“A legislature matters more than the luge”

I grew up in Canada, and lately I’m wondering what the hell is happening to make it go so horribly off the rails. Let’s backtrack about a year, to when Slate.com ran a piece called “What’s the Matter with Canada? How the world’s nicest country turned mean.

On December 30th, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper prorogued the government (it means discontinuing the session of parliament without dissolving it) for the second time in about a year. He did it the first time to avoid having his party’s minority leadership in parliament challenged by a vote of no confidence. (For those of you who somehow missed Canadian civics, if a vote of no confidence carries, the next step is a general election.)

When he did it a second time, it prompted Errol P. Mendes, a professor of constitutional law at the University of Ottawa, to write a piece that ran in the Toronto Star, which is really worth reading.

“The early decision to shut down Parliament was clearly to avoid the continuing scrutiny of a House of Commons committee over the mounting evidence of wilful blindness by the Harper government over the transfer of Afghan detainees to a substantial risk of torture. This is potentially a war crime and one of the most serious allegations any government has faced in the history of Canada.”

Mendes also outlines some of the other “unconstitutional behaviour” the Harper administration has been up to. What’s eerie is how much of it is reminiscent of the Bush administration. But even Bush/Cheney didn’t have the balls to shut down the government twice, just to get themselves out of hot water.

Enter The Economist, with its Olympian tone and unbylined stories. Now, The Economist is nobody’s ideal of a bleeding heart liberal magazine (even though they quaintly call themselves a newspaper), and they often profess their admiration for free markets.


This is one of the colonies, and they are, you know, The Economist, and they see through your shady maneuvers, Mr. Harper.

His officials faced grilling by parliamentary committees over whether they misled the House of Commons in denying knowledge that detainees handed over to the local authorities by Canadian troops in Afghanistan were being tortured. The government would also have come under fire for its lack of policies to curb Canada’s abundant carbon emissions. Prorogation means that such committees—which carry out the essential democratic task of scrutinising government—will have to be formed anew in March.

(That means no governmental oversight until MARCH — after the Winter Olympics take place in Whistler, British Columbia, next month.)

Their rejoinder is in the form of a sub-headline. And I quote: “A legislature matters more than the luge.”


More Bad News for Talking Steam Engines

Thomas the Tank Engine made the news again this week, and not in a good way. Thomas is a series of TV episodes about talking steam engines. With faces on them.

A couple of months ago a friend and I were discussing it, so I pulled up something I’d written in grad school about it:

the stories emphasize the importance of responsibility, discipline, order, respect for authority, and work ethic. The highest compliment that [the controller] Sir Topham Hatt bestows, for example, is to announce in utilitarian fashion, “You’re a really useful engine.”

This time it’s a political science professor named Shauna Wilton at the University of Alberta in Augustana who’s built up a head of steam about the program. In a story in the Toronto Star, Wilton says Thomas broadcasts a “conservative political ideology that punishes individual initiative, opposes critique and change, and relegates females to supportive roles.”

“The female characters do tend to be a bit sidelined,” Wilton told the Star. “The show comes out of a particularly historical time period when society was hierarchical and there was a blind following of authority. I want my daughter to think for herself.”

Since then she’s received 30 angry emails she’s received from Thomas fans, who think she’s anti-Thomas. Being an academic, Wilton’s response is nuanced.

“My daughter loves the show and loves playing with trains. There are a lot of really positive themes in Thomas, but parents should be aware of the messages that are there.”

Well, sure, that sounds about right. But The Star needed the a quote from the pro-Thomas lobby, so they hauled Britt Allcroft, the show’s former producer, out of the shed for a helpful non sequitur.

[She] dismissed the allegations back then, saying, “Thomas and friends are neither male nor female. They’re magic.”


Textual Interventions

Last week the Toronto Star announced it was going to sack about 100 in-house editors, and replace them with editors from somewhere else.

Today the Torontoist blog is running  an internal memo to Star staffers from the publisher. What’s interesting about it is that a Star editor took a none-too-kind red pen to the letter, showing all the big and little ways the memo falls short as a piece of writing.

Toronto Star publisher memoI love this bit of contested narrative, especially the beginning of paragraph three, where the text says “we are today launching a Voluntary Separation Program, to provide staff with additional choices.” The editor’s comment: “additional to what? haven’t named any others. please explain.”

On the very same day, a blog called she is too fond of books (yes, the hed is written downstyle) invited its readers to write a collaborative story: “I’ll start with a sentence, and everyone who comments will grow the story by adding a sentence of their own.”

The blogger started it like this:

“Ugh, Monday again!” I thought, as I rolled over and hit, literally hit, the snooze button on the clock-radio.

(Starting a story with a character waking up is a cliché, but whatever, no one is pinning their hopes on this group of monkeys writing a masterpiece.) It continues:

Why was I feeling so aggressive this morning? Then the gut-wrenching horrors of yesterday came flooding back.

Not even wishful thinking could make the sight of my husband in the arms of my best friend a dream. Losing both of my best friends in one fell swoop was simply not a good way to start a week.

But, hey, it’s not like I didn’t know it was coming; I’ve been fooling myself for quite some time.

What interesting creatures we humans are, able to see so much, or so little, depending on our psychological needs.

I’d convinced myself the perfume I smelt on his shirts was just the cheap kind counter girls attacked shoppers with, to be fair it probably was, Sandra had a cheap streak.

(We could quibble about so much interior monologue so early in the story, but no matter. Besides, infidelity and a cheap tart named Sandra? Things are looking up!)

Forget about the snooze button – I reached out again and turned off the alarm. The last thing I wanted to do was get out of bed, but it was pretty unlikely that I’d fall asleep again now…although that was the ONLY thing I wanted to do.

Well, not the only thing, but castration was frowned upon in my small town.

Hmm. Funny line, but a little troubling if you’re a man. I figured was time for me to play along. Besides, as a guy, I thought the story needed more action, and less tiresome ruminating about how lovely it was to stay in bed. So I added something along the lines of…

My husband tottered to a stop at the side of the bed, his ankles wobbling on high heel shoes, his chest hair billowing out of the bodice of a dress — Sandra’s dress.

A new character! AND a plot point! That, I figured, would propel the story in a really interesting direction.

I figured wrong.

And then it hit me, glue was what I needed — the horrible once-it-comes-in-contact-with-the-skin kind that’s impossible to remove without surgery. I closed my eyes and smiled.

OK, well, maybe glue was an interesting direction, especially if we got into huffing, or affixing wigs to the cross-dressing husband. But no, the glue was just non sequitur foreshadowing for this:

I listened as my husband turned on the shower in our newly renovated, completely decadent bath/spa/suite, a project which had gone well beyond our original budget by far, and which we had just started to enjoy last week. This room had become an all consuming project in the last year. The shower was amazing, with multiple-positioned shower heads and a marble bench, a japanese soaking tub (which was well worth the $8000 we had spent on it), heated floors, towel racks and a sauna. This room had a majestic view of the Malibu coastline, with floor to ceiling windows which had to be installed via an enormous construction crane. Our neighbors would probably not be speaking to us any time soon. Not that we cared.

WTF? It was supposed to be one sentence, not six, and more important, we’re adding digressive back-story about a “completely decadent bath/spa/suite” that includes an $8,000 Japanese soaking tub and a snarky bit about how the couple was so selfish they had alienated their neighbors?

Ever faithful to the plot, I bent the rules and added a second post, wherein the husband returns and admonishes the wife for wasting everyone’s time and good will on her embarrassing and long-winded home-porn back-story.

… and then it fell apart.

The blogger deleted my two comments, and added an update that said, “I reserve the right to edit anything that I wouldn’t write (anything I wouldn’t want my kids to read), and to delete attempts to shanghai the storyline for a personal agenda.”

That caveat wasn’t in the original instructions. (Though the shanghai the storyline for a personal agenda phrase is rich with irony, since we all got soaked by that motherfucking $8,000 Japanese tub.)

Plus, the castration comment made it in, so what was wrong with a cross-dressing husband who bickers with his wife for spending obscene amounts of money on soaking tubs, multiple-positioned shower heads and marble benches, and then blathering on about them ad nauseam?

I mean … cross-dressing? Come on. A UK psychotherapist and general practicioner wrote this in an article about it:

Men who cross-dress are not mentally ill. Indeed, psychologists in the USA have decided that cross-dressing comes within the normal range of male sexuality unless it becomes a compulsive obsession.

The husband is a benefit! He’s colorful! He’s out of bed and dressed before his deadbeat wife! He even speeds up the action in an otherwise sluggish story! In my humble opinion, he’s a much more compelling character than his irritating, bourgeois wife.

Plus, would you want to implicitly condone the behavior of a wife who is selfish and narcissistic, and probably a gold-digger to boot? No, I’d keep my kids miles away from that nasty piece of work, and her construction crane to boot.

Anyhow. Someone wrapped up the story with “I sat up and realized it had been a dream,” and then a little stage business, which the blogger cleaned up a bit for the end of the story.

It was all a dream. Another cliché. How fitting.

So the lesson to learn today, kids, is that you can be as grotesque as you want to your bathroom or your neighbors, but don’t ever ever ever cross-dress. Because in this family-friendly culture, that kind of shit just doesn’t fly.

The Social Media Value of Idiot Columnists

It used to astound me how many idiots (morons, blockheads, nitwits, pinheads, etc.) still write for major media outlets.

John Tierney, columnist for the New York Times, is a case in point. It’s really too bad I’m far from the only one who thinks this.

Looks smarter than he is

Looks smarter than he is

And occasionally Daniel Hamermesh writes inane things on the Freakonomics blog (such as classic about the environmental dangers of exercise bicycles, or his piteous bemoaning of the hardships of tenured faculty in a depression)  … though he was right about raising taxes recently.

But today I was reading the Toronto Star, which had this headline: “This mother to try potty training at 3 months.” First person by a mom to be … one of the paper’s  living reporters, who is

planning to start practising elimination communication: a method that teaches parents how to read their wee one’s signals so the infant can go in a potty (with assistance, of course) rather than a diaper.

I found myself laughing (communication? they can barely even roll over at 3 months!) and then skimming … and then skipping straight to the comments, which included these:

  • Good luck with that, I wonder if you’ll post if you fail?
  • I think pulling the “better for the envrironment” platitude is disingenous. We want kids to be kids but not if it inconveniences us.Then we’ll accelerate them. I’ve never seen a 10 year old who cannot go to the bathroom by himself/herself. Let nature take its course.
  • This article is hilarious…how can anyone take toilet-training at 3 months seriously? Next they will want to have babies dressing themselves by 6 months, or taking their own baths at 1 year! C’mon people, let babies be babies!!! If you’re worried about the environment, use cotton diapers like we do!

So now I’m entertaining a pet theory that either the Toronto Star and the New York Times have a bunch of nitwits on staff and has to fill up the space with something, or …

This is the dawning of a new era of clever journalism, where the journalist “plays the fool” (for Tierney I fear it isn’t an act), and their ludicrous rantings are really just a placeholder, and the real action is taking place in the comments section.

I’m really hoping it’s the latter.

The next John Tierney

The next John Tierney

No-frills University … er, College

The Toronto Star has a headline today, “No-frills university urged in GTA.”

Here’s the lead of the story:

Louise Brown
Education Reporter
Ontario should consider creating a new university in the GTA – undergraduates only, very little research – to handle the explosion of 25,000 extra students expected in bachelor programs over the next 15 years, urges a report by the province’s advisory body on higher learning.

Couple of funny bits here, if you’re a geek like me. First, “no frills” is an enduringly popular concept in Canada. There’s even a chain of “no frills” stores.


Actually, no-frills stores are all over the place. Products aren’t shelved or merchandised (that’s a frill!). Instead they’re wheeled in on palettes. Shopping bags are a frill. Often they only stock generic products, and do without butchers, bakers, and deli people. And so on.

You’ll notice the logo isn’t even a serif font. Serifs are frills, I guess.

Second funny point is about the concept for the proposed new school: “a new university in the GTA – undergraduates only….”

Well, if you’d been paying attention when you went to school, you might have noticed that there are colleges and universities. Ever wonder why?

According to Webster, a university has facilities for teaching and research, and comprises an undergraduate division that awards bachelor’s degrees and graduate and professional schools that award master’s degrees and doctorates.

A college is typically undergraduate. Only. Like “community college.” So “undergraduate-only university” is not only a tortured phrase, it’s actually the incorrect way to say “college.”