Doug Ford: Ontario’s Populist

June 11, 2018 § 2 Comments

Canada is beside itself with the election of Doug Ford as the Premier of Ontario.  Ford, the leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario, is not really all that qualified to be premier, I must say.  The lynchpin of his campaign was a promise of $1 beer, and the rest was based on a basic message that the government of Liberal leader Kathleen Wynne was stupid.  Well, he didn’t exactly say that, but it was pretty much his message.  The centre and left in Ontario and around Canada has been wringing its hands as Donald Trump Lite™ has been elected to lead the largest province in Canada.

It is impossible to deny Ontario’s importance to Canada, it is the most populous province, home to the largest city in the country.  And Ontario’s economy is the 8th largest in North America.  And, of course, Toronto is also the most diverse city in the world.

Ford, for the most part, did not run on a racist campaign, like the American president, and he has generally not uttered racist comments.  But, while he hasn’t, his supporters have.  Like everywhere else in the Western world, racism is on the rise in Ontario, and Canada as a whole.  The reasons for this are for another post.

The commentariat in Canada has been aghast, rightly so, at Doug Ford’s election. He is a classic populist, a multi-millionaire who pretends to be for the little guy, and mocks the élites for being, well, élites.

But, ultimately, Doug Ford’s election isn’t a rupture with Ontario’s political past.  It is also not necessarily a sign of Trumpism coming to Canada.  Ontario has a long history with populist premiers, dating back to the Depression-era leadership of Mitch Hepburn.  But, also more recently, with the government of Mike Harris in the 1990s.

Mike Harris was elected premier in 1995.  In a lot of ways, I think commentators have seen his election as a correction of sorts, after the province had shocked the rest of Canada in electing the NDP government of Bob Rae in 1990.  Rae’s time as premier did not go smoothly, and so Harris’ election must be seen in that light.  Harris, like Ford, was a populist, and ran on something he called the Common Sense Revolution.  Harris sought to bring common sense to Ontario politics.  This went about as well as you’d imagine.

Harris’ government cut the social safety net of Ontario something fierce.  He also tried to introduce boot camps for juvenile offenders.  Harris rode the crest of the 1990s economic boom, and once the economy crashed with the dotcom bubble, he resigned as premier (for personal reasons, I might add) in 2002 and the PC government of Ontario stumbled along with Ernie Eves as premier before getting trounced by the Liberals of Dalton McGuinty in 2003.

Harris’ policies led indirectly to people dying in Ontario.  The most obvious example is during the horrible Walkerton e-coli crisis in 2000.  There, due to the bumbling incompetence of the Koebel brothers, who operated the Walkerton water supply without any actual training, e-coli entered the supply system.  Over 2,000 people fell ill, and 6 people died.  Harris’ government was blamed for 1) Refusing to regulate water quality around the province via some form of supervision; 2) Related to 1), not enforcing the rules and guidelines pertaining to water quality; and, 3) the privatization of water supply testing in 1996.

And then there was Kimberly Rogers.  Rogers was a single mother and was convicted of welfare fraud.  Rogers had collected both student loans and welfare whilst going to school.  This had been legal when she began her studies in 1996, but Harris’ government had put an end to that the same year.  Rogers plead guilty to the fraud in 2001 and was sentenced to house arrest.  And ordered to pay back the welfare payments she had received, over $13,000.  She was also pregnant at the time.  Her welfare benefits were also suspended; she was on welfare because she couldn’t find employment, even with her degree.  The summer of 2001 was brutally hot in Sudbury, her home town, and she was trapped in her apartment with no air conditioning as the temperature outside crested 30C, plus humidity.  She committed suicide in August 2001.

An inquest found fault with the government, noting that someone sentenced to house arrest should be provided with adequate shelter, food, medications.  Rogers had the first, but not the other two.  And while Rogers did break the law, the punishment handed out did not necessarily fit the crime, especially insofar as the house arrest went.  And this was due to Harris’ reforms.  Upon delivery of the inquest report, Eves’ government refused to implement any reforms, complaining to do so would be to tinker with an effective system.

Meanwhile, Toronto, the self-proclaimed Centre of the Universe, has embarrassed itself with its mayoral choices.  The first time was when it elected Mel Lastman mayor in 1997. Lastman had been mayor of the suburb, North York, but Harris’ government had amalgamated Toronto with its suburbs, and so Lastman was now mayor of the new city.  Lastman did a lot of good as mayor, that cannot be denied.

But. There was the time when his wife got caught shoplifting in 1999, and Lastman threatened to kill a City-TV reporter.  Yes, the mayor of the largest city in Canada threatened to kill someone.  He also cozied up to Hells Angels when they held a gathering in Toronto.  During the 2003 SARS crisis, he groused on CNN about the World Health Organization, claiming the WHO didn’t know what it was doing and that Lastman had never even heard of them (as an aside, due to the WHO’s work, SARS didn’t become an epidemic).  And then there was his trip to Mombassa, Kenya, in 2001 in support of Toronto’s bid to host the 2008 Olympics.  Lastman told a reporter:

What the hell do I want to go to a place like Mombasa?… I’m sort of scared about going out there, but the wife is really nervous. I just see myself in a pot of boiling water with all these natives dancing around me.

Lastman, though, was just the precursor to Rob Ford, Doug Ford’s younger brother.  Rob Ford ran on a similar campaign of populism.  He wasn’t qualified for the job.  But it was the larger circus of his life that was concerning.  The police were called to his house several times on suspicions of domestic abuse.  He also had problems with drugs and alcohol that included an addiction to crack cocaine.  He had a habit of getting drunk at Toronto Maple Leafs games and yelling and threatening and abusing people around him.  And he, of course, appears to have smoked crack whilst mayor with some gang members.     Ford’s larger run as mayor was on the basis of populism, and attacking transportation infrastructure projects, as well as privatizing garbage pickup.

So, as we can see from the past 3 decades of life in Ontario, Doug Ford isn’t exactly the horrible rupture many wish to see him as.  He is, instead, a horrible continuity of populism and dangerous politics.

The History of the Gerrymander

February 5, 2018 § Leave a comment

We live in an era in the United States where, in many states, politicians are picking their voters, not the other way around.  This is because in most states, the boundaries of congressional districts are in the hands of politicians, and the majority of the party in the state house has more or less carte blanche to manipulated these boundaries as they see fit.  In most democracies, this is handled by an independent commission to avoid just this kind of silliness.  When left in the hands of politicians, I can see how the temptation to gerrymander is too great to resist.  The logic is simple: If we gerrymander the boundaries of congressional districts, we can not only perpetuate our control of the state house, we can also manipulate and control the congressional party from our state, and if others in other states do it, preferably in our political party, then we can control government.

Of course, this is not how it’s supposed to work.  And yet, we end up with congressional districts like these two, from California.  We tend to hear in the news that Republicans are the ones who gerrymander.  But they’re not alone. Democrats do, too.  But, without question, Republicans do it more often.  Anyway, look at these two congressional districts.  One is the 11th District in California, the other is the 38th.  One was Republican, one was Democratic.  Both images are from c. 2004, and both districts have been re-drawn.

CA_11thCD_clip California_District_38_2004

The gerrymander has been used in nearly every democracy, and is one of the many dirty tricks politicians have used to maintain power.  That the gerrymander is, by definition, anti-democratic is another matter.  The first time the word was used was in the Boston Herald, in March 1812.

That year, Massachusetts state senate districts had been redrawn at the behest of Governor Eldridge Gerry.  Not surprisingly, Gerry’s gerrymander benefited his party, the Democratic-Republicans.  The Herald’s editorial cartoonist was not impressed with the re-drawing of the South Essex district:

The_Gerry-Mander_Edit.png

The Herald charged that the district looked like a mythical salamander, hence we get gerry-mander.  It’s worth noting, though, that Gerry’s name wasn’t pronounced ‘Jerry’, but, rather, ‘Geary,’ so, in early 19th century Boston, it was supposed to be pronounced ‘Gearymander’. One theory I’ve read is that the Boston accent re-appropriated the word to ‘Jerrymander.’  More likely, though, something else happened: In the rest of the nascent United States, the name Gerry was likely to be pronounced ‘Jerry,’ not ‘Geary.’  And there we go.

For the remainder of 1812, Federalist newspapers and commentators around the country made use of the term to mock the Democratic-Republican party, which was then in the ascendancy.  The Democratic-Republicans were Thomas Jefferson’s party, and it controlled the White House from his election in 1800 until the party split in 1824, largely due to Andrew Jackson.  His branch eventually became the Democratic Party we have today.  The other branch eventually became the Whigs.  Together, the Democrats and Whigs were the core of the Second Party System of the United States, c. 1824-54.

The term also travelled out of the United States, crossing the Atlantic Ocean to the United Kingdom, and north to Canada.  To be fair, the coining of the term in March 1812, came on the brink of the outbreak of the War of 1812 in June of that year.  So, for the British, this was just another way to mock the Americans.  But, either way, the term became an accepted term in the English language by 1847, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The Problems With Polling

January 22, 2018 § 6 Comments

I was reading a scholarly article on polling and the issues it creates in terms of the democratic process last week.  In the article, the authors note many of the problems with polling, and there are many.  I worked for a major national polling firm in Canada for a couple of years whilst in undergrad.  There, I learned just how dodgy supposedly ‘scientific’ polling can be.

My issues have less to do with methodology, where random computer-generated phone numbers are called.  Rather, they have to do with both the wording of questions and the manner in which they are asked.  I should also note that the rise of cell phones complicates the ability to do random sampling.  Something like 48% of American adults only have cell phones (I have not had a landline since 2002, a decade before I emigrated to the US).  It is illegal to use random computer-generated calling to cell phones in the US.

The authors of the study I read commented on the manner in which questions were worded, and the ways in which this could impact results.  For example, last year during the great debate about the repeal of Obamacare, it became very obvious that a not insignificant proportion of Americans did not realize that the Affordable Care Act, or ACA, was the legislative act that created what we call Obamacare.  So you have people demanding the repeal of Obamacare, thinking they would still have their ACA.  Obamacare was originally a pejorative term created by (mostly Republican) opponents to the ACA.  They figured that by tying the legislation to a president wildly unpopular amongst their constituency (if not the population as a whole), they could whip up public opposition to the ACA.  It worked.

But now consider a polling question concerning the popularity or unpopularity of Obamacare/ACA.  Does a pollster ask people about their thoughts on Obamacare or on the ACA?  Or does that pollster construct a question that includes the slash: Obamacare/ACA?  How, exactly does the pollster tackle this issue?  Having worked on a team that attempted to create neutral-language questions for a variety of issues at the Canadian polling firm, I can attest this is a difficult thing to do, whether the poll we were trying to create was to ask consumers their thoughts on a brand of toothpaste or the policies and behaviours of the government.

But this was only one part of the problem.  I started off with the polling firm working evenings, working the phones to conduct surveys.  We were provided with scripts on our computer screens that we were to follow word-for-word.  We were also monitored actively by someone, to make sure we were following the script as we were meant to, and to make sure that we were actually interviewing someone taking the poll seriously.  More than once, I was instructed to abandon a survey by the monitor.  But the monitor didn’t listen to all the calls.  There was something like 125 work stations in the polling room.  And 125 individuals were not robots.  Each person had different inflections and even accents in their voices.  Words did not all sound the same coming out of the mouths of all 125 people.

When I had an opportunity to work with the monitor to listen in on calls, I was struck by how differently the scripts sounded.  One guy I worked with was from Serbia, and had a pretty thick Serbian accent, so he emphasized some words over others; in most cases, I don’t think his emphasis made a different.  But sometimes it could.  Another guy had a weird valley girl accent.  The result was the same as the Serbian’s.  And some people just liked to mess with the system.  It was easy to do.  They did this by the way they spoke certain words, spitting them out, using sarcasm, or making their voice brighter and happier than in other spots.

Ever since this work experience in the mid-90s, I have been deeply sceptical of polling data.  There are already reasons, most notably the space for sampling error, which means that, with the margin of error, most polls are accurate within plus or minus 3%.  That doesn’t sound like a lot, but the difference between 47% and 53% is significant when it comes to matters of public policy.  Or support for candidates.  And more to the point, the media does not report the margin of error, or if it does, does so in a throwaway sentence, and the headline reads that 47% of people support/don’t support this or that.

But, ultimately, it is the working and means of asking that makes me deeply suspicious of polling data.  And as polling data becomes even more and more obsessed over by politicians, the media, and other analysts, I can’t help but think that polling is doing more than most things to damage democracy, and not just in the United States, but in any democracy where polling is a national obsession.

Rough and Rowdy in Rural Appalachia

January 19, 2018 § Leave a comment

Rough and Rowdy is a form of amateur boxing native to West Virginia.  It appears to me to be the grandson of the 18th-19th century Southern backwoods fighting style known as Rough and Tumble, or Gouging.  It was so-called because the ultimate goal was to gouge out your opponent’s eye.  There were very few rules involved in Rough and Tumble and, while it wasn’t exactly prize fighting, winning was a source of pride in the local community.

The men who fought in Gouging were backwoods farmers, it was common in swamps and mountain communities.  In other words, the men who fought were what the élite of Southern society called (and still call) ‘white trash.’  As an aside, if you would like to know more about the plight of poor white people historically in the US, I cannot recommend Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash: The 400-Year Untold Story of Class in America enough.  Nevermind the fact that the story is not untold, historians have studied and published on poor people for a long time, but that’s what publishers do to your book, they create silly subtitles to sell more copies.

I digress.  The West Virginia Rough and Rowdy is a continuation.  The Guardian produced a quick 7 minute documentary of a championship tournament in West Virginia, you can watch it here.

I have some serious problems after watching this.  The first is the behaviour of New York City-based Barstool Sports, led by Dave Portnoy (a Massachusetts boy, I might add, from Boston’s North Shore).  Barstool bought up the rights to the tournament, and, according to the documentary, stood to make $300,000 on it.  The winner of the tournament wins $1,000.  The fighters are getting nothing out of this, other than glory or shame, depending on who wins.  Portnoy is walking away with the profits.  He wants to make this the new MMA, to take Rough and Rowdy nationwide.  But he profits,the fighters don’t.  He doesn’t have a problem with that, of course, because he figures they’d be doing it anyway.

The community where this takes place is an impoverish borough in West Virginia, in former coal-mining country.  All of the social problems of Appalachia can be found there, from deep, deep-seated poverty to drugs and everything else.  It is easy to dismiss the people who live there using whatever term you want.  Portnoy calls them rednecks.  He also argues that they would call themselves by the same term.  After living in Southern Appalachia in Tennessee, I would think he’s right. But THEY call themselves that.  I did not think it was my place to use the same term, given its pejorative meaning in our culture.

Essentially, while it is true that this tournament existed before Portnoy came in, he is exploiting a poor community, with a sly grin to his viewers on the web, about the fat rednecks fighting for their entertainment.  The fighting style of most of these men is poor, if you were to look at it from a boxing or MMA perspective.  Of course it is, they’re amateurs, they don’t have training.  They fight as if they’re brawling in a bar.  And that’s what Rough and Rowdy is: amateur fighting.  It is not professional boxing.

The comments on the YouTube site are exactly what you’d expect.  Commentators mock the fighters for their lack of boxing style.  And, then, of course, come the stereotypes.  The documentary centres around one young man, George.  George has recently lost his job and he wants to win the tournament and give the $1,000 to his mother. He’s a confident in his abilities before stepping into the ring with a man a full foot taller than him, and who must have at least 60 pounds on him.  Not surprisingly, George loses the fight.  But the comments mock him. One commenter says that George died of a meth overdose three weeks later.  And so on.

And therein lies the problem.  Too many people seem to think that mocking the poor white folk of the Appalachians is easy.  They’re dismissed as stupid, idiotic, as rednecks and white trash. And worse.  This is universal, too.  This is not a conservative/liberal thing.  The poor white people of Appalachia have been abandoned.  Completely.  They’ve been left to their own devices in hard-scrabble areas where there are no jobs.  The coal mining companies pulled out.  What industry existed there has also pulled out.  Most small Appalachian towns have little more than a Dollar General and a gas station.  People get by, in part due to family connections and grow what food they can on their land.  They scrounge for other things, like roots and scrap metal, that they can sell for next to nothing.  They use food stamps.  And sometimes they just go hungry, or worse.

JD Vance’s insipid Hillbilly Elegy has added to this, and has re-shaped the conversation nationally.  Vance argued that the plight of Appalachia is the fault of the Appalachians themselves.  He blames ‘hillbilly’ culture, argues it has engendered social rot, and has dismissed poverty as secondary.  Put simply: Vance is flat-out wrong.  He simply seeks to continue in the long American tradition of blaming the poor for their poverty.

That’s not how it works.  Appalachia has been struggling for the better part of a half-century.  Politicians, including the current president, continue to ignore it.  And then turn around and pull a Vance and blame the poverty on the poor.  That is a lazy, self-centred, immoral position to take.

 

The True North Strong and Free

November 6, 2017 § 2 Comments

Last week, Canadian Governor General Julie Payette gave a speech at what the Canadian Broadcast Corporation calls ‘a science conference‘ in Ottawa.  There, she expressed incredulity in creationism and climate change denial, and called for a greater acceptance of scientific fact in Canada.  Payette is a former astronaut, holds an MSc in computer engineering, and has worked in the field of Artificial Intelligence.  In other words, when she speaks on this matter, we should listen.

Her comments ignited a storm of controversy in Canada.  Some people are upset at her comments.  Some people are upset the Governor General has an opinion on something.  With respect to the first, Payette spoke to scientific fact.  Full stop. Not opinion.  Fact.  With respect to the second, Governors General and opinions, I will point out that our former Governor General, David Johnston, also freely expressed his opinions.  But, oddly, this did not lead to massive controversy.  What is the difference between Payette and Johnston?  I’ll let one of my tweeps, author Shireen Jeejeebhoy answer:

But then I found a particularly interesting tweet.  The tweet claimed that for the very reason that Canada has the monarchy, the country cannot have democratic elections.

Um, what?  There is no logic to this tweet.  I asked the author of the tweet what he meant. In between a series of insults, he said that he thinks the Governor General, which he mistakenly called an ‘important position,’ should be an elected post.  That gives some clarity to his original post, but he’s still wrong.

Canada is a democracy, full stop.  Elections in Canada are democratic, full stop.

Canada is a constitutional monarchy.  Queen Elizabeth II is the Head of State.  The Governor General is her representative in Canada (each province also has a Lieutenant-Governor, the Queen’s representatives in the provincial capitals).  The Queen does appoint the GG (and Lt-Govs), but she does so after the prime minister (or provincial premiers) tell her who is going to be appointed. In other words, Payette has her position because Prime Minister Justin Trudeau selected her.

Canada, unlike the United States, did not gain ‘independence’ in one fell swoop.  In 1848, Queen Victoria granted the United Province of Canada, then a colony, responsible government.  This gave it (present-day Ontario and Québec) control over its internal affairs. All legislation passed by the colonial assembly would gain royal assent via the Governor General.  Following Confederation in 1867, the new Dominion of Canada enjoyed responsible government (which the other colonies that became Canada also had).  But Canada  did not control its external affairs, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and (Northern) Ireland did.  In 1931, the British Parliament passed the Statute of Westminster, which granted control over foreign affairs to the Dominions (Canada, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand).  In 1947, Canadian citizenship was created.  Prior to that, Canadians were subjects of the monarchy.  In 1949, the Supreme Court of Canada became the highest court in the land. Prior to that, the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London was.  In 1982, the Canadian Constitution, which had been an act of the London Parliament (the British North America Act, 1867) was patriated and became an act of the Parliament in Ottawa.  So, choosing when Canada became independent is dicey.  You can pick anyone of 1848, 1931, 1947, 1949, or 1982 and be correct, at least in part.  We tend to celebrate 1867, our national holiday, July 1, marks the day the BNA Act came into affect.  That is the day Canada became a nation, but it is not the date of independence.

Either way, Canada is an independent nation.  Lamarche’s claim that, because we are a constitutional monarchy, we do not have free elections is ridiculous.  The role of the monarchy in Canada is entirely symbolic.  The Queen (or the Governor General or Lieutenants Governors) have absolutely no policy input. They have no role in Canadian government beyond the symbolic.  None.

 

I’m not even sure how someone could come to this conclusion other than through sheer ignorance.

The Death of Language

October 4, 2017 § 1 Comment

We live in an era where the President of the United States labels anything he doesn’t like as #FAKENEWS.  Last year, we watched Brexit succeed (at least in a referendum) where the Leave side was guilty of inventing several truths that were actually lies.  And one of the President’s surrogates has coined the term ‘alternative facts’ to describe lies.  I wrote about this last year in the wake of the Presidential Election.

The damage to public discourse and the use of language through politicians who lie nearly every time they open their mouth is obvious.  But there is another source of danger when it comes to the actual meaning of words and their usage: sports journalism.

As my friend John likes to note, nothing should ever get in the way of ESPN’s ‘hot take’ on any and all, most notably language and truth.  But it’s not just ESPN.  Take, for example, Canada’s TSN (for those who don’t know, The Sports Network is the largest sports network in Canada, with a monopoly on broadcasting the Canadian Football League; it also holds regional marketing rights to NHL games, as well as Major League Baseball, and various other sports.  It is also 20% owned by ESPN).  A headline earlier this week on TSN.ca states,  that “Pens, Lightning Battle It Out in First 7-Eleven Power Rankings of 2017-18.”

Um, no. The Penguins and Lightning are not battling it out to top the power rankings.  Why?  Because these are entirely subjective rankings created by TSN.  The Lightning and Penguins did not play a game, a play off series or anything for this honour.  TSN’s staff just ranked them as the two best teams in the game.

And so you may not think this a big deal, TSN’s headline writers are just looking for attention to encourage people to click on the story.  Sure they are.  But in so doing, they are messing with the meaning of words.  They are cheapening the meaning of the verb ‘to battle.’

This kind of thing is pretty common in sports journalism, whether through laziness or incompetence, I can’t tell.  But you will notice that around trade deadlines or amateur drafts or free agency periods, sports journalists will tell you about the ‘names’ being thrown around.  Sure, they are names being bandied about (mostly by these very same journalists, who get to make up the news and then report on it).  But names don’t get signed, trades, or claimed in drafts.  Players do.

Maybe you think I’m just a crank for being worried about language.  Good for you.  You’re wrong.

Of course language is mutable, of course meanings of words change over time, and the way we speak changes.  Ever heard someone speak 18th century English?  Or how about the word ‘awful’?  Initially, the word meant ‘full of awe,’ or something that was truly awesome (to use a word that has developed to fill the void caused by awful’s evolution), as in the ‘awful power of nature.’  Today, we would say the ‘awesome power of nature.’  And awful means something that sucks.  But these are changes that have occurred over centuries, and occurred due to colonization, and the like (want to have some fun? Compare the meaning of English words in the UK and the US).

The mis-use of words like ‘battle’ to describe an artificial power ranking that actually has nothing to do with the teams allegedly in this battle is something else entirely.   So is discussing the ‘names’ that were traded.  It’s a mixture of exaggeration and laziness.  And, ultimately, this kind, I don’t know, laziness or idiocy like this renders language meaningless.

 

#FakeNews, Memes, and US History

September 5, 2017 § Leave a comment

Sometimes I think that memes are going to be the undoing of all of us.  They tend towards the stupid.  I have written of this before, here and here.  This weekend on Facebook, I came across this meme:

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And once more we have a stupid meme.  The quotation from Lincoln is out of context, and it would appear that Robert E. Lee never said this.  Let’s start with Lincoln.

The quotation here comes from a letter he wrote to the prominent New York City abolitionist Horace Greeley, on 22 August 1862.  Lincoln wrote to Greeley in response to the latter’s editorial in his influential New York Tribune, calling for the emancipation of the Confederacy’s slaves immediately. Here is the full text of that letter:

Executive Mansion,
Washington, August 22, 1862.

Hon. Horace Greeley:
Dear Sir.

I have just read yours of the 19th. addressed to myself through the New-York Tribune. If there be in it any statements, or assumptions of fact, which I may know to be erroneous, I do not, now and here, controvert them. If there be in it any inferences which I may believe to be falsely drawn, I do not now and here, argue against them. If there be perceptable in it an impatient and dictatorial tone, I waive it in deference to an old friend, whose heart I have always supposed to be right.

As to the policy I “seem to be pursuing” as you say, I have not meant to leave any one in doubt.

I would save the Union. I would save it the shortest way under the Constitution. The sooner the national authority can be restored; the nearer the Union will be “the Union as it was.” If there be those who would not save the Union, unless they could at the same time save slavery, I do not agree with them. If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time destroy slavery, I do not agree with them. My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union. I shall do less whenever I shall believe what I am doing hurts the cause, and I shall do more whenever I shall believe doing more will help the cause. I shall try to correct errors when shown to be errors; and I shall adopt new views so fast as they shall appear to be true views.

I have here stated my purpose according to my view of official duty; and I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men every where could be free.

Yours,
A. Lincoln.

In other words, for Lincoln, his primary duty was to uphold the Union.  And, as any American historian will tell you, every action he took during his presidency was directed at exactly that goal.  Slavery was not an issue for the Union, it was not why it went to war.  That, of course, changed on 1 January 1863 when Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation came into effect.

As for Robert E. Lee, there is no evidence whatsoever he said this.  It is most likely that this fake quote is a mangling of something he did say or write, but I even have my doubts about that.

Lee, of course, was the the Commander of the Army of Northern Virginia for the Confederate States of America, a failed statelet that existed from 1861-65.  During its short lifespan, the CSA did not gain the official recognition of any other state.  And it ended with the massive defeat of the Confederacy’s army.  At any rate, Lee fought to preserve slavery.  Full stop.

Slavery was the primary reason for the secession for each and every of the Confederate states.  It was also the primary reason for the existence of the Confederacy.  Not states’ rights. Not taxation.  Slavery.  And this was what Robert E. Lee fought to preserve.

So even IF this line from Lincoln could be extrapolated to mean something, and even IF Robert E. Lee said what this meme claims, it is irrelevant.  One man ultimately ended slavery, the other fought to preserve it.

But, the meme is not correct.  It is FAKE NEWS.

The Simple Fact of Racism

August 7, 2017 § Leave a comment

Last week, a Facebook friend posted this article, ostensibly about travelling while black.  Ijeoma Oluo is an African American woman, and she speaks eloquently about the fears African Americans can have travelling in the US, due to racism.  I thought immediately of John Lewis’ graphic novel, March.  In Book 1, he talks about a trip he took with his uncle in the 1950s from Alabama to Buffalo, NY.  In his recollection, his uncle carefully planned out their route and where they could stop, especially south of the Mason-Dixon line.  We have this belief that because segregation is long over, that the Civil Rights era was 50 years ago, that Barack Obama was elected president, race is no longer a factor in American life.

It’s easy for white people to think this, we are not confronted by the reality of race in America on a daily, continual basis. We do not face constant micro-aggressions, let alone macro-aggressions, based on our skin colour.  Most white people probably don’t even think about race in any real sense, as in it’s also not something we think about when we see someone of a different skin colour.  (Race, of course, is a social construct, it is not science).  But.  Racism persists.  Racism is all around us.  And Oluo reminds us of this.

And so back to Oluo.  She was nervous about going into a Crackle Barrel in a small town in a Red state.  As she notes, Crackle Barrel was once fined by the Justice Department for racist practices.  She posted on Twitter:

And, boy oh boy, did the responses come in.  In fact, you can go to Oluo’s Twitter page for a sampling of the racism.  Or read the article I linked to above.

But, back to the Facebook post of my friend.  The first comment lambasted Oluo for being ‘racist.’  I pointed out that she isn’t racist.  She may have, as she notes in the article I linked, used some bad humour to deal with her trepidation of heading into Cracker Barrel.  But this isn’t racist.  Nor, as I noted to him, would it be racist if he made a similar comment about heading into a black business. It’d just be stupid.

See, the thing is, for the most part, African Americans, Latinx, and Asians are rarely in a position to be racist in America (or Canada, or the UK, or France, or Ireland, etc.).  Racism is predicated on a discriminatory or prejudicial belief in the superiority of one’s own ‘race’ over another.  And this is coupled with power.  This discriminatory or prejudicial belief becomes racist because white people, usually (not always), have power.

For example, one of my students in Alabama told me that she, her husband and young child were unable to rent an apartment in the small city we lived in because they were black.  Landlords used all kinds of excuses, from claiming they didn’t allow children (one said this while a group of kids played in the parking lot behind him), to saying their credit rating wasn’t good enough, to being concerned about their economic stability (she goes to school at night, they’re both orderlies at the local hospital).  The same thing, interestingly, happened to a bunch of Los Angeles Chargers players upon the relocation of the franchise from San Diego to Los Angeles.

That is racism.  The reason African American, Latinx, and Asian people in the US (or Canada, or the UK, or France, or Ireland, etc.) are not in a position to be racist is that they are not often in positions to be racist.  Like all people, they can be biased, they can be prejudiced.  They can also be stupid and tone deaf.

But racism is rare.  Thus, Oluo is not racist for this tweet.  She is expressing her fears, based on a lifetime of experiences.

But the responses to her?  Well, they kind of prove her point.  The violent, misogynist racism spewed back to her on Twitter and Facebook is beyond the pale.  That is what racism looks like.  And racism is a fact of life for African Americans (and Latinx and Asians).

Harm Reduction in Drug Addiction

August 4, 2017 § Leave a comment

The opioid crisis that has taken root across North America exposes several ugly truths.  The first is racial.  The use of drugs is treated differently in the United States, depending on the race of the victims of addiction.  When they are African American and/or Latinx, they are criminalized.  But when it is white people using drugs, it becomes a crisis.  To a degree. The important disclaimer here is class.  When poor white people are using, it remains a criminal issue. But when middle- or upper- class white people are using, it becomes a public health issue.  Thus, this is the second truth: class.

I think of all the jokes I have heard about ‘white trash’ and meth labs in trailer homes since I moved to the South. But, on the flip side, there is the criminalization and demonization of poor white people, and nearly all African American and Latinx drug addicts.  Addiction, I remind, is a public health issue.  Addiction is a question of psychology.  It is not a matter of criminality.

Addiction is something very real in my world.  It is something I grew up with in my family.  When I was a university student in Vancouver in the early-to-mid-90s, the city was in the midst of a heroin epidemic.  Walking through the fringes of the Downtown Eastside one afternoon, I passed the back alley on Carrall St., between East Hastings and East Pender, and saw a young woman, around my age, with a needle in her arm, foaming at the mouth and her fingertips going blue.  There was no one around.  And she was dying.  I went into the alley,  she was unresponsive, and her pulse was very faint.  There was no one around.  No police, no other pedestrians on Carrall St.  All the doors in the back alley were closed, some of them barred from the outside.  There was no one looking  out the windows onto the alley.  She was completely alone.  And then she died.   I don’t know how many people died in Vancouver of heroin overdoses in 1997.  But I know she was someone’s daughter, sister, grand-daughter, girlfriend.  I did find a police patrol on East Pender about two blocks away, and I told them.  I told them everything I saw.  I was very shaken, of course.  I went home, they went to the back alley to deal with her body.

Vancouver is the site of a long-term heroin crisis.  This crisis has been made worse by the addition of fetanyl to nearly every drug on the market on the West Coast.  My mother is an addictions counsellor in Vancouver.  Every time I talk to her, she says that her recovery centre has lost 2, 3, 4, 5, or more, guys in the past week or however long it has been since I last talked to her.  Nonetheless, at least Vancouver has engaged in harm-reduction, which at the very least, makes it safer for heroin addicts, in terms of needle exchanges and safe-places for injection.

Vancouver is home to the only heroin-injection clinic in North America. It has been in operation for eight years now, operates at capacity (130 people, only a fraction of the addicts on the streets of the Downtown Eastside of the city), and is controversial, not surprisingly.  In 2013, the then-Health Minister, Rona Ambrose, tried to shut it down, claiming that it enabled addicts.  But it survived.

In Gloucester, Massachusetts, a sea-side town about an hour north of Boston, police there decided to begin treating the opioid crisis as a public health issue in May 2015.   Police Chief Leonard Campanello notes, as many others have, that there has been a failure to stem the flow of illegal drugs into the country (be it Canada or the US), and that, ultimately, we have lost the war on drugs.  Campanello thinks, rather, that it’s a war on addiction.

The important thing to note in both Vancouver and Gloucester is that the police and other agencies there treat addicts as human beings in crisis.  And they treat all addicts as such, class and race are not part of the calculus.  And Vancouver and Gloucester are just two examples of many across both the United States and Canada where jurisdictions have sought to treat addiction as a public health issue in order to engage in harm reduction.

Last month, in Philadelphia, news broke that the staff at the public library branch on McPherson Square in the Kensington neighbourhood had become first-line responders to heroin overdoses in the park.  Several times a day, librarians were rushing out to administer Narcan to people overdosing.  Volunteers scoured the park daily for used needles and other paraphernalia of addiction.  Librarians referred to the addicts out in the park as ‘drug tourists,’ as Philadelphia, as a port city, has a particularly pure form of heroin on its streets.

But, within a couple of weeks, McPherson Square was nearly devoid of addicts.  The police had descended onto the park and pushed them away.  Thus, the addicts were back in the shadows, living and shooting up in abandoned homes, in back alleys, hiding in the dark corners of the city.  And while some community organizations continued their work of trying to help the addicts, it appears that the police in Philadelphia have not turned to a new model, but, rather, to the old model of scaring off drug addicts, criminalizing them and sending them into the shadows.

I don’t think there is anything new or revelatory in what I’ve said here.  Drug addiction is a public health crisis, first and foremost.  Harm reduction in locations like Vancouver and Gloucester have made a difference, they have made positive changes in addicts’ lives, including saving lives and getting people off the streets. And harm reduction programmes have got addicts into rehab and off drugs entirely.  The criminalization of drug addicts does not have such results.

More to the point, society’s response to drug addiction amongst marginal populations (poor white people) and ethnic and racial minorities (marginalized in their own ways) speaks to how we see some people as disposable.  The morality of such a view is beyond my comprehension, it is something I just fundamentally do not understand.

 

Equalization Payments in Canada

July 31, 2017 § Leave a comment

Over the weekend on Twitter, I was caught up in a discussion with an Albertan who didn’t believe that the province, along with British Columbia, is forecast to lead Canada in economic growth.

She argued that the province is still hurting, that big American gas companies had pulled out, and that people were leaving Alberta.  Indeed, in June, Alberta’s unemployment rate was 7.4%, but even then, that was an improvement of 0.4% from May.  But, economic growth does not mean that one can necessarily see the signs of a booming economy.  Alberta’s economy, however, shows signs of recovery, and this 2.9% economic growth, as well as a decline in unemployment rates, shows that.

She also expressed a pretty common bitterness from Albertans about Equalization payments in Canada.  These payments might be the most mis-understood aspect of Canadian federalism.  The common belief in Alberta, which is usually a ‘have’ province (meaning it doesn’t receive equalization payments), is that its money, from oil and gas and everything else, is taken from it and given to the ‘have-not’ provinces (those who receive equalization payments).  This is made all the more galling to Albertans because Quebec is the greatest recipient of equalization payments.

This argument, though, is based on a fundamental mis-understanding of how equalization payments work in Canada.  Equalization payments date back to Canadian Confederation in 1867, as most taxation powers accrued to the federal government.  The formal system of equalization payments dates from 1957, largely to help the Atlantic provinces.  At that time, the two wealthiest provinces, Ontario and British Columbia, were the only two ‘have’ provinces.  And this formal system was enshrined in the Constitution in 1982. Section 36, subsection (2) of the Constitution Act reads:

Parliament and the government of Canada are committed to the principle of making equalization payments to ensure that provincial governments have sufficient revenues to provide reasonably comparable levels of public services at reasonably comparable levels of taxation.

The general idea behind equalization payments is, of course, that there are economic disparities across the nation.  There is any number of reasons for these disparities, which are calculated on a provincial level.  These can include the geographic size of a province, population, the physical geography, or economic activity.

Quebec is a traditional ‘have not’, which seems incongruous with the size and economy of the province.  Montreal, after a generation-long economic decline from the late 1960s to the mid 1990s, has more or less recovered.  If Quebec were a nation of its own (as separatists desire), it would be the 44th largest economy in the world, just behind Norway. It contributes 19.65% of Canada’s GDP.  But Quebec’s economy is marked by massive inequalities.  This is true in terms of Montreal versus much of the rest of the province.  But it is also true within Montreal itself.  Montreal is home to both the richest neighbourhood in the nation, as well as two of the poorest.  Westmount has a median family income of $220,578.  But Downtown Montreal ($32,841) and Parc Ex ($34,211) are the fourth and fifth poorest, respectively, in Canada.

The formula by which equalization payments are made is based on averages across the country.  Here, we’re talking about taxation rates and revenue-generation, based on the national averages of Canada.  Provinces that fall below these averages are ‘have not’ provinces.  Those who fall above it are ‘have’ provinces.  The three wealthiest provinces are usually Ontario, British Columbia, and Alberta.  But all three of these provinces have fallen into ‘have not’ status at various points. In 2017-18, in order of amounts received, the have-nots are: Quebec, Manitoba, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Ontario, and Prince Edward Island.  Quebec, it should be noted, will receive more than the other ‘have-nots’ combined.  The ‘have’ provinces this year are Alberta, British Columbia, Newfoundland & Labrador, and Saskatchewan.

The equalization payments, though, are not a case of taking money from Alberta to pay for Quebec’s social programs.  The funds are not based on how much one province pays for its health care system, or for a universal child care system, or cheap tuition at the province’s universities (Quebec has both universal child care and cheap tuition for in-province students).  Rather, the funds come out of the same general revenue stream that Ottawa has to fund ALL of its programmes and services.  And, each and every Canadian contributes to this revenue stream.  Thus, the fine people of Westmount contribute more to equalization payments (and general revenue) than the middle-class residents of suburban Calgary, or a person in a lower income bracket in Saskatchewan.  And, because there are more Quebecers than there are Albertans, Quebec actually contributes more to the equalization payment scheme.

It is not just angry Albertans who believe they are getting hosed by the federal government.  Many Quebecers will rail against their province’s funding priorities and point to the province’s status as a ‘have not’ as to why it should not have these programmes.  Both positions are factually wrong, and based on a fundamental misunderstanding of Canada’s equalization payments.

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