Tuesday, August 31, 2010

An American Monarch

I think the American presidency suffers from certain problems surrounding the expectations of the American public. This became most clear to me during the BP Gulf Coast Oil Disaster. I follow American and Canadian media quite actively. One of the key criticisms levelled at President Barack Obama was that he was emoting.

That’s right, emoting. Commentators were concerned that Obama wasn’t getting angry enough. Similarly, a comparable problem has developed involving the economy. Talking heads are critical of Obama for not being able to express that he feels the pain of the American public going through economic hardship. This inability is often contrasted to Bill Clinton, who is thought to have done the job of connecting to the public superbly.

It seems the American public doesn’t just want an administrator, but someone to be the penultimate symbol of American life to sit in the executive. One of the comments I heard after Barack Obama was elected was that it will be nice to see a President in the White House with young children, which is the first time this has happened since John F. Kennedy. Why should that matter? Information indicates that George Bush won election largely on the basis that he was the candidate people would rather have a beer with. How is that a relevant determinant of who should lead the federal executive?

Last week President Obama was on vacation with his family. Photos were released that featured Obama swimming with his children. It’s as though the American media establishment and public are obsessed with the personage of the America President, as more a celebrity than a leader.

I cannot help but compare this to Canada. Stephen Harper has been rarely photographed on vacation with his family, though he was famously seen taking his son to school many years ago. Harper also has a young family, though they rarely are mentioned or seen by the public. Though Canada is going through a recession no one has asked the Prime Minister to share the pain of the Canadian public. Contrarily, Canadians seem to pick their leaders, largely, on the basis of their managerial talent, like a meritocracy.

Perhaps the American public would be better served if they just make their desires more formalized. The Americans should get a royal family.

An American monarch could fill all the ceremonial, and public relations roles that now clutter the President’s schedule. No more ribbon-cuttings, and speeches about mundane asinine topics, the President could focus on his constitutional duties. In fact, the mystic of the imperial presidency could be stripped away. Because the American President has held such an informal regal authority it has resulted in the presidency exceeding its constitutional authority. If the presidency was reduced to the stature of the Speaker of the House, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, or Leader of the Senate, which it should be, perhaps the American system of government would work better.

The allusion to the President as monarch is not a new idea. The Kennedy administration was often referred to as Camelot. As mentioned above, the imperial presidency is an idea that has existed since the 60’s. The law suggests that the President may not be sued directly, or taken to court and that his advisers have legal immunity, just like monarchs of older times.

Many Canadians are familiar with Queen Elizabeth’s address to the Empire during the Blitz as a young girl in World War II. Her speech helped to connect her to the British public and motivate them. Likewise her Christmas address is tradition. The Speech from the Throne and the State of the Union are not terribly dissimilar.

Perhaps it is time for the American people to abandon the notion of a republic. The King or Queen of America can be the figurehead they so desire, who they foist their national narrative and ambitions upon. A living symbol of the American nation. Then, finally, the American President can get down to his/her real purpose – governing.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Dark Side of NIMBYism

Nimbyism is an interesting concept. NIMBY is short for Not In My Back-Yard. A couple weeks ago I talked about how opposition against freeway expansions in the 1960s and 1970s by communities helped to save inner-city neighbourhoods. NIMBY in the name of self-preservation is an admirable goal, or so it seems to me.

Nimby has a less pleasant face though. Nimby is an expression of popular democracy, and it is the actions of the people affecting the actions of government. It proves useful because politicians and bureaucrats can be death to disenfranchised and marginalized groups, particularly groups that are taken for granted, or ignored by the political process. However, it also means that decisions that have no real negative impact on a community, but are unpopular can be stopped.

The issue which has been given the shorthand “the Ground Zero Mosque” is representative, in a way, of this idea. The Park 51 Islamic community centre aside, the issue has drawn a great deal of attention to the plights of similar cases around the United States. According to media reports, mosques (actual ones, not community centres) have faced major opposition in Tennessee, Wisconsin and California. While I haven’t taken the time to explore each issue in depth I get the distinct impression that regardless of the local particulars there is a segment of the population that says that one mosque is one mosque too many.

Briefly looking at the issue of the proposed community centre in Lower Manhattan, I watched an episode of Hardball with Chris Mathews from August 23rd, and he raised an interesting point. How far away must the mosque be to be acceptable? The question gets to the heart of the matter. If you believe there is an inherent right to build the centre in the First Amendment, which most do, then the question is a matter of details. The building would be 2 blocks away, should it be 5? Or 10? Or 12, such as an existing mosque?

Most people in the United States would say that a mosque has a right to be built, but if you ask them do they want one built down the street, in their backyard, they would probably be less comfortable. The source of the discomfort is the problem, very obviously, but the idea of supporting something in abstract but not in concrete causes us a great deal of trouble.

We see this everywhere. Nimby advocates fight issues that would benefit their communities as a whole potentially if it interferes with their local existence or is a perceived threat. If too many people say “Not in my backyard!” soon it’s everyone’s backyard and there’s nowhere to make necessary changes. Change is necessary, even if it is uncomfortable.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

New Faces of the Republican Party

It’s not unusual for people to think of the Republicans as a racist party. It’s not an entirely unearned smear against them. Republicans in decades past have performed very poorly against Democrats among ethnic minorities. The skew in preference is most clear in African Americans where often 9 in 10 vote for Democratic candidates over Republicans. The Latino community also slants towards the Democrats to the tune of about two-thirds. According to Pew Research Obama won Hispanics by 67 to 31, which is just slightly above average.

Republicans are well known as the party of old, white men. The reason for this is that older voters, men, and white voters tend to pull the lever next to R more often than D, not by a significant difference, but enough. Until very recently the Republicans in major positions of leadership were all white. However that is changing.

The 1990s had some prominent non-white Republicans on the scene, such as J. C. Watts, an African American from Oklahoma, but I feel the transformation has taken place in the last ten years. The earliest and most prominent name that comes to mind is Bobby Jindal. Jindal was elected as Governor of Louisiana in 2004. Jindal was born in Louisiana to the parents of Indian immigrants. Jindal’s presence on the national stage became greatly underlined as he was repeatedly mentioned as being on the short list for John McCain as Vice-President. He also delivered the Republican response to the State of the Union in 2009, which is a prominent place parties in opposition like to place their rising stars. Jindal is a potential contender for the 2012 Republican nomination for President or Vice-President.

Jindal is a social and economic conservative and possesses all the hallmarks of a 21st century Republican. The fact that he has risen to such prominence with minimal concern of his race in a Deep South state speaks volumes of the present position of the party.

The second major figure that comes to mind on the national stage is Marco Rubio, who is the Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate in Florida. Rubio is a Cuban-American, descended from immigrants from the communist dictatorships off the Florida coast. Rubio had a prominent career as a major leader in the Florida legislature. He challenged Republican (now independent) Governor Charlie Crist for the nomination from the right, his campaign succeeded in pushing Crist out of the Republican Party, and now he, Crist and the Democrat are in a three-way race. Rubio has spent time in recent weeks responding to the Republican Party’s reputation amongst Latinos, given that he himself is one.

Rubio’s insurgent right-wing campaign, if successful, will make him a major star in the Republican Party.

South Carolina was the first state to secede from the Union in the American Civil War. It has a long and dark racial history. And, for the first time in its history, has a visible minority as the nominee for Governor on the Republican side. Nikki Haley, after being endorsed by Sarah Palin, catapulted into the nomination to win the governorship of the state. The Republicans are heavily favoured to win in South Carolina, and so her nomination almost assures her a place in the Governor’s Mansion, and history.

Nikki Haley is, like Jindal, an Indian-American. Also, like Jindal, she is a Christian, though she was attacked by Republican opponents for being a Muslim. Haley’s campaign reveals two realities in the Republican Party, the old white establishment that has issues with race, and the new face of America, which is increasing not white, and also open to the principals of the free market and family values.

The Republicans aren’t out of the woods yet. The Tea Party folk have employed openly racist rhetoric and imagery against their opponents. Mainstream Republicans realize that their future is in appealing to minority communities as they grow as a proportion of the electorate. Much like the Conservative Party of Canada, unless they diversify their appeal they may be tossed aside in an increasingly multiracial country, but it should not surprise us if the leaders of the Republican Party reflects the population.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Möving Into the Future

Brampton, Ontario is my hometown. It has a reputation as being a sleepy suburb. This is an incorrect assumption. When I was born Brampton's population was about 200,000, today it is well over double that, with 510,000 people in 2010. Can we still call Brampton a suburb when it is now eclipsing Hamilton - Ontario's historic second city?

It's Brampton rapid growth that means its status as a simple suburb is going to end. Projections state that Brampton will exceed 700,000 by 2030. That will certainly change the nature of the city. That being said, it is already changing.

Brampton is a low-density development, by and large. The city government in recent years has come to the realization that we cannot grow out indefinitely. Brampton will reach its boundaries, so it must also grow up as well as out. While the urban form changes from single detached homes to more diverse duplexes, apartments, condominiums, etc. so must our transportation change.

Unlike other cities in Ontario, Brampton does not have historic urban roots. It was a farming community, and so there is no legacy of streetcars. Brampton's modest transit system, Brampton Transit, is exclusively buses. Brampton has access to other networks such as VIA Rail, and GO Transit, but no rapid transit system of its own. For now.

Next month that all changes! In September 2010 Brampton will begin its first ever rapid transit system. The city is using a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system, named Züm. Züm is part of a program across Ontario to help cities develop transportation systems. This innovation is ideal to meet Brampton's needs.

What are the merits of a BRT system? First, bus rapid transit, compared to its light rail competition, is dramatically less expensive. The cost in dollars, time, and public patience for light rail (street cars) can make it impractical. Second, rail systems cannot be adjusted to meet changing needs. For example, if the Queen Street line, called the BY Line (Brampton-York), becomes busier than expected all planners have to do is add buses. Or, if it isn't as busy they can eliminate a stop at the end of the line without the cost of wasted rail infrastructure. BRT works for a city like Brampton, which is comparatively low-density. It is a highly cost effective solution to provide a rapid transit option to the city.

Züm begins operations on Main/Hurontario Street and Queen Street this September and plans are on the table to soon begin additional routes along Steeles and Bovaird in years to come. The Züm program offers Brampton a great deal of flexibility for the future. Additional routes can be laid on, and adjustments made the routes such as creating dedicated bus-only lanes, and perhaps upgrading to light rail if even that gets exceeded. These types of programs have met with great success in other cities, and I have great deal of hope for Brampton's gambit.

I'd like to applaud the physical design of the system. The buses look sleek and there is strong attention payed to aesthetic and design features. The look is sharp, distinct and modern. The bright reds set it apart from the whites and blues of regular Brampton Transit. I also like the name, it really communicates the central purpose - which is speed and efficiency.

I think Züm says something else very important about Brampton, that we're ready to a big city, and that we are beginning to see ourselves in that light. Züm makes a specific pitch in its advertising and marketing campaigns to be about "You", or the people of Brampton, that Züm will improve the lives of everyone, and also implicitly that Brampton is on the way up, including its downtown. This is an exciting prospect, and I hope Züm is the beginning of great things in Brampton in terms of transportation.

I encourage everyone to check out Züm's website, here. Especially the video.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Civically Minded

Usually we learn over time to read the instructions. For whatever reasons, we as young people like to dive in and begin work on things without figuring out how to do it first. It’s likely some combination of youthful exuberance and impatience. Those of us who never learn this skill have a lot more problems during the rest of our lives. Some of them inevitably end up on Canada’s Worst Handyman or Driver.

Perhaps the most important thing people are entrusted with that they don’t read the instructions for is citizenship. The owner’s manual of any country, essentially, is its constitution. How many of us have read it? How many of us actually know our specific rights, or only have a vague notion of them from what we’ve heard and read. I’ve heard people in Canada talk about their Fifth Amendment rights, which is, of course, American. No doubt they picked it up from Law and Order.

I’m not going to complain about adolescents or young adults, because it is the system that seems to be failing. Given my interests and education if I become a high school teacher one of the courses I want to teach is Civics. In Ontario students are required to take one half-credit course on Canadian Civics. Four months. It’s the only class in the entire Ontario curriculum specifically dedicated for students to develop an understanding of their roles as citizens, and we give them four months to accomplish it.

My peers often give me strange looks when I say I want to teach Civics. Usually it is taught, poorly, by a teacher who drew a short straw. It requires no special education to teach it, and is usually foisted on someone with a Social Science degree. As a great credit to our political class, a large number of Canadians are apathetic about the political system. The reason is because we are governed comparatively well. Peace, Order and Good Government – the nation’s motto – seems to fit well with how we’ve been going along, so it doesn’t really matter if it’s Chretien, Martin, Harper, Ignatieff, etc. The ship of state continues on a steady-as-she-goes course, likewise with the Province, and with most cities.

Why does Civic Education matter? There are three main reasons that come to mind immediately. First, learning your actual rights and responsibilities. The first is self-explanatory, but the second is often overlooked. As a citizen of a municipality, region, province, and nation you have certain duties to perform. It’s not enough to simply be a citizen, but to be informed and aware of the condition of your body politic. It isn’t just your right to vote, it’s your responsibility. Without your voice the government is incomplete. 40% of the public doesn’t vote, based on Canada’s system of elections if all of them came out and voted it would likely form a majority government, think about that.

Second, representative government requires an active citizenry. Informed, active citizens have changed the face of history. In the 1960s numerous cities across North America faced outrage and protest when plans to construct expressways by demolishing neighbourhoods came on the table. This riled up communities and they resisted. Spadina in Toronto is an example of this. If people said nothing and allowed the municipal government to do as it pleased their homes and community would have been destroyed. People aren’t heard if they don’t speak out.

Third, teaching how to use government more effectively. Government is complex with many layers. By understanding the responsibilities and powers of each level of government and who can get you what you need.

There could be a fourth item, how to politically organize, and what your politics are. I may choose to avoid teaching it, because there is a risk of teaching your ideology. However, there is a benefit to having students learn how to protest, how to politically organize and how to sway the opinions of those in power.

Civics doesn’t just benefit those who learn, but society as a whole. It’s an investment in the future to ensure the stability and health of the country, province, region or municipality. Because after all, the children are our future, and we have to make sure they’re ready to take over.