Blowing bubbles

(Getty Images – Anatolii Stepanov)

On February 24 Russia launched an unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. This was a mistake, but an even greater crime. According to the judgment of the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg: “To initiate a war of aggression, therefore, is not only an international crime; it is the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.” Few events in recent times have had such moral clarity, and the invasion has been met with near-universal condemnation.

Intelligence leading up the outbreak of war was good and (a bit surprisingly) much of it was made public. Still, when the invasion came it took many people by surprise. I think mainly because it seemed to make no sense. It was often repeated by the talking heads and experts featured in various media that the only person who knew what was going on was Russian president Vladimir Putin, who seemed to be behaving erratically as of late.

This isn’t hard to understand. With all our talk of privilege — white, male, or whatever — the master privilege of those who are wealthy and powerful has always been the ability to create and live within their own alternate realities. These bubbles are never impermeable. Illness, in particular, has a way of breaking in, like the Red Death crashing Prince Prospero’s party. But while they last, bubbles can be both a nice place to visit and to live in.

A bubble’s biggest weakness, however, is the denial of reality that is their whole reason for being. Within the court of Prince Prospero, nary will be heard a discouraging word. The wealthy and powerful, surrounded by courtiers, yes-men, flunkies, and flatterers, come to believe not only that all their jokes are funny but that they have an invincible destiny.

I wrote about the effect this can have in my review of Hillary Clinton’s campaign memoir What Happened. Clinton should not have run for president in 2016 but by that point ClintonWorld, as it had come to be known, was a bubble swollen to bursting. Critics and detractors had been weeded out of an inner circle where, in her words, loyalty was “prized most among human traits.” Trump, in turn, was no different, prizing loyalty just as highly and making sure that everyone around him was an obsequious toady. And while today his bubble has shrunk to Mar-a-Lago and fringe news outlets, it is still being maintained.

Another example of the bubble phenomenon, bearing perhaps even more directly on the Ukraine invasion, was Hitler’s Operation Barbarossa. The German high command wanted nothing to do with the folly of launching a war against Russia, but by that point Hitler was in such control and had been proven right so often that no one dared speak out against his decision.

It’s quite natural to want to shape reality to one’s own desires and push contradiction (or “negativity”) to the side. Natural, but dangerous. Of course, you may still get away with it. It’s been often remarked, for example, how J. K. Rowling badly needed an editor on the final Harry Potter books, someone to tell her that things were going wrong, but who would have done that? And why? By that point nothing was going to hurt her sales anyway.

I’ve heard it said that Warren Buffett has an advisor on the payroll whose only job is to argue against every decision he makes. He has to do this because he knows that otherwise nobody would speak out against him. I think this shows how smart a guy Buffett is.

My own hunch is that Putin fell into this same trap. Russia has no opposition party or critical press. Putin enjoys unchallenged political power and enormous wealth. Watching his televised meeting with his security council in his throne room I was reminded of when Trump made everyone in his cabinet humiliate themselves by going around the table and forcing them to debase themselves before their Dear Leader. The difference being that Putin has even more control over his bubble, and his flunkies were almost fainting in terror. Trump was only ever a wannabe dictator, not on that level at all.

A piece in Slate by Ben Judah fleshed out some of my thoughts on how this works, describing Russia today in political-science terms as a “personalist dictatorship, where the whims of one man, and one man only, determine policy”:

Americans tend to see the world in much the same way as President Joe Biden frames it in his speeches, divided neatly between “democracies” and “autocracies.” But the reality is that authoritarian states exist on a political spectrum depending on how much power is exercised by a single individual—and where states land on this spectrum has a big impact on matters of war and peace. At one end, you have civilian-run regimes, like Hu Jintao’s China or Leonid Brezhnev’s Soviet Union, where political power is checked and shared within a ruling party. At the other, you have personalist dictatorships like that of, say, Saddam Hussein, where rivals are purged, loyalists are rewarded, cults of personality flourish, and all authority runs through the glorious leader.

As Judah goes on to observe, “A key reason that many wise foreign policy hands thought Russia was bluffing about an invasion was that they assumed Putin wasn’t making his decisions alone. . . . But the world is now realizing that the Putin regime is really just Vladimir Putin. And he is apparently no longer worried about what war will mean for Russia’s rich, much less its masses.”

I don’t think this is all that’s going on, but I do think that a big part of why Putin invaded Ukraine is that there was nobody left within his bubble to tell him that it was a stupid idea. There’s a line about celebrities going bad when they start believing their own press. For politicians it’s changed to believing their own propaganda. It comes to the same thing. Living in a bubble must be great most of the time, but you have to be conscious of the fact that none of it is real. If you imagine that it is then you may be heading for a fall.

End of the road?

(Bloomberg – David Kawai)

Well, it looks like the Freedom Convoy is over now. They’re just clearing the last of it away. What, if anything, did it all mean?

(1) It was great political theatre. This was a story that got major media play not just in Canada but in the U.S. and Europe too. I can’t think of the last time that happened with a Canadian news story.

(2) It didn’t make a lot of sense. Indeed, I said when it started that it was born of a certain lack of seriousness. The ostensible point was to protest vaccine mandates which required Canadian truckers to show proof of vaccination to enter back into Canada from the U.S. Without such proof they were required to quarantine for two weeks. Since they already had to show proof of vaccination to enter the U.S. from Canada this seemed like reciprocity. Also, apparently 85% of truckers were vaccinated. But then they were against all vaccine mandates (passports) and perhaps even more against Justin Trudeau. And it’s still an open question as to how many of the protesters were even truckers.

(3) If they’d stuck to just having a quick demonstration I think they could have called it a huge success. But they kept hanging around in Ottawa and Windsor, with no clear idea what for, and that started to irritate people. Rule for protests: Don’t be too annoying! Though given how Ottawa is a Liberal stronghold they probably figured they had nothing to lose there.

(4) As it is, the whole thing might still be considered a success by those involved in that it provoked the government into an overreaction with their invoking the Emergencies Act to clamp down. I don’t think this was necessary, and the business of going after funding, most of which was domestic, strikes me as particularly problematic. This was not “Canada’s January 6,” or anything even close, though both sides were certainly channeling the energy and iconography from that event.

(5) That said, it might also have been successful in firing up an American-style culture war, one that had both sides calling the other Nazis. (An aside: Will we ever be free of this tired and misleading rhetoric? The threat of authoritarianism in our time isn’t Nazism, or Communism, but something new.) Who gains the most from this polarization? The results will probably take a while to tally, but I’m inclined to think Trudeau was one of the losers, as he came across as both weak and sanctimonious, qualities that have become his most readily distinguishable and least admirable trademarks. On the other hand, the convoy was pushing the Conservatives further than I think many of them wanted to go. What began as farce might still end as tragedy.

The football news

Terry Bradshaw. Love me, love me, say that you love me.

The days leading up to the Super Bowl (this would be LVI) haven’t been full of good news for the National Football League. In particular, a lawsuit filed by former Miami Dolphins Brian Flores coach alleged all sorts of misconduct by various teams. But it was a couple of other NFL-related news stories that caught my eye this past week.

The first story had to do with a documentary on the Tuck Rule, a controversial call made in a playoff game in 2001 involving the now newly-retired quarterback Tom Brady. Jay Busbee, writing for Yahoo Sports, introduces us to it:

Farewell, Tom Brady the football player. Hello, Tom Brady the Image Builder.

This weekend, ESPN will debut “The Tuck Rule,” a “documentary” in the sense that it’s a series of real people discussing, dissecting and squabbling over a real historical event — the fateful play in a 2001 season AFC divisional round game between the New England Patriots and then-Oakland Raiders.

In a more accurate sense, though, “The Tuck Rule” is the first step in the construction of the post-NFL Tom Brady. Co-produced by 199 Productions — which just happens to be the production company of one Tom Brady — it’s a carefully curated version of the truth, one that just happens to break Brady’s way at every turn.

Busbee is right to be suspicious. What’s happening here is something I’ve written about several times before, most recently with regard to the dust-up over tennis star Naomi Osaka’s picking and choosing what media she would do. Osaka was lionized in the press, but I had my doubts about the way she was being allowed to play the reporters whose job it was to cover the story:

I want to express my concern at the way a widespread anger at and distrust of the media has become cover for those in positions of wealth and power who want to take control of the way they’re presented. To ask the obvious question: Who wouldn’t “much rather tell their own stories than let reporters do it for them”? How brave is Osaka in ditching press conferences for social media platforms where, as Jones puts it, “she can control the conversation without risk to herself”?

Everyone wants that kind of control. But who has that privilege? Only the most powerful. Billionaires. Those with “massive social-media followings.” Celebrities who own their own media companies.

Celebrities who own their own media companies. Would that be Tom Brady? Why, yes it would. And to these alternative-reality bubble-blowers we might add celebrities with leverage over mainstream media companies. Like Michael Jordan, who was given editorial control over the 10-part ESPN documentary The Last Dance, which wasn’t exactly a warts-and-all portrait of the superstar basketball player. Or we might think of LeBron James, whose Space Jam 2: A New Legacy was nothing if not an exercise in personal-corporate branding. These athletes are immensely talented in their field, but also smart enough to know how much money can be made as a brand. They are Image Builders, in Busbee’s phrase.

I wrote about this in a post several years ago that I’ve since updated a few times. But it’s worth repeating: a celebrity, or really any individual in a position of wealth and power, will manage their public profile very carefully. Which means that representations of these people, whether in the form of interviews, documentaries, official/authorized biographies, or anything else like that, are pretty much worthless. They are only advertisements for a brand.

Of course the chief reason they do this is to make money. But it’s not all about the money. This was brought home to me in the second bit of NFL news I wanted to talk about. In an interview for ESPN former Pittsburgh Steeler quarterback and long-time Fox Sports commentator Terry Bradshaw was asked about any regrets he might have looking back on his career. His response was surprising:

“If there’s one thing in my life I do wish I had . . . I wish I was loved and respected. . . . And I understand, I know I don’t deserve this, I just wish I had it. Like [Tom] Brady, and like Peyton [Manning], Roger Staubach . . . ”

At least it was surprising for a moment. But then I thought of Brett Favre, the quarterback of the Green Bay Packers who left that team under something of a cloud, apparently because he didn’t like the fact that the organization was moving on without him (his successor would find himself in a similar position a decade later). It was even reported that Favre might have talked to the manager of an opposing team to give them some inside scoop on the Packers out of spite. It’s hard to tell if this was really what was going on, but it sounded right. I mean, in more recent NFL news the quarterback Tom Brady retired and made a lengthy statement that didn’t even mention the team he’d played on for twenty years and that he only left at the end of his career in order to make another Super Bowl run.

It would be easy to write Favre and Brady off as just a pair of divas. But as Bradshaw’s interview suggests I think it goes deeper than that. All three of these quarterbacks were idolized not just in their home markets but nationwide. They achieved the most that anyone could achieve in their sport: Super Bowl rings and entry into the Hall of Fame (not yet for Brady, but a foregone conclusion for the player many consider to be the greatest of all time). They of course became fabulously rich, and in the case of Bradshaw and Favre went on to become film and television figures who could also cash in on how well liked they were. Indeed, according to Wikipedia: “Among U.S. consumers, Bradshaw remains one of pro football’s most popular retired players. As of September 2007, Bradshaw was the top-ranked former pro football player in the Davie-Brown Index (DBI), which surveys consumers to determine a celebrity’s appeal and trust levels.”

This is the guy whose greatest regret is that he wished he received more love and respect.

To have done so much, gained so much fame and recognition, to be worshipped as gods, and yet . . . to take away from it that it wasn’t enough. They wanted more. More respect. More love. They had been treated so unfairly.

In my earlier post on Osaka I mentioned how her media strategy was taken straight out of the Trump playbook: grievance used as an excuse to tightly manage and control one’s coverage. Unsurprisingly, Trump would also become a bubble blower with his own media company, the Trump Media & Technology Group. I suppose it’s just a coincidence that Favre and Brady are both big Trump supporters (and golf buddies), since Bradshaw was a critic, at least when Trump was in office. But it’s interesting to look at the psychology in play here through the lens of Mary Trump’s profile of her uncle in Too Much and Never Enough. In that book she saw Trump’s narcissism as at least partially being a way of acting out a need for love he didn’t receive from his father.

Are today’s celebrities damaged in the same way? Will too much ever be enough to satisfy their craving for more? More money, more attention, more respect, more love? And how accommodating will supposedly objective media have to become in order to placate these needs?

Isolating in style

As the super-rich continue to rake in the pandemic bucks (billionaires in the U.S. have seen their wealth grow by over 44% during the COVID-19 crisis) they have gone on a buying spree of superyachts. According to a VesselsValue report there were a record 887 superyachts sold last year, which is up 77% from 2020. One of the newest has been built for Jeff Bezos (whose wealth increased by $24 billion just in the past two years) and it’s been in the news recently because it will apparently require the temporary dismantling of a historic bridge in Rotterdam to get it out into open water.

What caught my eye reading one report about the growth of the superyacht industry was a quote from Sam Tucker (of VesselsValue) who said that the spike in sales can be attributed to “the increased need for privacy and private isolation” that superyachts provide.

Really? This is a need? Billionaires can’t safely self-isolate within their gated estates? Small armies of security details can’t ensure privacy anywhere but on a yacht? How much privacy are we talking about? How much isolation?

This sounds like camouflage for what is basically just more conspicuous consumption by the ultra-rich. As long ago as April 2020 CNN ran a story on the practicality of riding the pandemic out on a yacht:

Rumble Romagnoli, CEO of Relevance, a luxury digital marketing company headquartered in iconic yachting destination Monaco, is skeptical of the notion, pointing out that the practicalities involved make it an unfeasible choice for most.

“I think it’s a bit unrealistic to think people are going to swan off, get on board a yacht and just sit in the middle of the sea,” he says.

He also stresses that being stuck in the middle of the sea for weeks on end would prove tedious for most, even if they have lavish amenities at their disposal — “Rising Sun” has a wine cellar and a basketball court onboard.

“These billionaires and multi-millionaires don’t just stay on a yacht for two to three months. It’s not that pleasurable,” he adds.

“They fly over, get on a yacht, go to a restaurant, get off the yacht for lunch, go to a nightclub, get a helicopter somewhere else.

“It’s not like a villa. It can be quite claustrophobic.”

Also, with a full crew on board, as well as passengers, the risk of possible infection cannot be ignored.

The CNN story came out partially as a response to the Instagram post by David Geffen, where the billionaire mogul captioned a picture of his superyacht with the message “Isolated in the Grenadines.” That didn’t go down well (the post was later deleted), and it adds to my suspicion that what the billionaires really want to isolate from is bad press. But how do you quarantine from that? Can a media bubble be blown big enough to go around the world?

Tilt! Tilt!

Erin O’Toole is out as leader of the Conservative Party.

This came as a bit of a surprise, if only because I wasn’t aware they were even having a vote to remove him. In the event, 73 out of 118 MPs voted for his ouster, which is pretty emphatic.

O’Toole was not an inspiring leader, though the Conservatives did win the popular vote in the 2021 federal election (as they did in 2019). Apparently the main complaint against him was that he was too much of a centrist on issues like abortion, a carbon tax, balancing the budget, and firearms. In the way they speak of these things, this made him more of a Red than a Blue Tory.

What his removal seems to signal is a tilting of the Conservatives toward right-wing populism. Personally, I think there is some sense in dumping O’Toole if only for his lack of charisma and inability to be the party’s standard-bearer. But I don’t see how running further to the right, even if only on culture-war issues, is going to help the Tories. And if the switch was driven by an unhappiness among the grass-roots about mask mandates and cancel culture, we may be entering into a period of deeply unserious politics. This is too bad, because I think Justin Trudeau has shown himself to be a corrupt and ineffective prime minister. The country can do better, but I’m afraid better is not going to be a choice moving forward.

Pandemic lite

Rolling, rolling, rolling. (CP – David Lipnowski)

A convoy of truckers, dubbed by some the Freedom Rally, is driving to Ottawa to protest vaccine mandates. Thousands of protesters and counter-protesters are expected to welcome them this weekend.

Commentators often express surprise at how the COVID-19 pandemic became so political. I think it’s been a combination of two things. In the first place, the various lockdowns have had a huge negative impact on a lot of people’s lives. As I’ve said before, the fallout from this is going to be profound, and will be felt for years.

Then there’s the problem, if I can call it that, of COVID not being deadly enough. Make no mistake: we were lucky, given the poor response countries around the world had to its outbreak, that it was so mild. If you are under the age of 65 with no underlying medical conditions the infection fatality rate is 0.5% or less. The last time I checked, two-thirds of Canada’s deaths due to COVID were of people over the age of 80. The average life expectancy of a Canadian male is 80.

But it’s because the disease itself has been so mild that people have been given license not to take it seriously and turn it into political theatre (or just plain theatre). When Trump got back from his hospital stay after contracting COVID he originally wanted to stand outside the White House and take his jacket off to reveal a Superman shirt. That’s not being serious. Boris Johnson having parties in violation of his own restrictions on such gatherings is not being serious.

But why should we be serious when COVID was no big deal? Professional athletes like Novak Djokovic and Aaron Rodgers could afford to blow off any rules and regulations on reporting their status and condition both because they’re fabulously wealthy and because even after testing positive for COVID they were still able to physically perform at the highest level.

Look, if COVID had been a particularly lethal disease none of this would be happening. Everyone would be getting vaccinated. But because the stats are what they are people don’t feel personally at risk. Sure they might get sick for a few days, but otherwise what are the consequences?

And there’s the rub. A year ago I said that one of the good things to come out of the pandemic would be what we learned from the experience. Unfortunately, that can cut both ways. We’re lucky that COVID-19 turned out to be so (relatively) harmless. It wasn’t the Black Death, the Spanish Flu of 1918, or even SARS 2003. But given how mild it was I’m afraid that the next time, and there will be a next time, when we may have to deal with something a lot more serious, our immediate response is going to be influenced by our experience with COVID-19 and our skepticism of how the government handled it. A resistance to vaccines will be dug in. This may turn out to be one of the most damaging results of the pandemic.

When condos go bad

Fascinating story reported by the CBC today about a derelict condo building in one of Toronto’s less fashionable neighbourhoods.

As much as $9 million of debt plus a rapidly deteriorating structure have caught up to York Condominium Corporation No. 82, which runs the 321-unit building in the Jane and Finch neighbourhood. And last week, an Ontario Superior Court judge cited an engineering report that found repairs needed in the 10-storey building over the next year would cost more than $14 million.

Like all condominium corporations, this one is overseen by a small group of owners elected to a board of directors. They have the power under Ontario’s Condominium Act to require all owners to pay for common expenses, no matter the price tag.

So that’s what they did.

On Sept. 2, the corporation sent letters to all owners informing them they had 15 days to pay a special assessment ranging from $30,000 to $42,500 per unit depending on its size — on top of monthly maintenance fees of about $800.

The total $11.2 million raised would be used to repay loans and chip away at a list of 70 repairs ranging from replacing plumbing to upgrading elevators to restoring the party room that’s been shuttered for the past 15 years, the letter said.

Apparently the total bill for repairs will be over $14 million. It’s a story that made me think of the collapse of the condo building in Surfside, Florida last year. It doesn’t sound like there’s any solution to a problem this large. What really shocked me though is that the resident they interviewed was paying a whopping $900 a month in condo fees to live in a “dangerous and dilapidated” building. This is insane, and highlights how poor people in bad situations can’t get ahead.

Meanwhile, residents, many of them seniors, are protesting the special assessment. But as at Surfside, this is pretty much their only option. You can blame lots of people for letting things get to this point, but they’ve made their bed and are going to have to lie, or die, in it.

One night in Dubai

Not going anywhere for a while.

Magnus Carlsen has defeated Ian Nepomniachtchi at the World Chess Championship, held this year in Dubai. This is Carlsen’s fifth championship and gives him some claim to be the greatest chess player of all time.

I followed the match intermittently, mostly through recaps. I didn’t have the patience, or the understanding, to watch any of the games live. The sixth game, which was the turning point in this contest, was the longest in the history of the WCC, clocking in at nearly 8 hours (136 moves). A great game, but hard to follow for the casual fan.

To my inexpert eye the early games were kind of interesting. They were all draws, and indeed Game 3 was rated the most accurate game ever played, as judged by the computer engines. Of course it was a draw. At the highest levels chess is sort of like a staring match. At one of the early press conferences Nepomniachtchi remarked that the only way to have decisions was if someone made a mistake. In the later games he would prove himself correct by making a number of bad ones. After Game 6 he really didn’t seem that interested any more. So not a great event, and one that just seemed kind of sad at the end.

Chess played online has enjoyed an explosion of popularity in the last couple of years, with many of the top players and Internet personalities becoming stars. But there’s also a trend toward faster formats like Rapid and Blitz that will likely continue, while classical chess will remain more of a prestige event. What I do like about all of this is the fact that even though computers are better at chess than humans now, we still want to watch humans compete.

Jury duty

Elizabeth Holmes, looking for a jury of her peers. (CNBC)

Elizabeth Holmes is the founder of Theranos who got charged with various counts of wire fraud. I haven’t been following her trial much at all, but I was struck by a news item about it this week.

What happened is that a juror was dismissed for playing Sudoku while the trial was going on. This led to her being called out by the judge:

“I do have Sudoku, but it doesn’t interfere with me listening,” the juror said. “I’m very fidgety, so I need to do something with my hands. So at home I’ll crochet while I’m watching or listening to T.V.”

In chambers, [Judge Edward] Davila asked the juror: “So has this distracted you from listening?”

“No,” the juror said.

“Have you been able to follow and retain everything that is going on in the courtroom?” Davila asked. “Oh, yeah, definitely,” the juror said.

I guess the judge wasn’t buying it because the juror was dismissed. This seems a bit harsh. A lot of what happens in any trial doesn’t take one’s full attention to follow. I don’t see anything wrong, at least to the point of disqualification, with doing a puzzle. It’s not much worse than doodling.

As part of the same story there was another item that caught my eye. Apparently this is the third juror to have been dismissed, as “a second juror was removed two weeks ago after revealing that, due to her Buddhist beliefs, she could not in good conscious [sic} return a verdict that may send Holmes to prison.”

This surprised me as well. Buddhists can’t send people to prison? I could see them being against the death penalty, but they’re against all incarceration? That seems like a pretty strict sort of Buddhism. I wonder if this was just an excuse the juror was using so they could go home. But then why did they take so long to notify the judge about their having an issue with the penalty? And shouldn’t this have come up during the jury selection process? This trial is a pretty big deal, after all.

Anyway, there you have it. You can’t play Sudoku in the jury box and if you’re a Buddhist . . . I guess you can’t be on a jury at all, at least if there’s any jail time involved.


The Canadian flag flying from the Peace Tower on Parliament Hill has been at half-mast since May 30. That’s quite a long time. It was lowered in remembrance of the victims of residential schools. It’s unclear when it will be raised again. Prime Minister Trudeau has expressed the point of view that he has no authority to raise it, and that this can only be done after consultation with Indigenous leaders.

If we can’t say exactly when it will be raised again, I think it’s a safe bet that it will be up by November 11, when it is lowered in remembrance of fallen soldiers. That this is so indicates, I think, what a transparently political stunt it is. Yes, it’s more virtue signaling of the most blatant kind by our terminally woke prime minister.

Most of the criticism directed at the lowered flag has come from conservative commentators. They see it as disrespectful and expressing national self-loathing. I don’t care about any of that. What bothers me is its emptiness. This past week also saw the government of New Brunswick ask its employees to stop making land acknowledgments in reference to what may be Indigenous lands, as First Nations groups have begun a court case claiming ownership and title to over 60% of the province.

I’ve never liked the land acknowledgments. Like the lowered flag they are merely gestures, bankrupt of meaning. The lowered flag, however, is mostly harmless. The land acknowledgments are more invidious. But you can hardly blame Indigenous groups for wanting to take them at face value, and demanding courts do the same. I remember a few years ago hearing one Indigenous band member claiming restitution from a single, not-very-affluent Ontario municipality, in the trillions of dollars. That’s not a typo.

Another example of the same sort of thing — an expression of some moral principle never meant to be taken literally — can be seen in the diversity and equity movement. If you truly believe that your job is the result of your white privilege, shouldn’t you act on that by resigning so that a BIPOC person can have it?

But that would mean taking any of this seriously. The rhetoric and symbolism of woke culture is the essence of virtue signaling, by which I mean it’s a call for other people to make sacrifices and restitution for your beliefs. This makes signalers feel better about themselves. Presumably there is also some political payoff, but I think that’s starting to go into reverse. These virtuous balloons will burst. It’s all beginning to seem like the Great Loyalty Oath Crusade in Catch-22. It may, and I hope it will, end just as quickly.