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On Style

Be clear. Be concise. Omit needless words.This is the prevailing advice on writing these days. Avoid long sentences and figures of speech. Beware of adverbs. Go light on the exposition. Use modifiers sparingly. Show, don’t tell. It is the notion that t…

12 People You’ll Never Believe You Actually Elected

Today, instead of a fictional farce, we look at the actual farce that is Alberta politics. The Progressive Conservative party has been in power in Alberta for 43 years. I’m just going to repeat that number in case you missed it the first time: 43 years. They have literally been around longer than disco.

They can be called a centre-right party, inasmuch as a party whose name is an oxymoron can have a coherent position. But it’s not very accurate to call the PCs a party. A party is a faction, a group of like-minded individuals who band together to better compete against other groups of like-minded individuals. The PCs are an institution. They are the Blob, inexorably absorbing every sentient being within reach.

For starters, they haven’t just governed this province for 43 years, they’ve done it with overwhelming majorities. In the last election, the PCs won 61 seats, and all three other parties combined won 26. That’s less than three-quarters of the total, which is well below average for the PCs. Every twenty years or so, another party actually tries to winan election in Alberta. The rest of the time, they try not to lose every one of their seats.
But that by itself kind of understates how dominant the PCs are. The second-biggest party was the Wildrose, a sort of right-wing protest group. Rather than progressively conservative, they were straight-up 160-proof conservative. (You’ll see in a moment why I’m using the past tense here.) Several Wildrose members were former PCs who’d grown disaffected with the government’s unaccountability and ideological incoherence. Another party, the Liberals, are led by another disaffected former PC. So our legislature consists of the governing party, the governing party’s castoffs, and a smattering of other politicians who spend nearly all their time complaining about how nobody ever pays attention to them.

You see, the PCs are what they call a ‘big-tent’ party, meaning that they have colonized a wide swath of the political spectrum. PCs come from right and left, but they are all united by one belief: they want a share of power, and the way you get power is by joining the party that’s had it all since before I was born.

With that in mind, let’s move to recent events. Three years ago the PCs were facing a major threat from the Wildrose, who had a likeable leader, Danielle Smith, and a clear message.

Danielle Smith dreams of power

The first problem the PCs were having was that people were getting tired of being governed by a dynasty about to enter its fifth decade. The other problem was that the premier at the time was Ed Stelmach, the blandest politician ever to live.
Ed Stelmach’s official portrait

This was a serious threat to a job security that tenured professors envied. So the PCs sent Stelmach back to his farm (I am not making that up) and cast about desperately for anyone who might win them the election. They settled on Alison Redford.
Alison Redford suspects we’re talking about her

Redford came from the left wing of the party; rather than progressively conservative, she was progressive, though conservatively. She cozied up to leftish types in the big cities. Her strategy was to portray the Wildrose as a bunch of grumpy old white men who hated everything invented after 1900 and a great deal of things from before then.

It worked mainly because of an almost unprecedented twist, which was that what she was saying was more or less true. One example among many was Wildrose candidate Allan Hunsperger’s blog, which described in detail what he wanted God to do to gays. (Hint: it’s like what the server does to a baked Alaska, but longer-lasting.) The Wildrose party’s attempt at damage control was just to say that raging homophobia wasn’t official party policy, which is like the cable company saying that, yes, some of our customer service representatives are assholes, but we don’t require them to be that way.

It was an interesting election, with the PCs basically running under the slogan “Corrupt and Out of Ideas, but Not Evil” and the Wildrose riposting with “Honest, Fresh, and We Might Not Hate You Specifically”. The Wildrose swept the grumpy old white man vote, but the PCs won the election through a last-minute surge of liberal urbanites voting for them out of sheer terror at what the Wildrose might wreak.

But things didn’t go swimmingly for the new government. The main problem was that Redford spent most of her time in office circling the province in a taxpayer-funded private jet sending out tweets like “what up, alberta? just cracked a fresh bottle of dom perignon. btw have 2 cut all higher education funding by 20% 🙁 ”

The fun finally ended when her own party went after her with torches and pitchforks. She was replaced by Jim Prentice, a former federal politician, then vice-chairman of a large bank. 
Jim Prentice gets ready to bring the pain

In one of those quirks of the Canadian parliamentary system that is not endearing, Prentice became leader first and was then elected. That is, he was chosen as party leader and then ran for office in a byelection in a safe district, one where a majority of people would vote for a genital wart if it was running for the PCs – not that anybody shows up for byelections anyway, since they’re roughly equivalent to inviting all your friends to the bar on a Tuesday afternoon. Prentice won with 6 898 votes. This was 58% of the people who bothered to show up, 15% of the population of the district, and a resounding 0.189% of the people of Alberta.

Meanwhile, the leader of the Wildrose, Danielle Smith, had been fighting for her party to officially agree to equal rights for everyone regardless of race, religious belief, or sexual orientation – because, as she repeatedly pointed out, it’s hard to win an election when you come across as bigoted against most of the electorate. And the party of course agreed, since no political organization not actually run by Archie Bunker would be so committed to bigotry that it would rather give up the chance of ever governing than compromise on the issue.

No, I’m kidding. They refused. And so what happens? Well, the Wildrose leader and ten other legislators from her party figured out their best route to power was, as always, to join the Blob. So they – and this is the majority of the Wildrose caucus we’re talking about, including the party leader – defected and joined the PCs.

So let’s review. Who governs Alberta now?

  •          A bank vice-chairman who got almost 7000 ordinary citizens to vote for him.
     
  •          A party one-sixth of whose representatives were actually elected as members of a different party.

Is this undemocratic? Well, let’s compare it to, say, Russia. On the one hand, Vladimir Putin won the presidential election in part by jailing all his serious opponents. On the other hand, he actually bothered to hold a fucking vote.

I suppose we did vote, in a way. We voted for the Blob, and they’ll keep us posted on who exactly we elected. Isn’t that so very nice of them.

The young man and the sage

Once upon a time a young man who was acclaimed for his wit and the profundity of his thoughts decided to visit an old sage who lived as a hermit on a mountain. The young man climbed up the steep path to the hermit’s hut and found him working in his garden.

 “Great sage,” said the young man, “I have come to you because you are reputed to be very wise, and I wish someday to be as wise as you. So, tell me: what is the secret of your wisdom?”

The old sage sat back on his haunches and looked the young man over. He scratched the side of his nose as he thought. “Wisdom,” he finally said, “is the sea.”

The young man waited a moment in case the sage added anything, but he didn’t, so he replied, “Ah, yes! Of course! Why couldn’t I see that before! Thank you, thank you!” He went back to his town and relayed the old sage’s account, expounding and expanding it, and soon he had built up quite a reputation as a teacher himself.

All the time, however, something was nagging at him, which was the feeling that he didn’t completely understand what it was for wisdom to be the sea. In fact, when he was really being honest with himself, he felt like he didn’t understand it at all. So after ten years had passed, he decided to go back to the sage. He climbed the mountain much more slowly this time, his impending confession weighing heavily on his mind.

The sage was resting under a tree. “Wise sage,” said the young man, “I am grateful for what you revealed to me, but I must admit that I do not fully understand yet what wisdom is.”

The sage looked him up and down, scratched the side of his nose, and thought. After several minutes he said, “What I said before was true, and yet – wisdom is not the sea.”

“Why, of course!” said the young man. “I understand now. It’s much clearer.” And it did seem that way for a while. But then the doubts returned, and he found himself lying awake at night wondering: how is wisdom the sea and also not the sea? He decided the meaning was ineffable. That satisfied him for a number of years, but then the nagging worries began to grow, that maybe his understanding was not so much ineffable as nonexistent.

And so, ten years after his last visit, he returned to the sage. The path up the mountain seemed much steeper than it had been before, and the man had to stop several times to rest. The sage had grown very thin. He was slumped in a chair watching a girl, a granddaughter or even great-granddaughter, tending his garden.

“Oh great sage,” said the man, “I have considered what you said for all these years, but I regret that I still lack your insight. So please tell a poor suffering soul: what is wisdom?”

The old sage looked him over. He thought for so long that the man started to wonder if he had fallen asleep with his eyes open. And then the sage said, “Wisdom is the slightest blade of grass and the mightiest mountain.”

“I see,” said the man. “Yes! It explains so much!” And it did seem for a bit like it did. He felt like he was right on the cusp of understanding, but every time he tried to take that last step and grasp the meaning, it would slip away like a ghost. He took to meditating on the sage’s words for several hours a day, but it did him no good. He drank gingko biloba tea every morning, and ate fish for dinner. When he was sick of those, he tried fasting, but he still could not understand.

After ten more years, he could no longer stand his hollow life, where he was wealthy and respected as a learned man but was unable to grasp the simplest truth. So he gave away all his worldly possessions and set out on foot across the countryside seeking enlightenment – until his sciatica got so bad he had to have his brother send him money for a carriage home.

When he returned, he heard that the sage had taken ill. The man realized this might be his last chance to learn what wisdom was. He struggled up the path until he reached the little hut. The sage was bedridden, but the girl – who was now a grown woman, and quite pretty – propped him up on some pillows so he could receive his visitor.

 “Oh great sage,” said the man, “I have thought and considered and fasted and meditated for so many years. But I still cannot grasp the secret of your wisdom. You said that wisdom is the sea, and you said it is not the sea, and you said it is the slightest blade of grass and the mightiest mountain. But sometimes I cannot imagine how such things could mean anything at all.”

“Neither can I,” the sage replied, “but it didn’t take me thirty years to figure that out.”

Return to blogging

I’ve been neglecting this blog for a while, but it’s been a busy few months:

  • I finished my book, now titled The Myrtle Child. It is the funniest thing since sliced bread. It is so epic it makes Game of Thrones look like People magazine. Next step is to find an agent, and then I’m on my way to world domination. (Except that with the comic novel instead of the death ray I was hoping for, I may have to revise my plans a bit.)
  • I did some philosophy, writing a piece called “Intellectual Virtue Now and Again” for a volume called Epistemic Situationism, to be published by Cambridge University Press. If you know what all those words mean you should check it out. If you don’t, what you need to know is that philosophical debates are basically like this.
  • Pavel and the Ivans, the patriotic Ukrainians you might remember from previousposts, were finally noticed by the media (and by ‘the media’, I mean ‘the media who aren’t just making the news up’). Vladimir Putin explained that they and the other Russian soldiers in eastern Ukraine were not invading the country; they were just on vacation. I was a little suspicious of this story at first, but I checked TripAdvisor and it turns out he was telling the truth. Just look at this review of the Donetsk Best Western, posted by a ‘Sgt. Pavel’:

    This hotel is terrible. The air conditioning didn’t work half the time, and neither did the running water. We specifically asked for a quiet room, but the sound of artillery fire kept us awake until three in the morning! The service was rude and totally unreliable. The concierge never showed up once. When we ordered room service, it took almost an hour for them to bring it, and there was blood all over the cart. The bellhop said he’d been shot by a sniper, of all the ridiculous excuses! I think he was actually drunk – he was slurring his words and could barely stand up straight. We sent the food back but then when we checked out, the meal was STILL on our bill. We should have known better than to book a hotel advertising it was a short walk from the Historic Front Lines.

My Bias

David GilmourLast year, David Gilmour, Canadian author and a lecturer at the University of Toronto, stirred up  controversy when he proclaimed his preference for heterosexual, white, male authors.  Gilmour said, “I would only teach the people…

A metaphysical interview with Toronto city councillor Doug Ford

This afternoon I had the opportunity for a metaphysical interview with Doug Ford, Toronto city councillor and brother to the mayor, Rob Ford. You’ve probably heard of Rob Ford: his pro-taxpayer, anti-downtown-fatcat policies have been featured in news media all over the world, and Youtube is full of amateur videos of his impromptu political speeches.

You probably haven’t heard of a metaphysical interview. This is like a regular interview, but instead of talking to the person you speculate about what they might say. It made my office hours today a bit awkward:

Student: Can I talk to you about my essay?

Me: I’m not here. I’m in Toronto conducting an interview.

Student: If I drop your class now, can I still get my money back?

Anyway, I met with Councillor Ford on the driveway of his lovely Rexdale home. “I wanted to ask you,” I began, “about your comments on the Griffin Centre group home near here. You were quoted as saying that it ‘ruined the neighbourhood’.”

“It did,” the councillor replied. “We have autistic people – not children, but teenagers and adults – who are disturbing the peace, screaming at night and wandering around. We have police and ambulances showing up. It’s hurting property values.”

“But, Mr. Ford,” I said, “isn’t that insensitive? I mean, we don’t want to exclude people from the community just because they have developmental challenges.”

“I feel just as much for autistic kids as the next guy,” he said, and put his hand on his heart to prove it. “But this used to be a quiet, well-kept neighbourhood – neat and tidy, filled with respectable, hardworking people. Having people here with these problems ruins all that. Would you want to live next door to someone who’s wandering around, screaming incoherently, and – ”
What he said next was drowned out by the sound of retching. At the end of a neighbouring house’s driveway, a enormously fat man vomited into a recycling bin. He stood up, wiped his mouth, and took a swig from a half-empty forty of Smirnoff. Then he staggered towards us. Doug Ford was still talking, but I couldn’t tear my eyes from the spectacle. The bulbous man wore an untucked dress shirt and tie, both spattered with bile. One of his shoes was missing. He glared at me with bloodshot eyes and growled, “What are you staring at?”

“I’m not sure,” I replied.

The fat man waved his bottle in the air and shouted, “I’m the mayor! Who the fuck are you?”

Before I could answer, he launched into a rambling speech in a fake accent. I certainly couldn’t understand enough to relate what he said, but I think I can summarize it thus:

Rob Ford’s Jamaican-style Jerk Sauce

Ingredients
1 anecdote
½ dozen swear words
3 cups of mock humility, badly faked
1 painfully embarrassing ethnic stereotype
Combine all ingredients and bring to a low boil. Slur until thoroughly mixed up. Serve while waving arms around as if fighting invisible ninjas.

The mayor then bellowed “WHAT’S UP?” and tried to slap his brother on the shoulder, but missed and nearly toppled over.

“Having a good time?” said Doug.

“Fuck yeah!” shouted the mayor, and took another drink, missing his lips and dribbling enough vodka down his shirt to make him a fire hazard.

“So, Rob,” said Doug very calmly, “I’m giving an interview here.”

The mayor jabbed me in the chest with his finger. “Bill Blair is a fucking asshole. And if you quote me on that I’ll ram my knee up your ass. No, fuck that. My knee is wider than your ass. How do you even sit down on that bony thing? You look like you’re fucking made of paper clips.” He wiggled the bottle. “Want a drink, bro?”

“No, thanks,” I replied. “I’m driving.”

“So was I until that tree cut me off.” He looked over his shoulder and yelled, “GET OFF THE ROAD, YOU LEAFY BITCH!”

I worried for a minute about offending someone that large and intoxicated, but even a metaphysical interviewer has to take some risks. “Mr. Ford, I thought you were in rehab.”

“Fuck rehab!” he shouted, and launched into an Amy Winehouse rendition. He aimed for the tune the way a fleet of B-52s would, destroying every note in a two-mile radius of the ones in the song. As he caterwauled he began to wander towards the house.

“My brother’s getting help for his substance abuse problems,” said Doug.

“I don’t have a drinking problem!” the mayor shouted. “I have a liberal media cocksuckers problem. I have a Bill Blair is a dickhead problem.”

“He’s making great progress,” said Doug. “He should be back to work in a couple weeks.”

“Taking care of business!” the mayor sang, so off-key that Randy Bachman could have sued him for slander. Lurching back and forth like a buoy in a hurricane, he managed to extricate a pipe from his pants pocket.

My eyes widened. “Is that a crack pipe?”

“No,” said Doug. “It’s a, um, kazoo.”

The mayor teetered back and forth, trying to get his lighter lit, the flame over the end of the pipe, and inhale, all at the same time. It was clearly a bit complicated for him.

“He’s smoking crack.” I turned to Doug. “He’s smoking crack on your driveway.”

“Technically, no,” Doug replied. “He’s got the pipe upside down.”

“He’s trying to smoke crack and failing. That’s even worse.”

“This stuff is shit!” the mayor yelled. “I want my five bucks back!” He threw the pipe in a hedge, then drained the bottle of vodka and tossed it too, laughing when it shattered against the neighbours’ car. “I’m gonna get another drunk,” said the mayor, and staggered up to his brother’s front door, where he stood swearing profusely and trying to figure out how to work the doorknob.

 “So,” I said to Councillor Ford, “where were we?”

“We were talking about respectable neighbourhoods,” he said. “About how people need to live in quiet, well-kept places, with good, hardworking people, and how group homes for autistic people ruin the property values.”

“Ah, yes,” I replied. “That’s where we were.”