Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Healthier than You Might Think, Thank You

(Bashing the Canadian Medicare System is a blood sport for a certain sort of free marketeer in the US. I wrote this in response to an article at Tech Central Station but it didn't run...)

Sally C. Pipes and Benjamin Zycher are convinced Canadian medical system is failing. Beginning with economic fundamentals they stake out the free market high ground in the debate about how to allocate medical resources.

Their arguments contain a number of assumptions which should be more closely examined. Especially as the current American model spends more money per capita for a lower life expectancy in a mishmash of Byzantine payment schemes which one noted economist, Henry Arron, writing in the New England Journal of Medicine (349, no. 8 (2003): 801–303), describes,

"Like many other observers, I look at the U.S. health care system and see an administrative monstrosity, a truly bizarre melange of thousands of payers with payments systems that differ for no socially beneficial reason, as well as staggeringly complex public system with mind boggling administered prices and other rules expressing distinctions that can only be regarded as weird."

I begin with this fact, thrifty Canadians pay an average of $35.03 per year of life expectancy; our American friends pay $63.38 for that same year. (See below.)

Pipes and Zycher begin with the a priori assertion,

"But because resources are limited -- there are only so many physician hours, hospital beds, pharmaceuticals, ad infinitum available -- we cannot consume all the medical care that we would prefer."

Pipes and Zycher claim the demand for medical care is effectively unlimited. Really? This seems a bit implausible. Were this true then high net worth individuals with unlimited funds would, presumably, spend their lives enjoying such care. Bill Gates would have long since given up working to devote himself full time to being a patient. That he and Warren Buffet, apparently, prefer to play bridge rather than indulging in hourly colonoscopies suggests something a little shaky in the unlimited demand assumption.

Medical care is a funny sort of economic good. No one actually wants it. Modeling demand for a good no one wants is a bit tough. For one thing, demand for medical care is self limiting. People who want care are that percentage of the population who are, at any given time, sick. Their demand for such care radically tapers off when they are "better". (Or, of course, dead.)

Most of us would prefer to keep our demands on medical resources very close to zero. Indeed, the entire practice of preventative medicine is designed to reduce demand which seems an odd thing for medical service providers to be doing.

What Pipes and Zycher fail to recognize is that the economic good actually being sought is not medical care but rather health itself. There may very well be infinite demand for health; but the medical system's role in meeting that demand is limited. (After all, a brisk mile long walk three to four days a week is a huge determinate of a person's current and long term health. So is quitting smoking. So is avoiding obesity. But none are medical services.)

When a person is sick they are likely to want to get better as quickly as possible and damn the expense. The more potentially lethal the illness the less interested the patient and physician are in containing the costs of treatment. However, this too is self-limiting. The sick get get better and very few 90 year-olds are clamoring for highly invasive procedures or intensive chemotherapies.

Patients, their families and doctors make decisions to limit treatment usually because of "quality of life" issues. This is not a fuzzy social science concept; rather it is a very real consideration which millions of families have to deal with. Keeping grandpa "alive" as a vegetable, much less being a vegetative grandpa, holds little attraction. The popularity of living wills and the ongoing dilemmas of "Do Not Resuscitate" orders underscore the tension between an absolutist position on the need to keep every human alive as long as is technically possible and a realistic assessment of what that person's life will be like. Pipes and Zycher neatly sidestep this issue by mocking, rather than addressing, the very useful idea of "quality of life".

Pipes and Zycher argue the Canadian system allocates relatively scarce medical resources bureaucratically rather than on a cash and carry basis. The palmed card here is the loaded term "bureaucratically".

Every medical system performs triage. If a hospital has five operating rooms and seven patients needing emergency operations a decision has to be made. Who gets the operations?

The authors define any system which does not perform a wallet biopsy to allocate the operating rooms as bureaucratic. However, the art of triage is essentially medical - which patient will be best able to survive if their operation is delayed? There are no sure answers to this critical question. A bit of science, years of clinical experience and the facts on the ward are all a system can go by. The degree of bureaucratization of a medical system is largely a function of whether it is medical or administrative staff who actually make triage decisions.

Truly bureaucratic approaches need not involve medical staff at all. For example, a clerk could note the time which patient arrived and use a first come first served system regardless of medical considerations. Or a clerk might make the decision based on a meat chart, cost/benefit analysis and opt for the cheapest operations. At the other extreme, a pure market solution would auction off the operating rooms regardless of patient condition or prognosis. In practice, where physicians make allocative decisions, medical rather than bureaucratic values dominate.

At a system wide level medical resources could be allocated on a pure market basis. But - leaving aside any fuzzy ethical issues - it is unlikely this system will produce efficient outcomes.

Mr. Gates and Mr. Buffet at their bridge table illustrate the point: with enough money a really rich person can have their own, personal, operating room fully staffed, teched up and standing by at all times. But this would be extremely wasteful. It would waste their money and it would waste the lives of the thousands of people who actually need that operating room. Economically, it is difficult to imagine a less efficient outcome.

Which goes some way to explaining why the United States spent $4887 per capita on health care in 2001 as compared to Canada's $2792. (Source: "U.S. Health Care Spending in an International Context," by Uwe Reinhardt, Peter S. Hussey, and Gerard F. Anderson) and why Canadian life expectancy at 79.7 years is almost three years longer than US life expectancy at 77.1 years (Source: OECD, Health Data 2004.).

But what about those waiting lists? Has thrift gone too far? Waiting lists for some procedures and treatments in Canada are too long. Which reflects a couple of facts about the Canadian system: we do not leave between 13-20% of our population without medical insurance and possibly without care. Were we to do so the wait lists would be cut by, well, 13-20%. We also provide roughly the same level of care to all of our citizens.

There is no question that in certain areas, Canadian investment in healthcare has been badly targeted and too low. To take the standard example, at one point in the early 1990's we had one eighth as many MRI machines per capita as the US. Now that number is closer to one quarter and rising quickly but it is still too low.

Worse, because medical care is too often seen as "free" too many of our higher cost resources, particularly hospital emergency rooms, are overused by people who are simply not that sick.

Fixing these problems is about management fine tuning the system. Making smarter medical investments, adopting new technologies faster, investing more in preventative measures makes a lot of sense for the Canadian system. So, frankly, do small deterrent fees for both emergency and physician visits. Some progress is being made in these areas in some Canadian provinces.

There is also a need for a parallel, fee for service, stream in the Canadian medical care system. There are simply too many instances of allocative failure in the present system leading to the problem of rationing by waiting list.

The classic example is an orthopedic surgeon in Vancouver who has started his own clinic to treat "exempt persons" - non-Canadian citizens, federal convicts, Workman's Compensation Board cases, members of the RCMP. Dr. Brian Day started his clinic because the hospital he was affiliated with could only afford to let him operate two and a half days a week. So, although his personal waiting list stretched several months into the future and he was eager to get on with the knees and hips which needed replacing, he was artificially restricted to working half time.

This sort of allocative failure reflects the budget realities in the Canadian system and the system's lack of agility in the face of fluctuating demand for services. A failure which a more flexible, parallel market in medical services could directly address.

The problems with the Canadian medical system are not about enforced benevolence - they are about money. While the demand for medical service is not, pace Pipes and Zycher, infinite, it is beyond the willingness of Canadians to pay for. At the margins, it makes sense to permit ordinary Canadians to pay directly for services which the government cannot pay for or cannot pay for quickly enough.

Within Canada there is an ongoing debate about how far to go in introducing a "two tier" system. (In England there has always been such a system.) Up until the last decade, proponents of a single tier system were in the overwhelming majority. Now the idea of encouraging some private medical care is gaining traction on economic and efficiency grounds.

In the ongoing debate in American politics about health care Canada is often held up as a model of what not to do. However, the current American hodgepodge of government funded low tech, low skill, "safety net", medical care, the various programs to aid the poor under the general rubric of Medicare, the rapidly escalating cost of private medical insurance and bureaucratic meddling of cost conscious HMOs are hardly models of medical effectiveness or economic efficiency.

Slagging the Canadian system makes good copy; but it ignores the thriftiness, inclusiveness and success of that system. It takes a particular sort of rhetorical skill to suggest the Canadian system may, at some point in the future, snub the needs of "desperately tiny prematurely born", while ignoring the fact the current Canadian system has an infant mortality rate of 4.88/1000 live births as compared to America's 6.75. A skill which glosses over the needless administrative expense, exclusions and unimpressive overall health outcomes of the current American model.

You don't have to be Hillary Clinton to want better outcomes at half the price - you just have to be a thrifty Canadian.

What Carole James can Learn from John Kerry

(This piece was written a day or two after the American election and submitted to The Tyee. They were far too deep in Bush derangement to use it (the Tyee reaction was as if their puppy had died)...For my American and Eastern Canadian friends, Carole James is the leader of the BC NDP.)

Shock and horror contorted the faces of mainstream media anchors as exit polls turned to dust and President Bush rolled to the largest popular vote ever recorded for a President. "What happened? Everybody I know hates Bush. No one I know is going to vote for him."

Tom Wolfe tells this story in The Guardian: "Here is an example of the situation in America," he says: "Tina Brown wrote in her column that she was at a dinner where a group of media heavyweights were discussing, during dessert, what they could do to stop Bush. Then a waiter announces that he is from the suburbs, and will vote for Bush. And... Tina's reaction is: 'How can we persuade these people not to vote for Bush?' I draw the opposite lesson: that Tina and her circle in the media do not have a clue about the rest of the United States. You are considered twisted and retarded if you support Bush in this election."

Smarter people than me are going to be writing lots of post game analysis of the 2004 Presidential Election. I want to look at some more general lessons which can be applied by the NDP right here in British Columbia.

1. A negative vote is not the same as a positive one. Many Americans didn't support Kerry but they sure hated Bush. It is the first part of this sentence which should give NDP strategists pause.

Running against Gordon Campbell will motivate the NDP base which hates him with a Gollum like passion; but it will not win an election. If Kerry had had even twenty percent of the electorate who really wanted him to be President, regardless of who he was running against, he would have won in a walk. He didn't.

Building a committed majority of the public, inside and outside the party, which actively supports a leader is hard work. It is endless hours of one on one, speeches to audiences of 50, tea at old peoples homes, coffee parties and things like graduation ceremony speeches. It is a slog. And it is full time.

The reward is a growing number of people in the province who will either have met, or will know someone who has met, Carole James. Generally, because political leaders tend to make a good first impression, people who have met them will come away with a positive sense. A sense which radiates out into their communities.

This is an awful lot of work for one person; but the good news is that riding level candidates, as soon as they are nominated, can and should be doing the same thing.

Building a positive base is much more important than spending time finding new ways of attacking a reviled opponent. (And yes, it is dumb to keep harping on Campbell's drunk driving conviction. It's true, but repeating it is classless and will strike voters as juvenile.)

2. Do not flip-flop. Nothing gladdens the heart of an oppo researcher more than a candidate who has taken two, or three, or four positions on a significant issue.

If the leader or a candidate has taken a position in the past which contradicts the position adopted for the election, be up front about it. "I used to believe "x", I was wrong/circumstances have changed/new facts have emerged. I now believe "y".

It is possible, and rather endearing, for a person to admit they were once wrong; it is impossible and annoying to pretend black is white.

3. Be Precise and Honest: There was nothing more pathetic than watching Kerry say "I have a plan" on every issue. Apparently, in one of the debates the man said it 33 times. If the US media were not so completely lazy whenever he said "I have a plan" the follow up would have been, "Yes, Senator, tell us about it."

Precision counts for a lot in politics, so does humility. If a leader or a party has a proposed solution to a particular problem it needs to be articulated, with full details, the moment the question is asked.

On those occasions where there is no plan, no answer, saying, "I really had not thought of that. I'll look into it", beats the hell out of pretending to have a plan when you don't.

Trudeau, rarely at a loss for words, was wise enough that when he didn't have an answer he'd say, "I don't know".

4. The party base is not the country/province. This is both obvious and extremely easy to forget in a polarized environment. If everything you read, the people you hang out with, the people you turn to for advice all share your opinions there is the danger of believing everyone does.

In fact, the vast majority of people do not take politics terribly seriously, do not hold nuanced positions on every issue and have basic concerns like making a living, paying their rent or mortgage, getting ahead, taking care of their kids and when the NHL lockout is going to end.

What they are looking for in a political leader and party is a person and party who they can trust. Trust is not a policy issue or an ideological one; rather it is a question of character. People want to be assured they are electing a good person and a good team so they can get on with their lives without obsessing about politics.

Very early on in the Presidential campaign, the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth established the question "Can you trust Kerry...after all he's been lying about his service in Viet Nam for thirty years."

A smear, you bet. And highly effective because there was a good deal of truth to the allegation. But the real damage was in raising the question at all. The reservoir of voter trust a candidate begins with was drained and drained very quickly.

Democrats spent too much of their time pretending the Swifties would go away, didn't matter, were lying - meanwhile the damage was done. But because the Dems operated in a cocoon, they did not realize just how profound that damage was because, in the circles they traveled in, it was no big deal.

5. Beware the echo chamber. Politics can be a very closed shop. Politicians talk to aides, party workers and executives and media. In a closed shop there will be issues which seem terribly important but, outside the shop have no traction at all.

Poor Kerry, with the connivance of the New York Times and CBS, tried to get Americans to blame Bush for losing 400 tons of high explosive in Iraq. Knickers were knotted and ink by the barrel full was dumped trying to suggest this was Bush's fault. It got nowhere. It was a classic echo chamber story. Only people inside the chamber could hear it.

Get out of the echo chamber. Make a point of phoning mayors, aldermen, school trustees, PAC Presidents, Community Center Board members, the Presidents of the Chambers of Commerce, big employers, the head of the Surrey Soccer Association and ask them what matters to them and to the people they talk to. If the leader is going to be in Kelowna for the day, make sure there are four or five non-party events/meetings for every party event. Look at the MLA's mail and see what is important enough for people to write about

It is too easy for politicians to think what matters to other politicians - and the media which lives off their leaks - matters to the general public. It almost never does. Moreover, paying attention to the inside scoop means a leader and a party is not paying attention to issues which do matter. The art of distraction comes naturally to political pros who would much rather the media pay attention to the fire in cabin five than the iceberg a hundred yards off the port bow.

The classic illustration of this was the failure of Adscam to clobber the Liberals anywhere but Quebec. Tory masterminds thought it was a big deal. Political columnists thought is was a big deal. English Canada shrugged.

6. There is no "youth vote". In the American election, even with Michael Moore and Bruce Springsteen and Eminem slagging Bush and urging them to vote, younger voters stayed home in droves.

The political reality is that no winning strategy can treat the youth vote (or the even more mystical "cell phone vote") as anything but marginal. Campaigns are about managing money and resources. They are about triage - you do not put a lot of effort into unwinnable ridings. So does it make any sense to chase a marginal youth voter who may or may not show up?


Carol James and the NDP are starting a lot further behind than John Kerry did. But James herself is not carrying any of the accumulated baggage Kerry stumbled under. British Columbians are becoming increasingly fed up with the Liberals and with Gordon Campbell in particular. The negative end of the campaign is running very nicely indeed without any help from the NDP.

A positive, grounded, combative but respectful message that British Columbians have a right to good government can defeat the Liberals in May. There are plenty of negatives to hammer - school cutbacks, waiting lists, contracting out surgery, the ferry decision - but the focus of a successful campaign needs to be real proposals to actually deal with those issues.

Yammering about "I have a plan" helped lose Kerry his election: saying, "here is our plan" and hitting plausibly costed specifics can win James her's.

The Last Heathen

Melanesia, the spray of islands which arc from Papua New Guinea to Fiji, with its blue lagoons, always-on volcanoes and history of headhunting and cannibalism, grabs at the traveler's imagination. Since Robert Louis Stevenson set sail for what he forlornly hoped would be a healthier life on the islands, Europeans and North Americans have seen the South Pacific as the final idyll.

The people of the Solomons and New Hebrides were an irresistible lure for the missionary zeal of Seventh Day Adventists, Presbyterians and the muscular gentlemen of the Anglican Church. In the 1800's, tales of cannibalism and ritual slaughter drew missionaries willing to risk their lives to save the Melanesians' souls. More than a few were eaten. Charles Montgomery’s great grandfather, the Right Reverend Henry Hutchinson Montgomery, served his church as Anglican Bishop of Tasmania but escaped the cannibals' pot.

In The Last Heathen Montgomery – who is a pretty secular guy - wants to see magic. Black magic, white magic, a Christian miracle - something, anything, which cannot be explained. He wants to experience the faith of his great grandfather and his "heathens".

Travel in Melanesia is challenging, "The Brisk was more barge than ship; a shallow tub with all the crude geometry and elegance of a sheep dip." Montgomery spent four days wallowing aboard the Brisk to the island of Espiritu Santo. He had just finished a wonderfully described meeting the prophet Fred, head of a cult which mixes Presbyterianism with a strong belief in kastom on the southern island of Tanna.

Kastom drives the old Melanesia, "Kastom was Melanesian history, tradition, ritual and magic, but it also referred to traditional systems of economics, social organization, politics and medicine. If you said something was kastom, you were attaching it to the traditions of the ancestors. You were sanctifying it." writes Montgomery.

Finding magic is the perfect excuse to travel, more or less at random, through Melanesia. Throughout, there is a continuing tension between the faith of Montgomery's grandfather, the Melanesian belief in mana, magic and spells, and Montgomery's own secular assumptions.

He begins to make some progress when he makes landfall at Espiritu Santo and lands at the Hotel Santo burning with fever, "The Hotel Santo stood in the middle of all this sleepiness like a relic of misplaced post-war optimism. With its earthquake-proof buttresses and modernist aspirations, the hotel could have been lifted from the outskirts of 1955 Las Vegas. So could its owner, a terse and strangely elegant half-caste woman who was constantly disappearing to change her outfit."

Montgomery has malaria and, rather than face the "twittering cockroaches" of the hospital, he holes up in the Hotel Santo, pills in hand. The only company he has is the King James Bible and, for four days, he gulps chloroquine and reads, "The Old Testament rose around me in a phantasmagoria of dream, delirium and liquid vision, all spinning through my skull to the rhythmic hiss and click of the ceiling fan."

In his delirium Montgomery's secular reserve cracks. He begins to see the connections between the Old Testament stories and the stories of his own ancestors. And, perhaps more importantly, he realizes what he is looking for is faith.

He takes an overloaded five meter skiff - ten people, half a butchered bullock, fixings for a wedding feast - to the island of Mota. Here, at the wedding feast, Montgomery began to see how a hundred years work by the missionaries had been absorbed and transmuted by the Melanesians. "But how did the islanders reconcile these two conflicting world views? Kolshus (a Norwegian anthropologist) insisted that the Motese has split their souls in two: there was the one they were born with, and there was the one they received when they were baptised."

On Mota, Montgomery meets his first tasiu, a member of the Melanesian Brotherhood. Officially the Anglican Church has no Jedi knights; but don't tell the Melanesian Brotherhood whose black t-shirts and shorts and carved snake walking sticks were the outer trappings of a melded faith which embraced and channeled the kustom traditions of the islands into a mystical Anglicanism.

His first tasiu, Ken Brown, greets Montgomery at the door of a chapel on a bluff on a devastated ridge. This man had challenged the Seventh Day Adventist pastor, who had been busy converting Anglicans, "to an unusual duel. He suggested they point their Bibles at each other and see which one of them was still standing after three days. The pastor refused to face him." Brown had what Montgomery describes as the "mystical aura" which seems to surround the tasiu. As he puts it, "They would draw me into their myth, And they would change my mind about everything."

Now Montgomery journeys with a sense there may be the magic he is seeking. He tries hitchhiking - well yacht hiking really - to the violence wracked island of Guadalcanal in the Solomons. "The yachties were universally horrified by my proposal." But Montgomery goes anyway, albeit by plane in the company of a rather repulsive betel nut addict. It is not reassuring to be met at the airport by the manager of the national tourist board who keeps apologizing for the mess "heaps of garbage that smoldered like castles after a siege." And explains, "that the deputy high commissioner of New Zealand had not been stabbed to death. She had fallen on her knife." This was a land of militias, vendettas and tribal carnage. The yachties were right.

In the middle of the horror stood, often literally, the Melanesian Brothers. Did they perform miracles? Magic? Well what exactly they do occupies the rest of The Last Heathen and what Montgomery learns is "there is more than one way to hear a story." Which is the real beginning of his understanding of his great grandfather’s faith and the Melanesians.

Really good travel writers weave their keen sense of place into a larger story. Montgomery's search for faith in the fractured paradise of Melanesia establishes him in the front rank of writers who travel.

By Charles Montgomery (Douglas & McIntyre, sc, 314pp, 24.95)

Monday, August 30, 2004

Losing Najaf

The Other Band of Brothers
By Jay Currie

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England Iraq now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day the Shrine of Imam Ali.

Up and down Iraq, in slums and mosques, coffee houses and bazaars, the Moqtada al-Sadr version of the Saint Crispin's Day speech from Shakespeare's Henry V is being told and written.

"This is the beginning of the end for the Americans," said Sheikh Jawad al-Khalasi.

The deal struck to return the shrine in Najaf to civil control through the good offices of Ayatollah Sistani was merciful but, in all likelihood, represents a significant setback for the prospects of a civil and secular state in Iraq.

The essential trade off was al-Sadr's (and his remaining militia) freedom in exchange for a peaceful transfer of the shrine and a truce in Najaf. While this spares any number of young Shi'tes a quick martyrdom, it sets a horrible precedent.

al-Sadr has now beaten the outstanding charge of murder which drove this issue without having faced a court. In effect, the deal negates the civil authority's capacity to apprehend and try any alleged criminal in Iraq capable of putting up a fight.

It leaves al-Sadr free to organize politically and it leaves his militia in the position of having stared down the US Marines.

al-Sadr and the people in Iraq and Iran who support him have learned a dangerous lesson: there are deals to be done with the United States even when you are surrounded, outgunned and unpopular.

"In the crowd the remaining Mehdi army fighters will slip away, and neither Allawi nor the Americans will be seen by Iraqis as having broken the Mehdi fighters (a hopeless brave fight against great odds is not something to be ashamed of, it is a rallying cry. Remember the Alamo?)" writes Ian Welsh at Tilting at Windmills.

A number of commentators have suggested that the Americans are lousy colonialists. I don't for an instant agree that the American aim in Iraq is colonization; but, pro tem, the Americans have been put into the position of being a colonial government. The events in Najaf suggest they have neither the toughness nor the inflexibility required for that mission.

Sadly for the Iraqi people, if the Americans do not have that essential, core, toughness it is time for them to leave. Quickly. Because the events in Najaf will embolden the holdouts, the Islamic terrorists and the fat little cleric who used the religious shield to such effect.

Momentum, battlefield tempo and, most of all, political will were all squandered in Najaf. Not by the Marines and the Army on the ground; rather by the unwillingness of the interim Iraqi government and the Bush administration to fight to win this hugely symbolic battle.

Transforming Iraq from a murderous kleptocracy into a civil society was never going to be easy. Largely because none of the Iraqis have had much civil society experience. One of the most basic principles of such a society is that the state has a monopoly on force. Another is that no one is above the law. The Najaf deal negated both.

The "ceasefire" at Najaf is a classic example of the Muslim notion of hudna: "if Muslims are weak, a truce may be made for ten years if necessary, for the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) made a truce with the Quraysh for that long, as is related by Abu Dawud" ('Umdat as-Salik, o9.16)."

Al-Sadr realized if the Shrine of Ali was lost the new Iraqi state would be on its way to acquiring a monopoly on force and that he, himself, would be subject to the warrant for his arrest for the crime of murder. Tactically it was time to deal and live to fight another day aglow in the popular illusion that he had faced down the United States.

For the moment the distractions of the GOP convention and its counter-demonstrations, what another band of brothers may or may not have done on Vietnamese rivers thirty five years ago, the end of summer and the Olympics have drawn attention away from the lifting of the siege of Najaf. For the moment the elevation of al-Sadr from and easily dismissed bullyboy to anti-American hero is passing unnoticed. It is, however, only a matter of time before the real lessons of the Shrine of Imam Ali are absorbed and the hudna ended in Sadr City, Basra and Najaf.

Another King of England, Henry the Second, is alleged to have said of Thomas Beckett, "Will no one rid me of this troublesome priest?" al-Sadr on the loose, his militia loosely disarmed and well dispersed will pose this question for the American government no matter which candidate is elected.

Monday, August 23, 2004

Canadian Literary Blogs

[This appeared in the August 22, 2004 edition of the Ottawa Citizen but behind the subscriber wall.]

Writers write. The traditional writers' tools - coil bound notebooks and the laptop filled with sketches, snatches of conversation, books read, rants and poems in embryo - used to be essentially private. No more. Instant publishing via blog to the world, or a dozen of your closest friends, is now reality.

Blogs, a term which describe a multitude of forms and formats which share the single characteristic of being updated regularly, have exploded on the internet. There are literally millions of personal blogs, group blogs and business blogs. And, of course, there are literary blogs. Or, more exactly, blogs about books or blogs written by authors or aspiring authors or, and this is a bit iffy, very well written blogs by literate people. Literary covers a multitude of sins.

Blogging is very much a conversation. A sort of free for all cocktail party in twenty four time zones. Many blogs allow their readers to post comments on the entries and bloggers read other bloggers and comment. Often the best way of finding interesting blogs about literature or the thousands of other topics bloggers cover is simply to begin reading one blog and then follow the links that blogger has put up.

Another way which will lead to specifically Canadian blogs is to go to BlogsCanadaand search for what you are looking for. Take a look at the BlogsCanada Top Blogs - for which I am a volunteer judge - for fresh, quality literary blogs.

Mark Woods of Woods' Lot runs a blog which, if you read it daily, will give you a literary and general education whether you want it or not. While Woods writes from Perth Ontario, his point of view is global. When the last of the Beats, Gary Snyder, has a birthday up goes two full text Snyder poems and eight links to sites by or about Snyder. And before that Thomas Pynchon and Rabindranath Tagore were celebrated. In between the birthdays are poems by Archibald MacLeish, a note on Bernard Lewis, a link to Portable Effects: A Survey of Nomadic Design Practice. Woods is, in the argot of blogs, a linker. What his readers sees is what he's reading, not what he's writing.

At the other end of the spectrum is Ratty's Ghost. Socar Miles is simply one of the best writers in Canada. She writes so well that you forgive her for writing far too often about her giant pouched rat, Stella. She has an encyclopedic knowledge of opera, books, brothels, art, design. Maddeningly, Miles is actually a professional artist rather than writer. Ratty's Ghost blogs the notes for a wonderful, quirky, novel Miles is not aware she's writing. Her descriptions of bad dates, a mysterious shoe in her solarium, landlord visitations and the state of her Visa bill are as fresh, funny and cringe inducing as anything in Lucky Jim. Miles almost never links to other material which doesn't matter.

Caterina Fake, which is her real name, links and writes. Is she an artist or a writer? Hard to say. She was an art director at But she is a voracious reader of everything from Romance Writers Report -
"What three traits do romance readers like in a hero? - Muscles - Handsomeness - Intelligence" to Kaja Silverman, "We expand the body when we feel friendly and loving...and the borderlines of the body-image lose their distinct character." and George Orwell, "Lunatics tend to gravitate towards bookshops."
Caterina is just enough of a geek to work for a company which builds photo-based social networking software. Wired and literary.

Book Ninja is a collaborative blog run by Peter Darbyshire and George Murray who are published Toronto novelists. Not only do they write books, they collaboratively review books, link to readers' and writers resources' and have a wicked, literary, sense of humour.
"Apparently the real English patient was gay and lost his Nazi lover to a landmine. I might have got through THAT book. (There's an air of smug superiority here, the kind that seems to go hand in hand with academic "sleuths" who think they've uncovered some sort of deception on the part of a famous author or figure. I guess that'll show 'em for creating something meaningful for you to write about so eight other people in the world with the required specialized vocabulary can listen to you present it at a conference you had to pay to attend, you smarmy ivory tower bastards...)"
Tough to beat this sort of entry for illumination or snark.

A more or less pure poetry blog - with photographs and political asides - can be found at Vivid: Pieces from a Writer's Notebook . Erin Noteboom writes from Kitchener Ontario. Her poetry has appeared in Grain, The Malahat Review, Prism International and a number of other literary journals. She often blogs a poem a day. She also posts short stories and excerpts from books in progress. This blog literally takes its reader inside the process of writerly creation. Make a cup of coffee and spend an hour at Vivid Pieces.

Finally, and I am likely missing hundreds, a pure critic. Kelly Jane Torrance is Canadian but writes almost exclusively for American publication. She takes a wide view of the literary world, wide enough to include movies, culture and the arts at large; but for the first ten days of May her topics included iber agent Andrew Wylie, Steven Fry's projected movie adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's novel, Vile Bodies, David Lodge on Nabokov, and the grim threat of Brad Pitt playing Mr. Darcy in a new version of Pride and Prejudice. Torrance is wonderfully opinionated and writes beautifully with a broad perspective.

Each of these blogs is a jumping off spot into the Canadian and international world of literary blogs. Virtually every blogger puts up links to other bloggers and to the web material they are reading. Following the links is your invitation to a world wide literary conversation.

A warning: once you start reading blogs it is only a matter of time before you decide to build your own. Starting a blog is ridiculously easy, free and highly addictive. Not to mention fun.

Mockumentaries and Cunning Ignorance

Dominic Basulto's excellent article on The Corporation underscores the dilemma faced by people trying to respond to the Michael Moore school of mockumentary.

There is an increasing division between individuals who are capable of critical reasoning needed to see Moore's work and films like The Corporation as works of fiction and those who are not. After all, making a film like The Corporation or Fahrenheit 9/11 assumes the audience will, a) be swept along by imagery and narrative regardless of the actual factual basis of that narrative, b) not ask too many questions.

What Moore and the makers of The Corporation have learned, and learned very well, is that film is far and away the best means of making polemical points to an audience which has been raised in a television culture. The authoritative or humorous voice over can say virtually anything without fear of contradiction. There is no debate because the medium does not allow debate. Indeed even getting facts wrong or distorting them doesn't matter because we live in the age of the "post-modern narrative" which is a fancy way of describing a story which is not, strictly speaking, true.

The Corporation or Fahrenheit 9/11 rely on the fact the flow of information is all one way. While the audience may "cheer and yelp" at Moore's cameos, they are not actually encouraged to engage with the argument of either film.

Neil Postman explained in Amusing Ourselves to Death that one effect of television is to eliminate the formality and the logic of print based arguments. For a generation raised on TV the idea of a logically constructed argument, political or otherwise, is often an unknown country. Instead, the cultural and political landscape are molded by quick edits, factoids, bullets. Crawls and PowerPoint thinking dominate discourse.

The objective of each film is not to create real debate; rather it is to re-enforce the positions their audiences are already bringing to the theatre. Preaching to the choir as it were. Constructing a narrative based on the best loved and best know fables of that choir is a Moore specialty; but it has little appeal beyond the committed.

For all of the buzz and the media attention - not to mention the money - these post literate documentaries will generate they are unlikely to change anyone's mind. For all of the clever edits and spin, their very lack of objectivity and formal argument ensures their eventual failure as propaganda.

A Republican wandering into the Cineplex and naively buying a ticket to The Corporation will not suddenly become a raving anti-corporatist. He or she might become very angry indeed or have an interesting anthropological experience with people he or she might not otherwise encounter; but a sudden "Road to Damascus" conversion is unlikely. Which renders this sort of film annoying but essentially benign.

Which is not to say these films miss their audience. As Matthew d'Ancona wrote in The Daily Telegraph,
Fahrenheit 9/11 is a movie for viewers reared on MTV and video games, not on art house cinema. This is popcorn politics, militancy for the multiplexes. And, as such, it is extremely successful. Moore uses all the techniques of modern mass entertainment with supreme skill: comic intercutting, brilliantly-selected music, shocking images of civilian casualties, a laconic voiceover interspersed with scenes of untrammeled emotion. I confess that I found it gripping.
Daily Telegraph

In fact, these films may represent the high water mark of cunning ignorance as a political style. Moore and the creators of The Corporation can presume the ignorance of their audiences and work with that fact in order to make their political points. They know Postman’s rule that in visual information media there are no prerequisites: a movie audience can be assumed not to have a clue.

Mass entertainment is immensely popular because it is never more than escapist fantasy. Whether it is portraying President Bush as an imbecile for sitting still for seven minutes on learning that the jets had hit the towers or committing the pathetic fallacy of attributing human characteristics - psychopathology - to corporations, the truth, actual facts, is not what is driving the audiences into the theatres. Rather it is the chance to have one's deepest, most paranoid, conspiracy theories confirmed on the big screen. Call it political pornography in the paranoid style.

Like good old pornography there is no actual argument involved - merely a series of decontextualized images pasted to a narrative line. Refutation is not an option; it would be like refuting a novel or a painting.

The problem, of course, is the internet. It lets people talk back, fact check, fisk, research and meticulously challenge every doubtful assertion and faulty premise Moore and Co want to make.

Two way communication is a huge threat to the mockumentary simply because people like James Lileks, Steven denBeste (whose comparison of Moore and Muqtada al-Sadr rallying the feckless is priceless), Dave Kopel and Spinsanity - as well as Tech Central - are able to respond almost instantly to the half truths and distortions these movies serve up as fact. (The quick demise of Supersize Me owed a good deal to the work of internet commentators who recognized a goofy premise when they saw one.)

As more people use the internet as their primary information tool, the "one to many" model which underlies mass market films and old line media is being replaced with a "many to many" model. While Moore or the creators of The Corporation may still be able to reach large audiences they no longer have the ability to go unanswered. Moreover, the task of answering the deceptions, distortions and outright fabrications is being voluntarily assumed by citizen journalists as well as professionals.

President Bush and the Republican Party really do not need to spend too much time worrying about the political effects of The Corporation or Fahrenheit 9/11. However, it wouldn't be a bad idea for the Vice President to urge Americans to flood the theatres to see what an unabashed Kerry supporter and Democratic Party spokesman really thinks of America and the 3000 people who died at the WTC whose deaths Moore so dishonors with the title of his movie.

It might swing a few states.

Monday, August 16, 2004

Our Own Tune

[A summary article on the Canadian Federal Court decision legalizing music file sharing writen for the American market.]

In the United States Senate a bill has been introduced to stiffen the penalties for American file sharers. The PIRATE Act proposes jail sentences of up to ten years, significant fines and Department of Justice prosecutions of file sharers.

In Canada Mr. Justice Konrad von Finckenstein has ruled that downloading and putting a song in a P2P accessible shared folder is not copyright infringement. Effectively, von Finckenstein has legalized file sharing in Canada.

What is actually happening here is a collision between two conceptions of the nature and purpose of copyright law, two views of the economic objectives of intellectual property law.

Canadians paying attention would not have been surprised by Konrad von Finckenstein’s ruling because they would have read the decision of the Canadian Supreme Court in CCH Canada Ltd. v. The Law Society of Upper Canada which von Finckenstein cited. In this decision, Chief Justice of Canada, Beverly McLachlin set out Canadian Supreme Court’s view that copyright is not an absolute entitlement but must be balanced against competing interests. “In order to maintain the proper balance between the rights of a copyright owner and users' interests, it must not be interpreted restrictively….User rights are not just loopholes. Both owner rights and user rights should therefore be given the fair and balanced reading that befits remedial legislation."

This is a fundamental difference between the way America and Canada look at intellectual property. Under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act there is not much by way of users’ rights. The idea of “fair use” remains but not much else.

Under Canadian copyright law regarding music, individuals have a right of private use which includes making copies. This right was created in 1998 in exchange for a levy on blank cassettes, CD’s and various other storage media. The music industry lobbied hard for the blank media levy. Five years ago this seemed like a pretty good deal for the music industry. Found money for the music moguls who had been pretty disturbed that some of their product was being burned onto CDs. Over 70 million dollars has been collected through the levy and there is a good possibility the levy will be raised and extended to MP3 players, flash memory cards and recordable DVDs sometime in 2004.

The levy created revenue for the Canadian music copyright holders and a right to copy for music users.

The Canadian approach converts music file sharing into a form of self-programming radio complete with indirect micro-payments to the copyright owners.

The PIRATE Act, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and the legal antics of the RIAA convert music file sharing into the equivalent of digital shoplifting. While this approach may support the belated entry of assorted “legal” downloading services, it substitutes draconian fines and damages and, potentially, jail time, for an economically sophisticated approach to the issue. Moreover, given the volume of downloading which continues unabated in the United States, it appears “free” is still more attractive than $.99 even if it carries the infinitesimal risk of being sued.

Increasing that risk with threats of jail time and government prosecution will tend to give dedicated file sharers greater incentives to mask, but not cease, their activities. There are already P2P services emerging which can very effectively disguise the identity of uploaders and downloaders.

The PIRATE Act and the DMCA criminalize music sharing but the technology itself and the sheer number of file sharers means the laws lack any sort of credible enforcement mechanism. This is like throwing a tiny minority of pot smokers in jail for a few years and calling it a drug strategy.

The litigation/criminalizing model amounts to an expensive attempt to squash an emerging technology. By taking an entirely one sided approach where copyright owners have all the rights and users have none, this model simply encourages ever more clever ways of taking music without paying for it.

Taking the more balanced approach to file sharing outlined by Chief Justice McLachlin and elucidated in Justice von Finckenstein, would result in revenue for the record companies and the creation of a powerful new media to promote and, yes, sell, music.

Once in a while Canada gets it right.

Tuesday, August 10, 2004

Trial By Jury

[Originally written with The Tyee in mind but no go.]

The chief law officer of the province, Attorney General Geoff Plant, wants to use a single case to demolish Rumpole's Golden Thread.

Plant, in the face of the second mistrial in the Kelly Ellard case, suggests, "it's time to look at reforms such as reducing the number of jurors or removing the requirement of unanimity." Plant later suggested he was simply speculating, "Sometimes it takes a particular case to bring an issue to the surface and that's as good a time as any to talk about reform."

This bit of pandering politics is end of a rather blunt wedge.

The current rule is straight forward. To convict the Crown must prove the elements of an offence beyond a reasonable doubt to a jury of the accused person’s peers. It is a touchstone of the liberties which we enjoy as a result of 700 years of common law. While juries have been made smaller in many jurisdictions, the traditional twelve being hard to find in many cases, the requirement of unanimity has remained in Canada and the United States. (In England and Scotland a majority verdict (10 of 12) can be returned.)

There is a simple reason for this: a jury must be of one mind as to whether or not the Crown has made out its case. Indeed, it is useful to think of a jury as a single mind, just as a trial before a judge is a matter of that judge’s mental makeup.

A judge in a criminal matter is strictly bound. The standard of evidence is, "beyond a reasonable doubt" and, if in the back of the judge’s mind, she doubts what the policeman or an eyewitness has told her, by the rule, she must acquit.

A jury, properly instructed by a judge, will understand that each of its members must be satisfied by the Crown’s evidence on each of the often many elements of the offence. Satisfied. Not kinda, sorta sure, not thinking that the Crown has provided the best argument. Rather, sure beyond a reasonable doubt. It is a deliberately high standard to protect the accused.

That bulwark has a huge problem – people who are obviously guilty as sin get off. Sometimes on technicalities, more often because the Crown is unable to meet the standard of proof on a critical element of the offence.

That is the way the system was designed to work. We have deliberately empowered a single member of a jury to disagree and have that dissent count.

The built in assumption in the criminal justice system, Rumpole's Golden Thread, is that the accused is innocent until there has been proof of guilt sufficient to convince either a judge or every member of the jury otherwise. That is the presumption of innocence and that is what keeps cops honest and defense lawyers in business.

Plant wants to move the goalposts for accused persons. Now, instead of every juror having to be convinced, Plant is proposing to make it a majority vote. Perhaps a super majority, nine of twelve, but a majority none the less.

What this achieves de facto is a shift in the onus on the Crown. Instead of having to prove the elements of an offence "beyond a reasonable doubt" to every member of the jury the Crown’s burden is lightened. The standard is much closer to the civil standard of proof on a "balance of probabilities" with a majority vote deciding if the lighter burden is met.

Just how wrong this is can be demonstrated by a simple thought experiment. Imagine you are a juror and, after listening carefully to the evidence, you are utterly unconvinced by the Crown's case. You think the cop is an obvious liar, the eyewitnesses have been proven to be paid police informers and there is no physical evidence. You are convinced the charge is bogus and you are not going to change your mind. Under the current system your dissent will be enough to ensure that there will not be a guilty verdict.

Now imagine you are in a room with eleven other people under the Plant rules. You might just as well have stayed home because, unless you can get a couple of other people to agree with your view, the majority rules. Which means that, instead of trying to find people who might hear the evidence dispassionately, both the Crown and the defense are going to look for people who seem sympathetic to their side and possessed of the ability to persuade.

The jury system was adopted to protect the rights of the innocent in the face of the power of the State, it was never designed to be a cockpit of interpersonal politics. The lone dissenting voice was supposed to ensure the innocent – by which the law means those whom the Crown cannot provide proof of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt – are not convicted.

In any jury trial the Crown arrives with about 50% of the votes locked up simply because many people assume if a person is before the Court they must have "done something". Even when an accused is charged with something which they manifestly didn’t do, there will be a group of jurors whose touching faith in the police and prosecutorial system will ensure a guilty vote.

The only real hope a criminal defence attorney has before a jury are the people who, while in a minority, are willing to entertain the idea that the Crown must actually prove its case. The defence knows if the Crown fails to persuade even one of the members of the jury then the Crown has failed to make that case.

The critical truth about the jury system is each member has been given enough power to overrule the rest if he or she is not convinced by the Crown of the accused’s guilt.

Take that power away from jurors, as the idea of a majority vote would do, and the point of the jury system is entirely lost. With it will go the Anglo-Saxon belief in the presumption of innocence and the onus of the Crown for the strict proof of the allegations made against a citizen. Tearing up the Charter of Rights would do less damage to the rights of the accused than majority rule juries.

Jury trials are not Survivior. Using a majority vote to send someone to jail mistakes juries for democracies. A mistake which betrays the very fundamentals of justice.

Saturday, August 07, 2004

What to do about Sudan

[Over at the BlogsCanada E-group there is a discussion of whether Canada a) should and, b) can intervene in Sudan.]

Interestingly enough I was just rereading Strachey's Eminent Victorians and the delightful story of China Gordon and Khartoum. Then, as now, there was vile behavior on the part of the Muslim northerners towards the Animist, black, Fur and Dinka peoples. Then as now there was much debate as to whether or not to intervene. Gladstone was determined not to get involved and Gordon was, eventually, killed by what the Victorians called Dervishes in Khartoum.

I digress because it brings up a basic question which the Victorians were rather more prepared to face directly than we are: are we obliged to pick up what, in less PC times, was referred to as the "white man's burden". Or should we allow Sudan its sovereign right to allow militas to slaughter, pillage and rape in the name of Allah?

Realists, of which George Keenan was a ranking member (diplomatic class), suggest that there are national interests but precious few humanitarian ones. (Thus the argument on Iraq that "It's about the oil".) The idea that a nation would risk blood and treasure for anything other than its self interest, usually defined in the narrowest possible terms, is to realists romantic nonsense. After all, what does it matter to Canada if several thousand or even hundred thousand Furs and Dinkas are murdered?

Opposed to the realist ethos are the Wilsonians who see nations as endowed with moral purpose. General Gordon was an out and out romantic and a religious fanatic to boot. He saw his mission as being to draw Britain into a war which would put down the Muslim rising and open the way for missionaries to convert the southern tribes.

Finally there are people like me who, ashamed though I am of the fact Canada is probably unable to field more than a couple of hundred troops, think we should go to Sudan because it is the right thing to do.

But I think we should go to Sudan only if we are able to persuade our allies to refuse to limit their activities to stopping a few milita types on horseback. We should only commit our troops and our money if the objective is regime change in Sudan.

The fact is that the Sudanese regime has been an odious blight on Africa for twenty years. It has allowed slaughter. It has allowed slavery. It seems to be encouraging genocide.

If Canada goes in to protect the victims of the genocide we are either making a long term commitment we cannot keep or we are kidding ourselves.

The instigation and arming of the militias proceeds from Khartoum. Either a coalition commits to eliminating the regime there or we will are spinning our wheels. But to do that we have to give up the fiction of respecting the sovereignty of failed states, genocidal states and states which pose a direct or indirect threat to us. This is a position which will never be accepted by the UN which is addicted to the sanctity of sovereignty.

I certainly think Canada should do everything in her power to stop genocide; but when I say everything I mean everything, up to and including changing the regime which is sponsoring the genocide.

Left Right - Ending Cultural Isolation

[This is a response to a Tech Central Station article by Arnold Kling on cultural isolation.]

From WASPs to winos, shared experience and interests have a lot to do with who your friends are. So does opportunity. People have a tendency to clump together with people with whom they have things in common.

Politically and socially this may seem a falling away from the egalitarian conception of America but it is the way of the world. Arthur Kling cites Christopher Lasch as “argu(ing) that in post-Revolutionary America, democratic equality meant the abolition of aristocratic superiority.” This would have been heartily unwelcome news to the Virginian aristocrats and land speculators who were so instrumental in the founding of the Republic. Some of the most aristocratic men the world has ever known lived with the names Washington, Jefferson, and Jay. And one of the most bitter debates in the intellectual ferment which lead to the Revolution was on the whole question of social equality. Tom Paine and George Washington were not likely to agree that, “When Adam delved and Eve she span, who was then the gentleman?” was a legitimate question. Leave aside the compromise which counted slaves as 2/5ths of a white man for purposes of determining how many Representatives a state would have in the House, the appointed Senate and the Electoral College were explicitly designed to avoid the rabble having too great a say in electoral politics. Women, of course, were excluded completely.

In many ways what Kling is lamenting in his TCS piece The Growing Insularity … the death of an attractive public school system, white flight to the suburbs, the rise of the gated community, the creation of elite and expensive universities. He is lamenting the emergence of a powerful class of what one might call, The Really Rather Well Off.” (Say families with net worth greater than 2 million, annual income $250,000 to $750,000. Folks for whom $35,000 a year in college tuition is not a big deal.)

Regardless of political position, the sons and daughters of the RRWO’s are likely to share sets of characteristics in common. Private schooling, luxurious homes, summer houses, private colleges: in fact, it is quite possible that even the most Leftist RRWO child will never have taken public transit. Privilege and a sense of entitlement more or less come with the territory. With that privilege comes the credentialing – Ivy undergrad, Ivy professional degree, internships, clerkships – which passes for meritocracy in modern America.

While Kling’s idea of using the draft to broaden elite experience or creating some sort of swapping arrangement might go a distance towards mutual understanding, it is just as likely to confirm the prejudices of the RRWO kids not to mention the class envy of a kid from South Central who is suddenly transported to Bel Air for six months. Moreover, for RRWO kids it would simply be a six month or two year hurdle to be squeezed into the credentialing process.

It all looks pretty hopeless until one remembers one of the crucial innovations which helped create the conditions for the American Revolution: Ben Franklin’s penny post. Prior to Franklin’s invention sending letters in colonial America was a hit and miss affair. It depended on there being a traveler going in the direction the letter was who was willing to carry that letter. This ad hoc system favored the emergent aristocracy simply because they had servants, slaves and retainers who could be dispatched with mail. They also had a web of kin and acquaintance which often ran the length of the thirteen Colonies. Access to this informal mail system was largely a matter of birth and position.

Franklin systematized mail in America. For a tiny fee anyone could send a letter to Post Offices in any of the colonies with a very good chance of speedy delivery. Suddenly, anyone who could write a letter could send that letter without regard to birth or position. The effect was revolutionary.

For the first 200 years of the Republic the penny post allowed the literate to stay in touch. And they have: as any congressman will tell you, the sheer volume of mail to Congress is overwhelming. But, for two hundred years the essential conception underlying the penny post – ink on paper hand carried point to point – remained unaltered. The telegraph made it faster, the fax let you transmit pictures and the telephone let you chat. But the form and conventions of letter writing remained essentially the same.

The critical conventions of mail and of phones re-enforce pre-existing social contacts and are essentially person to person. To write or call someone you need to know their address or telephone number. You don’t meet people in the mail.

Enter the Internet: email, instant messaging, blogs, websites, chatrooms, forums and all the rest of the communication opportunities which the Internet has created are the first genuine innovation in personal communication and the conventions of such communication since Franklin invented the penny post.

The cultural barriers Kling is concerned with are being beaten down far more quickly and much less disruptively in the tens of thousands of conversations between people who never would have met who are now clicking online. From bloggers to social networkers to kids who have entirely given up the telephone for MSN chat software, there are hundreds of thousands of connections being made across racial, class and economic lines everyday.

Something as simple as a shared interest in an online game can serve as the fulcrum for a conversation between a Chinese kid in San Diego and a Spanish kid in Miami who, in the real world, would be scared of each other if they met on the street.

This is entirely self organizing, can’t be measured and, no doubt, excludes poor kids who do not have a computer at home. But the leveling effect of the internet and its ability to conceal and render irrelevant the racial, social and economic characteristics of a particular person means the possibility of much greater understanding exists.

It is, of course, possible that Choate IMs only with Groton; but I seriously doubt it. Watching my 13 year olds’ use of MSN Messenger to meet people all over town and all over the world has been astonishing. He talks to kids in Europe who are Limp Bizkit fans and kids almost anywhere who think their parents are too strict. If none of his own friends are online he will look for new friends. The language is often vile and the shorthand the IM world uses tends to infect written work; but the one thing which an internet equipped kid isn’t is insular.

Similarly, in forums and chatrooms and in the comment sections of popular blogs people are exchanging ideas, points of view, personal experience and words prefaced by IMHO. Red/Blue, Hard/Soft: Americans are talking to each other. And, perhaps more importantly, talking to the larger world.

This phenomena is a natural outgrowth of the technologies which make up the internet. No one has to tell people to find out what people who are not like them are thinking or saying – the ability to do that is one of the most basic attractions of the ‘net.

Christopher Lasch died before the internet really became a part of people’s lives. It is not clear what Lasch would have made of the net and its uses. What is clear is the internet has empowered the average person in much the way the printing press and the penny post empowered Tom Paine and Ben Franklin and reduced the influence of the Virginian aristocrats. The combination of an infinite and free information resource and the capacity to communicate with people of every class, race, nationality and income bracket is one of the most powerful leveling forces the world has ever seen.

Lasch, ever the conventional pessimist, argued that rather than "a community of intelligent, resourceful, responsible, and self-governing citizens," modern America promises "merely to ensure the circulation of elites." Ten years is a century in internet time and one of the most significant changes the ‘net has brought is that the “elites” are being questioned, challenged and contradicted by a newly empowered community of citizens. Citizens who, before the internet, kept files of clippings about the prefidities of politicians or business leaders and died with their files unread are now fact checking the ass off everything from State of the Union Addresses to company’s Annual Reports and 10-Ks and posting the results to their blogs.

Elites – especially elites created by birth, money and connections rather than real merit – are feeling the heat. From media to politics to the entertainment biz, people who could once count on the expense and difficulty of acquiring and publishing information protecting their mis-steps are now being mocked by citizen journalists. Credentials are fine; but a Harvard degree is trumped by a quick wit and good research. Where the marketplace of ideas once had a huge entry cost, now everyman can read, comment, learn and promote his own understanding and ideas about the world.

For a moment, imagine Ben Franklin or Tom Paine or Thomas Jefferson or Benedict Arnold with blogs. Imagine the Federalist Papers as a group blog with comments. Revolutions have been made with less.

The Conservative Habit of Mind

Adam Daifallah's recent article on the need to create a conservative infrastructure in Canada begged the one critical question: why? Certainly not to win elections. Winning elections is about selling the products of that infrastructure - advertising and marketing rather than policy prescriptions.

Amidst the attractive visions of think tanks and journals, policy institutes and conventions, the question of what exactly is being created is easy to lose. Is it a more successful Conservative Party? A better government for Canada? Yet another re-definition of conservatism in Canada?

The bankrupcy of the conservative idea in Canada - after the assorted mergers and acquisitions of the last couple of decades - can no longer be concealed from Canadians or the Conservative Party itself. Harper's campaign inspired as much fear as support. Canadians suspected, rightly in my view, the Conservative Party had a "hidden agenda". They recognized the brand new party's platform was missing more than a few planks. Canadians also recognized the platform had no decernable philosophical foundation voters could use to make educated guesses about the missing policy.

Daifallah's infrastructure would address the policy gaps and cobbling together platforms to meet the challenges of the 21st century. However, policy wonkery is essentially a value free enterprise. Faced with providing medical care, education or a military there are a variety of solutions which bright lights with economics and law degrees can label "conservative". But how to choose? Without a philosophical core, the choice becomes a matter of which policy alternative polls better and that's largely a waste of time because the Liberals cornered the value-free policy market years ago.

Canadian conservatism - as opposed to Red Toryism - has yet to produce a coherent account of itself. Think tanks and policy conventions cannot give that account, they cannot define the cast of mind, the political style and the principles of Canadian conservatism.

Red Tories had the anti-technological, Catholic, utopian socialism of George Grant to use as a water and flour paste patching together their unlikely three way alliance between the decendents of United Empire Loyalists, Fine Old Ontario Families and Protestants in the Maritimes. Grant's anti-capitalist message provided Red Tories with philosophical underpinnings. Not as a matter of policy prescription; rather as a flexible framework onto which to bolt various versions of the PC role of "official alternative to the Liberals".

Today's Conservatives, a generation removed from Grant, (who has found his natural home as a favorite philosopher of the anti-globalism brigade, and are bereft of a similarily Canadian political philospher to draw on. While the libertarian wing can cite Hayak and von Mises and the socons everything from the Bible to the tabletalk of Ronald Reagan, none of these offer a particularily Canadian understanding of conservatism.

Conjuring up a political philosopher to order is impossible, so Canadian conservatives will have to rely on an even more basic resource: the cultivation of a conservative habit of mind.

Conservatives and what have come to be called classical liberals begin with a tradition of tremedous humilty in the face of human folly, their own and others'. They are blessed with an almost limitless scepticism about personal perfectibility much less the perfectibility of the people around them.

With luck a conservative will have learned the personal habits of generousity, forgiveness and respect and the virtues of politeness, graciousness and modesty. Experience should have taught them to value learning, to recognize reason, to look for facts before making arguments and to honour language as the only bridge we have to each other.

These traits, if practiced carefully and constantly, open the possibility of a politics which is profoundly engaged with the human spirit and the human capacity for ganuine innovation, ingenuity and perserverance. This politics has only the most tenous connection to the rough and tumble of electoral politics. A conservative's politics are, ideally, embedded in his or her daily life. Participation in formal political world becomes a reluctant extension of this personal world and the idea of a conservative "professional" politician is antithetical to the conservative habit of mind.

For a conservative the personal, familial and communal are vitally important. Important enough for conservatives to prefer the particular over the general, the local over the national or the international, and the concrete facts of daily life over the abstractions of theory.

Politically these very basic mental traits translate to two core principles. First, the desire to have larger units exercise as little power over smaller as possible. Second, a belief in the organic evolution of a culture and society. The modern obsession with the big, the new, the fresh and the revolutionary, worries conservatives mindful of the unintended consequences and outright disasters which have characterized so many innovations in the political world.

The last three hundred years have not been kind to the conservative cast of mind: huge, anonomous, nation states arose, governments began to pursue ameliorist agendas, information became systematized, citizens became statistics. Entire classes of people have taken up the helping professions, mass education and bureaucracy in all its forms. The profound belief in the perfectability of human societies, if not actual humans, became a growth industry in the 1850's and never looked back. Missionary zeal, suitably repackaged in a politically correct, multi-culturally sensitive box, remains the theoretical underpining of the Liberal Party in Canada and church basement strategy of its hyperactive little brother, the NDP.

From economics to healthcare to education and the law, the essentially immodest, empirically empty ideas of the "just", the "well", the "fair" society have been sold to the increasingly gulible public. With the extension of the franchise, the hollowing out of the public education system, the replacement of print culture with mass entertainment we have lost the ability to actually explain why while each of these "societies" was wonderful in theory and unattainable in practice.

Conservatives had to wait for the collapse of the Soviet bloc, the rise of the dollar economy in China and the failure of every socialist inspired state in Africa to make their point. In the West they are waiting for the coming bankruptcy of France and Germany and the failure of limitlessly funded healthcare, public education and the social safety net in countries as diverse as Sweden, Britian and Canada to confirm the laws of economic gravity once again.

The mental habit most important to a conservative is empiricism. The capacity to see the world without hopeful or pessimistic illusion. It is the precise opposite of the idealism which drives the Liberal and socialist minds. Conservatives do not believe in magic beans, fairy godmothers or regional economic development programs. Experience has proven each to be in the realm of fable rather than fact.

Humility, skepticism about the perfectibility of society and people, respect for language and reason, modesty, politeness, generosity, valuing the particular above the general, empiricism: not one of these habits of mind needs an institute or a magazine or even an endowed chair at a prestigious university. Not one of them offends any religious, racial or cultural sensibility. Yet these simple traits of the conservative mind offer a full tool box for assessing the policy and politics offered up by the wonks in Dallifalah's think tanks.

One of the worst consequences of the Conservative's reflexive "me-tooism" with respect to the Liberals is its requirement that conservatives accept the philosophically barren calculus of political victory which has powered the Liberal Party since the second Trudeau election. This dooms the party to the role of echo and last resort when the electorate believes Liberals are in need of a short rest from governing. It's a recipe for tinkering, value free wonkery and polling for policy which has already been perfected by the Liberal establishment.

For the Conservative party to do well a steady, patient effort to create and encourage conservative minds and conservative habits of thought needs to begin in Canada. From that movement there will almost certainly emerge the political theoreticians and, with luck, philosophers, who will provide the analysis and the reflections which will, in their turn, allow the Conservative Party to create and be proud of a real and unhidden, conservative agenda for Canada.

(Note: a version of this was posted at the BlogsCanada Politics e-Board.)

Long Posts

From Time to time I write an article or a long comment or some other bit of opinion which is too long for my regular blog. I also have assorted pictures and material I want to be able to link to. So, rather than rent webspace, here it is...Jay Currie - Long Posts.

When I put material up here I will always put a link up at Reviewing.