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Today's National Post column about the CBC is on the free side of the firewall: considering the subject matter, how could they resist? Here's the rerun of last week's:

The Liberals, it is reported hither and yon, have been field-testing a campaign strategy that would involve telling voters, perhaps over some ominous background music, that the Conservative party has lately been "taken over by evangelical Christians." It is news, I guess, that the Liberals would consider coming right out and openly excommunicating evangelicals from the Canadian fold. Typically this is done subtly, with code words, and left to the CBC and the Toronto Star. Are the Liberals now desperate enough to profess their institutional distaste for people who belong to a religion and actually believe it's true?

You can't fault their tactical imagination: As we are continually told by the organs of the left, most Canadians believe in a strict separation of religion and politics. I presume this is what the Prime Minister is going to tell the Dalai Lama when they meet on Friday to discuss China's continuing assertion of sovereignty over Tibet. "Politics and religion don't mix, Your, er, Holiness."

Since the Dalai Lama is both leader-in-exile of the Tibetan government and spiritual head of Tibetan Buddhism, there might be an awkward moment or two. Mr. Martin's people are trying to placate China by maintaining the fiction that the visit is strictly "spiritual" in nature, and while the Dalai Lama has done his best to play along, he has had to admit -- unlike a Prime Minister, he has obligations to the truth -- that Chinese subjugation of Tibet is really a "political" topic.

It's highly amusing that Mr. Martin is entertaining a living, breathing theocrat while his war room cooks up smears against religious faith. The Dalai Lama has been standing up to China, on religious principles and no other, since he was a teenager. And the Chinese Communists have criticized the Dalai Lama in quite Liberal-sounding language. They have pointed out explicitly that the old fellow is merely the Asian analogue of a Quebec separatist. "We think the Canadian government should not provide a stage and place of activity for a politician such as the Dalai Lama, who is engaged in activities to split the motherland," said a spokesman for the Chinese foreign ministry earlier this month.

I'll be happy to supply the Chinese government, gratis, with the correct English term of liberal opprobrium for someone who dares to oppose power in the name of conscience: "divisive."

Meanwhile, Canadians of all political persuasions have greeted the monk-king from the Himalayas with adulation and pleasure. The Dalai Lama drew an amazing 13,000 people to a Vancouver speech about Buddhist principles. There with him was his fellow Nobel laureate, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, another great mixer of religion and politics. Somehow the archbishop seems to travel everywhere with sterling liberal credentials despite such sentiments as those expressed in his Nobel lecture: "Apartheid ... has ensured that God's children, just because they are black, should be treated as if they were things, and not as of infinite value as being created in the image of God." Whoa -- chill out, Captain Jesus! Archbishop Tutu is pro-choice and all, but you can imagine what would happen if some misguided soul took that stuff to its logical conclusion. It's practically right-wing hate speech!

It's certainly true that many members of the Canadian Alliance are actuated in their political lives by their dangerous religious principles. I'm reminded, for instance, of how Baptist pastor Reed Elley, the retiring Alliance MP for Nanaimo-Cowichan, brazenly opposed Canadian participation in the Iraq war on the grounds that he could not, as a Christian, countenance armed aggression. But, come to think of it, I don't remember anyone complaining about the admixture of religion and politics in that particular case ...

In truth, Canadian liberals and Canadian Liberals will happily put their religious chocolate in their political peanut butter if they think they will like the taste. Religious interventions in politics are entirely welcome when mainline churches and faith leaders squall about the need for disarmament, or higher health-care spending, or aboriginal self-government, or affirmative action for minorities. Anything that coincides with Liberal priorities -- anything consonant with the power and prestige of the Liberal hegemony -- doesn't set off the church-state warning buzzer.

The distinctive wickedness of those "evangelical Christians" is that, increasingly, they find themselves at odds with the welfare state in its modern, Liberal, soft-pacifist, sexually libertine form. In many respects, as an atheistic, pro-choice 19th-century liberal, I disagree with them; I do find it curious, though, that someone who wishes to forbid abortions is deemed to be "imposing his beliefs" on the rest of us, but that someone who taxes us to pay for somebody else's abortions is never accused of it. As a matter of simple fact, we are much indebted to these nasty evangelicals, whose forebears "interfered" in politics repeatedly -- and, in so interfering, helped create the British Constitution, extricated the Western world from the African slave trade, and made universal literacy an ideal of modern societies. Has the Liberal Party of Canada done as much for justice and human happiness? And if not, does it have any business picking a fight with evangelical Protestantism? (Apr. 23, 2004)

- 5:04 am, April 30 (link)


There are plenty of old letters and new from the Inbox to catch up on. Remember, even the ones that don't appear here (or even get answered) are appreciated. Since the Post started adding my e-mail address to the print column (and figured out how to make a MAILTO link work on my columnist's page), my correspondence has increased about threefold. It now includes the novelty of hate mail, which ought to serve the useful purpose of humbling me but, all too often, is just less literate and closely-argued than the positive stuff.

Last month I suggested in an entry about the history of Canadian Torydom that the now strictly historical concept of a "Progressive Conservative" would have been foreign to Sir John A. Macdonald. Mark Cameron wrote in to observe, however, that he used the phrase at least once. In an 1854 letter quoted in Donald Creighton's John A. Macdonald: The Young Politician, our first prime minister wrote these words:

Our aim should be to enlarge the bounds of our party so as to embrace every person desirous of being counted as a progressive Conservative, and who will join in a series of measures to put an end to the corruption which has ruined the present government [Hincks-Morin] and debauched its followers.

As Cameron points out, the word "progressive" in 1854 had not yet acquired its 20th-century associations with direct democracy, "cooperative" economics, and non-partisan politics. Macdonald was no denouncer of capitalist institutions and imagined cartels: in calling himself a small-p "progressive" he merely meant to suggest his openness to certain practical or particularly compelling liberal ideas, such as weakening the privilege of the establishment churches. By 1854, this was no great innovation, for even English Conservatives had already made their peace with liberalism. Still, it must be acknowledged that the phrase is there in the record.

A reader who wishes to remain anonymous describes himself as a "person with an amateur interest in explosives"--hence the anonymity--and has this to add to my thoughts about the explosion in Ryongchon, North Korea:

I can't tell you how absurd it has been to see the media swallow the story about the explosion in North Korea hook, line, and sinker... The official line seemed very suspicious when I heard it involved ammonium nitrate. ANFO-based (ammonium nitrate-fuel oil) explosives are favoured by the blasting industry precisely because the explosive mixture is notoriously difficult to detonate. A strong shockwave, such as the type produced by a primary high explosive (which would detonate at speeds of 3,000-5,000 m/s) is needed to begin a detonation reaction in ANFO explosives. The idea that an electrical current set the mixture on fire and caused it to explode is ludicrous.

Granted, the speed of impact between the two train cars might have been enough, but the components presumably weren't mixed until after the collision. There have only been a couple instances that I can recall where ammonium nitrate-based explosives detonated spontaneously; the most famous is probably the explosion of a ship just off the coast of Galveston, Texas some decades back. This was a freak occurence, and I don't think anyone has come to a firm conclusion about why it actually blew up (the best theory has to do with pressure buildup in the hold of the ship). At any rate, blasters have been using this stuff for years without worry of explosion from accidentally dropping cases of it, let alone passing current through the mix. I suppose the official story could have happened, but it's not very plausible.

As Matt Drudge says: "Developing...". In characteristically timely and friendly fashion, the Oriental Redneck, whose own site is excellent, sent along a few useful links offering independent Kremlinological coverage of North Korea. Thanks to both Tony and Anonymous.

I have to share one amusing quip about the Norway/Normandy affair from a reader of the print column, whom I probably shouldn't name:

Norway? Say, isn't that where Quisling was from?

More important is a letter from David Harte-Maxwell, who points out a further historical mistake that someone ought to have mentioned--dating the beginning of the "Invasion of Europe" to 1944. By omission, both the Prime Minister and his critics have done yet another disservice to the "D-Day Dodgers", who left 5,764 Canadian dead on the Italian peninsula and developed the techniques of ampihibious invasion, special-forces activity, mountain transport, and urban combat in the tough campaign against Field Marshall Kesselring.

Finally we turn to the various responses to my April 10 columns on Mothers Against Drunk Driving. We'll look at excerpts from some letters of support and then give the detractors the last word.

Excellent column on MADD, but it is even worse--more prohibitionist--than you think. It has also been very vocal in opposing the “decriminalization” of possession of small amounts of marijuana.
I think that there are three reasons for their behavior. The first is “mission creep.” They have been very successful, so they might as well go out of business. Mission accomplished? Fat chance. Second, their original good intentions have morphed into an ideology, which is also the ideology of the prohibitionist police apparatus with whom they work on their original mission. Third, the ideologically driven tend to rise to the top of organizations, and anyone who disagrees with the party line is seen as “soft on” whatever evil the organization is opposing. This becomes self-reinforcing. Hence, while many cops on the beat are in favor of legalizing marijuana, anyone who wants to move up in “management” had better not be suspected of deviationism. -Richard Cowan,

As a former supporter of MADD, I found your article timely. The last time MADD phoned looking for money I quizzed the caller on whether the new CEO of MADD was trying to create employment for himself by reducing the .08 to .05, and she said there were two goals. First they wanted zero tolerance, so the alcohol level would be moved to .00. Secondly, they want to set up permanent Check-Stops around the city to check everyone all the time. It is sad to see an organization that started out with such grand ideals trying to remake society in its own image by giving the state the power to take away the freedoms we have left. Perhaps it is time for MADD to update the acronym to QUITE MADD. -"Mad@MADD"

You'll take a lot of heat for what you wrote about MADD, but you're right. It's like attacking motherhood itself to criticize them, but I have no respect for them anymore. For one thing, they sent me a laminated membership card, ID number and all, with a request for money a couple of years back. At that point I was determined to never give them any money or join them... if you want me to join, ask me: don't enroll me without asking and send me a membership! Makes me very suspicious of any claims they make about having X number of members or supporters.
Obviously, no intelligent person supports stinking drunk people driving, and there are a few such idiots out there still. Yet most of us have got the message and this is MADD's problem -- their campaign has been successful! But if they admit that, they have to admit they don't have a useful function anymore, and if they do that, what happens to all their well-paid office staff, advertising reps, the company which makes their little red ribbons... all out of jobs. So it's in their own self-interest to make sure that there is a perceived problem with drunk drivers out there, despite RIDE check stats and all evidence.
The sad thing is that roads are still as dangerous as ever--maybe they should shift their focus to merely bad, or aggressive drivers. -Oshawa, Ont.

This letter from Emile Therien, president of the Canada Safety Council, was published in the Post soon after the column ran.

Dear Sir:
With much interest, we read the article, "MADD’s neo-prohibitionist rampage". MADD, indeed, has endorsed the call to reduce the criminal limit for drinking and driving from 0.08 (80 milligrams of alcohol in 100 millilitres of blood) to 0.05. In effect, MADD is espousing criminalization as a strategy. Criminal Code sanctions are very severe and the legal process to charge and convict an offender is intricate and costly. The Criminal Code is meant to address acts that violate basic societal norms, like murder, rape and robbery.
There are other, better regulatory tools to deal with traffic safety issues. MADD fails to acknowledge that Canada’s sanctions for impaired driving are among the strictest in the developed world, even when compared with jurisdictions which have 0.05 BAC limits.
Ontario, and other jurisdictions, provide for administrative driver’s licence suspensions at 0.05 or even lower. That penalty, unlike a criminal charge, can be carried out by police officers at the side of the road. The bottom line is that it protects the public. They are proven tools in the fight against impaired driving, in part because they provide a swift and certain response.
MADD wants drivers with a BAC of 0.05 to be criminalized. That means replacing these roadside suspensions with an onerous and punitive criminal process. Lowering the criminal limit to 0.05 would greatly increase the number of drivers liable for criminal prosecution (in an already over-crowded court system). The current criminal limit of 0.08 has become universally accepted by the criminal justice system in Canada. Tinkering with this criminal limit could very well open the doors to a barrage of defence challenges!
A study by the Traffic Injury Research Foundation found that lowering the BAC limit would not have a substantial impact on the incidence of alcohol-related crashes. Simply having and enforcing a per se BAC limit, regardless of the level, is an efficient and effective way to deal with the impaired driving problem. The actual value of the BAC level may make little difference in the overall context of policies and procedures implemented to enforce it.
Lowering the legal drunk-driving limit is a severe strategy. Criminalization is a last resort, when other countermeasures cannot protect society. Frivolous criminalization will not protect the public. For the record, the following organizations with important interests and constituencies, support the position of maintaining the criminal limit for drinking and driving at 0.08: The Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, the Canadian Bar Association, the RCMP, the John Howard Society of Canada, the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, the Church Council on Justice and Corrections, the St. Leonard’s Society of Canada, the Ontario Community Council on Impaired Driving, the Canada Safety Council, the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police, the Traffic Injury Research Foundation (TIRF), the Canadian Automobile Association, the Canadian Council of Motor Transport Administrators (representing jurisdictions across the country), the Ontario Trucking Association, the large majority of Canadian drivers, and Canada’s mainstream media.

Here's a letter from a B.C. physician and MADD member who believes, on anecdotal grounds, that MADD is actually not being tough enough about blood-alcohol limits.

I am having troubles with MADD, or, rather, their insistence on reducing BAC rather than fighting for a zero BAC. In other words, if you drive, do not drink. I do drink alcoholic beverages, preferably malt whisky.
What has led me to my position on drinking and driving is a study we carried out some 40 years ago. On a disused airfield, using bottles as markers, a slalom-like course was laid out, and participating drivers trained for quite a prolonged period of time, until the time for completing the described run remained the same, and no bottles were knocked over.
Drivers used their own cars. Drivers were then given a measured amount of alcohol, and their blood alcohol levels were monitored over a prolonged period of time, to exclude any possible metabolic abnormality. Prior to the final test drivers were asked to abstain from alcoholic beverages for 48 hours.
On the test day drivers were given a drink, containing measured amounts of alcohol. Drinks had been prepared by a pharmacist and labeled with the drivers' name. Neither those serving the drinks nor the drivers were aware who had been given alcohol-containing drinks, in what quantity, or alcohol-free drinks. The test had been carefully [double-blinded]. Blood was drawn over regular time intervals and taken to a laboratory for the determination of blood alcohol levels. Drivers then drove their rounds.
The results were quite interesting. Those with quite high blood alcohol levels, who were quite drunk, did not knock over bottles, but the time of going through the run was increased significantly. The ones with blood alcohol levels within "legal limits" zipped through the course, in times far shorter than their previously determined ones, knocking over bottles. The conclusion was quite obvious--their judgement was impaired. These are the "two-glasses of wine drinkers, who then drive home."
This experience, plus having had to take care of victims of trafic accidents in my professional youth, have convinced me that the two-glass wine-drinker is potentially dangerous, and should be kept off the road.

Finally we have the formal response to the column from MADD's own national executive director, Andrew Murie. I won't respond in detail (it's neither necessary nor desirable), but I will say Mr. Murie has me dead to rights on the point of using slightly older TIRF data on accidents: I can only plead that the publication search at TIRF's website isn't terribly user-friendly. Also note the year of my graduation from high school: 1989.

Dear Mr. Cosh:
I am writing to you about your April 10, 2004 National Post article in which you made a number of mistakes and incorrect assumptions in your opinion column.
MADD Canada has never been, and never will be, a prohibitionist organization. In fact, we have a national policy that prevents our organization from promoting any type of policy or legislation that is prohibitionist in nature. Groups or individuals that use that term to describe our organization think MADD Canada is out to punish the social drinker. Nothing could be further from the truth. MADD Canada believes that the consumption of alcohol is a private matter, but once an individual consumes alcohol and gets behind the wheel of a motor vehicle it becomes a public matter. Therefore, I think it was very unfair to label our organization prohibitionist and fanatical.
I noted that your column failed to relay to the Canadian public that the Canadian Medical Association, Canadian Public Health Association, Canadian Centre for Addiction and Mental Heal, Manitoba Addictions Foundation, Toronto Public Health, and many others support lowering Canada’s Criminal Code BAC level. Surely you would not label all of these national organizations as prohibitionist groups? So, why are we the only group being tarred with that brush?
Another common mistake that is made--and was found in your column--is the disconnect between BAC limits and real drinking levels. Most of the Canadian public, including yourself, assumes that by lowering the Criminal Code BAC limit to 0.05%, MADD Canada is out there to criminalize the "social drinker"--a person who wants to have a glass or two of wine with dinner or a couple of beers after work. The Canadian public needs to understand what the current 0.08% BAC limit means in terms of real-world drinking patterns. The current BAC limit does not reflect the few drinks of a social drinker.
Given the margin of error accepted by our courts, police will generally not consider laying criminal charges unless the driver’s BAC is 0.10% or higher. Thus, an average 200-pound man can drink six-plus regular bottles of Canadian beer in two hours and get behind the wheel of his car, reasonably confident that he will not even be charged. If the BAC was lowered to 0.05%, given current police and court practices, criminal charges are unlikely to be laid unless a suspects BAC is 0.07% or higher. This means that the same 200-pound man could drink four-plus regular bottles of beer (5% alcohol by volume) in two hours without exceeding the BAC level at which he would not likely face criminal charges. Even a 130-pound woman could have two five-ounce glasses of wine (12% alcohol by volume) in one hour and be below the likely threshold for being charged under a 0.05% law.
Obviously, MADD Canada is not endorsing that such consumption before driving is socially responsible. What I want to point out to you, and to those who have the misconceptions about BAC limits, in my opinion, the support of lowering the Criminal Code BAC limit to 0.05% is hardly the viewpoint of a prohibitionist or fanatical organization out to punish the social drinker.
The other aspect your column fails to recognize is that most countries, over the past 20 years, have lowered their BAC limits. Every country that has lowered its BAC limits has experienced traffic safety benefits. Not surprisingly, virtually every leading medical, accident-prevention and traffic safety organization in the world supports a 0.05% or lower BAC limit.
Your article goes to great lengths about the need to focus attention on drinking drivers with a BAC of 0.15% or greater. MADD Canada could not agree more with that statement. In fact, if you had done a little more research into lowering the BAC limit (and allowed that there are benefits to this policy objective), you would have discovered international research that shows us lowering the BAC limits will deter drivers at all BAC limits--including the high BAC drinking drivers. Indeed, in Sweden, and in the Australia Capital Territory, those in the highest BAC levels had among the greatest decreases of impaired driving.
I noticed that when you quoted the statistics from the Traffic Injury Research Foundation that you were selective in reporting only the data up to 1999. I am puzzled why you did not include the 2000 and 2001 data, which shows the percentage of alcohol-related deaths in Canada rising in the past two years. Did you omit this most recent data because it would have taken away from some of your claims to maintain the status quo? It has been frustrating arguing with individuals who champion the status quo because things are not as horrible as they used to be. Put bluntly, the status quo did not protect the tens of thousands of Canadians who have been killed and injured every year in alcohol-related crashes. Surely the Canadian public deserves better than a do-nothing approach when there are opportunities and sound policy options to reduce these senseless tragedies.
Your last comment in your article, championing the aspect of a 0.06% BAC driver getting behind the wheel of a car because he is less drunk than his buddy is a dinosaur viewpoint of the early 1980s. If you were to ask high-school students, today, you are certain to get a more reasonable perspective on this issue--that the best option for partying friends is to have a designated driver to ensure everyone gets home safely.
In closing, it is obvious that you do not understand BAC limits and I would like to extend you the opportunity to participate in one of the drinking experiments we organize with the help of local police traffic officers. Typically, with these experiments, you would be given standard drinks in a controlled environment, for your protection. Your BAC level will be measured by police breath technicians until your BAC reaches 0.10%. This will give you some valuable insight on BAC limits and your abilities to function behind the wheel of a vehicle. I strongly believe it will change your opinion on the reasonable public policy mandate of MADD Canada.
Our organization is committed to being true to our mission, which is stopping the needless carnage on our roads as a result of drinking and driving.

- 4:57 am, April 30 (link)

Il miglior fabbro

I won't wrestle with the main argument of Heather Mallick's Saturday Globe column about refusing to mourn mercenaries, for there is something to it, after all; I seek only to point out that her poetic education could obviously use a lick of bondo. Quoting Yeats' "An Irish Airman Foresees His Death", she asks

What poem does a modern mercenary recite? Halliburton's mission statement?

In light of A.E. Housman's "Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries", it's a bit like asking "Do you suppose there are any poems about roses?" Yeats' thrill-seeking bog-pilot is remembered for a literary guest appearance in 1990's Memphis Belle, but the seventh line of Housman's poem is somewhat well-known too.

These, in the day when heaven was falling
The hour when earth's foundations fled,
Followed their mercenary calling,
And took their wages, and are dead.

Their shoulders held the sky suspended;
They stood, and earth's foundations stay;
What God abandoned, these defended,
And saved the sum of things for pay.

- 4:00 am, April 30 (link)

Some links

Over at the Shotgun, I've dropped off my reaction to the scandal of the Seaton House homeless shelter. Andrew Coyne has taken over my hockey commentary duties for the day. The Exile's Mark Ames has an interesting interview with an expert on rampage killings over at the New York Press. And someone has had the good idea of starting a site devoted to the drawings of the late Wesley Willis.

- 5:44 am, April 29 (link)

If it ain't broke

My old friend Lorne Gunter is talking about Canada's need for fixed election dates over at Across the Board:

The Conservatives, for the second time since Christmas, have introduced a motion in the Commons calling on the government to fix the dates of elections every four years so the government cannot hold the electorate hostage to its own poll numbers. And for the second time, the government has rejected it, despite all its talk about eliminating the democracy deficit in Canada.

...Governments should not be able to duck accounting to the people by withholding an election -- an election, for crying out loud, is the one and only way most people have of participating in the democratic process, and it is certainly the most important way most people have, even if they might get involved in a party at the riding level. And yet incumbents have the power to call elections at a time that blunts their impact on...incumbents.

I've been waiting for someone to explain to me how so-called "fixed election dates" can even work in a Westminster-style democracy. In a minority-government situation, the Governor-General may need to prorogue the House of Commons early to break a deadlock, and where the Prime Minister is replaced early, even where his party has a majority, it is desirable for his successor to go to the country soon to secure a mandate. I feel stupid even writing all that out. The first part, at least, is Canadian Democracy 101; I understand that some people may quarrel with the second.

If we're not proposing to limit the Governor-General's necessary power to call an early election, isn't the plea really then just for a reduction in the maximum life of a government from five years to four? And if so, why is the change so urgent? Because it would now be politically expedient to have had something to force Paul Martin's hand with? Or maybe we just want American-style elections to go with our American-style crypto-presidency...?

- 4:38 am, April 29 (link)

New on the hockey page: puns, Grapes, Darryl Sutter, the nature of fandom, and more... -11:12 pm, April 27
Left to die

Anybody out there still nostalgic for Communism? The Chosun Ilbo's latest update [warning: disturbing photos] on conditions in the demolished city of Ryongchon should clear that right up.

In particular, distressing news is pilling up from Chinese who have been to the disaster site to look in on ethnic-Chinese relatives who reside there.

One source in Dandong described the situation as "on the brink of death." The critically wounded are dying off as time passes, but because of poor medical facilities, it's common for people to just look on helplessly, he said.

In particular, he said that cries ring out from children who can no longer bear the pain in their bodies broken by debris and fragments from the explosion, but neither their parents nor medical personnel can give them painkillers.

...With about half the city of Ryongchon destroyed, thousands have been left homeless, and most of them -- with the exception of those who have found shelter with nearby relatives -- have been reduced to camping outdoors. In particular, when the weather turned cold Monday, blankets that appear to have been provided by the outside as emergency assistance gave the homeless much strength, said the source, but the number given fell way short of the number needed.

Consider the suffering of a severely burned child whose government and people can't supply him with analgesics... and then consider that the Democratic People's Republic of Korea refuses to allow aid trucks from the South on its roadways because it would be "burdensome... to the regime." It prefers to have the Southern trucks stopped at the DMZ, where time can be wasted transferring supplies into Northern vehicles whose appearance is harmonious with the idea of juche. Either that, or to have the aid transferred by ship.

The rumours that the explosion may have been an assassination attempt on Kim Jong-Il are hard to disentangle. I'm far from an expert, but I have to say that the blast scene looks like a classic effect of concentrated high explosive. As residents of Oklahoma City know only too well, you could get the same effect with a mixture of petrocarbons and ammonium nitrate, which is what North Korea is officially pinning the explosion on. But frankly their account--an oil train happened to collide with a train full of fertilizer, and a power pole happened to ignite the mixture--sounds straight out of a Road Runner cartoon. I'm inclined to think someone tried to blow up the Dear Leader. While the savagery of the results can never be excused, whichever misguided Korean Stauffenberg did this thing can't be blamed for his choice of target.

- 3:28 pm, April 27 (link)

My Monday morning column about Ontario's proposed class-size cap for the primary grades is live and loud at You can read Premier McGuinty's Thursday speech, get the goods on California's experience with class-size reductions, see data from Tennessee's Project STAR, and read up on the OECD's recent multi-country work.

Here's last week's column on the Svend Robinson fallout. My apologies to the two owners of Irish wolfhounds who wrote objecting to my co-option of those loyal, intelligent beasts for a convenient simile.

For a moment last week, it looked as though light-fingered MP Svend Robinson might be able to turn an extraordinarily sordid act into a rallying cry for sympathy. The late-morning timing of his Thursday press conference, in which he admitted to shoplifting an expensive ring from a Richmond, B.C., jewellery auction, was well-chosen. It gave newspapers time to contact eminent psychologists who were prepared to attest that blatant theft can be an otherwise honest person's response to extreme stress. Mr. Robinson had a legion of unpaid defenders before he even committed the crime.

One might wonder, under the circumstances, whether having such an army of professional exculpators doesn't tend to facilitate such incidents. (One even described the theft as "petty," which is simply incorrect.) But I am not here to write about the caring professions. Ordinary Canadians, I think, felt bad for Mr. Robinson on Thursday, during the press conference. During such a display, one sees the tears first and weighs the rhetoric later. But time is unlikely to be on the MP's side while he takes "medical" leave.

On closer inspection, the cop-out aspects of his Thursday statement soon became apparent. He cited unspecified "inner turmoil" as the impetus for the theft, but refused to describe or explain the turmoil. He did not vacate his seat in Parliament. He "stepped down" as the nominated NDP candidate for Burnaby-Douglas, but there was no mention of a permanent departure from politics, and at one point he even referred to the possibility that his personal and legal issues might be resolved before a federal election is called. Sounds like he plans on being a fast healer.

Mr. Robinson's battle to spin his press conference as a manful, uncoerced assumption of responsibility got harder over the weekend. It was disclosed that the RCMP had been informed of the theft and given a videotape of it well before the Thursday weepfest. Then, on Sunday, a Burnaby jeweller told the Vancouver Province that Mr. Robinson had been in his shop two days before the theft. Shahraz Kassam's account of the visit would make the mushiest Svend-sympathizer doubt the spontaneity of Mr. Robinson's moment of "irrationality." The MP told the jeweller that he was shopping for an engagement ring for his young Cuban partner, Max Riveron, and that he would have to "check his bank account and see if he could splurge" for a $10,000 item. One supposes that the answer was "No." Or perhaps Mr. Riveron held out for a pricier token of affection.

Can the socialist poster boy bounce back? He faces a hard truth: People don't like thieves. He has always had strong support from gays and lesbians, Israel-haters, radical greens and others who have had his help in promoting pet causes. He also enjoys a certain trans-political cachet among those who admire his guts. But he has many enemies in his own party, and probably he has now alienated nearly everyone who has ever owned or managed a business or been a victim of larceny. Most of us know how crummy it feels to be ripped off. It leaves behind a proverbial, and justified, stamp of outrage. ("A conservative is a liberal who's been mugged," the old saying goes.)

Mr. Robinson's moment of madness jeopardizes what was to be his latest legislative legacy, and what still may end up being his last: Bill C-250, now awaiting third reading in the Senate, which would amend the Criminal Code to forbid the promotion of hatred on the basis of sexual orientation. Church groups say that such an amendment would criminalize traditionalist religious discourse and even the scriptures of some faiths, including the Old Testament. Proponents of Mr. Robinson's bill deny it, noting that the relevant section of the Code already contains a "good faith" defence for religious speech.

This is, of course, tommyrot. Canadian courts and human rights tribunals have shown small shame about disregarding statutory and common-law defences when it comes to hate law -- even the defence of truth. Moreover, anyone who has tried to import mildly controversial literary or cinematic material, and been baffled by customs agents' interpretations of hate and obscenity law, knows that even what the courts say doesn't matter much. When it comes to books, records and movies from abroad, what you're allowed to see is determined by donut-stuffed power-trippers possessing the collective mental subtlety of an Irish wolfhound. If C-250 passes, we are sure to see some religious literature in English detained or rejected at the border arbitrarily.

The House of Commons passed C-250 in September, but the Senate -- Liberal-dominated, but more conservative on "family issues" than the lower house -- has managed to stall the bill by shuffling the order paper and introducing amendments. If it can hold the line until Parliament is prorogued for the imminent election, C-250 will die. One must doubt that it could be revived successfully without a Svend Robinson in the House to nurture the cause. Me, I'm half-hoping he steals some more stuff. (Apr. 19, 2004)

- 1:02 pm, April 26 (link)

Tone poem

I finally got to see Lost in Translation on Friday. Funny thing: I can see what everybody who's recommended it to me (i.e., pretty much everybody I know) is talking about, but I found it, upon actual viewing, to be painfully slow and aimless. Then again, most everyone can tolerate long periods during which the camera is lingering over Scarlet Johansson. Her mild facial resemblance to the young Richard Thomas spoils it for me. "Oh, look, there's John-Boy Walton in drag."

(Don't worry if you don't get that, by the way: you won't, unless you are so pathologically shy that you identify faces by the mouth and jaw rather than the eyes and nose. I discovered this about myself a while ago, after years of postulating "Oh, Y looks like X" in conversation and being told that Y doesn't look like X at all. When the McGurk effect is tested on me I hear the phoneme created by the lip movement, "GA"; apparently 49 out of 50 of you will hear a "blended" "DA" [if you follow that link, adhere to the instructions, and have Quicktime installed].)

Anyway, what I'm saying is, maybe neurosis kinda ruined this movie for me (always something to take into account when reading reviews--Roger Ebert's raging, unresolved breastfeeding issues are the canonical example). But there was a lot I liked about it, too: Bill Murray's performance, for one, and the humbling elegance of the Japanese setting, for another. This movie could easily be taken for a crypto-racist tract, as some prize assholes have, if it weren't for Sofia Coppola's obvious feelings for the magical environment the Japanese have constructed for themselves. She rightly respects an esthetic accomplishment that verges on the transhuman, and the Americans in the movie are perfectly right to feel out of place and out of scale in this Japan. They feel that way because they're the only foreigners in the movie who aren't aggressively stupid. (While the movie is clearly not just an exercise in humiliating the Japanese, it may well have been an elaborately constructed Dear John letter to Sofia's husband.)

Murray's karaoke sequence was, for my money, as viscerally exciting as Ronin. I actually found myself getting angry at Coppola for giving him such an insurmountable acting challenge and making pretty much the whole movie turn on it. He succeeded magnificently, of course. There's an apposite quote from David Mamet's Some Freaks:

Stanislavsky once asked his students to determine how to act the following scene: an accountant brings home from his office a fortune in negotiable bearer bonds, which he must catalogue. Living with him is his wife, their newborn child, and his wife's idiot brother.

He arrives home while his wife is bathing the baby. The idiot brother is seated by the fireplace staring into the fire.

The accountant wants to get started on his work before dinner so he sits down at the table, strips the wrappers off, which he throws in the fire, and starts cataloguing the bonds.

His wife calls from the next room, "Come and see how cute the baby is." The accountant gets up and goes into the next room. The idiot brother takes the bearer bonds and begins throwing them into the fire and laughing. The laughter draws the accountant back into the room. As he sees what is happening, he thrusts the brother out of the way in an attempt to get the remaining bonds out of the fire before they burn. The brother hits his head on an andiron and dies. The wife comes running into the room and sees her brother dead. She then screams, "Oh my God, the baby!" and runs back into the other room, followed by her husband, where they both discover the baby drowned in the bath.

Slanislavsky told his students that when they know how to analyze and perform that scene, that then they would know how to act.

Me, I don't know the first thing about how to analyze that scene, but I'm convinced it would be easy cheese for Bill Murray.

- 2:21 am, April 25 (link)

Friday's mildly inchoate Post column has fallen outside the subscriber wall in that delightful way about half of them seem to do. Here's last week's.

EDMONTON - Here I sit, in the mortuary still of a snowbound April dawn, racking my brains for something to say about Paul Martin's "Norway/Normandy" error. Something that isn't stunningly obvious, or a garland of despairing obscenities. If anything defies intelligible comment, this does. Imagine if George W. Bush had given a speech about the cowardly 1941 Japanese attack on Cold Harbor, or if Tony Blair had spoken of that legendary engagement of 1066, the Battle of Henley. You can't: It would never, ever be allowed to happen to those men.

Wednesday's scene at CFB Gagetown was uniquely Canadian: a chief minister of the Crown addressing 350 Canadian soldiers, intoning the fatal words with all the gravitas at his command. "Sixty years ago, Canadians were working alongside their British and American allies planning for the invasion of Norway and the liberation of Europe." And, as his aides shared queasy looks and interrogated one another sotto voce, he did it again, just to establish that this was no mere brain fart, but the mark of a national elite's ahistorical world view. "Today, it is every bit as important that Canada step forward -- just as we did during the invasion of Norway."

If Prime Minister Blair or President Bush had tried to transform Operation Overlord into Operation Overfjord, someone would have stopped them. Any speech by a modern head of government passes through many hands before it is read aloud, and in any self-respecting country, such a bizarre gaffe would have been identified on the page instantly. At any rate, Bush majored in history at Yale and Blair had the old story of empire beaten into him at Fettes College, Edinburgh.

What I suspect is that a half-dozen or so Liberal operatives scanned the Martin text happily, never supposing that anything was wrong. A similar crowd would have been on hand to apply their fact-checking skills to then-defence minister John McCallum's memorable August, 2002, letter to the National Post, in which he substituted "Vichy" infelicitously for "Vimy Ridge." No doubt many of Mr. Martin's advisors, and the ones formerly available to Mr. McCallum, have good Canadian history or political science degrees from good Canadian universities. These fine statesmen and their servants must be eager to prevent such embarrassments. I imagine there is a process specifically intended to prevent them. It's not working.

Which confirms me in my predisposition to perceive this blunder as the symptom of a uniquely Liberal disease. One of my first coherent thoughts on hearing of the Martin mistake was that it was likely to seriously annoy anyone old enough to have memories of the Second World War. But, then, the Prime Minister was almost six years old when the troops hit those Norwegian beaches. His father was a parliamentary secretary then, and a celebrated expert on international relations. Mr. Martin has not offered other evidences of senility or illiteracy; he's an intelligent man and, ordinarily, an excellent orator. How does something like this happen?

It happens naturally enough, I think, to a man whose relationship to his country's past is antagonistic. Mr. Martin was bred into the Liberal tribe that incinerated the old flag, rewrote the old constitution and rebranded the former Dominion. It allowed that disaffected ex-soldier Paul Hellyer to unmake the Canadian army, navy and air force in 1968 and purge those who dared espouse the cause of living military tradition. It has committed itself self-servingly to perpetuating the highest rates of mass immigration in the Western industrial world -- a policy that must inevitably create an electorate less mindful of, and invested in, Canadian history. It has promoted multiculturalism, which, by definition, is anathema to the notion of history as a common frame of reference. Its propaganda agencies present the deeds of our forebears as a record of atrocities for which an infinitude of apologies can never suffice. Of course its members don't know their Norway from their Normandy: History is both reproach and obstacle to them.

Most of us feel guilty that we don't have a better grounding in Canadian history, and when we encounter veterans, we are reminded in particular, with a sting to the conscience, of our disconnection from Canada's military history. So it may be hard to see Mr. Martin's goof as a sign of any deeper tendency; maybe it's even endearing that he shares our cluelessness.

But, remember, we are speaking of a finance minister who balanced the federal budget largely on the back of national defence (that and transfers to the provinces). His first budget as PM held defence spending in check, pending a foreign policy review, but unapologetically threw millions more into foreign aid without waiting for that same review. Now, in an effort to pose as a friend to the soldier, he has "announced" a bunch of capital programs for the military that were started under Chretien, and has added a special tax deferment for those serving abroad -- which seems like a simple matter of justice, and only calls attention to the fact that it wasn't in place already. The harder Mr. Martin tries to conceal his Liberal DNA, the worse it's going to get for him. (Apr. 16, 2004)

- 5:18 pm, April 24 (link)

Sold his king for a groat

Some Wednesday fun: the Friends of Jim Goad name their top movie moments. Is your favourite here? (Shouldn't there be a lot more Jackie Chan?) Elsewhere: Ken Macleod waxes educational on H.T. Buckle, the Church of Scotland, and our tyrannicidal, fanatic mutual ancestors. There's a hilarious and instructional passage in Buckle's volume about Scotland in which he points out that the Scots murdered James I, rebelled against James II, murdered James III, imprisoned James V, imprisoned and tried to kill James VI, and rebelled against James VII. (James IV eluded similar ignominy by dying on Flodden Field.) And they haven't stopped waxing sentimental about the Stuarts since.

- 3:05 pm, April 21 (link)

There's action on the hockey page. If you're a casual scroller who hates the sport but likes how I string adjectives together, you might search for the words "Jarome" and "Larionov" for the more expansive new stuff. -12:12 am, Apr. 21
Whoops! Almost forgot to link to today's actual brand-new non-hockey content... namely, my Monday Post column, which is a digest of new developments in, and thoughts on, the strange case of Svend Robinson. - 3:59 pm, April 19

There's a new entry for Monday on the hockey page--which you should check every so often without waiting for cues from here; I've become rather lazy in that regard. The good news for hockeyphobes is that it's time to reprint last Monday's Post column. The bad news is--it's about hockey! But only sort of.

EDMONTON - The NHL playoffs are a touchy subject around here. Edmonton is the one Canadian NHL city where the local team failed to, shall we say, in the strictest sense of the phrase, qualify for the postseason -- at least under the outrageously unreasonable criterion of having enough points in the standings at year's end. Still, if an Edmontonian really wants to watch playoff hockey in person, he can swallow his pride and drive to Calgary, where the Flames, led by Edmontonian Jarome Iginla, are in the big dance for the first time in eight years.

But how to obtain a ticket, you ask? The games are sold out, and scalping, gosh darn it, is illegal under the provincial Amusements Act of 1957. The relevant section is Solomonic in its simplicity: "No person shall sell, barter or exchange a ticket of admission to a place of amusement for a price or consideration greater than that paid or given for it to the owner of the place to which it authorizes admission." The sole complication is the definition of "place of amusement," which includes, you will be glad to know, hockey arenas as well as "travelling picture shows," dance halls, circuses and menageries, and any place used to perform "burlesque, pantomime, [or] vaudeville."

But fear not. A law so simple is easily eluded. As I write these words on Sunday afternoon, you can go online and search the auction site for the "Flames tickets" you desire. Enterprising holders of surplus seats are offering playoff tickets at face value, thus observing the law's letter, but the tickets are packaged with "bonus" items for which you may pay as much as you like. One seller is offering two fine Game Three seats, face value $209, with a Flames team poster; the current bid is $325. Expensive poster! Another seller is auctioning a stuffed Flames novelty puck which happens to have two Game Four seats attached. Face value of the tickets, $246: current bid on the package, $610.

Similar deals seem to be available for Leafs and Senators tickets, although in these cases eBay posts an explicit warning that, if you are an Ontario resident, your maximum bid cannot under any circumstances exceed the tickets' face value. This is perhaps a consequence of Ontario's generally more aggressive anti-scalping attitude. Toronto police have called stadium-front scalpers "a violent lot" and claimed they are connected, like every other bad thing in the universe, to bike gangs. And in September Toronto city council passed a bylaw against scalping that was designed to add some teeth to the casually enforced provincial statute.

This is a blow against a business that, in its old-fashioned parking-lot form, seems to be on the way out. Reselling event tickets isn't illegal everywhere in Canada: only Alberta, Ontario, and Manitoba have laws against it. In Vancouver, the Canucks have joined the game themselves. The team's online Prime Seat Club allows season ticketholders to auction off individual games and pocket most of the markup, which can be astronomical. (A pair of seats for Toronto's sole regular-season appearance at GM Place went for more than $1,200.) What a concept! -- rewarding your most loyal customers! Last year, the event-ticket monopolist TicketMaster also announced, to screams of horror, that it would hold back primo seats for some events and auction them online, allowing motivated fans to pay a premium without fear of getting jobbed on the street.

This kind of authorized scalping is the wave of the future. It is hard, indeed, to specify a good reason for objecting to "scalping" in the first place. The complaint that it is a business controlled by shady characters is simply witless. If you make something illegal, naturally the market will fall onto the fringes of the law: If you don't want to enrich criminals, you must legalize it. (This is, of course, a principle not solely applicable to sports tickets.) The argument that resale places tickets to a game beyond the reach of the ordinary fan is equally lame. If Joe Lunchpail pays $60 for a ticket that can fetch $600 on the street, he is already giving up $600 for the game -- he's laid out the $60 in cash and sacrificed an extra $540 by using the ticket rather than reselling it. The whole $600 might just as well go towards the agency that's actually providing the entertainment.

All that bans on "scalping" really do is force season ticketholders to go to extra trouble to dispose of the ones they can't use. If you have a lot of rich friends who give you such tickets for free, the emerging ticket-resale market may well be hateful to you. If you can only afford to see a couple of games in a season, that market is your best friend, because it makes extra tickets available in a validated marketplace. And if you're a real fan who is real broke, you probably won't mind taking advantage of discounted market prices for visits by the Blackhawks or the Capitals. (Apr. 12, 2004)

- 3:27 pm, April 19 (link)


There's a slightly embarrassing interpretive solecism by Larry McMurtry in the latest New York Review of Books:

William Tecumseh Sherman, with seeming composure, burned his way through the South; yet Sherman suffered from intense depressions and sometimes went off his head. Grant too was depressive, resorting often to the bottle. Here's Sherman: He [Grant] stood by me when I was crazy; I stood by him when he was drunk.

Sherman was pretty plainly referring here to October of 1861, when he was in charge of the Department of the Cumberland and hence the defence of the state of Kentucky. At that time he gave a personal report to Secretary of War Simon Cameron, who stopped in on his way back to Washington and entertained Sherman's view of the situation a bit distractedly. Kentucky had voted to remain in the Union, but Sherman was concerned that there was a great deal of Confederate sentiment in the state and that his department had been denied troops and decent armaments in favour of the defence of the capital and the force buildup on the Mississippi. The state was, according to Sherman, open to unopposed invasion; three Confederate armies were converging on it, and if they were not checked, the South would hold the key to Sherman's native Ohio.

Sherman told Cameron that it would take 60,000 men to defend the state and 200,000 to turn the tide and commence playing on the enemy's turf. In time the latter proved a conservative estimate; but when Cameron reached Washington he twisted Sherman's words beyond recognition, telling newspaper reporters that an obviously "crazy" Sherman had told him it would take 200,000 men to protect Kentucky. Democratic newspapers in Ohio, familiar with Sherman's reputation for irascibility, dark humours, and jittery nerves, picked up the tidbit and speculated freely on the general's mental state. The important point, which is stressed in Sherman's memoirs, is that Sherman himself never thought he was crazy. McMurtry has missed the invisible scare-quotes in Sherman's witticism: Sherman only meant that Grant had been faithful to him in the face of unfounded newspaper attacks, and that he had done the same for Grant when accusations of drunkenness pursued him. To use the Sherman quotation to prove that Grant "resorted often to the bottle" is unfair, though the charge be true.

- 12:56 am, April 18 (link)

Today's National Post column is about the deeply weird gaffe made by Paul Martin on Wednesday when he waxed nostalgic about the 1944 Allied invasion of, er, "Norway". Most of the press seems happy to give the guy a break on this. After long and careful reflection (including an hour spent wrestling with the question "Could he possibly have been referring to Operation Gauntlet?"), I decided not to. A conservative politician would unquestionably be crucified for saying something so bizarre, and the mistake was repeated twice and not caught by Martin or by anyone else who saw the speech in advance. The positive response to the column has been unprecedented (confidential to L.P.: I will under no circumstances consider standing for public office, but thanks), so watch for that one next week.

This column, from Saturday's paper, also attracted a remarkable amount of praise and surprisingly little negative mail. I'm thinking of reprinting some of the relevant correspondence here on the weekend. I'll add a few links to the text here as well, since the column is (for me) unusually reporting-dependent.

When I see a message from Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) I always become a bit ambivalent: they're supposed to make me hate drunk drivers, but I'm afraid they only serve to make me unusually suspicious of mothers. The group is the best imaginable example of the way politics is practiced in an age of untrammelled feeling and very little thinking. Every client group of the nanny state tries to posture as Nice People Against Bad Things, but in our time only MADD has had the exquisite shamelessness to make its very name into a pre-emptive strike against counter-argument.

It has worked pretty well. Since its founding in 1980, MADD has developed remarkable fund-raising abilities and earned broad public acceptance thanks to its patina of sentimentalism. "Neo-prohibitionists on a rampage? Us? Maybe you didn't read the acronym -- we're just mothers against drunk driving over here."

But there are signs that the days of frictionless self-promotion are over. On Tuesday, MADD announced that The Beer Store, Ontario's brewery-owned and government-regulated super-retailer, had pulled MADD coin boxes from the checkouts in its retail locations. MADD says the reasons are political, and I for one believe them. I also believe they're pretty good reasons, so let's roll the tape on their accusation:

"MADD Canada has presented the federal government with a comprehensive legislative reform agenda and has been persistently urging new impaired driving legislation since fall 2001. Central to this legislative reform agenda is the combined policies of lowering of the blood alcohol concentration (BAC) legal limit from 0.08% to 0.05% BAC ... MADD Canada's aggressive campaign to see new federal legislation has prompted The Beer Store to end its sponsor relationship."

The Beer Store acknowledges that it has stopped giving a home to MADD's coin boxes because it is "streamlining" its charitable activities. This begs the question why the store would feel the need to "streamline." From now on, it says, it will permit customer donations only to the Ontario Community Council on Impaired Driving (OCCID) -- an umbrella group for advertising and education with which MADD has partnered in the past, but which also encompasses government ministries, the police, the Traffic Injury Research Foundation and liquor manufacturers and retailers.

Late last year OCCID reached and published a consensus on MADD's proposal to lower the legal blood-alcohol limit to 0.05%. Just as Liberal governments always think the optimum tax rate is "more," MADD always lobbies for a lower legal BAC limit: its ultimate goal is to move it to zero. OCCID issued a document called "Lowering the Criminal Code BAC Level in Canada: It's a Matter of Priority." Don't be fooled by the title -- when they say "it's a matter of priority" they mean that the priority is low.

OCCID argues that legal changes already introduced in the 1990s haven't been evaluated yet and that a lower BAC limit would increase the impaired-driving caseload for cops and courts, inhibiting the system's ability to go after the serious repeat offenders.

"Today," the paper notes, "the majority of drivers involved in alcohol-related fatal crashes typically are repeat offenders and have BACs over 0.15% -- about twice the legal limit." In sum, OCCID took a moderate position: it was careful to say it approved of a lower BAC limit in principle, but felt that haste in implementing it would be counterproductive. MADD's response was to throw a tantrum, claiming in a January open letter that OCCID had abandoned its "mission" of saving lives and observing snarkily that its position was "consistent" with the alcohol industry's opposition to draconian BAC-limit "reforms."

Well, the removal of MADD's coin boxes from liquor stores is consistent with it, too. If it suggests that the booze industry has decided to stop cooperating with a bunch of fanatics that are not shy about wanting to destroy it, one can only wonder why it didn't take the step sooner.

The work of educating the public about the costs of drunk driving has been a multi-decade success, and MADD certainly deserves part of the credit. According to the Traffic Injury Research Foundation, the percentage of fatally injured Canadian drivers who were legally impaired dropped from an estimated 43% in 1987 to 27% in 1999.

But there remains a persistent core of defiant, uneducable dipsomaniac jackasses who, as any cop will tell you, are the greatest danger on our roads. In the 21st century MADD seems more concerned about the social drinker in the 0.05%-0.08% band -- the person who drives home from the restaurant after a couple glasses of wine. The evidence that this sort of "drunk" driver is overrepresented in accidents is inferential and inconclusive, but MADD wants to send a "message" that you shouldn't drink, at all, if you drive, at all.

As a country we are altogether much too ready to use the law as a big cork board for fanciful moral ideals, instead of a coercive tool for punishing actual wrongdoing. MADD's "message" would criminalize conduct which may be tolerable and, in certain situations, even praiseworthy. Granted, society has an interest in reducing death and injury on the roads. But Prohibition taught us that it also has an interest in keeping moderate alcohol consumption above-board -- something done publicly, without fear of legal reprisal, rather than in the shadows. And if morbidity and mortality are our chief concerns, allowing the infinitesimally tipsy 0.06% driver to get behind the wheel and take his 0.24% buddy home seems like a practice we shouldn't abandon haphazardly. (April 10, 2004)

- 9:08 pm, April 16 (link)

By gar, M'sieur Riel, da surveyors are 'ere

New and excellent: the National Post has an official weblog called "Across the Board". Members of the editorial board, including Lorne Gunter, John Geiger, Natasha Hassan, and Jon Kay, will contribute. All sycophancy aside, this is really pretty exciting. Jon's roundup of recent absurdities at the Toronto Star is particularly good (they haven't sprouted permalinks yet, though, so you'll have to find it yourself), as are the many links to offsite articles of interest.

Oh, and by the by, don't miss the Star's explanation of why it has apparently had to keep a tried-and-convicted plagiarist in the newsroom without any punishment--unless you count apologies as punishments. If you ever bought the idea that newspaper ombudsmen really exist to represent the interests of the reader to the paper, rather than to represent to paper to its readers, prepare to be disillusioned by Don Sellar's fantastic exercise in obfuscation. (An ombudsman who doesn't believe in being "quick to judge ethical lapses in journalism"! How delightfully innovative!) As I tend not to trust a neighbour who has several big loud dogs guarding his property, I tend not to trust a news organization that feels the need to ostentatiously police its own ethics, as if the rules of journalism were religious mysteries requiring the presence of a paid professional casuist. Maybe the Star can hire an ombudsman for its ombudsman?

- 1:50 am, April 16 (link)

Unassisted political suicide

You can't say Svend Robinson didn't do his best to make the sudden end of his quarter-century political career less enjoyable for his opponents. Still... hahahaha. The Chomskyite drama queen, B.C.'s senior Member of Parliament, announced Thursday that he would forgo his renomination and take a "medical leave of absence" because he had shoplifted a ring from a public jewelry auction. A man of the left to the end, Svend will presumably spend time trying to investigate the "root causes" of his crime. The full text of his statement is online.

I call him "Svend" because in Canada, like Madonna and Cher, Mr. Robinson needs no surname. He is our most recognizable socialist public man, and while his efforts to win the titular New Democrat leadership for himself failed, contending with his oxygen-hoovering abilities has been a big challenge for four consecutive NDP chiefs. At 32, I have no memory of a Parliament in which he wasn't the loudest and most flamboyant figure. Indeed, he can be said to belong to the world: as Canada's first openly gay parliamentarian, or at least its first defiantly gay one, he has been the indispensable general in the war against heterosexual exceptionalism in the law, which has made the progess of Canadian jurisprudence and statute a model for ambitious gay communities in every Western democracy. Lately he has been the senior proponent of controversial legislation which would incorporate gays and lesbians as a "protected" species under our odious criminal anti-hate legislation. He also made American headlines for heckling a speech by President Reagan in the House of Commons, for personally supervising the death of euthanasia activist Sue Rodriguez, and for getting into a videotaped shoving match with the IDF around the perimeter of Yasser Arafat's compound. I'm probably forgetting plenty of stuff. You can multiply these moments by ten for Canadians: from selling nude photos of himself for an environmental charity to falling off a mountain, Svend has never been long out of the headlines for reasons ranging from the despicable to the merely pathetic.

And now we have the last act of high-profile pathos--an event which almost seems to have been genuinely embarrassing to a man who always seemed to lack a cerebral apparatus for embarrassment. I felt surprisingly conflicted as I watched Svend take the bullet in today's press conference. He didn't try to excuse his action, exactly: he appears to have cooperated with the police voluntarily, and said, in an admirable locution that other politicians should perhaps note for future reference, "I await the decision of Crown Counsel and will not seek to in any way avoid full responsibility for my actions should charges be laid in these circumstances." On the other hand, it's arguable that that is exactly what he is doing--seeking to avoid full responsibility. He said:

For some time now, I have been suffering from severe stress and emotional pain. While continuing to undertake my responsibilities as the federal Member of Parliament for Burnaby-Douglas, and to serve my constituents with dedication and hard work, I have experienced great inner turmoil. The reasons for this are of course intensely personal, and I am not prepared to discuss them, but among others relate to the cumulative pressures of dealing with the emotional consequences of a nearly fatal hiking accident. The past few months have been particularly difficult and painful.

One sympathizes for his striving to have a private life--and for a gay politician there are specially poignant overtones here--but trying to mitigate or excuse a criminal act by asking people to understand his pain without actually discussing it is just trying to have it both ways. For all we know, he "just snapped" because he got a bad manicure. "Taking responsibility" means admitting you had the power to behave differently. If you want your private life private, don't use it to make excuses in a public matter. Lord knows I've "snapped" and done some ill-advised things myself, but they don't happen to include grand larceny. My basic attitude, and I believe the only attitude that is ultimately consonant with decent social order, is that felonies are not hard to avoid. A lot of people are mystified or outraged by this proposition.

I don't suppose Robinson would want us to take the value of the goods into account while we're deciding whether to grant him some exculpatory lack of moral agency, but it is completely fair to do so. He didn't steal a $7 contact-lens case. I saw early reports, now impossible to locate, that pegged the value of the stolen ring at $50,000. The latest CP wire story mentions only that the police are investigating a theft over $5,000, the CBC only quotes Robinson as saying the ring was "expensive", and Darren Yourk's Globe piece doesn't mention the item's value at all. One hopes this is corrected as the story develops.

There is also the question whether Robinson's theft had actually been discovered by the police before he made Thursday's tearful admission. He seems to have anticipated that it would be, at the very least: he made reference to the extensive electronic surveillance at the jewelry auction. It is relevant, in making a true assessment of Robinson's Thursday display, for the public to know whether the police had been in touch with him before he called the press conference. It is doubly so because he left the door open for a future return to politics, which doesn't look very much like "taking responsibility" either. Nor is he immediately quitting his Commons seat--but, of course, being a thief is adittedly more of a credential there than a disqualification there.

[UPDATE, 9:43 pm: Hello to visitors from If you just can't get enough Svend Robinson postmortem, I recommend you check out an impressionistic, thoughtful Shotgun discharge from my pal Kevin Steel.]

- 12:46 am, April 16 (link)

Fun with ASCII and bad news for the Bolts, new on the hockey page. Sorry there's not much over here, but I've got deadlines and the NHL stuff comes relatively easy. Keep checking in! -1:10 am, April 15
There's fresh material over on the hockey page. -7:09 am, April 13
Today's National Post column about ticket scalping is already online for free. Here's last week's Adscam piece.

On Friday, a key document in the Adscam affair came to light when Chuck Guite's 2002 testimony before the public accounts committee of the Commons was made public. Mr. Guite was the civil servant at Public Works in charge of spending on the Quebec sponsorship program; on his watch, $100-million in untraceable or misspent funds fell into the hands of Liberal-connected communications agencies in Quebec. For this, he seems, remarkably, to have believed he was entitled to the praise of a grateful nation.

During the referendum, Mr. Guite says, his office was asked to rustle up advertising contractors to promote federalism in Quebec. He was instructed "to follow a bit of the guidelines that exist in the rules," but was told "I may have to, for a better term, bend them a little bit, because, as you all can understand, we were basically at war trying to save the country." This supposedly accounts for the procedural irregularities uncovered by the Auditor-General in February. As for the apparent lack of consideration received in exchange for federal funding under some of the contracts, Mr. Guite claimed that some of the cash went to pay for communications advice offered orally, on the fly -- advice, says Mr. Guite, that "helped us to win the referendum."

Puzzlingly, after the referendum was won, Public Works kept the same firms on the teat without re-tendering the sponsorship contracts. It seems those particular companies did such a fine job in the crucial battle that they could hardly be excluded from participation in seeing the "war" through. "It was valid information and very valuable in making sure we were very visible," Mr. Guite said in 2002. "When I look at today's results in la belle province, I'm very proud of what we did." One wonders how he feels in 2004, as the hitherto moribund Bloc Quebecois resurges in the polls as a consequence of his combat expenditures.

The Guite testimony anticipates the most commonly heard defence of the Adscam machinations: "Don't you remember how close we came to losing the country?" We are meant to understand that there was no alternative to untrammelled, unregulated propaganda spending and heavy commissions for Liberal cronies. Mr. Guite, a former air force logistician, seems to have flourished in the take-no-prisoners environment. In 2002, thinking that his testimony would remain secret for many more years, he regaled the committee with a soldierly tall tale about calling "the guys in Montreal" in '95 to ask how much outdoor advertising was available there and buying it all with one $8-million phone call.

On its face, the "war" interpretation is attractive to Liberals seeking to deflect guilt: We all do remember the eve of the referendum and the nagging fears of national meltdown and blood in the streets. If Chuck Guite bent the rules to prevent such a scenario, he was so much the more heroic, surely? And if the only contractors available on the frontlines were enmeshed in a web of personal, familial and financial ties to the Liberal party -- well, isn't this exactly what we would expect? And if some of those communications geniuses charged the Canadian taxpayer $250-an-hour consulting fees in exchange for very little verifiable work -- well, isn't that the kind of thing that happens in a crisis?

It's all pretty convenient. Let's recall, though, that in 1995 Allan Cutler had nominal control over the budget that was being disposed of so energetically by Mr. Guite. Mr. Cutler says that the contracts in question were sometimes backdated, that files were scrubbed clean of damning details, that advances were sometimes paid improperly, that the Treasury Board wasn't always notified of expenditures and that the work ordered often went undone. He was threatened with dismissal when he complained, and eventually shuffled off to a dead-end job in the public service. So how does the treatment of Mr. Cutler fit in with the war story? What role do we assign him? Was he perhaps the gutless, by-the-book, officer who craps himself when the bullets fly? I guess the wuss is lucky he wasn't fragged!

Alas, I think the war metaphor breaks down at this crucial point. I see the metaphor itself, to be honest, as a symptom of the very Liberal arrogance that fosters separatist sentiment in Quebec so unfailingly. Mr. Guite is an inheritor of that old Trudeau attitude of sentimental brutality -- the attitude that beating Quebecers over the head with the flag until they love it is more practical than appealing to reason and running the sort of central government that might earn their loyalty.

But even if the metaphor holds up, the question still remains whether Chuck Guite and his cronies are heroes or profiteers. Mr. Guite tries to play the warfare card to absolve himself of responsibility for the operations of his outsourced propaganda factory. What we're trying to establish, among other things, is whether we got value for our money -- whether the war was actually prosecuted in good faith. It seems unlikely that the press and the public will see fit to award Mr. Guite the radiant breastful of medals for valorous public service to which he imagines himself to be entitled. (Apr. 5, 2004)

- 12:23 pm, April 12 (link)

File under filesharing

Mike Jenkinson weighs in on the Federal Court's world-famous recent ruling on the Canadian Recording Industry Association motion to force ISPs to cough up the names and addresses of file-swappers:

As expected, the big talker at the Juno [Award]s was the downloading decision (scroll down just a bit for all the links) and it's the talk of the blog world, too. Amazing, a lot of people who should know better (yeah, I'm looking at you, Colby) are still hailing this decision, largely because they're completely misunderstanding it. And journalists in particular shouldn't be so cavalier about any court decision that supposedly weakens copyright protection on intellectual property.

"Supposedly"? So should we be cavalier, or not...?

This wouldn't be the first time journalists had been a bunch of damned fools, but, as it happens, we write text for a living. We've therefore been "unprotected" from digital filesharing for a decade or more, and from the photocopier for a lot longer than that. The situation is not that we are hypothetically threatened in the future by the conditions musicians now face: the situation is that they now face the same conditions we do, and must try to find a way to make a living. No one is proposing (or I'm not) to make unauthorized commercial re-use of music or newspaper articles legal. If I found someone making a mirror of my website without permission or attribution, I should certainly call a lawyer about it. But I don't claim the right to be able to file a civil suit against a million John Does who might be copying my material, and to invade their homes in search of evidence.

What's being proposed, instead, is the Betamax principle: don't proscribe new technology, or create a whole new class of civil warrants to trample it and violate the privacy of users, just because it can conceivably be used to subvert someone's IP privileges.

In an earlier entry Jenk wrote this:

This case had nothing to do with the legality of downloading music at all, and the judge's remarks on that front were simply unfortunate because his rhetorical points on that were, frankly, moot to the legal issue under question. Even the much-quoted parts of the case--the judge comparing file sharing to a photocopier in a library and saying that downloading music doesn't violate copyright--ignore the fact that the judge also said that the recording industry has a "legitimate copyright in their works and are entitled to protect it from infringement." The problem was that he opened the can of worms by going on about libraries and photocopiers and then tried to square the circle by acknowledging that the music industry still has copyright protection but never quite said just HOW those two rather disparate bits of argument can be reconciled. The basic problem with the ruling, in my opinion, is the rather naive assumption on the part of the judge that putting MP3s in a "shared folder" file somehow does NOT constitute distributing copyrighted material. And I think the judge simply erred when he said that downloading music doesn't violate the Copyright Act in Canada, particularly when the section he quoted was about "the private use of the person who makes the copy."

You can see, without knowing anything about the legal facts, that Mike is a little bamboozled here: he insists that the case had nothing to do with the legality of downloading, and later complains that the case essentially legalized downloading. In fact, the central issue of the case was uploading--all the plaintiffs named by IP addresses in the suit were uploaders, not downloaders--so he's sort of right about the first point.

This is nothing contradictory, or particularly hard to understand, about the judge's simultaneous assertions that music should enjoy copyright protection and that putting MP3s in a shared folder does not constitute distribution of copyrighted material. You don't necessarily have to do anything but download the P2P software before the files become available, if the program (as some do) finds them automatically and makes those existing folders readable by default. Moreover, the existing folders may contain music that the computer owner has a legal license (by purchase) to own digital copies of. This is "distribution"? If this is distribution, then you "distribute" the objects in your house every time you crack a window. I'm afraid I don't think this is an issue that can just be waved off, though some disagree.

My feeling is that if CRIA went after anybody, they ought to have gone after the people who were downloading copyrighted files they had no license to. The downloader is the one who has done a search of shared folders for a particular file; the downloader is the one who knows he's getting something for free. But how can CRIA's hired cyberpolice from MediaSentry know, without ransacking CD collections, whether a downloader does not, in fact, possess such a license? In Canada, you acquire a personal license to possess copies of intellectual property when you buy it in one medium: those shady characters who are moving an MP3 of "Rich Bitch" from one hard drive to another may both be legally entitled to it.

The judge was right to resist CRIA's laughable fishing expedition. As Justice Finckenstein made clear in his discussion of the necessary criteria for issuing a bill of discovery, no other ruling would have been remotely consonant with common law. You could argue, one supposes, that installation of a P2P program is prima facie evidence of intent to commit copyright violation. But just as an automobile has uses other than violating the Mann Act, P2P software has uses other than sharing music files. That use is only as popular as it is because music in the digital format offered for sale in recent years is so obscenely overpriced. The consumer has been made to feel stupid for paying $15 for CDs all those years: filesharing is his revenge, and I can't help feeling it is a just one, especially since so many artists seem to feel they didn't end up with much of the $15.

There is certainly an argument for bending the common law, or making new legislation, to protect the music business's intellectual property. But I don't think it's a very strong one. Intellectual property has always been understood as something of a necessary evil--a time-limited monopoly--and has always had hazy conceptual limits involving "fair use" tests and the definition of phrases like "scholarly purposes". New technology is creating new problems for the muddy regime previously in place, and the operating principle must be "first, do no harm", because important things--like your safety from vexatious civil discoveries and your online privacy--are at stake. All that's threatened on the other side is the relatively novel idea that songwriters and performers have a right to suppress the non-commercial exchange of reproductions of their work. One notices that this is a completely absurd idea if carried to its logical conclusion (can I sing "Hey Jude" on a public thoroughfare?), and that it has led to many seeming absurdities (ranging from biographies of 20th-century poets that don't quote the poet's work to television shows being bowdlerized of pathetically brief music snippets) as already applied in the real world.

(In short, on this issue I agree with Jack Layton, who said:

I'm a holder of a copyright myself. But it's a book on homelessness and I don't mind if anyone wants to copy it. I'm still not so sure how [filesharing] impacts sales--some studies even say it enhances them. I don't think the dust has settled on this yet. When I was at university there was a great fear that photocopying was going to destroy the publishing industry and that hasn't happened. It's sometimes best to muddle along, take things one step at a time and see what happens. Society can have a way of sorting things out.

Funnily enough, these last two sentences are a good capsule version of the basic conservative credo. This is only disorienting until your remember that, in Canada, the democratic socialists are the conservatives.)

- 3:10 am, April 10 (link)

Don't mind me, I'm just dropping off a copy of last week's column on the Kyoto Protocol--with any luck, my last on the subject...

Denial, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross taught us, is the first stage of grieving: And so it goes with the Kyoto Protocol. Kyoto is deader than Abe Lincoln, and has been, really, for more than a year. This is not exactly a secret. But there appears to be a -- what? A conspiracy? A gentlemen's agreement? -- not to mention it. The elderly guest has expired in the parlour, but his teacup must be kept full, despite the gathering flies. It's like a protracted and even less funny version of Weekend at Bernie's.

One supposes someone must recap the relevant facts for the nth time, if only for form's sake, so here goes. The protocol was attached to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (FCCC) at a conference in December, 1997. To come into force, it must be ratified by countries accounting for 55% of carbon dioxide emitted by the industrialized world in the year 1990. This means that any group of countries accounting for 45% of those emissions has veto power over the protocol: the United States and Russia, for instance, have 53.5% between them.

Which is a problem. In 1997 the U.S. Senate voted 95-0 in favour of what was, in essence, a resolution not to ratify. On the Russian side, President Vladimir Putin has criticized the Protocol, his economic advisors don't want to sacrifice growth for a short-term bonanza in tradeable emissions permits, his science advisors can't see how global warming is bad for Russia, and senior Kremlin officials have categorically ruled out ratification. In short, you can stick a fork in this deal.

Already, this realization is dawning in other countries. Reuters reported March 26 that German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder wants no part of a bargain that will "distort competition at the expense of European, and especially German, economy." Right-wing governments in Italy, Spain and Denmark have also been making discontented noises, and the European Union's facade of pro-Kyoto unity is rapidly crumbling. Several countries missed a March 31 EU deadline for filing national greenhouse gas-reduction plans. Austria's proposal was on time, but proffered, perhaps in the spirit of satire, a rather steep increase in emissions. Many of these countries have already mortgaged their energy output to environmentally insane anti-nuclear superstitions. Going it more or less alone on Kyoto would mean entertaining another expensive delusion.

Canadian officials, you may recall, tried to convince the EU in 2002 and 2003 to grant Canada extra credit under Kyoto for our CO2-absorbing forests and our clean-energy exports to the United States. When Jean Chretien was deposed in slo-mo by his caucus, he rammed Kyoto ratification through Parliament for the sake of his post-career prestige. Now that even the Europeans are shying away from Kyoto, what is the reaction from Mr. Chretien's successor? Why, in his February throne speech Paul Martin naturally "reaffirm[ed] our intention to meet the Kyoto challenge."

"Challenge" -- how tellingly vague. Mr. Martin, one suspects, knows the score, but many are still nattering about our "Kyoto commitments." Jack Layton complained last week, in connection with the government's planned PetroCanada sale, that "we're going nowhere to meet our Kyoto commitment." Environment Minister David Anderson reiterated Canada's intention to meet its "Kyoto commitments" in a March 19 speech in Winnipeg. David Suzuki prattled repeatedly in the March 17 Globe and Mail about our "Kyoto goals" and "Kyoto targets." It is all nonsense. Whether good or bad in itself, Kyoto was supposed to be a bargain between developed nations, and the conditions haven't been met. How can we still be said to have obligations under a nonexistent agreement? Why is the Protocol being treated as something we accepted unilaterally?

Outside of Canada, they're moving beyond denial to the Kübler-Ross "bargaining" stage. The next FCCC conference is scheduled for Buenos Aires in December. A little-noticed March 17 story from the IPS news agency reported that chief Argentine eco-diplomat Raul Estrada Oyuela is proposing a new stratagem for the developing nations: since the rich countries apparently can't wrestle Kyoto into existence, maybe they'll pay poorer ones to "adapt" to inevitable climate change. "If Russia ratifies the Protocol before [the conference], then we'll change our plans. But the most reasonable route is to prepare for the worst,"' Estrada told Argentine NGOs, declaring that, as substantive host of the FCCC conference, he will push to have pointless browbeating of the United States and Russia taken off the agenda. The idea went over like gangbusters.

Bjørn Lomborg, the Danish "skeptical environmentalist", has spent the last couple of years pointing out that, according to the theoretical underpinnings of the deal itself, Kyoto wouldn't have accomplished anything practical to mitigate climate change. He has been vilified for arguing that spending on "adaptation" strategies might be more effective. Now it seems that developing-world environmentalists may accept this argument. No doubt their sensitive colleagues in the First World can be expected to follow suit and say they knew it all along (though Lomborg shouldn't hold his breath for a show of gratitude). Eventually, even Canada's cloth-eared environmental demagogues will get with the program and give "Kyoto goals" a hasty midnight burial. (Apr. 2, 2004)

- 2:24 am, April 10 (link)

Sheepmen and cattlemen in cyberspace

There is fresh hockeyism on the usual page.

Some people have been wondering aloud why the number of weblogs being produced by National Post staffers past and present is so great, and the number being created by rival Globians so small by comparison. In fact, the number of true weblogs belonging to current Post staffers is routinely overestimated (some of the sites on the sidebar at left are just repositories of previously printed material), and I discover from my referrer logs today that the Globe presence has been much underestimated. David Akin, an electronic/print double-threat from the Globe and CTV, has a site you should bookmark. (Do we still call broadcast reporters "electronic journalists"? Aren't we all sort of electronic now?) He also has a link to the weblog of star Globe biz columnist Mathew Ingram.

If there is still a perceived difference in the relative degree of new-media homesteading being done by the staffs of the two papers, you could probably chalk it up to the Post's larger reliance on young and freelance labour. I don't know if there's a difference in editorial policy that might account for it--if either paper had pious concerns about reporters going off-leash, one would expect it to be the grayer, more self-regarding Globe, but I have no first-hand knowledge that this is true. I was certainly impressed by the way my website opened the door at the Post, but some may hold that against them, and, after all, I never did get around to knocking on that other door.

- 2:11 pm, April 9 (link)

There's no Post column Good Friday, because there's no Post. I've written one for Saturday's paper: it's about Mothers Against Drunk Driving. -12:53 am, April 9

Close readers of the old Alberta Report magazine will probably remember the byline of Terry Johnson, the magazine's agriculture reporter and senior editor of many years. When I was starting out as an AR freelancer I lived with Terry and other magazine inmates for two or three years in the Flophouse, a charming but poorly tended old fleabag on Edmonton's south side. It was a place through which many of the magazine's bylines had passed en route to marriage or a proper gig. Terry was its unkempt, narcoleptic, Maoist chef de mission, grinning eternally from the couch at the know-nothing right-wing twentysomethings who came and went ceaselessly. Word went round the e-mail grapevine on Wednesday that Terry died of a heroin overdose March 29 on Vancouver's East Side. He was 44.

All things considered, he did well to make it so far. Terry was so defenceless against the basic demands of life that he never, to anyone's knowledge, owned a winter coat during the time he lived in Edmonton. A fellow housemate made an annual ritual of frogmarching him to the barber to get his Karl Marx beard and his spirit-of-'68 hair hacked at. No piece of furniture in the common area of the house lacked for holes made by his cigarettes. He had the barest acquaintance with bathing and probably none, in his adulthood, of dentistry. He made do, defiantly. Somehow he acquired a whole wardrobe of other people's clothing; one got the distinct impression he didn't get it from Goodwill or Value Village, but that he just somehow gravitated home from the pub wearing a bowling shirt with "Larry" on the breast pocket.

In short, he seems now to have been an addict in training. When I lived with him I knew him to possess no vices more severe than beer, in modest bachelor quantities, and pot, in quite massive ones. Actually, he had one that was arguably more harmful, at least to his ability to meet deadlines: video games, particuarly Sid Meier's Civilization. No one ever burned a deadline with more determination than Terry Johnson. The rest of us copy-breeders began to get nervous around Friday sundown, with the magazine going off to the printer on Sunday, but Terry would carry on Minesweeping until Saturday afternoon and not give it an apparent second thought. He would vanish from home and office for 48 hours at a time when he was supposed to be quizzing farmers about genetically modified seed or fuel prices.

It may seem surprising that someone to Lenin's left could find a home for so long at a right-wing magazine, but Terry had a Marxist's ingrained feeling for the rudiments of classical economics. He might, indeed, have known Adam Smith and David Ricardo better than any other writer to pass through the Report's doors. This is only a suspicion: I didn't talk politics with him often, and in argument he was unpleasantly quick to fall back on an astonished, dismissive snigger and not much else. His occasional talk of The Revolution was never anything but ironic. He could see the facts of post-1989 life clearly enough, and at least once I heard him lament the stopped flow of Soviet gold into the veins of Canada's labour movement.

Around about 1998, after he completely missed an ironclad deadline on a year-in-review issue, Terry was let go from the magazine. (He had been at home in a stupor from which I'd tried without success to awaken him. That day, in retrospect, was a warning that he'd moved into the substance-abuse big leagues.) The cause for dismissal was not reported to the authorities, as an omissive act of valedictory kindness, so he wheeled round and shrewdly filed an Employment Insurance claim for constructive dismissal on the grounds that the magazine was becoming increasingly bigoted and irrational. He won, and must have bankrolled a couple years' worth of Vancouver adventures on the lump-sum proceeds. Upon receiving his congé he disclosed to his housemates that he hadn't paid rent or utilities for nearly four months and skipped town, heading back to his beloved West Coast. When last heard from, he was telemarketing, and trying, in his quixotic way, to organize a labour union. His byline appeared at least once in the Vancouver Courier, but this was, I think, his last appearance in print.

There was something about Terry that resisted the normal sort of semi-intimate friendship; he almost seemed to lack a coherent self you could latch onto. Everyone is agreed in describing him as "gentle", and that is right; it was, and I don't mean this unkindly, a sort of attractive animal gentleness. Like the cats he adored, Terry seemed to mostly want a warm place to sleep and an occasional meal. Much of his own life seemed to be an utter blur to him. People would tell him stories of his own bizarre conduct, and he would just nod along, going "Yeah... yeah..." and laughing through his nose. Only in pensive moments would he strike you as a person capable of deep feeling. At those times, as the cigarette smoke curled around him, he would generate an impenetrable nebula of sadness. Over what, I couldn't say. I doubt anyone else can.

The last time I thought of Terry was on April 2. Oddly enough, he came to mind when I read the San Jose Mercury-News story about an editor who died in his office and was thought to be asleep for at least 24 hours. Anybody who worked with Terry would have thought of him, lying supine on the floor in the oddest positions with only steno sheets full of his own shorthand for a blanket. Terry was, by consensus, the most gifted writer amongst AR's reporters during my time there. His style was neat and lucid, with just the right amount of artistry; he imparted dignity to the sometimes-oddball subjects of his Albertans column and was never defeated by a difficult topic. He was forgiven a great deal in the way of eccentricity and tardiness because he delivered copy that the editors barely needed to nod at. He was an outstanding journalist who probably never should have gone anywhere near the profession.

I think it is wrong to judge people for wasting their talent; it's theirs to waste. I also think it's wrong to subject them to a dehumanizing sentimentality, even after they can make no possible objection: Terry was kind and, in a particular sense, innocent, but far from wholly good. To ask what else might have been done to save him from himself would be plain foolishness. I'm not even sure it's quite right to say I miss him, and my honest best guess is that he was content on Skid Row, a milieu he didn't need to transform into an anarchy or tailor his conduct to in the slightest respect. But my days living with him were happy, in part because of him.

- 12:42 am, April 9 (link)

Hockey page latest: my first-round picks are now complete, and I've made a chart of some other people's, too. -3:54 pm, April 7
My cat says "Two paws up!"

I watched The Ghost and the Darkness, for the second time, this evening. You may remember this as the movie in which Val Kilmer plays the blond bwana beast who kills the man-eating lions of Tsavo. He's provided with some assistance and plenty of mugging from Michael Douglas, miscast--by himself!--as a legendary American hunter brought in to save the day. And why not, eh? The frigging British Empire couldn't possibly gotten off the ground without brave, doomed, rustic American sidekicks. Douglas very decently left Lt.-Col. J.H. Patterson as an Ascendancy Irishman, and one must thank heaven for small mercies, even if the Irish are considered honorary Americans according to the Hollywood Chain of Being. If Kilmer spoke Received Pronunciation, as Patterson cannot be doubted to have done, confused audiences would certainly have concluded he was the villain. Fortunately Kilmer's effort at an Irish brogue is unobtrusive, if incompetent. The only inexcusable element is his tuneless crooning of what sounds suspiciously like "Too-Ra-Loo-Ra-Loo-Ral" while he's up in a tree waiting for the big cats.

Honestly, though, was there ever an Anglo-Irishman who looked so much like a member of the Norwegian hockey team? The real Patterson is depicted sinister, and is naturally the more credible specimen of a civil engineer who personally killed a half-dozen lions. Patterson's book about his experiences in Africa is available online thanks to the good work of Project Gutenberg. It looks pretty terse, though--judging from the front matter, it was written, half-apologetically, to correct absurd errors propagated by English newspapers. The whole thing must have been a constant source of torment to Patterson at parties.

The story of Michael Douglas's involvement with the film is told superbly in William Goldman's memoir Which Lie Did I Tell? Goldman writes--I'm paraphrasing from memory--that he only ever wrote three movies that really meant something to him, that it would have pained him to see pissed on. One was The Princess Bride, which, thankfully, made it through the meat grinder intact and becomes more charming with each passing year. One was a pirate movie called The Sea Kings that sank beneath the waves for the foreseeable future when Cutthroat Island bombed (but will Pirates of the Caribbean possibly salvage it?). And one was The Ghost and the Darkness. Goldman was thrilled to have such a great, powerful, savvy producer as Michael Douglas for the material. He wasn't so happy when producer Douglas asked Goldman to add a role for star Douglas. Goldman argues--and no one who has seen the (actually pretty decent) movie can disagree--that Douglas wasn't right for a role that was tacked-on to begin with and needed somebody with the cocksure charisma of a Bruce Willis. Douglas is the archetype of the flawed, horny, vaguely terrified modern American male. Drop him into 1898 and it doesn't work; he's an intrusive anachronism.

Still, the story of the Tsavo lions is mostly there: they really did try the trick with the boxcar, they really did find a lair with skeletons stretching endlessly into the darkness, and they really did get outfoxed by the lions when they moved the sick workers to a clean new hospital and covered the old one in blood as bait. Goldman wrote the screenplay after seeing the original Tsavo lions on display at the Field Museum in Chicago. They are still there: they remain the only cooperative team of leonine manhunters in the classical literature of Western exploration, and may be the most lethal mammalian predators on record.

- 11:21 pm, April 6 (link)

Abundant new content on the hockey page. Fill your boots. -8:55 pm, April 5
Newest of the new media

Things To See: a lot of you Canadians have probably already heard about The Shotgun, the embryonic but already quite active weblog of the new Western Standard magazine. Looks like it will be populated by existing Canadian favourites like Damian Penny, Nicholas Packwood, and Kathy Shaidle as well as by Standard staffers and new faces. Watch for the occasional Colby Cosh cameo. It would have been trite but apt to acknowledge the Shotgun's ancestry and call it Canadian Corner (as in NRO's Corner), but you can't have everything.

While we're handing out plugs, we can't overlook Provincial & Territorial Report, the new political newsletter created by Western journalism legend Ric Dolphin. It's a pricey insider sheet for corporate types and government departments, but the website has single-item tasters and a PDF of the full first issue. Looks pretty nifty. If you end up subscribing, tell Dolphin I sent you--maybe he'll comp me!

- 12:46 pm, April 5 (link)

Today's National Post column is about Chuck Guite and is online for free. Here's last week's column about events at the Foothills Medical Centre.

It's one of the bitter hilarities of our time that the people who rail most extravagantly against large, impersonal, sociopathic corporations will cuddle the tar out of a monopoly as long as it happens to be run by the state. On March 18, the Calgary Health Region (CHR) disclosed that two kidney patients at the Foothills Medical Centre died after receiving large amounts of potassium chloride (KCl) in their dialysis solution instead of its brother halide, sodium chloride. The latter is ordinary salt; the former, sometimes administered in tiny amounts to treat potassium deficiency, is the active agent in executions by lethal injection. If you made this sort of mistake preparing a meal for your children, you'd probably be locked up. When a hospital does it, it finds no shortage of defenders to argue that the staff is overworked, the facility is underbudgeted and the provincial Cabinet is the real killer.

The Alberta Liberals, under their brand-new leader Kevin Taft, seem virtually orgasmic about the Foothills deaths: At last, a smoking gun pointing directly at Ralph Klein's rapacious underfunding of the health care system! Of course, the budget of Alberta Health has increased 44% in the last four fiscal years, but I'm sure one can concoct some hyper-subtle argument that it's not enough. It never is, if you're an Alberta Liberal. Yet, in truth, one can perceive a strong hint of malfeasance, and maybe even budget blowback, in the deaths of Bart Wassing, 53, and Kathleen Prowse, 83.

Spokesmen for the CHR initially tried to ascribe the disaster to a mix-up between similar labels. It has since been reported that the labels were completely different colours: a retired specialist told the Calgary Herald that whoever confused the substances must have been "blind and illiterate." If so, there must be a lot of it going around. The fatal mixture given to Wassing and Prowse had been double-checked four times by pharmacist technicians, and after the deaths, two other Calgary dialysis patients revealed that they recently had been given KCl by mistake. You can only do so much idiot-proofing before the idiots outnumber you.

Still, they might have tried harder. The potential for confusing KCl with other medications has been an issue in North American hospital practice for 20 years or more. It is one of the best-understood, most warned-against fatal errors a hospital can commit. Medical journals and patient-safety think-tanks have bleated alerts about the hazards of KCl continually; the issue has been profiled on 60 Minutes, 20/20 and the TV drama ER; and there was a national dialogue on the subject in 1999, when a quadriplegic was given a fatal dose of KCl instead of Lasix in Leamington, Ont., and another one in 2002, when an elderly Peterborough, Ont., woman died upon receiving KCl instead of saline. Most big-city Canadian hospitals took concentrated KCl off the shelves as a consequence, switching to less dangerous premixed solutions. The CHR didn't switch, and it's not clear that it intends to even now.

This chronicle of capital stupidity would surely be enough to make any Calgarian take his business elsewhere -- if it were permitted. As it is, Calgary's ill and injured must go on trusting the CHR, the only game in town. The monopoly-huggers who support the status quo in medicare are fond of pointing out that competitive, market-driven health-service providers would have to, God forbid, spend money trying to attract patients. The Foothills Medical Centre doesn't have to worry about losing revenue because of this disaster. A private storefront dialysis clinic, by contrast, would surely have shuttered its windows in shame and closed up shop within 48 hours. The very people who are posturing most agitatedly about the potassium deaths are the same ones who think this is a point against the private clinic, and in favour of the public hospital.

Some have noted that the fatal solution in the Foothills case was never checked by an accredited hospital pharmacist. This incident, they say, is the consequence of an acute cross-Canada shortage of such pharmacists. A bachelor's degree in pharmacy has no magic power to eliminate carelessness, but it certainly safeguards one against gross chemical illiteracy. I suspect a university graduate who had learned pharmacological principles instead of mere "techniques" would have been less likely to accidentally brew a batch of Kevorkian Juice.

But, again, this reveals the danger of operating health care as an unbroken monopoly stretching from the minister's desk to the front lines. Government service providers are slow to adjust budgets for changes in market prices: That's why they are associated with shortages wherever and whenever they are permitted to exist. Canadian governments are still trying to pay a 1990-type wage for pharmacist labour in 2004, even though they need to outbid new competitors for that labour, which range from homecare consultancies to "alternative medicine" rackets to Internet drugstores. Since the state can kill the occasional patient with relative impunity in the meantime, and since the unions won't let hospitals trim payroll in one sector to address an immediate crisis in another, it's never in any hurry. This, like it or not, is part of the logic behind our cherished single-payer medicare. (Mar 29, 2004)

- 11:58 am, April 5 (link)

Short new entry on the hockey page. I've also added a permanent link to that page over on the sidebar at left. -7:28 pm, April 3
A true friend to Canadian artists

Still thinking of voting Liberal in the next election? Better check your hard drive for illegal content first: Doug Beazley reports that the new Heritage Minister Helene Scherrer has outed the Liberals as Canada's anti-file-sharing party [Sun link will be good until early Sunday morning].

Federal Heritage Minister Helene Scherrer yesterday promised to plug the hole in Canadian law allowing people to legally download songs off the Internet without paying. Scherrer's announcement won loud applause from an audience of Canadian music industry types at yesterday's Juno Awards opening ceremony at City Hall, which also featured a staged "surprise" appearance from Prime Minister Paul Martin.

"As minister of Canadian Heritage, I will, as quickly as possible, make changes to our copyright law," said Scherrer yesterday.

The minister offered no details, but she was responding to the challenge posed by a recent federal court ruling that suggested uploading music files into shared folders on peer-to-peer Net networks is quite legal.

The ruling reaffirmed a recent decision by the Copyright Board of Canada.

Justice Konrad von Finckenstein ruled that the Canadian Recording Industry Association didn't prove file-sharing constituted copyright violation--and artists and producers have no legal right to sue those who swap files without paying.

I haven't read the Finckenstein ruling, but you will recall that the main legal issue was not the legality of downloads--it was the legality of making music that might or might not be copyrighted available for download (even by accident). Also at issue was whether the Canadian record industry has a presumptive right to sue everyone in the country who has been uploading music passively as John Doe nos. 1 through n; whether it, in turn, possesses a procedural right to demand your name and address from your ISP, based on a dynamic IP address that was attached to your computer at some point in the past; and whether the copying tax levied by the Copyright Board on blank digital media already grants you a license to share digital information you've purchased at the record store, which is supposed to be what it's for.

The entitlement-addicted musos at the Juno party, who already benefit from Canadian-content regulations in broadcasting, all applauded Scherrer's warning shot against computer owners. So I suppose it's up to you, dear reader, to make the point to Ms. Scherrer that the latter greatly outnumber the former, and that some of you are willing to change your voting preference on the basis of her stated intention to "make changes to our copyright law" as interpreted by the Federal Court. You might like to know that her e-mail address is

- 6:30 pm, April 3 (link)

Today's National Post column, available online for free, is about the death of the Kyoto Protocol and how slow Canadians have been to acknowledge it. It's a newsy, timely piece. As a bonus you can read the Latin American report on creeping Lomborgism that I've mentioned in the penultimate paragraph of the column. Tomorrow's environmentalism--today!

Here's last week's column about the parallels between a legendary TV sitcom and contemporary Canadian politics.

As we drift toward the fall election on an endless sea of Liberal scandals, it is time we newspaper pundits stopped merely name-dropping the classic BBC series Yes, Minister and started praising it for what it is: the 20th-century's greatest work of fiction about the workings of Westminster-model democracy. If the news is getting you down, you might consider acquiring Yes, Minister and the follow-up series Yes, Prime Minister on DVD, as I did last year. Creatures like Chuck Guite and Alfonso Gagliano are merely repellent simulacra of the more stylish BBC originals anyway. The brilliant writing will lift your spirits, and it is just as current as the headlines.

It remains so, even though its original run ended in 1987, a lifetime ago.

Chronologically, the sitcom is an artifact of the Thatcher Era, and was sometimes said to be the great lady's favourite. But it was conceived before her ascent: She little resembled YM's vacillating, clueless Jim Hacker. Writers Jonathan Lynn and Antony Jay had no political experience of their own to work from, relying on imagination, headlines, political memoirs and tips from insiders. But civil servants everywhere adore the show and affirm its truth. And it was prescient, too: In one episode, a character spitballs an unheard-of idea identical to the one Americans now call "school choice." The struggle between elected politicians and bureaucrats must have seemed like commercially unpromising material, but YM became the Beeb's greatest international triumph of the '80s. It transformed Paul Eddington, the actor who played minister Hacker, from superannuated farceur to recognized star. Nigel Hawthorne, who played scheming civil servant Sir Humphrey Appleby, was pulled from even deeper career oblivion to even greater heights; thanks mostly to YM, he ended his days with a real knighthood.

I knew I finally had to write about Yes, Minister when two columnists mentioned it, independently, in other CanWest papers this week. They're hardly the first to do so since Liberal civil war tore the veil from our gangrenous junta, but the references are getting less far apart.

Classics professor Trevor Hodge told a funny story in the Ottawa Citizen last month about finding a copy of the Yes, Minister screenplays in a used book sale. "On the title page," he wrote, "is the official rubber stamp showing from where it was removed: 'Library of Parliament, Canada.' So they got rid of it and it is no longer the foundation of government policy."

Isn't it? Paul Martin's determination to find out where our "missing" money went, as if he didn't already know, is pure Yes, Minister. Sir Humphrey always said that a "full inquiry" was the best way of ensuring that nobody ever actually got blamed for graft or incompetence. On Tuesday, we saw this in action: A parliamentary committee calls responsible persons on the carpet, but as soon as it demands information that might establish culpability, it is attacked from the rear by government members. Soon enough we're no longer arguing about the original crime, but whether it is polite to peer at somebody's phone records.

How many Yes, Minister lines have you heard unleashed in real life in the past six weeks? Here's Stephane Dion talking on Wednesday about the off-ledger national-unity slush fund: "I didn't know it was a secret. The secret was so well-guarded that I didn't know it was a secret." How very Hacker! This Gagliano gem from last Thursday is one that Messrs. Jay and Lynn would have killed to write: "A minister does not run his department. He has neither the time nor the freedom to do so."

A minister does not run his department: This is, in fact, a neat statement of the central theme of Yes, Minister. The civil servants of YM refer (snickeringly, over sherry) to one who has learned this lesson as "housetrained." And after a decade in office, Liberal ministers are revealing a genius for orderly peeing. Consider the press release put out by Treasury Broad president Reg Alcock on Wednesday announcing a comprehensive "review of spending." He promised that it wasn't another one of those "program reviews" which might gore someone's ox, and "acknowledged that while his candid, outspoken style may have spooked many federal public servants, he remains a staunch advocate of the public service and the public sector." Gooood boy. Have a Milk-Bone.

But, really, Canada's problem isn't that our government resembles Yes, Minister too much. In the show, the civil servants are genuinely indifferent to the identity of the government they serve, and honour the old, abandoned tradition of non-interference in party politics. Canada's civil service, by contrast, is festooned with unabashed Liberals and treats "national unity" as code for Liberal power. In Yes, Minister, Hacker is conscious, to the point of torment, of his duty to constituents and the nation, even when he does something self-serving. Occasionally he even wins a tilt with Sir Humphrey. In Canada, the elected ministers and unelected bureaucrats are the same damned lot: It could hardly matter less who's really in charge. Methinks we need to elect some Hackers who can put the fear of God into the Humphreys. (Mar. 26, 2004)

- 9:42 am, April 2 (link)

The grand empathizer

There is abundant comedy in the Globe's account of Wednesday's fracas in the House over the public accounts committee's inquiry into Adscam. You know how sometimes we say "So-and-so made me laugh out loud", but we don't really mean it? The prime minister's breast-beating over the tragic decline of the Conservative Party (now at its highest point in the polls since the Kim Campbell era) made me actually laugh out loud:

Mr. Martin... launched an attack of his own, pointing to Joe Clark's position in the House and the end of the federal Progressive Conservative Party as signs of Mr. MacKay's character.
"The fact is that there is a former Prime Minister of Canada who is relegated off to the corner, whose heart is broken, because the great party of Sir John A. Macdonald has had its heart ripped out of it because this honourable member broke his word," Mr. Martin said. "...Ask the former Prime Minister of Canada why he's sitting over there. He's doing it because this member has no principles."

Sir John A. Macdonald wouldn't have known what the Christ a Progressive Conservative party was, and wouldn't have liked it if he did: his shade is, I suspect, delighted with the PCs becoming just Cs again. As for Martin using Joe Clark as a borrowed prop for an improvised Old Yeller tragedy--well, OK, Clark certainly has the jowls for it. But why would Clark sit still for such a humiliating display of head-patting? Can it be that Martin has some quid pro quo in mind for him? Clark performed some reluctant anilingus on Martin Thursday, which allowed the Star to openly refer to rampant rumours that Joe Who is Senate-bound. And thus do I, also.

Let's not overlook Libby Davies' bad-penny appearance in the tail end of Darren Yourk's Globe article:

NDP MP Libby Davies accused both sides of allowing egos to get in the way of government business. "It is embarrassing to see the boys in the sandbox beating each other up," she said. "Who's got the bigger ego, fighting over political shenanigans and completely neglecting the real issues that concern Canadians."

That's a New Democrat for you--sexism's all right as long as I perpetrate it, and against males. If somebody called Women's Libby a "girl" (or, say, a "plank-thick twat") on the floor of the House, you know her head would explode.

- 2:48 pm, April 1 (link)