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Today's Post column is about free trade and its enemies; it's subscriber-only. Here's last week's column about the end of the long legal battle over the remains of Kennewick Man.

G.K. Chesterton wrote that tradition means giving a vote in social questions to our ancestors, and is thereby the "democracy of the dead." Maybe it is time to speak of anthropological research as free speech for the dead. The 9,200-year-old skeleton known as Kennewick Man has, since its discovery in Washington State eight years ago, been sitting in a storage bin waiting to tell its story. It's a story that could rearrange the pre-Columbian annals of North America. But some don't want them rearranged, and the whole affair has become a case study in bureaucracy's gift for murdering inconvenient history and generally behaving loathsomely.

Northwestern Indian tribes immediately claimed Kennewick Man as kin in 1996 and claimed proprietorship of his remains under the federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990. NAGPRA provides for tribes to be able to take possession of and reinter an ancestor, forever preventing any invasive scientific fidgeting with his bones. The problem was that Kennewick Man doesn't look like any living racial group's ancestor at all, being morphologically most like the Ainu of Japan (whose own origins are rather clouded and debatable).

This was a thunderous blow, though not the only recent one, to the concept of the North American past which had prevailed when NAGPRA was passed -- the story we all learned in school about American indigenes crossing the Bering "land bridge" from Siberia to an empty continent. NAGPRA made no clear provision for defining whether a member of an extinct American racial grouping, unrelated to and pre-dating the existing ones, counted as a "Native American." On the evidence gathered by anthropologists working for the Department of the Interior, Kennewick Man isn't any more closely related to modern Indian tribes in Washington State than he is to my grandfather. (He may even be less so.) All the same, the tribes claimed him, standing on bogus oral traditions of having lived in the area forever and referring to the skeleton as "The Ancient One."

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which owned the land on which the skeleton was found, and the Interior department, which was responsible for determining custody of the remains, took the side of the tribes and interpreted NAGPRA in an exceedingly free way. Essentially, they insisted that the law required them to treat any pre-Columbian artifact whatsoever as "Native American." One might find a Roman buckler in Nevada or a crashed Martian spacecraft in Massachusetts; by the government's standard, it was all to be covered by, and disposed of according to, NAGPRA.

In September, 1996, scientists filed a request with the Department of the Interior to study the relics. When the request was denied, a long legal fight began, with the U.S. government -- the custodian of a pivotal piece of the world's common history -- fighting the plaintiffs every step of the way.

Meanwhile, it acted in bad faith at every turn. Members of the claimant tribes were permitted to remove the remains from storage and conduct religious ceremonies with them. Bones were added to the collection by Indians on at least two occasions, and others were later removed, by someone, and then mysteriously returned by the FBI. The Interior department spread falsehoods in the press about cultural evidence linking the bones to present-day Indians. And, astonishingly, the Kennewick site was bulldozed over in 1998 by the Corps, permanently annihilating its evidentiary value.

The ugly struggle now seems to be over. In February the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Kennewick Man should be studied rather than buried forthwith, and the tribes and the Justice Department deliberately missed a Monday deadline to file a Supreme Court appeal. What's left is a record of cultural vandalism that would just about embarrass the Taliban.

And for what? The rights of Indian tribes to proprietorship of their dead ancestors are no doubt worth considering, but in this case, an a priori judgment about Kennewick Man's ancestry was made and defended when all the evidence pointed the other way. And, honestly, how far must this supposed aboriginal taboo against meddling with the dead be entertained? No European, or descendant of Europeans, shrieks in outrage when the corpses of Napoleonic soldiers or Neolithic herders are exhumed, dismembered and analyzed. In the case of Kennewick Man, a department of the American federal government somehow found itself promoting a specifically and unapologetically religious attitude to scientific evidence unearthed on public lands. It's a funny sort of thing to happen in the cradle of church-state separation. (July 23, 2004)

- 11:22 am, July 30 (link)

Fischer file latest

The wayward ex-champion is still locked up at Narita and is preparing to file a second appeal against his deportation from Japan. The U.S. government has finally stepped forward to address the granting of a new passport to Fischer by the American consulate in Bern in 1997 and again in 2000. Mind you, that's not to say it has answered anything--only addressed it:

A U.S. official, speaking on the condition he not be named, acknowledged that Fischer had been given the extra passport pages in Switzerland, but he said the act was contrary to U.S. law. He described Fischer's ability to use his U.S. passport for years as "a mystery."

Fischer is being assisted in his predicament by the Japanese Chess Association, and Icelandic players, mindful of Fischer's role in reestablishing the game's foundations there, are organizing international support. (There are three grandmasters amongst Canada's thirty million people. Iceland, whose population is roughly the size of Oshawa's, has seven GMs.) In a strange twist, Fischer was represented in his first appeal by John Bosnitch, a Canadian subeditor working in Japan who is apparently remembered none too kindly at home.

With Japan apparently determined to deport Fischer, early thoughts of a bid for political asylum in a "friendly third country" now appear to have been set aside. The Japanese will simply send him to his home country--but Fischer hopes to drive through the loophole offered by his putative German patrimony. It is said that Fischer's legal right to claim German citizenship under jus sanguinis has already been recognized by German federal authorities. More, no doubt, to come...

- 2:06 am, July 30 (link)

You have to admit, she's got a hell of a point

I keep thinking that one speaker at this [Democratic] convention needs to stand up at that podium tonight and say: "Ladies and Gentlemen. Abu Ghraib. Thank you. Goodnight." - Dahlia Lithwick,

- 4:49 am, July 29 (link)


I agree with Wlady Pleszczynski's admiring assessment of John Edwards' oratorical abilities, but Wednesday night didn't really belong to the trial lawyers' Manchurian Candidate: the hidden highlight was the half-ashamed rollout of dirty laundry immediately preceding Edwards' speech.

Did you see this bit? The Democrats had a tough job in advance of the convention deciding what to do with the three Ghosts of Liberalism Past--George McGovern, Walter Mondale, and Michael Dukakis. The Dukakis problem was particularly painful, considering that a former Massachusetts governor might have expected to receive one of those 20-minute time slots on the podium that conventions now award to county comptrollers, village sheriffs, cute children, and random passersby. But--especially with John Kerry trying to defuse his own Dukakis-like appearance in a lagomorphous astro-burqa--the Duke has had to acquiesce in his own humiliating exclusion from a hometown convention.

But they couldn't not mention Dukakis at all, easily overlooked in a crowd though he be. And so the organizers ended up choosing an optimally lousy solution, introducing McGovern, Mondale, and the Governor from the podium together in a hurried, please-don't-watch-this roundup of cuddly Democratic losers. It was embarrassing to all three men (Groucho's dictum about clubs would seem to apply pretty well here). It compounded the embarrassment to the party much more than spacing real appearances out over three days would have. And it reminded delegates and voters not only of how disastrous the party's judgment has sometimes been, but how cruel it is (perhaps necessarily) being to Dukakis now. Then again, if they'd let him on the platform we'd probably be mocking them for tactically suicidal sentimentality right now, wouldn't we.

Actually, what it really reminded me of was that Robert Smigel animated bit for Saturday Night Live, "The X-Presidents". These were, like, the Bizarro Universe X-Presidents. They could fight a "Secret Wars"-style battle with the real ones! (Hell, maybe they did! Who still watches SNL?) It's probably just as well that Smigel himself was forcibly escorted from the convention floor on Monday.

- 2:00 am, July 29 (link)

Connecting the dots

A rival explanation has now emerged for the terrible explosion that killed 161 people--officially--in Ryongchon, North Korea, three months ago. The authorities' original story was that a train collision had brought about a lamentable confluence of nitrate fertilizer, fuel oil, and electricity. But earlier this month the neo-Stalinist state's minister of public security was dropped suddenly from his job, suggesting very strongly that the blast was no accident. The Sankei Shimbun of Japan has now received word from the North Korean resistance, through a defector, that the explosion was planned by Kim himself as the pretext for a purge.

The [opposition] organization concluded that the Ryongchon Station Explosion in April was the work of the Kim Jeong-il regime... "The event was staged so Kim could claim there were forces out to kill him ...There were defective missiles on board those trains that were to be exported to Syria, and the explosion gave Kim the chance to get rid of them, too."

The shrewdness of the Dear Leader knows no limit.

- 11:14 am, July 28 (link)

Or perhaps "Giambiasis"

If amyotrophic lateral sclerosis is destined to be forever known as Lou Gehrig's Disease, does this mean that amoebiasis will be recognized from now on as Jason Giambi's Disease? When the Yankee first baseman returned from the offseason looking thin and sluggish, the American press went on the attack. Giambi had been connected to the busted BALCO steroid factory and had been obliged, during the winter, to testify before the federal grand jury investigating the company. He hit a paltry 11 home runs before the All-Star Break, and many had been holding him up alongside Marion Jones as a case study in what happens when they take the juice away from a chemical-torqued athlete. But then came the news that--no! We've all misjudged the G-Man. He's simply suffering from a potentially fatal parasitic illness.

The rap laid on Giambi was a bit bum to begin with: Giambi teammate Gary Sheffield was implicated in the BALCO affair too, and if he's changed his training regimen any, you wouldn't know it from the MVP-level numbers he's putting up. If you had a nickel for every beefy, slow white power hitter who drops off the face of the planet at age 33, you could buy yourself a college education.

Still, you can't help wondering about the bolt from the blue that has struck Giambi. Not many guys have ever spent large amounts of time on the DL with parasites. (That's what the transactions sheet says: "Out indefinitely--Parasites".) The Yankees and Giambi are riding the medical carousel right now; eventually they are going to have to account credibly for Giambi's infirmity, so it's unlikely they are consulting an intestinal specialist just to distract people--I guess. But steroid abuse could, in theory, actually cause or intensify an infection of the sort from which Giambi is suffering. Immunosuppression, after all, is the reason we keep steroids around in the first place. Patients using steroids for valid reasons have to watch out for opportunistic infections. I don't say it's the case, but it would be amusing if Giambi's illness served to deflect questions it should actually be raising afresh.

- 7:44 am, July 28 (link)

A toe in deep waters

Second-best moment from Day Two of the Democratic National Convention: there were a lot of Ted Kennedy screwups to choose from (he certainly fought the word "suburbs" to a memorable standstill) but I think his reinterpretation of "the shot heard 'round the world" as "the shirt 'round the world" was most poetic. The Democrat true-believers loved the speech; maybe the Republicans should have considered letting Reagan mount the dais a couple more times during his long dotage.

Best moment: C-SPAN interviewed a delegate shortly after adjournment, and she said that she thought Kennedy and Teresa Heinz did well "and Osama was excellent also."

As performance, the convention has been good and even entertaining--and has been acknowledged as such on all sides--but how far can the Democrats afford to raise the bar for the languorous John Kerry? The most effective stroke might have been the Carter-Clinton double-team from Monday night; Carter unearthed his distinguished naval record, long buried under the fertilizer of a quarter-century's internationalism, and Clinton essentially reminded the delegates that they don't have to play to a party weakness by backing a draft dodger like him this time around. Very well--Kerry isn't a draft dodger; he's a decorated soldier of the Vietnam War who spent a few months in-country and ten more years whining about it, always keeping one hungry eyeball fixed on the shimmering mirage of a future presidential candidacy. The Democrats are convinced--to the point of smugness, now--that Kerry is an instant solution to their credibility problems concerning the defence posture of the Republic. But it may actually have been easier to work around someone like Clinton, who was merely saving his own hide and never spent much time apologizing for it, than someone brave but sanctimonious like Kerry, who chucked someone else's medals over the wall and recited aloud from Johnny Got His Gun before casting his vote against the first Gulf War.

A Clinton is certainly easier to like, and possibly even easier to "trust", if by "trust" we understand the particular form of wilfully blind trust that a great power like the United States must put in its leaders. John Kerry's public life has been characterized by goopily inconsistent positions defended in a haughty yet puritanical manner; he's not only better than you, he was better than you last week when he argued the opposite way. There's a constant, tinfoil-on-teeth undercurrent of moral anguish there--he's like some kind of stoned saint, a slo-mo Savonarola. It all just seems like an ingeniously calibrated formula for never getting anywhere near the American presidency. The noun "folksiness" may be damaged goods, but etymologically it encapsulates precisely what Kerry lacks. So I'm eager to see his climactic speech. My poorly informed guess is that we are at the pinnacle of Democratic hopes right now. You have to unveil the product sometime.

The best gonzo convention coverage is coming from the Blair-Welch team (wasn't Blair Welch on The Facts of Life?) from

- 1:22 am, July 28 (link)

Sob story

Peter Gammons, the dean of baseball writers, has an interesting paragraph in his most recent column for ESPN:

Baseball is trying to promote its game in the inner city with its complex in Compton, Calif. But what MLB needs to do is put life into college baseball, which has essentially become a white game. The Commissioner's Office should pony up funds to promote college baseball, help supply wooden bats and establish a scholarship incentive program for underprivileged kids. As it is now, colleges can't get the kids that go to football and basketball, because NCAA rules have left them with 11.7 scholarships for 30 players. The only African-American college player in the first 100 picks of this draft was Fresno State's Richie Robnett, selected by Oakland in the first round, a sad reflection on the state of the college game.

It's sad indeed. It's sadder still that Gammons, a Democrat, should blame the NCAA for the widely known policy effects of the federal government's Title IX. American colleges are perfectly capable of raising alumni funds for their baseball teams, but it's not worth the risk of having their federal funding clawed back because of Carter-era gender-equity guidelines. If Gammons hadn't been busy blaming the victim, he might have used his observation to show that Title IX has served the interests of rich white women at the expense of poorer black men.

- 4:00 pm, July 27 (link)

Items from the world press

  • The Asahi Shimbun has a profile of Novala Takemoto, an androgynous but heterosexual mystery man who has become a respected novelist and hero to Japan's "Lolita" set. When will the furries get their own real live Oscar Wilde, one wonders? Inimitable sentence:

    Dressed in a mixed Vivian Westwood, Comme des Garcons outfit, he serves iced tea in Alice in Wonderland glasses, setting the beverages on strawberry-patterned coasters.

  • The Australian recounts the calamitous Who/Small Faces visit to Melbourne that led the former group to swear off Australia for nearly forty years (and the remaining lifespan of two of its members). Warning: sanitized account of the musicians' behaviour aboard an aircraft may not be strictly accurate. (As the article notes, the incident inspired a stanza in the John Entwistle song "Postcard": There's kang-oo-roos, and real bad news, in Australia...)

  • It's that time again: the Telegraph notes that Britain's emergency services are preparing a pamphlet for the public on how to prepare for a chemical or biological attack and what to do in the event of one. The copy (unlike the artwork) makes no mention of the 1980 booklet "Protect and Survive", which was destined to be detourné beyond the seas of boredom by disarmamentarian opponents of "nuclear insanity" (absolutely zero of whom have made the slightest acknowledgment that they were 180° wrong about the most important question of the day). It certainly made for a singularly watery Jethro Tull number even when compared to the rest of the nondescript album A.

  • Absolutely not foreseeable in the slightest: earlier this year New Zealand Minister of State Tariana Turia left the Labour Party to form an exclusive and radical Maori political movement. She resigned and won a by-election under the new flag. Now, the Dominion Post reports, white identitarians are attempting to capitalize on the event, which they say has "legitimi[zed] race-based politics" in N.Z. A new National Front pamphlet

    points to parallels between the two parties, including their association with gangs--in Mrs Turia's case the Mongrel Mob and Black Power, and in the National Front's case, the public perception that it is linked to skinheads. ...National Front national secretary Kerry Bolton conceded yesterday that the pamphlet could be read as an endorsement of the Maori Party. "In a way it is an endorsement... as it says in the pamphlet itself, we are a party that stands up for European culture and identity and to be perfectly consistent we should be able to understand a party that stands up for Maori identity and culture."

    Of course, this may seem a dreadful harbinger, but surely it's all just a matter of convincing the genie to get back in the bottle?

  • Finally, in news of al-Qaeda or whatever is doing business under the name now, one's heart is warmed to hear that the new Spanish government has the unconditional support of the suspected mastermind behind the Madrid train bombings. Italian readers may wish to peruse this EFE story and order a copy of that British Preparing for Emergencies leaflet:

    Madrid is a lesson for Europe, which has to understand it must distance itself from the Americans. The Berlusconi administration is using the same methods as the dog, and I hope God eliminates this Berlusconi government because it is dictatorial and destroys Islam. We hope God sends them a disaster; let Italy have a disaster.

    - 7:44 pm, July 26 (link)

    Today's Post column about the 9/11 Commission report is accessible online only to subscribers: the streak continues. Here is last Tuesday's column, which covered a theme very familiar to readers of this page but which I had never quite grappled with in print before.

    EDMONTON - I've been following, with keen interest, the provincial and national reactions to Ralph Klein's announcement last week that Alberta will shortly become "debt-free." They have ranged from the incisive to the eccentric.

    Most welcome were the many forensic dissections of Ralph's opportunistic proclamation. They added a welcome note of skepticism to an act that, over the years, Premier Klein has milked for more than it's worth. When the net debt was polished off in 1997, and provincial assets became larger than liabilities, there was a similar outpouring of joy about our "freedom from debt." Yet even now, the last of the debt hasn't been totally licked: There will be paper coming due for years to come. All the latest announcement means is that enough cash has been put away to meet future repayments.

    Inside Alberta, everyone is lining up for his share of the newly unencumbered provincial surplus. Seniors are shrieking, public-sector workers are pleading, and, miraculously, even a few voices in favour of the taxpayer are heard. Some of these cries have verged on the delusional: While Klein was basking in glory at the Calgary Stampede, a self-described "person living in poverty" accused him of shucking Alberta's debt at the expense of the poor. "How many people have been killed? How many people have been mutilated?" she bellowed. Mutilated? Holy frijoles! After all these years, somebody finally found a completely new accusation to throw at the Tories.

    Outside Alberta, there was some restrained praise, and a certain amount of self-questioning in provinces that have tamed debt less well. But mostly what you heard was the old tune: It's all because Alberta is so lucky, so very lucky. It's our oil, you see, that guarantees us wealth and government surpluses. All we need do is turn on the big faucet.

    Murray Mandryk of the Regina Leader-Post, who snarked that "evidently, oil wealth is [Albertans'] birthright," raised hackles here by joking: "It's enough to cause you [to] clamour for the good ol' days of Pierre Trudeau's National Energy Policy." But one must admit that the dismissive tone is struck as often within Alberta as it is elsewhere. Paul Haavardsrud lectured us in the Calgary Herald about the fate of Houston, which congratulated itself often on its free-enterprise rectitude only to suffer bad karma when Texan oil production passed its peak in the 1970s. And New Democrat MLA Brian Mason reacted crankily to Klein's pre-emptive mortgage-burning, insisting that "oil and gas price increases guaranteed ... surpluses regardless of how the Tories steered the economy."

    As it happens, there's something of a lab experiment available to teach us the relative importance of resources and sound policymaking to an economy. Venezuela has an oil industry, and tar-sands deposits, roughly equal in extent to Alberta's. That country is run much as Brian Mason's party would like Alberta to be -- but the socialized Venezuelan oil industry has failed to deliver automatic prosperity. Its strike-ridden economy shrank a horrific 9% in 2002 and another 9% in 2003, just as petroleum prices peaked. Unemployment is in the high teens and the government is incurring heavy deficits. If oil were such an unfailing divine gift, this state of affairs would be impossible.

    Without doubt, Alberta has benefitted from the war premium on oil and gas prices. But the sheer shortsightedness of the chatterboxes' "dumb luck" view boggles the mind. Thousands went broke in the Alberta oilpatch over 30 years or more before Leduc No. 1 hit it big in 1947. For the next 20 years, E.C. Manning's Socred government built a trusted, universally imitated royalty regime that walked the line between bending over for U.S. capital and driving it out (as other provinces chose to). And in the '70s, the Lougheed government invested heavily in tar-sands exploration and research, which has now given Alberta technically realizable oil reserves greater than Saudi Arabia's. Forget Houston: Our oil production may not pass its peak in my lifetime.

    If Alberta has been lucky, it has not been in possessing resources, but in having sensible leaders and a curiously stiffnecked public that voted for them. Premier Klein may have succumbed to the temptations of runaway public spending, but he has never wavered from the swift pace of debt repayment Albertans demanded. Our reduced debt-servicing costs have been a big part of the "windfall" of late, too. Still, I wouldn't object so much to the taunts of "dumb luck" -- if I didn't suspect that they made certain dumb clucks awfully eager to cook Canada's golden goose. (July 26, 2004)

    - 6:45 pm, July 26 (link)

    Gay, dead, or Canadian?

    Al-Ahram of Cairo is now reporting that the new Egyptian prime minister's Canadian past is becoming a topic of disapproving discussion in the Arab republic. The disapproval is probably particularly acute amongst those Egyptians who don't have a foreign bolthole somewhere. Note the cameo appearance by Al-Jazeera...

    In a most intriguing investigative report in Al-Ahrar by Ahmed El-Dessouqi, he discovered that many of the newly appointed ministers, including the prime minister himself, who is rumoured to hold a Canadian passport, hold dual and in some instances triple nationalities. The writer said that the Minister of Tourism Ahmed El-Maghrabi holds a Saudi passport alongside his Egyptian. The same applies to Finance Minister Youssef Boutros Ghali and the Minister of Housing Mohamed Ibrahim Suleiman. How many more ministers hold dual nationalities, the writer demanded to know in an article stirringly called, "A government of foreigners". The controversy about whether holders of high public office can have dual nationalities rages on.

    "The minister of tourism publicly claimed that no less than half of the newly appointed ministers are foreign passport holders," El-Dessouqi wrote. "These ministers must all declare in public what other nationalities they belong to," he stressed. The writer quoted the Qatari-based Al-Jazira satellite television station as saying that many ministers hold American, Canadian, French and Italian citizenship.

    In much the same vein, the independent weekly Sawt Al-Umma questioned Nazif's Canadian credentials. According to the front-page article of Monday's edition, Canadian diplomats dropped in at the paper's Editor-in-Chief Adel Hammouda's office to deliver a 12-page statement on the subject, but failed to verify whether or not Nazif was a Canadian citizen. The Canadian diplomats explained, though, that not all overseas students who study in Canada acquire Canadian nationality.

    The topic was picked up by the sensationalist weekly Al-Osbou deriding the "Internet café government," apparently an allusion to the hi-tech capabilities of the government of technocrats.

    - 3:42 pm, July 26 (link)

    Pilgrim's progress

    Alex Ross has photos from Bayreuth taken in the run-up to last night's "dead rabbit" Parsifal. Where's the Jockey Club when you need it?

    - 8:05 am, July 26 (link)

    On the efficiency of the human engine

    I'm six feet tall: on campus, back in the day, I was accustomed to being in the top quintile in height among males. In present-day Holland I'd be below the mean--and the world's tallest national population is still growing rapidly, according to market research released on the weekend. The Reuters story I've linked to there mentions an wide-ranging study by Robert W. Fogel, who is a household name if your household is interested in the quantitative history of economic output. It contains some truly eerie observations about the role of brute thermodynamics in economic progress.

    ...[I]t is quite clear that in energy-poor populations, such as those of Europe at the beginning of the nineteenth century, the typical individual in the labor force had relatively small amounts of energy available for work. ...It is quite clear, then, that the increase in the amount of calories available for work over the past 200 years must have made a significant contribution to the growth rate of the per capita income of countries such as France and Great Britain.

    That contribution had two effects, a thermodynamic effect and a physiological effect. The thermodynamic effect increased the labor force participation rate by bringing into the labor force the bottom 20 percent of the consuming units, who, even assuming highly stunted individuals and low BMIs, had only enough energy above maintenance for a few hours of strolling each day -- about the amount needed for just one hour of heavy manual labor. Consequently, merely the elimination of the large class of paupers and beggars, which was accomplished in England mainly during the last half of the nineteenth century, contributed significantly to the growth of national product. The increase in the labor force participation rate made possible by raising the nutrition of the bottom fifth of consuming units above the threshold required for work, by itself, contributed 0.12 percent to the annual British growth rate between 1800 and 1980... The combined effort of the increase in dietary energy available for work, and of the increased human efficiency in transforming dietary energy into work output, appears to account for about 50 percent of the British economic growth since 1800.

    That's purely on a BTU-based analysis, without incorporating any assumptions about the neurological effects of nutrition on productivity.

    - 1:35 am, July 25 (link)

    Today's Post column about Kennewick Man is behind the subscriber wall, which has clanged down with quite ruthless efficiency of late. If you pick up the print edition, you'll notice my piece is cheek-by-jowl with one from the Post's newest contributor, a certain Miss Sheila Copps. This may make it a prized collector's edition in years to come. Her maiden effort (is that sexist? Can I get a Human Rights Commission ruling here?) certainly does cover a lot of ground.

    Here's last week's column about the CRTC. It was written, you must remember, on the morning after the decision was announced, when it was still theoretically possible that some cable provider might hazard the onerous monitoring regulations placed on the al-Jazeera license. In the event, the cable companies all disavowed any likelihood of doing so. The stuff about CHOI-FM was my original subject for the column, and is the bit that still holds up. Oh, for the days of magazine deadlines...

    During the federal election we heard a lot about the CRTC as a protector of "Canadian values." Remember that? The Conservative platform proposed reducing the broadcast regulator to a minimalist role in preventing signal overlap, and culture czars ranging from Margaret Atwood to Paul Gross were enlisted to defend the commission as a protector of Canadian minds from evil foreign influences.

    What foreign influences, and what Canadian values, would those be? We all know about the obstacles the CRTC has imposed on cable providers trying to get U.S. networks such as HBO, ESPN and Fox News on to the Canadian cable band, and yesterday the CRTC rejected an application from RAI International, the foreign service of the Italian state broadcaster, despite petitions from 100,000 Canadian supporters. However, the Qatar-based news station al-Jazeera was cleared for domestic distribution.

    Many will be puzzled or angry that the mouthpiece of the Arab world's most toxic elements will have surged so far ahead in the queue for Canadian bandwidth. Al-Jazeera, unlike RAI or the U.S. networks, was approved because it won't compete with existing Canadian content providers. On its face, the decision is about protecting the economic integrity of prior licencees, and not merely a matter of cultural prejudice. But cultural prejudice is the ultimate justification for that protection -- for limiting access to our cable dial so that our screens don't become a chaotic hive of nasty American content.

    So it is worth noting, in case anyone still doesn't know, that when "freedom fighters" in some Iraqi basement saw the head off a captive foreign-aid worker, they're usually quick to swing by and drop off the videotape at al-Jazeera headquarters the way a FedEx man would leave you a boxful of books. The Canadian Jewish Congress and B'nai Brith have described the network's guiding ideology as "virulently" anti-Semitic. The CRTC is requiring distributors to edit out "abusive comment," but the "Islamic CNN" would still serve, without doubt, as an inexhaustible source of anti-Western recrimination and propaganda for culturally stranded Muslims. That's what it's for.

    And who knows? Perhaps Maggie Atwood herself will nestle in some night with a big bag of popcorn to watch the latest burqa fashion show from Dubai. It's all about free speech, isn't it? At least, it's about the orderly, clenched-rectum Canadian sort of free speech, which wouldn't dream of making al-Jazeera wait for broadcast approval -- that might be racist -- but has no compunction whatsoever about revoking the licence of a radio station in Quebec City on explicitly political grounds.

    The cleansing of Quebec City's airwaves is something, after all, that a Wahhabi emir would understand perfectly well. The CRTC's groundbreaking ruling against CHOI-FM and its unapologetically sexist, Howard Stern-inspired host Jeff Fillion is merely the logical extension of the territory it has always claimed: If it can regulate foreign threats to "Canadian values," why not domestic ones? It is not as though the Commission has ever respected anyone else's right to decide what "Canadian values" are: The term comes pre-defined, and is synonymous with the values of the Liberal Canadian state. Which, of course, include a deep and heartfelt sympathy with the "other perspectives" -- the "anti-Zionist" and anti-American perspectives -- you'll see on al-Jazeera.

    On a strictly democratic analysis, CHOI's prattle about boobies, misbehaving competitors and foreign students would seem to be enormously popular with the Canadians in its market. The station is the most popular in Quebec's capital, and the demonized Mr. Fillion is its number-one morning man. In its decision, the CRTC gave figures from the 2002 licence application in which CHOI was given a two-year lease on life instead of the customary seven: "The Commission received 9,468 interventions concerning CHOI-FM's licence renewal application. 9,417 were in favour of the application; 38 were opposed."

    No Canadian politician has ever won that sort of landslide. But in Canada, the 38 who despise freedom of expression will always win out against the 9,417 who support it.

    Even leaving aside such trifles as that, the CRTC noted that CHOI has been one of the great practical supporters of the Commission's own supposed mandate to enrich Canadian artists and enhance the life of the community. "[Supporting interveners] noted that the station contributes a great deal to the development of numerous alternative rock bands. Interveners from several of these bands appeared at the hearing to support the station. Some of the interveners drew attention to the fact that jobs would be lost if the licence were not renewed, and to the station's involvement in the community and the services it provides, such as broadcasting, without charge, messages about unwanted pregnancy and the promotion of condom use."

    Thus has the CRTC become, almost formally, a self-mocking institution. I think those of us who aren't part of the CRTC's Canadian-content cartel -- those who can't leverage its industrial protectionism into a life of pop concerts, book tours, and TV roles -- are owed an apology. We were told the CRTC was supposed to foster an interesting and vibrant domestic cultural dialogue. The Commission is now waging an explicit war against interesting and vibrant domestic cultural dialogue. Meanwhile, it goes along sorting out foreign content for us in its maternalistic, prissy, almost unapologetically tyrannical way. (July 16, 2004)

    - 4:29 am, July 23 (link)

    For all your Buddhist temple needs

    By the way, you'd have to figure, wouldn't you, that Molson was one of the most ancient family firms still remaining in the hands of the original clan? Not remotely: even in the New World booze business, Jose Cuervo (1758) takes the laurel for antiquity. The Zildjian Cymbal Company, founded in 1623 in the Ottoman Empire, is the oldest and loudest family business in the United States. But the absolute world champion, by consensus, is Japan's Kongô Gumi Co., a temple-construction firm founded in 593 by Shigemitsu Kongô and controlled today by UCLA grad Masakazu Kongô. (Its secret to success: no confining, artificial rule of primogeniture.)

    - 7:04 pm, July 22 (link)

    Call me beeresponsible

    Recommended: the Motley Fool's take on the Molson-Coors merger, now officially proceeding as a straight share swap at market par. The truth about megamergers like these is that most of them destroy shareholder value, and the pretexts presented by the swashbuckling CEOs behind them are usually rather muddled. Is it to be considered a plus that both companies are already selling each other's brands (reducing transfer costs upfront), or a minus (because there's nothing further to be gained by an outright merger)? In a way--if you buy into the underlying narrative here--it's touching to see two family-dominated firms combining to preserve the old Bräumeisterei ways against more natural merger partners (Heineken was mentioned a couple of times in the days preceding the final deal). But then, as Mathew Ingram points out in the Globe, families don't always play nice with each other. Hat tip to Paul Martin: the deal is, if nothing else, likely to enable MoCoBeerCorpCo to avoid high U.S. taxes on foreign sales. With Eric Molson in the driver's seat, it seems as though the new beast can still credibly say "I Am Canadian" in that bullying, insufferable tone we've all grown to despise.

    - 3:37 pm, July 22 (link)

    My double

    In my Tuesday Post column (subscriber-only, alas) I misspelled the name of the Calgary Herald's (and formerly the Post's) Paul Haavardsrud. The desk didn't catch the error, and one of Haavardsrud's colleagues chided me on it in an e-mail yesterday. I told him that karmic payback would not be far behind, and so it has proven: the Vancouver Courier, citing somebody named "Colby Cash", is the instrument of retribution. I get an awful lot of mail and even phone calls for this "Cash" fellow, though I'm sure Mr. Haavardsrud still has it much tougher than I do.

    - 1:31 pm, July 21 (link)

    From Belgrade to Banff: more notes on Fischer's troubles

    Jesse Walker over at Hit & Run has opened a thread with a link to my TAS piece on Bobby Fischer. One commenter accuses me of fudging the central issue slightly:

    Fisher's [sic] 1992 match with Spassky was an attempt to influence world opinion in favor of the legitimacy of Slobodan Milosevic, his regime, and the then-ongoing genocide in Bosnia. It was not simply a chess match, either--it was a multi-million-dollar enterprise. To say that Fisher has no record of having harmed anyone other than himself is naive.

    It might be, at that. But Fischer didn't go to Sveti Stefan to advertise the Milosevic regime; he went there to play chess, to make money, and, if you believe the reports, to spend time with an 18-year-old chessplaying Hungarian girlfriend. That said, the sponsor of the match was indeed an on-and-off crony of Milosevic's--Jezdimir Vasiljevic, then head of the rickety Jugoskandic Bank. Vasiljevic, an ethnic Vlach (Wallachian), was part of the inner circle of financiers for Milosevic; at the time of the match he had amassed enormous holdings in Serbia and Montenegro, including the Sveti Stefan resort.

    There is a touch of black comedy here. Jugoskandic, which was essentially a pyramid scheme designed to suck hard currency into Yugoslavia, collapsed shortly after the match. (The "bank" was offering foreign investors 15% interest on their own currency and an irresistible 200% on the dinar.) Six months later, "Gazda Jezda" (Boss Jezda, as Vasiljevic is known) had fled the country, and Fischer was reported to be living on his own means in a Montenegrin hotel, still waiting for his prize money. It's not clear whether he ever received it, which may or may not weigh in your assessment of his culpability.

    The comedy--keeping in mind Fischer's feelings about Jews--is that when the Yugoslav Interior Ministry ostensibly turned against Jezda and accused him of fraud, he immediately fled to Israel. According to various sources in Serbia, Israel, and the West, Vasiljevic had been responsible for negotiating a under-the-table arms deal between Israel and Milosevic. There's some detail in a paper by Israeli ethicist Igor Primoratz; if that doesn't convince you (and it's worth noting, I guess, that it's archived on a Croatian web page), one might mention a telling detail from a contemporary personal account of Jezda and his entourage that appeared in a Chess Monthly interview with journalist Cathy Forbes:

    ...he surrounded himself with thugs, and you can judge people by the company they keep. Like many Serbian men with a machismo problem, Boss Jezda's idea of impressing a girl is to show her the gun in his trousers. He told me it was an Uzi pistol. A real charmer.

    During his stay in Israel, Jezda managed to convince Western reporters that he was building a "government-in-exile" and had turned against Milosevic for good. Shortly thereafter he was back in Yugoslavia and back, apparently, in Slobo's good books. Since then he has been in and out of prison, fending off the Hague tribunal like many former Milosevic cronies. Apparently he was contemplating a run for president in the recent Serbian elections on an anti-kleptocracy platform--you can't say the Balkan peoples lack for a sense of humour--but didn't follow through.

    A further note to my column: I mentioned that Boris Spassky, Fischer's opponent in the 1992 match, was punished only gently by the Russian Federation when he returned home. But there was a third high-profile participant: Lothar Schmid, the legendary German arbiter who had overseen the 1972 Fischer-Spassky showdown (and who saved it from falling apart several times by means of deft diplomacy). Schmid wasn't punished at all for going to Yugoslavia, even though his participation was almost as crucial as Fischer's.

    Schmid is not only famous for chess--which he plays at an exceedingly high level--but is also the owner and high priest of the Karl May Verlag, which he inherited from his father. This is the publishing house built on the profits from May's ill-informed but romantic Wild West books, which have influenced central European history in weird ways for over a century (Hitler was a fanatic admirer). May's work still sends hundreds of wide-eyed German tourists to Alberta every year to blunder into crevasses and talk nonsense to Indians. In 1960's adaptations of May's books, mountainous Yugoslavia even stood in for the North American West, apparently quite convincingly.

    - 3:18 am, July 20 (link)

    Customized death from above

    Congratulations are in order for Clarence Simonsen, the Airdrie resident who is the top living expert on aircraft nose art of the Second World War. Simonsen, whom I profiled for the Report early in 2003, is the co-author of two canonical texts on nose paintings in Allied fleets and has a good line in replicas painted on genuine paneling from downed bombers. As a researcher he has pulled together photos of nose art, finding many in private collections that might have vanished otherwise, and has brought recognition to some of the more talented exponents of the form.

    Answering an invitation from the Smithsonian, Simonsen gave a talk yesterday at the Dillon Ripley Center in Washington, D.C. The art painted on the sides of bomber aircraft, often by crew members, is recognized in the United States as a uniquely charming and democratic part of the military heritage. The Canadian historical establishment has never quite gotten on board, and Simonsen has a somewhat prickly relationship with the national War Museum.

    Here's the story I wrote for the Report, with some links added. Unfortunately I can't say exactly when this ran, but I believe it was in April or thereabouts.

    Last month the Lancaster Air Museum in Nanton, Alta., held a quiet ceremony to pay belated tribute to Calgarian Matthew Ferguson, who served in the Royal Canadian Air Force as an aircraft mechanic from 1941 to 1945. Between war's end and Ferguson's death in 1982, few suspected there was anything to distinguish him from thousands of other RCAF crewmen who came home and lived quiet civilian lives. But in 2001, Clarence Simonsen, an Albertan who is probably the world's top living expert on aircraft nose art, made the discovery that Ferguson had been the British Empire's most prolific painter of decorative designs on Second World War bombers.

    After publishing his opus majus, RAF & RCAF Aircraft Nose Art in World War II, Mr. Simonsen had received a telephone call from Ferguson's widow Adele, now 86, who still lives in Calgary. She had kept an album of photographs of her husband's work, little suspecting its wider significance until she learned of Mr. Simonsen's book. The album proved to be a treasure trove, maybe the greatest single find in Mr. Simonsen's 37 years of research. All along--while Mr. Simonsen had been talking to dozens of nose artists and air crewmen--the collection had been sitting in a house just a short drive from his own residence in Airdrie.

    Such frustrations and joys come with the territory when you are breaking new ground in historical research. Simonsen is an amateur whose driving passion is to preserve a record, and the context, of an important folk-art form before its practitioners disappear entirely. And his work is not made any easier by the fact that most of the surviving examples were shot down over Europe or sold for scrap after the war. "There wasn't a single book in existence on this subject when I started out," says Mr. Simonsen. "Veterans like Ferguson came home after the war was over and promptly forgot about this aspect. For the most part, the only record that exists is in photographs. I realized that 35 years ago, so that's what I go after, matching up photos with aircraft serial numbers and log books. It sounds simple, but it's very difficult."

    The History of Aircraft Nose Art: WWI to Today, a 1991 book Mr. Simonsen co-authored with American Jeffrey Ethell, is just entering its fourth edition. Yet Mr. Simonsen has never been able to make a full-time job out of his research, and sometimes he is frustrated by the obstacles thrown in his path by living in Canada. In other combatant countries of the Second World War, military history publishing is a small but profitable business. Here, Mr. Ferguson says, "the guys with the interest don't have the money, and you can't get a foot in the door at the big houses. I'm totally unknown in Canada. If you're Pierre Berton you can churn out a million books, but if they haven't heard of you you can't get through to them." After Mr. Simonsen completed the text of RAF & RCAF Aircraft Nose Art he spent months trying to find a Canadian publisher; when he gave up and called the U.K., the first imprint he contacted, Hikoki Publications, signed him up almost at once.

    He has not had much better luck trying to raise awareness of nose art at the Canadian War Museum, which is currently having an expensive new home built in the national capital district. In 1946, a Canadian officer named Harold Lindsay was working at RCAF headquarters in England when he realized that a lot of distinctive Canadian art was being consigned to the scrapyard along with the aircraft that bore it. On the sly, he went to an aircraft graveyard with an English confederate and had 15 panels of nose art cut from Canadian and British planes. "Thirteen of those Lindsay panels are in the collection of the War Museum, and the public's never seen them," says Mr. Simonsen. "Maybe one or two have been on display occasionally. The rest have sat in a box somewhere." Meanwhile, in the United States, nose art is treated with the care and esteem Mr. Simonsen believes it is due; entire museum wings are devoted to it.

    It is hard to put into words why young men--mostly ground crewmen working in their spare time for no pay, except perhaps some free beer or smokes--felt the need to decorate airplanes with pictures of pretty girls or rampaging animals. But the need is real; the history of the art form stretches from the First World War to the Second Gulf War. Partly it must have been a psychological release from military uniformity and starchiness. Partly it helped distinguish crews and thus bind the members together, and partly it would have symbolized and reinforced the care taken with the machines on which their lives depended. Survivors of Bomber Command's grim mathematics agree that nose art had meaning to them. "They wouldn't have taken such pains if it hadn't," says Mr. Simonsen. "The artists had to paint outdoors, often in lousy weather conditions. Imagine how hard it was during wartime to obtain paint or brushes. It took a lot of guts to climb into those planes, knowing you had a five, ten percent chance of not coming back. The nose art helped them, and it reappears every time there's a war."

    Mr. Simonsen came to an understanding of these truths during his own career as a war artist of sorts. Sent to Cyprus in 1965 with a Canadian peacekeeping contingent, Mr. Simonsen went from amateur cartoonist to muralist, painting pinup girls and hockey players on the walls of army buildings to remind his fellow soldiers of home. Later he worked as a policeman in Malton, Ont., where Canada's aviation history was (and is) still a living subject. Malton was where Avro's Lancaster Mark X was built, and where the legendary Arrow project had experienced its short life. One thing led to another, and by 1978 Mr. Simonsen's writing career went into full swing when he started a column about nose art for the magazine of the U.S. 8th Air Force Historical Society.

    As a self-taught painter, Mr. Simonsen spends much of his time recreating wartime nose art from the black-and-white photographs he has collected over the years. Perhaps uniquely, he prefers to paint on metal taken from genuine wartime aircraft. He is currently working with panels from a Handley Page Hampden retrieved from a Norwegian lake in 1996 and now being restored to flying condition (with new parts and exterior metal) in Trenton, Ont. "I give the panels an acid bath, mount them on plywood, and put rivets in the original holes," he says. "As long as it's well primed the panels aren't hard to work with, and I finish with an acrylic sealant." The Aerospace Museum of Calgary has a collection of Mr. Simonsen's work, and he has given panels to other museums, to veterans, and to aviation collectors. He says, not without a hint of regret, that he may start executing work for private buyers to allow him to continue his artwork and research.

    As his rediscovery of Matthew Ferguson shows, his research has not stopped with the publication of his books. "I'm still looking for people who might have painted aircraft themselves, or have photos of painted aircraft," he says. "There are thousands of photo albums sitting in this country that might contain important [visual information]."

    [UPDATE, 4:48 pm: Billy Beck has a lot more links. He's almost as good on airplanes as he is on guitars...]

    - 3:22 am, July 19 (link)

    Republican erotics

    France has just finished its own version of the U.S.'s young-Elvis/old-Elvis philatelic controversy. It is time, as happens occasionally, to replace the existing postal image of Marianne, the goddess of the Revolution. As a French thinker recently observed, "Like a Barbie doll, she has many outfits." The French public was allowed to vote their favourite from amongst ten finalists. Most are intriguingly modern images, and some seem to bear hallmarks of outright fashionista influence. The French wisely chose Thierry Lamouche's stylized Marianne.

    Elsewhere in the world press, the "other" pope--Shenouda III, 90th spiritual head of Coptic Orthodoxy--is in Switzerland to open a church and to visit the town of St. Maurice, which is named for a martyred soldier of the 3rd-century Theban Legion. Meanwhile, the Germans are trying to decide whether it's possible to sell souvenirs at a concentration camp, and Bollywood is discovering the unexpected virtues of shooting movies in Alberta.

    - 11:12 pm, July 18 (link)

    My new Bobby Fischer column is now up at By an odd and bittersweet twist of circumstance, Fischer's arrest and detention comes just as Gata Kamsky, easily the strongest American chessplayer since Fischer, returns to competitive chess after his own long self-imposed exile.

    - 6:59 pm, July 18 (link)

    And I am Susie of Albania

    It has become strangely fashionable for columnists to insist that they are Marie of Roumania, a Dorothy Parker reference which lets them fabricate a darling little mudpie of sarcasm while still appearing erudite. (Most rather ruin the allusion, however, by spelling "Romania" in the modern manner.) Let the record show that a thoroughly modern real-life Marie--Susan Ward, the Australian-born and uncrowned queen consort of Albania--has died at the age of 63. Like many of the Balkan kings, her husband Leka I was allowed to return to his country in post-communist times: in his case, his initial visit in 1993 was only his second stay in the country his family had been forced to flee when he was two days old. Officially he pulled in 33% of the support in a 1997 referendum on the restoration of the monarchy; unofficially, it's thought he probably won the damn thing.

    - 6:26 pm, July 18 (link)

    Big in Japan

    A note to followers of my National Post column: my usual Monday piece will be appearing on Tuesday instead this week. As a bonus you can watch for my new TAS Online column about the arrest of Bobby Fischer. That should be posted Sunday night, and I'll link to it when it is. Just two weeks ago TAS posted my June review of a new book about Fischer, which has some relevant background.

    - 11:21 pm, July 17 (link)

    Today's National Post column about the CRTC is available on the Web to subscribers only. It's on page A1 of the print edition, which I mention only because I had to tear down and rebuild the whole thing in response to this front-page news. Here's an unedited version of last week's column about the future of the federal Conservative party.

    Stephen Harper, it now appears, is going to hang in as leader of the federal Conservatives. And it appears, too, that he is going to take the advice he has received from all quarters, and particularly from Ontarians hoping to be saved from eternal Liberal government: make the party "centrist" and bring some diehard Progressive Conservatives into the circle of power. All he has to do is centre-ize the party without destroying it, and actually locate PCs willing to enter the sanctum.

    Simple, right?

    What I've heard since the election is a disguised universal clamour from Eastern Canadian Conservatives for another Brian Mulroney--someone who can build a coalition including the West while keeping the West in its place. You should notice that this tacit longing is being expressed mostly by advocates of the PC-Alliance merger, which lost a net 45% of the Ontario PC vote from 2000 and was hence a near-total failure. But advocates of the New Mulroney strategy will not apologize: the merger is merely a foundation for the future, they'll say.

    The strategy seems to be predicated on the idea--I am dignifying a psychological defence mechanism here with the term "idea"--that Harper's Alberta origins (as a politician) had nothing to do with his failure to fulfill the promise of his campaign's first days. It also tacitly proposes that a Calgarian will serve just as well to reconstruct the Conservative Party in Quebec (and Ontario) as a boy from Baie Comeau. Shucks, who'd ever think otherwise?

    It's charming, really, to witness how far central Canadians--and brilliant ones at that--will press these points. Andrew Coyne insists that the cultural separation between Ontario and Alberta is a "myth" even as his compatriots (comprovinciots?) chastise us on our redneck rage and make envenomed jokes about cowboys. Diane Francis attempts a judo throw, arguing that it was Albertans--I damn near shot half a Coke out my nose reading this--who really failed to "deliver the goods" electorally, having given just 26 of 28 seats to the Conservatives.

    Well, surely we can agree that there is some non-zero number of Ontario and Quebec voters who will find it difficult to contemplate any Prime Minister of Canada from Calgary. This means that to credibly drop his "regional baggage", so-called, Harper will have to be more ruthless about suppressing socially conservative dissent and blurtcrimes than a leader from outside Alberta would.

    I don't know exactly what people want when they demand, like Ms. Francis, that Harper "boot out" certain people from the party. But I know imposing order on these elements will be harder for Harper than it would be for, say, Peter MacKay. Mulroney never had to strait-jacket his caucus's "social conservative" elements; when Westerners blew up his party, it was asymmetric federalism, not gay marriage or abortion, that lit the fuse. MacKay himself escaped criticism for being joined at the hip to queerbashing granny Elsie Wayne throughout the Conservative leadership race.

    Only a fool (or a Liberal) could really want Harper to tear up the membership cards of popular so-con MPs--but he may have to go that far. In the Conservative party, candidates are chosen by the members in each riding: to give Harper the necessary control, the party may need to adopt the autocratic Liberal style of candidate selection. This "booting" business, examined closely, begins to look like a secret plan for reviving the Reform Party.

    Albertans and other Westerners are not, contrary to popular belief, especially "conservative" on social issues: Alberta's level of church attendance, to choose one obvious indicator, is lower than Ontario's. There are an awful lot of us pro-weed, pro-sodomy, pro-abortion unbelievers out here (and we have our share--yes!--of abortion clinics, gay hangouts, and feminist bookstores). But many of us acquiesce in being represented politically by religious politicians, who are more likely to develop an altruistic interest in public service and who possess ready-made social networks upon which to base a candidacy. We share the Christian's devotion to Western civilization and Anglo-Canadian traditions. We may even sense that our Christian fellow-citizens are increasingly beleaguered by an elite for whom perpetual revolution constitutes its own unpalatable religion.

    And, yeah, we dislike the Supreme Court's habit of reading the Charter to us like the Riot Act, only backwards and upside-down. If you were to toss out everybody in the present Conservative caucus who agrees with Randy White about our courts, the remainder would easily be outnumbered by the exiles. If Harper weren't engaged in a ploy for the prime ministership, he'd probably be one of the ejectees.

    As it is, he will have to behave cruelly to impose his vision of a "moderate" Tory party on a caucus that is, a priori, immoderate. However well he succeeds in this Stalinist task, the exercise will still be insincere. Ontarians are smarter than Ontario Conservatives think: they won't forget Harper's political history (or his home address) overnight. He has already tried, doing minimum violence to his own principles, to steer close to the Liberals on abortion, gay marriage, bilingualism, the "notwithstanding" clause, and other matters. He tried to play the moderate, and was vilified as a radical.

    If he tries harder, will he win people over, or just encourage the belief that he's a bullshooter with a "secret agenda"? As an Albertan who supports the Conservatives, I fear that it's the latter, and that Harper's decision to cling to the leadership may hurt both province and party. (July 9, 2004)

    - 4:34 am, July 16 (link)

    Steeped in p

    The latest Oxford English Dictionary newsletter contains a snapshot of the in-house staff's work during one particular recent day.

    On Monday I did penance. Actually, I revised the Latin component of the etymology of the word penance. This also involved looking at the entry for penitence; Latin paenitentia is the ultimate source of both words.

    ...I spent a very interesting time investigating the etymology of the noun panzer, eagerly searching for early uses of the word in its ‘tank’ sense in German. The earliest German occurrence I've found so far is from 1934, but this can probably be improved upon!

    ...On Monday I edited my way through eighteen entries, from pinkishness to pinlock. En route I found six new antedatings, including a 1917 example of the verb pink-slip (meaning to fire someone, and previously only known from 1953); I also learned that it is better to be pinkish (fit, well) than a pinkling (a weak or delicate youth), that pink lady cocktails can be made with cream instead of egg white, and that in Australia drinking too many such alcoholic beverages may make one pinko.

    - 3:52 am, July 16 (link)

    Mr. Clean

    Ahmed Nazif, the new prime minister of Egypt, was once a professor of engineering on the faculty of McGill University and got his Ph.D. there. I'm not sure any Canadian newspaper has noticed this yet, so if you're checking in from a newsroom, get on your bike...

    - 4:38 pm, July 15 (link)

    Insert SCTV battery-fluid reference here

    A slice of life in central Asia: the Altavista Babelfish catches the press apparatus of Uzbek dictator Islam Karimov trying to hog the credit for Rustam Kasimdzhanov's victory in the FIDE "World Championship" knockout:

    [Since 1886], 16 chess players have been world champion, including Lasker, Capablanca, Alekhine, Botvinnik, Tal, Petrosian, Spassky, Fischer, Karpov, Kasparov, and Anand. Now among them stands a son of Uzbek soil, Rustam Kasimdzhanov.

    And all this because of independence! Since the achievement of independence under the management of President Islam Karimov, the necessary conditions have been created in our country for the development of all sports, and chess in particular, so that our athletes can completely display their talent and craftsmanship.

    Now we see the result of this enormous work. Could an Uzbek fellow have attained this high title if our country had not attained independence? Would the flag of Uzbekistan have been raised, would our national anthem have played? Today all of Uzbekistan, and all Uzbeks, must rejoice. ...We congratulate you on your victory, Rustam! Our entire people desire from the soul that this crown will belong to you for a period of long years!

    One wonders if that includes the torture victims and political prisoners. Funnily enough, there is another significant item about Uzbekistan in today's world news, though Karimov's government, if that's even the right word for it, probably won't be quite as assiduous about trumpeting it to the skies. None of this means much to Kasimdzhanov personally: he has lived in Germany for years, and plays professionally in the Bundesliga for SG Solingen. He may not be a real "world champion", but he's almost certainly the first player to even be called that who played second board for his club team.

    - 7:31 am, July 14 (link)

    In the name of the public good

    The Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission has just withdrawn the operating license of a radio station, Quebec City's CHOI-FM. It's the first time the federal broadcast regulator--doubtless emboldened by the Liberal victory in last month's election--has ever done so on the grounds of content. Radio Weisblogg has a good brief summary. And the Globe's Tu Thanh Ha has a long list of verbal outrages perpetrated by the suppressed station (which sounds about a skrillion times more entertaining than anything in English Canada).

    But isn't there something missing from the Globe piece? In recounting CHOI host Jeff Fillion's railleries against foreign students and chesty newsreaders, the Globe neglects to mention one of the complaints that got CHOI heaved into oblivion:

    106. In March 2003, Astral Broadcasting Group Inc., the Bell ExpressVu Limited Partnership (Bell ExpressVu) and Cogeco Radio-TV complained that host Jean-François Fillion promoted piracy on the air by urging his listeners to pirate Bell ExpressVu and Vidéotron ltée. signals and that the host was thereby seriously and deliberately undermining the Canadian broadcasting system. Several pages of stenographic notes were appended to the complaints, which contained six comments to the following effect:

    [translation] How many times have I told you that it's a good thing to pirate Bell ExpressVu... the message is loud and clear.

    [translation] Listen, I'm going to tell you again what I told you yesterday: Keep on scamming the system and pirating signals, either Vidéotron or Bell ExpressVu; they haven’t got the message.

    [translation] Keep on going to the store, you know, the one that supplies the stuff you need to pirate Bell ExpressVu. You're doing the right thing.

    The CP wire story didn't mention this angle either, nor did the Post in this morning's story; but one might have thought that the Globe, a division of Bell GlobeMedia, had a special duty to mention that Bell ExpressVu, a sibling in the BCE corporate family, was among the plaintiffs in this surreal witch trial.

    Or is this whole subject just a little too embarrassing for newspapers, generally, to confront? Broadcasters wear a much tighter straitjacket than we print types because of the cretinous interbellum fiction that the airwaves are "public property". Most of the trees cut down to feed newsprint mills were originally "public property" too; there is no logical reason why broadcasters should be allowed only a revocable lease over their medium, while newspapers are permitted to own theirs free and clear. Then again, maybe I shouldn't say that out loud in a place like Canada.

    - 4:45 am, July 14 (link)

    Heavy raps

    "Who? Whom?" Dept.: Pete Townshend has a bone to pick with Michael Moore. (Via Tim Blair.)

    - 10:49 pm, July 13 (link)

    Black and white

    It seems like a good time for an update on the laborious process of unifying the world championship of chess. I last discussed this at the beginning of March, as FIDE was making controversial plans to hold a playoff in Tripoli to determine the "FIDE World Champion"--who would, essentially, be the last semifinalist chosen for the grand unification process.

    That tournament is now over, but the controversy didn't go away. When he first announced the event, FIDE (and Republic of Kalmykia) president Kirsan Ilyumzhinov gave his word that holders of Israeli passports would be permitted to enter Col. Gadhafi's fiefdom for the purpose of getting a fair crack at the FIDE title. That's not how it worked out. When the Libyans refused to guarantee entry visas or security for Jewish players, most of the eligible Jewish grandmasters and many gentile ones refused to participate. Swiss national Vadim Milov, a high-ranked protegé of the great Soviet emigré Korchnoi, chose to call FIDE's bluff. On the eve of the tournament he finally received personal assurances that he could set foot on Libyan soil, but it was too late.

    Despite constant requests from Milov and the Swiss Chess Federation, Milov's invitation - necessary to obtain a visa - was delayed until 23.30 on the night before the arrival day. At that time Milov was informed that after a long meeting with FIDE chief Ilyumzhinov, Libyan leader Muammar Gadhafi had agreed to allow Milov to play. FIDE even offered to pay for Milov's travel expenses, but the offer came too late for Milov to find a flight to Tripoli which would allow him to arrive on time. Earlier that evening Milov had been told by a FIDE official that FIDE had been tricked by the Libyans, who had never intended to allow any Israelis to play.

    Absolutely everyone outside FIDE, of course, saw this "trick" coming. The tournament--already weakened by the absence of Indian genius Viswanathan Anand, a dissenter from the unification process--proceeded without stars like Gulko, Gelfand, or Milov. On one side of the draw, Cornishman Mickey Adams, a perennial presence among the world's top ten, reached the final. From the other side emerged a young 100-to-1 longshot from Uzbekistan, Rustam Kasimdzhanov. The six-game final was a display of bizarre blunders unusual even by the standards of FIDE knockouts. But one can't say it lacked excitement. After a quick game-one draw, Adams and Kasim alternated victories, with the Uzbek winning games two and four. Game six was a wacky draw that either man could have won with reasonably correct play.

    This morning Kasimdzhanov won a rapid-chess playoff against Adams to complete an incredible Cinderella run. His string of scalps already included those of the volatile Ukrainian legend Vassily Ivanchuk, the emerging Russian star Sasha Grischuk, and the Bulgarian assassin Veselin Topalov. Ivanchuk was the second-best player alive as recently as 1996, and Adams and Topalov were the top seeds in the tournament. Going in, Kasimdzhanov was rated just #54 in the world.

    This makes the Uzbek the "FIDE world champion", so-called. If all goes according to plan, he will soon have the dubious pleasure of defending that title against world #1 Garry Kasparov. Meanwhile, real (or "classical") world champion Vladimir Kramnik--who took the belt from Kasparov in a 2000 match--will make his overdue first title defence against Peter Leko beginning on September 25 in Switzerland. The idea is that the winner of Kasimdzhanov-Kasparov is eventually supposed to play against the winner of Kramnik-Leko. But there is widespread doubt as to whether FIDE will be able to hold up its end, given the organizational tone-deafness it displayed by allying with the Gadhafi regime. FIDE will continue to bleed credibility for as long as it remains in the hands of a comic-opera strongman from central Asia.

    - 5:32 pm, July 13 (link)

    Birds fly south

    Was everyone but me aware that the South Korean government is thinking of abandoning Seoul and building a new capital further from the DMZ? The idea has been floating around for a long time, with the North Korean artillery and 500 Communist Scud missiles invisibly making an insistent case in favour. But the trick that President Roh Moo-Hyun means to pull off has always defied South Korean politicians in the past. Seoul is regarded as the natural site for the capital of a unified Korea, and any plan for southward flight is instantly denounced as "retrogressive". I don't suppose anybody mentions the track record of capital cities planned ex nihilo; these days one is much more likely to end up with a giant turd like Brasilia than the New Delhi of E.L. Lutyens.

    Bonus international item: the Social Democrat-led government of Germany, mired in a productivity slump, is thinking of removing some of the holidays from the country's notoriously slack work calendar. Dare we make people work on Epiphany?

    You can tell, I suppose, that I am trying to shake my preoccupation with Canadian politics. Incidentally, in case anyone was wondering, the gigantic freak storm that struck Edmonton on Sunday was hardly noticeable where I live. It hit hard in the west end: it sounds as though my friend and fellow Canwest columnist Lorne Gunter, who lives out there, is basically going to have to replace everything in his house but the walls. Don't expect to see him on Across the Board for a few days.

    - 5:44 am, July 13 (link)

    Things worth fighting for?

    Notes for a Future Separatist Movement Dept.: if the inevitably farcical process of national "consciousness-raising" ever begins in earnest out West, let us hope we choose to proceed in the playful spirit of Umberto Bossi's Lega Nord. The Italian party, dedicated to extricating the affluent "Padanian" north of Italy from the country's southern welfare traps, holds an annual Miss Padania beauty pageant. The festivities were inhibited somewhat this year by Bossi's absence (he suffers from recurring heart trouble), and eventual winner Alice Graci seems not to have been a crowd favourite. I am at rather a loss to understand why.

    - 2:03 am, July 13 (link)

    Cinema catchup IV

    The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

    This was adapted from an Alan Moore book I hadn't read, so I didn't have to hate it. The first five minutes are truly world-class: I won't spoil them, but if you're like me you'll be tempted to laugh gleefully at the coolness of the idea. The main "unexpected" plot twist--involving the true identity of a certain character--is visible a mile off, but still fun to wait for. The logic of the whole, sadly, doesn't remotely hold together. Surely the fun of writing something so period-bound is confining yourself to the limits of the possible? Or the probable? Or the sensible? Moore does not build narrative machines that function this ineptly--and I know without checking that Tom Sawyer wasn't in the goddamn book. The surprising good news is that Huck Finn and "Jim the African-American" don't turn up at the end to save the day.

    Shattered Glass

    Tom Wolfe observed that the 19th-century naturalists, by connecting the novel to real events and meticulous reporting, found a new and inexhaustible source of energy that was to narrative art what electricity was to industry. There's no substitute for telling a story that really happened, or at least for encouraging the reader (as the very first English novelists did) to believe that it really happened. Hayden Christensen's brilliantly realized Stephen Glass (yes!) is a dewy "second-hander" straight out of an Ayn Rand novel, with his "I feel really attacked right now", his "I didn't do anything wrong", and his "Are you mad at me?" Peter Sarsgaard's Chuck Lane is the magnificent, unyielding Javert figure of the picture. To put Wolfe's point another way: you couldn't make it up.

    Runaway Jury

    An unexpected foray into noir from John Grisham. Ordinarily the movies made from his books are about how the law is finer and nobler than any of its practitioners; here, every character is thoroughly lousy and the law far worse. Apparently Grisham had a point to make this time out--something about the Second Amendment being the supreme manifestation of Satan on Earth, I guess. After a while I began to root for a Hell in the Pacific-style ending in which everyone was destroyed. It didn't deliver.


    Almost certainly the best movie of 2002. Not kidding. This was shot, you may remember, after Seinfeld, the show, ended, and Jerry Seinfeld decided to return to the stage after throwing out his whole act--consigning to flames fully twenty years of painfully refined gags, bits, and transitions, each representing a hundred hours of sheer sweat. This act of mad bushido integrity was described in reviews of the movie rather offhandedly, and--to be even-handed--Seinfeld, because he was Seinfeld, could still get laughs even if he forgot his punchlines completely (as he does at one point in the movie). He couldn't really reset the odometer to zero and ever again face the hostile audiences of his youth; but it was still an incredible thing to do, and he did, believe it or not, have to deal with hecklers. The other comics in the movie regard Seinfeld, visibly, with a mixture of awe and dread. He remains implacably, almost preternaturally focused on his art in the midst of it.

    For counterpoint the movie provides a subplot wherein the camera follows around Orny Adams, another comic just joining the stable of Seinfeld's manager. Adams is a glib whore whose obsession with everything but his craft contrasts with Seinfeld's poignant monklike humility. I've never been too much impressed with Seinfeld's act: after seeing this movie I'm pretty impressed with him as a human being.


    Gus Van Sant's Columbine recreation. "Detached" seems like far too weak a word: it feels like it was made by nobody at all. How do you interpret a movie that is so deliberately impervious to involvement? And, more to the point, what reason could there be for seeing it? Because even homicidal teenagers are ultimately beautiful, fragile creatures of God? Or what?

    Capturing the Friedmans

    This is a documentary chronicle of one of the multiple-offender sex-abuse panics that infected North America during the '80s and '90s; the case is rather unrepresentative, since the father of the persecuted family (an award-winning science and computing teacher in Great Neck, N.Y.) appears to have actually been a pedophile. Friedmans, which contains large amounts of material shot by the video-addicted family, was controversial. Even though it contains more than enough material to exculpate the two jailed men from the absurd crimes of which they were convicted, its editing raised unfair questions about their innocence--either inadvertently, or in the name of "balance". It's still a very impressive movie, and not just a poignant lesson about out-of-control cops and prosecutors who go hunting for testimony amongst children--although it is that.

    The Shape of Things

    Another paragraph in Neil LaBute's literary case for Original Sin. Oh, I know--strictly speaking, Mormon orthodoxy doesn't hold with Original Sin. But naming your central characters "Adam" and "Evelyn" is a dead giveaway. The real forebear here, however, is perhaps not St. Augustine but Vladimir Nabokov, who would be delighted with the denouement in Rachel Weisz's "installation", and particularly that typographically deafening Han Suyin quotation on the wall--"Moralists have no place in an art gallery." Equally deafening lashings of Elvis Costello--the LaBute of rock?--set the tone.

    The Italian Job (2003 remake)

    Superior brainless thriller in the "team of supercriminals gathers for one big score" tradition. Three-Fingered Bob here can blow open a safe with nothing but a tin of corn syrup and a Zippo. Wheels is a former Formula Ford champion who once drove from Guadalajara to Rio in 16 hours. Bytes, our computer guy, wrote the prototype for OS/2 when he was 15... You think I'm exaggerating? The expert mechanic who soups up the famous Minis is actually nicknamed "Wrench". But this strictly notional remake fits a lot into two hours--so much that it never finds a spare moment to have Charlize disrobe. Bad movie physics abounds.

    View from the Top

    A TV screenplay that made it through the filter somehow; a sad waste of totty. Mike Myers continues to jet toward his ultimate destiny as inexplicable generational wreckage of the Charlie Chaplin/Marty Feldman/Jerry Lewis sort. (Why did anyone laugh at this? Did anyone laugh at this?) Mark Ruffalo's effort to overcome a speech impediment is no doubt heroic, but it kind of gets in the way when you're asked to play a straight-arrow male lead. He was terrific as the dodgy, damaged brother in You Can Count On Me: some folks, I guess, were born to be character actors.

    Murder By Numbers

    I feel slightly embarrassed at having enjoyed the 2,381st retelling of the Leopold-Loeb case. But Barbet Schroeder's directorial hand scatters a useful patina of sleaze that lifts this above its natural second-rate-Law & Order-episode level. And I have to say that I'm hoping for Sandra Bullock to finally shake off the career expectations which she raised and then dashed to pieces so rapidly in the '90s. She was--I hesitate to declare it for fear of ridicule--actually pretty good in this (as a scarred she-cop) and in 28 Days (as an alcoholic party girl scraping bottom).

    Confessions of a Dangerous Mind

    It's regrettable that Chuck Barris's coke-fuelled exercise in self-aggrandizement depended so much on an ultimately pathetic fantasy. Time has justified him in a way fairy tales cannot: I'm sure someone else has pointed this out, but Barris, once condemned as a "purveyor of schlock", is now recognizable as the most influential human being in the history of television. He only needed to wait a couple of decades for his creations to swallow the medium whole. What are all these "reality" shows, at heart?--they're The Gong Show without the gong. American Idol barely even pretends to be anything but a tarted-up Gong Show, and The Bachelor is just a high-stakes Dating Game. I'm not sure the personal computer has created as many millionaires as Chuck Barris.

    - 1:25 am, July 13 (link)

    Monday's National Post column (subscriber-only) is about the future of the firewall movement within the Klein government. It's mostly reporting on some stirrings and developments inside the province, and not in the nature of a polemic. Norman Spector writes:

    Colby Cosh should read Chantal Hébert: who cares whether the momentum in Alberta is behind the firewall? After all, equalization is and would remain a federal program.

    Which is, of course, true, but equalization is hardly graven in granite, as Spector well knows; it is tweaked nearly every year on the basis of "consultations" with the provinces--or with the "have-not" provinces, anyway. It's all the more reason to lay the necessary foundations for a strengthening of Alberta's bargaining position within Confederation. The issue is whether it accomplishes that, and not just what it creates or accomplishes in itself.

    Though that, too, is worth considering. Hébert makes a couple of points about the cost Quebec pays for having its bags forever packed to flee Confederation, and while she is one of my three or four favourite columnists, bringing health care into a discussion of firewalls seems like deliberately confusing the issue. The main relevant things she wishes to call to the attention of Western intellectuals are twofold: (a) Quebec's dual tax collection makes life harder for Quebec taxpayers by making them fill out two forms and creating two compliance structures; (b) Quebeckers don't gain anything financially from having their own pension system, the main difference being that QPP contributions are invested within Quebec.

    (A) is an important point, and dual taxation must qualify as a real cost, though in the long run who the hell knows if (newly debt-free) Alberta will even bother with personal income tax. There has already been semi-serious talk of scrapping it down the road (but there is a cultural prejudice here--probably an irrational one, if the economists can be believed--against the consumption taxes that would have to replace it in the short term). (B), however, has exactly the wrong end of the stick. Because Alberta's labour force is so young, the CPP is (like most other federal social programs) a giant monetary black hole for this province; leaving the CPP would immediately force contribution rates up in the rest of Canada (except Quebec), and would allow the Alberta government to either drop the rates noticeably for Albertans or increase the payout down the road.

    Here's last week's column about the Shriners Hospital fight. N.B.: The pivotal vote referred to about two-thirds of the way down has basically been delayed until next year, and Ottawa is now in the running alongside Montreal and London.

    Say the liturgy with me: You all know it. "Hospital care in Canada must be provided by government, paid for by government and administered by government, for government is all-wise, efficient and unbesmirched by the hand of Mammon, which grips 'private providers.' St. Tommy Douglas, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death on the waiting list."

    I am here to warn True Believers not to look too closely at what's happening in Montreal right now. It might obscure holy writ in a mild fog of uncertainty. There's a spot of trouble, you see, with the Shriners Hospital in that city -- and just by pointing out to you that a non-state institution has been providing cutting-edge world-class medicine to Canadian children there since 1925, I am flirting with heterodoxy.

    The existing Shriners Hospital is crumbling, and the Shriners of North America want to build a new one. An offshoot of Freemasonry, the organization is best known, perhaps, as a crowd of older gentlemen who wear silly hats and cut up in hotels. It is also one of the wealthiest, most energetic philanthropic organizations on the continent: It operates 20 Shriners Hospitals for children in the United States, one in Mexico, and the one in Montreal.

    It is in Montreal for the moment, anyway. For four years, the Shriners, who supply 75% of the hospital's operating budget, have wanted to build a new $100-million facility at their own expense. The site they had in mind adjoins the planned McGill University Health Centre (MUHC) at the old Glen railway yard, whose blueprints were first unveiled in 1992. But after 12 years, groundbreaking is scarcely in sight. The MUHC project has suffered revisions and periods of neglect as provincial governments and budgets have evolved. The estimated costs have reached as high as $2.2-billion and are still over $1-billion. And no Quebec premier wants to approve an expensive "English" superhospital without building a "French" one somewhere.

    Over the past couple of years, the Shriners have been besieging the Quebec government for some show of good faith about the McGill plans. But the province hasn't even begun environmental decontamination of the MUHC site yet. For the longest time, the Health Ministry wouldn't even return calls from the Shrine.

    Tony Dagnone, CEO of the London Health Sciences Centre in Ontario, noticed all this and decided at some point last year to eat Montreal's lunch. Dagnone found a site next door to his facility where construction -- much cheaper in London than in Montreal -- could begin at once. The city of London agreed to waive infrastructure costs. Parking, always a problem in Montreal, is abundant near the LHSC. London businessmen have agreed to raise money and build a hostel for the parents of patients. And there are three times as many Shriners in Ontario as in Quebec. Frankly, the Shriners might be downright foolish not to leave Montreal.

    A Shriner committee has already greenlighted the exodus; this week, the Shrine's synod (the "Imperial Council") will cast the final ratifying vote in Denver. Last month -- while election-watchers were being reminded how responsive and humane government health care is -- Quebecers finally protested loudly enough to spur their government to action. A delegation led by Quebec's Health Minister parachuted into Denver to present an eleventh-hour deal for the salvation of the Montreal Shriners facility. Alas, Mr. Dagnone was as close behind as a bloodhound, and may have gotten the last word.

    Who knows -- it could be that the Shrine's money is regarded by Montrealers as a cancer on the public system. Critics of "for-profit" medicine will note that the Shrine is a non-profit body; but it's also U.S.-based and private (and arguably even somewhat secretive, given its connections to Masonry). The relevant moral difference between "for-profit" and "non-profit" here is slender, and the former sort of institution may be more accountable, overall, to shareholders and regulators. The Shrine's treasurer and former imperial potentate, Gene Bracewell, runs the fraternity's charitable apparatus like a profitable business whose desired profit just happens to be zero. He threw his weight behind London's proposal because that city offered a better bang for the big Shriner bucks.

    That's what businesses do. If they're slaves to the dreaded "bottom line," they're also, one notices, free from the lassitude and the disreputable ethnopolitical considerations that have delayed the MUHC. Certainly no business in the cosmos, for-profit or non-profit, would leave a $100-million gift on the table for years as the government of Quebec did. All the same, we must never dare doubt, never ever, that medicine-by-bureaucrat serves us best. Amen. (July 5, 2004)

    - 1:13 am, July 13 (link)

    Friday's National Post column is available to subscribers only, but it's something of a follow-up to last Saturday's anyway, and that is just now hitting the Web for the first time. Just in time, actually, for the "Harper come home" idea to be rejected. It remains to be seen how well the "Klein go away" part fares.

    It has been most instructive this week to see central Canadians trying to explain away Stephen Harper's electoral failure in Ontario by means of anything -- anything at all -- but the anti-Alberta prejudice Paul Martin used openly to rally swing voters toward the end of the campaign. "Ignore what you saw," seems to be the message from Ontario.

    We have heard it said that Harper's "radical" conservative ideas, and not his person, were rejected by voters. But normally Harper's "regional baggage" is mentioned in practically the same breath, and how he might dispose of it is never made clear. As to the ideas, Ontario gave 45% of its vote to Mike Harris twice; Harper got just 31% of the province's federal vote. The difference might be attributable to the troubled Harris "legacy," but until the election's eve, Ontarians seemed a good deal more angry at their current Liberal government.

    We have heard it said that Harper failed to stomp on the nefarious "social conservatives" in his party hard enough. But he stomped harder and was vastly more credible on the subject than the young-Earth creationist Stockwell Day, yet the negligible gains suggest that the men have been dismissed as indistinguishable cowboys. We have heard it said that Harper was unreliable on the Charter of Rights, having been willing to exercise the "notwithstanding clause" which is, under this view, a less sacred part of the document. But nothing is ever mentioned about Liberal-appointed judges who invent exceptions to the Charter wide enough to drive a bus through.

    One could go on, but this is old news. Scott Brison denounced the Conservative party as a gang of "rednecks" before a national television audience in his victory speech. One doesn't suppose it will keep him out of Paul Martin's Cabinet; it didn't even make the newspapers. But he'd have been pre-emptively expelled from the new Liberal caucus if he'd used a word like "frogs." Albertans -- particularly Albertans living in Ontario -- know that one, and only one, acceptable regional prejudice exists in this country.

    The issue for Harper is what to do about it. Some have suggested that his post-election talk about reconsidering his future is mere posturing. He ran the best campaign he could, and his right to lead the Conservatives into another election is conceded on all sides. But he must ask himself whether having an Alberta leader is too much for the federal Conservatives to overcome, considering the other structural factors the party always faces, such as the unguarded self-interest of Canada's welfare sinks and the Liberals' near-monopoly on the votes of new citizens.

    Already there are emerging signs of a "Stephen Come Home" movement. If having an Alberta leader is hard for the federal Conservatives, having an Alberta premier shooting them in the back during elections is doubly tough. Ralph Klein's fatal intervention in the campaign has Conservative Albertans -- which is loosely to say "Albertans," period -- eyeing their dubious generalissimo. One MLA has already walked out of Klein's caucus in a huff.

    It hasn't registered much on the national scene, but the Premier's approval ratings stand at all-time lows here. Klein eagerly set the pace for a nationwide cigarette-tax increase -- a nanny-state move that has exhausted the budgets of the poor and depressed -- and has waddled slowly along with a "health care reform" that amounts to nothing but increased spending and premiums. His scary "defiance" of the Canada Health Act turned out to be more of the same when it was announced on Thursday, and the federal Liberals promptly expressed complete satisfaction with the plan. There was no "Harper-Klein" deal on health care; it looks rather like there was some sort of Pettigrew-Klein deal.

    Klein has backed down from every major fight with the federal Liberals, is visibly impatient with the "firewall" strategies once espoused by Harper, and has bullied the (very large, if timid) quasi-separatist element in his own party. He is known to be a former Trudeau Liberal, and in practice he has continued to be the Liberals' best friend here. It is for Klein's MLAs to decide whether they can judge and execute the Premier, Paul Martin-style, before a credible alternative party appears and wipes them all out. It is not impossible that the Alberta premiership could end up in Stephen Harper's hands within the next year.

    It's not the most likely outcome, either. Klein would fight like a wolverine to remain in office through the provincial centennial in September, 2005. But if it happened, it would solve two problems at once. It would allow the federal Conservatives to locate some "trustworthy" leader with no "regional baggage" -- fortunately, no one but us Albertans seems to possess any such baggage -- and it would allow Albertans to concentrate on bargaining with Confederation in the dispassionate, unrelenting way Quebec does. Albertans love Canada, but after a while even the sturdiest unrequited love starts to turn bitter. (July 3, 2004)

    - 3:59 pm, July 10 (link)

    PR file: Coyne rejoynes (and readers continue to weigh in)... -2:58 pm, July 9
    The forward backward province

    While casting about for a suitable subject for Friday's Post column, I ran across a strange Canada Day piece in the Edmonton Journal's business section by Gary Lamphier. It's about how Alberta needs to revisit those ruined '80s dreams of heavy public spending on "economic diversification".

    I'm a business writer, not a politico. But for all its economic success--and it is undeniable, thanks to high commodity prices and a dynamic oil and gas sector--Alberta can be a curiously unsophisticated place otherwise.
    Other than paying off the debt and supporting current and future oilsands developments, the Tories have yet to unveil any cohesive economic development plan for what is still largely a one-industry province. The budget slashers don't seem to know how to build a diversified economy.

    Lamphier's rhetoric echoes the "lucky Alberta" messages that my inbox is constantly being bombarded with--every one a variant on "If it weren't for oil and gas, Alberta would be the Sudan with better skiing". It also echoes fearmongering from moderate greens--and from those who long for the era of Lougheed-Getty state capitalism--about Alberta's dependence on dwindling nonrenewable resources. But maybe someone should look at the actual data on the share of Alberta's economy given over to energy production?

    I built this from a Statistics Canada table. One finds, to one's enormous surprise, that Alberta's energy dependence peaked precisely at the end of the Getty administration, during which the Alberta government had invested billions--was it trillions?--on failed diversification efforts. Since Lamphier's "budget-cutters" took over in 1993, the trend is unmistakeable... but, mysteriously, the mathematical sign he assigns to it is the wrong one. Alberta is rapidly getting less dependent on energy, not more.

    In a way Lamphier isn't wrong. Alberta can still be described as something of a one-industry province, if you are willing to cram oil and gas and the dozens of spinoff businesses into one Black-Hole-of-Calcutta category. As long as the rate of return on capital in that one industry remains high, and the economy isn't trifled with by some future premier's fantasy of a Great Leap Forward, Alberta is likely to remain a one-industry province--one which is funding its educational institutions fairly well (particularly on the research side), attracting the best minds from other parts of Confederation, creating more homegrown multimillionaires every year, and building the most aggressive economic counterweight in Canada to that strip along the St. Lawrence. If this is a lack of "sophistication", then I'd say sophistication (seemingly a synonym for central economic planning) can go piss up a rope...

    - 5:59 am, July 8 (link)

    Democracy is good, ergo more must be better

    Andrew Coyne's column in Wednesday's Post is an impassioned defence of hybridized proportional representation against, er, me (among others). You can read my own Post column on the subject and the weblog entry that provided more detail. Has Andrew addressed all these concerns with PR? It may be unfair to cite it, but the comment thread below his column at would suggest otherwise. His readers still seem to lean towards my position by about a two-to-one margin, if I can be permitted a casual estimate. Good objections to PR are made by "Jerry Aldini", Paul, Dennis, "Jerry" again, and SD.

    Then again, you don't have to be especially clever to recognize the weakness of Andrew's either-or dichotomy between "autocracy" and "democracy". Incidentally, I'd like to remind people that I'm not opposed to the use of transferrable ballot within ridings. Such a change would be pushing the limits of the simplicity that is needed to protect the electoral system's credibility, which is one of the most important elements of first-past-the-post. I think it is arguably within those limits, because we have some experience of multiple rounds of balloting in leadership races (though many moderately well-informed people don't quite know how that works, either). Unfortunately, the net effect of the transferrable ballot, on its own, might be to hurt proportionality. Parties with broad but shallow national appeal, which are the ones hurt most by first-past-the-post, would have to get 50% of the transferrable vote somewhere to get a seat, rather than a mere plurality somewhere.

    The various formulae used to implement PR in foreign countries stand at a whole other level of complexity, well above the ideas behind the transferrable ballot. It's possible Andrew can deliver a diatribe on the merits and demerits of the Sainte-Laguë formula, but I wouldn't expect too many of us to be able to follow it. If we were to introduce a system whereby the way that certain MPs "won" their seats became incomprehensible to the great mass of voters, you'd end up destabilizing democracy in the name of purifying it. The system of "whoever gets the most votes wins" is obviously just from at least one standpoint. It can be considered an "impure" principle of democratic choice only if you are especially concerned with a species of proportional "justice" to parties--which have no constitutional standing at all in our system of government, and which are generally conceded to have acquired too much extraconstitutional authority in the actual function of our House of Commons.

    There is a sad side note to be made here. There was a paragraph in my June 14 Post column that stressed the importance of MPs being subject to local accountability:

    Canadians know that the personal rebuke of a political leader by home voters can serve as a useful signal. In Alberta, we remember the 1989 election, in which the Conservatives won but premier Don Getty lost his Edmonton-Whitemud seat. Albertans weren't ready to support a non-Conservative government (and still aren't), but they were exasperated by billions of dollars in losses from bad loan guarantees to businesses, made with the aim of "economic diversification." What Albertans wanted was a Conservative government based on actual conservative principles. It came about quickly because the Whitemud voters were able to wound Mr. Getty and spare his party.

    I didn't mention the man who won that riding in 1989. It was Alberta Liberal and former Edmonton city councillor Percy Wickman, who died last weekend of complications from the paraplegia he had lived with for forty years. Wickman's defeat of a sitting premier was in the first paragraph of many of his obituaries (CP, CBC, Globe). Sen. Nick Taylor talked to the CBC about Wickman's feat:

    Wickman, a Liberal MLA and an Edmonton city councillor during his 25-year political career, was best known for using a toy chicken to defeat then-premier Don Getty in 1989. Getty, who represented Edmonton Whitemud, refused to take part in an all-candidates debate, former Liberal leader Nick Taylor said. "[Wickman] put a rubber chicken in the seat that Getty was to occupy. That seemed to really catch on with the media, and Getty went down the drain," Taylor recalled.

    - 1:28 am, July 8 (link)

    News from 110 years ago

    Think of it as a Law & Order episode from before there was broadcasting. What follows is from the Calgary Herald of July 7, 1894. Or, rather, the Calgary Herald and Alberta Live Stock Review, as it was called back in territorial days. I ran across this earlier today and copied it out on a whim: the original has no byline. The excerpt may be deemed inexcusably long, and furthermore I couldn't find out how the story ended. But it is also rather instructive about Victorian Canada--a capsule course in aspects of the period's sexual mores, diction, law, and medicine. The text has been altered only with respect to paragraphing (note the "American" orthography then in use throughout Canada), and only in a couple of places. -C.

    On Wednesday morning Fred. Gibbs was arraigned on a charge of having supplied and caused to be administered a noxious drug to a girl named Ida Morton with intent to procure her miscarriage. The following jurymen were sworn: J.R. Mitchell, A.W.R. Mackay, A. Lucas, Wm. Thomson, Neil Matheson and John McNamara. Mr. J.R. Costigan, Q.C.¹, appeared for the crown and Mr. P.J. Nolan² defended.

    The three counts of the charge were laid under sections 272-4 of the criminal code. In his opening remarks to the jury Mr. Costigan said that the crown was about to submit for their consideration one of the most serious crimes dealt with by the code. The crime was one that not only affected the individual but also society at large--that of administering a drug with intent to procure abortion. He impressed upon the jury the duty they owed not only to the prisoner but to justice and society.

    The facts in the case were deplorable and it was one of the saddest that had ever come under his notice. Very briefly they were that the mother of the girl had been living a dual life. Her character has not been of the best, but the crown would show that she had always tried to bring her daughter up respectable as far as possible. This man had lived with the mother as man and wife at Lethbridge. From that place the girl was sent to the convent, and he followed her here. We will show you that this man, who should have assisted the mother in her efforts to keep her child respectable, seduced her when only 16 years old, and then fairly forced her to comply with his desires, and got medicine to hide the effects of his crime.

    After evidence had been given to prove the identity of the exhibits produced in court, Dr. McDonald was called and testified that he had analyzed the contents of a bottle given to him by Mr. McCaul or Staff Sergt. Brooke. He found it to contain alcohol, ether, cantharides, and an undeterminable oily mass. Cantharides is a noxious drug and may be used to procure abortion. Medical records show that it has been used for that purpose.

    Alice Gray, mother of the girl who acknowledged having lived under various names, the only one of which she appears to have any legal claim to, being Morton, said that her daughter was 19 last September. She had known the prisoner six years having met him in Lethbridge and lived with him there. In April or May last Mrs. Lewis told witness of the girl's trouble and taxed the prisoner with being the cause. He denied it at first but on a subsequent occasion acknowledged that he had ruined the girl before Mrs. Lewis and herself. He claimed that he did it because he wanted to communicate disease to her because she wanted her mother to put him out of the house. He said he had got a bottle of medicine from "Dr. Lovingheart" to cause abortion, and he was giving it to her. Witness obtained a bottle from her daughter and gave it to Sergt. Brooke in the same condition as she had received it.

    Under a long cross-examination by Mr. Nolan, the witness told a miserable table. She was married to her husband in 1873 and this girl was her only child. She left him three years later and had lived a fast life ever since. The girl had been brought up by relatives of witness until four years ago when at prisoner's suggestion she had brought the girl to live with her at Lethbridge. The prisoner was then living with her as a boarder. She then said: "I have always tried to raise the girl as a good respectable girl, and she did not know the relations between Mr. Gibbs and myself until he told her." Witness did not know that he had seduced the girl at Lethbridge until it came out in evidence at the preliminary examination.

    Staff-Sergt. Brooke swore to the bottle produced as being the one given to him by last witness and handed to Dr. McDonald.

    Mrs. Lewis swore having been shown a bottle by Ida Morton but had never seen her use it. Witness told her mother about it. The next time she saw the bottle it was being handed by the mother to Sergt. Brooke. I met Gibb, said witness, in Mrs. Morton's house and told her in prisoner's presence what had happened to the girl and that she blamed him. At first he denied it and then at another time owned to it. I told him that the girl said he had ill-used her and he said she was such a fool that if he had not done it someone else would. She screamed, he said, whenever he came near her and alarmed the neighbors, and that if she had not been a fool and told it all over the world she would have been all right. He got medicine for her from "Dr. Lovingheart" and if it had no effect in four months and a half, Lovingheart would have performed an operation, and it would have only cost $50.

    At this stage the court adjourned until Thursday morning, when Ida Morton was put into the box and gave details of her life from childhood to the present time. Every now and then there was an outburst of feeling against the mother, but the two stories told agreed entirely in all their details. Some of them are unfit for publication, but it was established that after she found herself enceinte as a result of the illicit intercourse between Gibb and herself, she told him and he said: "I'll try and see you out of it," offering to get some medicine to bring on a miscarriage. He got a small bottle of medicine which he said he got from Lovingheart. The bottle produced did not look like the bottle Gibbs gave her. It was differently shaped round the neck but in other respects it was similar. Witnesses here identified the contents by the odor. Gibb told witness to take five drops every morning, pouring out the first dose himself. She says she took the drug for two or three weeks, and described the symptoms. She told Mrs. Lewis about the bottle, who told her not to take any more. Gibbs tried to get bottle from witness after the conversation with Mrs. Lewis, but she gave it to her mother. Prisoner told her if he had the money he would have an operation performed.

    Under severe examination the girl maintained her story, the only additional material point being, that at one time she had thrown the bottle away, but had found it again.

    The case for the crown was concluded at noon when the court adjourned for lunch.

    After lunch, there being no evidence offered for the defence, Mr. Costigan proceeded to address the jury and court. The crown prosecutor made a careful revision of the evidence offered for the prosecution, laying stress upon the prisoner's claims to justice and that only at their hands. Strong comment was made upon the absence of evidence for the defence. Three witnesses have given evidence that implicated Lovingheart in the prisoner's crime. The bottle of medicine was obtained from him, who knows better what was put up in the bottle than the man that did it? His absence is proof positive that he dare not come here for he would have to acknowledge that he had given the concoction for the purpose alleged. He knew about this trial, and he is not here to clear himself from the implication. The conclusion is evident.

    Mr. J.P. Nolan made a strong appeal for acquittal on various grounds, principally on the declaration of the witness Ida Morton, that the bottle produced was not in her opinion, the one she had got from the prisoner. The crown had only entered into this prosecution, declared Mr. Nolan, for the purpose of getting after Lovingheart and his client was being made the scapegoat of the whole business.

    In charging the jury his honor referred to the absence of the man alleged to have supplied the medicine. It was not the duty of the crown to put a man of that description in the box, and ask him for a statement that might incriminate himself. The crown had done its duty when it had the medicine analyzed. If Lovingheart did not furnish the medicine why is he not here to say so. His lordship then charged strongly on the duty the jury owed to society as well as the prisoner. He said it made one's hair stand on end to believe that such facts could exist in a Christian country as had been brought out by the evidence.

    After nearly an hour's consultation the jury rendered a verdict of guilty on the second count of the charge, that of administering a noxious drug with intent to procure the miscarriage of Ida Morton. Sentence was deferred until July 10th.

    ¹ John Ryan Costigan (d. 1902), pioneer lawyer of early Calgary; not to be confused with the John Costigan who sat in Laurier's cabinet and later the Senate.
    ² Patrick James "Paddy" Nolan (1864-1913), graduate of Trinity College, Dublin, gifted orator, and bibulous defender of the downtrodden.

    - 3:58 am, July 6 (link)

    Today's Post column (accessible to subscribers only) is about the tug-of-war over a new hospital the Shriners of North America want to build to replace their 80-year-old facility in Montreal. Here's last week's piece about the Supreme Court's remarkable Kerr decision.

    We are likely to end up with a divided and confusing House of Commons after tonight's voting, and it only seems fitting that such a schizoid country should end up with a schizoid Parliament. Last week, while the candidates for the prime ministership were pretending to contend for final authority in Canada's government, the real boss -- the Supreme Court -- handed down a curious ruling that none of the party leaders saw fit to comment on.

    The case concerned a killing that took place in January, 2000, at the Edmonton Institution. Jason Kerr, a white inmate serving a stretch for armed robbery, was ordered to fetch coffee one night by Joseph Garon, a member of the Indian Posse -- one of those ethnic gangs whose grip on our prisons we cannot seem to break. Kerr refused, knowing he was putting his life in jeopardy. He stowed a sharpened spoon under the sink in the dining room, in which he worked. At breakfast the next day, Mr. Garon rushed at Kerr with a homemade weapon of his own. Kerr was quick enough to strike first.

    Kerr was rightly acquitted of murder at trial, and the Supreme Court let him off the charge of "possession of a weapon for a purpose dangerous to the public peace." The court accepted evidence from the Institution's own staff that it was, at the time of the killing, an "armed camp." It acknowledged the mortal threat to Kerr and his right to defend himself. The judgment is unimpeachable on its own merits.

    And yet it might be received with the sound of squealing brakes in one's head. "Wait a minute -- you mean prisoners can claim a legal right, under some circumstances, to carry shivs?"

    This is the weird territory at which Canada has arrived. Amongst the free citizenry, the right of armed self-defence is no longer considered quite respectable. The orthodox position of the federal government is that to store a gun in one's home for the purpose of defence is, ipso facto, illegitimate if not insane. When a shop owner in a rough neighbourhood pulls a 12-gauge or a baseball bat in defence of his life and property, the police in any Canadian city will invariably hem and haw over charges against him while telling the public that he ought to have awaited his fate quietly, phoning the authorities if he happened to survive.

    Yet, as a country, we haven't mastered that "authority" thing well enough to disarm the inmates of a maximum-security prison, to arrange to have a guard present at their mealtimes, or to prevent inter-ethnic murder committed on the most frivolous of pretexts. Kerr will, without doubt, henceforth be a marked man in any of our prisons. Given their apparent state, we may be obliged to not only allow him a concealable pigsticker, but to provide him one for as long as he is the Crown's guest. Maybe we could engrave his initials on it.

    A Friday Post editorial correctly identified overcrowding as one potential source of prison chaos. But it's a funny thing -- federal prisoners are now exercising the franchise along with the rest of us, and the evidence from the newspapers is that inmates strongly favour the current government and its corrections policies. (It's also not unheard of for criminals accused of summary-conviction offences to plea-bargain backwards, requesting more serious indictable charges in order to obtain tickets to Club Fed instead of a provincial jail.) This, on its own, would suggest -- if the psychobabble and Oprahism employed by Corrections Canada officials didn't -- that Canadian penology might be overdue for a fresh dose of punishmentarian philosophy. Right now, we have a system that emphasizes "healing": the Kerr incident doesn't speak kindly of the results.

    Outside the walls, we have adopted a toilsome, wasteful, error-ridden registry for legal firearms as a way of pre-empting gun crimes. The premise here is that a weapon is less deadly if its serial number is in a database somewhere. A social-engineering project founded on such an absurdity must inevitably fail -- and the failure of this one almost became painfully apparent this week when a New Brunswick man turned up in a Toronto park with a carload of firearms and more than 6,000 rounds of ammunition. If James Stanson hadn't suddenly run across a friendly dog in that park and suffered pangs of sentimentality, I might be addressing myself to a rather smaller audience today.

    I suspect, though, that many of the survivors would be shrill about calling for a renewed "commitment" to gun bureaucracy. Defending a theory all the more passionately when the facts fail to comply with it is the Canadian thing to do when it comes to violence. (June 28, 2004)

    - 10:53 am, July 5 (link)

    Size matters

    Alas, there may have been no public observance to mark the occasion, but July 4 was the 100th anniversary of the death of Edouard Beaupré, the Willow Bunch Giant. Beaupré, whose maximum adult height is described in various sources as having been somewhere between 7'11" and 8'3", was performing with the Barnum & Bailey Circus at the World's Fair in St. Louis when he died of tuberculosis. His body could not be retrieved quickly enough to prevent it from falling into the hands of unscrupulous freakshow promoters; in 1907, the University of Montreal obtained the mummified corpus and put it on display, nude, in a glass case. Beaupré's relatives were finally able to fetch Edmond back to Saskatchewan and bury his ashes on July 7, 1990.

    - 2:53 am, July 5 (link)

    Bang, bang

    Andrew Coyne in the Saturday Post: the cultural divide between the West and Ontario is "a myth, a phantasm". (A mirage, a spectre...)

    Ian Brown in the Saturday Globe: Dear "Hothead" "cowboys" out there in "Ranchland"... [etc., etc.] screw you, whiners.

    Brown's brilliant theory is that Randy White's comments about judge-made law cost the Conservatives the election. As Paul Wells--no hothead cowboy--pointed out at the time, the reaction was illogical and unfounded on its face whether White's comments are regarded as having been right or wrong. Brown might also have cited Ralph Klein's "secret health care deal" with Stephen Harper, an invention which has already been comprehensively falsified and which was arguably only relevant in Alberta even if true. (Klein never proposed to violate the portability requirement of the Canada Health Act--which, by the way, Quebec craps all over routinely, assuming anyone cares.)

    The whole point is that is awfully easy for a comment from one Westerner to cost a national Conservative party an election. The Liberals somehow find stampeding Ontario swing voters against a particular class of citizen about as difficult as falling off a log. The tone of Ian Brown's op-ed, swathed as it is in prejudiced fantasy language about gunslinging rage-aholics, makes the reason for this clear enough. A national paper, so-called, printed this stuff. Ian Brown's column very nearly causes Coyne's "mythbusting" more embarrassment than it does to Brown himself, although that would be difficult.

    (Funnily enough, Adam Radwanski is taking a lot more crap from the West right now, even though his position is more forthright than Coyne's: he confesses that Ontarian prejudice against Albertans and Westerners exists, believes it's more or less justified, and courageously proposes that Albertans should acquiesce in exclusion from the prime ministership. He is, I'm tempted to say, 100% right about that last point: we need to take back the Alberta premiership from the federal Liberals first. I'm not the only one who's saying so.)

    - 1:55 am, July 4 (link)

    Today's Post column is behind the subscriber wall, although the first paragraph is out front and might make a useful antidote to the other stuff you'll be reading this week. Here's my column from last Saturday.

    Here's a paradox for you. I'm ambivalent about democracy in its "advanced," egalitarian form. Everybody who is willing to be honest about it must confess to being uneasy at best with the moral core of the enterprise, which boils down to the assertion that the guy on my corner who steals bicycles and drinks mouthwash for breakfast should have a say in the great decisions of government equal to that of a war veteran or a Nobel laureate. As a literal truth, this tenet of our civil religion is indefensible.

    But even though I consider my own vote unimportant relative to other civil rights, and I realize that the truly essential feature of our liberal democracy is the "liberal" part, I somehow really enjoy voting. I've been looking forward to it all week. And not just because my own vote might, this time, finally help to break Anne McLellan of her ever-tenuous hold on a House of Commons seat. It's not just "expressing my opinion" that I like, or even getting revenge against Liberals; it's the act of voting itself.

    It's as close, I think, as a secular person like me ever gets to the pleasures of collective ritual. It may even be closer than a present-day churchgoer -- whose place of worship is typically an architectural abomination filled with children's artwork and horrible music -- is allowed to get. You could never accuse the exercise of possessing majesty, but it does have dignity. The artifacts at the polling station are largely what you'd find at the business office of a motorcycle-parts importer, but when you go to vote, you are received with respect and even solemnity. There is a mutual understanding between you and the clerks that you are formally exercising a privilege earned by the efforts of countless honourable forebears, great and small, over centuries of history. The hush in the school gymnasium or church basement drives out frivolity; it reminds you that you are there to represent your dead ancestors and your descendants not yet born. Voting is truly the bourgeois sacrament.

    I always find myself admiring the polling personnel and the scrutineers. These are ordinary citizens we trust with the application and guardianship of an important law. But they have not learned, and will not learn, the priggish imperiousness of the cop or the civil servant. And who would say they perform their duties less well? Their record is amazingly free of scandal and abuse in modern Canadian history, yet we don't often pause to thank them.

    A comparison of the history of American voting with that of Canada is instructive. We have never had a close election decided by the ineptitude of a ballot designer, as the Americans did the last time out. We are not -- yet -- rushing willy-nilly into the security hell of electronic voting and its dodgy corporate purveyors. We don't mess about with punch cards, and are not left trying to psychically read "hanging chads." Outright electoral fraud -- fraud freely confessed in "political machine" circles and cackled over by the perpetrators -- is acknowledged to have influenced American presidential elections as recent as John F. Kennedy's in 1960.

    Similar things occasionally happen in party-nomination fights here, but our formal federal elections seem to have been largely free of them in modern times. (The final turning point is generally thought to have been 1957, when an entrenched, corrupt Liberal regime that had gotten too creative with voters' lists was finally tossed out of office. Hint, hint.) I don't think it's only because such acts are better-hidden now. Americans admire the probity and simplicity of our voting procedures, but we don't take conscious pride in arranging things so well.

    The act of voting is accompanied by despair, too, without doubt. Neither your vote nor mine is likely to change the ostensible outcome even at the local level, and one recalls that old saying from the placards of the left-wing anarchists: "Whomever you vote for, the government will get in." Tailored to Canada, the proverb might go, "Whomever you vote for, the Supreme Court will still be there." When I say that democracy is not an absolute good, and that it is even faintly absurd, that doesn't mean I think we couldn't do with a little more of it in the right places.

    All the same, on Election Day even a radical individualist can almost believe in the promise of mass action for the greater good. Maybe the most appealing thing about that day is the state of innocence in which it begins. For a moment, as we trudge to the polls, we can hope that civic virtue, courage, and reason will be rewarded, and lying, incompetence, and malfeasance punished. In this life, they so rarely are. (June 26, 2004)

    - 12:39 pm, July 3 (link)

    I am going to let the veil of history fall gently over last Friday's National Post column, for reasons a short excerpt will make apparent:

    I wrote last week that the Liberals and the NDP probably won't get enough seats between them to govern without the support, active or tacit, of another party. This now seems more apparent than ever...

    And it was apparent, by my estimation and that of nearly every professional observer of politics; the lesson for the lay reader is obvious, and should already have been absorbed even before Monday's prognosticative fiasco. At any rate, the column was also mostly a rehash of stuff I'd written here. Instead of inviting everybody to chuckle at my meagre oracular endowments yet again, I've secured permission to post a book review I did for the May issue of The American Spectator. It has the advantage, like most of my TAS material, of being entirely unconnected to Canadian politics. (I hated the review at first, and my editors at TAS never did warm to it, but I quite like it now.) The subject matter is The Pecking Order : Which Siblings Succeed and Why by Dalton Conley.

    New York University sociologist Dalton Conley, author of The Pecking Order, seems like my kinda guy--a sympathetic humanist with a broad geeky, mathematical streak. He's the sort of person who will tell a compact, affecting story about someone's family struggles and then note parenthetically that the scientific literature "agrees" with her "perception" of her situation. (As if--with due respect to science--it could reasonably disagree!) His new book is founded on the observation that about one-quarter of income variability in the U.S. occurs between families--that is, it's determined by who your parents were. A great deal of public attention and scholarly energy has been devoted to the "nature-nurture" argument over shares of that quarter. But what about the other 75%? What, in plain English, explains why some siblings succeed in life and others end up drifting, impoverished, or imprisoned?

    Tough question. Scientifically, I think Conley would admit that this book is only a first approximation to the answers. The publisher (Pantheon) promises an "enduring classic of social analysis" in the press kit. This is, alas, hokum. But The Pecking Order may set out a useful research agenda, and contains much to fascinate, terrify, and instruct the prospective parent.

    Infra-familial differences have been studied less well than the others, no doubt, mostly because they resist study in so many ways. You can extract hard variables like family size and birth order from longitudinal studies of families, but what you gain from relying on the unimpeachably scientific, you lose in resolving power. At times Conley has tried to improvise new tools of study, and he is encouragingly candid about their limitations, even if the candor is half-buried in an appendix. Much of what he claims to have learned about infra-familial inequality comes from unstructured interviews, but the book should probably come with a large SAMPLE BIAS WARNING sticker on the front cover, since he and his team chose interviewees by working outward from friends and acquaintances.

    That said, there is a certain artistic convincingness to much of what he has to say. There's nothing illegal about thumbnail-ish, slightly frayed science, especially in a vacuum of information.

    The title might make you think that Conley is pitching a simple thesis about birth-order after the fashion of MIT's Frank Sulloway, who has framed all human history as a struggle between conservative firstborns and experimental, order-challenging laterborns. But Conley is dismissive of one-size-fits-all birth-order effects on personality. As he observes, larger studies are less likely to confirm these effects, and a simple birth-order number can be deceptive. To focus on birth order, he argues, is to overlook the 800-pound gorilla of family dynamics: family size, or to use the jargon, "sibship size"--the number of brothers and sisters you have.

    "Sociologists repeatedly find," Conley says, "that kids who grow up in smaller families generally do much better in terms of success than kids from larger families." There is a certain allure to the idea of a packed houseful of Cheaper By The Dozen yardapes; it's an allure we're probably genetically programmed for. But while only-children can feel isolated, and later may feel nostalgia for the "missing" siblings other people had, they enjoy a marked head-start by many sociological criteria. The stubborn truth is that a large family means fewer economic resources for each child and less attention for each one. It creates an environment in which reading and quiet reflection can be difficult. Often the older children are impressed into substitute parenting, and the effects are bad more often than they are good. Sometimes disproportionate amounts of resources are committed to one member of the brood deemed to have special gifts. Resentment flourishes in all his just-so stories of large clans.

    A curious fact is that birth-order effects re-emerge, in Conley's view, when you look closely at large families. The last child is often a relatively successful, stable "star", enjoying the benefits of a large support network and the parents' experience with previous kids. The big loser in this lottery is apparently the next-to-last child, who loses out on being the charming "baby of the family" but still has to deal with the tribulations of a chaotic household. Conley agrees with the consensus that in families of three or more children, the middle kids may face a combination of pressure and relative neglect. (And so, broadly speaking, do your correspondent's parents, who have 16 siblings between them. I'll have to remember to send them my review copy of the book.)

    He devotes an interesting chapter to the ways in which various calamities can affect siblings differently, noting, for instance, that younger children are at greater risk of being directed down a less satisfying life path by a parental divorce. He is strong on the quickening tempo of technological change and labour mobility, which can make even very close siblings members of different "generations": there's a killer anecdote here is about an older sister who was groomed to become a professional flautist--a dead-end job in contemporary America--and a younger brother who, with no outstanding single talent, drifted fortuitously into computer programming.

    As a treasury of instructive family fables, The Pecking Order would be hard to beat. When Conley turns to his own one-sistered upbringing (as his previous book Honky relates, they were the only white kids in a black housing project), and unexpectedly starts ruminating on his imminent divorce, his manful effort to maintain scholarly detachment almost brings a lump to the throat.

    The most irritating thing about The Pecking Order is the trendy way Conley claims to hover peacefully above "nature/nurture" questions. In general, he feels that squabbling between nature and nurture ignores or conceals the outsized effects of Society-with-a-capital-S, a sort of immense, forgotten über-nurturer. Yet, as the Roman poet said, you may drive nature out with a pitchfork, but she always rushes back in. Conley seems to leave the barn door open when he talks about the income-volatilizing effects of homosexuality (it can be either very bad or very good, socioeconomically), which he acknowledges to have a possible genetic origin. He has a fascinating divagation on the depressing effects of obesity on female income (or, at least, white female income: the effect is invisible amongst black women, for whom lightness of skin is a much more important predictor of socioeconomic prospects). Genes may play a role here as well, though, to be sure, they are mutually interacting with a strong and largely undiscussed social prejudice.

    Time and again, though, our friend Selfish Gene is merely dismissed, despite quite possibly having something to say. Conley is scornful of identical-twin studies, but doesn't seem afraid of using inferential matching studies of non-twin siblings for his own ends. This seems a bit like throwing out two babies and keeping the bathwater. And often he relates stories of different life paths taken by siblings who have no "apparent" difference, or no difference apparent to them, in raw cognitive ability. Well, if a scientist is determined to perceive no effect, that's what he'll see. Conley points out that the income-juggling effects of intelligence are attenuated amongst the upper classes, but since they are so highly heritable and well attested in the literature--and since they overlap onto both extra-familial and infra-familial differences--I cannot think it will do to yank them off the table. (May 2004)

    - 8:29 pm, July 2 (link)

    An explanation in the form of a manifesto, or vice versa

    What I wrote Wednesday about the reaction in Alberta to the election, and what I've just written for tomorrow's Post, amounts to this: having failed in reaching out, Albertans are now going to look inward. On Wednesday, Ted Morton was part of the subject matter: now you can read more or less the same thing from the man himself in the pages of the Globe and Mail.

    If we cannot achieve more Western influence within Ottawa (the purpose of Senate reform), let's pursue reasonable policies to reduce Ottawa's influence in the West: Withdraw from the Canada Pension Plan and create our own provincial pension plans; collect our own income taxes; cancel our contracts with the RCMP, and create our own provincial police forces; take control of our health-delivery systems; and use the notwithstanding clause when nine, non-elected judges in Ottawa try to impose their notion of good public policy on our democratically elected governments.

    Media pundits characterize this as the radical firewall agenda. It's anything but radical. Each of these policies is already in place in either Quebec, Ontario or both. For many Westerners, it's time to start working on the "or else." Ironically, the model for Plan B -- and its most likely ally -- is Quebec. [Emph. mine]

    Of course, this is radical insofar as it prepares the ground for separatism in the far distant future, when Albertans are finally ready for it. We're not, yet, and we're not close. Having muttered darkly about "getting the hell out of here" as often as any of my Alberta readers and friends, I have had to admit that I fail the test for national disloyalty, which is easy, valid and famous. Norman Tebbit invented it. The rest of Canada doesn't have to worry about Alberta going anywhere until Albertans start cheering against Team Canada in international hockey tournaments.

    The other test, of course, is whether Albertans are ready to commit violence on behalf of the free and well-ordered republic they all like to envision; we've failed that one too, and we fail it so thoroughly that the suggestion will (mostly) be regarded as slightly revolting by my Alberta readers. But those readers want--and the great, great majority of native-born Albertans want--the future option of separatism, and the power of the bargaining position. Whoever is going to end up running Alberta for the medium-term future--it might well be Morton--will have to take the first steps, or risk being outflanked electorally by someone more willing.

    The "firewall agenda" is the anteroom through which one must pass to make credible protests against Confederation. A unilateral declaration of independence delivered tomorrow morning by a transmogrified Ralph Klein would fall down, one notices, on some the points the firewall addresses: the unfunded liabilities of the federal government, federal control of the constitutional and practical tax power, and the presence of a large federal police force in the province. Everything else--everything but those coppers, perhaps--is footnotes. Quebec gets to push Canada around--while facing much less opprobrium than Alberta--precisely because Quebecois politicians have created the preconditions for separation in conjunction with the federal government, and must be taken seriously. With respect to the rest of Canada, the Quebec Liberals are to the Parti Quebecois as Sinn Fein is to the IRA; they are there to collect at the table what the bad guys earn with threats. Separatists and mere "soft nationalists"--and it's certainly remarkable how deftly men like Lucien Bouchard and Jean Lapierre jump back and forth between the categories--all want, or want to use, the bargaining power that comes with separatism. They want it whether they happen to be separatists just at the moment, or not. (Stephen Harper may even turn out to be our first such jumping-bean politician.)

    All Quebeckers--with the exception of those pitiful Anglos whose minds are still confounded with visions of their overthrown ascendancy--are Quebec nationalists. Their practical separatism, or lack of it, is a convenience to be shed or donned with the exigencies of the moment--and which has nothing to do, actually, with any attachment a Quebecker feels to the emotional construct called "Canada". Confusion about this basic fact of Canadian life is surprisingly common amongst newspaper columnists, who insist on a bright, burning distinction between separatists and soft nationalists. Actual Liberal politicians understand perfectly well that the distinction is trivial (how many of you newspaper superpatriots would really be willing to hang the people you describe as "traitors"?), and conduct themselves accordingly, as Martin did by inviting Lapierre into the tent. If the maneouvre seems to have failed for Martin, it's only because the prospects for actual separatism are currently dim, and it is therefore still time, in Quebec, for rallying round the BQ and keeping up appearances. I'm not sure how much the Liberal "scandals" have anything to do with this; and, anyway, Lapierre is merely a vessel--a gravy boat, if you like. He is there to protect the Liberals against the PQ, not the BQ, by making sure--as he is well-placed to--that the federal loot doesn't just go to the old cronies who made out so well under Chretien.

    The dual consciousness Quebeckers have lived with since the Conquest has been germinating slowly in Alberta; it has a long, long way to grow. On the other hand, we may, as a matter of cultural fact, be more of a "nation" than we realize even in our sourest moments. (I believe a Trinidadian or a Pakistani born and raised in Alberta finds out soon enough, if he happens to move to Ontario, that his neck is still regarded as red on the inside.) Anyway, if nationhood were the sine qua non of irridentism, there'd be no such thing as the United States of America.

    - 3:56 pm, July 2 (link)

    New at some content having absolutely nothing to do with Canadian politics. It's my review of Bobby Fischer Goes to War by David Edmonds and John Eidinow, which ran in the June issue of TAS. Check it out. "Check"--get it? Bwahahahaha.

    - 10:24 am, July 1 (link)