Sunday, January 15, 2017

Three modest proposals for the Toronto budget

Toronto has the lowest property tax rate in the Golden Horseshoe: the prosperous region stretching from Oshawa around the end of Lake Ontario to the Niagara River. We also have some of the best city services in Canada: services under increasing financial strain. Too many of our citizens have no homes. Some, and any is too many, die on the street every year. This is unacceptable; the city must fulfill its responsibilities, and that almost certainly means taxes have to go up.

Members of city council have suggested other revenue tools (read: new forms, more equitable forms, of taxation), but for now we have the old stand-by, property, or real estate, taxes. Since real estate taxes can and sometimes do have perverse and unfair effects, I present three modest proposals to make real estate taxes more fair, and to ensure the impact of the needed tax increase falls where it should: on those best able to pay.

Monday, January 09, 2017

Crime and some inappropriate spin

Anti-racist mural, Jones Avenue Toronto, By Beatrice Murch via Wikimedia Commons
By Beatrice Murch
via Wikimedia Commons
Consider three propositions:
  1. People with black skin are people. 
  2. People, by nature, have moral freedom, which means we can choose to behave well or badly, and it follows that given the choice, some people will choose badly.
  3. Since people with black skin are people, the second proposition applies.
I don't like to think anyone finds these propositions difficult or controversial, but it seems some writers choke over the implications.

Friday, January 06, 2017

1380 CE please... with antibiotics and vaccines, and hold the smallpox

Winthrop log cabin2 (abandoned) By Geaugagrrl, via Wikimedia Commons
By Geaugagrrl,
via Wikimedia Commons
The world's human population is fast closing in of seven and a half billion people. It's a world Mark Boyle wants to get off. He has bought, and he wants to sell you, a comforting notion about the cause of our problems: bad choices don't cause them. He blames technology, as a kind of disembodied external force. He has a simple cure, as well: get rid of technology.

Mark Boyle says:
My culture made a Faustian pact, on my behalf, with those devilish tyrants Speed, Numbers, Homogeneity, Efficiency and Schedules, and now I’m telling the devil I want my soul back.
Julia set (C = 0.285,_0.01) a fractal set
Julia set by Solkoll
Now a good part of this amounts to mere rhetorical flourish, but where he includes numbers among the so-called "devilish tyrants", my disagreement with him goes beyond practicalities, beyond even technology, and right to the core question of purpose. My First Nations teachers taught me every form of life has instructions from the Creator. My own religion, Christianity, teaches me the same thing: life has a purpose or purposes. I have the ability to learn and consciously understand the world, to apprehend ways the natural order works, and I believe my purposes include doing so. To aid in this holy work, our remote ancestors worked out a spiritual discipline they called mathematics. As Ursula K. LeGuin pointed out, numbers provide a bridge between psyche and matter. To reject the sacred language of numbers as "devilish tyranny" means rejecting hard clarity and truth in favour of comfortable vagueness, imprecise language with little meaning. What Mr. Boyle appears to hail as liberation, I see as sloth.

Tuesday, January 03, 2017

Nazi victory porn

It is a paradox: high intensity military combat is one of the most extreme of human experiences, which means nobody who has not experienced it can will have the emotional or physical memories to make sense of it. Relatively few people today have experienced high intensity combat. Only a minority of people ever enlist in the armed services, and the majority of members of the armed services work at the vital, and sometimes dangerous, job of supplying the front line soldiers. Today, the majority of people have not experienced high intensity combat.

Yet it appears war remains the one of the most common single subjects for historical presentations and documentaries, as well as historical fiction. Accounts of war, historical and otherwise, often tend to lay stress on the experience of intense combat, rather than the boredom that defines much of military life.

ModellPhoto_JunkersEF128 By JuergenKlueser via Wikimedia Commons
JunkersEF128 jet model
By Juergen Klueser via Wikimedia Commons
Partly, this stems from the curiosity people who have never experienced intense conflict feel about it; partly from assumptions about the importance of military conflict in shaping history. But books and documentaries do not make present the experience of battle, as Guy Sajer's book The Forgotten Soldier makes clear: "One should read about war standing up, late at night, when one is tired..." War documentaries come closest to the experience of a civilian reading about events taking place a long way away; yet even the experience of a civilian in wartime involves uncertainty the viewer of a documentary or reader of history does not share.

The combination of unreality and the ability to evoke emotional intensity makes military history subject to various forms of manipulation. I call one particular form of this manipulation "Nazi victory porn". It consists of various descriptions, frequently highly unrealistic, of ways Hitler could supposedly have won World War II.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

The ferocity of hope

By Pete Souza
via Wikimedia Commons
Eight years ago Americans and Canadians celebrated the audacity of hope in the election of Barack Obama to the presidency of the United States. This year, a film called Arrival introduced me to the ferocity of hope: its tenaciousness, its endurance. If optimism is defined as the hope of getting dealt a good hand, hope is the willingness to play the hand, however lousy it seems to be, or is.

Indignation and punishment

Woodworking tools (1910) By Takkk
By Takkk
 via Wikimedia Commons
Audre Lorde's well known quote, "The master's tools will never dismantle the master's house," derives much of its power and appeal from its flexibility. Interpreted one way, it rebukes those with too great a focus on practical politics, since the dominant parties of the existing order have by definition mastered its practice. Looked at another way, it calls us to leave behind the specific tools of domination, the tools shaped by the needs of a house of bondage and designed to create and maintain it. Genuine liberation, opposed to changing the hand that holds the whip, requires us to reject the habits of thought and action developed to wield power.

When I attempt to identify the "master's tools" in my own habits and in ways of thinking I take for granted, experience tells me to look for contradictions. I look out for contradictions between the ways I think, the way I imagine the world, and the way I live in it. If a way of thinking doesn't serve its intended purpose, that doesn't mean it has no purpose. It makes sense to ask what purpose such a way of thinking does serve. Sometimes, the ways of thinking that serve no useful function turn out to serve the desire for power, the wish to dominate. Once I see them clearly, I can eliminate them, because I know them as the master's tools: the tool of the ones who hold the whip, and the part of me that wants not justice but power.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

The sales force for war is out

...and experience suggests we can expect another round of trashing for Neville Chamberlain. That guy. Every hawk with a war to sell, or a conflict to stoke, or a peace initiative to shut down, drags out the same carpet beater and flogs the very dead horse of Neville Chamberlain's unavailing concessions at Munich. Even ones who can't say exactly what Chamberlain did at Munich.

Neville Chamberlain died in November of 1940: Winston Churchill gave the eulogy at his funeral, and even with bombs raining on London, could say of Chamberlain's policy:
But it is also a help to our country and to our whole Empire... [that] we were guiltless of the bloodshed, terror and misery which have engulfed so many lands and peoples, and yet seek new victims still. Herr Hitler protests with frantic words and gestures that he has only desired peace. What do these ravings and outpourings count before the silence of Neville Chamberlain's tomb? Long, hard, and hazardous years lie before us, but at least we entered upon them united and with clean hearts.
Many people in the present day who know far less than Churchill take a far less charitable view. Why does this matter? Do I really intend to waste time defending an old, white man whose maintenance of the imperial system undoubtedly fed the great conflicts of the 20th century?

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

The value of a tell

Della Porta, Giambattista — Magiae naturalis sive de miraculis rerum naturalium (title page, detail chaos)I have seen a number of comments about the movement calling themselves the "alt-right"; these comments argue we should not accept these peoples' name for their movement, but rather call them fascists, racists, national socialists, misogynists, and plain haters. An Internet activist has written a Google Chrome plug-in that renames "alt-right" to White Supremacy or neo-Nazi. The Associated Press has also updated their style guide to require quotes and a full definition whenever writers use the term "alt-right".

I sympathize with the impulse, but if we reject the name "alt right" we stand to lose potentially useful information. The name a person or a group gives themselves is always a "tell"; it gives away more about the people who take the name than they intend.