Saturday, April 21, 2012

Pynchon, Hunsperger, Leech and Smith

"I would set you free, if I knew how.  But it isn't free out here.  All the animals, the plants, the minerals, even other kinds of men, are being broken and reassembled every day, to preserve an elite few, who are the loudest to theorize on freedom, but the least free of all.  I can't even give you hope that it will be different someday - that They'll come out and forget death, and lose Their technology's elaborate terror, and stop using every other form of life without mercy to keep what haunts men down to a tolerable level - and be like you instead, simply here, simply alive."
Thomas Pynchon, Gravity's Rainbow, 1973

During an election campaign where the meteoric rise of a libertarian option has brought a clear light to the blemishes and repercussions of that party's interpretation of freedom, I have tuned out.  My mind has been long made up about how I want to vote and my reasons for opting for a liberal and progressive party rather than a libertarian one is well detailed in the above passage from Thomas Pynchon's magnum opus and has been emphasized by Wildrose Party leader Danielle Smith and the candidates - to the surprise of few - who have done their utmost to live up to the suspicions of many over the last week of the provincial campaign.

The liberty that Wild Rose speaks to is, like the version described by Pynchon above is elitist, destructive and premised on fear.  When Allan Hunsperger, Wildrose candidate for Edmonton South-West made his homophobic remarks, it reflected a narrow view of liberty that insists a certain intolerant, phobic "we" be free to protect themselves from others whose differences mean and inflict no harm.  That "we" feels it is appropriate and well within their rights to oppress and vilify others.  There were calls for Hunsperger to step down.  Those have fallen ignored by a defiant Smith who instead insists that the criticism of Hunsperger and Wildrose Calgary-Greenway candidate/homophobe Ron Leech were character-assassination by their opponents rather than the expression of clear concerns about the quality of the men who were running for the Wildrose Party and their interpretation of freedom and their ability to represent all of their constituents.  Leech of course, went one better than Hunsperger by saying being caucasian made him better suited to represent all of his constituents than the candidates of other ethnic origins.  

Wildrose, as Pynchon's quote suggests, have been the loudest when it comes to speaking about freedom but it is the freedom to protect their cadre of supports from their own fears at whatever the cost to others who they deem unfit to share in the freedom they demand for themselves.  The capitalized "They" in Pynchon's passage is not a typo but an emphasis of the status they have assumed for themselves for the strength of their certitude.  Danielle Smith's defiance that she is not against certain things but that she supports her candidates because of their right to free-speech is not the type of compromise that a leader of the province ought to be making.  It is not a compromise on her part of anything other than her principles.  She is staking her hopes on Albertans compromising on a government of such narrow vision and talent as the one she would cobble together to provide a wobbly replacement to the current government rather than making the stand required to communicate that Wildrose would protect the freedoms of all Albertans rather than those who carry WRP membership cards.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Conscience Rights: A Different Type of Political Dishonesty

A new phrase that has entered the election ergot in Alberta is "conscience rights."  At first blush it seems innocuous or even blandly bureaucratic and suggests a certain autonomy when it comes to exercising one's individual rights.  In practice, however, it gives health professionals and perhaps marriage commissioners the option to decline doing things which are against their conscience.  The first examples that get cited when expressing concern about the implications of this policy would be the decision of marriage commissioners to decline requests to perform same-sex marriage ceremonies.

The rationale is to give people the rights to do their jobs under conditions which they can feel comfortable, but the opportunity to pick and choose the aspects of our jobs we feel like doing is a privilege afforded to very few people.  As the Globe and Mail puts it, the law is "a license to discriminate."  The implications of where the thin edge of this wedge might lead are easy enough to blow out of proportion.  There would be a point where the push back against certain cases of discrimination would become an embarrassment to the individuals who choose to go a step too far through that proposed gray area where a little bit of discrimination is acceptable.  Before reaching the point where the narrow-minded push the notion of conscience rights to its most ridiculous, there will be plenty of opportunities for bigots to pass judgement on those it considers other for their values or lifestyles.

The notion of a political party or government-in-waiting deciding that it does not have the authority to assert what is right begs the question, "Why are you running for office if you want to erode your own authority to ensure the rights and safety of all individuals?"  It sounds on first reading that giving people the right to forego doing something they find morally icky is a protection of individual rights but it is ultimately the opposite.  I would not go so far as to cite the more sinister of adjectives to refer to this but the wordplay at the crux here is conniving and taps a vein of dishonesty far different from the broken electoral promise or the current favorite the "previous government's deficit is worse than we thought."  Wildrose is suggesting there are certain areas where a government's involvement or interference is unwelcome but that everyone else's interference most certainly is despite the divisions and conflicts that would emerge because of it.  What they really want to say is that all of us are Albertans but some of us more Albertan than others.  (Whoops, that slipped out... really.)

Elected officials and the governments that they form must have the integrity and courage to protect the basic rights of individuals rather than defer those responsibilities in a manner that ultimately suggests that they do not value them.  At a time where in many instances, the rights of minorities have been hard won, the hesitance to protect them belies a greater deficit of integrity rather than an instance where the courage required to stand for what is right is particularly overmatched.  The proposal to implement such policies is ultimately regressive and fails to acknowledge that Alberta is indeed a pluralistic society.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Bridge

After seemingly interminable controversy, the Peace Bridge is an activated part of Calgary's infrastructure.  For two and a half weeks now, the bridge has been part of the city's pathway system and the controversy seems to have ebbed away.

This past Sunday, my wife said, "Let's go do the bridge."  It was not something that survived my recollection of the long weekend for my colleagues at the office and it is unlikely that my wife will pose the suggestion that way again.  I've already crossed the bridge frequently enough as a part of my jogging regimen and it was not something that I've regarded as an event or an outing.  I thought it would be a nice stroll to get out of the house for a bit and head home.

The bridge itself on a Sunday afternoon as bustling with activity - more of a confirmation than a revelation from my perspective.  Despite the blustery winds and the coolness over open water, a string band was playing at the centre of the bridge and passersby had stopped to listen for a while and plunk the odd coin or bill into a guitar case.  People dawdled around photographing the bridge and posing as well.  The familiar question, "Do you want to be in it?" was asked of a middle aged man photographing his wife, a question that will be asked again and again as other people stop to treat the bridge as something other than a bit of engineered convenience.

The public space of the downtown area has been expanded and enhanced.  I have crossed the bridge often enough to regard it as another option for getting from south to north or back again, but it has been evidenced as well over the scant few weeks that have passed that it will become, if it hasn't already, an asset to the downtown area and the city itself.  Few other additions to the city's infrastructure will alter the look of the city and expand the public realm in as creative a way as the bridge and it will invite and encourage a certain creativity to that interaction as well.

For all of the criticism of the cost of the bridge and its proximity to other structures around it, those structures do not invite the same degree of interaction as the Peace Bridge.  The two bridges to the west of it, the pedestrian bridge under the LRT tracks and the sidewalks on the 10th Street bridge, are strictly utilitarian and provide strict meat and potatoes access from points A to B.  You'd swear those were the verbatim specifications the engineers were given to work with.

Granted the bridge is expensive, but it is being celebrated in ways that few other pieces of $25 million infrastructure will be celebrated.  Or paused at and reflected upon.  Or dawdled on.  Much of the investment in the infrastructure of this city has demonstrated a lack of imagination or breadth of concept of what a community ought to be.  A stretch of the Stoney Trail ring road won't be contemplated for the length of time that pedestrians, dog walkers or photographers ponder the Peace Bridge.  With the ring road, it was hurry up and get the thing open, I've got places to go.  The unfair thing about the scrutiny that has been focused on the Bridge and its expense is that other projects in and around Calgary will likely not be subjected to it.  A stretch of highway, an expanded water and sewage system, a 60-minute school bus commute for kids are regarded as necessities and their net benefits or expenses are rarely subjected to the fastidious ledger keeping that the Peace Bridge was roasted for by its critics.  Anyone who measures the world by numbers alone will be poorer for the narrowness of vision.  It is indeed time to put aside the controversy about the bridge and stand in the middle of it a ponder the realm that is now available to the city.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

PC vs WRP :: Coke vs Pepsi

On the morning of April 5, as I went by the same corner that I referenced in my Candidate and the Tuna Can post the local Progressive Conservative candidate and two of her team stood on the corner facing the southbound traffic on 14th Street NW.  The three of them waved at the traffic and clutched a small campaign sign to add a bit of context to her efforts on this crisp morning.  Drenched by the sun as they were, I'm not certain if they had the visibility that they hoped for.  I nodded as I went by and stowed any notions I had about asking if she was with the party that brought in our (ignored) distracted driving laws.

The three of them did not have a brochure amongst them from what I could tell and they seemed quite caught of guard to be face to face with a pedestrian of all things even though they were about 15-20 metres away from a bus stop and on the western edge of one of Calgary's more walkable neighbourhoods.

The issue I have to take up with this whole strategy of waving is that it is nothing more than a matter of building a bit of recognition.  There is no attempt at indicating what policies the party she represents stands for, the assumption is that the visual impact alone will be enough to sway voters, raise interest or even motivate voting or some other participation in the campaign.  The campaigns of the Progressive Cosnervatives and the Wild Rose Party seem to be a combination of stealth and smear with little effort to roll out policy or present anything other than the most superficial of distinctions.  All I can say about the smears is that both parties are right.  Now give me a reason to vote for rather than against.

The fact the campaign and its coverage are so lacking in substantial depth is another one of the reasons why voters are tuning out.  There was a time when the media parsed out campaign strategies and candidates with the phrase "style over substance" to talk about occasions when the voters were falling for charisma.  Little chance of that happening anymore.  In place of style there has been much greater emphasis on the caution of messaging and saying as little as possible out on the campaign trail.  We have seen it often enough in elections over the last decade, where campaigners set out to say as little as possible and say it as well as they can.  A politician today trots out the party colours and has no message of substance to go with it, merely hoping to mobilize the party's "base."  They might as well be marketing soft drinks.  The PC's hope to mobilize the base this time around is futile and they are not doing a good job of presenting their policy or vision to people who tend to vote for more centrist options.

Politicians who risk coming forward with the volatile mix of policy and open communications play a high-risk, high-reward game.  The rest, who mumble along under the flag of their party, likely lack the courage and skill that warrant the salaries they are asking the voters for the opportunity to earn.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

The Candidate and the Tuna Can

View of local candidate's sign at Kensington
Road and 14th St. NW, April 5, 2012.
The Alberta election is unfolding and the dialogue seems to lean heavily on the components of the campaign that lie quite far away from what once passed as main street campaigning.  The newspapers give their horse race accounts of the polls and fundraising and report on the spending announcements that party leader have made or railed against.  The campaign signs have appeared in all their glory and left me wondering when the dandelions will appear.  Vandals, of course, have left their mark as well.  All of it – the fundraising, polling and posting of signs - has occurred with little evidence of a human hand being involved.  That is the reality, but the likelihood that a volunteer put the time in diminishes as the parties' war chests grow.

The exceptions are the signs that people tolerate plunging into their front lawns.  In those rare instances there is the unspoken suggestion of commitment to a campaign and candidate.  Apart from that there is the feeling that money has been unloosed on the electorate, not only the money that the parties deign to dangle in front of voters with one promise or another, but also the war chests that are opened up for the four-week spending spree.


On my way to work this morning, I came upon an example of how mindlessly that money filters into the campaign.  On one busy corner near Kensington, there is a four-sided advertising installation with the sundry ads for canned tuna, a distant suburban development and the local incumbent.  The incumbent’s campaign ad, however was placed at the least visible of the four panels in this fixture: the advertising equivalent of the clich├ęd New York closet window that opened onto the wall of the next building.  Nobody other than the most occasional and attentive of passersby is going to see this, but that is where the campaign money went.  It went from campaign to a vendor who treated the poster or product with all the seriousness of the tuna ad.  Less, actually.


Over the last nine years, I have only had one political candidate knock on my door and it was a visit that I welcomed.  I volunteered for the man for two campaigns and continue to track his career and wait for him to either campaign again in the future or voice his opinions about the issues of the day.  There is a word of mouth quality that formed from those doorstep encounters.  Now, word of mouth has been replaced by “going viral” and it is far less likely to be positive.

Fewer and fewer of the interactions of political campaigns are as personalized or constructive as door-knocking.  Instead, there seems to be more motivation to let the money dictate the direction that a campaign ought to go.  This is all for the sake of some vague notion of efficiency in the electoral process and it is that pursuit of efficiency that brings us to a world were robo-diallers are as de rigeur as they have become and campaign donations get directed into the overmediated muddle that blindly and randomly places campaign signs as haphazardly as I noticed today.  Donating might be fine, but there is far more that can be accomplished by volunteering and actually bringing your eyes and ears to the campaign rather than sending your dollars on their merry, misguided way.

The lesson today is that no matter how capable, wise or principled a politician or party might be, if you choose to communicate your vision and ideas in the marketplace rather than on the doorstep you become a product, nothing more.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

THIS is News?!?

A few weeks ago I came across the concept of Gresham's Law - the shorthand of which is bad money drives out good - and the possibility that it would apply to the movement of information as well.  This point would be confirmed by an honest response to the question of whether you would recirculate the link for a) this blog post or b) a cat video.

Apart from that test of the readers there are a few examples of what qualifies for conversation as we come out of the major news events of the last week or so.  Out of the federal budget and its consequences, conversation turned to the fate of the penny and the Trudeau-Brazeau boxing match that came a few days later than the more substantial components and implications of the budget.  In the United States, the news that the Supreme Court ruled in favour of strip searches for any person who breaks the law - even for not having loud enough a bell on your bike - may have been overshadowed by Alec Baldwin's fury over the paparazzi photographing his fiance.

The more superficial information available not only gets traction in the collective consciousness and dialogue but becomes the metonym for the entire subject as well.  This is not just something that is happening around the proverbial water cooler but is being generated in the media as well.  Lawrence Martin mused about how Justin Trudeau's victory may have been a turning point in his political career, one which has been often or always characterized by the pundits' tendency to forego their better judgment to attempt to draft their own Hollywood plots for Justin to inhabit.  There doesn't seem to be much point in bring the pertinent and required depth to a story that deserves it but favour burnishing less substantial stories as the crux of a matter that has great bearing on our well-being.