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Why did The Door let Jeremy Lott's 2003 interview with Philip Jenkins turn stale? There's no telling, but it's a good one. It probably should be read not so much for Jeremy's sake as for Jenkins': you have to sympathize with a man who signed to do a book on terrorism in August 2001.

- 11:04 pm, May 31 (link)

Today's National Post column, about two varieties of deep, structural anti-conservative media bias, is on the free side of the subscriber wall. Here's the replay of last week's, with some strong language restored that had been scrubbed out by the desk.

The thing that surprises me about looking back over the last few Canadian elections is that they were, for a Western right-wing voter, all pretty satisfying. It's that time in between elections, when the winners get to passing the laws and running the country, that politics becomes a depressing pantomime of bad men and worse ideas.

The greatest political event of my lifetime, I think, was the 1988 free-trade election. I was 17 years old; I didn't yet have a coalesced political world view, beyond being opposed to blatantly stupid things. But I'd read enough to be convinced that economic nationalism was one of those things. In '88, even a teenager could recognize Brian Mulroney for what he was: a horrible bastard, basically, who had staked his career on one good idea whose time had arrived. His opponents succeeded completely in framing the fight for their regional or ideological interests as a struggle for the soul of the country -- and still they lost, dividing their forces in the face of the enemy army. Watching the returns come back, and seeing the increasing greenness about the gills of the czars of the culture, was unmitigated rapture.

The triumph replayed itself in 1992, on the night of the Charlottetown Accord referendum. There was some doubt as to which way that one would go, but in the end the Mulroney Coalition rose up against its namesake, his asymmetric federalism, and his ghastly Social Charter. Again, the cause of Canadian-ness was defined for us by a self-interested elite, and again the public had the temerity to vote in the un-Canadian way. The prime minister had sown the wind and reaped the whirlwind.

The federal elections held since have been characterized, on election night, by the baffled stupor of television commentators who never did learn to anticipate the strength of the Reform Party and its successor, the Canadian Alliance. In 2000, the returns looked like a triumph for Stockwell Day, who won seats in Ontario, obtained more than three million votes and increased the spread between the CA and the Tories from less than a point to more than 13. This time, the guardians of Canadianity were smarter, waiting patiently to declare Mr. Day's palpable success a disaster after the fact.

The 1995 Quebec referendum was another great electoral drama that ended happily, with that revolting crocodilian phony Jacques Parizeau drowning publicly in his own poor grace. Deep down I think most everyone must have enjoyed it when "money and the ethnic vote" came crackling over the airwaves, even if they were very far from sharing the Liberals' naked terror at "losing Canada." In retrospect, if Canada had been "lost," Canadians might have reached the salient conclusion that the Liberals were to blame for misplacing it. As things actually transpired -- and here you have one of the great mysteries of Liberal hegemony -- almost no one actually thinks the worse of them for their imperial carelessness.

That's all ancient history now, but the core of the thing is the same as ever in 2004. The Conservatives, in their various incarnations, have to re-sell themselves anew each time out; because their support is so volatile, they have suffered Canadian politics' bloodiest massacres and achieved its greatest victories. The Liberals remain the Liberals, oscillating between 30% of the popular vote and the low forties whatever disgraces they happen to have suffered between elections. As bad as things might get for them, and things have now gotten very bad, they enjoy a solid floor of support from permanent loyalists -- those who are at the public teat in one way or another, along with Earnscliffian soul-vendors, unassimilated immigrants, minority-language communities, and young boobs for whom the party of Pearson and Trudeau still holds an adolescent romance.

That Liberal floor has been rising steadily in this country since 1960 or so. The number of people who are real net contributors to the treasury and who vote Liberal is never very great. Under Chretien, I suspect it was already quite close to zero. Do you know a lot of small businessmen, tradesmen, physicians, or farmers who vote Liberal? Study the party's candidates, and notice how, when the Grits get hold of someone who has attained anything at all in the private sector, like Ken Dryden, they can barely restrain their bladders.

In the mass, the Liberal corps is a undifferentiated gang of teachers, lawyers, "activists," "consultants," and ethnic "community leaders," seasoned with a few jumped-up backwoods mayors and former Liberal staffers eager to play boss. Even the ones who have some sort of business background normally bear the oddball stamps of Liberality. The ideal Liberal candidate would be someone who learned the stern truths of private business (by running his uncle's confectionery in Moosonee for six months) before earning a doctorate in International Meddlesomeness Studies and chairing a Multicultural Friendship Planning Commission on Environmental Sensitivity.

Of course, we are supposed to say generous things of those who have spent a life in "public service," as if the whole thing had nothing at all to do with expense accounts, subsidized travel and the plain desire for power. There are so many of these strange people from the planet of tax-funded living: It is easy for the taxpayer, on whom the whole con game rests, to feel outnumbered. As Canada is currently constituted, he may be. Just how low is the Liberal floor in the year 2004? That is the basic question in this election.

The hope for the Conservatives is this: The Liberal project rests, somewhat, on the presumption of moral superiority. The Liberals will try to spin their plethora of scandals at a million RPM -- "They're not scandals, and, anyway, it was all Chretien's fault." But if the virus of self-doubt begins to infect Liberal social circles, progress can be made.

I'm not sure you can convert a Liberal, or very many Liberals, anyway: even if Paul Martin were caught on camera humping roadkill Tom Green-fashion, it's unlikely the party's poll numbers would drop below 38% or so. But mid-term and mid-election polling usually underestimates conservative parties, who have anger on their side. In the end, an election is about getting people to skip work or miss the soap operas and go make an active gesture in your favour -- or against somebody else. So the trick is not to change Liberals into Conservatives, but to shame the Liberals into staying home. (May 31, 2004)

I will add--and here's another point made by reader William Adams, who pays close attention and always likes to hit me on the head when he can--that Stephen Harper, on the whole, probably fits my picture of the "perfect Liberal" a little better than Paul Martin does. What's true of the candidate corps is not so at the top.

And another thing: today's release from the SES tracking poll for CPAC has the Liberals well below 38%--in fact, they're leading the Conservatives 34%-31%, which is a statistical dead heat. On the other hand, the Liberals are still within the margin of error of 38%, too.

- 10:26 pm, May 31 (link)

Jack of hearts

There was an amusing little scrap today, apparently, between Toronto-Danforth Liberal MP Dennis Mills and Olivia Chow, the New Democratic candidate in Trinity-Spadina. Her husband, NDP leader Jack Layton, is angling for Mills' seat.

Mills reportedly crashed Chow's event. After he left, Chow chased Mills up the street, with a group of reporters following behind, to ask him why he screamed at her.
He responded, "You're the one who screamed at me!" He laughed, then said, "Olivia, I think if anyone knows how to scream, it's you."
The Liberal MP then tried to make amends, but quickly turned the conflict back to politics, with cameras rolling.
"Well if you felt it was a scream, I apologize. But, I don't want you to talk about social housing, because your record on social housing is abysmal," Mills said. "Eventually, people are going to wake up to that."

How can Olivia Chow's record on social housing be "abysmal"? After all, she knows what it's like to live in it. It's not mentioned too often nowadays, but Torontonians probably remember it well: in 1990 reporters discovered that Chow and Layton were living in a subsidized housing co-op. At the time, Layton was a Toronto city councillor and Chow was a school board trustee: their estimated combined annual income was on the order of $120,000 (that's over $160,000 in today's money). Layton's defence--which he reiterated for the benefit of CanWest's Bill Curry about a week ago--was that it was just his way of helping out the poor. By living next to them, at the public expense, he was helping to keep them in the, y'know, mainstream.

Although the co-op was designed to have a mix of middle- and low-income tenants in the building, critics argued that the couple's combined income of more than $100,000 made their living arrangement inappropriate.

A Metro Toronto Police investigation cleared Layton of any wrongdoing or conflict of interest, but the story sparked a debate over the merits of mixed co-ops versus social housing aimed entirely for the poor.

Layton ruefully looks back on the incident as an effective political attack by his rivals, who protested outside the co-op for several weeks, but continues to defend the concept of mixed co-ops as a way to avoid "ghettos" of urban poor.

"It was a brilliantly executed smear attempt. I have admired it for years as to how it was pulled off," he said.

Did he just admit to admiring successful smear tactics? Well, no surprise there. It's a shame, though, when the hard work of the revolutionary vanguard is misconstrued as deplorable sponging. There is actually a strong case for mixed-income neighbourhoods, if you're going to have social housing with all its attendant abuses. All you have to believe is that Layton's position on city council had nothing whatsoever to do with him getting one of the plum tax-subsidized spots amidst the differently incomed.

[UPDATE, 2:51 pm, May 30: Or then again, maybe it was a smear! (Or then again again, maybe not.) A couple of e-mails from readers encouraged me to check up on the old Ontario rules about co-op housing. Layton and Chow, it seems, occupied one of the units intended to be rented out at "market value"; taking this phrase at its meaning suggests that no sponging was involved. In practice, "market value" had nothing to do with the market. The government merely gave the co-ops the price of the mortgage and operating expenses, minus whatever rent the NDP-dominated co-op committees had managed to collect. Under the circumstances the price of the middle-income co-op units varied wildly, and was often higher than market rates (which, of course, left many of the designated middle-income units utterly unoccupied). Layton and Chow might well have been subsidizing their neighbours on collectivist principle, as Ikram Saeed suggested in an early-morning e-mail. And to be honest, that wouldn't be terribly surprising. But there were stories around the same time of politicians of other parties living in co-ops (as has happened in B.C., apparently, too), and of NDP co-ops bullying middle-income tenants to get them to make way for the ideologically pure, which is hard to account for if the rents in those particular places were above-market.

Reader William Adams had some experience, almost, with the same building Layton and Chow lived in:

The co-op itself was subsidized, in that Canada Mortgage and Housing gave low-interest mortgages to start new co-ops. This was back in the day when Canada was still flirting with socialist policies. I almost ended up living there as it was two blocks from my Cityhome [Toronto municipal-financed mixed income] apartment. My roommates and I had decided to split up and I was looking for new digs. Several years before this I had lived in a student Co-op. I had my name on the waiting list, and I was accepted, but the move-in date was a month away. It actually wasn't all that cheap and co-ops are a bit irritating in that they can take democracy too far, so I took a cheaper place farther from downtown. Note that I was never offered or ever received subsidies.

This was just months before the media frenzy over Jack and Olivia [living] there. You forget to mention that Olivia's mother was also living in the co-op at the same time. Jack did have a point in that he was a big supporter of co-ops and mixed-income housing, so living there was walking the talk to a certain extent. Also note that the co-op was on Jarvis St. [was] just one block south of the hooker half-mile, so the location was not for everyone.

Anyone who can shed more light is encouraged to drop a note as the usual e-mail address...

- 9:03 pm, May 30 (link)

Cosmic Canada

There's something important I almost forgot to mention about the Harper v. Canada column below.

I don't really expect Americans to have been following the various battles over Canadian election-spending law. But there is a point here that is meaningful to them, and they can appreciate it without knowing too much of the background--the important fact, if there is one, is that the new Canadian limits, which our Supreme Court has just upheld, are more stringent than the McCain-Feingold ones insofar as they apply to individuals as well as corporate entities. The Elections Act that we have now would probably not survive a free-speech test for one second in a U.S. court.

What's interesting about the Canadian dispute from an American standpoint is that the Canadian court explicitly framed the discussion of "electoral fairness" in Thomas Sowell's terms. Go back, if you like, over the part I've summarized in which the Court considers the "libertarian model" of fairness as opposed to the "egalitarian model" of fairness. This dichotomy will be amazingly familiar to anybody who's read Sowell's writings about cosmic justice.

Traditional concepts of justice or fairness, at least within the American tradition, boil down to applying the same rules and standards to everyone. [I would say that it was more rightly referred to as the "Anglo-Saxon tradition" -ed.] This is what is meant by a "level playing field"-- at least within that tradition, though the very same words mean something radically different within a framework that calls itself "social justice." Words like "fairness," "advantage" and "disadvantage" likewise have radically different meanings within the very different frameworks of traditional justice and "social justice."

John Rawls perhaps best summarized the differences when he distinguished "fair" equality of opportunity from merely "formal" equality of opportunity. Traditional justice, fairness, or equality of opportunity are merely formal in Professor Rawls' view and in the view of his many followers and comrades. For those with this view, "genuine equality of opportunity" cannot be achieved by the application of the same rules and standards to all, but requires specific interventions to equalize either prospects or results. As Rawls puts it, "undeserved inequalities call for redress."

A fight in which both boxers observe the Marquis of Queensberry rules would be a fair fight, according to traditional standards of fairness, irrespective of whether the contestants were of equal skill, strength, experience or other factors likely to affect the outcome -- and irrespective of whether that outcome was a hard-fought draw or a completely one-sided beating.

This would not, however, be a fair fight within the framework of those seeking "social justice," if the competing fighters came into the ring with very different prospects of success -- especially if these differences were due to factors beyond their control.

Presumably, the vast ranges of undeserved inequalities found everywhere are the fault of "society" and so the redressing of those inequalities is called social justice, going beyond the traditional justice of presenting each individual with the same rules and standards. However, even those who argue this way often recognize that some undeserved inequalities may arise from cultural differences, family genes, or from historical confluences of events not controlled by anybody or by any given society at any given time. For example, there was no way that Pee Wee Reese was going to hit as many home runs as Mark McGwire, or Shirley Temple run as fast as Jesse Owens. There was no way that Scandinavians or Polynesians were going to know as much about camels as the Bedouins of the Sahara -- and no way that these Bedouins were going to know as much about fishing as the Scandinavians or Polynesians.

In a sense, proponents of "social justice" are unduly modest. What they are seeking to correct are not merely the deficiencies of society, but of the cosmos. What they call social justice encompasses far more than any given society is causally responsible for. Crusaders for social justice seek to correct not merely the sins of man but the oversights of God or the accidents of history. What they are really seeking is a universe tailor-made to their vision of equality. They are seeking cosmic justice.

- 11:07 am, May 30 (link)

The headline promotes the somewhat abused metaphor in the back half, but the best part of my Friday National Post column is probably the bit about Jack Layton. See fish, shoot fish. Here's last week's column about the Harper v. Canada ruling. (More on the case can be found here and here.)

On Tuesday a 6-3 majority of the Supreme Court upheld the federal Liberals' harsh new election spending limits on "third parties," by which is meant, basically, human beings who aren't running for office. It's a remarkable moment. Leave aside the question of whether the new Elections Act is good or bad on its own merits, and consider the history.

In 1982, the country was persuaded to adopt an American-style charter of individual rights and freedoms that would empower our judiciary to strike down laws willy-nilly in the manner of the U.S. Supreme Court. It's a power that has fortified the Supreme Court's national and international prestige. It has made it an equal partner with, and some would say the distinct superior of, our elected Parliament. The Court has used the Charter with childlike enthusiasm to force governments to abandon or reinterpret countless laws, regulations and social policies.

But when asked to apply the Charter to the issue of election spending limits in the case of Harper v. Canada, the Court discovered a contradiction between a certain concept of "electoral fairness," found nowhere in the Constitution, and the individual free-expression rights clearly described as "fundamental" in section 2 of the Charter.

So what happened when the fundamental rights collided with this idea of "fairness?" They crumpled like a Chevette hit by a freight train.

Obviously, it's time to move beyond the debate between those of us who would like to see the text of the Charter enforced and those who loathe the revolutionary manner of the Charter's adoption. The Supreme Court isn't even pretending to make decisions based on the Charter anymore. This isn't "judicial activism," it's judicial whacktivism.

Reading the decision in Harper is a fascinating journey into the bizarre mental universe of the Canadian judge. By way of example, let's return to that "electoral fairness" thing. This is a phrase that could be interpreted all sorts of ways. The Court majority, subscribing to the judgment written by Justice Michel Bastarache, contemplated two. There's the "libertarian model" of electoral fairness whereby the "electoral process [is] subject to as few restrictions as possible." Everybody is permitted as much free speech as they can afford, without limits: ideas fight for approval in a unfettered marketplace. There is also an "egalitarian model" of fairness in which the "overarching objective ... is to promote electoral fairness by creating equality in the political discourse." In this model, political speech is deemed a zero-sum game: "the State can restrict the voices which dominate the political discourse so that others may be heard as well."

The Liberals' new Elections Act reflects the theory of the "egalitarian model" by essentially outlawing political advertising during elections by anyone but political parties. A philosopher's mind -- as opposed to a judge's -- might wonder whether giving political parties a monopoly on election speech fits even this egalitarian definition of "fairness." But Justice Bastarache's decision:

a) arbitrarily declared the egalitarian model part of the formal ideology of the Canadian state, even though the Charter is premised on the opposing principle;

b) decreed, without investigating the matter too closely, that the amended Elections Act does conform to the egalitarian model;

c) decided that the Elections Act, since "fairness" is an urgent and rational objective of the state, can overpower section 2 of the Charter (i.e., your sacred natural rights) with complete impunity.

Five other judges -- our best and brightest -- subscribed to this wad of fiat in apparent contentment. Thus the thing is settled in perpetuity.

This all merely confirms that the Charter, whether good or bad in itself, is a filthy lie. It advertises itself as the basic law of the land, yet when more than half the Supreme Court decides that something explicitly contrary to it would be a capital idea, the document's text evaporates. "Fundamental" freedoms become provisional, negotiable, disposable. The notion of "an egalitarian model of electoral fairness" appears, let me emphasize, nowhere in the Charter. Believe it or not, the Court pulled those theoretical wheezings about "egalitarian" fairness out of a half-baked and much-contested 1992 Royal Commission report on election spending. Somehow, the judges thought that implementing this dusty shred of bumf was more important than applying the stated essence of the Constitution. Seems odd to me, but I never went to law school or suffered a major head trauma.

I haven't begun to sum up the Harper ruling's noxiousness here. One astonishing utterance from the Honourable Mr. Justice Bastarache will, I think, long be remembered: "While the right to political expression lies at the core of the guarantee of free expression and warrants a high degree of constitutional protection, there is nevertheless a danger that political advertising may manipulate or oppress the voter."

The theory here, in case you couldn't believe your eyes, is that hearing a particular political opinion too often might "oppress" the electorate. To minimize the risk of such "oppression," the Supreme Court is prepared to allow Elections Canada sweeping new powers to register, monitor and outlaw the political speech of private citizens and organizations during federal campaigns. Which leaves us with just one question: When, exactly, did they make Joseph Stalin a Father of Confederation? (May 21, 2004)

- 10:29 pm, May 28 (link)

Capsule reviews (by a very tired freelancer) from the summer cinema catch-up

The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara

I was vaguely impressed by The Thin Blue Line, highly amused by Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control, and dazzled by Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter Jr. Naturally they went ahead and gave Errol Morris the Oscar for a disappointing, totally vapid film. You would suppose a probing exploration of the Vietnam War's chief architect might raise the question "So why did the United States fight the war?" You'd be completely wrong. The only "explanation" ever given is a recurring visual motif in the form of dominoes toppling on a map of Asia. I couldn't even tell if it was intended ironically. The sad part is that Americans under 50, on the whole, probably have a weaker grasp of the details of the Vietnam War than they do of the Second World War. This piece of schlock won't help much, yet it's been regarded deferentially, like it was scholarship.

Repellent as the lack of context was, McNamara--and I suppose this shouldn't be a surprise--managed to outbid the documentarian in that department. "America can't act unilaterally in the world," whined the emotionally crippled octogenarian (I'm paraphrasing). "None of our allies supported us in Vietnam." I had to shut off the movie, so enraged was I by this casual little post-facto fuck-you to the Commonwealth of Australia, fifty thousand of whose soldiers fought in the war. I guess the memory goes when you get to be that age. We know, in McNamara's case, that it's not the fine moral sensibility that's malfunctioning.

American Splendor

I'm a Harvey Pekar fan from the Letterman days, and I wanted this to be terrific. It almost is. I'm a tad upset that the movie seems to have taken Letterman's own implicit view that Pekar was just a neurotic creep trapped in a dead-end job and surrounded by losers. As I wrote for the Post last year (please pardon me for the grave sin of quoting myself), "Harvey Pekar is the real article of which [Michael] Moore is just a cheap knockoff: he's the last American proletarian intellectual." You'd scarcely know from the movie American Splendor that the comic book American Splendor is full of wonderful, informed observations about music, race, artistic creation, Yiddishkeit, and working-class life. In a just world Harvey would be the network late-night talk-show host; I'd rather watch him talk for an hour than listen to Letterman for five minutes.

In the world of the movie, "Harvey Pekar's" relentless assishness is redeemed almost entirely by Paul Giamatti's fine performance. It's an OK film, very moving at times, but the light seasoning of the real Harvey in it just makes us wish they'd chosen to do a straight documentary.

Donnie Darko

Adolescent and generally overrated... but still pretty good. The plot almost makes sense in the end, and the movie captures the flavour of a certain species of not-quite-small-town, not-quite-suburban life. Some nice special-effects legerdemain covers up for what must have been a modest budget. I won't spoil the subplot concerning Patrick Swayze's character, but I do wonder why someone didn't have the idea to cast him as a slimeball earlier. Will be a cult favourite with a certain kind of teenager for decades. If you have one in your household, accept my condolences.


Boogie Nights without, alas, the screwing: P.T. Anderson is repeating himself, and if I knew to what end he was doing so, I might feel better about it. All my favourite current directors (Tarantino, Stillman, Solondz, Wes Anderson) could be accused of repeating themselves, but their stuff hits home on some level. Was Magnolia meant to be a Fortean tract? What a thing to enlist such terrific actors for. The climax feels like Anderson's way of escaping from a corner he'd painted himself into. He must have known it would come off that way, but it can't really be defended by contending that it rains frogs every time humans are in particular need of emotional release. Scientologist Tom Cruise's casting as the head of a creepy, profitable self-empowerment cult is, of course, strictly coincidental.

About a Boy

Have you noticed that Rachel Weisz is just Elizabeth McGovern plus ten years? Are other actors and actresses reincarnated before they die in this unsettling fashion?

As advertised, Hugh Grant is pretty good as a fortysomething playing a thirtysomething with the emotional apparatus of a tensomething. Then again, in displaying his "range", he benefits from low expectations. There's something so constructed about his character here; he's cardboard dressed in flesh. Will's backstory amounts to some comic torment about the source of his livelihood (a universally adored Christmas carol written by his father) and a single one-second flashback. On this basis we are asked to believe an awful lot about this guy: namely that he has never in his adult life, even by accident, managed to blunder into a circle of friends, a serious romantic attachment, or even a job. Leaving aside this impossible-to-swallow mouthful, what we have here is a nice little romantic comedy where the romance is that of parenting--and that's certainly novel, and welcome.

Warning: Toni Collette is almost too good as the troubled vegetarian hippie single mom. Men may be tempted to instinctively flee the room in which the DVD is playing.

- 11:34 pm, May 27 (link)

At long last hockey. Realtime Stanley Cup weblogging, now available... -9:15 pm, May 27
The case of the baseball blunder

Did anybody see the weird play that sank the Angels in today's game against the Jays? I wish I had. This is what I like about baseball: there's always a chance of seeing something unusual--in this case, a breakdown in the clockwork machinery of the successful rundown. From the AP account:

Chris Gomez scored the winning run in the 10th when nobody covered the plate during a rundown, ending Toronto's four-game skid.

Gomez reached on a fielder's choice and Ben Weber (0-2) walked Eric Hinske [moving Gomez to second base] before Pond hit a sharp grounder to first baseman Casey Kotchman, who knocked the ball down with a dive.

Second baseman Adam Kennedy picked up the ball and threw to catcher Bengie Molina, who got Gomez in a rundown between third and home. Molina chased Gomez up the line before throwing to Alfredo Amezaga, who didn't have anybody to throw to at the plate because Weber covered first on the grounder.

The natural inquiry at this point is, who's got to take the rap? Angels manager Mike Scioscia, who ought to know, laid the blame for the bad play at Molina's feet:

"Bengie got caught in between and we lost the play," said Scioscia, who thought Molina should have stayed at home or chased Gomez all the way up to third.

I'm no expert, but this seems to me like pretty rough justice. Scioscia obviously expects his catcher to have eyes surrounding his skull like a tiara, and that's part of the job description. Molina's defensive skills are respected. Maybe he should have made a mental note when Weber moved to cover first that no one was going to be able to rotate in behind him if there was a rundown. But he obviously wasn't expecting to make a play--the ball never left the infield and Gomez missed a late-delivered "stop" signal from the third-base coach. Having caught the ball he had every right to expect that he could chase Gomez down and unload with home plate covered.

I can't pin this one on Ben Weber, the pitcher, either. It's Weber who is, technically, supposed to back up the catcher on a rundown between third and home--but that is asking a lot of a 34-year-old relief pitcher who has already gone to first, correctly, to cover the play there. So what I'm wondering is, where was 21-year-old first baseman Casey Kotchman? Still flat on the ground, having a nap? Once Kennedy retrieved the ball, it was really Kotchman's responsibility, I think, to get behind Molina. He runs well for a corner infielder, when he runs. The video highlights aren't up at yet, and all the postgame stories are silent about this.

- 6:38 am, May 25 (link)

Faster, pussycat!

Victoria Day marks the official changeover between Edmonton's two seasons, Siberian and sunny. The weather's actually been terrific for six weeks or more, but it's only on the Sovereign's formal birthday that we really stop cringing. (I last saw snow on the ground here on May 12; it was dissipating in the shade at 11 a.m. on a sunny day, a last shaken fist of defiance from Old Man Winter.) In accordance with local custom, I've been doing an unusual amount of stuff that doesn't involve just sitting around in my underwear reading old Baseball Abstracts. Instead, you might see me sitting around in a bar, reading whatever book I'm supposed to review for TAS next.

All right--so maybe summer is wasted on me.

One of the things I'm now doing is catching up on some of the significant or interesting movies I haven't seen in the last couple of years. I finally saw Kill Bill Volume 1, for instance. I watched it in French (don't ask), which probably made it more enjoyable and wouldn't really spoil the movie even for someone who didn't know the language.

My basic opinion is that (with exceptions) the kind of person who wouldn't enjoy KB1, or who would pretend not to, is the kind of person who wouldn't enjoy a blowjob. Most of the criticisms of the movie boil down to Sheah right--like that would ever happen. And most of the same people who made an objection of this sort were enchanted to the point of self-soiling a few weeks later by the sight of Legolas the Elf capering about and inflicting mass destruction on Uruk-hais from the back of an oliphaunt, so I find it a little hard to credit.

Granted, the movie is nihilistic and self-consciously allusive to the point of being trite. Like they all say, it's a network of popcult references and low-nutrition narrative tricks--adding up to too much to be anything at all--pinned to a spectacle that overwhelms the eye and ear. But the sum is beautiful, on the terms of its pathological purity, like a banquet from the Satyricon. It's so demented, frivolous, and intricate that only God or Tarantino could have made it. Or perhaps the Devil, who, like Tarantino, is reliably said to have all the best tunes.

I got interested in diagramming what happens in the movie immediately after the Showdown at the House of Blue Leaves. The chronological order of events goes something like this:

A - The Bride questions Sofie in the trunk of the car
B - She slams the trunk lid
C - She throws Sofie down the hill near the ER entrance
D - Bill questions Sofie at the hospital
E - The Bride is on the plane, making out her Death List

On film (in French, anyway) this slice of hypothetical time is intercut, as you'll see if you watch with moderate care, in this order: E, B, C, D, A, D, A, D, A, D, A, E. (I've included sound edits: a strict ordering of shots would leave out some of the flickering between A and D.) That is a pretty screwy way to tell part of a story, when you sit down and explain it, but it feels so natural in Tarantino's hands that you might not consciously notice that anything is out of order at all. He has assessed your brain's ability to absorb information in parallel ex ante and hit the spot perfectly. On the macro level the story is also out of order, and again it doesn't matter much. Somehow we always have the information we need, which isn't entirely negligible, even though, true, true, the "subject matter" is as friable and homogenous as maple fudge.

Memento and a few other much-praised movies made the viewer work a lot harder to follow a simple back-to-front structure, even though everyone came prepared for their toilsome homework after reading the reviews. And for what?--great insights into the human condition of some sort Tarantino doesn't give us? Hell, if it comes down to that, I'd defend KB1 as a more instructive piece of didacticism, for all its faux Zen and comic-book dialogue howlers, than The Return of the King.

- 3:22 am, May 25 (link)


I was just catching up on Rob Neyer's ESPN column, scrolling down through a bulleted list of items about the business side of baseball and thinking "Jeez, this reminds me, I haven't visited Doug Pappas's site for a while." Then I read to the end and learned the horrible news: Pappas, a New York litigator, died last week at the age of 43, apparently succumbing to heatstroke in Big Bend National Park while working on his Roadside Photos website. (Somehow I had missed Matt Welch's note at Hit & Run.)

You should visit while you can: Roadside Photos is now an unbearably poignant record of one very bright man's avocations. Thousands of you, to take a favourite example, have probably already seen his collection of comic postcards. This Baseball Primer thread, full of appalled reactions to Pappas's death from admirers of his work, notes that he was in the midst of cataloguing all the recorded managerial ejections in the history of the major leagues.

Pappas was the world's leading independent expert on baseball economics, and was chairman of the Business of Baseball Committee of the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR). For sports journalists who know their ass from a star, he had become the quintessential critic of the baseball establishment and particularly Commissioner Bud Selig. It was Pappas who provided the heavy intellectual ammunition against revenue-sharing and against Selig's claims, parroted in the verbiage of "blue-ribbon panels" and peddled before the U.S. Congress, that major league teams were collectively haemorrhaging the gross domestic product of Europe. He was one of the best-informed analysts of the murder of the Montreal Expos. He popularized the growing economic literature on how taxpayers are ripped off to buy baseball parks for millionaire owners, and kept fans informed about their favourite teams' tax scams and pound-foolish treatment of players.

SABR has an obituary. In a remembrance for Baseball Prospectus, to which Pappas was a contributor, Joe Sheehan notes that Pappas's last interviews are still finding their way into the sports pages, days after his death. Rarely can the word "irreplaceable" have been used with such abominable accuracy.

- 1:47 pm, May 24 (link)

Happy Victoria Day. On Sunday I was coming back from lunch with a friend and he asked me a question about the National Post, naturally enough. Despite the negligible engine noise from the 928 I misheard him and said:

"What was that about the Nashville toast? What's Nashville toast?"

Maybe you had to be there. Today's Nashville Toast column is free to all Web-enabled Canadians; you can read it in the usual HTML format or follow the link here to the complete Victoria Day electronic edition.

Then you can come back and read the May 17 column about the Percy Schmeiser case, which was settled by the Supreme Court on Friday in favour of seed patentholder Monsanto. (Schmeiser was, however, relieved of having to pay the corporation's enormous legal bill.) Janice Tibbetts has a roundup (ha ha) of the dispute; the decision was also covered by the New York Times.

The Supreme Court's decision in Schmeiser v. Monsanto, expected on Friday, will mark the end of a drama that has lasted about six years -- except it won't be, if I know Percy Schmeiser. Which I don't. But I surely do know his type. One almost pities the U.S. agri-giant, for while it will almost surely win in court on Friday, and win big, it has picked a fight with the kind of guy who just won't quit --the cussed, unrelenting small-holding farmer, whose distrust of big institutions was the seedbed of Hellenistic civilization and the American Revolution.

Mr. Schmeiser, who grows canola near Bruno, Sask., has become an unlikely hero of the worldwide green left since he first started fighting with Monsanto in 1998. He has visited Bangladesh, India, Poland, New Zealand and other countries, telling his tale of personal struggle against a corporate behemoth. Yet back home, rural sentiment probably runs, at a guess, at least two to one against him. Many Western farmers have a marked, almost tender affection for Monsanto. This doesn't mean they aren't just as stubbornly self-sufficient as Mr. Schmeiser; they merely take a long view, seeing Monsanto's research into genetically-modified crops as a shot at preserving their business model and their independence over the next century.

The battle began when Monsanto got an anonymous tip that Mr. Schmeiser had an unauthorized field brim-full of the company's Roundup Ready canola. The patented Roundup Ready is genetically engineered to resist the powerfully lethal glyphosate in Monsanto's Roundup brand herbicide, so it allows farmers to plant earlier and spray more often, wiping out a broad spectrum of weeds without hurting the canola. That means higher yields, and authorized growers are insured by Monsanto for the cost of the seed if weather wipes out the crop. Since its 1996 introduction, the product has taken off in Canada like Internet porn.

Of course, there's a catch: To legally grow Roundup Ready, you have to purchase it by the acre and agree not to save the seed for planting in the next crop year. You're supposed to buy it anew from Monsanto every time out. If you're found growing a glyphosate-resistant crop without having signed a user agreement -- and Monsanto has private detectives on the payroll to catch such people out -- you can end up in court. That's what they did with Mr. Schmeiser when samples from his crop were found to consist of more than 90% Roundup Ready canola.

Mr. Schmeiser disputes this figure, though the tests were made independently and the samples taken with his permission. His story is that some of Monsanto's demon-seeds blew onto his land in 1996 from a neighbouring quarter and adulterated his crop, mixing with the seed he was setting aside year after year. One way or another, he ended up with much or most of his crop being Roundup Ready, and he knew, and didn't report, that it was there in the mix. He is not alleged to have stolen the seed or bought it illicitly. It's a pure patent case: he is accused of knowingly using a particular genetic sequence without permission of the inventor. Of being an agrarian plagiarist, if you will.

Although he has become a hero of the Luddite anti-genetic-modification movement, Mr. Schmeiser is hardly a squeaky-clean organic farmer; like so many canola growers, he was a willing user of Monsanto's pesticides before he fell into this legal pickle. But his lawyers are now fighting the whole idea of a patent on a plant, pointing to the 2000 Federal Court decision that made it illegal to patent "higher" life forms in Canada (the case revolved around a genetically engineered "oncomouse" used in cancer research). Unfortunately, when it comes to the plant kingdom, statute and legal tradition run strongly the other way: The federal Commissioner of Patents granted enforceable intellectual property rights on a strain of yeast as far back as 1982, long before general nervousness about artificial genetic modification set in.

In the prelude to the Supreme Court hearing, the Federal Court found that Monsanto was entitled to about $20,000 in damages -- the hypothetical cost Mr. Schmeiser would have paid for the seed, plus a modest quantum for harm done to the patent. But the court also stuck the Saskatchewan farmer with the corporate giant's legal costs. His fight against Monsanto could now cost Mr. Schmeiser 15 or 20 times what merely buying Roundup Ready would have run him. And if he had reported the presence of the supposedly unwelcome seed on his land in the first place, Monsanto would have -- more than gladly -- cleaned things up at its own expense.

The legal regime that makes farmers police their own crops for Monsanto's intellectual property is certainly lamentable, and a little repellent, with its neighbourhood informants and back-road gumshoes. But Monsanto's Canadian patent on Roundup Ready runs out in 2010, and every farmer knows the rule about making hay while the sun shines. It goes without saying that Percy Schmeiser, however the coin comes up on Friday, will continue to regret nothing. (May 24, 2004)

- 12:32 pm, May 24 (link)

It's that time of year again. I'm one of those people who would gladly do without grass and tolerate the dandelion, but, alas, its status as a pest is one of those customs you can't defy without creating neighbourhood strife. Actually, it might be the last such custom remaining...

- 1:20 am, May 23 (link)

Friday's Post column--a forensic snapshot of the Supreme Court's Harper ruling, interspersed with rage-a-holic language--is behind the wall. But there's good news for non-subscribers: the Post will not be delivering on Victoria Day (Monday) but there will be an online Monday paper, complete and free to all websurfers. The writ for the federal election is expected to come down early Sunday afternoon, and your favourite columnists will be chiming in electronically.

Here's last Friday's column, making its Internet debut.

Every election is an advance auction of stolen goods, said that great critic of American democracy, H.L. Mencken. This, I suppose, is the ultimate justification for Stephen Harper coming out in favour of "talking to the provinces" about a comprehensive federally administered prescription-drug plan, as he did Tuesday. Whatever your private beliefs, you can't expect to win an election if you let the other guy outbid you.

Still, how revolting. Canadian voters will now have no discernible options at all on healthcare in the next election, except perhaps on minor details. And the details are something we don't want to think about, lest creepy-crawly truths begin to scuttle up our spines.

You can see readily enough what Mr. Harper has in mind. At one stroke, his adoption of pharmacare helps contain the health issue that blew up in Stockwell Day's face in 2000, allows him to posture as a Friendly Federalist who can work with the premiers, and reminds voters that he is not -- unlike some people -- a gajillionaire who can ruin Canadian healthcare with impunity and still hop a jet to the Mayo Clinic. (He pointedly called the Canadian healthcare system "the only one that my family uses" during the Tuesday speech.)

Still, tactical soundness doesn't make a political promise morally right. Mr. Harper is flirting with treason against verities of human nature that he cannot, as an economist, be ignorant of. What would be the effect of a federal pharmacare program? For one thing, it would have the same effect medicare had on doctoring: It would increase demand immediately, and the increase would continue unabated until the whole thing became an irreformable, slovenly "distinctive Canadian characteristic." That much is obvious.

But we are already -- or so we are told -- on the precipice of possible pharmaceutical shortages, resulting from the price controls we already have in place. Americans in border states are now being whipped up into a frenzy over lower Canadian drug costs, and are increasingly prone to pouring over our border (or logging onto helpful Canadian Web sites) and buying up all the pills they can carry. Some U.S. states are talking of organized government reimportation of "Canadian" drugs. This is a situation our federal government can't address, at least without letting drug prices rise nearer to U.S. levels. But to introduce a new program that would increase drug demand in the midst of such international turmoil seems irresponsible.

In many ways we are already, inarguably, an overprescribed nation. Lifestyle drugs are pitched to us in TV ads; new classes of drugs are practically shoved down our throats before it's clear there is any benefit to them; idiot patients with respiratory infections besiege doctors for antibiotics that are in all likelihood utterly useless to them, and idiot doctors give in, apparently unable to take 60 seconds out of their day to explain the difference between a virus and a bacterium. Meanwhile, serious bacterial pathogens get more and more resistant to those same antibiotics. In such a climate, making pharmaceuticals essentially free for everybody would be like adding bullets to a revolver you're already playing Russian Roulette with.

Drugs, unlike the services of a doctor, are a portable, resellable good. If you thought the street market for second-hand Vicodin, OxyContin, Talwin, Ritalin, Percocet, and Dexedrine was hot ... well you ain't seen nothin' yet! Naturally, pharmacists and the provincial governments would have the most careful safeguards in place to prevent double-prescribing, but it's not like those same governments have ever been able to prevent double-dipping by welfare fraudsters. And they certainly can't prevent people from exaggerating medical conditions to obtain black-marketable drugs. Instant party, coming soon to a neighbourhood near you.

When federal pharmacare is introduced, you are going to hear clamours for every quack and every homebrewed remedy you can imagine, from Essiac to tiger penis, to be added to the list of underwritten substances. (Or, if you're a big fan of "alternative medicine," consider that pharmacare is likely to discriminate against your favourite flavour of nonsense.) In the short term, if the right people were chosen to manage a national pharmacare plan, it could perhaps do as well as private insurers or the provinces at deciding what to fund, and what not to. But the better it did its job of excluding useless or questionable medicines, the more the public would be outraged; soon enough, the whole process would be irretrievably politicized.

The truth is that the number of drugs still under patent that some person cannot do without is quite tiny. And we don't ask seriously ill hospital patients, or the indigent, to go without those drugs. Pharmacare promises us unlimited outpatient access, with rare exceptions, to three kinds of pills: lifestyle drugs, therapies that might be 2% better than a generic predecessor, and things that are actively bad for us. In return we'd basically be in for a doubling of our public healthcare woes. It's strange to live in a world where it's the Conservatives who are offering expensive solutions to trivial problems. (May 14, 2004)

- 15:26 pm, May 21 (link)

1984 squared

It's a fair cop. I'll be glad to give the newspaper jargon a rest--if we can agree to do the same thing with wry references to Oceania always having been at war with so-and-so.

- 2:55 am, May 21 (link)

All's well that ends well

A remarkable turn of events has taken place in India: Sonia Gandhi, the Italian widow of Rajiv Gandhi and the caretaker of the Congress Party, has persuaded her followers to accept Manmohan Singh as Prime Minister. (An Indian press agency reports excitedly that Singh's appointment will break a longstanding alphabetical hoodoo in Indian politics.) Singh is the former finance minister whose eleventh-hour reforms to India's planned economy paved the way for the country's economic growth in the 1990s. He is widely recognized in elite circles as the right man for the prime ministership, but it was Sonia who had the dynastic royal jelly; stepping aside in Singh's favour was a courageous gesture. The financial markets, which feared that Congress would reverse reforms the displaced BJP had continued to implement, rebounded dramatically on news of the president's invitation to Singh. All things considered, the news puts a happy neoliberal finishing touch on an election fight that seemed to leave India trapped between BJP chauvinism and Congress nostalgia for the socialist past.

- 1:13 pm, May 19 (link)


I wrote about the Liberal campaign-spending law for the October 17, 2003 Post, after an appeal-level win against the law for the NCC. Now seems like a good time to reprise that column, which hasn't appeared here. The whole thing is prescient as far as it goes, but the stuff in the penultimate paragraph about the effects of the Conservative/Alliance merger now seems particularly so.

Two of the world's great traditions of futility were ceremonially observed on Wednesday. The Chicago Cubs lost another National League pennant, and the Canadian government lost another court challenge to an electoral gag law. The comparison is imperfect, since the Cubs do win occasionally. The track record of legislated limits on the political activity of private entities during election campaigns is much, much worse.

Wednesday's decision by Ontario Justice Paul Bentley leaves the National Citizens Coalition something like seven-for-seven in courtroom battles against such regulations since 1983. The NCC's arguments against the newest version of the federal Elections Act are scheduled to be heard soon by the Supreme Court--which has already, in its 1997 Libman decision, nullified similar spending limits enshrined in the Quebec Referendum Act.

The court decreed in Libman that "reasonable" limits to political expression were potentially conceivable under the Constitution, and that, unfortunately, encouraged the federal Liberals to pass a third version of a law that has never yet survived judicial scrutiny.

Until recently--I mention this as an amusing bit of historical trivia for the young -- the freedom to speak your mind, publish and advertise without prior approval or supervision from government was regarded as a defining condition of liberal democracy. The argument went that free discourse supplanted violence; we let our ideas fight each other so that we don't have to.

The counterargument in favour of spending limits is, basically, that such a fight ought to be fair. And if we have to jail somebody for buying a billboard to ensure fairness?--so be it. And who will decide what is "fair" when it comes to criticizing or defending the government? Why, the government, naturally.

Neither the Liberals nor the Supreme Court see anything wrong in principle here. Depending on planetary alignment and the barometric pressure, the Supreme Court may object again to the "reasonability" of the latest gag law, which guarantees fairness in the contest of ideas by suppressing almost all possible activity on all sides. Mr. Justice Bentley took the view that this was the effect, anyway, of limiting third-party electoral spending to $3,000 per riding and requiring anyone who spent over $500 to register with Elections Canada and be audited.

In the next election, political parties will also campaign under spending limits, but far less stringent ones. This would make people indignant if there weren't a common consensus in Canada that "money ought to be kept out of politics." No, never mind all those retired politicians who hold lucrative seats on corporate boards. We are mainly interested in preventing our elections from being run on the American model, wherein the very rich often get openly involved in political contests, and use their money to promote ideas they care about (the bastards). We have chosen to worry less about whether politicians themselves are for sale than about whether newspaper ads, public signage, and television commercials are.

But you can't drive money out of politics, any more than you can drive it out of sex or religion. All you can do is force it underground. Ten million dollars in unconvincing advertising cannot move one human heart; if the message is persuasive, it may be cheap at the price. But if it is forbidden, the same amount could certainly be spent in more sinister ways.

Consider the recent case of California Congressman Darrell Issa, who was universally needled in the American press for spending US$1.7-million of his own money organizing a successful petition to recall despised state governor Gray Davis. It's astonishing, really: a rich man had US$1.7-million to spare and a political interest to promote--and he used the money openly and legally to force a consultation with voters in a time of public emergency. And his reward was mockery! As though Mr. Issa was stupid for not filling a satchel with cash and flinging wads on to the floor of the state Capitol!

The basic notional appeal of Liberal election law is that it might keep homegrown Darrell Issas from acquiring influence in Canada. This suggests that the Liberals have little confidence in the discernment of the electorate, and since Liberals keep winning elections, they may have a point.

But the law also encompasses grassroots fundraising groups, like the non-partisan but politically conservative NCC. If you despise the rich, how can it be wise to forbid middle-class people from pooling resources to counterbalance their (secret, or overt, but certain) influence?

Yesterday's deal between the Progressive Conservatives and the Canadian Alliance appears to portend Canada's return to a two-party political framework. Right or wrong, this will mean less choice for the voter, especially since the two parties already appear to be migrating toward indistinguishability.

In the United States, independent groups, ones like those the Liberals are trying to crush, serve as an outlet for the expression of fine political distinctions. They polarize and challenge the large political machines; they help keep American two-party democracy healthy. Preserving the freedom of political expression for people who aren't hostages to a party structure was never, ever more important in Canada than it is at this historical instant.

It's worth noting that the Liberal spending limits go much further than the American rules they're often (unwisely) compared to. The McCain reforms have left loopholes for unincorporated "527s" and don't impose any limits on an individual's spending. The new Canadian spending limits, which are effectively zero, apply to all persons and all "group[s] of persons acting together by mutual consent for a common purpose."

I have an excellent missive here from reader Matt Fenwick, who points out that among the beneficiaries of the Harper ruling are pampered newspaper columnists like Colby J. Cosh. The Liberals have made us fat, slothful occupants of journalism jobs even more powerful gatekeepers of media access during election campaigns. It couldn't be because so many of us are Liberal--could it?

What happens if every day during the campaign, the National Post decides to run a full-page ad, free-of-charge, for "Doctors for Private Hospitals"? Is [Elections Canada head] Jean-Pierre Kingsley going to busy himself with assigning arbitrary cash value to this, and hold DFPH or the Post in contempt? What if instead, the Post runs a guest column every day by Dr. Nick Riviera, chairman of DFPH? Is this acceptable? What if instead, they run a Colby Cosh column every day, and each one starts, "I'd like to pass on some more thoughts from my friend Dr. Nick Riviera, chairman of DFPH?" Is this acceptable? And I twitch at the thought of Elections Canada trying to decide what costs to attribute to a mass-emailing campaign.

..."Third-party" groups are now utterly dependent on the benevolence of friendly reporters, columnists, and media organizations for the dissemination of their message. If next week, [CBC anchorman Peter] Mansbridge says something like "the NCC challenged the election spending limits to ensure that they can promote their neo-conservative causes during campaigns," the NCC is utterly defenseless. Their only real option would be to lobby Lloyd Robertson, Kevin Newman, and Jeffrey Simpson to take their side.

What are the chances that, since the Liberals were so keen on seeking the courts' advice on gay marriage, that they will take some now? After all, two lower courts (really many more in the past) and three Supreme Court justices find the spending limits to be draconian. Increasing the spending limits by a factor of 10 or 20 would solve a lot of these problems, and still maintain the law's purported intent.

- 11:42 am, May 19 (link)

Second-class "third-party" citizens

The Supreme Court's perfectly abominable decision in Harper v. Canada, the case against the third-party election gag law, is now online. Lorne Gunter says almost everything I'd care to over at Across the Board. I'll have more in Friday's Post, no doubt, but the points I want to make right away are these:

  • The Liberal law essentially forbidding third-party spending on campaign speech is not only contemptuous of section 2 of the Charter of Rights, however hard a majority of the Court might have sucked and blowed to convince themselves that it isn't. It is also, in a very basic and obvious sense, unfair in a parliamentary democracy in which the Prime Minister has the near-absolute right to set election dates according to whim. The Liberals have demonstrated this exquisitely this week. They've rolled out a tranche of campaign ads that are not covered under the spending limits because Martin hasn't called the election yet, despite having played a game of "How do you keep a stupid country in suspense?" for a month or so.

    The law gives the government the privilege of secretly preparing to air and print a barrage of unregulated ads and then wrong-footing the Opposition by calling the election before it has the chance to respond. This unmitigated, blatant injustice is sufficient to make a regurgitated dog's breakfast of the Court majority's claims that it is standing up for "electoral fairness". These so-called "judges" don't deserve the dignity of shooting.

  • Adam Daifallah is surprised that Chief Justice McLachlin dissented from the majority opinion: some of us are not. The basic difference in cultural respect for free speech between Alberta and the rest of this country could not be clearer than at this moment. The case against the law was originally brought by an Albertan--fellow named Stephen Harper, you've probably heard of him. (He was in the private sector as the head of the National Citizens' Coalition at the time.) The appeal decision under review, which had correctly struck down the unconstitutional strangulation of third-party campaign spending, was a decision of the Alberta Court of Appeal. There are two Alberta judges on the Supreme Court: Jack Major, formerly of Bennett Jones in Calgary and the Alberta Court of Appeal, and Chief Justice McLachlin, who is from Pincher Creek and went to the University of Alberta. Both subscribed to the Chief Justice's dissenting opinion (as did Ian Binnie, an Ontario justice who has apparently retained some liberal instincts). This is not a coincidence.

  • I pause here to chastise the National Post for running news of the decision on the Web under the completely idiotic headline "High court upholds spending curbs on lobby groups". The Star did the same thing, as did the Globe, but in their cases I am willing to extend a dignified presumption of malevolence. The real fault no doubt lies with the original CP wire story.

    When we think of "lobby groups", we think of "lobbying", and by "lobbying" we mean the lobbying of politicians--besuited wheedlers staked out on Parliament Hill with briefcases full of cash, angling for face time with the Minister of Whatever. The law against third-party spending in election campaigns doesn't have any fucking thing to do with "lobbying". It's intended to restrict political advertising and pamphleteering, which are, basically, the opposite of lobbying. It would be quite desirable to promote these activities, in my humble view, as the more honourable alternatives to lobbying. Genuine "lobby groups" that never make their case to the public (because they never have to) are unquestionably thrilled by the Liberal law and the new Supreme Court decision. Some of them even intervened in defence of the law; certainly if the National Citizens' Coalition is a "lobby group", then the National Anti-Poverty Organization and Democracy Watch must be considered "lobby groups", right? Or is this like "extremist"--a term of opprobrium that applies to only half the political spectrum?

  • I close with an excerpt from Chief Justice McLachlin's dissent in Harper v. Canada, which is so clear and sane that it might almost reach the level of one of the lesser productions of the United States Supreme Court.

    The effect of third-party limits for spending on advertising is to prevent citizens from effectively communicating their views on issues during an election campaign. The denial of effective communication to citizens violates free expression where it warrants the greatest protection--the sphere of political discourse. Section 350 [of the amended Elections Act] puts effective radio and television communication beyond the reach of "third-party" citizens, preventing citizens from effectively communicating their views on election issues, and restricting them to minor local communication. Effective expression of ideas thus becomes the exclusive right of registered political parties and their candidates.

    Because citizens cannot mount effective national television, radio and print campaigns, the only sustained messages voters see and hear during the course of an election campaign are from political parties. The right of a citizen to hold views not espoused by a registered party and to communicate those views is essential to the effective debate upon which our democracy rests, and lies at the core of the free expression guarantee. Any limits to this right must be justified under s. 1 of the Charter by a clear and convincing demonstration that they serve a valid objective, do not go too far, and enhance more than harm the democratic process. Promoting electoral fairness by ensuring the equality of each citizen in elections, preventing the voices of the wealthy from drowning out those of others, and preserving confidence in the electoral system, are pressing and substantial objectives in a liberal democracy.

    However, the infringement of the right to free expression is not proportionate to these objectives. There is no evidence to support a connection between the limits on citizen spending and electoral fairness, and the legislation does not infringe the right to free expression in a way that is measured and carefully tailored to the goals sought to be achieved. The limits imposed on citizens amount to a virtual ban on their participation in political debate during the election period, except through political parties.

    - 8:19 pm, May 18 (link)

    Bach in Blach

    I was merely looking for information about Alarm Für Cobra 11, a German TV series about the Autobahnpolizei that's filled with over-the-top stunts. Little did I know that I'd stumble into the funniest Eurocrap AC/DC cover ever put to record. Almost anybody is funny when they try to sound like Brian Johnson, including--for about the past ten years--Brian Johnson himself. But let this page load and prepare to be astonished.

    - 12:04 pm, May 18 (link)

    Today National Post column is about Saskatchewan farmer Percy Schmeiser's strange war with Monsanto. It's behind the wall: the best online account of the case is probably Thomas Deichmann's. Tomorrow's Post will have a bonus column from me about educational testing, so look for that one. Here's last week's installment of Everything's Going Straight To Hell Corner.

    The Canada we knew 20 years ago really must be dead. Montreal's Gazette reported this weekend that Canadians now expect religion -- religion! -- to be the greatest source of social conflict in Canada in the coming years. Our traditional obsession, language, has subsided from view almost completely: only 13% of respondents to an Environics survey for the Association for Canadian Studies felt that Anglo-Franco strife would be significant in the future. For us, tensions between different faiths are now a greater source of concern than ethnic hatreds or even aboriginal unrest. Welcome to the 21st century.

    In a sense, of course, this news is a victory. We all remember how one-dimensional Canadian politics used to be -- how the language issue, in its various guises, would inhale all the oxygen available for political debate. We seem to have arrived at a stable settlement on the reach and relative importance of bilingualism in Canada, even though the deforestation of monoglots is still being carried out in the civil service. Perhaps the temperature of the language debate has cooled because the senior government jobs most carefully guarded with bilingual qualifications are no longer as attractive as they once were.

    Although most business in Ottawa still seems (from outside) to be conducted in a heavy French-Canadian accent, you can't deny that Trudeauvian bilingualism has made it easier to join the bilingual elite, since public schools across English Canada now equip most of their graduates with a starter kit of caveman French. And membership in that elite is largely meritocratic; if you can conjugate, celebrate!

    Young Anglo-Canadians aren't really aware of the tremendous costs with which our new bilingual reality was bought. To them it's merely a charming, civilized token of Canadian nationhood. Similarly, I suspect young Quebecers of all ethnicities now take their protected French-language environment for granted; they may be aware of the cruelty, capital flight, and population shifts it created, but that is all ancient history.

    The same cannot be said for the religious struggles which have taken over from the linguistic ones. These older, adamantine hatreds cannot simply be waited out or untaught. In our blind pursuit of mutually antagonistic principles -- mass immigration and cradle-to-grave welfare -- we have turned Canada into a microcosm of the world, complete with hostilities between former neighbours. This piquant salad of multiculturalism is dressed, in our transformed dominion, with an intensifying secular Liberal hostility to religious belief. At least some of the respondents of the CSA survey are surely Evangelical Christians, who are gradually realizing that the Liberal party and the state it governs regard them as a cabal of theocratic crazies just itching to burn books and hang abortionists at the first signal from Billy Graham.

    If the Bilingual Settlement redounds to the credit of the Liberals, one wonders what to make of the Liberal destruction of the longstanding and peaceable Religious Settlement Canada had once reached. Geopolitical events are, to be sure, partly to blame. Canadian Muslims suffer from the polarizing effects of 9/11; Canadian Jews suffer from the military might of the state of Israel and the injustices attributed to it by the international left; Canadian Evangelicals suffer from the political successes of a more motivated and arrogant species of footwashing Protestantism south of the border. There is a tragic quality in the way these tidal events are reflected here, mirrored in firebombings, ugly rhetoric, oppressive laws, and ill-feeling. Sikhs and Hindus in Punjab, or Jews and Muslim Palestinians in Gaza, or even gay atheists and Baptist preachers in Texas, may have perfectly sound reasons to hate one another. We haven't.

    But how long can that last? An overweening political power such as we have created is a breeding ground for religious division and acrimony. Large-L Liberalism can plead for Canadians to live and let live, but can it expect to be heeded if it won't do so itself? The problem of reconciling different religious and irreligious philosophies is serious enough for a minimalist, laissez-faire state, whose diplomats must still be guided by some mental picture of the desirable civilization, and whose soldiers must be taught and led according to some common notion of honour.

    In an expansive welfare state, the matter becomes impossible. Somebody's values must be inculcated, if we insist on having a unitary, common system of public schools. Somebody's notions will have to reign in the public university. Somebody's opinions will have to be espoused by the public broadcaster. Even value-neutral environmental regulation and health care are untenable fictions in the long run.

    The more you regulate men's lives and indoctrinate them, the more violently each religious group (or mere philosophical bent) will seek to have its own principles reflected in the regulation and indoctrination. This is not only the ultimate moral pretext for smaller government, it is the reason activist governments ultimately tend toward secular totalitarianism. Canadians are only beginning to sense this. Soon, I think, we will feel awfully nostalgic for the days when the big issue was whether to call them Corn Flakes or Flocons de Maïs. (May 10, 2004)

    - 3:21 pm, May 17 (link)

    Short links for that small Sunday weblog crowd!

  • Only a month or so until SCTV comes out on DVD. Early reports are that the miracle workers at the label, Shout Factory, managed to nail down rights to nearly all the original music. has some photos from the recording of the audio commentary. Newsday has run an article on the obstacles that music rights put in the path of DVDs of classic shows.

  • "This time last year I was plotting to kill a man." David Holthouse isn't kidding. Unusually impressive short personal memoir of abuse and revenge from Westword. Via MeFi.

  • Kraftwerkfotos! Kraftwerkfotos!

  • About bloody time: Vladimir Kramnik will defend the world chess championship in Brissago, Switzerland, against Peter Leko beginning September 15. The winner will defend, maybe, against the winner of a playoff between Kasparov and the victor in FIDE's title tournament, scheduled for Tripoli in June. Title unification seems to be hovering into view, so prepare for some kind of huge and idiotic disappointment.

  • Arbitrarily long arithmetic progressions of prime numbers: they exist, apparently.

  • Here's an interesting, and basically conscientious, effort to massage statistics and reports for evidence that something other than steroids might have been responsible for Barry Bonds' late-life power surge. Results: negative. But you know I believe in the maple.

  • From The Stranger: How To Write A Great [Pacific] Northwest Novel.

    - 3:23 pm, May 16 (link)

    My Friday column in the National Post was about Conservative leader Stephen Harper's apparent willingness to moot a universal, federally-funded pharmaceutical plan along the lines of medicare. Yes, really. The column is behind what is often called the "subscriber firewall", but I'm going to stand up here and say that "firewall" is a stupid metaphor, OK? A simple "wall" does the work of keeping things out just as well, and the vogue for calling wall-like things "firewalls" merely dilutes, to no important end, a valuable technical term. The next person who talks of a "firewall" when he could have just as easily called it a "wall" is now anathema maranatha. You have been warned.

    Here is last week's vaguely embarrassed valedictory for NBC's "Friends". I had some trouble finding it in the database just now because it had been moved to the front page of the paper. Crikey. This is probably the only piece of journalism I will ever perpetrate that is illoed with a photograph of Jennifer Aniston. Until the news of our marriage breaks, of course.

    It's traditional, when a great popular sitcom ends, to ruminate on its sociological significance; and so we turn and observe the obsequies for NBC's Friends, whose 10 years of life ended last night.

    We're all very sad that our "Friends" are leaving, or we're supposed to be; yet few, I think, would wish for another year's worth of the show. Do the math: You can only make 15 pairs from a set of six Friends, and only plunge them into so many crises and absurd situations. I don't watch much television, but for the last few years I'd been waiting warily for word that the show's writers had finally lost their minds and made Joey and Chandler a couple. Or perhaps Ross and Monica. Now that would be a Very Special Episode.

    No -- the sadness isn't about the "end" of a show that will outlive us all in syndication. It's about the passage of time: We are mourning the end of a particular mini-epoch, a slight tectonic shift beneath our feet. Popular sitcoms are amazing, almost spooky milestones of the Zeitgeist. Sometimes decoding is necessary: The Mary Tyler Moore Show was forced to pretend its protagonist hadn't technically been divorced, and Cheers' Lothario Sam Malone seemed to worry about every gol-durned thing in the universe but AIDS. Still, the spirit of the age never strays far from the stage.

    Recall the black comedy that marked the sendoff of that great black comedy, The Cosby Show. The finale of the program that had trumpeted the arrival of the African-American middle class almost didn't air: Rodney King's assailants had just been acquitted, and Los Angeles was burning down. NBC browbeat affiliates into running the show with a taped plea for peace (as embarrassing to watch as it must have been to shoot) by Mr. Cosby. Or consider how M*A*S*H prefigured the Baby Boom's political journey. Born out of discontent with America's war in Vietnam, the show soon became the best advertisement the U.S. army ever had. It ended its life in the Reagan presidency, its last episode a generation's "Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen" to its own rebellious self-image.

    When a sitcom grabs the world by the ear like that, you know something's going on, and usually there's something going on when it dies, too. Friends is exiting history, one notices, at a crossroads moment for teen movie comedies. The haggard blond Olsen Twins, who have somehow managed to amass a fan base big enough to earn them US$300-million, are celebrating their imminent 18th birthday with their first major theatrical release, New York Minute. Someone named Lindsay Lohan just carried Mean Girls to a US$24-million opening weekend. These are the avatars of David Foot's Echo Generation -- children of the Baby Boomers, born in a swelling crest of progenitiveness that peaked around 1990. They represent the thundering herd whose hoofbeats are pursuing "Generation X," for whom Friends and Seinfeld were major sitcom artifacts. Very soon, these young barbarians will take over the privileged demographic position hitherto occupied by those of us born between the Boom and the Echo. The shows will be about them, not us.

    Seinfeld and Friends should, I think, almost be regarded sociologically as one continuous series. If you're between 30 and 40, you probably remember what it was like to see Seinfeld for the first time. Here was a show without syrup, full of irritable, selfish, basically nihilistic people dealing with insane neighbours and bosses. Now this was a recognizable universe! For Seinfeld characters, family was a plague rather than a refuge, religion and traditional morality were present only as old people's cranky taboos, and the concept of a lifelong steady "career" was simply absent. Reality TV, so-called, has never yet attained quite that level of rococo realness.

    Friends borrowed the central conceits of Seinfeld, highlighting in particular the disconnected nature of between-booms urban life. Largely detached from family, religion, community and ethnic roots, we live in a prolonged adolescence; for us, the one semi-reliable constant is -- you guessed it -- our friends. Friends soon overtook Seinfeld in cultural importance; it was less vicious and unrelenting, and as time went by it started to acknowledge the realities of matrimony and childrearing, though in a pretty sanitized and dishonest way.

    The show ended with the dissolution of the sextet; having passed life's basic training, they gravitated slowly into Edmund Burke's "little platoons." Your real friends are probably doing the same thing just about now, if you're the right age. Thus, with the end of Friends, does Generation X prepare formally to petrify into a parody of its ancestors, just as the dope-smoking Boomers became Reagan voters. Basically, last night was an early memento mori for anyone over 30. No wonder we used up all those Kleenex. (May 8, 2004)

    - 3:17 am, May 15 (link)

    Not safe for work

    The Flames are still six wins from the Stanley Cup and already the place is turning into Sodom! I don't know whether to buy a bus ticket or to say, perhaps for the first time, "Hey, chill out--it's only hockey."

    - 5:29 am, May 13 (link)

    Oh dehry

    Who better than Canada's own Frank Gehry to design the new trophy for this fall's World Cup of Hockey? Er, well, almost anyone, actually, now that you mention it. Gehry's protestations of how important the assignment was to him should have set off some warning bells at World Cup HQ:

    I think my understanding of the game and what trophies mean to players and to the fans of hockey makes it a very important assignment. It's not just a trivial thing that I tossed off. I took it very seriously because I feel that I am connected to the serious side of hockey. It is a serious pursuit and a lot of peoples' lives are involved with it and I believe in it and I love it.

    This is an architect's way of telling you that a bad postmodern joke is coming down the pipe. Gehry, by his own account, was careful to make a trophy that was capable of being picked up and held aloft. Sure, fine. But why is an object intended for permanent display shrouded in a frosted urethane curtain? Because nothing says dignity and accomplishment like urethane?

    Even the metal part isn't made from gold or silver: Gehry may be "postmodern" but he's well known to be the apotheosis of mid-century antibourgeois prejudices against classic materials. The trophy, it turns out, is minted from a nickel-copper alloy. Some prize: why didn't we just hand them the crankshaft from an aircraft engine and save Gehry's fee?

    - 11:03 am, May 12 (link)

    Hot rats

    In honour of Ratt Welch, I give you the unexpectedly interesting History of Rat Control in Alberta--a study of what is probably the single most successful government program in the history of the universe.

    Public interest and support for rat control was favorable, particularly from people who had rats... However, there was some resistance. One mayor refused to cooperate because he thought the program was a red herring initiated by the ruling political party. Another mayor refused to believe that rats would threaten his town and stated that he would eat any rats within the town limits. He subsequently changed his mind when presented with a bushel of rats from a local abattoir.

    Indian reservations and Metis colonies in north-central Alberta presented a special problem in public relations. Natives did not want to have rats but were only familiar with strychnine, and assumed that all poisons had the same properties. Warfarin baits were removed or destroyed by Natives because they feared for their children, pets and livestock. David Stelfox with Alberta Agriculture held a series of meetings with Natives and casually chewed on warfarin-treated rolled oats while discussing rat control and the physiological effects of warfarin. His behavior had a startling effect on the Natives, for they expected him to die before their eyes, and convinced them of the relative safety of warfarin.

    They don't make civil servants like that anymore.

    - 4:43 am, May 11 (link)

    Pretty as a picture

    Maps: the soul of history! Alas, our ability to create nice-looking ones is in quite serious disrepair nowadays, suggesting that our ability to comprehend history may be similarly stunted. Feast your eyes on some older examples of the cartographer's art: the Digital South Asia Library's copy of the Imperial Gazetteer of India and the wild bounty of, which will want you to download the Lizardtech document viewer but which, for once, makes adding a plug-in worth it. Particularly compelling are 1875's The Map of Europe by Treaty and the plates from Murdoch and Yamagata's three-volume History of Japan.

    But is there a contemporary political lesson hidden anywhere in these documents, Cosh? Well, now that you mention it, I think it is rather funny how closely the political map of Europe now conforms to this "Völkerkarte" of Europe drawn in 1905.

    A "racial map of Europe" like this must then, of course, have incorporated a great many a priori political assumptions. (Nowadays, for example, we would leave a space for the Ukrainians, who, meaning no disrespect, hadn't yet been invented in 1905.) And we would be wise to remember Orwell's dictum that behind Ethnic Group B, which chafes under the yoke of Ethnic Group A, there is always an Ethnic Group C which fears being pushed around by B. If the people we call "Albanians" were to be given every square inch of territory on their spacious wish list, the West should within months discover, to its surprise, that there is no such thing as an Albanian, and that two hitherto unknown groups of people called Tosks and Ghegs had a curious propensity for trying to exterminate one another.

    Nonetheless it seems to have taken an awful lot of blood, money and trouble just to sort things out so that the Tscheschen would be ruled by the Tscheschen, the Kroaten by the Kroaten, the Weiß-Russen by the Weiß-Russen, and so forth. How much happier the 20th century might have been if things had been organized that way on any of the many, many occasions when it might have been managed. And, one is tempted to add, how much happier the 21st might be if that blot on the map called "Iraq" were parcelled out properly. (It's defining that little word "properly", of course, that's the damned difficult trick.)

    - 3:38 am, May 11 (link)

    Float like a butterfly...

    From the New Yorker's Ben McGrath: a fine piece on the return of the knuckleball. (Via Kottke.)

    - 12:43 am, May 11 (link)

    Rummage sale

    I figure it's high time I rediscovered the lost art of the short post and the random referral. Is this thing even a weblog anymore?

    There's a new look and scheme to Baseball Primer, but it's still got the same great news and sabermetric spitballing. I was a little worried until I saw that the boys were still jumping up and down on Peter Gammons' bejowled head.

    The Lovenstein Institute's grand re-opening: Steve Sailer has ferreted out an IQ hoax that's spreading on liberal weblogs faster than it doubtless took to concoct in the first place. It's obvious on sight that this table is probably phony, but hey--if they had functioning bullshit detectors they wouldn't be liberals.

    Does that German magazine's findings really mean that BMW drivers have the most sex, or just that huge liars are more likely to drive BMWs? On Bayesian grounds I think I prefer the latter explanation. has a roundup of new pilots for the 2004-05 TV season. Surfing these heavily influenced my Friday column on the demographic meaning of the demise of "Friends". The number of shows about how frustrating and rewarding it is to raise children is now reaching a peak: we're suffering one of those '70s-style epidemics of dead and widowed parents and unlikely legal guardians. For some reason, I've always thought highly compressed descriptors of TV shows were inherently hilarious, especially in mass quantities.

    Dramedy about a record-store owner... who can talk with the dead!
    Animated show about Siegfried & Roy's Vegas act... told through the eyes of the animals! [Yes, really. -ed.]
    A 24-year-old guy moves home to live with mom and her new boyfriend... who's his age!

    Apparently, believe it or not, CBS has actually optioned a pilot based on Stuart McLean's CBC show The Vinyl Cafe, which is basically--and, yes, it's just as lame as it sounds--a Canadian version of A Prairie Home Companion.

    On a vaguely related note, if you aren't visiting Channel 101, you're missing out on the future of comedy. Well, it's way too uneven to be comedy's present just yet. I don't want to ruin the fun you'll have surfing around and trying to figure out how Channel 101 works (n.b.: you'll need Quicktime), but I recommend April's top failed pilot, "Hilarious Jokes". "Sunday Detective Film Theatre" is also pretty good and features Mr. Show alumnus Paul Tompkins. Yes, that is Drew Carey, and yes, that is Jack Black. It's called "slumming".

    - 11:24 pm, May 10 (link)

    Today's National Post column is about the new and unfamiliar religious discord which has taken root in Canada. You can read the Gazette story mentioned in the lede. Here's last week's column about Louis Riel, with my original wording restored in one place I've indicated with square brackets.

    Could there be a better symbol of the Liberal state's nebulous, expansive view of its own proper function than the latest revival of the perennial Riel debate? The Prime Minister, that expert historian who thinks D-Day was held on the beaches of Norway, presumes to tell us that it is time to "rethink" Louis Riel's role in Canadian history and "to have a tangible recognition of... Riel's contributions to the Metis Nation and to Canada as a whole."

    I don't know why this should be meaningful coming from Paul Martin any more than it would from the League of Feminist Plumbers, but apparently we're all comfortable with the idea that the Canadian government is the sole proprietor of the Canadian past. But what would Riel himself say about the central Canadian politicians' plan to thrust a thumb into his grave and affix a "victim" label to his skull? Hanging, on the whole, is much more dignified.

    A few months ago I wrote with horror about the Governor of New York's granting of a posthumous pardon to the comedian Lenny Bruce, who was persecuted to the point of unemployability and early death by district attorneys because of the controversial content of his shows. The purpose of the pardon was barely disguised. It was a bargain struck between Bruce's pathetic successors in stand-up comedy, who hoped to absorb some of his charisma, and the State of New York, which saw a convenient way to strike a blow for civil liberties without actually having to swing a hammer.

    It was a repellent display of vampirism and hypocrisy -- and the parallels to the proposed rehabilitation of Riel are stark. Paul Martin's bloviating about Riel is nothing but 21st-century radical chic. [The Metis leadership] should oppose a political gesture that can only demean "contributions to Canada" which took the form of fighting Canada to the last rifle-pit. Instead the argument is made, on the grounds that Riel was innocent of treason, that the Prime Minister ought to go further than he proposes to. They wish the PM to initiate some sort of formal inquiry, to add a bass-ackwards show trial to his tidying of history's backyard.

    One cannot, I think, maintain a serious appearance of respect for truth while trying to split the atom here. Riel is dear to his people and to his geographical place precisely because he was a traitor. Not, perhaps, in 1870, when he tried his best to establish republican institutions when confronted with a situation of temporary anarchy on the Red River. But in 1885, the Metis' drafting of Riel was an open attempt to secure popular support for a rebellion against lawful authority. The Saskatchewan rebels were not trying to create order from chaos; they were trying to forestall the arrival of an order they did not like. It was treason, and -- in the phrasing of Patrick Henry -- they made the most of it.

    Canada behaved unjustly and arrogantly in 1885, but we cannot revise its final judgment against Riel unless we are prepared to openly adopt a separate standard of conduct for Riel himself. Riel permitted the execution of the meddlesome, chauvinistic Orangeman Thomas Scott after an improvised 1870 Metis court martial, even though Scott's efforts to undermine bicultural government in the Red River Settlement exceeded others' only in his stubbornness and verbal ferocity.

    Apologists are hard-pressed to justify Scott's killing except by raison d'etat. But the same principle excuses Riel's execution with a great deal more justice. If Scott was a threat to Riel's transitional government, how much more profound was the threat a living Riel posed to the project of a sea-to-sea Dominion? If it was right for Riel to shoot Scott, and Riel was thereby no mere murderer, how can it have been wrong for the government to hang Riel?

    Rebels who succeed are remembered as revolutionaries; rebels who fail are remembered as traitors. That is the logic of rebellion, and it is no disservice to Riel to call him what he was. It is a shock to see so many educated men mistaking the metaphor of "the verdict of history" for a reality that can be established by a burlesque of legal forms, or by some Right Honourable windbag's proclamation. History offers no final verdicts. This is not to take the postmodern position that there is no such thing as historical truth: It is only to say that there is no authority which can settle facts and ethical judgments permanently on any basis but the evidence. This is not a place where the power of fiat ought to tread. (May 3, 2004)

    - 2:22 pm, May 10 (link)

    Arse gratia artis

    Anybody who claims that the photos of prisoner abuse from Abu Ghraib prison don't "represent America" obviously hasn't been to an art gallery in the past twenty years. Hello? These prisoners should be proud to be allowed to participate in the first really avant-garde collective artistic effort from the U.S. government since the heyday of the FAP. You thought Robert Mapplethorpe's stuff was emotionally challenging and morally complex? Looks like some disgruntled, anonymous jarhead with a Polaroid just blew him off the damn map in the ol' "forcing us to confront the implications of our desires" department. At least, one anticipates that inquiries of this sort may begin, once everybody finishes grabbing each other by the lapels and trying to convince each other that, by God, the United States might kill Iraqis but would never be complicit in photographing their bared rectums.

    Hey, if making light of all this outrage seems inappropriate, I can only plead that as a non-American, I have no personal stake in the issue. The command-and-control issues raised by the events in Abu Ghraib are pressing and urgent, but the dangling questions about the basic morality of the occupation of Iraq remain unaffected, whichever position you have taken a priori. The pro-war side is tripping over itself to abandon a moral high ground it held in the face of some pretty severe barrages. Somehow Lynndie England's smiling face turned the sword of patriotism in a new direction: it would now be downright un-American, one suspects, to ask who the people in these photos are, exactly, and what they might have done to invite such treatment. Why, for example, does one of the prisoners in the improvised parade of homoerotic porno have the word "RAPIST" drawn on one leg?

    I ask partly because no one really considers the prestige of American arms to have been tarnished by prior evasions of the procedures of justice by U.S. soldiers abroad. General George S. Patton's men have been credibly accused of murdering prisoners on several occasions during the Second World War, though I suppose they never took anyone's trousers down and snapped their bared fannies with a liberated Leica, that we know of. The Marines who fought in the Pacific theatre and sent the skulls of dead Japanese soldiers home to their wives have never been asked for an apology, even by the Japanese. Why, one almost suspects a civilian would have felt sheepish about questioning particular excesses committed by frontline soldiers in a just war.

    On the antiwar side... well, one can hardly blame them for feeling the glee which is openly invited by their opponents. "See? We're not just killing people, we're also beating and humiliating them! We told you this war would barbarize a generation of American youths." With absolute, one hundred percent empirical warrant, the pro-war side would be within its rights to non-sarcastically say "We're not barbarizing anybody permanently: we're just building another Greatest Generation." If it has ever been right to use American force to liberate a dictatorship--if it was right, say, to spring the starvelings from Dachau--one must logically allow that war between nations necessarily involves the psychological dehumanization of the enemy. The same people who might argue that the Abu Ghraib events are particularly unacceptable in a low-temperature war zone where major combat operations have ceased threw away their chance to play that card by arguing that American soldiers are still dying in unacceptable hundreds and that combat hasn't ceased at all, dammit.

    Alas for a reasoned judgment delivered after the context has been clarified somewhat: I suppose that will have to wait until Brig.-Gen. Janis Karpinski's memoirs are picked over by the New York Review of Books in the year 2015.

    - 8:00 am, May 8 (link)

    Friday's column about the demise of "Friends" is behind the firewall, but of course you have a subscription to the paper so it's the easiest thing in the world for you to read it... here's the rerun of last week's on the CBC. (The "wise man" obliquely mentioned in the lede? Bill James, naturally.)

    A wise man once said that most political scandals aren't about applying traditional standards of behaviour to government; they're about increasingly rigorous standards catching up with officials who haven't yet adjusted to them. I think there is something to this. I bet Paul Martin does now, too. As a youth, I saw "patronage" become a dirty word whose force toppled governments; then I went to university, studied some Canadian history, and learned that our country was originally built on something very like what we call "patronage." In 19th-century democracies it was given that the spoils belonged to the electoral victor. The winds of progress blew, and standards changed.

    So it went, too, with the concept that unbiased analysts should be available to ensure that Canadian governments received some definite benefit in exchange for taxpayers' dollars. In 1931, Parliament appointed a comptroller to guarantee that federal spending was disbursed lawfully. Gradually, over 20 or 30 years, this office -- controversially at first -- began to question technically legal but useless program spending. In the 1970s, the now-recognizable Auditor-General began to look beyond balance sheets at the broad details of policy implementation. Each holder of the job has, generally, been more activist than the last. The department is certain, in coming years, to grow into something like the U.S.'s powerful and effective Office of Management and Budget -- because standards change.

    All this is by way of explaining the calamity that is descending upon the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. On the front page of Wednesday's Post, we read that the CBC is collectively indignant about being included in new "whistleblower-protection" legislation recently introduced by Privy Council President Denis Coderre. Why should the corporation be angry about being made accountable for its budget? Because it is supposed to be independent of Parliament, and therefore cannot possibly be accountable to Parliament, though Parliament pays for it.

    Mother Corp. spokesman Jason MacDonald had an interesting way of phrasing the objection. He said, "If our employees, and particularly our journalists, are perceived as government employees or public servants, it diminishes their independence from government, which in turn undermines their journalistic credibility. Part of their job is reporting on government." Read that carefully. He didn't say that corporate accountability to a government paymaster would actually ever pervert the integrity of any CBC journalist, talking head, or producer. Perish the thought! What he said was that it was important for CBC personnel not to be "perceived" as government employees, because it would "undermine their ... credibility." In other words, his complaint is that the whistleblower law might actually remind people that the government owns the CBC! Gadzooks!

    In recent years the CBC has spent millions rebranding itself and trying to make us forget that it is, in fact, a state broadcaster. But the fact remains in the world, placidly resistant to the spin. CBC employees are government employees. Collectively, their livelihoods depend on the willingness of the present government to continue propagandizing and entertaining the citizenry at the citizenry's own expense. There are people that the CBC does not want elected, assuming it possesses the same self-interest as any other tribe of primates, and others that it does want elected. It sometimes appears to decide on what we see and hear according to that hypothetical self-interest, and according to a self-reinforcing, clubby political ideology. To deny any of this is to engage in damnable lying.

    There is a simple relaxant available for the mighty stress felt by any CBC journalist who feels his "credibility" is undermined by the foregoing paragraph. It is this: Quit. Hie thee to the private sector, and freely choose a congenial company to ally your credibility with. Or start a Web site or a magazine, and do your best to acquire a paying audience without the corporate or government help that might taint the perception of your integrity. There is really no other choice here. What the CBC is arguing for is an impossible freedom from the compromise that any economic participation in civilization requires. They want you, the viewer, to believe that theirs is the only human institution that behaves with the righteousness of the angels.

    What is certain is that, in the long run, the CBC will lose the free lunch. The network cannot be both journalistically "independent" and financially dependent. Significantly, representatives from all three major Anglo-Canadian parties -- elected MPs, who know well which way the wind is blowing -- denounced the CBC's opposition to the whistleblower rules. Adscam has revealed the changed standards for 21st-century government. When the world was young, and the government took 20% of your paycheque and gave you services that worked, you might be willing to remain what economists call "rationally ignorant" about the details. Now maybe 40% of that cheque vanishes, your mother's coughing blood in the hallway of the nearest ER, and your country has no army. And here comes the guy from the CBC telling you that his expense account should be a state secret. No sale, comrade. (Apr. 30, 2004)

    - 6:44 am, May 8 (link)

    There are a Toronto-Philly postmortem and conference-final picks up at the hockey page. -7:20 am, May 6
    Never blowed no shofar

    Did I mention I went to see The Ladykillers on Sunday? Not a bad movie, not bad at all. It seems to have gotten torn apart by the admirers of the original Ealing comedies and the people who are still cheesed off that the Coen Brothers have "sold out". It's really quite successful at capturing the Ealing tenor; I haven't seen the original Ladykillers, but the movie has some of the batty, patchy charm of my Ealing favourite, The Lavender Hill Mob. Only some, mind you.

    Like many good Hollywood movies, the new Ladykillers leaves one mostly feeling sorrowful at the disastrous way it was marketed. Most of us saw the commercials which ran during the Super Bowl, heard Tom Hanks affecting a strange accent and a braying laugh, and dismissed the thing with a sky-high "WTF?". On the big screen Hanks actually soaks up the essence of his eccentric, nefarious character with a skill akin to, if not rivalling, Alec Guinness's. And he's surrounded by a terrific ensemble of buffoons whose existence you would never suspect from the TV campaign.

    The train wreck is the more inexplicable because, for Touchstone Pictures, the film was so transparently an effort to have the Coens do for gospel what O Brother, Where Art Thou? did for Southern folk music. By refusing to let The Ladykillers find its own audience, the studio seems to have very nearly ensured that it wouldn't find one at all. There will be no word-of-mouth box-office takeoff for material everyone has already sampled and rejected because of an unhappy first impression.

    - 3:28 pm, May 5 (link)

    Monday's Post column is not available online for free; it is half of a colloquium on the wisdom of rehabilitating, by decree or re-trial, the great Métis rebel Louis Riel. If you're starved for content, the American Spectator has just posted my review of Jim Powell's FDR's Folly for the April issue.

    There is good news for Post fans and employees in yesterday's quarterly Audit Bureau of Circulations figures, or so says the Toronto Star. Mysteriously, my rock-star-like popularity goes unmentioned as a cause of the Post's market-leading circ increase! Here's last Monday's Post column about class size. Relevant links can be found here.

    EDMONTON - It's cheerful news for Ontarians, I suppose, that Dalton McGuinty is actually going to follow through on an election promise. On Thursday, the Premier gave an outline of his strategy to reduce class sizes in Ontario schools, capping the student-teacher ratio in classes from kindergarten to Grade 3 at 20-to-1. An interesting number, 20. According to the best current research, that's about where the modest educational benefit from reducing class sizes seems to kick in.

    I hope it won't ruin anyone's delight over Action-Man McGuinty if I quote from a 1999 literature review ("Reducing Class Size: What Do We Know?") prepared for the U.S. federal Department of Education:

    "The question of class size is not simply a matter of 'less is more.' The pattern of research evidence only favours class size reduction if it is substantial and brings the class size below a certain threshold.... Given the variations among individual students and teachers and the way they interact, it is unlikely that there is a single 'magic number' below which class size suddenly produces a beneficial effect. But it is fairly clear that class size must get somewhere below 20 in order to make a real difference."

    That the Premier is stopping short of the "real difference" threshold might be excusable, but there are hidden opportunity costs to a political display like this. He acknowledged as much in his Thursday speech when he said, "Resources are scarce, so to do what must be done in public education will require sacrifices, from all of us, and in other things people want from government." When he suggests that other education priorities will have to be "sacrificed" to make 20 students a hard maximum for primary-school classes, he raises an important question about the gains to be realized from a campaign-driven policy.

    And the empirical evidence on those gains is ambiguous at best. Heather Sokoloff's piece for the Friday Post captured the mood of researchers nicely, citing a recent OECD study which confirmed, in the words of UNB education professor Doug Willms, that "class size makes a small difference, but doesn't have a substantial effect." He might have added that you have to proceed very carefully to realize even that small difference.

    In 1985, the state of Tennessee undertook Project STAR, a radical and unusually well-controlled experiment in measuring the effects of smaller class size. (N.B.: An "unusually well-controlled" pedagogic experiment is still subject to bias effects that make hard scientists pee themselves laughing.) STAR broke 7,000 primary-school students into very small classes (13 to 17 students) and larger ones (22 to 26), assigning teachers and students randomly, and tracked student achievement for four years. The project found that students in the smaller classes realized an initial gain, and that the gain was especially strong for poor and minority students, although it attenuated over time. Later post-STAR efforts to keep class sizes small in Tennessee's poorest schools have seemingly worked out pretty well.

    But does one size fit all? An across-the-board 15:1 teacher-student ratio would be an inconceivable luxury for public schools in a large jurisdiction. The McGuinty plan is a lot more like California's gargantuan Class Size Reduction (CSR) project, implemented in 1996. California introduced a 20-to-1 statewide cap, like the one Premier McGuinty proposes, in the same grades. The final "keystone report" on the CSR project was released in September, 2002, and might make Ontario parents a little nervous.

    The research consortium in charge had to confess, in the end, that the statewide cap had yielded no measurable effect on student achievement. Moreover, "CSR was associated with declines in teacher qualifications and a more inequitable distribution of credentialed teachers." Wealthy school districts presented with the state's brute class-size targets worked harder to snap up experienced personnel, so by the program's second year, the poorest schools had suffered a sevenfold increase in teaching staff with "emergency credentials" or none at all. Mr. McGuinty presumably has some method in mind for churning out new teachers without relaxing Ontario's credentialing requirements, but there will be a Darwinian struggle between districts just the same. Some parts of the province, to put it euphemistically, already face special challenges in retaining intelligent, dedicated staff.

    There were other problems with CSR. The program -- surprise, surprise -- consumed a lot more money than the state thought it would. It denuded schools of financial and physical space: Many cut back budgets for professional development, computer programs and libraries, and others took classrooms away from special education, music, arts and athletics. Perhaps most troublingly, the program's early stages also yanked teachers out of English as a Second Language and special-needs programs, actually creating larger class sizes for the students most in need of individual instruction.

    The one point on which CSR was successful was in improving parents' general satisfaction with their children's education, even though there was no objective benefit. In sum, it basically ended up being a ploy to placate freaked-out, superstitious middle-class parents at the expense of minorities, the poor, and those facing barriers to learning. That couldn't possibly be why the Premier of Ontario finds the idea attractive -- could it? (Apr. 26, 2004)

    - 12:44 pm, May 4 (link)

    The Chomsky Broadcasting Corporation

    There he is again!--the CBC late-night series Zed has interviewed "one of America's most prominent political dissidents", Noam Chomsky, for the intellectual benefit of its young demographic. In the context of the United States, "dissident" means you don't have your own television series. Not an exaggeration: this is Chomsky's basic claim to being a "dissident"--that he can't walk into an ABC studio anytime he likes and go on the air. The Man won't allow it.

    Tell me, has our "independent" "public" network given any other single human being from outside Canada as much airtime? It will be recalled that the National Film Board's financing of Manufacturing Consent, and the CBC's airing of it in due course, turned Chomsky from a Marxist campus favourite into a much more widely known public man. He had already been invited to give the CBC's Massey Lectures in 1988 and had turned them into a book, Necessary Illusions, under the CBC imprint. Not that the Chomster ever has a thought which misses finding its way into a book.

    One might be tempted to ask whether a parallel figure on the right would be provided with so much public-funded fellatio by our state broadcaster--except there are few if any modern figures on the right with so much to apologize for. If he had to rely on the American media to sustain his profile, Chomsky--as he is forever reminding us--would be in a lot of trouble. Even his linguistic theories aren't wearing very well among cognitive scientists (though he will always be remembered, no doubt, as the primum mobile of a Kuhnian "paradigm shift" in the discipline). Nonetheless, the man has for almost twenty years been a regular on "Morningside", "As It Happens", "Ideas", "Hot Type", and, for all I know, the damn Saturday opera quiz. I have no way of estimating the number of CBC appearances he's made. The 10,000 or so Google hits (your mileage may vary) for "Chomsky +CBC" are probably not an exact indication of the number of times he's appeared on the CBC. And then again, they might just be.

    - 1:41 am, May 4 (link)

    Don't go there

    The soul of Liberal Canada: thank goodness the Senate Standing Committee on Human Rights is holding hearings into anti-Semitism! Surely we'll get to the bottom of this business yet? Alas, don't hold your breath. As B'nai Brith recently found, the committee regards actual evidence on anti-Semitism in Canada as having nothing whatsoever to do with the hearings.

    The controversy erupted when Professor Steve Scheinberg, National Chair of B’nai Brith’s League for Human Rights tried to present the committee with an example of antisemitic writings by a leader of the Canadian Islamic Congress hosted on the website of the organization.

    Scheinberg was interrupted first by Liberal Senator Mobina Jaffer, and then by independent Senator Madeleine Plamondon, who complained to the chair of the committee, Liberal Senator Shirley Maheu, that his testimony had wandered far from the subject being examined. This position was supported by the chair.

    Sens. Plamondon and Jaffer are both prize-winning advocates of justice, and one wouldn't wish to disagree with their classicist interpretation of it here as being the interest of the [demographically] stronger.

    Incidentally, does anyone mind if I call for a moratorium on the use of the phrase "across Canada" to refer to the recent and unrelenting spate of anti-Semitic violence and vandalism in Ontario and Quebec? I realize it's habitual to think of "Canada" as lying entirely within a day's drive of the St. Lawrence, but Alberta and B.C. were given very nearly a clean bill of health by B'nai Brith in 2003, and the latest sequence of insanity has--knock wood--not yet found imitators out here. (The B'nai Brith audit of anti-Semitic incidents notes, in passing, that Canadian Jews are voting with their feet for Alberta; how many more living in the Golden Triangle must be considering it these days?)

    Perhaps a few times a year in Alberta, some loon spray-paints a swastika on a bridge abutment or shoves misspelled, cranky flyers into a few mailboxes. There has been no firebombing of schools: if there were, you'd instantly be reading in Eastern Canada about the thin veneer which has been torn from the white-hot cauldron of prairie hatred, etc. etc. The problem is not "across Canada", and anyone who would say so as an unthinking solecism probably has no hope of understanding why it's happening.

    - 8:15 pm, May 3 (link)