Spin control: Mark Bourrie’s new book on muzzling scientists, manipulating media, and stamping out dissent in Stephen Harper’s Ottawa

March 4, 2015 by · 3 Comments 

Kill_the_Messengers_Mark_BourrieFor anyone interested in the federal Conservatives’ preferred method of getting unpopular legislation through the court of public opinion, Bill C-13 is instructive. The Protecting Canadians from Online Crime Act received Royal Assent on December 9, 2014, though its passage was not without hiccups. Sparked by uproar over the heinous cyberbullying that led to the deaths of teenagers Rehtaeh Parsons and Amanda Todd, the bill sought to stiffen penalties for crimes such as non-consensual distribution of sexually explicit images, child pornography, and so-called revenge porn.

Fair enough.

But, bundled in with those laudable goals were a whole raft of other changes to the Criminal Code that will, in aggregate, have the effect of eroding citizens’ privacy by, in part, allowing police to request that internet service providers voluntarily hand over user information without having to secure a warrant or any kind of judicial approval.

Some of the opposition to the bill was predictable. University of Ottawa professor Michael Geist appeared before the Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs last November; Geist pointed out that the Supreme Court’s Spencer decision had likely already rendered parts of Bill C-13 unconstitutional even before it had become law. Secondly, Geist suggested that the provision for voluntary disclosure of user data has dangerous implications for privacy and the expansion of state surveillance powers: “The provision unquestionably increases the likelihood of voluntary disclosures at the very time that Canadians and the courts are increasingly concerned with such activity. Moreover, it does so with no reporting requirements, oversight, or transparency.”

Resistance, however, also came from less obvious sources. Sheldon Clare, president of the National Firearms Association – a group that could reasonably be counted among the Conservatives’ support base – was quoted by the CBC as saying that Bill C-13 comprises “the most draconian step towards police interference in people’s lives since George Orwell revealed the potential for it when he wrote 1984.”

Perhaps most surprisingly, Carol Todd, Amanda’s mother, appeared before a House of Commons committee to voice significant criticism. Though she applauded efforts to protect victims of online abuse, she stopped short of endorsing the new sweeping powers of surveillance and warrantless spying:

I don’t want to see our children victimized again by losing privacy rights. I am troubled by some of these provisions condoning the sharing of the privacy information of Canadians without proper legal process. We are Canadians with strong civil rights and values. A warrant should be required before any Canadian’s personal information is turned over to anyone, including government authorities. We should also be holding our telecommunications companies and Internet providers responsible for mishandling our private and personal information. We should not have to choose between our privacy and our safety.

If someone like Carol Todd – who has every right to be fully supportive of enhanced tough-on-crime legislation – is willing to voice such criticism of a proposed crime bill, people should listen.

Todd’s testimony is quoted in Mark Bourrie’s new book, Kill the Messengers: Stephen Harper’s Assault on Your Right to Know, a blistering, lacerating account of the Conservative government’s attempts to solidify power in Ottawa and to eradicate criticism or opposition to the sweeping changes it has been imposing upon the country. Bourrie systematically lays out the various ways in which Harper has centralized power around the Prime Minister’s Office in an attempt to control the government’s message and reduce criticism. These include (but are certainly not limited to) the imposition of a taxpayer funded government propaganda machine, which spent in excess of $100 million on ads promoting the Tories’ Economic Action Plan between 2009 and 2014 and saw the launch of a YouTube channel, 24 Seven, run by the government and intended to “replace the mainstream media with words and images that are under the complete control of the prime minister and his staff”; the revision of history by focusing assiduously on Canada’s martial experience as a warrior nation (what author Noah Richler has termed “the Vimy Myth”) and slashing budgets at Library and Archives Canada; the assault on evidence-based decision making, in part by dispensing with the mandatory long-form census; and the attack on scientists – even those in the government’s employ – who contradict the party’s core message.


Author Mark Bourrie

This last area has become extremely important to the Harper Tories, especially given one of their core constituencies: the oil companies working to mine Alberta’s bitumen-rich tar sands. In her 2014 book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, Naomi Klein writes, “It has become routine … for the federal government to prevent senior environmental and climate scientists from speaking to journalists about any environmentally sensitive subject.” Bourrie provides specific examples of this phenomenon in action, including the infuriating case of David Tarasick, a researcher with Environment Canada, who published an article in the esteemed journal Nature detailing his discovery of “one of the largest ozone holes ever discovered above the Arctic.” “Media handlers in Tarasick’s own department gagged him for two weeks,” Bourrie writes. “When a Canadian reporter asked for an interview, Tarasick wrote back in an email: ‘I’m available when Media Relations says I’m available.'”

Perhaps even more infuriating, though the government’s media relations department was unwilling to provide access to Tarasick himself, they were more than happy to supply the media with sanctioned talking points, which they then indicated could be ascribed to the scientist. “The department, it seems, wanted to interpret the scientist’s findings and write them into its own words, then put those words into Tarasick’s mouth.”

Bourrie also details the ways the Harper Tories manipulate the rules and regulations of parliament to ensure compliance with their agenda, repeatedly proroguing the House – including once, in 2009, when the minority Conservatives were all but assured of a non-confidence vote as the result of a threatened coalition between the Dion Liberals and the Layton NDP – and invoking closure to limit debate “on almost every important piece of legislation.” The list of bills subject to closure that Bourrie provides is chilling, particularly given that the Conservatives employed this tactic again around Bill C-51, the government’s controversial anti-terrorism legislation. NDP leader Thomas Mulcair has called the act “sweeping, dangerously vague, and ineffective,” and, in a staggering show of unity, no fewer than four former prime ministers have come together in opposition to the bill as written.

All of this, Bourrie convincingly argues, constitutes nothing less than an assault on the democratic principles this country was founded upon. To his credit, Bourrie, an historian by training, does not ignore the fact that other governments have acted in similar ways, citing in particular the federal Liberals under Jean Chrétien and Mike Harris’s conservative provincial government in Ontario. However, Harper’s Conservatives and their counterparts around the world are taking this style of governance to a new and dangerous level.

The problem, as Bourrie suggests in the opening pages of Kill the Messengers, is that once these systems of governance become entrenched, they will be practically impossible to dismantle easily. If citizens care about continued access to the mechanisms of a healthy democracy, the time to act is now, in a federal election year. Otherwise, we can resign ourselves to continued erosion of our freedoms and decreased availability of the kind of unbiased, impartial information required to make informed decisions about our future and its leadership.

Absent that, we can expect more propaganda disguised as news, increased corporate influence on public policy, and fewer and fewer democratic freedoms. And as Bourrie implies, it isn’t as if the Harper Tories don’t fully understand what they are up to. Communications Security Establishment Canada, the government agency tasked with cyberspying, has a budget of $300 million annually and last year was the beneficiary of a new 72,000-square-metre headquarters in Ottawa.

The CSEC mailing address, Bourrie points out with a straight face, is Box 1984, Station B, Ottawa.

The big chill: freedom of expression, self-censorship, and the limits of speech

January 12, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

Last week was not a good one for freedom of speech.

The week began with the release of a survey conducted by the PEN American Center focusing on the effect that mass government surveillance has had on writers around the world. Titled Global Chilling: The Impact of Mass Surveillance on International Writers, and conducted between August 28 and October 15, 2014, the survey found that writers from around the globe have engaged in a program of self-censorship as a result, in part, of revelations by former U.S. national security contractor Edward Snowden regarding the extent to which the American government has been spying on its own citizens in the wake of 9/11.

Consisting of data from 772 respondents – writers, editors, translators, publishers, journalists, and others – from fifty countries, the PEN survey found that “[l]evels of concern about government surveillance in democratic countries are now nearly as high as in non-democratic states with long legacies of pervasive state surveillance,” and that “levels of self-censorship reported by writers living in liberal democratic countries … match, or even exceed, levels reported by U.S. writers.” In the so-called “Five Eyes” countries – America and those that actively share intelligence with U.S. authorities (Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom) – fully eighty-four percent of respondents claim to be at least somewhat worried about government surveillance in their own countries. Forty percent of respondents from Five Eyes countries and twenty-eight percent of those from Western Europe admitted avoiding certain topics in their writing or speech as a result.

This is significant because, as the report points out, writers are like the canary in the coalmine where democratic freedoms are concerned. “Because freedom of expression is so central to writers’ craft, they may be considered particularly sensitive to encroachments on their rights to communicate, obtain, and impart information and voice their ideas and opinions. But the freedoms that writers rely on daily are the underpinnings of all free societies.”

The PEN report was released on January 5. Two days later, gunmen burst into the boardroom of the satirical Parisian weekly Charlie Hebdo, killing ten journalists, apparently as revenge for the publication of offensive images of the Prophet Mohammed. By week’s end, Paris had endured three full days of terror, and twenty people – including the three suspects implicated in the Charlie Hebdo massacre – were dead.

The Paris shootings sparked global condemnation, though not all commentators were supportive of Charlie Hebdo‘s particular brand of satire, which seeks to ridicule and belittle not just Muslims, but any religion or political institution that claims authority over others. Writing in The New York Times, David Brooks criticized the puerility of Charlie Hebdo‘s “deliberately offensive” humour and pointed out that “there are a lot of people who are quick to lionize those who offend the views of Islamist terrorists in France but who are a lot less tolerant toward those who offend their own views at home.”

Free speech is, of course, an easy concept to defend when it is speech someone agrees with. The acid test involves one’s willingness to defend speech one finds personally offensive, hurtful, or disagreeable. I may not agree with what Ann Coulter says, but I will defend to the death her right to say it: not exactly the heights of Enlightenment rationalism, but an important concept to bear in mind nevertheless.

The Charlie Hebdo killings throw a light on some very difficult questions about the limits of free expression in a democratic society. Does the right to express oneself extend to the right to engage in deliberately hateful, racist, or derogatory speech targeting identifiable individuals or groups? If we assume that the Charlie Hebdo journalists have an unfettered right to express themselves in any way they wish, must we also extend this right to, say, the thirteen members of the “Class of DDS 2015 Gentlemen” at Dalhousie University in Halifax, who posted rabidly misogynistic comments about female classmates on a private Facebook group, resulting in suspensions for the perpetrators and damage to the university’s reputation in the national media? Where does my freedom of expression end, and your sense of security begin?

In the wake of the Paris attacks, the online hacker collective Anonymous has threatened to shut down jihadist websites; this, some would argue, is an appropriate response to last week’s atrocities. It is also a pretty obvious encroachment on the speech rights of a group certain people have deemed dangerous or unworthy of the protections extended to others.

These are the very issues brought up by Snowden’s revelation of the extent to which the N.S.A. has been responsible for collecting information on U.S. citizens. The ability to engage in the kind of broad, warrantless surveillance Snowden demonstrated can’t help but have a chilling effect, and the danger is that this effect will get exacerbated in the fallout from the Paris killings. Here in Canada, the Conservative government is already making rumblings about using the Paris attack as an excuse to beef up domestic surveillance activities, something that was already on the table as a result of an assault by a lone gunman on Parliament in Ottawa last October.

This is a response everyone who prizes democratic ideals should be very concerned about. It would be all too easy to use last week’s violence as an excuse to further erode the privacy and freedoms of citizens in the name of keeping people safe. That would be a mistake. Quoted in Saturday’s Globe and Mail, Farhad Khosrokhavar, an authority on radical Islam, says, “The question is whether European societies would like to be free, and live more dangerously because they can’t arrest everyone, or whether they want less freedom and more security.” An essential aspect of this freedom involves the unfettered ability of writers, artists, musicians, and other creative types to express themselves without fear of reprisal, either from masked murderers or institutional instruments.

“What makes a surveillance system effective in controlling human behaviour is the knowledge that one’s words and actions are susceptible to monitoring,” writes Glenn Greenwald in No Place to Hide, his book about Edward Snowden and the N.S.A.’s domestic spying program. “[I]f you believe you are always being watched and judged, you are not really a free individual.”

It doesn’t really matter who does the watching and judging: governments, religious leaders, or lone gunmen intent on avenging some perceived slight or historical wrong. If the effect is to prevent the free exchange of ideas, to increase the impulse toward self-censorship, and to silence dissent, then we all lose.

Fear and loathing: American culture in the shadow of 9/11

December 1, 2012 by · Leave a Comment 

Hijacking History: American Culture and the War on Terror. Liane Tanguay; $29.95 paper 978-0-7735-4074-3, 284 pp., McGill-Queen’s University Press

When the Twin Towers collapsed following the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, the 24-hour news stations appeared to show the footage on endless loops: the second plane slicing through the South Tower, the staggering fireball, the gasps of horror from the anonymous masses below. One refrain was heard over and over from people gathered around television sets watching in stunned amazement, a formulation that quickly took on the mantle of cliché: “It looks like a movie.” But not just any movie. What was unfolding on television screens around the globe looked specifically like a Hollywood movie, full of spectacle and special effects, choreographed for maximum emotional impact.

The connection is not lost on Liane Tanguay, external fellow of the York Centre for International and Security Studies at Toronto’s York University. Indeed, Tanguay points out that American popular culture had spent the decade prior to 9/11 perfecting the aestheticization of catastrophe to a degree not seen previously. Blockbuster disaster films of the 1990s, of which Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day may be the most financially successful example, presented scenes of ultra-realistic destruction that evoked Immanuel Kant’s idea of the sublime, which, in its dynamic form, “must be represented as exciting fear.”

Tanguay quotes Kant in order to forward the argument that the fear involved in the sublime is vicarious, cathartic, safely removed from the vicissitudes of reality –  a quality, Tanguay writes, that “no doubt accounts for part of the disaster genre’s appeal.” She goes on to suggest, “It is in part this feeling of exemption – enhanced by the sense of ‘control’ over one’s pattern of consumption, the fact that one can choose whether and when to subject oneself to such images – that comes to constitute in its endless repetition a sort of symbolic ‘mastery’ over the anxieties and fears such films elicit.” When this imagery forces itself into the real world, the veneer of “mastery” is rent and the vicarious fear bleeds into actual fear, something America, in all its millennial triumphalism, appeared unprepared for at the turn of the 21st century (and one good reason why Hollywood-style disaster films do not proliferate in the national cinema of, say, Israel or Serbia).

But equally important in the development of American pop culture during the post–Gulf War 1990s, Tanguay argues, is the tendency for what she refers to as “im/mediacy,” the positioning of the viewer as an active participant in events. Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down, with its scenes of urban warfare shot at low angles using a roving camera that puts the audience in the centre of the action, is a template for a new kind of hyperactive, first-person approach, which carries over into news coverage featuring “embedded” reporters filing stories from the front lines of American war zones. “The direct involvement of the journalist in the military action pre-empts any ‘mediating’ perspective he or she could otherwise offer, while the visual effect of the first-person camera comes to implicate the viewer in a ‘video-game’ presentation of the war. The new ‘realism’ is therefore both tightly controlled and compelling to a still greater extent because of the ‘self-replications’ it affords.” (This “self-replication” would reach its apotheosis with the cell-phone videos of G20 protests in Toronto and the Vanvouver Stanley Cup riot, all of which were instantly uploaded to YouTube and Vimeo, shared widely, and subsequently co-opted by police and prosecutors in tracking down the perpetrators of violence or dissent. This observation is outside the scope of Tanguay’s analysis, but seems a logical outgrowth of her arguments.)

Placing the viewer in the “subject position,” while simultaneously promoting a culture of fear across both entertainment and network news platforms, created a post-9/11 climate that allowed the administration of George W. Bush to suggest that an open-ended and nebulous war on terror was necessary to preserve an American way of life structured around the liberal capitalist ideals that Francis Fukuyama identified as existing at “the end of history.” The irony, as Tanguay shows, is that the simplistic binary arguments of Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld (“You’re either with us or with the terrorists”) helped foster a much less simplistic, more morally ambiguous cultural landscape in which films like Independence Day, with its noisy jingoism and xenophobic “us versus them” mentality, began to give way to more nuanced fare, such as Paul Haggis’s In the Valley of Elah, Brian de Palma’s Redacted, and Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker. Tanguay overstates her case somewhat here: although she admits that Bigelow’s Oscar-winning film was less successful at the box office than James Cameron’s Avatar (which Tanguay asserts can be read as a kind of subversive, anti-corporate blockbuster – a contradiction in terms if ever there was one), she largely ignores the inability of the more morally relative Iraq War–themed films to connect with domestic audiences.

Moreover, her book suffers from a too-narrow historical perspective, which precludes any illustration of how the cultural forces that allowed the war on terror to proceed unchecked have been the bedrock of the American psyche since at least the Second World War. Here, for example, is Tanguay writing about a pair of Gulf War documentaries, which she describes as though propaganda never existed prior to 1991:

Indeed, in CNN’s War in the Gulf and CBS’s Desert Triumph, images of oil-soaked seabirds – victims, allegedly, of Saddam Hussein’s ecological crimes – were invested with greater emotive value than those of dead Iraqi troops. The latter were shown as evidence of allied “victory” at the end of the ground war, while imagery of struggling wildlife was accompanied by a sentimental soundtrack designed to elicit pity and compassion. The dehumanization of the “inevitable” human victims of the allied war effort thus contributed to the sense of moral integrity on the American side while simultaneously containing the conflict within the symbolic framework of the simplest of Hollywood narratives.

None of this is inaccurate, of course, but neither is it any different from the approach taken in newsreels during the Second World War, not to mention the films of John Wayne. Propaganda predates postmodernism, whether Tanguay admits it or not. These objections notwithstanding, Tanguay’s book is a frequently energizing synthesis of political analysis and cultural critique, examining the ways in which a media-driven climate of fear combines with a consumerist imperative to create the perfect conditions for an entire society to lose sight of its core values in the pursuit of material comfort and peace of mind.

Seeing the human world as it really is: Vaclav Havel 1936–2011

December 18, 2011 by · 1 Comment 

Vaclav Havel, a man Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt calls “[o]ne of modern Europe’s most important, strongest and bravest voices,” has died in his sleep at the age of 75. Havel, a playwright and dissident, was the driving force behind the so-called “Velvet Revolution” that saw the downfall of Communism in Czechoslovakia in the late 1980s. He became increasingly politicized after the Prague Spring of 1968, and was one of the men responsible for drafting Charter 77, a declaration decrying human rights abuses on the part of the Communist Czech government.

Havel’s plays were banned in his own country, and he was imprisoned for his dissident views and statements. He nevertheless became – along with Polish leader Lech Walesa – one of the symbols of the downfall of European Communism associated with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Havel served as president of Czechoslovakia from 1989 until the country split in 1992. Despite opposing the breakup, Havel stood for election as president of the Czech Republic in 1993 and won; he held the position until 2003.

Angela Merkel, chancellor of Germany, described Havel as “a great European.” Guido Westerwelle, Germany’s foreign minister, went even further, calling Havel “a trailblazer for European reunification,” a somewhat ironic characterization given the Euro zone’s current uncertain future.

Havel was a persistent humanist and employed the rhetorical skills he honed as a playwright and essayist to win broad support for his reforms. In one of his most famous essays, “The Power of the Powerless,” written in 1978, Havel muses over the philosophical nature of existence in what he termed a “post-totalitarian” society, and anticipates some of the challenges our current postmodern world faces:

The essential aims of life are present naturally in every person. In everyone there is some longing for humanity’s rightful dignity, for moral integrity, for free expression of being and a sense of transcendence over the world of existence. Yet, at the same time, each person is capable, to a greater or lesser degree, of coming to terms with living within the lie. Each person somehow succumbs to a profane trivialization of his inherent humanity, and to utilitarianism. In everyone there is some willingness to merge with the anonymous crowd and to flow comfortably along with it down the river of pseudo-life. This is much more than a simple conflict between two identities. It is something far worse: it is a challenge to the very notion of identity itself.

Havel goes on to identify society’s “willingness to surrender higher values when faced with the trivializing temptations of modern civilization” and its soporific “vulnerability to the attractions of mass indifference” in terms that eerily presage our existential dilemma in the second decade of the 21st century.

As an intellectual, essayist, and playwright, Havel was highly attuned to the nature and power of words – in particular, the power of words to twist and obscure meaning. When the German Booksellers Association presented him with their Peace Prize in 1989, Havel took the opportunity to muse about the slippery nature of language and the various ways it can be corrupted by those seeking to gain and hold the reins of power:

No word – at least not in the rather metaphorical sense I am employing the word “word” here – comprises only the meaning assigned to it by an etymological dictionary. Every word also reflects the person who utters it, the situation in which it is uttered, and the reason for its utterance. The same word can, at one moment, radiate great hope; at another, it can emit lethal rays. The same word can be true at one moment and false the next, at one moment illuminating, at another, deceptive. On one occasion it can open up glorious horizons, on another, it can lay down the tracks to an entire archipelago of concentration camps. The same word can at one time be the cornerstone of peace, while at another, machine-gun fire resounds in its every syllable.

I can rightly say that as far as we Czechs are concerned, the age-old animosities, prejudices, and passions, fueled and fanned in so many ways over the centuries, have evaporated in recent decades. And it is no coincidence that this has happened when we have been saddled with a totalitarian regime. This regime has cultivated in us such a profound distrust of all generalizations, ideological platitudes, clichés, slogans, intellectual stereotypes, and insidious appeals to various levels of our emotions, from the baser to the loftier, that we are now largely immune to all hypnotic enticements, even of the traditionally persuasive national or nationalistic variety. The stifling pall of hollow words that has smothered us for so long has cultivated in us such a deep mistrust of the world of deceptive words that we are now better equipped than ever before to see the human world as it really is: a complex community of thousands and millions of unique, individual human beings in whom hundreds of wonderful qualities are matched by hundreds of faults and negative tendencies. They must never be lumped together into homogeneous masses beneath a welter of hollow clichés and sterile words and then en bloc – as “classes,” “nations,” or “political forces” – extolled or denounced, loved or hated, maligned or glorified.

THIS POST CONTAINS MATERIAL THAT HAS BEEN UPDATED. The original post misidentified the title “The Power of the Powerless.” TSR regrets the error.

Atwood, VanSickle, and the silly season

August 2, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

The summer is generally described as the “silly season” in the media: that part of the year, according to Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, “when Parliament and the Law Courts are not sitting,” during which not much happens and any news is frivolous or uninteresting. A propitious time, in other words, for TSR to take a much-needed hiatus.

Unfortunately, life intrudes. The silly season has turned out to be silly indeed, although not in the expected manner.

Anyone who follows municipal politics in Toronto will be familiar with last Thursday’s marathon session at City Hall, during which the council’s executive committee heard from a pantheon of stakeholders who appeared to voice their concerns over possible cuts to city services. Mayor Rob Ford, who won a landslide victory last October by promising to “stop the gravy train” of waste at City Hall, faces a daunting $774-million operating budget deficit, and has been looking for areas to save money (the much heralded “gravy” having failed to materialize). Those areas include garbage collection, public transit, and, perhaps most contentiously, libraries.

It might seem strange that libraries are the most contentious issue on the table, given that police services and public health nurses also face the potential axe, except for the fact that one of Toronto’s most visible and influential citizens, novelist Margaret Atwood, decided to take the fight to Twitter. On Thursday, July 21, Atwood retweeted a message that read, “Toronto’s libraries are under threat of privatization. Tell council to keep them public.” There was a link to a petition set up by the Toronto Public Library. Some of Atwood’s 225,200 followers (as of July 21, by the Toronto Star‘s count) took up the challenge, driving so much traffic to the server hosting the petition that it crashed for about 30 minutes. On July 22, Atwood followed up by tweeting: “Here is direct link to the @torontolibrary petition http://t.co/hPNMV8P to stop closure & privatization. Thanks to all, pass it around.”

And that, indeed, might have been the end of it. Except, you will recall, it was not just any citizen who chose to enter the fray. It was a writer with enough clout to get the attention of Doug Ford, the mayor’s brother and right hand on council, who was quoted in the National Post as saying, “I don’t even know her, she could walk by me I wouldn’t have a clue who she is … But she’s not down here, she’s not dealing with the problem. If she did, tell her to go run in the next election, and get democratically elected. And we’d be more than happy to sit down and listen to Margaret Atwood.”

That’s when all hell broke loose. On one side, Atwood’s supporters began howling about the philistines on city council, and on the other, supporters of the Brothers Ford started yelling about entitled elites and their artistic pretensions.

Now, on one level, this is all quite silly. What does it matter, really, if Doug Ford would recognize Atwood on the street? Does this say anything about his relative ability to govern Canada’s largest city? Well, perhaps, if you believe that someone entrusted to such a position should be familiar with the municipality’s more lauded figures. But for the moment, let’s give Ford the benefit of the doubt. What’s more problematic is his evidently dismissive attitude toward Atwood and her concerns, as well as his suggestion that for her to be taken seriously, she must run for public office. This flies in the face of our democratic principles, which are based on the idea that government works for us, not the other way around. It also flies in the face of Rob Ford’s own campaign slogan, “Respect for Taxpayers.” Whatever else Atwood may be, she is a taxpayer. So where is the respect?

To give Doug Ford his due, the (grudging) respect came the following day, when after a storm of criticism, he conceded, “What I was saying is, everyone knows who Margaret Atwood is. But if she were to come up to 98% of the people, they wouldn’t know who she was. But I think she’s a great writer and I look forward to her input.” The respect came from other quarters with the inauguration of a “Margaret Atwood for mayor” campaign backed by a Facebook page and various venues around the city.

Today, Atwood herself responded, saying, “I am not running for mayor yet. But if it comes to be true that people cannot voice an opinion unless they have been elected, then we are no longer in a democracy.” And here, Atwood has hit on what is decidedly not silly about this whole tempest in a teacup: the way in which our municipal leaders are trampling all over the idea of democracy while pursuing an ideologically driven program of tax cuts and smaller government.

Mayor Ford touted last Thursday’s executive meeting as “something this city has never done,” that is, allow upwards of 300 people to directly voice their concerns. The meeting began at 11:00 a.m., and Ford decreed that it would continue without a break until everyone who had registered to speak got his or her chance. Each speaker was given three minutes to address the executive committee, and the committee was allowed time to question the speakers. If a speaker missed his or her spot in line, he or she was not allowed another chance to speak. What this effectively meant was that a large group of citizens, some undoubtedly with families and other responsibilities, were stuck in City Hall, waiting their turn at the mic, in some cases for hours on end. The meeting finally adjourned after 6:00 a.m. the following morning.

When all was said and done, despite all the hurdles put in their way, some 168 speakers (and singers, and puppeteers) had made their voices heard. One of those was children’s writer Vikki VanSickle, author of Words That Start with B. VanSickle spoke in the wee hours of the morning, around 4:30 a.m. When she was asked about her book, she said, “Words That Start with B. Like budget.” Which prompted the mayor to mutter, “I can think of another ‘b’ word for her.” It was late, the executive committee had been through a gruelling ordeal. But for that, Rob Ford had no one to blame but himself. And his comment was definitely not silly.

You can hear Ford’s version of “respect for taxpayers” at the 0:20 mark in the video below.

Green Books Campaign: Exporting Democracy

November 10, 2010 by · 1 Comment 

This review is part of the Green Books campaign.Today 200 bloggers take a stand to support books printed in an eco-friendly manner by simultaneously publishing reviews of 200 books printed on recycled or FSC-certified paper. By turning a spotlight on books printed using eco-friendly paper, we hope to raise the awareness of book buyers and encourage everyone to take the environment into consideration when purchasing books.

The campaign is organized for the second time by Eco-Libris, a green company working to make reading more sustainable. We invite you to join the discussion on “green” books and support books printed in an eco-friendly manner! A full list of participating blogs and links to their reviews is available on the Eco-Libris website.

Bob Rae’s book Exporting Democracy, published by McClelland & Stewart, was printed on acid-free paper that is 100% recycled, ancient-forest friendly (100% post-consumer waste).


Exporting Democracy: The Risks and Rewards of Pursuing a Good Idea. Bob Rae; $29.99 cloth 978-0-7710-7289-5, 280 pp., McClelland & Stewart.

Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time. – Winston Churchill

Bob Rae, Liberal MP, former premier of Ontario, and Rhodes Scholar, is a passionate advocate for democracy and its institutions. Rae concludes the acknowledgements to his new book by saying, “The pulse of democracy needs to beat stronger in the world. The point is not just to measure it, but to figure out how to keep it going.” Exporting Democracy is Rae’s attempt to measure the state of democracy and democratic institutions in today’s world, and it’s safe to say that the assessment he comes up with is, at best, mixed. China is in the ascendant as an economic force, but the brutal containment of student protests in Tiananmen Square in the spring of 1989 testified to the “continuing gap between economic freedom and political repression” that persists in that country. In the Middle East, the continued inability to reach an effective peace settlement between Israel and Palestine means that “[d]emocracy is undermined and extremism is encouraged.” And Rae quotes Gérard Prunier on the subject of democracy in Africa:

The problem is that democracy as a form of government presupposes a certain degree of social integration, the existence of a political class with some concept of the national interest, and a minimum of economic development. None of these existed. The African political class was largely made up of “tropical gangsters,” and the continent’s economy was a stagnating swamp. Attempts at democracy, although inherently hopeful, tended to end badly either through violence or, more often, through the deliberate perversion of new institutions, which were promptly emptied of any democratic content.

While remaining cognizant of democracy’s benefits as embodied in what he refers to as the “federal idea” (“because the –ism in ‘federalism’ has a way of limiting debate and understanding”), Rae is too much of a realist to pretend that it is easily exportable to developing nations, or to nations that may not want it in the first place. He freely acknowledges the problematic colonial histories of countries like Britain and France, and points out that Thomas Jefferson, the author of the American Declaration of Independence and one of the heroes of democratic change in the New World, was a slave owner. Writing about the American adventure in Vietnam, Rae quotes J. William Fulbright:

I do not question the power of our weapons and the efficiency of our logistics … What I do question is the ability of the United States, or France, or any other Western nation to go into a small, alien, undeveloped Asian nation and create stability where there is chaos, the will to fight where there is defeatism, democracy where there is no tradition of it, and honest government where corruption is almost a way of life.

Fulbright’s comments are eerily prescient of the American experience in Afghanistan, and Rae is careful to note that one of the most intractable problems with bringing democracy to that troubled country is tied up in George W. Bush’s unfortunate and irrational decision to abandon the Afghan front in his “global war on terror” in favour of an ill-advised invasion of Iraq. On the subject of Bush’s “dangerous adventure” in Iraq, Rae writes,

The failure to consider beyond the immediate justification for a policy to its practical consequences is always costly in human lives, dollars, and increasing insecurity. The refusal to put the question of whether a policy will work on an equal plane with the question of whether it is right will always lead to decisions that are surrounded by a self-righteous aura but have little prospect of eventual success.

“The creed of self-satisfaction” to which many in the West subscribe, says Rae, “is ultimately bankrupt, but not because it is morally unedifying. It is worse. It is unwise.”

All of this is the product of a clear-eyed realist bringing his experience and substantial intellect to bear on one of the thorniest problems of our time: to what extent is it possible to ensure that countries throughout the world have access to the means and institutions necessary to provide not only responsible government, but the essentials of life itself? Does the West have a responsibility to intervene in areas of the world that are subject to tyranny and despotism, and is such intervention ultimately doomed to failure? Rae’s final inability to come up with a definite answer to these questions is perhaps understandable, but it does leave a reader with a nagging sense of dissatisfaction. The best that Rae can do in conclusion is to admit that in the struggle for democracy “[w]e shall face setbacks, just as our ancestors did over the centuries since the democratic idea was born. But none of us can remain aloof from the struggle.”

In addition to a contingent element in its close, Exporting Democracy‘s diffusion of focus results in a fractured reading experience. In broad strokes, the book is divided into three parts: a history of Western democracy, beginning with the American and French revolutions and running through the two world wars of the 20th century and the Cold War; a survey of democracy’s inroads into problem areas of the globe, such as China, Pakistan, the Middle East, and Sri Lanka; and an assessment of Canada’s role in advocating for future democratic change. While the author is good at detailing the difficulties democracy has faced throughout its history, when he turns his attention to Canada he begins to sound like a politician making a stump speech, which denudes his argument of much of its power. Furthermore, the ambitious breadth of focus Rae undertakes results in a lack of cohesion among his various chapters, and his central arguments frequently go missing.

Rae has first-hand experience visiting troubled areas around the world, and his compassionate vision and sensible approach to policy issues mean that he is able to put complicated historical and political problems into context. But the scattershot aspect leaves the book feeling overly baggy and unkempt. In his acknowledgements, Rae thanks David Cameron, chair of the political science department at the University of Toronto, who apparently read an earlier draft and said, “There’s a book in there somewhere, but it’s not there yet.” Cameron’s assessment, I fear, continues to hold.

Arundhati Roy faces calls for sedition charges in India

October 26, 2010 by · 4 Comments 

Arundhati Roy, the Booker Prize–winning author of The God of Small Things is facing calls for her arrest on charges of sedition resulting from remarks the author made in New Delhi last week that were deemed “anti-India.” According to Daily India.com: “The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) on Tuesday demanded from the Government the arrest of Kashmiri separatist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani and writer Arundhati Roy for their recent objectionable remarks over Kashmir’s integration with India.” According to the Times of India, there is a “fit case” for bringing charges of sedition against Roy, but the police are unlikely to move quickly on the matter:

Sources said that Delhi Police’s legal wing has, after examining the contents of the anti-India speeches of Geelani and Roy, recommended that cases under section 124(A) of the Indian Penal Code can be registered against the duo.

The opinion presents the Centre with a dilemma. It has been taunted by the BJP for not taking action against Geelani and Roy for their anti-India rhetoric. At the same time, it also has to reckon with the consequences of action against Geelani and Roy since it is sure to be painted as persecution and milked for putting the country in the dock at a time when secessionists and sympathisers have been shrewdly trying to put J&K [Jammu and Kashmir] on the global frontburner.

And the Sify News reports that the Indian Congress is placing little importance on Roy’s recent remarks:

Congress today refused to attach much importance to the views of author Arundhati Roy on Kashmir, saying it was “erroneous” to do so as she was not in the political mainstream but maintained that police would take action if she had violated the law.

“I do not understand why exaggerated importance is given to her who is not in the political mainstream. It is erroneous and uncalled for. Is she an MP? Is she a political leader. She is an author,” party spokesman Manish Tewari told reporters here.

Nevertheless, the idea that Roy could face charges for expressing a political opinion is highly troublesome. The author, who has been outspoken on matters dealing with India and Kashmir in the past, responded to the possibility of charges being laid in an open statement reprinted on the novelist Hari Kunzru’s blog. TSR contacted Kunzru’s publisher, who granted permission to reprint Roy’s statement here. The full statement reads as follows:


I write this from Srinagar, Kashmir. This morning’s papers say that I may be arrested on charges of sedition for what I have said at recent public meetings on Kashmir. I said what millions of people here say every day. I said what I, as well as other commentators have written and said for years. Anybody who cares to read the transcripts of my speeches will see that they were fundamentally a call for justice. I spoke about justice for the people of Kashmir who live under one of the most brutal military occupations in the world; for Kashmiri Pandits who live out the tragedy of having been driven out of their homeland; for Dalit soldiers killed in Kashmir whose graves I visited on garbage heaps in their villages in Cuddalore; for the Indian poor who pay the price of this occupation in material ways and who are now learning to live in the terror of what is becoming a police state.

Yesterday I traveled to Shopian, the apple-town in South Kashmir which had remained closed for 47 days last year in protest against the brutal rape and murder of Asiya and Nilofer, the young women whose bodies were found in a shallow stream near their homes and whose murderers have still not been brought to justice. I met Shakeel, who is Nilofer’s husband and Asiya’s brother. We sat in a circle of people crazed with grief and anger who had lost hope that they would ever get ‘insaf’– justice – from India, and now believed that Azadi – freedom – was their only hope. I met young stone pelters who had been shot through their eyes. I traveled with a young man who told me how three of his friends, teenagers in Anantnag district, had been taken into custody and had their finger-nails pulled out as punishment for throwing stones.

In the papers some have accused me of giving “hate-speeches,” of wanting India to break up. On the contrary, what I say comes from love and pride. It comes from not wanting people to be killed, raped, imprisoned or have their finger-nails pulled out in order to force them to say they are Indians. It comes from wanting to live in a society that is striving to be a just one. Pity the nation that has to silence its writers for speaking their minds. Pity the nation that needs to jail those who ask for justice, while communal killers, mass murderers, corporate scamsters, looters, rapists, and those who prey on the poorest of the poor, roam free.

Arundhati Roy

October 26 2010

Whatever your own views on Kashmir may be, I hope that you will join me in voicing an objection to the notion of a writer being charged with sedition for the crime of exercising free speech.

TSR goes green

October 16, 2010 by · 1 Comment 

This year, TSR has been invited to participate in Eco Libris’s Green Books Campaign, a worthy endeavour to promote books printed on recycled or ancient forest-friendly paper. On November 10, 200 bloggers will simultaneously publish reviews of books printed on environmentally friendly paper. From the Eco Libris site:

Launched in 2009 by Eco-Libris, this campaign is aiming to promote “green” books by reviewing 200 books printed on recycled paper or FSC-certified paper. Our goal is to use the power of the internet and social media to promote “green” books and increase the awareness of both readers and publishers to the way books can be printed printed in an eco-friendly manner.

Yr. humble correspondent will be reviewing Bob Rae’s new book, Exporting Democracy, published by McClelland & Stewart. Other participating publishers include McGraw-Hill, ECW Press, and Dundurn. A list of participating blogs and the books that they will review is online at the Eco Libris site. Drop back here on November 10 to take a stand for sustainable reading.

God keep our land glorious and free

July 1, 2010 by · 1 Comment 

Meghann Millard shot this video of G20 protesters on Queen Street near Spadina Avenue in Toronto last Sunday, June 27. Happy Canada Day, everyone.

Peaceful G20 protest at Queen & Spadina from Meghann Millard on Vimeo.

A G20 reading list

June 25, 2010 by · 2 Comments 

If you’re like me, you’re likely reading the morning news these days with a mixture of horror, disgust, and sinking despair. The past two weeks have seen Toronto – a safe, clean, happily multicultural city – turned into a fortress-like police state. Fences have gone up downtown. Military helicopters have been buzzing the skies continuously. Toronto police, OPP, RCMP, and police from forces across the country – armed with riot gear, plastic bands to handcuff troublemakers, long-range acoustic devices (so called “sound cannons”), water cannons, and other weaponry – have converged on the south end of the city and seem determined to flex their newly acquired muscle. This includes a bylaw, quietly passed by the Ontario provincial government – without debate – on June 2, that allows police to detain and arrest anyone coming within five metres of the G20 security fence and refusing to provide ID or submit to a body search. (The bylaw will expire on June 28, but won’t be officially published until July 3: this is what “democracy” looks like in Ontario these days.) Across the downtown core, windows have been boarded up, offices and streets abandoned, schools closed, and the homeless have been forced out of their regular neighbourhoods. All in the service of a contingent of capitalist leaders descending on the city to enjoy a specially constructed fake lake while they hold financial discussions that are guaranteed to be more beneficial to BP than to you and me.

You may be so sickened by the way in which downtown Toronto has been transformed into a militarized zone that you are compelled to join one of the many mass protests that are scheduled for the next three days in the city. Or, you may feel compelled to hole yourself up in your room until the whole thing blows over. Either way, you may want to do some G20-related reading this weekend; TSR has put together the following list of texts that recent events have called (sometimes uncomfortably) to mind. If you do go down to protest, you could do worse than taking one of these books with you. If nothing else, it will provide some reading material when the cops haul you into their makeshift Gitmo on Eastern Avenue for, you know, just walking around your own city.

Fight the power. But, please be safe this weekend. With luck, we’ll all make it through this relatively unscathed. To this point, I’m not hopeful.

A G20 Reading List

Animal Farm by George Orwell – Orwell’s 1945 dystopian allegory about Stalin’s rise in Russia and the concomitant crackdown on individual rights and freedoms seems scarily appropriate in the face of the draconian security measures that have been invoked for the G20 weekend in Toronto. The well-meaning “Seven Commandments of Animalism” that are instituted for the good of all eventually get reduced to just one edict: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” Indeed.

The Land of Green Plums by Herta Müller – The winner of the 2009 Nobel Prize for Literature, Müller is a Romanian by birth who ran afoul of Ceausescu’s government when she refused to cooperate with the Romanian secret police. Her 1993 novel tells the story of a group of young people living under the thumb of the Ceausescu regime and the way in which the totalitarian government influences each of them, either forcing them to bend to its will or perish.

The Rebel by Albert Camus – Published in 1951, Camus’ book examines the nature and genesis of rebellion, synthesizing the thought of figures such as Lucretius, de Sade, Nietzsche, and Breton. Camus suggests that humanity turns to revolution when it becomes sufficiently disenchanted with the justice that has been meted out to it, when a quest for order and clarity abuts the essential absurdity of life. However, Camus also drafts a moral framework that makes clear the idea that the impulse toward revolution implies a value system that opposes murder and suppression of others. An essential text for any would-be protester.

The Trial by Franz Kafka – The terrifying story of Josef K., who “without having done anything wrong … was arrested one fine morning.” A horrifying allegory of an individual subsumed and ultimately destroyed by a faceless bureaucracy.

Invitation to a Beheading by Vladimir Nabokov – A surrealistic story about Cincinnatus C., a man imprisoned and sentenced to death for the crime of “gnostical turpitude.” His crime, and the accompanying sentence, make no sense; although Nabokov’s book is ultimately more hopeful than Kafka’s, it carries with it the same force of creeping terror brought about by an individual’s enslavement to a shadowy political system that he neither understands nor is responsible for.

Germinal by Émile Zola – One of his best-known works, Zola’s 1885 novel about the horrific conditions suffered by miners in 1860s France became such a sensation in the author’s home country that when he died, his funeral cortege was followed through the streets by 50,000 people, including a group of miners chanting, “Germinal! Germinal!” One of the great workers’ novels.

Globalization and its Discontents by Joseph E. Stiglitz – “[R]ecent advances in economic theory – ironically occurring precisely during the period of the most relentless pursuit of the Washington Consensus policies – have shown that whenever information is imperfect and markets incomplete, which is to say always, and especially in developing countries, then the invisible hand works most imperfectly. Significantly, there are desirable government interventions which, in principle, can improve upon the efficiency of the market.” Nobel winner Stiglitz lucidly explains where globalization goes wrong; he provides G20 antagonists with the bedrock for a cogent argument and could provide the delegates with a roadmap forward, were they to pay him any attention.

The Cult of Impotence: Selling the Myth of Powerlessness in the Global Economy by Linda McQuaig – The woman who Conrad Black famously said “should be horsewhipped” provides a compelling argument in favour of financial regulation that could benefit humanity as a collective rather than simply making a few fat cats even fatter. Jumping off from the Chrétien government’s deficit-slashing program of the mid-1990s, McQuaig argues that we have the tools at our disposal to create jobs and a viable social safety net if only we would recognize them.

(With thanks to Oliver Pocknell.)

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