Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Zunera Ishaq has made Canada look stupid

After much internal deliberation about all of the symbolic dynamics of this story that make it a controversial and provocative one, I decided that I absolutely do not give a shit if Zunera Ishaq wears her niqab in her citizenship ceremony.  Why? I think the fact that she has managed to make Stephen Harper look stupider than the two opposition leaders makes her deserve to wear it, if nothing else.

Let's start by getting one thing out of the way.  The reason she is allowed to wear it under the law is that she is not harming anybody else by doing so.  Nobody else's rights or freedoms are impinged upon, and no undue burden is placed on the state,  Yes, it does feel at first like you are being played for a fool and how far does tolerance go in the name of political correctness, but if we are afraid of a regressive and oppressive islamic culture permeating the Canadian state, let's talk about matters of substance rather than little pieces of cloth.  There will be no legally recognized sharia court.  And "cultural customs" that cause or could cause harm to free Western citizens - honour killings or genital mutilation or whatever it is, will not and cannot be defended within a Western legal framework.  Niqabs and burqas are not a "gateway drug" that will plant these things at our doorstep.  Just look at the Shafia family in prison.  The system works.

One inconvenient truth of our modern, western, liberal democracy is that we have to tolerate free expression and free speech no matter how offensive they may be.  Whenever some blowhard politician starts talking about "things going too far" and "where do we draw the line", you know that you have to stop taking them seriously.  You cannot open that can of worms saying that you speak for the "majority of reasonable, common sense people" because then you arbitrarily get to decide what is acceptable and what is not.  This is a slippery slope that society cannot be permitted to slide down.

The gold standard we have to settle for is zero tolerance for intolerance.  That is why, despite all of Bernard Drainville's resurgent demagogic drum-banging for his no-religious-symbols-in-public-spaces  crusade in Quebec following the Ottawa and St-Jean-Sur-Richelieu soldier shootings and the Charlie Hebdo massacre in France, the PQ got destroyed in the last Quebec election.  Sure, the emotional appeals get momentum early on (I think "burqas" probably occupy the spot between "root canals" and "Chad Kroeger" on the "Things the general Canadian population loves" list), but the crusading turns into a massive liability as the politicians are forced to twist themselves into pretzels to defend a position that they themselves are making up on the fly ("No, no one will lose their jobs over this.  OK, maybe some people will. But only after a five year easing in period.  But not in this category.  But only for religious symbols with this degree of ostentatiousness").  Now, as Stephen Harper doubles down on his anti-niqab position, he is taking possibly the biggest risk of his political career, as Chantal H├ębert and other seasoned veteran political observers have duly noted.

Because make no mistake, this is pure and simple politics.  2015 is shaping up to be a volatile and bumpy year for Canada's economy, and people out there are hurtin' pretty bad.  Layoffs are mounting, real GDP growth is anemic despite a zero interest rate policy and materials, financials, and oil & gas - the cornerstone sectors of the TSX, are all susceptible to intense speculation, downward pressure, and extreme volatilty.  Amidst this backdrop, the country struggles with an unimaginable housing bubble (average Canadian home price: $431,000) the feds did nothing to prevent.  Just bear with me here for a second.  Median house price is $431,000, let's say the average Joe and Jill save 5% down (meaning the mortgage is now insured by the taxpayer), and now owe about $405,000.  Their monthly payment is $1900 for 25 years, but the average family income is only $68,000. That means they only have about $1400-$1700 a month left for property taxes, electricity, cars, gas, phones, groceries, cable, beer, shit I hope they don't have any kids because we just about broke the bank here already.  You see where this is going.  People across Canada are awash in debt.  Cashing out what meagre savings they have in futile attempts to service the mountains of it that they have.  Robbing peter to pay Paul.  I know its happening because I see it myself every single day.

Amidst this backdrop, oil's mini-recovery in February looks to have been a head-fake following the outright crash in the commodity in Nov-Dec-Jan.  Now crude is testing new lows and inventories are sky-high.  So when Joe Oliver said in February that the government was "delaying the budget until April to assess the impact of low oil prices", I'm sure what he meant that he was waiting until March so he could assess when they were lower still.  Every smart finance minister wants less dollars to spend on his budget than before.

As I said in my last column, there is no guarantee that Stephen Harper will lose the next election, due to the ineptitude of the two opposition leaders, but it is pretty clear that there are finally some macroeconomic conditions that make his hokey and worn out "steady hand on the tiller" argument weaker than ever (especially given the amount of public debt his government has rung up).  But maybe his terrorism/fear strategy will pay off.  This is a democratic country and polls say he has the support of the population to pick useless fights with Zunera Ishaq and ram through undemocratic, privacy-violating digital surveillance bills in the wake of the radical Islam fad.  But after nine years of endless tempests in teapots that saw the Conservatives duly sent back to Ottawa despite no end to the righteous indignation they provoked (Who can forget Michael Ignatieff's unbelievably dorky table-pounding: "Mr Speaker, when will the minister do the honourable thing and resign?!"), the economic picture might be shitty enough later this year to finally provoke a sea-change among the non-partisan undecideds.  At the end of the day, jobs and debt will trump niqabs.

And we will all remember, back in march, when modern, liberal, enlightenment democratic ideals prevailed.  We may not like Ms Ishaq's niqab, but we must defend to the death her right to wear it. Just like we must defend equally to the death Chad Kroeger's right to produce his shitty music.  By obsessing over things that offend us we become the parody of ourselves that loses all credibility.  Keep calm and throw on Nickelback's latest album while kicking back with the Sports Illustrated Burqini Edition.  Spring is here, baby

Saturday, 7 March 2015

Choiceless Canada

In Canada, if I want to buy groceries from a supermarket, there is a 97% chance that the store will be owned by Loblaws, Metro, or Empire (the Sobey family).  If I want to go open a bank account, there is a 97% chance it will be with one of the big six banks, since that is the percent of the country's inhabited area that their branches are present in.  Need internet, TV, or cellphone service?  You are almost certain to be dealing with Bell, Rogers, or Telus, or some combination thereof (you could take them up on their offer for one of their enticing "bundles" and thereby only deal with one annoying customer service department, but the real best option is to deal with one of the discount providers they own).  Okay, there is Videotron in Quebec and Shaw out west in this sector, but lets not split hairs.  Gas for your car?  We have it on tap from our national treasure, Petro Canada (Suncor), as well as from Dutch (Shell), American (Esso), and Chinese (Husky) sources.  Need to ship goods by rail? You can use Canadian Pacific or Canadian National. Booking a flight? You have a choice between Air Canada or Westjet.  The Panda bear doesn't do long hauls so I'm leaving him out.

Do you see my point? Most critical sectors of the Canadian economy are dominated by 2-6 players, not more.  I'm not here to attack them or accuse them of choking free enterprise with oligopolistic practices (there are, after all, hundreds of thousands of small and medium sized independent businesses in Canada), just to make the observation that, as a nation our consolidator instincts seem to have gravitated to the sectors which happen to be the most visible, the most used by the most people (like, everyone), and therefore the most profitable.  None of these companies are inherently evil; they all employ tens of thousands of Canadians and their income flows back to Canadians in many forms like through the dividends that flow from their shares on the TSX and in all of the institutional (pension fund and mutual fund) ownership of them.  You could make similar cases for other sectors -  with media (Globe, Torstar, Postmedia, Quebecor, Irvings), fertilizer (Potash and Agrium), auto parts (Linamar, Martinrea,and Magna) and natural gas pipelines and delivery (Enbridge and Transcanada), this country is just not that diversified.  As much as that often repeated and nauseating quote about our stable and heavily regulated banking sector gets held up as to why our nation's economy "weathered the storm" during the 2008-09 financial crisis, it seems pretty clear that stability - in the form of big, boring, profitable, cash machine companies that never have more than a couple of direct competitors - dominates the Canadian economy as a whole.

We could have an economics discussion about whether this composition of the economy makes us better or worse off collectively.  We could have a psychology/social science discussion about whether our national psyche craves stability and predictability.  We could talk about how if we were more entrepreneurial as a nation we would have hordes of young bootstrappers failing fast, failing often, and smashing these oligopolies.  And some grumpy right-wing populists and professional left-wing union type people, the two biggest whiners in the public square who often succeed at poisoning the debate quite successfully, could complain about "price gouging" and "unsatisfied customers" and "protecting Canadian jobs" and "big companies paying their fair share". I am not here to engage in any of that unproductive ax-grinding.  Rather, I want to focus on the area of our society where we suffer from the most abysmal lack of choice, which is our political system. These companies are all governed by laws, regulations, and legal and governmental mechanisms; the fact that we have no choice who governs us in our democracy is the real tragedy, and the lack of choices in this area is the one from which our society will suffer the most in the long run.

The Conservative government in Ottawa is old, spent, totally bereft of ideas and hollowed out of many of the brighter ministers who served in it earlier on.  It has endured a lot of criticism over the years from mainstream media and nobodies like me, 80-90% of which was deserved.  The government turned out to be a lot more moderate over time than I think a lot of people would have predicted, but make no mistake: on drug sentencing, environmental regulation, the legal system, digital surveillance, and taxation they have enacted pernicious and harmful policies that represent long-term detrimental effects to the country.  I have never voted for them and always opposed them, both on principle for these issues and for the authoritarian central control the Prime Minister's office exerts on the government and the secretive and deceptive ways he severely limits access to himself as if he was some third world dictator or billionaire.  This behaviour is unbecoming of what we have a right to, which is a democratically elected Member of Parliament who has the confidence of the House of Commons to lead the government - A person who is a normal citizen like any of us whose duty is to serve Canadians, first among 308 equals.  Not this smirking wannabe pretend oilman/economist who is probably still stimulated imagining his armoured car and security detail and his smirking sidekick retired investment banker finance minister whose job seems to consist of trying to sound smart while deflecting attention from the country's actual finances.  I cannot think of two people less deserving of the public offices they hold.

And yet, who do I have to support to replace them? Who do I go to bat for in 2015 when I'm talking to less politically-attuned friends and family? Nobody.  I can't vote Conservative, and I don't know a single coherent, reasonable, thinking person who has one positive thing to say about either opposition leader.  This NDP official opposition has been nothing short of an unmitigated disaster, the so-called "social justice party" being wholly, entirely, invisible to Canadians.  Rather than hammering the government day in and day out over its one-sided foreign policy, its irresponsible depriving of hundreds of billion dollars to the treasury through needless tax cuts, and its shameless distribution of pork for curling arenas in one-horse prairie towns, we are treated to the Thomas Mulcair show which has about as many Canadian viewers as Australian rules football.  The two episodes that sum up this guys performance to me are the following: In May 2013, following one bitter laid-off middle aged employee's revelation to the CBC that RBC outsourced some IT operations to a California-based, NASDAQ-listed company called iGate with employees in India, Mulcair wasted no time pouncing on what he perceived to be a political opportunity.  He scheduled a press conference on the steps of Place Ville Marie, the tallest building in Montreal which RBC has their logo on the front of and where they lease some space, pounded his fist for the TV cameras for a few minutes and fired off some righteous indignation soundbites.  Him, his cars, the people, and the cameras arrived, unloaded, got the segment done in a flurry activity, and were gone before you knew it.  The whole thing took maximum 20 minutes on a blustery weekday morning.  This guy is supposed to be in Ottawa holding his government's feet to the fire and he is here in Montreal to...to do what, exactly? Bitch about how shitty a big bank is to Canadians?  Complaining about banks.  Why not complain about taxes and the weather and houses prices while you're at it? That makes you look like a real prime minister in waiting.

I didn't notice the NDP again until about a month ago, when CP rail was in a labour dispute with its employees who the Conservative government would have just immediately legislated back to work anyway, as is their custom.  Mulcair convened the media for a press conference at 1:30 P.M.with Alexandre Boulerice, one of the five or so out of 107 NDP MPs who has uttered more than 2 words in public since 2011.  And lo and behold, CP came to an agreement with its employees in the morning before it started.  I can just imagine the soup nazi standing there yelling "NO NEWS CYCLE FOR YOU!"  The NDP has this incredibly self-destructive tendency to see itself as this stern, paternalistic moral compass whose job it is to discipline Canada's large companies, when in fact they have no jurisdiction over said companies and the average Canadians they are supposed to be championing and winning over couldn't give a hoot.

It really is a shame that the NDP is so inept and so pointless as an opposition party, squandering this golden opportunity to really get Canadians' attention and occupy their rightful place in the mainstream.  Because the Liberal Party really committed hari-kiri in selecting Justin Timberlake as their leader.  The cringe-worthy yet truly predictable result of this ill-considered decision cannot be fully assessed here until we see election results, but I will say this.  To consider what a dumb move the Liberals made in selecting Trudeau as their leader, imagine what would happen if the Conservatives selected Ben Mulroney as their leader.  It would never happen, because Ben has the job that is suited to him, which is covering celebrity gossip on TV.  Trudeau would actually do great at something similar, and what's scary is you could apply his "pluses" as easily to Ben. "Really nice guy" "Really good looking" "great at connecting with people" "prime ministerial pedigree" "Dad of young kids" "Bilingual".  Apparently the requirements for being the leader of a Canadian political party now are the same as for being on a reality show, and if anyone wants to explain to me how Justin's tenure as Liberal leader has resembled anything other than a reality show, I eagerly await your conscientious objections.

And I continue to be sad as I pine for the day I will actually have a proper political choice as a voter in Canada, with a candidate worth voting for.

Saturday, 20 December 2014

Lacking Credentials is Five Years Old!

Good evening,

I am, I think, a lot older and a lot wiser than I was when I started doing this, so hopefully the quality of the posts has improved over time, but some things have not changed:

Canada still has a broken political system and a dearth of political leadership.  Federal and provincial (municipal has been a little better) elected officials care more about prestige, appearances, and pissing contests that protect their own little fiefdoms than they do about doing the work they were elected to do.  Politicians prefer show-boating and photo-ops to hard work and substance, and as a result the country's political scene is a bubble, or an echo chamber as it were, that interests very few people.

The media landscape is as nasty and depressing as it was five years ago, with a few glimmers of light and some minor changes.  The Post has some smart people writing for it now who use their brains and are critical, after the emerging from the strident and partisan pro-Israel, pro-Conservative dreck machine it was under the Asper family.  The paper no doubt retains this bent but Paul Godfrey is a hands-off businessman, not a spoiled rich-kid ideologue.  The Globe has for the most part left the clutches of Bell but struggles to shrug off the midtown Toronto elitist bien-pensant current that permeates way too much of its content.  The Post has also taken over the Sun newspaper chain from Quebecor and will probably keep it the toilet paper that it always was.  Here in Montreal I have the treat of the same toilet paper en francais which is the Journal de Montreal, proud organ of the separatist opposition after years of inscrutable pandering to the lower classes with no discrenable political leanings, now that its owner is a PQ politician.  The Star meanwhile remains the concerned paternal figure it always has been, with some decent scoops. Jesse Brown's Canadaland has really lifted my mood.

The world remains a chaotic and unfair place. Wars rage, economies crash, commodities are volatile. Yet fortunes are made every day.  At the same time, Canada is home to more poverty and suffering than maybe we realize.  McMansions are as popular as ever, and so are food banks.  I'm more zen about the whole thing then I was five years ago because I have realized that with the passage of time, things have a way of more or less sorting themselves out.  But I'm not under any illusions that things are getting better. They've been getting better for me, but that doesn't give me license to be ignorant and give the old bootstraps speech, which seems to be our natural instinct as humans when we are fortunate, unfortunately.

My output has really dropped off the last two years.  I will take the easy way out and blame my kids.  I have maintained output nonetheless.  I am proud of this blog because over 50,000 people have looked at it and it remains a constant thing in my life which has otherwise changed profoundly in many ways.  2015 promises more, new, exciting changes: what, I cannot yet say, because I do not know.  But I am on the cusp of graduate studies (yes, credentials), and I feel like professionally I am starting to hit a stride which might finally take me somewhere interesting (notice I never talk about my day job on here).

I don't know if the blog will change in some way or migrate to a new platform - it probably could use an injection of pizzazz of some sort - but I do know that keeping this on life support has been worth it, because there is always something to talk about and anyone, even one person, who engages in the slightest with the challenges our country faces in a way they hadn't thought of before after coming here makes it all worthwhile.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year 2015 from Lacking Credentials.  Thank you for your patience while I try to think of a way to bestow the greatness I think this blog is destined for on it.

Happy Birthday Mom

Tuesday, 11 November 2014


So let's recap.  In less than three weeks, you've been fired from a multiple-six-figure gig at the CBC hosting the country's most popular radio show, had a thirty foot mural of yourself removed from the CBC lobby, been dropped by your publisher (Penguin), disowned by your former band mates (moxy fruvous), let go of by the artist whose career you had managed (lights), and been informed through the media that your participation in hosting the prestigious Canadian awards events for the Giller Prize (literature) the Polaris Prize (music) and Canada's Walk of Fame was no longer needed.  The nation has been transformed into a feeding frenzy of piranhas, articles about you and the cascading tide of revelations about your life sometimes occupying most or all of the top 5 most popular stories on the country's major news outlets.  A kicking ourselves in the collective ass is occurring in the Canadian nation, everyone wondering how we did not see, behind that velvety voice, behind that slick but just rough enough demeanour, lived a tyrant, an egomaniac, a serial abuser of the awesome power he had gained? The story morphed and unfurled in directions we never could have imagined, parliamentarians past and present coming forward with accounts of abuse in what has been, after all, always referred to somewhat creepily as an "old boys club".  Respected and hardened female columnists have come forward in their fifties and sixties with stories of rape from their youth that they never felt the need to share until now, making all those eyeballs privy to the trauma they have lived with alone, for all these years.  And because of all this your name, the one you were born with and will live with forever, will never mean the same thing to anyone in Canada again.

Is this just? Is this fair? Has anyone you can think of gone from untouchable to radioactive in this amount of time? You can ask Tom Flanagan about it, who reasonably mused once in a talk to university students that pedophiles might cause less damage to society if they were able to access artistic child porn that did not use real subjects.  An Idle No More member who took issue with Flanagan's position and comments on the unrelated issue of his movement put the comments up, out of context on Youtube, and smeared him as a child pornography supporter.  Tom eventually did get his job, his reputation, and his column in the globe back, but he wrote a book about what happens when the twitter mob gets ahold of their tweet-shaped pitchforks in the Internet age.  The "Court of Public Opinion"s migration to the interwebs means the judgement is more swift, reactionary, and emotional than ever, and while permissiveness and liberal attitudes prevail as consensus on matters of social conscience in our society, the crowd can turn vicious when the wrong emotional chord is struck or the wrong taboo is  dredged up.

I am not trying to be a contrarian here defending a radioactive former radio host.  He did, after all, bring this upon himself.  The truth of the matter is that he claimed when he tried to get in front of the story on his facebook page that these were "private matters" and that his "private life should remain private".  As I pained myself to point out earlier this year on this blog, in January, when the hapless French president's extra-conjugal trysts were the stuff of tabloid fodder, when you are an official or unofficial public figure, there are certain sacrifices you make.  Period.  If you refuse to make them, then you are guilty of having a strong sense of entitlement and therefore unfit for the office you hold. You don't have "rights like everybody else". You are a somebody, not a nobody.  And the last thing all the nobodies out there who look up to you need to see is your deviant, dangerous, degenerate behaviour which you've somehow rationalized to yourself is ok for a person in your position to be engaged in.

Woody Harrelson's character Marty Hart in the show True Detective summed it up best in one of the first episodes, ominously alluding to his former partner "When a man is a certain age...and he doesn't have a family..." You start to wonder, basically. Married, divorced, kids, common law, gay, asexual, whatever. Society is not that judgemental these days.  But you have to have some explanation. Trolling social media for girls 20 years your junior and using your celebrity status to star strike them the better to increase their vulnerability? Indefensible beyond all recognition.

Then again, so should be fraternizing with thugs, smoking crack, and showing up drunk at black tie events all over town.  The public is not rational.  It does not have a fair mind.  People write the most hateful and reprehensible things in the comments below articles, when they do not spread misinformation and lies.  The vitriol and incendiary behaviour pervades the portion of the public square that is online, as it ascends to the halls of power in the legislative chambers of all levels of government.  This is not the world one wants to broadcast and justify an affinity for "rough sex" into.

Court, jail, sentences, arguments, evidence, witnesses and yes, justice all still exist in 2014.  The legal matters and cases all grind their way slowly through that system through years and months, through appeals, precedent, jurisprudence, higher court rulings, overturned verdicts, more appeals, new laws, amended laws, repealed laws, and unenforced laws.  The "official" justice system exists alongside the "real" justice system, online where our thoughts and mores have been collectivized and where the judgements are swift, irreversible and merciless.

Monday, 6 October 2014

Worthless Rob Anders

Elections Canada has to review the electoral map every ten years to ensure that federal riding boundaries broadly reflect the distribution of population, but the government in power is required to propose the new ridings.  So to be fair, even though the Conservatives have been salivating for the last few years over the thirty or so new ridings that are being created, this is not a strictly partisan initiative of theirs.  Population growth has indeed occurred in suburban Vancouver and Ontario, and all over Alberta and Saskatchewan, so the electoral map has to be re-drawn to reflect that.  The Conservatives are lucky because these areas where the new seats are being created happen to be the areas where they are strongest.  I am sure they will take full credit for the correlation between population growth and their popularity, but sadly not everyone on Earth can live in McMansions and work in resource extraction as is their ardent wish.  That being said, the changes have already created the unintended consequence, and welcome development, of destroying the political career of one of the most odious people ever to sit in the house of commons.

It's complicated.  A sitting Member of Parliament is still required to be confirmed as the candidate to run for re-election as a member of his or her party by the local riding association of that party.  But as the sitting M.P. has the advantage of incumbency, they are rarely disturbed in this process.  This is due to the nature of our party leader-centred democracy; if the nominee has the support of the party brass, no one wants to see any messy nomination battles, and these get nipped in the bud when and if they ever occur, which is rarely.

Where it gets interesting is when new ridings get created, like right now.  The map is redrawn.  A new riding might comprise a large chunk of an M.P's existing territory, but it now contains new territory that previously belonged to another riding, just as it may have lost some territory to a new riding.  It no longer suffices for a sitting M.P. to say he is standing for re-election in his riding, because it no longer exists.  He must stand for nomination in the brand new riding just like any newcomer, even though he is a sitting M.P.

This brings us to the subject of today's column, Mr. Rob Anders.

Rob Anders has been the most cartoonishly outrageous member of the Conservative government in its nine years in power.  He was first elected to the House of Commons at the age of 25 in 1997, representing the Reform party and rounding out the so-called "Snack Pack" with Ezra Levant, Rahim Jaffer, and Jason Kenney.  Seventeen years later, while Ezra's an outrageous but rich pundit, and Jason a high-flying minister with leadership aspirations (Rahim flamed out due to a coked-out DUI), Rob has succeeded at collecting an MP's salary for 17 years for occasionally being offensive...and that's basically it.

Mr Anders' illustrious achievements as a legislator include calling Nelson Mandela a terrorist, comparing the 2008 Beijing Olympics to the 1936 Munich games, and suggesting that Tom Mulcair precipitated the death of Jack Layton, the better to ascend to the NDP leader position.  He is an evangelical fundamentalist conservative who has put in time with Focus on the Family and railed against gays and transgendered people, and who once told Canadian soldiers "When in doubt, pull the trigger."

If you haven't caught one of the many moments in the House of Commons where Rob is nodding off with his mouth wide open on CPAC, Canadian Veterans sure did when he nodded off during a Veterans Affairs committee meeting he was supposed to be chairing.  When they called him out for his unprofessionalism and disrespect, he replied that they were NDP supporters.  Despite his appeal in Calgary West, and his support from Conservative heavyweights like the Prime Minister and Jason Kenney, the local riding association was fed up with him, and attempted to contest his nomination in 2011.  He won again, and derided his opponents as "Liberals" and "Feminists" while doing so.  The narcoleptic zero earned the right to collect 165k a year of taxpayer money for four more years.

But this time, in 2014, the new riding of Calgary-Signal Hill was refused to Mr. Anders.  Former provincial cabinet minister Ron Liepert defeated him for the nomination to run for the Conservatives in next years election.  Even Rob himself couldn't stop Calgary from getting overrun by Liberals and Feminists this time.

Undeterred, Rob moved south of Calgary to Chestermere to try and win the nomination in the more sparsely populated, rural new riding of Bow River.  He was badly defeated and embarrassed by the locals, who saw and called his parachuting into the riding exactly for what it was.

Now we have a 2014 good news story, that a guy who once headed an  organization called Canadians Against Forced Unionism, but who has never himself worked a day in his life, a guy who will enjoy a full pension significantly higher than the median Canadian income just for sitting on his ass at home, will not be coming back to the House of Commons after the next federal election.  A guy who railed against unions and insulted the intelligence and good taste of all Canadians for 17 years ends up, like the worst pathetic example of the stereotype he mocked, moving to the next potential food source just to try and scam in some extra years on that generous government teat.  Mouthing off, falling asleep, and earning six figures was a pretty good living for seventeen years, but most people figure out at what point it becomes abuse of the public dime and they must be good at something else, anything, right?  Not Rob.  His lizard brain just told him to move where there are more rednecks.

Good Riddance Rob.  Lacking Credentials wishes you the best in your future endeavours.

Friday, 3 October 2014

American Exceptionalism

In response to the growing number of conflicts around the world, there is a feedback loop occurring between some people the North American media and many Republican politicians in the US.  It concerns the current US response (rhetoric with limited military actions) to the various crises and what the media people and politicians feel it should be (full-scale intervention).  Some of these conflicts have been festering for years or even decades.  Some of them are directly related to previous US foreign policy actions more than others.  Still others have just flared up in their latest incarnations in 2014.  But if there's one thing Ukraine, Gaza, Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Egypt all have in common, according to pundits and opportunistic politicians, it is that they have been miserably and utterly failed by President Obama and his refusal to intervene, militarily or otherwise, to save these nations from the dictators, militia, terrorists, and misery which have afflicted them all at various times.

Is there even a place to begin to explain what America's military resources could possible accomplish in six (6) different hornets' nests like these or what astronomical sums it would cost to bankroll? No, but if you are like any number of North American columnists (Charles Krauthammer is the most glaring example), you make a living mocking the President's "weakness", "indecisiveness", "lack of resolve", "naivete", and "complacency".  Apparently not planting the big fat index finger of the US military into the maps of any of the six conflict areas above is considered the reckless and dangerous way to proceed.  As bad as the bad guys are, there seems to be no acknowledgement of the limits of the power that can be projected or clear statement of what would be accomplished.  Just that enemy aggression is “unacceptable” and “cannot be tolerated”.

A US President once said "Walk Softly and carry a big stick", or at least this quote is attributed to one.  Meanwhile in the mid-2000s I do recall the term "Big Swingin' Dick" being used to describe the US President of the time's actions with respect to military and foreign policy.  And this incredibly crude and sexualized metaphor, so sadly typical of our era, nonetheless describes the expectation which seems to now permeate the logic of the Krauthammers et al of this world: that the President wields a sort of deathly phallus with which it his presidential duty to f&*( the world back into order.

We don't need to spill gobs of ink to question boots on the ground or drones in the sky in Libya, Egypt, or Syria.  3 trillion dollars and ten years of full blown US military occupation in Iraq gave the world ISIS.  Next door ISIS is fighting Bachar Al-Assad, and letting him deal with them actually seems like an efficient way to deal with him for all those he's massacred the last three years.  Ukraine (the Western half of it) desperately wants to escape from Russia's yoke, but the US and Europe are better off diversifying their gas activities and trade and maintaining their high standards of living than getting embroiled in a military dispute with a corrupt kleptocracy like Russia which seems to be getting crazy enough to pursue it.  It’s best to let Putin the chessmaster play by himself.

Every world power that has ever tried to engage Russia on its turf has ended up sorely regretting that error.  Russia, on the other hand, has never made it further west than Berlin and Prague, and never will.  Everyone on earth enamoured with Putin's own BSD posture (as an aside, has an anti-gay politician anywhere else polluted cyberspace with so many homoerotic images of themselves?) seems to forget that he controls a population one-tenth the size of China's or India's, and not even double Iran's. A population crippled with rampant alcoholism and other health problems beset by chronic out-migration and an abysmal birth rate.  This guy's pretension of world domination paid for by his country’s gas company are pure delusion and fantasy, and just because the amount of money he has siphoned out of Russia probably makes him the richest man in the world, we don't need to keep taking his increasingly bizarre course of action in which he behaves as if he was the most powerful man in the world seriously.

But why have these conflicts given rise to what seems to me to be such an abnornally high level of geopolitical discussion amongst everyday people? Why does everyone suddenly have an opinion about Ukraine, about Gaza, about ISIS.  I've even heard this past summer over beer and barbeque talk of ramping up to a third world war, and more passionate than usual ruminations about how f----- up everything is.  Is technological advancement to thank for our advanced geopolitical awareness?  Is it CBC and CTV's decision to talk about the stuff 24-7 rather than the usual mind-numbing summer politician barbeque crap?  One thing is certain, as we talk of these conflicts and their victims, the conversation inevitably turns to solutions, and as the conversation turns to solutions, it inevitably involves the US, the only entity anyone can think of that could ever conceivably have any resources or willingness to intervene.  How short our memories are.

Because you only need to recall the Iraqs, the Vietnams, the countless clumsy botched CIA hatchet jobs in South America of the last few decades to realize the United States deploying its military is usually followed by the words "quagmire" "imbroglio" "disaster" and "trillions".  It doesn't make you a pacifist to observe that none of these adventures, for all the time and money and lives lost, accomplished their stated objectives.  But the reasons we as a society leave room in the discourse to persist in this chimeric military posturing are twofold: #1) We have simultaneously projected the sentiments of guilt (Rwanda/Balkans - "We will never idly stand by and let this happen again.") and bravado ("WWII - If it wasn't for our ancestors we'd all be speaking German) onto our collective past, and so feel the need to expect military solutions to the world's problems, and,#2, we still believe in American Exceptionalism, that is to say that America has interests all over the world and has a duty to itself to project military might and intervene when necessary, because it is exceptional.  While it is true that America's military is indeed exceptional, this fundamentally self-absorbed, ego-driven mentality is repugnant to more than a few inside and outside America

It instead boils down to the hazy language of “interests”, which means we do not report conflict, strife, and death themselves but rather report them where America’s interests are at stake, in countries where it is convinced for one reason or another that it has skin in the game.  Egypt, Syria, Iran, and Iraq all are in the vicinity of Israel, which America subsidizes and considers it has a duty to protect, as well as Iraq, where $3 trillion plus has been just sunk trying to bring freedom and democracy to turn a formerly hostile dictatorship into a friendly oil-producer.  Because of the unintended consequence of sectarian bloodshed this has set off, that doesn’t look to be in the cards.  Ukraine, meanwhile, wants to join the loose military cooperation network known as NATO formed by the US, Canada, and most of Europe but has been thwarted by Russian speaking militias in its East who prefer ties to Moscow. Ideally for North America Moscow is the most isolated possible so it can stop its rooster behaviour and join the fold of Western democracy.  That’s a pipe dream at this point.

But returning to the idea of exceptionalism, if America is indeed exceptional and has a duty to project its military wherever threats are found, then there are two countries about whom we hear almost nothing, where internal conflicts have claimed thousands of lives, and who have no institutions or mechanisms to help them cast off the burdens of ethnic and religious hatred and warfare.  The countries I am referring to are South Sudan and the Central African Republic, two dirt poor countries which never make the CNN headlines and whose citizens are as much in danger as in any of the other places I’ve mentioned in this column.

South Sudan has been beset by internal strife since it became the world’s newest country in 2011, with tribal leaders vying for authority and internecine warfare displacing thousands, plus the usual resource related disputes.  In that type of environment you can be sure none of the riches from the oil are flowing to ordinary citizens who continue to experience abysmally low standards of living in addition to chronic insecurity.

The Central African Republic, meanwhile, or Centrafrique, is probably the most obscure country on Earth, a tiny, landlocked, undeveloped nation that was under the yoke of France for a long time, and here a genocide of the most toxic kind, Christian on Muslim violence, rages, yet there is no debate in the Canadian or any other parliament on how to address the situation.  The article by Neil MacDonald on cbc.cayesterday amply demonstrates this double standard, but he uses the Congo as an example, another lost and torn up place in Africa.

Since I started this article the debate on how to deal with ISIS has ramped up and several nations have committed troops and resources.  While the size of the territory controlled by ISIS is alarming and their shocking radicalism leads one to wish for their imminent destruction, they are surrounded by duplicitous countries (Turkey, Syria, Saudi Arabia) which can easily serve as conduits for their money, oil, and ideology, in both directions.

But it is not the traditional “American Exceptionalism” that will aim to bring down ISIS.  It is an American and the broader west’s “exception” that is made for all the places where real suffering and hell is going on, but for some reason is not acknowledged.

Thursday, 18 September 2014

Prentice the Pipeline Saviour Will Get Nowhere

In the dying days of the fall 2011 Ontario provincial election campaign, Dalton McGuinty, the incumbent premier at the time, and his brain trust made a conscious and deliberate decision to cancel two gas-fired power plants in Mississauga and Oakville.  The government was gunning for its third majority victory, and in its electoral calculus the four suburban seats in play surrounding those plants were indispensable.  Residents of said ridings were said to be strenuously opposed to said plants, even the real Erin Brockovitch came to one of their meetings, but they generated little to no opposition outside of them.  Population growth in the GTA has demanded new energy sources, plain and simple; that is why the plants were under construction.  Somehow the executive call got made to cancel them, without any public debate, when they were already being built.  A camera was placed on the site as construction continued for weeks after the projects were officially cancelled, by the opposition PCs; presumably they gained little benefit from it as they lost the 2014 election by a landslide.

Today this has all been forgotten.  In fact, lawsuits have recently been served to two members of the provincial legislature by Mr. McGuinty for publicly insinuating that he was involved in the cover-up (only his chief of staff at the time is under investigation.  A good example of a chief of staff's relationship with his boss is the character Doug Stamper in the Netflix series House of Cards) and he is back in Toronto officially registering to lobby Queen's Park for Desire2Learn, a Kitchener-based tech company looking to make some hay in the school system.  Talk about a triumphant return after running away to Harvard to lay low for a few months talking to super-elite American students about, I don't know, how stupid and ignorant regular people are.  I mean a billion dollars.  Only in Ontario, people.  Martha Stewart went to jail for $40,000, Conrad Black for maybe $6 million.  Neither of them have materially suffered since being made examples of by the justice system, but for the man to face no consequences or reprisal for a massively stupid and costly decision he clearly had a hand in -  and if he didn't then who was in charge?? - reflects very poorly on my home province indeed.

Lord knows the province has enough on its plate - high structural and social costs, factories closing, a poorly executed green energy strategy it has backed away from - and a massive chasm opening up between soaring and unaffordable Toronto, where everyone wants to be, comfortable, civil-servant economy Ottawa, which is boring and does just fine, and a bunch of aging, declining, economically depressed buttholes, whose realities, John Chen's nascent turnaround of Blackberry notwithstanding, are neither experienced nor appreciated in the province's two major centres.  Kathleen Wynne has been given the thankless job of turning around what McGuinty couldn't with his auto-bailouts and green energy schemes - so far her bright idea is to impose a new pension scheme on the province because people in Ontario are too dumb to realize that a financed Cadillac Escalade today is the difference between Cheerios and Whiskas in your seventies.

Alberta's previous premier had different sorts of problems.

Alison Redford's $45,000 flight to Nelson Mandela's funeral was the domino that turned the country's national media, and probably the segment of the province's population that follows politics closely (lower than elsewhere - gotta go to work!) into a fearsome cyclone of piranhas that totally destroyed her political career.  The stuff was just too juicy, too caricatural, and too much like tabloid fodder, in the sense that it just kept coming, to ignore (Okay, there were no crack pipes or drunken stupors, but we HAVE to start talking about something else, people!). Empty seats surrounding her bought for privacy. A fleet of government aircraft with her daughter and her friends in tow. A secret private penthouse being constructed in a government building in Edmonton.  A chief of staff making more than Stephen Harper's and Barack Obama's chiefs of staff.  Alberta has an image and a reputation - straight-shooting, blue-collar, and goddamn it, small government, and this stuff just didn't jive. So she went and hid out in Palm Springs for a month (it shows you how high a regard the elites that govern us hold us when our country is full of big open space and they feel the need to lay low in the States) and now no longer sits in the Alberta legislature.

But Alberta has a different set of problems as a province,too, although they are significantly more enviable than Ontario's.  Population growth is explosive.  Unemployment is low, and there are worker shortages everywhere.  Average weekly wages are sky-high, and the province generated the lion's share of the whole country's economic growth in 2013.  Not only are there the obvious issues of building all that new infrastructure and ensuring the communities are developed in a smart way with long term planning and vision (neither of which is likely occurring at this time), there is that festering energy issue.

Crude from the oil sands trades at a discount to crude from the rest of the world for a bunch of arcane economic reasons that are not the focus of this column.  That issue is focused on by the business press because it is related to the main issue, which is that the oil from the bitumen that is strip mined in the tar sands cannot be brought to market fast enough, or at least not if anyone want to significantly expand oil sands production, which of course all of the companies operating there do.  That's the easy problem.  Then there is the more inconvenient matter of the oil sands being an incredibly capital-intensive, but especially a carbon emissions-intensive, enterprise, and a growing number of governmental and non-governmental actors on earth recognizing the danger and the folly in continuing to carry on incredibly carbon emissions-intensive work given what we know about climate change.  The posture of Alberta's provincial and Canada's federal government has ranged from the delusional (look, we're getting really serious about reducing emissions - ha ha ha) to the current position which seems to be something along the lines of everybody just f--- off already.

It's hopelessly stuck in the mud.  Governments in the US and BC where the three proposed pipelines need to go are considerably more hostile towards them than the Alberta government, mainly I suspect because these governments and their constituents do not derive their livelihoods from extracting bitumen.  The world is going to move away eventually from gas, from cars, from all that - it's only a question of by force or by choice, and there seems to be a groundswell gaining consensus that we can't just keep pretending this problem doesn't exist.  It must be incredibly painful in Alberta to come to grips with the fact that despite this oil wealth and a ten gallon Stetson full of bluster, you are not in control of this situation.

In comes Jim Prentice, who was chosen as Alison Redford's replacement.  A formal senior minister in Stephen Harper's government holding portfolios such as Industry and Environment, he left to be a bigwig at a major Canadian bank and was tapped as a negotiator for one of the pipeline companies as a large part of these proposed pipeline routes pass through aboriginal land claim snafus and things of that nature.  With typical pathetic Canadian adulation (minister, banker, executive - this guy's going to get the job done!), Prentice was acclaimed in the Globe and the Post for the last two days as the guy who's got what it takes to defend Canada's moneyed interests and make them OK to the world.  Somehow convincing the world's population that it needs the oil sands more than it needs to worry about the oil sand's environmental record and potential fallout, that hey, we really are cooking up some hare-brained schemes to store carbon in the ground, because we cannot just go on generating the carbon with impunity even though that is exactly what we are doing and exactly what we plan to keep on doing, that yes a few thousand natives living downstream have really high cancer rates but hey, look at all this money were making, and we are going to convince everybody to let the pipeline pass through now after years of bad-mouthing them as enviro-fascists and without paying them off.

Good luck Jim.  I'd lend you my magic wand but I think I leant it to Harry Potter to play Quidditch.  Today I predict you will be as stuck in the mud as Kathleen in a few months time, though I'm sure you're both very nice in real life.  And Scotland will separate from the U.K. tomorrow.

Because there's the reality we wish we were dealing with.  And the reality we are actually dealing with.  And in 2014, that just keeps getting messier and messier.