Tuesday, November 10, 2015


Toronto Old City Hall cenotaph (click to enlarge)

THIS IS THE CENOTAPH AT TORONTO'S OLD CITY HALL. I'm not sure precisely when the bookend inscriptions commemorating Canada's peacekeeping missions were added to the dates of World War One, World War Two and the Korean War, but they've been there a long time now.

I understand that we have a lot invested in the "myth of Peacekeeping." Canadians like to imagine ourselves as the nice guy, the good friend, the designated driver, the burly but amiable dude who wades in to break up the fight. Like so many national myths, it says more about how we imagine ourselves than the reality.

Never mind that those carved brackets of Peacekeeping, pleasingly symmetrical as they might be, are redundant. There's the simple fact that at least 159 Canadian soldiers have died since we first sent troops into Afghanistan. That's more than the total 122 Canadian fatalities on various UN peacekeeping missions.

Afghanistan might not be anyone's idea of an unmitigated military or political success, but not all of our peacekeeping missions have ended well.

They deserve to be remembered. Perhaps it's time to replace one of those stone slabs and get out the chisel.


Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Why I Vote (and Why I Spoiled My Ballot)

I arrived at the polling station this afternoon to see this, and it pretty much summed up my feelings about the whole election.

The first big mistake Stephen Harper made was to double the length of this election cycle - 78 days, over twice the minimum allowed in the 1996 Elections Act. It's not as harrowing as the American election cycle, which lasts four years and starts before inauguration, but it's a step closer, and makes democracy seem like a punishment. I can't speak for anyone else up here, but the effect it had on me was to give me more than enough time to realize how much I hate politicians - all politicians.

I certainly didn't have a lot to choose from in my riding, which elected its last Tory before I was born, and only sent an NDP MP to Ottawa in the last election, which hindsight seems to be painting as a freak.

I knew I wasn't going into this election a partisan voter, and based on what I'm seeing now as the results come in, I wasn't alone, at least on the conservative side. I wasn't the last time around, four years ago, but at least then my ballot gave me an outlet for my frustration - not one, but two libertarian parties quixotically contesting the riding. After a bit of Googling, I determined which one was the less sophomoric and off-putting and made what was, ethically if not technically, a protest vote.

If nothing else, that ballot provided me with a punch line to any future jokes about the self-sabotaging tendencies of fringe politics in general, and libertarians in particular.

I can't remember why I didn't vote Tory the last time around, but I know that this time it was impatience with Stephen Harper and distaste for at least three of his platforms.

Bribing me with my own money was one of them. As much as I'm shocked at having mysteriously arrived in the middle class, it's never comforting when politicians try to tell me they're my friend. And when they try to grease the unwelcome intimacy with what amount to bribes they insist on calling tax cuts, my gag reflex kicks in.

Sure I like having more money to spend on my kids and a bit more budget for home renos would be nice - that brown '70s kitchen isn't going to replace itself - but I'd like to get that from actual tax cuts that everyone can enjoy and not targeted goodie bags.

I didn't like Bill C-51, either. Not that I'm against fighting terrorism or giving law enforcement the tools to do it, but badly-written legislation is a time bomb. I'm suspicious of any new law, but when they potentially target free speech and legitimate protest thanks to imprecise language like "terrorist propaganda" I can see the overreach waiting to happen. Just look at the Department of Homeland Security to see how expanded powers, well, expand - in all directions.

Most of the people who protested C-51 liked to paint it as Harper creating a police state; I saw it turning really toxic under some future administration with a different definition of an "internal enemy." The "Stop Harper" crowd have always looked like they were fighting a nemesis created in their own imagination and fitted with Harper's face; I didn't see an evil leader but an evil law, with the potential for real trouble when political opportunism and cynicism (inevitably) finds the other side of the blade.

Which brings me to the niqab, which will probably be called the iceberg that holed Harper's Titanic. Maybe it was; it was certainly the issue that energized opposition to Harper when election fatigue was setting in. Now I'm as against masks and covering women with sacks as any putative Islamophobe with daughters, whose understanding of liberal principles bridles at such things.

I would have liked, however, if Harper could have framed his late-in-the-game attack on the niqab more rationally - like how covering your face in ID photos or while giving testimony (or voting) makes a joke of the essential functions of bureaucracy or law or democracy. Instead it was the image of a niqab at a citizenship ceremony that became Harper's boogeyman - a wholly ceremonial ritual where it's intent and not identity that's recognized.

Never mind that, as a religious person and the world's worst Catholic, I have very good reasons to be afraid of laws that - thanks to the bafflingly imprecise language that ends up framing legal definitions - will be inevitably turned around on anyone's religious customs when some malicious lawyer or Supreme Court justice with a hunger for precedent becomes creative with interpretation.

I understand that "religious freedom" - like "free speech" and "the right to bear arms"  - is a concept regarded with far less reverence here than in the U.S., where there's a written Constitution with more vigorous definitions bolstered by two centuries of inspired debate. Which is why I have every reason to expect that good intentions will become predatory legal rulings and punitive bureaucratic punishment here. It's happened before.

Was it too much to ask my country's leader to get me to vote for his party  by treating me like a rational adult?

Which is why I showed up at the polling station expecting not to vote for my Conservative candidate. This time around, though, I didn't intend to vote for anyone.

Years ago, a high school friend sold me on voting with the simple maxim: "If you don't vote, you can't complain." I love complaining, so I made sure I voted in every election. No exercised franchise, no soapbox. It was that simple.

Sometimes I have regretted my vote. Other times I could defend it happily. Thanks to the parliamentary system and my choice to live in the country's largest city I have always known, since I first marked my ballot as a "conservative," that my vote would be largely meaningless, as every riding I have lived in has had an electoral history like the one I live in now.

As ever, even if I voted for my Conservative candidate they'd end up polling at best a distant second but more probably a resounding third. I suppose I could vote "strategically," but I've always been rather sentimental about my vote; I consider it a gift to be bestowed on a deserving suitor, not dice thrown in a game of odds. In either case I entered the polling station knowing in my gut that Harper's conservatives were in for a mauling, and I know they knew it, too. No vote, strategic or not, would change that, and I frankly didn't much care.

So with no stomach for the Conservative party and no Libertarian to gift with my protest vote - the only independent running revealed himself as a maniac and a slumlord after a few minutes of Googling - I spoiled my ballot.

I'd never done it before. I looked online to see if there was a "proper" way, but ballot-spoiling is apparently like modern jazz: you can do it with as much style as you want, but most people still won't approve.

My friend and editor Paul Tuns was the first person who ever told me that it spoiling my ballot wasn't just an option, but a principled one. He ended up voting Tory this time around, but his rationalization included a thought that made the conspicuous gesture of a spoiled ballot seem almost creative:
So it's illogical that I'm voting, but that, too, is the beauty of freedom: It doesn't have to make sense.
It wasn't fun. I hope I never have to do it again, but that would mean a future with better politicans and superior politics, and I can't see that happening. Staying at home would be a franchise wasted; making the effort to dig up my papers and identification and walk to the polling place to say "none of the above" isn't apathy, but it is an admission that I've slipped away from the apparent majority of the population who can express joy or disappointment at the results of an election. I can still complain, but without much passion or outrage; this time around, I didn't think anyone had a better idea.

Thursday, January 3, 2013


Daniel Pipes is an expert on the Middle East, which means that when he tries to say something correct about that part of the world, he gets called all sorts of nasty names. That would be what we call an occupational hazard, like carpenters getting splinters, or hockey players losing teeth.

He occasionally writes on other topics, about which he's usually just as correct, and this week he wondered aloud just why the Republicans managed to lose an election running against an inept president and his groaning platform of destructive policies. He came to a conclusion that's hardly new, but which probably sums up the whole mission statement of this blog:
Myself, I subscribe to the "politics is downstream from culture" argument. While conservatives sometimes prevail in policy debates, they consistently lose in the classroom, on the best-seller list, on television, at the movies, and in the world of arts. These liberal bastions, which provide the feeders for Democratic party politics, did not develop spontaneously but result from decades of hard work traceable back to the ideas of Antonio Gramsci.
I'd never heard of Gramsci until - surprise, surprise! - college, and what I understood I didn't much like, but presumed that it was worth ignoring, as it had little relationship to life as it seemed to be lived. Another thing I was wrong about; while upbringing and temperament made me largely immune (in the long run) to Gramsci's project of cultural denaturing, other people - something like a majority, or so it would seem - weren't so protected. As Guy Somerset wrote this week, in a column about things to worry about in the new year:
Why does anyone care what Al Sharpton or Shaneequa at the supermarket thinks about their racial beliefs? In some cases such as employment, it’s obvious; but to say most people are obsequious in order not to get fired is a canard. Most are simply indoctrinated. They would rather be raped than be racist. It wasn’t always this way. In fact, until recently it wasn’t this way.
One of the sobering spectacles of my adult life is watching people act against their own self-interest. When you're young and confused, it's hard to divine just what your self-interest is, particularly. Time and common sense eventually make it self-evident, but the shocking moment comes when you look around and see people actively, proudly agitating for causes nakedly inimical to their livelihood and beliefs, like feminists supporting Islamists, Catholics voting for Obama (twice!) or rich people endorsing Marxists.

It takes a while to realize that these people have come to the conclusion that there is no other option, and you start wondering just what they were taught that made them believe that they have no alternative except to invite into their house the person who has said that they will betray their confidence, conspire against their liberty, and even make them a pauper.

Nobody reads Gramsci, but his ideas have had an influence utterly out of proportion to their popularity. Like so many ideologies we consider either sinister, ridiculous (or both,) we've ignored what were once outlying sensations on the academic left like Gramsci and the Frankfurt School, even as they slowly became the mainstream there and spread into the arts, where they're considered self-evident truths by people who have never heard of Theodore Adorno or an obscure Italian communist.

I doubt if William F. Buckley ever thought to take on Adorno or Gramsci with the same fervor that he used to debate Gore Vidal. I don't imagine Gramsci's name ever appears in five decades of Buckley's writing, though I may be wrong. It's only now that conservatives have realized just how deeply these arcane, usually ill-expressed ideas have penetrated the culture, and have begun fighting what is, I'm afraid, a wholly defensive, rear-guard action.

(HT: Blazing Catfur & 5 Ft. of Fury)

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

New Column: Rich

I have a new column up on the Interim website - a review of the documentary The Queen of Versailles, which is one of those time capsule artifacts that we might want to use to commemorate the last four or five years of fiscal incontinence. Here's a quote:
The moral writ large over The Queen of Versailles is that the Siegels aren't terribly different from Westgate Resort’s customers – regular people who went in over their heads in pursuit of a conspicuous luxury that they could ill afford. David keeps complaining that the banks got businessmen like him addicted to “cheap money,” as if they were victims, addicts deprived of willpower and discretion. 
It’s also a story of shamelessness, and that might be the larger moral Greenfield’s film could give to its audience. Despite the less-than-flattering picture the picture paints of her, Jackie has been an enthusiastic supporter of the picture, showing up at premieres even as her husband sues the filmmaker for defamation. The Siegels, to be sure, are guilty of a lot of social misdemeanors, but pretension and self-consciousness certainly aren't among them.
 As I've confessed before, there hasn't been a lot that's tempted me into movie theatres lately, but the documentary genre remains stronger than ever. It's also the one least likely to be a major player in the economics of movie exhibition these days, which is another reason never to leave the house.

Buy it at amazon.com

Monday, December 17, 2012


Everybody has an opinion; that's why they might be the least valuable thing in the world. (Their lack of value - relative or concrete - might be the strongest argument against "hate speech" laws.) It's not surprising then that, in the wake of a horrible crime that took the lives of innocent children, everybody has something to say. Unfortunately, the first people we go to for their valueless opinion are celebrities.

Jamie Foxx has a role in Quentin Tarantino's imminent Django Unchained, which is supposed to be one of the director's most violent films. Foxx recently told the Associated Press that he thinks there's a definite connection between cinematic bloodshed and the real thing:
"We cannot turn our back and say that violence in films or anything that we do doesn't have a sort of influence," Foxx said in an interview on Saturday. "It does."
While I appreciate Foxx's concern about the violent murder of children by a lunatic, I wonder if he might like to back up his very public show of moral concern by making a call to his agent and insisting that he not be shown any more scripts with scenes of violence. Because if he sees any "sort of influence" that connects witnessing violence in entertainment with acting violently in real life, he can't in good conscience take roles that perpetuate it any longer. Because the children.

If he wishes to make his point more firmly, he can begin negotiations with the involved principals to block the further re-release or exhibition of Collateral, Miami Vice, Jarhead, Stealth, The Kingdom, Law Abiding Citizen and Ali, and insist that White House Down and The Amazing Spider-Man 2 be either shelved or taken out of production.

Because if he isn't this serious about the damage that he obviously believes onscreen violence is wreaking on society, he's just a concern troll who doesn't need a comments section.

Saturday, December 15, 2012


The worst thing about a senseless, bloody tragedy crime that probably couldn't have been avoided (unless we siphoned away a whole lot more liberty from our society) is that we're so eager to look outraged that we proudly ignore what might be a saner response in the pursuit of conspicuous virtue.

Which is why a lot of people will probably pretend to be offended by my friend Kathy saying the one original thing I've heard so far:
My not really joking solution to school shootings is to ban schools.

Thursday, December 13, 2012


The people who give out the Grammys have just announced, barely a day after the man died, that they're going to give Ravi Shankar a lifetime achievement award.

You know what I think about posthumous lifetime achievement awards?

These guys.

"You remember the Best Hard Rock Grammy we gave Linkin Park? The Song of the Year award for the theme from Alladin? "Runaway Train" the Best Rock Song the same year In Utero was released? Zooropa for Best Alternative Album? Debby Boone as New Artist of the Year? Jethro Tull beating AC/DC and Metallica for Best Hard Rock/Heavy Metal Performance? "Bette Davis Eyes" for both Record of the Year and Song of the Year? The Grammy we gave to "Patches?" The one we gave to "I Am Woman?" The Starland Vocal Band?"

"Honestly, I don't know what we were thinking. I guess you just had to be there. Didn't this Shankar guy play with the Beatles? Was he the one with the pan flute? I love that guy."