Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Freedom of Speech

The author of the Forbes article would have us believe that if there is a limitation on some types of speech then there is no freedom of speech. That, at least, is the only reasonable reading of the argument. He argues that "free speech is not among those rights" protected in Europe and then supports his assertion with reference to proposed laws in Croatia against "spreading racism and xenophobia," a law in Sweden a law barring "inflammatory" remarks directed at racial or religious groups, or homosexuals, and their ilk.

Using the same reasoning,
if it is illegal to shout "Fire!" in a movie theatre in, say, the United States, then that country has no freedom of speech either. But just as the latter proposition is absurd, so is the former. That there exist limits on speech does not entail that freedom of speech does not exist, it merely demonstrates what we all know about freedoms in general, that one person's freedoms end when they begin to impinge on another person's freedoms.

The author is not above sleight of hand in order to advance his case. Responding to a clause in the European Charter asserting that nothing in the Charter implies any right to conduct "aimed at the destruction of any of the rights and freedoms recognized in this Charter" he incorrectly infers that "if someone were to mount a campaign favoring the death penalty... this would plainly constitute an effort to destroy rights recognized in the Charter--an activity characterized as an 'abuse of rights'."

But not having a right to do something is not the same as being prohibited from doing something. It is and will remain legal in Europe to campaign for the death penalty - but the fact of your campaigning for the death penalty is not protected by any special right to do so; your desire to oppose the Charter does not over-ride the rights that other people enjoy by virtue of the charter. Your efforts to amend the charter, in other words, cannot include violations of the charter.

It is worth noting that what appears to bother the author most about the European Charter is not the rights that it supposedly does not protect but rather the rights it does protect - rights that Americans do not have (and that one presumes the author thinks they should not have): "
rights for children, for women (they have a right to preference in areas wherein they are underrepresented), for asylum-seekers, for workers and employers (both are said to have a right to collective bargaining), for murderers (they have a right not to suffer capital punishment) and for the disabled. There is a right to marry, a right to privacy, a right to a good education and a lot more--including a right to freedom of expression."

It is arguable - and I would argue - that a Charter such as Europe's results in a population that is more free, not less free, than under the American Bill of Rights. For one thing, the much vaunted American first amendment the author talks about ends at the workplace door. Try exercising your rights as a Walmart employee and you will be shown that door. In Europe, with workers' rights protected, your freedom of speech is not for sale for the cost of a meal. Moreover, in the United States, with no protection against those who foment prejudice and hate, people in minority groups live in fear, never knowing when the next hate-mongering charlatan is going to push someone into some gay-bashing, some abortion clinic bombing, some lynching.

Americans are of course free to define and exercise their freedoms in whatever manner they see fit, and I have no quarrel with the way Americans have chosen to shape their society. However, to assert in what ought to be a reputable publication that other nations do not value freedom because they define it differently is to engage in nothing more than the lowest sort of pandering, the fostering of a prejudice and ignorance about these other nations for which Americans have, quite rightly, become altogether too well known.

Monday, April 25, 2005

Stanley Fish

It was about thirteen years ago and a group of us sat down at our usual table in the Power Plant to quaff a ceremonial beer and to put to bed, at last, what had been a remarkable tenure at the Graduate Students' Association. After my two years as president and four years on the executive we had run the gamut from staging a palace coup to fomenting student protest to managing the books and rewriting the rules of order. Victory in our lawsuit and the creation of the food bank were yet in the future, but the foundations had been laid and the house was in good hands.

And as we spent our evening awaiting the intermittent wails of the bluesman, in characteristic alcoholic wisdom I wondered, "Have I reached the peak of my career?" For a 33-year old retirement is a daunting prospect; it having been the second such in my career (my days as editor of the Gauntlet at the University of Calgary having come to a similarly frothy end) one would think that the law of averages would weigh in on the affirmative.

Spring is like that for me; there hasn't been a sping in my life where I haven't wanted to rebuild, and between the half-hearted efforts at spring clearning, the always-hopeful seeding of the garden and the contemplation of yet more grand summer projects and excesses of self-improvement, there is always this lingering doubt in my mind. There will be a day, one day, when the ritual of spring will no longer hold the same meaning, where there will be no point to planning and improving, when it will all be over.

What will sustain me then, when all that I have to live for is what I have already done?

Today I spent a morning (a morning when I should have been planning, self-improving, or at the very least writing software or answering email) reading the collected columns of Stanley Fish. A former dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Fish wrote a series of columns for the Chronicle of Higher Education.

I has the fortune - almost missed - of encountering this column on the occasion of what would be its last installment. After an academic career spanning decades, Fish is retiring to a life of idyll in Florida. "I have no big projects to finish," he writes, "and I'm not looking for any new ones; indeed, I wouldn't even know where to look." The terminal spring.

And so I spent the rest of the morning reading his columns, reasoning that the conclusion of a lengthy career as writer, thinker and administrator deserved at least a few hours of passing thought. As though I could distil the wisdom of a lifetime from such a slight effort. I am painfully aware of the audacity of such a gesture, and comfort myself only with the knowledge that the thought of Stephen Downes may also the the subject of such shabby treatment, mined for a few choice quotes and insights by an imposturous academic.

And I'll confess at the outset, as Fish would do in a moment in similar straits, that my knowledge of his life and work is contained entirely in my reading of these few (too few) short columns.

But what it seems to me that I have found is that I would enjoy very much the insight of Stanley Fish, that we share, at least to outward appearance, a set of core values, and that our passion and reason for being have at their core a similar motivation. I am not, and never will be, Stanley Fish, but in his writing I see a little of myself (which is, as some theorists have suggested, all we ever read when we read discursively, but I digress).

Not that I would agree with everything he says. When he writes in Promises, Promises, for example, that academics ought be more forgiving of those well meaning pledges falling victim to fiscal austerity, I want to reply that such promises should never have been made, and ought certainly not be made in the future.

And when I read, in his assessment of Harvard president Larry Summers's faux pas, that a president's behaviour ought to be guided by the maxim of "carrying out the duties of his office in a manner that furthers the interests of the enterprise," I want to point out that to subsume one's own principle under that of an umbrella institution, even as president, is to lose that which made you worth hiring in the first place.

But from Stanley Fish I read as well not only a spirited defense of the academy but as well an insightful defense of its autonomy (and hence, the autonomy of each of its members): from the fact that everything is interconnected, it does not follow that nothing is distinct. Indeed, I would add, it is from this distinctiveness that the functioning of the whole is possible at all.

When someone writes, as Mark C. Taylor does, "Colleges and universities are not, and should not be, autonomous institutions," one is tempted to ask, "well where, then, ought they be housed?" And with Fish's analogy, to ask whether it also makes sense to assign to the stomach the functioning of the heart, and to the kidneys that of the brain?

In his essay One University Under God? I find myself reliving my GSA days, days when I would regale the administration with the advice that its function is not only to impart knowledge, but to underscore that knowledge with at least a knowledge of the fundamental values that underlie an informed life in a democratic society. For while with Lippman I may say that "Reason and free inquiry can be neutral and tolerant only of those opinions which submit to the test of reason and inquiry" I also do not hold that expressions of value constitute nothing more than mere data.

The foundations of liberalism (and perhaps to his credit, I still cannot determine whether Fish was a liberal) are foundations to which I adhere: "reason as opposed to faith, evidence as opposed to revelation, inquiry as opposed to obedience, truth as opposed to belief." And yet, what my own religion (such as it is) teaches me is that each of these liberal premises are empty without there being their counterpoint in religion. The life of the liberal is indeed empty if he cannot countenance a life borne in belief, faith, revelation and even obedience.

For after all, one man's piety is often another man's insight. Around the same time I was retiring from life as a student association president I had the fortune to have a glass door held open for me by an older man (he would have been about my present age, except cleaner and better dressed). "Thank you," I said. "To serve is a pleasure," he replied, or some such thing along those lines. I tried immediately to dismiss this bit of proselytizing from my mind, but succeeded only in erasing the words.

Some years later, in the throes of yet another spring retirement (one which would eventually land me here in New Brunswick, by way of Australia) Andrew Thompson said to me, "You have to believe in something. You have to have faith in something. It doesn't matter if it is real - you have to pick something and make it the direction of your life." To serve, indeed, is a pleasure - it is only though submission to faith, belief, or revelation that life has any meaning at all.

The only thing worth planning for, it seems to me, is for the day, when it comes, where there is nothing for me to live for except the memory of what I have done. This is perhaps the wisdom of the Christian judgement day, the knowledge that there will be a point where you are stretched out, and the absolute, only and sole possession you will have is your own character, and that it will be the one thing that carries you through to the end, and that at that moment, what you believe will be of far more importance than what you know.

I once wrote an entire essay in my head (I often write such essays; one day I expect this is all that will need to be done in order to compose, and I expect the results will astonish us), titled "Leaving Lisbon," composed from the moment the airliner left the Portugese capital through to the landing eventually in Toronto.

I had been disappointed in Lisbon, disappointed by the omnipresent poverty, disappointed in the dangers inherent in walking the streets, disappointed in being stranded in the artificial world of the conference centre and the obviously artificial bars and bistros lining the shores of the Tagus, disappointed by my having had a sore throat that disrupted the first few days of the conference (including my talk), disappointed by the plastic pretense that passed for educational marketing in 2003.

Most of all, though, I was still overtaken by the loss of my cat, who had succumbed to a brain tumour a few months earlier, who had died in my arms on the front steps of my home on a beautiful summer morning I was unsolaced by the assurance that something of Pudds would live on, that the mind does indeed disassociate from the body (a phenomenon of which I have no personal evidence, only testimonial). I had written to John Hibbs a few weeks earler that it seemed to me that the only decent thing I had ever done in my life was to care for this cat, from almost the moment of her kittenhood through seventeen years to that final minute on the porch.

The day before we were to take her to the vet, my poor cat, obviously suffering, shook herself, climbed down from her chair (yes, my cat has a chair), shambled into the bedroom and, with some effort, climbed onto the bed, made her way to my near-sleeping body, and licked my hand. From an act of piety, as I said, can come a moment of insight, and I realized that for my cat the only thing that mattered, the only thing that had ever mattered, was to be told that she was a good cat.

And as I sat in the lonliness of a jet airliner hurtling through the icy cold through a September afternoon, eyes closed, writing in my mind, all I could think is that there is probably nothing more that any of us can hope for than to be told, when we retire, that we were good, that all we can hope for, indeed, is the knowledge, in our own mind, that we were good.

And so that's how an act of faith can underlie a liberal theology, how a life based on reason, evidence, inquiry and trouth can be bounded by belief and obedience. It's not that one ever need surrender one's autonomy and rationality to the dictates of a pope or a charlatan, it's that at some point, in every life, one has to say, "Here's where I make my stand."

No surrender, no retreat. "It was the year of fire... the year of destruction... the year we took back what was ours. It was the year of rebirth... the year of great sadness... the year of pain... and the year of joy. It was a new age. It was the end of history. It was the year everything changed."

Somewhere, through the years that made me, through my experiences of justice and injustice, of starvation and of plenty, of love and lonliness, I have sought for and in some measure found an understanding of what is good, what is right, what is worth living for. That understanding in me is founded on the principle that each person, each individual voice, each mind, is, as the Christians would say, worthy of salvation, or as Kant would say, an end in itself.

My committment - captured irreverently (but, I thought, accurately) by the name of our slate at the GSA, "Forces of Goodness and Light" - solidified over the years, and achieved its current concrete form as a statement of action on my website: "I want and visualize and aspire toward a system of society and learning where each person is able to rise to his or her fullest potential..."

And, it seems to me, this is what Stanley Fish is thinking about this week.

No, perhaps Stanley Fish and I would disagree on most things. Stanley Fish said this, for example, to which I am diametrically opposed: "The unfettered expression of ideas is a cornerstone of liberal democracy; it is a prime political value. It is not, however, an academic value, and if we come to regard it as our primary responsibility, we will default on the responsibilities assigned us and come to be what no one pays us to be -- political agents."

We see service differently, we see agency differently, and we probably see liberal democracy differently.

But that which we see as being the value of a life, I think, is the same.

Friday, April 22, 2005

The Hidden Message

I had intended to listen to Paul Martin's speech to the nation last night, but I was engrossed in writing my newsletter and didn't remember to swicth from the Simpsons until half way through Gilles Duceppe's rebuttal. Jack Layton, lowest on the totem pole, would follow. Neither speaker, unformtunately, gave me any understanding of the substance of Martin's remarks.

I figure, though, that Martin must have done a credible job. How do I know this? Because coverage of his speech in the media has been minimal - something that should be surprising, given that it was a rare address to the nation. CTV coverage that evening focused, not surprisingly, on the rebuttals. On CBC this morning the coverage of the speech seemed to consist almost entirely of baseball coverage (no, I don't get the connection, but that's what they did - they went to a baseball stadium and interviewed probably the one group of people in the country who could not possibly have seen the address). The local newsrag, the Times & Tanscript, ran a below the fold article (today's big headline: Dieppe may do something about traffic) in which the first four paragraphs asserted (without evidence) that "NBers were 'unimpressed'" and the criticisms of a PR consultant from Toronto.

And so I'm left scratching my head. Despite consuming three separate news sources (four, if you count a half hour of CBC radio this morning, which featured a discussion of the book 'Alice Springs') I have no real idea of what he said. All I know that he proposed that people should wait for the results of the Gomery report and that he would call an election within 30 days of its publication.

It may be true that the politicians in this country are corrupt and untrustworthy. But it seems to me that the only people more corrupt and more untrustworthy are those people in the media.

Now to the web, and maybe I can find a transcript or something.

Saturday, April 16, 2005

The Theocracy

There's yet another story in the news today about the growing rift between the Christian right and their efforts to enforce their point of view on society. In this item, U.S. Democrats are being represented as being "against people of faith" when they block judicial nominees who use the Bible, rather than the law, as the grounds for their decisions.

It is probably already clear to readers that I would be classed among those democrats. In my own country, I stand opposed to what might be called the faith-based position on a number of issues: I support abortion rights, I support gay marriage and I support Sunday shopping, for example. But "against people of faith"? Nothing could be further from the truth.

To be sure, I am not religious. It's pretty easy to explain.

The stories are unbelievable - a woman created from a rib, raining frogs, the parting of the sea, the rising from the dead, and more: these stories required as fact myths that cannot possibly be true. Oh, I have no doubt there is some element of truth in each of them. The parting of the Red Sea, for examole, sounds remarkably like what would happen just prior to a Tsunami - or even some pretty high tides.

The conditions are unreasonable - the requirement for entry into Heaven, that blissful state of enternal life after death (which is another of those implausible stories) is that you have faith. It doesn't matter how good a person you were throughout life, if you don't have faith, you don't get in. Yet at the same time, there has not been (in my life at least) a shred of evidence that would lead me to having faith. It seems to me that setting up a situation that resembles a con game more than it does a means of eternal salvation is not something a wise, reasonable or just God would do.

The central premise is immoral - The reason why you express your faith, the reason why you live a moral life and follow the scriptures, is so that you can go to Heaven. In other words, you are lured into following the religion by the promise of personal gain. This strikes me as contrary to any principle of morality, where the reason you would perform a right action is that it's right, not because you make a profit at the end of the day.

Now you may not agree with me. You are not required to agree with me. So far as I'm concerned, your spiritual life is your own business, and if you wish to sign up for that set of beliefs, it's fine with me. After all, I'm not in a position to disprove the basic tenets - that there is a God, that there is life after death - and, indeed, I think I'd be happier were they true (wishing, though, doesn't make it so).

Where you and I collide is precisely where your belief begins to intrude into my life.

The first and most obvious way in which this is expressed is in the realm of personal choice. If I wish to open a shop on Sunday, say, or to have a homosexual affair, that is strictly my business. My doing of these things does not intrude on anyone else's spiritual life. It's just me conducting my life within the framework of my own morality. When people start telling me what to do because what I do violates their faith, then they are trying to make their religion my own. And that's where I draw the line.

But more seriously is the premise that the laws of a particular religion ought to be the laws of the land. Now I happen to believe in law. I beleieve that it is fundamental to the creation of a just and civil society that the frameworks for interaction be known in advance, that when we commit an action we can predict in a reasonable way what the consequences will be. Law gives us a sphere of stability within which to lead our lives, protects us from the violence and intrustions of others, allows us, as the legal phrase goes, quiet enjoyment.

Laws are based, not on contracts (because a 'contract' implies an agreement, and manifestly most people in society never signed such an agreement) but on negotiations between the members of society. They lay out the conditions under which we agree to live together. They are, in effect, a truce or a treaty, parts of which may be negotiated explicitly, parts of which may be inherited from previous agreements. They may or may not be based on first principles; they may or may not embody orver-riding clases such as statements of personal rights.

The argument that laws ought to be based on religious principles is the abrogation of all this. It is, in essence, the stipulation that those governed under law may no longer expect consistency in the law, may no longer expect the previous state of balance of interests to hold.

Because, the thing is, laws based on religion are inescapably ambiguous. The religious text needs to be interpreted. And the interpretation, if not placed under the scrutiny of a pre-existing body of law, becomes an excuse for arbitrary judgement.

The Ten Commandments, for example, is a set of principles some people hold to be the founding basis for law in a religious government, so much so that various people have demanded that they be displayed in courts, in classrooms, in government buildings. Leaving aside those that admit of no compromise at all (such as, "Thou shalt worshop God but me"), even those in which there seems to be common agreement are suspect.

Take, for example, "Thou shalt not kill." This seems pretty uncontroversial; it expresses a principle I certainly believe in, and it expresses a condition that, in my mind, underlies stable societies and has in fact been the basis for most civil societies. Nothing could be clearer, right?

But there is a movement in the more recent forms of American Christianity to represent this stricture as "Thou shalt not murder." The theocratic basis for this new version is that it is more in accord with the original Hebrew. Well, this is debatable, and in any case, it did not seem to bother the writers of centuries of Bible translations, who translated the word consistently as "kill". I write more about this here.

Well the upside of this new translation for a country with the world's largest military and a hyperactive death penalty is obvious. But what it demonstrates is that when the law is governed by the word of God, the law is really governed by whomever translates the word of God, and hence, the law becaomes the will of some person, an individual, an evangelical, a priest, a mullah.

Most, if not all, of today's Culture Wars debates are based, not on scripture, but interpretation. It makes no sense to say that eating shellfish is allowed but being gay is punishable, but that's what they assert. It makes no sense to say that abortion is wrong but bombing Iraq is acceptable, but that's what we are asked to believe. It makes no sense to say that grocery stores must be closed but that 7-Elevens can be open, but this is the sort of arbitrary rule we are forced to live with.

Theocratic rule is putting rule into the hands of individuals. And as Rousseau noted, when you put the reins of governance into the hands of a certain segment of society, they tend to abuse this power in favour of their own self interest. And it seems to me that putting these reins into the hands of Christians, people who practice a religion based on self interest, makes this abuse of power inevitable.

Certainly, history bears me out. We have seen over and over again through history the excesses of the church lead to corruption and injustice. The Popes grew rich while the people starved. The excesses of the Inquisition. The factional battles between Protestant and Catholic in Northern Ireland. The abuses in Residential Schools. The hypocrisy of Jim and Tammy-Faye Bakker. The ongoing abuse of young boys by priests. And in today's America, the sanctioning of unprovoked war and invasion, torture and arbitrary justice.

Finally, what makes this pernicious is that these religions are expansionist religions, which means that the faithful are bound to propagate their faith. What this means is that the teachings of doctrine that contradicts their faith must be suppressed. hence, we have the absurdity of the teaching of creationism (or 'intelligent design', today's reframing of this discredited argument) in the classroom. We even have such absurdities as a plaque, at the Grand Canyon, asserting that it was caused by the Biblical great flood.

So long as this sort of behaviour persists, then Christians and I will be at odds. So long as they practice this sort of 'anything goes' politics where even the rules of their own religion are subverted or recast in order to allow the imposition of their faith on others, I will oppose them. The minute they agree, however, to allow me and people like me to live our lives in quiet enjoyment, I will embrace them as friends and treat them as brothers and sisters.

Friday, April 15, 2005

Liberating Canada?

The idea that Canada needs liberating, much less by the United States, is laughable. But the Wall Street Journal declared this week that U.S. bloggers had done exactly that. Then again, the Wall Street Journal is one of America's most blatant propaganda organs, its association with the facts tenuous at best.

Because I don't have a link, I'll excerpt from the article first:
Bloggers Liberate Canada

Canada's ruling Liberal Party has held power for 54 of the last 70 years, but it is now besieged by Internet bloggers. U.S. blogs have violated a court ban on the reporting of court testimony on "Adscam," a scandal in which some $80 million in public money was siphoned off to Liberal Party operatives. The Liberals are plummeting in the polls, and since they hold only a minority of seats in Parliament, it looks like the party could lose a vote of confidence and be forced into early elections in June.

Canada's free-speech laws are more restrictive than those in the U.S. and permit publication bans of evidence or motions introduced in a trial in an effort to avoid tainting the jury pool. Last month, Justice John Gomery, who was appointed to oversee an inquiry into Adscam, imposed a publication ban on the testimony of three witnesses who gave details about how advertising agencies were hired by the previous Liberal government to fight secession attempts by the province of Quebec. Much of the money was squandered and a large part of it wound up lining the pockets of party apparatchiks.

But American bloggers, led by Ed Morrissey at his Captain's Quarters blog, got a hold of some of the testimony and posted it on their sites. A Canadian web site, NealeNews, linked to Mr. Morrissey's blog and soon all of Canada was talking about what newspaper and television reporters could only hint at. One Canadian blogger who linked to the testimony in violation of the court ban said he did so because he does not want his children growing up in a country "where public testimony can be known by government officials and by the media, but by no one else." Indeed, Canadian voters faced the ridiculous prospect of going to the polls in June without having access to the Gomery court testimony that would be the basis for their having an election in the first place.

Justice Gomery finally cried uncle and lifted most of the unenforceable ban last week because he belatedly recognized "it is in the public interest that this evidence with few exceptions be made available to the public." Score one for the blogging community, which has just proven that when it comes to the Internet, there truly are no borders.
What a load. Let's run through this obvious propaganda...

Bloggers Liberate Canada

Canada's ruling Liberal Party has held power for 54 of the last 70 years,
or 12 of the last 21 years, but that doesn't sound as punchy.

but it is now besieged by Internet bloggers.
Hardly. It is mostly beseiged by the Canadian media, which is hankering for another election.

U.S. blogs have violated a court ban on the reporting of court testimony on "Adscam," a scandal in which some $80 million in public money was siphoned off to Liberal Party operatives.
A very dubious number. The amounts are probably much less. The Conservative Party of Canada list about $5.8 million. And that the money "was siphoned off" has yet to be proven; the enquiry has not yet released its findings.

The Liberals are plummeting in the polls,
Their support has fallen seven percent. They are now (within the margin of error) tied with the Conservatives.

and since they hold only a minority of seats in Parliament, it looks like the party could lose a vote of confidence and be forced into early elections in June.
By definition, a minority government could lose a vote of confidence. But will they? It would require the Conservatives reneging on a pledge they had made. And 87 percent of Canadians, in the same poll, do not want an election right now.
Canada's free-speech laws are more restrictive than those in the U.S.
Canada's free-speech laws are different from those in the U.S. but arguably not more restrictive. After all, the United States is the country that brought us McCarthyism, prime time morality, gag laws, the Patriot Act, bans on photographing coffins, and more. Americans have a lot of audacity calling Canadian laws more restrictive.

The statement also implies that there are no gag orders in the United States. But, of course, that's a crock. It could happen just as easily south of the border.

and permit publication bans of evidence or motions introduced in a trial in an effort to avoid tainting the jury pool.
which was exactly the case here, as one of the Gomery witnesses was standing trial. This - and not the impact on elections - was the reason for the publication ban.

Last month, Justice John Gomery, who was appointed to oversee an inquiry into Adscam, imposed a publication ban on the testimony of three witnesses who gave details about how advertising agencies were hired by the previous Liberal government to fight secession attempts by the province of Quebec.
As mentioned, the ban was enacted specifically to shield the criminal trial, and only applied to a few witnesses. Meanwhile, the public was still permitted to attend and the enquiry continued to be recorded and broadcast to the media. A far cry from the secret trials held by the American government.

Much of the money was squandered and a large part of it wound up lining the pockets of party apparatchiks.

Not proven. Indeed, it has not even been shown that much of the money was squandered (as Chretien pointed out, the campaign's objective - keep Quebec in Canada - was ultimately successful). At any rate, we should wait until the end of the enquiry before making accusations like that.

But American bloggers, led by Ed Morrissey at his Captain's Quarters blog, got a hold of some of the testimony and posted it on their sites.
Which wasn't very hard to do. The hearings remained open to the public. This shows only that conservatives on both sides of the border work together, which we knew. Oh, and that Canadian conservatives are willing to break the law to score some cheap political points.

A Canadian web site, NealeNews, linked to Mr. Morrissey's blog and soon all of Canada was talking about what newspaper and television reporters could only hint at.
Speculation. This implies that there was an increase in interest caused by the Morrissey post. It's probably not true. Canadian press had already reported that the testimony, which would be released shortly, was explosive.It certainly wasn't unexpected and didn't change interest or attitudes toward the hearing.

One Canadian blogger who linked to the testimony in violation of the court ban said he did so because he does not want his children growing up in a country "where public testimony can be known by government officials and by the media, but by no one else."
The blogger may have said this, but the only way we know is from the article in the Christian Science Monitor (uncredited by the WSJ) where the quote first appeared, an article by Erstwhile Canadian columnist Rondi Adamson, the same Rondi Anderson who argued that American values should be exported and that "peaceniks" should grow up. Oh, and that Roman Polanski should be forgiven. A charter member of the conservative fan club.

Indeed, Canadian voters faced the ridiculous prospect of going to the polls in June without having access to the Gomery court testimony that would be the basis for their having an election in the first place.
This statement can be true only if the terms set by Gomery for the publication ban are completely ignored. There is no chance that the ban would have continued through the election (assuming there was an election).
Justice Gomery finally cried uncle and lifted most of the unenforceable ban last week because he belatedly recognized "it is in the public interest that this evidence with few exceptions be made available to the public."
This is not why the ban was lifted. It was lifted because the criminal trial which was being protected had been postponed. No criminal trial, no reason for the ban.

Score one for the blogging community, which has just proven that when it comes to the Internet, there truly are no borders.
Hardly. Any credit due to the blogging community in this instance is greatly exaggerated. With any luck, a few conservatives will face a penalty for breaking the law (but, honestly, it's not likely). What has happened in the hearing has happened without influence from the blogging community - which, I might add, in a proceeding of this sort, is how it should be.

But more pernicious, and more damaging, is the perpetuation to American readers of the state of affairs in Canada. Our country is being portrayed once again as less free than the United States, which is manifestly not true. Our conservatives are portrayed as having more influence than they actually do.

You know, it's bad enough that the Wall Street Journal spreads its lies and propaganda. But I will thank the editors of that rag to keep their greasy paws out of Canadian politics; we have enough problems with media manipulation of our own.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Decomposting Socialism

How many times do we have to hear these tired old stereotypes?

We've seen socialism fail all around the globe.

No, you saw dictatorships failing all around the globe. You didn't see people storming the government buildings in Sweden, did you? You didn't see mass protests after a socialist government was elected in Spain, right? The people aren't rising up in Argentina, in Venezuela. Democratic socialism is alive and doing just fine, thank you.

If there is any over-riding conclusion to come from the left after this last election, it's that the gloves have to come off.

I think that the left has (finally) realized that it has been losing a propaganda war for a number of years. The right has been effective in low-level frame-building and opinion-making. It has managed to skew words and images to that people have a distorted view of the left, the typical left voter, and the left world-view.

Because, there is one observation about the left that is true. It has become the party of an elite. An elite that doesn't like to mucky-muck in trench politics, doesn't like to get in there and challenge right wing blogs, doesn't like to go to churches and challege the Pastor's call for hate politics, doesn't like to mess around with letters to the editor, a left-wing press, policy think-tanks, white papers and submissions, policy appeals and other stall tactics, and more.

The left has for a very long time thought it was above politics, above propaganda, above getting into the mud and duking it out with those mud-turkeys.

I think that's going to change. I certainly hope so. because, in a democracy, if you don't speak to the people, for the people, you've lost. Doesn't matter if you're Jesus, you've lost.

So let's reframe.

Socialists argue that important functions ought to be carried out by the state. Insofar as other parties agree with this, they are to that degree socialist. These services are universal, that is, they are intended to benefit, and are paid for by, everybody in society.

Another myth:

Yeah, and universality fails everywhere it's been tried, including the United States. How many countries' economies have to wallow in the toilet before you admit that socialism sucks?

Well you say this, but it's true only if you look at it through a very selective filter - and in a larger sense, it's not true at all.

Some universal social services:

- Police, military and fire services that do not perform means tests and who serve every person, rich or poor. Disaster prevention such as earthquake warnings, dikes and levees. etc.

- Public roadways, which are free for all (or when they charge tools, charge the same regardless of income). Public transportation, such as buses - even free in some places, such as Logan, Utah.

- Public health care, in Canada

- Public schools in most countries (but not the U.S., where the competing private system has bled the public system dry)

I could go on, but you get the idea. Perhaps you don't like these services - but it would be a stretch to call any of them a failure.

More to the point, simply dismissing a program because it is universal is a non-starter. Sure, some universal programs fail. But many succeed, so much so that they're taken for granted. The issue lies in what separates the successful from the unsuccessful universal services, not in whether or not a service is universal.

Many income-support programs vary by contribution - Canada's Employment Insurance, for example. This is the concession made to rich people so they'll allow the program to exist at all.

Myth: By making these "anti-squalor" programs universal, the bulk of the money goes to those who weren't in danger of living in squalor in the first place. It isn't those who are in danger of living in squalor who are protected.

It turns out, people like collecting money from such programs whether or not they live in squalor. Canada's 'baby bonus' program, for example, is paid to everyone who has a baby, rich or poor. So many people who don't need it still get it. But the thing is, they're still happy to get it.

The assumption is, if the money is paid to someone who doesn't need it, that it's a total loss, that it's wasteful. But this isn't so. The people who it gets paid to supported the program with their taxes in the first place. For them it's virtually a break-even proposition - pay $1000 in tax, get $1000 in baby bonus.

Of course, it's a leveler, right? Rich people pay $1250 in tax and get back $1000. Poorer people pay $750 in tax and get back $1000. The destitute pay no tax, and get the whole $1000.

So why not just charge $250 in taxes to everyone, and pay $1000 only to those who need it? Well, then this nice self-balancing system begins to break down. You incur a large overhead conducting the means tests. You lose the subtlty, that allows some households to get a net benefit of $250.

See, what people know is that if the benefits are means-tested, most people wouldn't qualify for anything, but they'd still pay the same taxes they did before, because of the increased cost of the program. Who wants to risk that?


Socialist twits are regarded as wusses because they want to remove competition from economics.

This is a naive and caricatured version of socialism. True, there are some people who believe all forms of competition are evil. They are as bad as the Puritans. People who think hockey games should not have scores, for example. But I think they are in the minority.

Certainly this is not characteristic of the sort of socialism I have advocated. I have started on numerous occasions that market principles, within broad constraints, ought to be allowed to apply. I don't characterize this as 'competition' per se although of course competition is the inevitable outcome of autonomy. And I don't see as in any way evil the competition that does occur within a free marketplace.

Broadly stated, contemporary socialism holds to two major tenets with respect to competition and the marketplace:

a) where marketplace failures occur as a shortage of supply, intervention is warranted in order to prevent cases of extreme need. These interventions typically take the form of (a) market regulation, such as price caps, and (b) market stimulation, such as publicly funded production.

b) where the marketplace is compromised because of collusion or monopoly, intervention is warranted in order to prevent cases of extreme need. Typically, a regulatory framework is applied to prevemt abuse of the monopoly, with as necessary entry points into the market provided for smaller players, often with government support.

These principles are based on the premise that a civil and democratic society becomes unstable and cannot function when inequalities produced by market failures create extreme need. Hence, the principles for intervention are and must be results based, specifically:
- they must actually reduce extreme need
- they must address market failures and not, say, self-inflicted losses
- they must be the minimum required in order to address the need

Many socialists also stress the virtue of cooperation. Capitalists do as well, which explains their support for corporate enterprise (which is, after all, nothing more than privately-funded structured cooperation). What distinguishes socialists from right wingers in this regard is their recognition and support for a wider array of types of cooperation.

Specifically, in addition to corporations (which would not be eliminated by socialists), it is necessary to provide equivalent support and legal frameworks to enable:
- worker cooperation, more commonly known as unions
- cooperatives and similar employee-owned enterprise
- community initiatives, such as community networks, where cooperation exists within governmental or community agencies

The principle here is that certain modes of cooperation (corporations, say, or religions) should not be allowed to obtain a legislative advantage. The principles therefore of social cooperation are based on the principles that:
- alternative forms of cooperation are effectively possible
- these enterprises have equal standing in legislation with other forms of cooperation

To return again to the concept of competition:

When socialists oppose competition, what they are opposing is what they perceive to be the dogma that competition is always good. It is taken as a trusim by socialists that in many areas of endeavour competition is more harmful than good. This, for example, is always the case when:
- a single instance of a resource produces a significant increase in efficiencies over multiple instances - for example, having two, competing, road networks would create significant inefficiency
- the cost of competition substantially increases the cost of a scarce resource -- for example, health care is a scarce resource (and already a subject of market failure) -- competition in health care exaggerates this market failure, rather than alleviating it, by adding layers of inefficiency to the production and distribution of health care services

Other than these cases (if pressed I might think of some others, but these are the biggies), competition is preferred over market management, because of the oft-noted observation that markets tend to allocate resources more efficiently, that autonomy is preferable over control, and that innovation and resourcefulness often arise in competition where they might not otherwise.

This is obviously a brief sketch, and hopelessly inadequate with respect to the details, but it should be sufficient to show that the dogma that 'socialists hate competition' is a myth, or as Lakoff would say, a 'frame', used to discredit rather than to inform.


At the Northern Voice blogging conference Globe and Mail columnist Norman Spector declared that Canada's blogging community is underdeveloped. As Peter Tupper summarizes, Canadian bloggers have not exercised the political muscle demonstrated by their American counterparts, and Iran's community of 70,000 or more blogs makes ours seem small.

Well I wonder about that. Leaving aside the fact that Iran's population is twice that of Canada, it seems to me that Canada has a substantial blogging population. Where are they? At Blogger, LiveJournal, Typepad. Swallowed by (and generally counted with) their counterparts to the south. Which makes sense; Iranians have a unique language and Farsi blogs make for easy counting.

So how does Canada compare? Well, let's consider that Blogs Canada now counts more than 10,000 blogs. And if Blogs Canada misses even half of Canadian blogs (or if the number of active Farsi blogs is overstated) then blogging activity in the two countries is comparable. And I'm sure it does; the first result on Google for 'Canadian blog', The Last Minute, is nowhere to be found, and if I had the time to struggle through Blogs Canada's ridiculous navigation I'm sure I could find many more not listed than listed.

What about the second point, political influence? Well, it's true that no journalists or politicians in Canada (that we know of) have taken the long walk in the snow as a result of a blogging campaign (possibly because they self-immolate before we get the chance). But that does not mean there is a dearth of political blogging in this country. Again referring to the incomplete listings at Blogs Canada, we find 102 blogs listed under Politics - Left and another 121 under Politics - Right. This in addition to the 239 listed under Politics - General.

That's 462 in all, and if we consider that the United States is roughly ten times the population, that would be equivalent to 4,500 political blogs down south. Americans may be more or less vocal politically, but the Canadian participation rate is certainly comparable.

So let me put it that when Norman Spector says the Canadian blogging community is "underdeveloped," he is full of crap. As I commented at the forum, and as I reiterate here, the Canadian blogging community is at least as developed as anywhere else in theworld, and in some ways more so.

Far more interesting than whether Norman Spector is full of crap is the question of why he would make such a statement.

So we turn to the question of political influence. Now of course political influence in this country is exerted in a manner very different from the loud, brash and often self-congratulatory voice we hear in the U.S. But even so, we would be hard pressed to identify any significant infleunce at all on the ebb and flow of Canadian politics. There may be 462 voices, but they are as voices in the wilderness, scarce heard beyond their own microcommunity.

Here's Spector's explanation: "the weakness of Canadian conservatism -- a coalition united principally in opposition to lefties and Liberals -- explains the failure of Canadian bloggers to strike any significant blows against mainstream media."

As for the left, "Targeting the U.S., and particularly its current President, is an easy way for lefty intellectuals to burnish radical credentials without jeopardizing Canada Council grant applications, CBC appearances, or the prospect of the Order of Canada."

I'll come back to the conservative bloggers in a moment. Let's consider his statement about left wing blogs. Again, looking at those listed as 'left' by Blogs Canada, we find many posts discussing, no, not U.S. politics, but Canadian. Warren Kinsella leads with items on the death of a Canadian white supremicist and a book about Canadian Conservative corruption. Revolutionary Moderation covers the Gomery Commission. Officially Unofficial open's with Tyrone Warner's CTV coverage of blogging. Ride Macedon discusses Canada's position on the Ballistic Missile Treaty.

Should I go on? Need I go on? The fact is, Canadian left wing bloggers do cover Canadian politics; the assertion that they focus their attentions south of the border is out-and-out false. No, it's not that the left wing bloggers are ignoring Canada, it's that the left wing bloggers are being ignored.

Ask yourself - how does Spector measure influence? How, indeed, do you get influence? At the conference, Spector explained it this way: bloggers are not making their way into the coverage provided by traditional media. In his article cited above this view is reinforced: "The National Post recently described an exchange between Warren Kinsella, the self-described Liberal 'Prince of Darkness,' and three columnists who also blog (myself included) as "the most memorable battle in the history of the Canadian blogosphere." This suggests that Canadian bloggers have few achievements to boast of."

Again, we return to the same theme, don't we? The Canadian left blogosphere is not influential because it is ignored by the media. Well, isn't that handy for the Canadian media!

Let's go back to the right wing side of things now. Blogging's best hope in Canada, writes Spector, comes from this direction. "Since most journalists hew to the left, the blog challenge -- if it comes -- will emerge from the right, as in the United States." In a column chock-full of whoppers, this is the biggest. One wonders what Spector has been reading if he considers Canadian media to be left wing. Perhaps Spector hasn't read the National Post or the Western Report recently. Or perhaps he doesn't notice that the staunchly pro-business Globe and Mail contains his own frothings. The Vancouver Sun? Shrill in its hatred of the New Democrats. Meanwhile, here in Atlantic Canada we yearn under the cold hand of the Irvings.

The reason the press doesn't cover the right wing blogosphere is that it already has enough right wing content - content that is in general more subtle and less vile than found online. In this, at least, Spector is correct: "amongst conservatives, you'll find a fair degree of despair bordering on loathing for Canada... Some conservatives, particularly those in the anti-abortion movement, are incapable of compromise -- the essence of politics--and give up completely." Not the best fare for newspapers wanting people to pick up the next edition to see what happens next.

But it's deeper than that, even.

One of the reasons I started this blog was to establish a clearly Canadian political voice from the left (not that we are short of such voices, but I believe I have something unique to add to the mix). To cast a light on the left not normally found in the caricatures offered by the media. To be insightful and enlightened, offering a twenty-first century version of thought I sometimes think of as 'new democracy' (more on that in another post).

But as I ramped up my blog and considered the topics I want to cover, I realized how badly informed I had become. Not for lack of interest, not for lack of involvement - I certainly rank amoung the more politically-minded of Canadians, have run for office twice, write routinely to the newspaper (and am much less frequently published), follow the news, keep myself informed. Or, at least, try.

But the Canadian media has, for the most part, taken itself out of the picture. Almost the entire Canadian press is blocked behind subscriptions or registration screens, its content inaccessible to the average reader, links to articles rendered useless. I used to lisetn to CBC radio online until it switched to a proprietary Microsoft format; now I listen to WNYC even though its coverage of Canada is minimal. CTV has virtually no web presence.

Well, OK then, I could buy the local newspaper, right? And in fact I do, but our paper has the sadly common characteristic of leaving me less informed that I was when I started. And it's not just the lunatic ramblings of Brian Lee Crowley or the kneejerk conservatism of Norbert Cunningham, but the 'news' articles that report things that contradict things I know to be true, that I have seen with my own eyes.

No, the state of affairs in Canada right now is that, even if I wanted to I could not become well-informed on any subject of importance. The state of affairs is that we are being fed a steady diet of pap, lies and propaganda. The state of affairs is that our national press is under lock and key, not open for examination and criticism by the wider blogosphere, not willing to consider any opinion that does not kowtow to its sacred cows beyond a few token (and notably shrill) voices like Jim Stanford, Namoi Klein, and David Suzuki.

Has the blogosphere had an impact in Canada? How would we know? The fact is - we wouldn't. And that's why we have to listen to shysters like Norman Spector claim that there is no Canadian blogosphere, claim that we're "underdeveloped", claim that we have no influence. And the average Canadian has no means of knowing though our one-owner one-outlet corporate media that the exact opposite is the case.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005


It may be a while before this hits mainstream, but watch out if it ever does.

For those of you who haven't seen the buzz, Greasemonkey is a Firefox extension that allows users to add DHTML capability to given web pages. Inspired by Google's AutoLink feature the script basically gives users the capacity to change the content of web pages on the fly - not the text so much (though the 'Michael Jackson remover' is sure to be a hit with news readers tired of that sort of pap) as the code that controls the page display.

Naturally, the first thing to go were the ads. User scripts stripping ads from popular sites - including About.com, BoingBoing, Feedburner (in Bloglines), CNN, the list goes on - can be found on the Greasemonkey user scripts page. The New York Times will want to take a closer look - there's a script that plays around with the HTTP_REFERER, essentially allowing readers to view articles without logging in. Another script automatically grants the user a Salon day pass. Flickr - which uses Flash to control image downloads - is now Flash-free. Another script provides annotation to Google results showing the del.icio.us tags. Another script allows links to be rated; another looks up citations.

There is a Greasemonkey blog (naturally). Discussion has turned to the malicious uses of Greasemonkey - for example, to steal cookies or launch DDOS attacks.

The reasons commercial sites should be concerned about this development are obvious, I think. But rather than launch a Greasemonkey coding war I think the better approach is to think about what happens when your web page becomes the host for any number of foreign scripts. I don't have any quick answers here - but the bottom line, I think, is that your readers have suddenly become a whole lot more powerful. Or will become more powerful, as I say, should something like Greasemonkey ever become mainstream. Which - one day - it will.

Sunday, April 10, 2005


Seb Fiedler asks himself why he is increasingly alienated from the underlying ideology of modern education and concludes that it is the result of neo-liberal propaganda that has changed the concept of 'education' over the years. "I am sure," he writes, "some of the trusted, unquestioned ideas that guide the current discourse on reforming universities readily come to your mind: the holy market, competition, cost efficiency, tuition and fees, standarized evaluation, and so forth."

Placing his thoughts into context is a 1970 lecture from Gregory Bateson, Ecology and Flexibiltiy in Urban Civilization. Bateson writes, "the frequency of use of a given idea becomes determinant of its survival in that ecology of ideas which we call Mind; and beyond that the survival of a frequently used idea is further promoted by the fact that habit formation tends to remove the idea from the field of critical inspection."

Bateson's proposition should sound familiar to the student of philosophy. It is almost identical, in content and vocabulary, to that expressed by David Hume. "All belief of matter of fact or real existence," writes Hume in the Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, is derived merely from some object, present to the memory or senses, and a customary conjunction between that and some other object." How, for example, do we come to believe that one thing causes another? When one thing is often followed by another, we fall into the habit of expecting the second when we see the first, and as this habit becomes entrenched, we say that here is a connection between one and the other.

Ritual and repetition form an important component of belief. As Hume notes in the Treatise, "The devotees of that strange superstition usually plead in excuse of the mummeries, with which they are upbraided, that they feel the good effect of those external motions, and postures, and actions, in enlivening their devotion, and quickening their fervour, which otherwise wou'd decay away, if directed entirely to distant and immaterial objects." By keeping the forms and icons representative of the faith firmly fixed in front of their followers, the fathers of the church ensure a lively and habitual representation of belief.

Why is this important? Part of it, certainly, is the explanation of how it is we came to associate the principles of economics to education. A priori, there is no reason to expect that the principles of one domain would work in another. Yet we see them repeatedly applied - a critic of mine recently argued against free educational content on the grounds that students would not value the learning that resulted. Why would we suppose that a menetary determination of value (a network semantics expressed as a willingness to pay) would apply in learning? But, as Fiedler notes, a century of conflict defined by competing economic systems has created an envrionment in which it is natural, inevitable, to apply the basic principles (in our sphere, at least) of economic capitalism to all domains.

But the more significant part is that Hume's theory of belief is also a theory of learning, and a theory which, when examined, stands in opposition to what seems to be taken for granted as learning theory today. I have commented before on the paucity of the idea that knowledge is acquired like bits of capital and stored in the vault of our mind, opposed the idea that knowledge is cumulative, like acquisition. The theory of learning represented, say, in standardized tests or even such models as constructivism imply that knowledge is like a series of sentences, possibly related, that may be amassed in some sort of internal encyclopedia. In the lecture model of learning everyone caricatures, these sentences are delivered to you; in constructivism they are created by the students themselves.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

A Sanity Check

I note today this item in the CBC news: Harper denies MP received money for visas. Harper, of course, is the Canadian Conservative leader, he who has been slathering to have a chance at the polls after an ongoing Liberal scandal has erupted anew.

This article offers us a sanity check. True, it may not be anything other than a Conservative member innocently lobbying for a private member's bill. But this would mean it has about the same substance as some recent allegations against Liberal members (and I'm thinking of not only people like Judy Sgro but also the unfairly maligned Jane Stewart).

Let's face it - a Conservative government would be no more virtuous than the present Liberal one - has everyone already forgotten Stevie Cameron's scathing deconstruction of Conservative corruption, On the Take? Is Stephen Harper somehow less slimey than his patron Brian Mulroney? You can hear Conservatives drooling for an election because they are slathering for another turn at the trough.

And while being no more virtuous, a Conservative government would be busy wreaking disaster on the Canadian fabric. Mulroney ran up a record deficit while offering nothing to show for it - no health care, no education, no infrastructure - just a bunch of happy friends. He cynically played Quebec separatism, forging an unholy alliance with future Bloc Quebecois leader Lucien Bouchard. Harper would be as bad as Mulroney, but with a dose of culture wars for good measure.

Look what the conservatives are doing in my own province - while teachers are on the verge of a strike, our local education minister is more concerned about an abstinence-based sex education curriculum. Look at Alberta, where Conservative premier Ralph Klein steadfastly refuses to accept gay rights, despite their being constitutionally required by the Supreme Court. Harper has continually squelched talk of things like abortion from his own back benches - after the election, he must me whispering to them.

No - don't kid yourself. A Conservative government wiuld be ruinous. And hope that Canadians are smart enough to see that.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Being in Charge

I think a lot about power.

Today I was reading an article from Fast Company about Commander D. Michael Abrashoff of the USS Benford. The author stressed two things: first, that Abrashoff was able to lead effectively because he no longer cared about personal ambition - "I don't care if I ever get promoted again" - and because he talks with, and listens to, his men.

This week, of course, the Pope dies. The Pope was another man in command. I don't know what his level of personal ambition was - once you've advanced to Pope, there isn't really any higher office that doesn't involve heresy. I don't know whther he listened, either, though I suspect he must have, as his rule appears to have been as loved as it was long.

I tell people - with some accuracy, which I'll get back to - that I don't care whether I get promoted again either. In a strict sense, this is true. In my position there are various levels of research officer - I am a senior research officer, and could eventually become a principle research officer if I study hard and please my seniors. I was hired, and have been promoted, on the basis of a grid of competencies. It's all pretty obvious, and leadership is right up there as one of the desired competencies.

So looking at the criteria, I see that to be a principle researcher, I need to be a person of world-wide reknown, a person of influence in the field, you know. As I look at the names of those who would qualify for such status and it seems to me that what distinguishes those who are leaders in the field and those who, though equally insightful, are not, is that the former have people.

Now that's not the whole of it, of course. These leaders in the field have other attributes that have put them where they are, just as did Commander Abrashoff and Pope John Paul. But somewhere along the line, they got people - and it was enough to push them over the top. And so these leaders in the field have somehow axquired a research lab, a bunch of graduate assistants, some personal staff, whatever - and of course their output increases, their effectiveness increases, they become superhuman.

And it occurs to me that all of this talk misses the point a bit. I mean, it's pretty easy to be sanguine about advancement when you are already a Commander or a Pope. Had I adopted that attitude at the outset of my career I would have remained a stock boy for the rest of my days. And that talk about listening to your men - well, that's a lot easier - indeed, possible even - only if you have men.

And I don't have people. I thought I would have people, I really did, when I took my position three years ago. It was something I looked forward to, a way to advance my career. because before I became a senior researcher I wanted to advance my career. Before this position I was in a contract position, which meant that I either advanced my career or I became unemployed. But now I am here, and not wanting to advance my career - and yet, I have no people.

What kind of leadership is that? And I suppose, if I ever wanted to become a principle researcher, I would have to acquire people - because that is, isn't it, the essence of leadership, having people? But I suddenly find it impossible to put the acquisition of people above what's important to me, to engage in whatever it takes to acquire people.

It's not like I haven't had people in the past. I have tasted the salt spray of the Commander's post, not of a warship, to be sure, but as a (student) newspaper editor, as a graduate student president, as the leader of a major protest, as the force behind a litigation. I know what having people is like - and I liked it. I liked it just as I liked having the dream that Commander Abrashoff had, of being in command, of being Captain Kirk, of having the power to control destinies with a gesture, a nod...

I mean, what boy doesn't have such dreams? What boy doesn't dream of being the captain, being the quarterback, being Prime Minister? And what is it when we abandon such dreams - being on the team, I guess, is sufficient to explain why we settle for being a lieutenant, being a linebacker, being a Minsiter of Finance. Oh, but I guess it eats at you - for some people, becomes a failure that they cannot get past, for others, becomes a substandard life to which they will learn, eventually, to accept. Not everybody, after all, can have people - because then there would be no people (the beauty of the hierarchy is that it allows more people to have people - but at the cost of whatever it was you would have wanted to have people for, because now you and your people are all someone else's people - and he's advancing his career).

So now I work alone. On the bottom rung of the organization chart. I don't have people because I'm not willing to make that trade - to give up what's important to me in order to be given people. The flip side, of course, is that I don't want to be people either. It's not simply that I don't want to be the quarterback - I'm not willing to settle for being a linebacker either.

So was thinking about all this today as I read Fast Company and watched coverage of the Pope and listened to stories of the Gomrie enquiry and our aspirational Prime Minister and grumbled about the tightening grip of my employers, thinking about this and I asked myself, what changed? It wasn't so long ago that I wanted people - and while I haven't lost my ambition, my drive, my desire to make a difference, I don't want people any more. And it's not just the cost of getting people, it's more than that.

And it seems to me - there's something fundamentally dishonest about the whole thing. I mean, if the Pope didn't ahve his minions, if the Commander didn't have his crew, they'd be pretty fine fellas but they'd be ordinary, wouldn't they? And so the other shoe drops - having people isn't only about getting other people to do what you want, it is also about getting the credit for their work. It's some kind of sanitized, socially sanctioned, but out-and-out plagiarism. And when you look at the professor with his minions of graduate students, that's what it is, isn't it?

And I realized that it is that that I couldn't do. I couldn't ask someone else to give up their own dreams of being Captain Kirk just so I could run my own ship.

It's hard for me to realize this.

I mean, the whole idea of having people is built into the very concepts of excellent and advancement that we aspire to. I read a lot of business books (hard to beieve, I know - many of them are a fifteen minute read in a bookstore, but I studied Carnegie line by line, read a number of Peters, more..). And they are all, to the last one, about having people - how to get them, how to convince them to adopt your vision, how to motivate them, how to control them, sometimes how to trade them for better people.

It is so deeply ingrained, this idea that without people you have somehow failed. Socialists try to get people by finding some sort of common good; capitalists try to get people by paying them, fascists try to get people by threatening them (and killing some) - even anarchists have people, though they lie about it and say they don't. The lonliest, saddest people in the world are people who don't have people - and if you can't have people, then you should at least be a people, in order to have some meaning in your life. And, of course, we are all God's people, serving His will, whatever that may be. Right?

How can I be a leader without people? How can I be a success without people? How, even, can my life have meaning without people?

And I realize - what I have been doing over the last ten years (mostly because I had to) is reframing what I mean by success,what I mean by leadership, what I mean by meaning. Reframing it in the sense that being in charge is in and of itself of no inherent value. That the people who are currently in charge are in no way anything special, they are just for the most part people with - and taking the credit for - their own people. And that they have, in fact, sacrificed their humanity in order to achieve this status.

Forget what you learned about leadership.

What you need to know is that people who are leaders, the higher they get, are less and less likely to have any set of values woth having, that they have probably already sacrificed anything that is important to them in order to achieve their status, and that the higher they go the more their naked ambition is eating them inside. How else do you explain the deals politicians make with advertisers and fundraisers? How else do you explain the sublimation of one's entire personality to an orthodoxy? How else do you explain what is, by any observation, the utter inhumanity of our leaders, those that the business books and biographies would have us believe are our best and brightest?

The only leadership worth having doesn't involve having people. The only advancement worth achieving has nothing to do with a hierarchy. The only meaning worth living for is the one that is born inside you, is evolved out of your own sense of right and good. It is the sense of areté, of being all that you can be (in the sense it have before it was corrupted as a military recruitment ad.

And - to me - the first step, the essential step - toward achieving this sort of self-fulfillment is to not deny it in others. To recognize, in each person, the capacity, the right, for them to determine their own destiny. To not have people. It's a hard, hard road - much harder, I submit, than being a Pope with his minions or the commander of a billion dollar warship.

Because - when I think about it - were Commander Abrashoff as sensitive and concerned about the needs and welfare of his men, of other people, then he wouldn't be commander of a warship. And if the Pope really believed in the inherent value of each and every person, he wouldn't be telling them to obey. And let me be clear - these are two individuals who have managed to in large measure transcend the corruption and the inhumanity of their positions. But not so much so that they were willing to abandon the gratification of being in charge, of realizing their boyhood dreams.

I still dream of being Captain Kirk. I always will; you cannot escape a lifetime of conditioning. But I will, one day, surface on the other side of that dream. A free man.

Monday, April 04, 2005

Dupes, Subs and Atom

Regarding Tim Bray, Why We Need Atom Now

Before commenting, let me first note that I am officially agnostic with respect to Atom. That is not to say I don't care; I care a great deal. But I do not take a stance favouring either Atom or RSS.

That said, it seems to me that your post, 'Why We Need Atom Now,' misses the point in some important respects, and brings into the mixture some elements that will not sit comfortably with the content syndication community.


I too am plagued with duplicates. As you know, aggregators usually attempt to eliminate duplicate listings (otherwise we would be subject to 24 copies of the same post every day). Some, such as my own aggregator, cross-check links against URLs; this fails with some sites, which add a new code to each page update. Others cross-check against content; this fails when bloggers like Dave Winer update each entry multiple times.

The proposal to assign each resource a universally unique ID does not solve this problem. In fact, in some ways, it makes the problem worse.

First, it adds no information over and above that which was already available. Each resource already has a unique identifier - its URL. By definition, if two links point to the same URL, they are pointing to the same resource. Identifiers can be useful if there are multiple URLs for a given resource, but the sorts of cases we are considering here are not instances of that sort of case; we are not getting duplicates because there are mirrors of the same post, we are getting duplicates because the URL or content has changed.

While it may appear that identifiers allow the URL or content to change while keeping the resource identifier constant, it should be noted that these changes are the result of a site policy. I have already seen sites changing URL identifiers to correspond with new advertising; this is a form of aggregator spamming and I have complained to the site author about it. In such cases, the site operator is as likely to create a new identifier for the resource as to create a new URL, because the same factors that motivate a change in URL also would motivate a change in identifier.

Second, even if an identifier addresses this issue, it is not unique to Atom. RSS 2.0 has, as you are aware, the GUID tag. This tag usually refers to the URL of the resource (it being a useful unique identifier) but could contain any unique identifier.

But third, the process required by Atom may actually, as I suggested, make matters worse.

One way it could make matters worse is in bringing in the idea that the identifier tag is "required". My position is that the concept of a required tag runs contrary to the interests of the syndication community. If I publish an Atom feed without an identifier, is it not an Atom feed? How would this be enforced? Are you going to "harass them until they fix it" - really? I may be hearing a lot from you then. Sure, it might not validate - but who cares? The only relevant standard is whether aggregators will harvest my feed if it is missing this tag.

Another way it could make matters worse is that, if the globally unique identifier is not a URL, then each post must be submitted to a central registration process in order to acquire such an identifier (or at the very least, each post-producing site must do so). Aside from the inherent bottleneck and locus of control that this introduces, the use of identifiers - or let's just call then 'Handles' - commits the syndication community to a system in which publication and access is dependent on the will of a registrar, where such registrar may or may not be forthcoming.

Or we could return to the idea that the URL is the identifier, and identify the real problem, which is aggregator spamming. And leave it to individual aggregators and readers to choose whether or not to subscribe to such a feed, rather than place the entire blogosphere under a central authority.


As you know, this has been much talked about recently. But it seems to me that this is a problem very easily solved at the browser level. Indeed, it can only be solved at the browser level.

As you note, "Atom feeds can (and should) contain a field named self that says 'here’s my address', so that if you have a copy of the feed, you have everything you need to know to subscribe to it." I would point out that it is very rare to have only a copy of a feed; what one has usually is a direct link to the feed itself (that is, after all, what those orange buttons point to), in which case the address of the feed is contained in the link to the feed; no need even to look at the feed in order to subscribe to it.

As you know, browsers such as Firefox also uses a separate application/rss+xml link in the header. And aggregators such as Yahoo and Bloglines have aggregator-specific links. None of this is new.

But no matter what system is used, the problem is not that the location of the feed is unknown, the problem is in sending this location to the appropriate aggregator. And it seems to me that if a browser can detect an RSS feed (which it could by reading the second line of the document) then it can send the appropriate request either to a client-side application or to a server-side service. And it needs to do this whether it is getting the feed address from the link to the feed or from the content of the feed. In other words - the problem and the solution are the same in both Atom and RSS, and the solution outlined here hardly constitutes something unique in Atom.

As I said at the outset, I am agnostic about Atom. From my perspective, it offers some advantages, but has not in general been worth the extra work (as now every syndication application must deal with yet another syndication format). I understand why the Atom project emerged and am sympathetic with the founders.

But, you know, the more we wait for Atom, the more complex Atom becomes, the more it solve problems via 'requirements' rather than enablements, the less happy I become. Somebody could hand-code an RSS feed in notepad, slap it on any old web site, and it worked. Somebody could add tags or drop tags and it still worked. If Atom doesn't allow this, it's broken.