Friday, September 29, 2006

That Old Time Religion

It's the High Holy Day season once again. It's a time for reflection, repentance and renewal. I spent a terrific Rosh Hashanah weekend in Indianapolis with my mother and extended family. And I went to synagogue both mornings, which is a rare occurrence for me. And, as usual, the service got me asking a lot of questions.

The Reconstructionist synagogue in Indianapolis is a different kind of experience for me. I went to a Reconstructionist synagogue growing up in Montreal, but it was nothing like this one. Ours was a much smaller congregation, and we didn't have anything like an organist and choir. And although I've been to the temple in Indy before, I still get the feeling that either I'm in a church, or the organist and choir were on loan from one. I also brought up with my mother the irony of not being able to blow the shofar on the Sabbath, but an electric organ being permissible. It just goes to show that when it comes to traditions, people can be very selective indeed.

Now, I'm not at all what you'd call a traditionalist when it comes to religion. Personally, I think organized religion is unnecessary. I'm not anti-religion per se, but a lot of it just doesn't wash with me intellectually. I think spirituality is a good thing, but most Western religions require a kind of fabricated pathos that any God worth believing in would just laugh off. Also, Judaism and Catholicism both borrow much from the ancient Pagans in their reverence for objects and symbols. That's a much longer discussion, but suffice it to say that my connection to my Jewishness is based on history and common experience. Jews could rely on the bunker mentality we've developed over the years, as well as our values regarding work and family and community, and we'll survive just fine. But it was religion that kept us together in earlier times, and most of our traditions stem from that.

I think Reconstructionism is the best movement in Judaism in terms of marrying the ancient traditions with modern thinking. On the other hand, it is also full of paradoxes, because while the traditional liturgy is recited during services, much of that text does not reflect Reconstructionist thought. Reconstructionism doesn't strictly require belief in any deity. So a lot of the prayers, while paying homage to the Jewish religious experience over the centuries, really ring hollow. Furthermore, people sing out certain prayers, in full voice, while simultaneously rejecting these words intellectually. The best example for this time of year is the Unetaneh Tokef which says:

On Rosh Hashanah it is inscribed, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed...But repentance, prayer and righteousness avert the severe decree.
Now, I'll bet that 90% of the people in the synagogue who recite those lines don't believe them. It is quite apparent to anybody who has lived in the real world that our spiritual actions have no bearing on our worldly fate for the coming year. Furthermore, I don't know that there is any kind of precedent documented in the Talmud of a single case where repentance, prayer and righteousness during the week between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur has caused somebody's fate to be changed before it was sealed.

Those lines I quoted above are the crux of the Unetaneh Tokef. But the stuff in between (where I put an ellipses) is almost Pythonesque. In Monty Python's Meaning Of Life there was a scene in the chapel of a boys' school where they recite the following prayer:

Oh Lord, please don't burn us/Don't grill or toast your flock/Don't put us on the barbecue/Or simmer us in stock/Don't braise or bake or boil us/Or stir-fry us in a wok/Oh please don't lightly poach us/Or baste us with hot fat/Don't fricassee or roast us/Or boil us in a vat/And please don't stick thy servants Lord/In a Rotiss-o-mat.

I really don't think that prayer is much more silly than these words from the Unetaneh Tokef:

Who shall perish by water and who by fire,
Who by sword and who by wild beast,
Who by famine and who by thirst,
Who by earthquake and who by plague,
Who by strangulation and who by stoning

Okay, maybe that isn't quite as silly as Python. But do the people who recite these words really believe that repentance, prayer and righteousness will save them from strangulation or wild beast? Because I have a serious problem with anybody who does truly believe that. I believe anyone's motivation for being righteous should be righteousness itself, not the threat of what might happen to them in this life (or afterward, in the case of other religions). As for prayer, I have still never gotten a satisfactory answer about how we can be judged for our actions because we have free will, and yet can pray for God to intervene in other people's actions. And repentance, like righteousness, is a good thing, but it should be about how you improve yourself to better serve others rather than how it reflects on you at annual evaluation time.

If I am wrong about all this, then this might be my last blog entry. If so, then I apologize for my blasphemy. Otherwise, I'll see you again soon. And may we all have a peaceful and prosperous year.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Five Years After

It is now the fifth anniversary of 9/11, the day that was to change the world. It united a nation, brought goodwill from all over the planet toward the wounded superpower, and awoke all of us to some of the worst evils that lurk while exposing us to some of the best mankind has to offer. It was a day etched in our memories forever, when political stripe was insignificant and the petty things in life seemed to matter not. We were all vulnerable, but thankful for what we had.

Political discourse in North America had become poisoned by 2001, largely due to the advent of the internet and 24 hour news channels providing a platform for the "punditocracy", not to mention talk radio. Bill Clinton had been a divisive figure, even while still garnering large job approval ratings. And the 2000 presidential election really pushed things over the edge. But following 9/11 there was a hope that people would be able to get over political pettiness and look out for each other just as the uniformed and civilian New Yorkers did on that day. Sadly, that hope only lasted about a month.

It didn't take long for George W. Bush to become the most polarizing leader in memory. While some of his opposition is extreme to say the least, most of the current climate can be blamed on nobody except the man who claimed to be "a uniter, not a divider." It is a sad reality that 9/11 itself is a political tool, and Bush has been the master craftsman. He has conflated 9/11 and the war or terror with Iraq and other questionable decisions ever since. From the first time he said "You're either with us or you're with the terrorists" he made it a policy to demonize all opposition that shared the same goals. As recently as a couple of weeks ago, Donald Rumsfeld likened Iraq war critics to the appeasers of Nazi Germany. To the Bush crowd, "with us" doesn't mean wanting to defeat terrorists, but wanting to do it their way. And supporting tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans while the poorest fight the war. It's a non-customizable package deal.

Bush, of course, is not alone in playing the political game with 9/11. Take, for example, the ABC docudrama The Path to 9/11. Democrats and supporters of Bill Clinton are all up in arms over the film because a few scenes were fabricated and make that administration look bad - they've even gone so far as to suggest that ABC not even show this film, a la The Reagans being pulled from CBS a few years ago under Republican pressure. I think it's ridiculous. I am quite aware of the fact that the movie was written and produced by conservative filmmakers, and that it has a bit of a hostile slant toward Clinton and his people. But I do not believe in censorship of this kind. I seriously doubt that anybody's opinion would be swayed by a made for TV movie, even one as ambitious as this. I find it laughable that pundits on the Right have embraced a TV film as the be all and end all expose of the much hated Clinton administration. And I find it somewhat dismaying that much of the Left blogosphere has made an issue out of defending Bill Clinton, who was by no means a liberal president, even if that mattered. The whole argument seems to come down to either "Clinton was better than Bush" or "Bush was better than Clinton", or that somehow the attacks on 9/11 wouldn't have happened with the right one of them in charge at the right time.

Bullshit. Terrorism would not have been a high enough priority for anybody in office to stop 9/11, if indeed it could have been stopped. Believe me, I'm no fan of Bush and will argue against most anything he has done as president, but I'm not about to let Clinton off the hook or get into a food fight based on nothing but irrational hatred of either of them. The U.S., like other countries, has flawed national policies that are ingrained in the system irrespective of the elected leaders. Whether the Right wants to acknowledge it or not, many of these policies over the last century have contributed to the current pickle we are in. And whether the far Left wants to acknowledge it or not, you can't just try to undo every mistake from the past and downplay the realities of the present. The best way to honour those who sacrificed everything five years ago is for thinking people to discuss a sensible future.

Monday, August 28, 2006


Over the weekend, I was having some difficulties with my network connection while logged into Blogger. And I was in the process of writing a lengthy post, which I thought I had properly saved. Apparently, that isn't the case. And while I have bits and pieces clipboarded away, it will take me more time to patch it all together than I wish to devote right now after a long day at work which included vacuuming up flood water. Don't ask. As you can imagine, my mood is a bit surly. But since I haven't posted something since last week, it's best that I check in with a few short takes.

As Gomer Pyle would say, Surprise, Surprise, Surprise! Was there a single intelligent human being who thought this would turn out otherwise. Then again, some did believe that the mission was accomplished in Iraq. The cable news channels got to air a whole lot of fraudulent pontification on both. I didn't catch Nancy Grace tonight, but I'll bet she was crestfallen. Aren't all suspects supposed to be guilty? At least the DNA test wrapped up in time for CNN and Fox to turn their attention to showing boffo pictures of Ernesto.

I haven't yet written much about the Liberal leadership race. There are eleven candidates in the running, although maybe three or four have a legitimate chance to make some noise by the time their convention rolls around in December. I'll have more to say about it in the coming weeks because it should be interesting. The Liberal Party of Canada is one of the last true "big tent" parties in the Western word, perhaps along with the Labour Party in Britain. All other parties are now so on message and frown upon dissenting opinion. Having said that, the Liberals view themselves as the natural governing party and have so much rot in their core that a few decades in the wilderness might be required to clean it up, but the country would have to suffer through Tory rule. The frontrunner at this point (based on caucus endorsements) appears to be Michael Ignatieff, the erstwhile Harvard professor who has decided to return to his native land for maple syrup, skiing and a shot at power.

Ignatieff is probably the most hawkish of the candidates in terms of the war on terror. Ever since he announced his candidacy for Parliament before the last election, some compared him to our country's first neo-con prime minister. Trudeau was far from perfect, but somehow I can't imagine Stephen Harper having an impromptu give-and-take with reporters to defend a controversial decision. I actually think there is a great similarity between Trudeau and George W. Bush in that both of them were stubborn as hell and stuck with policies even when they were going to shit.

Finally, after a long day, a smile. Whenever you do something dumb, be heartened by the fact that there is always somebody out there stupider than you.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Felis Tigris Freakis

There's a lot of bad stuff happening in the world, so this is a good time to step back and talk about one of the rare joys of our time which is watching Tiger Woods at the top of his game. To use the modern vernacular, the guy is sick. And I don't think I could find a better word to describe him.

Anybody who doesn't play golf has no idea what a freak of nature Tiger Woods is, because the game isn't as easy as he'd have you believe. And those who do play golf and watch him play wonder why we even bother. There are almost two different Tigers: the one who is not at his sharpest but can still do everything just well enough to beat you, and the one like we saw this past weekend who is firing on all cylinders and everyone else need not show up. Tiger shot 65 on Saturday, which tied the course record at Medinah. Mike Weir shot a 65 the same day, but there was a difference. Weir had a spectacular round, hitting shots to within a foot of the hole, or making long putts - the kind of special round that only happens once in a while. Woods made his round look as routine as walking the dog, not flashy but remarkably steady.

When the player with the most physical ability also happens to be the toughest mentally, it isn't a fair fight. Aside from being able to drive the ball a mile, hit shorter clubs when he needs to keep it straight of the tee, hit precision iron shots, make creative shots around the green, putt like nobody else and manage a course brilliantly, Tiger might be the only athlete I've ever seen who is choke-proof. There is never any doubt about him coming through in the clutch (as an individual - Ryder Cup is a whole other matter.) The scariest thing about him is that he is actually getting better, and despite the improving quality and depth of his competition he has returned to the level of dominance he experienced back in 2000-2001. In the PGA Championship he won by five strokes and posted 18 under par while barely breaking a sweat. And nobody doubts that if another player had gotten to that number, he'd have found another couple of birdies somewhere, just as he did at the British Open. He's like roadrunner who lets the coyote get close to him and then zoom! It was an awesome performance.

I have to also say a word about my favourite Canadian lefty golfer, Mike Weir. Weirsy has had a rough go of it the last couple of years, ever since losing the 2004 Canadian Open which he should have won. Injuries were a factor last year, but I don't think he has ever mentally recovered from letting that tournament slip away, seeing how important it was to him. He has never again been in contention to win a tournament coming down to the last few holes. Despite playing pretty good golf this year, he has had some very poor final rounds when he started out with a chance to win. To his credit, he held it together yesterday until Tiger pulled away, but then he seemed to lose his focus. I think he needs to realize that you can't always control what other players are going to do but you have to grind it out right to the end. While sixth place is a good result in a major, there was no reason for him not to have finished second yesterday. He really needs to try to finish as high as possible to earn world ranking points. With the President's Cup at Royal Montreal next year, it would be a shame if he didn't make the team or had to be a captain's pick. (He's currently 15th on the International team.) On the positive side, he performed well in the majors this year and his statistics are getting back to the same levels they were at in his brightest days. Hopefully it will all come together at the Canadian Open this year and all of those demons can be exorcised.

As for Tiger, I guess he'll wrap up a few more wins before the next major rolls around in Augusta next April. The question now is how many majors can he bag before he calls it a day. Barring injury, you'd have to think that he has, conservatively, another ten years of prime golf. It's not hard to see him averaging a major a year over the next ten years. In several of them he will likely win two or more, and he might have another "slump" or two along the way. Knowing the kind of shape he's in he could easily play much longer than that, but he might get bored or want to enter politics or something by then. And he'll probably want to walk away on top. It's hard to imagine who will finally take his number one spot and keep it. It will probably have to be someone who isn't on the scene yet, because everyone who's there now is completely psyched out. The man is sick.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Now I Can Breathe Again

BREAKING NEWS: A suspect in the JonBenet Ramsey murder case has been arrested in Thailand. I guess it's now safe to let kids roam the streets, and we can bring mouthwash onto airplanes again. Combatants of the world can lay down their arms, hold hands and sing "Kumbaya". Apparently, all of the world's problems have been solved - or so it would seem if you rely on television news channels, because this is all they have been talking about. It's the latest non-story of the century.

John Karr is clearly a few fries short of a Happy Meal, and has a sick obsession with children. But I know I'm not the only one who thinks this whole arrest business stinks worse than day-old kippers. This schmuck gets picked up in Thailand, and we're to believe he's responsible for JonBenet's murder? The fragments of the story that he has told make no sense with regards to this case, and his ex-wife insists that he was with her in Alabama at the time of the murder (and she would remember because it was at Christmas time). He was obsessed with the Ramsey case, and it's not hard to see someone like him have delusions of physical involvement and then tell his story to the world because, in his twisted mind, he'd want recognition for earning that notch on his belt. Judging by the accuracy of his online resume, it seems that he has fantasized about his whole adult life. Furthermore, even with his love of child pornography and his teaching experiences close to young children, there haven't been any other accusations against him other than being "too affectionate" with the children, and it's rare for murderous pedophiles to stop at one. I could be wrong, but I'll be very surprised if any more compelling evidence comes out on this guy. Whether he is eventually convicted is another matter entirely.

Never in a million years would I have expected to blog on this subject. But since this latest development is so bizarre, I had to get that out of my system. My main point is how the media create importance out of things that should be much lower down the totem pole, particularly certain criminal cases that aren't really unique except for what the victim looks like. There are plenty of child abductions and rapes and murders in which the victim isn't beautiful and they get no attention, yet their parents grieve just as much. As sad as it is for the families, there is no way to argue that extensive national coverage of any of these cases is in the public interest or anything other than sick titillation. My first reaction to the new focus on the Ramsey case was that this was a flashback to the 90's and the frivolous, pre-9/11 days. Then, of course, I remembered that we never really left those days - there have been plenty of abduction cases, celebrity trials and runaway bride stories in the news in the last few years. In fact, the JonBenet headlines barely took attention away from the rumours about Vince and Jennifer. Ultimately, it's the public who is to blame for lapping this stuff up and not demanding something better.

I checked out the Yahoo!, CNN and Fox News home pages, and between the three of them I saw zero headlines about what is going on in Iraq, and just one about Lebanon. What should be the most important issues are now on the back burner, just as Afghanistan has been for about four years in the U.S. The Ramsey case isn't even the biggest legal story of the day. This would have taken the lead in the news on most other days. Coincidence? Maybe. But that's why people wear tin foil hats.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Potpourri For Two Cents, Alex

A few random thoughts from the weekend that was:

Ladies and gentlemen, we have a ceasefire. After all the blood and carnage, you have to wonder whether it was all worth it for this largely toothless document. There is already a delay on the part of the government of Lebanon to get its army in place. There is little to stop Hezbollah from just firing longer range rockets, as the rules of engagement for UNIFIL troops don't allow them to pursue Hezbollah aggressively. I imagine that things will be quiet for a time because Hezbollah, with their political influence in Lebanon, will not want to be seen as rocking the boat. But you can bet that any perceived "provocation" will get the rockets flying again. Meanwhile, the fact remains that after a month of a ground incursion and bombings, Israel didn't even slow down the rocket attacks. One would have to suspect that despite the daily assurances from the IDF that they were making great headway, they barely put a dent into Hezbollah - otherwise, the government of Israel would never have signed onto this ceasefire. The pacifist movement may be wrong about a lot of things, but they are dead accurate about the fact that you can't win the war on terror by try to go out and kill all the terrorists because the factory will just keep making more.

I caught Mike Wallace's 60 Minutes interview with Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. I really would have liked to see Wallace conduct this interview at age 58 instead of 88. Mike tried hard, but I imagine a younger version of himself would have been more pushy (as much as you can be with a head of state in a hostile country) to get his questions answered and not allow Ahmadinejad to go off on his tangents. No amount of smiling and charm could get Ahmadinejad off the hook when it comes to explaining his prior statements about Israel and the Holocaust. Did he really think he could use this interview to win the PR game in the U.S.?

Speaking of the Holocaust... an interesting thought occurred to me. In much of Europe, Holocaust denial is a crime. Yet the West's biggest ally in the Islamic world is Turkey, whose government to this day still denies the Armenian genocide by the Ottomans in 1915.

Finally, here's something to make us feel even older. Kimberly Kim, 14, is the U.S. Women's Amateur champion. Michelle Wie is now washed up at 16, no longer the most accomplished golfing teenager from Hawaii. I might as well start practising bocci.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

A New Manifesto

A few months ago, during my blogging hiatus, The Euston Manifesto was created and published online. It was written by a group of intellectuals in the UK who, concerned with the direction the modern Left was taking, called for a "progressive realignment" and an establishment of the principles that should encompass the liberal left while maintaining ties with others who share the same values. The statement of principles is pretty wide ranging, including topics from affirmation of democracy to support for open source. While I believe the idea behind the manifesto to be a noble one, I cannot sign it in its present form. I will elaborate more on that in a future post. For now, I must address another item which relates to one of the principles in the EM, and it is also relates to something I brought up in my last post.

Here's an example of where the EM is on the mark:

The recent resurgence of another, very old form of racism, anti-Semitism, is not yet properly acknowledged in left and liberal circles. Some exploit the legitimate grievances of the Palestinian people under occupation by Israel, and conceal prejudice against the Jewish people behind the formula of "anti-Zionism". We oppose this type of racism too, as should go without saying.


"Anti-Zionism"has now developed to a point where supposed organizations of the Left are willing to entertain openly anti-Semitic speakers and to form alliances with anti-Semitic groups... We stand against all variants of such bigotry.

I don't really mean to harp on the topic, as I have addressed anti-Semitism in recent posts. Anybody who knows me can tell that I'm not one of those types who wears World's Most Persecuted PeopleTM on a t-shirt as a badge of honour, but this needs to be heard. I was sent an e-mail containing photos from a rally in Montreal that was organized as a protest for peace in Lebanon. Unfortunately, but not unexpectedly, this event attracted a number of Hezbollah supporters and plenty of anti-Israel (as well as blatantly anti-Semitic) signage and chants. (Photos can be seen here. I don't endorse everything on that site.) I've always maintained that racism and bigotry is its own ideology and cries out for a chance to be heard, and this was a great opportunity for this stuff to be aired. I've also stated that I believe opposition to Israel's actions in Lebanon can be taken reasonably. The problem is that the reasonable protesters are unwilling to confront the extremists, and partisans (whether in politics or on issues) get caught up in the quantity of support without regard to quality. The Montreal rally was organized by political parties and trade unions, yet I have not seen any denouncement by them of the Hezbollah supporters among them who were advocating violence against Israel at a rally for peace. This is where I think the Euston folks got it right. I believe the Left gets a lot of things wrong, but the Right gets even more wrong, and it's scenes like this that turn people off other good ideas. Guilt by association may be a logical fallacy, but that matters little in the real world. The "decent Left" really needs to step forward and disassociate itself from this crap.

Along the same lines, there's another theme in the document that is worthy of support:
No apology for tyranny. We decline to make excuses for, to indulgently 'understand', reactionary regimes and movements for which democracy is a hated enemy - regimes that oppress their own peoples and movements that aspire to do so. We draw a firm line between ourselves and those left-liberal voices today quick to offer an apologetic explanation for such political forces.
That is just as crucial as condemning racism. The manifesto specifically mentions the Left's follies in the past of being apologists for oppressive Communist regimes, and that extends to today's embracing of "leftist" dictators and "resistance movements". Again, I don't believe these to be the majority of left-leaning people, but they are the ones who are the most vocal and are over-represented in the media because the media like a freak show. Terrorism and tyranny have no place in the discussion for the sensible Left. Leave that to the Right. Let them make excuses for all of the oppressive regimes they have embraced over the years and continue to embrace in the name of spreading democracy(!). Just as with racism, tyranny has no ideology, and let nobody be fooled. We should all stand for freedom and human rights. There is no socialism without humanism.

Feel free to read through the whole manifesto and, by all means, sign it if you like. I think it's a great idea to create a rallying point for those of us who share a certain way of thinking but dislike the reactionaries associated with it. However, I have a number of problems with its language as it is presently written. Stay tuned for my criticisms. (BTW, I won't be titling that post "Euston, we have a problem". Google will tell you that's been overused.)

Saturday, August 05, 2006

With Friends Like This...

What does it mean to support Israel? In the modern parlance, it has come to mean supporting the positions of the government in power there or, specifically any military or security measures taken. This seems to be an extension of rightist idea that hawkish=patriotic. But I would argue that to truly support a country is to be concerned about the security of its people. I know a number of people who aren't anti-Israel or anti-Semitic but have serious problems with the way the current situation in Lebanon is being handled. They feel that the Israeli people will not be safer as a result of this. In my opinion, that is a perfectly valid and arguable position, even if you think it's wrong. But such individuals will automatically be labeled as anti-Israel or pro-terrorist in some circles. (Unfortunately, because there are genuine anti-Semitic/anti-Zionist factions who have hijacked the peace movement and the left in general, rational arguments have been obscured. I'll have more on that in my next post when I discuss the Euston Manifesto.)

What about governments or political parties? Stephen Harper claims to support Israel, and his government has been clear in their statements that they are on Israel's side, eschewing the appearance of neutrality that other parties advocate. His commitment to have Canada vote against frivolous anti-Israel UN resolutions is a refreshing change from the previous government. But just like those resolutions are merely symbolic and have no pragmatic consequences, his support for Israel has, so far, been symbolic and without anything tangible. No military support. No increased financial aid. Just a few photo-ops in synagogues - but I'll grant him that he looks good in a yarmulke.

In the United States, it's harder to draw delineations between the two major parties where Israel is concerned. The Republicans claim to be more Israel-friendly, and they use that meme to try to attract more Jewish voters. But are they really? The Bush administration has certainly shown itself to be closer to the Israeli hawks, but both parties support the present incursion into Lebanon. Having said all that, the question has to be raised about how good Bush has been for Israel. Ronald Reagan asked the voters if they were better off than four years earlier, so it's fair to ask if Israel is better off now than it was when Bush came into office. In the previous administration, Bill Clinton tried to broker a peace deal. Yes, the process was flawed, and Yasser Arafat wasn't the ideal partner for peace, and there was a loss of momentum and mutual respect after the senseless murder of Yitzhak Rabin, but at least there was a good long time when there weren't any rockets flying or suicide bombings. Terrorism requires a lot of volunteers from the grassroots, and to carry out that type of dirty work you really need to be motivated. When there is hope, that motivation is diffused. For a time there was hope, because a huge effort was made to get the deal done. The effort failed, but not from neglect on the part of the U.S. On the other hand, Bush has taken a laissez-faire approach to the Israeli-Palestinian situation, and the results have been disastrous by any measure. But I guess the road to Hell was paved with good intentions.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

See Ya Mel, It's Been Swell

Here's a good piece by Christopher Hitchens on Mel Gibson's recent faux pas. And it got me thinking about all the things that we're more likely to see than another Hollywood-financed Mel Gibson movie.

  • Middle East peace
  • a cure for the common cold
  • a non-leaking restaurant teapot
  • a commercially viable solar car
  • fat-burning chocolate eclairs
  • the invention of the orgasmatron
  • Ishtar II
Feel free to add your own to the list. I was going to include the Leafs winning the Stanley Cup, but that's a little farfetched.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Fun With FReepers Redux

It was just too tempting, and I had to see what would happen.

About a year back I wrote about my experiences trying to engage in friendly banter on Free Republic. Those who are familiar with the site are well aware that they have a very low tolerance for people who disagree with their general "conservative" principles, and would rather see genocidal messages of the right posted than even the most reasoned and moderate liberal arguments. I don't often go there these days, but I was curious to see how they would be reacting to a totally non-political topic - Floyd Lanids's positive test.

First off there were the predictable lines like, "Of course Landis tested high in testosterone. The French don't have much." That was funny, but after about the dozenth different commenter posted basically the same joke, it got a bit old. Not to mention the fact that millions of women would probably beg to differ, but that's a discussion for another day. Once they got down to serious discussion on topic, it was pretty much as monolithic as one would expect from Free Republic. They all seem to think that the French are somehow out to get Landis or, at the very least, they buy his story that his high testosterone level is natural - despite the fact that it only showed itself to be naturally high on one particular day. (You can go to Free Republic and do a search under "Landis" if you want to read some of their nonsense.)

What's shocking is that these good ol' guilty-before-proof, hang-'em-without-any-appeals, law & order types were so willing to give Landis the benefit of the doubt. I can't blame them for that, because everyone deserves the presumption of innocence, but it seems so out of character for these folks. I don't think they were sticking up for defendants' rights when it came to O.J. Simpson or Scott Peterson or the prisoners in Guantanemo Bay. And experience teaches us that athletes who test positive always proclaim their innocence, but are usually full of shit. (Maybe they should test the B sample for shit instead of testosterone to confirm.) That being said, the Free Republic loyalists seem convinced that this is all a scam perpetrated by "the French" to discredit another American Tour de France champion like they tried to do with Lance Armstrong. There are a lot of problems with that hypothesis. First of all, the International Cycling Union is not just French. Secondly, unlike with Armstrong where there is just speculation and fuzziness regarding results of a test six years after the fact, they have an actual positive test from Landis. So "the French" aren't in the business of planting evidence on American cyclists - I don't recall Mark Fuhrman moving there (speaking of Simpson.)

So it turned into a flag-waving bunker in which the world was out to get successful Americans. I got myself a new login and posted two comments. The first one mentioned the fact that plenty of other riders weren't even allowed to start the race without ever testing positive, and a few of them have even been cleared since then. I also mentioned the name Michelle Smith (Irish gold medal winning swimmer) as an example of a non-American who constantly dogged drug suspicions without ever testing positive, so this wasn't a question of being out to get Americans. My other comment posed this question: If Oscar Perreiro had finished ahead of Landis and tested positive for testosterone, would you be defending him with the same vigour or gleefully proclaiming Landis as the champion?

Those were perfectly reasonable posts, don't you think? This is a non-political subject, and I don't think either side of the issue is partisan in any way. However, the FReepers seem to believe that to speak out against Landis is to speak out against America. I wasn't even speaking against him, just bringing up hypotheticals and illustrations. But I was guilty of questioning FReeper wisdom and, as we've all heard, you're either with them or against them. My comments were deleted, and my posting privileges revoked.

That's all I need to say. I report, you decide.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

A Black Cloud

I came across this article that every Canadian should be aware of:

U.S. doing better than Canada in cutting toxic pollution, says NAFTA report

While it might be buried down near the bottom of the news of the day, to me it sticks out like a sore thumb. So much for our being more environmentally enlightened than our neighbours to the south.

U.S. manufacturing facilities cut their releases of toxics by 21 per cent between 1998 and 2003, while Canadian manufacturers cut releases by 10 per cent.

This might be the most damning blemish on the sorry legacy of the Chretien/Martin Liberal government. Although they talked a good game about the environment and the importance of Kyoto and other pollution-reducing measures, they fiddled whilst Rome choked. And the situation won't likely improve under the Conservative government.

But there was a very interesting statement within the article:

[NAFTA Commission for Environmental Co-operation executive director William] Kennedy said U.S. pollution is generally subject to greater regulation while Canada relies more on voluntary actions by industry. "You have greater reductions when that control is there than when you don't."
The first sentence is counterintuitive based on what we believe about the two countries, but there it is. The second sentence is only counterintuitive to Milton Friedman and his disciples. It should be pointed out that this study covered the period from 1998 to 2003, when environmental policy put forward by the Clinton/Gore administration was mostly still in effect. It will be interesting to see what happens over the next five years after some relaxing of regulations by the current U.S. administration.

There are a couple of important things to be learned by this. First, we have more evidence that environmental improvements come about because of regulations, and not the corrections of the almighty free market. And secondly, standards can be put in place without destroying the economy. It remains to be seen if the facts will get in the way of a good Conservative "pro-business" platform. But with those myths put to bed, we can focus on the much larger issue - things are still bloody bad.

"The cocktail includes the smog-producing chemicals, but you've also got the carcinogens like lead and benzene, developmental toxins like mercury and lead, which are particularly worrisome because of their effects on children's health and their I.Q."
There's probably a joke in there about how this helps certain parties grab the next generation of voters, but this is serious business. When you add up the volume of pollutants here, and then consider all the places in the world where regulation is next to nil, you see that we are in big trouble if the tide doesn't turn.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Right Time, Wrong Place?

It's a very scary time in many parts of the world, but the focus right now is on the Middle East. The Israel-Hezbollah-Lebanon situation is getting the most attention, so much so that Iraq is being referred to in some circles as the "forgotten war". I'm not sure where that relegates the hostilities in Afghanistan and all of the other conflicts occurring now on our planet, but it's a sobering thought nonetheless.

Obviously, I take a special interest in what's going on in Israel. For my money, Israel has a right to defend itself from terrorist action and it's hard to fault them for carrying out this operation in Lebanon. If they did not do this, the populace would justifiably question how well they were being protected by their government and military. So I'm not going to say that they are wrong. But I think it's legitimate to ask whether this mission will achieve long term security from rocket attacks and other perils and, therefore, whether one can objectively justify the human cost.

This is not about moral equivalence. I think the Israelis and their leaders want to live in peace, whereas some of the other actors in that part of the world like Hamas and Hezbollah have no such interest. I think Israel is morally superior, and it is for that reason that I hold Israel to a higher standard than just saying "we're not as bad as they are."

I was speaking with my mother about the conflict the other day, and she said something that just isn't like her. When discussing how Hezbollah is really just fighting a proxy war for Iran and Syria to take the focus off Iran, my mom essentially expressed her desire to essentially wipe all of them out with nuclear weapons. Considering the despair of the situation and the seemingly endless prospects of eternal attacks on Israel from terrorists, that is a common emotional response. But even if that event did occur, would Israel actually achieve peace in the aftermath? Not likely. Even if your conscience allowed you to justify the means, you will still not have accomplished the desired end.

Ever since 9/11, we've been reminded again and again that the war on terror is unlike wars between sovereign nations, but Israel is executing the current operation as if it were at war with Lebanon. To their credit, they have tried to be measured and selective about their targets, but they are destroying civilian infrastructure that took years to build after civil war, and displacing hundreds of thousands of people, many of whom have no beef with them. I can't say I'm totally comfortable with that, especially since I'm not convinced that this is all going to work. I'm sorry if I'm mixing metaphors here, but I see it this way: throwing out the baby with the bathwater while the pipes are still leaking sewage into the tub. This might put a temporary halt to rocket attacks from Lebanon, but we've seen enough in the last few years to know that nothing and nobody in the realm of terrorism is unexpendable.

In a way, Israel and its allies are weaselling a bit here. If they believe that the Lebanese government is complicit in the strength of Hezbollah in that country, then Israel should openly declare war on Lebanon. If not, then instead of bombing Lebanese infrastructure in order to halt supplies to Hezbollah, they should attack the supply lines at their source in Syria and/or Iran, and their allies in the West should step up and help them. But Israel decided to be halfway bold by fighting the easier fight, and its allies (including Canada and the U.S.) chose to practice strength through passivity. They are acting like the arresting officer who allows the rape victim's husband a few minutes in a locked room with the cuffed assailant.

To be clear again, I do not fault Israel for taking the fight to Hezbollah. It was a necessary thing to do. But with the way in which it is being fought, I suspect that Israeli citizens will not feel much safer a year from now, and the people in Lebanon will be wondering what the point was.

Monday, July 24, 2006

So, As I Was Saying...

Hello again. It has been a good long while since I've posted in this space, although it seems like just six months ago. I feel kind of bad about not keeping up with my blogging, especially because I have a good handful of readers who have missed my drivel. After all, a day without Jaymeister's Jabberings is like a day without gnats. But I have returned to provide all of the pithy wisdom you'd expect to find here. (Then again, I've been doing that for the last six months as well.)

I guess I should explain my absence from actively blogging. At first it was mostly an issue of time. I moved into a new condominium, and the time spent on preparing for that was taken from the time I could use to write my blog and surf around for inspiration. Since moving into my condo, I've taken advantage of the fact that I have gym equipment and a swimming pool on the premises, so that takes up a chunk of my time on almost a daily basis. I also have a longer commute into work which cuts an additional 40-60 minutes out of my day, depending on traffic. Finally, I have made a concerted effort to get more sleep, since I would often stay up way too late to finish blogging. What all of this amounts to is that I can't devote the necessary time to do a daily blog in the way that I did before.

But there is more to it than that. As I have mentioned in this space before, I sometimes get discouraged by what I see in the blogosphere. The ideological/partisan battles that are being fought are more nasty and illogical than ever. But I was already in that bath and accustomed to the temperature. After getting away from reading blogs for the better part of two months, it was like trying to step back into a hot bath - very unpleasant and repellent. I was disgusted with political blogs, both Left and Right. I was sick of people being so certain of things, and so intolerant of other ideas even when presented in good faith. It seems that winning the argument is more important than finding the truth. The only thing that kept me from being permanently turned off was the ironic humour I saw in people exhibiting the same faults that they had called out on their ideological adversaries. What sticks in my craw the most is that political bloggers are completely devoid of two things - self-examination, and self-effacement. (But an ignoramus like me really shouldn't say things like that.)

Eventually I was able to stomach blogs enough to read them semi-regularly, and occasionally post a comment here or there as my alter ego Drago. But I made the determination not to get into a pissing match with anybody - i.e. if somebody either responds to me disrespectfully, or responds to their own straw man rather than what I actually posted, I just ignore them and let them stew. Actually, most of the comments I've posted have been about pointing out this type of thing rather than the topics themselves. Now that I am back to being an active blogger I will resume posting as Jaymeister.

The biggest issue for me now is what to do with this little corner of the virtual ether. For one thing, my posts won't likely be as frequent as before, but they will be regular, so you can return to checking this space every day and being disappointed when a new post appears. But then there's the matter of content. Having looked back on some of my earlier entries, it is clear that I'm guilty at times of trying to score points rather than advance truth. I think I've made an effort to be intellectually honest, but I can see occasions where that has slipped. So I would be a hypocrite to continue blogging as I have in the past. Therefore, I will attempt to limit my political links to items of a "positive" nature; that is, items that advocate an idea or position rather than attempting to discredit a differing idea or position, or take down an individual or group. (From a logical point of view, tearing the other guy down does nothing to build you up.) I will also get around to altering my sidebar links accordingly. That will be my tiny contribution in the name of civility. But for non-political content, all bets are off. That means Dr. Phil and Neil Diamond are fair game. Thank you for reading.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Another Brick in the Wall

If you thought the Downing Street Memo was curious, get a load of the White House Memo as reported by Channel 4 in Great Britain. (If you click on "Watch the report" you'll get the televised report, but it buffers very slowly and produces choppy video unless you have a very fast computer. At least you'll get to hear it.) If the evidence is thin on WMD non-compliance, how about another Gulf of Tonkin incident to get the ball rolling? I wonder why this hasn't been seen on U.S. networks - or even the CBC.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Who Knew?

Here is an article that should be required reading for everybody of a political bent. Any kind of observational analysis (reading of blogs, listening to water cooler conversation, etc.) would lead one to to this conclusion, but now there's scientific proof:

Political bias affects brain activity, study finds

Democrats and Republicans alike are adept at making decisions without letting the facts get in the way, a new study shows.

And they get quite a rush from ignoring information that's contrary to their point of view.

I think this is the key section of the article (italics mine):

The test subjects on both sides of the political aisle reached totally biased conclusions by ignoring information that could not rationally be discounted, Westen and his colleagues say.

Then, with their minds made up, brain activity ceased in the areas that deal with negative emotions such as disgust. But activity spiked in the circuits involved in reward, a response similar to what addicts experience when they get a fix, Westen explained.

The study points to a total lack of reason in political decision-making.

"None of the circuits involved in conscious reasoning were particularly engaged," Westen said. "Essentially, it appears as if partisans twirl the cognitive kaleidoscope until they get the conclusions they want, and then they get massively reinforced for it, with the elimination of negative emotional states and activation of positive ones."

Could this be the origin of the term "political junkie"? This study indicates that partisans have an addiction to affirmation of their beliefs. And I would argue, as I have before, that partisan politics aren't healthy for the debate of ideas because the process of getting your candidate elected has overshadowed what that candidate stands for, if anything. And in our mass communications age, we are more interested in getting a message out than in achieving enlightenment, and there is very little forum or encouragement for a healthy discussion. Our court systems were based on the notion that the truth could be determined through confrontation and contradiction, but our political juries are perilously close to being permanently hung. For my part, all I can do is attempt to state my point of view and consider the facts while avoiding the talking points wherever possible. Feel free to call me out when I slip up. But allow me the occasional ad hominem attack - everyone's entitled to a little bit of fun.

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Falling Way Behind

I've been derelict in my upkeep of this space lately, and I apologize for that. With preparations for my upcoming move and catching up on things after the cruise, I haven't spent as much time on current events as I should, so I feel like a fish out of water.

Over the last day or so I've been reading through some blogs and sites that I used to check out regularly, to put my finger on the pulse of cyber-opinion. There is lots to talk about with the recent election victory of Hamas, the confirmation of Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court, the Oscar nominations for Brokeback Mountain and Bush's SOTU address. And I may or may not get to discussing any or all of those over the next several days. But tonight I want to talk about the aftermath of the Conservative minority victory.

Surprisingly, conservative Canadians commenting on blogs haven't been celebrating the Harper win as much as they've been bellyaching over the fact that they didn't win more seats, particularly in the big three cities of Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver. Talk about sore winners. While I sympathize with the sentiment that the Liberals didn't deserve the amount of support they got, some of the commentary has been downright mean. The fact that voters who selected the NDP or Greens are lumped in with those who voted Liberal is just plain ignorant. There has been much discussion about immigrants voting as a bloc for the Liberals, which brought to mind Jacques Parizeau's lament about "money and the ethnic vote" after the 1995 referendum. One of my favourite posts was from this intellectual giant. The best part was this nugget: "Generally, Ontario displayed a collective mindset that they no longer embrace an inclusive equitable democratic multi party state." Really? Three different parties won significant numbers of seats in Ontario. Meanwhile, in the author's beloved Alberta, the Conservatives ran the table in the federal election, and occupy three quarters of the seats in their provincial legislature. So which is the monolithic province again? I have a feeling that the most uncomfortable place in Canada to have a dissenting voice isn't Ontario.

That is the kind of stuff that gets the hamster wheel turning again. But there's a big blogosphere out there that deserves attention. And I'll try to highlight a post or site from time to time that isn't necessarily on my topic of discussion. Today, I urge you to visit Open Letter to Chris Matthews. That site will help dispel any myth that Matthews is a serious journalist, or worse yet, the myth that he's some kind of liberal Democrat because of his past ties to Democratic politicians. As the site proprietor stated, "Chris Matthews is as much a Democrat as Ronald Reagan. Both men were Democrats years ago, but that had no bearing on their politics since that time." (For more on Matthews, see here too.)

Monday, January 23, 2006

Meet the New Boss...

The election results are rolling in, and we will have a new prime minister of Canada. Stephen Harper's Conservatives will have a minority government, although with a slimmer margin than recent polls might have indicated. This is about the result I foresaw a couple of months ago when the Liberals were leading in the polls and even Conservative commentators were fearing doom for their party (and the country), so I'd like to consider myself an official pundit now.

Above all, it was another great day in the exercise of democracy. It's always a thrill for me to cast a ballot, and not something I take for granted. I like our no-frills method of voting - take a paper ballot and a pencil, mark an X, fold the ballot and slip it in the box. No hanging chads, no computer glitches, no counting of ballots by secret programming code. I voted for my NDP candidate in Don Valley West, who finished a distant third, but I'm proud to have contributed that extra $1.45 in federal funding to the party for the next election.

So who were the winners and losers? That question is usually based on expectations. The Tories probably expected a stronger result, but at the end of the day they won the election and will form the new government, so they are big winners. The NDP look like they'll pick up about a dozen seats in Parliament - again, not as many as they would have hoped considering the collapsing Liberal support, but still a good result for a party that wants to consider itself on the rise. The Liberals lost, but weren't blown out of the water. Hopefully they'll soon have a new leader (UPDATE: Paul Martin has announced in his concession speech that he will be stepping down as Liberal leader), and won't be as far into the wilderness as their supporters feared. So the biggest loser of the night was the Bloc Quebecois, who only pulled in about 42% in Quebec and lost seats. The rise of the Tories in Quebec as another federalist alternative might have taken some steam out of the separatist engine, so that's one of the silver linings of this election.

Let us hope that the Conservatives' minority position will force them to govern in the centre and work with the progressive federalist opposition and not sell their souls to the Bloc. I wish our new prime minister well, as country must always trump party. I don't think the sky will fall because of this election result, but we must not take our eyes off the ball. And let us hope we can one day conduct elections based on values and ideas rather than ethics and corruption.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

The Cruising Life

I have just completed my first cruise experience aboard Royal Caribbean's Jewel of the Seas. As you might imagine, I'm feeling like a beached whale right now after eight days and nights of feast and indulgence. Because of various activities, I don't think I gained any significant weight. But I've already started my detoxification program, and a week without meat or sweets should get my blood fat and sugar levels back to their regular state. Well, maybe a little bit of meat. But no midnight crepes. What remains to be seen is how long it will take to stop feeling like I'm on a rocking ship.

There are many people who swear by cruises as the best possible vacation experience, and most of the people on board were multiple cruisers. Prior to the cruise I wasn't really sure how I would enjoy staying on a boat (sorry, a ship) for that long, but I've been won over. The ship has everything you could possibly want from a vacation resort, and what you don't find on the ship you'll get at the shore stops. There's nightly entertainment, planned activities all day, and plenty of facilities to use at your leisure. You never go hungry, and your room is always clean - with a chocolate on your pillow every night. And if, like me, you're not much of a drinker, it's really quite affordable. But if you need to wet your whistle to get prepped for those karaoke contests, be prepared to be sobered by the bill.

There was one part of the experience that left me uneasy. Maybe I'm overly modest about such things, but I didn't feel totally comfortable with the high level of service I received. This is a crazy thing to say, seeing how this kind of service is what draws people back to cruise ships time and time again - and what they are paying for. Perhaps the greatest appeal of cruising is that people who aren't particularly wealthy can afford to experience luxury and pampering. But I'm not a limousine liberal by nature, and the class separation between myself and the people serving me made me feel uncomfortable. I don't envision myself living in an "Upstairs, Downstairs" world, but that is, essentially, the cruise ship experience. For a lot of the people who work on cruise ships it's a tough life, living in the bowels of the vessel and working for months without a day off. As Nellie McKay put it, "I don't think Fritz Lang was a fantasist. Metropolis exists." Don't get me wrong - I realize that it's a choice, and that many of them are able to make a decent living over time, and a better living than working elsewhere. But I'd be lying if I told you I'm comfortable being treated like a master and being called sir all the time. Having said that, it's very easy to get spoiled by the service and the decadence. Fortunately, having only been on one cruise I haven't been spoiled by expectations.

Now my vacation is over, and it's back to work. And winter. And a diet. And an election tomorrow. You didn't think I'd be able to get through this post with bringing up the e-word, did you?

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

A Sinking Ship

Tonight was a historical event in Canada. It was likely the last time we will have seen Paul Martin on national TV as Prime Minister, save for his concession speech on the 23rd. Tonight was the last debate, and the mighty PMPM went out like a lamb. To be fair, he performed about as well as could be expected, but his body language said it all. It was quite apparent that the balloon was leaking. (No reference to CPC ads intended.) He was also talking about what Stephen Harper "will" do as PM, rather than "might". It was a non-concession concession. In the post-debate media scrum, Harper was relaxed and smirking like the cat who swallowed the canary. The fat lady is done with her rehearsals. It will be a Conservative majority government, and probably by a fair margin. I know that thirteen days is an eternity in politics, but if I were to give odds on this right now I wouldn't get any takers.

As the saying goes, desperate times call for desperate measures. To this extent, Martin and the Liberals are following conventional wisdom. In my job, I am in a position to see the TV ads by the both the Liberal and Conservative parties before they air. Yesterday I saw twelve new Liberal ads attacking Stephen Harper that can only be described as desperate. At least one of them they finally decided not to air, although it was distributed to stations and posted online. Out of respect for my employer and our clients, I won't discuss or link to the content - there is plenty of buzz about these ads both in the MSM and the blogosphere. There isn't a hope in hell that these ads could do anything but backfire on the Liberals - and they were already in deep trouble. Of course, Martin also threw up the desperation flag with his surprise announcement about his new Notwithstanding Clause policy in Monday's English debate. Did the Liberal Party suddenly lose any sense of how to run campaigns? To paraphrase HL Mencken, nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the Canadian public. We've finally found an exception to that rule.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Still Wagging

About a year or so ago, I borrowed Wag the Dog on DVD from a co-worker, and never got around to watching it. Now, as I am preparing to move and sorting through all of flotsam and jetsom in my apartment, I came across this DVD and decided that I better watch it and return it. So I checked it out today.

For those of you who have not seen this movie, the synopsis is quite simple. When the U.S. president finds himself in the middle of a sex scandal two weeks before election day, his spin team hires a Hollywood producer to create the perception of a war going on with Albania to distract media and the public from the scandal and to win re-election by creating a patriotic fervor. Hilarity ensues. Little did the people behind this movie realize that the real life president was about to be embroiled in a sex scandal, and that their film would be referred to when he launched attacks on Iraq and Sudan. No hilarity that time.

While the similarities with the Clinton administration are uncanny, the brilliance of the movie is that its themes are universal. The messages about power and manipulation, as well as the willingness of the press to unquestioningly run with a "good story", apply as much now as ever. The film's protagonists needed a hero, so they dragged out Old Shoe. They could just as easily have used Jessica Lynch. Ever since Vietnam, the images of war have been so tightly controlled by the military and administrations that it is almost impossible to verify them independently. Embedded journalists could only see what their unit would let them see. The ones who worked independently often ended up dead. But the media have also been willing partners in manufacturing the message of power over the years, from Hearst's creation of the Spanish-American War to Judith Miller's creation of WMD.

The lesson one can take from all of this is to not be gullible. As Ronald Reagan once said, "trust but verify" - and be careful about the trust part. The internet is terrific in that there are so many new sources of information available, but those have to be checked closely as well. It kind of works like a jury in our confrontational legal system: If you allow yourself to be bombarded by many different messages with many different agendas, maybe you can start to decipher some truth. Then again, O.J. Simpson got to walk. And I know that was the most important thing in the world, because I saw it on TV.