why joyce murray should be taken seriously for the Liberal leadership

the federal liberal leadership race has looked sown up for a long time. aside from marc garneau (himself a rich, famous montrealer) calling out justin trudeau for being a rich, famous montrealer who lacks the courage of his convictions, the campaign has passed effectively in silence. in what way are these new Liberals going to be any different from michael ignatieff’s disastrous 2011 squad?

m. trudeau, if elected, will surely come under the most withering assault imaginable from the Conservative media machine. the ad men are prepared for him, make no mistake. thomas mulcair may have had a gentler ride than either m. dion or m. ignatieff (uncle Jack’s parting gift, no doubt), but m. trudeau is in for one hell of a grilling. ‘he is no self-made man like stephen harper is’, ‘he has no economic experience, unlike stephen harper’, ‘he’s not a Strong Leader like stephen harper’- these lines worked against messrs. dion and ignatieff. if those two were ‘wimpy’ intellectuals, but trudeau is a ‘charismatic’ one, will  it make a difference?

some will argue that it does, and that justin is what is needed to bring the party into the future. maybe that’s true. trudeau is against ‘tough-on-crime’ legislation, and wants to support community programs. his stance on sovereignty, that’s to say a two-thirds majority is needed for anything to happen, is coherent, if unpopular among ndp voters in quebec (which last time was basically everybody).

but this is the thing. we already know that 60% of the country is going to vote for a platform along those lines. it’s not that there are no good ideas in politics right now, it’s that good ideas can’t get implemented. the political machine in canada is badly broken. the PMO has more power than it’s ever had, and omnibus legislation is getting rammed  through a stacked  system which senators steal from.

everywhere in the country, if the liberals run on a ‘Stop Harper’ platform, they and the NDP (who we had may as well just call the ‘Stop Harper Party’ anyway) are going to cannibalize each others’ votes. Aside from the Great Quebec Wild Card (the Bloc are not dead, Option Nationale/Québec Solidaire have not disappeared, and the Maple Spring is not over), the result is predictable in an ‘any Liberal’ v. Mulcair v. Harper election: the left leftists vote NDP, the middle leftists vote Liberal, and everyone else, the whole gamut from libertarians to red tories, about 40% of people per riding, vote Conservative. this has happened before. it keeps happening. how to go from this stalemate to a responsible government?

ask joyce murray, endorsed this week by David Suzuki. you can read an official policy paper on her web zone, but i’ll just quote a highlight: “Where appropriate, Liberals will cooperate with local NDP and Green riding associations to put forward the strongest candidate — the one best able to take that seat from a Conservative.” This would of course allow them to form a government, and then “create a fair, representative electoral system” which among other things “(d)elivers sound, evidence-based policies that will better position Canada to respond to the challenges ahead”. this is simply good sense.

we have real problems coming down the pipe, and we are going to need a responsible government that makes sound long-term decisions. it needs to reflect and inform the national discourse. this no longer seems possible: endless electioneering, whether a legitimate political tactic or not, lowers the quality of discourse. if we’re speaking in sound bytes, we’re not saying anything. joyce murray wants to Stop Harper, then reform parliament, and i’m game. ndp candidate nathan cullen was up for it too. we don’t need to disturb the foundational parts of the constitution to get radically better results in our lawmaking and policy-setting. once the reform is discussed then implemented, have the Governor General dissolve the government and hold an election under the new rules.

no-one suggests that this is going to be an easy. what specific kind of electoral reform do we want? reform the senate, or abolish it? these are tricky questions, which is exactly why next election progressives want to run the strongest candidate possible in every riding, regardless of their party affiliation. but make no mistake: a coalition is urgent. do we really want to risk losing this next election? what will Canada look like in 2019 after 13 years of Conservative rule? will we recognize it at all? joyce murray, at least, is serious about Stopping Harper. i hope you are too.

why the penny may be more useful than you think

So as of today, the penny is dead. The CBC have posted a nice obituary, something for us to remember the little guy by. And ultimately, it’s for the best. You haven’t been able to buy anything useful with a penny for a long time, and, if some politicians get their wish, you won’t be using nickels for much longer, either.

Now, there’s an assumption in the above paragraph that passed without notice, but which is worthy of considering further. What can you buy with a penny? As it stands, right now, not much. What about with many pennies? Well, it depends how many. Facebook, it turns out, makes around two cents per user per month, after costs are taken into consideration. It doesn’t sound like much, but considering that there are somewhere in the ballpark of 300 million users on the site, it adds up. Now, I don’t want to talk too much about Facebook here- $64 million profit is a triffle (not trifle) for a company of its size.

But let’s think. Let’s imagine for a moment that there is a way to make micro payments on the internet. Let’s say it costs a tenth of a cent to open a Facebook page, a penny to post an image on reddit, maybe a nickel to read an article on the Globe and Mail. For the individual, assuming they look at Facebook three times a day, and consult an average of 20 pages per visit: we’re looking at about 6 cents a day for Facebook usage. Assuming they post five images a week to reddit, we’re looking at 5 cents. These amounts would add up, eventually, and real internet junkies may need to change their surfing habits, but ultimately we’d be looking at paying for content on the internet based entirely on what we view, and with total costs adding up to about the same amount as you pay for your physical connection. For the companies making these tiny amounts from many different users, their revenue base would explode.

There are, of course, problems. First, people aren’t used to paying for content on the internet. Would they unplug en masse? It seems unlikely, given the internet’s ubiquity- besides, it would seem well worth it to pay the equivalent of one five-hundredth of a stamp to send a message to a friend. Second, people would need to make some sort of account which is connected to their banking information, which would necessarily imply a link to their real identity. Would they stop posting upon needing to use their real name? The number of users on Facebook and Twitter using their real names would seem to be a counterpoint, and, if no-one on the internet is anonymous, it seems less likely anyone would be particularly bothered by it.

The third problem is the really interesting one. What would change in the internet’s architecture if it cost something, even something very small, to post? Because it currently costs nothing to instagram a picture of your breakfast, people do it. There is, in other words, no barrier to entry to writing on the internet, and so there is effectively no quality control. Look at this the other way: a newspaper charges readers to read it, so it must ensure a certain level of coherence with the expected standards of its target audience. A blogger, who charges nothing, has no such responsibility. Which model is better?

This is a philosophical question to which I have no answer, but whose sides I can outline. The free internet, proponents go, is necessary to ensure intellectual progress. If we put any sort of limit on how much information a user can consult or contribute, we necessarily stifle innovation. Think of the classic case of Bolivian Einstein, who can no longer spend his or her days consulting wikipedia and ehow in order to build a fusion reactor for the family farm. The profusion of poor-quality information/writing/art on the internet is a necessary side-effect of total free access: how will a bad artist get good without a forum to display her work? How can we prevent inaccurate information from being posted without sweeping up a lot of other controversial, but pertinent, content in the drag net?

The other side, the side that says the internet should cost ‘not nothing’ has ready counterarguments. The impact of a small cost is more psychological than anything: it will prevent people from aimlessly blowing time on the internet, forcing them to narrow their research and surfing to its most important functions. For some, the essential is Facebook. For others, its Wikipedia. The consumer is free to decide where to spend his penny slivers, but he should be compelled to spend them. His small contribution, along with that of hundreds of thousands of others, will ensure the viability of the websites he uses, and the armies of coders, editors, journalists, and contributors who give their lives to them. Some sort of guaranteed revenue would make it more likely that creative workers would establish their own webspaces, and take the time to make them of the highest quality.

There is a brutal market logic in this retort that is hard to deny. Newspapers have figured this out the hard way: if they have no online section, their readers go to free online sources rather than buy the paper. If they have a free online section, the user stops buying the hard copy. It is only when all of the major newspapers are behind paywalls online (as will soon be the case in Canada), and the consumer has no choice but to pay for content, that they can afford to pay their contributors and staff. Investigative journalism costs something, and who should pay but the readers?

The same logic applies to all kinds of visual and textual artists. Their work costs something to make: these people need to eat, live somewhere, get around, and even (gasp!) have some money to enjoy themselves. In the absence of a radical revamp of the grant system in Canada, the money is not going to fall from the sky, and so micro payments (that’s to say, payments of less than a nickel) would be a one possible option to ensure that they have some revenue.

And so some questions for reflection: Is total accessibility fundamental to the quality or character of the internet? Is there a way to integrate banking and payment information to an internet account while allowing the user a measure of anonymity online (like how authors use pseudonyms for their ‘pulp’ work)? What would change about our individual internet use if we were billed per page view? How would such a system be handled internationally? A nickel for your thoughts.

on Pauline Marois’ new ‘sovereignty offensive’

so this article from le devoir struck me as needing more response than is readable on Facebook. it explains (in french), Prime Minister Pauline Marois’ new ‘sovereignty offensive’, and then goes on to talk about her participation on the world stage.

here is a chunk in English: “After Davos, where she will attend the World Economic Forum, Pauline Marois will deliver a speech in London to businessmen and then will travel to Edinburgh, where she will meet with Prime Minister for Scotland Alex Salmond, of the Scottish National Party. Scotland is to hold a referendum on independence in 2014, whose legal framework has been the subject of an agreement between Alex Salmond and Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, David Cameron.

Pauline Marois said she found the agreement for the referendum between the two governments “interesting”, but also “different” from rules that prevailed in Quebec during the two referendums on sovereignty.” (thanks, google translate!)

There’s a lot going on here. Firstly, it’s a bummer that it’s Pauline representing Quebec in Davos. The government that she is responsible for is overseeing systemic educational underfunding, as well as a health system in chaos. I mention these examples because they are strictly provincial responsibilities, but don’t forget that construction in montreal seems to be owned by the mob, and that should concern taxpayers. of course, no one in Davos is going to be talking about universal access to education, or public funding for health services- and some even preside over still wackier banana republics than ours! why should the Premier do anything different?

This is the thing. I respect the right of all people to political self-determination (2nd link is to a .pdf), but if the province where I’m a citizen is interested in exercising that right, I’m very concerned about their vision of the independent country to come. Canada has problems; it’s not perfect, and getting worse. But if a culture of corruption, incompetence, and entitlement as outlined above get transposed onto a brand-new country, then that country’s going to be awful. it’s going to end up a country with corroding social services, and astronomically wealthy ministers, mafioso and mineral shareholders, like so many others.

Now I am all for Stopping Harper, and then, if that can’t be done, talking about declaring  independence. that said, the only country i’m interested in voting for is one which recognizes the need for universal access to education, healthcare, transportation, and housing, is committed to a sustainable, ecologically-sound development plan, and understands the obvious benefits that such provisions will bring to a 21st-century information economy which favours diversity, innovation, and multilingualism.

the world is pulling canada in two directions. on the one hand, larger and larger, and sometimes foreign, companies earn their bosses and shareholders more (pdf) and more money. on the other, environmental damage is making us aware that we need to act quickly to build resilient networks on a hyper-local level, to facilitate our transition to a sustainable system.

the point is that until the provincial, or (Scottish, or Catalonian, or Basque) government is prepared to implement, within the measure of its existing powers, such a development program, a sovereignty referendum is going to do more harm than good. if it fails, we are stuck with the status quo, and have lost six months to a year of our political efforts to change exactly nothing. if it succeeds, and we don’t have a resilient network of communities with shared values and mutual respect, we make ourselves very vulnerable to external systemic shocks.

there is so much a quebec government could do tomorrow (pdf) to promote social, economic, and environmental justice- to really help its most vulnerable citizens. if those efforts run into the wall of the federal government, then we have a serious decision to make- for tomorrow, though, there is work enough already.

playing in the road


i want to take a minute to talk about public space. the topic has come up, or been hinted at, or alluded to, in a couple of my lectures already this term, and so i want to unpack it a little bit.

this is a big topic, and i need to start somewhere, so i’ll start in zucotti park. as everyone knows, this was the public space where occupy wall street set up camp in september 2011. we’ve all seen the images of this supposedly joyful occupation, with drum circles and banners and peace and love- those speaking for the 99% reappropriating an urban space which purportedly belongs to them. the whole event was rife with symbolism, exactly as its authors/organizers intended: an occupation not by an occupying army, but instead by civilians. an occupation not of a city, or a building or base, not of a ‘productive’ edifice- but that of a common space. wall street banquiers are encamped in glass concrete towers- why should the people not camp in a park? occupying public space in explicit resistance to free-market capitalist injustices seems worthy, no?

what we might not know, however, is that the park is in fact private property. many, many places we believe to be public are not, in fact, public at all. a Manhattan judge ruled that the owner of the park, Brookfield Properties, had effectively the right to demand the occupiers off their private property, and, as a legal ruling, this decision could impel the police to disperse similar encampments on similar properties. even places we believed to be wilderness, true wilderness, are owned and operated by private entities, entities which don’t always inhabit the space in question. are parks not public then? certainly not all parks are. even nominally public ones are owned and operated by the government. but then how is it that when we envision a ‘public space’, ‘park’ appears close to the top of the list?

i have a theory. a french friend once told me that in france, virtually every park worth the name in an urban centre will have a sign saying ‘keep off the grass’, and that this sign is, generally, respected. i, in canada, can count on one hand the number of parks i’ve seen with such a sign, and can safely assume it would be roundly ignored. in europe, it would appear, walkers follow the paths laid out for them, while here we trace desire lines (french). so the theory? there a park is imagined as something constructed, an urban feature subject to urban rules, completely distinct from the ‘wild’ outside the cities. here, however, a park is a piece of the wild which has been surrounded by the city, but which is not a part of it- a place where we take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints, and help make it better than we found it. a park is not a piece of art to passively consume, but a piece of the wild to actively sculpt.

this is besides the point, however. if a park is not a true public space, poetry aside, then what is? the academy, we may be tempted to say. that’s to say, the ensemble of public education institutions ranging from the tiniest elementary school in the suburbs to the National Library. these are places of learning, of reflection, where the ‘product’ is a deeply public one- the creation and sharing of knowledge. this was the theory, of course, behind the Maple Spring. This movement was a reaction to the commercialization of education, leading to drastically inflated student fees, in the context of a climate of global austerity led by ratings agencies and the IMF. Activists moved to occupy the spaces where they are students and teachers to demonstrate their power in the same way the Occupiers demonstrated theirs.

the validity of the tactic totally aside, some students learned that the academy is not public space either (despite of the public interest of the work performed therein) when the police arrested 16 of them (french) in august, just as the fall semester was due to start. the students had not yet voted to end their strike, and so on the first day of classes, they went to picket. they were removed for violating a court injunction. here again, we see the law overruling the ‘democratic’ will of the people concerning how the space they occupy is to be used. i have reflected before on the role of the police in interacting with demonstrations, and i don’t mean to make ‘cops busting in all over the place’ the focus of this piece. the point is that in the academy, just as in parks, a ‘public’ space whose form and use is believed to be controlled by its occupants, is not always so free.

so where to look then for public space? there is one bold proposition, and that’s to look to the street. the roads are by and large owned by the city, a democratic entity that in theory is the manifestation of the will of the people. there is no restriction on who can enter them and how long they can stay for. there are rules surrounding the conduct of drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians, but these are not of the same order, mostly, as ‘trespassing’ and ‘mischief’, i can attest that the street can be made public, but only for so long- the critical mass of people needed to effectively occupy a space built to scale for cars, not people, where nothing grows and no freshwater flows, can not remain in place forever. the road, of course, can be shut down too.

it seems that maybe there is no true public space remaining to us, or at least, none within easy walking distance of our homes. so what recourse do we have if we are to, in the words of Henry David Thoreau in his essay ‘Walking‘ “go forth on the shortest walk (…) in the spirit of undying adventure, never to return, prepared to send back our embalmed hearts only as relics to our desolate kingdoms”? Asks Thoreau, “When we walk, we naturally go to the fields and woods: what would become of us, if we walked only in a garden or a mall?”

Maybe we can play in a different kind of road. The bridge between physical and digital space is rickety, and the chasm is deep, so we will just leap across it all in one bound- the unregulated internet is the best approximation of the unsculpted wilds left within easy reach. I diverge, of course, from Thoreau here- his essay writes about the appreciation of the beauty of the physical world, and we have thus left him on the physical side of the chasm. But on this side, the digital side, we can see an ideascape early in its formation. There is a resonance that these movements preaching reoccupation and decolonization of physical space find online: Occupy, the Maple Spring, and now IdleNoMore all draw major support from online activists, and it is these online activists who contribute mostly directly to continuing media coverage. This is obviously not to disparage grassroots organizers and activists on the ground: without their efforts there would be nothing to cover. It remains, however, the ‘social media’ side of things driving awareness, drawing eyeballs, and helping it blow up into a mainstream issue worthy of coverage by mainstream press.

It is interesting because an analogy can be drawn between the physical landscape we inhabit, covered with structures, denuded of trees, devoided of wilderness, and the mental landscape we construct around it- papered in advertising, bound by laws, and sculpted by dogma. More rightly, the two landscapes are radically permeable to each other, and the system formed by both in combination has properties not present in either of the parts. What would we think of consumerism if not for the environmental destruction it brings? What would we care of climate change if not for the threat it poses to the established order? The world we live in and the ideas we have about it are not the same thing, but neither can be totally understood in the absence of the other.

And so if our physical space is this, territorialized, colonized, and possessed, as in the case of parks, universities, and the road, then maybe the only recourse we have left is to deterritorialize, decolonize, and deposess the mental space which imbues the physical with meaning. Don’t think that we are starting from a position of purity, here: the digital landscape is heavily colonized by companies and governments. Facebook is a publicly-traded company, after all. Twitter has Terms of Use, and collaborates with dictators to stop service in certain areas or surrounding certain topics. Google knows more about you (much more) than your mother does, and is publicly traded as well. We post and tweet and wuphf using Apple-branded devices often made by workers treated little better than slaves. Governments themselves sometimes pull the plug on the whole system, rather than engage with their own ideas.

this work will not be easy, certainly no easier than reappropriating physical space. i myself am taking small steps. i don’t have the technical ability to make a real change in this direction, but i am trying to move my sites to low-impact platforms free from ads. I myself lack the technical skills to open up the digital world and to make it truly public, to promote a free, fair exchange which occurs on no-one’s playing field, but a shared one. There are others who have those skills. There are others like Aaron Swartz who have tried and been smashed by a system that mistrusts a space it can’t exert dominion over. On the internet, there are no weapons, only ideas- though to some the latter are much more dangerous than the former. For this reason, the simple reason that the ideas we share in this digital space can be fashioned into the tools to save our world from catastrophe. Let’s take some small steps now so we can run when the time comes.

Indeed, we should all play in the road- play in every road available to us. If the physical world and the digital one are interpermeable, changes in one will affect the other. If I bring my casserole or my red square or my feather into the physical street with me, I can open a new branch off the digital one. If I write a new idea in chalk on a digital wall, I can encourage someone to hop over a physical one. If we inhabit space mindfully, whether in person or online, we can start to change the architecture.

the part of the police

there’s no easy way to say ‘manifestation’ in english. it is a noun rendered of a verb without object: it is not a protest (against) or a demonstration (to). it is an idea, a feeling- a chorus of emotions made manifest in shared public space. one person can manifest and indeed often does- pouting, screaming, singing, dancing, (fucking) and fighting are all physical manifestations of emotional states.

But just as there is a difference between drizzle and downpour, there is an important difference between these fleeting emotional manifestations and the more durable ones which have rolled through downtown montréal every night for the last month. The police, as we understand them, are mostly able to manage small ‘domestic disturbances’ or some drunks slugging each other on the Main, but how do these police responses scale?

For example, when the cops roll up to a suburban house because the neighbours heard screaming, they are walking into a situation dominated by emotion. They have no way of knowing the dynamics at work in the home they are visiting, and these dynamics are heavily influenced by cultural, linguistic, and historical factors. The police have only one real weapon in their arsenal which could avoid setting off a powder keg (if one were to be present); this being capital-R reason.

The badge, the hat, the patrol car- the sigils and signifiers of the police- all make appeal to the law of the land, which, in our constitutionally democratic belief system, is the product of sober reflection and Reason only. They make clear the legal consequences of any actions which may be taking place, and enforce those consequences as necessary. As always, for the safety of all concerned, a responsible police officer will seek to de-escalate the situation at all turns, dialling screaming down to shouting down to talking down to calm.

Again, how does this scale? It is first important to point out that the night marches are the emotional manifestation of a generation malaise- a creeping terror of the future which is being strip-mined as we speak, paired with institutions which ridicule their concerns. A sign last night read ‘nous sommes devenus des bêtes féroces d’espoir’. When you ignore a child, the child will act out- the solution is neither to cave completely nor to continue ignoring, but rather to identify the problem and consider solutions.

In this context, consider now the effects of certain possible police measures on a crowd of 10 000 young people who already feel marginalized from their society’s political discourse:

1. Ignore the manifestants: they will manifest harder. Certain radical elements will commit acts of violence to call attention to their demands, and as the silence from the institution persists, more and more people will join in their frustration. This will inevitably lead to:

2. Meet them with force: sound cannons, tear gas, water jets, rubber bullets- the kit. This again will do nothing but radicalize the group- as acts of physical violence are committed against individual manifestants who have not personally aggressed the police, the violent sentiment will escalate. If de-escalation promotes everyone’s safety, what does escalation do?

The only sensible option is 3. Don’t Panic. Encourage the main bulk of the march to keep together and keep moving, while isolating trouble spots off to the side where possible, or farther along the route if necessary, Commit to meeting violent elements with less violence than they themselves have used, in the hopes of de-motivating further violent acts by others.

It is imperative to note that the police themselves can do nothing to address the demands of the protestors. The only folks who can do anything to calm this situation are the government- they should annul the Loi 78 before it is struck down by a Charter Challenge and freeze tuition at present levels until at least Fall ’13, while calling a Public Inquiry into the management of Québec’s universities and the future of their funding to decide the question permanently.

Failing that, Charest démissionne- call elections and find a job up north.