Monthly Archives: April 2004

An ancient tracte on Ye olde troubles in Assyria

The following obscure and ancient manuscript is laid before the reader in the hope that, if only by its contrast with present enlightened views of statecraft, it may provide a modicum of both pleasure and instruction.

‘The councils of the mighty here in the Great Blue Empire are much disturbed by events in the distant Assyrian deserts.

“As the turbulent rulers of this displeasing region having long troubled our borders and vexed our allies, a firmer policy was clearly required than that of the former emperor, whose undoubted gifts of mind were negated by his Epicurian temperament. An attack by zealots on our great eastern port resolved us first to a punitive expedition against a still more distant mountain kingdom whose rulers harboured them, which being satisfactorily concluded, the violence, oppression and threats by Sodang Insane, tyrant of Irate, and his defiance of persistent entreaties by civilized nations, provoked us to undertake his removal. Continue reading

Holy Irrelevant, it’s Joe Clark

Batman!!! Da na na na na na na na Na na na na na na na na … Sorry. I got a bit carried away. But you have to admit the Scarlet Pimpernel theme is catchy. Eh? I was just talking about Bruce Wayne, millionaire playboy, and his secret alter ego Batman. So you were expecting Adam West in the Batmobile, not Leslie Howard in a stagecoach.

Or maybe Joe Clark, by day a vain and pompous politician whose every venture fails ignominiously but who at night morphs into Charlottetown Man who … um yes well… But no. I don’t want to talk about the latest pronouncement by the Great and Powerful Joe, or how they rearranged Paul Martin’s furniture so he could discuss with his cabinet whether they might or might not call an election they might or might not win on a platform they would probably discard if elected. I cannot dwell indefinitely on such Olympian heights. I must from time to time pay attention to things people actually care about and should.

For instance, in this Sunday’s Citizen’s Weekly Linda Jeays described how, seeking a fine trashy romance, she was “misled by the jacket illustration” and the author’s name “Baroness Orczy” into purchasing The Scarlet Pimpernel and found herself gripped by a “swashbuckling adventure” about a foppish blue-blood with a secret identity as a daring rescuer of aristocrats from the megalomaniac villains of the French revolution. In the end she wasn’t even bitter that she’d read a book dating way back to 1902 or that the author, who really was a Baroness, had “pulled a fur-lined hood over my eyes and unloaded literature in the form of a fast-moving cat-and-mouse game peppered with hair-breadth escapes, the devil’s own risks and the triumph of true love.” Continue reading

Welfare state perpetuates the tyranny of the majority

It takes a lot to make me drop what I’m reading and shout “That’s ridiculous,” especially if I’m reading Maclean’s. But it happened when pollster Allan Gregg declared in their April 5 issue that “The tyranny of the majority is to be feared only when the masses are uninformed.” Ironically, that statement is itself profoundly uninformed.

Regrettably, Mr. Gregg’s statement is reflected in the profound lack of interest, across our political spectrum, in any sort of institutions that might prevent governments from doing what a majority wants. (The considerable interest in institutions, primarily courts, that allow governments to do what a majority does not want is not at all the same thing.)

The problem of the tyranny of the majority, as phrased by Cicero 2,000 years ago, before we had Maclean’s to enlighten us, is that “Democracy is an evanescent form of government which lasts only until its constituents discover that their vote is the key to the treasury.” Which you’ll notice is not a mistake. Not then, and not today. Continue reading

Private charity improves morality

Why do we deliver charity through government? The habit has become so ingrained of late that the question is rarely raised. But if it is raised, I submit, the answer is much less obvious than the left-wing shouters would have you believe.

It seems to me that there are four possible justifications, all debatable. I leave aside for now a fifth ugly possibility, namely that the welfare state is not about charity at all but about the middle class voting itself a big heap of boodle. This possibility is so real and so serious as to require separate treatment. But I ask you to put it aside for the moment because it is not relevant to the question of whether, assuming we regard it as our moral duty to look after those temporarily or permanently unable to care for themselves, we are well-advised to use government as the principal vehicle for furnishing food, clothing, shelter, medical care and such to the poor.

One possible answer is yes because government is more efficient. Now you laugh. But the fact is that some people on the left actually do claim that at least in health care a single provider has lower administrative costs. I concede that it does not face the administrative burdens associated with satisfying customers at reasonable cost. But I also note that even the most vociferous defenders of the Canada Health Act do not advocate a Canada Food Act or a Canada Car Act incorporating the same five pillars. As is surely obvious, were we to do so we should soon go both hungry and on foot. Continue reading

It’s healthy to increase attention on medical errors

Oh, here’s good news. There’s a one-in-eight chance that if you go into a hospital some bad thing, or in technical terms an “adverse event,” will happen to you there. What? You don’t want to be told that? Would you rather it just quietly happened?

I’m not being cynical. I’m delighted to read of this new study at The Ottawa Hospital of a small sample of patients. Obviously in the short run any publicity for medical errors is simply bad for the profession and I commend researchers and hospital administrators for letting it happen anyway. (As these terms are becoming more important, let me note that as far as I understand “iatrogenic” means all medically caused illness and “nosocomial” means specifically illness caused by hospitals.)

Remember that hospitals are dangerous places primarily because of why people go to them in the first place. The medical profession has long been mocked with terms like “sawbones” and “leech” by people well aware that not every visit to the doctor results in a cure. And I treasure the matter-of-fact tone of a 17th-century account ending: “they committed him to the Surgions to cure, in whose hands hee dyed a fewe dayes after.” But in fact we should regard the successful rather than unsuccessful outcomes as remarkable. You’re dying of pneumonia, you’re absolutely toast, your relatives are quarrelling over your stuff, then the doctor gives you some pills and in a couple of weeks you’re back on your feet wondering who swiped your CDs. Some people would be grateful for that. Continue reading

Lists of the great are overrated

By now we’ve all had a good laugh at the National Geographic Society for making Kim Campbell one of the 50 greatest political leaders of all time. And honestly, she wouldn’t be among Canada’s 50 greatest prime ministers if we’d had 51. So now let’s pause, take a deep breath, and use it to laugh at most of the rest of the list.

We should not grant undue importance to the lists and indexes churned out by various organizations. Our press and politicians, for instance, got very excited about Canada being No. 1 on the United Nations Human Development Index then sliding ignominiously to eighth, when the index was itself a crude and useless measurement. I even have serious reservations about Gross Domestic Product. Not everything can be quantified. But we should also not dismiss all lists of, say, great political leaders just because there are inevitably quarrels about what the criteria should be and who really meets them.

Far from it. It is very useful to reflect on what constitutes historical importance and who had it. Canadians have every right to howl at National Geographic for including Avril Phaeda “Kim” Campbell in its Almanac of World History top 50 political leaders of all time. But we shouldn’t then run out of things to say about the other good, bad and ugly choices. Continue reading

Vietnam’s lessons explain why the U.S. must stay in Iraq

So it’s agreed. “Iraq,” Senator Edward Kennedy said Monday, “is George Bush’s Vietnam.” On Wednesday, radical Iraqi cleric Muqtada al-Sadr drew the same parallel. Worse, both seem happy.

There are some similarities. For instance, on Wednesday night the CBC called Mr. al-Sadr a leader of Iraqi “nationalism.” It is hard to believe the CBC does not know that his claim to authority, valid or not, is as a religious leader. But then, in the 1960s much of the western press insisted that Ho Chi Minh and his colleagues were nationalists even though they insisted they were communists. Those zany rebels. After 1975, notes Mackubin Thomas Owens, a professor at the U.S. Naval War College who served with the Marines in Vietnam, there were “a minimum of 100,000 summary executions at the hands of the communist liberators, about a million ‘boat people,’ and a like number of individuals sentenced to ‘re-education camps’.” Let’s hope reporters aren’t setting us up for a similar surprise if Mr. al-Sadr wins in Iraq.

Also, if the bad guys stage a failed uprising, let’s hope much of the western media doesn’t claim the good guys staged a successful one. Especially now, it’s important to recall that the consensus is that the 1968 Tet offensive in Vietnam was a stunning defeat from which the insurgency in the south never recovered. But by calling it a stunning defeat for the U.S. at the time, journalists made it one. Continue reading

Green thinking that makes sense

Once I managed to one-up David Suzuki on environmental matters. Chatting before a panel discussion, he said his kids reproached him for having a TV at his cottage. Man, I said, my parents’ cottage didn’t even have electricity. And I liked it that way.

I bring it up not to taunt Dr. Suzuki (OK, maybe a bit) but to underline that almost all of us are environmentalists now. I credit the greens, though I wonder if they now want to help us do something practical. So I’ve been reading the recent David Suzuki Foundation report everyone’s not talking about, “Sustainability within a Generation: A New Vision For Canada,” by David R. Boyd.

Sure, the sponsorship scandal is more current. But one thing I detest about bad government, and will remember on election day, is that it distracts us from important stuff. Environment Minister David Anderson recently said “in the long term, climate change will outweigh terrorism as an issue for the international community.” It’s no reason to neglect terrorism, or Adscam, but if he’s right that man is boiling the earth, we should discuss it. (And his government should produce a Kyoto Plan.) Continue reading

The defence of Canada starts in the red chamber

Great. Another appalling report on our national security, this one by a Senate committee. I’ve put it on top of last month’s horrifying account from the auditor general. They should make a good pillow for MPs.

Actually they should be keeping MPs awake. Chapter 3 of the auditor general’s March 2004 report is laced with warnings about “deficiencies in the way intelligence is managed across the government … gaps and inconsistencies in the watch lists used to screen visa applicants, refugee claimants and travellers … There is no overall quality control in this vital function …” and “an alert to a potential threat was sent using the government’s top-secret messaging system but was addressed incorrectly. After waiting a month for a response, the sending agency followed up and found that the message had not been received.” When the auditor’s office tried to figure out why CSIS and the Department of Immigration had such different terrorist watch lists, “Immigration’s records were in such disarray that we were unable to complete a full reconciliation …” It’s also classic that the government deactivates stolen passports but “the information system used on the primary inspection line cannot distinguish between active and deactivated passports.”

In short, when it comes to national security, our government isn’t even misguided. It’s just silly. After 9/11 an interdepartmental committee suggested the heads of various agencies meet to discuss it, and a four-page discussion paper was prepared, “the only government-wide post-mortem analysis conducted. The heads of the RCMP, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, and Finance Canada were not present at the dinner meeting held to discuss the paper. No record of the discussion was kept and no follow-up or action plan resulted.” But they did have dinner. They are good at that. Continue reading