Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Revolution on an Empty Stomach

Recently I was discussing Animal Farm with a student. He was preparing an essay outline and wanted to discuss how food is a metaphor for money in the novel. We discussed at length what kind of details he could pull from the novel to support his ideas. By the end of the hour though I had started to talk to him about the importance hunger has played in political revolutions. A colleague overheard me and we ended up discussing the connection between food and revolution so I thought it might be interesting to share some of these thoughts here.

Access to food might be one of the most important determinants of a regime's success. This was abundantly clear in the pre-modern era. In antiquity or the medieval period a bad harvest or drought could mean a peasant uprising was just around the corner. A history professor of the medieval period once told me that the tensest time in cities was the spring. Before the new crops were harvested and the winter stores were exhausted there was significant risk for violence within the cities.

In more recent history two revolutions seem to have been largely successful on the back of hunger: the French and Russian Revolutions. In both cases bread shortages collapsed support for the monarchy. Revolutionaries promised relief and bread if the people lent them support. Lenin famously rode the popular sentiment of "Peace, land and bread!" to power.

Modern transportation and international trade has eased the threat of famine and food shortages in many countries. Now if a crop failure occurs in Colorado, Oklahoma and Kansas, Ukraine, Australia and elsewhere can pick up the slack. Though it should be remembered that modern governments are not immune to these issues. The 2011 Arab Spring, it may be recalled, began by the protests of a Tunisian grocer. Food prices had spiked in the months preceding the revolutions which but great strain on long-reigning dictators.

I recently finished reading a history of Napoleon III's Second French Empire. It is fascinating how many times the regime had to adjust or was nearly brought down by crop failures and food shortages. Liberals reforms were introduced, campaigns halted, and ministers fired all to deal with unrest.

Ultimately I feel that this pattern reveals a certain truth about politics. Many would hope that politics is moved by reasoning and idealism. Emotion and passion seems to be a far stronger factor, but other forces of biology are also important. I do not mean to suggest that all revolutions are merely about growling stomachs, but there is a trend. It is something to be mindful of if commodity prices rise or major crops fail. Violent political change often needs more than effective rhetoric and charismatic leaders to succeed.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Worth Reading - February 23, 2017

Donald Trump may have violated the constitution by violating conflict of interest

Grant Henninger suggests that if you want to save your local economy you should skip buying American (or Canadian) and buy local

This week TVO's The Agenda is had a series of segments to assess the Harper legacy. Obviously history will have to weigh in more in the future, but it's an interesting place to start. Here is a segment on policy, and another on politics.

I'm going to be doing a lot of reading about this later, but the initial announcement was so exciting. NASA announced the discovery 7 earth-sized planets within a star's habitable zone

Transportation innovation and experimentation doesn't need to cost millions of dollars. Everett, MA experimented with a bus lane on the cheap. 

Doug Saunders writes that Canada's "Trump moment" it may not be fueled by white nationalism, but have a more multi-ethnic flavour

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Draft Nathan Cullen?

After the Edmonton Convention and Tom Mulcair was pushed out by delegates the lethargic NDP leadership race got underway. A number of the prominent candidates from 2012 begged off competing. For many of them it made a lot of sense. Several of them had lost their seats in the Liberal victory in 2015, not to mention they are five years older now.

Several promising candidates said that they were not inclined to run. Brian Topp is working with Rachel Notley's NDP government, now the only NDP government left in the country. Megan Leslie, the young, popular former MP from Halifax, said that she was not ready to re-enter the political arena. Conversations with the media indicated that she was emotionally exhausted after the difficult campaign. She now works at WWF Canada.

One leadership candidate offered a more nuanced explanation for why he wasn't running for leader in 2017. Nathan Cullen finished third place with 24% of the vote in 2012. When asked if he would run again he cited three reasons why he doesn't wish to run. First, he didn't think it was best for his family. Leadership and Ottawa are distant from his wife and family. A valid consideration and one I do not begrudge the British Columbia MP. Second, his riding is Skeena-Bulkley Valley, one of the remotest ridings from the capital. He stated that for the sake of the constituents he served them better as MP. The third reason he cited is that he wanted to focus on the upcoming Special Parliamentary Committee on Electoral Reform.

While I will not presume to speak for the personal considerations one of these factors has changed immensely. After Justin Trudeau broke his promise to implement electoral reform Nathan Cullen was furious. He has aggressively criticized the government and been effective both in committee, during Question Period, and in the media.

The NDP has faded into the background since the election, and especially since Tom Mulcair was given the boot. Nathan Cullen is one of the few members of the party who have kept the party at the centre. He managed to apply pressure smartly and use the media to force the government to not hold a Liberal majority on the Electoral Reform Committee, and formed a consensus with opposition members to produce a consensus report.

New Democrats, I believe, want a leader who is passionate and can take the fight to this government. They want a full-throated criticism of the Trudeau Liberals. All of these broken promises almost always go against the progressive promises Liberals made. A savvy NDP leader could take great advantage of these Liberal failures and begin making the case for why progressives should not and cannot trust Trudeau and his government.

I supported Nathan Cullen in 2012 and think he has something to offer. He could build a platform around being the true progressive voice in Canada and guaranteeing electoral reform. Cullen offers a charisma and humour that would be welcome at the head of the NDP.

While draft has an unwanted connotation of force. If Mr. Cullen and his family's consideration hasn't changed, then I accept that. However, as I look at the current and assumed line up of candidates I know I am still looking for something different. I hope Mr. Cullen changes his mind and reconsiders leadership of the New Democratic Party.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Worth Reading - February 16, 2017

I'm a fan of Canadaland in general. This episode of Short Cuts combines a lot of things that are driving me crazy lately. They discuss the terrorist attack in Quebec, the Trudeau brand vs. reality, and Rebel Media's toxic impact on our discourse. You might need a drink after.

How Trudeau sold out to Trump. 

The Toronto Star interviewed John Oliver about his show and impact

Canadian Conservatives shame themselves for not backing a simple motion saying that discrimination against and fear of Muslims is bad. 

A dam in California is about to fail. Strong Towns uses it as a point to emphasize the need to focus on maintenance

To improve our cities and save our cities, we must love our cities

It's already late so let's call it there for now! If anyone has a lead on a job they think I would be good at, I'd definitely by happy to apply! My prolonged underemployment is getting me down. 

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

The Return of Yellow Journalism

Something I have followed with great interest is the declining state of the media. Major newspapers are closing their doors, cutting services and laying off journalists. In Canada, and many other places, we cannot rely solely on the traditional media to hold governments, businesses and individuals to account. For me, for a long time, we have been entering an unsettling period where accountability is in steep design and we may be living in a post-media socio-political world shortly.

And then something strange began to happen. In the wake of the Trump election I heard that the New York Times has been growing and the Washington Post announced a massive expansion. To be clear I do not believe the Times or Post participate in yellow journalism. The sad reality is that Donald Trump is so divorced from reality that straight edge journalism now comes off as scathing criticism.

We certainly live in interesting times.

It's not merely the success of the Times and Post that make me think we may see a transformation in media in the coming years. The proliferation of fake news and other dubious information sources, including Canada's own Rebel Media, points to the fact that people want a point of view and an agenda with their information. Psychologist can prove with stacks of papers that people get psychic and social pleasure from information confirming their biases and worldview. It's not merely the right. I caught a CBC news item about the growth of left-win political podcasts in the last few months. John Oliver is no doubt a trusted authority to many around the world, but his politics are fairly transparent.

This is, of course, nothing new. Fox News has been on the air for decades. News magazines and periodicals have with a clear bend have been part of the mainstream decade for more than a century. The problem is that the so-called neutral media will be increasingly outflanked by their more partisan colleagues. Anti-Trump consumers of media want to read how he lies, not that he misspoke or was inaccurate. His defenders want to hear about how the Muslim ban was overturned by activist judges and that Americans have a right to defend their borders.

Early journalism was all yellow. The high-minded, unbiased image of the press is a relatively modern phenomenon. Most newspapers originated as the mouthpiece to a particular political faction or party. Oddly enough I find I have fewer problems with this than I at first imagined. There are definitely problems with this drift, no doubt. However, as we move forward, I would much prefer to live in a world of yellow journalism than no journalism at all.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Worth Reading - February 9, 2017

A U.S. diplomat took photos during his time in the Soviet Union in the 1950s. They have now been released to the public. 

This is just a rumour at the moment... so don't panic... but it's out there that Sarah Palin might be appointed as US ambassador to Canada

From promising to end First-Past-the-Post to defending it, the Liberals have made a hell of a turn. 

The census data was recently released precipitating some data-driven stories in the media. TVO did a write up about Ontario's growth and that it is mostly being found in smaller suburban cities

Is the Parti Quebecois aging out of relevance

The Hurontario LRT plans are being laid. The local civic group Fight Gridlock shared their thoughts about the redevelopment of the Gateway Terminal in southern Brampton. 

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Sigh... Electoral Reform

If you have electoral reform advocates in your life or on your social media accounts you have no doubt received an earful in the last few days. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his new Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould (LPC - Burlington, ON) announced their intent to abandon electoral reform. Like those I mentioned I was furious. As far as I am aware this is the closest electoral reform has gotten to being achieved at the federal level. That is also pretty pathetic.

I think it is fair to say that electoral reform is probably on life support federally for at least ten years and probably longer. The Liberals blatant mismanagement and betrayal of their commitment likely means that the Liberal Party will not be trusted on this file for a long time by advocates. Instead of wallowing in anger and misery I'd like to take a little bit of time to see what we can do differently in the future.

Too often in Canada the governments leading the charge for electoral reform have been half-hearted at best. They seem to stumble into the issue and blindly move forward until it is ultimately defeated. The next parliament/legislature that begins to move forward on electoral reform needs to actually fight for it. I think if the Liberals were open about having skin in the game and preferences it would have been better. Let them advocate for preferential ballots forcefully. It's not the type of reform I want but at least it would be a position to debate rather than the shell game. The Canadian public is never going to come to a 'consensus' on this issue without leadership. I think a Prime Minister/Premier who proposed proportional representation and tried to make the case for it may very well succeed.

The other side of the equation is the public. Public engagement on this issue will never be very high, but their comfort and familiarity with the topic needs to be such that they don't immediately reject the questions. Some of the Electoral Reform Committees work on sussing out values rather than positions was valuable. The next time this issue comes up a citizens assembly can be guided by that information and then the proposal can be clearly communicated to the public. Any system can be explained in a five minute video more or less. CGP Grey proved that long ago.

Finally, advocates need to communicate so that they seem less like superior zealots. A lot of thought leaders in media and academia found the rhetoric from leading advocates to be distasteful. I think they let their passion blind them to the reality. Reformers will need allies in the media, political parties and academia to lend credence to their push.

Right now reformers are probably best off letting the federal issue go. Introducing alternative forms to the municipal and provincial levels of government seems a wiser effort at this time.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Worth Reading - February 2, 2017

Unsurpisingly, the Liberals have officially announced they are no longer pursuing electoral reform, despite their clear commitment to the Canadian people. Andrew Coyne argues shame on us for believing them in the first place. 

Chantal Hebert offers a preview of Parliament as the new session begins

Steve Paikin suggested that the Wynne government made make a Hail Mary plan to keep government, and he suggests that ending the public commitment to Catholic schools might be it. 

Politico looks at the Democrats as they wander in the political wilderness and their current leadership. 

PBS' Frontline put out a very interesting four-hour documentary about the Obama presidency and the rise of the Trump wing of the Republican Party. It's not possible to watch it directly on PBS' website, but several people have posted it on YouTube. I highly recommend it.

From Strong Towns, Why I'm Not a Cyclist.

Martin Regg Cohn is arguing to dismantle our school board system

Neil Macdonald states a simple truth: most mass shootings in Canada are committed by white, Canadian-born men. 

Maclean's calls on Justin Trudeau to be brave in defiance of Trump's policies

David Frum paints a grim picture of American autocracy