Friday, January 30, 2009

Free advice to email scams: invest in a proofreader

About every other week I get an email purporting to be from RBC, telling me that something has gone wrong with my account. Aside from the obvious fact that, in the event of a serious problem, a bank isn't about to email you (along with the fact that I also get comparable email notices from Scotiabank, the Bank of Montreal and TD, none of which I have accounts with), there are often little clues in the messages themselves. I received this one this morning:

Your access to Online Services has been suspended. Due to a miss-match access code between your Security information. To enable you continue accessing your online account it will only take you few minutes to re-activate your account. Click on the link below and you will taken straight to where you can activate your account.

Now, I grant you that the last few months have certainly thrown the intelligence of those working at banks in question, but the grammar on display here is quite impressive. And by "impressive" I mean laugh-inducingly appalling.

Then again, the justifications by John Thain for handing out billions of taxpayer dollars in bonuses while the world economy goes to hell in a handcart do sort of boil down to "Me want!"

Monday, January 26, 2009

Answers delivered to an empty kitchen

My habit on Sunday evenings these days is to take my time making dinner and listen to Cross-Country Checkup. I can’t figure Rex Murphy: his columns and opinion pieces tend to irritate me a great deal (even as they sometimes amuse me), more for their style than their substance much of the time … but as an interviewer and discussion moderator he’s top-notch. I really enjoy the conversations on the Checkup, and find myself often answering questions out loud to myself, or arguing with the various callers (this is what living alone does to you).

This week’s topic was, predictably, the inauguration of Barack Obama, and what this will imply for Canada. Perhaps unsurprisingly, my responses to the questions and comments were, um, a lot more spirited than usual—to the point where I was seriously considering calling the show, but didn’t feel like hitting redial umpteen times before getting through, and then probably not making it into the queue. So I thought I might air my thoughts here because, well, that is what blogs are for (i.e. the textual equivalent of speaking animatedly to your empty kitchen).

There were three basic questions that Rex kept returning to:

1. What did you think of the inauguration?
2. President Obama is making his first state visit to us; what kind of relationship do you think he and Stephen Harper will develop? Will they get along, or will there be friction?
3. Obama has made it clear that he wants to exit Iraq, but re-dedicate forces to the mission in Afghanistan—just as the Canadian forces have set a timetable for withdrawal. Does this mean we will be out of sync with the U.S. in coming years?

Given that I answered the first question at length two blog posts ago, I’ll skip it.

On number two, there was a lot of back-and-forth with Rex and his guests and callers about the history of amity and tension between our Prime Ministers and America’s presidents—the general standard being that Conservative PMs got along with Republican presidents, and Liberals with Democrats, while there has tended to be tension when our governments are ideologically out of step. Examples such as Diefenbaker’s loathing of Kennedy, Nixon’s dislike of Trudeau, and the frostiness between Chretien and Bush were cited; conversely, Mulroney and Reagan were peas in a pod and Clinton and Chretien seemed to bear each other no overt aversion. A lot was made, vis a vis Harper and Obama, of the fact that policy-wise, these two leaders are not actually too far apart—that “Democrat” in the U.S. tends to fall into the red tory category here.

This, I felt, was missing the point a bit. Which is not to say I disagree with this assessment: whatever Harper’s more conservative tendencies, especially in terms of social conservatism, they get mitigated by being leader of a country that doesn’t like going to extremes (not all of them, alas, but still). What I’m looking forward to seeing is how Harper deals with Obama’s overwhelming popularity among Canadians, and the popularity of his message of change, of a politics of transparency and bipartisanship, and of moving on from the arrogance and cynicism of the Bush Administration. This might well prove a problem for Harper, who has embraced a politics of attack, reduced the transparency of the PMO, and attempted as best he can to turn it into something with the more autocratic powers of the American executive branch. The American election was a resounding “No! in thunder” to that brand of politics, and Obama still only received 53% of the popular vote, whereas he would have been elected by something on the order of 80% here in Canada. Perhaps now that we the power of that example to look to now, Canadians will be less willing to watch our politicians squabble like spoiled teenagers.

For the third question, Rex insistently kept phrasing it in terms of whether we will find ourselves “out of sync” with the U.S. on Afghanistan. My answer to that would be to say that I hope Stephen Harper, or whoever is PM when that specific push comes to that particular shove, will have the cojones to observe that it is not that we’re out of sync; it’s the U.S. who is now getting into sync with us and everyone else. When our projected withdrawal in 2011 comes around, we will have been in Afghanistan for ten years; and unlike many of the other nations that sent troops, Canadians have been there without caveats about not taking on combat roles—indeed, we’ve been the point of the spear, and have the casualties to show for it. If the Obama Administration puts pressure on us to extend our combat presence, the PM needs to observe that for a decade we’ve been helping hold a rapidly deteriorating line while the most powerful military in the world fought an unnecessary war in Iraq and reduced their strength in Afghanistan to do it. I hope that the PM says at that point that, as far as the “war on terror” goes, we’ve done more than our share and don’t owe anyone anything.

So there’s my two cents. Perhaps next Sunday I’ll actually call in.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Seas between us braid hae roar’d, sin auld lang syne.

A happy Robbie Burns day to all! I was thinking of posting a picture of a haggis to mark the occasion, but wished to spare my more squeamish readers gentler sensibilities. Instead, here is Alton Brown showing how to make haggis on Good Eats, sporting a bad William Wallace costume and an accent that runs the gamut between cartoon Scot and Arnold Schwartzenegger.

Also, I have in the past posted "Address to a Haggis" to mark the day, so I'll offer a Burns' verse dedicated to a less revolting victual:

O gude ale comes and gude ale goes;
Gude ale gars me sell my hose,
Sell my hose, and pawn my shoon-
Gude ale keeps my heart aboon!

I had sax owsen in a pleugh,
And they drew a' weel eneugh:
I sell'd them a' just ane by ane-
Gude ale keeps the heart aboon!


Gude ale hauds me bare and busy,
Gars me moop wi' the servant hizzie,
Stand i' the stool when I hae done-
Gude ale keeps the heart aboon!


(A fine companion piece, I must say, to A.E. Housman's "Terrence, this is stupid stuff.")

Friday, January 23, 2009

The Force is strong in this one ...

My friend Mandy posted on Facebook the other day a link to images of a Barack Obama action figure, produced by a Japanese company. The pictures showed the figure in a variety of presidential poses: behind a lectern answering questions, delivering a speech, standing in a determined and heroic stance, and so on. And then, brandishing a machine gun. And then, standing ninja-like with a pair of samurai swords. And finally, as you see above, doing battle with Dick Cheney. I mean, Darth Vader. (No, I actually mean Dick Cheney).

Obama isn’t the first U.S. president to be made into an action figure, but he’s certainly the first that children in countries other than the U.S. would be eager to own, or be delighted to be given as a gift. His international appeal is genuinely unprecedented; he’s the first president to be a bigger celebrity than the musicians playing at his inauguration. (This, it occurred to me when I watched U2 perform, will be a monkey wrench in Bono’s usual strategy of lending his celebrity to politicians in exchange for action on Africa. Obama stock won’t go up just because he’s staged a photo op with Bono. On the other hand, people might take Bono more seriously if they think Obama likes him).

The new president’s celebrity has been a sticking-point for many people, but I tend to think that this uneasiness says more about the connotations “celebrity” has for us these days than anything else. The overexposure of such wastes of skin as Paris Hilton unfortunately tars all celebrity with the same brush. And the general contempt in which politicians as a group are held makes the popularity of Barack Obama at the very least unsettling and leads in some cases to egregious comparisons with the cult of personality surrounding such figures as Hitler or Mao.

For all of Obama’s personal appeal, however, I tend to see this overwhelming adulation not as adulation per se. Rather, I think what we’re seeing when Obama is greeted by hundreds of thousands of cheering people when he visits France or Germany or elsewhere is the sudden and unexpected return of love for America. There are two Americas, one loathed and feared outside the U.S., and one that inspires fascination and hope, best summed up in Bill Clinton’s great line in his speech endorsing Obama: “People around the world have always been more impressed by the power of our example than by the example of our power.” I tend to see each version of America antithetical manifestations of American Exceptionalism. The first, "example of our power," is the insular, nativist my-country-right-or-wrong, “America is great because it’s America” tautology (most recently exemplified by Sarah Palin’s characterization of “real America”); the second, "the power of our example," is the America defined as a unique set of possibilities, as potential for hope and growth and life undreamed-of elsewhere in the world. Barack Obama’s remarkable personal story exemplifies the latter, and people around the world see in him the idea of the United States that has captivated the world since 1776.

I wanted to post sooner after the inauguration, but it’s taken me this long for my thoughts to settle into something cohesive. I watched the ceremony at Bitters, Memorial’s grad pub. I had been planning to go home to watch, but decided that this was something better experienced in the company of others. And as I looked around the standing-room-only pub, everyone raptly listening to Obama’s speech, the thought that leapt to mind was that we looked like nothing other than people gathered around, not a television set, but a radio. True, most had their eyes on the screen; but the overall impression was not of watching, but listening.

This for me is emblematic of Obama’s promise: since Tuesday, I have read more columns, op-ed pieces, and blog posts parsing the speech—more attention paid to its substance and significance of a his words—than I have ever seen devoted to a political speech before. Granted, a large part of the attention paid the inaugural speech derives from the high expectations Obama’s past oratory has raised; but never in my lifetime have I seen so many people pay attention to a politician’s words. Rather, the cynical default—which, generally speaking, has been richly earned—has been that it is a waste of time listening to politicians, because at best they’re merely saying what people want to hear, and at worst are lying through their teeth.

The sea-change with Obama is that it’s not so much that he’s saying things people want to hear (although he is and people do); the difference is that he’s not saying what he does because people want to hear it, and we’ve arrived at a point where a plurality of people want to hear the things he says.

It is a subtle but seismic distinction, and one the places a premium on listening. Listening is something that has been absent from political discourse, and not just for the last eight years. The Bush Administration possessed the ideological equivalence of tone-deafness, but they can’t shoulder all the blame, or even most of it. Political discourse at some point became an exercise in people talking past each other—evinced most glaringly in the world of punditry, where volume trumps content and bullying trumps argument.

The image of people gathered around the radio put me in mind of FDR’s “Fireside Chats,” the radio addresses he delivered to reassure the American people during the dark days of the Depression and the Second World War. You can read them here. And I do recommend reading them: besides being interesting in their own right, they are remarkable for what they did. Roosevelt paid his audience the tribute of assuming them to be intelligent and thoughtful, and he did not condescend or talk down. The “chats” effectively kept the American people in the loop in difficult times, informed them of what the government was doing and why, and engendered a sense of collective purpose. And what’s more, people wanted to listen to them.

Perhaps I’m still a bit starry-eyed, and looking at this past election too idealistically. Perhaps—though I certainly do not expect the Obama administration to accomplish all (or even most) of what it is expected to do, and we can already see the inertia of Washington exerting its gravitational pull. But as someone whose entire career is all about language, and the written and spoken word, there is no down side to the prospect of listening becoming again a central aspect of our political and social discourse.

Now, if we can just get our Canadian politicians to get that memo.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Seriously, Blago? Tennyson? Seriously.

I'm starting to come around to the opinion that we should pull a Truman Show on Rod Blagojevich -- build a massive television sound stage in perfect imitation of his home and offices, transfer him there while he's asleep, and then let him continue to be the (fictional) governor of (fictional) Illinois. And film it all: the backroom deals, the self-aggrandizing riffs and speeches, the arrogant indeed delusional denial of reality. Which, if we put him unwittingly into the middle of a reality TV show, would be the most poetic justice that could be enacted. Let him believe he's getting away with everything and start a viewer's contest to predict just how egregious his behaviour gets.

I make this modest proposal both for the poetical nature of its justice, but also because I would otherwise miss his Nero-like performances in front of the press when the inevitable finally happens. The most recent incident had me both cringing and laughing: to add a rhetorical flourish to his words of defiance, he quoted the end of "Ulysses" by Alfred, Lord Tennyson:

We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are,--
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

I cringed because this happens to be my favourite poem by Tennyson; I laughed because of the absurdity of it -- it reminded me rather vividly of the scene in The Wire when the massively corrupt state senator Clay Davis, standing on the courthouse steps before his trial, holds up a copy of Prometheus Bound and claims to be taking strength from this place by Aeschylus (which he pronounces "Ascilius"). Life imitates art.

And then I laughed harder when it occurred to me that, more appropriate to the governor's saga would be the closing lines of another Ulysses: "yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes." Seems a little more appropriate to the breathless spirit of opportunism and transgression fostered by the good governor, don't you think?