Sunday, January 30, 2022

When Far Right Extremism Show Up On Your Doorstep

 This weekend has been a very angering one here in Canada and especially in Ottawa.  A mass of protesters, upset at vaccine and mask mandates, have clogged downtown, honked endlessly disturbing residential neighborhoods, and have threatened (but not committed thus far) violence.  

These folks have done their best to identify who they really are and to antagonize almost all Canadians.  They have carried swastikas, they have carried signs and worn shirts calling for the Prime Minister to be hung, they have bullied restaurants, hotels, and the one mall as they sought to violate the mask mandates, they parked and later danced on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and they temporarily defaced a statue of Terry Fox.  

The claim is that these are patriotic truckers who can't cross the border now as the government is enforcing a vaccine mandate.  Their demands are, well, ignorant and crazed as they have called for the governor general and the Senate (?) to remove the current government and all mask and vax mandates.  The Canadian Truckers Association has disassociated itself with these people.  Most Canadians, and, yes, most truckers are vaccinated.  The organizers are mostly associated with far right groups, and there are legitimate questions about how much of this is an attempt to grift. A significant percentage of Canadian truckers are not white, but the protesters were very white.  So, yeah, there is more than a smidge of white supremacy at work (swatiskas and confederate flags tell the tale).  

I asked twitter which was more offensive--parking on the War Memorial (this was before people danced on it), hanging signs and upside down flag on Terry Fox (a national hero who walked across Canada to raise money for cancer as it was killing him), or the swastikas.

The swastikas trumped the other two, but I saw many people on twitter appalled at the other two.  

Indeed, the day's events led to a bit of a question about Canadian civil-military relations.  The head of the Canadian armed forces, General Wayne Eyre, tweeted his shock and horror regarding the dancing on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier:

Is it appropriate for Eyre to speak about a political protest?  Depends on where you fit on various debates in civil-military relations.  Some think that the military should always stay out of politics, others think that the military is inherently a political actor that should stay out of partisan fights.  I am with the latter.  Given that the Tomb and the National War Memorial are very much focused on the military and its history, it is not surprising that Eyre was offended and wanted to share his offense.  The question may depend on whether one sees the protesters as legitimate partisans in ordinary Canadian politics.

And that is where the Conservative Party of Canada fits in--providing cover and legitimacy for these far right extremists.  The CPC leader, Erin O'Toole, met with the truckers as they headed to Ottawa, as he has tried to balance between appealing to mainstream Canada while not offending the far right folks who might flee to the People's Party.  In the last election, not that long ago, O'Toole tried to take the stance that it was good to get vaccinated, but that people should not be compelled by public policy to do so--no vax mandates.  And his party lost, perhaps partly because of this stance.  79% of the country is fully vaccinated, 85% has had one dose, and a significant chunk of the remaining are kids (no shots for those younger than 5 and the 5-11 vaccinations are still pretty new).  So, most of Canada is not that peeved about vax mandates (some fully vaxxed say they are bothered by it, but not sure they amount to many folks).  So, not a winning political position.  

Yet, we see pandering to the far right.  Not just O'Toole.  One CPC member of parliament was stupid enough to be speaking in support of the protest when a person holding a defaced Canadian flag complete with swastika was standing behind him.  A politician, Pierre Poilievre, from the riding (district) next to mine and on my summer bike route was tweeting his support for the convey.  O'Toole issued a series of tweets many hours after the events at the War Memorial issuing his condemnation.  Of course, he had been warned and criticized in the lead up to this event, but now he has some shame.  We shall see how long that lasts. The guy in this picture has issued a statement saying he had no idea this flag was behind him.  So, political malpractice or just not so plausible deniability?  You make the call. Poilievre hasn't deleted his tweets as he wants to be on the far right of his party.  I doubt he will reach the level of temporary and weak regret that Ted Cruz did last year.

Speaking of the far right, it is notable that there were no arrests, that the cops of Ottawa were able to navigate this event without arresting anyone.  Impressive policing or biased enforcement?  The police of Canada have shown far less ability to de-escalate when the protesters are Indigenous.  

I live far from downtown (Barrhaven is often called Farhaven for being 25 minutes from the city core), but I have friends who live downtown.  I worried about them, but they seem to be ok despite the thugs that were in the streets all day and into the night.  

You can tell a lot about a group by what they say, what they do, and who their allies are (Trump?).  Anyone claiming this was anything but a far right group seeking to shake things up is fooling themselves.  Yes, these assholes have a right to protest, but they violated more than a few laws along the way while inciting hate and violence.  No, there was not much violence yesterday, but this is not over.  And politicians bending over to them and trying to avoid offending the fringes of their base will just encourage this assholes.  

Canada has an extremism problem, not a polarization problem, as it is on one side of the spectrum.  The sooner the Conservatives realize that these folks are poison, the sooner their party will find their way out of the wilderness and into power.  As it stands now, this weekend just reminded Canadians that the Conservatives are not a viable option for the middle of the political spectrum. 





Saturday, January 22, 2022

When Transparency Meets Partisanship, Transparency Dies?

 This tweet touched a nerve apparently.

The tl:dr of this whole thing is that there is a real problem that democracies face--how to have transparency and accountability while keeping bad guys (foreign and domestic enemies) from knowing stuff that they should not know--that Canada is poorly armed to handle this challenge, and that the primary reform that managed to finesse some of this is now being crapped on by the Conservatives because ... it is better to score points than to help the country be both democratic and accountable.  

What is the longer version of this?  When I was interviewing politicians about the mission in Afghanistan in 2007, I was stunned to learn that members of the House of Commons Defence Committee lacked security clearances.  I said "how can you do oversight if you don't have access to the secret stuff?"  The response: "we don't do oversight,* we hold the Minister to account."  How can they do that if the Minister (in this case of Defence) has all the info and the members of parliament (MPs) have none?  "We get leaks," and their primary concern was agenda control of the committee, not info.  Why?  Mostly because they would prefer to talk aloud about stuff that they don't know much about than know more via security clearances but not be able to use that stuff in question period or other public fora.  As I framed it, better to be an ignorant critic than informed overseer.  The editor of the journal where Phil and I published the piece softened the title.  

This was not just a theoretical issue for us social scientists (although it did inspire the current book project and trips to many democracies) but also a major political issue.  During the Afghanistan war, one of the major points of contention (the most debated issue in Parliament--my book has handy figures on this) was the plight of Afghans detained by the Canadian Armed Forces--whether they were beaten after being turned over to the Afghan authorities.  The opposition wanted the info on this, the government said they couldn't, but since it was a minority government, the opposition was able to compel the government to produce documents under a very limited process.  The opposition leaders were able to go to a room where the documents were, sans recorders and notepads, and look through the documents, and then ask a judge or judges to declassify stuff. This effectively buried the issue, but it raised questions about how to provide accountability when there is not a minority government or when the opposition does not have consensus about pushing things.

NSICOP--National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians--is an innovation that is about five years old.  The idea here is that there is a committee of parliamentarians and senators who have security clearances and can get access to the secret stuff so that they can access the strengths and weaknesses of Canada's national security stuff.  The focus is mostly on intel agencies, but defence and other stuff gets reviewed as well.  The trick about this committee that causes much controversy is that it is not a parliamentary committee because it reports to the Prime Minister.  Mostly, this has not be a problem as they have issued unclassified reports that have been extensive and informative reviews (my colleagues who do intel stuff track this more closely than I do).  This process does mean that the committee does not serve at the whim of the Parliament, and the PM can limit what is produced.

This became a hot issue this past year as the Conservatives have wanted all the classified documents relating to a biohazard lab in Winnipegs.  They find NSICOP to be insufficiently focused on this, and have undermined it by not sending MPs to join it in the current session.  What do they want?  Damned if I know.  

Erin O'Toole has been grandstanding on this issue in ways that may undermine NSICOP and pour gas on the conspiracy theories out there.  My basic take, having not seen any of the secret stuff, is that the Winnipeg lab thing is an excuse to accuse the government of conspiring to be soft on China.  There is plenty of other stuff out there that can come in handy that way--this particular axis of effort is destructive to that good governance and order Canadians are supposed to care about.  Because O'Toole is killing the one thing parties could agree to that would provide some oversight* over the intel folks in Canada.  

The funny thing is that my tweet above, I think, was the reason I got a call from Mark Holland, the Liberal who is "Leader of the Government in the House of Commons."  He focused on the problem of redactions--that there had been materials that had been declassified but some stuff had been redacted.  The Conservatives think the redactions are problematic and that Parliament should be able to see everything and decide what can be shared with the public.  Holland's alternative is to take the Afghanistan detainee scandal process and make it more of a lasting thing: that some MPs could see the documents in their entirety subject to the usual security clearance laws, and that if they think some stuff should be released unredacted, then a committee of jurists should decide.  This would take the matter out of the hands of the government, and it would also mean that the opposition could not release stuff willy-nilly.  

Again, I am not the expert on this stuff, but this seems like a good compromise that gets at the heart of this--if the opposition cares about the issue itself.  They get access to the info, and then being able to talk about some of it if a panel of judges consent.  I haven't seen yet what O'Toole would say is wrong with this.  It seems quite reasonable.

What is my preference?  That Canada has committees that have security clearances.  This would not be sufficient, of course, because these committees have little heft--they can't change budgets, they have no influence on promotions, etc [the US Congress and German Bundestag are relevant actors not just because their defence committees can get the info but they also have power to use it--to shape budgets].  So, we'd have to innovate to give them a bit more heft so that their increased knowledge would have some relevance.  

But that ain't happening. The MPs don't have an incentive to know more--their incentives all point towards talking more, scoring points, not really focused at all on improving governance. So, this compromise, like NSICOP, is the best we can do. The alternative that O'Toole seems to want--for Parliament to have the power to release whatever it wants--seems problematic especially when at least one party seems to be more focused on spinning up conspiracy theories.  When people say that Canada's politics are immature and its politicians can't be responsible, this is what they (or I) have in mind.

* Oh, and about oversight, this is something where I get into fights with my colleagues.  For some reason, in Canada, oversight in the intel sphere has a different meaning than I have understood it anywhere else.  To me, oversight is about actors getting more information to know what other actors have been doing.  It can be and is usually retrospective (my friends suggest that it is more directive--that oversight is telling the actors what to do--that it is controlling, I think).  Parliamentarians don't need to know what Special Operators are doing right now in the field, but they should know what they did last summer.  Why is this important?  For many reasons, such as democracy requiring transparency (Colaresi has a great book on the contradictions between democracy and secrecy), but for my principal-agent-informed outlook, oversight is important because those who are delegated responsibility for doing something (spying, breaking codes, running special ops missions, whatever) will know more than those who give them those jobs about what actually happens.  One way to insure that those doing the work do the work as they are supposed to do it is make them feel as if they are being watched.  Oversight best works when those who are overseen anticipate that they will be caught if they behave in undesired ways, which then leads them to behave in the desired ways.  

Why can't we just leave this to the government of the day and civilian servants?  Why does civilian control of the military (or of the intel folks) have to involve other elected officials?  Because those in government may be tempted to hide stuff if revelations might hurt them politically.  Civil servants are not accountable to the public, so if you leave it in their hands, things tend to disappear.  There has been talk, for instance, of having the Privy Council Office supervise the various independent agencies that might get responsibility for overseeing the military (Ombudspeople, Inspector General, whatever), but that would be a black hole, not transparency.  

Anyhow, that's a lot for a Saturday morning post explaining a tweet.  Glad I provided the tl;dr up top.




Sunday, January 16, 2022

Distressed, Depressed, and Down: Where To From Here?

Despite being relentlessly critical of stuff, I have always tended to focus on the arc of progress--that things will get better even amid the bumps of today.  This weekend?  Damn.  An entire country mostly disappears beneath a volcano (any idea of how the Tongans are doing?), the Supreme Court continues to reveal itself to be not just partisan but enthusiastically so, gutting reasonable policies and putting much of the progress of the past fifty years in doubt, a "good" hostage crisis causing us to experience relief or just more anxiety, Trump amping the white supremacy with insufficient outrage aimed against him, stories of African-American voters unlikely to turnout since Sinema/Manchin have blocked any progress on voting rights, the likelihood that the GOP's bet to ally with the pandemic so that Biden would pay for the continued pandemic will pay off, etc.  

I can go on.  This is definitely the winter of my discontent.  I was hoping pre-omicron that we'd have a bit of return to normalcy--return to classes, in-person events, more skiing, actually going to an ISA conference after missing the last two of those.  And now all we have is uncertainty.  I haven't felt like blogging because I didn't want to just whine and complain, but I also wanted to mark, as I indicated in my first quarantine post way back when, my descent into madness.  And I am just so mad these days.  So much so that I am crapping on the joy to my friends that is wordle.

It is definitely getting in the way of my work as I so easily distracted these days.  I tend not to get depressed, but I kind of feel that way now.  I am one of the lucky ones--I haven't lost any immediate relatives to COVID, my relatives have managed through this economically ok, the next generation is mostly in pretty good shape even though most of them have had covid (LA Spew continues to dodge the disease better than I can dodge a wrench).  And damn, not must my younger relatives but all the folks I meet in my classes and I see out in the world are so impressive.  I hate that we are giving them a shitty present and a very uncertain future, but I have more faith in them, in their tolerance, in their creativity, than I do in those that came before us.  I guess that is the reed upon which I am placing my hope these days.  

That and endless tv/movies streamed to my house help keep me from descending too far.  I hope you can find ways to get through this awful time.  As they say, the only way out is through.

Monday, January 10, 2022

Where's Spenser When We Need Him?

 I have long been a fan of mysteries, especially those featuring snarky detectives.  Robert B. Parker's Spenser will always stand out.  I remember discovering Spenser when friends were reading aloud one of his books during a break during my college years, and the dialogue was so much fun.  Anyhow, ever since then, I would tend to find one or two writers and just read all of their stuff: Sue Grafton (I gave up around M or N), Sara Paretsky, Dianne Mott Davidson (one of my wife's editing clients).  I fell into John Sandford when he was writing under a pseudonym--John Camp.  Lee Child's books were less mysteries and more thrillers, but very addictive.  

More recently, I started reading the Bosch books by Michael Connelly.  Bosch started out as a weary, abrasive detective in the LAPD.  The TV show has been something that all of my siblings and mother watch--our tastes usually don't align so well.  So, I got the latest book, where Bosch and a younger female detective, Renée Ballard, work together after Bosch's retirement from the LAPD.  The book takes place more or less in the present--people are wearing masks (or not) and there is much discussion of the state of LAPD.  A theme that gets repeated several times (and I am not that far into it) is that LAPD is now facing deep budget constraints because the protests have cost so much money that programs are being defunded even if the department is not receiving less money. Oh, and the cops are wary of doing anything because they don't want to face a hostile public. 

Anyhow, mostly because of the way Connelly keeps referring to the position the cops have been put into by the protests, I am offput.  It is distracting and angering because LAPD has behaved awfully before, during, and after the protests.  I would know this even if I didn't have a relative engaged in some of the protests as LAPD and LA Sheriffs have made it abundantly clear that they are above and beyond the law.  I guess in the past I either read books that didn't feature cops or I was able to compartmentalize so that I didn't really think of how bad the cops were in reality when I read about the hero cops in the various books.

Spenser was a fallen cop--he had left because he didn't get along with authority.  Maybe some subtext I might be injecting into the series, he was far more liberal or tolerant or whatever than the cops.  Maybe not.  But now I am thinking that as I give up on Connelly, as I gave up on some other folks whose political leanings got to be too annoying (Tom Clancy is the classic case as his racism completely soured me), I need to find mystery authors whose protagonists are not cops again.  Where is the next Spenser, V.I. Warshawski, Kinsey Millhone, or Goldy Schulz?  The good news is that they are out there.  I just need a detective to help find them for me. 

Saturday, January 8, 2022

Quarantine 2: Electric Bugaloo

JC & me, Lake Louise
The Civ-Mil crew in Copenhagen
I stopped doing quarantine reports last summer after Mrs. Spew and I had two shots plus two weeks.  Shortly afterwards, we drove to Philly to see my mother and the rest of my family.  I went to a movie when we got back, and we would occasionally go to restaurants (almost always outdoors).  I went to Copenhagen for a conference, we held a hybrid event (the Year Ahead 2022), I gave a talk in Calgary and, yes, went skiing afterwards, I had a fun poker game with folks who were in town for another conference, and, then we get super anxious about going to see my in-laws over the holidays.

Great Falls park
It was not the usual winterfest, as we only went to one restaurant and very reluctantly so.  Otherwise, it was take-out.  No metro trip to the Mall.  Instead, my daughter (Hollywood Spew) and I went to see a river and a canal.  We worried much about whether we would get our PCR tests back in time for us--before we were to cross the border back to Canada.  And we got them while we were driving back north.  We also worried much about whether my daughter could get back to LA as her first flight was cancelled, but she persevered and got a flight back.  She went back sooner than planned because she was unable to stay over with her besties from college as they were all exposed to covid and some tested positive. 

And then we returned to old habits with modifications.  I only leave the house now for groceries and to rehab my knee (I mentioned above I went skiing, right?).  No dining out.  I did make one exception--I went to see the new Spidey movie just before provincial regulations changed to close the movie theaters.  I haven't started the winter exercise ritual of last year--snowshoeing and cross-country skiing as we don't have enough snow yet (unlike my pals to the south).  

Instead of shopping for funky looking masks, I focus on the monthly Costco trip, hoping they have KN-95s.  And when I went this week, I bought three boxes, which felt very much like hoarding.  But I did so anyway because I have no idea if there will be any next month.  I haven't put away my cloth masks that Omicron has made obsolete.  Maybe the next variant will be less transmissible?

Which gets to the feelings of the moment--exhaustion and frustration.  It may be the most "mild" of variants, but its greater transmissiblity has had a huge impact.  Carleton has pushed the first three weeks (and probably more) online.  Which is not a huge deal to me as I am teaching a course that has online components from last year--so I checked and the material is quite recyclable.  But damn, when I said that online, the parents of kids were most upset that I was not as angry as they were.  I am angry and frustrated, but my stakes are much smaller than theirs.  There is no good way to deal with this new wave for schools as McSweeney's illustrated quite nicely.  One thing that has remained most consistent has been the Ontario government screwing this up.  The plans for the winter are being upended.  The big anniversary trip to Morocco Spain Hawaii Vancouver next month is now in doubt.  The CDSN Capstone Seminar and Civ-Mil Workshop were going to be in Calgary in the beginning of March, but that is now uncertain.  ISA in Nashville at the end of March?  ¯\(°_o)/¯  

Despite being vaxxed and boosted, we are anxious as we quarantine.  I don't worry about getting seriously sick (although Mrs. Spew does), but I do worry about becoming a vector that endangers someone else.  Once again, we thought we saw the light at the end of the tunnel, and then found out that this thing is going on and on.  I think that, along with the fact that we all know far more people with COVID this time around (we are up to four nieces and one nephew since this thing started, with only two nieces and one daughter still dodging covid successfully), has worn us down, frazzled our nerves, and genearted much fear, which ain't good:

We, alas, are not in this together.  As I keep saying, COVID does to societies and political systems what it does to the human body: reveal and exacerbate pre-existing conditions. The politics of this is making all of this costlier, more stressful, and just worse all the way around.  

I am placing a lot of hope on two things: that mild really means mild and that the bending of the curve is going to be fast, like it has been in South Africa.  I know that rebellions are built on hope.  I am hoping that recoveries are, too. 


Monday, January 3, 2022

There Is Still Magic

The past few years have been very frustrating, angering, saddening times for many Harry Potter fans as JK Rowling has allied herself with the dark forces in the world (including Johnny Depp).  Her anti-trans attitudes seems to me to be a betrayal of what her books tried to convey.  I have been stewing about this for quite some time, and I haven't re-read or re-watched the HP stuff in a few years, breaking my usual winterfest habits.  I finally sought to express my feelings on this as I watched the 20th anniversary special.  Seeing all the folks who made the movies (well, almost as we have lost several along the way) and seeing the scenes of the making of the movies made very sad but also reminded me of the magic in the books and the movies.*

(* Ok, the first 8.5 movies as the first Fantastic Beasts movie had some magic, the second had much less, especially with Depp playing such a big role).  

To be clear, the books and movies are imperfect.  They do not represent well, they tend to rely on stereotypes (JK's borrowing of Tolkein's take on goblins is still anti-semitic, for instance), that Dumbledore is not explicitly gay in the text, but she retconned that later, and so on.  But the larger themes are of love and tolerance and choice are so central. That the bad guys don't get it--they can't exhibit remorse, they don't have friends, they have contempt for those who love, that they don't really have something to fight for, and the good folks win precisely because they are willing to love, to forgive, to trust.  

Early in the special, the words come across the screen that it is not what family you are born into (although, of course, there are contradictions--the discussion of Draco as a product of Lucius) but what you choose to do that matters.  In the books, this is one of the strongest and consistent themes--that is the choices you make that matter.  And this plays in two ways now--that JK is making the worst choices and she is, of course, judging how others live their lives, that she is judging people who identify as their true selves.   

So, how do I see it now?  Watching the actors and directors talk about the stuff, how much it meant to them (and to the fans), the bonds they have with each other, the themes that they tried to convey helped feed my confirmation bias and my compartmentalization.  That there is such good stuff in the books and the movies that I will focus on that--the magic of friendship, of love, and, yes, of tolerance--and only occasionally grapple with the darkness in the books and in JK.  She has chosen to be awful.  The actors (statements by Radcliffe and Watson) do a nice job of distinguishing her stances from what the books and movies were trying to say.  And I will side with them.  

It is, after all, the choices we make that matter.