Sunday, 4 July 2010

Relax, People--Everything Is Under Control: Part Two (Independence Day Edition)

This may come as a surprise, but it truly pains me that a few of my casual readers appear to perceive a faint tinge of anti-Americanism in my writings. I find that odd, since the nation I love was largely founded by Americans—the good ones, that is.

Really, how can I dislike a country of intrepid pioneers who, by dint of technological explorations as relentless as they are selfless, continue to push the frontiers of human possibility closer to that glorious though yet unespied realm where we shall finally be emancipated from the dreary law of brute necessity that the non-American West—having offered nothing to the civilisation of the last millennium but the barren trivialities of its Dantes, Michelangelos, Da Vincis, Galileos, Voltaires, Shakespeares, Newtons, Mozarts, McLuhans and Einsteins—never managed to transcend?

What diabolical perversity could prevent me from heeding the natural urge to bow my head in reverent salutation to the inventors of so much of the life-enhancing infrastructure that undergirds our lofty standard of living? Take, for instance, the fast-food drive-thru, a classically American institution. I think Mr. Colin, a Californian unhappy with his town's decision to halt the construction of new drive-thrus, puts the case eloquently:

[N]ot everyone is happy with the ordinance.

"They ought to put in more drive-throughs, not stop them," said Isaac Colin immediately after ordering burgers and fries for himself and his wife, Christine, at the Baldwin Park In-N-Out. "It's a waste of time getting out of your car, finding a parking spot, going in, ordering your food."

Indeed. The process of sitting down to a meal in a restaurant—with its need for preparation, speaking to servers, conversing with one's table-mates, and countless other nuisances that have nothing whatever to do with the act of fork-lifting meat into one's gullet—is an utter waste of precious time and resources. The invention of (and national passion for) the drive-thru is a remarkable embodiment of the American belief that the environmental and unproductive contexts within which the satisfaction of human needs takes place, which benighted Europeans and Canadians tend to think of as "living", are really just needless excrescences that delay and frustrate the things that matter. Why complicate the act of chewing and swallowing with adventitious distractions that pull the actor out of the experience of eating and push him into the alleged "reality" of the space-time continuum and the existence of other human beings?

No. I'm really quite fond of America, especially of its desperate need to have others be fond of it—arguably its most adorable trait—and, to prove it, I hereby offer a list (not entirely exhaustive) of Americans I like. Here we go:

Americans I Like:

Benedict Arnold:

The Case:

Described accurately by one of America's first serious military historians as the most brilliant soldier of the Continental army, Arnold has been vilified as a "traitor" by American chauvinists ever since he surrendered West Point to Crown forces in 1780, despite the fact that there was not, at the time, a constitutionally embodied American nation to be a traitor to (and would not be until the formal adoption of the U.S. Constitution in 1787). Ironically, it was Arnold who found himself victimised by treachery after masterminding and executing some of the colonists' most glorious victories, being made the target of innumerable fraudulent allegations by jealous co-colonists (and consequently repeatedly passed over by Congress for well-earned promotions). So far from being a traitor, Arnold has always seemed to me to be the one colonial general (who just happened to be also the best) who came, too late, to his senses.

Of Interest:

Shortly before finding sanctuary in British North America, Arnold led a disastrous assault upon it during the first American invasion of Canada, a generation before the War of 1812. He was defeated by Sir Guy Carleton, later to become British North America's first governor.

Daniel Webster:

The Case:

Webster is one of a handful of truly great American statesmen. Known widely as the co-author of the Webster-Ashburton Treaty that fixed our eastern border, he is rather less widely known as the inspiration for Abraham Lincoln's famous aspirational definition of the U.S. executive as a "government of the people, by the people, for the people."

His doomed effort to prevent Southern secession late in his career has unfortunately overshadowed his far nobler struggle against James Madison's ruinous war against British North America. So passionate was his opposition to the war and so determined was his view that it violated justice, common sense, and the constitutional rights of the New England states whose economies were brought to the verge of collapse as a consequence of it, he risked reputation and career by joining the Rockingham Convention and drafting a report to the president on its behalf that warned of Northern secession from the union if the war continued.

Webster is one of the few American statesmen (perhaps the only one) who managed to gain national reknown and prestige through a principled opposition to an unjust war, a feat unthinkable in America today, where grovelling assent to the unconstitutional outrage of presidential wars of choice has become a normative ethos.

Of Interest:

Webster's Rockingham Convention and the related Hartford Convention represented the first serious secessionist movement in American history. The Federalist Party, the de facto political sponsor of the conventions, was destroyed at the conclusion of the war because of its "treasonous" anti-war initiatives. The destruction of the party occurred under mainly Southern pressure, as Jeffersonian principles were strongest there. Ironically, those same Jeffersonian principles would lead Southerners to initiate their own secessionist movement forty-five years later.

John Brown:

The Case:

You'll never see Spielberg or Michael Bay direct a movie about John Brown. Americans love freedom fighters and noble martyrs, as long as they're killing Europeans, Commies or Arabs. I guess the story of an American being hanged by his government for trying to liberate fellow human beings from bondage and thus help drag the U.S. into a state of civilisation that had been reached by the rest of the West for generations just isn't going to sell much popcorn in Midwestern Cineplexes.

That's a shame, because Brown is one of the most fascinating men America has ever produced. He was an abolitionist, but attacking an American armoury would have been enough to assure Brown a spot on this list, quite regardless of his cause. Given the virulence of America's belligerent attitude towards Canada during the mid-1800's, Brown's act of reducing America's capacity to wage war (however slightly) should make him a Canadian hero.

Of Interest:

Brown often visited Canada while recruiting and fundraising. The fateful raid on Harpers Ferry was planned and financed in Canada, and a Canadian convention organised by Brown shortly before the mission capped its deliberations by composing an alternative American constitution.

Grover Cleveland:

The Case:

Of all the American presidents who've presided over an increasingly messianic populace, an inveterately imperialist military establishment, and an avaricious financial elite, only one has had enough integrity and intestinal fortitude to refuse the gift of a new colony delivered on a silver platter by U.S. expansionists.

In 1893, a clutch of American adventurers and businessmen overthrew Hawaii's last monarch, Queen Liliʻuokalani, and demanded that her realm be immediately annexed to the United States. Cleveland refused to ratify this sham and reminded an astonished nation that there was not a shred of evidence that the native Hawaiians actually wanted to become Americans, in a remarkable, unprecedented and never-to-be-repeated gesture of presidential respect for the opinions and interests of those tragically bereft of American citizenship. His decision would later be reversed, as history records, by a president more thoroughly versed in the American understanding of "freedom".

Robinson Jeffers:

The Case:

Fated to relative obscurity for his refusal to espouse the Modernist aesthetic of the Eliot-Pound school (thus, fated to remain obscure for his refusal to be obscure), Jeffers is nevertheless the quintessential American writer, no less for his commitment to the ethos of the wilderness than for his hauntingly beautiful meditations on the desolation wrought by the pressure of colossal impersonal forces upon the 20th-century soul.

Just as his reputation began to blossom in the 1920's, at which time he was California's unofficial poet laureate, Jeffers made the fatal mistake of sounding like he took his nation's founding values seriously and publicly denounced the causes and consequences of American expansionism. At first considered merely crankish, these views cost him dearly during America's involvement in the Second War World, which Jeffers believed to be ethically indistinguishable from U.S. imperialist adventures throughout the preceding century. His reputation never recovered.

Of Interest:

The nature of American reaction to Jeffers may be understood through a glance at some of his work, very little of which, I can assure you, has found a comfy niche in American high-school anthologies. You don't find your way onto Hummer-borne bumper stickers by opining that "America settles in the mould of its vulgarity, heavily thickening to empire," though his assertion that "corruption never has been compulsory" seems like a keeper to me.

Noam Chomsky:

The Case:

Widely regarded as the world's most important living intellectual (a perhaps deceptively modest achievement when your competition includes meretricious charlatans like Christopher Hitchens), Chomsky is undoubtedly the closest the Anglo-American world as come to producing someone of Bertrand Russell's stature since, well...the death of Bertrand Russell.

For close to five decades, Chomsky has been an unyielding expounder of the blindingly obvious—that America, while in many ways the freest nation in the world, is also among the most violent and corrupt, with a foreign policy that traduces America's announced principles in virtually every detail. For this, Chomsky and his exhaustively researched perspectives have been unofficially banned from mainstream American media, while the imbecile Ann Coulter gleefully carries the lip marks of America's network elite on her buttocks whenever she wishes to spew her delusional rantings over the airwaves.

Of Interest:

Manufacturing Consent, the movie that threatened to make Chomsky a household name among the literate bourgeoisie in the early '90s, was a Canadian production. It's still the most successful Canadian documentary ever made. Chomsky, ever the uncompromising critic, naturally considers the film a failure, largely because it threatened to make Chomsky a household name among the literate bourgeoisie.

David Lee Roth:

The Case:

Arguably the most decadent of the L.A. party-metal bands that came of age in the Eighties, Van Halen spent its Roth-led years cutting a swath of deflowered virgins, annihilated hotel rooms, and nouveau riche cocaine dealers that ripped through every major city in North America.

The Roth of the mid-80's was perhaps the most completely realized icon of the American dream, insofar as he managed to embody the features (even the contradictory ones) that serve to make America a unique civilisation. Jewish (thus an outsider) yet blond (thus an insider), self-destructive (thus lawless) yet beautiful and athletic (thus resilient and powerful), Roth captured the nihilism of America's love of the misfit rebel with a hedonistic clarity unmatched by any rock star before or since. True, we had already seen Jim Morrisson and Iggy Pop, but there had always been something rather too European about them, a slight bookishness, an undisguised appeal to the highbrow: one actually had to have some scope of literary allusion to know where Morrisson got the name of his band or where Pop stole the title of an album.

With Roth, one never got anything more than the sharp outline of a tumescent cock snaking in bas relief across a painfully tight pair of spandex leotards. Roth's appeal was purely bestial, without the pretension to hippie chic that, in the likes of Mick Jagger, Robert Plant and David Bowie, risked introducing just a soupçon of the intellectual into the sex.

Van Halen eschewed the ornamental tangents, such as Mötley Crüe's toy Satanism, that conferred extra dimensions to their contemporaries' personae, keeping the focus on the hard dick, a key American totem. David Lee Roth wasn't about serving Lucifer or rebelling against authority or feeding starving Africans. He was all about chugging a case of Bud before banging Betty in the backseat of the Mustang, which Americans wisely suspect is far ahead of the Bill of Rights and reliable access to Walmart on the list of things the typical young Third-World male covets when he dreams about America.

Of Interest:

In contrast to his bubble-headed image, Roth is actually whip-smart and has authored what is considered one of the best autobiographies in its sub-genre, Crazy from the Heat. I've read it and can attest to its page-turningness.

Just for fun, here are the boys in their prime, playing an excellent version of "Unchained" whilst touring their criminally underrated Fair Warning album in 1981. C'mon. Everybody up!

Stephen Harper:

The Case:

Harper makes this case far more persuasively than I ever could.

Of Interest:

Nothing whatsoever.

Thursday, 1 July 2010

Relax, People--Everything Is Under Control: Part One (Canada Day Edition)

Well, here we are, celebrating Canada Day, the fifth of the Harper era, a day that has miraculously avoided federal "Conservative" Party proscription for being anti-American; I can only surmise that the bashful sobriety with which we tend to imbue the annual feast of our nationhood has so far failed to ignite the always-latent "Conservative" fear that Canadians think too highly of themselves.

Stephen Harper must have suffered a few worrying moments, though, as he sat beside Queen Elizabeth and listened to her flattering words of praise:

At 84, the Queen said she has witnessed more than half of Canada's national history and praised what Canada stands for.
"This nation has dedicated itself to being a caring home for its own, a sanctuary for others and an example to the world," she said...The Queen also praised the commitment of the Canadian Forces, and said Canada has reason for optimism, even in trying times.
That was dangerous. Nothing turns a "conservative" stomach quite as sourly as the absurd notion that Canada is culturally worthwhile and serves as a global example of social development and civility. To wit, Stephen Harper has made absolutely clear what he thinks of Canada and what he thinks serves as the planetary paragon of everything that is good and true and pure:

Canada is a Northern European welfare state in the worst sense of the term, and very proud of it. Canadians make no connection between the fact that they are a Northern European welfare state and the fact that we have very low economic growth[sic], a standard of living substantially lower than yours[sic], a massive brain drain of young professionals to your country[sic], and double the unemployment rate of the United States[sic]...Your country, and particularly your conservative movement, is a light and an inspiration to people in this country and across the world.
Harper must have been rendered speechless by the Queen's ingratiating intemperance, as reports of the event lack any evidence that he responded with words of his own, suggesting that he violated the tradition according to which prime ministers are expected to mumble a few platitudinous words on Canada Day. Of course, reporters may have simply guessed (accurately) that nobody would care to hear what Harper had to say and thus left his limping vacuities unrecorded. More likely, Harper has been drained, over the past four holidays, of the shallow pool of vestigial Canadianism he brought with him into office and cannot now utter a pro-Canadian sentiment, however tepid, without self-inducing a grand mal seizure.

That's a shame. Fortunately, Harper has many friends who can speak on his behalf and utter the fascinating perspectives that he, languishing under the discipline of power, is no longer free to claim as his own. Take for example Ann Coulter, darling of Canada's self-loathing right. Ms. Coulter recently slimed her vile way across our fair land as the special guest of Ezra Levant, rabid Harper supporter, former Reform/Alliance Party operative, and the generous soul who stepped aside so that Harper, newly-minted as party leader, could gain a seat in the House of Commons.

What is it about Coulter's world-view that would lead one of Harper's intimate ideological allies to drag that skeletal shrew across our (unfortunately) undefended border and inflict her Canada-hating diatribes on the country? Is it her view that "only the worst people move to Canada"? Is it her assertion that Canadians "should feel lucky that Americans don't just roll over and crush them"?

Is it her wish to see Calgary become the 51st American state (as if it isn't already), which drew a huge cheer from 900 folks in Harper's hometown? Whatever the reason, Coulter's degrading blitherings, and the "Conservative" Party's sponsorship of them, are depressingly revealing of the "conservative" attitude to the nation of which Harper and his Harperoids claim to be passionate defenders.

For Canada-hating slightly more articulate than Coulter's, we may turn to Mr. Leon Craig, a laughable Alberta separatist whose anti-Canadian rantings were accorded a standing ovation at the 2006 Calgary Conference by the likes of CPC Member of Parliament Jason Kenney and two of Stephen Harper's key mentors, Preston Manning and Dr. Barry Cooper. Here is Jason Kenney bringing the assembly greetings from "Canada's New Government":

The content of Craig's presentation may be gauged by his website, a deliriously gauche monument to paranoid ressentiment that features an on-line store wherefrom one may purchase a T-shirt depicting former Prime Minister Paul Martin as a rat. Here is Mr. Craig receiving a token of gratitude from a beaming Link Byfield, Albertan "senator-elect" and one of the country's most strident Harper apologists:

Yes, indeed: Harper-friendly "conservatives" are the go-to folks for true patriot love. And if you believe otherwise, you're a Taliban-sympathising traitor who clearly doesn't understand how lucky you are that America hasn't yet felt it necessary to crush you.

Now, wipe that smug, self-satisfied smile off your face and go have yourself a wonderful Northern European, second-rate socialistic Canada Day!

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

We, Her Majesty's Petitioners...

At the urging of one of my most civically-conscientious partners in blogging, I have decided to go a-petitioning. I'm rather excited, actually: serving a petition upon the House is about to be only the second gesture of quaint Parliamentary militancy I shall have had the pleasure of making in my forty-one years—the first being a quixotic pursuit of an Ottawa riding in 2006 that saw me defeated right royally, but not before fully enjoying the thrill of calling Stephen Harper an "anti-Confederation plutocrat” and a “walking abortifacient unfit to serve week-old egg salad sandwiches at a soup kitchen" live on local television (I ran on the issues, you see).

Now, I expect this venture to be substantially more successful than the first, if only because a "successful" petition is merely one that actually gets read by its sponsoring Member of Parliament whilst the walls of the House dully vibrate to the yawns of drowsy hacks and the fingering of Blackberries. As much as I would love to see this petition lead to the meaningful change it urges, it is not the successful petition that brings change, unfortunately; only the miraculous petition does that. Although divine intervention is not completely out of the question here (I suppose I deserve it as much as the next sinner), I shall be happy enough just to see the document brought into the House and read into the record; if it sparks a sympathetic flame in someone who wields meaningful power or influence along the way, all the better.

The petition is inspired by our recent ruminations concerning the constitutionally absurd status of the Governor General's office. It proposes changes that seek to make the office something more than a laughable post-colonial excrescence. I'm soliciting opinions from you, my readers—stalwart yeomen of the realm, all—from whom I know to expect critiques both insightful and trenchant. Note that I have already been taken to task over two things—the provocative tone of the first "Whereas" and my attempt to work an electoral feature into the selection process. I'm still quite committed to both of those features, but I'm prepared to be convinced otherwise if my critic’s impressions are fortified by others.

And so, without further ado, here we go.


WHEREAS Canadian prime ministers routinely violate constitutional conventions in pursuit of purely partisan objectives,


WHEREAS the impunity with which those violations are committed brings the authority, credibility and legitimacy of our entire constitutional system into question,


WHEREAS it is the responsibility of the office of the Governor General to sustain the integrity of our constitution and check prime ministerial attempts to violate its established and authoritative conventions,


WHEREAS our Governors General, being political appointees with little if any grounding in legal scholarship, lack the necessary executive legitimacy required to impose constitutionally legitimate checks upon our elected governments,


We the undersigned do desire that the Canadian Parliament establish by statute the following changes to the process by which our Governors General are appointed. We desire the statute to mandate that:

1) a committee of Parliament be struck six months before the end of the incumbent Governor General’s term with the authority to perform a candidate search and to formulate a short list of qualified candidates;

2) the shortlist be restricted to candidates who satisfy a set of specific criteria, including a demonstrated personal history free of overt or active partisanship and an objectively ascertainable expertise in constitutional scholarship (or a satisfyingly equivalent level of legal training);

3) the committee be required to select three names from their shortlist and offer those names on a national ballot in order that the candidates be subject to a national vote;

4) that the prime minister offer for the Crown’s approval the name of one of the three ballot candidates at the conclusion of the election, it being understood that the prime minister is expected to select the candidate who received a plurality of the national vote while not being absolutely required to do so.

Saturday, 6 February 2010

Afghanistan Descending

Mere days after the Allies had rained nuclear catastrophe upon two of his cities, Emperor Hirohito announced to his subjects his decision to surrender not by saying that Japan had lost the war but that "the war situation [had] developed not necessarily to Japan's advantage".

Last week, NATO coalition forces announced their surrender to the Taliban not by saying that they had lost the war but by admitting that "when all is said and done, the Afghan jihadist movement—in one form or another—will be part of the government in Kabul". The Vietnam analogy so often applied to this lamentable enterprise has thus finally been vindicated, with our grovelling, abject request for quarter occurring after almost eight years of war (roughly equating to the time-span of major U.S. operations in Vietnam) and a mere two weeks after Kabul suffered its own humiliating Tet Offensive.

Canada has just lost its first war, after having dragged over a hundred of its bravest souls into futile slaughter, without having earned a single battle honour worthy of being affixed to any of our regimental colours, and without being able to promise those on whose behalf our fallen gave their lives a future measurably better than the one to which they were sadly resigned in the year 2000. It shall take us a while, I think, before we fully grasp the depth and magnitude of this catastrophe. Western military impotence has not been this luridly exhibited since Augustus lost three legions in a German forest.

If we Canadians had remaining to us even the smallest dregs of pride at the bottom of the tankards of self-loathing phlegm our élites have been serving us for generations—if our collective spinal column had not been sloppily extracted decades ago and chopped into a bloody pile of soggy toothpicks by the civic evisceration of continentalism and the nihilism of swinish consumerism—we would be taking the news of our utter rout with something slightly more engaged than the bored, unblinking catatonia that has marked our public reaction so far. In fact, if we had enough moral capacity to weigh rightly the full extent of the Afghan tragedy, our menfolk would this hour be joyfully parading down Sussex Street, in review order, brandishing the severed heads of our political and military leadership stuck high upon pikes, with our women dancing and throwing garlands before the throng.

But there shall be no bloodshed. Instead, we shall celebrate the conclusion of our shameful part in America's latest Third-World misadventure by self-conferring all the traditional sacraments of suburban banality whilst praying for the intercession of Saints Blockbuster and Facebook. For we are civilised.

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

The Sad Ghosts of Hispaniola, Part Two: The Haunting of Eros

Tory philosopher George Grant knew that there was only one way for the human heart to lift itself into the heights of Platonic Eros—that pure, disinterested, universal love. Grant insisted that, in order to start that long and often painful journey, we must always begin selfishly—by loving our own. Our own. That has always sounded so vicious to me, so cold. And I’ve always been slightly ashamed, on behalf of my species, of the undeniable truth of it.

The force of Grant’s certainty has bound my thoughts and dragged them into some of the foggier moor lands of the human experience lately. As I read the tragic accounts of the Haitian catastrophe, I wonder which kind of death touches us more painfully: incalculably massive losses suffered far away by strangers, or the single loss of someone close and dear?

The question asked, we feel the answer even before knowing it—an answer as horrifying as it is inexorable. We may even defer the dark admission by gently touching it from a distance with a question. Think of someone you love, someone whose breath and being have poured themselves into your blood, someone at the thought of whom you feel the air thinning and sweetening. How many Haitians would need to die before you felt their loss as heavily as you would feel the loss of that one person? A hundred? A thousand? Thousands of thousands? More than those, and then countless more. Let millions of strangers die—let their bloated bodies be piled in front of your very eyes—and, while your loved one lives, you shall feel no loss that you cannot negotiate, manage and eventually (perhaps immediately) forget.

Love is what attaches us to others and gives them significance, but love magnifies what it touches so absolutely that it makes us indifferent to those who languish outside its arbitrary jurisdiction. There is a cruel, capricious mystery in this. It isn’t fair; it isn’t right; it isn’t reasonable; it just happens. And no mortality statistic can ever be sufficiently cataclysmic to grieve us so long as that person whose smile we cannot live without is safe. Only by imaginatively placing that person in the midst of the tragedy can we turn it into something real. Only when we imagine that indispensable person staggering—bleeding, starving and weeping—through the streets of Port-au-Prince and feel the vertiginous sickness that comes of watching helplessly as a loved one suffers—only then is the weight of Haiti’s calamity made heavy for us. Only then are we with the Haitians, and only then do we feel with them (and savour the literal meaning of “compassion”).

To value human life as a whole, we must love strangers. To love strangers, we must seed our small, selfish loves with what we most keenly fear: we must put those we love most passionately at hypothetical risk and feel the sting of their imminent loss. The value of life cannot be comprehended in the abstract, as an inanimate concept. It requires a living incarnation, and that incarnation must be loved and must be vulnerable: that is the way in which “love is the law” of all healthy communities.

They who are unable or unwilling to place what they most cherish on the pyre (on the pyre of the spirit, at least) do not truly dwell within the communities to which they pretend to belong. They can barely claim to be human at all.

Friday, 22 January 2010

The Sad Ghosts of Hispaniola

To be fed, clothed, and bandaged by the same hands that flog you to your soul-reaving labours: that's what it is to be a slave.

Haiti's new ghosts, wafting out of freshly-dug mass graves, are joining hands with the ghosts who have haunted that tragic nation since the fall of Louverture--the self-manumitted spirits of those who fell while fighting to be free. They were not slaves: their struggle unshackled their souls before their deaths unshackled their bonded bodies. By proudly refusing the lash, they forsook also their masters' meat.

I can see those lordly, magnificent old ghosts sadly drawing into their phantom fold the freshly perished thousands and weeping over the slave-like lot to which their blighted lives had been consigned, despite the brilliant triumph of Louverture's legions. For the newly dead were slaves.

They were slaves when they watched helplessly as American grandees deposed and cast into exile the prime minister they had so arrogantly presumed to choose; they were slaves when--shortly after setting forth upon their bright new Aristide-free dispensation--they were reduced to eating dirt under the watchful eyes of  heroic Western "nation-builders". They've been slaves throughout the tear-drenched chronicle of catastrophically cynical American interventionism that the last ten decades have scrawled in blood upon Haiti's petrified soul. And it is as slaves that they now accept our "aid" whilst lying, starving and raving, amid reeking hills of rotting corpses. They are slaves, and they are expected to bow to their masters in gratitude for the gift of their cold porridge.

Much of Haiti's porridge is ours. Much of Haiti's flogging has been ours. To any man or woman who believes that the former fact extenuates the shame of the latter, I could not without deep anxiety entrust the care of a dog.

Friday, 15 January 2010

In Memoriam: P.K. Page

In Grade Ten, I once had an essay due on a Wednesday afternoon. I waited until the Wednesday morning, until around three a.m., before starting it--before even thinking about it. Those who know me will understand.

The assignment required us to analyse a poem of our choice. I had selected "The Stenographers" by P.K. Page from our anthology immediately upon having the essay assigned, merely because I liked the sound of the poet's name. Thus it was that I sentenced my over-caffeinated, over-stimulated fifteen-year-old brain to hobble through the endless hallucinatory wastes of the darkest-before-the-dawn--all aglow with the harsh halo of incipient psychosis--whilst grappling with verses like, "In their eyes I have seen/ the pin men of madness in marathon trim/ race round the track of the stadium pupil".

Nights like that write themselves on your soul. In the best tradition of Catholic masochism, I actually enjoyed the experience: there was something unhealthily thrilling about grinding my helpless teenaged exhaustion against the vitriol and spitting rage of Page's poem--which, for sheer Electra-like murderousness, manages to out-Plath Sylvia Plath by more than a decade.

P.K. Page passed away yesterday. She was ninety-three years old. May I be granted the privilege of, at least once, electrifying someone's darkness as brilliantly as she did mine.

By the Way:

Just a reminder that I'm still keeping the Queen's end up (so to speak) over at Catelli's and that you're all invited to go over there and throw some peanuts from the galleries.

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Constitutional Pedantry Justified*

* Now with "What He Said" and "Support Our Troops" updates!

Anyone who wondered how badly we need to restore dignity, authority and competence to the office of Governor General and beg of it to take ultimate executive authority away from the giggling psych-ward outpatients who now pretend to national leadership needs to understand that our current prime minister thinks democracy is dangerous. No, really.

Just when you were starting to bow under the apparently persuasive weight of the endlessly reiterated insistence that Stephen Harper has changed—that he is not the state-hating, anarcho-libertarian, free-market fundamentalist he used to be—the man himself proclaims that, since the "games" (he means "debates") that go on in Parliament are so frightening to international finance, the House is better off kept empty.

Disappointingly, Harper failed to pursue his train of thought to its logical conclusion and announce the indefinite suspension of Parliament and the immediate proscription of all political parties (except his own) in order to ensure that Canada remains attractive to the sharks that ply the world's capital markets. Perhaps he’s just waiting for his blue sweater to come back from the dry cleaner’s, as he would wish, of course, to sport his “harmless eunuch” look when promulgating that particular edict.

What He Said:

I just came across this week-old editorial by noted constitutional scholar Errol Mendes (of my dear old University of Ottawa) and thought I would share it with you. It’s so close to the spirit of my last post that it might have served as its contextual preface. I was quite surprised to read Mendes explicitly argue that Harper’s prorogation was undeniably unconstitutional (as in illegal).

"Support Our Troops":

On a lighter (though, also, darker) note, I thought I would pass along a clip of Noam Chomsky deploying his rarely used stand-up skills. Here, he talks about what asinine, bumper-sticker-ready slogans like “Support Our Troops” are designed to accomplish on behalf of élite objectives.

Given that the latest Parliamentary suspension might go down in history as the “Support-Our-Troops” Interlude (as it barred the evil Opposition from doing the Taliban’s work in their subversive House committees) and given that Chomsky’s guild syndicalism is the closest thing to Romantic-Jacobean Toryism of which modern Americans appear capable, I believe the clip to be more than glancingly apropos.

Noam Chomsky, ladies and gentlemen. Well into his eighties, and still really, really angry. Now that’s my kind of guy.

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

And Now, Some Constitutional Pedantry...

The action is really over at Catelli's, where I am set to be engaged in a genteel constitutional mud-wrestling match with the author of MaderBlog over the question of how best to reform the way our executive head of state discharges his or her duties. I shall, of course, get my ass kicked.

I thought I should post my own contribution to this debate here as well, for those of you who wish to respond to the substance of my perspective without reference to the fray soon to be kicked up over at Catelli's.

So pour yourselves some of the last of your soon-to-be-expired eggnog, and read all about what this despairing Tory hopes for and knows will never come to pass.


Canadians may legitimately ask themselves whether their nation any longer has a head of state. The titular and ceremonial incarnations of what is, theoretically, the supreme Canadian law-giver have receded so far into practical desuetude as to be, arguably, totally dispensable. Meanwhile, politically conscious Canadians have for decades denounced arrogant, unresponsive governments pursuing agendas utterly unrelated to issues that actually matter to their lives. Many of those who don’t complain simply opt not to vote at all, as Canada’s voter-turnout percentages continue to drop ever closer to American levels.

It is tempting to see a causative relationship between widespread voter apathy and a sovereign reduced to impotence. Government leaders are always primarily party leaders and are thus necessarily committed to the pursuit of whatever policy priorities the endorsement of which secured them, first, the party leadership and, later, election to the federal premiership through the support of relatively small percentages of the popular vote. The federal executive must necessarily be, then, a “partial” creature in two senses of the word—firstly, as the subset of a particular party pledged to a definite set of ideological perspectives; secondly, as the de facto delegates bound to the explicitly expressed wishes of a usually quite small percentage of the nation’s electors.

Given the need to fit through those bottlenecks, the prime minister cannot help but govern in such as a way as to routinely alienate large masses of the population and cannot help but be tempted to twist Parliamentary norms “undemocratically”—that is, according to the priorities of the few to whom he owes his position of party leadership (committed party members) and of national leadership (the small number of electors who voted for his party). It is this set of political necessities--driven by the inalterable partialities inherent in our electoral system--that motivates most of the kinds of Parliamentary abuses that have turned politics into a locus of such profound popular disgust.

To be sure, this partiality is both legitimate in and necessary for the working of a party-based democracy. In order to maintain the integrity of the system within which the parties contend, however, the system must have as its fundamental centre of gravity an agent both internal and external to it—something as inside as it is outside—that ensures the perpetuation of a constitutional totality that is invulnerable to the political manipulation of self-interested partisans.

What we’ve described is, essentially, the constitutional function of the office of the Governor General: it is the keeper of Canada’s constitutional totality. The Governor General’s awesome powers are always deployed, of course, on behalf of the reigning monarch. It is the monarch who is literally the keeper of the totality; the Governor General’s keepership is synecdochal. Our Constitution Act puts it unequivocally: “the executive government of and over Canada is declared to continue and be vested in the Queen”. Thus, the sovereign is declared to be both inside and outside the system—both the principle by which government actually operates and the legitimating principle of government as such. By virtue of embodying those principles, the Crown (usually through its synecdochal representative) enjoys wide powers designed to prevent that partisan distortion of Parliamentary procedure to which we’ve already alluded. The import of the Crown’s Royal Prerogative (or reserve powers) is ably explained by the great scholar Eugene Forsey:

…in Canada, the head of state can, in exceptional circumstances, protect Parliament and the people against a Prime Minister and Ministers who may forget that “minister” means “servant,” and may try to make themselves masters. For example, the head of state could refuse to let a Cabinet dissolve a newly elected House of Commons before it could even meet, or could refuse to let Ministers bludgeon the people into submission by a continuous series of general elections. The American head of state cannot restrain the American head of government, because they are the same person.
Over the last century, the reserve powers have melted like ice castles in May and have recently become stagnant swamps from which Canada’s parliamentary life is forced to draw its water. No longer do Governors General feel able to discharge their constitutional obligations in order to halt clear parliamentary abuses such as Tupper’s or King’s. Now, we watch the Harpers of the nation flout constitutional convention whenever politically convenient (though Harper is hardly the worst offender of the last twenty years) and learn of the Royal Prerogative being covertly abused by Ministers of the Crown in ways later found by competent authorities to have been, not just unethical, but objectively illegal.

To the extent that the Canadian prime minister has appropriated or can depend on the senescence of many of the Governor General’s powers, our constitutional totality has been grossly deformed: we now have a virtually unchecked executive, or at least one that can safely ignore the most fundamental species of check our constitution provides. Supremely confident that no Governor General shall or can ever refuse their ministerial advice, no matter how constitutionally offensive, government parties have tailored our national totality to fit their own partisan needs. They’ve crammed the whole into the particular, something abhorrent to nature and fatal to democracy.

Faced with this dilemma, many Canadians (perhaps most) understandably pine for an elected head of state, someone with both the democratic legitimacy and concomitant power to stand before prime ministers and frustrate their pursuit of constitutionally illegitimate aims. There is an easier and more effective solution, however. We merely need to initiate such changes in our governmental culture and practice that shall allow our Governors General to actually do their jobs. We need to re-establish and restore the office—not change it.

What’s urgently required is a curious institutional hybrid: we need Governors General who feel constrained by the established conventions of our constitution but who also feel fully able to impose those norms on prime ministers who wish to flout them. The Governor General needs to be a harnessed horse, pulling the carriage of state: to move, the state requires its Governors General to move—they must use the power vested within them. This power shall always require the harness, though, if it is to perform its office. We need heads of state able and willing to act independently, even against the advice of their governments, and in ways conformable to a strict (I shall not say “literal”) interpretation of constitutional conventions. The reform we require is one that gives back to the office of the Governor General the right to use its harnessed power; if we jettison the harness or the horse, we cannot move at all—hence our current Parliamentary inertia.

Of all possible reforms to the nature of Canada’s head-of-stateship, the above are the most immediately feasible and the most comfortably conformable to the way our constitution actually operates. Most pressingly, we need to restore the Governor General’s constitutional independence--that is, his or her willingness to assess ministerial advice on its own merits, according to the silent yet authoritative testimony of our constitutional heritage, whilst withstanding the bullying blandishments of executive partisans who never blush when bludgeoning Crown servants with the allegedly unanswerable moral force of their election. This requires that candidates to the office be two things. It requires, first, that they be explicitly non-partisan--which implies, further, that they be appointees.

Clearly, we can neither expect nor ask our Governors General—vice-regal, yet all too human, after all—to arbitrate vexed Parliamentary questions dispassionately, objectively and with regard to nothing but the relevant norms if they have deep and abiding commitments to particular political parties and to the ideologies they espouse. The exceptional candidates may so arbitrate—not the mass of them. If nothing else, the appearance of objectivity (like that of justice) is as important as the reality. Think on the matter deeply, for a minute. It is the Governor General who (nominally) appoints the Canadian prime minister. This act might seem utterly pro forma given the nature of our current Parliamentary and electoral systems, but it might soon become a delicate operation indeed—especially if Canada ever adopts some form of proportional representation, multiplying and diversifying the violence of Parliamentary contention. Appointing as prime minister the party leader with the greatest number of seats is a convention, not a law. Sometime in the relatively near future, a House may find itself so composed as to allow any number of parties a just claim to determine the prime ministership (e.g. a party may argue that the popular vote is more important than the number of seats, or vice versa). Inter-party negotiations might prove unproductive or degenerate into sordid intriguing. In such a case, we would need an unpartisan and independent head of state to make ultimate decisions based on the letter and spirit of the constitution rather than on his or her (even the appearance of his or her) partisan affiliation. Obviously, rulings on the legitimacy and effect of no-confidence and censure votes also require the appearance of non-partisanship. Thus, we require heads of state with no record of membership in or public advocacy for any of our political parties; ideally, we would restrict incumbency to constitutional scholars, with whom Canada is abundantly blessed.

Moreover, the requirement that Governors General be non-partisan implies that they must also be appointed. Opening up the office to election would have many consequences, the most significant and easily predictable of which would be that the office would drop into the gift of our established federal parties. Elections are extremely expensive, and running national campaigns requires a relatively sophisticated network of fundraising, advertising, and logistical technologies. Very few independent candidates (and none who lack the “star power” carried by celebrities or major sports figures) would be able to compete. Inexorably, the Governor Generalship would become merely yet another high office (in this case, one of the highest) monopolized by the party machines now so loathed by the Canadian public. The institutional “legitimacy” many believe elections would confer upon the office would be snuffed out by the moral illegitimacy of the competitors.

The task before us is to ensure the scholarly, non-partisan credentials of candidates to the office: this is key to its restoration. We could proceed any number of ways, but the crucial thing is to develop a set of selection criteria—as skill-set, if you will—and enshrine it by statute, binding prime ministers in the choice they deliver to the Queen for her (pro forma) approval. As mentioned, one criterion should be a biography free of overt partisanship. Another should be demonstrable scholarly knowledge of Canadian constitutional law—its history and practice. We may require others; the two mentioned are indispensable. Naturally, the House cannot bind the Crown to accept candidates satisfying those criteria: the Crown cannot be bound by statute. Fortunately, however, the prime minister can be so bound: the monarch appoints the Governor General based on the prime minister’s recommendation; the House has every right to set statutory restrictions on the kinds of recommendations prime ministers can offer.

Then, once the House formulates the statute codifying the selection criteria, it can empanel a House committee of selection tasked with finding and nominating candidates (perhaps five) who fit the criteria, from whom the prime minister shall choose one (thus leaving him some discretionary scope) and recommend his or her appointment to the Queen. Something like the process described could be used each time a new Governor General is required. It could begin its work immediately, in fact, without causing very much turbulence at all to the current system.

Those constitutional reforms are best which bring the letter of the document being reformed closer to the spirit in which it was written. The best reforms among the best are those which bring constitutional practices closer to the letter and spirit from which they sprung. The reforms proposed above are moderate--as befits the personality of the constitution they perfect—but cannot but have a moderating effect on the irresponsible executive of whose excesses Canadians have grown desperately weary. They are free, at least, of a basic and fatal paradox that would attend any attempt to make the Governor Generalship open to the franchise. If it be true that the legitimacy of elected Governors General would rest solely in the fact of their election, then those we elect would have more legitimacy than the Queen (or King)—the actual head of state they represent. This would have the grotesquely amusing but disorienting effect of totally de-legitimising the sovereign under whom they serve and upon whose person rests the very constitutional framework they are duty-bound to maintain. Thus, the act of turning the Governor Generalship into an elected office would necessarily imply the ethical (and, I think, require the actual) disestablishment of the Canadian monarchy. This is not an impossible task, of course, but it would have to happen through the démarche of a series of dizzyingly Byzantine constitutional mechanisms. This is something I think even republican Canadians, in their heart of hearts, would sell their very souls to avoid.

Saturday, 9 January 2010

And Now, Some Solipsism...

On this day forty-one years ago, at exactly 6:18 p.m., in the now quasi-defunct Catherine Booth Hospital of Montréal's Notre-Dame-De-Grâce neighbourhood, the author was born. Neither the world, nor the author, would ever be the same.

I suppose I shall need to devote a good portion of my birthday to the task set for me by fellow blogger Catelli, who shall soon be moderating the debate of the century, or of the week, at least (alright, fine: of the day). I've been cajoled into defending the outrageously undemocratic methods by which our heads of state are selected and execute their "functions". I invite readers to submit to me any argumentative strategies that might occur to them in this regard immediately, for, by God, I freely admit I'm fresh out.

Stepping yet another unwilling foot closer to the lonely columbarium that awaits me puts me in mind of endings, again--and compels me to rectify an earlier post, again. The final scene of No Country for Old Men was a poignant surprise for me, as I'm sure it was for many of its viewers--especially those deeply versed in the wry, ironic detachment that defines the Coen brothers' oeuvre and those (like me) who've never been much impressed by Tommy Lee Jones' performances. Here, the Coens drop their hip archness and allow Jones to deliver a heartbreaking soliloquy taken virtually word-for-word from the ending of Cormac McCarthy's novel.

Jones plays the sheriff of a small Texas town that has just begun a descent into unprecedented drug-related violence. The movie chronicles his pursuit of a case that plunges him into America's modern heart of darkness, forcing him to witness both the bloody commission and the ugly aftermath of countless brutal murders. Ultimately, he must abandon the case unsolved, sadly admitting that small-town lawmen like him have become outgunned and outclassed: they know only how to proceed according to the rules in a land that no longer acknowledges or respects them.

In the final scene, the sullen, defeated Jones tells his wife about a dream he just had about his dead father, who also had served the county as a sheriff back in the old, peaceful days. This brief but rich sequence explores Jones' deep need to get back in touch with the safety, warmth and stability represented by his father (and, of course, his symbolic cognates--the Father, Law, Order), as well as the current futility of that need-- for Jones, naturally, must wake up to the chaos of his waking present. Peace lies only where his father has found it; this is the painful truth Jones has learned, after having waded through the ruins of his wrecked world.

As someone whose entire childhood emotional investment lay in a dead but much beloved father, I totally relate to Jones' longing dream. I suppose, too, I relate to his despair over a lost order--a mythical order to be sure, but all the more compellingly beautiful for that. I relate most strongly to Jones' apparent feeling that the mere telling of the dream brings order, just for a few minutes, to the very chaos from which the dream briefly helped him escape.

Thursday, 7 January 2010

And Now, The Bigger Picture...

As much as I despair over our current constitutional quandaries, I must never forget how small we all are. The sheer fact of our human minuteness is frightening to us, but it's also beautiful to behold from above.

John Lennon wrote this song when he was at his very lowest, his smallest. That such gorgeousness can flow out of such pain is a particularly important truth for me right now.


Monday, 4 January 2010

Springtime For Harper...

...with apologies to Mel Brooks.

The title is not meant to suggest an analogy between Stephen Harper's decision to once again crawl away from Opposition scrutiny and any feature of Adolph Hitler's regime. Building such an analogy would be, of course, outrageous. For one thing, Hitler managed to suspend democracy and rule by decree whilst still expecting members of the Reichstag to come to work every day, whereas Harper has emptied the House and shall, alone, be governing the country the way a Victorian schoolmaster would run his Latin classes--by Order-in-Council--until the eve of spring, in early March.

No, the title uses its absurd Americanism merely to invoke the commingling of tragic history and vulgar farce--the new Canadian cultural standard and that which shall be the most salient feature of Stephen Harper's legacy. The title also incidentally reminds us of what season we'll be sliding into by the time our Members of Parliament waltz back into the House with their glowing Fort Lauderdale tans. If analogies be wanted, apt ones could be made between Harper and any number of democratically elected "populist" tin-pot emperors who've ruled, smilingly and to great popular acclaim, through non-violent and nominally legal distortions of constitutional norms.

Harper's latest procedural belch is arguably unique, in that its announced pretexts are as offensive as, if not more offensive than, its real but unstated objective--something one would hardly guess from most media commentary: apparently, suspending the business of the House until one has stacked the Senate with enough of one's neutered poodles to capture neutered-poodle majorities on committees is so much more defensible than shutting down inquires into Afghan detainee abuse. Frankly, I fail to see the ethical canyon between the urge to suppress committees and the urge to manipulate them into partisan shams that exist merely to thrust one's legislative agenda through a gauntlet of gutless rubber stamps.

As things now stand, however, I just hope that Harper's next series of Senate appointees maintains the exacting standard of integrity and intellect that the prime minister has so far demanded throughout his provision to the Upper Chamber of some of the best legal minds and civic consciences with which our nation has been gifted--from media hacks who've perfected the perversion of their professions, through small-time jobbers and lobbyists who've never been too busy currying favour with federal power brokers to do their fair share of lady-killing, to superannuated jocks whose insights into House bills are deep and sharp once they've had them read aloud, slowly. Perhaps the new year shall see Harper finally reach the logical, Caligulan conclusion of his current Senatorial trajectory and appoint a horse (as he's running out of asses).

I've been amused to see a few astute commentators vent their rage at this latest fiasco through an historical analogy I used last year (and which I had thought was mine alone, before coming across this post a few days after posting my own). I've been amused, I say, rather than just interested, because of how casually they invert the true polarity of the situation: they see Harper as Charles I, a throne-borne despot dismissing a turbulent Parliament against the wishes of the people. This indulgent perspective reminds us of the difference between serving the people and flattering them--for it does the people no service to deny that the most civically degrading acts of despotism are always done in their name, and often with their full consent.

In fact, Harper calculated his actions, both last year and last week, upon an assumed and apparently real base of significant public support (or apathy, which is becoming the same thing). Harper made his cowardly requests to the Governor General as a legitimate vehicle of the public mood, especially on the Prairies--where Albertan prime ministers can always expect to have the “democratic” integrity of their personal fiat defended against the tyrannical pressures of duly elected Members of Parliament.

It was the “people” who shuttered Parliament. Only that unelected, undemocratic remnant of aristocratic privilege--the office of the Governor-General--had the power and the duty to interpose the claims of constitutional integrity between the axe of Harper's Nixonian arrogance and the exposed neck of our nation's chamber of legislative deliberation. It was not the people but the ostensibly sovereign framework of their political life, the Crown--the ghost of Charles I, in effect (or of Lord Byng)--that was trodden underfoot, as it is daily by a system that will no longer tolerate having the "undemocratic" agents of our constitution protect that constitution from "democrats" pledged to nothing beyond the satisfaction of their own partisan appetites. It is during crises like the last two prorogations when we see most startlingly revealed the Tory truth that the people require an ultimate, inviolable and sovereign principle of order be kept suspended high above themselves and beyond the trammelling exploitation of their tribunes if their rights and interests are to be preserved from total usurpation.

Ours is not an age of Stewart absolutism. In our age, the people do not cry for freedom from the Crown; it is the Crown that cries for freedom--freedom from a popular "democratic" prejudice that will not allow it to block the desires of prime ministers, no matter how disordered they may be, or perform any executive gesture not redolent of slavish obligation to the self-interested whims of the Treasury Bench. Raised as we are to think ourselves administered by such alien principles as the "separation of powers", very few Canadians understand that the Crown is often the only effective check upon a prime minister (especially one who presides over a majority) and have thus acquiescently allowed it to disappear as a living component of our constitutional system.

The Crown has been abducted. It is perpetually held in a cold, dark place by avid prime ministerial charlatans who, oozing concern for our welfare, force us to pay exorbitant ransom in national dignity, integrity and self-esteem for what they’ve taken. And we always pay, without ever receiving what we've paid for. Our Harpers believe that most of us do not very dearly miss what they’ve stolen. I fear they're right.


Well, well, well. At least some of the world's parliamentarians will be working this month, and the next. Looks like our Afghan "democratisation" is working after all.

Perhaps we should ask the PPCLI, JTF2, and the Van Doos to help re-build their own nation whenever they finish duct-taping Karzai's little narco-state.


Catelli juxtaposes me to the venerable Paul Wells. Profundity ensues.


The Liberals perform their first tactically brilliant and ethically admirable gesture since...well...ever.