Sunday, January 29, 2017

The corruption of freebies in politics

euro_bank_notes_hidden_in_sleeve_-_white_background_ By Kiwiev (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons
By Kiwiev via Wikimedia Commons
By freebies, I don't mean swag ; I don't mean rides in jets and helicopters provided to politicians by prominent business leaders. In fact, I don't mean corruption of politicians at all, although crooks in office do cause major problems. I mean a much more serious problem: the corruption of the voters and, by extension, the political process.

Commentators have long derided political promises as bribing voters with heir own money, but the purposes of legitimate political debate include the best use of resources. The process gets corrupted when politicians promise someone else will pay. One example of this we all know: the slogan "make the rich pay", an aspiration often stated but seldom realized. Calls to tax the rich frequently give rise not to better services but rather to increasingly convoluted tax avoidance schemes. Governments have had much greater luck extracting money from people accused of crimes. Conservative governments in the eighties, motivated to reward their friends with deep tax cuts and to punish those they disdained, invented a series of creative and mischievous government financing tools, from the outright forfeiture of assets to fine surcharges.

Donald Trump's promise to force the Mexican government to pay for a massive public works project on the southern border of the US has a precedent: Ronald Reagan's government sent Oliver North on an unconstitutional fund-raising tour through the palaces of depots to obtain funding for the "contra" mercenary terrorists the US Congress had explicitly refused to support. Mr. Trump has extended this idea in two ways: proposing a major infrastructure program employing hundreds of thousands of Americans, and planning to take the money by some form of coercion rather than beg for it.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

On punching racists and genocide advocates

Richard Spencer By Vas Panagiotopoulos ( [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
by Vas Panagiotopoulos
Someone punched Richard Spencer, the self-proclaimed "white nationalist" during a street interview. Since then, a lively debate has blossomed on the Internet, driven, inevitably, by a series of memes and videos relating the punch to Indiana Jones's punching a Nazi in The Last Crusade.

Among the cheerfully irreverent memes, some people have asked the serious question: is it right to punch Nazis? And if we regard punching a Nazi as ethically acceptable, does it accomplish anything positive? 

To start with the moral question, which should always come first: anyone can condemn violence on moral grounds, but condemning this punch specifically and consistently requires much stronger condemnation of practices of the American government. Richard Spencer published a website that notoriously published an article advocating genocide of African peoples. A South Asian member of a Salafist organization publishing a similar article advocating genocide of "infidels" would find themselves in danger of a sucker punch in the form of a hellfire missile fired by a drone. If you deplore, and work against, the drone campaign, you may consistently deplore the punch on moral grounds.

Arno Arr Michaelis has a post on facebook in which he argues against punching Richard Spenser on rational grounds: violent people thrive on violence, and punching a "white nationalist" simply feeds the us versus them reaction racists need to promote themselves and their views. 

Monday, January 23, 2017

White is a privilege, not a people

Ruined friary church, Ballycastle Church, Ireland
Ballycastle Church, Ireland, photo by John Spragge
People from many cultures and origins, including  Picts, Celts, Franks, Angles, Saxons, and Slavs, have somewhat lower melanin levels than the average for the human species. That physiological peculiarity does not define a common culture or identity. People with low melanin levels speak different languages, derived from different language groups, follow very different religious and cultural practices. Where cultures meet, as in the "melting pot" or "mosaic" of mainstream North American culture, African cultures have as much influence as their European counterparts.

The word "white" defines a cloud of privilege, not a people. Like most clouds, it is white with unclear and contested borders, opaque but insubstantial, and often roiled by unseen but real violence, both within and without.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Political sclerosis: the pursuit of perfection

I write this during the final preparations for the inauguration of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States. By the time I post this, he will probably have taken the oath of office.

About 4000 people gathered in Minneapolis to protest the election of Donald Trump. They called for building a movement to oppose President-elect Donald Trump. By Fibonacci Blue from Minnesota
By Fibonacci Blue from Minnesota,
via Wikimedia Commons
Today, the day he takes office, marks the end of eight years of President Obama, a man with unusual grace and dignity for anyone who has risen to the top job in the American political system. It also marks the end of eight years of obstruction, always shameless and sometimes blatantly unconstitutional, by the gerrymandered Republican Congress. The redistricting that allowed the minority of voters in the Republican party to command a majority in Congress, and the low turnout in every midterm election, came about at least partly because of failures by the Left to organize throughout the United States, Put simply, the United States, Canada, and indeed the world, has suffered from a sclerosis of the Left for some time now. Conservatives today scarcely need to stand in front of our progress yelling "stop"; at a time the world needs change more critically than ever before, we have slowed ourselves to a crawl.

I propose to offer a look at some of the problems over the next little while. I can propose solutions for some of our problems; for others, I have no real or comprehensive solution to offer.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Letter to Brezhnev

Soviet general cargo ship Sarny By Грищук ЮН (My photo from my collection of photos) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Soviet freighter: by Грищук ЮН
via Wikimedia Commons
Letter to Brezhnev is a light romantic comedy made in 1985, about an encounter between Sergei, a Russian sailor and Elaine, a young working class woman from Kirby, South of Liverpool. The film follows the intense night they spend together, their falling in love, and her decision to go to Russia and marry him. The film has a barbed wit, with the running theme of Margaret Thatcher's supposedly dynamic Britain not really offering more to the average worker than the supposedly sclerotic Soviet Union. In the end, the film shows British authorities applying quiet but strong and not very scrupulous pressure to keep Elaine from going to Russia.

American conservatives who emphatically insist their country has dealt with its historic racial injustices owe Leonid Brezhnev a letter of their own: a posthumous apology.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Three modest proposals for the Toronto budget

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

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

Monday, January 09, 2017

Crime and some inappropriate spin

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

Friday, January 06, 2017

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

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

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

Tuesday, January 03, 2017

Nazi victory porn

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

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

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

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