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"Each individual should allow reason to guide his conduct, or like an animal, he will need to be led by a leash."
Diogenes of Sinope


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Thousand Flowers tapestry (15th Century) - Beaune, France (detail)

Monday, February 27, 2012

Something doesn't make sense in the robocall "scandal"

There's something fishy about the voter fraud "scandal" that bothers me. The Toronto Star reported today that former employees of a Thunder Bay call centre have come forward claiming that they were hired to call voters in several ridings and deliberately misdirect them to non-existent polling stations. Here's part of the Star's story:
One former RMG employee, a woman aged 24, said she thought at the time that the incorrect polling station addresses coming up on her screen were simply a “computer glitch,” so she started advising people they should check with Elections Canada to be sure.

“We’re not going to give them the wrong information on purpose,” she said.

She remembered the polling station script specifically instructed the callers to identify themselves as calling “on behalf of” the Conservative Party, “but not every call centre agent said it.”

Calls were auto-dialled by computer. Once an individual got on the line, the live agents started to read from prepared scripts. Depending on the answers, they moved on to another part of the script.

As each call ended, the computer auto-dialled the next number. The calls went to ridings across Canada; two employees said most calls went to Ontario ridings.
This is the part that doesn't make any sense: "She remembered the polling station script specifically instructed the callers to identify themselves as calling “on behalf of” the Conservative Party". If the Conservative Party of Canada was involved in a complicated scheme to fraudulently suppress the vote in an attempt to influence the outcome of the election, knowing full well that such a move was illegal and likely to blow up into a full blown scandal if discovered, why would Conservative agents instruct the callers to "identify themselves as calling on behalf of the Conservative Party?" If Harper is the evil genius that everyone says he is, why would he deliberately leave a trail leading directly back to the party?

Doesn't it make more sense that someone hostile to the CPC and intent on causing mischief in the election which could be later linked to the Conservatives would instruct the call centre to identify themselves as acting on behalf of the CPC?

Something smells about this whole story.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

What would Lord Palmerston do?

The violence in Afghanistan that erupted over the accidental burning of the Koran by US soldiers is shocking, but not surprising. What has been really surprising to me is the abject grovelling to the Afghan government that we've seen from US officials, including President Obama. What has happened to our political leaders? In the 19th century, western governments would never have apologized to the head of a neolithic country like Afghanistan. Britain's Lord Palmerston would have known exactly what a situation like this required

In 1847, a Portuguese Jew named David Pacifico (or "Don Pacifico") who was Portuguese Consul in Athens, had his house ransacked by an anti-semitic mob. The local police looked on and did nothing - in fact two sons of a Greek government minister participated in the riot. In 1848, after Pacifico had unsuccessfully sued the Greek government for restitution, he turned to the British government for help, since he had been born in Gibraltar and was thus a British subject. Foreign Secretary Lord Palmerston was outraged, and responded by sending a squadron of Royal Navy ships into the Aegean to seize Greek shipping. Eventually the Royal Navy blockaded the port of Piraeus, the main seaport of Athens. Despite considerable opposition in Parliament and a diplomatic fire storm from the governments of France and Russia, Palmerston maintained the blockade for two months until the Greeks backed down and agreed to compensate Pacifico for his losses.

Palmerston gave a famous five hour speech in the House of Commons defending his actions:
"Oh but", it is said, "what an ungenerous proceeding to employ so large a force against so small a power?" Does the smallness of the country justify the magnitude of its evil acts?

Was there anything uncourteous in sending a force which should manifest that resistance was out of the question? Why, it seems to me, that it was more consistent with the honour and dignity of the Greek government that there should be placed before their eyes a force to which it would be no indignity to yield.

I contend that we have not in our foreign policy done anything to forfeit the confidence of the country. I maintain that the principles which can be traced through all our foreign transactions, as the guiding rule and directing spirit of our proceedings, are such as deserve approbation.

I therefore fearlessly challenge the verdict which this House, as representing a political, a commercial, a constitutional country, is to give on the question now brought before it; whether the principles on which the foreign policy of Her Majesty's Government has been conducted, and the sense of duty which has led us to think ourselves bound to afford protection to our fellow subjects abroad, are proper and fitting guides for those who are charged with the Government of England; and whether, as the Roman, in days of old, held himself free from indignity, when he would say "Civis Romanus sum" [I am a Roman Citizen]; so also a British subject, in whatever land he may be, shall feel confident that the watchful eye and the strong arm of England, will protect him against injustice and wrong.
President Obama is no Lord Palmerston, that's for sure. His administration has now apologized to the Afghan government three times, even as American citizens are being murdered in their offices in Kabul. Obama immediately sent a letter to President Karzai which read:
"I convey my deep sympathies and ask you and the people to accept my deep apologies," the letter said.

"The error was inadvertent; I assure you that we will take the appropriate steps to avoid any recurrence, to include holding accountable those responsible."

Apologies for what? Four Americans are dead at the hands of Afghan thugs. He should have sent the Marines to arrest Karzai and his cabinet instead. Palmerston would have done it.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Blues for a Saturday Night

Tonight's selection: Sweet Black Angel by Pinetop Perkins.

Is it a hate crime when three lesbians beat up a gay man?

Apparently in Boston it is:
Three women identified by their lawyers as lesbians were arraigned yesterday on a hate crime charge for allegedly beating a gay man at the Forest Hills T station in an unusual case that experts say exposes the law’s flawed logic.

“My guess is that no sane jury would convict them under those circumstances, but what this really demonstrates is the idiocy of the hate-crime legislation,” said civil liberties lawyer Harvey Silverglate. “If you beat someone up, you’re guilty of assault and battery of a human being. Period. The idea of trying to break down human beings into categories is doomed to failure.”

Prosecutors and the ACLU of Massachusetts said no matter the defendants’ sexual orientation, they can still face the crime of assault and battery with intent to intimidate, which carries up to a 10-year prison sentence, by using hateful language.
Well, here we have it folks: the reductio ad absurdum of identity politics. Crime is crime, and attempts to make someone's motive a criminal act in addition to the crime itself makes this kind of ridiculous situation inevitable. Is a violent attack less heinous when it is not motivated by homophobia? Is a heterosexual victim of an assault less victimized? Idiocy indeed.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Blues for a Saturday Night

Tonight's selection: Ball and Chain by Janis Joplin and her band Big Brother and the Holding Company, in a live studio appearance from the early 1960s.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Conservatives: go see The Iron Lady

I went to see the Margaret Thatcher biopic The Iron Lady last week with some trepidation. I was expecting the worst from liberal Hollywood and was prepared to be outraged by Meryl Streep's portrayal of the great Thatcher descending into dementia, but I came out with tears in my eyes and a new respect for her legacy. Conservatives should definitely see this movie.

It's difficult to tell the story of a complex larger-than-life figure like Margaret Thatcher, especially while she is still alive and memories of her time in office are still relatively fresh. She is a complicated subject who still provokes strong emotions on both sides of the political spectrum, so making a movie about her must have been a daunting prospect. However I think The Iron Lady does a remarkably even-handed job of portraying the life of this fascinating woman.

Most of the criticism I've read of the movie from conservatives suggests that it is disrespectful to show the still-living Thatcher in her declining years fighting senility. I disagree - I think that telling the story as a series of flashbacks is remarkably effective. We see Thatcher in the present day puttering around her house, confused and dishevelled, having imaginary conversations with her dead husband Denis. Certain things trigger memories - a framed photograph on the mantlepiece, a piece of clothing hanging in the closet - which segue into scenes of the younger Thatcher at various times in her life. We flash back to Thatcher as a young girl during the Blitz, running for Parliament for the first time, assuming the leadership of the Conservative Party, serving as Prime Minister. Key events like the Falklands War, the Poll Tax Riots and the fall of the Berlin Wall are shown through TV footage interwoven with the flashbacks. Critics have complained that the movie is disjointed and confusing, jumping back and forth in time with no coherent plot. I think that is a feature not a fault; given that the character is recalling moments in her past that are brought up by mementos and chance encounters, it is poignant to view her life through the eyes of a once-powerful figure now in decline.

Her husband Denis acts like a Greek chorus throughout the movie as she tries to cope with her declining physical and mental powers. She knows he's dead but has trouble coming to grips with her grief and conjures him up at key moments and they bicker with each other as do many long-married couples. Her conversations with Denis are some of the most moving moments in the film. Her confusion is heart-wrenching to watch. I am having to face the decline of aging parents in my own life, and watching the woman who helped bring down the Soviet Union having trouble with simple tasks like making toast and getting dressed touches a universal chord with anyone who is coping with aging loved ones. Her final farewell to Denis had me choking up with emotion, and I don't often do that in a movie.

Liberal critics complain that the movie is too one-sided and shows Thatcher as a heroic figure without focusing adequately on the negative aspects of her time in office; the riots, the social upheaval and the casualties of war. I suppose that someone who is predisposed to dislike her because she was a conservative free-marketeer will never be happy with any sympathetic portrayal, but I found the movie to be very fair. We are shown news footage of rioting coal miners, IRA terror attacks and Exocet missiles slamming into British destroyers. There are scenes showing her treating loyal cabinet ministers like Geoffrey Howe with rudeness and contempt as her administration unravels. The movie doesn't pull punches - it shows Thatcher warts and all.

The most powerful parts of the movie for me, and I suspect for most conservatives, are the scenes where Thatcher emotionally articulates her political philosophy. I read once that she walked into a meeting soon after becoming leader of the Conservative Party, pulled a copy of F.A. Hayek's The Constitution of Liberty out of her briefcase, slammed it down on the table and said "This is what we believe." There are many such moments in the film. It is astonishing to watch a politician whose actions are motivated by a deeply held philosophy rather than mere ambition or hunger for power. When has there been a leader like this since Thatcher? Politics has been dominated by technocrats, snake-oil salesmen and unctuous bureaucrats for so long that we've forgotten what true leadership is like. Who can now hold a candle to Margaret Thatcher? Certainly not Tony Blair, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Stephen Harper or any of the non-entities now in charge of the slow-motion train wreck that is Europe. Who could you picture now addressing a crowd and solemnly intoning "You can turn if you want to; the lady's not for turning"?

This amazing quality of Thatcher's is on display in scene after scene of The Iron Lady - when, for example, she breaks the coal miners strike or lets the IRA hunger strikers die of starvation. There is a brilliant sequence in the film set during the Falklands War when Thatcher is in the War Room being briefed by the military top brass who want her to make a decision on whether or not to attack the Argentine cruiser Belgrano - she listens to her advisers, points with a bejewelled and manicured finger to a map and says in stentorian tones, "Sink it." In another scene (shown below) she meets with US Secretary of State Alexander Haig who tries to talk her out of attacking the islands, since they're insignificant and sparsely populated. "Just like Hawaii, I imagine" she retorts, and then delivers a lecture to Haig about Pearl Harbor like a school teacher upbraiding a misbehaving student, after which she lifts a teapot and asks "Now, shall I be mother?"



There were times in the movie as I watched Thatcher at the height of her power lecturing the spineless men around her about liberty and the over-reaching power of the state when I pumped my fist a little and said "Yes!!!!" under my breath so as not to disturb the other patrons in the theater. She articulated forcefully and emotionally the core principles of classical liberalism: liberty, property rights, personal responsibility and the relative roles of the individual and the state. Libertarianism has never had as powerful a champion as Margaret Thatcher.

A few words have to be said about Meryl Streep's performance in this film. I sometimes think of her as an acting robot who is programmed to take on characters; she's often more technique than emotion. It's now a cliche that she can mimic any character she portrays and make it seem effortless; think Julia Child in Julie and Julia. That being said, her portrayal of Thatcher in this movie is flawless; she has captured every mannerism, every vocal pattern, every physical tic of Thatcher's. There is no mockery; Streep is not doing a stand-up comic's impersonation to take cheap shots. She inhabits the character; I don't think any other actor could have pulled it off. It is wonderful to watch Streep in action as she moves through the different phases of Thatcher's life, and it was extremely moving to see her poignant portrayal of the warrior in old age, rather like watching King Lear wandering the moors.

I can't say enough about this movie, and I think it stands as a fitting tribute to one of the world's great leaders. Go see it now while it's still in the theaters.


UPDATE: Thatcher advisor and biographer John Blundell likes the movie too - watch this interview from Reason.com:

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Blues for a Saturday Night

Tonight's selection: Dani Wilde performs I Love You More Than I Hate Myself, from her debut album Heal My Blues, in a 2008 live performance in Germany.

Saturday, February 04, 2012

Blues for a Saturday Night

Tonight's selection: Canada's own Dutch Mason, "Prime Minister of the Blues", singing Sonny Boy Williamson's Nine Below Zero. I had the pleasure of hearing him perform this song live at the now-defunct Albert's Hall in Toronto in the 1980s - he was an unforgettable presence on stage, always singing with a cigarette in one hand and a beer in the other. Dutch died in 2006 but his legendary stature among Canadian blues artists is undiminished.