Opposed to What?

Opposed to What?
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The rise of the fundamentalist Sunni terror group ISIS in Iraq over the last couple of weeks has provoked critics of the Iraq war to new heights of smugness. ISIS, of course, is the Taliban-like entity that split from Al-Qaeda in 2013, largely as the result of petty politicking between its leader, self-styled “caliph” and would-be global overlord Abu al-Baghdadi and Osama Bin Laden’s owlish successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri. According to the latest charts, ISIS now controls over a dozen Iraq cities, including Mosul, the country’s second-largest, and we keep being warned their march on the capital is imminent.

Whether or not ISIS is actually a viable “government in waiting” remains far from clear — they have little experience holding territory, let alone running it — and sensationalistic media analogies framing the group as the North Vietnamese army descending on Saigon display a lazy misunderstanding of both conflicts. Yet either way, the sheer horror of these would-be caliphaties — the mass-murders of captured soldiers, the nightmarishly medieval social codes, the unapologetically imperial ambitions to rule the entire Middle East within five years  — has made them a powerful symbol for everything wrong with America’s 2003 intervention in the first place.

Such is the supposed vindication of the anti-war left, whose members have been endlessly applauding their own retrospective rightness as of late. Told you so — the war was a disaster. You should have listened to us! 

But really, should we have? Bad decisions have to be viewed in the contexts of the debates in which they were reached, and even in these dark days, it remains an open question whether anyone on the left was actually offering a viable alternative to war in 2003. Or, to put it more specifically, whether anyone on the left was offering a morally coherent, non-war strategy for dealing with the rogue regime of Saddam Hussein that America would have been wiser to pursue.

As someone who politically came of age during the 2003 lead-up to war, I remember well the left’s discomfort in dealing with the Saddam question — a particularly awkward position to be in, given the dangers and brutality of the Saddam regime were very much the central focus of the entire war conversation.

Anti-war liberals desperately wanted to maintain their credibility as the self-proclaimed defenders of human rights and democracy, and understandably so. Yet this meant the most logically contrary anti-war position (and certainly the position that would seem most justifiable in the current context) — that Saddam Hussein, bad as he was, was a force for Iraqi stability and secularism, and thus better than the alternative — was not merely avoided, but actively denounced. Indeed, if anything, a common liberal refrain at the time was to claim it was actually those right-wingers in the White House whose anti-Saddam credentials were most dubious.

Did not some of those former Reaganites have former careers as Saddam boosters during his war with Iran in the 1980s? Did not we have a photograph of Rumsfeld himself shaking the dictator’s hand? Was it not the Republicans who turned a blind eye when Saddam gassed the Kurds in 1988? Didn’t a Republican commerce secretary allow Saddam to import deadly dual-use chemicals for his WMD arsenal? Did not the president’s father make a conscious choice to allow Saddam to remain in power at the end of the first Gulf War — then brag about it in his memoirs?

Beginning every anti-war argument with a sort of perfunctory throat-clearing about Saddam’s obvious wickedness became a pronounced tic of the anti-war set in those days, yet their accompanying lack of strategy for confronting the evil they just acknowledged was large part of the reason they ultimately lost the war argument.

War proponents cried incohrence and hypocrisy and they were not wrong. During the 1990s, after all, many of the same people who would oppose the 2003 invasion were also steadfast opponents of the UN’s post-Gulf War Iraqi sanctions, which they blamed (and not unjustifiably) for tremendous death and suffering. Yet this made the left-wing war position the very definition of an unwinnable paradox: Saddam should neither be removed forcibly, nor sanctioned, nor supported, nor ignored. Perhaps some felt he should have been overthrown internally (though I remember a lot of snide words about how the Bush administration was plotting to swap “one dictator for another” back in the days when the dissident Iraqi politician Ahmed Chalabi seemed to be a White House darling). Perhaps some felt Saddam had the capacity to democratize himself, a la Emperor Hirohito after World War II. But even counter-proposals as strained as these were not made. The cowardly have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too stance that should be both no war and no Saddam was exactly the sort of moral bankruptcy that drove many principled left-of-center intellectuals like Christopher Hitchens and Michael Ignatieff to abandon the anti-war cause, and sleazy demagogues like George Galloway and Michael Moore to assume larger roles within it.

No, it was only the fringe anti-war right — your Pat Buchanans, your Lew Rockwells, your Robert Novaks — in all their isolationist xenophobia, human rights indifference and America uber alles supremacism, that offered a genuine alternative to the war to unseat Saddam, though it was an alternative so ugly and mean-spirited few bothered to take it seriously.

Hussein was a brutal dictator they conceded, but Iraq was also a preposterous artificial country filled with hateful, warring savages that needed a strongman’s iron grip to keep everyone from lunging at each others’ throats. Islam was a cruel and violent religion thoroughly incompatible with democracy — give Iraqi Muslims the vote and they’ll simply elect fundamentalists to oppress themselves further — witness Hamas in Palestine. American foreign policy should never be about righting all the world’s wrongs, merely upholding whatever state of affairs keeps the United States rich and safe. Saddam Hussein’s murderous energies were reserved for his own people (or at worst his neighbors) and he was perfectly content to sell Americans oil. In fact, as noted, Saddam actually had some history as a man with whom the United States could do business, and he was admirably hostile to the region’s most ferociously anti-American regime — Iran.

Vindicated by recent events or not, it was a fringe opinion for a reason. Such coldly self-serving logic is not consistent with mainstream American morality, particularly the uniquely American notion that theirs is not a global hegemon like the nasty empires of yore, but a kind and empathetic republic whose foreign policy embodies the same neighbourly virtues of trust, sympathy and generosity its people practice in their day-to-day lives, and honours the same democratic principles abroad that are protected by its progressive constitution at home. As American anxieties over everything from the Rwandan genocide of 1994 to the Assad massacre of today have proven, the ethical lens through which we view the justness of American foreign policy continues be of the either-or variety — the United States can either actively alleviate the suffering of others or be somehow complicit in it.

As the country burns, the most profound intellectual legacy of the Iraq war will be the degree to which a quintessentially American conception of geopolitical power as a force to be dictated by emotions of idealism, responsibility, and guilt — held since at least the Second World War — begins to break down, and Americans, especially Americans of the left, are able to accept that the higher goal of “peace” often requires an explicit, callous indifference to the loss of foreign life and foreign freedom in the name of stability.

Running offensively counter, as they do, to deeply-entrenched American values on all sides of the political spectrum, such arguments may not stick.

They certainly didn’t in 2003.


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Constructed Canadians

I get a little exasperated sometimes with the customary avalanche of carefully-constructed Canadian Pride™ that gets unloaded upon this nation every July first. This year’s lead offering was a supposed “most Canadian music video ever” released by Commander Chris Hadfield, of International Space Station fame, and his lesser-loved brother David, who as far as I know, possesses no fame at all.

There are lot of cloying, irritating things about In Canada, as the Hadfields’ song authoritatively calls itself. Chris Hadfield, for starters. How about taking a powder, Commander? The man was in outer space for a few months — he didn’t discover a new planet. Yet it seems every week he still manages to claw himself back into the headlines to bask in yet another round of adulteration whipped up by a compliant press, who are now basically functioning as his full-time publicity agents. It’s probably only a matter of time before someone appoints him to the Senate. Possibly himself. A modest hero he’s decidedly not.

In any case, the Hadfields’ viral hit suffers from all the same deep-seeded structural flaws that invariably turn any attempt at summarizing the Canadian experience into an exercise in disingenuous cornballism.

The base problem is that any Canadian seeking to encapsulate our collective essence always starts from the questionable assumption that nothing that “defines” our nation is also allowed to be present in America. Canadians are taught that national identity is a zero-sum game; nationalistic quirks must be owned, never shared. So we’re never told that the Canadian experience includes eating hot dogs or watching football or shopping at Wal-Mart or other mainstream rhythms of Canadian life because those are things the dreaded Americans do too, and we’re trying to be distinct here. The fact that football and hot dogs and Wal-Mart are precisely the kinds of things that make us distinct in the eyes of 96% of the planet matters little — the implicit audience for any well-curated manifesto of Canadian pride is always Americans, who are assumed to be interested, or other Canadians, who are assumed to be insufficiently aware of their own uniqueness and thus in need of endless lecturing on the matter.

The end result is that Canadian attempts to generalize their un-American distinctness invariably fall into three tendentious trends of stale rhetoric, all of which are on ample display in the Hadfields’ video.

Inspiringly patriotic anecdotes must either be exceedingly pointless and superficial (Chris sings about how “we love Nanaimo bars” and hoard “Canadian Tire money in at least one kitchen drawer”), exceedingly parochial (perhaps in Ontario they “wear Sorels in winter, while plugging in the car” but that’s certainly not the case in comparatively mild Vancouver), or insufferably dishonest and braggy (anyone who claims “you don’t butt in in Canada” has clearly not boarded a bus in this country).

It is not obvious at all what makes eating certain foods or shopping at certain stores a more fundamental part of the “Canadian” experience than buying or eating things that originate in America (or some other foreign place). If we’re looking to define the Canadian essence by Canadian consumerism, surely the standard should be the consumption of products that are actually popular, in a day-to-day sense (Hamburgers! Spaghetti! Ice cream!), as opposed to ultra-particular novelties like Nanimo bars that we may come into contact with, what — once a year? Indeed, the reason we all have drawers of Canadian Tire Money is because none of us shop there often enough to use it.

Nor can it be taken for granted in a country as enormous as Canada that any quirk of geography or weather — no matter how postcard perfect it may look on YouTube — can be generalized into a familiar experience without alienating large chunks of our widely-dispersed population. Not all Canadians experience winter in the snowy fashion so common back east, and the rocky mountains are known only in theory to the plains people of the prairies. To assert otherwise is to establish a hierarchy of experiences, in which colorful activities only a small sliver of the population will ever get to enjoy, like “paddling your canoe,” are given precedence over Canadian activities that are actually ubiquitous and unifying. Say, jogging.

Then there’s the cloying righteousness that comes with positing universal, aspirational virtues like politeness and respect as something Canadians unquestionably are, rather than imperfectly strive to be. I would have thought the antics and ongoing popularity of Rob Ford would have put a bit of a damper on those living in arrogant denial of the existence of rude, mean-spirited Canadians, but I suppose the wonderful thing about vanity is that it’s rarely weakened by fact.

What actually makes Canada an admirable country is our constitutionally-protected values — democratic self-rule, individual liberty, minority rights — that have kept our people safe and free, and our collective commitment to those civic virtues — labor, business, family, education, community, faith — that have made us wealthy and happy. These principles are not eccentric or splashy, and Americans have them too. But in the grand global scheme of things they remain tremendously rare, and that’s probably the more useful standard.

What makes Canada interesting, likewise, is the fact that we’re a British-founded, primarily European-settled, mainly English-speaking country located on the fertile, empty continent of North America. This, again, is a status we share with the United States, but it’s still a status 96% of the planet can’t claim, and thus still forms the essence of “what it means to be Canadian” in the most honest sense. “Canadian culture,” in turn— in the unglamorous sense of how we live, eat, work, talk, love, worship, and play — is far more tied to our common history and heritage with America than our few trivial deviations from it.

To posit otherwise in the name of patriotism, to fetishize random consumer goods or uncommon outdoor adventures or non-existent personality traits into the core of the Canadian identity, is to create a national narrative in which insecurity, arrogance, and dishonesty are in ample abundance, but genuine pride for who we actually are — not so much.

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Salvation through symbolism: the Canadian elite’s new ideology of aboriginal policy

On Wednesday, a group of people claiming to be something called the “Vancouver City Council” passed a motion conceding that their quote-unquote “city” is actually located on “the unceded traditional territory of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations.” The self-styled “mayor” declared it a historic moment.

It has long been a marked affectation of the British Columbia elite — be they political, legal, academic, or cultural — to ostentatiously emphasize their awareness of grievances committed against First Nations in centuries past by systematically undermining the legitimacy of the “settler” society that’s been established since. The most pronounced tic is the habit of beginning virtually every public address — a politician’s stump speech, a university commencement, the call to order of the human resources subcommittee of the library board, etc. — with a sombre, yet smug reminder that whatever glories are about to unfold are occurring on the “traditional, unceded territories” of this-or-that native band. Often the ritualism goes even further: the Liberal Party’s 2013 Vancouver leadership debate, for instance, was kicked off with the party president handing a bag of tobacco to a local aboriginal leader as an anachronistic offer of concession.

Many political gatherings have similarly eschewed the settler tradition of opening proceedings with a vaguely Christian prayer in favor of explicitly aboriginal hosannahs, usually with lots of drumming and chanting. In 2011, Mayor Robertson chose to take a pass when it came to swearing his oath of office on a bible, but had little problem being blessed by holy men of the tribes whose land he sought to unjustly rule. Indeed, amid all the “whither the housing market” talk of their Wednesday declaration, it’s worth noting that city council ostensibly declared their own illegitimacy not to address any outstanding property dispute, but simply to get the ball rolling on organizing even more culturally-acceptable welcoming ceremonies than the ones they already hold.

Female B.C. politicians — afforded, as they are, more opportunity to make political statements with fashion — now routinely attend public events wearing scarves, blouses, jackets, dresses, and jewelry decorated with the distinctive art of West Coast aboriginals. The old Lieutenant Governor of the province, Iona Campagnolo, claimed one of the proudest achievements of her otherwise meaningless term was commissioning herself a beautiful new official uniform embroidered with intricate silver cross-stitching of whales and eagles depicted in traditional Coast Salish style. When the mayor of Kitmat was flash-mobbed by a gaggle of aboriginal activists protesting the proposed Northern Gateway Pipeline a few months ago, one of the great optical ironies was that the mayor herself was decked out in a floor-length coat emblazoned with aboriginal art at the time.

Then there’s the war on settler names, a cause that’s been quite enthusiastically championed by British Columbia’s current Liberal government. Ex-premier Gordon Campbell in particular went on quite the kick during his final years in office as he sought to restore all manner of “traditional” aboriginal names to prominent pieces of provincial geography. In 2010 the former Queen Charlotte Islands became “Haida Gwaii” (though not overnight — Premier Campbell grinned himself through a whole ceremony for that, too), and the Strait of Georgia was rebranded the “Salish Sea.” He wanted Stanley Park to go back to being called “Xwayxway,” too, until the feds who own the park (or I suppose we should say, “claim to own”) put a kibosh on that one.

All this sort of stuff is obviously motivated by a certain kind of white liberal guilt; the idea that the imperialistic horrors of one’s racial ancestors can be atoned through a kind of showy self-loathing, combined with a “better-late-than-never” embrace of the culture of the conquered. This, to use the trendy term, is a way of bringing “social justice” to the aggrieved party, which in today’s touchy-feely times is considered every bit as important as the real thing.

The awkward fact, alas, is that the anti-colonialist affectations of British Columbia’s white ruling class are little more than products of their own limited colonial imaginations, particularly deep-seeded Christian notions of sin and guilt, which even in these post-Christian times, are proving remarkably entrenched in “settler” culture.

In the eyes of today’s anxious white overclass, after all, “traditional” aboriginal cultures and societies primarily function as a sort of secular Garden of Eden — an idyllic, if somewhat vague and ahistorical locale entirely free of want or worry. The unfashionable modern sins of racism, war, capitalism, old-world religion, and environmental degradation, meanwhile, are viewed as the poisons of Europe, and a burden of “original sin” carried by all the continent’s ethnic descendants. By extinguishing, undermining, or subordinating signifiers of European culture, one engages in an act of spiritual self-flagellation and takes a step towards restoration of the fallen utopia — and thus moral salvation.

The unfortunate thing about treating aboriginal policy as a path to spiritual betterment, of course, is that endless rituals of symbolic atonement do little to alleviate the unavoidably temporal sufferings of Canada’s aboriginal population. A new name for a park won’t provide clean water for a polluted reserve; a smudge ceremony at the school board won’t raise abysmal aboriginal graduation rates.

Worse still is the fact that the postmodern moral code of BC’s white overclass also insists on pushing the destigmatization and acceptance of dangerous social vices of which aboriginals are the disproportionate victims — chiefly drugs and prostitution — while simultaneously demonizing sectors of the economy which present the community’s surest path to greater prosperity and self-sufficiency —which is to say, natural resource development.

In other words, far from heralding the bold progressive break they imagine, there’s little reason for aboriginals to believe the latest animating ideology of Canada’s elite will offer much substantial improvement over previous self-serving ideologies of condescension and indifference that caused so much suffering in generations prior.

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Temporary Foreign Fantasies about Temporary Foreign Workers

Near as I can tell, Minister Kenney’s line on temporary foreign workers goes something like this: There is no crisis — now give me credit for having solved it.

Thus, on Friday afternoon Canadians observed the incongruous spectacle of Kenney announcing sweeping reforms to the country’s embattled TWF program  despite having just that morning published an editorial in the Globe and Mail defending the same program’s honor from the “myths” of ignorant critics.

It is a myth that Canada’s TFW program “is mainly about allowing employers to hire large numbers of people from abroad to fill low-skilled positions at below Canadian wage rates” wrote Kenney. Upwards of 75% of the 200,000 temporary foreign workers Canada admits annually are actually well-off interlopers from America, Australia, or Western Europe recruited to fill briefly-needed managerial or consulting jobs in the upper tiers of business, commerce, law, and science.

It’s also a myth that TFWs comprise some gigantic chunk of the Canadian labor market. In contrast to the fanciful imaginations of some, says the Minister, “the real number is 2 per cent.” Yes, “some businesses have abused the program” — cough cough McDonalds— by allowing “what is supposed to be a last resort to become a business model,” thereby depressing market wages in certain sectors. But even then, “only 0.21 per cent” of Canada’s low-wage drudge workers are TFWs, so let’s not be too quick to smash the panic button.

And yet, this harmless program is still being vastly retooled. There will be a moratorium on hiring TFWs in the retail, restaurant, hotel, and other stereotypically low-wage industries in regions of the country where unemployment is over six per cent, and even where it’s not, Ottawa will still do its best to make hiring them a hassle. The anachronism of lumping elite and prole temporary workers into a single migrant class will also end, thereby eliminating the need for future cabinet ministers to clarify definitions in newspaper editorials. Fines for rule-breakers will be raised. The government estimates the country’s total TFW intake will decline 50% as a result.

But again, why bother bringing such exhaustive reforms to a program impacting such a thin slice of the population — and a mostly privileged slice at that?

My own take is that this is but the latest chapter in Jason Kenney’s long, distinguished career of talking out of both sides of his mouth on the immigration issue in order to maintain the loyalty of an unlikely coalition of white immigration skeptics and ethnic “new Canadians” he considers so critical to his own political future. In this case, the strategy seems to be to ride public ignorance as far as it will take him.

The real problem with the temporary foreign workers program is that it’s been made to carry the cross for the totality of public displeasure with Canadian immigration in general. This is a predictable outcome in a nation that’s been consistently denied the chance to debate immigration in general, particularly the fundamental questions of how many immigrants we want, for what purpose they should be invited, and what costs the native born should bear in exchange. The TFW controversy marks the first time in decades the Canadian political class has even slightly broached some of these concerns, so it’s hardly shocking that a lot of pent-up opinion would be unloaded as a result.

Kenney is quick to dismiss Thomas Mulcair’s populist complaint about “having everybody in your McDonald’s or your Tim Horton’s coming from another country” as ignorant demagoguery, and as a critique of the TFW program Kenney’s right — as noted, only a very extreme minority of fast-food employees are temporary migrant workers. Yet Mulcair’s observation is nevertheless true in a larger sense — visit any McDonald’s or Tim Horton’s in suburban Canada these days and you will, in fact, be confronted with everyone behind the counter “coming from another country.” They just won’t necessarily have used the TFW program to get there.

It’s increasingly obvious that Canada is becoming a visibly stratified society in which a foreign-born underclass performs most of our dirtiest jobs, while a native-born overclass hogs all the good ones for itself — say judgeships. Studies show Canada’s immigrant population earns considerably less than its native-born — “by 2005, male immigrants were earning 63 cents and females 56 cents to every dollar earned by Canadian men and women,” according to a 2005 Statistics Canada survey — and the gap’s been widening for several decades.

Similarly, the notion that our bleeding hearts are supposed to be soothed upon learning that the majority of TFWs actually come from Europe and the States, the fact remains that the vast majority of Canadian immigrants in general do not.

In 2012, the last year for which we have data, over 80% of all Canadian immigrants hailed from the developing world, with China, India, and the Philippines providing the largest bulk. And since it’s these legal immigrants — not TFWs — who are doing much of the nation’s low-wage labor, Canada’s underpaid immigrant underclass does indeed possess some uncomfortable racial homogeneity.

Likewise, while 200,000 TFWs may only represent 2% of the Canadian workforce, Canada admits an additional 200,000-ish “plain” immigrants every year, a number which has climbed steadily since the 1970s. As result, Canada’s total foreign-born labor force has swelled to the point where they now comprise around 21% of all men and women working today. None of their employers were obligated to “find a Canadian first.”

A final red herring is that the TFW debate is primarily an economic one; a discussion of jobs taken, wages lowered, etc. This helps spread the misconception that Canadian immigration is primarily about the economy. Which it most certainly is not.

Most Canadians would probably be shocked to learn that as much as 75% of all new permanent residents admitted to Canada are imported with no economic rationale whatsoever, and are simply relatives of existing immigrants or refugees. Immigration Canada in fact does its best to ensure most Canadians don’t know this, by sneakily classifying the “spouses and dependants” of economic class immigrants in the same column as economic class immigrants themselves, a trick which makes the economic class seem twice as big as it really is. A 2013 Fraser Institute report found immigration to actually be a net drain on the Canadian economy, considering the welfare state costs associated with absorbing a bunch of new residents who frequently have a very hard time finding work in an economy that doesn’t need them, and boast above-average rates of unemployment and reliance on social assistance as a result.

When Canadians complain about immigration, as they do whenever they repeatedly tell pollsters they want immigration rates frozen or lowered, they’re complaining about all of this stuff — as well as the cultural transformation of their communities by an influx of outsiders, the breakdown of a common Canadian identity in favor of increased ethnic ghettoization, the lack of efficiency crippling many sectors of the economy through the crutch of cheap foreign labor, the rise of race as a signifier of wealth and social standing, and so on.

Tinkering around with the TFW program won’t address any of this, which Minister Kenney knows. Yet it’s in his interests to pretend otherwise.

Though the press makes much of his famed outreach to “ethnic voters,” a less-discussed side of the man is his simultaneous effort to convince traditional Tory voters (ie; white immigration critics) that his management of the immigration file is restrained, pragmatic, and economy-focused, in contrast to the flailing arm “massive increases in immigration” he accuses the opposition of plotting.

Canada’s temporary foreign worker program has become an unfair receptacle for repressed anti-immigration sentiment, and Kenney’s perfectly willing to stalk that horse if it improves his tough guy bona fides.

Taking credit for taming the gigantic, mythical problems of what is actually a small, misunderstood program is obviously a great deal easier than substantially addressing the larger flaws of a deeply unpopular immigration regime he’s invested so much personal capital in building.


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Unfair Trade

Unfair Trade
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There are times when the traditional Republican caricature of President Obama as an arrogant tyrant trampling the Constitution at home as he sells out American interests abroad is the stuff of cheap partisan potshots. And there are times when it’s true.

Absent a dramatic release of new information, the retrieval of America’s last (and by some estimates, only-ever) prisoner of war in Afghanistan, Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, will almost certainly rank as one of the darkest, most cynical chapters of the Obama era of foreign policy. Never before has so much principle and process been sacrificed — legally, morally, strategically — in order to gain so little. Never before has it been easier to draw a straight line between rank White House motives of ideology and partisanship and an act of open disregard for the security of the United States.

A former barista and ballet teacher, 22-year old Bowe Bergdahl joined the US military in 2008, after being rejected by his first choice, the French Foreign Legion (which is evidently open to non-Frenchmen). Without putting too fine a point on it, Bowe came from a fairly flaky background — homeschooled in rural Idaho by strict Calvinist parents, fascinated by Bhuddism, Tarot card-reading, and sword-fighting — and his interest in joining the army was said to be more about seeing the world in all its splendid diversity than protecting the homeland. In the words of his equally flaky father (who is apparently in the process of converting to Islam for some reason), Bergdahl naively believed the army to be a sort of “Peace Corps with guns” that would allow him to get up close and personal with the planet’s suffering. “He was not there for national security,” said dad.

Promptly deployed to Afghanistan as part of the Petraeus “surge,” it took only a few weeks for Private Bergdahl to find himself disillusioned by a military campaign quite far removed from whatever romantic notions he initially harbored, and he soon began emailing his father with complaints about “the army of liars, backstabbers, fools, and bullies” he had joined in service of the “horror that is America.”

On the morning of June 30, 2009, Bergdahl wandered away from his army base, and there are reports — though still unconfirmed — that he left a note to his comrades explaining that he was renouncing his American citizenship and going to “find the Taliban.” What exactly he wanted from the Taliban is also unclear, but the Taliban found him soon enough, and what they wanted was an American hostage. For five years he was held captive in the traditional fashion, appearing in propaganda videos in which he was made to spout anti-American rhetoric that couldn’t have been terribly different from what he already believed. Some reports suggest he possibly “went native” altogether, proclaiming himself an Islamic holy warrior and pledging loyalty to the cause of jihad, but of course it’s hard to objectively separate that sort of thing from run-of-the-mill Stockholm Syndrome.

The army spent several months trying to track Bergdahl down, and depending on who you listen to, the deaths of somewhere between six and eight US soldiers can be linked to the hunt. Every single former platoonmate of Bergdahl who has so far spoken to the media — ten and counting as I write this — have had nothing but bad things to say about the man they consider a deserter, and the direct cause of their comrades’ deaths.

Back in Washington, as the years progressed, Bergdahl (who, by 2011, had been somewhat strangely promoted in absentia to sergeant for his “service”) began to emerge as an increasingly useful chess piece in two of the Obama administration’s foreign policy priorities: the closure of the Guantanamo Bay terrorist prison in Cuba, and the winding down of the war in Afghanistan.

In 2011, the Obama government covertly began formal peace talks with the Taliban, and Bergdahl became a bargaining chip in the negotiations. The Taliban had five men they wanted released from Gitmo, and the White House’s curiosity was piqued. Democrats had of course long loathed the legal limbo in which Guantanamo detainees were perpetually housed as an embarrassment to America’s global reputation, and Obama had come to power promising the prison’s swift closure. Logistically, alas, the task had proven an enormous legal and political nightmare, so quick fixes were always appreciated.

Executive branch opinion on the merits of a Bergdahl-Taliban swap were hardly unanimous, however. The five men the Taliban wanted released were Gitmo’s highest-ranking, all having served as governors or cabinet ministers under the Al-Qaeda-aligned regime of deposed Afghan dictator Mullah Omar, with many having led soldiers during the early years of the Taliban-American war. Two of the five are wanted by the United Nations for war crimes; one was tangentially connected to the 9/11 attacks.

Between 2011 and 2012, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was involved in the prisoner exchange negotiations, but ultimately concluded the proposed deal was not a good one, according to some conveniently-timed leaks to the Daily Beast. Obama’s defense secretary and head of national intelligence were also “firmly opposed” to the plan, as was the US intelligence community in general. Concerns were raised not only about the recidivism threat posed by the Taliban Five (nearly one-in-three released Gitmo detainees are estimated to have gone on to re-offend, and none of the Five have been particularly remorseful) but also the lack of safeguards to keep their odds of reoffending low. Under the terms of the final deal, the Five were released to the Kingdom of Qatar, a country whose record on the War on Terror is mixed, to say the least, and only for a year. In any case, the Taliban itself estimates around 95% of their leadership is located outside of Afghanistan anyway, an inconvenience of only minor importance thanks to their more-than-a-little-hypocritical savviness with modern communications technology. Secretary Kerry, for his part, has offered lame assurances that America could always just go back and kill the releasees if they get too out of hand.

That President Obama was willing to run roughshod over the opinions of much of his national security team would be bad enough, but according to law it wasn’t even his decision to make.

Last year, as part of its annual renewal of the National Defense Authorization Act, Congress added a new provision, Section 1035(d) stating that no Gitmo detainees may be released from the prison without the defense department first notifying “the appropriate committees of Congress… not later than 30 days before the transfer or release of the individual.” Obama opposed this provision at the time in a signing statement, claiming it infringed on his authority as commander-in-chief. But signing statements are not law, and for the President to breezily disregard a legislative branch limitation on executive branch authority simply because he found it “burdensome” is to conjure memories of precisely those ad-hoc, Bush-era war power excuses his administration was elected to end.

Added up, we have a swap of an American of exceedingly questionable loyalty in exchange for the release of five terrorists of exceedingly high risk secured through an exceedingly dubious run-around proper constitutional checks and balances. And for what?

A famous 2012 Rolling Stone story on Sgrt. Bergdahl claimed his release could have high propaganda value for those seeking to swiftly conclude America’s involvement in Afghanistan. “Once the last American POW is released,” wrote reporter Michael Hastings, “there will be few obstacles standing in the way of a negotiated settlement”  with the Taliban, not to mention a nice symbolic beginning-of-the-end for a President stubbornly committed to ending the conflict by the hard deadline of December 31, 2016, a few days before he leaves office. Others have speculated the Bergdahl release may represent a sort of trial run for more ad-hoc releases of Gitmo detainees, and thus a way for the President to fulfil his no less arbitrary-timed promise to empty the prison “this year” — ideally before the midterms.

Barack Obama is a complicated politician, neither as dogmatic as his critics claim, nor as rationalistic and pragmatic as his supporters wish. Foreign policy, however, is increasingly proving to be one realm where the man does indeed prioritize ideology above all else; a realm in which the progressive shibboleths of ending Bush’s wars and closing Bush’s prison are unquestionable goods for which no price is too high — so long as it’s some other president who ultimately has to pay.


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Fighting Pipelines

It’s hard to overstate the omnipresence of the Northern Gateway pipeline in British Columbia these days. One can’t so much as visit the cinema or load a YouTube video without being subjected to a barrage of pro-pipeline propaganda from Enbridge, the deeply insecure Calgary corporation in charge of the thing. Their desperation is cloying, but justified. Despite the federal government’s cautious, and exceedingly qualified approval of the pipeline this week, there’s little reason to suspect this long-uncertain project awaits any fate beyond increasingly certain death.

Support for Northern Gateway — which seeks to deliver Alberta crude to the northern BC coast for Asian export —has never cracked 50% among British Columbians; current polls put the number somewhere in the high-20s. The Enbridge people haves spent millions trying to fight this tide by throwing all manner of random argument at the public (my personal favourite was the brief period in which they tried a sort of feminist angle by highlighting the personality of Enbridge vice president Janet Holder, who, the company felt we must know, is a former bodybuilder and breast cancer survivor), but opposition is vast and deep and powerful. This is in no small part due to the fact that debates over natural resource development in Canada are increasingly framed as moral questions rather than economic ones — with moral justice determined by a trendy coalition of priestly castes promising salvation from 21st century sins: climate change, colonialism, and capitalism.

British Columbia’s ruling Liberal government is opposed to Northern Gateway, as is the opposition NDP, two parties that share an equally slanted scale when it comes to “balancing” economic development with environmental concerns. Indeed, for a province that likes to think of itself as polarized, it’s striking to note the lack of rhetorical difference separating Premier Clark’s Gateway stance from that of her New Democrat rivals — and even the third-place Greens, for that matter. “Our position remains unchanged: it is no,” said a politician the other day. It could have been anyone, but it happened to be Mary Polak, the Liberal environment minister. Though transnational pipelines are not a provincial prerogative, Premier Clark has vowed to slay the beast with the might of a thousand bureaucracies, spitefully threatening to withhold regulatory permits or cut the electricity to any carpetbagger who tries to build it.

The universities are all opposed — predictably, as one’s bona fides as a legitimate academic are now largely determined by how seriously one takes climate change, with that standard, in turn, determined by how strenuously one opposes anything involving the Alberta oil sands. Student activists, meanwhile, are championing complete fossil fuel “disinvestment” — the notion that institutions of higher learning should be shamed into selling all their stocks in oil companies, just as universities of yore were dragooned into selling their investments in apartheid South Africa. The proposal won 77% support in a recent campus referendum at the University of British Columbia. Involvement in this sort of thing is a badge of status among youth; if you’re a British Columbian under 30, chances are you’re well-acquainted with the phenomena of friends editing their Facebook names to include a “NoEnbridge” somewhere.

The press is hostile. The otherwise pro-business editorial boards of both the Vancouver Sun and Province have expressed extreme scepticism of Gateway, while media voices outside the city’s mainstream duopoly have been even harsher. The Georgia Straight, Vancouver’s leading self-styled “alternative” weekly, ran an unsettlingly sympathetic cover story on the possibility of pipeline sabotage some months ago, complete with a cartoon of a pipe strapped up with a Wile E. Coyote bundle of dynamite.

Then there’s the aboriginals, whose opposition is perhaps most consequential of all.

Both the provincial and federal governments have made much of how critical aboriginal “consultations” are to the pipeline’s future, with Premier Clark insisting “legal requirements regarding Aboriginal and treaty rights must be addressed” before she even considers the project. The 209 qualifications famously imposed by Ottawa’s Joint Review Panel were no less ambiguous, declaring that Enbridge must honour “principles of thorough and effective consultation” with affected aboriginals before progressing any further. Such obligations are of course impossible to fulfill, given the enormous ambiguity of what such nice-sounding language means in practice.

Aboriginal law is blurry in BC, with the province’s lack of formal treaties generally interpreted by the courts as giving First Nations broad right to dictate fair use of their “traditional” lands. Yet because Gateway’s path weaves through numerous tribal territories of overlapping claim, and since no single aboriginal organization or leader possesses the undisputed right to issue conclusive consent, there’s every reason to believe “consultations” over Gateway will ultimately go the way of the Harper government’s years of consultations over the First Nations Education Act, ie: subject to the veto of those with the loudest voices — say, Union of BC Indian Chiefs president Stewart Phillip, who recently declared “war” on the pipeline at a downtown Vancouver rally. Though Enbridge boasts holding over “2,000 meetings and 43 open houses with First Nations and Metis,” aboriginal consent is a principle that’s ultimately determined by the mob and media, not polite conversation.

All this adds up to an almost insurmountable challenge for the Harper administration, who see Gateway as the country’s sole path to bringing Canadian oil to growing markets in Asia. The Conservatives would prefer to have a pipeline discussion centered around job creation and trade diversity — for which the Enbridge case is strong — instead, they find their pet project framed as a totemic symbol of the combined evils of global warming and European imperialism. Questions like whether Gateway will unto itself contribute to a measurable increase in global warming, or whether there exists even some theoretical standard at which we could objectively declare the pipeline “safe enough” (a standard Enbridge seems desperate to satisfy) are dismissed by critics as immaterial. Opposition is a matter of morality.

This is absurd, yet the absurdity is entrenched at the highest levels of British Columbia’s legal, political, and intellectual establishments, and attempting to fight deeply-entrenched absurdity brings to mind the old adage on the folly of wrestling a pig: you get messy, and the pig likes it.

Conservatives should be particularly aware of what an enormous cash cow pipeline projects have become for the activist left. Setting up some outfit claiming to be opposed to climate change and fossil fuels has become a tremendously effective way to gain buckets of cash from liberal billionaires with guilty consciences, with such money now the lifeblood of British Columbia’s famed eco-activist industrial complex. The Dogwood Initiative for instance, which is earning a lot of media attention at the moment for attempting to organize a pointless anti-Gateway referendum as a means of persuading the provincial government to hold a position they already do — is almost entirely funded by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund in New York. But such groups can only remain well-heeled so long as they’re able to stoke continuous moral panic over a looming mortal threat.

In fighting a fight that’s impossible to win — and let’s be clear, between the opposition of the BC Liberals, aboriginal veto power, entrenched public skepticism, and an endless stream of injunctions and lawsuits from all of the above, there’s really no glimmer of hope here — Tory pushiness will not only fail to see Gateway completed (hell, started) but help contribute to the growth, organization, and funding of reactionary environmentalist groups who will gain unprecedented prestige and legitimacy in fighting an unpopular cause led by a generally unpopular government. Dogmatic loyalty to the losing side of this fight, in turn, poses great danger to the incumbency of British Columbia’s 21 Conservative MPs — so critical for a Tory majority.

There are signs the Conservatives get it. The BC MPs have been silent, and despite banner headlines in the press, the “green light” the Harper government gave to Enbridge on Tuesday took the form of a quiet press release with a title that could not have been more apologetic: “Government of Canada Accepts Recommendation to Impose 209 Conditions on Northern Gateway Proposal.” It was, as some wags noted, as if the Prime Minister was trying to distance himself from his own decision — even as he made it.

Plenty of ideas are practically sound, but politically impossible. Canada, as the saying goes, is a nation rich by nature yet poor by policy, and this seems to be a fate happily embraced by British Columbia, whose elites appear ever-more satisfied with a province that’s economically marginalized, yet rich in moral superiority.

If confident assertions of financial self-interest were all it took, one imagines the YouTube ads would have done the trick by now.

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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 moral choice 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 daftly 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 filibustercartoons.com URL, though as you may notice, everything is jjmccullough.com-based now. Old filibustercartoons.com links will now redirect to their new jjmccullough.com 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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