Wednesday, November 14, 2018

A Century After the War

Earlier this week marked the one hundredth anniversary of the end of the First World War. I have a hard time imagining what event in the relatively recent past has shaped the world more than that single conflict. When I read the news, especially international news, or news that covers post-colonial nations I can still vividly see the scars there. Europe paid a devastating cost during the conflict, and so did the peoples within their empires. The transformative impact of the war can still be seen inside much of Europe domestically, not just internationally.

Over the last couple of years my interest in the First World War has grown considerably. I still have a stack of books that I intend to read that explains the time period. However, I've read and watched some content that may be of interest to others.

Recently I have been reading The War that Ended Peace by Margaret Macmillan. Macmillan, as the title suggests, is attempting to explain why a century of relative peace came to an end in 1914, rather than why did the war start. The context, personalities and history makes for a fantastic read. I have yet to finish the book and expect I'll write a review when I do. It reminds me a bit of the Guns of August but with a broader scope and a longer view.

Next, I've been watching a YouTube channel called The Great War. The Great War has been a project that lasted four years and released weekly videos describing the events of World War One week by week. I'm about mid-way through 1915 myself. Most of the videos are under 10 minutes long so it can be very easy to fall into a rabbit hole. Perhaps the best feature of the videos is that the examine the truly global nature of the war. There is a tendency to become fixated on the Western Front, but around the world tragic and incredible stories were playing out.

Finally, I already reviewed this on my blog, but Paris 1919 by Margaret Macmillan seems a valuable tool to expand one's understanding of the war. How World War I ended and the motivations behind the victors is an important. Most people know that the events and decisions of World War I set up the Second World War, but it also clearly determined the stage for all the following decades. Countries created from that time period persist. Mistakes made continue to cause problems. Historic arrangements continue to endure.

The First World War had many causes, but one of the big ones was that the Great Powers, concentrated in Europe, could not come to a peaceful understanding with one another. Ego, arrogance, hubris, and so on culminated to make leaders make disastrous decisions that resulted in the deaths of millions. It is difficult to truly comprehend the horror. However, Europe has, for the most part, overcome the divisions that led to the First World War. Germany and France united in shared grief to mark the anniversary this week, along with other countries that participated.

Leaders of Germany and France mark Armistice Day together.

We should never forget the lessons of World War One and be conscious of how it shapes us today. Never forgetting requires us to know first.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Book Review: It Can't Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis

It seems with great irony that I finished reading It Can't Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis on the day of the American midterm election. I've known about this novel for many years, and it popped back into my consciousness as it regained popularity in the wake of the 2016 Presidential election. I picked up a copy for myself when a friend of mine read it and posted particularly effective excerpts from the book that seemed to stab at the character of American politics, and perhaps Canadian politics as well, lest I be accused of deriding America and glorifying my own country's virtues.

It Can't Happen Here is remarkable in a few ways, but perhaps the most important one from my point of view is that it is a product of its time. Oftentimes that can hinder a work. Not in this case. Lewis was critiquing fascism and communism in real time when authoritarianism seemed to be on the rise around the world. As much as I love Nineteen Eighty-Four it is easy to look coldly at the tactics of the Soviet Communists and the Nazis and deride them. Lewis' scathing examination of fascism does not have the horrors of genocide or war to enforce his case.

The novel is set in a small Vermont town on the brink of the 1936 elections. As the Great Depression drags on American politics is increasing mired and dogged by extremists. The story opens at a society debate where speakers and supporters of a radical candidates couch their language in 'Americanism'. Senator Berzelius "Buzz" Windrip is a populist modeled in part on Huey Long. His folksy charm and extravagant promise to deliver $5000 to every American garners him a great deal of support.

The protagonist of the piece is Doremus Jessup, a newspaper editor in Fort Beulah, Vermont. Jessup, his friends and family provide the main lens from which we view the story. Doremus is a classic liberal and democrat. He cherishes the republic and the ideals which he believes it stands. He is also remarkably privileged. I think Sinclair is trying to comment on class and the rise of radical movements. The Jessup's hired man ends up a major leader within the fascist party.

Jessup witnesses with horror as people naively and enthusiastically embrace Windrip to become president. He replaces Roosevelt as the Democratic nominee and defeats an inoffensive Republican candidate - Walt Towbridge - to become president. Not long after Windrip is elected and his cronies get themselves into office does the hammer fall. Congress and the courts are repressed and bullied into submission. The Corporatist Party becomes the only legal party and the Minute Men become the paramilitary apparatus similar to the Stormtroopers or Black Shirts.

Something that makes the novel more effective in my opinion is that Lewis sets the story in a small town. It allows him to quickly sketch the power dynamics at the outset and show how the Corpos corrupt and deform relationships within the community. It is far more effective to see the liberal-minded teacher kicked out of his position and ostracized than have it be theoretical. Or the harassment the few Jewish residents must endure under the new anti-Semitic state. The Jessup family endures incredible hardship under the regime even though they occupy a privileged position. Members are murdered, imprisoned, and routinely threatened. It adds gravity to the horror of the situation. It gives faces and voices to the tragedy.  

As the afterward writes the novel is not a how-to guide in resisting fascism, but a simple case that America (and other democracies) are not immune to populist autocrats who will rob and abuse the citizens of a country for their own personal gain. Germany and Italy were democracies before they succumbed to fascism. No country is immune and requires vigilance. The story is rooted in enough real history and figures to be believable even if some of the details seem incorrect.

It's  a short read. Those interested in dystopian political visions, the 1930s, fascism, etc. will find something worthwhile in these pages. I think it's also valuable as a historical document. Check it out.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Worth Reading - October 25, 2018

The NDP face challenging by-elections before the next federal election. 

The Ontario government cancelled funding for three university campuses after millions of dollars were spent. 

Why does conservative nonsense dominate American politics

After the election, Toronto City Council has as many people named Michael as it does visible minorities

A 32-year-old woman defeated the incumbent mayor in Peterborough. 

Patrick Brown says that Doug Ford has to take Brampton seriously, or he'll face real issues. 

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Dear God Brampton, What the Hell Were You Thinking?

Last night about 35% of eligible voters in Brampton cast ballots and elected a new mayor, council and school board. Patrick Brown defeated incumbent mayor Linda Jeffrey by around four thousand votes. Patrick Brown, as thousands of Brampton voters seem to have forgotten, was a long-time resident of Barrie, served on its city council before becoming a Conservative MP. He then became leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario until credible allegations against him abusing his position of power to make advancements on young staffers became public known. He was unceremoniously kicked out as leader.

But fear not, Patrick Brown can continue to survive off the public purse because the citizens of Brampton, forty-six thousand of them had the bright idea to elect him as their mayor.


Nights like last night sometimes honestly make me feel like I should hang up the keyboard and quit. Too many defeats. Too many bad losses to awful candidates.

Trying to be positive, the victories of Paul Vicente, Martin Medeiros, Gurpreet Dhillon, Rowena Santos, Jeff Bowman, and Charmaine Williams are heartening.

However, the election of Doug Whillans, Pat Fortini, and Michael Palleschi does not fill me with hope.

I've left Harkirat Singh's name off either side because I don't know him well. I included Ms. Williams because she is the first black woman elected to city council, an important and growing community in this city that needs representation. It will be difficult to tell until some issues come up, but the council may be slightly more progressive than the last one. I thought some members were more progressive and then their voting record said otherwise.

Despite what some might say, I think it should be noted that by far not everyone forgives or forgets the allegations made against Patrick Brown. His election is not carte blanche forgiveness. Citizens in this city will be watching, and errors and mismanagement will be noted. Hopefully then the people will have the good sense to hold him accountable.

Now I'm going to try not think about this election for a while.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Worth Reading - October 18, 2018

Patrick Brown, who hopes to become mayor of Brampton next week, spent $300000 in two months on staffing in his final days as a MPP.  Respect for the public purse?

The Toronto Star endorses Linda Jeffrey for re-election as mayor of Brampton. 

New Brunswick's strange election outcome means that no party wants to volunteer a MLA to become speaker.
Now that Canada has legalized cannabis, the next move is to address harder drugs

This article looks at when public transit meets on-demand service

Francis Fukuyama sat down for an interview and shared some of his thoughts on the state of politics and the world. 

Here's a story on people who are moving to the Chernobyl radioactive zone

Strong Towns looks at how efficiency is not the same thing as strength

Why does John Tory want to be mayor? What is his vision for Toronto? 

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Book Review: The Dictator's Handbook by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith

Every once in a while you're lucky enough to read something that changes the way you look at politics and the world in general. That is how I felt after finished The Dictator's Handbook. Written by political scientists the book is written for a general audience and provides clear examples and demonstrates the central thesis. De Mesquita and Smith seek to uncover the true incentives behind the actions of leaders. Their thesis has given them new insight and understanding of how leaders and governments behave.

The title of the book is a bit misleading. It is not about how to become a dictator, or something like that. The book is focused more on how do leaders gain power and hold power successfully. They argue that leaders in democratic countries, ruthless dictatorships, corporations or small towns are all operating under the same basic principles.

Leaders wish to obtain and maintain power. In any structure where a leader is selected, the authors write, there are the interchangeables, the influentials, and the essentials. The names for these three categories is perhaps the worst part of the book from my point of view. The interchangeables, or nominal selectorate, are the entire population that can choose the leaders. The influentials are the 'real' selectorate, or the group who actually chooses the leader. The essesntials are the group of the influentials who make up the winning coalition.

I know that was a lot to parse, so I'll use an example from Canada. In Canada every adult citizen has the right to vote. That is the interchangeables. However, we know for a fact that a lot of the population does not fall into the category. For example, a significant population of the country does not vote, so you lose about 30-40% right there. From there the leader cobbles together a coalition to win, those become the essentials. This coalition are the voters who elect Members of Parliament for the winning party. In the end only about 15-25% of the Canadian voting population has a role in selecting the Prime Minister. The PM then has the sole duty of keeping that coalition happy in order to maintain power.

America provides an easy example for the presidency. The electoral college is the true real selectorate for the president. He/she must the 270 electoral votes to assure victory. However, in most recent elections some states are absolutely guaranteed in their leanings and the outcome assured. As a result candidates for president can focus on the essentials in a handful of states. In an autocratic regime the selectorate may be the single legal party, like the Communist Party of China, or the support among the military and its key officers.

Once in power leaders have to find a way to reward their supporters to ensure their continued loyalty. Leaders who fail to do so risk encouraging new coalitions forming that will turf them from office. For this control of resources and redistribution is important. The authors have found direct correlation between the size of the coalitions required and the disparity of rewards. In a democracy benefits have to be distributed widely in the form of social programs or tax cuts, as an example. In a dictatorship, or small coalition country, leaders can steal - literally - from the population to reward their backers. This is how you get situations where some small, select minority loyal to the leader, such as his home tribe, becomes enormously enriched. The leader wins their absolute loyalty.

The authors investigate how this lens can interpret things like corruption, taxation and foreign aid. The come to an interesting conclusions and extrapolation, backed by case studies. Countries that have a plentiful resource, like oil, are at greater risk for shrinking the coalition of support. Taxes tend to be higher because regimes in small coalition countries can afford to squeeze their populations more. Foreign aid props up dictators and gives them and their supporters tools to enrich themselves. It's sort of stunning. When developing countries are forced to rely upon their populations to be productive they invest in them and the coalition grows.

The book is deeply cynical, one could argue, but there is an undeniable logic to it. We see these factors play out all the time in democracies as well as dictatorships. The actions of leaders can be explained by these central motivations. The books is well-written as well as dryly humourous. It was a deeply pleasurable read and has definitely given me a lot to think about, and explains why bad behaviour can often be good politics.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Worth Reading - October 11, 2018

Big long list. It's what happens when I miss a week.

Andrew Coyne takes a look at former PM Stephen Harper's new book. This one is not about hockey.

How small changes in an Arkansas town made a big difference

If we refuse to take climate change serious preventatively, we have a duty to prepare for the consequences

A right-wing candidate who has said positive things about dictatorship won the first round of the Brazilian election. 

John Michael McGrath looks at the state of the Liberal Parties across Canada and centricism. 

Toronto is facing a financial crisis, but no one is talking about it. 

The Montreal Gazette reports on the divisions in Quebec society revealed by the election

John Geddes writes on Stephen Harper's interpretation of conservative populism

Jen Gerson writes on the political utility of the carbon tax for conservative politicians in Canada. 

From the Globe and Mail, Sidewalk Toronto is no smart city

Toronto will be hamstrung by the provincial government no matter who wins. 

The Kavanaugh hearing proves what was widely known - there is no conservative resistance to Trump. 

Why did the 2018 Ontario election go the way that it did? 

Progressive Conservatives in Ontario refused to denounce a white nationalist

Quebec's election signals a new era

Is former Liberal MPP and Mayor of Brampton Linda Jeffrey getting a boost from Doug Ford

Why fascists never think they're fascists