Federal election 2019: After

Back again to comment on the 2019 federal election. A week ago I offered up my thoughts on how things were developing, concluding with the following prediction:

What I think will happen is that the Liberals will hold on with a minority government, perhaps due mainly to an anti-Ford vote in Ontario and stronger support in Quebec. The NDP will be nearly wiped out. The Greens will see a significant increase in their vote, though I doubt it will result in many (if any) seats.

I got some of this right. The Liberals did get back in, this time with a minority. And this was mainly due to their strength in Quebec and Ontario (and more specifically the GTA). Much of Quebec, however, went for the BQ. The NDP weren’t wiped out, but lost a lot of seats. They still tried to put a positive spin on things though by claiming that, while diminished, they will hold a balance of power in the new parliament.

One observation I’d make is that we are becoming a more regionally divided nation, which I see as being a sort of work-around of the archaic first-past-the-post electoral system. The Liberals were crushed in the West, all but disappearing from the map, but it made little difference. The Conservatives actually won the popular vote, but still lost handily. The Greens received 6.5% of the popular vote and ended up with 3 seats. The Bloc Québécois got 7.7% of the vote and 32 seats. This is the FPTP system at work.

As I said in my previous post, I didn’t think the party leaders were an inspiring group. Despite this, it looks as though Elizabeth May will be the only leader stepping aside. Inertia is taking over, as it so often does in Canadian politics. Our leaders have a habit of overstaying their welcome.

Perhaps I’m just old and jaded, but I didn’t see a big difference among the various parties. I studied a primer on their various platforms before voting and was surprised at how ill-defined they were. And what was defined struck me as being largely without meaning. Conservatives complained that a carbon tax would be ineffective, which I’m sure it will be. But then at least it’s something. The Conservative position on the environment was a joke, saying they would meet greenhouse gas reduction targets but giving no idea how. But then I’m sure the Liberals will fail at meeting these targets as well.

On most other issues it was the same. A national pharmacare program sounds like a good idea, but the Liberals only said they want to work toward it while the Conservatives dismissed it entirely. The Liberals and NDP were OK with letting deficits grow while the Conservatives promised to reduce them. This is something I’m sure they would not be able to do, but I suspect they would have made at least some of the cuts they promised to government programs.

Immigration was supposed to be a hot-button issue but only the People’s Party tried to run with it. And the People’s Party went nowhere. The other parties were all vague on the matter.

I take it election reform is totally dead. Elizabeth May waited until the day before the election to declare that if the Green party were elected then hers would be the last federal government in Canada chosen by the first-past-the-post system. And where had I heard that before?

Like I say, perhaps this is all just me being jaded. Or something. When I filled in a questionnaire that sought to identify my political preference based on my feelings toward a catalogue of issues I wound up in a quarter of the political spectrum that none of the parties identified with (that is, socially conservative and economically left-wing). But then this position, which I would identify with an “old left,” is one that has increasingly come to feel abandoned.

A final note: For what I believe is the fourth election (federal and provincial) in a row the Green Party were the only party in my riding to do any door-to-door canvassing for votes. And they came by my place twice. So basically the other parties have just given up on this. Are they putting all their resources into social media? I wonder how that’s working out for them.

Looking ahead I don’t see anything to feel good about. Essentially we’re in for more of the same. I don’t see anyone being in a rush to trigger another election and I don’t think the Liberals ran on much of a platform to actually do anything. We didn’t vote for change and we’re not going to get any.

Federal election 2019: Before

Four years ago I did a post a week in advance of the 2015 federal election in which I predicted the Conservatives would stay in power with a minority government. Well, I had my reasons. And I’ll be the first to admit that my predictions are almost always wrong.

That confession out of the way, I thought I’d try again with some thoughts on the 2019 contest, a week before the vote.

In that earlier post I took as my theme the question of what had happened to the conservative movement. I think the last four years have answered that question pretty decisively. I thought that in terms of its ideology the right was a spent force, but it certainly came roaring back with Donald Trump in the U.S., the Brexit fiasco in Britain, and Doug Ford in Ontario. Was all this just the twitch of a death nerve, or does it signal something with more staying power? Stay tuned.

As far as my thoughts post-election in 2015 are concerned, I had this to say:

Moving forward, I’m not confident that the Liberals will provide much in the way of new ideas or leadership. One hopes for competence at best. Still, I’m interested in how a couple of issues that came up during the campaign will be handled. First, the Liberals declared that they were against the first-past-the-post election system. Now that they have a majority, will they backtrack on that? Second, the Liberals have also said that they want to “reform” the Senate (I’m all on board). This will be harder to effect, but I think would be a popular move. That said, I don’t expect any meaningful changes to be made to the current system.

Well, an end to the FPTP system and meaningful reform of the Senate didn’t happen. And I think I’m safe in saying that they never will. We’re locked into a nineteenth-century political system, components of which were archaic in the nineteenth century. I don’t like it, but the system is never going to change itself, and indeed will do everything it can to resist any change happening.

A week out from this year’s vote my main takeaway is the dismal quality of the party leaders. This too is part of a problem that is afflicting democracy globally. In the U.S. the best and the brightest the Republican Party had to offer were deemed so worthless they were blown away by a pathetic real-estate con-man who had been refashioned as a tawdry television personality. Currently the Democratic Party is trying to decide which of their candidates is the least unattractive, and it’s quite a contest. Ontario’s premier is Doug Ford. You get the picture.

To go quickly through the list, I think Justin Trudeau has lived up to all the dismissive labels flung at him by his worst critics. He is an airhead with beautiful hair. Not only does he strike me as downright dumb, he’s a lousy politician as well, with none of the instincts, vision, or rhetoric you’d expect in a national leader.

Andrew Scheer has zero charisma, negligible political skills, and is leading a party that seems stuck in reverse. Would it kill the Conservatives to adopt, or at least pay lip service to, some progressive policies? Or show that they’re comfortable living in the twenty-first century? Jagmeet Singh seems like the brightest guy in the race, but is also deficient in political awareness and appears to be an odd fit for the NDP. Indeed, large segments of the party, both on the ground and among the leadership, have rejected him entirely. While good on TV I suspect he is less charming in person.

I think the Green Party should have got rid of Elizabeth May after the last election. Her leadership has never felt sure in its footing and she has difficulty communicating what should be a pretty direct message. On the party’s key issue she was easily upstaged during the campaign by a kid visiting from Sweden.

Maxime Bernier just strikes me as dim, but maybe he comes across better in French.

I don’t like the thought of any of these people becoming prime minister. To be even more blunt, I don’t think any of them are leadership material. I wonder if there’s some connection between the lousy political system I mentioned and having so many lousy politicians. Probably.

As far as predictions go, the polls show a tight race and how it splits up in key ridings will be the deciding factor. None of the parties a week out have any wind in their sails. Nobody I’ve spoken to on either the left or the right seems much interested. What I think will happen is that the Liberals will hold on with a minority government, perhaps due mainly to an anti-Ford vote in Ontario and stronger support in Quebec. The NDP will be nearly wiped out. The Greens will see a significant increase in their vote, though I doubt it will result in many (if any) seats.

Next week I’ll be back and give some post-election thoughts. Until then, don’t forget to vote!

Badface

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has found himself in hot water lately over the discovery of photos where he appears in black- or brownface.

What I find most depressing about all of this is that it looks like it is going to become one of the defining campaign issues — if not the defining campaign issue — of this year’s federal election. Not jobs, health care, the environment, or economic policy, but something this stupid.

I guess you can argue that the photos and the fallout from their release tell us something about Trudeau’s character. Something not very flattering. He is being pilloried, with some justice, for being a hypocrite: his principled stands on issues relating to identity politics being derided as mere virtue signaling.

That expression “virtue signaling” is worth a bit of explanation. Some people object to it, or find nothing wrong with the idea of making public one’s own set of moral values. My own take is that, used pejoratively, the expression should be understood as referring to signaling one’s own virtues in a facile way that costs the signaler nothing. But of course it may involve demanding others make sacrifices.

I think Trudeau has done his share of virtue signaling. What bothers me the most about the current scandal is the general air of dishonesty in Trudeau’s response. In brief: how could he possibly not have known that these photos were out there all this time? They were even published in a school yearbook! Did he think they had just disappeared?

In a later press conference he admitted that he had in fact been aware of them while he was going through the process of being initially vetted by the party, but had found them too “embarrassing” to mention. In other words, he really did think they were dead and buried. Now, being asked if there are any more such photos out there that might surface at some point, he will only reply “I am wary of being definitive.”

Does any of this matter? In a polarized political environment, where people are voting against the other side more than they are supporting their own, maybe not so much. If Donald Trump can shoot someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue and get away with it, Justin Trudeau can probably get away with this. Our politics have become a joke.

Gamer grouch

The first Fortnite World Cup has been held, with the winner, a 16-year-old from Pottsgrove, Pennsylvania, taking home the $3 million top prize.

The response to this story has been predicably polarized. Some think it’s great that such a popular form of entertainment is finally getting the recognition it deserves. There were 40 million contestants vying to get into the Fortnite World Cup, a field that must have been strenuously winnowed down to the 100 who made the final cut. Video games are a bigger business than Hollywood, and have been for years. The people who play them can make millions of dollars through their own streaming channels and endorsement deals. Resistance to these developments is clearly futile. And anyway, as Steven Johnson argued in Everything Bad Is Good for You, video games are actually a healthy past-time, involving complex problem-solving skills, among other things.

Critics, and I include myself in this category, have their doubts. I get that video games are popular, and big business. And I have nothing against their professionalization. Elite gamers may as well make money out of this. I also understand the draw for people who just like to watch. Maybe they’re picking up tips to improve their own play, and maybe they just find the players entertaining.

But I don’t think video games are good for you. They are extremely addictive, and very consciously designed to be so. Encouraging any sort of addictive behaviour is bad. I also don’t think people learn anything from video games or pick up any worthwhile skills by playing them. In addition, I think they’re harmful to one’s health. If “sitting is the new smoking” I don’t think the example of teenagers who are spending 8-12 hours a day in front of a screen, as some of the contestants to the Fortnite World Cup said they had to while “in training,” is a good one. Wouldn’t young people be better off swimming or playing soccer? That’s good for the body, and team sports can build social skills as well. It seems to me that sports are also less directly commercial than esports. Sure there are professional sports like hockey and basketball, and kids dream of making it into the big leagues, but these video game tournaments strike me as just being advertisements for a product. Soccer is a sport first and only at a higher level big business. Video games are a business, period.

Is the Fortnite World Cup the end of civilization? No, but I don’t see it as a step in any good direction. That said, I’m comfortable now being on the wrong side of history.

Raptor rapture

Last night’s broadcast of the National, the CBC’s flagship national newsprogram, was devoted entirely to the Toronto Raptors winning the NBA basketball program.

The whole damn program.

There are so many things wrong with this. Why devote so much time to a sports story? It’s “news” only in the sense of being an attention-grabbing headline. And the thing is, the CBC’s sports coverage isn’t that good in the first place (and it wasn’t at all good in this instance), so who would be coming to the National to watch it?

I wish I could support the CBC more. I get the sense that they’re trying. I like the hosts of the National, and think they held on to Peter Mansbridge far too long. But they just seem to be flailing now. And they really have to do something about the number of local human interest stories that they’re regularly running on this program. These don’t belong on a national news broadcast.

I know these are tough times in the news business, but I don’t see how any of this is helping. Five minutes on the Raptors would have been plenty, even on a slow news day. It looks like we’re into a death spiral now.

The decay of lying

I’ve recently been re-reading Seymour Hersh’s series of investigations into some of the lies told by the Obama administration, first published in the London Review of Books and then collected in The Killing of Osama bin Laden. It’s a measure of the impact Trump has had that it all seems so quaint now. And I’m not just referring to the arrival of truth-tellin’ Michael Flynn in the final pages of Hersh’s book to tell us that Russia is our friend.

Obama’s lies were variously motivated, but mainly had to do with reasons of state and the always-in-operation cover-your-ass principle. The cover story or “narrative” (a word that has now become synonymous with fiction) about the assassination of Osama bin Laden was primarily concocted in order to conceal the cooperation of Pakistan’s military intelligence. As far as cover stories (or lies) go, this struck me as fairly innocuous, even though it gave rise to Zero Dark Thirty and the hard-to-kill myth of torture’s efficacy.

I felt the same way about the misinformation given out regarding what the administration knew of the use of chemical weapons in Syria. This again seems to have been politically motivated, and stemmed largely from a chaotic situation on the ground and no clear directing policy framework for dealing with it. I’m not even sure how much it matters, at the end of the day, who was gassing whom, much less who the U.S. said was responsible.

But that was then. These lies were purposeful, political, and at least to some extent persuasive. Zero Dark Thirty even won an Oscar by taking the lies about the hunt for bin Laden and running with them. The lies of Trump, in comparison, are random, personal, and easily exposed. Are they, however, less consequential? As many commentators have pointed out, his indiscriminate carpet-bombing of lies isn’t meant to mislead about any particular point as to make the whole concept of truth seem irrelevant.

The post-truth world is the endgame in sight, a political environment like Putin’s Russia as described by Peter Pomerantsev in Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible. Pomerantsev’s book is held up by Timothy Snyder as a warning of where the West is heading, and it’s hard to disagree with his general assessment of the course we’re on.

I was thinking of matters like these this past week when following some media scandals. First there was the testimony of Jody Wilson-Raybould, who was commended, even by some Liberal party members, for telling “her truth.” I’ve been vaguely aware of this expression for a while but I’m not sure where it got started. As near as I can tell, when someone says they appreciate you telling your truth what they’re saying is that they don’t believe what you are saying is true, but they accept that you believe it to be true. It’s very much a backhanded way of saying nothing much. It’s also a perfect political soundbite. In response to the recent accusation of inappropriate behaviour on the part of possible presidential candidate Joe Biden, other Democratic candidates again rushed to acknowledge the complainant coming forward with “her truth.” I guess this covers the bases pretty nicely, without committing anyone to saying what the truth in any particular situation is.

But isn’t this a problem? By just saying that someone has told their truth aren’t we making the claim that no objective truth can be arrived at or is recoverable? That everything is relative to one’s own subjective experience? How is this different from a world where nothing is true and everything is possible?

Why do we think rich people must be smart?

In the last few weeks the news cycle has run headlines about a couple of prominent rich guys behaving badly. Or perhaps not badly but certainly stupidly. First Jeff Bezos, the richest person in the world, went public with being blackmailed after sending “dick pics” to a girlfriend (that is, a woman other than his soon-to-be ex-wife). Then Robert Kraft, billionaire owner of the Superbowl champion New England Patriots was charged with soliciting prostitution at a Florida massage parlour (his lawyers deny Kraft was engaged in any illegal activity).

One question that was often asked in the wake of both scandals is how two people who had so much money could be involved in such behaviour. Bezos practically owns the Internet, did he not understand that exposing himself in emails was a bad idea? And why would someone with as much money as Kraft be caught dead going to a massage parlour, where the sexual favours on the menu start at $70?

Part of the problem is in our understanding of intelligence. People can be smart in very different ways. Many academics, for example, have no practical common sense at all. I’ve known prominent scientists, considered among the greatest minds in their field in the world, who are totally incapable of carrying on a conversation. Business people know how to make money, but that may be it. Someone who is mechanically inclined might not know how to read. Intelligence comes in many different forms.

Perhaps an even bigger obstacle though, especially when it comes to thinking about the situations Bezos and Kraft found themselves in, is our belief that anyone who is rich must be smart, as there is no clearer marker of success in our society than having a lot of money. Donald Trump has exploited this misconception as much as anyone, despite the fact that (1) he’d have far more money if he’d just invested his massive inheritance in the stock market instead of getting involved in the real estate business, and (2) he’s declared bankruptcy many times. It’s also believed that he vastly overstates his personal wealth in order to make himself seem richer (and hence smarter) than he is.

Instead of acknowledging that rich people might not be all that smart (most rich people, after all, were born rich) we see other explanations offered for these latest incidents. Like the sense of privilege billionaires have: their belief that they are somehow above the law and that normal rules don’t apply to them. I think there may be some of that at work. Rich people do live in a bubble, surrounded by people who flatter their vanity and who would never dream of telling them when they’re doing something wrong. Still, I think the most likely explanation is that a lot of rich people are smart when it comes to making money but not so much with regard to other things. That should not surprise anyone.