Friday, February 17, 2017

Facts are stubborn things

John Adams pointed this out in his defence of British soldiers accused in the Boston Massacre:
 Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence...
Facts are also oppositional, in this sense: they restrain everyone in the same way, and in doing so they bring people together.  We have an infinite number of ways of coming at he truth: the soaring beauty of music, the inspiration of religious ritual, the stories we tell, the lives we lead. But when my life and my passions differ profoundly from someone else's, what then? If I find truth in the music of Mozart's concert masses, I might not succeed at finding a common musical language with someone who finds their truth in the work of Tupac Shakur. Facts, even the hard facts made notorious by Gradgrind, may offer the only way profoundly different people can find enough common truth to live together.

Which brings us to Yusra Khogali.

Thursday, February 09, 2017

The white battalion

Donald Trump on the campaign trail by Gage Skidmore via Wikimedia Commons
by Gage Skidmore , via Wikimedia Commons

A friend and colleague of mine, an officer in the Canadian Infantry, taught me "Old King Cole" ("beer beer beer said the privates, merry men are we"), and he taught me about the White Battalion. The White Battalion is a tradition in the Canadian Forces, or at least in some regiments. It is a term for the regimental dead. As my friend explained to me, regiments disband, their colours hung on the walls of churches for time and nature to return them to the Earth, but white battalion never disbands; its members are transferred to an active regiment. Soldiers remember, honour, and grieve.


The act of remembering war dead has many expressions in many places, but it works out to the same basic contract: a society will ask its young men, and in some cases its young women, to put themselves in harm's way for the sake of the nation. In return, the nation will carry the names of everyone who gives their life in its service down through history in honour. It is a covenant painted on the walls of thousands of churches. It is carved in the stone of war memorials in villages and cities across the world. It forms the basis for a signature piece of American political rhetoric: Lincoln's Gettyburg Address. It is a part of the hearts of millions of families.

Anger is a sin...

A frightened and an angry face, left and right respectively. Engraving, c. 1760, after C. Le Brun.  from Wellcome Images, a website operated by Wellcome Trust, a global charitable foundation based in the United Kingdom.
C. Le Brun.  from Wellcome Images
via Wikimedia commons
As Margaret Lawrence's lyrics about the oppression of Metis people ironically put it: "those [people] must learn that anger is a sin".

Our society, and the pundits, academics, publicists and others who speak, or claim to speak for it, frequently display a profound unease with the anger of the oppressed. That unease frequently manifests itself not in cogent criticism but in unthinking rejection, or worse, violence: the violence of a direct attack or the violence of a judicial blind eye.

Monday, February 06, 2017

What's wrong with David Frum's excellent article

Rob Ford with council colleagues - subway announcement 2012 by HiMY SYeD via Wikimedia Commons
by HiMY SYeD via Wikimedia Commons
David Frum recently wrote an excellent article in the Atlantic Monthly on the possible development of an authoritarian populist state under Donald Trump. Read it if you haven't already.

David Frum comes from Toronto, but he left many years ago for the United States. He did not live through Toronto's experience with insurgent populist conservatism. That may or may not have led to what I regard as the most interesting omission in a very good article.


Sunday, February 05, 2017

Tied up with a bow

Shipping Containers at the terminal at Port Elizabeth, New Jersey - NOAA  taken  2004 June
We often package ideas the way shippers package freight
photo by Albert E. Theberge, NOAA via Wikimedia Commons
As an activist in the 1980s, I routinely encountered exhortations to "make connections" or to act, and think, "consistently". Much of the time, these exhortations came out of a genuine effort to understand and live out the ramifications of "left-wing" beliefs. Some of the time, efforts to make "connections" covered for pragmatic coalition building. In not a few cases, people appealed for "connections" and "consistency" dishonestly, in order to get support for weak arguments that depended on "connections" with ideas people already accepted.

Well meaning or otherwise, honest or shady, the emphasis on "connections" and "consistency" led to an acceptance of package politics by the Left. By commission or by acquiescence, we created a political environment in which participants could wrap up their opinions, beliefs and positions in a single imagined whole.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

The corruption of freebies in politics

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


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

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

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

On punching racists and genocide advocates

Richard Spencer By Vas Panagiotopoulos (https://www.flickr.com/photos/vas/30910084580/) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
by Vas Panagiotopoulos
Someone punched Richard Spencer, the self-proclaimed "white nationalist" during a street interview. Since then, a lively debate has blossomed on the Internet, driven, inevitably, by a series of memes and videos relating the punch to Indiana Jones's punching a Nazi in The Last Crusade.

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

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

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

Monday, January 23, 2017

White is a privilege, not a people

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

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