Friday, October 31, 2008

Here at the end of all things, you can (apparently) blame me

This is too funny. I received an email from someone calling him/herself "Nudar (The Rular)" with a link to a video titled "Obama's Loss Traced to Chris Lockett." This is what I saw:

When you come to the end of the video, a screen appears encouraging you to customize the video for your friends and send it on.

I love this. It's like a virtual chain letter, but funny and entertaining. "I'm worried John McCain will bomb my goats. He is a crazy man!"

All that remains is to figure out who this Nudar fellow is. I have my suspicions.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Cautious (cautious!) optimism

OK, so it has become apparent from the various comments and emails from friends that I've kind of been obsessing a wee bit over the American election, and have expressed sentiments about Barack Obama that verge on the worshipful.

And what I have to say to that is ... well, ya got me. True enough.

I will however stop quite short of getting myself the Obama Cabbage Patch doll, an image of which my friend Arlene kindly sent me. And I hereby forbid anyone to get one of these for me for Christmas! My admiration for the Senator does have limits ... and besides, as you can see, the doll really bears almost no resemblance to him. In fact, if it looks like anyone at all, it's Gary Coleman. (Anyone making a Whad'you talking bout? joke in the comments will be banned from this blog.)

Incidentally, there are also Cabbage Patch dolls for Sarah Palin and John McCain:

I think the McCain doll is the most lifelike, don't you?

In other news, I'm starting to nurse some cautious optimism. (Cautious optimism! Did you hear that, Fates? CAUTIOUS! Really, hardly optimism at all! Far be it for me to tempt the wrath of the guy from high atop the thing ...). There's a lot of back-and-forthing among the various pundits of late, pointing to Obama's static numbers, and a narrowing of his lead in some polls. However, things do look much better when you look at the electoral map. While I generally tend to find the whole electoral college system kind of fukakta, I'm taking some comfort in it now. Obama needs 270 electoral votes to take the election. At the time of this posting, a tally of the states in which he has a double-digit lead in the polls gives him 254; a tally including states with a single-digit lead gives him 375. Conversely, McCain's two-digit lead states give him 118, and with the rest he has 157. Which means that, to win on Tuesday, he has to take 113 electoral votes away from states in which Obama leads. Obama on the other hand has to cinch 16 votes, which he can do if he takes Ohio, where he's currently leading by six points.

I just want to conclude by assuring the Guy High Atop The Thing that I offer these numbers as an entirely neutral curiosity and am not making predictions or suggestion that anything here means anything at all.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Wassup? ... parte the seconde

Remember that Budweiser ad where all the friends are calling each other and yelling "Wassup?" into the phone? Remember how incredibly irritating that got? Especially when it went into its predictable popular culture half-life and everyone you knew was yelling "Wassup??" at you until you started feeling vaguely homicidal?

I blame Budweiser, because the ad was based on a short film that made the festival circuits, and had it not been picked up as a beer ad it might have remained a subcultural phenomenon (with a revival after the rise of YouTube, to be certain).

Several days ago, the original cast of the original film short posted a "sequel" on YouTube. And speaking as someone who went twitchy for many years on hearing "wassup?", this is really worth a watch ....

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Ozymandias in Dubai

On the radio this morning was a report that the global economic downturn and the fall in oil prices is having an effect in the Arab city of Dubai, that notoriously opulent oasis of wealth and excess in the middle of the desert. The most significant fallout would seem to be the delaying of construction of a one kilometer-tall office tower. No, that’s not a typo—one kilometer, which incidentally, is twice as tall as the World Trade Center was. I’m not sure if this report referred to the ongoing construction of the Burj Dubai skyscraper, projected to top out at 700-800 meters, or another project entirely; either way, even in its uncompleted form, the Burj Dubai has topped the CN Tower.

I suppose there’s a Tower of Babel reference to be made here, but the image that’s sticking in my mind—the one that always sticks in my mind when I see pictures of Dubai—isn’t so much a tower crashing down as one deserted and desiccated in the middle of an empty wasteland. Like many of the nations of the Middle East, Dubai survives—and flourishes—on oil money. It is touted as the fastest growing city in the world, having grown in a very short space of time from a small, dusty burg to a gleaming metropolis that features some of the most daring and innovative (and in some cases, ugly) engineering and architecture in the world. It has built, among other things, an indoor ski hill, an underwater hotel, and a man-made archipelago of islands that shape a map of the world.

There’s a line somewhere between architecture that celebrates the nobility of the human spirit and that which articulates the vulgarity of excess. I’m not certain where that line gets drawn, but I’m reasonably certain Dubai has pole-vaulted over it. In some circles, the city is celebrated as the vindication of free-range capitalism, with its exponential growth facilitated by zero percent in corporate taxes and one hundred percent foreign ownership of property allowed. Similarly, its enthusiasts point to the fact that, despite being a Muslim city, has access to every form of vice from oceans of booze to hot and cold running hookers (this, presumably, vindicating the Fukuyama argument that capitalism in its purest form pulls the teeth of tyranny).

I read a remarkable book this summer by Alan Weisman titled The World Without Us, in which he poses a hypothetical question: if every human being on earth were to disappear tomorrow, what would become of all the structures we left behind? In other words, how long would our fingerprint remain on the world once we were no longer around to maintain it? How long before the earth reabsorbed all the monuments to our existence?

The short answer is: surprisingly quickly. Weisman’s book is one of those remarkable hybrid creations—part thought experiment, part environmental disquisition, part dystopian meditation—that leaves the reader with a striking series of images. Granted, I have always been drawn to post-apocalyptic novels that imagine a world shorn of most of the human race, but Weisman takes it in another direction altogether and reminds us of the transience of human creations.

I thought of Weisman’s book this morning when hearing about Dubai on the radio, because I cannot see images of that city without seeing it as a monument to oil-based wealth—wealth that is, by extension, non-renewable after a certain point. Depending on who you listen to, at our current rate of consumption we’re good for another century or so or already looking at the prospect of massive decline in the coming years. This latter position is that of the “peak oilers,” groups arguing that we are coming to, or have already past, the point of peak oil retrieval, and that we will be seeing dramatically diminishing returns that will lead to a global energy crisis. Their detractors call this suggestion mere doom-saying, and suggest that world oil reserves are far healthier than the apocalyptos would have us believe.

I wouldn’t know about that, but … um … the oil will run out one day, right? We’re all in agreement about that? Anyway: with that in mind, I cannot look at pictures of Dubai without seeing them as they’ll appear at some stage in the future … empty, cracking, broken glass, the streets reclaimed by desert. I’m at heart an optimist, and so I have faith in people to rise to challenges—as we’re faced with right now, environmentally and otherwise—but the seeming inevitability of Dubai’s fall, its transformation one day into a broken monument of glass and steel in the midst of an empty desert puts me in mind of Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias”:

I met a Traveler from an antique land,
Who said, “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read,
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
My name is OZYMANDIAS, King of Kings.
Look on my works ye Mighty, and despair!
No thing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that Colossal Wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Saturday, October 25, 2008

The importance of being earnestly Canadian

Before I say anything else about Passchendaele, let’s establish one point of unequivocal praise: as a director, Paul Gross has got some game. I’m speaking here in terms of what the film nerds call mise en scene—basically, the composition of shots, or to literally translate, “setting in scene.” He did an extraordinary job of the film’s general look, be it the pastoral sequences on the Alberta prairies or the brutality of the crater-pitted Belgian countryside. From a purely aesthetic perspective, Passchendaele is a triumph. From a narrative and story perspective ... well, not so much.

I really, really wanted to love this film. And when I say this, I mean I wanted to love this film from the moment I heard that Paul Gross was doing a film about the travails of the Canadian Army in WWI. I love Paul Gross, and I love Canadian military history. In spite of the fact that I speak from the political left, I’m all about the Canadian military, now and historically. I’m a military history junkie, and one of my favourite books is Pierre Berton’s Vimy. I think Canadians undervalue this tradition, and we really should celebrate the fact that we have one of the best trained armed forces in the world. There’s a moment in the film, present in the trailers, that I admit makes me happy—when a Canadian officer tells Sgt. Michael Dunne (Paul Gross’ character) that “the enemy has a name for us ... they call us ‘stormtroopers’.” I admit: right then there was, for me, a moment of unbridled patriotism, something akin to the weird validation I felt yesterday morning when I heard an American foreign policy expert tell David Frum on CBC Radio that “the Canadian forces in Afghanistan have behaved magnificently.” Yes, I would imagine they have. The Canadian Armed Forces have a remarkable history, which effectively started in WWI, but progressed through Operation Torch and Juno Beach in WWII, the Korean War, and through the various peacekeeping duties assumed in Vietnam, Cyprus, the Balkans, Rwanda, and elsewhere. A military that has produced the likes of Generals Lewis Mackenzie, Romeo Dallaire, and Rick Hillier has no cause to be humble.

[Note to readers: what follows for the next two paragraphs is me indulging in a dilettante-esque recapitulation of some WWI history, a digression of the sort my students are all too familiar with. Feel free to skip it].

Or generals like Sir Arthur Currie for that matter, our Canadian supreme commander in WWI. Marginalized by his British superiors earlier in the war, he was given increasing autonomy in part as a result of Prime Minister Robert Borden’s repeated insistence that Canadian troops not be subjected to the hidebound dicta of the British command, which resulted in such catastrophes as the Battle of the Somme. But Currie was also given freer reign as it became clear that Canadian troops could accomplish what the British and French forces could not. This did not set them apart from other Commonwealth nations, mind you: Australian and New Zealand troops comported themselves comparably well, leading the British commanders to sniff that life in the colonies obviously toughened these chaps up. But in reality, Canadian forces were not so blindly bound to nineteenth-century military dogma, which entailed putting large numbers of enlisted men under lieutenants and sergeants with no room given for individual initiative. When the principal tactic of warfare was to stand in long lines and blast away at the enemy with muskets at close range, this kind of fierce discipline was what won battles (and what made the Redcoats the most formidable infantry in the eighteenth and nineteenth century). It does not however tend to work that well when confronted with accurate, quick-firing long-range rifles and machine guns; but marching wave after wave of soldiers at a brisk walk into enemy fire was what Sir Douglas Haig, commander of the British Expeditionary Force, did in battle after battle (leading a German general to morosely observe that the British soldiers were “lions led by donkeys”).

Given more or less a free hand at Vimy Ridge—which his British superiors did not expect his men to take—Arthur Currie encouraged individual initiative, breaking the massive blocks of soldiers employed in British-style attacks down into smaller squads of eight and four men under the command of corporals and lesser sergeants. This gave the Canadian line both more flexibility and a greater esprit de corps as the smaller squads vied with each other over the successes of the night-time raids on German emplacements in the weeks leading up to the assault on the ridge. These changes, combined with a more flexible and effective system of communication between officers and the troops in the battle and the refinement of the creeping barrage, took Vimy Ridge in mere hours and won for Canadian troops a fearsome reputation on both sides of no-man’s land.

Sorry for the history lecture—in my alternative life where I’m still an academic, I’m a military historian.

All the foregoing I say to emphasize the desire I had to love Passchendaele (and to inform those who might not otherwise know, that I’m a history geek). I was also very concerned that it was going to be very bad, as the trailers made it look like it would commit the typical sins of earnestness and clumsiness that mark so many Canadian filmic projects. Indeed, if you had somehow missed seeing the spelling of “Passchendaele” in the ads and had a general ignorance of WWI, you could be forgiven for thinking the film’s title was “Passion Dale,” for all the lingering pastoral shots of Paul Gross and Catherine Dhavernas. I worried that this film would awkwardly suture a stilted love story onto an overly sincere rah-rah-Canada war narrative. And ... well, it sort of did, but it wasn’t quite as cringe-inducing as I had feared.

For those who don’t want to know details of the film’s plot, here is where I say SPOILER ALERT.

The uncharitable would call this film a vanity project on the part of Paul Gross, but I don’t agree. I honestly believe it was a labour of love for him, and while the distinction between those two things can sometimes get blurry, I applaud his dedication to this project. The problem however is that it becomes more difficult to distance oneself when you’re writer, director, co-producer and star. Paul Gross really needed to step back a little and let some other, subtler hands work on the script. It felt as though he were trying to cram everything possible into the story.

To wit: Paul Gross is Michael Dunne, a sergeant in the CEF. At Ypres, he watches his buddies get taken out by a machine gun nest, which he then blows apart with a grenade, and in a moment that haunts him for the rest of the film—his original sin, if you like—he bayonets through the forehead (ouch) a very young German soldier who was trying to surrender . Unable to reconcile that act with the medal he is awarded, he goes AWOL, is invalided back to Canada, and rather than being tried for desertion is diagnosed with neurasthenia, or shell shock, and assigned to the recruitment office. He falls in love with Sarah, who was his nurse, whose father was killed at Vimy Ridge. Sarah’s younger brother David is in love with Cassie, the daughter of a local doctor. David is asthmatic, and has for that reason been rejected from military service. Cassie’s father effectively tells him that until he sees fit to serve in uniform, he’s not man enough to marry his daughter. Michael Dunne refuses to enlist David, even though his superior officer is willing to look the other way on the asthma.

We discover at this point that Sarah and David’s father, born in Bavaria, had died at Vimy Ridge fighting for the Germans. Apparently Sarah and Michael’s neighbours discover this at the same time as us in the audience, because there is quite suddenly an awful lot of anti-German sentiment expressed, as Sarah loses her job as a nurse and her house has its windows broken and “HUN” painted in red on the walls. We similarly discover that David’s desire to enlist stems as much from his hatred for his father’s choice and his desire to symbolically kill him as it does from satisfying Sarah’s father. Michael has meanwhile come to Sarah’s rescue, of course, spiriting her away from her house and holing her up at his small flat, where she can get clean. Oh, wait—I didn’t mention that Sarah’s addicted to morphine? Sorry: Sarah’s addicted to morphine. She and the sweet and gentle Michael Dunne naturally hook up at this point, and while they’re dallying David gets Sarah’s doctor father to write him a medical note allowing him to enlist. Sarah gets the mistaken impression that it was Michael who enlisted him, so of course Michael re-enlists so that he can protect David. Sarah discovers her mistake and volunteers as a nurse on the Western Front, very conveniently getting assigned to the very place Michael and David end up.

With me so far? The general bones of the narrative are pretty strong, if not particularly original—but then again, one does not go see a war movie, at least not one that is self-consciously “epic,” for originality. The problem, besides this seeming need to cram as much business as possible into the plot, is that much of the above feels extremely stagy and contrived, and the dialogue is at times painfully stilted and awkward. There is, also, something of a requisite tokenism in the Canadian ranks, with a French-Canadian and a native soldier featured fairly prominently. The imagery and symbolism is similarly heavy-handed, with a recurrent bird motif in the form of the kestrel , and a sort of “sins of the father” theme that builds to a rather ham-handed ending sequence. Something we hear about frequently is an occasion where the Germans ostensibly crucified a Canadian soldier against a barn door. Michael Dunne is having none of that however, repeatedly telling people that “artillery explosions can throw bodies into the most bizarre poses.” At this point, the foreshadowing bell goes off in the head, and we know someone’s getting crucified by artillery before the film is out. The question is: is it David or Michael?

As it happens, it’s David. After the hard-pressed Canadian forces repel the first German assault, David goes a little nuts and starts charging after the retreating enemy, somehow making it all the way to their trenches where he finds himself about to be shot by a German officer. Before this can happen, a shell lands in the trench—throwing the duckboards up vertical, with David pinned there by barbed wire (a veritable crown of thorns). What follows could have been a very moving and powerful scene if it had been a bit less painfully symbolic—if David had been wounded in no-man’s land and Michael Dunne had run out to rescue him. Because of course Michael goes to the rescue: at first dodging bullets and mortars, and taking a wound high in the chest. As he nears David however, the German officer calls ceasefire and they all watch in awe as Michael drags himself toward David—again, a potentially powerful moment if it weren’t for the literal crucifixion, to say nothing of the fact that Michael pauses a moment, apparently spent, on his knees in the mud before David. And then of course we have the excruciatingly long sequence of Michael carrying David—still affixed to the cross—back to Canadian lines. I honestly haven't seen such self-indulgent Christ imagery since the closing sequence of Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet. I suppose we should be grateful the Michael and David weren’t named Peter and Christian.

Considering the symbolic logic in place, it comes as no surprise that David survives and Michael dies from his wounds: expiating his original sin of killing the young German at the film’s start, and sacrificing his life that David may live. It may have been David that was crucified, but the Christ figure comes through pretty clearly at the end.

My problem with all this is that, to paraphrase Rupert Giles, the subtext of the film quite emphatically becomes text. There’s a painful earnestness here: as if Paul Gross was concerned that we might not get it. Well, we got it. Again and again and again. Which is truly a shame, because otherwise Passchendaele is a very noble endeavour. The problem with noble endeavours however is that they often simply don’t make good art.

That being said, I will cop to my own moment of helpless sentimentality: at the very end, when Sarah, Cassie, David and Highway—the native soldier—stand before Michael Dunne’s grave, the final shot shows the lonely grave-marker suddenly surrounded by the gravestones of hundreds of Canadian soldiers. That was when the weeping started for me.

What can I say, I'm weak.

Friday, October 24, 2008

I dunno ... I just don't think I want to triple my salary if I have to pay that extra $121 to the tax man ...

Joe the Plumber just won't go away. I wonder how long it will be before he gets his own action figure.

David Frum guest-hosted The Current on CBC Radio this morning from Washington D.C. He was speaking to a conservative economist whose name I missed just as I pulled into work today, who professed himself "terrified" at the prospect of a Democratic White House and Congress. While this is unsurprising (perhaps I should direct him to my recent blog post about conservatives endorsing Obama, in case he missed the bandwagon), he also trotted out one of those arguments about Obama's tax plan that contains a certain kind of logic I've never understood.

The argument, paraphrased, goes something like this: "You've got the Joe the Plumber type of guy, who works hard, putting in his twelve-hour days so he can buy his own company ... but if he realizes that, once he does that, he'll get hit with higher taxes, is he going to bother?"

I always hear this sort of argument and think to myself "Um ... yes?" Keeping in mind of course that at this point Joe the Plumber is an entirely fictional and hypothetical figure, let's work from the numbers: the average plumber in the U.S., it was reported, earns somewhere in the neighbourhood of $40K-$60K. Under the Obama plan, he would save $1118 in taxes, and $325 under McCain's plan. His projected income, were he to purchase his company, would be around $250K -- a healthy jump, I think we'll all admit. Now, whether that is what his company would earn or what he would himself be making was never made entirely clear; but it still constitutes a fourfold increase in earnings. With McCain's planned tax cuts, he would get back an extra $8,159 -- not chump change. So what is the exhorbitantly high amount of extra taxes he would pay under Obama's plan? $121. Seriously.

Still -- let's say for the sake of argument that he would pay under Obama what he would save under McCain. Is this a serious detriment to making the transition from a $60K job to a $250K job?

All of these numbers, by the bye, come from

In other news, I'm starting to think that Joe Six-Pack and Joe the Plumber are starting to feel lonely, and need an expanded family of working-class cliches. How about Waitress Jane and Joe the Short-Order Cook? Or Joe Trailer Park? I welcome suggestions ...

Thursday, October 23, 2008

I want to take my next vacation in Fake America

My favourite moments on The Daily Show are when you can see the absurdity or stupidity of the day's politics get to Jon Stewart, and the facade cracks a little. Sometimes, like on his brilliant appearance on Crossfire, he drops the comedian's mask deliberately; sometimes, like on election night 2004, a certain despair shows through. And then there are those times when you can tell he has been genuinely pissed off, and it adds an extra edge to his satire. Such was the occasion of this past Monday's show, where he reacts to the words of Sarah Palin and some McCain aides when they characterized some parts of America -- especially small towns -- as the "real" America. These they counterpoised to those parts of the country that are "anti" America, or, in Sarah Palin's words: "We believe that the best of America is in the small towns that we get to visit, and in these wonderful little pockets of what I call 'real' America, being here with all of you hard-working, very patriotic, very pro-America areas of this great nation."

Now, even in a campaign that has been marked by mendacity and polarizing language, these sort of characterizations reach a new low, and you sort of saw that on Monday night on Jon's face. As he clarifies Palin's comments: "So, if small towns are 'real' America, that would make big cities like Washington D.C. and New York City the capitals of 'fake' America -- like the epicenter of fake America, the -- oh, what's the word I'm looking for? -- the 'Ground Zero' if you will of fake America. I'll bet bin Laden feels like a real asshole now! 'What?! I bombed the wrong America?!"

See the full clip here.

As a rather amusing footnote to Palin's comments, I read in the paper this morning that the Republican National Committee has spent some $150,000 on clothing for her -- now that's a small town wardrobe! Even more amusing than this stratospheric spending is where, apparently, most of these clothes were purchased: at, according to the NY Times, "Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus, Macy’s, Barneys New York and Atelier New York."

Fake America: where your discerning small-town Real American shops for clothes while scanning for terrorists.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Corrections and outrages

Ok, so remember that time I mentioned that Barack Obama had been endorsed by former secretaries of state Kissinger, Eagleburger, Haig and Baker? Turns out I got that one exactly wrong. Oops. I still love the name Eagleburger, though.

Distressingly but utterly unsurprisingly, the endorsement I did get right -- Powell's -- has excited a response from the wingnut right dubbing him "Benedict Powell," and accusing him of endorsing Obama based solely on the consideration of race. A cartoon by Gordon Campbell (not the premier of BC, another one) recreates the famous image of Benedict Arnold, except in blackface and with the caption "Benedict Powell: Race Patriot."

Rush Limbaugh said, "Secretary Powell says his endorsement is not about race. OK, fine. I am now researching his past endorsements to see if I can find all the inexperienced, very liberal, white candidates he has endorsed." (As George Zornick retorts to that, "Powell usually only endorses inexperienced, very conservative, white candidates. He even works for them!") And a pair of particularly idiotic talk-radio wingnuts maintain that Powell is endorsing Obama because "he's tired of being called an 'oreo' ... he wants to be black again ..."

Again, this is hardly surprising, but it is still infuriating. I have little doubt that Colin Powell, like most African-Americans, is heartened by the prospect of a black president. The very fact of Obama's nomination is a seismic event in the history of race in America -- and for what it's worth, there are vast numbers of white people, yours truly included, who feel the same way.

But to suggest that someone like Powell, whose entire career has been marked by thoughtful and cautious deliberation, was moved to this endorsement solely on the basis of skin colour is simply ludicrous.

On the other hand, one of the more entertaining aspects of this campaign, especially since the economic crisis has made people more inclined to look for leadership and substance rather than ad hominem attacks and trivia, has been watching the Rush Limbaughs of the world flail with increasing impotence. Four years ago, watching with increasingy disbelief as Bush's victory mounted, I wondered just what it would take for the U.S. elctorate to come to its senses. I guess we're seeing the answer to that question now.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Obama's new constituency

It is really rather painful to watch the ongoing American election knowing I cannot vote in it. Every time I see an encouraging news report that gives Obama a comfortable lead, or read a column like this one by Charles M. Blow in which he announces that it’s all over but the shouting and the Obamas can start measuring drapes in the Oval, I recall the last two U.S. elections. The margins by which Obama leads (on average) are comparable to those held by Al Gore in 2000, and let’s not forget that the exit polls in 2004 were trending toward John Kerry. Every time someone predicts a blowout for Obama I cringe, infected as I am by the congenital liberal certainty of doom.

On the brighter side of things however, an ongoing source of both hope and amusement has been in seeing conservatives south of the border attacking the McCain campaign or, in some cases, going so far as to endorse Obama.

What conservatives, you ask, are endorsing Obama? Well, none other that the inveterate pro-Iraq War hawk Christopher Hitchens, who writes in Slate that the debates “showed Sen. John McCain to be someone suffering from an increasingly obvious and embarrassing deficit, both cognitive and physical.” Further, “the only public events that have so far featured his absurd choice of running mate have shown her to be a deceiving and unscrupulous woman utterly unversed in any of the needful political discourses but easily trained to utter preposterous lies and to appeal to the basest element of her audience.” Say what you will about Christopher Hitchens (and I could say a lot), but he does have a way with words.

But it doesn’t end there … Christopher Buckley, scion of William F. Buckley, has also endorsed Obama in a column titled “Sorry Dad, I’m voting Obama.” In it, he says of McCain that his “once-first class temperament has become irascible and snarly; his positions change, and lack coherence; he makes unrealistic promises.” For his pains, Christopher (gotta say, I like the way the Christopher bloc is shaping up here) was turfed from The National Review, a periodical founded by Buckley Sr.

And most recently? Our old friend Colin Powell, formerly Bush’s secretary of state, and the most vocal moderate in Bush’s cabinet—which, to quote John Stewart, also made him “the blackest moderate, the whitest moderate, the tallest moderate, the shortest moderate …” You get the idea. Yes, just yesterday Powell went on Meet the Press and stated that the recent negative campaigning by McCain tipped the balance for him, as he “thought that was over the top,” and “was beyond just good political fighting back and forth.” He further called Obama a "transformational" figure, and that while Powell has a great amount of respect for McCain, it is time for a generational change.

Powell, incidentally, joins other former republican secretaries of state Henry Kissinger (seriously), Alexander Haig (who served under Reagan), James Baker (Bush Sr.’s administration) and Lawrence Eagleburger (who also served briefly under Bush Sr.) in endorsing Obama.

(Can I just say that I love the name Eagleburger? It sounds like a lunch special in the Capitol Building cafeteria, something you would order with a side of freedom fries).

Looking back over this list—to say nothing of the condemnations of McCain’s campaign by such staunch conservatives as Kathleen Parker and David Frum—I've got to say, if you’re John McCain you really have to be wondering “just how far from the pack have I strayed?”

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Thoughts on voting and why Jack Layton should have let me run his campaign

Another election come and gone, and the shift in the political landscape is both so slight and so expected that one might feel that not voting was forgivable. And indeed it would have been, except for one small problem: not voting is unforgivable.

I polled my second-year class last Thursday, and about half of my students admitted to not voting. (To be fair, only one person in my fourth-year class didn’t vote, so either my senior students are more politically conscientious or more dishonest. I choose to believe the former). This pathetic turnout does not, alas, come as a surprise, as the apathy of voters in the 18-25 range is an oft-repeated statistic around election time. And as Rick Mercer pointed out in a recent rant, it is exactly this apathy that gives government carte blanche to ignore the concerns of young Canadians—and that if they should ever get their shit together and represent at the ballot box, they’d be a force to be reckoned with.

Of course, many see this seeming antipathy to voting as evidence of a more pervasive apathy and narcissism on the part of the Facebook generation. This perception is not however borne out in reality: 15-24 year olds, according to Statistics Canada, are the most likely of all age groups to be volunteering their time; fifty-five percent volunteer an average of 139 hours a year, and four out of five in that age group follow the news on a regular basis. Indeed, as Patrick White notes in last weekend’s Globe and Mail, the very digital culture often decried as the source of apathy in fact facilitates and aids this activism.

This energy does not however translate into voting, apparently. Why? The most obvious answer lies in a comparison between our recent election and the upcoming American one. Barack Obama has mobilized the youth vote in a way many (and I grudgingly include myself with this cynical lot) once thought unlikely, if not actually impossible. Young voters in the U.S. have responded with extraordinary enthusiasm to a charismatic and eloquent candidate, and to an exceptionally deft use of internet and wireless technology—their lingua franca—as a key campaign tool. The Obama campaign has consistently caught his opponents flat-footed in this specific area, and have changed the nature of campaigning as a result.

In terms of having a candidate who energizes the electorate, this can and has happened here. Drop a Trudeau into the mix and see what happens (figuratively speaking—as likeable and attractive as Justin is, I have yet to see evidence of his father’s intellect, charisma and audacity).

It would also, of course, help to speak to the youth vote to get those voters interested—which is why I would have liked to have been Jack Layton’s campaign manager in either of our last two elections.

Jack (I’d say to him), listen here: you can talk all you want about running for prime minister, but honestly, no one takes that seriously. You’re not going to be PM. But as the saying goes, you’re not going to win, so you can’t lose. And seriously: repeating the same-old NDP talking points isn’t going to win over anyone not already inside your camp.

What you can do is mobilize the most traditionally apathetic group of voters in a way that will have Harper and Dion running scared. And you can do that by making the central plank of your campaign platform about post-secondary education and the funding for it. To wit, a three-point plan:

1. Amnesty on all extant student loans.
2. Nation-wide tuition freezes, and tuition rollbacks on the most expensive universities and colleges.
3. The re-introduction of national grants for exceptional and low-income students.

Unveil this three-point plan—hell, just unveil the first point!—and you will see young Canadians respond like never before.

Of course, the other parties will attack this plan as a stunt ... which, admittedly, it sort of is. HOWEVER—and this is a big however—there are very real reasons why this plan is a good idea. I’m no economist, but it strikes me that there are tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of twenty- and thirty-somethings paying hundreds of dollars a month in student loans. Pop quiz: what would be a better economic stimulus, relieving young people of a proportionally massive financial burden that prevents them from investing or buying houses, or a tax break for higher-income Canadians?

Furthermore, you can frame this plan not as a handout but as investment in the knowledge economy. Remind Messrs. Harper and Dion that the greatest period of economic expansion and prosperity in North America exactly coincided with the greatest expansion of and enrolment in post-secondary institutions. Say as well that greater funding for universities and colleges will allow them to raise academic standards because they won’t be as obsessed with student retention. Speaking as an English professor, I can attest to the fine line we walk between maintaining academic rigor and not scaring off students by being too rigorous. Our funding is tied to enrolment: we are thus, both implicitly and explicitly, enjoined from flunking out too many students or driving them into other programs by being too demanding. By giving universities and colleges more breathing room to reduce class sizes, hire new faculty and raise academic standards, we improve the quality of our graduates—which only benefits the country and the economy.

Keep in mind here that I am no neutral observer, but an academic and thus deeply invested in the health and vigour of this country’s universities and colleges. That being said however, I’d stake a lot on the bet that this strategy would result in the best NDP showing at the federal level ever. You might even become the official Opposition. Meanwhile, however much the other parties might honk about gimmicks and stunts, they would have no choice but to respond—and then they’re playing by your script, forced to court the voters you’ve energized.

Of course, I’m not Jack Layton’s campaign manager, and am unlikely ever to be. But to anyone in the 18-25 age range reading this—both those who voted and those who did not—I challenge you all to make this a critical issue in the next election. Because, hey ... it’s a minority government again. An election could happen any day now.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Some thoughts on Joe the Plumber and Horatio Alger

I switched on the presidential debate about five minutes in last night, and was almost immediately bewildered by the repeated invocation of "Joe the Plumber" as the epitome, apparently, of working-class America. My three main thoughts, in the order that I had them, were "Who the fuck is Joe the Plumber?" "Is he Joe Six-Pack's brother-in-law, or something?" and, "Why is every working-class American cliche named 'Joe'?"

I have since learned that Joe the Plumber is a real person -- Joe Wurzelbacher of Toledo, Ohio -- who asked a question of Obama about his tax plan. The nub of the matter, and what McCain tried to hammer Obama about, was that Joe wants to buy the business he works for, but that if he succeeds in doing so he will then likely be earning over $250,000 a year -- which is the point at which Obama's proposed tax hike kicks in. Joe is thus ambivalent , because while he is currently in the bracket that will see his taxes go down under Obama's plan, he has his eye on a future success that will see him (again, under Obama's plan) being taxed more.

Joe the Plumber, thanks to John McCain's adoption of his quandary in last night's debate, has suddenly become a national figure; even before last night, he was interviewed on Fox News, in which he said "[Obama] said he wants to distribute wealth. And I mean, I'm not trying to make statements here, but, I mean, that's kind of a socialist viewpoint. You know, I work for that. You know, it's my discretion who I want to give my money to, it's not the government decide that I make a little too much and so I need to share it with other people. I just -- that's not the American Dream."

Ah, the American Dream ... the reason I'm kind of fascinated with Joe the Plumber is that he's a living embodiment of the contradiction inherent in the American Dream. First of all, kudos to Joe for having worked so hard to be in a position to be one of the few who can genuinely claim to represent the substance of that dream, the rags-to-riches narrative that Horatio Alger used in his two hundred and seventy dime novels about penniless but spunky young men who rose to be captains of industry. The problem is, Joe the Plumber is the exception to the rule, and Obama phrased it rather well in last night's debate when he pointed out "five years ago, when you were in the position to buy your business, you needed a tax cut then."

One of the great problems at the heart of the American Dream is that it makes lower-incomes reluctant to tax millionaires, because they cling to the hope that they might one day be millionaires. Joe the Plumber's dilemma exemplifies this equivocation: do you want to be more heavily taxed, proportionally, when you have less money or when you have more? I suppose the Republican (and Conservative) answer is "none of the above", but with two wars, crumbling infrastructure and a $700B bailout in the works, that seems less and less feasible. That raging socialist Oliver Wendell Holmes himself once said “I like paying taxes. With them I buy civilization.”*

Of course, Obama didn't do himself any favours when he said to Joe "I just want to make sure that everybody who is behind you that they've got a chance to success, too. I think when you spread the wealth around, it's good for everybody." Ouch -- and a bell went off at Fox News and McCain campaign headquarters (I know, tomato, toh-mah-toh), if the number of times McCain used the phrase "spread the wealth around" during the debate is any indication. I know that in a certain part of the conservative mind "spreading the wealth around" = "communism," but can we not perhaps agree that this equation is both simplistic and disingenuous? That government's principal function, be it big or small, is to redistribute wealth (i..e. taxes) for roads, bridges, running water, the civil service, and education? To say nothing of that little government agency called the Department of Defense?

I don't know anyone who likes paying taxes or who sends in their forms in April with a cheerful smile, and I certainly remember feeling blindsided when I looked at how much was taken off my first real paycheck. And this is all perhaps an academic argument for me, as I'm unlikely to ever be in the quarter-million dollar salary range (or to be taxed by the IRS rather than Revenue Canada, for that matter), but if I was looking to make that kind of money ten or twenty years down the road and I could choose whether to pay proportionally more tax now or then, that would be a no-brainer for me.


*Thomas Friedman had an excellent column on taxes and patriotism recently. Read it here.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Deja vu all over again ... and again and again ...

Let's take stock: we have a minority Conservative government, a hobbled Liberal party with a weak leader likely on his way out, and a populace disaffected by small-minded, nasty campaigning.

What was it Marx said about history repeating itself first as tragedy and then as farce? Obviously, he was never very familiar with Canadian politics, or he'd have said something to the effect of farce being all around us. I feel it in my fingers, I feel it in my bones ...

Nothing like election results to spoil the idealistic high of election day.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Twelve things I want out of this election

  1. I want a government that features those with an interest in and talent for governing in control, with the ideologues relegated to the opposition or back-benches. Don't get me wrong: ideologues have their place in government. They are invaluable in presenting the minority or unpopular opinion, in acting as government's conscience and in keeping government honest; but they also tend to be the ones who, when in power, rule with the arrogance that says they know better than everyone else. We saw this with two catastrophic Ontario governments in a row from opposite ends of the political spectrum -- Bob Rae's NDP and Mike Harris' Conservatives -- and we see it in so many of Stephen Harper's statements. I want a government, in other words, that governs by thoughtful consensus and not by fiat.

  2. I want a government that will stop thinking in terms of "taxpayers" and reintroduce the concept of "citizens."

  3. I want a government that recognizes who is in charge. In her first Massey lecture this past Sunday in St. John's, Margaret Atwood reminded us that that government are public servants, and they are there to work for us. I want a government that will not only remember this, or deign to acknowledge it on occasion, but will make it their most basic philosophical principle.

  4. I want a government that recognizes that a society's health and vibrancy is directly reflected in the health and vibrancy of its art and culture.

  5. I want a government and an opposition that will talk to each other and the Canadian people as adults with fully functioning intellects, whose fears and concerns deserve careful and meaningful consideration and discussion rather than petulant grousing, partisan blinders and ad hominem attacks.

  6. I want a government and an opposition that knows the difference between genuine issues on one hand, and trivia, gossip, gaffes and blunders on the other -- and which treats them accordingly.

  7. I want a government that raises the bar for Canadians, and challenges us to rise to the occasion.

  8. I want a government that listens to the words and voices of Canadians instead of polling numbers.

  9. I want a government whose social agenda is in inverse proportion to individuals' and groups' wealth and influence -- a government whose first task is to help the least of us.

  10. I want a government that will offer creative solutions to our most intractable problems. As someone left of center, I am in principle in favour of larger government, but I must acknowledge that too often the expedient solution, from welfare to education to corporate collapse, is to simply throw money at a problem ... which inevitably leads to graft, to waste, and to the justifiable rage on the part of Canadians at such profligacy. I want to see, in other words, solutions to problems that involve more that writing a cheque. I want to see, in other words, brains at work in my goverment.

  11. I want a government with a vision of government that is more than an ad hoc series of loosely related and opportunistic policies. I want political discourse to be about more than taxes and partisanship.

  12. I want a government whose leaders will sit down and remember what optimism and hope and desire to help the nation got them into public service to begin with -- and if none of those elements were there to begin with, to get the hell out of politics.

Because, seriously -- why on earth would be we willing to accept anything less from those we entrust with the leadership of our country?