Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Book Review: L. A. Noir by John Buntin

L. A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America's Most Seductive City by John Buntin tells the story of politics, policing, and crime in America's second largest city over the course of the twentieth century. Buntin tells his story through two characters: Mickey Cohen, infamous crime boss, and William Parker, long-serving Chief of Police. Both men's tenures reveal how Los Angeles changed and evolved over the course of the twentieth century. Both arrived and upset the existing balance, brought changes to their world, and ultimately outlived their value.

L. A. Noir is a great deal about the evolution of the city of Los Angeles. LA was a boom town. In 1880 the population was just over 10000 in LA county, twenty years later there was a ten-fold increase in population. By 1920 there were nearly 600000 people in LA county, and over a million a decade later. LA was controlled by a small number of powerful businessmen and politicians. These boosters trumpeted LA as "the white spot of America", a boast that stood in stark reality to the diverse population.

Like other boomtowns of the era, such as Las Vegas, Los Angeles struggled to deal with its growth and attracted the attention of the mob and hucksters. Los Angeles was seen as the next great opportunity for the American mafia. Buntin details the fascinating history of the development of organized crime in Los Angeles. One of the fascinating parts was the way in which the political system grew up in parallel. Corruption within city hall and the LAPD seems endemic.

William Parker was an ambitious, difficult man who in many ways is the father of the modern LAPD. His tactics were rough but at a critical junction he helped root out the political corruption poisoning the police department. However, Parker failed to adjust to the times. His strong-arm tactics and tin ear on race have left a sour note on his ultimately legacy.

Mickey Cohen strikes a much more tragic figure. As a young man he saw crime as a way to get what he always wanted. He cruel, aggressive style worked well in his younger days. It's important not to romanticize him as he was a brutal man. However, the reader cannot help but feel that Cohen is somewhat a pathetic figure by the end.

I am fascinated by the noir genre. In my head that genre really doesn't extend past World War II, but in so many ways the dirty policing, crime and corruption that so defines that genre is far less in the past than one might assume. The book also gives considerable insight into the issues within policing and organized crime. Many of the criticisms leveled against police today have their origins in the time period discussed. Parker and reformers worked for decades to bring about change, but even then a back-slide was always possible.

I would highly recommend this book for those interested in police history, the history of Los Angeles and the noir genre.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Worth Reading - May 25, 2017

The Ontario government is proposing a high-speed rail connection to link Toronto to Windsor. From the Brampton perspective the criticism seems to be that Brampton is being by-passed. However, there is a proposed stop at Pearson, so...

Spacing Toronto offers the argument for high-speed rail

A speech delivered by Mitch Landrieu, Mayor of New Orleans, has garnered attention for dealing with America's Confederate history

The Calgary Herald reports on evidence that outsiders applied influence in the last Canadian federal election

The Atlantic writes on the future of unions

Maclean's reports on Rebel Media's alignment with the far-right, conspiracy set of propagandists. 

CBC has a piece on cultural appropriation and how the recent controversies at least bring attention to long-standing complaints

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

The Flaws of Anti-Elite Rhetoric

A particular part of political rhetoric has been sticking in my craw lately, and that is knee-jerk anti-elitism and anti-establishment commentary and criticism. It's not as though I do not see the criticisms of the status quo of several advanced democracies. There are plenty who could easily look at Canada's two ruling parties (Liberals and Conservatives) and feel great dissatisfaction, especially given their similarities. In America the decades of conflict between Democrats and Republicans may be nauseating to their citizens, but that hardly means that Donald Trump is the answer. Donald Trump is never the answer.

Here's what I find baffling about this anti-elite, anti-establishment rhetoric: those who use it almost always mean replace one set of the establishment with another.

Elites tend to exist for a reason. Sometimes, believe it or not, it is based upon merit. It more often is tied to wealth/class, prestige, family, and entrenched socio-cultural attitudes. People tend to mingle within their own class. When I went to events in Toronto it would not be uncommon to see journalists (off the clock), politicians, and academics comfortably rubbing shoulders with each other. Oftentimes there are familial, friendship and marriage connections between similar individuals. These, unfortunately, create connections that allow these people to become more firmly rooted and ease the path for their patronage network/families.

My egalitarian streak rankles at this sort of pattern. However, the NDP in recent years has been afflicted with these sorts of cozy connections. The party president was Rebecca Blaikie, daughter of long-time NDP MP Bill Blaikie. His son is now a member of parliament. Jack Layton's son is a sitting city councillor in Toronto, and his daughter, if memory serves, is a key figure in the Broadbent Institute, an NDP-friendly organization. I'm not saying these individuals do not deserve the positions they hold, but I think it would be naive to assume that part of their success is not tied to the links they have.

I have a certain level of empathy for anger at the elites who govern our society, but more often than not those who are angry are co-opted by other elites to displace them. Perhaps the most paradoxical representation of this is Donald Trump, a wealthy conman/business mogul who has rubbed shoulders with the elite class for decades. Though we can look further back quite comfortably. George W. Bush was held up as a 'regular guy' despite the fact that he was Yale-educated and the son of a president and from a political dynasty. I'm willing to engage in a conversation about class warfare, but if it's just the Orwellian story of various factions of elites warring against each other and using popular support to further their aims I have a hard time taking the critique seriously.

We will never divorce ourselves from these so-called elites. Once the revolutionaries take the palace it isn't long before they become the new elites themselves. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. This doesn't mean that change is impossible, it just means making peace with the fact that being aligned with people who have high levels of education or experience is inherently positive, not negative. Throwing the bums out is a great in theory, but then we have to actually manage our affairs in the wake of the toss.

Ultimately I suppose I'm annoyed by this lazy criticism and its ineffectiveness to articulate any kind of positive message. If you don't like the actions of the politicians/government, write them, join a party, sign a petition, participate in a protest, stand for election. Pretending you are justified in destroying the system rather than responsible for trying to fix it is just getting old.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Worth Reading - May 18, 2017

I've written about how our places could use more public art. Strong Towns is talking about that this week. One article shows how we each can be more active in making public art. Gracen Johnson writes about public art's return on investment

Strong Towns also has put out a piece about how people who want to make changes in their cities can get started

A London city councillor gave an interview to Steve Paikin on their decision to move to ranked ballots

As the next provincial election nears there are complaints within the Progressive Conservative Party about how candidates are being selected

Ontario New Democrat, Jagmeet Singh, has jumped into the federal NDP leadership contest

Jarrett Walker takes aim at Toronto's acceptance of cars sharing their routes with cars. 

Ten reasons why improving bike infrastructure is good for non-cyclists

From TVO's blog, the power of disruptive protest

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Confronting Drug Policy

Two stark drug stories are currently dominating headlines in Canada. The first is the proposed legalization of marijuana and the subsequent complications. The legalization of cannabis is accepted in the media as a fait accompli despite some reticence among Canadians, the medical community and provincial governments. It is a near certainty that as of next July Canada will have legal cannabis for sale in all the territories and provinces to most Canadians.

Some of the news around marijuana legalization has been those eager to get a toehold in the industry and skirt the existing laws. I saw this in person when I passed at least three dispensaries during my weekend visit to Toronto in clear violation of current laws. Attitudes seem to be basically celebratory towards this policy change.

The second, and more important drug headline is the ongoing fentanyl crisis. I will admit off the top that despite hearing about this topic for months I fear I remain hopelessly ignorant. Fentanyl is an opioid that has begun appearing in large numbers in North America. It is an incredibly powerful drug and apparently even a small intake can cause a drug overdose. A CBC story posted in December 2016 states that about 500 Canadians died that year alone. During a recent town hall-style gathering VICE held on drug liberalization Justin Trudeau was confronted by a frontline health worker who furiously challenged the Prime Minister for the government's failure and cited the daily death toll the drug was having in Toronto and Vancouver. 

Many of the deaths are exactly the type of people you assume. People with drug addiction problems, or other dependency problems. However, the fatalities are increasingly hitting casual drug users as fentanyl spreads.

I think it's important here to start talking about my own position here, and how I believe I am starting to recognize how wrong I am. I have a somewhat atypical relationship with drugs. I assume (or know) that many of my friends enjoy cannabis recreationally and when the prohibition ends their lives will improve. I don't smoke, so the appeal to legalization was often lost on me. At best I was apathetic and at worst I was uncomfortable with the concept of the state sanctioning the use of a drug. I say this as an utter hypocrite. I enjoy alcohol and find it an important part of my socializing behaviour, and I recognize the harm done to society from alcohol is far more pervasive than that done by cannabis.

The reality is that cannabis prohibition hurts and helps exactly the wrong people. Case study after cases study shows that legalization is effective and has an overwhelmingly positive impact on jurisdictions that try it.

So, what about opioids?

A number of years ago Portugal embarked on a radical policy. They legalized all drugs and fundamentally redressed their narcotic/addictions policy. From everything I have ever heard it was a wild success. Canada stands poised to legalize a substance that largely appeals to a certain segment of the Canadian populace, but has barely addressed the crisis unfolding among opioid users. The same logic that says legalizing cannabis is a net positive can be applied to other, harder drugs. Drugs that are currently creating much greater harm. The sad truth is that while I intellectually understand that my cultural biases against these drugs makes the concept of legalizing them not a little bit abhorrent, but frankly, I have to get over it. So should the rest of the country.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Worth Reading - May 11, 2017

Tuesday was a dramatic date in the history of British Columbia politics. At the moment neither the Liberals nor the NDP won a majority of seats and the Green Party holds the balance of power. The Province compares the Liberals, NDP and Greens on 20 policy areas to suggest what sort of deal may be made/demanded. 

Here are the results of the BC election. Please note that the headline is incorrect. It is a hung legislature, the Liberals will have to test to see if they can maintain their government.

Food is one of those things that bond people and communities together. From Strong Towns, how restaurants create great neighbourhoods

Rumour has it that the Ontario NDP's Jagmeet Singh (ONDP - Bramalea-Gore-Malton) will enter the federal leadership race next week. 

HBO is rumoured to be working on up to four spin-offs of Game of Thrones. The Washington Post writes that the series should not just explore the universe, but also explore big ideas.

Rogers TV has closed its Peel-based operation. This leads to questions about local media and broadcasting city council meetings

Malls are dying across North America. It is a fact of life cities are going to have to come to terms with.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

France and Interpreting Elections

First, best of luck to the voters of British Columbia who are voting in their provincial election today. I eagerly await the results! Make good choices.

As important as the British Columbia provincial election is it is not the election that garnered the most attention recently. The presidential election in France garnered much attention, especially leading into the second round when far-right Marine Le Pen faced off against moderate Emmanuel Macron. While analysts suggested that Le Pen's popularity was disturbing that put her chances at winning as quite remote.

Thankfully, prognosticators were correct and on Sunday Macron defeated Le Pen in the second round. Macron garnered about two-thirds of the vote to Le Pen's one third. However, that means Le Pen was able to gain support from her initial 21% base.

From here I want to briefly take a moment to discuss how we talk about elections. Journalists, pundits and observers have been quick to cast this election in familiar ways. The most obvious one is that Le Pen is a stand-in for Donald Trump and will France make the same error that the United States did. This is a sloppy and poor way to interpret any election. If you talk to any voter they will have complicated reasons for choosing the candidates they do. Moreover, voters perhaps cannot articulate their less apparent motivations. Trying to conceive of elections in our own terms, ignoring context, is a quick way to make incorrect caricatures. When Trump was elected I pointed out how he may be an American manifestation of the far-right resurgence we have seen in Europe, but I sincerely doubt Trump and his advisors saw him as part of the Front National, and British National Party, etc.

Le Pen was, and is no Trump. She, her party, and her family have been part of the French political scene for decades. She was definitely excluded from the French mainstream, but still a well-known personality in political life. Likewise, casting Macron as the defender of the status quo also misses the point. Macron formed his own political party (approximately a liberal or centrist party) to win the presidency. Despite the fact that he is a former cabinet member, from what I can tell he was a relative minor figure in France before he made the push for the executive. At 39 he is the youngest person to win the presidency.

The two main political parties/factions that have governed France and been the challengers in elections were kicked out of the final round: the Socialists and their right-wing opposite, presently Republicans. Macron and Le Pen, from my point of view, were both outsiders. They represented a general dissatisfaction with the status quo. Macron's victory seems in equal parts a rejection of Le Pen's brand of extremism, and continued commitment to the centre/status quo. France is not yet ready for radical alternatives, but are dissatisfied with the standard responses. France's political history has often dealt with centrists trying to deal with extreme left and extreme right challengers. Perhaps Macrons En Marche party will unify the centre of the political spectrum to try to lead France into the future, but none can say for certain. France is holding legislative elections next month which will definitely give us a sense of where France is heading for the next few years.

The French presidential election is a warning about France in specific and perhaps the world in general. The extreme right is becoming an accepted part of many countries' political discourse. Voters in many countries are frustrated by the  status quo and seeking unusual alternatives. Macron will, hopefully, be an ally for the remaining 'liberal' world leaders like Angela Merkel and Justin Trudeau.

So best of luck to France as they move forward, and thanks for clearly picking the lesser of evils.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Worth Reading - May 4, 2017

J. J. McCullough wrote a fierce criticism of Canadian democracy, comparing it to the authoritarian reforms approved of recently in a Turkish referendum. 

David Moscorp offers a forceful rebuttal of McCollough's piece

News from the Nerd Economy, Kotaku is reporting that YouTube filters are hitting Call of Duty streamers and destroying their business model

Strong Towns asks who are the invisible bike riders in your community? 

Colonization is alive and well in the realm of indigenous land claims

Brampton plans to completely overhaul its downtown

Perhaps one of the most interesting questions in the Strong Towns' Strength Test is 'if there was a revolution in your town, would people know where to go to take part?' This article examines that idea. 

Andrew Coyne takes aim at the package of parliamentary reforms the Liberals intend to push through. 

London, Ontario will be replacing first-past-the-post with a ranked ballot for their next election

From Maclean's, How the Alt-Right Weaponized Free Speech

Schools, school boards and educators have been struggling to deal with a show I have recommended, 13 Reasons Why. For the record, I think the show should be watched by a mature audience or with parental discretion and presence. Netflix offered a response to the Peel District School Board's letter warning parents. PS Don't watch the trailer, it hurts the reveals of the show. 

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

The Unclear BC Election

I admit that I don't follow British Columbia politics very closely. What I do hear often disturbs me. British Columbia, for those who may not have heard, is in the midst of a provincial election. The final vote is scheduled for May 9th.

Christie Clark is a defending a Liberal government that has been in power since 2001. Clark became premier after her predecessor, Gordon Campbell, was shown the door in 2011 after a controversy regarding the introduction of a harmonized sales tax. Clark looked poised to lose in 2013. She was deeply unpopular and polls said the Liberals were marching to defeat. Then in a massive upset the polls were wrong and Clark led her party to a majority.

A good primer for the election is a recent episode of Canadaland Short Cuts. In the past year or so there has been a great deal of criticism of the BC Liberals' fundraising practices. British Columbia has no limits to the amount that can be donated, nor any restrictions on corporate donations. Subsequently there has been significant criticism that the Liberals are little more than shills for the fossil fuel industry. There seems to be a significant revolving door between industry, government and media.

Polling at moment shows that the NDP have lost their lead over the Liberals. Eric Grenier's poll analysis suggests that the NDP and Liberals will win a similar number of seats, a virtual tie. The real surprise at the moment is the strength of the Green Party. At points they have polled above 20%. Green support is concentrated on Vancouver Island, which may eat into the NDP seat totals.

I think it is important here to restate that polling should be taken with a grain a salt. I obviously have my sympathies for the BC NDP, especially given the long-in-the-tooth Clark government with their questionable ethics. That said, I'd like to see the Green Party make some gains as well. Perhaps we will end up in an interesting position where we will have a minority government with the Greens holding the balance of power.

British Columbia has faced a number of concerning issues over the last few years: housing affordability, resource development, First Nations' rights, and sustainable development. These issues do not have simple solutions, but I hope that their leaders are at least speaking to this problems. Best of luck to the voters of British Columbia next week, make good choices!