By Andrew Potter - Friday, July 29, 2011 - 51 Comments
A law professor hasn’t just excused Breivik’s actions, but actually endorsed them
Norway does not have capital punishment. In fact, the longest sentence you can receive there for murder is 21 years. According to an op-ed by published in yesterday’s New York Times by law professor Thane Rosenbaum, these facts render Norway “legally and morally” unprepared to deal with Anders Bleivik’s atrocity.
How so? He compares the situation in Norway to the public reaction to the acquittal of Casey Anthony, and notes how she is in hiding because of the risk of vigilante justice. He follows this with another American example: the case of Michael Woodmansee, who murdered a 5-year old in 1975 and is due to be released next month. Rosenbaum quotes the boy’s father, who apparently said “If this man [Woodmansee] is released anywhere in my vicinity, or if I can find him after the fact, I do intend to kill this man.”
This is where the piece takes a strange turn. Instead of denouncing these expressions or threats of vigilantism as utterly unacceptable in a civilized society, Rosenbaum writes:
Are these vengeful feelings morally appropriate? The answer is yes — because the actual difference between vengeance and justice is not as great as people think.
Such statements of unvarnished revenge make many uncomfortable. But how different is revenge from justice, really?
Rosenbaum’s piece perfectly captures the mood, as well as the style of reasoning, that has taken hold amongst the American right. Take a general truth, add a glaring non-sequitur, mix in some pidgin sociobiology, and – presto – you get the wonderfully reactionary conclusion that justice is just fancy vengeance, so what does it matter if the state does it or the victim?
Here’s the key passage:
Every legal system, however dispassionate and procedural, must still pass the gut test of seeming morally just; and revenge must always be just and proportionate. That is what the biblical phrase “eye for an eye” means. Justice requires that no less than an eye can be taken in retaliation for a lost eye, but no more than an eye either.
The general truth in this is that any social institution, to be stable, has to be compatible with fundamental and widely distributed human responses. But the next clause, “and revenge must always be just and proportionate” simply begs the question, by assuming what Rosenbaum is trying to prove, viz., that “proportionate revenge” is properly a part of justice. (The tacked-on reference to the bible plays no argumentative role here; its sole function is to set the pious a-nodding. It’s the right-wing law-prof equivalent of bringing a hypeman onstage).
So why does Rosenbaum think he can simply assert the equivalence of justice and revenge? Bring on the sociobiology:
Despite the stigma of vengeance, it’s as natural to the human species as love and sex. In art and culture, everyone roots for the avenger, and audiences will settle for nothing less than a proper payback — whether it comes from Hamlet, or from the emotionally wounded avengers in “Gladiator,” “Braveheart” or “Unforgiven.” Recent studies in neuroscience and evolutionary psychology have claimed that human beings are hard-wired for vengeance.
This bit is exactly why people freak out about sociobiology and evolutionary psychology. The “it’s as natural to the human species” is clearly intended as approbation; that is, as carrying normative weight. But here’s an exercise: substitute “rape” for “vengeance”, and “men” for “humans,” in that paragraph and see how it scans. The problem with it, I trust, becomes apparent.
As he heads for home, Rosenbaum stops even trying to soft-pedal his agenda: “Legal systems should punish the guilty commensurate with their crimes and recognize a moral duty to satisfy the needs of victims to feel avenged.” And then: “Neither justice nor revenge is negotiable.”
These are remarkable things for a professor of law to write. Far from being aspects of the same instinct, the difference between revenge and justice is as fundamental as the difference between a tort and a crime, and the move from revenge to justice marks the step from tribalism to the state or – if you prefer – from barbarism to civilization. Despite what Rosenbaum seems to think, the desire for vengeance is a bug, not a feature, of human motivation.
The central difficulty with it is buried in Rosenbaum’s own argument – the need for the victim to feel avenged. The problem is that if I wrong you and you seek revenge, it is very unlikely that I will think that your retaliation is proportionate and “just”. More than likely, I’ll see your retaliation as a further wrong that needs a response from me, and so on. This is a very common cycle in human interactions; it’s called a feud, and they can last for generations and encompass entire families and tribes. The crucial step into civilization was taking the right to retaliation out of private hands and putting an end to the cycle of feuds.
Rosenbaum seems to think that the public system of criminal justice is nothing more than the state serving as a referee between private (and negotiable) desires for revenge. It isn’t. It is aimed at upholding the public system of non-negotiable rights. There is a great deal of confusion on this score, partly because of how television drama treats criminal cases (with all the talk about victims “pressing charges”, which they don’t do IRL), partly because the growing fetish for victim impact statements is obscuring the tort/crime distinction. But that should be seen for what it is – a decline into barbarism, not a fulfillment of the demands of justice.
The upshot is this: Despite what Rosenbaum seems to be arguing, victims of crimes do not have the right to feel avenged. To have it so would be to privilege private interests and reasons over those of the public, and is quite literally a counsel of barbarism.
If you don’t agree, think of it this way: Claiming that the public standard of reasonableness is unsatisfactory to the demands of justice is exactly what what Anders Breivik used to justify his actions. Whatever else he is, Breivik saw himself as a vigilante upholding a private theory of justice in the face of a failure of the state to provide satisfaction. Whether he realizes or not, Thane Rosenbaum has written a piece that doesn’t just excuse Breivik’s actions, but actually endorses them.
By Andrew Potter - Friday, July 15, 2011 at 3:57 PM - 5 Comments
Happy (belated) Bastille Day, everyone. While the philosophy community is celebrating (or not) the…
Happy (belated) Bastille Day, everyone. While the philosophy community is celebrating (or not) the arrival of Derek Parfit’s long-awaited two-volume work on ethics, I’ve been plowing my way through the first volume of Francis Fukuyama’s The Origins of Political Order. The basic question he’s trying to answer is how any society ever made the transition from a tribal society to a modern state. It starts with chimpanzee politics, moves quickly to the state of nature and then on status seeking, so it’s basically the perfect book, thematically. I’m going to write a proper review of it soon, but one passage I came across last night was particularly interesting: it is about the particular character of the French state, pre-revolution:
While England developed an advanced theory of public finance and optimal taxation, elucidated in Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, French taxation was opportunistic and dysfunctional… Most important, the French fiscal system deliberately encouraged rent-seeking. Wealthy individuals, instead of investing their money in productive assets in the private economy, spent their fortunes on heritable offices that could not create but only redistribute wealth. Rather than focusing on technological innovation, they innovated with regard to new ways of outwitting the state and its tax system. This weakened private entrepreneurship and made its emerging private sector dependent on state largesse, just at the same moment that private markets were blossoming across the English channel.
By Andrew Potter - Wednesday, July 6, 2011 at 10:51 AM - 4 Comments
The New York Times fronts today with a long piece about how changing fortunes…
The New York Times fronts today with a long piece about how changing fortunes in Mexico are affecting rates of illegal immigration into the United States. It’s not unambiguously good news, but there’s enough cognitive dissonance in the piece to keep you chewing through the weekend. Here’s the nut graph:
A growing body of evidence suggests that a mix of developments — expanding economic and educational opportunities, rising border crime and shrinking families — are suppressing illegal traffic as much as economic slowdowns or immigrant crackdowns in the United States.
On how the economy is actually getting better:
Jalisco’s quality of life has improved in other ways, too. About a decade ago, the cluster of the Orozco ranches on Agua Negra’s outskirts received electricity and running water. New census data shows a broad expansion of such services: water and trash collection, once unheard of outside cities, are now available to more than 90 percent of Jalisco’s homes. Dirt floors can now be found in only 3 percent of the state’s houses, down from 12 percent in 1990.
And the place is getting better educated:
The census shows that throughout Jalisco, the number of senior high schools or preparatory schools for students aged 15 to 18 increased to 724 in 2009, from 360 in 2000, far outpacing population growth. The Technological Institute of Arandas, where Angel studies engineering, is now one of 13 science campuses created in Jalisco since 2000 — a major reason professionals in the state, with a bachelor’s degree or higher, also more than doubled to 821,983 in 2010, up from 405,415 in 2000.
Similar changes have occurred elsewhere. In the poor southern states of Chiapas and Oaxaca, for instance, professional degree holders rose to 525,874 from 244,322 in 2000.
It also does not hurt that the US has changed its approach to helping Mexicans immigrate legally:
[The US consular official] insisted that his staff members change their approach with Mexicans who had previously worked illegally in the United States.
“The message used to be, if you were working illegally, lie about it or don’t even try to go legally because we won’t let you,” said one senior State Department official. “What we’re saying now is, tell us you did it illegally, be honest and we’ll help you.”
By Andrew Potter - Tuesday, June 28, 2011 at 7:22 AM - 3 Comments
Obama’s drawdown announcement overshadowed an important report from Kabul
This article was sent to me by Grant Kippen, and I’m posting it here with his permission. It is being published today in the Dari-language newspaper Hasht-e Sobh
Let’s all take, yet another, collective breath and agree to move forward
June 26, 2011
There were two momentous announcements concerning Afghanistan this past week that will in their own and interconnected way have a profound impact on the short and long term future of the country.
The first and most widely reported announcement occurred on Wednesday evening when President Obama in a nation‐wide address announced the start of the drawdown of US troops from Afghanistan. The President also used the address to reaffirm his commitment to reducing the number of US based troops serving in Afghanistan over time and that responsibility for security within the country would be handed over to the Afghanistan National Security Forces by 2014.
This announcement completely overshadowed another announcement coming from the Afghanistan capital Kabul on Thursday morning where the members of the Special Elections Court announced their investigative findings into allegations of electoral fraud during the 2010 Parliamentary elections last September. The Special Court announcement was the latest salvo in an ongoing power struggle between the Executive and Legislative branches of government following the fraud marred elections, and their findings recommended that 62 currently serving Members of Parliament be removed. To put this number in perspective that is one quarter of the seats in the 249 seat Wolesi Jirga. The controversy of electoral fraud that played out so vividly in the 2009 Presidential and Provincial Council elections unfortunately carried over to the Parliamentary elections last year. The one thing that most Afghans and internationals will agree on was that extensive electoral fraud that took place during the September 2010 elections.
Under the Constitution and Election Law the institutions legally responsible for the electoral process are the Independent Election Commission (IEC) and the Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC). At the time both the IEC and ECC were called upon to investigate many thousands of complaints filed regarding alleged fraudulent activities, and in the view of most informed Afghan and international observers of that process, these institutions discharged their responsibilities according to the laws, regulations and procedures that were in place.
The Special Elections Court was established by Presidential decree under the pretense that the IEC and ECC had not done their jobs properly. President Karzai condoned the creation of the Special Court notwithstanding that fact, according to legal experts, there appeared to be no basis in the law or under the Constitution for a mandate that allowed the overturning of final results as announced by the IEC. In reality though the Court was created only after senior IEC and ECC officials had refused to buckle to intense pressure being exerted on them by the Executive, including the threat of criminal prosecution by the Attorney‐General. The Houdiniesque slight of hand maneuvering and Khaddafi‐inspired logic creating the Special Elections Court was promptly dismissed by the Parliament, IEC, ECC and Afghan legal experts as illegal under the Constitution, a position that the international community agreed with from the start.
The Special Court’s decisions on Thursday clearly undermined the constitutional authority and independence of the IEC and the ECC. This is evidenced by the changes made to the vote totals by the Special Elections Court of sitting MPs and losing candidates and then reinstating 18 of 19 candidates disqualified by the ECC last fall; authorities only given to the IEC and ECC under the Electoral Law.
So, with the Special Elections Court announcement the Afghan people are at yet another crisis point in their ongoing struggle to re‐build the country after thirty years of war and civil conflict. For the vast majority of Afghans this situation just reinforces the hopelessness they feel towards the direction the re‐building effort has taken in general, and in particular about the effectiveness of their government to address the issues that matter most to them – a more secure environment in which to live and work, greater economic opportunity for themselves and their children, and some basic level of social assistance be it education or access to medical care. Clearly cooler heads need to prevail so that this latest crisis doesn’t escalate into something that all stakeholder groups – Afghan or international ‐ will come to regret in the future. It is time to put the interests of the Afghan people ahead of any personal feelings or perceived loss of face that has occurred over past events. The focus needs to be squarely on building for the future, while at the same time learning the important lessons of the past.
From an electoral perspective if action isn’t taken soon there will be no opportunity to correct those past mistakes. The status quo is an unacceptable situation not only for the citizens of Afghanistan but also for the taxpayers of those countries that are contributing funds so that elections can take place in an open and competitive manner. What we shouldn’t lose sight of are the millions of Afghans who turned out to vote in past elections and who are clearly committed to building a better future for themselves and their children. The immediate goal here is to ensure the 2014 Presidential elections are a significant improvement over efforts in 2009 and 2010. Electoral reform needs to begin immediately with the involvement of all domestic stakeholder groups supported by the international community. Building credible, legitimate and inclusive democratic institutions and processes is the only way forward for Afghanistan as a young, emerging and vibrant democracy.
The independence of the IEC and ECC needs to be respected, as does the role of Parliament in ensuring a proper check and balance on the actions of the Executive. The actions by the Special Elections Court only serves to undermine those key institutions that are established under the Constitution, namely the electoral bodies and the Legislature not to mention the independence of the judiciary. The existence and decisions of the Special Court only calls into question the respect that the Government itself has for the Constitution at a critical time when they are trying to reassure their own citizens that the Constitution will not be weakened through the reconciliation process. One has to wonder what message these same actions are sending to those insurgents the Government of Afghanistan hopes will re‐join Afghan society when the Government so clearly demonstrates its own unwillingness to respect the Constitution?
President Karzai has the perfect opportunity to step back from the current precipice and provide the leadership that is required to decisively match actions with the words he delivered in a speech to the NATO Summit in Lisbon last November: “Our Constitution, a harmonious blend of our Islamic values of justice and the universal principles of human rights, is our most important achievement of the last nine years … we need to enhance the checks and balances among the three branches of the state. … We are also committed to strengthening Parliament as an institution. I will work with the future Parliament to strengthen their constitutional role.”
Let’s not lose sight of the long‐term goal here, and that is to support the Afghan people as they rebuild their country. This will take time and there will be bumps along that road but let’s make sure that our combined efforts work to build a solid foundation for the future otherwise, we “will simply be putting mud in the water in order to cross the river”, according to an old Afghan proverb.
Grant Kippen is the former Chairman of the 2009 and 2005 Electoral Complaints Commission in Afghanistan and member of the National Democratic Institute’s Senior Experts Group that observed the 2010 Parliamentary Elections in Afghanistan.
By Andrew Potter - Friday, June 17, 2011 at 12:45 PM - 99 Comments
Everyone is over-thinking the Vancouver riots way too much
White riot – I wanna riot
White riot – a riot of my own
White riot – I wanna riot
White riot – a riot of my own
– The Clash, “White Riot”
There is nothing better than a good old-fashioned downtown hockey riot to get everyone’s ideology pumps working overtime. Probably the most predictable analysis came from Adrian Mack and Miranda Nelson over at the Georgia Straight, who took a bus in from 1969 and blamed the alienating character of capitalism. In trashing the downtown of their own city, the rioters were simply rehearsing the violence that is inherent in the system: “The market practices institutional violence on every single one of us, every day, just by virtue of existing,” they write. Meanwhile, demonstrating the law of conservation of rhetoric that holds that for every idiocy there is an equal and opposite idiot, Don Cherry apparently claimed that the Vancouver rioters were left-wing pinkos (which, come to think of it, is not necessarily at odds with the Mack/Nelson view of things.)
Getting into the shallower ends of the thought pool, the Vancouver police officially blamed “anarchists” for starting the riot, and drunken youth for making it worse. And in a column that has been widely circulated and praised as the best thing written on the riots, National Post sportswriter Bruce Arthur took the most direct route, daring to suggest that of course the rioters were hockey fans, largely those possessed of an overload of “machismo and rage and nihilism.”
Arthur is closest to getting it right, but even he feels the urge to take it further, wondering what it is about the Lower Mainland, why “this strain of poison leaches from a city that, while it has a bright line between rich and poor that grows brighter every day, is generally a good place.”
Everyone, Arthur included, is over-thinking this way too much: Any proper discussion of the riot and why it occurred has to start with the recognition that rioting, especially for young men, is a huge amount of fun. The only reason there isn’t more of it is that if you do it by yourself or in a small group, you’ll almost certainly get caught. It’s like the old joke about owing the bank money: If you do five million dollars damage to downtown, you’re in big trouble. If a hundred thousand people do five million dollars to downtown, the city is in big trouble.
The point is that if you can get enough people to riot, then you all get away with it. The trick, then, is getting enough people willing to do it, in the same place and at the same time, to create a tipping point effect. And so when it comes to starting a riot, what the participants are faced with is essentially a coordination problem.
A coordination problem is a situation where all the relevant actors have a common goal, but there is imperfect information. We are collectively trying to achieve the same general outcome, but don’t know how each person is going to act to get to it. In the 1950s, the economist Thomas Schelling described a situation in which two people wish to meet in New York City on a given day, but cannot communicate the time or place at which they should meet. How should they act? He suggested that beneath the clock at Grand Central Station at noon would be an ideal time and place– this is what he called a “focal point” for coordination. (He no longer believes this to be the case, though; it is interesting to think of where the focal point would be in New York City today, or in a given city of your choice.)
Back to the riot: Particular events, like Stanley Cup Game Sevens, become natural social focal points for “reliable riots” — or reliable opportunities to riot. This is especially so once a city has an established reputation for hosting (and to some extent tolerating) riots: this is what is going on in both Montreal and Vancouver, in contrast with Edmonton and Calgary, for example.
Once a city becomes a known focal point for rioting, then a bunch of people show up to just to riot (indeed, they will even travel great distances to do so), precisely because they know that a bunch of other people are also going to be showing up to riot. This is exactly what happened with the G20 in Toronto (and the antiglobalization stuff in general) and what happens now with the Stanley Cup final.
In principle, social media have the capacity to increase the amount of rioting, since “flash mob” technology can be used to solve the coordination problem – there is probably some of this at work in the Arab spring protests. On the other hand, technology also tends to work against the rioters, by reducing the impunity that comes with the anonymity of crowds. The most important thing the Toronto police did, with the G20 riots, was not all the head-cracking and detentions, but going after people who were photographed committing crimes. The Vancouver police are currently gathering videos and images of the rioters and crowdsourcing their identities. They won’t catch everyone, but they will probably identify enough people that it will serve as a huge deterrent to future riots.
In the meantime, the chief lesson is to keep in mind that there is no reason to delve into the depths of class warfare, or to psychoanalyze the culture or the city, when there is a far simpler explanation for what is going on. As a rule of thumb, never invoke Freud or Marx when Hobbes is at hand.
By Andrew Potter - Wednesday, June 15, 2011 at 11:50 PM - 4 Comments
A roundup of stuff I’ve written recently, here and there:
For Canadian Business, I…
A roundup of stuff I’ve written recently, here and there:
For Canadian Business, I interviewed Major Marc Dauphin, a military physician who was the last Canadian to head up the Role 3 hospital at Kandahar Airfield. It was a seriously fascinating chat, I wish we could have printed the entire conversation. Instead, you’ll have to be satisVirfied with this piece.
That interview took place the day after I served as MC at the launch of Fawzia Koofi’s book in Toronto, which I wrote about on the blog. I also got irritated with John Ibbitson’s suggestion that Stephen Harper has a coherent foreign policy, let alone something that could be elevated to the status of a doctrine.
For the print edition of Maclean’s, I wrote about Toronto’s war on fun, which was in many ways just an excuse to grind a well-worn axe about the need to provide immigrants with the opportunity to properly integrate. That said, all the evidence suggests that Canadian multiculturalism is doing just fine, despite what Muslim-baiters like Geert Wilders and his estate agents over at Sun Media want you to think.
Over at my other blog, I explained why I have no intention of voting for Dalton McGuinty. It has to do with Virginia Postrel and light bulbs. By the way, did you know there’s been a measles outbreak in Massachusetts?
By Andrew Potter - Wednesday, June 15, 2011 at 3:36 PM - 35 Comments
What is Harper trying to achieve?
Let’s set aside, for now, the inherent ridiculousness of Bert Brown chiding fellow Conservative members of the Senate — intended as a chamber of sober second thought, and at least nominally a check on the House of Commons — for their lack of loyalty to the prime minister. Here’s something I’ve never really understood about Harper’s bid to implement a term limit of eight (now nine) years for appointed Senators:
What problem with how the Senate is currently constituted and functions is this designed to solve?
By Andrew Potter - Tuesday, June 14, 2011 at 11:15 AM - 31 Comments
The Societe St-Jean-Baptiste has commissioned an anthem for Quebec, called — oddly enough —…
The Societe St-Jean-Baptiste has commissioned an anthem for Quebec, called — oddly enough — O Kebek. It’s a terrible little song, completely unsingable (you can listen to it here.) But the worst part are the lyrics: “There are no patriotic calls to arms beneath the rockets’ red glare, or bragging about ruling over a vast empire, or any of the militaristic overtones of so many national anthems.”
So why have an anthem, then? Patriotism is essentially a form of brand loyalty, and the only way you’re going to get your preferred imagined community to coalesce around a proposed national identity is to make it clear not only who is included in the community, but — crucially — who is excluded. You have give the nation a narrative, either of triumph over enemies, or of ongoing collective suffering at the hands of oppressors. Instead:
“O Kebek” in its long version — which encompasses eight stanzas — references Quebec’s diversity and its natural wonders, announcing that “the St. Lawrence flows through our blood.” It pays tribute to the French, the English, the Irish, and the aboriginals as well as the Snowy Owl, moose and the Aurora Borealis.
I guess there’s no mention of the moneyed interests and the ethnic vote, so that’s something. But “under a rainbow of love we sing of liberty”? Sapristi.
I love national anthems, the more militaristic and confrontational the better. And I’m all for Quebec having one. But come on guys, give yourselves a proper anthem, instead of this Free-to-be-you-and-me, Hinterland-Who’s Who Trudeaupianism. How about “drinking the blood of Don Cherry, we sing of liberty”. Or “By the fist of Rocket Richard, we beat the hated Leafs.” Or “The winter was cold, and the English humiliated us again”.
Here’s some inspiration.
By Andrew Potter - Monday, June 13, 2011 at 11:17 AM - 46 Comments
There’s a ‘Harper Doctrine’ now? Really?
Further proof of the Americanization of our politics: the journalistic elevation of the drunkard’s walk known as Stephen Harper’s foreign policy to the level of a “doctrine.” Continue…
By Andrew Potter - Monday, June 13, 2011 at 11:17 AM - 0 Comments
There’s a ‘Harper Doctrine’ now? Really?
Further proof of the Americanization of our politics: the journalistic elevation of the drunkard’s walk known as Stephen Harper’s foreign policy to the level of a “doctrine.” Continue…
By Andrew Potter - Friday, June 10, 2011 at 1:55 PM - 232 Comments
Some of you might have caught wind of self-described Islam-hater Geert Wilders’ little jaunt…
Some of you might have caught wind of self-described Islam-hater Geert Wilders’ little jaunt through Ontario last month, during which the controversial Dutchman performed his usual routine, viz., warning of increasing Islamicisation of Europe thanks to the failure of European multiculturalism to assimilate immigrants from muslim countries. He also warned Canadians that our own multicultural model was similarly doomed to fail:
Wilders, noting that Canadians recently elected a majority Conservative government, said that if Canadians want to conserve their way of life, they need to pressure the Tories to adopt certain policies: curbing immigration from Islamic countries, expelling immigrants who turn to crime, stopping the construction of mosques and closing Islamic schools, where, he said, hatred against western values is promulgated.
That is from a disappointingly credulous report from my old colleague at the Ottawa Citizen, Robert Sibley. However accurate Wilders’ views may be of Holland, and perhaps of Europe in general, when it comes to Canada (and the United States as well), they appear to be considerably at odds with the facts. Continue…
By Andrew Potter - Tuesday, June 7, 2011 at 4:26 PM - 12 Comments
Andrew Potter on the one book about Afghanistan Stephen Harper should be reading
A few years ago, the Canadian novelist Yann Martel embarked on a project he called “What is Stephen Harper reading?” For as long as Harper was prime minister, Martel vowed to send him a book, every two weeks, accompanied by a letter explaining why he thought Harper should read the book. I really disliked the project; I thought it was a smug little exercise built around the prissy conceit that Harper lacked “stillness.” Nevertheless, Martel’s idea was in the front of my mind last week, as I found myself sitting a table in a banquet hall in the north-east reaches of Toronto. If there is one book I’d like to press into Harper’s hands, and sit on him while he reads it, it is Letters to my Daughters, by the Afghan member of parliament Fawzia Koofi.
By Andrew Potter - Wednesday, June 1, 2011 at 2:38 PM - 7 Comments
It’s my pleasure and privilege to be the emcee for the Toronto launch tonight…
It’s my pleasure and privilege to be the emcee for the Toronto launch tonight of Fawzia Koofi’s book, Letters to My Daughters. It is hosted by the Toronto Chapter of the Canada-Afghanistan Solidarity Committee in conjunction with the Consulate of Afghanistan (Toronto) and Canadians in Support of Afghan Women, and takes place at the Taj Banquet Hall 4611-4619 Steeles Avenue. Yes, it’s very far; things will get cooking around 6:30 or so.
Hope to see you there.
By Andrew Potter - Friday, May 20, 2011 at 12:51 PM - 102 Comments
My column in this week’s Maclean’s magazine (no link yet) is nominally about the…
My column in this week’s Maclean’s magazine (no link yet) is nominally about the contrast between the impotence of shock art in the West versus its all-too-threatening status in China. But mostly it was an excuse to get on the record some facts about the what is, effectively, the kidnapping and detention of the artist Ai Weiwei by the Chinese government.
The government has put forth a list of reasons for his arrest, including pornography (for this picture), plagiarism, and according to this story in the Guardian today, tax evasion. No one takes these claims seriously; it’s fairly obvious Ai is being persecuted for marrying his art with social activism (especially leading investigations into corruption and a cover-up surrounding the Sichuan earthquake).
Ai’s arrest has raised a great deal of alarm in parts of the West. Among the people or organizations that have expressed public concern and requested his release: The US ambassador to China Jon Huntsman, US state department spokesman Mark Toner, UK foreign secretary William Hague, the EU delegation to China, German foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle, and French foreign ministry spokesman Bernard Valero. In addition, Anish Kapoor and Salman Rushdie have expressed their solidarity with Ai.
On April 18th, a group of about 100 members of the Toronto art community took part in the 1001 Chairs demonstration outside the Chinese consulate, and called on the “Prime Minister and our Minister of Foreign Affairs to express concern over the treatment of Ai Weiwei”. To no avail; among those who have said nothing in public: Canada’s ambassador to China David Mulroney, Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper, departed DFAIT minister Lawrence Cannon, new DFAIT minister John Baird, and Heritage Minister James Moore. Brock professor of political science Charles Burton has posted a few items on his blog about the Ai Weiwei case.
After 43 days without any contact, Ai’s wife was allowed to visit him for 20 minutes on Monday. Her account of his condition does not sound great. As Burton and others have pointed out, this is not an isolated case: a disturbing number of people have disappeared in China since the Tunisian-inspired “Jasmine” revolution began a few months ago. Also, Hong Kong street artists who have been stenciling in support of Ai have similarly been arrested.
By Andrew Potter - Thursday, May 19, 2011 at 9:02 AM - 98 Comments
Three possible explanations for Stephen Harper’s feckless approach to the Senate.
I can think of three possible explanations for Stephen Harper’s feckless approach to the Senate. Two speak to his long term strategic goals:
1. He hopes to spur real reform to make the Senate a more effective and legitimate federal institution.
2. He doesn’t want reform. What wants is to exacerbate and accelerate the decline of federal institutions, in order to further undermine Ottawa’s legitimacy in the eyes of Canadians.
But there’s a third possibility, which is that
3. For Harper, Senate reform is just a tactical device designed to placate his base, enrage the opposition, and titillate the media.
My belief is that Harper’s strategic goal is (2), and he’s happy to engage in (3) to the extent that it might also result in (2). But let’s adopt the principle of charity and assume that Harper actually wants to reform the Senate in order to improve the federal government. Or if that’s too much of a mental stretch, let’s pretend that we had a prime minister who actually cared about the legitimacy and effectiveness of federal institutions. How should we reform the Senate?
Let me take the occasion to once again break a lance for Campbell Sharman’s 2008 paper for the IRPP on how to give political legitimacy to an un-elected Senate.
What bedevils the debate over the Senate is the assumption, shared by reformers and abolitionists alike, is that the status quo is intolerable in a modern democracy and the only way to give the Senate any legitimacy is to turn it into an elective chamber. Sometimes, though, it takes an outsider to give your slumbering dogmas a shake. Continue…
By Andrew Potter - Wednesday, May 18, 2011 at 9:13 AM - 22 Comments
Dave Pugliese reports that Canada has ordered 1300 bombs at $100k apiece for our…
Dave Pugliese reports that Canada has ordered 1300 bombs at $100k apiece for our war against Libya. Opines one analyst:
What kind of war did Canada think it was going to fight? Did they think this war was going to be over quickly or that the Americans would drop all the bombs?”
By Andrew Potter - Monday, May 16, 2011 at 10:33 PM - 31 Comments
I was digging through an old hard drive this evening and came across some…
I was digging through an old hard drive this evening and came across some pictures I shot on Parliament Hill a while ago. I’m not sure how old these are, but I think I took them in the winter of 2007-08. I’m a lousy photographer, but I like the one of Pearson.
By Andrew Potter - Monday, May 9, 2011 at 8:20 AM - 38 Comments
Mike Moffatt hops onto the pile-on regarding the incoherence of the Liberal branding strategy:…
Mike Moffatt hops onto the pile-on regarding the incoherence of the Liberal branding strategy:
The Liberals convinced me they had completely lost their minds when the back half of their campaign was based on a song quote from Bruce Springsteen. That’s Born in the USA Bruce Springsteen. They might as well had Ignatieff come out to Hulk Hogan’s Real American.
By Andrew Potter - Friday, May 6, 2011 at 3:06 PM - 34 Comments
Once upon a time, they were classic and iconic
Yesterday, struggling clothing retailer the Gap fired its star designer, Patrick Robinson. In his failure, we might find some sense of just how big a struggle lies ahead for the Liberal Party of Canada.
First, let’s look at the Gap, whose problems don’t seem to have much to do with the talent it is throwing at the problem. Robinson is a huge talent, one of the most respected in the business. But here’s how the Times outlines his challenge:
Beyond the buzz, Mr. Robinson had a difficult job: trying to figure out what Gap should sell. After pretty much defining American basics in the ’80s and ’90s , the chain had floundered. Competitors like Abercrombie & Fitch and J. Crew, and fast-fashion brands like H&M and Zara, were offering sharper takes on trends.
This has been the Gap’s problem for ages: It is caught between higher-end competitors on one side, and fast-fashion or mass-market brands on the other. Nothing more perfectly captures the Gap’s problems than its standing in its own company, where it is being squeezed between the more successful Banana Republic and Old Navy.
As James Twitchell argued in his book Branded Nation, this dynamic is at work in a number of industries and disciplines, including religion (niche worship versus megachurch) and higher education (mass state schools versus high end private colleges). In each case, one might well assume that “most customers are in the middle”, and that there is room for a big-tent centrist retailer or service provider that gives a bit of class and a bit of mass. But that’s a mistake. Ultimately, customers are pushed in one direction or the other, while those trying to work the middle are left without any firm identity or direction. Here’s more from the Times:
Introducing one of his first Gap collections, Mr. Robinson said he wanted to “take the classic, iconic heritage of the company and make it relevant.” His Gap designs produced some popular items, particularly skinny cargo pants and a revamp of denim. But tops never seemed to go with bottoms, and dresses and outerwear were puzzling, too. Gap’s merchandise today is an unlikely mix of pants in khaki and olive green, and floaty, ruffly tops in peach and beige.
Does this sound familiar? It’s pretty much the conundrum of the Liberal Party of Canada. Once upon a time, it was classic and iconic, but lately nothing seems to fit properly. Its policies are an unlikely mix, the top never seems to go with the bottom. The problem isn’t with leadership or talent, it’s with positioning.
In a related post, colleague Geddes wonders if the new parliament means that Canadian politics is about to become more polarized. John notes that the NDP and Conservatives each succeeded by largely tempering its ideology. But if that is right, it means that there is no middle of the road for the party to occupy. Like the Gap’s ongoing failures, the noises the Liberals are making about attempting to recapture the middle might be totally misguided. The party tried to win the last election by making itself look like the NDP. Perhaps it should have instead tried to discredit it.
By Andrew Potter - Wednesday, May 4, 2011 at 3:53 PM - 381 Comments
There is no stronger indictment of Canada’s political class than the treatment of Michael Ignatieff
Perhaps the cliché has it right and all political careers end in failure. But few end as abruptly, and with as much a feeling of missed opportunity, as that of Michael Ignatieff. Continue…
By Andrew Potter - Sunday, May 1, 2011 at 11:31 PM - 35 Comments
The last lines of Steve Coll’s book The Bin Ladens:
The history of similar…
The last lines of Steve Coll’s book The Bin Ladens:The history of similar exiles in Pashtun territory suggested he would probably face betrayal, eventually, by one of local hosts. In the meanwhile, each time his audio- or video-tapes reach Al-Jazeera or CNN, Osama reemphasized, like a Barbary pirate with a marketing degree, the impunity that he still enjoyed, as well as his continuing capacity to plan and inspire mass violence by exploiting the channels and the ethos of global integration.
By Chris Sorensen - Friday, April 29, 2011 at 5:53 PM - 1 Comment
Today, perhaps for the first time, BlackBerry-maker Research In Motion appeared to officially lose…
Today, perhaps for the first time, BlackBerry-maker Research In Motion appeared to officially lose the confidence of the analyst community. After months of grumbling about RIM’s too-little-too-late product launches (most recently its widely anticipated PlayBook tablet), RIM finally sent stock watchers over the edge by releasing a first quarter profit warning Thursday that it blamed on further product delays.
Several responded by downgrading RIM’s already beleaguered shares, which closed down 14 per cent Friday at US$48.65 on the Nasdaq. But not before offering some pointed criticism. “We really want to believe, but … as much as we like the stock (and we have until now), last night’s warning caps what has been a string of strategic and execution missteps,” Cormark Securities analyst Richard Tse said in a note. Another analyst suggested that perhaps it was time for RIM’s co-CEOs Jim Balsillie and Mike Laziridis to ditch their sharing of the top job, while yet another seemed to be looking for an outlet to vent months of pent up frustration. “We’ve lost confidence in RIM and don’t see this as a one-time miss,” National Bank financial analyst Kris Thompson said. “We’ve heard for too long about RIM’s great product roadmap. Consumers are not listening nor waiting.” He went on to write, “RIM does not even seem to have dual cameras on its upcoming BlackBerry product line-up. The last time we checked, video is the future.” Ouch.
But while there’s no question investors are disappointed, perhaps it’s time to re-examine why we expect so much of the Waterloo, Ont.-based company. Sure, there was once a time when RIM was top dog in the smartphone world, but that was mostly because it was the only one out there with a decent smartphone to sell. After years of targeting business clients (who, incidentally, still like the BlackBerry’s keyboard and secure email), RIM enjoyed a brief period that began in late 2006 when consumers also became interested in what a BlackBerry could do. So RIM threw on some extra features like a camera and MP3 player and briefly cornered the market with models like the Pearl and Curve. And then Apple came along, launching its original iPhone in mid-2007, changing the game forever. While it took a while for the iPhone’s full impact to felt on RIM’s fortunes, this stock chart (comparing RIM, Apple, Nokia, as well as Microsoft and Google) shows a clear changing of the guard by late 2009:
There’s no question Apple out-innovated RIM in the smartphone space, but it should be noted that Apple has also bested everyone else too. Look what happened to Nokia, the world’s biggest phone maker, which has since been forced to throw its lot in with Microsoft. Other device manufacturers have simply tried to copy the iPhone, with varying degrees of success. Google, meanwhile, is pursuing a different strategy by focusing on software only. Tellingly, no one else has managed to out-iPhone the iPhone even after four years, an eternity in the tech business.
Given that smartphones still account for a relatively small proportion of global mobile sales, the good news for RIM is there’s still plenty of room for everyone in a fast growing market. RIM may no longer be driving the bus, but it’s not going to be running behind it either. It still sells loads of BlackBerrys in North America, Europe and Asia, and continues to expand into developing markets. In fact, RIM’s share performance over the past five years actually stacks up rather well compared to others in the smartphone space—other than Apple’s, of course. To be sure, RIM is far from a perfect company, and there’s clearly much room for improvement. But could it be that RIM’s biggest failing is that it didn’t invent the iPhone? If so, then it has plenty of company.
By Andrew Potter - Friday, April 29, 2011 at 5:40 PM - 10 Comments
INSTAUPDATE…: WHOOPS, just noticed Phil already blogged this. What he said.
INSTAUPDATE: WHOOPS, just noticed Phil already blogged this. What he said.
From an open letter sent to La Presse, written by two former Bloc Québecois operators, Maxime Bellerose and Benoît Demuy, encouraging Quebecers to vote for the NDP:
Pour la première fois de notre vécu politique, la social-démocratie est à la porte du Parlement! Il serait dommage pour les Québécois de ne pas profiter de cette opportunité pour envoyer à Ottawa des députés portant haut et fort les valeurs toutes québécoises d’entraide et justice.
Nous sommes et resterons profondément convaincus que la souveraineté reste la meilleure voie pour que le Québec et son peuple puissent poursuivre leur épanouissement, mais comme le disent plusieurs, la souveraineté du Québec se fera à Québec et non à Ottawa. D’ici là, tous nos concitoyens devront, de gré ou de force, vivre dans le régime fédéral canadien.
This is remarkable. For ages now, we’ve been told that a vote for the Bloc is not necessarily a vote for sovereignty, that many Quebecers simply park their votes with the Bloc out of some sort of french-speaking solidarity. My view has always been that that is precisely the problem: ethnic or linguistic solidarity is toxic in any democracy, and it advances neither the aims of Quebec nationalists nor the interests of Canada.
What Bellerose and Demuy are doing is keeping their eye on the ball: the ultimate goal is sovereignty, but that is a something they know has to be done in Quebec, not by continuing to send Bloc MPs to Ottawa. And, they argue, to the extent that Quebec remains a part of Canada, it would be a shame not to take the opportunity to send to Ottawa MPs who support Quebec values of social democracy.
It is extremely heartening to see that not everyone in Quebec puts ethnic solidarity above political ideology.
By Andrew Potter - Friday, April 29, 2011 at 12:56 PM - 8 Comments
I haven’t had a chance to read it yet, but the Higher Education Strategy…
I haven’t had a chance to read it yet, but the Higher Education Strategy folks have released a new brief on the voting intentions of Canadian university students:
As Canadians head to the polls on Monday, survey data compiled during the past year by Higher Education Strategy Associates’ Canadian Education Project sheds light on the voting intentions and priorities of Canadian university students. According to a survey of 1,314 students conducted between April 21st and 27th, 2011, the New Democratic Party has edged ahead of the Liberals as the most popular party among students, with 27% and 25% planning to vote for each (respectively). Sixteen percent of students plan to vote Conservative, and 10% plan to vote green. More than one in five remain undecided with the election just days away.* Among the 1,314 respondents, 76% said they were very likely and another 10% said they were somewhat likely to vote