First vlog: Canadian foods

Here is my first-ever vlog, done in traditional vlog style. It’s about Canadian foods I enjoy.

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My first-ever video

Freddy, from Five Nights at Freddy's. From my fanart Tumblr, Play American:

From my fan art blog, Play American. Click to go there.

This will probably seem way out of left field for some of you, but I recorded a reaction video with my friend Angela (of Wasted Talent webcomic fame [UPDATE! I apparently appear in her latest strip]) to my first time playing Five Nights at Freddy’s — the most popular game in the world.

I edited in such a way that it will hopefully be a good introduction to the game if you’ve never heard of it before, but still want to be culturally literate of major tween trends. I was at the Emerald City Comic Con in Seattle a few weeks ago and it was crazy how much Freddy stuff was everywhere. The TV Tropes people call this sort of thing “opinion myopia” or “critical dissonance” wherein something is insanely popular, yet because “leading tastemakers” don’t write long essays about it in The Atlantic, it’s easy for a certain class of people to ignore.

On that note, I’ve been thinking a lot about life and whatnot lately, and I’ve reached the conclusion that I want to start spending a lot less time on political commentary, which is so often depressing, unpleasant, and provocative, and a lot more time producing cartoons and websites and vlogs about stuff I actually enjoy.

This is a big change of direction for me, and I’ve got some interesting stuff in the works. I’m keen to hear your feedback, though. What kind of topics would you like to see me engage with more, if not politics?

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The worst idea in a while

Creative and colorful metaphors of immaturity loom large in Canadian political conversation. Living in basements, cutting apron strings, wanting to sit at the big kids’ table — such is the language through which Canadians conceptualize themselves.

The exact contexts of such comparisons vary —  anti-monarchists see something juvenile in making immigrants swear loyalty to Queen Elizabeth; liberal internationalists blame the Harper administration’s “childish” foreign policy for Canada’s exclusion from prestigious UN institutions. Most often, the metaphors are employed to describe Canada’s relationship with the United States, for whom Canada is invariably cast as the pathetic younger brother.

Immaturity can be a vice, but obsessive insecurity more so. Frank Sulloway, a Berkley psychologist who literally wrote the book on the consequences of birth order, found younger children are less pressured, and thus less inclined towards anxiety and depression, but more likely to be self-conscious and resentful of their family position, and prone to entertaining grandiose fantasies of how to avenge this injustice.

It would certainly be hard to imagine a more grandiose fantasy than the one being pushed by so-called “Commonwealth Freedom of Movement Organisation”(CFMO), whose impossible, pointless agenda has received inexcusably credulous media coverage and boasts an online petition fast approaching its goal of 70,000 signatures.

Led by James Skinner, a British ex-pat living in Vancouver, the group proposes establishing an EU-style no-borders zone encompassing Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom in which citizens of the four nations can travel and work freely, “with no restrictions regarding work permits or visa controls.”

As a matter of public policy, this is a solution in search of a problem. As the CFMO’s own website notes, cross-immigration within the four targeted countries has “declined rapidly” in the past decade, reflecting the Anglo world’s increasing bias for third world immigration over historically traditional sources. Though this pivot has multiple explanations, realities of geography and wealth are significant: as much as Skinner enjoys holding himself up as a representative case study, most immigrants are motivated less by romanticism and adventure than liberty, economics, and proximity. In practice, any lessening of migration restrictions between the four countries in question would likely amount to little beyond shuffling around refugees from Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, a reality that somewhat undermines Skinner’s claim that this is all about strengthening the bonds of “western culture.”

Culture, incidentally, is rather strangely conceived in this plan, given the arbitrary nature of the four countries included. “The Commonwealth” proper, after all, includes 53 nations — a full quarter of the world’s countries — 15 of which share the trivial distinction, incessantly emphasized by Skinner, of “sharing the same head of state.” Commonwealth nations like India, Jamaica, South Africa, and Belize meet his criteria of being well-functioning parliamentary democracies with strong commitments to the English language and common law, so if such virtues are to be taken seriously by the CFMO, it’s hard to know on what basis these candidates deserve exclusion.

The obvious answer is that Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Britain are united by race. Even proudly multicultural Canada remains around 80% white, with the bulk of that coming from the same Anglo-Scots stock that formed the historic core of the British Empire’s other settler-colonies. An alliance of white settler-colonies was the original purpose of the Commonwealth itself, which, at the time of its  1931 founding, comprised only the CFMO four plus semi-independent Ireland and white-ruled South Africa.

This racial reality doesn’t imply white supremacism animates Skinner or his CFMO, but it does highlight the degree to which anti-Americans have taken to conceptualizing the white Commonwealth as a sort of knock-off rival to the United States, an imagined community of strength and relevance that kind of looks and sounds like America — but utterly lacks the economic and geographic linkages between its component parts that made the US viable and successful in the first place. It is America, likewise, that serves as the true core of the Anglosphere in the 21st century: with the exception of tiny New Zealand, every one of the “white four” trade more with the United States than each other, while America receives the bulk of their emigrants — even in the absence of some sort of free migration deal.

Skinner intends to formally pitch his idea to the governments of the four nations he wishes to unite, and in three of the four, who have enough troubles formulating immigration policy without adding the revival of the British Empire to the equation, one imagines it will receive polite storage in the circular file.

Only in Canada is it likely to receive a second glance, a country whose ties to the United States are deepest and most beneficial, yet whose intellectuals never tire of jealously dreaming  to reverse the birth order that made them merely second-best.

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The Perestroika phase of Canadian media

I was a guest on Jesse Brown’s popular podcast Canadaland the other day. Please give it a listen. I discuss some of the ideas addressed in this column.

The lesson of Mikhail Gorbachev is that reform isn’t always possible. Just as women can’t be half pregnant and antebellum America couldn’t be half free, an economy cannot survive being half centrally-planned. Perestroika permitted certain sectors of the Soviet economy to be rebuilt according to free market principles, but this only made the remaining closed sectors appear more odious. Talk of “inherent contradictions” within the Soviet model — an economic system promising to serve the interests of the proletariat was clearly doing anything but —  became louder, and culminated in collapse.

Canadian television remains one of the last holdouts of Soviet-style socialism, a description that is accurate despite its sensationalism. Decisions over which shows get made, which shows can be aired at what hour, how stations can raise revenue, and what channels consumers can purchase — and in what combination — are all subordinate to the ideological goals of Ottawa, as opposed to market forces.

It’s for this reason I find myself sympathizing with Bell Canada president Kevin Crull, and his recent temper-tantrum that resulted in Canadian Radio and Telecommunication Commission (CRTC) chairman Jean-Pierre Blais being briefly banned from the airwaves of CTV, a Bell subsidiary (I should note for the record that I collect a regular paycheque from CTV thanks to my weekly appearance on a current events roundtable).

Crull was infuriated at Chairman Blais’ recent decree that cable providers like his can no longer force consumers to subscribe to channels in excessively large minimum bundles, with Blais instead inventing his own $25 “Skinny Bundle” minimum. Since cable companies practice a sort of redistributionist economics in which revenues generated by popular channels subsidize the existence of unpopular ones (excess profits from the hockey channel may prop up the wildlife channel, for instance), a forced breakup of the big bundle system invariably throws the future of smaller channels into question —and thus the cable companies’ bottom line.

Crull’s response was petulant and vindictive, but I imagine it must be maddening to work in an over-regulated industry whose rules are subject to erratic and arbitrary change for erratic and arbitrary reason. Chairman Blais clearly views himself as a democratic folk hero in the Gorbachev mold, a man determined to win popularity and acclaim by proving consumer satisfaction can exist within a closed economic system so long as the central planner-in-chief is creative and compassionate.

The unbundling decision came in the aftermath of similar decrees designed to demonstrate Blais’ self-declared “consumers first” agenda, including the elimination of Canadian content quotas for daytime TV, a requirement that Canada’s two would-be Netflix competitors, Showme and Crave, must be available to all Canadians, not just those who subscribe to their parent cable companies, and — most nakedly populist of all — a demand that Canadian airings of the Superbowl feature the cool American commercials. That last one hit Bell — who owns the Superbowl airing rights in Canada — particularly hard, and the company is now taking the CRTC to court to fight a decision that threatens to rob the network of hundreds of millions of dollars in ad revenue.

Blais is an all-star for now, but like Gorbachev, in the long term his actions will merely emphasize the internal contradictions of the Soviet economic model rather than mitigate them. The chairman remains officially committed to the ideological assumptions that inspired the creation of his department in the first place — that Canadians need protection from the corrosive cultural influences of American media and that government must actively limit what Canadians can watch and micromanage how cable networks spend their money. It’s an assumption that is simply not shared by the majority of Canadian consumers whose habits indicate they want more American media in their lives and are deeply irritated by the inflated prices required to subsidize the creation of unwanted Canadian alternatives.

Blais wears the mantle of the all-knowing arbitrator of what is or isn’t “fair” or in the “public interest,” but his solutions are motivated by appeasement, not resolution, and are therefore deeply unsatisfying.

Canadians do not want a “skinny bundle” — they want no bundles. They do not want Can-con free mornings, they want Can-con free evenings, too. Industry managers and content producers want a regime of light and stable regulation, not rules that change on a whim in order to placate public resentment with short bursts of populist pandering.

Gorbachev eventually fell, but only after a botched coup by hardliners who realized the existential danger he presented to a fast-crumbling regime. If one of the left-wing parties is elected this fall, will Canada’s progressive cultural nationalists demand similar retaliation against the CRTC’s loose cannon?

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The case against Mulcair

Canadians are free to dislike their prime minister, and doubtless many have fair reason for doing so. But whatever Stephen Harper’s failings, we are presently in an election year, and it shouldn’t be forgotten that Canada has rarely faced such unnerving alternatives for the country’s top job.

Elite wisdom dictates we’re to regard Thomas Mulcair as the “respectable” opposition leader, in contrast to Justin Trudeau, whose flaws are so glaringly evident. Yet even in contrast, the NDP boss remains a bizarre figure, defined by little beyond the utter lack of coherent principle, motive, or purpose animating his political career.

When he ran to succeed Jack Layton in 2012, Mulcair gave a hearty “N-O” to the notion of forming a coalition government with the Liberal Party —  which made sense at the time, given NDP poll numbers. Now the NDP’s back in the low 20s and suddenly Tom can’t sing loud enough his enthusiasm for doing whatever it takes to “get rid of Stephen Harper.”

I know to some the idea of a “coalition government” sounds urbane and sophisticated — certainly European — and conjures images of laws being drafted by a non-hierarchical focus group of progressive Canada’s brightest minds. But Canadian government only works one way, and that’s at the direction of an all-powerful prime minister. Any NDP leader who expresses interest in colluding with the Libs while his party languishes in third place is indirectly asserting he has no problem with the Liberal boss running the country.

Mulcair has been perfectly frank about this, bragging that his party was “willing to make Stephane Dion prime minister of Canada” the last time coalition talk was on the table. Today, we’re to assume he has equal faith in the competence of Justin Trudeau.

It’s a curious sort of campaign that promises to install a nominal opponent in power. Then again, partisan loyalty has never been Mulcair’s strong suit.

Mulcair is, after all, the first NDP boss to have started his career in a different party. As a former Liberal minister in the government of Quebec Premier Jean Charest —  himself the former leader of the federal Progressive Conservatives — one could even make the case that Mulcair began his political life on the right (at least by French-Canadian standards).

This might explain why, upon leaving provincial politics, Mulcair initially believed he might fit in best with the federal Tories and partook in high-level talks to join the Harper administration. It remains disputed why negotiations broke down — “money or principle” wondered Tim Harper in the Toronto Star — but Mulcair never denied they took place. It’s certainly amusing to contemplate an alternative universe in which Mulcair rises in the House of Commons every afternoon to deliver lawyerly jeremiads in defense of this government.

The Mulcair approach to foreign policy is no less capricious.

In contrast to his predecessors, Mulcair has admirably minimized the influence of anti-Israeli cranks in the NDP caucus, and during last year’s war in Gaza, was blasted by the fringe for offering a balanced assessment of Middle Eastern realities. A particularly virulent anti-Israel candidate was vetoed in Nanaimo (he’s now running for the Greens, natch) and an MP quit in protest.

Yet as cannier observers have noted, it’s an open question whether this pivot is principled or personal. Mulcair’s wife is Jewish, and though that shouldn’t mean much, we know appeasing family has played a role in dictating his stance on other issues — refusing to surrender his French citizenship, for instance.

Then there’s Canada’s war against ISIS, which will soon be up for renewal. During the first parliamentary debate over airstrikes, Mulcair waxed endlessly about how outrageous it was that the Tories were talking about bombing Iraq when everyone knew the real villains were in Syria. He has since dusted off a whataboutist trope from the Dubya years and demanded to know why we’re not invading the Congo, since their genocide is surely just as bad. On CTV Sunday he suggested he’d be open to backing a war “when it is a UN mission, when it is a NATO mission,” but horrors of horrors, “this is an American-led mission.” For those keeping track, for every war Mulcair arbitrarily opposes, he can imagine four he’d arbitrarily support.

Prime Minister Harper may not always be on the side of the angels but his government at least offers constancy. No one can state with any certainty what sort of prime minister Thomas Mulcair would be, or indeed, if voting for him would even help achieve that end.

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Three frenemies

Understand Canada’s relationship with the United States and you’ll better grasp Israel’s relationship with America. The partnerships are distinct, yet grounded in surprisingly consistent themes of identity, culture, and co-dependence.

Israel’s place in the American political consciousness is comparable to the space America occupies in the minds of Canadian political observers. US politicians and pundits know the difference between Likud and Labor, and grasp the coalition building and horse-trading that defines the country’s chaotic parliamentary system — just as Canadians understand primaries, the Tea Party, and the electoral college.

American political consultants and advisors often freelance for likeminded parties in Israeli campaigns in similar fashion to those ideologically sympathetic Canadians who travel south to assist Democrats or Republicans. When debating everything from gay soldiers to border walls to airport security, Americans cite Israeli precedent just as Canadians utilize America as their all-purpose repository of useful case studies.

Doubtless many Canadians feel a bit jealous that Israel occupies such prioritized space in American political culture, and wish that their country —  which contains four times Israel’s population and shares a 5,500-mile border with the United States — was considered as deserving of attention as a thin sliver of land in the Middle East. But relevance often transcends size or geography.

Israel is a strategic ally of Washington in a way Canada is simply not, and thanks to the continued omnipresence of the War on Terror in American political conversation, properly appreciating Israel has become a foreign policy litmus test for Americans wishing to opine on the subject. Peaceful Canada is esoterica.

Canadians and Israelis, for their part, are so materially reliant on the United States (via trade and aide, respectively) ignorance of the American political process is inexcusable. As a nation of some 30-million odd English speakers with a voracious appetite for American movies, television, music, and literature, Canada is also inescapably culturally reliant on the United States, unlike Hebrew-speaking Israel.

Yet despite this, and the preponderance of Canadian expats in Hollywood and elsewhere, America’s cultural bonds with Israel often appear more emotionally meaningful, given their unique status as the first and second most Jewish countries on earth. A large number of Jews hold positions of high influence in American cultural life, many of whom visit Israel frequently or have family there. Perhaps no man more succinctly summarizes the confluences of all three nations than David Brooks, the New York Times columnist who was born in Canada, moved to America, and has a son serving in the Israeli armed forces.

All this overlap has led successive Canadian and Israeli governments to expect easy diplomacy with Washington, yet in the age of Obama, both find ties strained. Diplomats on all sides routinely complain they’ve never seen worse, in fact.

The president’s spat with Prime Minister Netanyahu is hot, and centers around weighty disputes over how to address Iran’s nuclear program and quell Palestinian unrest. The feud with Harper is colder, and more indifferent.

It took President Obama five years to express any firm opinion on the Alberta-to-Texas Keystone Pipeline, and when he did, it came through vetoing legislation designed to force his hand. The day before Israel held its national election, Obama’s homeland security secretary lamely announced that his government was on track to maybe begin thinking about someday introducing “pre-clearance” customs checkpoints on both sides of the US-Canada border, the first even slightly tangible output of a much-ballyhooed “Beyond the Border” agreement endorsed by Obama in 2011.

Disinterested in foreign policy as an end unto itself, President Obama often appears to regard diplomacy as mere extension of domestic partisanship, making it predictable that right-wingers like Harper and Netanyahu would fall victim to the taboos of the Democratic coalition. Harper’s enthusiasm for oil sands exploration has made him a demonic figure at a time when curbing climate change has become the American left’s defining metric of economic morality, while Bibi’s efforts to assert a specifically Jewish ethno-cultural identity for his nation horrifies modern progressive notions of multicultural postmodernism.

Increasing “daylight” —to quote an Obamism— between the White House and its closest allies is troubling, but if one takes seriously the strength of the underlying strategic, cultural, and emotional foundations on which the relationships are based, it will hopefully prove a transient phenomenon rooted in passing politics, not lasting realignment.

And perhaps one Canada is uniquely positioned to mend.

The closeness of prime ministers Harper and Netanyahu is well-known, after all, and for all their present chilliness, Canada’s relations with the United States are still probably better than Israel’s.

To rebuild the goodwill of three countries so closely intertwined, Prime Minister Harper’s destiny may be to play that supposedly most Canadian of roles — a peace broker.

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British Columbia’s tax revolt

In a word, British Columbia’s best and brightest are confused.

Specifically, they’re confused why polls suggest British Columbians are poised to overwhelmingly vote down a proposed hike to the provincial sales tax, the ballots of which are being mailed out this week. If passed, the .5% rate increase will generate $250 million a year in new revenue to support an ambitious plan to improve bus and train service in the greater Vancouver region, something TransLink, the public transportation authority, insists is badly needed.

If the term “establishment” has any worthwhile definition at all, it’s fair to say that the entire British Columbia establishment supports the tax hike. The ruling Liberal government and the opposition NDP support it. The vast majority of mayors support it. The police officers and firefighters support it. The universities support it. The unions support it. The chamber of commerce supports it. Even the BC golf association is on board.

The pro-tax forces have spent untold millions bombarding British Columbians with pro-tax billboards, flyers, websites, TV commercials, radio spots, newspaper ads, and grinning young people standing on street corners in bright green t-shirts. But no matter how loudly or often they make their case, by a two-to-one margin, the voters ain’t biting.

At root is a massive split in perception.

British Columbia’s elite, in general, have a worldview which places government as the central force of society. They’re likely to work directly for the government, or in industries that are favorably subsidized or regulated by it. Many of their most passionate moral causes are tied to initiatives they believe only government can adquately address: global warming, inequality, discrimination.

The political opinions of the elite tend to center around which party can do government best, as opposed to what government should be doing. They’re likely to support Mayor Robertson because they feel he’s an obedient marionette of an intelligent bureaucracy and equally likely to loathe Premier Clark because they think she’s an erratic rube (though many share her apprehensions about the NDP). Since they have endless faith in government’s capacity to spend money properly, when revenues run dry their instinct is to ask taxpayers for more.

The non-elite, in contrast, are likely to live lives in which government is a more distant presence — quite literally, in the case of suburban residents who dwell far from the power centers of downtown Vancouver. Their understanding of the state is more transactional, with an assumption that what one pays through fees and taxes should correlate with the value of services received. Most do not use public transportation and view the enormous salaries and expense accounts of those who run the transportation authority as evidence government is not starved for cash.

These competing visions are broad generalizations, of course. Doubtless more than a few British Columbians will be voting with the sort of cognitive dissonance common to the boomer generation, in which government is expected to do everything yet cost nothing. But by and large the split in the tax fight is unmistakably rooted in class, and a deep disagreement over how much trust should be afforded to the powerful.

BC’s elite clearly do not have an effective strategy for communicating with their lessers. Lecturing them in the style that works on other elites — citing European case studies to illustrate why TransLink is actually very elegant and cost-efficient, for instance — has flopped, as have increasingly condescending editorials insisting that voting for the tax hike will make you “richer, healthier and happier,” as an urban planning consultant wrote in the National Post last week.

At times, it’s been hard to avoid schadenfreude at the sheer incompetence of the “Yes” campaign, whose profound lack of self-awareness often has a sort of Thurston Howell III quality — how many more chamber of commerce endorsements do you people need? Yet there’s real danger the public’s eagerness to vote down the transportation tax, just as they voted down the equally elite-backed Harmonized Sales Tax in 2011, will ultimately expedite further overclass distrust in democracy. Many in that class are already blaming Premier Clark for allowing the vote to occur in the first place, while others are furious that many of TransLink’s most damaging spending scandals — particularly the ongoing Compass Card boondoggle — were the result of excessive meddling in government business by elected politicians.

Because government has been allowed to become the central force of BC society, with a mandate that has ballooned to encompass not just causes practical or functional, but moral, the long-term project of those who take government’s divine mission most seriously will be to minimize input opportunities for those who don’t.

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Tories trying to protect the cultural common good

We are indisputably going through a phase of dark viciousness in Canadian politics at the moment, much of it rooted in the hysterical, Pavlovian thrashing that occurs whenever the realities of immigration are acknowledged even slightly critically.

Progressives are churning out sombre columns and somewhat less sombre social media campaigns in response to Prime Minister Harper’s ongoing efforts to ban burka-clad immigrants from reciting the citizenship oath, and related claims that this costume is “anti-women.” The plight of a Pakistani immigrant who had trouble at a Quebec courtroom on account of her headscarf — something Harper had nothing to do with, for whoever cares — is usually shoehorned into this same narrative of creeping “Islamophobia,” an evil that also featured prominently in Justin Trudeau’s big “liberty” speech earlier this week.

Progressive thought leaders see only bigotry and fear animating such distaste, but it is not irrational to be concerned about women wearing burkas in this country. Tenting up women as radioactively shameful or seductive creatures is a profoundly alien custom from a particularly regressive part of the planet, and one that will undermine Canada’s hereto understood norms of openness, civility, dignity, and equality if permitted to popularize. Whatever we think of veil-wearing as a case study in constitutional rights, it’s cultural consequences are undeniably corrosive, but the left has long ago abandoned interest in promoting the cultural common good in favor of identity politics — in which the uninhibited promotion and protection of diverse identities is the only principle worth defending.

Even the Conservative Party appears unable to operate entirely outside this intellectual lockbox. In an interview with Maclean’s the day after the Trudeau speech, Minister Kenney attempted damage control on the Islamophobe front by noting that his government has imported nearly 300,000 Muslim immigrants since coming to power. Who exactly, is such a statement intended to inspire, beyond other members of the elite who value the endless diversification of Canada as a positive unto itself? Polls suggest most of us think the country’s diverse enough already.

Meanwhile, New Brunswick MP John Williamson has been subject to a whole other demonization campaign for publicly musing that “it makes no sense to pay ‘whities’ to stay home while we bring in brown people to work in these jobs” — with “these jobs” being those of the traditional working-class.

In shrieking down such comments as “racist,” Williamson’s critics have consciously turned off their brains in a very particular way, since the (literally) colorful terms employed by the MP are well-worn phrases with highly appropriate meaning in the context in which he used them.

“Brown people” is an intentionally condescending turn of phrase used mostly by progressives to mock what they imagine to be paranoid bigots. Just the other day, I was listening to Jesse Brown’s Canadaland podcast, for instance, and his impeccably progressive guest made fun of the idea, supposedly deeply held by conservatives, that “only brown people are terrorists.” Brown, in this case, is a bland adjective, chosen to emphasize the inconsequential nature of race. For this reason, when someone speaks of “brown people,” they are invariably speaking of victims, or subjects of unreasonable scorn and suspicion.

“Whitey,” in contrast, is a phrase never used anything but pejoratively, and has its origins in the ultrajudgmental rhetoric of black power militants in the 1960s (my favorite example being Gil Scott-Heron’s wonderfully snarky poem: “Whitey on the Moon”). The whites MP Williamson was describing were undeniably of the “trash” variety — entitled slugs content to sit back and collect EI while the state imports low wage migrants from the third world to perform labor considered beneath caucasian standards.

The fact that it’s increasingly rare to see white people working menial minimum wage jobs in Canada’s big cities is a distressing cultural phenomena, and one worth bluntly observing. Yet elite groupthink demands we describe immigration as presenting no moral challenges whatsoever; their mantra cries diversity uber alles.

Immigration in Canada is often spoken of as a force of nature, like the wind or rain, for which the proper reaction is endurance without complaint. But of course immigration is simply a government program like taxes or CRTC regulations, and something that can and should bend to whatever needs and priorities the voting public deems appropriate.

The voting public, for its part, has expressed rather clear opinions on the matter, and the Harper government, in its own imperfect way, is heeding their wishes better than the press or opposition.

At that, many are enraged.

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Women World Leaders

I drew a big new comic for the good folks over at Medium about a topic I’ve long been interested in: female rulers.

Women world leaders

If you’d like to see some in-depth stats on female heads of state, check out my epic chart of female world leaders.

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Rule by pseudo-intellectual

Justin Trudeau is not intelligent — but he thinks he is. There’s no other explanation for his long, rambling speech at the McGill Institute yesterday, a speech he doubtlessly believed proved he was a man capable of grappling with deep questions of political philosophy, but was in practice an incoherent mess of fashionable truisms, politically-correct bromides, and circular logic.

Its purported topic was “liberty,” but since liberty is a complicated abstract concept with a long pedigree, Trudeau mostly just talked about things he likes.

Trudeau likes multiculturalism. Therefore, “Liberty means inclusion.” Not-liberty means discrimination, as manifest by various historic morality plays — the internment of the Japanese during World War II, for instance.

Why did Mackenzie King intern the Japanese? “He did it because people were afraid.” Why were people afraid? Trudeau doesn’t get into that, but presumedly it’s because we were at war with Japan at the time and many felt — wrongly of course — that Canadians of Japanese origin might engage in terrorism or sabotage to destroy the nation’s liberty.

Such is one of the great tensions of democratic society: to what extent can we justifiably restrain the freedom of a dangerous (seeming) minority in order to preserve the safety of the majority? This is essentially the anxiety Canadians feel about Muslim immigrants today — the concern is less about their personal faith than the extent to which fundamentalist Islam seems to correlate with domestic terror.

In Trudeau’s mind, alas, there is never rational motive on the other side. The political arena simply contains nice people and nasty people, and the nasty people do what’s wrong and the nice people do what’s right. Justice is achieved by hammering down the nasties.

He provides his own abortion policy as an illustrative case-study.

“Forcing a Liberal MP to vote against [his or her] conscience on a matter of morality is an unjust restriction of [his or her] liberty,” he posits rhetorically. “It sounds like a reasonable argument.”

But of course it isn’t, since “the right of a woman to control her body is more important than the right of a legislator to restrict her freedom with [his or her] vote.”

Importance, in this context, does not seem to be determined by any metric beyond what liberal politicians believe wins elections. As a practicing Catholic, one might expect Trudeau to at least be dimly aware that abortion opponents believe restricting the “right of a woman to control her body” is entirely justifiable when the exercise of that control entails ending the life (and thus rights) of another body inside her.

He continues, even more preposterously, that “for me, Canadian liberty is not about the freedom of powerful people to exercise that freedom according to the dictates of their conscience. It is about Canadians’ rights not to have their freedom unduly restricted, especially by the state.”

Trudeau may be surprised to learn that freedom of conscience is not a treat for him to dole out as he sees fit, but rather a protection guaranteed to everyone by Section 2 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms — regardless of how “powerful” their job happens to be. Likewise, when the state is found to have unduly restricted a right, it is the government as collective that’s liable, not individual legislators or their principles.

A few paragraphs later, when the conversation turns to banning burkas, Trudeau gets incredulous at the tactics he just finished endorsing. “Whatever happened to a free society’s requirement that we can disagree with a person’s choices, but must defend their right to make them?” Indeed.

What Monday’s speech makes most apparent is that Trudeau’s doctrine of liberty is less coherent ideology than a string of improvised defenses for policy positions he’s inherited from individuals much smarter than himself. Beyond a dispositional instinct that everything his party supports is right and everything conservatives — or people in the olden days —believe in isn’t, his ideas are not united by any overarching philosophy, a fact best reflected by what he identifies as the most “fundamental” disagreement between himself and the Prime Minister: “Leading this country should mean you bring Canadians together. You do not divide them against one another.”

A democratic polity will always be divided, and its reasons for division are rarely frivolous or petty. Ours is a society polarized by significant disagreement on deep legal, moral, and cultural questions, and we elect politicians to accurately represent our competing opinions. For all his patriotic bluster, Trudeau does not grasp this basic reality of the country he wants to lead, and instead furrows his brow at the perplexing existence of people who don’t think exactly like him, whom he can only analogize as the spiritual successors of racists and anti-semites.

The most frightening figures in politics are not the ideologues or demagogues, for the rigidity of their beliefs makes them boring and predictable. It’s leaders who lack firm intellectual grounding, since their exercise of power is destined to be confused, erratic, and arbitrary — the very antithesis of stable, safe government.

Trudeau spends a great deal of time scolding the Prime Minister for sowing fear, then turns around and encourages us to “shudder” at this government.

I shudder at him.

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