adopt and survive in this sort of commodity market where the ‘use-value’ of any items was determined by a mutual agreement between buyer and seller rather than determined for the amount of profit it would make for the elite.

I was struck by a piece in the Toronto Star this weekend by Thomas Walkom, titled, How to save Canadian capitalism from itself:

The economy is not working. A new one needs to be built.
It is not working on a global level, where the world continues to falter.
It is not working at a national level, where incomes stagnate, unemployment persists and good jobs are outsourced abroad.
As a study released Friday by the United Way shows, it is not working at a Toronto level.
That study makes the point that, even within Canada’s premier city, the gap between the rich and poor is growing.
Experts may tie themselves up in knots over the precise trajectory of inequality, depending in part on what is measured and when.
But the general point is beyond dispute: On its own, the free market is providing increasingly less equal rewards.

Which is exactly what Marx predicted would happen: the gap between haves and have-nots is widening. Walkom adds:

Failing a social revolution (which, I suspect, most Canadians don’t want), the alternative is to save capitalism from itself.

Marx predicted social revolution as the inevitable result of this growing inequality, but in this he has been proven only partially correct, and arguably even wrong at times. Cultures in Western nations have a natural inertia against revolution. We tend to be easily swayed by material comforts and convenience. Marx didn’t foresee the internet or 500-plus TV channels, didn’t foresee pornography, game consoles or other things that distract us from thinking about Big Ideas, let alone social upheaval. A culture that is too lazy to walk three blocks to a store for milk is not likely to rise up.

Marx’s communism simply doesn’t work here – at least no implementation has to date. But neither, it seems increasingly, does our unrestrained capitalism. There has to be some reasonable place between them, some place where capitalism’s more predatory urges are blunted, yet its entrepreneurial tendencies are not. As Azar Gat wrote in Foreign Affairs:

Capitalism has expanded relentlessly since early modernity, its lower-priced goods and superior economic power eroding and transforming all other socioeconomic regimes, a process most memorably described by Karl Marx in The Communist Manifesto. Contrary to Marx’s expectations, capitalism had the same effect on communism, eventually “burying” it without the proverbial shot being fired.

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What’s Wrong with Municipal Bonusing?

OntarioUntil the early 1970s, municipalities in Ontario were involved in a free-for-all competition to attract business and industry. They offered tax breaks, free land, free infrastructure, utilities or services, housing — whatever it took to get a plant or office to open within their boundaries. A lot of small Ontario communities were able to attract businesses that way, and many got major industries.

Of course, the local taxpayers paid for these benefits, but the towns subscribed to the theory that eventually the extra jobs and tax revenues coming into the municipality would pay for the up-front largesse through increased revenue across the community. The plants would bring jobs, which would translate into new homes and property taxes, and the increased population would create a demand for other businesses such as retail stores, restaurants, and the service industry, themselves creating new jobs.

For a while, that system worked, mostly to the advantage of municipalities which could both afford the largesse, and had the land and services readily available. Not everyone considered such competition the best way to run a province, however, and there were arguments that through bonusing, municipal taxpayers were increasing the profits of private enterprises.

Then, in 1974, the provincial government stepped in and said the practice wasn’t fair. All municipalities, the province decided, should compete on a level playing ground: bonusing of this sort was made illegal in Section 106 of the Municipal Act. The Act even makes loans illegal:*

Assistance prohibited
106. (1) Despite any Act, a municipality shall not assist directly or indirectly any manufacturing business or other industrial or commercial enterprise through the granting of bonuses for that purpose. 2001, c. 25, s. 106 (1).
(2) Without limiting subsection (1), the municipality shall not grant assistance by,
(a) giving or lending any property of the municipality, including money;
(b) guaranteeing borrowing;
(c) leasing or selling any property of the municipality at below fair market value; or
(d) giving a total or partial exemption from any levy, charge or fee. 2001, c. 25, s. 106 (2).

David Sunday, a lawyer writing on the Sorbara Law website, noted in late 2014:

Section 106 of the Ontario Municipal Act, 2001 is a much worried about “anti-bonusing” provision of broad application. It is worrisome because its limits and applications are far from clear. By its terms, the provision purports to create an unqualified prohibition on municipalities directly or indirectly assisting any manufacturing, industrial, or commercial enterprise through “bonusing”. The scope of prohibited “bonusing” extends to the giving or lending of any municipal property, including money, guaranteeing borrowing, leasing or selling any municipal property, or giving a total or partial exemption from any levy, charge, or fee.

The change was made more than a generation ago. Since then, the Auto Pact has become defunct, the Canadian dollar has risen too high to offer the economic benefit that once attracted U.S. firms and its recent slide came too late to turn things around. Many factories closed in North America and reopened in Asia, creating massive unemployment everywhere. Consumer buying trends have shifted from quality products to the least expensive on the big-box store shelf. Wages, especially in unionized plants, have escalated to uncompetitive levels compared with Asian workers. It’s a different, more challenging world today.

[youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KVybNCPzG7M]

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Open for Business, But Not For Your Input

Did you happen to read the town ad on the inside page in the Enterprise Bulletin this weekend? February 6, top of page D7? I’m betting you didn’t because no one I’ve spoken to seems to have read it. And since you can’t find the ad on the EB’s website, you won’t have read it online, either.

But you should because it likely affects you and possibly in a big way.  It may change your life and not in a positive manner.

It’s on the town’s website, buried under a user-unfriendly URL here: www.collingwood.ca/node/11875.

It looks innocuous enough at the start:

In accordance with the Retail Business Holidays Act, R.S.O. 1990, c. R.30, as amended, and Ontario Regulation 711/91 – Tourism Criteria, the Town of Collingwood hereby gives notice of a Public Meeting and intent to pass a by-law to incorporate proposed changes to the Retail Business Holiday Exemption By-law, during its regular meeting of Council to be held Monday, March 2, 2015 at 5:00 p.m. in the Council Chambers, 97 Hurontario Street, Collingwood.

But read a little further and you’ll find these two bullet points:

  • Allowing retail business establishments to be open to the public Family Day, Good Friday and Easter Sunday, in addition to the other exemptions provided in the by-law.
  • Review of application from the Business Improvement Area and the Chamber of Commerce to incorporate a town-wide exemption encompassing all retail business in Collingwood.

That’s right: council intends to pass a bylaw to permit retail stores to open on statutory holidays – two of them among the most important religious holidays of the year for Christians. And they didn’t warn anyone this was coming. But read on, there’s more.

Open for business, not for your input

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The Maxims of La Rochefoucauld

Certain good qualities are like senses: people entirely lacking in them can neither perceive nor comprehend them.

MaximsYou might think that was written about local politics, or a comment on the local blogosphere. But no, it was written in the mid 17th century by Francois, du de La Rochefoucauld. It is number 337 in his famous book of Maxims, a work that stands beside other timeless classics of advice, reflection and epithets; like Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, and Balthasar Gracian’s The Art of Worldly Wisdom. I found a copy in a local used book store recently and have been digesting his words of wisdom.

La Rochefoucauld published five editions of the Maxims in his lifetime between 1665 and 1678. During that time he edited, deleted, added to and rewrote much of it, refining it every time. But as he did so, he found more and more to say, stretching from 317 maxims in the first edition to 504 in the last.

Later editors took more from his other writings; his unpublished notes and his memoirs, raising the total to 647 or even more (647 in the Penguin Classics edition, translated by Leonard Tancock, published first in 1959; mine is the 1984 reprint ).

France went through a lot of change and catharsis in the 17th century, from the brutal and exhausting civil way of La Fronde to the renaissance of Louis XIV, the Sun King, and a blossoming of art, culture, theatre and literature. It was the age of Moliere and Cyrano de Bergerac, the great salons of Paris, the Musketeers (about whom Dumas would write his great novels, two centuries later). It was also a time of great political upheaval, war, shifting allegiances, treachery and violence.

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Heart of Darkness

Heart of DarknessHeart of Darkness can be a difficult read. Not just for its brooding setting and the sense of morbid inevitability. Conrad’s semi-autobiographical 1899 novel is replete with racism and breezy colonialism: the insufferable superiority of white, Western culture. The casual ability of so-called civilized men to commit savagery in the name of some higher cause is clearly expressed; a forerunner to the brutality of two world wars.

Listening to it as an audiobook, yesterday, as I drove again to Toronto, I almost flinched every time the reader pronounced the “N” word. No amount of rationalization about the times and the era made it less uncomfortable, less offensive.*

Yet once you have touched the sticky web of Conrad’s story, you find it hard to pull away. You are drawn inexorably inward, along the journey. So you listen (or read on), and realize the layers and the complexities he wove into the tale. It seems so simple at first, a mere nautical tale shared among friends, but it builds in layers and texture. His sometimes subtle, sometimes pointed criticisms of the politics and the imperialism. His observations, his piercing eye into human behaviour; his acidic comments on the nature of civilization. All, of course, expressed during the infinitely slow progress to find the mysterious Kurtz.

I can’t remember when I first read Heart of Darkness. Sometime in the 1970s, I think, around the time I was reading Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. Achebe’s book is set in the same period as Conrad’s and might be considered a counterpoint: the evils of colonialism described from the native perspective. Achebe himself despised Heart of Darkness, calling it “deplorable.” Yet his 1975 criticism sparked renewed scholarly interest in the book. It was reprinted in mass-market paperback (my copy, printed together with Conrad’s Secret Sharer, is dated 1978).

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Falling Skies: Aliens as Metaphor

Falling SkiesWe watched the last of Season Two of the Falling Skies series last night. After a bit of research this morning, I learned I have two more seasons to watch and a fifth season has been scheduled. Something to look forward to. I wasn’t sure about how it would turn out, but the series has matured nicely, although one can’t say that about its politics.

If you’re not familiar with the series, it’s about American reaction to an alien invasion – one could say it is a drawn-out remake of War of the Worlds. The aliens, of course, have more advanced weaponry and technology and aim at world domination. And enslavement of the human race along the way. Falling Skies spices up the mix with a rich back story about the aliens I won’t spoil here. But at least by the end of Season Two, there’s no indication that anyone else on the planet has survived and formed a resistance. It’s solely an American underground.  One bridles at that.

My first impression was that it was Walking Dead with aliens instead of zombies. I personally didn’t care much for the Walking Dead series and didn’t manage to watch even the whole first season. But, as a scifi buff, Falling Skies caught and held my attention.*

The ostensible premise is straight out of H.G. Wells: high-tech aliens invade, destroy much of the planet’s civilization and infrastructure, and pockets of humans fight back. But there’s more to it.

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Human Smoke

Human Smoke“The truth of history,” Napoleon wrote in his memoirs while exiled on St. Helena, “is a fable agreed upon.” Agreed upon mostly by the victors, one should add. The losers seldom agree with it.

In 1865, Mark Twain added in his work, Following the Equator: “The very ink with which all history is written is merely fluid prejudice.” Two centuries after Napoleon, Dana Arnold wrote in Reading Architectural History:

Historical reality is then a ‘referential illusion’, in which we try to grasp the reality… In this way history becomes a Myth or an ideology as it purports to be reality. Indeed, storytelling is often seen as one of the most important functions of writing histories and fundamental to the nature of the discipline.

When I was growing up, like so many millions of other post-war children, I was taught the history – the accepted, official history that was indelibly stamped on every page of our textbooks, and woven into our national identity – of World War II. The absolutely defined, cut-and-dried good=us vs. evil=them. Our bravery, their cowardice. Our sacrifices, their terror. Our victory, their loss. History was like a game of cowboys-and-Indians: two sides, one struggle, one outcome.

As a child of two veterans – whose own fathers had been veterans in the previous war-to-end-all-wars – and nephew of other veterans, I was inoculated with the “right” history that coloured our own family sense of honour, pride, loyalty and duty. Our bloodline fought the good fight and we were damned proud of it.

It was only decades later, when I started playing wargames and writing for a military history magazine that I started to read wider and deeper into the history of the century before I was born. And in doing so, learned that there were many more facets to the story than I had ever been led to believe. It proved both fascinating and unsettling. There’s more we’re not taught  than what we are taught. Continue reading “Human Smoke”

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Rights Without Responsibility

Online comments“Why do online spaces often feel so fractious?” asks Helen Lewis in a thought-provoking opinion piece in The Guardian last week. It’s something I’ve been pondering for many years. It’s not just the internet, or even social media, nor is it our increasingly uncivil and impolite society: it’s the technology that seems to be dividing us. The medium. (Would this be considered McLuhanistic? *)

Online spaces were havens for trolls, for angry denunciations, personal attacks, threats and bullying for decades. I’ve been watching it happen since I started up my own BBS in the early 1980s. I saw it when I was a sysop who managed forums on CompuServe and later Delphi, and I’ve watched it grow on the internet.

It’s in large part because the technology we use online is not designed to interface well with the biology we have evolved over millions of years to communicate with. Technology doesn’t provide the crucial emotional connection that real, human communication offers.

Sure, you can feel emotions from online content, but one-sided reaction someone sitting at home having a morning coffee in their pajamas gets from looking at cute kittens or twerking videos is not communication. But on social media with comments flying about rapidly from everyone, you can easily lose sight of the context and become engaged in comment-swapping for its own sake.

Lewis wrote:

Social scientists call this “context collapse” – the idea that everything we say on Facebook or Twitter is potentially addressed to everybody, ever. The fact that for the vast majority of the time, no one outside your mum and your friends will read it makes it all the more disorienting if your musings are wrenched out of their original context and held up for public discussion.

An opinion piece in The Star this month described the difficulties media face in trying to provide a public space for comment without having to apply heavy-handed control to keep the cyberbullies and trolls in check. It gets so confrontational at times it discourages people not just from participating, but from reading entirely:

The sad reality of online comments across the entire Internet is that they are too often abusive, inflammatory and ignorant. Where once I idealistically believed comments could be a force for good, allowing readers to connect and communicate about ideas, I have come to empathize more with those readers who would just as soon not see anonymous online comments. As one reader told me recently in expressing her dismay: “The trolls are dominating; feels too much like diving into a mud fight.”

What could be – should be – open, engaging discussion and exchange of ideas becomes merely a place for emotional, public masturbation. Being able to vent anonymously and say anything you damned well please without repercussion is the same reason internet porn is so popular among the emotionally challenged. No commitment, no emotional baggage, no messy post-sex conversations and “I’ll call you” lies. What actually happens to the people – the abuse of women in particular – in porn becomes irrelevant to the viewer because they’ve become toons in our online culture, like characters in an online game.

Same with posting angry comments on FB and Twitter: you can write them, slander or attack someone, drag them through the mud, lie, insult and castigate, then close your laptop and go to bed without having to deal with the emotional and psychological turmoil your comments leave in their wake. By the time you get up, next day, the posts will likely have vanished from your feed in the ongoing cascade of content that races by.
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My Goodbye to Local Politics (for now)

I had meant to read a statement at last night’s final meeting of Collingwood Council, but I misplaced my printout between the time I left home and the meeting’s start. I remembered most of it, but may have missed a few words. Here’s an edited version of what I said with some notes from what I had written for the occasion:

First, I’d like to thank staff for all their help and support these many years. Staff have helped make council’s ideals, plans and goals into reality. Without them, we would have floundered and run aground on our unconsummated ideas. We have an excellent staff here, who always have the public’s best interests in mind. I sincerely appreciate their efforts on our behalf.

I have been fortunate to serve as council representative for the past 11 years. I am grateful for all the opportunities I have had to do good for the community and to serve the greater good.

I am particularly privileged to have served this term. This council has done more good for the community than any council I have know over the past 25 years, both as reporter and as councillor. I want to thank all of my council colleagues for their dedication, their support and their passion these past four years. I am honoured to have served with all of you.

I congratulate the the incoming council and wish them all the very best luck. I am sure they will be successful because of all the hard work this council has done for them.

I look forward to being able to serve the community in other ways, as a volunteer, as a contributor and as a supporter in the many areas and activities we have. Thank you to everyone who has believed in me, has voted for me, and shown confidence and faith in my goals and my vision these past 11 years.

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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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Poor King Henry VII

Henry VIIAs Rodney Dangerfield might have said had he been cast in a role as Henry VII, “I don’t get no respect.”

Henry VII is one of those English kings who never seem to get any attention, outside the rarefied realms of academia. Only of late, it seems, have a few writers and TV producers turned their heads towards him – no doubt because a lot of the other, more exciting monarchs have been thoroughly covered on screen and in print.

Although he was the first of the short Tudor dynasty, his reign is overshadowed by those of his son, Henry VIII, and granddaughter, Elizabeth I. His continental contemporaries – Louis XI of France and Ferdinand II of Aragon – also outshone him.

Take Shakespeare, for example. The Bard wrote plays about Henry IV, V, VI and VIII. Just skipped VII as if the old geezer hadn’t been worth the price of a goose quill and paper. Plus he wrote about Kings John, Richard II and II and possibly Edward III. H7 is ignored.

Well, okay not completely. Just as far as top billing goes. He’s called the Earl of Richmond in Henry VI, part 3, a youngster who shows up towards the end – Act IV, Sc IV, a bit player without even a speaking part. Not very auspicious for the man who would be king not many years later.

Later, in Richard III, set in the finals years of the War of the Roses,  a somewhat older (28) Henry defeats the king (Richard III) at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485. Again, Henry doesn’t show up until the end: Act V, Sc II – and his character is dull and stiff, compared to the vibrant and dynamic – albeit evil – Richard. He takes the crown to become King Henry VII, although the coronation itself is not shown (Derby removed it from the dead Richard). Yorkists win, Lancastrians lose. Sic friat crustulum.

(Apparently the 2016 sequel to the BBC’s superb Hollow Crown series will include Shakespeare’s Henry VI and Richard III plays, so you can watch them on DVD…)

Henry VII had long been dead by the time Shakespeare wrote Henry VIII, and so he gets short shrift there, too. Queen Katharine mentions him in passing in Act II :

The king, your father, was reputed for
A prince most prudent, of an excellent
And unmatch’d wit and judgment…

Henry VIII also mentions him in passing in Act III. Neither call him by his name or title, just “father.”

Otherwise, H7 was just bypassed by the Bard and other playwrights.

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Social Media, Public Opinion, and Jian Ghomeshi

[youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b1XGPvbWn0A]
Star CartoonI doubt anyone in North America is unaware of the furor surrounding CBC’s recent firing of radio show Q’s host, Jian Ghomeshi last week.*

In case you were on the moon when it happened, you can read some of the many stories on the Star and other news sites (just Google it…).

It’s a complex story; about the seesaw between workers’ and employers’ rights; about sex and consent; about abuse and violence against women; about privacy and personal rights; about social media and cyber-bullying; about justice and law; about media and declining reporting standards; about the public forum and the nature of spectacle; about victims and the various shades of truth. And it’s about double standards.

Fascinating, difficult, and troubling. It challenges us to think about our own beliefs and ideas; about how we react eagerly to scandal; how we view the glitterati as both outsiders and those we emulate; how we obsess over stardom; how we view sex and behaviour; how we view male and female sexuality; and how we treat – and judge – both others and ourselves. But little of that actually gets into the news or the commentaries. Mostly what gets into them is sensationalism (such is the level to which most media have fallen; how can modern media maintain its audience without crass sensationalism?). Plus a mixture of salacious gossip, accusations, self-righteous moralizing,and chest beating in the editorials and online.

But not always. Christie Blatchford recently wrote an excellent column (and I don’t often agree with her perspective, although I respect her as a writer) about how these things should be tried in courts, not by the public:

My concern is that the allegations in this story are criminal matters — these are claims of sexual assault and violent physical assault — and they ought not to be tried in the court of public opinion.
There are no safeguards in that court, no testing of the evidence, no rules or boundaries.
As Abe Lincoln famously said, “There is no grievance that is a fit object of redress by mob law.”
Sorry for the interruption, now back to the lynching.

It’s important to keep in mind that, so far, no one has filed a complaint with the police about Ghomeshi’s actions. Yes, I know a police complaint does not indicate guilt, but it does open a more intensive investigation outside of the forum Facebook and Twitter offer. An objective one, too.**
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