Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Governance in the Post-Apocalypse

Warning: The following contains light spoilers for The Walking Dead

This past Sunday was the fifth season finale of the immensely popular The Walking Dead. Because I am a big political nerd I cannot help but notice that many of the seasons following season one are wrestling with questions of governance. It should be noted that The Walking Dead is no way unique in this. Post-apocalyptic literature, film, and television have often tried to deal with the questions of rebuilding order when everything falls to hell. Part of the explanation for this is the close relationship between the post-apocalyptic and dystopian genres. Very few stories simply deal with the aftermath of the collapse of the 'old world', but instead include the  tendencies of our fellow man in dark and twisted new societies.

If there's people, someone must be in charge.
Most of the time in post-apocalyptic fiction the narrative focuses on a small group of survivors, usually fewer than twenty. Is that really government? Government is a complicated word and imbued with a lot of what we think of as the state. Governing per se is nothing more than providing management and direction. The lesson of most fiction indicates that lone wolves who exist outside of a community or group are usually not long for this world. Any time two people interact there are structures and patterns in place to 'govern' behaviour, but as a group grows in size these patterns must be strictly outlined and made formal. So, while a group of survivalists picking through the ruins of our civilization may not seem the same as what happens in the House of Commons (or maybe too similar...) there is a common thread there.

First let's take a look at the arc of The Walking Dead. Season one of the series was much more focused on the question of what has happened and how to survive. Rick Grimes, a former sheriff, and close associate of several among a group of survivors instantly becomes the de facto leader. However tensions exist within the group, particularly with his best friend and former colleague Shane. Season two and onwards much more tackles the question of governance. In many ways the failures of the group can be tied to factionalism and rival leadership camps. Famously at the close of the second season Grimes says after challenging the group about his decisions, "If you're staying, this isn't a democracy anymore." How to govern the group is often at the heart of conflict in the series.

Since that point, despite the fact that Rick's power in the group has waxed and waned and waxed again the fundamental element has remained in place that once Rick has made a decision the group keeps to it. Instead of infighting the group has produced a number of trusted advisors who counsel Rick (Herschel, Glenn, Michione, Carol, to name a few), but ultimately stick with his policies, even when they disagree. In brief, season three saw the consequences of Rick's unchecked powers and approach. When the group was established inside the prison in season four we see Rick relieved of leadership and a "Council" take charge of running day-to-day affairs until things reach a crisis point. Season five saw the return of Rick's advisor-assisted leadership. The central conflict in the most recent season was the tension between two different governing structures: Rick's group with a centralized, pragmatic and harsh leadership style versus the more traditional, theoretically democratic and lenient style of the Alexandrians. Remember, governing is not just about making decisions and giving orders; how to carry out justice and relationships with outsiders is also part and parcel of the responsibilities of leadership.

The Walking Dead is hardly unique in this depiction. Within the zombie genre Max Brooks' World War Z rarely shows a vibrant democracy, but a much harsher, more centralized, more militant, less democratic governance all around the world. The 28 Days Later/28 Weeks Later films depict military-based governance, as does the video game TheLast of Us and TV series Falling Skies. In all three cases the military is depicted as a means of providing security (the most precious commodity in instability) but also oppression or containment of the people they are protecting.

Communities tend to find creative places to call home after the end.
Interesting enough is that even democratic governments that survive in many pieces of fiction immediately take on extra-legal powers to control the chaos. In the novel One Second After or the TV series Jericho) the elected municipal governments begin acting like city-states to try to survive in the absence of the state and national governments.

Another common trope in the post-apocalyptic genre is the theocracy. In times of crisis people often turn to religion as it is a powerful unifier that provides social cohesion in a way a single leader often cannot. Margaret Atwood's A Handmaiden's Tale blends the military rule and religion quite nicely, but the results are the same. James Kuntsler's series of post-collapse novels prominently features a strange religious group with a prophet-like figurehead and a charismatic leader in the ruins of Upstate New York.

The theme repeated over, and over again in hundreds of books is remarkably similar. The new leadership class tends to come from ex-military (Mike Havel in Dies the Fire), police (Rick Grimes in The Walking Dead), former/current politicians (Johnston Green or Senator Tomarchio in Jericho or the Warden in Children of Men) or a charismatic, capable person (Carnegie in The Book of Eli or Caesar in Fallout: New Vegas). Ultimately the "Strong Man" governance all likely stems from the inverse sentiment of the Benjamin Franklin statement, "Those who would sacrifice liberty in the name of security deserves neither." As wise as Benjamin Franklin was there exists many instances when centralized control is badly needed in emergencies. Post-apocalyptic fiction trades on the fact that scared people will surrender a great deal of authority to those who can protect them, provide for them and keep them safe. To be sure this is not a new phenomena. Think back to the Republic of Rome who would surrender its semi-democracy to a dictator in times of profound crisis. In the modern United States there are any number of provisions to institute martial law to keep order

In my opinion writers in this medium and consumers of it are attracted to authoritative or authoritarian for some very simple reasons. While the leadership model provides a structure for traditional hero narratives it also harkens to our own thinking of how to deal with issues. In addition we admire, just as the other characters within the narrative, competent and capable leaders. It also helps from the perspective of elevating characters and creating drama. Believe it or not, but The Walking Dead and other post-apocalyptic fiction are deeply political. They are not only critiquing social issues but providing a framework to work out fundamental philosophical questions at the heart of governance and ethics that have been debated since before Ancient Greece. I know a lot of people have had the conversation/debate over what their "Zombie Survival Plan" is, but have you ever thought what your plan to rebuild and get along with your fellow survivors might be? Ultimately that's what might keep you alive longer than any machete or canned food.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Worth Reading - March 27, 2014

Apologies for the delay, I was travelling this week and didn't have time to post. Here's this week's Worth Reading.

Aaron Wherry for Maclean's lays out the issue with the legal justification for Canada's intervention in Syria. No laughing matter, certainly.

There seems to be something very strange happening in Brampton. The chief bureaucrat at the city has left. Reading San Grewal's article it's not hard to imagine why he has been ousted

As I've shared on this blog many times before, I am a fan of the work done by the people over at Strong Towns. Recently they have been taking a look at the infrastructure lobby. There seems to be a major contradiction: we have a massive backlog of maintenance, and most spending seems to be on new construction. It's baffling. Strong Towns takes apart some of the claims of pro-builder organizations here.

Definitely related to the above, how much is sprawl costing America? I promise you we are not so different in Canada.

Martin Regg Cohn writes that the backwards fundraising laws and election spending in Ontario threatens its democracy

Michael Harris lays out his case for why Justin Trudeau is handing the election over to Stephen Harper. I don't buy the argument completely, but I present here regardless.

Despite much being made of the revival of Liberal fortunes in Quebec Chantal Hébert suggests that there is a very weak effort on the ground in the province

Worth Watching

CTV's W5 did a profile of the NDP leader and Leader of the Opposition Tom Mulcair (NDP - Outremont, QC). It's definitely worth a look and gives a preview of what we can expect in coming months. 

Bridgette Schulte: Overworked, Overwhelmed - A TVO interview about the stressers of modern life.

Making Work Meaningful - Why are companies making meditation rooms and putting a growing focus on mental health at work? Two scholars discuss these trends with Steve Paikin and the route of the problems in contemporary work. 

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The Politics of Sexual Harassment

Scott Andrews (IND - Avalon, NL) has announced that he has abandoned his hopes to rejoin the Liberal Party and will continue to sit as an independent. He said as much in a statement he gave to the press, but the statement itself is quite troubling. In it he claimed that he accepted the findings of Cynthia Peterson, who was appointed by Justin Trudeau (LPC - Papineau, QC) to lead the investigation, but would not air his objections to appear "mean-spirited".

It's an interesting tactic. The findings by Peterson are confidential to protect the victims, yet Andrews' final remarks that the findings are frustrating, and assumed by him to be inaccurate, clouds the authenticity of the claims. This is nothing new and nothing surprising. Victims of abuse are subjected to rigorous and thorough character examinations (or assassinations) while their attackers are carefully considered to prevent ruinous effects to their careers and public images. No, this process is not exclusive to politics.

Source: The Canadian Press.
The Liberals will exclude Mr. Andrews and Mr. Massimo Pacetti from their caucus and this is likely the end of their political careers. Though Mr. Andrews suggested that he might consider a run as an independent.

Andrews said something during a statement to the media that particularly irked me. He said, "I have learned a lot about myself through the past few months, and particularly how my jovial Newfoundland friendliness can be received." The culture and character of Newfoundlanders is somewhat legendary in this country. The allegations against Mr. Andrews and Mr. Pacetti have never been made clear, but I have to assume that they were more than ribald wit to cause MPs from another party to come forward to ask for action.

By blaming the 'friendly' Newfoundland culture Mr. Andrews besmirches the character of Newfoundlanders and minimizes what he may have done. I suppose it's possible that Mr. Andrews does not recall whatever it is he did and that it why he is mischaracterizing it, but it seems an obvious attempt to turn harassment into 'harmless fun'. The implication is that if his accusers loosened up, or took the joke the way it was intended all would be well.

The troubling aspect of this case, primarily, is that it occurred at the central institution of Canadian politics. The other is the partisan nature of the discussion and the fog surrounding it. I am not asking the victims to reveal themselves and all the details be made clear, but this public ignorance allows Andrews to minimalize his actions.

In closing I would like to remind my readers of this piece by Laura Payton about sexual harassment in the halls of power in this country. We should not and must not view this as an isolated incident, but a rare public airing of some very disturbing laundry. I think we often forget politicians are human beings, and when we do remember it's to cast them as Shakespearean or House of Cards-style villains. They are people. The capital is a workplace and harassment can only be stamped out through a change in the culture and work practices.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Worth Reading - March 19, 2015

Yesterday the Arctic Winter Games Committee announced Hay River and Fort Smith are its choices for the 2018 contest. 

Martin Regg Cohn has some ideas in how Ontario can turn its finances around

My alma mater Brock University recently installed a large statue of its namesake. Here is an interesting piece in the local paper about the mythology embodied in thatlandmark

Spacing Magazine had an interview with Leader of the Opposition Tom Mulcair (NDP - Outremont, QC) during his visit to Toronto. 

Why are teenage boys falling behind teenage girls in educational systems? I found this an interesting article because this was recently raised as an issue in Northwest Territories in a letter to the editor to News/North.

This is a piece from a few months ago, but in a conversation on Twitter with Desmond Cole, the author it fit nicely with the stories surrounding a few Conservative MPs and their racist remarks. Here is an excerpt:

One of the reasons it is so difficultto address bigotry is that we tend to focus on the abusers rather than the abused. We spend a lot of time debating whether individual people are racist, misogynistic, or homophobic; we parse their words in search of hidden meanings, dispute whether there’s a difference between making a racist remark and being a racist. Meanwhile, the legion of real people who have been slurred fade into abstraction. Victims of discrimination become points of reference instead of individuals whose vilification deserves immediate attention, opposition, and remedy.
From the Hill Times, one might be surprised to learn of the apparent weakness of political parties in their home turf. The piece takes a look at Conservative ridings in Alberta.

Referenced in my post on Tuesday, here is Aaron Wherry's piece on the niqab debate

Eric Grenier says that Ontario will be the key to the 2015 federal election, unsurprisingly. 

Jeffrey Simpson writes that Canada is increasingly isolated in its adherence to the First-Past-the-Post system, and Canadian democracy in general. 

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

The National Dress Code

The politicization over what women should or should not, or can or cannot wear is nothing new in this or many other countries. In recent weeks the issue has swirled stemming from a Muslim woman who wants to take the oath of citizenship wearing a niqab. In case you are unaware the niqab is a head scarf that women wear that also covers the face, excluding the eyes.

Hijab on the left, niqab on the right. 

Our Prime Minister says that covering one's face while taking the oath of citizenship is contrary to 'normal' Canadian values. It's a pretty galling statement given the huge number of Muslim immigrants and citizens in this country who would theoretically share in defining those values. The hijab and the niqab in particular agitate Western liberal sensibilities. While Western countries often trumpet their support of freedom equally important are concepts like general legal equality and secularism. These traditional garments challenge all three principles in the eyes of some: Freedom - it is forced upon people, equality - it is imposed only on women to enforce modesty, secularism - it is a blatant and conservative expression of religiosity. In some places, Quebec and France for example, the liberal feminist element views it as an oppressive tool and therefore seek to ban them.

The rhetoric on how women dress is as tiresome as it is rote. Aside from basic standards of decency, the state should not be involved in dictating how women (or anyone) should be dressing, nor should individuals be compelled through intimidation or threats by their family members to dress a certain way. A liberal society is about freedom of action and freedom of choice, or have we forgotten that? It manifests in all cultures, but in North America is usually consists of insisting women where longer skirts, higher collars and less form-fitting items.

Having grown up in Brampton I recall the conversation more than a few times. I went to schools with a few girls who wore hijabs. Every once in a while someone would ask why they wore it and if they were forced to. While strictly anecdotal each of them always replied that it was a choice that they had made and that they liked it. These were young Canadian women making decisions for themselves. Obviously they came from a cultural context where that was suggested or encouraged but they made the choice for themselves, and ultimately have the freedom to change their mind if they decide it no longer suits them.

If the issue about the citizenship oath is that people cannot see the woman's lips move and prove she is giving the oath then we better prepare to make people give the oath one-by-one. Or have people who cover their faces give the oath in private so that they can clearly be heard saying the words.

I'd hope that the Prime Minister's comments are not solely motivated by politics. Canadians are feeling insecure and suspicious of Islamic extremism, perhaps the most since the years immediately following 9/11. There is little to fear, especially on the question of what people wear or don't wear. That is not where the country breaks.

People's personal fashion should not be a matter of public opinion. It should not matter what the broad public thinks on an issue of personal choice. That's what freedom is in a country such as ours.

For more on this topic I recommend Aaron Wherry's piece in Maclean's.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Worth Reading - March 12, 2015

Chris Selley in the National Post writes about John Williamson's (CPC - New Brunswick Southwest, NB) racialized comments during the Manning Conference in Ottawa. Selley makes some valid points, but I mostly applaud his use of a Kids in the Hall reference.

One of the big questions in my mind about the 2015 federal election is 'What will happen with the Green Party?' It's entirely unpredictable, obviously, but projections sometimes show them electing more MPs outright. Eric Grenier offers his analysis here

Andre Domise writes about unrepresentative media and the impact it has on minority communities. 

Chantal Hébert writes in the Toronto Start that the positioning of the Conservative Party in recent weeks and months and the promotion of fear tactics threatens the fabric of Canadian life

This week the Minister for Public Safety came under attack for citing the Holocaust to defend Bill C-51, the anti-terror bill. 

Third party spending during Ontario's provincial elections is an embarrassment and disgrace. The province's Chief Electoral Officer has called on the province to reform laws to restrict them. 

Lawrence Martin lays out the scenario where the NDP may form the next federal government. This article is definitely a little thin, which is disappointing.

While no fan of the Liberal leader, Justin Trudeau (LPC - Papineau, QC) I present the text of a speech he made on the theme of liberty. 

Jon Lorinc writes about the rapidly and shocking cost increases for subway extensions in Toronto and the possible impact it will have on the planned Scarborough route. Also, check out part two for some serious(ly depressing) number crunching. 

Two pieces came out reflecting on Mayor Linda Jeffrey's first 100 days in office. Peter Criscione offers up a report card on the major fields for the new mayor and the Globe and Mail focus more on the state of the city of Brampton's finances

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Alberta's Looking Glass

Last week Premier Jim Prentice (PCAA - Calgary-Foothills) found himself in trouble for saying the following when asked about the provincial deficit:

"In terms of who is responsible, we all need only look in the mirror, right. Basically all of us have had the best of everything and have not had to pay for what it costs."

Mr. Prentice's political opponents have used this statement to great effect and it also triggered a dramatic response on social media. 

The backlash is understandable for sure. Alberta's budget woes has nothing to do with spending problems, as far as I can tell. It is common to hear progressives to say tax levels are insufficient, but in the case of Alberta that is quite true. Alberta has no sales tax and the lowest corporate tax in the country. Alberta has used its natural resource wealth to subsidize its entire government. Now and previously in 2008, and several times before, a sudden drop in the price of oil threatens the province's books.

Conservative or right-wing governments respond to these crises by slashing public spending as a solution to the deficit. However anyone with basic knowledge of the province's history can tell you that Alberta suffers from instability in revenues not instability in spending. Analysts have frequently called for Alberta to adopt a Norwegian model to manage its natural resources and to divert royalties from natural resources to accumulate wealth for the entire province for generations to come. Instead Alberta uses its wealth to top up revenue.

Politicians have proposed in Alberta at many different points in the past that the introduction of a sales tax would help level out the economy and stabilize revenue. Even if you do not agree that sales taxes should be instated in Alberta the question of which revenues to raise will inevitably come up. In a sense this is what Jim Prentice was right about. If Albertans want to blame someone for the current financial situation they have to at least acknowledge that their own political culture has played a significant role. The sales tax and tax increases in general have been the third rail of Alberta politics for a long time. That isn't just made up by politicians but it is shaped by the opinion of the public at large. The public ultimately holds government to account, if some want to place the Progressive Conservatives' mismanagement then some blame belongs to the people who have kept them in power for over forty years.

Given the boom-bust nature of resource revenues it would only make sense to my mind for provincial (and national) governments to set their budgets to balance without accounting for any money from them. Let those revenues accumulate in heritage funds to be reinvested into projects with long-term benefits, or take the interest for government spending.

Budget and service cuts often fall on the most vulnerable, it seems unconscionable in a wealthy place like Alberta that they should bear the brunt of the pain when the Alberta economy could easily handle higher taxes. The question is whether or not Albertans want to make a change for longer term fiscal stability, or continue with their low tax unpredictability.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Worth Reading - March 5, 2015

Yesterday Prime Minister Harper announced proposed changes to crime legislation to extend the sentence for violent crimes and limit the ability to get parole. 

Steve Paikin summarizes the state of the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario leadership race

Chantal Hebert writes how the PCPO race might foretell the future of next Conservative Party of Canada race. 

In the event of the zombie outbreak flee the city

Former Ontario Premier Bill Davis is heading up the panel on the Brampton university. The article shows that Mayor Jeffrey is trying to put together a powerful political coalition to pressure the provincial government.

Michael Chong (CPC - Wellington-Halton Hills, ON) has started the erosion process for centralized power in Canadian politics. The Globe and Mail says it's the job of the next class of MPs to push it even further.

From Granola Shotgun, the author takes a look at what the future of the suburbs might be. It's a question I wonder about a lot.

Unsurprisingly Members of Parliament don't know what's inside omnibus legislation. Peter Stoffer (NDP - Sackville-Eastern Shore, NS) has introduced a private members bill to ban them.

On a related topic, Jon Ivison writes about Parliament's inability to scrutinize public spending, which is its fundamental responsibility. 

Another piece from Chantal Hebert talking about how the Bloc Quebecois and Conservatives are appearing to certain Quebec voters by attacking niqab-wearing women

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Walkable Neighbourhoods and Avoiding the Commute

Since I told my coworkers that I intend to leave my current job and the Northwest Territories they have been asking me what I might like to do or where I might want to live, etc. In one of these conversations I remarked that in an ideal world I want to live within walking distance of where I work because I'd like to continue to walk to work every day. The colleagues I was talking to laughed at my desire and one replied, "Good luck!"

At first I thought that they were laughing at my perceived naivety of this idealistic vision. I didn't say anything but then it dawned on me that they may not have been questioning me, but the types of environments that exist out there.

A pedestrian-hostile environment and...

a residential neighbourhood in a urban area.

I have a couple of friends who live in Toronto and walk to work. Their downtown apartments are within a hop, skip and a jump of their downtown offices. Their desire is entirely manageable and practical. In fact driving would probably take longer and be a greater hassle. Presently I live in a small town in the Northwest Territories. The walk from my apartment to the office and "downtown" is about 15-20 minutes. I've done it in the rain, and in -40 degrees Celsius and it has never been particularly difficult. When it's really cold my hands hurt through the two pairs of gloves when I'm about 5 minutes away from my destination though.

However, one of my realizations is that small town life is not really for me, yet there are very few places outside of major metropolitan cities and small towns where what I want is readily available. I grew up in the suburbs and it took about fifteen minutes of walking just to get out of my residential neighbourhood to the nearest shopping or arterial road. Of course, public transit is meant to expand the walkable space for a commuter. After a 10-minute walk and a 10-minute bus ride I can be in a whole different place.

I wonder if in the suburbs or smaller cities if transit is robust enough to make it work for my ideals. The Toronto Star had an interesting piece about a Brampton family going car-less. You may remember one of the subjects, Kevin Montgomery, was a candidate for Brampton city council last year. People like the Montgomery's are making it work and have many positive consequences, but one of the great challenges for me is I don't know where I'll be working next, but I know I don't want to be a car-commuter.

Of course commuting is only one side of the equation, the other is finding a place to live. I grew up my whole life in the suburbs in a detached two-storey home. To me it is so normal, and so typical that I have a hard time not imagining my life in something like that, even if it is a rented house rather than one I own. I have never lived in an apartment building or condominium so it's an experience I have no frame of reference for. I recently read this post on Granola Shotgun, in it the author talks about the situation in San Francisco. Desirable, urbane, walkable neighbourhoods are the most valuable pieces of real-estate in North America and it doesn't much matter if you're talking about San Francisco, Toronto, or the suburbs around them. Even if I find a workplace not on the edge of the community in an office park, who says I could afford any of the homes around it? Complete neighbourhoods are more expensive and gentrification is pushing out lower, and increasingly middle-class people.

I believe in living where you work, that one should aspire to laying roots in a community. I think long commutes are detrimental to one's mental, physical and social health, but I understand how people end up in these situations with a two-hour commute spanning huge distances and places transformed into bedroom communities. My coworkers may have been right to chuckle at my naivety and idealism given the structure of our urban environments as very few ever get to live in these places.