Saturday, July 21, 2012

Aurora

And so, yet again, ultimately, we shrug.

San Ysidro... Columbine... Tuscon... high schools... students... children... politicians... daughters... fathers... mentors... and on goes the litany of loss that few seem to have the courage to stem.  "Going postal" has just become another part of the vernacular, the hard edge of the repeated tragedies that lodged it in our vocabulary a blunted afterthought.

Aurora will not be a bookend to the mass killings that occur so frequently in the United States.  In a few years, more likely weeks, the details will fade and blend in with other mass murders.  We know this and while there may be a smidgen of dialogue on the matter one more time around, The Onion's article on the matter perfectly captured the sense of resignation rather than striking the amusing satirical chord it pursues.  It will all unfold like clockwork and result in... nothing different.

For all the rage, heartbreak and tragedy that are such a palpable part of such tragedies it earns nothing more than a shrug from those closest to the tragedies and the NRA, who digs in to stand its ground and defend the obsolete Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.  The NRA's advocacy against breaking this chain of chain of behaviour is most specious and flimsy with the old, tired Guns Don't... line, but their investments in influencing politicians and voters to sustain the laws that further institutionalize gun use instead of institutionalizing gun users lends credence to the notion that the more ruthless the means the less worthy the cause.  

America's collective shrug as gun-related deaths continue at the rate of three 9/11's a year is a demonstration of the impotence, stupidity or cowardice of the leadership in that country.  Rather than mobilizing policy to inconvenience gun buyers to the extent that air travelers have been violated, X-rayed, strip-searched, put on no fly lists and inconvenienced for the last 11 years the politicians have sat on their hands because they get a little squeamish about something as icky as a gun remaining on a store shelf while determining if the guy buying poses a threat to society.

This may only be anecdotal, but there is plenty of evidence that it is easier to buy a semi-automatic rifle than get on a plane in the United States.  (I'm done with the hyperbole.)

Depending on what wing nut you ask, allowing gun buyers to accumulate automatic assault weapons with minimal inconvenience ensures the public safety, sustains a constitutionally-enshrined freedom or makes ya 'Merkun, damnit.  Guns, like any other technology, amplify the intent or actions of those using it.  The amplification of the remorseless anger or insanity of James Holmes and everybody who has preceded him is something that is tolerated to the point that it has become all but a irregular ritual in America.

As with just about any other debate that occurs in the public forum today, whether it be north or south or the 49th, the proponents of either side are more interested in smearing their opponents and dealing in whatever spin or half-truths they can to score points, rather than conducting a dialogue that has even a modest chance of earning the respect of the public beyond the respective herds of sheep that will all but bleat support on cue.  The asinine arguments of the perpetually tone-deaf NRA incredulously hold water because so few people are willing to conduct this discussion with an interest in the facts or sound, rational argument.  It echoes the old George W. Bush line, "You're either with us or agin' us."  There is no interest in middle ground or the nuances that lead anyone to anything resembling truth or reality.

So yet we shrug again and the sides of this debate remain paralyzed because they are all much more interested in being balkanized and dug in to support their side - regardless of the death tolls.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

A Shark's Eye View of Multiculturalism

One of the arguments against multiculturalism is that it encourages a moral relativism because certain cultural or religious groups merit some accommodation of their differences in tradition or beliefs.  With enough accommodations of others the sense of belonging or unity that a more homogenous community would enjoy is eroded.  Such an argument suggests the multiculturalism erodes standards of conduct that a community ought to be able to agree out.  The argument ought to be made, however, that a more multicultural community is inclined to scrutinize the values and traditions of the entire community and strive toward a common belief of what is moral.

On July 16, hours after the conclusion of its Centenary Stampede, the aldermen on Calgary City Council passed a by-law banning shark-fin soup in the city.  It was a decision supported by all but two members of the city council and many were quite proud of this action against the barbaric practice of "finning" sharks and returning them, alive, to the ocean.  Perhaps the tradition or appeal of shark fin soup is waning but it was a move that politicians in Calgary happened to have the stomach for.  Other instances of animal mistreatment are not getting the same clear assessment in the city, however.

During the Calgary Stampede a few days earlier than the shark fin ban was approved, three horses died in the chuckwagon races.  The death of horses in the chuckwagon races over the last few years of the Stampede, if not longer, has become frequent enough that it is growing increasingly difficult for the defenders of the Stampede to argue that the deaths are accidents and are a sad misfortune that occurs despite the efforts to protect the animals and keep them comfortable throughout the competition.  This year the argument changed dramatically when the horses themselves were blamed for their deaths.  If we were talking about Ayrton Senna or Gilles Villeneuve, there might be a case that the victims participated willingly and even pushed themselves just beyond the razor's edge of control that stands between winning and dying.  The horses, however familiar they might become with the races and the demands placed upon them are not such conscious participants.

The arguments against the rodeo events of the Stampede continue to grow louder each passing year but the leaders of the Stampede and other public figures continue to make the blithe case that the rodeo is tradition, suggesting implicitly that tradition ought to remain beyond the scrutiny of outsiders.

The consistent thing to do is peel away the vaunted mantle of  "tradition" from things such as the chuckwagon races and examine them with the same rational, clear eyes that we do other cultures and their traditions.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

TD Bank's Quixotic Swings at Terrorism

The Toronto-Dominion Bank made a step toward distinguishing itself from its competitors this week by closing the accounts of Iranian-Canadians in order to comply with economic sanctions by the federal government against Iran.  That TD alone has made the headlines for its initiative ought to leave a few red faces at the bank because they alone took up this response to government policy changes and they handled the sanctions far less competently than other Canadian banks which managed to do it more competently.  By contrast Scotiabank communicated with its Iranian customers to ensure that their transactions remained compliant with the new sanctions.

Iranian-Canadian customers of TD had their accounts closed, in some cases without clear evidence that customers had transferred money illegally to Iran.  TD, as a service provider, should have strived to serve its customers as Scotiabank did or left the investigation of potential violations to those with the expertise in such matters to allow TD to take the actions more confidently and effectively.

Instead it seems that TD was more intent on serving the government agenda without developing a full strategy or rationale for doing so.  At a time when its competitors are aware of the changing demographics and striving to address the interests and needs of newcomer clients, TD has set itself behind its competitors with a clumsy action against its clients that smacks of racial profiling and harkens back to Dubya-era oversimplification of international policy.  Considering the limited impact their actions would have on Iran-sponsored terrorism versus the damage it has done its reputation, this is a move that deserves a mulligan.  TD, however, is not planning to meet with the Iranian-Canadian Congress for another 2 weeks.  It is summer after all and while the bank is trying to find a steak big enough for its black eye, there are vacations to be had and golf to be played.

Hopefully, TD's bungle here will be a signal to other newcomer customers that they may be better of with other banks if they have any anxieties about sudden bouts of Big Brother banking.



Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Branding Canada and (mis)Branding Immigration

Be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are.

John Wooden

During its series on immigration this past May, The Globe and Mail ran an article asking "Is Canada's Brand Strong Enough to Attract the Immigrants it Wants?"  I was anticipating an in-depth assessment of how our immigration and multiculturalism policies and history have continued to cast Canada in a good light with potential immigrants.  Instead of seeing an article that pursued that line of discussion, there was the superficial discussion of how difficult it was for Canada to compete with Hollywood's branding machinery as it churns out that glimmering mansion on the hill notion of America.  Despite America's difficulties with immigration and its lag behind Canadian policies, the G&M felt that Canada has to find a way to match Hollywood's marketing might.

The sad thing is that the leading minds of government seem to feel the same way, or at least choose the branding discussion in that light.  Perhaps it is their weak stomach's for anything with a history tainted by the Liberal Party, whether it be Pearson, Trudeau or Laurier.

The branding issue is one that cuts both ways and one that is superficial rather than representative of the realities in both instances.  Let me start with the current branding of Canada.

Immigration is a difficult project  at the best of times, but throughout our history it is something that has been a key to building our country's economic and social infrastructures.  We recruited immigrants to populate and break ground in the western provinces and those people not only provided the bones and souls that built the country but engendered the sense of tolerance that laid the foundation for the multicultural and immigration policies that are so often cited as the Canadian example or model by other countries who are looking for a way to calibrate their own policies to get it right.  We have not done it perfectly but we have done it well and that is something that has attracted immigrants and refugees to our country to this day.  During the eight years I lived overseas, "Canada" evoked a clear sense of the decency and tolerance that we stand for.  Once people got their heads around the fact that I was not American but Canadian there was an air of respect was earned rather than begrudged.  Do we need or wish to compete with Hollywood? Really? Flag patches, anyone?

We have made our mistakes in immigration policy and there are chapters of our immigration past that we regret but we have still integrated countless cultures, languages and individuals of every sort into the nation that we are today.  If we adopted a more homogenous approach to culture, and insisted on being a unilingual society that would have been little to distinguish us from Americans and even less to motivate us to maintain the unique project that is Canada.  That aspect of the Canadian character does indeed penetrate the dross of mass culture coming out of the United States and strikes a chord with people looking for a place to call home.

Instead of reinforcing that brand of Canada, our current government has been more intent on branding the current wave of immigrants coming to Canada and the immigration process itself.  Even though economic and demographic indicators suggest that Canada is facing a shift in population because of the imminent retirement of the baby-boomers, the government still insists that it must proceed cautiously because public opinion polls indicate that only 10% of Canadians favour increasing our rates of immigration.  Citing such claims as a reason to alter policy or the pace of implementation are  inconsistent for a government that has passed its crime omnibus bill, driven forward on its plans with the F-35 fighter jets contracts and other initiatives despite the lack of public support for those endeavours.

This is an issue where the government ought to lead public opinion and make the case for increasing immigration rather than shrugging in defeat its hands are tied because of opposition.  The reality is that the Conservative government is more intent on casting immigration as a risky venture fraught with the threats of fraud and terrorism whenever a foreigner lands on our shores or at one of our airports.  

While the Department of Citizenship and Immigration Canada has sought to improve the efficiency of the department they still insist on most loudly promoting its policies on enforcement or raising anxieties about immigrants and refugees.  Before a boat of smuggled human cargo even breaches our waters, the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration Canada Jason Kenney and Vic Toews, the Minister of Public Safety have set out in classic Chicken Little fashion to mobilize public opinion against these people as queue-jumpers, terrorists, parasitic burdens on the public purse and worse in the most immoderate manner possible.  Whether it is reducing immigration fraud, limiting access to work visas for strippers, restricting the rights of refugees to health care, or limiting family unification programs, the main message coming from the current government implies that immigrants are anything but the net contributors to the Canadian economy or the pluralist, tolerant Canadian society that evidence has proven time and again that they are.  It also overlooks that that has been our brand for generations.

The decision to mislead Canadians on this reality will assure that Canada will cease to be the model and leader in this aspect of social policy and will hinder the efforts of future immigrants to successful integrate into our community.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Distracted or Diffused?: Our Information Obesity

My blog is a means self-expression, but on another, at the same time it makes me - nominally at least - part of the media.  Before that seems too pretentious a claim, I'd like to point out that I had 35 visitors to the last post on here and that my most loyal reader seems to be either my Aunt Marilyn or, of course, my Mom.  I don't have any illusions about a book offer to pull the disparate thoughts that gather here in an almost random fashion like germs on a public washroom faucet.  I could go for broke and share my inner most doubts about how I'm doing as father to my 8-month old - that might be my best shot out the hard-cover achievement - but the intermittency here might indicate that I'm a bit too busy from that.

Hmmm... a bit of voice today. Perhaps a bit of first-person self-consciousness or self-awareness captures readers' attention.  Maybe there would be too many insider jokes to keep people coming back.

The fact is that I am part of the media landscape - a small rickety shed on the outer, outer exurbs of that landscape that needs a bit of paint but out here nonetheless.  Wherever I happen to be in terms of position on the political spectrum and proximity to the online version of the titillation found at the supermarket check-out I am another voice and for some, let's say 35 people, this blog might just be worth a few minutes of their day to hang on every word (HA!) or briefly skim before moving on.

At a time when newspapers ought to draft their own obituaries for near-future use, the diffusion of audiences to wherever they want to go for the information they consume (not necessarily need or want) the changes that are occurring in the media are occurring rapidly.  Ponder the disappearance of video stores and the option people have to stream what they want to watch and the future of network television may be on the same conveyor belt to demise as well.  Audiences are free to go wherever they want for information or perspective.

The problem may be that we are gravitating to the media sources that tell us what we want to hear rather than giving us what is germane to the discussion in the public forum.  It may be one thing for me to approve email feeds from Ikea, Mountain Equipment Co-op and ECM (my favorite jazz label) to let me know what what bargains or new products are coming down the pipe, or to set up my Twitter feed to give me the sports news that the Calgary newspapers would loathe to provide me but when it comes to hard news, it is quite another.

I have confessed to my own laziness when it comes to following the news and like to believe that I am still discerning in valuing the information and news that is out there, though there are a few sources that I would not bother with at all because I find the positions too extreme and offensive to be a valuable contribution to the life of the public forum.  I have never had someone casually talk to me about what Ezra Levant has to say and that indicates to me that despite his audience, he (unlike Jon Stewart or Rick Mercer) is more of an entertainer than the credible voice whatever the coding of his routine and props may indicate.

Regardless of the medium that is being used it is clear that the options available to the public today make it even less likely that a consensus is going to be achieved in the public forum.  For the past 15-20 years, people have suggested that in the electoral setting that the problem is that there has been vote splitting on the right and more recently on the left.  Regardless of how the 3, 4 or 5 party system is working, the more significant diffusion of audiences and opinion occurs in the media, allowing people to gravitate to the voices that tell them what they want to hear.  Those people, in turn, shout down the mainstream media for being to slow or too far from the "reality" that they choose to isolate themselves in.  The mainstream media is married to an old business model and too slow to figure out how to adapt.

From a business perspective it is easy enough to be smug about an organization or industry that has been too out of touch to respond to changes in the business environment.  The public forum, however, will be difficult to knit together.  It will be hard enough to get a consensus anymore on what topics are worthy of discussion, harder still to determine the points of view to debate from and harder still anymore to determine who are the most reliable sources of information or the most credible and comprehensive of thinkers.

Too many people today have the most specious or superficial of grasps of the main topics of the day or, worse still the most sophisticated and nuanced arguments over the most trivial of subjects.  With the glut of dross clogging the arteries of social media as people trying to polish their snark, sarcasm and pop culture references to levels that gain the most circulation and attention it seems that people in that realm are more interested in writing the best possible one-liners, rather than capturing and pinning down the issues and topics that are of ever increasing urgency.  As far as engaging in those issues long enough to be substantial, it seems that the majority lose interest when the newly tapped vein of comedic opportunity has run dry.  Just as people use to say that there was only enough collective attention to sustain one war at a time, it seems that now there is only enough oxygen on the internet to sustain interest in an injustice, cause or cause celebre for about an hour.

Perhaps there is a belief that the subgroup that is most attracted to a certain topic or cause will mobilize itself to take action, but there remain overgrowing groups of the indifferent who will idle their time away, assuming that their passive opinion will somehow penetrate the ether to influence events.

That just isn't going to happen, though.  Whether people are distracted by the latest bit of pop culture ephemera or their actions stilled by the uncertainty about what they ought to be doing and whether or not society is going in the right direction, their seems to be an overpowering apathy.  Like junk food eaters, the information that we have been overloaded with has made us drowsier and a bit too somnolent.  People ought to be either engaging themselves in those areas they profess to have a passionate interest in, or broadening their scope of interest and discussion to rebuild some sort of word of mouth consensus of what is what today.

Otherwise, the information that we are so obsessed with hoarding will only preoccupy us like Nero's muzak.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Negotiating Canada

Last week I had the misfortune of being button-holed by a right-wing pundit.  It was at a reception following a day-long conference and though the wine had just started breathing the pundit was already on fire.  Perhaps it was a bit of the pent-up buzz that one might get after a long discussion of policy but the lugubrious patter was on full-force.  Another possibility is that the pundit knew that such patter would be enough to suspend the polite from moving on to another calmer conversation.

Being a policy conference, it was an occasion for some rather informed pondering of the nation and the direction that it was going.  A minister of the federal government contributed to the discussion, proposing approaches that would streamline and simplify procedures, holding the audience in thrall with the command of the portfolio of the expedience with which things were taking place.

The pundit was among those in the minister's corner or fan club and was eager to lay claim to being an influence, if not the source of the policies.  "It's all out of my book.  Look it up..."

I never take comfort in such expedience and the rush to a simplified vision of this country.  When the pundit went on to compare Canada to Australia and added that Australia was miles ahead of us on this portfolio, I bit my tongue and spared myself the debate that would have ensued had I cited Australia's terra nullius posture and how it has tainted its relationship with its indigenous people and gives reason to question how relevant comparisons to that country can be on topics of social policy.

While I chewed my tongue, the pundit when on to say that our problem was Quebec and that without it we would be much better off today.  In a continent where the primary thing distinguishing our nation from the United States is the presence of Quebec in the heart of our country, I find it extremely beneficial that Quebec is a part of Canada.

Throughout Canada's history its leaders, save the most recent with his laser focus on dismantling all that it stands for, have proceeded in a manner that, to varying degrees, acknowledged the nation's pluralist reality.  It is a reality that has encouraged us to become a champion of individual over collectivist rights, provided us with the infrastructure or the mental algorithm that has allowed multiculturalism to thrive here since the days of Laurier who said of our pluralism and the realities of building the nation at that time, "Let them look to the past, but let them also look to the future; let them look to the land of their ancestors, but let them look also to the land of their children."


As our country has evolved, there has never been an impulse to cling to the fast and simple response or resolution to the challenges that we have faced or to the quest to define ourselves.  We have never wedded ourselves to a definition of Canada or Canadian that has been cast in stone.  The realities have never been so iron clad that Canadians have asserted that such things as health care or gun control ought to be railed against because they are unCanadian.  If they have, they found themselves in a minority due to the poor reasoning.  Instead, we have always been willing to ponder the arguments, even weigh their nuances in both official languages and continue to strive for the responses, policies and actions that retain our pluralism and our commitment to the rights and dignity of our neighbours whether they are citizens or live under circumstances less accommodating than Canada's.


Where Quebec actually has caused us to lag behind other nations is something that I will not bother to dignify.  It may not be an ideal marriage between the ten provinces or two nations - choose your metaphor - but it is a marriage that has defined us and made Canada mature more quickly than nations that have insisted on their homogeneity or indulged in a profligacy of certitude about who they are or what they ought to be.


The relationship between French and English Canada has been in many ways what might be best called thermostatic, bringing or restoring balance whenever there is a tendency to swerve too far to the left or right.  Today at a time when the Conservatives swerve to the right has redefined it as a government that is in favour of corporate welfare rather than common sense, the arguments that "progress" is being impeded by Quebec are reassuring to those who still love the notion of Canada as a land of good government and decent ideals.