Thoughts on the 2014 Ontario Election

I felt weirdly emotional about the 2014 Ontario election. Perhaps it was because the stakes were so high — Canada’s largest province is now the single-most indebted subnational entity on earth, with a per-capita debt almost five times that of California — perhaps because the morality of the race was so stark — rarely in modern Canadian history have we seen a party as brazenly corrupt as Ontario’s ruling Liberals, wasting, as they have, untold billions (with a b!) of tax dollars on everything from cynically relocating unpopular power plants into Conservative-held ridings to bailing out incompetent charities run by Liberal insiders.

But now the Liberals have somehow won a fourth term in office, and by an even larger margin than their previous mandate, when their stench of scandal and fiscal incompetence was significantly milder. Conservatives like me are expected to have some sort of response to this, so here goes:

Thought #1: Canadian voters are lazy, and simply like blindly re-electing whoever’s currently in charge.

Ontario has been governed by the Liberal Party since 2003. Quebec, aside from a 18-month separatist blip, has been governed by the Liberal Party since 2003. British Columbia has been governed by the Liberal Party since 2001. Manitoba has been governed by the NDP since 1999. Alberta has been governed by the Conservatives since 1971. Every party running each of Canada’s five largest provinces, in short, has been in charge for over a decade now, and has won at least three back-to-back elections. A fourth term for the Liberals seems consistent with a larger Canadian trend of supporting incumbent parties more or less by default, and expressing abnormally high skepticism for those offering something new.

Thought #2: If incumbency provides such an advantage, we should change the rules so appointed premiers who inherit office from their predecessors are forced to call elections as soon as possible.

Kathleen Wynne served as premier of Ontario for more than a year and a half without being elected to that office by anyone other than the 1,000-odd party hacks who appointed her Liberal leader following Premier McGuinty’s 2013 resignation.

It would be absurd to argue Wynne did not benefit electorally as a result of this set-up. If nothing else, spending that much time as premier before actually running for premier made her a familiar face to voters, and a woman who was, by definition, easy to imagine in the province’s top job. That year-and-a-half head start also gave her the advantage of being able to use the powers of her office for electoral gain — for instance, by introducing a left-wing budget designed to leech voter support from the NDP.

In America, when a senator abruptly resigns or dies, the governor gets to appoint a replacement. In states like New Jersey, that then triggers an emergency election in which voters are summoned to either approve the appointment or elect someone else. I think Canada could benefit from a system like this for premiers. Say, any appointed premier should have to call a provincial election within a month of inheriting the job.

Thought #3: It can’t be denied: Tim Hudak ran a terrible campaign.

Mr. Hudak ranks up there with former BC NDP boss Adrian Dix in terms of men who were handed power on a sliver platter only to slap it down in a fit of erratic incompetence. In seeking to unseat what he correctly described as the most corrupt government “in Ontario history,” all Hudak had to do was run a relatively low-key campaign and squawk endlessly about how awful the Liberals were and how embarrassed anyone should be to support them. If the election was a stark up-or-down referendum on the Liberal record and Liberal competence he could have easily won by default.

But of course that’s not the campaign Hudak ran. In making the centrepiece of his pitch to voters two dopey, showy numbers — “100,00″ fired bureaucrats and “1,000,000″ new jobs — the Conservative leader deftly turned the campaign into a referendum on himself, and the validity of his math.

Hudak’s numbers were endlessly deconstructed by economists — often unfavourably — while his warnings of “100,000″ firings became Exhibit A in the Liberals’ efforts to paint the man as a cruel, right-wing sadist, who, like Mitt Romney before him, “liked firing people” for fun. His twin promises were both too scary and too utopian, and fulfilled a bevy of negative stereotypes. And of course every day the press spent talking about all this was a day voters weren’t reminded of Liberal awfulness.

Thought #4: Negative works.

Premier Wynne did not have many good things to run on. Her budget — which predicted a magical surplus by 2017 — was widely denounced. Her only scandal defense was saying “sorry.”

So she ran on negatives, and she ran hard. Mr. Hudak was likened to every random right-wing demon under the sun — Stephen Harper, Mike Harris, the Tea Party, the Joker — even poor Ms. Horwath of the NDP was likened to Rob Ford. Wynne held a photo-op in the Walkerton water plant — which poisoned four children in the early 2000s — and warned ominously that budget cuts “have consequences” (despite having cut funding to the plant herself). The Liberals ran ads in which voting Conservative literally made your family disappear. Hudak happily assisted by playing to type (see above).

Unpopular governments can only get re-elected if voters can be convinced to vote against the newcomer, rather than for the incumbent. As the campaign slogan of a particularly infamous Louisiana governor once implored: “vote for the crook — it’s important!” Such appeals clearly won the day in Ontario.

Thought #5: The dynamic of Canadian provincial politics is increasingly union-versus-non-union

I was a bit surprised the NDP did as well as it did last night, given how redundant they’ve become. Premier Wynne helped move the Ontario Liberals quite far to the left, and in doing so, helped complete a process, long in the works, of turning the party into the preferred vehicle of organized labour. The Ontario Liberals now collect more campaign donations from big labour than the NDP, and Wynne ran an election explicitly positioning herself as the only leader capable of defending the rights of government workers (who comprise some 70% of unionized Ontarians) from the sharp blade of Conservative austerity. There’ll be just as many public sector workers under under my rule, she promised — “or more!” For this, she was rewarded with the endorsement of the president of the Ontario Federation of Labour and no less than 19 unions running attack ads against Mr. Hudak.

The party systems in most Canadian provinces now offers a clear choice between one union-friendly party (usually the NDP) and one non-union one (the Liberals in British Columbia and Quebec, the Conservatives in the Maritimes, Premier Wall’s party in Saskatchewan, Wildrose in Alberta, etc). Sometimes this divide takes on the character of a right-left ideological struggle, as it did in Ontario, but just as often the fight is simply a reflection of organized labour — the most powerful, entrenched force in Canadian government today — congealing around a single party in order to defend their interests. Considering how union interests are almost universally at odds with interests of fiscal responsibility and efficient public services, this makes union-backed governments uniquely regressive. An especially regressive four years awaits Ontario.

Thought #6: Corruption washes over voters like so much warm water.

“A single death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic,” Joe Stalin is somewhat dubiously credited as having said. Corruption in Canada is getting to the point where you could say a similar thing about wasted tax dollars. A million here, a billion there — numbers, nothing but numbers.

I honestly don’t think enough voters realize the impact government corruption has on their own lives, though again, part of the blame falls on politicians like Mr. Hudak for consistently failing to explain it. Waste and fraud isn’t just some boring sin of the political class we affect outrage about for reasons of moral superiority; it’s a existential threat to the survival of government itself.

A government that wastes billions in revenue is a government with billions less to spend on something else, which necessitates the need for greater borrowing and debt to make up the difference. Debt, in turn, can only ever lead to bad things — massive cuts to government services, giant tax hikes, or bankruptcy — at which point the problem is no longer quite so abstract.

Thought #7: No one cares that you’re gay.

You can always tell something’s not actually very historic when supporters note it was the first this-or-that “in the history of the Commonwealth.” So the fact that Premier Wynne is the first lesbian prime minister “in the Commonwealth” doesn’t actually tell you anything useful, beyond the predictable fact that there’s never been a gay prime minister in, say Uganda or Pakistan.

Wynne was elected at a time when there are already openly gay mayors, senators, and other high-ranking politicians in democracies all over the world, particularly Europe and America, which of course are two regions excluded from the arbitrary gaggle of random countries that constitute the Commonwealth. I doubt many foreigners can conceptualize what being “premier of a Canadian province” even means, let alone why having a gay one was historic, considering the Europeans have already elected two openly gay people to run entire countries.

I think the debt thing should be the bigger deal.

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Climate Models

Climate Models
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In my experience, the first thing everyone wants to know when they discover they’re in the company of a self-identified conservative is what he thinks about climate change (what he thinks about gay marriage is usually a close second, though even that’s becoming a bit passé).

As is so often the case with political crusades the fashionable left appears to be winning, one’s position on climate change is fast becoming little more than a sort of status signifier, with “correct” views serving as a proxy for respectability and sanity, while critical, unorthodox, or contrarian views bring warnings of madness and ignorance. Orthodox climate change opinions are associated with respectable things like nature and scientists; unorthodox ones are tied to horrible things like Republicans and, with the growing popularity of the slur “denier,” the Holocaust.

Such an ultra-judgemental dichotomy hasn’t exactly done great things for the intellectual vigour of the larger climate change debate. People— especially people eagerly courting elite approval or elite standing — don’t necessarily understand anything substantial about the issue one way or another, but clamour to support the “right side” just the same, since the alternative is so culturally stigmatized. Increasingly, it’s a conversation that’s over before it even begins.

My own, somewhat less insecure approach is to deconstruct the matter into a series of sub-questions, and engage with those. Climate change, after all, is less a single take-it-or-leave it preposition than a series of interlocking concerns, some of which have vastly harder answers than others.

Is climate change real? Well it depends what sort of climate we’re referring to, and how exactly it’s supposed to be changing.

We used to talk about “global warming,” but that term’s fallen out of fashion for being too specific.

According to the Met Office — Britain’s leading weather institute— the “ten hottest years on record” all occurred after 1998. Yet the years after 1998 also reveal a sort of “pause” in the increase of warming, meaning those last 16 hot years form a smooth plateau that continues to this day. “The case of the missing heat,” as Nature put it, and “the biggest mystery in climate science today.”

This unexpectedly missing heat, in turn, caused some embarrassment last year when it was revealed that 114 of the last 117 global warming predictions of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had been somewhat off — and all off in the direction of “overestimated global warming,” to once again quote Nature. Subsequent predictions have back-peddled accordingly, with the fifth IPCC congress now predicting the world will heat up somewhere between 1 to 4.5 degrees Celsius by the end of this century.

Will the results be catastrophic? Well, considering that a warming increase below two degrees is considered relatively innocuous, in the words of Matt Ridley in the Wall Street Journal, this means, by the IPPC’s own estimates, “there is a better than 50-50 chance that by 2083, the benefits of climate change will still outweigh the harm.” To be fair, that also means there’s a 50% chance the harm will outweigh the benefit, with the harm in question entailing rising sea levels, droughts, wilting forests, and all the rest of it.

We’re supposed to regard such vast ambiguities as the stuff of “settled science.” And perhaps it is, in the sense the findings in question are the result of scientific methods and standards universally regarded as rigorous and sound by the academy. Yet there can still exist a great deal of space between a science that is academically legitimate and a science capable of accurately predicting the short-term future. It’s for this reason  I’ve never seen anything particularly fringy about having some healthy climate change skepticism — without necessarily going so far as to embrace the demonized label of climate skeptic, proper.

The more interesting question, in any case, is whether the phenomena of climate change is something we can stop, or even reverse; whether we can continue the present “pause” forever, or even go back to pre-19998 temperatures — and even more particularly, whether the many things our governments are insisting we do in the name of “fighting” the worst-case scenario, the four-degree future, are in fact, practical, realistic means to achieving this goal.

President Obama announced last week he wants to see American power plants cut their total carbon-dioxide emissions 30% by 2030. Sometime next year, the Environmental Protection Agency will decree unique Co2 reduction expectations for each state depending on how much they’re polluting at present — Texas will have a higher hill to climb than Oregon, for instance — and if the states don’t pass their own regulations to meet these goals a few years after that, the EPA will impose some. Mostly, the hope is that states will move to shut down their dirty coal-fired plants — of which there are about 500 across America — and move to cleaner renewables, like solar and wind.

The US Chamber of Commerce doesn’t like this. They say fallout from plant closures will result in the loss of millions of jobs, and the ensuing shift to less efficient methods of power generation will provoke a dramatic spike in electricity prices. This, in turn, will percolate throughout the larger economy, with the final price tag totalling some $51 billion in lost economic output.

It’s a story that will sound familiar to many Canadians, particularly those in Ontario, where that province’s similarly-motived 2009 Green Energy Act is now blamed for hiking the cost of electricity nearly 300%, and thus helping dramatically spike the cost of doing business.

The EPA claims the Chamber’s numbers are wrong, but on some level, it shouldn’t really matter. Fighting climate change is not something you do because it’s good for the economy, it’s something you do in spite of crass economic worries because it represents an existential threat to the survival of humanity itself.

But, as the old saying goes, America can’t save the world all by its lonesome. American Co2 emissions — which have actually been declining in recent years, and are presently at a 20-year low — only represent about one-fifth of global pollution, with the greenhouse gasses produced by the combined might of India, Russia, and China comprising something closer to 30%. I listened to the inaugural speech of the new Indian prime minister the other day; though he made reference to climate change, when it came to emissions he spoke only of “mitigation,” not regulation. The new leader of the Chinese Communist Party, meanwhile has followed a similar path during his first year in office, worrying loudly but doing little of substance to help reverse his own country’s greenhouse emissions — which have more than doubled since 2000 and continue to climb. And of course we all know Russia’s stance on fossil fuels.

President Obama has stated that his government’s regulations are intended, at least in part, to set an “example” for other nations, and prove that America is “serious” about climate change, tacitly conceding — ironically, as many global warming ultra-doomsdayers already do — that nothing America does on the pollution front really matters on any level but the symbolic.

To be sure, Americans will enjoy having the air they breathe — already some of the cleanest in the world — become slightly cleaner, and I’m sure the well-connected folks who tend to benefit the most from “green” energy contracts will enjoy their newfound riches. But in terms of whether the economic costs associated with waging a prolonged war against coal power and imposing a bevy of fresh energy regulations on every state are a price worth paying to secure Mr. Obama’s legacy as the president who “cared” about solving a looming climate crisis that might not be solvable and may not even be a crisis — well, that’s some science that really needs settling.

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A big announcement

After 13 years, I have decided to end Filibuster. But don’t worry — not in the way you’re thinking.

As my career as a Canadian political commentator continues to unfold, I am finding less and less need for a website branded with an identity separate from my own. Unlike many webcartoonists, I have no desire to maintain any sort of professional “distance” between myself and the work I produce, nor do I desire any pretence of mystery or anonymity. I draw politicized cartoons and write political columns — by definition, everything I produce for this site is first and foremost an expression of my personal beliefs.

In this context, continuing to tag my art and writing with the “Filibuster” brand adds nothing. No one identifies me as the “Filibuster guy” nor do they speak of “the latest Filibuster cartoon.” Both fans and haters alike know me as J.J. McCullough, with “Filibuster” merely a superfluous additional name that conveys no useful information. I chose the name back in 2001 simply because I liked how it sounded (filibusters, in those days, were relatively rare, making the term sound exotic and obscure), and because I understood all good webcomics to need a name.

I’m not really a webcartoonist anymore, however; I’m a guy who does lots of stuff, one of which is posting cartoons on the web. As soon as I’m able, I plan to rejigger the site a bit to make it less “webcomicky” and more reflective of my modern career as a political commentator in general.

I will continue to own the URL, though as you may notice, everything is now. Old links will now redirect to their new equivalent, so there should be no hassle for anyone.

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The Promise of Prostitution

It all comes down to the sort of society we want to inhabit.

There is a strain of thought, increasingly popular these days, that regards any law even partially justified on the basis of upholding some standard of “morality” as an arbitrary, fussy threat to individual independence. Laws that forbid or stigmatize personal behaviour are angrily dismissed as archaic remnants of a bossy, judgemental, religiously dogmatic past — the Victorian nanny state at its most overzealous and smothering.

The contrary, less fashionable perspective is to look to government as protector of a specific sort of civilization. A government justified in occasionally limiting — within, as the Canadian constitution says, the conventions of “a free and democratic society” — certain forms of “immoral” personal conduct in the name of upholding the values responsible for building all that’s good and productive about our civilization in the first place.

Thanks to the vigorous campaigning of the Canadian sex worker lobby, and their sympathetic portrayal in the press, recent debates over prostitution in this country have been mostly framed with the language and logic of that first philosophy.

What we cruelly stigmatize as “prostitution,” say the activists, is simply an individual freely choosing to do whatever she wants with her body — in this case, sell access to it. Such freedom fighters characterize their enemy as the tyrannical authority of a hopelessly puritanical police state, one that’s scolded and hounded legitimate businesswomen into alleys, docks, and off-ramps (not to mention the arms of dangerous pimps), and all for the quote-unquote “crime” of deciding what to put in their own bodies — a decision the state considers them perfectly capable of making in countless other contexts.

Drafted in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s tendentious “Bedford” ruling, which declared Canada’s Victorian-era ban on sexual solicitation unjustly cruel to prostitutes, and thus unconstitutional, the Harper government’s recently-released Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act had little choice but to concede to the emerging elite consensus. The Tory bill showily bans the direct purchase of sex, to be sure, but the practical significance of this headline-grabber is undermined by several other clauses that tacitly concede a prostitute’s right to conduct business — so long as her operation is a quiet sole proprietorship.

Prostitutes can advertise, but only so far as the goods being promoted are their “own sexual services.” They can’t sell themselves in a “public place,” which implies they can in private ones. Pimping and employing is forbidden, but otherwise “living off the avails” — as we used to say — is not, and clause 286.2 explicitly allows prostitutes to purchase any “service or good” in the interest of her enterprise.

What the government is admitting, in short, is that some form of decriminalized prostitution — albeit covert and underground — is here to stay. The onus is now simply on the johns to ensure they don’t get caught, when previously it was the other way ‘round. Seeking to minimize prostitution’s “public” presence while guaranteeing professional protections for the prostitutes themselves, it’s hard to read the Exploited Persons Act without hearing a tired sigh on the part of the government — fine, just keep it where I can’t see it. 

That, of course, is not nearly enough for prostitution’s more aggressively libertine proponents, who would much prefer to see “sex work” become a fully embraced and accepted industry within modern capitalist society — with salaries and CEOs and downtown office space and all the rest of it —as opposed to a barely-tolerated one driven underground by intentionally burdensome legislation.

While there are undeniably those who fret with valid concern about the abuse of prostitutes that can occur when their clients, by definition, must be men of low enough class to be comfortable breaking the law (though conversely, one hardly expects prostitutes to represent a higher class of society now that their side of the transaction will be legal), there are a great many more — in both press and politics — who simply see this battle as the latest front in the wars of sexual liberation, and a heroic struggle to free one more private bedroom practice from arbitrary government taboo.

Absent in this conversation is much consideration for the broader societal, and yes, moral consequences the total removal of such a historically stigmatized activity would bring. A society in full embrace of fully-legalized prostitution, after all, is a society in which sexual services are cheerfully advertised on television, radio, magazines, and billboards, and sales transactions happily take place in broad daylight — if not well-lit, showy storefronts. A society in which welcoming odd men into your intimates is just another job for young girls to contemplate as they ponder their future, while teenage boys can save their allowance to buy sex with a stranger before they even reach drinking age.

It would mark our final arrival at a licentious destination to which we have long been drifting. After years of passive objectification, women’s bodies would finally be unambiguously designated in law as products to be bought and sold. Sex would officially drop all lingering pretences of being an intimate, emotional bond of love and trust (or at least affinity and friendship) in favour of legal reclassification as a cheap consumer good for achieving short-term gratification.

That’s a vision of a certain sort of culture, and one only the government has the power to create. It’s the price of making real a particular brand of libertarianism, and I’m not convinced we’re all ready to pay it.

It all poses a very interesting dilemma for the left-wing opposition parties, incidentally, who have not yet offered a firm opinion on the Tory bill — much to the chagrin of their radically permissive base, who would love to see it discarded for something less equivocating.

Will Tom and Justin double-down on the ultra-libertine, if it-feels-good-do-it agenda they’ve previously used to dictate their official stance on two other contentious social issues — marijuana and abortion —or do they make prostitution a line in the sand, and admit that assenting to the creation of a dynamic new industry of for-profit sexual favours is maybe one slouch too far in the direction of hedonistic dystopia.

We often talk about the inherent ugliness of “extreme” right-wing social policies. Well, there’s another style, too.


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Do Subcultures Kill?

Do Subcultures Kill?
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A guy named Maddox made an intriguing post on Facebook the other day.

“100% of gun massacres occur by people with mental illness,” he said. “If you disagree with that statement, be prepared to make the case that there are some rational, cool-headed people who, after thinking clearly and weighing the pros and cons, decide to commit mass-killings. There aren’t.”

At first glance, the logic is persuasive. Massacring other human beings is such a profoundly hideous, evil act — an act that runs so contrary to our internal programming even its mere thought provokes instinctive revulsion, misery, and horror— defective brain wiring appears the only plausible motive.

It’s an explanation that offers comforting affirmation of our shared humanity (which is probably why Maddox got 14,000 likes for it). It also has the added benefit of providing intellectual justification for a quick hand wave whenever a killer comes along who believes or likes a lot of the same things you do. Oh, well obviously he wasn’t motivated by any of that, you can say, he was just a nut!

Yet popular though it may be, we all have our exceptions to the lone-crank thesis. Particularly when a killer holds values or interests dramatically contrary to your own, the idea that such things do possess the capacity to corrupt a “rational, cool-headed person” becomes incredibly convincing, and the crazy defence considerably less so.

Most of us accept the idea that the Nazis slaughtered millions of Jews not because they were insane, but because they were otherwise ordinary people ruined by a wicked philosophy that ranked some races genetically less desirable than others, and that the killings of inferiors was morally justifiable. We’re likewise quick to pin other 20th century slaughters on other totalitarian doctrines we don’t care for — fascism, communism, etc. In our modern context, most of us accept that Islamic terrorists kill because they believe a hateful ideology that encourages them to do so.

Whether you’re a bleeding heart leftist who frets about the socioeconomic “root causes” that “drive” indigent Muslims to radicalism, or a hard-hearted neo-con just hostile to Islam, period, you almost certainly believe that the murderous rage of Al Qaeda-types is an explicitly ideological solution to whatever socio-cultural-economic-geopolitical “problem” they believe they’re confronting.

Similar frames of understanding have been used to scrutinize the recent crop of mass-shooters, with — again — our willingness to accept their ideological motives usually a direct outgrowth of pre-existing biases against belief systems we don’t support.

If you hate EU-skeptics and the rising European far-right, chances are you saw the massacre by Anders Behring Breivik as a logical consequence of his anti-immigrant, ultra-traditionalist political views. If you’re a skeptic of violent movies and video games, you probably thought James Holmes’ love of the same are what inspired him to shoot up Aurora. Liberals were quick to blame Tea Party extremism for Jared Lee Loughner’s attempted assassination of Democratic Congresswoman Giffords, and there are still conservatives who blame Lee Harvey Oswald’s socialism for his murder of President Kennedy.

And now we have Elliot Rodger, whose string of murders this week have been widely diagnosed by feminists as having everything to do with his misogyny.

22-year-old Rodger, we now know, was a participant in a certain sort of online subculture devoted to complaining about women. Many have described him as an “MRA” type — which is to say, a proponent of the growing “Men’s Rights” movement that champions “Game”-style aggressive sexual conquest and bemoans the increasing feminization of society. But as is so often the case with solo killers, the man’s personal complexities make it difficult to apply such a neat label with any sort of confidence.

Rodger appears to have been as much a critic of the MRA establishment and its conventional wisdom as an active proponent of it, for instance. He was a member of a forum devoted to hating the so-called “PUA” or “pickup artist” subculture so popular within the net’s broader “manosphere,” and far from being a chronic sexual exploiter of women, he died never having so much as kissed one.

The blogger “Lion of the Blogosphere” has written a powerful, condensed summary of Rodger’s fairly coherent manifesto/autobiography, which paints a disturbing picture of a deeply insecure young man crippled by endless family drama, school troubles, and crushing shyness, insecurity, and social anxiety. Though there seems to be some ambiguity as to whether he was ever formally diagnosed, the adults in Rodger’s life all believed him to have the autism-like disorder known as Asperger’s Syndrome, and certainly some of his most pronounced behavioural tendencies — particularly his inability to socialize with peers and his emotional overreactions to any perceived “rejection” by others, especially women — will be recognizable to anyone who’s spent time with a sufferer of that condition. Growing up in the deranged world of Hollywood, where his father worked as a low-level director, this combination of severe personality disorders and upper-middle class feelings of entitlement for a particular standard of success — including, as he often explicitly stated, sex with a “beautiful girlfriend” — clearly made for a toxic brew.

As he came to embrace his social isolation and retreated further and further into the darkness of his own mind, Rodger became obsessed with a classically lunatic revenge fantasy against a world that denied him what he was convinced he deserved. His enemies were not just the planet’s women, whom he never understood and barely tried to, but its men as well, whose (in his view, inexplicable) social popularity and sexual prowess filled him with seething jealousy.

On May 23 he stabbed his three roommates to death, drove to the University of California Santa Barbara and shot two sorority sisters, and shot a third stranger at a nearby restaurant before ultimately shooting himself. He did not kill his loathed younger brother or his equally-despised stepmother, though he had planned to. He didn’t kill half the people he planned to, in fact.

When we go around blaming this or that ideology for this or that slaughter, it seems the most reasonable standard of judgement is whether or not the ideology in question contains the seeds of murder in its core intellectual premises. This is an important distinction from the conventional way we often talk about ideological extremism and murder, which is merely that believing in something, anything hard enough will eventually make you kill.

The sometimes overlapping, sometimes conflicting subcultures commonly (and lazily) lumped together under the “MRA” banner — pickup artists, anti-pickup artists, fathers’ rights legal activists, anti-feminist trolls, general traditionalist bloggers, etc. — may be gross, insensitive, ignorant, or cruel, but it’s difficult to argue theirs is a community ideologically committed to murder as an acceptable means to their ends. Even this Slate column which appears to have tried mightily to find sympathy for Rodger in the dankest recesses of the MRA underground comes up empty-handed. (And of course, the less dank recesses have written articulate denunciations).

If Rodger was some manner of serial rapist, perhaps his feminist critics would be on firmer ground, given their oft-stated linkage between entitled male chauvinism and the controversial notion of “rape culture,” but we’re not talking about rape. We’re talking about the deliberate, indiscriminate mass slaughter of human beings. Of both genders.

Rodger’s personal ideology, formed as it was in an obviously unhealthy brain, was an ideology of murder — but the murders of esoteric enemies whose death served no larger purpose beyond raising the world’s awareness of the supposed tragic plight of Elliot Rodgers. In that sense Rodger was the moral equivalent of a Nazi or an Al-Qaeda fundamentalist, in that he possessed a worldview that made his enemies less than fully human, and thus worthy of death as a means of fulfilling some larger goal. But he was also quite definitively not like a Nazi or an Al-Qaeda fundamentalist in that no one beyond Rodger himself believed in Rodgerism. Which makes it an act of truly dishonest political opportunism to suggest — as many feminist commentators have — that his view of the world is any way popular or common among the other “privileged white males” who walk amongst us.

Not to pick on feminists, mind you. Had Rodgers been tangentially associated with some other unpopular cause or subculture, one imagines it would be critics of that thing now crying for collective atonement.

We must break the ghoulish cycle of treating every mass murder as an opportunity to stand on a pile of corpses and increase the volume on something we were just going to say anyway.

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Racist Regimes

Racist Regimes
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Assuming — not without cause — that my disastrous year in Japan has left me forever craving anecdotes of the country at its worst, a friend recently brought to my attention this snarky article about the inflated self-regard in which the Japanese hold themselves. Among the most unsettling stats cited, when a recent survey asked if “the Japanese possess vastly superior qualities” “compared to the people of other nations” 64% of the country answered yes.

Such numbers won’t surprise fellow ex-expats. Some years ago I illustrated a book cover for a collection of essays written by an African-American fellow living in Yokohama, documenting his uncomfortable life as a racial outcast in the land of the pure. People pointing and staring and clutching their purses and changing seats and whatnot with a brazenness that would have raised eyebrows in the Jim Crow South for its lack of subtlety. That was the kind of thing all the immigrants always talked about when I was there. Just like how it was an article of faith in those same circles that some restaurants and shops in lower-class neighbourhoods hung explicit “NO FOREIGNERS” signs in their windows.

That Asian countries are some of the world’s most racist is an assertion born out by data. A revealing 2013 World Values Survey of racial tolerance around the globe (as measured by one’s willingness to have neighbours of a different race) placed Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Thailand, and South Korea all near the bottom of the global rankings, well beneath anywhere in the Americas, non-France Europe, even South Africa.

Whatever its roots, this cultural inclination towards xenophobia and bigotry is often blamed for the loud, exaggerated paranoia and distrust Asian nations routinely display towards each other, and the vicious, bloody wars of colonization and ethnic cleansing that have historically erupted in response. (And of course ominous storm clouds loom today over the multi-sided stand-off over those islands in the South China Sea, a ridiculous conflict most outside observers agree is as much about upholding reactionary notions of “national pride” as any legitimate geopolitical interest.)

No great shock, then, that ethnocentrism is also a particularly pronounced feature of Asia’s worst kid on the block.

In 2010, a guy named B. R. Myers wrote a book on North Korea entitled The Cleanest Race, that was later the subject of a memorable review by Christopher Hitchens. Meyers’ thesis was that much of the country’s lunatic patriotism was actually a racial thing, with their hermit-like isolation from the rest of the world viewed as a source of national strength, since it reflected such enviable ethnic purity. Hitch himself recounted meeting a NoKo bureaucrat who bemoaned the Southern regime’s comparative mongrelization at the hands of all those interloping foreigners bedding their women, “even black American soldiers, or so he’d heard to his evident disgust.”

Earlier this month the world received a reminder of just how high this ugliness goes. On May 2, 2014 (or, as the North Koreans evidently record dates, Juche Year 103 — Juche Year 1 being the birth of regime founder and Great Leader Kim Il Sung, whose xenophobic spin on Marxism is known as Juche), the infamous Korean Central News Agency churned out a press release in response to Barack Obama’s recent Asian tour.

Writing in the trademark half-coherent pseudo-English that’s become a quintessential component of North Korean sloganeering, the bulk of the thing consists of a fiery denunciation of South Korean president Park Geun Hye (referred, in traditional, and only somewhat metaphorical fashion, as “no more than a dirty political harlot” and an “old prostitute”) but it was the passing reference to her “American master” as a “wicked black monkey” that made the biggest headlines.

Lest anyone think it was just a casual slur, the NoKo news office banged out a second, more Obama-centric release that same day ratcheting up the racial rhetoric to truly cartoonish heights.

Originally untranslated into English until the blog One Free Korea got their hands on it, the rant apparently describes the President of the United States as a “ugly sub-human” with “cross-breed blood” and “cavernous nostrils” and a “thick-lipped maw” who belongs in a zoo “licking at the bread crumbs tossed by onlookers” — among many, many other colourful analogies. As The Washington Post dutifully noted, while the White House “often ignores the rhetorical excesses of the North Korean regime,” even they reached their limits with this one — “ugly and disrespectful” was the official denunciation of a spokesman.

One of the great ironies of America’s ever-more zealous drive to extinguish racism within its borders — in which every other week this-or-that b-list celebrity is being dragooned out of their job for using some noun or adjective freshly forbidden by social justice censors, and overt discrimination has become so rare we must now worry ourselves with shadowy phenomena like “structural racism” — is how blind it makes us to the persistence of considerably more aggressive, destructive forms of bigotry practiced elsewhere in the world.

True racism, in the sense of angry, ignorant, cruel hate directed towards those visibly different from the majority, remains, as it always has, the ideology of tyrants eager to redirect their subjects’ rage towards phantom enemies, and sheltered societies whose insecurities about their own weakness can only be effectively masked with puffed-up chauvinism.

That’s not a bad description of many of the regimes running Asia at the moment.

Not that I want to stereotype.


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Seducing the Right

Seducing the Right
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This was something I drew a couple weeks ago, shortly before I went on a two-week visit to Toronto. Unfortunately, amid all the hustle and bustle of the trip, I never had time to write a proper essay to accompany it until now.

The image of a grotesque collection of militia-man stereotypes seeking to seduce a simple-minded elephant was my personal reaction to the overzealous willingness of some right-wingers to come to the defence of the vile Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy in his much-publicized standoff with federal agents over cattle grazing fees.

To those dogmatically convinced of the fundamental evil of Washington, DC, the deeper facts of this confrontation didn’t much matter — the enemy of my enemy was my friend. Shortly after the standoff began at Bundy’s ranch in early April, several high-profile Republican politicians and conservative media personalities rushed to defend his right to whatever it was he was defending, most notably Sean Hannity on FOX and Senator Ted Cruz of Texas.

Unfortunately, the more facts of the Bundy story became known, the harder their defensive posture became to maintain.

Bundy’s entire legal case, it was revealed, revolved not around any hard evidence of innocence, but simply that he didn’t recognize the authority of the federal government. He had, in fact, been grazing his cattle illegally on federally-owned land for over two decades; he simply didn’t care to pay the penalties because he’d arbitrarily decided his personal “claim” superseded federal jurisdiction. Predictably, these arguments failed to persuade the courts during numerous trials (in which he obviously represented himself), and after 21 straight years of losses, his outstanding fines totalled over a million dollars and left pretty much all his property fair game for forfeiture. If anything, the fact that his cattle were still happily grazing away in the year 2014 despite decades of warnings and reprimand was evidence of government weakness, not power.

You clearly have to have a couple screws loose to be so cocksure about all this “sovereign citizen gobbledygook,” and as the weeks progressed, this became another inescapable reality of the Cliven Bundy Show.

Late last month, at the peak of his fame as the leading folk hero of the subversive right, Bundy offered what the New York Times charitably described as a “long, loping discourse” on racial matters at one of his already traditionally painful daily press conferences.

The problem with “the Negro,” he said, is that they all lie around all day and don’t do anything productive. Why, it’s enough to make a man wonder, “are they better off as slaves?” At least back then they had cotton to pick.

Any hopes that Bundy had merely stated a somewhat valid sociological point through an inelegant metaphor were then dashed further when he doubled down at his next presser, declaring confidently that “I understand what slavery’s all about” and standing by his thought exercise despite it. You could practically hear the thunder of shoes hitting pavement as the man’s one-time allies stampeded away.

To be sure, Bundy’s popularity was always fairly exaggerated. Glenn Beck and Ann Coulter, for instance, were consistently Bundy-skeptic, as was the National ReviewRed StateBreitbart, and indeed, the majority of mainstream conservatives who looked seriously at this strange little man and his self-righteous “plight.”

Yet this disgust was itself revealing. Many conservatives, such as Coulter, fretted over what we may call the “sex appeal” of figures like Bundy to populist right-wingers — figures who, because they mouthed a few correct slogans and told a story that jelled with preexisting suspicions, were immediately canonized with little critical thought. It’s our version of those dopey leftists who fell way too deeply in love with Occupy Wall Street way too quickly, she said.

In my mind, the lazy embrace of terrible “activists” is the direct product of an increasingly polarized, omnipresent political culture. One that demands the categorization of just about every object, person, and occurrence in society into a tidy either/or, for-or-against partisan dichotomy, with the greatest prizes awarded to those who are most dogmatically “consistent,” and the harshest punishments for those who seem pragmatic or equivocating. Even now, you have counter-counterculture pundits like Mark Steyn and Gavin McInnes who still seem afraid to denounce Bundy too hard, lest they even for one scant minute appear on the same side as the left. To the extent they want to be seen disagreeing with him, they have to make it painfully evident that their disagreement is strictly on their own terms.

Conservatism in America seems to be entering a stage of increased anxiety. With mid-term elections just around the corner, and with them the promise of recapturing both houses of Congress and snipping the wings of President Obama for the remainder of his tenure, the GOP’s need to avoid what the Canadian press, in a different context, once dubbed the “bozo eruptions” of a radical, uncensored right-wing base has never been more pressing. The challenge of American politics, however, is that a party system based on self-identification (Bundy, for what it’s worth, is apparently a registered Republican) makes guilt-by-association a distressingly easy game, particularly for a liberal-leaning press and blogosphere.

It’s not difficult for leading GOP politicians to denounce the Cliven Bundys of the world, and declare the crankish, ignorant worldview he represents as thoroughly non-indicative of mainstream conservative values.

Far more of a challenge to permanently alter the broader ideological culture that caused such denunciations to be necessary in the first place.

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Dateline Obama

Dateline Obama
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When it comes to a president’s ability to competently manage US foreign policy, Canada is a good bellwether. It’s a small, peaceful, English speaking country with cultural values basically identical to America’s — and it’s right next door. The central core of the Canada-US relationship is no less favorable: Canada wants to sell stuff to America – good stuff America generally needs — and all America has to do to show goodwill is buy it.

Since President Obama can’t seem to figure out how to best serve America’s interests in the Middle East or Eastern Europe, it shouldn’t come as any great shock that he can’t seem to figure our how to master the exceedingly simple puzzle of Canada, either.

Bloomberg Businessweek published a fantastic report yesterday documenting the full decay of Canada-US relations under the Obama administration. It’s a breakdown that’s partially the product of a rare ideological mismatch — this is the first time since the Kennedy years that Canada has been governed by a conservative leader while America has a liberal one — though obviously the main sticking point is the future of the proposed Alberta-to-Texas Keystone XL pipeline.

Keystone is an enormous… well, keystone in Prime Minister Harper’s vision for Canada’s future as an economic juggernaut and energy superpower, and by the estimates of the Obama State department, no slouch for America either — “3,900 jobs over its two-year construction period, contributing $3.4 billion in economic growth” according to Bloomberg.

In yet another troubling instance of what I discussed last week, however — namely the eclipse of traditional left-wing economic interests by modern left-wing social justice concerns — the whole issue of whether to approve or not has become entirely hijacked by environmentalist logic, which holds economic growth and the creation of unionized construction jobs to be less important than taking a symbolic stand against the evils of oil.

And let’s be clear: symbolism is what this is all about. Reports from countless independent agencies on both sides of the border have repeatedly found no evidence that the construction of Keystone would pose any sort of environmental risk. Even if it increases America’s petroleum consumption by its most optimistic hopes, the thing will hike US greenhouse gas emissions by less than half of 1%. And even if it’s not built at all, America’s pristine wilderness will still be at risk of a spill, given that Alberta will probably just choose to ship its oil to Texas via railway cars — which studies have found to be considerably more precarious than pipelines.

Yet symbolism matters a lot to a president who has had an increasingly tough time satisfying his liberal base, a base who are the only demographic in America who oppose Keystone. They want a president who will do something ostentatiously green as a way of demonstrating his environmentalist bona fides, and so Obama continues to punt approval of Keystone month after month, year after year, most recently this past Good Friday, when he announced no decision will be made until some vague point after the US midterm elections in November. This will be a full two years after the last politically opportune moment that was once supposed to bring closure: the 2012 presidential election.

Why the President cannot simply have the courage of his convictions and do what he clearly wants — veto the pipeline — is something that continues to baffle the Canadians, who, as you might expect, have seen their hope fade into weariness, and weariness into anger, at continuing to be endlessly strung along in this fashion.

If nothing else, it seems an utterly incomprehensible way to treat an ally, and a major strategic and economic partner.

But when has Obama’s foreign policy ever been guided by any other principle?

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What’s so hard about Senate reform?

The Supreme Court of Canada has announced it will rule next Friday on the Prime Minister’s various questions regarding the constitutionality of Senate reform. Regardless of how they rule —  and I don’t think it’s going to be much of a surprise  —  the decision will be one of the most important in Canadian political history, as it will finally provide closure to the age-old question of whether our horrible Senate is something we can “do anything” about, or merely something we’re, for all practical purposes, stuck with forever.

The democratic reform minister submitted six questions to the Supreme Court of Canada in early 2013. Question 4 isn’t very interesting; it relates to the archaic provision that Canadian senators must be property-owners. The other five are what matters; they have to do with establishing clear ground rules regarding how the Senate can or can’t be elected or abolished.

The amending provision of the constitution of Canada, known as “Part V” of the Constitution Act, 1982, is badly-written, like most of the constitution of Canada. Basically, it says that some parts of the Canadian political system are arbitrarily more important than others, and amendments changing the important parts should be harder to pass as a result.

To pass an amendment affecting one of the “unimportant” things requires the assent of the House, the Senate, and the governments of two-thirds of the provinces representing at least 50% of the national population. This is sometimes called the “7/50″ formula (since two-thirds of 10 provinces is seven) and it is outlined in section 38(1) of Part V.

To pass an amendment affecting one of the “important” things requires the assent of the House, the Senate, and the governments of every single province — in other words, “unanimous consent.” This is outlined in section 41.

The “unimportant things” (the easier-to-change things) are listed in section 42. They are:

(a) the principle of proportionate representation of the provinces in the House of Commons prescribed by the Constitution of Canada;

(b) the powers of the Senate and the method of selecting Senators;

(c) the number of members by which a province is entitled to be represented in the Senate and the residence qualifications of Senators;

(d) subject to paragraph 41(d), the Supreme Court of Canada;

(e) the extension of existing provinces into the territories; and

(f) notwithstanding any other law or practice, the establishment of new provinces.

The “important things” (that require unanimous consent to change) are stated in section 41. They are:

(a) the office of the Queen, the Governor General and the Lieutenant Governor of a province;

(b) the right of a province to a number of members in the House of Commons not less than the number of Senators by which the province is entitled to be represented at the time this Part comes into force;

(c) subject to section 43, the use of the English or the French language;

(d) the composition of the Supreme Court of Canada; and

(e) an amendment to this Part.

Most Canadians are probably vaguely aware of these two-tiers of amendments. Less well-known is a third tier, found in section 44 concerning what we might call the “super unimportant things.” It is perhaps the worst, most confusingly-worded part of Section V, and states, in full:

“Subject to sections 41 and 42, Parliament may exclusively make laws amending the Constitution of Canada in relation to the executive government of Canada or the Senate and House of Commons.”

The Harper administration wants the following:

  • term limits for senators (question 1)
  • Senate elections, either run by the federal government (question 2) or the provincial governments (question 3)

These three questions to the Supreme Court operate on the hope that Senate reform of this sort falls under the category of a “super unimportant thing” covered section 44 — which is to say, a change “in relation to… the Senate” that can be made by ordinary statute, without any provincial governments getting involved.

The government also wants closure on whether abolishing the Senate would count as an unimportant thing under section 38 (question 5), or an important thing under section 41 (question six).

That’s a lot of complex background, but it’s only necessary, again, because the Constitution is extraordinarily badly-written and thus extremely unclear about something that should really be quite obvious. As is not uncommon with Supreme Court cases, the answers to the Harper questions will ultimately be little more than political opinions delivered under the thin disguise of subjective language analysis.

Here’s my attempt to isolate the subjective language in question:

  • the powers of the Senate and the method of selecting Senators” (an “unimportant thing” under section 42)
  • in relation to… the Senate” (a “very unimportant thing” under section 44)
  • an amendment to this Part” (an “important thing” under section 41)

Let’s do language analysis together one statement at a time.

“the powers of the Senate and the method of selecting Senators”

The “powers of the Senate” obviously refers to the power of the Senate to pass or veto legislation. Abolishing the Senate would affect its power, which appears to makes abolishing the Senate clearly an “unimportant thing” requiring the easy amending formula.

The current “method of selecting Senators” entails the governor general picking someone. The Governor General picks who the prime minister tells him to pick, which is of course the understood practice of our constitutional monarchy system, and not something anyone contests the legality of. Indeed, this is actually a rare advantage of the constitutional monarchy system; if the only hard rule in law is that the figurehead has to have the final, symbolic say over something, it’s quite easy to make up new processes in which to “advise” his decision without having to open up the constitution. Canada’s current process of appointing Supreme Court judges has recently become a convoluted, multi-step, ad-hoc process, for example, but because the governor general still has final sign-off — the only thing the Constitution requires for judicial appointments — no one contests the constitutionality of that convoluted appointment process.

Even if Senate elections were held, the governor general could still formally “approve” Senators-elect after they won the vote. This was explicitly provided in the Harper government’s go-nowhere Senate Reform Act of 2006 (helpfully cited alongside the Supreme Court questions), which only described Senators-elect as being the “preferences” of voters, and thus still subject to the polite fiction that the GG has final say.

It is not difficult to argue that electing senators (so long as the polite fiction of the governor general’s power is maintained) does not require a constitutional amendment.

Term limits are a stickier wicket. As we’ve learned from the whole Senator Duffy-Harb-Brazeau-Wallin brouhaha, senators are not easily removed from the chamber. The constitution says a senator shall “hold his place in the Senate until he attains the age of seventy-five” which doesn’t leave a lot of ambiguity. Unlike an “advisory” Senate election, there is no way to square “until he attains the age of seventy-five” with “until he finishes a term of X years.” A common-sense reading therefore suggests term limits would alter the “method of selecting Senators” and thus should require an “easy” style constitutional amendment under section 42.

“in relation to… the Senate”

This appears to indicate that the Parliament of Canada does indeed have the power to regulate certain things about the Senate. Those who take the maximally obstructionist perspective on Senate reform — that any change to anything requires a constitutional amendment — should ask why this provision is present in our constitution, and what it could possibly cover. I would argue it provides a legal mandate for Ottawa to conduct “advisory” Senate elections, or outsource that responsibility to the provinces.

“an amendment to this Part” 

This line worries me, because it’s ambiguous enough to give the Supreme Court grounds to rule all non-amendment Senate reform unconstitutional and all constitutional Senate amendments “important things” requiring climbing the hill of unanimous provincial consent.

The maximalist logic goes like this:

To pass any sort of constitutional amendment in Canada requires a vote of approval from the House of Commons, the Senate, and some assortment of provincial legislatures. If the Senate is altered in some consequential fashion, it could be argued the new Senate is no longer the same Senate the amending formulas talk about, and therefore the process of constitutional amendments has been compromised, and therefore Senate reform must require unanimous provincial consent, since altering the amendment process is one of those “important things” that requires it.

A slightly less maximalist argument would hold, at the very least, that abolishing the Senate counts as affecting the amending formula, since it would have the same practical consequence as saying today that the Senate shouldn’t play any role whatsoever in constitutional amendments, which clearly would affect the amending process.

The core question in both cases is basically whether altering some other part of the constitution that ends up affecting the amending process is the same as deliberately affecting the amending process. That’s very subjective.

To summarize, in my mind, a reasonable reading would hold that:

  • Senate elections can be instituted by ordinary statute
  • Term limits require an “easy” constitutional amendment
  • Abolishing the Senate requires a constitutional amendment, probably an “easy” one unless you want to be very fussy about it

Predicting the Future

Despite this, I predict the Supreme Court will rule that any sort of Senate reform cannot be done without unanimous provincial consent.

I predict they will offer a very maximalist, literal reading of the powers of the governor general, and argue that even “advising” him to do something through a “preference” election undermines his independence and sovereignty, and thus infringes on the powers of his office, which as we may recall from many paragraphs earlier, is one of the “important things” that requires a hard-style amendment to alter. I predict they will hold that term limits are a similar infringement of his power.

I believe they will then supplement this conclusion with the sort of maximalist reading of how altering the Senate affects the sanctity of the constitutional amendment process that I outlined above.

I predict this because our current Supreme Court seems to mostly issue rulings that are in sync with the conventional wisdom of the Canadian establishment, and establishment opinion has long held that Senate reform is super super difficult which is why it’s never been done. Establishment opinion also tends to take the governor general much more seriously than his office deserves to be, which is why I suspect they will be ultra-sensitive to anything that reeks of infringing on his prerogatives.

I hope I am wrong, but I suspect I won’t be. If they rule in the way I expect, the Canadian political system will have truly passed a hopeless point of no return.

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Progressive Conservatives

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I used to think it was possible — likely, even — that Elizabeth Warren might wrestle the Democratic presidential nomination from Hillary Clinton. My logic (hardly uncommon) was that a lot of liberal voters were going to take a second look at Hillary’s less-than-progressive record on economic issues one of these days, and conclude that they’d rather back a robustly left-wing, banker-hating populist than a former Wal-Mart board member currently making a living giving $20,000-a-pop speeches to Goldman Sachs executives.

The reason I don’t think that anymore, however, is because I’ve realized the modern American left doesn’t actually care about economic issues all that much. Indeed, one of the most interesting ideological shifts over the last decade or so has been the steady eclipse of traditional left-wing economic concerns — inequality, labor rights, progressive taxation, corporate regulation, etc. — by what we now call “social justice” issues — LGBT rights, anti-racism, multiculturalism, feminism, secularism/atheism, drug legalization, and so on.

Hillary, that proud glass-ceiling shattering identity-politics icon, has put a lot of effort into placing this kind of stuff at the centre of her brand. As secretary of state, she made the “promotion of equality for gay people a core value of U.S. foreign policy” and reformed the rules of the State Department bureaucracy to make it one of the country’s most LGBT-friendly employers. Active efforts at outreach towards the African-American community — who deserted her for Barack Obama in 2008 — have helped her regain a nearly 90% approval rating with black voters. She’s endorsed a so-called “path to citizenship” for illegal immigrants, and viciously denounced voter ID laws. On pot legalization she’s been at worst agnostic, and has certainly left the door open for an Obama-style “evolution,” should the winds begin to decisively blow in that direction.

What all this has to do with Republicans should be clear. As we’ve all discussed ad nauseum, the GOP can only win the presidency in 2016 by doing one of two things: winning more support from minority voters — who are mostly all liberals — or winning over white Democrats — who are entirely all liberals. And if the essence of American liberalism is increasingly “social justice,” then it obviously behooves any would-be Republican presidential candidate to make inroads on that front.

And it’s been happening. Albeit in a bumbling, typically awkward Republican sort of way.

Mike Huckabee, who is fast emerging as the GOP’s 2016 dark horse, has given a few speeches in recent months in which he’s attempted to subvert the narrative of the so-called “Republican War on Women” by claiming that no, it’s the Democrats who are the real anti-feminists.

Most infamously, at a January conference of the Republican National Committee, the former governor denounced Democrats for promoting the idea that American women “are helpless without Uncle Sugar coming in and providing them a prescription each month for birth control because they cannot control their libido or their reproductive system without the help of the government.” Republicans are waging a “war for women” to protect them from state-dependency, he declared proudly.

It didn’t go over well, for the simple reason that there’s rarely any political benefit to be gained by a Republican saying anything about birth control other than “I’m for it.” Huck’s subsequent efforts at women wooing entailed telling Salon magazine that “equality doesn’t mean sameness.” It was about as well-received.

A different tent-broadening strategy has been pursued by Jeb Bush, who, in the wake of Governor Christie’s subsumption by the overrated “bridgegate” scandal, has emerged as the leading moderate, consensus choice among the Republican Party’s moneyed elite.

Bush’s appeal to the left has mostly entailed tacking a progressive course on Latino issues — which he, as a Spanish-speaking ex-governor of a Latino-heavy state with a Latino immigrant wife — is presumed to be naturally adept at, not unlike his border-state brother. In the past, Bush has loudly asserted the need for his party to “change the tone” on their immigration rhetoric, a tone-change which he himself demonstrated last week when he dubbed illegal immigration an “act of love” undeserving of vindictive criminalization. Sure, it’s a crime in theory, but not like a crime crime, he said. It’s a “different kind of crime.”

Bush’s rhetoric — which no progressive could possibly find fault with — was interesting in that it exposed the strategic paradox of a “more liberal” GOP. In the aftermath of his comments, the right wing of his own party jumped all over him, and Bush has now probably been inescapably tagged as the leading “soft on illegals” candidate in any future Republican primary. Yet Nate Silver doesn’t think that matters much, and notes that Republican voters as a whole are actually much softer on illegals than popular lore would have you believe. It all really comes down to what primary voters think — and they’re not always known for being the most representative slice of the electorate.

Case study three is Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, who’s gone furthest of all in explicitly trying to rebrand himself as a fresh, 21st century Republican whose independent opinions defy traditional stereotype. Paul seems to believe his famed libertarianism (and rejection of dogmatic GOP partisanship) makes him most suited to bridge America’s left-right divide, though his esoteric take on the philosophy has probably made the quest harder than it should.

Speaking before liberal audiences in places like Berkeley U, Paul’s preferred pitch to non-Republicans is to play up his credentials as a skeptic of the military-industrial complex and surveillance state, blasting the constitutionality of drone strikes and the NSA with language that would sound at home in a Glenn Greenwald column. And it seems to be going over well; at Berkeley his anti-spying tirade — which included name-dropping famed FBI victims MLK and Muhammad Ali as a way of race-shaming America’s first black president — received a standing ovation.

Yet while positioning himself as solidly anti-war isn’t likely to alienate those foreign policy leftists who rose to loud prominance during the Bush years, the question is how many of today’s liberals are willing to place concerns about surveillance and imperialism over identity-politics issues on which Paul’s record is decidedly less progressive.

Unlike many more doctrinaire live-and-let-live libertarians, Paul is not neutral on matters like gay marriage and abortion; he opposes both. And though the son certainly lacks the Confederate apologism baggage of his father — openly bragging before black audiences that his party, not the Democrats, freed the slaves — one of Paul the Younger’s most haunting legacies to date was an unsettlingly ambiguous position on the Civil Rights Act during his 2010 Senate campaign. Libertarianism is a fine something-for-everyone ideology. But you have to be consistent in applying it.

It’s obviously unfair to criticize Republicans for trying and stumbling, as opposed to not trying at all. The fact that all the leading GOP presidential candidates at the moment are at least trying to moderate their party’s tone and brand in the eyes of those voters they need the most is admirable, and indicates the party is indeed more adept at bending and evolving than smug Democrats — with their constant predictions of a party “extinction” are willing to admit.

Yet at the same time, there’s a difference between genuine outreach to minorities and liberals born from genuine empathy and understanding, and merely trying to cleverly repackage a set-in-stone agenda whose fundamentals you have no interest in altering.

No one’s going to out-progressive Hillary, but Republicans have to offer a candidate capable of co-opting at least a portion of her natural base.

Plenty of Democratic voters are open to an alternative, and it doesn’t have to be Elizabeth Warren.


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