Sunday, February 27, 2005

The long and the short of it

Pogge has the best post I've seen so far about Paul Martin, Paul Cellucci, and missile defence.


If Martin truly had a spine he'd stop disputing Cellucci's comments in the Canadian media, which is really for the benefit of Canadians and not the American government, and send The Mouth back to Washington, D.C. with a formal diplomatic note suggesting that Canada would welcome a representative of the White House who's capable of looking the word “diplomacy” up in the dictionary and understanding its meaning. But I'll guarandamntee you that ain't gonna happen.

Go read the rest.

At least he's not predictable

Over at Kyle's Republic, there's a link to a Vanity Fair article by lefty-turned-contrarian-conservative Christopher Hitchens about the last American presidential elections, and various statistical anamolies in Ohio. Hitchens essentially argues that something stinks, and ought to be investigated. Lots of numbers and data follow, filling out what seems like a self-evident proposition: you can't be too careful when it comes to the basic mechanism of democracy.

Ever since election night, people have been arguing for a thorough examination of the results in Ohion and Florida, with specific reference to the new voting machine technology used in those states. This piece may be a sign that these arguments are moving beyond the fringe and into the mainstream.

Personally, I've spent the past few months wondering what Bush's second-term scandal was going to be. Every two-term American president in the past thirty-five years has had one. Nixon had Watergate, Reagan had Iran-Contra, Clinton had Whitewater. Maybe too much time in power makes one careless, maybe the press finally gets fed up with the administration, but for whatever reason something about the second term seems to lead to massive public outrage. With Bush the questoin becomes: given his track record, what more can he do that'll raise the already-existing outrage to true full-blown scandal level? What will it take to turn his fans against him? Tampering with voting results would be one possibility, I think. It's simply indefensible. Which isn't to say that partisans wouldn't try to defend it, if it were true.

At any rate, it's early days yet. Nothing may come of these doubts about the election results. But for the moment, 'vote tampering' is the early favourite in the Second-Term Scandal watch.

Saturday, February 26, 2005

Newsflash: Satire not dead

Check out this excellent, disturbing diary at Daily Kos.

Extra! Extra!

After mucking about the template a bit, I've added a news feed to Hochelaga Depicta.

Robert McClelland at My Blahg keeps a feed of left-wing Canadian news pieces over here, with cut'n'paste html so that you can add the feed to your own site. As I have now done; just scroll down, and look to your right.

Thursday, February 24, 2005

Politics as usual

Ralph Goodale's budget came out today, and the Canadian blogosphere seems to have met it with a resounding 'eh'. The most impassioned post I found came from the Gracchi, who live up to their populist name (and good on 'em, I say).

On other fronts, we're out of the missile defence program. Wait, no we're not.

It's firm leadership from the Prime Minister that has made this country great.

Not this Prime Minister, mind you. But, well, some Prime Minister. At some point in the past. Um ... not necessarily a Canadian Prime Minister, I guess.

Or, put another way: what happens when a minority government is headed by a PM with multiple-personality disorder? Stay tuned to find out.

A little bit about myself ...

The Dante's Inferno Test has sent you to the First Level of Hell - Limbo!
Here is how you matched up against all the levels:
Purgatory (Repenting Believers)Low
Level 1 - Limbo (Virtuous Non-Believers)Extreme
Level 2 (Lustful)Low
Level 3 (Gluttonous)Low
Level 4 (Prodigal and Avaricious)Very Low
Level 5 (Wrathful and Gloomy)Low
Level 6 - The City of Dis (Heretics)High
Level 7 (Violent)Low
Level 8- the Malebolge (Fraudulent, Malicious, Panderers)Moderate
Level 9 - Cocytus (Treacherous)Very Low

Take the Dante's Inferno Test

Link found on Warren Kinsella's site. Apparently I get to kick back and hang out with Homer, Vergil, and Socrates for eternity. There are worse fates.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Cat, meet chickens

Appearing before a Foreign Affairs committee today, Frank McKenna, Canada's next ambassador to the United States, claimed that Canada has already agreed to participate in the American missile defence program. According to McKenna, since Canada agreed to allow Norad to participate in the program, we've given missile defence our tacit approval.

Way to go, Frank! Way to bring a long-simmering issue up to the front burner. You know who I bet was glad to hear what you had to say? Paul Martin. I bet he was just overjoyed. Another chance to show his knack for balancing domestic popular sentiment against his incisive understanding of the needs and desires of foreign allies.

Ho ho ho I am a kidder.

The missile defense program is a bad idea. Everybody knows it's a bad idea. The damn thing doesn't even work. Opinion in Canada is massively opposed to it. But the Bush administration is pushing for it hard, to the point where Bush bitch-slapped Stephen Harper for not seeming sufficiently enthusiastic about the idea.

Martin really has no choice, given the way Canadians feel on the issue, but to disengage from the program as much as he can. It'll take some finesse to do it, though, and given Martin's apparent spinelessness it is quite possible that he'll go the other route and quietly allow Canada to be roped into the missile defence program bit by bit.

Which makes it interesting to speculate about why McKenna came out at this point saying that we're already hip-deep in the program. One is not normally made an ambassador because of one's complete pig-ignorance of the political ramifications of one's statements.

There's already been a furor in Parliament today, thanks to McKenna. This is national news, and big news. The spotlight is now on missile defence. And it's a big, bright spotlight, picking out every move the government makes.

Which will make it awfully hard for Paul Martin to do any finessing for the next little while.

Monday, February 21, 2005

Random bits of comic book news

Joss Whedon's doing another year's worth of Astonishing X-Men stories, with a Giant-Sized Astonishing X-Men #1 at the end. He's also doing a three-issue Serenity mini-series at Dark Horse, which is going to cover ground between the end of the Firefly TV show and the beginning of the Serenity movie.

The long-promised Astro City storyline The Dark Ages is being promised once again; it'll be sixteen issues, dividing into four four-issue arcs.

At the same link as above, we learn that Alan Moore's Halo Jones will be reprinted by DC. Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere will be adapted for comics.

Hunter S. Thompson, the man who was the inspiration for Doonesbury's Uncle Duke, has died. It appears to be a suicide. Let the conspiracy theories begin.

Finally, Kyle's Republic is featuring a reprint of Salon's Alan Moore interview. If, like me, you have issues with Salon's day-pass weirdness, you can check it the piece out here.

Friday, February 18, 2005

Understanding sentences

In his instant-classic Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud suggested that the comics form is based around 'closure', on the comics reader instinctively filling in the gap between two images. The comics reader sees a comics panel; then sees a second panel; then imagines, based on those two panels, what happened between the panels; then moves on to a third picture, and imagines what happened between the second and third panels, and so on to the end of the comics story. As McCloud puts it, "Comic panels fracture both time and space, offering a jagged, staccato rhythm of unconnected moments. But closure allows us to connect these moments and mentally construct a continuous, unified reality."

McClous sees closure happening in other mediums, but in different ways. The eye automatically blends 24 projected frames per second into a movie, or a quick-moving dot of light into a TV show. But closure deriving from the imagination of the audience is key to comics: "... a medium of communication and expression which uses closure like no other ... a medium where the audience is a wiling and conscious collaborator and closure is the agent of change, time, and motion."

McCloud doesn't compare closure in comics with written literature, other than to state that "Closure in comics fosters an intimacy surpassed only by the written word, a silent, secret contract between creator and audience." It doesn't seem as though he's implying that the intimacy of the written word derives from closure, or at least not closure as he's been talking about it. A bit later, McCloud does spend some pages talking about the use of minimalism in art and storytelling. But that's something which is a constant in any kind of narrative art: how much and how little information do you give your audience?

Beyond questions of narrative closure, I'd argue that written literature uses closure on a smaller scale. Specifically, on the level of the sentence, and on the level of the word.

Here's a paragraph from the beginning of a chapter in Iain Sinclair's book Radon Daughters, talking about visionary theologian Emmanuel Swedenborg:

"Emmanuel Swedenborg, a young man, twenty-two years old in 1710, takes passage from Göteborg to the port of London. A sorry sequence of annoyances, delays, mental trials. Traditional picaresque colouring: Danish privateers, sandbanks, fog. A bad novel. Plague warnings, quarantine: Wapping Old Stairs. He comes in on the tide like an ugly rumour. This sheep-head scientist, holy fool. A celibate enquirer. The youngest of the dead. A walking corpse with peach-fuzz on his cheeks. He hunts the soul to the innermost recess of the body. Place: an undefined riverside geography has its hooks in his chest. He is fetched. As they are all fetched, these madmen — necessary, an ingredient; humid, vegetable menstrum. Potential fossils, future deposits, we must scratch their darkness in order to see. They lay down memory-traces in the clay of our city. Strange communings, reveries, visions. Their posthumous sleep poisons our weather."

It's a strange paragraph, and Sinclair is a strange writer. Like many modernist writers, he pushes his prose to the point of near-incomprehensibility. In this paragraph, we can see meaning almost distintegrate, coherency fade and return; return changed, in the sudden appearance of the voice of the first-person plural.

Think of that paragraph in terms of closure. The first sentence presents no difficulty. You move from word to word and end up with a coherent sentence expressing an idea. Then you jump to the second sentence. A bit of a leap there, from "a man taking passage" to "a sorry series of delays". But it doesn't take much effort to conclude that the delays occur during the man's passage. The third sentence, much the same. Then a bit more of a leap with the fourth sentence, and you may have to pause a fraction of a second to relate "A bad novel" to the "Traditional picaresque colouring" of the third sentence; the image is extended. Probably you take it in stride; but then what happens in the next sentence, with its quarantines and plague warnings? Presumably the man finds them in London, or on his way there; but where? Do you happen to know where Wappig Old Stairs is?

Sentences describing Swedenborg follow. Hard to understand all of them. "Sheep-head scientist"? "The youngest of the dead"? How about these two sentences together: "He hunts the soul to the innermost recess of the body. Place: an undefined riverside geography has its hooks in his chest." You can see a connection. After a fashion. If you squint. Sinclair's sentences skip over connective ideas that the reader must struggle to recreate; who are the madmen who are fetched? Are they 'fetched' by being brought from one place to another, or are they haunted by ghost images of themselves? Sinclair is pushing literary closure as far as he can.

One might say that prose in which closure becomes difficult, in which meaning seems to dissolve and idea does not smoothly lead to idea, involves disjunctions in consciousness. I think Sinclair does this deliberately, using his incantatory rhythms to create a certain state of mind in his readers. It's good modernist writing, the sort of style which in another context is called "stream-of-consciousness". That's a technique which establishes character by what is left out from conscious thought; the things the character doesn't think about, the things the character takes for granted. Closure breaks down as McCloud's "continuous, unified reality" is mediated by the subjectivity of the individual character.

Closure, in other words, is the key to written literature. The manipulation of closure is central to literary technique. How much information do you give the audience? How little? Return to the idea of closure in narrative: the same questions arise. How much information? How little? Literature and comics are fractal forms, where the same questions have to be answered at every level of creation: the sentence, the paragraph, the chapter, the book.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

It's dead, Jim

It's official: the 2004-2005 NHL season is cancelled.

I can't say I'm too sad about it, if only because I've been prepared for the worst for a while. It's been very clear for the past year or so that everybody involved in these negotiations was ready to scrap at least one full season of hockey. That's now a done deal — the only done deal in sight. Is it a good thing? No. But it's better than going ahead with a deal which won't fix any of the financial problems that seem to be afflicting the NHL.

How do I know there are financial problems? Do I believe the owners' line implicitly? Not really. But consider that a) Canada is still the heart of the NHL in terms of player generation and fan support, and b) Calgary, Canada's fourth-largest city, has real problems maintaining a competitive lineup due to salary concerns. Put these two facts together and you can see that there's a problem somewhere along the line.

With any luck, the cancellation of the season will result in a deal which will fix the above-cited fact. Maybe it'll even allow for the return of a city like Winnipeg to the league. Unfortunately, it may also result in the possibility of a new franchise in Québec City, but you gotta take the bad with the good.

Especially since the other real possibility is that the labour dispute may result in real long-term damage to the NHL. Nobody wants that.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Pins and needles

Nobody now knows what's going to happen.

Late last night, last-ditch talks to end the NHL lockout seemed to have reached a breakthrough. The National Hockey League owners agreed to abandon their idea of 'cost certainty'; of linking revenues to salaries. NHL players agreed to accept the idea of a salary cap in some form. Apparently, the players gave the league a proposal for a collective bargaining agreement including a 52 million dollar cap. The league responded today with another of their famous 'final offers', this time proposing a 42.5 million dollar cap.

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman has a press conference tomorrow at 1 PM. The players have until 11 AM, two hours before Bettman steps up to the microphones, to accept the league's proposal. If they accept it, than Bettman announces it at 1. If they don't, then he announces that the NHL season is cancelled.

If the players do accept the proposal, the league plays a 28-game schedule, followed by a full playoffs. Presumably that means each team would play two games, one home and one away, against every team in their conference.

At the moment, nothing else seems certain. A lot of questions, that's all we've got. Would the new CBA fix the sport? Could a 28-game season have any credibility in the context of the modern NHL? How long will teams have to fix their rosters, sign players, and hold training camps?

I'm wondering what prompted the NHL to back off their 'cost certainty' fixation. Did they accept the fact that the players weren't going to move? Or did they think that the union had been given enough of a check? Rumours suggest that union head Bob Goodenow was insulted by players during a weekend conference call;that he was sidelined from the negotiation process after player Trevor Linden arranged for his own negotiations. Did these things really happen? If so, were they what Bettman was really after?

As usual: Wait and see. Wait and see. But this time, there won't be too long to wait.

While waiting, go here to check out Spector's take on developments. And go over here to read the letter from Bettman to Goodenow.

Sunday, February 13, 2005

Stormfronts approaching

You know that post I had a little while ago about there didn't seem to be much brewing on the Canadian political horizon?

Well, as Dick Irvin would say, cancel previous memo.

The Montréal Gazette published an article at the start of last week revealing that U.S. religious groups were funding Canadian opponents of same-sex marriage. Outrage followed, mostly in the Canadian blogosphere, with the exception of this CBC article and a mention on the American Daily Kos site. Here's a blog post on the subject. And another. And another. And another, and another, and another. Follow the links in the posts to find even more commentary. If you're new to Canadian political blogs, and I am, this is a good way to get into the swing of things.

A follow-up article in the Gazette quoted Justice Minister Irwin Cotler, author of the same-sex marriage legislation, as saying that he was examining the situation to see if there were any measures which might limit foreign financial intervention in internal Canadian political disputes. The same article had the American groups claiming that the Canadian organisations they were funding were all completely independent, and the American leadership had no say in what they would do with the money, and if the Canadian groups did use it for a political cause, well, they knew best. Another Gazette article later appeared in which Cotler essentially admitted that no statute on the books could be used to prevent the American funding from crossing the border.

There's not an awful lot to say about the issue. Like most of the commentators I've linked to, I don't see this as a free-speech issue; I see it as a story about foreign lobbyists trying to influence decisions made by representatives of the people of Canada. As far as affecting the same-sex marriage legislation, I don't see it having much of an effect. Unless, that is, it's a boomerang effect. Canadians are very touchy about American influence in their politics. Especially, across most of Canada, influence from the American Right. In the last election, Stephen Harper had to spend an awful lot of time dodging accusations from the other three parties that he was too friendly with the American right wing. This situation will not help his cause, and is not likely to help the cause of opposition to gay marriage in general.

This isn't so much a question of Canadians being more sympathetic to the left than the right. It's a question of the American right representing a value system that Canadians don't relate to at all. Meanwhile, Harper's already finding himself in trouble for trying to drum up opposition to gay marriage among ethnic minorities. There's a Conservative party convention coming up later this month, in Montréal, no less, and division was already expected between the far-right ex-Reform wing and the socially-liberal Red Tories. Heaven only knows what'll happen now.

Personally, I don't expect to be shedding any tears.

I could have wept, though, when I read about this. The Canadian government apparently went to bed with Monsanto, the world's largest producer of genetically modified crops. The issue here wasn't to do with healthier crops or larger fruits; it was about Monsanto's notorious ‘terminator' crops. It seems that the issue has been settled, thankfully against Monsanto (again), but they're gearing up for the next fight (again). How deeply have they corrupted the government? Stay tuned for further details.

And, lastly, a new poll suggests there is an issue out there that Canadians are steamed about. It's not what you could call controversial, though, since so many people are against it. Yes, it's the always-unpopular American Missile Defense Program. Here's a link to The Gracchi, who will tell you more about the poll. Key quote for me, from the EKOS pollsters: "I don't think Canadians feel that intensely about missile defense, in and of itself. I think it's become a proxy for deeper anxieties about what the American administration (is) doing." Sounds likely to me.

So on the one hand, the Bloc, the NDP, many Liberals, and most of Canada oppose the Missile Defense Plan. On the other hand, the Bush Administration and much of Canadian industry want Canadian participation. Conclusion: there's a reason Paul Martin looks so nervous these days.

But hey, at least things are getting interesting.

Friday, February 11, 2005

Everything the others don't get

Here's a bit of long-overdue recognition for Kyle's Republic, a thoughtful blog by a thoughtful American living in occasionally-thoughtful Canada (or, a thoughtful blog by a thoughtful Canadian of American birth; whichever). I recommend it highly for everybody.

Tuesday, February 8, 2005

A whiff of sulphur and brimstone

I read a very odd book the other day: The Hellfire Club, by Daniel P. Mannix. The Hellfire Club was a group of aristocrats in 18th century England; their founder and focal point, Sir Francis Dashwood, managed at one point to get himself appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer — meaning that he controlled the finances of the British Empire. Other members of the club were similarly well-connected, and one, John Wilkes, has gone down in history as a champion of free speech. But Wilkes, like Dashwood and the other members of the Hellfire Club, was pure sleaze. Take the Earl of Sandwich, who loved gambling so much he once had his butler put some roast beef between two pieces of bread and bring it to him at the card table so he wouldn't have to quit playing to have dinner.

Of course, that's mild next to the shenanigans the Hellfire Club was famous for. All sorts of tales are told. They dressed up as monks and parodied Catholic rituals, perhaps even staging mock Black Masses; they hired prostitutes to play the part of nuns. Some say that not all the Black Masses were necessarily mockery. Written in 1961, Mannix's book claims to give the full story of the Club and its activities.

(You Marvel Comics fans no doubt have already heard of a group called the Hellfire Club. The historical version was based in England not America, they fizzled out not long after they were created, and there were fewer mutants involved, but they really were a society of ultra-rich libertines.)

It's hard at this remove to be sure what was true, and what was false. Some people think the Hellfire Club was essentially a bunch of drinking buddies with tons of cash and a strange sense of humour. Mannix goes the other way, painting a picture of a literal cabal of England's best and brightest engaged in debauchery, whoring, drinking, gambling, rape, seduction, incest, diabolism, and anything else you can think of.

As I say, it's hard to say now what the true story of the Hellfire Club really was. It seems well-attested that Dashwood had part of the grounds of his estate landscaped in the form of a naked woman. Supposedly, the caves where the Club held their orgies was reached by passing through "the door by which we all entered the world", as they said two hundred years ago and some. Was there a large statue of a phallus out front as well? That's the way the story has it.

Mannix believes all these stories implicitly. And adds more. He gives no references whatsoever, so it's hard to judge how credible his facts are. Some of what he writes is undoubtedly factual. The rest ... who knows? Mannix obviously read widely, but it looks like he believed everything he read. And that's always a problem.

It's debatable how much faith one should put in the absolute veracity of Hogarth's prints, for example. Sure, there's a lot of reportage and observation in Hogarth. But there's also a lot of caricature, too. Mannix doesn't stop with Hogarth, either; he also takes John Cleland's Fanny Hill as an authentic testimony to real sexual attitudes in the 18th century. Which is an awful lot of faith to put in what is, basically, a stroke book.

In a sense the book does create a feel of what the time might have been like. A Terry Gilliam feel; extravagant, inventive, based on a core of truth, but ultimately unreal. That's great for fantasy films. It's something more ambiguous in a history book.

The odd thing —

Excuse me. As I write this (about 3:15 AM), ultra-conservative classic-rock dinosaur radio station CHOM-FM just began playing an Iron Maiden song for the first time in, like, ever. "Run to the Hills". Seriously. This is stunning.

— As I was saying, the odd thing about the book is that it doesn't deal much with the Hellfire Club itself. Instead, the main narrative thread of the book follows the weird and wild career of John Wilkes, who admittedly was a member of the Club, but whose story goes off into all sorts of other places. Mannix doesn't hesitate to wander away from Wilkes either, telling us about public executions, bare-knuckle boxing, and the exploits of the transvestite spy called the Chevalier d'Eon (about whom at least one utterly fictional biography has already been written). Among others. Being American, Mannix naturally has an interest in the background to the Revolution, too — and Ben Franklin certainly hung out with Dashwood when he visited England.

So Mannix retells some interesting stories. His book ends up an eclectic but involving look at the 18th century, carried along by a slightly breathless prose style. So long as you don't accept it blindly as good history, it's an interesting read.

The most interesting thing in the book is this: on page 136, Mannix describes the cave system under Dashwood's estate where the Club met, and gives a quotes from a man named Dr. G.B. Gardner on the sexual symbolism of the cave layout: "The swollen Banquet Hall represents the womb, where new life originates. After being born in the womb, the worshippers pass through the pubic triangle and into the flowing river. Then[,] born and purified, they go on to the joys of resurrection that await them in the Temple." The quote's not the interesting point. It's the man who gave it.

Gerald Brousseau Gardner, described by Mannix as "a well-known British expert on the occult who had the famous Witches' Museum at Castletown on the Isle of Man," was the man who invented (or, to some, publicised) Wicca — modern witchcraft. Over-enthusiastic Mannix may have been, but the guy was clearly well-connected.

Sunday, February 6, 2005

Harry Potter and the Military-Industrial Complex

I know war's supposed to be surreal and all, but this is getting ridiculous.

First Iraqi insurgents threaten to execute an action figure and now ... well, this.

I look forward to seeing it debated on the Sunday morning talk shows.

Great SF & F

I've been spending some time, off and on over the past several days, browsing through the pages on this web site. It's quite a nice overview of fantasy and science-fiction, all told, although inevitably I have points of disagreement. Obviously, I'd argue with the ratings of some of the writers; I think John Crowley is undervalued, for example, and Terry Pratchett significantly overvalued. I also find a few writers, like Alan Moore, Peter Ackroyd, Elizabeth Hand, Samuel Delany, and Clark Ashton Smith, notable by their absence.

Also, while in general I appreciate the critical commentary and discussion of the criteria for inclusion of an author on the site, in practice those criteria are still based on personal opinion; is Jack Vance, for example, really worth a five-star rating? Some people would say so. I, with admittedly less of an exposure to Vance's writings, wouldn't be willing to go so far, and I suspect I'm not alone in that. In other words, this site, like all good literary criticism, is the beginning of a discussion and not the end of it.

Mind you, the discussion itself is worth having. It's invigorating. Good criticism makes you think about what you read and what you like and why; good positive criticism makes you feel what's valuable in what you read and what you like, and therefore may be of a higher order of writing. To see what I mean, take a look at the appreciation for John Bellairs' excellent book The Face in the Frost. Obviously, if you've read the book, this essay reminds you what's worth while in it; if you haven't read the book, then the essay stands (I think) a good chance of giving you the desire to track it down. Either way, the energy of the piece communicates itself. It tells you that the book matters, and so it reminds you that fantasy matters. That writing matters.

If nothing else, the site puts together in one place a rigorously-chosen list of writers worth investigating. And it's a list which extends well into the past. The paradox of science-fiction and fantasy is that sf&f readers are often passionate about their favourite contemporary writers, but almost oblivious of previous generations. There are exceptions. But while everybody knows J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, I suspect very few people have heard of, much less read, their friend Charles Williams. Or inspirations like George MacDonald, E.R. Eddison, and William Morris.

To gather all these writers together is worth something in itself. Like John Clute and John Grant's Encyclopedia of Fantasy, the Great Science-Fiction & Fantasy Works site provides inspiration and direction. It gives you names to keep in mind as you scan shelves in a second-hand book store; but it also keeps those names alive and associates them with their present-day successors. I'd argue that the real literary tradition of the 20th century is the semi-underground tradition of fantasy writing, as opposed to the above-ground tradition of modernism; spend some time with this site, and maybe you'll see why.

(And if not, well, it's just possible I'll write a post about it sometime.)

Friday, February 4, 2005

Political zeitgeists

The other night, the President of the United States stood up before his countrymen and repeatedly lied through his teeth. Here's an examination of the State of the Union address, complete with analysis and exposure of Bush's untruths. Warning: they are numerous. And grave.

Having said that, what I want to talk about now is the reason why I bothered to post a link to a web page fact-checking a speech by a foreign leader to his people.

The U.S. right at the moment is gripped by greater controversy than I can remember seeing in my lifetime. Much of it has to do with the war in Iraq. There are other issues, though, including various deceptions of the President (see above link). This, more than anything, is the contribution of the internet; it's harder to cover up dirty tricks these days. And easier to yell about them. A high-volume war of words is being fought over every single issue on the American political scene. Everyone involved seems to agree that it's a war of basic principles; even, a battle for the soul of the country.

Like most Canadians, and like most people outside of the United States, I deeply hope that the forces of conservatism lose. The U.S. is already far to the right of most Western industrialised countries, Canada included, and obviously I'd like to see the U.S. come into line with generally accepted international ideas of social justice. But, philosophical differences aside, the conduct of the right wing since assuming control of the American government has done nothing to provoke optimism about their ability or desire to be a positive force in the world.

The conduct of the Iraq war is a case in point. The recent elections were a heartening sign, yes. But the elections ought to have gone well. Most people, most places in the world, want to have control over their government. What the elections proved was that for most Iraqis, the Americans hadn't bungled so incredibly badly as to taint the entire concept of freedom. Which may just be saying something about the perspicacity of the Iraqi electorate. On the flip side from the elections, of course, are 100 000 dead civilians, incidents of torture and allegations of rape committed by American troops, and a general collapse or weakening of the infrastructure of the country — the ability of the government to provide electricity, clean water, and safety.

The Bush administration, meanwhile, refuses to accept that there are any problems in Iraq. Bush himself claims that his recent election victory meant that the American public supported his war, and the way the war was run. Other international issues of mounting concern, such as the situation in North Korea, Iran continuing to press for nuclear weapons, an increasing mood of repression in Russia, and a possible genocide in the Sudan, all develop with no sign of concern from the White House. Instead, Bush continues to weaken the fiscal health of his country, and aims at undermining the American Social Security system — in other words, reducing the role of government by reducing services provided to the elderly, and dismantling Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal.

Compared to the high-stakes high-tension American political scene of the moment, things in Canada seem oddly sedate. Oddly, because a minority government's in power, and that usually generates something interesting. But at the moment Canadian political chatter is occupied by only three issues, all of which I'd argue are relatively minor.

The first is the ongoing saga of the sponsorship inquiry. This is a soap opera that's been going on for quite a while, and unless some new discovery comes to light, it seems to me unlikely to generate much further outrage on the part of the Canadian public. The fact is, allegations of kickbacks and back-room deals have always been a part of Canadian political life. Conservatives, for those of us who remember the Mulroney era, still have a worse taint on this issue than the Liberals. I think that the Canadian public gave its verdict on the sponsorship scandal in the last election, when the Liberals were deprived of their majority. Again, unless something new is uncovered, I think the sponsorship scandal is going to die a slow, painful death — despite the best efforts of the Tories to keep it going.

The second major issue of the moment is Paul Martin's recent deal with Newfoundland and Nova Scotia over energy revenues. Anodyne on the face of it, it's already become an excuse for Ontario, Saskatchewan, and the Northwest Territories to press Ottawa for more money for themselves. It's beginning to look as though Martin bit off more than he could chew with this deal. But as an issue, it hasn't yet taken hold with the Canadian public. Squabbles between the federal and provincial governments over cash is nothing new. Or unexpected. And it's not yet clear that the protests from the other provinces are going to go anywhere.

(Links in the preceding paragraph from The Gracchi; scroll down a bit to find a nice entry about Martin's errors in the energy deal.)

The third big issue facing Canadians is no doubt the most divisive, and that is the gay marriage bill that's just been tabled in the House of Commons. The Tories have turned up the invective over this bill, and to fight it they've aligned themselves with religious leaders, with the American right, with anyone they can find. But I still don't see how they can stop the bill from becoming law. The Liberals and the NDP are solidly behind it. At least three of the Tories' own MPs support it. So, probably, do most Canadians. A recent poll in the National Post suggests otherwise, but all previous polls show that a majority across the country are in favour of gay marriage — and given the quality of reportage in the Post in general, and its habit of playing games with polls about Medicare in particular, it's hard to take this new poll very seriously.

Most likely, the Conservatives hope to use the gay marriage issue merely to divide the Liberal party. There is dissent within the Liberal caucus over gay marriage. The party may end up weakened, when all is said and done. There will certainly be a lot of noise generated, and some vigorous debate. But it seems inevitable that the bill will become law.

That's not to encourage apathy; the struggle isn't won yet. But if gay marriage is the most pressing issue on the mind of the country, I think it's safe to say that things are fairly placid in Canada.

This obviously has not always been the case. But for whatever reason we seem to be in a bit of lull, controversy-wise. The federal government will be handing down a budget later this month, and that may strike some sparks. The Parti Québecois is holding a convention in slightly more than a week, and one never knows what may come out of that. For the moment, though, things in Canada are calm — especially next to the ongoing meltdown in the United States.

All of this should explain why, so far in this blog, I've talked about American political issues but haven't yet referred to Canadian politics. I don't think there's much happening on the Canadian political scene right at the moment. The American scene, though, is a completely different animal. And what happens in America always affects Canada. It also often affects the rest of the world. Which is to say that the United States is always worth keeping an eye on. At the moment, with the situation growing increasingly dramatic, it's quite hard to turn away.

Tuesday, February 1, 2005

Transcript fun

The other day on the CBC, The Fifth Estate ran a good hour-long documentary called "Sticks and Stones". It lookd at what passes for political debate in the US these days, and the general lowering of the tone, accusations of treasons, and ad hominem attacks which have begun floating around — typically emanating from the right wing, and specifically from Fox News. The most amusing part of the documentary came during an interview with noted wingnut Ann Coulter, in which ... well, after some searching, I came across a transcript here.

No, I'd never heard that Canada had fought in the Vietnam war either. Oh, wait; that's because we didn't.

The funniest and scariest thing about that moment wasn't Coutler getting a basic historical fact wrong. It was her complete refusal to back down, or to admit she was wrong — even when the person she was dealing with clearly knew more about the subject than she did.

All you can do is shake your head and have pity. Not for Coulter. Not for her audiences. But for everybody else down south who has to put up with these people.