Thursday, July 28, 2016

Worth Reading - July 28, 2016

It's a pretty brief post. It has been a looooong week. 

Samara Canada put out a (very optimistic) video on the life of an Member of Parliament. It is insanely Canadian.

Doug Saunders writes about the problems confronting America, and they're not the ones you hear about most often

Chuck Marohn on the ignorant versus the elites

A Toronto police officer has been convicted for killing Sammy Yatim

The fight for affordable housing in Vancouver goes on. 

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Should Dentistry be part of Healthcare?

Over the last couple of years I have had to spend a great deal of money out of pocket for dental care. A combination of factors has led me to be uninsured or having difficulty claiming benefits when I have had them. As a result I have had to deal with my dentist in the way a lot of working-class people have had to. I have been fortunate that I have always been able to come up with the money for procedures and routine cleaning, but it has raised questions for me.

A few years ago I had a friend who developed a bad tooth infection. His tooth literally had to turn gray before he would bite the bullet and pay the high price for care. My friend is a sensible and hygienic person. The terrible thing about dental care is that even if you brush and floss everyday problems can still arise, the obvious example here are wisdom teeth, but some people are just prone to cavities or gum disease despite what they do.

The consequences for poor dental health including a lower quality of life, constant pain, and more serious health complications make it seems like dentistry should be relegated as a need rather than a luxury for those with insurance or money.

Compared with healthcare I do not think it makes sense for dentistry to be moved fully into the public realm. A great deal of the work dentists do is cosmetic and people opt into a higher level of service than might be required for personal reasons. There is a vibrant private dental industry that hardly should be nationalized like health services were in this country.

I'm not a medical policy wonk by any stretch, but it occurs to me that offering some sort of broad public insurance option in line with how Germany and France operate their health care systems may be for the best. This could ensure a basic level of care to combat gum disease, tooth decay and minor surgeries could be available to all citizens of their given province.

Again, I'm suggesting a public insurance option, not public provision of dentistry. It seems odd to me that such a vital component of our well-being is considered outside of the public interest, while other injuries and conditions are. If nothing else, it's worth asking why not, and if not, what alternatives do we offer for those with insufficient care?

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Worth Reading - July 21, 2016

Why homeownership is a failed way to generate wealth

From The Atlantic, How American Politics went Insane. Quite hyperbolic, but interesting. It offers a structural explanation for the current issues in American governance.

Many towns are cannibalizing themselves and calling themselves growing and healthy. 

The Walrus has a piece on traffic. Remember, you aren't in traffic, you are traffic.

Strong Towns take a look at big box stores and the extraction economy

This editor answered the question of what white privilege meant to her

CGP Grey explains the Brexit. 

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

The Next Phase of Protest

If you study history at all one of the things you learn is that the periodization used, short-hand terms to label eras, are created almost universally after the fact. Living in one of those historical moments can be abundantly clear or far more murky. With the incidents in Dallas, Baton Rouge and elsewhere there is a real sense that the confrontation between civil rights advocates and the state is intensifying. This is not exclusively an American phenomenon. The growing activism of the organizations like Black Lives Matters Toronto illustrates that there are continent-wide concerns.

An already iconic photo of the Black Lives Matter protest in Baton Rouge, LA
As I reflect back on the evolution of civil rights groups over the last decade or so it is hard not feel like we have entered into a new era. Women's, transgender, and racialized minority right advocates have exploded in their presence in the popular consciousness and also their base of support. A cohort of North Americans have come to the conclusion that there is a significant power imbalance in society that needs to be addressed. Before the modern era I feel as though these debates were highly limited to the university seminar, dinner parties and within persecuted communities themselves. Clearly my social circle is not representative of North America as a whole but Black Lives Matter protests receive (inter)national attention now and response from the audience rather than passive indifference.

A photo from a recent protest that went viral critiquing the response of police
One of the big criticisms I recall hearing about the Millennial and Gen-X generations is that they were apathetic and disinterested in society beyond themselves. We were generation Me and the concerns of others were beyond our interest. Activism is back on the streets. While Black Lives Matters is often the focus, I think it's easy to see how Idle No More and allied movements signaled a sea change this decade.

It would be lazy and inaccurate to suggest that we're back to the 1960s, though this time and that time certainly offers some parallels. Too direct an examination reveals how much one is trying to stick a square peg into a round hole. The stakes are different, the conditions are different. These protests have unveiled the elements of the systemic racism visible and sexual minorities continue to experience in North America. Perhaps a combination of the election and disappointments of a liberal president and the escalating militarization of police has led to an explosion over this conflict. The photos are very different today from the 1960s, but no less inspiring on one hand and haunting on the other.  

Photo from an Idle No More protest in London, ON in 2012
So, where is this all going? With violent conflict between protestors, radicals and police/the state escalating the protest movement could grow even larger, or stifle it in its infancy. Other sectors of the continent are also experiencing change as the Republican Party embraces (however reluctantly) an openly racist candidate. It should come to no surprise to frequent readers of this blog that my sympathies are with these new civil rights movements. I do not condone any violence associated with them, but it is easy to understand the anger. It's an anger fueled by decades of neglect, apathy and abuse from others in society and the state. Social media and mass communications may fill in where prominent leaders did in the past.

History doesn't repeat itself, but it can often rhyme. With the bizarre American presidential election coming up, the growing social movements across North America and other changes in society, technology and culture I cannot help but wonder if 2016 is a year that will be well remembered as a key moment in an era, like 1964 or 1968. Only time will tell.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Worth Reading - July 14, 2016

Canada and NATO are committing troops to reinforce the Baltic states

I don't agree with his whole take here, but here is Martin Regg Cohn's piece on Black Lives Matter TO and Pride

Filed under "discouraging" the new City Manager in Brampton didn't know about the city's past problems

Jason Kenney wants to become the Premier of Alberta one day, but Rachel Notley and Naheed Nenshi say he's out of touch

TVO has a guest post about the origins of Black Lives Matters TO and the Pride dispute. For what it's worth this take is closer to my view.

Aaron Wherry updates us on the electoral reform committee, and it is amusing. 

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

NATO in the 21st Century

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization is one of the few formal military alliances that remains. Its twin, the Warsaw Pact has long ceased to exist. NATO has dual origins, first it was a more formalized version of the Western Allies. Following World War I alliances took on a more ideological character and the Allies represented "democratic" values. World War II ended American isolationism quite effectively. NATO helped to integrate the Americans into the old Entente, or perhaps better put, it superseded it.

The second reason for NATO was American policymakers' determination to curtail Communist expansion. NATO is a mutual defence organization primarily. Early in its existence states on the frontline of the Cold War, ex. Turkey, joined NATO as a bulwark against the Soviet Union. The hope was to end communist interference and Soviet aggression.

However, history fondly likes to remind us that continuity and change move hand in hand. Russian imperial expansion switched to Soviet communist encroachment and now we're in an age of Russian nationalist-economic aggression.

NATO expanded in to Eastern Europe in the wake of the Cold War's conclusion. In 2007 I may have written that NATO is an outdated institution. A massive political-military alliance against Russia seemed provocative and unnecessary. And then Putin ordered the invasion of Georgia and Ukraine. Suddenly NATO's justification seems much more relevant.

I provide all this context because it was recently reported that Canadian forces were reinforcing the NATO garrisons in the Baltic region. The Baltic countries: Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, historically languished under Russian/Soviet oppression. Efforts were made to wipe out their distinct cultures through colonization. With what has happened in Russian areas of Ukraine it is not extreme to think that these countries could be next.

It is certainly moral to defend these small states from the Russian behemoth. Outside of NATO these nations would be utterly defenceless against Russian aggression. It does raise questions though. Would Canadians be willing to go to war over Estonia? The answer, I presume, is no, but it's a question we must now ask ourselves and whether or not we intend to uphold our obligations.

It is easy to dismiss Russia's actions as regional aggression, but it is important to recall that we share a massive territory with the Russians - the Arctic. Canada needs as many friends as it can muster if/when Russia makes military and diplomatic efforts to exert greater control over the region. Canada is a small democratic nation, it has an interest in standing with its peers and smaller sisters. One hopes NATO never has to be called to action. That said, NATO may deserve a serious rethink. Its intervention in Libya suggested perhaps a new future for the alliance, but the Ukrainian conflict suggests that its future may look much more like its past for now.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Worth Reading - July 7, 2016

It's a somewhat shorter list this week. I only have a few more minutes before I have to race off to work again!

The New York Times reported on Canada's acceptance of Syrian refugees

MP Jason Kennedy was expected to make a bid to lead the federal Conservatives, but it turns out that he wants to lead the Alberta Progressive Conservatives

Black Lives Matter Toronto staged a demonstration at the Pride Parade last weekend. I've seen many suggest online that this is the best article on the topic available. 

From Strong Towns, the four virtues of public transit

Here's a video explaining why electronic voting is a terrible idea.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

TV Review: Marseille Season 1

Recently Netflix released a new original political drama, Marseille. As a person who enjoys political dramas in many forms I decided to give this French series a shot. I think it is fair to say I had a mixed experience with the series.

Marseille is a set in the city of the same name and the drama surrounds the municipal election. The main character, Robert Taro (Gerard Depardieu), has been the mayor of Marseille for twenty years. Taro strikes a sort of jovial, good-natured politician. Unlike many contemporary political dramas Taro does not come across as an anti-hero. He may have been a strong arm in municipal politics and taken advantage of his position, but his actions are within the norm of French political culture (as stated by the show).

Taro is poised to finally make his exit from political life and pass the baton to his successor, Deputy Mayor Lucas Barres (Benoit Magimel), with an election only a few weeks away. However, on Taro's final legacy project, converting the old port into a casino complex, Barres votes against him and reveals that his mentorship was a long con to take power away from Taro.

Barres' betrayal of Taro is baffling. The show has the decency to point this out itself. If Barres sat by quietly and did not confront him he would have been easily elected the new mayor within a month. Barres' explanation is flimsy, stating "Power isn't given, it is taken!" As the season progresses Barres' motivations become clearer, but hardly more satisfying.

Like many political dramas Marseille is a family drama as well. Taro's wife and daughter are prominent characters in the series. His wife Rachel (Geraldine Pailhas) is a talented musician who has stood steadfastly by Robert for years. Unlike in many other political dramas Taro seems to earnestly love his wife. His daughter Julia (Stephanie Caillard) has recently returned from university in Canada and is trying to start a career in journalism without using her father's name.

I confronted two major barriers while watching the series. I have no problem watching shows and films with subtitles but the formatting Netflix uses for its subtitles are horrendous. Netflix puts subtitles in a thin white text. Whenever a seen is bright of the lower third of the screen is white the text is illegible. I am fortunate to have some recollection of French and could sometimes follow the dialog itself, but it is hardly excusable.

The second barrier is ignorance of France's political structures and processes at the municipal level. Being a massive political nerd I have read many of the Wikipedia articles on how France's political system works, but even still there are elements that left me lost. I don't know what the Department does or is. Is it like a county, or a small province? The Department's Prefect appears in the municipal council and is a major character but I was ignorant of her place in the system.

For me there are two American political dramas that are most comparable to Marseille: The Wire and Boss. Marseille never really delivers on the sophistication of The Wire. The story spends time giving a surface level sketch at the poverty, crime and race problems in Marseille's public housing. Julia has a connection to the city's underside which grows over the season. It also plays with the intersection of crime and politics, but it is quite heavy handed. Boss is the much more apt point of comparison. In fact while watching the pilot I began to wonder if this was a French remake of Boss. A powerful, long-serving mayor at the end of his career trying to push through a big legacy project with secrets to hide and a daughter who spends time on the wrong side of the tracks. The way the season unfurls makes the comparison to Boss even closer.

I think it is fair to say that Marseille has soap opera elements. The affairs, the intrigue, the betrayals and the secrets feel reminiscent at times of North American soap operas. However, this interpretation may be more a product of French vs. American/Canadian/British television and film conventions. The emotions are rawer than in English dramas. At times when I scoffed at what I was seeing and listening to I considered that I am just unfamiliar with the conventions. I liked many of the flourishes in the show.

I believe the first act was strong and the series stumbles as it goes forward. The conflict between Barres and Taro is the heart of the story and I think the motivations just did not work for me. The ending of the series feels hollow to me. The closing scene is hardly built to. I enjoy some of the issues the series raises and the election itself is fascinating, but the conflict between the politicians is confusing given that I do not know how the system works. Party leaders argue over who will get what ward but coming from the fixed political geography of Canada that strikes me as bizarre and unclear.

As is probably clear by the review, I have mixed feelings about the series. The novelty appealed to me. The setting and visuals are fantastic. There was tremendous potential but the plot was so over the top as to lose me at points. I liked the Taro family and thought it was a smart take on a political family that is not often seen. At only eight episodes fans of political dramas have little to lose in checking out a few episodes, but it is fair to say it won't work for everyone.