Thursday, September 28, 2017

Jason and the Hooded Left Wing Hate Machine - A Children's Story

I am not particularly interested in the race for the United Conservative Party (UCP) leadership race and have not tracked polls, the issues or know or care when the vote will be occurring. What I do pick up on when something rises above the white noise of the Alberta right is that there is an arrogant inevitability about Jason Kenney’s campaign. He is campaigning directly against the NDP government rather than any of his opponents and that is well within his rights and it is not the first time such a strategy has been adopted in a leadership campaign.

Despite my disregard, I regularly see posts from his campaign appear on social media and I'm regularly invited to like his posts or follow the campaign; an indication that the algorithmic nuance of his social media campaign is set somewhere between zero and absolute zero. I have the most fleeting of temptations of following the campaign, but I have scanned enough vitriolic message boards on topics that I anticipated benign discussion to quash the notion rapidly. The  amped up anxiety of those who have believed the Alberta is the divine right purview of conservatives and that the province needs to be taken back - in time, I ask myself - in order for it to proceed down the road to oil riches that Alberta travelled so well for so long. The unstated fallacy being that the election of a UCP government would see the consequent recovery of the price of oil the day after the election and that the “normalcy” the Albertans perceived as their right would be restored. The oil patch would be revitalized, the biweekly Fort Mac-Newfoundland commuter conveyor would restart, there'd be a pipeline in every kitchen… er… direction and our property values would rise again.
What little I have seen from Jason Kenney’s campaign videos has deliberately avoided nuance and done so as strategically as he has avoided campaigning against his UCP competitors. He chooses to ramp up anxieties about gun control or the status quo of responsible gun ownership. I am not a rural or native-born Alberta but this is not a campaign priority to me and it sounds more like a splinter issues that has been excavated from the Reform Party playbook in the ‘90’s and the aughts rather than something that has relevance at the provincial level. I acknowledge that this is an issue among rural voters but I suspect it is a few steps below health care, education, elder care and the economy.

The splinter issue of gun control is more likely to get certain groups out of a space of calming sitting through the debate of a campaign and get everyone on edge about the dearth of meaningful dialogue, the conduct of politicians in general and disengage voters who want a civil, detailed and clear campaign about significant issues rather while energizing voters who have clear hot button issues that will bring them out to campaign events and shout down the civilized dialogue and discussion of policies about the future of Alberta rather than a gilding of the good old days that are out of reach and require vision, an ability to negotiate collaboratively, a focus on building communities the appeal to families and potential investors. You can already see the campaign trail silliness of a UCP hack heckling a suburban NDP candidate about the National Energy Board as if it were 1979 and disbanding the NEB was something that the candidate was solely responsible for and the move would restore the price of oil to $140 a barrel. Mr. Kenney, with his talk in the past about firewalls and his assertion that he can renegotiate the equalization formula with Ottawa seems more intent on delivering a deftly managed federal campaign for 1997 than he is in putting forward a vision for governing a diverse, increasingly urban and urbanist Alberta in the 2020’s. The firewalls sound more like the musing of a boy in his shorts wanting to keep his treehouse safe from girls than the musings of a former Minister of Immigration or Minister of Defense who ought to be drawing on his experience of how permeable reality is and how we need to be responsive and nimble in the face of not only threats but opportunities as well. Instead he will argue that his party will need more funds to keep that reality away or hold off the rationally stated fact or valid argument that he cannot contend with

He is not offering anything of substance that pertains to running the province and leveraging the resources that are available in the Premier’s office in Edmonton. Should he assume the Premier’s seat after the next general election, there is the strong possibility that he will go into Stephen Harper's mode of constant campaign and keep the electorate’s attention away from his lack of vision for the future of the province or his administrative skills and strive to divide Albertans or mislead them with rhetoric, much like the recent comments about a left-wing hate machine — such mature a contribution to discourse about Alberta politics — that is in full churn against him. Refusing to allow Mr. Kenney’s campaigning to go unchallenged by the facts is not the work of a hate machine, it is an assertion that we must live and agree to be governed within the realm of reality rather than the illusions and rhetoric that serves an aspirant on the campaign trail.

Despite the focus of Mr. Kenney's campaign, he will not become the Premier of Alberta, the Prime Minister of Canada or the lead rodeo clown in Ponoka. He will be the leader of the UCP, a group that has its roots nourished by supporters of some of the most narrow-minded and divisive politicians to sit in the provincial legislature over the last decade. In light of the misogyny they have targeted the Premier with since the NDP formed the government and the distasteful ways they have attempted to dehumanize members of the current provincial government and the diverse constituencies they attempt to represent there will be an attempt by the UCP to run a campaign similar to one we saw a year ago south of the border, and only because it worked.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Time to Break Bubbles

It is easy to believe these days that conversation or dialogue - complete with nuance, richness and discovery - is a fossilized relic rather than a contemporary standard of interaction.  The pendulum has swung from dialogue to solitude and concept karaoke amongst the like-minded.  If you are not able to parrot along with the conceived topic of agreement, ostracism follows. Ostracism in many contexts occurs in the name of assuring a community's well-being -- those who threatened the day-to-day survival of a community because of a pathological behaviour -- but given how promptly groups ostracize outlying opinions today, the fragility of the group or the sanctity of its unanimity is grossly overstated.

There is the well-evidenced gap between left and right ends of the political spectrum.  The opinions of each side are clear and each side has built a fortress around their mindset that make position immutable in the face of counterargument or evidence.  The permission to distort and to offend that each of these camps grants reduce discourse to the crudest or most personal of terms as is the case with federal Conservative MP Gerry Ritz's "climate Barbie" remarks about Environment Minister Catherine McKenna. Rather than engaging with her in a discussion on environment policy (a unicorn-and-rainbow gilded fantasy of discourse in this day, I admit) or outright criticizing the policy itself (which would have resulted in him appearing to be less of a sexist and just a buffoon - a win-win) he chose to go after her gender and tried to discount her and undermine her credibility on her gender and perhaps her looks rather than her stand on policy.  There was no cry of, "What about the little suffering oil companies" or some other tribute to Jimmy Stewart's admirable filibuster in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Mr. Ritz opted for the entrenchment of exclusion.  It further reinforces the prevailing opinion of politicians, especially those who favour strategies that divide and conquer the electorate rather than bring people together.

The question is, how willing are people to come to a table likely to pose challenging conversation amongst people equipped with not only diverse opinions, but the ability to challenge you on the validity of the world (or bubble) that we enclose ourselves within.  All too often people are unwilling and consequently they discard or narrow their individuality and for the sake of a vague allegiance to an individual or group they hope will champion a pursuit of having their way in lieu of the long, challenging but energizing quest for understanding and wisdom.

It is easy to utter the word 'politicians' with a dismissive tone, but they are not the only ones who find it troublesome to dialogue. More and more people enclose themselves in gated communities where they can not only take comfort in the assumptions that can be made about the opinions of those in the same tax bracket but make rules for them to follow that, despite assumptions about freedom of speech, deny them the right to hang a peace symbol on their house. Even neighbours -- not exactly a group we summarily dismiss as nuisances -- are more inclined to litigate against one another than talk and come to some realization of where they differ and where they have common ground.

As the years pass, we fragment ourselves into smaller and smaller groups, each increasingly exclusionary with each subdivision. The self-definition grows intricate, unwieldy and ultimately hypocritical, think for instance of the female Conservative MPs who were silent in the aftermath of the Gerry Ritz tweet, shrugging at the bad behaviour with either the resignation since the outgoing MP is resigning shortly or a strong-as-oak commitment to the opinion on policy that Mr. Ritz's tweet. "Is a woman getting a 'here-we-go-again' blast of knuckle-dragging misogyny from a clown who doesn't deserve the 6-digit salary and the soapbox he feels so entitled to? Yes, but she and I are so far apart on environmental policy that I won't stand up for her." Again, these or politicians and their conduct bears a childish lack of nuance.

These nuances, however, do not merely escape politicians who somehow feel more and more empowered to misbehave because of the audiences that they can motivate or alienate with a single tweet.  Despite our hunger for reasoned discourse amongst politicians they still have to play to their audiences or constituencies to essentially score points. During the trudge to the implementation of the Affordable Care Act in the United States in 2009-2010 there was a complaint that the debates over this made for bad television. Sadly, the efforts to dismantle it in 2017 are making for good television but do little to bring insight or dialogue to an effort which is, at best, a ham-handed and naked money grab. There is little of the parry and thrust of a debate or discussion but just an effort to ram the legislation through via the brute will of those who feel they are, again, entitled.

This is not the only place where the oxygen supply to dialogue is getting cut off.  Increasingly, the aversion to dialogue and free speech is becoming evident amongst the generation that has grown up post 9/11. Whether it is a lifetime of being inculcated to a certain wariness about the clash of opposing views or the free flow of information, a habit of getting the info-fix they want from the echo-chambers of their social media feeds or a lack of armour and skill to weather the challenges to the perspective that they have formed and had reinforced time and again by their select circle of friends who have been selected and recommended by their oh-so-trusty algorithms.

This younger generation needs to sit down with unlike-minded peers long enough and often enough to pare away their poor habits of reasoning: their tendency to disregard a statement of fact or opinion because of their opinion of the messenger; the recklessness with which we choose our words; our tolerance for being snowed by those we want to align ourselves with; our settlement for descriptions when explanations are required; and rediscovering the patience to ponder where another person is coming from. There is much to be learned from conversations with people whose opinions and experiences are far removed from our own and at a time when successful business see the strategic advantage of diversity and different ways of thinking we ought to ensure that we bring that into our lives in a deliberate manner rather than locking ourselves into the closed feedback loop of our cellphones while we wait for AI and virtual reality to further assure us that our delusions about the world are secure and further fortify the bubbles that should have burst so long ago.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Beauty is NOT in the Eye of the Driver

The City of Calgary has ensured that public works projects include a component for public art. The formula starts with a far-from-indulgent 1% of a project's total cost to a maximum of $4 million. The city has been enhanced by the additions of these elements and they have significantly contributed to the atmosphere of the neighbourhoods where these projects have occurred and art has been added. During my first visit to Enmax Park this morning, I was greeted by an installation of a multicoloured fish. There are, as Calgarians well know, similar installations throughout the city at our LRT platforms, public buildings and other infrastructure that has been added to the city.

Collectively these pieces of art contribute to the life of the community and have met with little controversy or criticism.  There are, however, two notorious pieces which continue to provoke bewilderment if not the ire of Calgarians.  The Big Blue Ring and the more recently installed Bowfort Towers have been the most controversial of the installations and it is probably not a coincidence that these two pieces were installed near new highway construction. The scale and complexity of pieces in such large spaces is going to be far more problematic than pieces located in more walkable areas of the city where the interaction with the art can be more casual, intimate and less time-sensitive.  The larger scale art along the highways needs to be bold (or blatant) rather than nuanced, at least in visual complexity.  Factor in the significant budgets for both installations -- which has amounted to $470,000 and $500,000, respectively, -- and you have projects that are going to provoke criticism. 

Drivers, the notorious lot that they are, are difficult to satisfy.  If they are asked how their drive is, there is rare mention of a pleasant or mind-clearing drive.  You know, the wide open roads of the Pacific Coast Highway or the Cabot Trail did not emerge during their tedious, tree-lined trip from Calgary to Edmonton and back.  If they happen to have the opportunity to drive the Icefields Parkway, they will complain about getting stuck behind some acrophobic driver from Saskatchewan who was terrified of the heights during the drive, overlooking the chance that said tourist might be soaking in the sights.  A driver wants nothing more than to get from point A to point B with the minimum hassle and fuss and the lowest risk possible of getting caught by photo radar.  They will happily screech to a halt at the first fluorescent or neon beacon offering burgers, donuts, soda and or coffee no matter how little of the drive is left, but they want to be alone and have the road to themselves.

It is disappointing that the expense of the art gets the ridicule that it does but the investment in the highway infrastructure is regarded as a requirement, even though research shows again and again, even in Calgary, that such spending on cars and highway infrastructure is futile.  

Part of the problem with these public art projects is that regardless of where the funding is coming from, they are projects that are ultimately regarded as private space by those who use them.  These highway projects raise the expectation, wrongly, that they will ease congestion for people travelling in these parts of the city and fail to do so. In the face of that failure, drivers' sense of entitlement regarding the roads they drive on escalates.  The City of Calgary's policy regarding public art ought to maintained rather than suspended and reviewed. The issue with the Big Blue Ring and Bowfort Towers is the disconnect that is evident when trying to put public art into a space that people want to regard as private.  The aesthetics and budget for the art aside, the main provocation may be the assertion that this highway infrastructure is not a simple slab of concrete and asphalt than appeared pricelessly from the heavens but the reminder that it is ultimately a public space.  Installing art in these areas, despite the controversy, has been a noble effort to assert that these spaces are, indeed, public.

If the suspension of Calgary's current public art policy prompts a retreat from adding the public enhancements that have helped beautify and revitalize the city as it has over the decade or so since the policy was introduced, it would be a significant failure of will and sound thinking at City Hall.