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ARCHIVES for SEPTEMBER 2003
Undotted i's, uncrossed t's
I'm a strong believer in the role of testing in education. Boy, think how absurd that sentence would have sounded a hundred years ago: it would have been like saying "I'm a strong believer in the role of breathing in not dying." Still, there you are: "testing" has become controversial, like so many other things which are plainly good and necessary. Habitual readers know I'm in the "pro" camp.
But I am somewhat sympathetic to the piece British author and teacher Philip Pullman has written for the Guardian about the role of testing in the teaching of writing. He believes testing can trammel creativity, and in some contexts, it can. Training a creative writer inquisitorially to a schedule, and according to some imagined set of "how to magically produce a finished piece" rules, won't work. And he is particularly good on the modern teacher's fetish for getting students to respond out loud to everything they read.
I am a bit alarmed, though, that Pullman's memories of outstanding pedagogic moments have no relation to technique--only self-expression. By "technique" I don't mean the foolish structural yokes thrown over students by mechanistic curricula, which he rightly denounces. You must make an outline... you must start each paragraph with a topic sentence...drooooonnne... I believe the good students of English and the bad ones hate such artificial nonsense with equal ferocity. But one never does master the truly imperative matters of technique: the art of the comma, the command of the cornucopial English vocabulary, the dreaded parts of speech. And above all, clear thinking and mental organization--arts to which clear writing is, in some ways, merely a technological appurtenance.
Does Pullman give a crap whether students gain these skills, which benefit from testing at least as much as creativity suffers from it? He ought to know that the number of his students who will ever really use writing to emotionally affect an audience is very small. And, frankly, I'm irritated by any suggestion, however implicit and tangential, that language is somehow the exclusive possession of such people--who will, so to speak, certainly need to know a nut from a bolt to build things anyhow. Why don't we hear from Pullman about beloved pupils who started out with a poor grasp of their language, and developed the tools to write a letter to a newspaper, give written instructions to a co-worker, or merely send an intelligible, amusing anecdote to a friend? I hope it's not because he hasn't trained any.
Advise and dissent
Unite-the-right file, cont'd.: the memorandums shown to the press yesterday by the Alliance are now available online. In chronological order, and in PDF format, they're Harper's unity plan, the final report of the Alliance negotiators, and Harper's postmortem summary for the membership.
Those of you waiting for a link to Monday's Post column, a little number about the moral panic over so-called "date-rape drugs", appear to be out of luck. It never made it onto the Post site, even though other stuff from Monday's comment pages did. I may slap it up someplace eventually. CanWest apparently intends to move toward a pay model for its online content, at least on a trial basis. I think it's damn foolishness, but then again, I don't have an M.B.A. My contract says, or I understand it to say, that I retain copyright on my material (while granting CanWest a perpetual license to reproduce it) and can re-publish it--like, say, on a website--seven days after the original publication. No sooner, though. Unless I've misinterpreted the arrangement, I'll probably end up building an archive a bit like the one John Derbyshire runs.
Speaking selfishly from the moral standpoint of a content-generator, making free riders wait a week to read the column seems about right (shell out for a sub, lazybones!). Economically, making newspaper content free after some sort of delay would seem like the best way of encouraging the purchase of print subs while keeping your brand relevant. I'm sure Leonard Asper knows to the nearest mill how much extra revenue the Post made from having Mark Steyn in its pages; I wonder if he knows how instrumental the Web was in making him a star in Canada to begin with. Asper [that's "Mr. Asper" to you! -ed.] is concerned about Canada.com "cannibalizing" print readers, which is perfectly natural, but those readers might, after all, get cannibalized by Canoe.ca and CBC.ca too.
Sam Mikes offers useful context for something I recently wrote about the common history of Canada and the U.S.--namely that the British "tolerance of the laws and habits of the French enclave within Canada", as expressed in the Quebec Act of 1774, was "Intolerable to the American founders." (The capital "I" is a reference to the Quebec Act's traditional enumeration among the "Intolerable Acts" which sparked the American Revolution.) I would plead that this is perhaps more of a three-quarters-truth than a half-truth. What I ought to have written was that the Quebec Act was a gesture of tolerance that the proto-Americans found intolerable. Their main beef seems to have been that, under the terms of the Act, Parliament reaffirmed the geographic limits of French Canadian law and religion which had previously been established only by the force of French arms. The Thirteen Colonies had expected that, since "they" had won the war against the French, provisions might be made for their own westward expansion at the expense of the losers. To have accidentally referred to the British acquiescence in the status quo ante as "tolerance" is probably a wee bit of a stretch.
While we're sweeping up around here, it's incumbent on me to note that I used information from Masthead magazine's weblog as the peg for a recent Post column about lad magazines. It turns out that the proposed Stu magazine whose existence was reported by Masthead is not just a stupid idea, but an actual hoax. The Star's Antonia Zerbisias got a hot tip and blew the joke wide open. My apologies, and condolences to anyone who was looking forward to Stu.
Hooray for disunity
Tomorrow, the press will begin the process of apportioning blame for the failure of secret high-level negotiations to "unite the right" in Canada. The best that the Canadian Alliance can hope for, probably, is a 50/50 distribution. I, myself, would urge journalists to consider the outrageous hypothesis that the cultural and political differences between the CA and the Progressive Conservatives may be perfectly genuine, and too severe to be overcome.
I know, I know--I'm hopelessly naive. Conventional Canadian soft-socialists think that the "right-wing" parties are exactly alike in their hatred of the poor--and what else counts? Old-line Tory supporters think the Alliance should come crawling back to the "mainstream", begging forgiveness for having sundered the Mulroney coalition of regions. And the upper ranks of the Alliance just want to win an election by the shortest road--some for the purpose of personal gain, and some because they are trained to regard politics as a highly amusing game whole sole object is electoral victory.
Stephen Harper was chosen as Alliance leader, by and large, because he presented himself as the candidate who would move on from futile talk of merging the parties and continue with the neglected, toilsome business of building the Alliance nationwide. When Joe Clark quit and Peter Mackay won the PC leadership, the possibility of a quick merger emerged anew, depending on Mackay's attitude to the idea. Harper commenced the negotiations in June, sending emissaries to the PCs with a 14-point merger proposal (outlined at the preceding link) and instructing them to get a deal done by Labour Day. Few have mentioned how risky this was for him. He was, if not exactly going back on his word, certainly defying CA supporters' reasonable expectations of what course his leadership would take. Moreover, these sorts of backroom deals amongst aged cigar-chomping political warhorses are culturally unpalatable to Reform/CA-voting Westerners. We persist in being suspicious of behind-the-scenes machinations and sly exchanges of favours, believing that if politicians are punished for such behaviour they will, someday, cut it out.
So Harper took a serious risk, for the sake of possibly finding a way to better challenge the Liberals at the next election: and in return, Peter Mackay offered--what? Negotiations dragged on into September, and as Harper pointed out tonight, he still has no idea where Mackay actually stands on the basic issue of whether a merger would be good or not. Harper's emissaries--Ray Speaker, Gerry St. Germain, and Scott Reid--summarized their understanding of the PC position this way in a formal letter to Harper on the evening of the 26th.
· [That Tories agree that] A new party named the 'Conservative Party of Canada' should be formed;
The last item is particularly startling. The initial CA offer was for a one-member one-vote chefferie--which may seem, to some, like an impossible thing for the tiny PC rump to consent to. The surviving Tories, all twelve of them, talk a lot of pompous crap about a "merger of equals" between two parties which have different levels of support by any measure. The CA has more members, more voters, more seats, and more volunteers. Of course the PCs, who got 642,000 votes in Ontario last election, are prepared in their generosity to deliver that province to the Alliance--which got 1,051,000 votes there. You could look it up.
Anyway, consider the rarely-mentioned quid pro quo held out in the 14-point plan in order to convince the Tories to accept what the voters of English Canada have already been telling them. Harper was willing to have the new party absorb the outstanding financial debt of the Progressive Conservatives. This is an extraordinary thing, and possibly an inadvisable one. It's another thing that is not much mentioned in discussions of a merger, yet it's a huge practical obstacle to one. Somehow, an Alliance leader who carries a merger off must convince Alliance members that it is in their best interests henceforth to work to pay off the $10 million or so in campaign debt that the Conservatives have run up. I can't see where the devil Harper would get the moral authority to accomplish such a thing even as leader of the Alliance, but he was prepared to promise it to the PCs nonetheless, even though if anything is likely to get the Tories out of the way for good in the end, it's that debt. I've long wanted to know what kind-hearted souls on Bay Street are servicing that paper: I have a sneaking suspicion they are Liberal voters to a man.
At any rate, Mackay is supposed to reply to Harper's Monday document release with one of his own, and it will be interesting to see what, if anything, he can bring to light to clear himself of the suspicion that he wants to try actually participating in a general election as PC leader before he closes up the PC shop. I'm not sure exactly why this should be a crime or a sin, but that's what many well-informed observers would have you believe. And it applies to Harper, too.
[UPDATE, 9:13 am: some relevant documents have now been posted to the Web by the Alliance. See the details supra.]
Remember "saving the world for democracy"?
Just when you thought the War on Drugs couldn't possibly do any more damage to the esteem in which the United States is held abroad:
The highest White House drugs policy advisor, John Walters, accused the Dutch Cabinet on Friday of not taking the fight against the ecstasy trade seriously enough. Speaking in Rome at a UN drugs conference, he also said the Netherlands would benefit by using different investigation methods.Dutch politicians reacted with splendidly restrained irritation to the suggestion that their country's safeguards against a police state are an impediment to good relations with the United States. The question, I suppose, is whether any American will care to get upset about it. Many of the people who might be expected to are still awfully busy cracking jokes about French heatwave deaths.
I watched Network, the somewhat forgotten masterwork of Paddy Chayefsky, on Friday. Naturally, I caught it on the CBC, which doubtless took great pleasure in airing a great cinematic tract against commercial television. In its business details, Chayefsky's pointed prophecy about the future of television has been confirmed in some ways. No one is shocked anymore at the idea of television news being a profit centre. But he didn't foresee that the day of the old networks' monolithic influence was soon to end, and that we'd be left with a pugilistic, adversarial landscape, with the Rathers and Brokaws being held in check by cable, talk radio, and the Internet.
The very title of the movie has lost its emotional power. In 1976 "network" might have been a word with ominous, brutalist connotations: Lumet emphasizes this in Network with a montage of low-angle shots of the Big Three's cruel modernist facades. Nowadays, what's a network?--it's something we use for instant messaging, and to send pictures of our cats to our moms. Your fridge and your cell phone are "networked". The term, as applied to TV, has almost lost its power to signify anything at all, as it's been gradually co-opted by flyspeck content-producers out at the ne plus ultra of the cable band.
Network got a bad rap--from Pauline Kael, among others--for its high-handedness and its supposedly sentimental view of television's classical period. Chayefsky was awfully careful, actually, to defuse any such suspicion about his own views. William Holden's Max Schumacher is the film's symbol of the Murrow/Cronkite generation, and as Faye Dunaway's feral, ratings-obsessed character explains to him, his successors are merely his own generational offspring. The only difference is that the young producers are competent, efficient corporate whores.
I watched your six o'clock news today. It's straight tabloid! You had a minute and a half of that lady riding a bike naked in Central Park; on the other hand, you had less than a minute of hard national and international news! It was all sex, scandal, brutal crime, sports, children with incurable diseases, and lost puppies. So, I don't think I'll listen to any protestations of high standards of journalism when you're right down on the streets soliciting audiences like the rest of us! Look, all I'm saying is if you're going to hustle, at least do it right!
Bus-ted! Holden is just as much a confused coward as almost everyone else in the film--do we fail to notice this just because of his magnificent steel-gray hair and imposing jowls?--and commits a revolting act of cruelty by leaving his wife for Dunaway. Television's hollowing effect on the soul leaves no one untouched in the movie (even Ned Beatty, as the puppet master behind the sinister conglomerate, succumbs to an irrational attachment in the end) and Holden's character is all the more horrifying an example for his ability to pretend to an ironic, detached view of his circumstances.
Next time you watch the movie, note Holden's sneering talk of "a happy ending" as he walks out the door on Dunaway and drops her into a bottomless pit which, as he knows, and says, will certainly end with her suicide. The assassination of the tormented Howard Beale, being an act of mercy, might almost be less repugnant in comparison.
Take up thy stethoscope...
EDMONTON - Every new policy of the Alberta government should have to pass a health assessment test, say the Alberta Liberals.Does anyone still doubt that warnings of the rise of the therapeutic state are true? In the Alberta Liberal book, "health assessment testing" seems to be a code phrase for wealth redistribution.
Under the health impact assessment proposal, cuts to school funding or welfare rates would be assessed in relation to their long-term impact on the health of Albertans. [Liberal MLA Kevin] Taft said the Liberals think improving health care requires an investment not just in hospitals but in strong communities. "Everybody needs to have a life that makes sense to them and to live in a situation where they don't fall off the bottom rung of society."
Alberta readers may recall that Ralph Klein called Taft a "commie" a few years back when Taft wrote a book critical of Conservative government policies. Reporter Susan Ruttan chimes in with the Liberal tune, noting that "Many studies have shown that people with low incomes have poorer health than wealthier people." But perhaps she means that governments should try to increase after-tax incomes by adopting a minarchist mandate!
If the Tories got to pick the people doing the "health assessments" (you can visualize for yourself the armies of new-hired civil servants or contractors who would be combing every regulation on the books for health impact), they might be able to make a case that encouraging prosperity is just as important as investing in publicly-funded medical interventions. Or that giving employable adults the incentive to earn a wage, instead of taking a welfare cheque, is good for society's "health", even under the narrow definition intended. Hey, maybe I can get behind this therapeutic-state thing...
I need to throw a short entry here to tide you over for a bit, as I'll be working on the column at least some of the time between now and late Sunday afternoon. I learn from Michael Blowhard that Britain's The Oldie is now online, presumably because many oldies are now themselves online. When I had money (as I will again, as soon as a few utility companies are seen to), this defiantly fogeyish, effortlessly comic magazine was one of the ones I made it an absolute rule to buy. In fact, I think a few of its contributors have passed on since the last time I saw a printed copy. The turnover due to age is unlikely to slacken, so get to know The Oldie sooner rather than later.
I had the pleasure of hearing the Chicago Cubs clinch a playoff spot this afternoon. People are starting to get excited at the still-remote possibility of a Cubs-Red Sox World Series, which would create beautiful bedlam on this continent. Autumn has traditionally been a time of year which never fails to induce shapeless, nostalgic emotions in me, and it's partly because of the crowded sporting calendar. The largest component of that is the baseball playoffs, which retain most of their perfect picturesqueness despite their recent extension to three rounds. They don't take six months to consummate, as the NHL's do, and they don't consist of one bad game played in front of some non-participant city's fans, like the hype-infested Super Bowl. If we can arrange to have the Series feature two very old franchises still in their original towns (it's no coincidence that they are often described as "storied") which are also the two most notable hard-luck organizations in all of North American sports, well, that would be just real cool, and I think we would all remember it for a very long time.
Fresh off the presses: a new Post column in which your correspondent ruminates, or perhaps expectorates, on the Canadian hostility to "negativity" in political campaigns.
Some of you (mostly relatives of mine, admittedly) have been complaining of seasickness because of the way my column has been migrating within the week. Monday and Friday, it now appears, will be my regular spots until my inevitable sacking for felonious pedantry and incurable semicolon addiction.
Don't take it personally
Geitner Simmons' place is the one-stop shop for the debate on whether the Gore-voting "blue states" should pull up stakes and join the Canadian Confederation. Yeah, right, because we're not already importing quite enough new Canadians who vote lockstep-Liberal after their feet touch tundra. A commenter in the thread leaves this brief note:
Concerning Canadians, it seems to me that their national identity is defined by how they aren't like Americans.
This exasperated sentiment is expressed often by Americans, and I'm never quite sure whether to consign it straight to the "duh" file. Our mania for not behaving like the United States is certainly unhealthy, but only because it's a mania, and thereby irrational. A certain amount of "anti-Americanism" is an inevitable component of our national identity: the blockquoted statement above is a plain assertion of fact without a necessary normative component. The writer intends for us, as good Americans, to infer one.
Strictly hypothetical case for you: two neighbouring colonies, largely alike in ethnic makeup, split off from a great empire and adopt separate political systems. Now wouldn't you expect the smaller of the pair to insist on, and even occasionally to reinforce, its behavioral and cultural differences from the larger? The Americans, let us recall, are the schismatics in this historic arrangement--the ones who broke off from British North America in the name of republican principles. Since these principles were formulated against a background of resistance to monarchy, and remain quintessential to the American character today, whose "identity" is really defined by whom here? Observe how American foreign-policy framers sometimes behave as though they're allergic to monarchies the way some kids are to peanuts. (Thanks for the help with the loya jirga, Zahir Shah--now go get bent.) What else is the pervasive, unexamined, simple-minded American equation of monarchy with tyranny but historical "anti-Canadianism", held over from before there was a "Canada"?
(The interesting thing is that republicanism has become the final frontier for those who bleat loudest about creating a "distinct Canadian identity". That's modern Canadian logic for you: the Americans possess a secure, confident national identity--and if we imitate them we'll have one too!)
I won't deny that if George W. Bush says "Please don't bayonet babies" on a Monday morning, you're bound to hear the sound of whetstones in Ottawa by noon. Yes, our anti-Americanism is now a sickness. Or, more properly, an immune system which has raged out of control ever since the Liberals decided we were to be "multicultural", instead of what we had been up until the 1960s: a coalition of ethnicities bound together by British institutions, mores, and aspirations. (One of these institutions, of course, being tolerance of the laws and habits of the French enclave within Canada--a tolerance that was Intolerable to the American founders.)
It's a blitz!
Gregg Easterbrook's weblog will finally have its new name announced Monday (and, yes, "Easterblog" has been ruled ineligible ab initio). It'll be good to have that bit of business out of the way. Next on the agenda: persuading Easterbrook to stop lifting paragraphs from his weblog and cramming them into his football column. The occasional political and cultural digressions in Tuesday Morning Quarterback help make the column a highlight of the week (even if he is dead wrong about "Edmonton Eskimos" being a racially offensive team name), but they're no fun at all if we've already read them on the New Republic weblog. You write both, Gregg--hasn't it occurred to you that some people may actually read both? Is there some proverbial neoliberal loathing of American football I'm unaware of?
Full disclosure: I've had one weblog entry reprinted in the National Post, and I borrowed a paragraph from here another time, but then, the readership for my Post column is roughly two hundred times as great as that of this site. Easterbrook, who is probably one of the ten smartest Americans alive, is swapping text between purely online venues. Not the same thing! And he's paid better! Put away the leftovers, Mr. Distinguished Fellow of the Fulbright Foundation!
Out of Africa
Everybody seems awfully thrilled that Amina Lawal has had her adultery conviction overturned by an Upper Sharia Court in the majority-Muslim country. And rightly so. Lawal faced the prospect of becoming the first Nigerian stoned to death by the regional courts who have adopted sharia since civilian government was restored in 1999.
"It's a victory for law, it's a victory for justice. Today we are celebrating the victory of law over the rule of man," said Lawal's friend and lawyer, Hauwa Ibrahim. "Amina is free. Amina has been discharged. Amina can have her life back," she told reporters outside the court, as Lawal and her baby daughter Wasila were whisked away in a police vehicle with a heavily armed escort.
Pretty clumsy irony there: Amina is free--ignore the heavily armed escort, without which she'd have lasted about as long as a field mouse in an Osterizer. (I expect she's already purchased a plane ticket to Norway.) And as you read down, you suddenly hear the needle cut a deep scratch in the vinyl LP of happy background music:
Even as the Katsina court was sitting, in a small one-storey courtroom painted in Sharia's traditional sky-blue, officials in nearby Bauchi State announced that a young man had been sentenced to be stoned to death for sodomy.
Let's hope he's as photogenic as Amina! The Agence France-Presse story leaves the impression that a blow for secular law in Nigeria has been struck, but in fact Amina went free only because the judges of the lower court bungled the rigorous application of sharia. Saxone Akhaine of Nigeria's Guardian newspaper goes into the niceties [N.B.: link may be unstable]:
The court faulted the judgments of the lower courts on several grounds. They pointed out that there had not been proper investigation of the circumstances surrounding the allegations against Amina.Adultery is very much still a crime in Nigeria, then--but it seems you have to prove it beyond something approximating a reasonable doubt, which is a whole other amphora of yams. The decision of the high court demonstrates that sharia is compatible with due process, and thank goodness they were found to be walking together in this particular case: but let's not forget that Muslim sexual regulations can be used to dispense with inconvenient members of the political opposition, not to speak of mere neighbourhood score-settling.
The Ambler would want me to note that his posting volume has almost been the equal of mine lately; he's in excellent form, too, and has a new piece on the vulgarization of classical music at the American Spectator's website. And Kevin Steel is doing well, too--just ask the "friends" on the sidebar at the right of his page. (Or listen to his latest homebrewed song demos, "September Swimming" and "Old Country Waltz".)
The gavel of history
Are you looking forward to Kill Bill? Fox News has what Drudge describes as the first review here. Unfortunately I get the idea that Roger Friedman is a not a member of the generation you want coming back with first news of this momentous occasion: his stance appears to be "I liked that Jackie Brown a lot. It was kind of quiet and steady. You don't get that in a magic lantern show nowadays."
Which isn't to say he doesn't have a point about the "cinema-geek-Internet-whatever writers", whose enthusiasms make them congenitally untrustworthy (the main question for them being "But how good are the die-cast figurines?). But you want someone who recognizes the stakes involved with this movie, as Chris Suellentrop does. Q.T.'s long layoff from the movies has raised uncomfortable questions--was he really just a fast talker with two and a half good movies in him? How much of "Quentin Tarantino" is actually Roger Avary?--that only an artistic triumph can dispel now.
Around the Pole
Orders of Canada all 'round! Paul Wells and Jeffrey Simpson have leapt to the defence of the Governor-General's circumpolar junket. I must say I never in my life expected to be using the phrase "out of touch" in earnest, but I find myself wondering what planet these guys are from. Then I realize to my horror--it's ours! It's Planet Canada!
Wells laboriously details the benefits of foreign travel--this just in: it's broadening!--without quite explaining why the guy who fixed my furnace this winter could not benefit equally from it. By all means let the Governor-General accompany him to Shchinsk to see how they do things: if anyone's in touch with the particularisms of circumpolarity, it's got to be him. Since we can't afford it--he must, alas, pay for it himself, or have an employer oblige--the effect of expensive foreign arts and academic junkets is to create a privileged, taxpayer-supported class, and to put the government's ring in its nose. It is disingenuous to pretend that such trips are not educational and promotional activities which redound mainly to the benefit of--well, of their beneficiaries. They are potentially defensible on the grounds that artists and professors have a special role to play with respect to Canada's image abroad and its awareness of other countries. But when and how and why did assisting these people become the job of Foreign Affairs, or of the Governor-General? Must every desirable thing be done by the government, and every ministry of the government be a welfare agency?
Wells may be a mission creep par excellence, but he does make a couple of good (easy) points, and I suspect he has been made hypersensitive by the self-conscious anti-intellectualism that the Canadian Alliance and its fellow-travellers sometimes stoop to in denouncing "waste". He may be off target, but he has a target, anyway--unlike Simpson, who just seems serenely baffled by Canadians' unhealthy "fascination... with the spending habits of political leaders." His column is quite enough of a comment on itself without any help from me.
D.J. Taylor has a short piece in the Guardian about why some authors and academics choose to go by their initials, rather than their Christian names, on book jackets and in bylines. In his case, he says, the prime reason was to distinguish himself from some other notable David Taylors. Fair enough; I am obliged to sympathize, since it's a statistical (and perhaps aesthetic) near-certainty that no one else now alive shares both of my names. But D.J. Taylors have now proliferated too, as they might be expected to in the UK, where the initial thing is still used frequently. The solution may be to arrange to have parents who are creative without quite being a hundred percent mad.
I know from experience what function the habit of using initials serves in the academy, or used to. In pre-Internet days an undergraduate writing a term paper would have a dozen strenuous little tussles with himself trying to decide whether to call E.J. Hobsbawm "he" or "she". If you were lucky, your professor might let the desired information slip, superciliously, one day in class. "What do you suppose Eric... Hobsbawm... would have to say about the foreign policy of France in this period?" By this method a clever instructor might usefully declare his superiority over his students many times in a semester. Gradually the assiduous worker, entering his postgraduate years, would mount up the ladder of E.H. Carrs and A.J.P. Taylors and become increasingly able to establish his credentials in a flash at dinner parties. An in-group strategy worthy of a Great Ape indeed (cf. the work of D.J.--er, Desmond--Morris).
Off the lifeboat
Almost missed this one: Garrett Hardin, the ecologist who coined the phrase "the tragedy of the commons" in the overwhelmingly influential essay by that name, took his own life last week at the age of 88, dying Arthur Koestler-fashion along with his wife Jane. You can read a riveting L.A. Times obituary and visit the website of the Garrett Hardin Society, which doesn't seem to have got the news yet.
The teevee queen and the philosopher-king
My latest National Post column, about Canada's New Royalty, is online. Enjoy.
Do the Barthman
All right, Mel Gibson's created some trouble for himself by filming the Passion of Christ through the eyes of a Latin-Mass Catholic... but look on the bright side: at least he didn't tackle this subject matter. Maybe theological epics will be the Flavour of the Month for 2003? Are you ready for Wyclifhanger? Zwingli Kids? The possibilities boggle the mind.
The cheese stands alone
Peter C. Newman has an 1,800-word piece about the Liberal succession on the front of Saturday's Post. It's really pretty marvelous. Newman has devoted his life to understanding the deep structures of Canadian political and economic power, and as a consequence he's almost become an emblem of the establishment himself--an official National Treasure™. But by some miracle he has managed to escape the corruption and complacency that come with proximity to power. His version of Canada's history, whatever else it may be, is not the Liberal fairy tale of an endless march toward justice.
Liberal leaders tend to see themselves as natural heirs of the haughty attitude that once characterized the divine right of kings, even when their most recent Grand Fromage hailed from Shawinigan and spoke in tongues. They harbour the petulant assumption that they alone know what's good for Canadians, and that it is plain dumb to vote for any other party, except as occasional comic relief.
Canadian politics have awakened again after a summer-long sleep, and Newman's words are a warning as much as they are an account of the past. His style here is somewhat detached, so one might not notice that he is actually calling the Liberals Stalinists here. I realize everybody and his dog has referred to the Prime Minister as a "dictator" at some time in the last five years, but how many truly believe it? If there were any lingering doubt, the wildly chaotic Final Days we have experienced--with their last-minute "legacy" projects and eccentric herd behaviour like the mass Liberal flip-flop on gay marriage--should have put them to rest.
History will, I think, deal harshly those who left Jean Chretien in power for an extra year. Still, if our political system has been shown in its worst light for the last ten years, at least we can be reassured that one of the last fail-safes of our democracy--caucus rebellion against the Prime Minister--has not rusted out entirely. As I've said before, the lesson for Paul Martin is to give your underlings options for resisting you that don't involve ousting you.
Grumpy old men, pt. 2
Speaking of embittered exPostriates, let's all welcome Paul Wells to the world of weblogging, shall we?
Greetings Webheads. [Oh dear, off on the wrong foot already. -ed.] Paul Wells speaking.Wells writes on Thursday that "We're still working out the technical bugs so I can have a blog that looks like a blog." Judging from experience, this may involve making the font indecipherably small and scattering some cryptic user buttons around. Do you suppose they're looking into animated GIFs of kittens?
Read the whole Thursday entry, in which Wells dares to say the obvious about the proposed merger of the "right-wing" parties:
If either party ever came up with the ideas and leadership to attract votes, it wouldn't need the other party. ...the work facing a new party, if these guys can even manage to produce one, is identical to the work that faces both existing parties already.
How rude to take away their ready-made excuse for electoral failure! Or, in the case of Alliance, their excuse for... uh... well, it's been a decade of electoral success unprecedented in the annals of new Canadian parties, actually. But since CA leadership apparently regards the history of the movement as a disaster and an embarrassment, and is at constant pains to convince the public of this by seeking mystic reunion with the Tory Fold, who am I to quarrel?
Grumpy old men
Mark Steyn finally figured out, I guess, that maintaining a courteous silence about his absence from the National Post wasn't really doing him, or the paper, much good. Steyn has come clean in a Very Special Episode of Mark's Mailbag.
Unfortunately, his manful attempt to retire from the scene without fuss has now left him the last, rather than among the first, of a sequence of ex-Posties crankily lamenting the loss of the Whyte/Black paper--that creamy fount of wisdom which poured forth, you'll recall, directly from the nipples of Pallas Athene. (They say the front page had miraculous powers of healing when applied to the skin of lepers!) Even if this festival of mythologization contains a nugatory element of truth, it's cold comfort to newspaper consumers, who are forced to choose from among what is actually on the rack. Some of those consumers are still naïve enough, poor lambs, to consider the Post the best newspaper on offer in this country, despite the occasional Martinite editorial tic.
New Colby Cosh column in the National Post: an "adequate man" responds to Stu Neihardt's call to arms. You can also visit the Masthead magazine weblog, which is referred to in the first paragraph.
Jail 'em all, let Svend sort 'em out
OTTAWA - MP Svend Robinson was celebrating Wednesday after the House of Commons voted in favour of his private member's bill to extend hate-crimes protection to gays and lesbians. Bill C-250 passed by a vote of 143-110.He's right, of course: what's good for "equality" is usually very bad for liberty, and this case is no different. While Canadian politics have become consumed to obsession with the issue of homosexual marriage--the precise equivalent of a ferocious national debate on the merits of donkey baseball--the Liberals have quietly extended the Criminal Code to outlaw a new class of "hate speech". "Supporters of the bill," the CBC notes, "said fears about censorship are groundless and that C-250 isn't meant to infringe on anyone's freedom of religion." Interesting bunch of "Liberals" we have in this country, don't you think? "Censorship? We just want to outlaw certain kinds of speech--you call that censorship?"
I just find it funny, you know--the Liberals are constantly beating us over the head with their precious Charter of Rights and Freedoms, yet they seem perpetually unclear as to what's actually in the document. In the donkey-baseball debate, they had the temerity to cite Charter values on behalf of gay equality rights, which aren't mentioned in the Charter: they were left out on purpose, and that choice was explicitly defended by the justice minister of the time (a certain Mr. J.J.J. Chretien of Shawinigan). The Liberals also complained that the potential use of the "notwithstanding" clause to keep marriage an exclusive heterosexual preserve was somehow an abuse of the Charter--which only exists because the "notwithstanding" clause was added to its text. (Again, the relevant historical background could be explained by the founding father Chretien, assuming he could be channelled by a suitably skilled psychic medium.) Now they've expanded hate law in clear defiance of the plain language of the Charter, which says that freedom of speech, expression, and the press are fundamental to the Constitution.
One can only conclude that what we citizens believe to be the Charter, the document we all have hanging on our walls, is a sophisticated fraud, a philosophical nullity--a veil concealing the true Ding-an-sich. When a Liberal refers to the "Charter" he doesn't refer to a document. He refers only to the little black raisin in his chest that pumps blood, or whatever Liberals have in its place, to his several parts.
Sports blogger Eric McErlain has a good entry on what wearing the captain's 'C' for an NHL team involves. Good, but very slightly flawed--Eric notes:
One last thing: in many cases, a Captain is often unofficially designated as the team's on-ice representative with the referees.
This comes at the tail end of Eric's list of a captain's duties, and the problem is the word "unofficially". Under the NHL rulebook, dealing with the ref is actually the only official duty a team captain and his assistants have. Technically, it's their defining characteristic. Rule 14, I admit, isn't enforced very strictly, but a referee will look for the 'C' or the 'A' when he needs to explain a ruling.
A good captain should possess three qualities: he needs to be hardnosed (what baseball players call a "red ass"), he must be able to command respect, and he has to be intelligent, or at least somewhat sophisticated when it comes to psychology. Because of the second requirement, the job will often fall to a skill player. But because of the first and the third, skill players aren't always suitable. The element of formal captaincy--the fact that the alpha male on a hockey team is actually distinguished by his uniform--has always struck me as one of the interesting thing about hockey, contrasted with other team sports.
Change of heart
For the convenience of the Canadian public, here's a complete list of Members of Parliament who (a) voted "Yes" on the June 1999 Canadian Alliance motion proposing to define marriage as a heterosexual institution, and (b) voted "No" on an identical motion on Tuesday.
Peter Adams (L, Peterborough)
Note that not quite all of the flipfloppers were Liberals, and that no Members changed their vote in the other direction. The record of Tuesday's division is here. The June '99 vote is bound to be one of Hansard's most wanted for the next little while: the yeas and nays are here. Keep in mind that only those who showed up for both votes are listed.
That's not really a very interesting list, of course: I'm only providing it to make trouble, and not because I'm against gay marriage (which I'm not). It's mostly a tally of (a) centrist cabinet ministers who were strongarmed into getting the motion defeated this time around and (b) ambitious Ontario Liberals who think they have more to gain in the long run from today's loyalty parade.
What's interesting about Tuesday's division on the revived motion is that it shows the nucleus, and the size of the nucleus, of the "pro-family" wing of the Liberal caucus. By my quick count, 43 Liberals (all backbenchers) voted against gay marriage even this time around. The list above contains 48 Liberal MPs who were willing to vote against gay marriage in '99 but who were politically compromised with regard to, or actually changed their views before, this division.
It's clear enough that a majority of the Liberal caucus is opposed, right or wrong, to gay marriage in principle. The same could probably be said of the Opposition; yet we're to have gay marriage in Canada all the same. It does make you wonder what the point of sending MPs to Ottawa is.
[UPDATE, 4:08 pm: A reader notes that Edmonton's Anne McLellan belongs on the list. She was left off originally due to a spreadsheet error. I've added her, so that she may receive due credit for her courageous moral journey. Thanks to E.T. for the correction.]
A confusing prediction from a Miami style-wrangler for newspapers, Mario Garcia:
'Newspapers will never die. But they have to change,' [Garcia] says 'We live in a multimedia environment. The culture of the 'always on.' You can get the news in your phone. Radio, TV, the Internet are the waterfall where you can go to refresh yourself every 15 minutes if you want to. ...In 20 years I see all newspapers in a tabloid format, with fewer pages. We contemplated doing it here. I think the whole Miami Herald could have been a tabloid.'
Warning to editors: hire this man, and your Severe-Looking Broadsheet will prrrrobably get a buzzcut as opposed to a trim. But aren't his points about the immersive media environment in pretty direct contradiction to his belief that all newspapers will go tabloid? If we're going to live in a world in which 30-second soundbite media are even more ubiquitous and instantly accessible, why would newspapers try to compete by on tabloid "strengths" like visual dynamism and short snack-like articles? These are exactly the things newspapers are hopelessly outclassed at by instantaneous electronic media, no?
My view of the future of newspapering is based on McLuhan's maxim that when technologies are superseded they become art forms. Newspapers, to survive, have got to become less utilitarian, not more. They need to become poetic. As the mornings become further apart psychologically (McLuhan would say neurologically), newspapers become less capable of being a source of urgent news, and lose the burden of being so: they must become literary luxury items, objets d'art instead of tools. There is no reason for newspapers to continue aspiring to be static imitations of TV in a world with CNN, Fox News, et al. I see newspapers abandoning hard fact, dropping the quickie paint-by-numbers inverted-pyramid stuff as it becomes obvious that readers have already been brought up to date by other media. I expect them to become more flagrantly personal and more discursive. Reporters will revert to being "correspondents" in a classic, belletrist sense, and will no longer be expected to write dry, flat, milled prose. In the very long term, if we can get the cost of the necessary technology knocked down (or practicalize digital ink), daily newspaper-magazines printed between sturdy covers on glossy paper will probably appear. They wouldn't be "tabloids" per se, not even newspapers in the strict sense, but this may in fact be what Garcia means to foretell.
Maybe he meant to say "integrity"?
Here's an actual question and follow-up put to Canadian Alliance leader Stephen Harper in a recent scrum:
REPORTER Your party opposed Bill C-24, the new political financing bill, because of public money that would go to political parties.
The questioner isn't identified, but only an electronic journalist could have such a flabby grip on the English language. The word "hypocritical" is actually being used here, in case you didn't notice, to refer to standing for your principles even when it is in your immediate interest to abandon them. Harper's answer is contained in the full transcript at the CA website. Sadly, it did not take the form of a punch in the nose.
Down with the Corn Laws!
The Economist has posted a near-complete copy of its first regular edition--dated September 2, 1843--to the Web. (The August 5 Preliminary Number and Prospectus is also available.) If you want to find out how the Old Country's trade with the Brazils was going, you need only click. There's a good deal more of interest here, too, including a letter in the correspondence column which captures much of the spirit and tone of Victorian Britain.
Although only a humble and obscure farmer, I was, like my brethren, alive to those attempts of the Legislature to bolster up the agricultural interest, which have given rise to so much discussion and dissatisfaction. I attempted to form an opinion for myself, and found that to do so required not a slight smattering of political economy, and by making myself acquainted with a few of the leading truths of the science of wealth, I soon saw not only the impolicy of restrictive Corn Laws, but also the reason of their utter inefficiency, and can now lament the ignorant prejudices of the men who allow themselves to believe in our grandmother's errors. I am, therefore, convinced, that if any person will but make himself acquainted with the doctrines of Adam Smith, the scales must fall from his eyes, and that he will at once perceive the absurdity and folly of protection to any class as being in reality nothing but making an article scarce and hard earned--in fact, acting contrary to common sense, when thousands are every day, by inventions and discoveries, making commodities of every description cheaper and more easily accessible to every person, and thus increase the wealth, comfort, and happiness of every nation which fully adopts the Free Trade system...
If you were writing a piece of fiction about the year 1843, and you put these words in the mouth of "a humble and obscure farmer" from Northumberland, you would probably be derided almost to death by disbelieving critics. Even the defenders of capitalism have become accustomed to regarding it as a conspiracy now.
I spent yesterday learning the Edmonton bus system. It's funny, isn't it, that an impoverished person without a car wouldn't know the bus system backwards and forwards? Odd but true. When I was going to university I lived right near a train station, so I didn't have to go to the trouble. And buses were never really a practical option for getting to and from the Alberta Report offices, which were out in the west end of town in a godforsaken industrial ghetto. I did it a few times, but the trip involved a transfer with a long wait and the last bus left the west end at about 5 p.m. Even the best-organized writer will find himself working later than that--if only later than that--most days.
One night a little while ago I was in Old Strathcona, talking with a friend on my cell phone and wondering out loud how the hell I was going to get a taxi in those parts at such-and-such time of night. "Why don't you just take the bus?" she asked me. And I realized I didn't have the first idea which bus would get me (from there) to within a mile of my house. I had to take step-by-step verbal instructions from her, and she doesn't even live in Edmonton anymore. In fact, she never did live in my part of town, but she had a vague idea, anyway, of which bus was still running and would work. After 11, 12 years of living in the city, I just hadn't developed those street smarts.
I figured the best crash course I could give myself was to build a customized schematic of the city's bus routes from scratch. It's pretty idiosyncratic, although an Edmontonian should be able to figure out what almost everything means. The broad black line represents our subway, which is useful only if you and the place you want to be both fall on the right NE-SW geodesic.
A black eye for baseball
As the major-league pennant races head down the stretch, the Montreal Expos's minor-league outfielder, Terrmel Sledge, has become perhaps the most prominent hard-luck story in baseball for 2003. As ESPN's Rob Neyer notes in a recent mailbag column:
You know how all the teams call up at least a few minor leaguers in September? All the teams except the Expos, who didn't call up anybody on September 1, or since. So yes, outfielder Terrmel Sledge still awaits the call, even though he hit .324 with power and patience at Triple-A Edmonton this season.
The Expos are in a chase for a wild-card spot, but because they're owned by the other teams, they weren't permitted to expand their roster for the last month of the season, in accordance with the rules and long-standing conventions of baseball. They're competing with both hands tied behind their back, and it's making a mockery of the game. Of all the crimes perpetrated against the Expos over the years--ending their golden 1994 season early, handing them over to the tender mercies of Jeffrey Loria, making them play "home games" in Puerto Rico--this is the most serious by far. It's the overt, collusive, unapologetic manipulation of a pennant race. If it was wrong for Pete Rose to consort with gamblers because it might ultimately harm the fans' faith in the purity of on-field competition, and if it was wrong for the 1919 White Sox to throw the World Series, how much worse is it for baseball's owners to openly apply different rules to one team?
Calling Sledge to the big club was an obvious move ten weeks ago, and the other two baby Expos I interviewed in July made excellent cases for themselves. (Yes, Randy Knorr is rather grizzled to be considered a "baby", but the Expos have played without a third catcher all year, or for that matter any catcher who can hit. Knorr finished up hitting .304.) The conspiracy against the Expos has also denied Edmonton fans a chance to see the Triple-A players we watched all year make good in the big pennant race. Terrmel Sledge is merely the most immediately pitiable of several million victims here. He knew in July--he said to me in July--that he wasn't going to see major-league action this year no matter how well he performed. Think of the implications of that when you peruse his stats, and those of his teammates. All of this year's Edmonton Trappers deserve high honours for their PCL North-leading performance, given without hope of the reward that is open to everyone else in Triple-A. And note that the Major League Baseball Player's Association isn't going to lift a finger to protect guys like Terrmel: you gain MLBPA membership only when you gain MLB service time, and no sooner.
I for one would recommend a class action suit against Major League Baseball whose plaintiffs would include anyone who bought a ticket to an Expos game, home or away, this year. The team is already the subject of a RICO case brought against baseball and Jeffrey Loria by the team's former minority owners--which is why you shouldn't put much stock in perennial sportswriter predictions that the Expos will finally move to Washington, Portland, or Keokuk any minute now; as I've been pointing out in vain for 14 months, such a manoeuvre would almost certainly be enjoined immediately by the judge.
À la recherche du temps perdu
I was going through old files tonight, and I found an interesting little vignette from an incomplete project which had been meant to contain, inter alia, a brief history of tobacco law in Alberta. Older readers won't learn much from it, but then they cannot imagine how ignorant younger people are of previously prevailing habits. I remember being astonished, when I was writing this, that one could smoke in a hospital room within my lifetime.
In 1971, Canada's federal government announced that it would ban cigarette advertisements in print publications. When the announcement was made, Health Minister John Munro declared that he was, in a show of good faith, going to do his part by cutting back to a pack and a half of smokes per day. No one, at the time, seemed to find his gesture particularly comical. At the beginning of the 1970s, despite the known dangers of the weed, few accommodations were made for non-smokers in public places; roughly half of adult men and one-third of women smoked cigarettes, and it was taken for granted that this was an appropriate public privilege within certain well-respected boundaries (one did not smoke in a church or a cinema).
Bring back the other two
You will pardon me, I hope, for retiring unobtrusively from the lavish celebration in honour of Berkeley Breathed's imminent return to the comics section. I know there are millions out there who still miss "Bloom County", just as there are millions still waiting for Kajagoogoo to get back together. I spent as much time reading "Bloom County" on the toilet as anybody, but I gradually came to recognize the strip as an odious, barbless swirl of untethered political references and hypercommercial sentimentality, all strained through Garry Trudeau's lower intestine. "Doonesbury" for Dummies. The strip is so middle American, in the worst sense of the phrase, that reading it now is like choking to death on apple pie.
I am stone blind with indignation that anyone would dare elevate "Bloom County" into a notional triad of lost great newspaper cartoons alongside "Calvin and Hobbes" and "The Far Side". Gary Larson is perhaps the greatest gag writer in the history of the medium, and Bill Watterson certainly its last poet. The best I can find to say about "Bloom County" is that it was somewhat sharper, most days, than "Marmaduke". It's true that the new-millennium edition (tentatively entitled "Opus") will probably stand out from the common run of present-day newspaper comics, for what little that's worth.
Weekend at Binnie's
What do you think: is the new Osama video "suspected" to be genuine, as the CBC would have it, or merely "purported", as CNN's headline writer puts it? I'm afraid I'm not terribly surprised that CBC has been a little friendlier to the possibility that bin Laden is still alive. It's wishful thinking: if Osama really had come down out of the hills to resume his movie career, it would put a new and unflattering backdrop on the American invasion of Iraq--what with the mastermind of 9/11 still being alive and all--and give the CBC a lot more room to cast aspersions on U.S. foreign policy. Nothing could be more congenial to the CBC mindset than for Osama to materialize suddenly on the stage of the Hollywood Bowl belting out "I Will Survive".
Sadly, the new tapes--note the plural--only serve to convince a fair observer that Osama is dead. I was reluctant to come down off the fence onto Mark Steyn's side on this issue, but if Osama were not dead it would be easy enough for him to stand in front of the video camera, holding up a recent New York Times and giving a shit-eating grin. (Though maybe he just hasn't seen Midnight Run.) Instead, the video images are undated and undateable, but they've been delivered to the credulous folks at al-Jazeera in the company of audiotapes supposedly containing bin Laden's commentary on the situation in Iraq. For some reason, editors around the world have shown no compunction against publicizing the obvious subterfuge. A case of "Print the legend"?
The BBC, which is on the political defensive in these post-David Kelly days, may have found the best solution to describing the farcical silent movie-cum-audio commentary: instead of trying to grope for an adjective, they made a neat use of scare-quotes.
Ezra Levant has taken his pitch for an Alberta Report successor to the pages of the Calgary Sun. Warning: column may contain ferocious regionalism!
The media serves as a public town square where the issues of the day are chewed over. Why would we allow that town square to be run from afar? How can Albertans rely upon Maclean's or the Globe and Mail to tell us what is important to us? And where else could we hear from our own Alberta opinion leaders, instead of from our official minders in Ottawa?
The link will rot on this one quickly, so Alberta visitors shouldn't put off reading it. Ezra reports that he has raised a third of the money he and his partners regard as necessary to get the thing rolling.
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood
Smug Canadian says he is a case study in the "entrepreneurship" gap I discussed in my latest Post column:
I left permanent employment to become a self-employed consultant for a variety of reasons, but one key one was this: I knew that even if I was paid the same, my taxes would be lower. My actual experience was that I was paid double and my taxes remained the same. I used the extra cash that stayed in my hands to start a business that now employs a bunch of people.
It's worth noting, indeed, that in a labour market like S.C.'s--he works in electronic commerce--higher taxes can have the seemingly perverse effect of promoting entrepreneurship. (Thanks, Liberals!) But workers unsuited to such businesses by temperament, training, or intellect don't really have this option. With respect to tax avoidance, the twin of the "knowledge economy" is the "underground economy". Hookers, drug dealers, and car thieves are enterpreneurs too, after a fashion (though how many of them are self-employed is another question).
Warren Zevon's death at the age of 56 has raised some confusing clinical and editorial issues, it seems. The world's newspapers are proclaiming that the songwriting legend died of lung cancer and are recounting his long years of cigarette smoking and high living. But Zevon actually died from mesothelioma, the disease that also killed Steve McQueen: it's not lung cancer, and it's not caused by smoking. It's a cancer of the protective membrane surrounding the lung, and it's usually found in workers who once breathed in dust from crocidolite, the "blue asbestos" whose use is now severely restricted in the industrialized world. We know Zevon was exposed to asbestos dust because, natch, he wrote a song about it. He'd probably want us to get this one right.
Disaster or dreamland
Almost forgot to point you to Monday's National Post column from me about Canada's surprisingly high rate of "involuntary enterpreneurship".
I'm no lawyer, but...
You could read Newfoundland weblogger Damian Penny for months without being reminded that he is a lawyer. I wish he'd talk about his work more, but he's constrained in what he can say about it, and I don't think it's where his literary interests lie anyway. Speaking of his "interests", did you spot the self-serving part of his recent entry on public auto insurance?
Personally, I think the massive cost of setting up a public insurer, and the large deficits it will almost certainly incur, are reasons enough to oppose the [Newfoundland] NDP plan. But I will give them credit: at least their proposal wouldn't interfere with the rights of accident victims, unlike the PC proposal (which will cap pain-and-suffering awards for "minor" soft-tissue injuries at $2,500.00)... [Emphasis mine]
At one time, the victims of accidents were regarded, reasonably enough, as the victims of accidents. No one would have thought that an injury ipso facto created a "right" to some specified degree of financial compensation. Times have changed, and yet I think we still commonly recognize such a category as "minor injuries." Damian puts the word "minor" in scare-quotes, suggesting--what? That to a lawyer, no injury is minor? Am I wrong to still be shocked to the bone by such naked avarice?
Magna Carta certainly does not state that All Booboos Are Created Equal, but admittedly it's been a while since I perused it. How did it come to be the case, to begin with, that a minor soft-tissue injury could yield a pain-and-suffering award of many thousands of dollars? Over time, in our adversarial legal system, lawyers have built up a body of caselaw which has come to define the value of certain injuries. In jurisdictions where there are no statutory limits on such awards, there are reference books (in convenient binders, to accommodate frequent updating) which state the "market rate" on these injuries. A skillful lawyer can sometimes persuade a jury to go beyond such market rates, which tends to redefine them upward for those who follow. There's a whole tenuous numerical structure here of which most laymen know nothing. It's a stochastic byproduct of the contest, in the legal arena, between offensive and defensive capabilities. It has no actual meaning, no basis in reason.
Yes, the values do emerge from caselaw--from the decisions of juries or judges (probably more often the latter in Newfoundland), enshrined in precedent. In this sense, awards for pain and suffering are not exactly determined nihilistically, and by no means in a void. There's a process, even if there's no logic.
But it strikes me that the supremacy of legislatures is a part of our system, too. When we ask a jury to set damages for pain and suffering, we're asking them to make a calculation that is unguided and ineluctably irrational. Can you construct an algorithm which would establish a convincing money value for a broken toe? Even if we could do so in a politically tolerable way, individual plaintiffs would evaluate different levels of suffering differently. There is no reason in principle we can't craft a statute to instruct juries as to the wider society's priorities, as expressed by elected legislators. That's what statutes are, more or less--instructions from society to judges and juries. If a maximum civil award for minor soft-tissue injuries is objectionable because it infringes on the supposed rights of "victims", how much more so is a maximum sentence for a crime?
The limit proposed by the Newfoundland Tories--which pertains only to a largely medically unverifiable class of injuries--is arbitrary, but any connection between money and "pain and suffering" is arbitrary by nature. Now, sometimes, the arbitrary is necessary. Minimum voting ages, for example, are arbitrary. We have set them only because there is an overriding need for some limit, without a compelling logic behind any particular one. The question is how we do specify such rules--and in the case of whether someone is qualified to vote, it is done by means of statute. We don't let 17-year-olds sue for the right to vote, and let a jury decide whether they are fit for the privilege, even though we recognize that some 17-year-olds might be good voters--would even, in fact, have an excellent claim to a natural right to vote. (A much sounder claim, I think, than anyone's attempted quantification of the value of a soft-tissue injury.)
My view is that our forebears erected and preserved a system of criminal justice whose unique purview is the punitive. Civil law is supposed to confine itself to specifiable recompense to individuals who have lost tangible value by an offence against social or contractual order. But "pain and suffering" awards are, essentially, punitive, sometimes explicitly punitive. You harmed me; pay up. However noble the idea behind these awards, their effect is to turn a civil proceeding into a criminal prosecution. The resulting problems are obvious: we risk creating a legal system wherein double-jeopardy is universal, and wherein criminal issues can be tried in disguise according to the laxer evidentiary standards of civil court.
Defining maximum damage awards for certain classes of injury seems like a modest enough step against a regime which carries such grotesque potential for abuse. It wouldn't be eliminated, merely checked--and maybe not even that. Is Damian is worried about his livelihood? A sensible litigator would be relishing the thought of endless docketable hours devoted to future squabbles over that word he dislikes so much--"minor". There's a whole sub-industry there, awaiting an invasion of creative legal minds. But I don't want to promote any clichés about "greedy trial lawyers", however true. Some of my best friends are greedy trial lawyers, and they're entitled to grow their business within the boundaries of the law. But when they snipe at changes to the boundaries of the law, anything they say should be regarded with extreme suspicion.
[You agree with the rest of the stuff Damian said about auto insurance, though, right? -ed. Absolutely.]
Yellow peril 2003
Should baseball players from the Japanese leagues be eligible for Rookie of the Year honours in major league baseball? ESPN's Jayson Stark remains fanatically determined to deny them. I'm afraid I must provisionally regard such an opinion as a signal of incurable stupidity.
Stark makes a big show of lauding the calibre of Japanese competition as a means of disqualifying Japanese players from the ROY awards. It is a fact as indisputable as the sunrise, however, that the Japanese leagues are not quite as strong as the major leagues. How could they be, when each team is only allowed to field a certain number of foreigners? Stark knows that sluggers like Tuffy Rhodes wash out here, go over there, and become RBI kings. And while I will be the last to deny the magnificence of Ichiro, he was a .353 hitter in Japan and he's a .330 hitter in the United States. That gap has been closer than some expected--but plenty of foreign players have amassed playing time in leagues of equal quality. You think the play in the Latin American winter leagues isn't at a pretty damn high level? You don't think the Cubans know how to play ball? Why, I wonder, is this debate confined to players from one country? I'm trying awful hard not to use the "r" word here, but damn.
The premise, really, entails that players with time spent in Triple-A should also be disqualified from consideration as "rookies". A good Japanese team would be very competitive with a good Triple-A club, as far as we can tell from statistics and other accumulated information. If Japanese players are entitled to a perverse sort of "credit" that recognizes their past achievements by slamming the ROY door on their faces, why couldn't the same be said of minor-league veterans? Maybe the "Rookie of the Year" award should only be given to historical rarities like John Olerud who enter the majors without a day's service time in professional sport. Of course, if we adopted that system, no one at all would be eligible most years.
The book trade's fighting priest
Have you seen Believer magazine's new weblog Snarkwatch? It's the latest manifestation of Dave Eggers' infuriated conviction that Anglophone literature is being destroyed by critics. The mission statement of Snarkwatch reads thus:
This is a place to record enthusiasms, mystifications, as well as disgruntled reactions to "critical activity." If you think a book was reviewed unfairly, or if someone missed the point; if you think a reviewer did a splendid job worth praising; if you know of a worthy book receiving no review coverage whatsoever. All categories of response are encouraged, and should be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
All categories of response are encouraged--but, of course, the thing is called Snarkwatch, isn't it. We may infer from this what its content is likely to be: negativity will be brought up short, and the snarky served a dose of their own steaming snark. In truth, this implicit mandate only guarantees that Snarkwatch will be a reliable guide to the most electric, most passionate criticism. Not that I really want to praise a loon like Mark Ames, but while loon he may be, he has Chuck Klosterman's number, and as the old Letterman joke goes, if they fought with pool cues the winner would certainly be the reading public.
I'm afraid I share Ana Marie Cox's oft-stated amazement that anyone could believe American literary criticism to be, considered on the whole, too nasty. With a few exceptions, the desire not to give a bad review is palpably universal, which is just what you would expect from such a hothouse of organizational incest as American literature (and, no, I don't necessarily believe it can be organized on any other lines). It's a medium-sized industry like any other, one in which fraternization among competitors is taken for granted, and Adam Smith's dictum applies. "People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public." Criticism, at its best, can reveal when one is being put over upon on the much-abused audience for new books; but Eggers would have us believe that literature exists to serve its creators, and that the buyers are best advised to adopt a Wagnerian attitude of blind faith in art.
(Since I've taken the step of quoting Smith on this point, I had better--unlike most writers--provide the rarely-heard second part of the quote: "It is impossible indeed to prevent such meetings by any law which either could be executed, or would be consistent with liberty and justice.")
A home for fleas, a hive for bees
Longest... blogvacation... ever! There's been a lot that needs doing here at the house. Apparently every time I go for a freaking haircut I need to issue a press release: the one I had on Wednesday, it seems, has served as the proverbial flap of the butterfly's wings that causes a hurricane a thousand miles away. Discussing Ezra Levant's recent appearance on CBC to promote a possible successor to Alberta Report, my old friend the Ambler noted:
The editor [Ezra] has in mind is 31 years old. This datum points strongly to a former colleague of mine, but when I put the question to him, he denied it hotly. (Although he did tell me he'd just had his hair cut, which exacerbated my suspicions. What's next? Hugo Boss?)
The reference to "a former colleague" was pretty transparent, certainly transparent enough for Kat Shaidle to see through. Before long I was denying rumours left and right, an unusual position for an individual of my modest accomplishments. I can't really blame them: it had been at least a year since my last haircut.
I did explain to the Ambler that I am actually 32 years old, not 31; but to his delightfully non-linear mind, this made Ezra's reference suggest me all the more strongly. For the record, I'm not the editor Ezra has in mind for the new magazine, nor was I ever approached to act in the role. The last time I spoke to Ezra about his magazine was about a month ago. At that time, I informed him that I was available as a columnist or reporter, and he kept me apprised of developments in the nascent stages of the project; I guess he's been a bit busy since then. He made the same disingenuous references to an experienced writer he had in mind to sit behind the big desk, but my best efforts have failed to pry a name loose from him. Which is to say I don't know any more than the rest of you, and the secret editor is not me. Honest.
Moreover, it probably shouldn't be me, as I've discussed with Ezra and many others in the past. Prior efforts to make me a manager have ended in disaster. I'm older and wiser now, but when I returned to full-time writing as part of a 1999 payroll massacre at Alberta Report, I felt like I was coming home after a very long trip in an unsanitary country. I couldn't have taken an editor-in-chief job from Ezra, had one been offered, without grave misgivings and an improbably obscene salary. I'm happy to line-edit the odd bit of copy, but... giving orders? Firing people? Sending out memos? Delivering speeches? This all sounds like the sort of thing someone who wears a tie should do. Or, at the very least, someone who wears underwear. (Joke, joke.)
But what about the remaining piece of the puzzle--the timely haircut? Shear coincidence, hyuk hyuk. I was tired of having long hair, and I'm attending a wedding at the Mac tomorrow. It was a good time to exchange the biker look for the mobster look.
Guess they didn't cover that one at Yale
William F. Buckley's September 2 column contains a nasty shock for the great man's admirers. No, it's not that half the piece consists of cut-and-pasted Freeper comments. (WFB phoning one in can hardly qualify as a surprise anymore.) It's that one of our great popular language mavens apparently doesn't know the difference between an anagram and an acrostic.
Hamburger: the sequel
Rob Ferguson has re-sent (and expanded on) his comments about fast food in foreign countries, as requested.
I live in Japan, and McDonald's actually does bend the menu here a bit. There's a teriyaki burger with mayo; the Japanese love mayo. Condiments available and portion size also differ. Coca-Cola is less sweet. Doritos just made an appearance and, for the first time in 15 years, I saw a yellow bag of plain Doritos on a supermarket shelf. Less cheese powder on nacho-cheese-flavored ones as well. Budweiser has more alcohol content to keep pace with the norm set by Japanese beers.The sentiment running against Jim Elve's original point has been so strong that I feel somewhat obliged to stick up for his right to disapprove of "cultural imperialism." Jim may (and probably does) dislike fast food as much here in North America as he does abroad. I didn't want to bowdlerize Rob's rant, but I do think you can be doubly disappointed about foreigners' adoption of what you regard as exported bad taste without necessarily being racist, or even particularly condescending. He's just concerned about the global spread of an American phenomenon he regards as unfortunate; it's only natural, I suppose, to notice it most especially in Prague, as opposed to Buffalo.
He be fast, you be slow
We have a winner in our quiz (see below)! A few of you wrote in with vague misgivings about splitting "gridiron" into "grid" and "iron", but reader Michael Peckham was the first to specify that the football "gridiron" isn't actually derived from "grid" plus "iron". ESPN was trapped by one of our more bizarre false cognates. "Grid" itself is, in fact, merely a 19th-century abbreviation of "gridiron". The older word, in turn, descends from old French forms of modern "griddle" and the Latin "craticulum" (a diminutive form of the word for a wicker lattice). Etymologically, "gridiron" contains no iron whatsoever, so splitting or hyphenating "gridiron" is strictly not kosher. And it's certainly not very sensible to use Photoshop to make the poor fractured word look like it's made out of metal, to boot--although that could be excused as a visual pun if the full word hadn't first been broken into imaginary components. What we have here is a compound failure, like the Columbia disaster.
Up the irons
ColbyCosh.com has a quiz for all you editors manqués out there. Can you spot the editorial error in this slice of an ESPN.com banner ad? Anybody? Anybody? Bueller?
I'll give you the answer in a few hours, or after someone writes in with it, whichever comes first. I can't offer a cash prize for the first correct solution, but you will get your name on the page!
Head to head
My new National Post column about the cultural effects of anti-smoking law is up. Leger Marketing's poll gave me a chance to revisit the subject with some fresh news pegs. Attentive readers will have a vague sense of déjà vu: I lifted a paragraph from the unpublished op-ed on the subject I wrote a few weeks back. Roy MacGregor presents the opposite view in today's Globe, his argument boiling down to "Cigarettes make me throw up, and the Canadian guy who invented basketball didn't like them either."
I wrote a little bit about fast food a while ago and I had some good, strongly felt letters in response. Unfortunately I seem to have deleted one particularly interesting one from Rob Ferguson (re-send it if you get a chance, would you, Lieutenant?). But here is Allan Hewitson writing in defence of Fast Food Nation (or so I assume!) from a remote company town on the Left Coast.
Jim [Elve] should move to Kitimat, B.C., or just even visit. He'd be so happy here. He doesn't have to tour European capitals trembling with fear at being exposed to over-hyped, overpackaged fast food.Meanwhile, Evan McElravy writes:
I'm a little late to the topic since I've been on an Internet Holiday for a while now, but on the subject of French McDonald's: it is my understanding that they've become bustling refuges for urban oldsters since the heat wave, as they're one of the few places with air conditioning where one can hang around all day for not much money. (I have no idea about the rest of the world, including Edmonton, but in Warren about half the retirees in town meet at McD's and BK at 7:30 in the morning for coffee and to shoot the shit with their buddies for an hour or so.) They've been packed, it seems. Where French socialists leave their mothers to die grisly deaths while they are on their government guaranteed vacations, an American multinational steps up to the plate, providing a safe haven--at least as long as Jose Bové is in the clink; they might want to take their chances with their miserable flats after he's liberated.