The Senate is Not the Problem

07 Jun 2015

Now that the Auditor-General’s report on the Senate has been released, Canadians are scandalized by the details: 30 senators with questionable expenses, 9 of whom will be referred to the RCMP for criminal investigations, with a total of almost one million dollars in ineligible spending. Resignations have already been called for and cries for Senate abolition have begun anew. This report comes amidst the trial of suspended Senator Mike Duffy and it seems likely that, unless Tim-Hortons-gate continues to dominate our national discourse, Canadians will again turn their attention to the Red Chamber, but it is time to stop pretending that the Senate is the problem.

Over a decade ago former senator Lowell Murray reflected, “The Senate is not a perfect institution, nor are senators infallible people. There are deficiencies: some of them inexcusable, but these are no more general in the Senate than they are in the Commons.” This is a point that is now being echoed by Senators and MPs alike, many of whom are calling for a similar audit of the House of Commons. Should not all legislators, appointed and elected, be held to account?

When framed in this manner it seems a difficult point to contest, but it is important to look at the broader context of the AG’s report. $976,627 in improper expense claims is certainly a great deal of public money but it took almost $21 million dollars just to fund the two-year audit. Of the $180 million in claims that were subject to the AG’s examination, the improper expenses in question constitute less than 1% of the total. There are certainly egregious offenders and they should and will be held accountable for their misconduct, but are we justifiably outraged or are our concerns hinged on an over-dramatization and partisan outlook on the actual impropriety that has occurred? By no means do I suggest that we should simply ignore the results of the audit. Its outcome will and should have significant consequences for those senators who are found guilty, but what is more important is the concerns that it raises about the internal processes that initially cleared them. If nothing else it is evident that there needs to be a serious reevaluation of the internal governance of our political institutions.

Unless we believe that House of Commons’ fiscal administration to be vastly superior to that of the Senate, it is highly likely that similarly questionable expenses would be found among our elected representatives. How much would it cost to investigate 308 MPs over a similar period? If a similar percentage of expenses were improper, would anyone suggest that we abolish the House of Commons? While it may be nice to believe that being elected is sufficient to curb thoughts of corruption, we should know better than that. The question is whether Canadians are willing to spend millions of dollars rooting out what appears to be a relatively small amount of misconduct, when that money could be better spent on infrastructure, health care, and education. The CBC would be happy to find a use for that money; or perhaps the government could fund any number of the recommendations from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

More troubling than another audit is the notion that the Senate and its reform or abolition will be the defining issue of the coming election. While there are legitimate concerns about the continued reliance on unelected legislators in our democracy, it cannot be forgotten that there are numerous complexities involved in changing or removing the Upper House. Even if Western Canada, Newfoundland and Labrador, the Territories, and popular opinion all come together to agree on a potential amendment, all could easily be for naught if Ontario, Quebec, or even PEI were to disagree. What compromises would be involved in order to prevent any one province from vetoing changes to the Senate? Would they be easier to stomach than enhanced scrutiny of Senate (and House) expense claims?

It may be that Canadians are far enough removed from the Meech Lake and Charlottetown Accords that we are ready for another attempt to open the Constitution, but such an endeavor should not be taken lightly nor should it be promised so easily as a method of gaining votes. Constitutional reform is a difficult tool for politicians to utilize as a method of solving problems due to how little control they have over its use. It is not enough to suggest amendments; our parties and their leaders need to present clear and coherent strategies about how to ensure those amendments will garner not only popular but also provincial appeal. If we allow the next election to be predicated on shaky promises we will disappointed by the inevitable failures that result. Worse still we might ignore the changes that can be made now because we rest our hopes on a long shot.


02 Jun 2015

I know that I would not be here without the racism that founded Canada, but today reminds us that those oppressions echo into the present. With the Truth and Reconciliation Commission on Residential Schools coming to a close we need to remember that our actions mark us — as individuals and peoples. “What’s past is past” is never true. History endures within us. Residential schools are a particularly horrific national crime, but we, as a people, committed many others. To be reconciled does not just mean we apologize for the past. It involves recognizing the ways that we perpetuate those crimes in the now. Reconciliation is a process with no end, a relationship of constant renewal, and a hope to do better. The TRC has given us that opportunity.

Let us take the opportunity and admit the faults of those that came before us — and our own. Let us be the better angels of the human heart.

The Tell-Time Heart

16 May 2015

I wrote something about the Apple Watch:

True! — nervous — very, very dreadfully nervous my tweets have proven I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? Apple had sharpened my senses — not destroyed — not dulled them. Above all was the sense of touch acute. I felt things across the Internet and in the earth. I felt many things beyond. How, then, am I mad? Harken back! and observe how healthily — as indeed my fitness app proves — how calmly I can tell you the whole story.

It is impossible to say how first the idea entered my brain, but, once conceived, it haunted me day and night. Object there was none. Passion there was none. I liked @Old_Man_49. He had never blocked me. He had never given me downvotes. For his Apple Watch Edition I had no desire. I think it was his tapping! Yes, it was this! He had the tapping of a woodpecker — a constant updating notification of his heartbeat. Whenever it fell upon me, my wrist vibrated incessantly; and so by degrees — very gradually — I made up my mind to take the life of the early adopter, and thus rid myself of the tapping forever.

Go check out the whole thing on Medium.

Errands for Fools

06 May 2015

David Leach:

Is there anything more to video games’ popularity than violent fantasies and mindless escape? Can they ever teach us about who we are as a community and how we can be better? As a father and a teacher struggling to instill values in my kids and my students — who were all born, it seems, clutching video-game controllers — I wanted to find out.

Games – video or otherwise – are not any one thing and it is increasingly nonsensical to refer to them as such. They can be evocative in radically different ways with varied mechanics and modes of input. They can educate us about the world we live in and about the people that we may encounter; or they can provide us fantastical settings and characters that are wholly alien to our lived experiences. They can give us tools and techniques for navigating worldly affairs; or they can create new languages and codes for exploring digital systems. They can be beautiful and awe-some; or they can be disgusting and horrific.

To say that The Shawshank Redemption, Inception, and Black Swan are all movies tells us almost nothing – merely the medium through which their narratives, themes, and characters are expressed. This is likewise the case when trying to compare Call of Duty with Monument Valley or The Oregon Trail with System Shock. The experiences are varied and calling them merely ‘violent fansties’ or ‘mindless escape’ is entirely mistaken (and, of course, unhelpful).1 We are far beyond the point where we should speak about the medium with generalizations like that, particularly when accompanied by moralizing attitudes towards the content or its consumers. God of War and Gears of War can both reasonably be considered expressions of testosterone and violence;2 The Legend of Zelda less so; and Mirror’s Edge likely not at all. This is again the case when trying to suggest that they are all a waste of time.

And if the games that you are encountering seem to be nothing but errands for fools, perhaps you should go find better games. They are certainly out there.

  1. Which is, of course, not to suggest that is Leach is doing that. He is unequivocally not.

  2. Although not necessarily solely that.

The Jewelled Tent

26 Apr 2015

The supposed death of philosophy is always said to be the eternally upon us tomorrow – and if not outright death, then merely its inability to cohere within the contemporary world (which amounts to much the same): “It is near. If not now, then soon!”. We, that is to speak of us who I suppose must be considered not-philosophers, merely dance at the precipice of thought, rather than engage in it as true philosophers would (do? did?). To think about (and through) what we are doing – whether in fine detail or broad strokes – has been lost (or is being left behind or in danger of such) in the contemporary world. Yet even this entirely reasonable articulation seems laughably absurd, like the old scholar frantically wandering about the office proclaiming that they cannot find their glasses and so they must be lost – when all along their spectacles have rested upon their nose. This is made the realm of fools and scholars alike when Michèle Le Dœuff allows Shakespeare, that “distant heir[] of Socrates”, to rear his ugly head. If one takes offense at being said to resemble the noble fool, then perhaps it would be more befitting of our stature to say that we are heirs to the madman. All of us not-philosophers proudly living in the shadow of a reformulated Nietzsche: no longer is it God but philosophy that is dead and we have killed it (and Tonto replies, “what ‘we’, white man?” – or, as Le Dœuff might reply, “what ‘we’, great philosophers?”).

That death of philosophy is nothing more than the bitter taste of wisdom left in our mouths once the realization sets in the sage and fool will be themselves equals in the grave. The answer to the question “why philosophize?” cannot be found outside of mythopoesis.1 That is to say there can be no answer more satisfying than Albert Camus’ suggestion that “one must imagine Sisyphus happy”. The value of philosophy is not that it can make gods and masters of us – indeed one of the stark lessons of the twentieth century seems to be that the examined life carries with it no superior access whatsoever to the good – so then it must then be found in the doing rather than in philosophical principles themselves. This serves to directly contradict the model of philosophy that is a mirror to the progressive sciences. It is philosophy as a mode of politicking, a form of ‘puzzle-solving’ . Instances in the history of philosophy are juxtaposed against the now for a purpose – not merely the pursuit of truth as truth, but rather towards an end that justifies the inquiry itself. We speak with the dead in order to help us find our own voices.

The intellectual heresy of this kind of philosophy – of which feminist, critical race theorists, and post-modernists are all heirs to – is that it dares advocate the use of philosophical investigation as a means towards their political, social, and otherwise worldly ends: philosophy as political action, as an instrument to be used in opposition to long-entrenched values and ideas. While the old guard are mourning the loss of wisdom, we, again us not-philosophers, should – and there is certainly a prescriptive element here – take the death of philosophy as an opening for a revaluation of philosophy itself.

  1. J.R.R. Tolkein: “There is no firmament / only a void, unless a jewelled tent / myth-woven and elf-patterned; and no earth / unless the mother’s womb whence all have birth”.

Leonard Nimoy, 1931-2015

27 Feb 2015

… and we sing it well.

Brian Hendricks, 1957-2014

11 Aug 2014

Memory, endurance, and the way that those concepts connect to political decisions about how we live together. I spent two years engrossed in that topic – although, unsurprisingly, the earliest seeds of my thesis could be found in my undergraduate work – but there is a realness to how we continue to endure after we are gone that is only revealed in the experiences of death and grief.

Thank you, Brian Hendricks, for reminding me of my footing and the sharpness of bliss..

Touching Up the Mona Lisa

07 Aug 2014

Tom Francis:

I will definitely ask you for changes to your work, regularly. Absolutely nothing to do with talent. If Leonardo da Vinci submitted the Mona Lisa, I’d say “Sorry, but for gameplay reasons the smile needs to be readable on low detail settings at wide zoom levels or players might mistake her for hostile. Can you make it a bit more pronounced?”

Although I doubt that anyone reading my blog has serious designs at doing art or music composition for an indie video game, Tom’s statement is still a good reminder for those of us that do any sort of creative work with or on behalf of anyone else: you are going to be forced to alter it to meet expectations that seem either unreasonable or merely contrary to your original design. As frustrating as it may be in the moment, it is useful to recall that our work is not for us alone. Changes will have to be made to satisfy particular situations or individual opinions. As a writer and as an improvisor, it is advice to keep close at hand.

Starship Troopers

06 Aug 2014

Scott Tobias for the A.V. Club:

The line between the world of Starship Troopers and Sarah Palin’s Twitter feed gets thinner every day.

In 1997, one of my favorite novels was transformed into quite the odd movie. Despite rewatching it with an alarming frequency, I still do not know what to think of Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers. It is not the novel, but it does not try to be – Scott does a good job of exploring what it may have been attempting. The volumes that have been written on this movie would make for quite the interesting library, but Scott’s article is worth checking out.

But, as always, do not read the comments.

Future Islands

22 Mar 2014

Tim Jonze for the Guardian:

The eye contact. The sincere chest thumping. The limbo dancing right at the end, which comes straight after that stomach-churning, guttural roar. The whole thing is strangely unsettling, incredibly moving and brave enough to risk teetering to the very brink of out-and-out hilarity without quite falling off the edge.