The Reason I’m Not On Twitter

Many years ago, the last time I was actively blogging, I had a Twitter account. I was connected with most of the Blogging Tories, and following not a few Twitter feeds in the mainstream media (Canadian and American), and things were good.

However, a couple of years ago, the IT people at the government department I work at decided that Twitter had become so toxic that it would no longer be suitable for work. And so everyone lost access to Twitter via their workstations, though they still had access on their own private accounts.

Frankly I don’t blame the IT people for thinking the way they did, and do. I also noticed that I wasn’t writing as many tweets as I used to, since my own nature makes me a net consumer of online information rather than a net producer. So, last year, I decided to cancel my Twitter account.

I will say this much: it was much easier than my attempts to cancel basic cable. It seems that Canadian cable service technical support is more interested in trying to sell you more services than actually helping you do what you want to do.

Actually I don’t miss Twitter. You can only say so much in 140 characters, and a good deal of the time, most Twitter users seem to have turned off their judgement whenever they post a tweet. Spur-of-the-moment responses may get more traffic, but they won’t make the universal conversation any more civilized.

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Welcome to 2018

Yes, I’m back.

I’m not sure if I can explain my absence. Lost interest, perhaps. In terms of politics, there was certainly a lot of fodder to work with, but …

Here’s the thing. Justin Trudeau is essentially a okay prime minister. He’s not up to Stephen Harper’s class in terms of consequential politics; and he’s certainly not up to his father or Jean Chrétien, on those same terms. He is, however, better than Paul Martin, meaning he’s not a mediocrity. We’re seeing some mistakes, but fortunately it would seem the Liberals have finally learned to resist the temptation to look arrogant outside Central Canada.

South of the border, however …

Okay, if you had told me, two years ago, that Donald Trump would be president of the United States, I would have laughed in your face. In fact my initial reaction in November, upon waking up to the news, was to laugh in derision.

Since then, Mr. Trump has proven to be an okay to slightly below average president, in terms of consequential politics. Actions re the Syrian situation, decisions on climate change and free trade, all pretty much par for the course for a protectionist, somewhat isolationist president.

The problem that most people have with him is that he’s not a professional politician. Period. So of course he’s going to come off pretty bad if you try to force him into that mold of a professional.

The real problem, of course, is the reaction of all those so-called “progressives” who merrily assumed that Hillary Clinton would simply sweep into power. The more die-hard of them are still plenty sore about it, because they cannot bring themselves to accept that the nation rejected their candidate — and, by extension, them. How they continue to work this out among themselves would be a source of great schaedenfreude for the coming year.

However, my intention for this blog is to ignore that, once again focusing on Canadian federal politics with the occasional foray into Ontario politics as the situation demands. We’ll see how it goes.

Posted in Blogging, Politics, Yankees | Tagged ,

An Intricate Feast: Reviewing The Letters of Ernest Hemingway, 1929-1931

Reading the private letters of a Great Author is a tricky proposition. On the one hand you hope to see flashes of genius that got you to like the author’s works in the first place. On the other, because such things were never intended for commercial publication, you run into things that can bore you or learn things that you wish you hadn’t.

It gets more complicated when the Great Author lived in a time before you were born, because the Author’s letters are to people you’ve probably never heard of, about events that you may have vaguely read about in college or the last time you browsed through Wikipedia. Which is why, if you’re assembling a collection of letters from a Great Author, you need good editors, to identify the correspondents and set the letters’ contents into a proper historical context.

Fortunately the Hemingway Letters Project has some very good editors. If you’re a fan of Hemingway’s works, you need to know about this project, as well as the collections they’ve published so far.

(Disclosure: this review is based on an advance reading copy of Volume 4, sent to me by Diana Rissetto of the Cambridge University Press for reviewing purposes. Thanks, ma’am.)

They made a few decisions that do help the letters read better, as well as help add to the reader’s understanding of Hemingway and his times. The major one is to reproduce, as much as is practicable, the punctuation, spelling errors and other eccentricities that Hemingway put in his text, both handwritten and typed. (On occasion, photo examples of Hemingway’s writing appear: in a letter to Owen Wister dated July 26, 1929, he writes a literary pun on “literary meter” and the metric system in the form of a math fraction, which is reproduced graphically; and there’s a dedication note to Doctor Carlos Guffey in a presentation copy of A Farewell To Arms, written with his left hand due to a bone in his right hand being fractured, presented as a holograph.) Yes, it does show a certain carelessness in his writing, but it illustrates a certain level of comfort with the people he writes to, that they’re not going to get anal about the occasional cross-out or mistype the way some social media virtue signallers would today.

The letters aren’t divided into chapters (say, for example, by year), but are reproduced as a continuous stream. Each letter is also followed by footnotes, which makes getting the historical context much easier to get than lumping the stuff in at the end the way most academic histories do. There’s a list of Hemingway’s correspondents at the end, which contains brief biographical sketches and is very helpful in understanding the relationships that the letters document.

The extent of Hemingway’s preserved correspondence, shown here, is quite astonishing. Yes, we do have letters to the famous and about the famous — plenty of letters to F. Scott Fitzgerald as well as his editor Maxwell Perkins, for example. But there are also inscriptions, in books, to readers who cherished his autograph, as well as a letter, in Spanish (with editor’s translation), to a Spanish official requesting fishing licenses. From a literary standpoint, there’s little value, but as a way of gaining insight into Hemingway’s character and personality during this period, they’re golden.

Any negatives about Volume 4? Well, unlike some of Hemingway’s novels, you’ll likely need more than a couple of evenings to get through it. Bear in mind that this is really a historical work as opposed to a literary one; if you like Hemingway’s works for the disciplined prose and artistry, you’ll definitely find it here, but it’ll require more effort on your part. The footnotes and explanatory texts are crammed for detail, and it would take a tremendous amount of discipline in reading to ignore them, in order to see the author’s voice in the same way you would in, say, A Movable Feast. That’s because that latter work was edited with an intent for casual reading; this is edited for History of American Letters 201, and while this historical stuff is invaluable, it’s a bit like a DVD audio commentary; you definitely want to see the movie first.

If you’re a serious fan and student of Hemingway’s work, then you definitely need to have The Letters collection in your library; so far four volumes are in print, out of a projected seventeen.

Posted in Book Reviews

Rob Ford, R.I.P.

There’s a talent called “the common touch:” the ability to connect, on an emotional level with a significant population. This is something that Rob Ford’s detractors, now that he’s passed on, are finally admitting that he had.

All politicians in modern democracies try to lay claim to this, in the belief that it enhances their electability; few people can actually demonstrate it. It doesn’t depend on the politician’s background; Ford came from a rich family, but his personal work ethic in office was geared towards constituent service; Rick Salutin has a convincing explanation as to why. It’s more likely to occur at the local level than at the regional or national; London’s old mayor Boris Johnson is probably the politician who comes closest to Ford when it comes to this talent.

The “common touch” is valuable in getting elected, but it has one great benefit: it keeps the politician politically viable in the face of voracious opposition or crippling scandal. Think of Washington, DC’s Marion Barry, who had substance-abuse scandals even worse than Ford’s; he did jail time, but still managed to get elected to a fourth term as mayor.

What’s interesting about Ford’s version of the “common touch” is that he was willing to work to maintain it:

Unlike colleagues who dealt only with constituent issues staffers brought to their attention, he spent his days personally returning phone calls about cracked sidewalks and uncollected garbage. . . .

“He would tell anyone who asked [about] how to get elected,” says [former Ford chief of staff Mark] Towhey, “and the advice was simple: return people’s phone calls, and go to their doors. But very few politicians like doing that. They want to be the general, not the private in the trenches.”

Naturally, my home being Ottawa, I can’t go thirty seconds in a social conversation without politics creeping in. Whenever the subject of Rob Ford came up, some people disapproved of this “personal touch” aspect of his mayoralty. “That’s someone else’s job,” they said, “leave that stuff to them. The mayor should be about the big picture.”

I’m not sure about that. I think Ford’s philosophy of “go to the doors” is a perfectly valid one, because it never lets the politician forget that “the taxpayer” isn’t a source of revenue, but a master to be served, who grades performance every election day. Whereas “big picture” thinking usually results in megaprojects with big costs, major inconveniences and returns below expectations, for a vision that changes with each new bum in the mayor’s chair.

One other thing about Ford’s work ethic. If American Republican Party politicians had adapted it, and kept it, during the Reagan and subsequent administrations, they wouldn’t be having a Donald Trump problem now.

Posted in Politics, R.I.P.

Hillary and the Attack of the IT-Men

Now, I know it’s the fashion to blog about Donald Trump these days, but I figure some more attention ought to be paid to the perceived Democratic frontrunner. Her current situation is, after all, much more relevant for the rest of us.

Yes, that’s right, more relevant. Mrs. Clinton isn’t exactly what you’d call a “unique” figure in contemporary politics. Mr. Trump is a millionaire businessman turned celebrity reality star conducting a serious political campaign; the closest I can think of is Rob Ford (who doesn’t qualify on “celebrity reality star” before getting elected mayor) or Jesse Ventura (who didn’t exactly qualify on “serious campaign”). Mrs. Clinton, on the other hand, was a senior public service administrator when she was SecState, a political appointee, and there are lots of those around Washington.

What’s more, the peculiar circumstances of this particular scandal are such that anyone who’s ever worked on any government computer network can understand how the mess started.

For those of you who’ve never had an account with a government network, when you get assigned a government account, you also get a briefing before you’re allowed to use it. Most of it covers what you can and can’t use that account for, some of which is common sense (you shouldn’t be looking at porn sites while at work anyway, unless you’re in the business), and some of it can get pretty esoteric (why certain graphics on certain pages aren’t going to work). The briefings will be longer and more detailed if you’re required to work with classified documents, which means that when you sign the paper at the end of it, it’s assumed that you’ll remember everything that was said.

Mrs. Clinton seems to have treated those briefings the same way that most of us treat those agreements we get whenever we update Windows or iOS or an important application: we “sign” it so that we get the application to work, without necessarily actually reading it. This goes a great deal towards explaining one of her 2011 e-mails:

UNCLASSIFIED U.S. Department of State Case No. F-2014-20439 Doc No. C05787519 Date: 01/07/2016
RELEASE IN PART
B5,B6
From:
H <XXXXX@clintonemail.com>
Sent: Friday, June 17, 2011 8:21 AM
To: ‘sullivanjj@state.gov’
Subject:
Re
If they can’t, turn into nonpaper w no identifying heading and send nonsecure.

 

(Incidentally, if you want to find the original, you can do so in the U.S. State Department’s virtual reading room. Just input “sullivan,” “nonpaper” and “nonsecure” and it’ll be the first document that pops up. Oh, and I wouldn’t bother trying that e-mail address; I xed out the exact mailbox, and anyway presumably Mrs. Clinton’s changed it by now.)

Now, granted, most people, while seeing that exchange, will assume that Mrs. Clinton ordered her staffer to send classified information over a non-classified fax line. But not so fast:

So I think this is another instance where what is common practice, namely, look, I need information, I had some points I had to make and I was waiting for a secure fax that could give me the whole picture, but often times there’s a lot of information that isn’t at all classified so whatever information can be appropriately transmitted unclassified often was – that’s true for every agency in the government and anyone who does business with the government.

 

Yes, that’s certainly true: a lot of classified documents do contain information that’s not classified, or in the public domain. Which is why Mrs. Clinton’s spokesperson called this particular revelation “overclassification run amok.”

Just one problem with this line of defence: Neither Mrs. Clinton nor her campaign staff get to declare what parts of a document are classified or should be declassified.

Declassifying information in a document is the job of, ultimately, whichever author or agency created the document in question. Part of the State Department scramble right now is over whether the information discussed can be declassified; if the answer is yes, then it will be, if only to save trouble all around in the long term.

But are we to believe that Mrs. Clinton is the only public official around whose practice of classified document discipline is so lax to be verging on the criminal? I would say, almost certainly not; you’ll remember that Maxime Bernier had to resign from a cabinet position due to a lapse of physical security. Security lapses likes these are always going to happen, so long as there are politicians around who don’t take IT security seriously, which means they’re going to happen long after Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Trump and Mr. Bernier are gone from the scene.

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Justin’s Intellectual Disadvantage

Well, that was an interesting speech our Prime Minister gave in Davos, wasn’t it? From the Liberal PR team’s standpoint, it was a hit, complete with money quote:

Canada was mostly known for its resources. I want you to know Canadians for our resourcefulness.

Mind you, that’s the official text. Elsewhere, particularly according to Andrew Coyne, there’s a slightly different version:

“My predecessor,” he began, “wanted you to know Canada for its resources. I want you to know Canadians for our resourcefulness.”

Okay, look: there’s nothing particularly wrong, or partisan, about the Stephen Harper reference. Yes, Tory economic management relied primarily on the resources sector to drive most of the economy, and whatever you want to say about its merits or deficiencies, at least we can argue that resources are a Canadian economic advantage; it’s the “how do we manage it” that gets most of the argument.

However, the more worrisome bit is this: Justin seems to be toting the idea that Canadian brain power — i.e. ideas and knowledge — are an economic advantage.

And that problem is, that’s not so easy to justify.

There’s a word for those who generate ideas based on their own knowledge, and who make a living at it: intellectual. Most people have it to some degree or other, but only a select few get to make their living with it, usually college and university professors. The last person we had like that, in politics, was Michael Ignatieff. And look what happened to him.

Justin seems to have forgotten that intellectualism can only become an advantage if there’s an opportunity to apply it. And the opportunity isn’t as big as he seems to think it is, because there are tons of very smart people out there who aren’t from Canada. Our system of education doesn’t generate very many Mark Carneys, or David Suzukis, and they pretty much run smack dab into a ton of David Camerons and Rupert Murdochs and Donald Trumps.

I mention Trump because it brings up another point: usually it’s not the smart guy who has the advantage. There are several candidates in the Republican presidential nomination race who have higher IQs than the New York tycoon. But the tycoon has other talents that have consistently put him out ahead of the opinion polls, much to the frustration of the punditocracy who would be of the same “intellectual” philosophy that Justin seems so determined to tout.

Now, yes, you can drag out any number of Canadian individuals who have made their mark on history due to the products of their brain power. But that doesn’t make for the “economic advantage” that Justin is trying to promote. And though most of his Davos speech talks of Canadian “confidence,” there’s a thin line between confidence and outright arrogance, and one of Justin’s intellectual blinders is he never knows when he’s crossed it.

Posted in Justin Time | Tagged , | 8 Comments

How To Prepare for 2019

I figure two months is enough time for everyone to get used to the idea of Prime Minister Trudeau 2.0. (How do you know you’re used to it? When you’re not constantly thinking about how Stephen Harper would’ve done things differently.)

The punditocracy has been making noises about how long the Prime Minister’s “honeymoon” looks to be extended, but already we’re seeing signs that it’s wearing off. Specifically, the Globe and Mail’s liberal TV critic, John Doyle, getting into a hissy-fit with the Prime Minister’s secretary Gerald Butts over the wardrobe of a Liberal junior minister. No, it’s not quite the sponsorship scandal, but even the most Grit-minded folks of the Toronto press corps know their job will involve carving up the government, no matter how charming the government tries to be. (Down south, Barack Obama’s pretty much gone through the same thing.)

In the meantime, the Tories, high and low, have four years to turn themselves into a viable, electable alternative to the government. And unlike the Liberal opposition of the Harper years, we do have a few things going in our favor.

The big one is our baseline assumptions. The Dion and Ignatieff Liberals had to assume that they could resume their natural roles as the government pretty much at any time, thanks to minority situations and a natural reluctance to admit that there was anything wrong with their mindset. (And here, we should at least give the PM some credit: by firing the Liberal Senate from his caucus and recruiting younger candidates, he showed he was at least willing to address the ossification of Liberal thinking.)

Conservatives, by contrast, have never made the assumption that power would be theirs by default — at least, not the ones who want to prove politics to be an honorable calling. That’s the kind of thinking that leads to the attitude of entitlement that everyone these days is working to discourage.

Another advantage? Fundraising. Generally speaking, during the Harper years overall contributions may have dropped, but the fundamental mechanisms and infrastructure are still pretty sound. True, the other major parties have managed to catch up, finally getting used to the “no corporate donations” policy, but everyone’s got the message that the old ways aren’t going to come back, and woe betide any government that tries to change that. And for the Tories, individual fundraising experience and longevity is still an advantage.

If there’s one thing that needs to be improved (and it’s going to be a tough one, because it involves a change in contemporary mindset), it’s a very simple, yet very difficult thing: learning to defend.

The past four years of majority government may have given the Tories opportunity to wage a constant attack on the Liberals in general and Justin Trudeau in particular, but it’s also allowed them to forget the art of defense: how to justify and explain our policies in terms the voter can accept. It’s the sort of thing that has to be done constantly, and with conviction, otherwise people don’t pay attention and public attitude changes from “understandable” to “inexplicable.” Withdrawing the mandatory long-form census is one example. Citizenship rules are another.

Now that the Tories are in opposition, it’s time to relearn the three fundamental functions of the role:

  • questioning the need for a policy
  • showing why a policy won’t work unless changed
  • proposing alternatives to the policy

In recent years, of course, it’s been more fashionable to attack individual ministers and others for decisions perceived to be of personal benefit, but if politics needs to be taken seriously, the public needs to see a lot less of that sort of thing. Believe it or not, it is most certainly not a bad thing for Justin Trudeau to do a photoshoot with his wife; part of the job of a national leader is to improve the morale of his people, and if the people like the glamour associated with his charming the world, so what? It’d be a different thing if he were doing the shot during Question Period or in the middle of a disaster zone, but Justin has learned not to let his critics dictate his actions, which is a sure sign of weak leadership.

In 2016, there are plenty of opportunities to fuel the fire for Prime Minister Trudeau’s baptism. There’s a budget coming up, as well as the Speech from the Throne. Actions in Syria haven’t been fully addressed yet. A lower dollar means some hard decisions will need to be made on program spending, and the provinces are sensing their own opportunities. Plenty of time to end the honeymoon, but never make the mistake of thinking the Tories will automatically benefit. It took ten years for the Liberals to earn their way back to power. Let’s hope the Tories don’t take that much time.

Posted in Can Cons, Election 2015, Federal Government, Justin Time | Tagged , | 5 Comments