Assertion, unsupported by fact, is nugatory. Surmise and general abuse, in however elegant language, ought not to pass for truth. Junius

2006/09/29

Creeping Normalcy

Having observed the depredations of the American Right these past twenty-five years --- since R. Reagan's inauguration, really --- forgive me for being skeptical and cynical about the uproar concerning the Military Commissions Act. Watching the outrage --- this New York Times editorial is a good example --- over the U.S. Congress passing its torture bill is merely confirming my suspicions about the gullibility of human nature. At the end of the day, it's the same-old, same-old: the American Right does something outrageous, and the American Left bemoans the consequences. Nothing ever changes.

Fact is, we've been watching the American republic slowly dissolve itself for years, its moral compass and credibility vanish like so much hot gas, its vaunted Bill of Rights as good as toilet paper. Maybe we're all becoming inured to it. There's a phrase for this: "creeping normalcy". Creeping normalcy is when torture as official policy was anathema five years ago, but is seen now a reasonable extension of state policy. Creeping normalcy is abolishing the writ of habeas corpus --- a legal procedure which has served as well though war, flood and famine since the promulgation of the Magna Charta --- on the basis of national security. Creeping normalcy is is looking at the CNN home page (Headline as I write this: "Police: School Shooter Asked for Girls by Name.") and seeing nothing of this bill passing through Congress.

Robert over at My Blagh has it exactly right:

If Americans don't open up a can of whoopass on their government over this then they deserve exactly what they're getting. If a million Americans don't get themselves a brick and hurl it through the window of a government building in the next day or two in order to send a message that they're mad as hell and won't take it anymore, then they deserve exactly what they're getting. If tens of millions of Americans don't bring the nation to a standstill sometime in the next week to signal that they will not go quietly into the night, then they deserve exactly what they are getting.
The trouble is that millions of Americans won't take to the streets. There will be a bit of a ruffle for the next news cycle or two, and that will be about it. Till the next time. Meanwhile the Great Republic has taken another step on the merry road to fascism --- but don't you worry about it: the Christmas shopping season is just around the corner, you know.

The lack of any real response from the American people, apart from handwringing, is in truth the most disturbing aspect of this. One could draw several conclusions from this: a) they don't care, b) they don't know, c) they approve.

How reassuring for the rest of the world. How good to know too, that the most pro-American government we've had in years is taking notes from George Bush's playbook.

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2006/09/27

Transnational Upper Canada

Generally, I try to be patient and understanding when the academic crowd attempts to broaden their horizons in search of new venues for research. Yet there was something that irked me when I saw this announcement on Boderlands that appeared in my inbox the other day from the Michigan Historical Review:




As a prefix, trans often raises interest, if not eyebrows. Transgentic, transcultural, transexual, even trans fat (!)... It is a sexy prefix.

Transnational Upper Canada does have a rather nice ring to it. Images of Indians trading from the Thousand Islands to the Western tip of Lake Superior, voyageurs guiding their canoes through placid waters, and joyful Canadians and Americans happily traversing our shared border danced momentarily through my head.

But, ahem, have things really been like this? Having grown up literally on the shores of Lake Huron, the land tht lay beyond the great blue horizon was largely a unknown to me. I knew it was there but, if anything, the other side could have been Japan or Australia. Indeed, the lake invoked a similar sensation as when I now peer northward out into the Atlantic from my home in the Canaries: a great emptiness extending for thousands of miles. Now, looking at Lake Huron with Google Maps, it now seems like a large moat filled with ice half the year. Myth-torically, a case could be made that the Great Lakes served as a natural defense during the War of 1812. More recently, despite NAFTA and the surge in cross border trade, real transnationalism seems illusory. Impediments such as increased border controls (including hour long waits to cross the border) soon to be imposed passport requirements and new electronic sensors to catch illegal migrants can hardly promote the notion of a Great Lakes Region.

Transnationalism seems, from here at least, like a sad euphamism. Might Transnationalism's failure might be a better title for this particular call for papers?

For those interested in submitting an article, the website is http://clarke.cmich.edu/michhistoricalreview/index.htm. For everyone else wanting to share a few words on this subject, the Upper Canadian is all ears. Posted by Picasa


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Too Clever by Half

It isn't very often that a government gets to throw a sop to its hardcore supporters while blowing raspberries at it opponents. Cutting the Court Challenges Program as part of its broader economizing scheme, Canada's New Improved Government has done exactly that. The government is blowing hugs and kisses to the usual suspects --- REAL Women of Canada, the Christian Right, the Fraser Institute --- while poking its finger in the eyes of the whinging rabble, excuse me, minority groups and civil rights advocates.

Score one for the government? Maybe.

The government correctly strategized that the Left and the press would whip itself into a froth over the cuts to this particular program --- which is has, of course --- essentially depriving oxygen to discussion of the other announced cuts. It's lovely, classic example of political sleight of hand --- Machiavellian, to be exact --- to distract the citizenry with an inflammatory, divisive policy, while implementing more draconian policies. By the time discussion of the controversial policy is fizzled out, the draconian is a fait accompli.

Except the proposed cuts elsewhere aren't exactly earth-shattering. Confederation will still stand, and yes the sun will rise tomorrow. As Thomas Walkom of the Toronto Star correctly points out, the cuts are "an exercise in alleged fiscal restraint that, on the face of it at least, is much less than it seems." In fact the government has given us not so much a coherent plan for fiscal restraint, than a laundry list of cuts made to specific departments. Looking at the list, one gets the impression deputy ministers were instructed to sacrifice one or two programs for the political agenda of the new lords of the manor. And some of these "cuts" aren't in fact funding reductions at all, but "streamlining" and taking back unused funding --- the real sleight of hand.

If cutting the Court Challenges Program was intended to be diversionary, it's a large hammer to crack so worthless a nut.

The Left can take heart, though. The government seems to have made a strategic error. In the normal course of events discussion and memory of this controversy would fade as the media and punditry focussed their attention on other more substantive aspects of the government's fiscal policy. In this case, there doesn't seem to be any. Who cares if the government saved $5 million on "Consolidating Retail Debt Program Administration"? Nickel and dime stuff, especially on budget surplus of a gazillion dollars, approximately. Instead, we'll all remember these cuts as the attack on minority groups --- those gays and lesbians and aboriginals --- so loathed by the Tory party base.

For a government facing an election, and ongoing suspicion about its social conservative agenda, cutting the Court Challenges Program is a curious choice to make.

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2006/09/25

Faux Canadians

It is somewhat startling to see the Canadian government --- the Conservative government, if I may correct myself --- grumble about having to evacuate 8,000 Canadian citizens from Beruit at a cost of $85 million. (If you happen to be wondering, that works out to almost $11,000 per refugee. Didn't they consult with Ryanair? Perhaps they could have bought a cruise liner?)

Now instead of our good government patting itself on the back on a job well done for having taken innocent Canadians out of harm's way (or, perhaps more pointedly, sending the bill directly to Jerusalem for having forced that particularly useless war) it is now wringing its hands about how the majority of the 8,000 rescued "Canadian citizens" holding two passports have since returned to Lebanon.

Not missing a beat, the Canadian press has spiked newspapers with tear jerking (or chest thumping) phrases like "citizens of convienience," "divided loyalties," and "accidental citizens." Word has it that there are nearly four million of these semi-Canadians in the wild, not counting those Canadian-born fence sitters who have applied for a second (or more) passport abroad, who are using and abusing Canada and its good will.

From one angle, it seems like a rational reaction by cost conscious citizens spotting fiscal waste. People were abusing the government purse overseas and, ergo, the best answer is to redefine what it means to be Canadian. To be a bearer of that skinny blue passport, one has to pay the price, beyond the exorbitant $87 fee: real Canadians, the argument goes, live in the Great White North, have wet dreams about the Queen, and, above all, contribute to the system through taxes. From another angle, all this reeks of repackaged xenophobia. Could the clich├ęs and stereotypes supposedly buried a generation ago be re-emerging? Does "Canadian passport holders abroad" really mean "new Canadians" (and not retirees in Orlando)? Are "immigrants with passports," really a different shade of Canadian as one's sister-in-law who has Irish grandparents and a EU passport? Worse still, are "second generation immigrants" really different from their neighbours whose parents came from Holland in the sixties?

The drivel on restricting the rights of Canadians living abroad comes (one might hazard to assume) from small time, greasy followers of Stockwell Day who you wanted to bitch slap in Poli Sci 101 (clones of this type can be found here, here, and here). It is enough to make one think that Canada is beginning to act more like the conservative reincarnates of Switzerland or Austria than, well, like Canada.

What's worse, for those of us more internationally minded, all of this seems to have been rehearsed somewhere before. Globalization, the breakdown of borders and frontiers, and multiple identities were repeated so often during the flighty '90s that even I considered speaking up against it (out of boredom, I admit, but alas, my nemisis, Naomi Klein, beat me to it). While globalization does seems so 1990s, fear and terror are the call words of a brave new decade. To its credit, Canada was still the same country on September 12th, 2001 and endured nothing less than four years of holding Homeland Security hyperbole at bay. But it is not difficult to imagine in the current political clime how issues of "security" will be tacked onto the evacuation of 8,000 refugees from Lebanon and more reason to take a sledgehammer to the foundations of Canadian citizenship law.

So as a true believer of (most) things liberal and, therefore, an adherent to the idea that borders and finite nationalities are a dumb idea, blindly following the sheep on the idea of "Canadian or nothin"' seems like a particularily bad idea. But just what does citizenship mean? Part of it is about a kindred feeling for the place where you are from, kind of like a marriage certificate from the patria. But another part of it is about acknowledging a truth that people are raised in one part of the world, work in another and, perhaps, if they are lucky, retire in southern lattitudes. Assuming that the 50,000 Canadian living in Lebanon were, indeed, Lebanese-Canadians holding both passports, these people aquired the right to be Canadian legitimately through jus sanguinis (through a parent), jus soli (being born on Canadian soil) or through naturalization. In other words, all of these Canadians gained their citizenship through long-honoured traditions and customs.

Falling back on the common creed of the '90s, where multiculturalism was a badge of honour summing up what Canada was about, there is indeed much is to made for the case that more can be gained from mixed loyalties than single loyalties. A few months ago, on a plane from Milan to Toronto, I found myself cramped into the cheapseats of an Alitalia Airbus that had connected with a flight from Tehran. Not unlike travelling in European train compartments, it was inevitable that some sort of conversation would arise. Beside me was an academic, teaching biology in Ontario, in front of me was a contractor who lived in Toronto and worked in Iran. I was frankly amazed at the cross section of of Canadians on that plane and their ties with a country half a world away. Diaspora thus takes on a whole new meaning of those that come to Canada and those that leave as hybrid, hyphenated Canadians.

On a practical level, is the government naive enough to believe that if it forced people to choose one passport over another it would resolve its invented problem? For many countries, like Lebanon, emigrants and returnees are a lifeblood, economically and demographically. In other words, they will do everything in their power to facilitate their that citizens can have two nationalities. More importantly, if people are forced to choose, they would choose to be Canadian and still live abroad, asking for the goodwill of the Canadian government when need be. What the Ministry of Foreign Affairs likely knows (but is afraid to say) is that the same situation that arose in Lebanon would have existed, with dual citizenship or without.

All of this leads me to believe that something else is amok. Perhaps, after settling into their new digs in Ottawa, the Conservatives, to paraphrase Cindy Lauper, are letting their true colours shine on through. Perhaps to the enlightened Members of Parliament from beyond the Ontario-Manitoba frontier, the concept of humanitarian relief strikes a hollow chord. Or was it that the refugees did not look Canadian enough? Did some look too Arab for some Conservative members' tastes?

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2006/09/22

Take Back the Night

A few years ago, during the electricity crisis that plagued California, the city of Los Angeles was plunged into darkness. Soon afterwards emergency services and the power companies began to receive telephone calls from anxious citizens, reporting strange lights in the sky and a mysterious luminous band which stretched from horizon to horizon. What was it? Was this causing the power outage? Or something even more sinister, like (wait for it) an alien invasion?

The mysterious lights were stars, of course, and that band of light was the Milky Way, the delineation of our own galaxy. This story may or may not be apocryphal, but the point remains: for the first time in human history, large numbers of people --- possibly the majority in the First World --- have not seen the night sky in all its glory and wonder. Instead, we have light pollution, from millions of lamp standards, all shining up, obscuring all but the brightest stars and planets.

I'm a bit of an amateur astronomer. Even in my splendid isolation in rural Peterborough County, the light pollution from Peterborough city, 25 kilometers away, is significant and obvious: the western horizon is pretty much obscured. And driving home from work from suburban Toronto there is actually a point along the 115 where its possible to see the light domes from both Toronto and Peterborough.


The graphic above represents the light pollution in south-central Ontario as seen from space. The cross marks Peterborough, the colours represent the quality of the night sky from totally dark (black) to obscured (white). In almost all of the City of Toronto, the sky is so obscured that only the brightest planets (i.e. Jupiter and Venus) and stars will shine; there is no hope for most of the rest of the GTA to see the Milky Way.


There are, of course, obvious economic and cultural impacts to this light pollution. Something in the order of 40% of light from lamp standards, buildings, security lighting, billboards and the like is directed upwards into space, wasting energy, disorienting wildlife, interfering with circadian cycles and human health, rendering scientific research futile, and depriving the humanity of its natural heritage of the night sky. If there was ever a noxious consequence of our industrial civilization, light pollution would go to the top of the list, along with global warming and reality television.

Of course, public consciousness equates bright, visible lighting to safety, lower crime rates and security in general. The more the better, in fact, which accounts for light pollution being off the radar for most politicians. Who wants to be accused of wanting more crime?* Yet in fact, several studies have shown that installing energy-and-sky friendly lighting has no adverse effect on crime and security in general; poorly designed lighting seen all too frequently in cities actually decreases visibility from the glare it creates --- think of the glare created by the headlights of an oncoming car.

I sometimes think all this lighting has some broader cultural impacts. Since widespread lighting has become common --- in the 1930s, the Milky Way was visible in downtown Toronto --- there have been more UFO sightings, more claims of alien abduction, more belief in the physical reality of angels, in short, more belief in supernatural nonsense from the heavens, and a concurrent decline in public interest in pure science. It's as if the sky, in all its unadorned glory, has become a thing to be feared as unfamiliar and dangerous, rather than a source of wonder, curiosity and awe. Maybe we prefer to be cocooned in the illusionary safety of high-wattage light. More's the shame.

*Several years ago, Trent University faced pressure from some groups to improve safety, especially in the area of lighting. The university resisted for a time, stating its environmentally-friendly and architecturally sensitive lighting was adequate for the purposes of safety and security; the cry was (inevitably) raised the university was anti-woman, the university caved, and Trent is now a model of sodium-vapour lighting in that exact shade of urban alienation and in the worst possible way. I would be curious if the number of attacks since this lighting was installed has actually declined.


2006/09/13

The Wheels on the Bus Go Round and Round

I'm returning to this blog after some months. Actually, a lot of months. It's a bit like taking a car out of storage. You kick the tires, and check the oil and battery, and poke at the engine, and pray to Jesus/Allah/Buddha the damn thing starts. I've cleaned out some of the old stuff. I have no idea if any of the links work. I see my comments have been spammed to death. Such is the price of negligence.

One new thing: I will be joined occasionally by my friend Agaete --- my man in Havana, er Canary Islands --- who will provide a Europeanish perspective.

Looking back over my old posts, I was struck considerably by how little has changed in eighteen months. We're still talking about the war on terror, same sex marriage, health care reform. Et cetera.

But we have Stephen Harper now.* Almost makes you yearn for the good ole days under Paul Martin, doesn't it?

*I note that I was wrong about Harper self-destructing over the same sex marriage issue. So far. I think he must be praying hard ("Please God, don't make me invoke the notwithstanding clause . . . those nasty Ontario and Quebec voters will whack me with a stick!") that the resolution on reopening the debate (or whatever parliamentary contortion he's planning) is defeated. Or the government falls. Or the earth falls into the sun. Any choice will do, really.