While traveling with Rush and friends

“Democracy requires citizens to see things from one another’s point of view, but instead were more and more enclosed in our own bubbles. Democracy requires a reliance on shared facts; instead were being offered parallel but separate universes.”
― Eli Pariser, The Filter Bubble: What the Internet is Hiding From You

While travelling by myself in the United States last week, I managed to kill a few hours on the road by tuning into a favourite distraction of mine whenever I’m enduring the monotony of traffic on the interstate: talk radio. For anyone who is a fan of CBC, please do not confuse Canada’s public broadcaster with what I’m referencing. Specifically, I had two days of Rush Limbaugh supplemented with one morning where I got to listen to a guy subbing on the Glen Beck “program”, not “show”, the latter term, I’m guessing, having been judged too frivolous for something as weighty as a Glen Beck product.

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If you’ve detected a measure of derision in my tone regarding these two luminaries of American media, good for you. Listening to these guys and others of their ilk is a perilous journey from frustration to dismay to occasional laughter and any number of other responses. The two programs and their respective hosts share certain oft-repeated themes: President Obama is responsible for – through such things as Obamacare, efforts to conclude a trans-Pacific trade deal and the like, his handling of ISIS and foreign policy in general – all that is wrong with America; the “American Left” doesn’t care about America or the constitution; questions regarding the conduct of police throughout America are an affront to law enforcement and entirely misplaced. You get the picture.

Just about everyone talks about their guilty pleasures; well, this is one of mine. I find these guys fascinating. Rush was the one, in particular, that I managed to listen to for the better part of six hours over two days and, as I said, my responses can’t help being all over the place. A friend of mine, when I told her what I had been up to, commented that I must have been swearing and exclaiming all the way down the I-95 and she was spot-on.
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Someone might rightly ask at this point: why do you bother? As I said, though, “fascinating” is the best adjective for how I regard the experience. At times, the extremity of opinion seems to me to be so far from any intelligent regard for the facts that I can’t help exclaiming “are you serious?!?” For example, in Rush Limbaugh’s world view, as far as I can figure out, racism is not a factor in any dealings the police have with African-Americans. Such purported racism does not, in fact, exist and that is all there is to it. Also, in case you were wondering, no good idea can conceivably emerge from a Democrat. Rush, therefore, admits he is mystified that some Republicans have come out in support of President Obama’s approach to trade. In Rushworld, such support is prima facie evidence of derangement, something akin to making a deal with the devil, as far as I can tell.

For all that I find it funny in a certain way, I can’t help reminding myself that this guy and others like him represent a certain mainstream element of public opinion in the United States, however crazy and extreme such opinion might seem to me. And, when I listen to such programs, every once in a while, something is said that has a kernel of truth or good sense, even if the truth or sense has been distorted by the bizarre way in which the Rush Limbaughs and Glen Becks choose to talk about such things. When I consider the polarization that so many have remarked upon as being a defining feature of the political culture of the USA, I am thankful that we haven’t gone so far here in Canada.
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At the same time, I am worried by the trends I see at home. More and more, there is a tendency in public discourse to paint things in the stark and simplistic terms that have triumphed in that bizarre radio world I was listening to last week. Stephen Harper is a dictator and the federal Conservative Party is engaged in an ongoing assault upon the very core of our democratic principles; Justin Trudeau is nothing but the pretty public face of a party that is fundamentally morally bankrupt and without ideas; Tom Mulcair (if you’ve even heard of him) and the NDP are in the pockets of large unions and will sacrifice everything in pursuit of a socialist agenda. Conversely, the Conservatives (and Harper) are the only party that can be trusted to manage the economy, protect families and keep us safe; the Liberals are the only ones who can reassert cherished Canadian values, heal our violated criminal code and restore Canada’s standing in the world; the NDP alone can ensure justice and fair treatment for the middle class, protect the environment, and bring about the change the electorate constantly seeks (apparently).
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Happily, Canadians, by and large, don’t seem as easily drawn to the rank partisanship that has become so frequently displayed in the United States. At the same time, as we approach a federal election in the fall, I am concerned about the increasing trend toward such divisiveness. Columnists, advertising, and news reports more frequently portray our choices in stark, oppositional terms. Trying to understand why we are so drawn to this model had a great deal to do with my starting this blog in the first place.

Rush Limbaugh’s view of the world has the virtue of simplicity. In his bizarre take on just about everything it all comes down to “us vs. them”. The basic service he offers involves defining who “they” are so that we might position ourselves very clearly on the “us” side. When our world, however you might define it for yourself, changes as rapidly as it does these days, it’s nice to have some kind of anchor that reassures us all is right with that world. However, while the simplistic characterizations of people and of events so frequent in the USA can be comforting, they are fundamentally destructive. They breed a deep and abiding cynicism that is, itself, evidence of gross oversimplification and a failure to consider issues in depth.

Canada may not be there yet but I fear we are on the road to that place. I hope the campaign to come federally proves me wrong. I hope Canadians realize that the choices before us are variations on a theme rather than between virtue and vice. The parties have to take some responsibility for ensuring that such is the case but I believe we all have a responsibility in this regard. Each of us, like it or not, is a testament to the truth that we only and always get the government we deserve. At least in a democracy we do, and we are lucky enough to live in one.

When everyone’s an expert

Incestuous, homogeneous fiefdoms of self-proclaimed expertise are always rank-closing and mutually self-defending, above all else.
― Glenn Greenwald

I feel the need to remind myself – and anyone who might be reading – of the origin of this blog’s name: unabsolutedotcom. The founding premise was that even the seemingly simplest of issues is far more complex than it might first appear. In and of itself, I wouldn’t blame anyone for saying “so what?” What is to be gained by acknowledging complexity? Shouldn’t we leave the details (of whatever) to those who have the knowledge and expertise? As Hamlet would say, though “there’s the rub”. What constitutes expertise these days? Do we know? Have we given it much thought?

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In fact, my recent observations lead me to conclude that our current view of the very notion of expertise is tinged with a persistent cynicism. If someone presents him or herself as an expert in subject X, should such an expert’s view of an issue differ from our own, I wouldn’t be surprised to see that view dismissed. As a general rule, would-be experts are valued only inasmuch as they validate our established positions on issues. In fact, the nature of information these days is such that an “expert” can be found to support just about anything.

Accounting for this phenomenon isn’t that hard. I’m old enough to remember a time when information of the more esoteric variety could be found only in books. Even then, if you were looking for something especially obscure, the public library wasn’t enough. If you were lucky enough to have a university in your community, you might visit its library but even then, depending on just HOW obscure your topic was, that could be a dead-end. When I was working on my thesis for my M.A., I had to physically visit archives as far away as Boston in order to find materials relevant to my topic.

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Compare that to today. I don’t think I’m so much different from anyone else: if a question about something occurs to me, I immediately head to the nearest internet connection (phone, tablet, desktop, laptop, etc) and “google it”. For the most part, that poses few problems since I’m usually looking for simple information. When that same internet becomes the chief source of our understanding of complex issues, I become concerned. I’m not the first one to say it but it bears repeating: finding it on the internet does not make it true.

The same warning used to apply to newspapers, as in, “just because you read it in the newspaper doesn’t mean it’s true”. This warning becomes all the more compelling when applied to the online world. At least newspapers then and now answer to editorial staffs and to a general code of conduct that helps them to avoid the worst inaccuracies. Internet sources, as far as I can tell, answer to no one. That isn’t to say that all things internet are unreliable; rather, it is the unfiltered quality that makes the entirety problematic. If something is found on a website whose pedigree is clear, we can take comfort. Determining that pedigree, however, can be difficult in its own right.

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As more and more people, organizations and interest groups come to understand the freedom the internet offers to present a particular point-of-view, it should come as no surprise that objective information on any subject is hard to come by. At the same time, those offering information online commonly make arguments that are intended to prove just how objective they are, even if their partiality is especially evident. Perhaps the clearest example of this would be Fox News whose tagline, “fair and balanced”, is laughable to all but the most indoctrinated. At the same time, the continuing insistence by such a prominent and mainstream source that it is fair and balanced feeds the very cynicism that I find so regrettable.

I would argue (and it’s an old argument) that where news reporting is concerned no such thing as absolute objectivity exists. By virtue of the fact that a certain thing becomes news while something else doesn’t, we know that someone, somewhere, has made a judgement call. In the end, the most surprising reality, to me, is that we seem to have lost sight of that fact. Perhaps we choose to ignore such an understanding as long as the source of our news confirms our point-of-view?

I suppose that simply makes us all human. What one of us doesn’t like to have our point-of-view confirmed as appropriate and right? All the same, what happens when easy access to “expert” information makes anyone who takes the time to read a few articles imagine that he/she is now well-informed?

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Our oversimplification of notions of equality has fed this delusion. In our continuing preoccupation with ensuring that no one is offended, we imagine that anyone’s opinion on anything is equal to the opinion held by anyone else. Maybe we should call it the democratization of opinion, a phenomenon where no single thing can ever be considered simply correct; rather, all opinions – no matter how outlandish – have weight because someone has them. And if you doubt the validity of a certain position, be prepared to counter the online experts who can be summoned in defense of just about anything.

True expertise in anything is a product of time (study being a large component) and experience. These days, loudness and aggression can often substitute. While such behaviours make for good copy on news feeds, they seldom lead to good decisions. Passion by itself is no substitute for understanding. The former is often easy to summon while the latter takes effort, far more effort than entering a subject line and pressing “search”.

And they call it democracy

Many forms of Gov­ern­ment have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pre­tends that democ­racy is per­fect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democ­racy is the worst form of Gov­ern­ment except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.
– Winston Churchill (House of Com­mons, 11 Novem­ber 1947)

“If Bolivia and Bulgaria can do it, surely we can, too”. Such was the wisdom offered by a commentator I heard this morning in reference to the election result this week in Prince Edward Island. The “it” that we should be able to do if we follow the lead of our South American and Eastern European confreres is proportional representation, a topic that comes up just about every time a majority government is formed with something less than 50% of the electorate choosing the victorious party. In the PEI case, the popular vote favoured the Liberals by around 4% apparently, even though they won more than double the number of seats of their closest competitor, the Progressive Conservatives.

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Yesterday’s election in Alberta provided an even more interesting result. Beyond the fact of an NDP majority – a result that will be analyzed and watched for all kinds of reasons – note that the PCs managed only 10 seats to the Wildrose Party’s 21, even though the PCs outdistanced Wildrose by 28% to 24% as far as the popular vote goes. Interesting in its own right, I would say. The cynic in me imagines that the same people who complain about the proportional MISrepresentation in other elections probably won’t be quite as vocal when it comes to this nugget. As for me, I’m satisfied that Canada’s particular approach to democracy has proven itself yet again: those who took the time to vote can be confident that their votes were counted properly, that no one tried to stuff a ballot box, and that the transition from almost 44 years of PC rule to the new NDP government will take place peacefully and with grace.

By now you may have figured out that I’m no fan of proportional representation. My lack of dismay at the Alberta case might cause some puzzlement but such seemingly skewed results in Alberta are a small price to pay for a system that has provided peace, quality of life and, according to a recent assessment of happiness worldwide, fifth place in the world when happiness is measured. As for the last, I can’t help but provide such a statistic with a little tongue-in-cheek. I’m hard pressed to think of how such a thing could ever be measured in a way that would stand up to hard, scientific analysis. Nevertheless, it’s fun to have such stats, I suppose, and I would guess it’s not all that far off. In light of so much that we see of the world on a daily basis, who could blame us for being a little more than simply satisfied with life in Canada.

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As for Bolivia and Bulgaria, I’m not sure where they polled on the happiness index but I know they didn’t surpass us. And while I know the speaker who referenced these two countries did so more for rhetorical effect than to suggest we should emulate either in its entirety, I disagree with the core argument anyway. For all its seeming defensibility, proportional representation, to my mind, is in no way inherently superior to our own first-past-the-post system. And that last word is the most important: system.

Having recently been retired from elected office, I have seen the system from the inside although, to date, I have chosen to write only a little about that experience. For my purposes here let me say, simply, it is as imperfect as anyone who has spent time criticizing politics might imagine. The people who populate government and opposition, whether elected or civil service, are prey to all the flaws and foibles that afflict any human enterprise. For all that certain constituencies want to demonize politicians in particular, the people I met were just that, people. Each had his/her strengths and weaknesses as anyone would. Being constantly scrutinized by many who would look for any opportunity to vilify you might understandably lead to a certain reticence and reserve, but I did not meet the moral bankruptcy that some would have us believe is the common denominator among politicians.

My point, simply, is that politicians are us and should not be considered the same as the system in which they work. The system, as it turns out, is bigger than any of us. We might ask, what is the system intended to do? Think of it in a simpler context: what is a “system” of traffic lights designed to do? Ensure the proper flow of traffic. What is an electoral system supposed to do? Hmmm.

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The answer to the latter, of course, is far more complicated than the traffic light example but I do believe all systems that provide governance have a united purpose: stable, effective government. Churchill famously complained about the horrors of democracy, noting that its saving grace was simply that it was better than any of the alternatives. And, as we have come to realize, democracy can come in a number of flavours. And it just so happens that I like ours.

Regardless of its purported inequities, our first-past-the-post, party system tends to provide governments that can conduct business without the gridlock that has become the norm even for our neighbor to the south, a country which practices a kind of hybrid of ours where party affiliation does not necessarily mean uniform policy. And as far as I know, not many Canadians spend their time wishing they could trade places with the USA.

In the end, I simply want to acknowledge two things: our democratic system is far from perfect and will, no doubt, change with time, maybe even finding its way to some brand of proportional representation some day; at the same time, the system as it exists has given Canadians much to be grateful for and we should never allow ourselves to lose sight of that. The cynicism I so often hear expressed fails to recognize that and it galls me.

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As well, as the Alberta result shows, surprises can still occur. For all that many feel, at times, that we are locked in a seesaw battle between dominant elites out of touch with the day-to-day reality of “ordinary Canadians”, the long view would suggest that even in Canada, the political landscape can change. Just ask Jim Prentice.

There (NYC) and back again

Perhaps home is not a place but simply an irrevocable condition.
― James Baldwin, Giovanni’s Room

New York City has long been a favourite destination of mine. Back in 1976, I visited for the first time with my brother as part of a summer adventure that saw us travel coast to coast and back again. As an 18 year old experiencing the enormity of New York for the first time, I was understandably awestruck. Mind you, it was a far different city then from what it has become.

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42nd Street was, shall we say, “seedy” to be kind. While Broadway was undoubtedly a huge attraction, the high-minded, artful Big Apple sat side-by-side with peep shows aplenty and street attractions that I haven’t seen since that first visit, and I’ve been back many times. And for all the times that I’ve been there, only on that first visit was I ever afraid. While walking along 7th Avenue near Times Square, I managed to attract the attention of some nefarious types who made me uncomfortable even if nothing detrimental to my health actually happened.

Still, once New York gets in your blood, it’s pretty hard to stay away. On my most recent visit, I was explaining to my companion on the journey that no city I’ve seen is built on the scale of New York. I’ve been to cities that have larger populations and far crazier traffic (Bangkok in particular comes to mind – consider being in a taxicab that stalls in the middle of some eight to ten lanes to traffic and just won’t start – been there, done that). But New York’s enormity is unique, a fact that was explained for me, in part, by a statistic I encountered in a publication that came with my subscription to The Economist magazine, “Pocket World in Figures.”

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Among the minutiae describing population and various statistics regarding age, demographics, median income and the like was a list of cities with the most skyscrapers. While I can’t say for sure what the rule is for designating buildings as such, two things struck me: Toronto came second with 1,993; New York was first with 5,888! Toronto’s position as number two was surprising but the distance between first and second place was what caused my jaw to drop. No wonder New York immediately impresses you with its size. So much of it is just so BIG!

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On this latest trip, by virtue of where we were staying (New Jersey), our day in the city always began at the World Trade Centre. While the site remains a work in progress, the centerpiece of the redevelopment, the new building – One World Trade Centre – is largely complete. While nothing could ever replace the twin towers, the new building is a worthy successor. As luck would have it, we were able to watch a documentary on the construction of the building not long after we returned to Saint John. Knowing the details of the construction simply enhanced the wonder the sight of the structure had engendered in me. Enshrouded in glass, it is a huge needle that draws your eye anytime it appears in your field of vision.

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Otherwise, the city remained its usual, frantic self. Over the course of our five days there, we checked out Central Park just to be reminded that trees do bloom and that Saint John’s turn will come, even if it is a month or so behind. The Staten Island Ferry, with its great views of the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, Manhattan and New York Harbor continues to be the best ticket for the price of just about anywhere. That being said, if you haven’t done the cycle of New Brunswick’s ferries on a beautiful summer day, you need to make a plan and make sure you do.

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A Yankees-Mets game, Broadway shows, a visit to Brooklyn, good food galore, the sights and shopping: five days well-spent, I say. Towards the end of our time we managed to encounter a couple of protests, louder versions of the overall impression I always have of New York: this is a place where “things are happening”. I know the same can be said of any of the world’s major cities but something about its physical presence makes everything in New York conform to its image as the BIG Apple. I always feel that I’m somehow closer to the pulse of the world when I visit. And I enjoy that.

At the same time, when the day came that it was time to leave, it didn’t take me long to remember why New York is always a nice place to visit but not somewhere that I would necessarily want to live for a long time. As you leave the city and head northward you eventually get beyond the traffic that stays with you almost as far as Augusta. Once past Maine’s capital, though, things begin to revert to the pace that we think of as “Maritime” and, quite frankly, I breathe a sigh of relief.

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No matter where I go, it’s always the same it seems, especially if I’m driving back from the U.S. When I come over the rise on Highway #1 where the city is laid before you, it always looks particularly beautiful to me. Which, I suppose, goes a long way toward proving the old adage, at least for me, that “there’s no place like home.” In my case, that’s Saint John – always was, always will be.