Monday, February 28, 2011
Canada still seems the same. There’s a blizzard coming, the schools are closed and the kids are at home yet again as I write. But the Canada we know and love is changing, and changing rapidly.
Apparently the change now comes down to two words: Stephen Harper.
Harper’s new Canada is a more politically and geographically divided place. In this Canada, the “have” provinces get to keep a more of their resource revenues. Federal transfer payments to “have not” provinces flatten or fall while “have” provinces prosper. And the West and Quebec now cooperate to reduce federal control over their affairs, while the rest of us wonder about national unity.
This new Canada has a lot to do with the new world. As we run lower on fossil fuels, the big money and big politics follow the bouncing ball. In Canada’s case the ball lands on the vast tar sand and natural gas reserves in Western Canada.
Which explains Canada’s reduced role in offsetting climate change, as we saw when the Harper-controlled Senate killed the Climate Change Accountability Act last November, even though the bill— aimed at reducing Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions to 25 percent less than 1990 levels—had been passed by the House of Commons.
NDP leader Jack Layton declared it “a very sad day for Canada, for the environment, and for the role of Canada on the international stage in dealing with the crisis of climate change."
But Canadians no longer play within the bounds of international fairness they once helped shape. The latest example is the Harper government’s politically-motivated reduction of international aid funding to Kairos, a move that landed cabinet minister Bev Oka in the hot seat.
But that pales in comparison to allowing Canadian forces to hand over our prisoners to Afghan forces, and in the case of Omar Khadr, allowing a 15-year-old Canadian citizen and alleged under-age combatant in Afghanistan to be held without rights and tortured by U.S. forces for seven years in the Guantanamo Bay military prison. The Canadian government—including the preceding Liberal government—did not meet its constitutional duty to petition the U.S. for Khadr’s extradition to Canada. That’s not the kind of Canada we learned about in school.
This begs the question of why we’re in Afghanistan in the first place, supporting America’s venture to secure the region and siphon off Iraqi oil.
Then there’s the $9 billion purchase of U.S.-made F-35 fighter jets, a move that some experts claim will provoke the Russians to challenge Canadian Arctic sovereignty. Could it be there’s more oil up there?
And Harper’s tougher stance isn’t just international. Punishment is a bigger deal at home, too. Even though crime has decreased by 22 percent since 1999, the practice of offsetting one day of pre-trial jail-time for two days of jail-time after conviction was eliminated last year, and the Tackling Violent Crime Act introduced harsher minimum sentences for gun-related crimes. These two bills are expected to increase the number of inmates by at least 3,400 over the next three years.
To house them the Harper government is expanding 20 prison facilities over the next few months—at a price of $2 billion. Do we need them? According to Harper, “Does it cost money? Yes. Is it worth it? Just ask a victim.” Yes, but with crime rates falling, why is our government promoting fear and spending our money on prisons—and spending less on reintegrating offenders?
Perhaps there’s a business case for it. The Harper government is sticking to its promise to lower corporate taxes to 15 percent next year. But the tax cuts will rob the public coffers of $12+ billion a year by 2013–2014—ongoing.
The majority of Canadians disagree with corporate cuts, including Jack Layton who says, “With 1.5 million Canadians still unemployed, growing inequality and with seniors’ poverty doubling since the last round of service cuts, now is not the time to spend another $12 billion on corporate tax reductions.” So, facing the prospect of high unemployment long term, maybe Harper is simply preparing for us an increase in crime.
Okay, but does all this add up to a deconstructed Canada? Yes, when one looks at the erosion of civil rights. The $1 billion Canadians spent on the G8 conference in Toronto last August resulted in house raids without warrants, police abuse and mass roundups leading to over 900 people arrested, the largest mass arrest in Canadian history, all tacitly sanctioned by the Canadian government.
And why don’t Canadians care? First, Harper currently controls the discourse, so we’re paying attention to his issues, not our own. Second, he tends to use the force of his office—and not parliament—to invoke change. Third, the opposition parties haven’t offered a more rational vision for the future. Finally, since the financial meltdown, we’re all more interested in keeping what we have rather than fighting a government that seems quite capable of turning on us—if we’re not loyal supporters.
This “new Canada” is beginning to look a lot like a buffed up version of Bush-league America. And that seems distinctly unCanadian to me.
Monday, February 21, 2011
Maybe it comes from having too much time on my hands. Winter is hanging on forever and I’m bored out of my mind, especially in a summer tourist town where nothing happens for six months at a stretch.
So I work to keep myself entertained: I play connect the dots. And that’s what I doing while I was fixing supper last night. While my daughter was listening to her iPod without earphones, all I could make out was the annoying lightweight candy buzzing from the tiny speakers.
It wasn’t the song or the type of music; I generally like her music. It was the machine. The speaker only delivers an approximation of music. And even with the earphones downloaded music quality isn’t up to par; it’s a lot like watching movies online.
Back to fidelity and beyond
A half a century ago the big news in audio was high fidelity. Just what is fidelity? According to my handy-dandy computer thesaurus, fidelity is: faithfulness, loyalty, true-heartedness, trustworthiness, dependability, formal troth (in the case of marriage), accuracy, precision, correctness, closeness, and authenticity. So I guess high fidelity would be a super version of all that.
The Blu-Ray DVD format is definitely high fidelity. But somehow Blu-Ray disc sales haven’t lived up to the manufacturers’ projections. And regular DVD sales are declining, and they’re relatively high fidelity, too. Instead, more people are downloading movies directly from the Internet. And downloaded movies are definitely lo-fi, even worse than digital music downloads.
Back to the dot connecting, I’m reading a book coincidentally titled Connected. In it the authors look into the mechanics of social networking—the hot new suburb of sociology since the advent of Google, MySpace and Facebook.
What authors and Harvard profs Christakis and Fowler propose is the idea that “your friends and your friends friends affect everything you feel, think and do” and they say so right on the front cover. Some of their evidence is remarkable—and initially confusing. For example, they claim you’ll never date the ex-partner of your ex-partner. Or if your friend’s friend’s friend gains weight you will too. But their evidence suggests otherwise.
Applied to regional culture, that may explain why, for example, we New Brunswickers are more prone to obesity or failing economies. Our regional friendship networks amplify these trends.
Weighing the value of fidelity against other options
There’s another aspect of fidelity that connected a few more dots. Say, for example, someone is involved in a long distance relationship with someone who isn’t divorced yet, and both have been married multiple times. Their situation raises the obvious question of fidelity, as in why so many people in our society no longer stay with one partner for life.
Why, I wondered, are we so willing to trade off fidelity for something else? And what are we trading it for? I realized that fidelity becomes less important as the number of choices increases.
When choice is limited we tend to value fidelity. A couple with six kids has a lot fewer options when it comes to considering divorce and remarriage. With a responsibility to six dependents the choice of potential partners is limited. It’s simply easier for the couple to stay together.
But on Facebook choice outweighs fidelity. The kid with 243 friends on Facebook can afford to betray one of them, especially if that friend is one of those remote, online types.
The same is true in any other high-choice environments. In entertainment, variety outweighs fidelity nearly every time. We’re willing to trade quality for choice. And that’s turned out to be a windfall for businesses like Netflix, YouTube and iTunes. Quality is subordinate to choice. Although we can find things that have creative qualities on those media, the media themselves are low-quality mechanisms.
This trend suggests disturbing patterns for future human behaviour, My kids are already accustomed to the lo-fi world of infinite choice. They live in a culture of endless, instant gratification. But as the world runs low on resources, that lo-fi / hi-choice imprinting may be a real liability. Particularly when the job ahead will rely on their ability to develop elegant hi-fi solutions to emerging problems—as in creating hi-fi transportation systems or food production systems or energy generating systems as we empty the world’s fossil fuel tank.
But technology—and human behaviour—is never an “either-or” proposition. The computer didn’t produce a paperless society. Instead, we’re consuming more paper than ever, which is a chilling prospect as the developing world catches up to our levels of consumption. And it’s not just paper; it’s everything.
Maybe we can combine our new knowledge of social networks with the idea of fidelity (loyalty and quality) to avert the looming ecological disaster ahead. But the danger of giving ourselves over to a diffused social network may form an unbreakable habit looking only at interconnections and not what’s happening in the actual world around us. Sure, we’ll talk about the problems, but will we be capable of doing anything about them—particularly if it means restricting our choices?
Good question. Have a friend of your friend get back to me…
Fidelity of personal expression
On a personal level, fidelity versus choice is the difference between a life in which every action is an intention versus a life were every action is an impulse. We all fit somewhere along this scale. And we all deal with this in our own life experiences. It dramatically shapes how others see us.
Here's an example of what I mean: I've recently been looking at Canadian painter Alex Colville's paintings again. The man's art is incredibly high fidelity. And he produces the work in the same high fidelity manner, only producing three works a year, and carefully composing and executing each. The man is also very conservative, both politically and otherwise. His personal life is also framed by fidelity, married to the same woman for over 60 years.
We might compare him, on the other hand, to Picasso. That man was all about the expression of choice and the range of humanity. He was a philanderer, a communist, a humanist among other things. His personal politics and his life were left-leaning in the extreme.
Somewhere in the middle of the range Jackson Pollock tried, I think, to reconcile these two directions, fidelity and choice with his splash paintings, which were both conservative and liberal, if that makes any sense. But Pollock caught the new dynamism of social networks—the complexity of choice—now available to modern humans.
Unifying fidelity with diversity
Interestingly, there are scientists who believe that Pollack's work, which at first seems completely random, is actually an amalgam of fractals, and they use the presence of fractals in Pollack's work to distinguish authentic Pollacks from forgeries.
This self-organizing behaviour in seemingly random systems is perhaps the deepest feature of all life. And within that self-organization is a fidelity not only to the living organism, but to all other species attached to it—all making endless evolutionary choices with, well, fidelity.
Diversity seems to require fidelity in nature, as much as it also strives to break fidelity—to cheat—in order to make evolutionary progress. And in an odd way, it's the same in our own lives. Our creativity depends on both fidelity and betrayal, the seeking of other, more advantageous, options.
The trick, of course, is knowing when to use one or the other approach.
Sunday, February 13, 2011
His name must have been intentionally ironic. Mark Twain was a genius in his own time, which became clear as I watched the Ken Burns documentary on the man.
Born Samuel L. Clemens, Twain became the iconographer of his time, showing Americans for the first time how they appeared from the centre of their own universe—as opposed to being crude satellites of European culture. Tom Sawyer, and later Huck Finn, pointed the way toward the creation of a new American mythological hero, which led to all the American heroes of fiction and the movies in the 20th Century.
The irony of Twain’s name comes from the idea of plumbing the depths. “Mark twain” was a call to a riverboat pilot indicating a depth of two fathoms or 12 feet, safe water by Mississippi River standards. “Mark Twain,” the author, explored the unsafe depths of the emerging American psyche following the Civil War, especially with respect to racism. Yet the thing that he marked most was the exuberant growth of the American enterprise: its industry, its new-found self-confidence, its astonishingly hopeful arc of growth.
So here we are, nearing the end of that American project. The results of the era, powered by fossil fuels, have been catastrophic. Our climate is changing dramatically. More animal species are becoming extinct than at any time since the last great prehistoric extinction at the end of the Cretaceous Period 65.5 million years ago. Scientists estimate that about half of all species on the planet will be extinct by the year 2100. Life is dying. Our waste fills the oceans, as in the Pacific Trash Vortex, which is now the size of Manitoba and Ontario combined.
Compared to Twain’s rapid growth era, we’re facing rapid decline. Who are our modern sages? Here in Canada there are a few, notably Margaret Atwood and John Ralston Saul. Both are establishment figures, but at the same time both are outspoken critics of the corporate sector.
Atwood has written three post-Apocalyptic novels, the first being The Handmaid’s Tale followed by Oryx and Crake and just recently, The Year of the Flood. In Flood, Atwood takes the reader into a depopulated world run by cloning corporations, religious zealots and misguided utopians—hardly the type of enchanting, endearing characters drawn by Twain over a century ago.
And it’s this difference—the sense of an emerging decline of expectations—that defines the work of our new sages, starkly expressed in Cormac McCarthy’s bleak, end of times novel, The Road.
Our current crop of politicians presents an even more pessimistic picture. In Canada, we have academic Michael Ignatieff on the so-called left supporting the interests of the Bay Street big business boys, and ideologue Stephen Harper on the real right supporting the Bay Street boys and the Alberta energy sector. The only question in the next election will be, “do we want our big business lite, or big business straight up?”
I doubt there’ll be much debate about the most serious issues we face—in particular the looming and frightening prospects of crossing Peak Oil, which is now thought to have already happened in 2005, with projections pointing toward a nearly empty tank around 2040 or so. How, we might ask our politicians, are we going to survive gasoline prices that will climb 5 to 10 times higher than what we’re paying now? How will we get to work, heat our homes, grow our food 30 short years from now?
While Canadians politely discuss issues such as job creation and mortgage rates, other regions are taking their frustrations to the street in a personal way. Ordinary people in North Africa and the Middle East want an end to rule by corrupt elites and to have a say in determining the future of their region. They clearly know, as we should from two ongoing wars, one in Afghanistan and the other in Iraq, that the future is based on access to energy, or the lack thereof.
The fear in the West, of course, is the increasing influence of fundamental Islam in the Middle East (and over “our” oil). Religion has historically laid the philosophical foundation for civilizations. So, how do our religious foundations inform us?
Philosopher Richard Tarnas writes, “Finally, in the wake of the Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment, this privileged position of the human vis-à-vis the rest of creation was assumed and expanded in entirely secular terms—here too, partly as a result of forces set up in motion by the Western religious legacy—as the modern self-progressed in its unprecedented development of autonomy and self-definition.”
Simply put, Tarnas is observing the growing separation of the individual from the rest of life on the planet. He is referring to the Biblical idea of God giving us dominion over all things, and the end result of that entitlement. An entitlement we might now view as unwarranted.
If the philosophy of Twain’s time was attached to growth, today’s philosophy is strangled by a corporatism aimed squarely at self-indulgence.
And, at the heart of it, our addiction to self-interest is proving to be unsustainable for the entire human species. So, where is our Huck Finn to show us a new direction?
Monday, February 7, 2011
Nothing local is real any more. All of us are living in remote suburbs connected by media superhighways to the centre of the universe, wherever that is.
The things that might catch our interest this week are happening in places like Egypt or Tunisa or the Upper Amazon or Hollywood. We learn about these events from media such as Yahoo News (you can just imagine what someone 50 years ago would have thought about that), Fox News, and the “mainstream” media such as our own CBC, CTV and National Post.
Sorting out the important news from the irrelevant junk seems to be a lot more complicated than it was 20 years ago. Entertainment and business seemed to have merged with the news, blurring lines between serious reporting and mere gossip. So how can we simplify the picture?
Two important features of the media have changed.
The first is the proliferation of new technology, which has spawned new ways of communicating—in real time—around the globe.
The second is the consolidation of media ownership into fewer and fewer hands—and the celebrity status of the news business itself. Today, most of our media diet is now being supplied by colossal ventures such as Rupert Murdock’s empire, the Thomson-Reuters group, and a tiny company gone large, Quebecor.
Barely heard of it? According to its website, Quebecor is now Canada’s largest newspaper chain. It owns 37 dailies and 34 weeklies, plus a handful of other publications. It’s also into cable TV, broadcasting and the Internet in a big way. Quebecor is not merely Canadian. Quebecor is the largest printing company in the world. Yes, the world. Quebecor World operates in 17 countries with some 35,000 people on staff. So, when Quebecor’s owner—Pierre Karl Péladeau—wants something, he usually gets his way.
Well, last year Pierre wanted to create Sun TV News, something like Canada’s version of Fox News. So he hired 35-year old Kory Teneycke and made him VP of development. Now, you might think that Kory must be a pretty bright young guy to have risen this high so early in his career. Well, maybe…
But Kory started off in his new post with a bang, declaring that “Canadian TV news today is narrow, its complacent and it’s politically correct.” He went on to say that, “It’s bland and boring, and Canadians, as a result, have largely tuned out.” He claimed that the new Sun TV News would be “unapologetically patriotic” and “controversially Canadian.” Read: Fox-like, and well right of centre.
What Kory and his boss, Pierre, were after was Category 1 broadcast licence from the federal government (CRTC), which would put them on every cable network across the country, just like CBC, which earns $65 million from its licence. To put that idea in perspective, Canada’s largest private broadcaster, CTV, rates a Category 2, giving cable carriers the option of not carrying it, and earning it “only” $15 million in licensing fees annually.
It was a bold move. But Kory had an ace up his sleeve. As Prime Minister Harper’s communications director, he’d had direct access to the PM, and had already lobbied Harper directly on Quebecor’s behalf before leaving to work for Péladeau. And it all might have worked out well for Quebecor, but for the fact that Kory couldn’t seem to keep his mouth shut.
Among other unrelated public faux pas, he challenged journalists with taunts like, “We’re taking on the mainstream media… We will not be a state broadcaster offering boring news by bureaucrats, for elites, and paid for by taxpayers,” and was implicated in sabotaging a petition aimed at blocking Sun TV News.
The mainstream media reacted predictably. By September he’d resigned from Quebecor. Interestingly, he was replaced by Luc Lavoie, former spokesman for former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. Then, in a surprise move, Teneycke rejoined Quebecor at Sun TV News last month.
On a local note, when Teneycke left Harper’s office, he was replaced by one John Williamson—our local federal Conservative candidate, who himself got entangled in media controversy when MP Greg Thompson apparently used taxpayer-funded mailing services to officially endorse young Williamson’s candidacy.
Why should this matter? Because we deep into the process of degrading our democratic processes. With ever-fewer media owners we are losing our independent, critical, clear-sighted news reporting—one that should be at arm’s length from special interest. And with ever-larger media conglomerates, we are in danger of getting more news reflecting the political views of the owners, who have ever-greater lobbying clout with our politicians.
Somehow, we’ve slipped into a mindset that accepts that both government and media are simply businesses, one public, one private. But nothing could be further from the truth. Our government still belongs to us. It is not there to make us money, or to always operate in a business-like manner. It is there to protect our interests—all our interests—whether we are rich or poor.
Isn’t it time we stopped enabling the owners and managers of large businesses in their efforts to recruit our politicians as delivery boys for their corporate agendas?
Or have we forgotten that all candidates are local, and so are our votes?