Sunday, November 14, 2010

The persistence of (disputes over) memory

I remember the wars of the past and the war we have chosen to fight today  in Afghanistan. I remember the wars that came before that. I remember how one war frequently leads to another, the compromises made for peace in one generation leading to the failure of peace in the next. What aware person with a mind and conscience can forget?

I remember all year long. Every time I participate in the political process, I remember that people have put their lives on the line for my right to do so, and whether or not I believe their sacrifice produced my freedom, I know they thought it would, and I remember and honour their willingness to make it. I remember the men and women who endured the wars, who went to fight and gave up their youth and the soundness of their bodies and the peace of their minds, and I honour the choice they made to do that for all of us, even if I don't agree with the specific cause they fought in.

And at the same time, I face the paradox that confronts everyone who remembers and honours those who fought for their country. As Jimmy Carter rightly said, the necessity of a particular war does not make war any less of an evil. In 1939, Canada and Britain may have had no choice but to fight, and the young men of this country who flocked to the colours then have my full measure of gratitude. But they would not have had to go if Hitler had not persuaded young Germans to flock to the colours of blood and night. Good people only have to fight for good causes because very bad people can deceive others into fighting for monstrously bad ones. Does our memory, our gratitude to the men and women who died depend on our opinion of their cause? If so, should the Germans relegate their World War II veterans to a past they feel nothing but shame for? If not, then what do we really celebrate about the men and women who went to war, and should we temper our gratitude to them with an awareness of the terrible ease with which very bad people can make evil use of the noble impulse to sacrifice?

Changes in technology have forever changed the nature of war, and the way we remember wars, warriors, and soldiers has not changed to keep up with it. We know, as an abstract truth, that the hope and expectation that most of the generations of the past entered wars with, the hope of a final victory, we can no longer expect. As Gwynne Dyer put it, if a nation with a nuclear option ever started to lose a war in a final way, then it would resort to its nuclear arsenal and everyone would end up dead. Europe would lie in ruins before the Russians ever again marched through Berlin, or the Germans marched through Paris. But that has to change the way we look at war; if war, the carnage and sacrifice on the battlefield, can no longer shape history, then what does? And how do we celebrate everyone that makes our history and passed on a heritage of freedom?

All these questions turn around one other hard truth: peace and freedom have never come without a cost. War, as our  parents and grandparents knew it, has come to an end, and our survival depends of recognizing and accepting that. But the end of war does not mean an end to sacrifice. Brave men and women will still need to put their lives on the line for things that matter. More and more of those men and women will never wear a government uniform, but they will fully deserve our thanks and remembrance. How, when, and where we choose to remember will remain a point of contention for some time. Canadian, British and American merchant sailors in the Atlantic convoys suffered together with their naval counterparts and made sacrifices that undoubtedly made as much of a contribution to winning the war as any military person, yet they did not receive official recognition and veteran status until over 40 years after the end of the war. Even today, the day specifically set aside in Canada to remember the sacrifices of merchant sailors, September 3, does not get the public attention that November 11 has.

Maybe at some future Remembrance Day ceremony we will see peacemakers and peacekeepers, those who struggled for justice and those who fought for their nation standing shoulder to shoulder with all people whose valour and endurance made our world possible. Someday, the world may remember Americans such as Ernest Evans, Jean Donovan and Tom Fox, Canadians like Smokey Smith, and Norman Bethune together as brave men and women who gave their lives for justice and a better future for everyone, without making distinctions of uniform, rank, or status. But that day has not come yet.

Today a trademark, that most mundane, commercial, and, oddly, civilian of issues muddies the waters. Since 1948, the Royal Canadian Legion has had control of the poppy trademark granted to them by a special act of Parliament. Since at least the 1980s, they have engaged in legal scuffles with people who have attitudes to war and memory different from their own.Obviously, I disagree with the Legion here; I find the use of trademark law in an attempt to shut down political speech you disagree with highly inappropriate, and I consider it even more inappropriate to try to couple our willingness to remember and honour those who died in wars past to a particular view of war and peacemaking today. That view, that soldiers created our freedom and that only soldiers guard it, will fade into history with the time when wars could end in unambiguous victory, The soldiers who come home from Afghanistan will come home to praise and celebration, but they will almost certainly leave behind a country in turmoil and a still active Taliban. Freedom from the intolerance the Taliban and other extreme religious movements exemplify will not come from military action. To remember and honour the soldiers who gave their lives so we and others might have a better future, we will, in the long run, have to accept this and incorporate it in our way of remembering.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Canonization of Brother André, October 17, 2010

My mother, Elena MacDuffee, told us the following story. As a young woman (in the late 1940s or early 1950s) she and her cousin visited the Oratory of St. Joseph in Montreal. Before entering the building, they strolled in the garden, where they met an elderly gentleman. He told them that he loved to come there every day, to sit in the garden and chat with the visitors.

The two young women said goodbye to the old man, and then entered the Oratory. A display about Brother André and his life caught their eye. And there was a picture of the very man they had just met—brother André, who had died years before, in 1937.

A not-so-scary ghost story in honour of All Saints’ Day.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Privilege (I): Transcending politics

Many of us wish out politicians and commentators could transcend petty disputes about their ideas. Recently, several columnists did transcend their politics, and I learned to think carefully about what I wished for.

After the prosecutor assigned to Michael Bryant's case concluded he had no hope of convicting Mr. Bryant (a reasonable legal conclusion), a number of commentators, including a fair share of conservatives, hailed the decision as not only a legal victory for Mr. Bryant but a moral vindication.

I will have more to say about the question of whether the dismissal of the charges against Michael Bryant adds up to vindication in any but a legal sense; for now, I propose to focus on what the conservatives who expressed relief and satisfaction at the dismissal of charges against Mr. Bryant did not mention: his politics. Before his encounter with Mr. Sheppard, Mr. Bryant had served in the provincial legislature, first in opposition and then as attorney general, where he regularly promoted government as an wise caretaker of public health and safety. He did not just want to control guns, he wanted to control realistic toy guns. He banned pit bulls and dogs that looked like pit bulls. Ironically, he called for draconian enforcement against hazardous drivers, extending police powers to suspend licenses and impound cars without the bother of a trial. In short, he promoted and extended the nanny state in the service of a liberal government. His measures catered to the supposed anxieties of the "soccer mom" voting demographic.

Yet after his fatal encounter with a private sector contract worker, I read no conservative comments about the irony of Mr. Bryant's past stances in light of his predicament. Bryant's middle class status, his polish and accomplishments made him someone they could identify with, even if he had used those advantages in the service of causes most conservatives oppose on principle. They gave Mr. Sheppard no credit for keeping going and refusing to give up on his life after suffering insults and assaults starting from his childhood, and indeed from before his birth.

Our society carries on and awards unjust privilege in this quiet way, often as much by what we ignore as by what we proclaim, by what we do not say as much as by what we do.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Peaches Princess Johnson

I planned to write a post about having a dog in the fight against cancer. My daughter's beloved pug, Peaches, found herself in the fight of her life against canine lymphoma, a very aggressive cancer. We went into the fight right along with her. I planned to say that as long as he body and spirit could keep up the fight, we would fight right along with her.

But today at noon the cancer won. Peaches's joyful spirit never faltered, and our love for her never wavered, but we both ran out of time. We took her to the vet yesterday because the chemo-therapy made her throw up. Today we found her listless and unable to eat; at noon she went into convulsions, and before we could reach the vet she died in my daughter's arms.

We feel so sad that our dog has died, for ourselves and the things we won't get to do with her, and for her and the things she won't get to do with us. We will never forget her; we will miss her joyful brave spirit, and we will do our best to honour the gifts she brought to us.

Peaches Princess Johnson, Feb 29 2008 - Aug 30 2010. We said goodbye too soon.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Radio (3) How to Switch the Station so you Teenager Won't Notice.

If you have ever travelled in a car with a teenager, and become tired of listening to noisy and/or incredibly misogynist music, especially the song where the boy meets the girl in the club and, well, he doesn't want to be disrespectful...but he just has to say that her rear end is [...], then you will appreciate this method of radio sabotage.

This method works only if:

1) you are in the front seat and the teenager is in the back seat;
2) you have push-button radio;
3) the teenager has a friend (or a DS gaming system) with them, making them less vigilant about radio tampering; and
4) you want to switch seamlessly from the noisy rock/hip-hop station to an easy rock/light favourites station (you can't switch to classical music, or to CBC Radio 1, or to the Radio Netherlands Africa Report: it would be too noticeable).

Here's what you do, in 4 easy steps.

1) Wait for a commercial. While your teenager is busy chatting with their friend, etc., slowly reduce the radio volume, bit by bit.
2) When the volume gets down to a whisper, push the button for your favourite easy rock/light favourites station
3) very gradually increase the volume on the light station.
4) enjoy several miles of mildly pleasant music together (perhaps Michael Buble or the Black-Eyed Peas) until the teenager finally wises up and calls out "Hey! That's not my music!"

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Radio (2) The Radio Gods

I spend quite a bit of time driving through the western suburbs of Toronto, often taking our dog Peaches to the vet. While listening to the radio, I compose short essays in my mind--mostly about the radio. Every night this week I am contributing a little "radio" essay.

I have a theory that there are radio gods, who govern when we will get to hear our favourite songs on the radio. To please the gods, we must treat them properly. To cruise rapidly through the dial is not the way. For one thing, you will have to hear a lot of sub-par hip hop, gushing contest winners, Celine Dion songs, suggestive pizza ads, and--worst--the celebrity news as delivered by Ryan Seacrest.

Besides, do you really want to hear only the second half of your favourite song? I didn't think so.

So this is what you do. Push the up arrow to a new station. If you hear an advertisement or someone talking, move on to the next station. If it is a song, take a few seconds to recognize the song, and then decide how much you like it on a scale of 1 to 10. If you give a rating of 5 or less, move on.

If you rate the song at 6 or more, stay put. Most radio stations play a consistent style of music. This means there is a good chance you will also like the next few songs. And because you have found a congenial station, there is an excellent chance that, after 3 or 4 songs (and maybe a pizza ad or two) the radio gods will bless you and you will get to enjoy "Brown Eyed Girl" all the way through.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

AM radio

There is a station that we get in Toronto, Oldies 1150 (CKOC) out of Hamilton. It's one of the few oldies stations on the dial, so I have it programmed in as one of the 18 push-button options on my car radio. It and the all-news 680 (which I listen to mainly for traffic) are the only AM stations I have chosen to program in.

It's always an odd thing, when I happen to push this button, how the quality of sound is so different than the FM stations. The scratchy sound is like the grainy picture on an old TV with only aerial reception. The (lack of) sound quality, even more than the particular songs, really takes me back to my adolescence, when I listened to the radio on a sturdy battery-operated radio (it even accompanied me during my bath) and sometimes on a tiny avocado-green set that fit into my palm.

Back then, we didn't care much about the sound quality as much as the songs. I got excited the first time a disc jockey (on CKFH) played a request for me--it was 1971 and he played "Brand New Key" by Melanie. I spent most of the 1970s obsessed with the Beatles (yes, I know, I was a decade late, but better late than never). Mostly I listened to then on a portable record player that spun at 39 RPM instead of 33 1/3 (I had timed it). As the songs were speeded up, I always seemed to be getting up to change the record.

Listening to the few surviving AM music stations today, there is an odd time-warp about suddenly being surrounded by the sound texture of my childhood. It's as if I suddenly had a delicious whiff of my mum's "Green Pepper Delight" or plunged my nose into my dad's tin of Revelation tobacco.

Monday, July 12, 2010

A note on clothing...

The people who criticize what some cyclists wear seem to have issues with spandex, complicated by the way cyclists sometimes wear bright colours. I can't think of a better answer than to tell those afflicted with it to keep their minds on driving rather than fashion criticism. Cyclists who wear bright coloured spandex do so for two severely practical reasons: it cuts down on wind resistance, and therefore on the work they have to do, and it helps other road users see them. Winning fashion awards from passing motorists doesn't figure into it-- for any of us. Motorists who think that should worry us should grow up; we have more important things to worry about, and so do they.

Sunday, July 04, 2010

On having a sick pet

Our dog Peaches fell ill over a month ago. She's lost weight, suffered from frequent vomiting and persistent intestinal upset. Several visits to our vet and to the emergency clinic have failed to resolve the problem, and the vet now tells us she either has a long term condition we can manage, or else a cancer that will kill her in at most two years.

When I think of her joyfully leaping off the deck into the yard, or leaping back up into the kitchen, or singing as we filled her dog dish and burying her dear face in it the moment we put it down, I feel as though my face and chest have turned to lead-- lead with a great ache behind it. The thought of losing our dog, and losing her so young hurts. The thought of her losing her life, a life she enjoys, hurts more.

I don't have much of any control over all this, but I can at least choose this: to learn from the joyful wholeheartedness of Peaches's life. If I put some of that into my work, then let her live a long and full life, or let her barely get beyond a puppy, that happy spirit will not have disappeared from the world.

And so I choose to face what the next weeks or months or (I hope) years bring us in that spirit. Not that I would have chosen this; I'd rather have my dog with me, joyful and healthy, forever. But time doesn't grant us many victories, and those we can eke out come from joy and learning. I'll do the best I can and take the best I can get.

Friday, July 02, 2010

G20 and the police

A great many people have already written about the events of the G20 weekend in Toronto. I participated in the First Nations protest the Thursday before the meeting, a protest which went off without any major problems, largely because the First Nations organizers requested, and expected, peaceful conduct from everyone.

But most protests in the city happened that way, and even the most aggressive demonstrations neither got near the leaders' meetings, nor caused any serious injuries, nor caused a serious amount of property damage. The G20 ended with two or three police cars destroyed and a lot of broken glass; plenty of sports events, and even some rowdy weekends in cottage country, end up with more damage than that.

By any standard, we now have an impressive number of accounts that indicate the police overstepped their bounds, and the police have responded with  evidence of the protesters' evil intentions which, to put it mildly, fails to convince.

At this point, I can only add one comment to this. We have a legal system in Canada, a legal system that includes the police and courts. As Rupert Ross, the Crown Attorney who wrote Dancing with a Ghost and Returning to the Teachings points out, a lot of First Nations people remain far from convinced we have a justice system. A good many poor people, social activists, and others, likewise, have very little faith that we have a justice system. Incidents like this merely reduce that faith. A loss of faith in the legal system has consequences, and those consequences tend to compound. The fewer people believe they can get justice from the system, the fewer use it or cooperate with it. Fewer people call the police, report crimes, or come forward as witnesses.

It may comfort a few people to claim that, as one poster to the CBC wrote (go to page 21 from the start of the comments):
You'll go crying, "Mommy, mommy the bad man took my money and hurt me. Help Police!" I just hope they treat you the same as everyone else and help you out when you need it most. You will take their help as if it was your God given right and then you will whine and complain about the shameful police again once they've helped you.
I can tell you from personal experience that not everyone does that. Nor should this surprise us. The argument that if something bad happens to us, we will go to the police no matter how we feel about them simply goes in a circle: you don't trust the legal system, but if something bad happens, you will. The proponents of this view never explain why we would pick the worst moments of our lives to turn to people we do not trust. I suspect they have no real answer, outside of a comforting daydream scenario. In reality, distrust of the legal system exists and has consequences. Some communities sum up their arguments for refusing to cooperate with the system in slogans like "Stop Snitching". But distrust of the legal system does not merely affect struggling and impoverished communities. It affects everyone.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

End the impunity. See what happens.

Jim Kenzie, among others, has claimed that, for no reason he cares to make explicit, Canadians will not stop driving cars and drivers will not change. I think he and people who think like him underestimate the intelligence and decency of the driving public. I think drivers would do the behave much better if the law and the culture around us sent a clear message about the right way to drive. Specifically, I think insisting drivers will never treat other road users respectfully makes it much less likely they will. Whatever the reason, this country suffers from a road death rate that makes it very likely that over a normal lifetime you will lose a family member or friend to a traffic crash. I have a modest proposal to change things.

End the impunity.

Recently, the courts convicted a driver for having a car illegally modified for street racing in a way that defeats important safety features, driving that car at a reckless speed, and causing a death. Having reached all those conclusions, the court sentenced the driver to one year in jail. This would not bother me as much as it does, if similarly reckless behaviour with firearms attracted a similar sentence. Someone who deliberately disconnected the smoke alarms in a house, or permitted someone else to, then behaved recklessly with matches and inflammables would face a charge of manslaughter, if not murder, should their behaviour kill someone.

With the series of judicial and police decisions over the past year, it seems hard to deny that dangerous drivers in this culture can expect a presumption of good faith and a leniency that few others can. If you pull the trigger, the courts assume you meant to shoot. If you strike the match, the courts assume you meant to burn. If you defeat the safety measures in your car, drive recklessly, and kill someone, the courts appear to assume that you meant to arive at your destination will everyone aboard well and hearty. This has reached a point where it amounts to impunity for drivers.

Let's end the impunity. Let's do whatever it takes to ensure the courts cannot presume good faith in the face of evidence of reckless conduct on the roads and tampering with safety features. If judges in this province regularly treat homicidal recklessness with motor vehicles as much less culpable than recklessness with guns or fire, then maybe the law should require minimum sentences. Maybe, then, drivers would treat the responsibility inherent in operating a vehicle capable of causing serious harm with more respect. If not, then at least offenders will receive proportionate punishment, whether they use a bumper or a bullet to kill.

Friday, June 18, 2010

These days, they come for the dictionary first...

Joe at Biking Toronto wants to ditch the word cyclist, and at first sight he seems to have a good argument. Goodness knows, with both the friends and enemies of cycling engaged in a demented race to pile more and more baggage onto this poor two syllable word, it should make sense to just chuck it and start over. Look at all of the attempts to define a cyclist: someone who wants to save the planet but won't bother to stop at traffic lights, an impoverished elitist, an altruistic member of a self-interested minority. Can we save this word? Do we want to save this word?

Speaking for myself, yes I do want to save the word cyclist. I want to cut the straps and let all the baggage fall off, but I want to keep the word. A cyclist can vote BQ, Conservative, Liberal , NDP, or Rhinoceros. A cyclist can obey all the laws with great care, or can proceed through the world making up his or her own laws. A cyclist can believe in capitalism, anarcho-syndicalism, or any other economic system; in representative democracy or absolute monarchy. A cyclist can love the planet, hate it, or believe it doesn't matter because the world will end next Tuesday. Only one thing makes a cyclist: the use of human-powered, wheeled transportation. Anyone who has used a bike reasonably recently can call themselves a cyclist.

The word "cyclist" describes those of us who ride bicycles with an elegance and brevity that the words "people who happen to ride bicycles" will never achieve; but I have two more basic reasons for not wanting to give up the word.

First, to the noisy minority that shows up in newspaper and blog comments after every story involving cyclists and whips themselves into a froth (and they do constitute a minority), the problem has nothing to do with words. I do not know what many of those people really object to, but they focus their venom on human-powered vehicles and those who ride them. Just as advocates for people with cognitive impairments gave up the word idiot, imbecile and retarded when these words each evolved from a medical diagnosis into a schoolyard taunt, if we start calling ourselves people who happen to ride bicycles, we'll start to read abuse directed against PWHTRBs. These days, before they come for the communists or the trade unionists, they come for the dictionary. Let us not kid ourselves: the ultimate target has nothing to do with the words we use, or even the actual technology that moves us. They want our freedom.

This brings me to my second point. Some years ago, on a visit to the ancient seaport of Marseilles, I encountered a young street tough who asked me for money. When I had none to give him, he snarled "Juif". What should I have told him? The truth? Je ne suis pas un Juif would hardly have sounded dignified. In the end, I had no good (verbal) answer for him and just treated his comment as a stink in the air, not worth acknowledging. The point for us: when someone attacks us, it may seem to make sense to separate ourselves from the kind of people we think our accusers must really dislike. But that kind of denial preserves neither our dignity nor our rights. If we propose to drop the word cyclist as a way to distance ourselves from those dirty lawbreaking anarchists, we might as well forget it and preserve our dignity.Maybe I see myself as better than cyclists who ride badly, arrogantly or confrontationally; maybe I don't. But to many of our opponents, just riding a bike makes me just the same as all the cyclists they criticize. Maybe we need to debunk their stereotypes, but we sure shouldn't surrender to them.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

A thumb in the eye for a courtesy...

View Windermere Route in a larger map

When returning from the waterfront to Bloor West, I frequently take Windermere Avenue; it provides an easier and safer ride. Recently at the intersection of Bloor and Windermere, I had yet another experience of the factors which make for friction between motorists and cyclists. The Windermere/Bloor intersection has two northbound lanes: a right/through lane and a left turn lane. I reached the intersection on a red light, the first in line. I noticed the driver behind me wanted to turn right on the red, and the traffic conditions would allow him to do so safely, so I moved to the left to let him through. He made his turn safely and waved his thanks. Then the next car in line moved up and when the light turned, the driver went straight through the intersection on my left. That didn't cause me any great problem, since only one car went through the intersection that way. But If a whole line of cars had decided to pass me on my left, particularly if I also had cars going southbound, I might have found myself in a very uncomfortable position as a result of my courtesy to the driver turning right. I don't blame the driver who passed on my left; in Ontario, we don't train drivers to look out for cyclists.

The moral? The next time you see a cyclist and think that person could let you go ahead but won't, don't take it personally. Look at the situation from the cyclist's point of view. They may have no trouble letting you through safely, but they can't predict what the car behind you will do. Keep in mind also that the cyclist in front of you can probably do nothing to get you home sooner; if we let you through, or you pass us (safely, please) we'll probably see you at the next red light. Also, where you have crumple zones, seat belts, and air bags, we have a half millimetre of cotton or spandex. The other moral? If you want to speed up your actual travel time, well, get a bicycle. But if you have a load you have to move by motor vehicle, and you want to get through the city quickly, behave courteously to vulnerable road users, and encourage other motorists to do the same. For every driver who blows through a crosswalk, some pedestrian will push the button and wait for the lane to come to a complete stop. If you want crosswalks to work better, watch for the lights and obey them. If you want cyclists to offer you little courtesies, then make sure we don't find ourselves in dangerous situations when we do. If I move left to let a motorist make a right on red, that does not give you permission to pass me going straight. I try to treat other road users with respect and I expect respect in return, and respect and tolerance have to start with the people behind the wheels of the two-tonne steel bombs.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Too much fun in the rain forest...

A new cafe has opened on Annette Street called "Good Neighbours". Their lattes add a whole new layer of meaning to the phrase "guilty pleasure", and the decor of the place mixes contemporary art with traditional touches in a pleasing way.

When I lived in the United States and visited Toronto regularly, I always noticed the vibrant diversity of Toronto's business community. In all but the very largest American cities, the tried and true, the franchises with nationally known names, tend to dominate the landscape. Here in Toronto, a hundred thousand flowers have bloomed. Not for the first time, I feel the business climate resembles nothing so much as a rain forest, in the vibrancy of its diversity and its sheer sensuality.

In Toronto, we celebrate creativity with festivals: Luminato in the spring, Nuit Blanche in the fall. But we seldom seem to take the opportunity to celebrate the creativity all around us, in the simple act of opening a new cafe, or a store, or a restaurant. But when we honour creativity only in the official artists, we close our eyes to a wonderful bloom in forn of us every day.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

...and a bad argument against cyclists

Jason Henderson wrote an alternet article making the reasonable enough point that driving cars creates a demand for oil, the demand creates the impetus to drill, the drilling leads to disasters such as the one currently in the Gulf og Mexico. He proposes, as a solution, that we should accept driving as an activity fundamentally at odds with the environment and the values that progressive people hold. His prescription: don't drive. Not even a "green" car such as a Prius.

The comments attracted a set of fascinating defences of the car and denunciations of bicycle culture. One idea stands out: we shouldn't cycle, because "bohemian" cyclists oppress the "true" working class. Consider the following:
I see "progressives" like Jason Henderson every day. People who ride their bicycles inside highly electrified cities benefiting from wealth and privilege that made high education possible, while others in the vast service industry grew and shipped their food, made and shipped their clothing, maintained the day-to-day infrastructure working long hours for pennies and built the gigantic buildings required for a privileged few to have sufficient free time to pursue being "progressive" by cycling to a university.
It would take too much time to unpack all of this for one post, so I will focus on the central fallacy here: the assumption that bohemians in general, and perhaps cyclists in particular, partake of some privilege that renders them (us) at odds with some vague notion of an "authentic" working class. That, in turn, depends on a single (false) argument: that cycling necessarily requires so much time that only those people with both flexible and undemanding work schedules can manage to use a bicycle for practical purposes. I know from experience that at least in an urban centre, where most people now live, bicycles provide a more efficient way to get around. Whether from an economic, resource, or time perspective, the bicycle simply works better in the city than the car does.

Cycling requires organization and a measure of physical fitness. It does not require a "bohemian" or academic work schedule. Those people who want to suggest they drive in order to express solidarity with working people will have to think up a better excuse.

A challenge to the cycling community....

In my opinion, the best challenge to cyclists seldom gets made. The best possible argument against the cycling community would go like this: you (we) have the potential to achieve genuine excellence in the way you (we) travel, so why don't you (we) do that? The answer, of course, would go like this: we do come much closer to complete excellence than motorists allow. But we still make to many excuses for our own and each others' mistakes. We still settle for a lower standard than we could potentially achieve.

Too often, we can't find a good way to say to the world that we exist, we have an unquestioned right to the roads, and at the same time to say to one another that we fall short too often. We have the potential for genuine excellence: we can make our journey through the world a positive thing for our bodies, our minds, for the world around us. Motorists can never do that, or as with cyclists (most of us) who also drive cars, I need to say that when we drive, we can never do that. Behind the wheel of a car, we can only seek to limit the damage we do. But on a bicycle, we can grow our bodies, calm our minds, and travel peacefully and lightly in the world.

So why do we so often accept all the anger and frustration of the motorist, and return it to them with a little interest of our own? Why do even those of us most gifted with privilege, most able to forgive, sometimes cycle with a chip on our shoulders? Why foster a cycling culture that ratchets up the impulse to confront, to accuse, to respond to the violence motorists do, to themselves, to us, to the world, with anger and accusation? Can we find a better way?

A thumb on the scale

Over the weekend, someone put up a poignant protest at the courts: a white bicycle protesting the lack of justice for cyclists in Ontario courts. While I agree that Canadian courts have, in recent years, treated cyclists appallingly, I would go much farther than this. It seems to me that in virtually all cases where anyone, whether cyclist, pedestrian, or motorist has fallen victim to homicidally bad driving or roadside violence, someone, somehow, has put an obliging thumb on the blind lady's scales in favour of the errant motorist. Two young men kill a taxi driver by speeding on a downtown Toronto street at an estimated 30 to 90 km/h over the speed limit. They plead guilty of dangerous driving causing death, an offence which carries a maximum penalty of fourteen years in prison. They get a sentence of one year under house arrest, followed by an 11 pm to 6 am curfew, which their parents can override by giving them a note. Toronto drivers kill fourteen people un a little over three weeks, including one woman who runs a red light, kills a woman and very nearly kills the infant in a stroller. The police lay only provincial driving charges. An ex-politician tries to shake a cyclist off his car, battering him to death, and a prosecutor sees no prospect of conviction. A driver in Quebec hits a group of cyclists from behind, killing three; the police have yet to lay charges. A homicidally reckless, possibly drunk driver hits a car with his cement truck in Calgary. He kills five people, including three children, and virtually wipes out a family. The court awards a sentence of eight years, of which the defendant will serve five and a half. While heavier than most sentences for driving-related offences, this falls far short of the life sentences usually imposed for homicide, particularly in cases of multiple homicides with violence.

Not all of these cases represent the same level of leniency, and you could argue that in some of these cases, the courts have simply served justice based on the facts. But I challenge anyone to look at the overall record and maintain that the same trail of mayhem committed with guns or knives would elicit a similar response from the police and courts. The evidence that the legal system in this country treats the same harm very differently when delivered through a motor vehicle seems overwhelming, and it also appears equally clear that in too many cases, air bags, seat-belts and crumple zones do much less to mitigate the harm done by recklessness than car companies would like us to believe.

Some councillors and others have taken to whining that Toronto has embarked on a "war on the car". It seems clear to me that homicidally reckless drivers have long ago declared war on all of us: pedestrians, cyclists, and other motorists. So far, dangerous driving has killed more North Americans than al Qaeda and the Islamist movement, the Communist party (all communist parties), the government of Hideki Tojo, and the national socialist german worker's party. Combined. Maybe the time has come to stop mourning our dead, and instead to do something serious about the deaths.

...a long time coming

Jeffery Goldberg ascribes the recent events in regard to Gaza aid flotilla to military and short-term political incompetence. I think that does the Israeli politicians and generals a disservice. As long as Israeli forces maintain the Gaza blockade, by all accounts a popular policy in Israel and a very unpopular one elsewhere, people willing to risk death can make Israel look bad. The Gaza relief ships simply have to keep steaming toward port to compel the Israeli military to either abandon the blockade, or to use force and risk subsequent casualties.

Rather than blaming the Israeli Defence Force, it helps more to ask how the Israeli government got their tails in this particular crack. It seems to me that Israel blockaded Gaza in despair, because they had run out of options. Having beaten the corrupt Fatah party in the election of 2006, Hamas had a earned, by the normal rules that govern these matters, a right to govern. But governing the Palestinians meant working with the Israeli government, and the Israelis could find no way to work with people dedicated to their destruction. Here, I believe, two quite understandable impulses in Jewish life collided with disastrous results.

The first impulse, which for convenience I will refer to as the ADL impulse in honour of the Anti-defamation League, holds that the Jewish community cannot ignore or condone hostility. The second impulse, which I call the IDF impulse in honour of Israel's defence forces, says that the Jewish community can never afford to rely on goodwill alone, because enemies can overpower even the most sincere of friends. Both impulses make sense, given Jewish history, but they lead to fatally contradictory policies. If you have power, you can dictate to your enemies what they can and cannot do without having you punish them for it, but you can't try to force them to like you. A policy based on the IDF impulse would have ignored Hamas rhetoric, but punished any government led by Hamas for hostile actions against Israel. A policy based on the ADL impulse would have deplored the hostility to Israel shown by Hamas, but not used force in response to it. In fact, it appears the impulses collided, and Israel refused to recognize the results of the election both because of the past terrorism by Hamas and also because of the ongoing hostility of Hamas to Israel.

If Fatah had taken control of Gaza by force, then Israel could have released the blockade. But since Hamas won the election and the subsequent power struggle in Gaza, I can see few good options for the Israeli government short of a more general settlement with the Palestinians. In the meantime, blaming the situation on Israeli commandos, or even on the planning staff of the Israeli Defense force, strikes me as a less than useful simplification.

Monday, June 07, 2010

Semantics and car dependency

Cyclists who set out to argue with opponents of bicycle lanes and other facilities for cyclists have a problem: our opponents tend to speak a different language, to a different purpose, than we do. Many cyclists who argue for bicycle facilities also drive, but many motorists who argue against us do not cycle. That means many of our opponents have little if any experience choosing their transportation mode. To go any medium distance (one to a hundred kilometres), to them, means to drive a car. They know, in a sense, that they could cycle, but someone who has not cycled for transportation in their adult life has no actual experience of actually weighing the two transportation modes and choosing the one best for the purpose.

In practice, this often means that when cycling activists speak of the problem of car dependency, our opponents often answer us by talking about the advantages of "auto-mobility". I can't speak for other cyclists, but I do know about the advantages of the automobile. When I have a computer CPU, or other heavy gear, or a bunch of kids to schlep, I use a car. When I have just myself and something I can fit in panniers, I generally use a bike. But for someone who has never biked as an adult, in their practical experience cars mean mobility (and vice versa). The different experiences of cyclists and motorists cause us to speak a different language, and I believe it helps to both discuss the question of what purposes the private car will prove useful for, and to affirm the importance of choice in modes of transportation.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Safe in traffic: no one way

In his autobiographical Life on the Mississippi,Mark Twain writes of setting out as an apprentice to a Mississippi river pilot and expecting to learn the river, and finding out that instead, he had to do something harder: learn to read the river.

Working out the correct lane position for riding a bicycle likewise requires reading the street. The linked video (above) from the League of American Bicyclists, and even more the associated discussion, contain many claims about "the" correct lane position, one commenter going so far as to argue that a study from the UK establishes the correct lane position for bikes, worldwide. To his credit, the researcher concerned say he makes no such claim.

I would argue that no one rule works for lane positioning, even in a given city. In Toronto, the situation changes all the time. A ride on Queen Street at 1400 (2pm) on a week day, with parking in place, takes place in a very different cycling environment from a ride at 1700, with the parked vehicle removed (we hope) and large numbers of commuters filling the street. At any given moment, the cues that predict motorist behaviour, from the sound of engines to the configuration of their vehicles, allows a cyclist to decide when it makes sense to pass, and when it does not, how far into the lane to ride to keep the drivers passing at a safe distance, when to ride in the kerb lane and when not to.

It takes much less time and effort to learn to read the street than Mark Twain needed to learn to read the Mississippi, but it does take some effort and attention. Precisely because novice cyclists need time to learn the skills of reading traffic, bicycle lanes make sense: they allow new cyclists to observe traffic from a cyclist's eye view and a protected position on the road. But neither bike lanes nor any single technique offers a solution to bicycle safety: that comes primarily from education and enforcement directed at motorists, the operators of the really dangerous vehicles. The best safety measures cyclists can take for ourselves depend on observation and learning.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010


Last night, turning onto Bloor, I rode past two people at the corner waiting to cross the street when the light changed, and failed to see the person behind them, walking the other way. She started to cross the street, I saw her to late and braked, but not in time to avoid her. We bumped into each other, not hard, and neither of us lost our balance. I apologized, she assured me the collision had not hurt her, and we went our separate ways.

Two observations:
  1. As I do more cycling, I have to stay sharp, and not just look out for vehicles.
  2. An apology and a willingness to admit when I make a mistake go a long way to resolving tense situations.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Number two man

In the field of candiates for mayor of Toronto, Rob Ford now polls in the number two spot among decided voters. Since only about half the voters have made up their minds so far, it doesn't do to take these polls without a large grain of salt, but his performance should definitely wake up those who snickered that a man with his body mass index and antediluvian ideas shouldn't even think of running for mayor. It doesn't do to underestimate Rob Ford.

It doesn't do because behind the well-known personality, Rob Ford has a coherent, consistent theory of government. All the public positions I have seen him take point to a belief in a minimally intrusive government, service oriented and responsive at the local level. Thus, for example, he supports or at least tolerates bike lanes in the downtown and inner suburbs, where people manifestly want them. If he has changed his previously expressed opinion about urban cycling, that would mean he has changed his opinion in light of voter sentiment; a rare attribute in a politician. I have no reason to doubt his commitment to service oriented government, either. Any time I have had cause to contact him, I have received a reply the same day.

So what kind of mayor would Rob Ford make? He would do some things well. He would clear bureaucracy out of the way of local initiatives in public parks, particularly self-funded ones. He might well set new standards for responsiveness in Toronto's government. On the minus side, Rob Ford's belief in minimal government would mean that without either a regional authority or a public-private partnership to get the work done, he wouldn't expand the TTC. Transit City would stay on hold. Mr. Ford's reliance on local initiatives and opinion in policy making makes coordinating city-wide initiatives difficult, if not impossible. Mr. Ford's record in council also makes it difficult to see how he will put together the majorities he will need to govern effectively. And some of his ideas, like trying to bring back Julian Fantino as Toronto's police chief, simply don't make sense.

The time has come, in fact it has long passed, for those who do not want to see Rob Ford as mayor of Toronto, as well as those of us who simply think someone else could lead the city better, to stop trying to make Rob Ford into a joke. The audience has stopped laughing. We have to engage seriously with Mr. Ford and his ideas, and present better ones.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

To an unknown motorist

Last Thursday, I rode downtown to see an art exhibit at OCAD. The daughter of an old friend of mine goes there, and has a picture up in the exhibition. You don't know that, of course. Because of the location of OCAD on McCaul Street, it made sense for me to ride back west along Queen Street. You know that much, because you encountered me just outside Trinity Bellwoods Park, near CAMH.

You might not even remember the rest. I rode in the right lane, close to but not hugging the kerb, in the right tire track. The middle lane had a left-turning car in it, and you couldn't get past me, so you blew your horn, and as soon as you could you sped past me, too close for comfort. Since the left turn lane you wanted had cars it it already with the light turning, you only made it about 100 meters ahead when I caught up with you without much difficulty. You probably don't remember starting straight ahead, avoiding eye contact.

You ran a very small but definite risk of hitting me, with very unpleasant results for us both. Maybe you just saw me as a slow object in front of you, and didn't notice that the cars at the intersection you needed to get to had stopped moving completely. You beat me to the red light, but you didn't save a single second.

Before you got your car, you probably watched a lot of car advertisements. And most of those those advertisements told you an enticing story: of personal freedom in time and space, of figuratively and sometimes literally flying, of empty roads and open space and speed. And if you compare the experience of driving in Toronto or any other city with the car advertisements, you can't help but see that when you buy a car, you buy a pack of lies along with it. Maybe you simply wanted to make a tiny part of the promises you paid so much for come true.

But those of us you speed by have stories too. They have less romance, fewer open roads and sunsets and happy endings than the stories in the car commercials, but they have the advantage of truth. I hope my story would have changed your mind if I told it to you. I have a spouse and a kid. I design and write software to manage fund-raising campaigns. I work on First Nations justice, I have spent seven years doing literacy work (tutoring) and five years working at suicide prevention. Whatever you do, you can't make the stories in the auto commercials come true. Don't bring my story to an end trying.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Statistical nonsense about bikes

Opponents of bicycle lanes in Toronto have repeatedly argued that nobody uses them. The statistics on cycling contradict this, but even if true, their claims would have no relevance.

Motorists appear to grossly underestimate the number of cyclists on the roads. Bob Hepburn wrote that
I saw only 15 bicyclists during the entire commute, even though all these roads have bike lanes and the weather was perfect for riding.
This seems to imply that if a driver, presumably focused on driving rather than counting took note of only fifteen cyclists, only fifteen used the roads that day. In fact, according to Statistics Canada figures, helpfully mapped in the Toronto Star's web graphics,between 5 and 10% of all commuter's in Toronto's downtown core ride bicycles. According to a study done by Ipsos-Reid for the City of Toronto, over a third of the downtown residents use bicycles for commuting, shopping, or visiting at least some of the time. So all the complaints about catering to a tiny minority fail on the facts; cyclists do not constitute a tiny minority, and we actually get less than our share of road space.

But the numbers don't really matter. Our motorized culture promotes an inactive lifestyle which causes many life-shortening, debilitating, and painful illnesses. Public policy has no more business pressuring people into a motor vehicle centred lifestyle than the government would have pressuring people to smoke cigarettes.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

A secular heaven that looks like hell

Artificial wetlands
The Green Central blog of the Times online has some bad news:
The war for hearts and minds over climate change is fierce and the sceptics are winning the communications battle.
Given the possible consequences of catastrophic climate change, that does look like good news. The article goes on to argue that climate change activists compromised their message by "selling hell". I think they have that half right. From my perspective, climate change activists actually want to sell their version of heaven. Unfortunately, to many of the rest of us it looks like hell.

Climate change activists like George Monbiot have made no secret of their hope that the austerity they see as necessary to save the planet will also promote the kind of culture they favour. The loss of easy access to energy will promote equitable, egalitarian, and communitarian values; the need for conservation will enhance the power of the state at the expense of business corporations, and the loss of cheap travel will produce a spiritual reconnection with the land.

While I consider these romantic fantasies, and highly unrealistic, I consider it even more unrealistic to try to sell a policy based on this approach. It misleads the public in ways too obvious to miss. When a public figure raises a scientific issue, then abruptly dismisses any talk of a technical solution, it doesn't take a bloodhound to smell a bait and switch. When the aviation industry, which accounts for two percent of the actual emissions, gets over half the attention, most of us can tell the priorities involved reflect something besides concern for carbon emissions. We can tell that many climate activists want to dictate the way we live. A public that suspects climate activists of making an issue this important a means rather than an end will probably not trust the activists, and that mistrust may well spill over into skepticism about the science.

For the sake of the planet, we'd better get to work on effective solutions to greenhouse emissions, and quickly. The current crop of climate crusaders can help by taking a hard look at their priorities.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Craving affirmation: a bad root with many branches

Diana West doesn't like American efforts to win the trust and cooperation of the people of Afghanistan. The American military, tasked with finding ways for two profoundly different cultures to share one planet, have evidently decided mutual respect will work better for them than mutual contempt. Ms. West writes:
...the U.S.-drafted Afghan constitution (like Iraq's) has recognized Sharia law as supreme since ratification in 2004. What seems different now, or maybe just more noticeable, is an unseemly American pandering before such law -- Sharia law, tribal law, any law but our own -- increasingly manifested by official U.S. military policy.
The US military seems to understand that human societies get to choose their laws, and that traditional Muslim societies will tend to choose Islamic law. It seems to me that anyone familiar with the principles of the US Declaration of Independence would reach similar conclusions. So why does this offend Ms. West? Does she really want American troops to embark on a millennium long project to force the Afghanis to accept American values? To what conceivable end? It appears the notion of mutual respect, in and of itself, raises Ms. West's ire. But once again, why?

I'd suggest that behind this position lies a bad habit that corrupts our decisions in matters both important and trivial: the habit of seeking conformity or submission at every possible opportunity. Behind this habit lies the unspoken position that other people must affirm my choices, either by imitating them, or by admitting the inferiority of their own.

This habit of thought creates all manner of conflict, both profound and trivial. It kept the battle between national mythologies going in Northern Ireland for forty years, and it keeps the battle going in Israel to this day. It has led to cultural genocide and political repression. Its poison leeches into our streets, as unemployed and marginalized young men lash out in bids for "respect", and motorists honk in resentment of cyclists' refusal to affirm the supremacy of their cars.

The idea that we can force people different from us to break down and admit their errors tempts all of us. We as a species have never needed to resist this temptation more than we do now.

An (almost) equitable sentence

(via take the lane)

Casey Meads partied most of the night; well into the small hours of the morning, he drove his truck home. On the way, he fatally hit William Timothy Korol, throwing him off his bicycle 25 meters into a ditch. Since the police found no evidence Mr. Korol had lights at the time of the crash, the prosecution would have found it difficult to prove the defendant's conduct led to Mr. Korol's death. However, since Meads drove home instead of stopping, attempting to help Mr. Korol, or reporting the crash, the authorities had no difficulty making a case for hit and run against him. He claimed he thought he had hit a deer, and could not tell he had hit a cyclist because his airbag had deployed. Even if you believe this claim, driving after a crash serious enough to deploy airbags endangers all other road users, because your vehicle may have suffered enough damage to compromise its safe operation.

While a two year sentence fits the facts the crown can prove well enough, the three year driving prohibition seems a little light. As the provincial governments frequently remind us, a driver's license confers a privilege, not a right. I do not believe that anyone who fails to take responsibility for their actions should have the privilege of operating a two tonne bomb in public. Actions such as those Meads confessed to do not usually result in a lifetime driving prohibition. But maybe if they did, fewer people would drive home after partying, or tell themselves they just hit a deer without looking around their airbags.

Friday, April 09, 2010

...we have to think about this?

When the major users of parks in Toronto, the local communities, organize and put sweat equity into building innovative programs suited to their own needs, how long should we think before giving the process our enthusiastic support? A computer would take about a nanosecond to make a choice this obvious. The City of Toronto seems to need considerably more time than that.

I think the city should allow any neighbourhoods willing to manage their own parks to do so. To make this work, I propose the following principles:
  1. Inclusion: any community event or activity in a park must welcome anyone from anywhere in the city.
  2. Accountability: money raised at any activity must return to community activities. The central parks and rec authorities can help here by exercising some basic financial oversight.
  3. Environment: the Department of Parks and Recreation has the right and the responsibility to prevent any harm to the park environment. This applies in particular to the building of permanent facilities. The department should also oversee planting, to prevent the introduction of inappropriate non-native species.
  4. Governance: every local resident and group should have access to their local parks, and the opportunity to have an equal voice in facilities provided. The exact mechanism for this may vary; in some situations, it may suffice to allow different community groups to reserve time in a park for their own activities. In others, a formal governance structure in which every resident of the area served by the park has a right to attend meetings and vote, may prove appropriate.
However we accomplish it, the local management of parks in any city makes sense. It makes particular sense in Toronto, the world in one city. Trying to manage parks from Thorncliffe to Bloor West, from New Toronto to Malvern, from Kensington Market to Rosedale, using just one set of rules chosen at 100 Queen Street will produce nothing better than a bland parks system and an uninvolved public.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

An alternative for funding transit

Toronto needs the transit city development plan. While legitimate debate may exist about where we should build subways and where we should rely on street rail, we need a transportation development plan for the next century. And we cannot simply keep putting it off.

Now the province has weaseled out of paying what they promised for construction, we have to raise the money ourselves. Sarah Thompson, to her credit, has proposed road tolls on the Gardiner and DVP. Tolls raise money, but they have a problem: they don't offer drivers anything. If you institute tolls on the Gardiner, the motorists who don't find another route will throw their two twonies and a loonie in the basket, and then drive on along the same overcrowded roads.

Imagine a system which offered drivers something in return: a chance to drive on roads free of traffic congestion. Drivers would pay, but in return they would get a reasonably smooth drive to their destination. We have only so much road space, and more people want to drive than the roads can accommodate. Normally, when we have a commodity where demand outruns supply, we have some form of an auction. Essentially, it works like this. You tell (via a kiosk or website) a central computer you want to drive to a destination, when you want to get there, and the maximum amount you will agree to pay for the privilege. The computer then matches the number of people who want to drive in a given area at a given time. If more people want to drive than the roads will accommodate, the computer block those who offered to pay the least from driving in that area at that time. Then if more people still want to drive than the roads will hold, the computer repeats the process. The system bills everyone who drives in a particular area at a particular time the minimum accepted price; in other words, if you bid twenty dollars to drive downtown at nine am, but the system accepted bids for fifteen, then you pay fifteen dollars for your drive.

Auction-based congestion pricing involves significant technical problems,and it would require a significant investment. However, the city would probably recover money equal to a significant proportion of what we currently waste on traffic congestion, and according to the OECD, we currently waste over two billion dollars. If the city could recover even half of those losses, we could fund transit expansion easily.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Just... wow

(via Greenwald)

At the height of the cold war, the USSR tested a single thermonuclear weapon with a yield equal to fifty million tons of TNT. In 1985, as the number of nuclear weapons peaked, a total of 65,000 existed at various levels of readiness.

In this context, the following statement from this essay occupies a special place among the polemical statements I have had the pleasure of reading:
The cyber-war mirrors the nuclear challenge in terms of the potential economic and psychological effects.
When I read that, I had to wonder who spiked the author's water supply with LSD. As a computer professional, I have no doubt that a significant cyber attack would have unsettling effects. Getting money from a bank would prove difficult. The attack would affect infrastructure, from the water supply to roads, in unpredictable ways. In economic life, a cyber attack would have a dire effect;. it would diminish business confidence and could easily trigger a recession. At worst, cyber attacks on industrial process control systems could lead to serious spills of toxic or even radioactive waste. We should not take these risks lightly.

But the worst imaginable cyber attack would lead to a major disaster, not one beyond comprehension; we have experienced disasters on this scale before. It took just one nuclear weapon to end one hundred thousand lives at Hiroshima. Unleashing forty to sixty thousand of them would have created a catastrophe such as humanity has no memory of in all our recorded history. Equating these two possible events, at any level, completely ignores reality.

Glenn Greenwald rightly objects to the shadow-government agenda this kind of hyperbole aims to promote. I expect plenty of civil society organizations will stand up to defend freedom in cyberspace. Even if it does not succeed, however, exaggeration of this kind does harm by subtly eroding our sense of proportion. Accepting that political argument has no necessary relationship to reality makes it harder to perform the essential task of a democracy: governing ourselves.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Suffer the children (II)

In the 1970s, St. George's Anglican Cathedral in Kingston hired John Gallienne, as organist and master of choristers. Over the next fifteen years, he compiled one of the worst records of sexual abuse against children in the Canadian Anglican Church outside First Nations Residential Schools.

My family belonged to that cathedral. I left the cathedral in 1978 as a university student mainly because, without knowing the cause, I had grown aware that Gallienne's manipulations of choir parents had a corrosive effect, making the cathedral a place I no longer wanted to worship. I came back in 1990, shortly after the record of abuse came to light. For the next four years, my family and I lived our church lives inside a storm of recrimination.

As a result of this experience, I perceive sexual abuse as primarily an abuse of authority. The abuse almost always comes from a trusted figure in the child's life, often from a trusted figure in the community at large. If we hope to reduce the incidence of child rape in our institutions, we have to address the difficult question of authority, and how it functions in our church institutions. 

This means arguments about the recent scandals in the Church of Rome that ascribe the crimes of some clergy to a failure to assert authority strike me as absurd. Once strict church oversight faltered with Vatican II, some clergy engaged in unauthorized experiments with liturgy and even doctrine. But does anyone believe that having missed an unorthodox prayer or homily, the church could do nothing about child abuse? Consider what Jesus said: the gospels leave no room for doubt about the importance of caring for children and cherishing their faith.

If the gospels call for us to cut off offending limbs and take out evil eyes, what should we expect the Creator to ask of us when the forms authority takes in our churches shows itself so ripe for abuse? At the very least, I suggest we need to look hard at the way the structures of our churches work, at the people we trust and expect our children to trust.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Suffer the children (I)

The book Shepherd's Granddaughter tells the story of the life of a Palestinian girl near Hebron confronted by Israeli settlers. According to this account, "two Jewish groups accuse it of being one-sided".

The book tells a fictional story based on a harsh reality. Israeli settlers in the West Bank constitute a small minority of Jewish Israelis. That small minority includes an even smaller group of extremists, whose behaviour towards their Palestinian neighbours I can only describe as slow motion ethnic cleansing.
International observers have documented the struggles of Palestinians living near the settlements to continue their lives, from going to school to grazing sheep.

Children live this reality every day. They have the same right any child living in a struggling community has, from African American children living through the Montgomery bus boycott to First Nations children in isolated and neglected communities in Canada: to have their story told and heard.

No Canadian who reads stories like these should ever think our country better than Israel. Too many First Nations people in Canada face choices as bleak as those faced by Palestinians in the West Bank of Gaza. Those people who teach this story should also emphasize that most Israelis reject the agenda of the extremist settlers. When we tell these stories, we ought to remember the harsh words Israel's premier Yitzhak Rabin spoke to the extremists after Baruch Goldstein's mass murder of Muslims at prayer at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in 1994:
You are not part of the community of Israel... and many of the people despise you. You are not partners in the Zionist enterprise. You are a foreign implant. You are an errant weed. Sensible Judaism spits you out. You placed yourself outside the wall of Jewish law.
Handfuls of intolerant extremists do not represent the people of Israel. But they exist, they cause real suffering, and those they cause to suffer deserve to have their story heard.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Who, me?

(via Daily dish) In an attack on David Frum following his departure from the American Enterprise Institute, Charles Murray writes:
AEI has a culture, the scholars are fiercely proud of that culture, and at its heart is total intellectual freedom.
Let's follow the implications of that. Any group of people have the right to come together and call themselves scholars, to title themselves an institute. But the American Enterprise Institute does more. It pays salaries. It offers a health insurance plan. To do that, it has to participate in the economic world. In short, its participants have to offer something the world wants to buy. Think tanks, like editorial pages, make their money by producing opinions. That constrains them to to produce the opinions and research donors will buy. The market has the final word, which means that whatever their institutional culture told them, the members of the American Enterprise Institute do not have, did not have, and logically could not have "total intellectual freedom".

Nobody has defended those strictures at a more fundamental level than Charles Murray; he has specifically argued that having to rely on a menial job, if necessary, to provide for dependents does the soul good. If we apply Charles Murray's rules to American Enterprise Scholars, we should reject on principle the idea of anyone having a sanctuary in which they can produce whatever they please and have a guarantee the market will accept it. If you write, you have two choices: write things some market will accept, or else write for nothing. The management AEI appears to have given David Frum exactly that choice. I would expect Charles Murray to say, approvingly, that so they should.

Instead, he gets very angry indeed with the idea that anyone in the management of the American Enterprise Institute responded to the choices of the people who pay the bills. He does not call this making the kind of compromise that gives meaning to life, embracing hard realities in order to live life well. Instead, he refers to Frum's allegations as an attack on "the core of the Institute’s integrity". As I read his arguments, it appears the idea that economic rules which he passionately defends apply to people like himself makes Charles Murray incandescent with rage. He has disavowed his former friendship with David Frum on that basis. But what does that say about conservative principles, and the devotion to the free market avowed by conservative scholars?

Friday, March 26, 2010

...a picture of a death spiral

Politics has one basic rule: it exists to govern. This rule has a corollary: governing takes real work, and politicians drift away from governing.

Governing means taking ideas, imperatives, limit, and crafting them into structures both legal and customary. These structures form the framework of our public lives: rules of commerce, employment, and personal conduct. The shared principles we live by, if they work well, keep us at peace with one another, and foster sustainable and just interactions between people, communities and nations. It takes very hard work. Sometimes, it lays intolerable burdens on people.

Particularly when a political movement reaches maturity, when it has either achieved all it set out to do or else decisively failed, a sclerosis sets in. This syndrome has appeared in enough situations that we can describe it fairly well. Where a governance aims at specific ends, whether justice or freedom or prosperity, a declining government or movement focuses on power and structures as an end. Then the focus on power shifts to a focus on strategy, and then on tactics as ends in themselves.

The Left fell into this trap at the end of the 1960s, when the rush of doing an action, getting media coverage, and daring the police to react with violence on national TV replaced a coherent way forward to a more just society. We see it now in the American right. Ann Coulter has shaped a minor incident in Ottawa. Her supporters hope, as her detractors fear, that donations will pour in. Clubs will form, offices will open, and then what? Without a coherent end, or an effective path to reach that end, what do Ms. Coulter's admirers hope to achieve? Ms. Coulter and her fellow conservative ideologues, of course, can expect to make a lot of money out of all this. But without any real ideas for governing, they can't accomplish much more. The danger exists that all of the energy poured into movement tactics comes at the expense of a serious effort to formulate and promote ideas useful in actual governance. This has one good effect: a focus on tactics will leave the formulation of new ideas, and the future, to the Left. It also has one bad effect: the absence of a real, viable, and thoughtful challenge from conservatives will leave the solutions implemented by the Left less rich, less effective, than we could otherwise have made them.

A tangled web...

I really only know one thing about the Ann Coulter speech that turned into a debacle in Ottawa: I don't care what Ms. Coulter thinks of me or my country. For that matter, I don't pretend to know what she thinks at all. As many people before me have pointed out, people like Coulter and Limbaugh make their money as entertainers. Making extreme statements to an aging audience may bring in the money, but it shows a basic lack of seriousness about actually getting candidates who might support their positions elected, or getting an actual political platform enacted.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

When words fall over each other

The American Scene web log allows comments. Their blogging software has a feature which only accepts comments after the writers have reviewed what they have written.

For those, like myself, who often find errors in our comments only after we have posted them, this feature provides a distinct advantage. I find that as I type, my thinking often outruns the signals going to my fingers, so I often find a word with the last letter of the word I had intended to type before it attached. Also, when I go back and change a sentence, I often leave a word that no longer belongs. Previewing my work beforehand sometimes saves me from looking foolish.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Big nanny

Not too long after I started riding my bicycle in Toronto, I had the seat and the handlebars sprung. Toronto has some of the worst road surfaces I can remember riding a bicycle on, and I don't like coming home after riding with a headache. And since I have no hope that Toronto will maintain the streets, I spring my bicycle and grit my teeth.

But the same city that claims to balance its budget by the proverbial shaved hair every year, the same city that regularly proposes to raid its assets to meet current needs, the same city that scrimps on repairs to infrastructure, the city with some of the highest transit fares on the continent, can somehow afford to pay "inspectors" to prowl the streets looking for front yards that offend their esthetic sensibilities, and write up orders for the property owners to conform.

Cities can and should provide mechanisms to resolve disputes about people's decorating or design choices when informal neighbourhood dispute resolution fails. Cities can and should provide encouragement to homeowners who want to plant trees, as the City of Toronto does. But imposing a citywide standard on the appearance of houses, particularly ones the neighbours don't object to, merely wastes money.

In the same paper, we read another story, also about an individual's less than happy encounter with government. The story contains a paragraph which could, by itself, define the psychological contours of the nanny state:
But one of the agencies involved maintains the rules were applied fairly and equally, and Wilson must follow them like everyone else.
Yes, the government must apply the rules fairly and equally, but that doesn't suffice: the rules also have to make sense, and their application has to make sense in each individual case. Maybe in this case they do; not every business or home owner who complains of unfair treatment has a good case. But I would suggest the following rule: if an issue concerns aesthetics or "quality of life", governments should restrict their role to mediation rather than attempting to impose rules.

Meanwhile, could we focus on important things and fix the potholes, please?

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Who could have guessed...

that the moral hazards of an international legal regime that forbids war would include fecklessness on matters of war and military policy?

A couple of weeks ago, our junior foreign minister announced that “an attack on Israel would be considered an attack on Canada.” Years ago, before the UN charter forbade war, we used to call a declaration like that a security guarantee. Governments thought before they made such guarantees, because they might have to back them up. When Franklin Roosevelt came to Queen's University and announced in 1938 that the United States would not "stand idly by" if a foreign power threatened Canada, he understood, and the Canadian government understood, that he pledged American lives and treasure. Everyone in the American and Canadian governments understood the seriousness of his statements.

Fast forward to the present. The UN charter renounces the use of force, Israel needs no help with conventional defence, and Canada has little meaningful help to offer with the dilemmas which really cloud Israel's future. Why should a junior minister not throw a little "red meat" to the "Christian Zionists" and other supporters of current Israeli policy, whose support his government has zealously courted? In a dangerous world, governments should retain a sense of responsibility about the statements they make. Perhaps this one statement will not lead directly to any bad results, but it does not do to get into the habit of making statements about serious matters without evidence of serious thought.

Friday, February 26, 2010

A bad law...

and one more reason to repeal it.

While a minority of irresponsible dog owners pose a serious danger to both the public and to their own pets, that does not make the dog owner's liability act of 2005 anything other than an unconscionably vague, disruptive, expensive and harmful law. The government could, and should, have addressed this issue with laws punishing the behaviour and aggressive propensities of dangerous dogs.

Not everyone understands the bond that families develop with their pets; if you do not, please take my word for it that losing a pet can devastate a child, a senior, and in many cases an adolescent or an adult. The power to take away a dog implies the power to inflict significant trauma on a family, and it does not do to confer that power lightly. Clauses in the Animals for Research Act that allow a pound to transfer or sell dogs seized under this section to research facilities have the potential to compound this problem: how would you like to explain to a six year old that the municipal authorities have seized her pet for animal research?

Therefore, a pit bull ban which, like Ontario's, includes the phrase
A dog that has an appearance and physical characteristics substantially similar to any of those dogs [pit bull terrier, Staffordshire bull terrier, American Staffordshire terrier, American pit bull terrier]
places more trust in the capabilities and probity of the enforcers of the law than any statute or regulation ought to. So far, where this law has inflicted trauma on families, the problem appears to arise out of nothing more sinister than misguided zeal on the part of animal control officials. But a law this vague lends itself to horrendous misuse. A politician guilty of serious malfeasance could tell critics or anyone else he or she wanted to manipulate, that if they did not shut up and/or cooperate, their pets will start looking very like pit bulls to municipal staff. Any law that vaguely and casually grants significant powers with wide discretion lends itself to abuse, and a corollary to Murphy's Law states that if a thing lends itself to abuse, someone will sooner or later abuse it.

The time has come to repeal or significantly narrow this law before it does any more harm.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

An important statement

John Tory, the man not running for mayor and currently head of the Toronto City Summit, made an important point: the cities and towns of the greater Toronto area need to think of themselves as part of an interconnected region. That needed saying, and the city councils and officials we elect next November need to act on it, if we hope to prosper in an increasingly competitive world.

Unfortunately, saying it also pointed up one of the current mayor's greatest failings: in 2006, he admitted at a public meeting that he could not get the other governments in the GTA to sit down and work out a transportation policy. A press officer for Mr. Miller tried to address this with a textbook non-denying denial:
"Talk radio hosts are obviously entitled to their opinion."
Well, yes. Actually, you don't need a radio show to have a right to your opinion. But neither the initial comment nor the indignant clarification from the press office involved answered the important question: do the cities and town of the GTA need a regional vision for planning, has the current mayor succeeded in fostering such a vision, and if he has failed, does he plan to take any steps to try and remedy the problem before he leaves office? I don't need a talk radio show to see the importance of regional planning, and if the current mayor has come up short, it makes sense for him to try to fix the problem.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

...and illustrating another classic dud argument

Terence Corcoran's piece on George Smitherman and Rocco Rossi also provides the fodder for another in my series on classic dud arguments. Mr Corcoran the proposal by Mr. Rossi to "review" the transit improvements proposed for Toronto and the GTA:
Mr. Rossi wants to reform city financial planning and has called for a full review of the monumental Transit City plans for billion-dollar streetcar runs.
Here Mr. Corcoran provides an excellent example of the fallacy of hidden costs. Just because doing something has a price tag you can see, it does not follow that doing nothing has no cost either. The OECD has estimated that traffic congestion costs the economy of the Toronto area a billion dollars every four months. To focus on the "monumental" cost of building better transit while ignoring the steady hemorrhaging of time, money, resources and quality of life in an unending traffic jam fits the classic phrase "penny wise and pound foolish" perfectly.

Accepting a large cost in opportunity and time to avoid a much smaller cost in actual money: example number two in the series on of a dud arguments.

Municipal, political, irrational

The former American house speaker, "Tip" O'Neill, famously remarked that "all politics is local". Mr. O'Neill understood that in politics, the services provided at the local level, not the grand sweeps of political rhetoric, make or break political ideas and political careers. Someone should explain this to the National Post's Terrence Corcoran. Mr. Corcoran wrote in praise of Rocco Rossi for what he calls "solid non-leftist ideas", which apparently include:
undoing the city's bizarre 5¢ plastic bag tax, limiting bike lanes to roads that are non-arterial, and privatizing Toronto Hydro.
Notice how Mr. Corcoran glossed over any question of the wisdom or workability of Mr. Rossi's ideas with the neologism "non-leftist". When the public makes their final evaluation of a policy, and rewards or rejects the policy makers, the division between left and right counts for far less than the division between wise and foolish.

But Mr. Corcoran's description of the policy of "limiting" bicycle lanes makes even less sense than this suggests. To make the superficial point, limiting bicycle lanes in the sense Mr. Rossi proposes really means not having bicycle lanes, because literally all of the through roads in the city core have a designation of "arterial". Aside from the logical problems with Mr. Rossi's statements on cycling, it does not do to pretend they have any meaningful connection with the right, or even with that more nebulous entity, the "non-left". No conservative principle I know of speaks against provision for bicycles, and cycling policies, along with many other matters of urban policy, must stand or fall on their own merits.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Let's stop talking about Adam Giambrone

David Miller would prefer it if the media didn't talk about Adam Giambrone and his sex life. I agree. This city has more important things to talk about than Mr. Miller's former successor.

We could start by talking about the nature of political campaigns in this city. We can talk about all of the competent, intelligent, and personable men and women of colour who contribute to political life. We can talk about why, with so many such people around, our extravagantly white mayor gets to anoint a successor of almost the same complexion as himself, and why so many (supposedly) progressive insiders go along with this. We can talk about who gets ballots dropped in boxes for them, and who gets police contact cards filled out, and why. We can talk about why the supposed progressives in this city have so much to say about streetcars and rights of way, and so very little about justice, and fair treatment, and human dignity.

We can talk about the press description of Downsview and Jane-Finch as places where the jets descending to Pearson fly past the windows of tower blocks where the police regularly stop young men, and we can talk about the calls to shut down Billy Bishop Toronto City Centre Airport based on the status of the downtown waterfront as a "premium" residential area. And we can talk about how the media reports these things but never quite draws the connections between the people viewed as worthy of deference and political office, and the people who urgently need their whereabouts recorded by the police at all possible opportunities.

These things go on, in part at least, precisely because nobody talks about them. So let's talk about them.

Saturday, February 13, 2010


The Toronto Environment Alliance has released its six priorities for this municipal election. All six make a great deal of sense, from the promotion of public and active transportation to reductions in toxic chemical use in industry.

I would only add one thing to their list: both transit and active transportation promotion strategies benefit tremendously from integration. A transit system that does not accommodate bicycles, or that attempts to serve an area designed exclusively for car dependence must deliver each rider right to their destination. Since riders will always have destinations off a transit route, such a transit system will lose many potential riders. Likewise, the ability take transit for part of a route makes cycling much more practical.