Electioneering

Last night was the first, and only, English-language leaders’ debate for the 2021 federal election. It was a complete waste of time. At least the first hour was, which is all I could watch.

The medium of television led to the replacement of debate with the sound bite, a snippet of a few seconds of speech taken out of context. From the evidence on display last night this is getting worse. Brevity was strictly enforced by the moderator, as the leaders had only thirty seconds at the most to answer questions, and that not without interruptions. All of this just meant that they were trying to repeat slogans and catchy phrases as quickly and clearly as possible, without saying anything of substance that might get them in trouble.

Questions weren’t answered. People talked past each other. There was the usual empty virtue signaling. Impossible, to my eye, to pick any clear winners or losers. I watched a breakdown of the “highlights” again this morning and found they were moments that hadn’t registered with me at all.

Green Party leader Annamie Paul came across as strong, but also fatalistic. She talked about having to come together across party lines to work on addressing environmental issues, which seemed to be conceding to reality. Maxime Bernier of the People’s Party of Canada wasn’t allowed to join the debate because the PPC didn’t meet the threshold for voter support, even though they are apparently polling ahead of the Greens now. I’m afraid it’s not looking good for the Greens this election, or for the environment as an issue moving forward.

Bloc Québécois leader Yves-François Blanchet wasn’t worried about being likeable, so he didn’t even try. Which was actually kind of fun to watch.

NDP leader Jagmeet Singh was the most assured and articulate and it didn’t matter much. In the first hour anyway he was the only one I recall making a clear policy statement, about ending subsidies to the fossil fuel industry. That’s something I would have liked to hear some debate over, but things had to keep whipping along.

Conservative leader Erin O’Toole hit his talking points. He’s not a charismatic or inspiring personality, but at least doesn’t come off as an arrogant jerk, which is something the Tories have struggled with recently. This isn’t a party with any new ideas though, and it’s not as if their old ideas were any good.

Liberal leader Justin Trudeau hasn’t changed in six years, which isn’t to his credit. He still has a lot of trouble speaking off script and can’t explain why this election is happening.

It’s come to this

At a time when only just over half of all Americans have been vaccinated against COVID-19 there has been a sudden interest in use of the drug ivermectin, a horse dewormer, as an antidote. This madness hasn’t stopped at the border, with a run on supplies of the livestock drug in Alberta and Amazon Canada including warnings on search results for the drug on its site (even though Amazon doesn’t sell it).

In the U.S. the Federal Drugs Administration posted the following on their Twitter account: “You are not a horse. You are not a cow. Seriously, y’all. Stop it.” Nevertheless, celebrity podcaster Joe Rogan recently admitted that he was taking the drug after having come down with COVID.

This is stupid on the level of the Tide Pod Challenge, where people would eat packages of laundry detergent. The Tide Pod thing was performative jackassery that I assumed was being done just to get clicks and views on social media and it didn’t involve more than a couple of dozen cases, at least as far as I can tell. Is the use of ivermectin any different? Are people just doing this to get attention? Or as a way of publicly declaring their pathological distrust of all authority and expertise? It can’t be just because they’re stupid, because I don’t think they all are. At least I don’t think they’re all this stupid.

Maigret: Maigret and the Old Lady

Is Maigret an alcoholic? He does wonder at one point here if he’s drinking too much, though at least he’s not an angry drunk. He just gets sleepy.

So not an alcoholic, but someone who drinks a lot. Most of this is professionally related. “The upstanding citizens who protest against the number of bars are unaware that they are a godsend for the police.” A poisoned chalice, I’d call it, since given the number of glasses of beer, wine, liquors, and liqueurs that Maigret pounds back in these books, usually while he’s working, his liver must be thoroughly pickled.

His favourite beverage is something called a Calvados. I had to look this up, and found that it’s a cider brandy native to Normandy. It’s also the regimental drink of the military unit I was a member of in the reserves. This was news to me. Apparently the Canadians landing on the beaches on D-Day were handed out Calvados by the locals.

As Maigret heads to Normandy for this adventure it’s no surprise he gets a chance to knock back a few Calvados. Though he also smashes a bottle for effect at the end, an action he almost immediately regrets.

The set-up is familiar. There’s been a murder in a small town that looks like a picture postcard. Maigret admits he has “a childish hankering” for such places, even while being aware of “the other side of the coin.” The pretty houses are just like the nice clothes and good manners of the rich family he’s investigating, where all the members are living secret lives. Meanwhile, poor people end up being more collateral damage.

Overall I’d rate this as one of the best pure mysteries thus far. It’s a poisoning this time, and poisonings are fun because they’re a more thoughtful sort of crime. The killer has a plan that has to be unraveled, as it is here in a satisfying way. Minus what happens to that bottle of Calvados.

Maigret index

Return to Stepford

Over at Alex on Film I’ve been watching the two (big-screen) adaptations made of Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives. Mostly I was trying to figure out what went wrong. Levin’s book is a little classic, and one that would still seem to have a lot to say to us today. But both movies (1975 and 2004) get confused as to what their ultimate point is, and end up being muddled without providing much in the way of horror, humour, or social commentary. I can’t help thinking that someone might still be able to get it right, if they ever want to give it another shot.

And they’re off!

Somebody take his picture.

Justin Trudeau has called a snap Canadian federal election for September 20.

It is a tactical move, as the current Liberal minority government still has a couple of years to run before an election is required. Party political strategists, however, have presumably looked at the numbers and feel that now is the best time to upgrade to a majority government.

Why is this such an opportune moment? I think there are two main reasons.

In the first place, the competition is reeling. The new Conservative Party leader, Erin O’Toole, has not, thus far, been playing well with the public, Jasmeet Singh of the NDP still hasn’t caught on (and likely never will), and the Green Party is in total disarray.

Secondly, Canada is recovering (hopefully) from the COVID-19 pandemic and the Liberals want to take credit for the general sense of relief that Canadians feel.

In the next month I’ll probably post my usual, wildly inaccurate election predictions, and then offer some thoughts on the results. But for now, here are some preliminaries.

I think calling an election this early is cynical gamesmanship. Will the Liberals be punished for it? People don’t like being taken for granted, especially by politicians.

We live in a time of crisis and great challenges. And our political leadership continues to decline in quality. Is this the fault of the media? Of democracy? Looking at the field of candidates it’s hard not to feel despair.

As always, the Liberals will gain a lot from comparison shopping. The Big Prize in Canadian federal elections is Ontario, where there is already a Conservative government in power, and not a very popular one at that. This plays well for the Liberals. Also helping them out is what’s been happening south of the border, where it seems like the American right is imploding into a molten ball of ignorance and madness. Canada’s political right can now easily (and not always unfairly) be painted with the same brush as an anti-vaxxer, gun-toting, climate change-denying mob. Not in Canada! will be the cry. We’re better than that!

There has been an interesting development in national politics, both here and in the U.S., that has seen personality/celebrity and cultural issues jump into the driver’s seat. This is regrettable, but I can understand why it’s happening. The media, for one thing, tend to focus on these things because they push people’s buttons and they don’t take a lot of explaining. Try digging into the details of budgets and fiscal policy and see how many clicks you get. In the next month I expect we’re going to be hearing a lot of stuff about the personality of the leaders and the signaling of identity politics. Which national leader do you like the best? Are you woke? Are you for/against cancel culture?

I feel like I have to fight against this political tide myself. The fact is, Justin Trudeau has gone from being a slick, shallow, and dim figure I never cared much about to someone I despise. I don’t want to call him a bad person, but he is a sanctimonious hypocrite (the accusations of groping, the blackface) and, like so many establishment Liberals, he’s someone long steeped in the traditions of Natural Governing Party corruption (SNC-Lavalin, the We Charity). But how much of this should I be taking account of when casting a vote? Shouldn’t I just be concentrating on policy and platforms? Not that these mean all that much. But even though I knew Trudeau was never going to get rid of the FPTP electoral system, I still felt let down by that broken promise.

In any event, now they’re off to the races and we’ll have to see how things shake out. Here’s hoping we go for the least bad option, whatever it is.

Alpha bullshit

While working on an essay-review of some of our most pernicious new ideologies I’ve ended up listening in on what’s known as the “manosphere.” This is basically the male take on relationships today, and while some of it is entertaining, in that podcast-on-while-I’m-making-dinner sort of way, and there’s even some helpful, commonsensical advice on tap, most of it is awfully repetitive and reductive.

Within the manosphere it’s now glibly assumed that there are these creatures known as “alpha males”: special beings who dominate the commanding heights of evolution through their easy reproductive success. The losers are then “betas” who don’t get to breed. (There are other Greek letters as well, but they aren’t as important.) On the other side, women are said to hit a “wall” after peak fertility, with their Sexual Market Value going into steep decline thereafter, to the point where by the age of 40 they have become virtually worthless. Stay away from these painted harpies because all they want is to steal your money and screw alphas behind your back!

Both sexes can be precisely graded on a scale of 1 to 10, as High Value and Low Value mates, their score determined by a mix of biology and Internet algorithms (hey, it’s how Facebook got its start!) whose judgment cannot be questioned because, you know, it’s science.

And so we’ve arrived at a point where it’s now become common to speak as though something like an “alpha male” actually exists and is not just a metaphor. For what it’s worth, my understanding when the word first started being used a while back was that it only referred to not-very-bright jerks who had no friends, couldn’t hold on to a job, and usually had substance abuse problems and/or criminal records. Now they are apparently supermen, and to be celebrated. You may hate these people, in a spirit of Nietzschean ressentiment, but that’s only because you’re inferior.

I’m depressed to see that this crudely reductionist ideology has become something concrete, a mythology and mental space that young people at least are now trapped inside. Just as with the myth of a “meritocracy,” an after-the-fact justification of everyday selfishness and narcissism is now seen as the intellectual underpinning of some kind of immutable law. I don’t think people any more stupid than they’ve ever been, but being steeped in a culture full of such bullshit I’m afraid that they’re becoming more vicious.

Maigret: Maigret at the Coroner’s

After playing host to various visiting officials keen to study his (non-existent) “methods,” Maigret is on the road here, taking a “study tour” through the U.S. that has landed him in Tucson, Arizona and a coroner’s inquest into the death of a B-girl whose mangled body parts have been found on a railway track. Although only a spectator he is immediately “hooked” and “in the game.”

Maigret had come to America on at least one previous occasion, but in Maigret in New York the New World was looking a lot like the Old, in part because the people he was investigating were European immigrants and in part because New York City is such a cosmopolitan place. In Tucson Maigret encounters the real America and there’s more of a sense of culture shock, and not just because in the vastness of the sun-baked American West he is someone who has never learned to drive a car. Though being a pedestrian is linked to his sense of feeling shabby.

He felt it several times a day, this impression of shabbiness. These people had everything. In no matter what small town, the cars were as numerous and luxurious as on the Champs-Élysées. Everyone wore new clothes, new shoes; shoe repair shops were hard to find. Crowds all looked well scrubbed and prosperous.

The houses were new, too, full of the latest appliances. They had everything: that was the right word.

And yet despite all this newness, prosperity, and plenty, the newspapers are full of crime. Why? To some extent it can be explained by crime being part of the same drive for more that consumes everyone. It’s this drive that leads to the rise of the criminal celebrity, an admiration “of the kind that everyone in the States showed for anyone who succeeds, whether as a millionaire, a cinema star or a famous murderer.” That drive, the desire for more, can never be satisfied. As his FBI guide explains, “there are moments when the comfortable house, the smiling wife, the well-scrubbed children, the car, the club, the office and bank account are not enough.” “Does that happen back in your country, too?” he asks. Maigret affirms that it “happens to everybody.” This is because, he believes, “that men and their passions are the same everywhere.” So much so that in the end Maigret’s Tucson counterpart feels the same sense of indifference to the execution of justice.

All of this stuff is interesting, in the great tradition of French intellectual takes on American culture. But the actual crime and its investigation are difficult to follow, even with the maps and diagrams provided, and the attitude toward rape has also dated badly. Still, I’d rate it above average for the series, even if it’s a bit of an outlier in ways that go beyond the desert setting.

Maigret index

Burning, burning

The latest assessment (the sixth) from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is a massive (4,000 page) and exhaustively-sourced document laying out that climate changing is happening, is “unequivocally” being driven by human activity (specifically the burning of fossil fuels), is getting worse, and is already to some extent irreversible.

None of this is new, but it helps to have these reports dropped on us with some regularity because it keeps what’s going on in the news, along with stories about extreme weather events like raging forest fires and devastating floods.

Some reflections:

(1) We’ve known about this for fifty years now. Powerful interests, particularly the fossil fuel industry, have effectively waged a disinformation campaign against the science through their funding of the “merchants of doubt.” That said, I think most people get it and understand what’s really going on. But what can be done?

(2) The root problem is overpopulation. At present the global population is 7.9 billion. I was actually surprised it was already that high, but it’s going up by 200,000 a day. Some environmentalists get upset when you bring up the matter of population, seeing it as a diversion. I think it’s fundamental. As David Attenborough put it, “There is no environmental problem that is not made easier by less people.” Sure if we all lived with the carbon footprint of the average Bangladeshi then we might get by, but that’s not going to happen. And yes, global population will likely peak sometime around mid-century and then go into a sharp decline, but by then we’ll be cooked.

(3) In addition to overpopulation there is the fact that we live in an industrial economy based on mass production and mass consumption of goods. Some people blame capitalism, but I don’t see how a socialist government would be doing any less damage running the same industrial system. The old communist Soviet Union and China under Mao were two of the worst environmental offenders in history. As I’ve said before, the only environmentally sustainable human economy is life in a medieval village. We can’t go back to that even if we wanted to, and we certainly don’t want to.

(4) As for climate change, things are, as David Wallace-Wells put it, even worse than you imagine. And as bad as they are now they are likely to get much worse, and on an even faster schedule, than we expect. The feedback loops are already in place and operating.

(5) The only non-catastrophic way out would involve a global movement based on an egalitarian spirit of shared sacrifice. This would avoid total social and environmental collapse, but life would still get a lot harder. That said, I see no chance of people coming together to make the kind of changes that would be necessary to avert disaster. There’s no putting a happy face on this one. Our situation is worse than we think, and will soon end up being worse than we can imagine.

Postscript: As a final point, I want to address something that I’ve seen being said online in various forums: that our response to the COVID-19 pandemic is grounds for hope that we can successfully respond to climate change.

This is deluded. I already wrote up my own report card for COVID, but just to highlight: The only really successful part of the global response to the pandemic was the creation of a vaccine. We may liken that to the work done by the IPCC scientists. They did their job. But the job done by the medical establishment, even in the wealthiest countries, was spotty, the political handling of the epidemic was generally poor, the economic fallout, I believe, will be disastrous, and the social response was depressing in the extreme. Anyone looking at how we coped with COVID for signs of hope on the environmental front is wearing rose-tinted glasses indeed.

Forgetting what the point was

From “The Curriculum and College Life: Confronting Unfulfilled Promises” by Leon Botstein in Declining by Degrees: Higher Education at Risk (2005):

The underlying and optimistic belief behind the effort to make access to higher education as universal as possible is a traditional conviction that there must be a causal link between education and human progress. The notion of progress can be understood in various ways, in terms of civility, understanding, tolerance, ethics, aesthetic judgment, or citizen participation. One of the sharp ironies of contemporary life is that although more Americans are completing more years of formal schooling than ever before, including time in college, we find ourselves confronted, it seems, despite more exposure to learning, with an absence of progress in these arenas. One needs only to cite the declining quality of public political debate, lapses in integrity and standards in professional and business practices, public entertainment (e.g., reality television), precollege school achievement, and what the eighteenth century called civic virtue.

Curricular changes notwithstanding, what has remained frighteningly consistent despite nearly a half century of increased access to college is that the encounter with the primary purpose of being in college – learning – seems not to have left many traces on our life after college. The presumed civic and cultural benefits of going to college continue to elude us. The experience of classroom learning (writing papers, tackling problem sets, completing laboratory assignments, taking examinations) has not influenced college graduates, as adults, to live their lives differently or, one might suggest, better. Classroom learning seems to have had little effect on the manner in which students conduct their daily lives or graduates pursue vocations and careers, if one believes the critics of contemporary  practice of medicine and law. There is little empirical justification for the conceit of influence embedded in the rhetoric of liberal learning and general education.