Monday, May 09, 2016

The heart of the matter

In a previous post, I wrote about the so-called "Overton window": the conviction that policy proposals have a simple linear value; that setting them out, ordered, on a line makes it possible to define a range, or a set defined in linear order from a minimum to a maximum value (the "window") that opinion makers empowered to do so will deem acceptable.

This linear view has no relation to the complicated reality of politics. Using it distorts and even corrupts approaches to politics in many ways: ultimately, treating politics as symbols with single ordinal values offers considerable scope for attempts to control the process.


Saturday, May 07, 2016

Daniel Berrigan, presente

Conventional movies have contained few genuinely moving, as opposed to sentimental moments. One of the most moving occurred at the beginning of the film The Mission with Jeremy Irons, a story of the involvement of the Jesuits with the Guarani people. Near the beginning of the film, three Jesuits walk toward the viewer coming over a rocky knoll. Two of these are actors dressed as Jesuits: the third is Dan Berrigan.
By Thomas Good GFDL

While protests against the American Imperium and its exploitation and war would inevitably have arisen, Dan Berrigan had a profound influence on the shape they took. His embrace of a non-violent, ethically based resistance to war and domination helped inspire activist movements of the past generation. He followed the example of Jesus, whose ministry, by the world's standards, ended in the utter failure and disgrace of the cross. By separating the pursuit of truth and ethics from fame, from success, from power, Dan Berrigan helped create a movement that political defeat could not stop and that darkness could not stifle.

He is at peace now. Let light perpetual shine upon him. Let us who remain continue the great work he has nobly advanced.

Politics through the window (please, just not Windows 10...)

Politics, as an art, a practice, and discipline and a commitment has one real purpose: to make good policies for the peace, welfare, and just ordering of the polity. Politics aims to find solutions that allow us, as disparate, imperfect people, to live good lives together in a functioning community.

It also makes for terrific theatre.

Wednesday, May 04, 2016

Wait, what?

It looks like we started a trend.

Just over a week and a half ago, a driver came up Jane Street in West Toronto and managed to jump the curb and hit a small apartment building. The force of the crash threw the engine block halfway across the street, and shrapnel sprayed the fronts of buildings 15 meters away from the crash site, denting window mouldings and chipping stucco. The passenger of the car died, the collision damage made the building unstable and the city evacuated the residents.

One collision such as that makes sense: freak accidents happen. Then, a little less than a week later, another driver crashed into a convenience store at Harbord and Bathurst, in the middle of Toronto's downtown.

Just this week,  someone else drove an SUV into a building in the Beach, a neighbourhood in the city's east end. This time, the crash killed an occupant of the building: an elderly woman preparing for a morning dance class.

Really, Toronto motorists? Seriously? I get that some things come in epidemics, but driving cars into buildings? Some people really need to ditch the car or the truck and start riding a bus.

Tuesday, May 03, 2016

A betrayal wrapped in an oxymoron

By Gage Skidmore (Flickr.com) CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
By running for president of the United States, Donald Trump has exposed a good many open wounds. The phrase used to describe one of these sums it up succinctly, but not neatly. Like origami, the concept opens into multiple dimensions; the more you pull on it, the more it reveals. White working class: suddenly, the phrase appears in everyone's articles, an all purpose location for the appeal of one Donald Trump, and much more beside.

The phrase explains without explaining; it explains not in the sense that the words themselves carry meaning, but in the sense that the words "white working class" serve to trace the lines of deep scars or unhealed fractures in our society. Start with the word order: the white working class. The syntax suggests a single mass, like a vast white shag carpet covering several American states. The opposite phrase, working class African Americans, suggests a single description applicable to multiple individuals. Specifically, the phrase speaks of African Americans who belong to the working class, people who work for wages and who need to work for wages to support themselves. Working class African Americans also belong to a larger set: the working class generally, made up of people of all ethnic varieties, all nationalities. The phrase white working class, on the other hand, completes a definition not of multiple persons but, somehow, a single phenomenon.

Monday, May 02, 2016

Seven reasons to want more people cycling

Every cyclist should want more people to get on a bike. Wherever, however, whenever you cycle, you should welcome two-wheeled, human powered company on the road. The reasons for wanting more cyclists include:

  1. More cyclists means a healthier society. A huge body of evidence indicates that using a bicycle for transportation on a regular basis adds as much as two years to the average life span.
  2. More cyclists means a happier society. Regular activity counters depression.
  3. More cyclists means a smarter society. Regular physical activity, including cycling, improves alertness.
  4. More cyclists means less local pollution from cars.
  5. More cyclists means more provision for cyclists: everything from more bicycle parking to bicycle racks on buses.
  6. More cyclists means motor vehicle operators expect cyclists, look for cyclists, adapt their behaviour to account for the presence of cyclists on the roads.
  7. More cyclists cut into the sense of immunity that many motorists expect. In a community where the vast majority of people commute to work, leisure, shopping and even the gym by car, motorists know that other motorists will investigate and adjudicate any crash they get into. In a community where cycling plays an important role in transport, the motorist can expect that at least some of those who judge their behaviour will have no sympathy with those who choose to operate motor vehicles unsafely.

From error to error

A concerned student at University of Missouri
Photo by Mark Schierbecker (Own work)
via Wikimedia commons CC BY-SA 4.0 
Rod Dreher recently posted a web log entry in which he noted that the University of Missouri has fallen on some hard times. He attributes that to what he calls "craven appeasement" by the university of the protests that broke out at the university last fall. Mr. Dreher notably repeats the word "appeasement" twice and "cowardice" once, but does not allude to right or wrong, either in the ethical or the practical sense. He attacks the university, in other words, simply for an abstraction: abdicating authority.

The original charge of appeasement had a moral basis: the conviction, horrifyingly proved correct by subsequent events, of the wickedness of Hitler and the Nazi regime. At least in the case of the Munich agreement, the betrayal of the Czechoslovakian democracy compounded the immorality of appeasing Hitler. Whatever your opinion of the University of Missouri administrators, they did not commit anything like appeasement in this sense. If anything, the record of offences weighs against the powers that be of Missouri: whatever their faults, the student protesters do not carry the moral weight of one of the most inhumane slave economies on record, or of a terror state designed to keep African Americans "in their place". Nor did the protesters invent the carceral culture that has millions of Americans locked up for ideology and profit. Indeed, their protests against this plunder represent a genuine hope for renewing the American project.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Grace notes and missed opportunities

Rob Ford has died. Rest in peace.

After a pause, a very brief pause, in the interests of decency, the negative assessments of Rob Ford's performance as mayor have started. And indeed, Rob Ford's tenure in the mayor's office was a disaster, most of all for Rob Ford. Edward Keenan's got it mostly right. Heck, nearly everybody has it right. Rob Ford's talents, his outlook, did not match the skills and the perspective a mayor needs.

Rob Ford believed in servant government. Politicians should believe in servant government. If more politicians really wanted to serve the people, instead of socking away money in off-shore tax havens, we wouldn't just have better government, we'd have a better world. Rob Ford wanted to solve people's problems. He wanted to serve as the kindly scullery maid handing leftovers out the back door. He wanted to answer phone calls and get potholes filled. Despite his lapses, he did a good job as a councillor.

Tuesday, April 05, 2016

Four words closer to the safety of life

In one of his more recent screeds against cycling, Jim Kenzie, the Star's car reviewer, wrote this chilling sentence: "We still kill more pedestrians and motorists on Toronto roads than we do cyclists."

We shouldn't kill anybody. I'll say that again: we shouldn't kill anyone. We should never accept death as a price for anything. Any violent death, any injury, in the course of any activity means that something went wrong and needs correction. When it comes to automotive technology, and the million odd deaths it causes world-wide, we need to do a lot of correcting. We need a safety culture.

The safety cultures I know best, marine and aviation, have four defining principles, summed up in four words: priority, transparency, authority, and accountability.

Start with priority, as in the safety of life has absolute priority. Nothing trumps the word unsafe. Not convenient, not fast, not efficient, not cost-effective. Having a deadline does not justify an unsafe act. Money does not justify a lack of safety.