Terror in Ottawa

“Canada has lost its innocence.”

“We never thought this sort of thing could happen here.”

“This is not the Canada I know.”

One-liners to this effect have dominated the initial response to yesterday’s terror in Ottawa, in which an islamist nut murdered Corporal Nathan Cirillo at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier before briefly terrorizing MPs in the halls of Parliament.

Both at home and abroad, the implicit subtext of such breathless statements of horror have been clear: Canada is supposed to be a “peaceable kingdom” loved by everyone, and it’s utterly baffling when someone doesn’t. Acts of terror are things we expect to happen to controversial countries, not Canada, the world’s goody-goody.

While innocuous in intent, such naiveté is profoundly dangerous in practice

To boastfully insist Canada is supposed to be among the world’s most agreeable nations  — with our free healthcare and multiculturalism and whatnot — is to demand explanations whenever a murderous lunatic seems unpersuaded. It puts the onus on us to justify ourselves to those who seek to kill us, and atone for our failure to impress them.

Predictably, many critics have turned to Canadian foreign policy for answers on how this country has failed to live up to its innocuous reputation.

Glenn Greenwald for instance, scolded that Canada “doesn’t get to run around for years wallowing in war glory, invading, rendering and bombing others, without the risk of having violence brought back to it” — and his position was echoed by many journalists yesterday who skeptically noted that the Ottawa attacks occurred mere hours after our CF-18s departed to bomb ISIS terrorists in Iraq.

Such arguments would be more persuasive if the cause-and-effect relationship was indeed that clear — say,  if those currently inflicting terror upon Canada were all refugees from Canadian-inflicted wars. But of course they are not. Both Wednesday’s shooter and the hit-and-run jihadist of the day prior were terrorists of the homegrown variety — French-Canadians who converted to radical Islam on their own accord. Their migration to the cause of holy war required no exposure to a western bombing raid — just a darkly compelling ideology of bloodlust and religious chauvinism.

There’s nothing shameful about being hated by such people. The moral code of jihad and religious fascism is one thoroughly at odds with our own, elevating submission over liberty, homogeneity over pluralism, totalitarianism over democracy, and violence over peace. By now we’re all aware of the nightmarish existence that is life under fundamentalist Islam, and it’s no great sin to be aggressively hostile to that vision of civilization, both for ourselves and others. That proponents of such a society would hate our own seems perfectly rational: we hate theirs just as much — or at least we should.

Likewise, any Canadian who feigns amazement that violence of the sort that gripped Ottawa on Wednesday “could happen here” has simply not been paying attention.

Though the episode was overshadowed by the drama of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, last April Canadian law enforcement apprehended a chilling al-Qaeda plot to blow up a busy Toronto-area passenger train. A few months later, cops in British Columbia busted a radicalized couple scheming to bomb the provincial legislature. Seven years before that, a terrorist cabal dubbed the “Toronto 18” were nabbed before they could set off a series of explosives aimed at laying waste to the city’s downtown core.

Nor has murderous, psychotic rage against Canadians been limited to those with Islamist inclinations. In recent decades this country has witnessed three cops murdered by a militia-man in New Brunswickseveral distinct gun massacres at Quebec schools, a Vancouver passenger plane bombing that killed 331, a madman shooting up the Quebec parliament, a disgruntled former employee of an Ottawa bus company murdering four ex-coworkers, failed assassination attempts against Prime Minister Chretien and Quebec Premier Marois, the successful assassination of deputy Quebec premier Pierre Laporte, and dozens of bombings launched by the French-Canadian extremist group the Front de libération du Québec.

Canada may be a virtuous country, but our virtues have never protected us from the rage of fanatics who by their very definition, either refuse to accept, or are incapable of accepting, the basic norms of human decency that make ours a civilized society. To be targeted by such types should not be shocking, nor should it provoke apologies — in its own twisted way, it actually confirms the strength of our values that those with worldviews so profoundly antithetical feel threatened and insecure.

When a moment of crisis arises, as it did yesterday, Canadians should take pride that responsibility for our safety rests in the hands of intelligence and security officers who know enough about the nature of our enemies to anticipate the worst from them — and not those whose self-flattering patriotism refuses to permit such unsettling thoughts.

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Chretien to the rescue?

Jean Chretien wrote an editorial for The Globe and Mail on Friday backing Justin Trudeau’s decision to oppose Canadian airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq.

An honorable defense of pacifist principle? Or just a cynical attempt at partisan damage-control? Assuming you know anything about the author I doubt it’ll be difficult to guess.

Trudeau’s unanticipated hostility to the Conservative government’s October 7 resolution endorsing Canada’s offer of limited air support to the coalition of nations battling the Islamic State has garnered a decidedly chilly reception. Irwin Colter, a former attorney general and one of the Liberals’ most respected foreign policy thinkers, abstained from the vote rather than back his boss, while former leader Stephane Dion — now a backbench MP — was conspicuously absent as well. Fellow ex-leader Bob Rae has professed support for airstrikes, as has Michael Ignatieff, the leader before him. Ordinary Liberal-friendly pundits and editorial pages across the country have broken character, describing Trudeau’s ISIS stance as inarticulate, “callow” and proof “the young leader is not ready for the big stage.” Most damning of all, Justin’s anti-airstrike position is said to be opposed by 64% of the Canadian public — including 54% of the famously isolationist Quebeckers (whose Liberal premier also supports airstrikes, incidentally).

It’s into this context that the 80-year-old Chretien has been wheeled, the nation’s sole surviving three-term Liberal PM evidently hoping his unique standing will be enough to counter the near-unanimous dissent of other grande dames within his party.

Chretien’s rhetorical case against airstrikes features the standard themes of populist chauvinism, armchair intellectualism, and tenuous grasp of causal relationships that defined his premiership. ISIS “must be stopped,” he writes, but only Arabs should bomb them, lest we sass up the locals with our insensitivity to the Middle East’s “legacy of colonialism.”

“If the region sees military intervention as just another knee-jerk Western show of force, we all know what the long-term consequences will be,” he warns darkly.

Um, do we? This is the man, after all, who sent the Canadian army to Afghanistan three weeks after 9/11 and happily kept them there for the remainder of his tenure. But of course our Afghanistan adventure doesn’t count as insensitive western imperialism since it happened “under the umbrella of the United Nations” — and what uppity Islamist could find fault with that?

Such hand-waving is necessary for Chretien to reach his politically expedient conclusion: that there exists a shared strain of folly connecting limited airstrikes against ISIS with the 2003 invasion of Iraq , thereby making J-Tru’s opposition to the former as virtuous as Chretien’s opposition to the later — an opposition so heroic he’s praised by strangers to this day for it,  “on street corners, in restaurants, in airports…”— at least in his retelling.

That Chretien gleefully accepts such accolades is an act of astonishing political chutzpah. Regardless of what you think of the decision to depose Saddam Hussein a decade ago, Ottawa’s opposition to it can hardly be heralded as a great exertion of Canadian principle or foreign policy wisdom.

It’s now been widely reported that the Chretien government was fully prepared to commit 800 troops to America’s 2003 invasion before waffling at the very last minute. And even after this formal opposition was noted, Canada still provided so much logistical support to the war effort — refueling US warplanes in Newfoundland, offering naval escorts for US carriers in the Persian Gulf, committing over 100 on-the-ground Canadian exchange officers — the US Ambassador of the day was forced to incredulously remark that “anti-war” Canada had actually offered a lot more practical assistance than many nominally pro-war European states.

But most Canadians aren’t aware of such nuance, and indeed, much of Prime Minister Chretien’s talents as an unapologetically cynical partisan can be credited to his skill at weaving simplistic, patriotic storylines to mask the difficult nuances of realities he doesn’t trust the public to handle. The Chretien Liberals postured against the 2003 Iraq war not because they opposed its goals or feared its consequences, but simply because polls suggested there were votes to be gained — particularly in beloved Quebec — for any party perceived able to “stand up” to America and its unpopular president.

Yet Obama is no Bush, ISIS is not Saddam, and 2014 is far from 2003. In evoking yet more shallow nostalgia to prop up a stumbling Liberal leader whose political appeal is based on little else, Chretien is gambling that Canadians can still be reliably mobilized behind sloppy evocations of anti-American contrarianism and flag-wrapped appeals to some hazily-defined “Canadian way.”

In other words, precisely the sort of dated lefty assumptions that caused Trudeau to require rescuing in the first place.

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Gamergate

I know very little about this topic. I get the impression, though, that’s it’s a fairly unserious debate by a lot of very unserious people, and there’s something about the whole thing I find instinctively repellent as a result.

Do you think it’s something worth thinking about? What is it a symbol of?

 

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Privileged, victim, neither, or both

The Ontario Federation of Elementary School Teachers recently announced that they’ll be offering a professional development seminar on the topic of “white privilege,” a move that’s reignited the debate over whether that trendy term of pop-sociology is actually a thing or not.

One problem with the modern social-justicization of the political discourse, particularly online and among young people, is the insistence on reducing the complexities of navigating a diverse society into narrow, zero-sum dichotomies of victim and villain. And since a victim is always more sympathetic and blameless than an oppressor, the logical outcome of such a discourse is a proliferation of victim identities cast in opposition to an extraordinarily expansive oppressor class.

Thus, the awkward fact that the white privilege movement — which demands whites subject themselves to endless seminars, conferences, manuals and blogs to deconstruct (or, to use the preferred jargon “check”) their subtly-exercised power over society — appears to be led mostly by whites is a hypocrisy that bothers very few. One’s whiteness, after all, can be easily negated by adopting a victim identity whose hardships are broadly accepted as comparable to a person of color — female, gay, transgender, handicapped, immigrant, poor, etc. Some Tumblr people even consider conditions like skinniness and low sex drive as states of victimhood, lest anyone consider the thin and celibate particularly well-off.

The original “white privilege checklist” that started the fad — the brainchild of American gender studies scholar Peggy McIntosh — is a worthwhile read, and does expose some interesting (though often trivially subtle) ways in which North American culture affords certain benefits-of-the-doubt or default priority to members of the continent’s white majority. But so too is it equally enlightening to read the numerous progressive attempts to resort privilege into more particularized castes, including male privilege , straight privilege and able-bodied privilege, as well as the more critical rebuttals of the previously-targeted, and their equally thought-provoking checklists for black privilege, female privilege, and lower-class privilege, too.

Placed together, these overlapping chronicles of privilege illustrate a society that’s nuanced and elaborate — a heterogeneous civilization comprised of numerous cultures, identities, states, and lifestyles, each experiencing a vast medley of benefits and hardships that co-exist, and indeed, often balance each other out.

An example I gave recently to some controversy went like this: A Muslim person may indeed be more likely to be investigated by airport security and be treated with unjustified suspicion. But so too is a Muslim who later publicly confesses to being stopped by the airport security more likely to have his claims of arbitrary profiling automatically taken seriously — regardless of the objective facts of the situation. His mere claims of victimization may be enough to generate headlines, investigations, and ultimately apologies, compensation, or policy reform in a way a victim from a different community could never expect.

A woman, similarly, may find herself excluded from some institutions or jobs thanks to the concealed sexism of decision-makers. But so too can a woman benefit from the explicit sexism of institutions or offices society has established to compensate for engrained misogynist biases — female-exclusive scholarships, diversity hires, and so forth. A gay man might encounter homophobic bigotry from some, but may also enjoy an exaggerated degree of moral support from many others who are terrified of appearing homophobic.

A society that rushes to give uncritical empathy and support to those claiming victimization, either at a personal level or through organized campaigns like affirmative action and anti-bigotry laws, is a society that privileges them. This victim privilege doesn’t necessarily cancel or negate every instance of discrimination or oppression they face (though that’s obviously the intent), but it does reveal a complicated society that’s evolved beyond crude polarization in which one group is forever at the mercy of another. To some degree, we all live in a constant state of transitioning in and out of victim/privileged roles depending on who or what we’re dealing with in any given moment, as most people exist as a medley of simultaneous identities of race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, employment, wealth, size, health, etc. — none of which are unanimously valued or unanimously marginalized.

One can accept privilege theory without desiring — as many social justice types seem to — the creation of a grand victim pecking order offering definitive answers to whose plight is worse than whose (and who deserves most blame for causing it). The healthier perspective is to acknowledge that everyone experiences the challenges and benefits of diversity in different ways, with social harmony ultimately a product of self-awareness, empathy, and concession — and not the stoking of perpetually adversarial relationships through assertions of innocence.

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An irrelevant ally

Canadians— particularly those of a progressive bent —  like to regard this country as a moral exemplar in the community of nations; a model of “good international citizenship,” as one catchphrase puts it. Yet in the fight against ISIS, a struggle fast proving to be one of history’s great tests of civilized humanity against the forces of indisputable barbarism, it’s Canada’s left-wing opposition parties who now threaten to make us an embarrassing global outlier.

To date, the leaders of six democratic nations — Britain, Australia, Denmark, Holland, Belgium, and Turkey — have pledged military assistance to American-led airstrikes against ISIS forces in Iraq. Except in Australia, such promises have been accompanied by endorsement votes in the respective national legislatures, all of which have been extraordinarily one-sided. Turkey’s vote was 298 to 98. Britain’s was 524 to 43. Belgium’s was 114 to two. Such near-unanimity was only possible thanks to the support of those countries’ parliamentary oppositition parties, be they on the right, left, or centre

Canada’s leader has now committed this country’s air force to engage in strikes against ISIS, too, and like the prime ministers of our allies, Mr. Harper has respectfully requested parliament confirm its confidence in the government’s decision. To this, our progressive parties have spat an unqualified “no.”

The question must be asked what makes the Canadian left so eager to break the precedent set by their overseas compatriots, including Ed Miliband’s Labour Party and the ruling Danish social democrats. Under ordinary circumstances, after all, Canadian progressives are usually extolling the welfare states of western Europe as paragons of enlightened thinking whose supremely rational politics we should all strive to emulate. At the very least, it’s hard to argue their political center of gravity is farther to the neo-con right than our own (Belgium, Denmark, and Turkey all voted in favor of recognizing Palestinian statehood at the UN, for instance).

The simplest explanation is that in these countries, the debate over ISIS has been what it should — a foreign policy conversation over how to best degrade, and ultimately destroy, a terrorist group pursuing the decidedly illiberal agenda of slaughtering unbelievers the world over, and bringing the entire Middle East under it’s unique flavor of psychotic fundamentalism.

Politicians across the globe have contemplated such facts and concluded that ISIS is the sort of enemy for whom bombing raids were designed. In joining this military alliance they are not wading into some impenetrable foreign spat where “both sides have valid points,” nor embarking upon an imperial mission to rebuild a failed state in some utopian image. Theirs is simply a mission to cripple a hostile force before it can do more damage.

In their press releases and public statements, Canada’s left-wing opposition have not been shy about stating the reality of ISIS barbarism, or the need for Canada to be part of an appropriate international response. Yet only in this country are such instincts numbed by the uniquely Canadian disease of Harper Derangement Syndrome, in which the left’s fanatical loathing of this prime minister reduces every debate on every issue to the same hysterically narrow partisan question: do we like Stephen Harper, yes or no?

Watching the House of Commons on Friday, there was something uniquely disturbing about the sight of Justin Trudeau and Thomas Mulcair professing their deep opposition to bombing ISIS through arguments that amounted to little more than pavlovian appeals to leftist nostalgia (remember how Harper supported Bush?) and ludicrously unfair tripwire technicalities (has any government, anywhere, ever, accurately predicted how much a war will cost?). This was not a principled debate between realists and idealists, hawks and doves, enemy sympathizers and opponents, but the reactionary braying of an opposition that has only one thing to say — what Harper wants, I don’t — and is determined to say it in every available circumstance.

The prime minister of Canada may not be the country’s nominal commander-in-chief, but constitutionally speaking, the decision to commit Canadian troops to battle is his alone. No one is suggesting for a moment that his conduct of this, or any armed conflict should be above democratic scrutiny. But as the elected head of a majority government, there are times when the leader of this country deserves some degree of trust and deference, and sending our armed forces into combat against an enemy everyone agrees is wicked and threatening is one of them.

Our allies understand this. Canada’s opposition does not. The ensuing consequences for this country’s reputation as a serious member of the global community will be felt accordingly.

 

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Cameras in courtrooms

Whilst researching the issue of cameras in the courtroom — a debate that’s been making headlines in Canada following the start of the murder trial of noted failed porn star/necrophiliac Luka Magnotta — I came across this remarkable article from the Minnesota Bar Association.

Minnesota is one of about a dozen U.S. states that doesn’t allow cameras to film court proceedings. In 2008 the state supreme court commissioned a report to investigate the feasibility of doing so.

The findings were remarkable. Every single one of Minnesota’s border states allows cameras in the courtroom, and the expert witnesses from those states, representing lawyers, judges, and victims’ rights groups, were “unanimously” in favor of cameras. In Minnesota itself, however, all expert witnesses, representing the same stakeholder communities, were unanimously opposed.

What makes things interesting is that the Minnesota witnesses presented exactly zero evidence to support their opposition. Instead, they merely offered vague fears and concerns of what cameras in courtrooms “might” do — they “might” intimidate witnesses, they “might” turn trials into a spectacle, they “might” allow the media to air snippets of trials out of context. The same logic that’s being used to keep cameras out of the Magnotta trial, and countless other Canadian trials before it.

Now to be fair, the Minnesota report also conceded that there was scant evidence that the inclusion of cameras in courtrooms demonstrably improved any feature of the judicial process in states that allowed it, yet this particular finding shouldn’t concern us much. In a constitutional democracy, limits on liberty — in this case, the public’s right to view justice being done (if they so choose) — can only be justified by the existence of negative consequences that occur in the course of exercising that liberty. We’re not generally expected to make the case for this-or-that freedom by providing a list of what abstract societal benefits flow from it — yet these are the terms the cameras-in-court debate demands.

Six years later, Minnesota is apparently still in the process of investigating the feasibility of cameras in court. Some Canadian provinces nominally allow it, but first require the fulfillment of some absurdly suspicious criteria — usually the unanimous agreement of prosecution, defense, and judge — that amount to a de facto ban in practice. Even more preposterously, the Canadian Supreme Court is filmed, but the U.S. Supreme Court is not. The legal establishments of both nations argue with proudly sheltered logic that whatever level of court they’re currently filming is acceptable, before quickly positing that all hell would surely break loose if filming was allowed for whatever level we’re currently not.

Rarely have I come across such a wonderfully illustrative example of paranoia triumphing evidence, and the ignorant fears of the elite permitted to squash an incontestable public good.

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Fixing politics for women

Ever since she was overwhelmingly voted out of office a mere four months after ascending to it, former Canadian prime minister Kim Campbell has spent much of her retirement attempting to capitalize on the one distinction of her otherwise meaningless tenure — the fact she was the country’s first and only female leader. She’s now a mainstay at international conferences of various sorts, most of which involve speaking to crowds of foreigners who have little idea of who she is or the unglamorous realities of her political career, but are nevertheless impressed in theory by the historic “first” she achieved.

On Wednesday she made a characteristic attempt to capitalize on her one-note fame by announcing her support, at a global feminists’ forum, for the idea of rigging parliament to ensure it always possesses a perfect 50–50 gender-balance. This would be done by splitting Canada’s number of parliamentary ridings in half, but requiring every one that remains to elect two MPs — one of each gender.

Immediately, some troubles quickly become apparent. As the 67-year-old Campbell is a feminist of some archaic wave, she’s clearly unaware that modern social justice sensibilities are very down on this idea of a neatly polarized gender divide. At a time when trans-rights activists are crusading against gender segregated bathrooms, the notion that government should enshrine outdated notions of narrow gender binaries seems destined to be a hard sell to the very constituency presumed to find it most attractive. Not to mention the equally sensible observation, made by Kelly McParland in the National Post and others, that the broader social justice interest is hardly best served by implying women are the only historically marginalized community worth empowering with electoral affirmative action. Where are the quotas for two-spirited aboriginals, and so on.

In other ways, meanwhile, the Campbell fix simply slaps a bandaid on a complex disease.

For starters, the evidence suggests the fact that more women are not getting elected to parliament (or any other political office) in Canada has very little to do with voter sexism keeping them out — the sort of deep-seeded public bias that one normally turns to affirmative action to redress. This recent study by one of America’s leading gender and politics researchers, for instance, discovered almost no observable voter bigotry “keeping women out” of politics; in these ultra-polarized times, one’s partisan label remains the overwhelming variable in deciding your electability. Indeed, even voters who hold sexist beliefs regarding the competence of women in the abstract turn this part of their brain off when a female politician of their team is on the ballot.

So why then, are legislative gender tallies so lopsided? Here, the evidence suggests the greatest impending bias is simply self-selection. Numerous surveys have concluded that women don’t get elected in large numbers simply because women don’t run in large numbers, and women don’t run in large numbers because they don’t want to — either because they don’t think they can handle the job, or because they find it off-putting in some fashion.

The stereotype that women don’t run because they’re too busy with their families or because they find partisan debate intimidatingly vicious is largely true, and therein lies the dilemma. Modern feminist/identity politics theory remains deeply divided over whether institutions that have traditionally alienated women have an onus to change themselves to become more “women friendly,” or whether women should feel more empowered to reject traditional expectations of themselves (such as that they’re too delicate for hardscrabble politics) and aggressively master systems that already exist. As countless marketing teams have learned, there is a razor-thin line between making something appealing to women and condescending to them. Rigging the electoral system to reward women with manufactured victories (that, barring deeper cultural changes, will likely just benefit elderly and childless women at the expense of others) seems far closer to the latter.

That Kim Campbell would be oblivious to such subtleties is unsurprising. An unremarkable politician in her own right, Prime Minister Mulroney has stated openly that he used her as a token during his administration, making her the country’s first female attorney general, defense minister, and then prime minister largely to shore up his party’s progressive bona fides.

That may have been a workable model in the 90s, but the question for women in the second decade of the 21st century is whether they’re content to sit around waiting for a male-dominated political establishment to award them with further tokens, or whether they’d prefer to take the fight to a broader political culture at odds with their lifestyles and ambitions.

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Why does Scotland want to leave?

This column was also published on the website of the Sun News Network.

As a foreigner, it’s often hard to view the cause of Scottish independence as anything but hopelessly impenetrable. By definition, any fight in which one rich, democratic, first world nation seeks to secede from another will be fought over exceedingly small beans —usually a constitutional power imbalance between federal and local political authorities that’s more theoretically problematic than anything  — simply because there’s little else left. Ably represented by both a parliament of their own and 59 seats in London, no Scot even rhetorically purports to being “oppressed” by the English in any genuine way — their nationalist movement is merely born from a people whose patriotic ambition is too great to be realized as a minority, even a disproportionately powerful one, within a shared-power state. Theirs is a uniquely 21st century movement of liberation, where worries of aesthetics and self-actualization sit in place of war and tyranny.

As the only other G7 nation with a viable separatist movement, Canadian elites tend to take special interest in Scottish nationalism (often to an embarrassing degree, as was the case with the Globe and Mail’s painfully patronizing “open letter to Scotland from your Canadian cousins”) and the parallels between Scotch separatism and the French-Canadian variety are broad indeed.

Like Quebec, Scotland was absorbed into a more powerful nation amid protest, which gave rise to a remarkably flexible culture of perpetual grievance. A deep animosity towards the colonizer, originally rooted in crimes of centuries past, has proven easily adaptable to modern concerns.

In recent years, the most popular mutation in both societies has been a sort of leftist superiority complex based on a greater embrace of statism than the cruel and stingy motherland — Quebeckers brag about their cheaper colleges and seven-dollar-a-day daycare, Scots of their more generous pensions and higher-quality public heath care. In both cases the oppressed parties whine about the fundamental indignity of having their social-democratic ambitions held back by an unrepresentative right-wing federal government; in both cases, this ideological righteousness is undermined by fiscal hypocrisy. The comparatively generous nanny states of Scotland and Quebec are only sustainable through deficit spending sustained by hearty federal subsidies (and in Scotland’s case, federal oil royalties), a paradox to which the independentistas offer pride in place of solution.

Yet the Quebec analogy is not precise, and in some ways Scottish nationalism perhaps more closely parallels the insecure nationalism of Canada itself. Both Scots and Canadians affect enormous offense at being mistaken for their largely culturally-indistinguishable southern neighbors, for instance — (indeed, in early Canadian history one often comes across the Scotch/English metaphor as a preferred analogy for the English-speaking nations of North America) and the rawness of this insecurity has ensured no price is to high to pay for the protection of “cultural sovereignty,” even when that entails government’s heavy-handed manufacture of distinctions where none previously existed.

Outsiders are often surprised to learn, for instance, that much of the charming quaintness we associate with “ancient” Scottish culture —family tartans, caber-tossing, highland dancing, the Loch Ness Monster, etc. — are actually decidedly recent creations born from the often wildly speculative Celtic revival movement of the late 1800s and early 1900s —  analogous, in the Canadian context, to Ottawa’s post-war creation of patriotic paraphernalia like the maple leaf flag and the Order of Canada. Edinburgh’s efforts to impose Gaelic (spoken by around 1% of the Scottish population) as an official language and encourage its teaching in schools in spite of any readily-apparent public need or desire will ring similarly familiar to anyone versed in Canada’s own linguistic flights of fancy — bringing French to the arctic, say.

Whether independence is right for the Scots is obviously their question to answer, and I won’t claim to understand the utilitarian nuances of the pro and con pitches, which, as previously noted, are bound to be exceedingly technical in the absence of anything more pressing.

That said, Scotland is not an impossibly foreign land, and it’s hard to escape the impression that Scottish separatism is a cause bound up in many of the destructive political fads distressingly familiar to western nations of all stripes, including the professionalization of victimhood, the belief that paranoid segregation is more principled than than cooperative assimilation, the state-backed construction of identity as a means of denying a naturally-occurring one, and the belief that a minority’s quest for “justice” should supersede — or even violate— their economic self-interest.

If voting “No” helps curbs that tide, I’m all for it.

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Attack of the Giant Cell Phones

A while ago, CNN.com commissioned me to draw one of these giant “longform” essay comics that are all the rage these days. The topic they gave was giant cellphones, which I have to admit, was not a subject I was incredibly passionate about, but I did my best to make it interesting just the same. It was the first time I ever worked for a client as big as CNN, and the final product is the result of a lot of back-and-forth edits and revisions, but hopefully the final product is still recognizably my own.

Check out “Attack of the Giant Cellphones” here.

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Bigger problems in public education

My home province of British Columbia is currently providing the world with a useful service — a vivid case study of all that’s wrong with government control of education.

B.C.’s public school teachers were given the right to strike in 1987, and in the years immediately following most did, disrupting classes in 48 of the provinces’ 59 school districts. In 1994 the NDP government of the day responded by imposing province-wide contract bargaining, supposedly to help make the employer-employee relationship more efficient and cost-effective. It’s proven neither.

British Columbians of the millennial generation — such as myself — became Guinea pigs of this bold labor experiment. Anyone who attended grade school in B.C. over the last decade saw their K-12 education upset by no fewer than six distinct periods of turmoil born from the consolidated might of the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation (BCTF), including a one day (2002) 10-day (2005) and three-day (2012) province-wide strike, as well as numerous lesser “job action” boycotts of extra-curricular duties. When I was 12th grade student president, for instance, I had to hire private security firms to supervise our dances because no teachers would.

Such tactics seem to work. B.C. teachers have received an annual raise most years since 1994, though the union-government relationship has proven so hateful and obstinate three of four post-’94 contracts had to be imposed by parliamentary diktat following negotiation breakdown, with the sole successful one largely a hurried effort to buy labor peace in the run-up to the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.

Teachers now want another raise, and the Liberal government nods furiously that they certainly deserve one, as the poor souls only make a mere 70–80 grand a year, a salary shared by such indigents as cops, lawyers, and engineers. And that’s not counting an additional $10,000 in benefits so exhaustive, current negotiations center around things like fertility drugs and  massage therapy simply because there’s little else left. According to The Globe and Mail, test scores have been slumping in the province over the last 10 years, but government long ago discarded the notion that collective pay should be tied to collective performance. The result is the standard dysfunction of state-run industry: it costs ever-more to deliver — at best — status quo results.

The Education Minister says he’s prepared to offer a 7% pay hike over six years; the teachers want 8% over four. They also want to teach fewer kids in general and fewer disabled children in particular, the sort of basic job description issue labor unions were never intended to negotiate, but something the BTCF considers its inherent right to control. Theoretically, government could just once again legislate a hard answer to this question, but recent Canadian jurisprudence has declared collective bargaining to be a constitutionally protected right, and the BCTF is spending a lot of its members’ money at the moment attempting to exert this right in the hopes the courts will render permanently invalid a 2002 law that withdrew classroom issues from the realm of negotiable matters.

A government monopoly on education coupled with the BCTF’s monopoly on educators has trapped BC schools in an endless cycle of blackmail: taxpayers are made to bow to ever-growing union demands or face tremendous disruption in the lives of their children. This extortion is softened through savvy PR that seeks to portray teachers as selfless victims of sadistic politicians, a villain the public can be easily mobilized against.

Those who remain unmoved by the sorts of sheltered teacher sob stories that form the backbone of this strategy (“sometimes I have to work at home!“) are accused of lacking empathy, though in my case I find having a parent in the profession only makes my heart harder. My mother taught high school for 30 years and was certainly hard-working and all the rest of if, but any complaints I heard always seemed more than compensated by what appeared to be a virtually limitless bag of sick days, half-days, personal days, conference days, and professional development days to soften the blow. Plus all of summer to spend with her family — and much of greater Christmas.

In any case, a teacher who complains about how hard she works is basically a sucker. Since successive BCTF contracts have made it progressively impossible to fire a teacher, there’s really no incentive for them to perform beyond the bare-minimum of competence, an unfortunately popular standard. Hard-working teachers who produce great results are far more victimized by the inherently socialist nature of collective bargaining than stingy governments, since province-wide, one-size-fits-all wages by design provide no incentive for the good to get better, but all the incentive in the world for the bad to remain so.

The current strike, which began in June, is the longest in British Columbia history, and this longevity has increased a culture of polarization in which one is expected to profess unwavering fidelity to either the embattled teachers or the besieged Liberal administration. I have little natural affinity for either, reserving my harshest contempt for the larger system that produced both.

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