Monthly Archives: May 2004

It’s more fun to run for office than to run the country

One curiosity about this election is that none of the parties seems much interested in governing. They are fixated on winning power. Like a compulsive seducer obsessed with getting the lady into bed but unwilling to take out the trash, they are fascinated with becoming the government but, as far as one can tell, literally uninterested in being it.

There’s no end of wine and roses about what they’ll do in power. But they’re frustratingly vague on how. I’m especially distressed by the lack of frank discussion of past failures. Never mind their own parties’; they don’t even produce a serious analysis of what went wrong with their adversaries’ attempts to govern.

It’s not as if they don’t know things have gone wrong. Consider this line from Stephen Harper on Paul Martin: “For 10 years, he chose his priorities. First they were cuts and downloading, then they were waste and scandal, then they were dithering and delay. Health care wasn’t his priority of two months ago. How do we know it’ll be his priority two months from now?” Continue reading

Reclaim politics from the cynics

Evidently we’re meant to be excited about this election. The Citizen’s Susan Riley just confessed, or boasted, that “Frankly, I find this game more exciting than playoff hockey” as she set off to do a campaign blog updated several times a day on exactly what the candidates zzzzzzzzzzzzzzz. Look, I don’t like cynicism, but I am a realist.

I don’t like cynicism because it’s the cheap way out. I don’t sympathize with the character in Frank Capra’s 1941 film Meet John Doe who says “I don’t read no papers and I don’t listen to radios either. I know the world’s been shaved by a drunken barber, and I don’t have to read it!” It’s one of those repellent little logical circles that, by rejecting all potential evidence as necessarily unhelpful, never weighs any potential evidence.

I also oppose cynicism in politics because when people expect nothing from government they tend to receive it in abundance. I don’t want us to give up. I want us to take our politics back. The first step is to take back the underlying philosophy, to understand that we weren’t always governed this way, so we don’t have to be in future. I also very much liked the line from a caller to Thinking Aloud (which my wife and I host on CFRA) that “If you can’t pay anything else, then at least pay attention.” Continue reading

Canada’s mixed message: Vote, but don’t talk about it

There’s an election coming up. How grand.

I share P.J. O’Rourke’s view, in the April Atlantic Monthly, that “I’m fascinated by political enthusiasm. To me, selecting my democratic representative is a lugubrious duty, more like making a will than cheering the Bruins.” But when he added that he finds enthusiasm “a slightly creepy word, with its Greek root meaning ‘the fact of being possessed by a God’,” I thought count your blessings. I’m about to be possessed by Jean-Pierre Kingsley.

I’m not sure how it happened. The chief electoral officer once had the humble if important duty of ensuring the smooth administrative functioning of our electoral system including, say, the new voters’ list. But Mr. Kingsley somehow acquired much larger fish to fry. (And a bigger pan; his administrative budget, $3.5 million in 1999, hit $17.9 million by 2003.) Sunday’s Citizen said as soon as the writ is dropped, Mr. Kingsley will hold a press conference to urge us all to vote. He has often voiced “very serious concerns” about low turnout because, he told a Carleton University symposium last year, “To give true meaning to democracy, the engagement of all citizens is required.” (All?) His particular worry is young people; in 2000, just over 61 per cent of eligible voters turned out, but only 25.4 per cent of those 18 to 24. Continue reading

Let’s hear it for humanity

Waaak waaak waaak. I often make that noise when I realize how badly I just parked. But soon my car will do it for me. And “Cock-a-doodle-dooooo!” or possibly “Waaaaaaah!” if my engine catches fire. True, for now I still must clap manually at the news that British psychologist Denis McKeown is working on a whole new series of alarm sounds for cars. But let’s hear it for humane engineering, and devices designed as if intended for human users.

Monday’s Citizen says Mr. McKeown got so fed up with “the meaningless beeps and buzzes that serve as alarms in cars” that he set out to test a whole range of alternatives, from roosters to ocean waves to a crying baby.

We certainly need more sounds; the problem of multiple alarms that could be anything from an unfastened seatbelt to a door that’s ajar to imminent hull breach was already a cliché by 1977’s Kentucky Fried Movie, and it will only get worse as technology gives us navigation aids, radar to help us avoid collisions and a multitude of other sensory and warning devices. But there’s more. Continue reading

‘What If’ is a useful way to know ‘what now’

What if Hitler had won the Second World War? What if Einstein had been run over as a child? What if Al Gore had won the presidency? What if the Gunpowder Plot had worked? What sort of mess would we be in today?

Speculating about the “What if’s” of history is denounced in some quarters as a silly parlour game. Marxists in particular disapprove of it which, notes historian and editor Andrew Roberts in What Might Have Been, is one good reason for taking the opposite view.

Here’s another. Any judgment about current events, from rising gas prices to turmoil in the Middle East, contains an implicit judgment about the lessons of history. We can’t compare this present with some other present, but we have to compare it with something to separate the essential from the trivial. For instance, are there many examples of big successful economic conspiracies in market economies in the past? Continue reading

Memo to minister: Haiti is poor

Haiti is proving something of a disappointment. I’m not quite at the stage to which it reduced Napoleon, of cursing sugar, coffee and the colonies they rode in on. But even with my low standards for public policy discussion, I’m disappointed at the discussion of this unfortunate Caribbean nation.

Our foreign minister just went there, you know. And while Haiti is more sad than geopolitically significant, surely the trip is important. All the do-gooders full of advice on Iraq are actually getting to show us what they can do there first.

I don’t imply that reforming Haiti is easy. Its history strongly suggests otherwise. But it’s way smaller than Iraq, far closer, presents fewer “clash of civilizations” issues, and is virtually secure against any outside interference except the one we, to the dismay of its neighbours, are eagerly taking part in. So how’s it going? Continue reading

The U.S. will learn from its errors, and so should Arabs

Does anyone doubt we will discover the truth about American mistreatment of prisoners in Iraq? It is not merely puzzling that this openness is not the main story. It is, for the Middle East, a tragedy.

It is of course “abhorrent” that American soldiers abused prisoners, as President George W. Bush said in an interview with the Dubai-based TV network Al-Arabiya. He also said such actions “don’t represent America” which, radical fulminations notwithstanding, they don’t. What does represent America, and should be the main story, is an inquiry that has already denounced “grave breaches of international law” at Abu Ghraib prison between August 2003 and February 2004, and “sadistic, blatant and wanton criminal abuses” by U.S. soldiers, and produced career-ending reprimands for some and criminal charges for others, with more likely to follow over events in both Afghanistan and Iraq.

As the president told the U.S.-funded Al-Hurra network, this response “stands in stark contrast to life under Saddam Hussein. His trained torturers were never brought to justice under his regime. There were no investigations about mistreatment of people.” True. But Mr. Bush also told Al-Arabiya, “Our citizens in America are appalled by what they saw, just like people in the Middle East are appalled.” And sadly, while they are surely appalled, they do not seem to be appalled just like Americans. Rather, and with the usual caveat about cultural generalizations not applying to everyone, we seem to be facing the distinction anthropologists and sociologists draw between societies based on guilt and on shame. Continue reading

Courting trouble in uncommon ways

Younger readers may be shocked to learn that in bygone days the sight of a tabby in your neighbour’s window was something you might have to put up with even if you really hated cats. If, on the other hand, Foo-foo the Siamese Slasher made a persistently intolerable noise, regularly demolished your flower beds or hurled itself shrieking at your face and carved your flesh, you had legal remedies from restraining orders to damages. But that was in the dark ages, when the judgment of a reasonable man as to what constituted an unreasonable nuisance was all that kept the social peace.

Today we have sociologists, child psychologists and grief counsellors. And, in Ottawa, cat licences. True, only about 1,500 of some 100,000 cats were registered by the April 30 deadline. But fear not. The Citizen says “city officials are promising not to impose $100 fines or to lock up the remaining 98,500 cats, as outlined under a new animal bylaw. And they say they’re not discouraged by the 1.5-per-cent compliance rate.”

I’m not sure what would discourage them: 1.38 per cent? 0.74? Still, if a 1,100-per-cent cost overrun doesn’t discourage gun bureaucrats, I’m sure the catocrats will hang tough as well. Continue reading