Sunday, April 30, 2006

Is "only the fittest survive" a tautology?: A Wittgensteinian Take

“One of the best documented examples of natural selection in modern times is the English Peppered Moth. Typically, this moth is whitish with black speckles and spots all over its wings. During the daytime, Peppered moths are well-camouflaged as they rest on the speckled lichens on tree trunks. Occasionally a very few moths have a genetic mutation which causes them to be all black, so they are said to be melanistic. Black moths resting on light-colored, speckled lichens are not very well camouflaged, and so are easy prey for any moth-eating birds that happen by. Thus, these melanistic moths never get to reproduce and pass on their genes for black color. However, an interesting thing happened to these moths in the 1800s. With the Industrial Revolution, many factories and homes in British cities started burning coal, both for heat and to power all those newly-invented machines. Coal does not burn cleanly, and creates a lot of black soot and pollution. Since lichens are extremely sensitive to air pollution, this caused all the lichens on city trees to die. Also, as the soot settled out everywhere, this turned the tree trunks (and everything else) black. This enabled the occasional black moths to be well-camouflaged so they could live long enough to reproduce, while the “normal” speckled moths were gobbled up. Studies done in the earlier 1900s showed that while in the country, the speckled moths were still the predominant form, in the cities, they were almost non-existant. Nearly all the moths in the cities were the black form. It was evident to the researchers studying these moths that the black city moths were breeding primarily with other black city moths while speckled country moths were breeding primarily with other speckled country moths. Because of this, any new genetic mutations in one or the other of those populations would only be passed on within that population and not throughout the whole moth population. Additionally, because the city and country environments were different, there were different selective pressures on city vs. country moths that could potentially drive the evolution of these two populations of moths in different directions. The researchers pointed out that if this were to continue for a long enough time, the city and country moths could become so genetically different that they could no longer interbreed with each other, and thus would be considered distinct species. In this case, what actually happened is that the people of England decided they didn’t like breathing and living in all that coal pollution, thus found ways to clean things up. As the air became cleaner, lichens started growing on city trees again, thus the direction of the selective pressure (birds) was once again in favor of the speckled moths. By now, English cities, as well as countrysides, all have speckled moths, and all are interbreeding at random, thus were not separated for long enough to develop into separate species.”

Let us suppose that contrary to all expectations after the trees of Northern England were no longer covered in soot the black coloured moths continued to thrive at the expensive of the speckled coloured moths. Some have implied that this would be a strike against Darwinian Theory; the theory would have predicted a falsehood, viz., only the fittest survive. I think they are mistaken. Only the fittest survive is not proposition and as such true or false. Rather, survivability is a built in criterion of fitness.

Back tracking a bit, I think we can agree that the reason the speckled coloured moth was expected to resume its original predominance was that it was presumed to be better suited to its environment. In other words, it was presumed to be fitter. Here in lies the problem for opponents of my view. By holding that “only the fittest survive” is like any old proposition they unwittingly run two empirical propositions together, viz., the notion that only the fittest survive and the notion that speckled colouring confers fitness. As a result, they render both unfalsifiable. Indeed, faced with such contradictory evidence one can always insolate one proposition by rejecting the other. Either, the speckled coloured month’s colouring did confer fitness and Darwinian maximum is wrong, or the moths colouring did not confer fitness and the Darwinian maximum still holds.

Conversely, in accordance with what I said above about “only the fittest survive” being a criterion of fitness, I would say that the hypothesis that the speckled coloured moth’s colouring gave it a selective advantage is false. This is also the conclusion I think scientists would draw. By holding out survival as a criterion of fitness we are able to test our predications as to who we think is fit in present day populations (e.g. a population of moths). I suppose we could do something similar using complex computer programs for past populations. Feeding all the information we have about old environments into computer simulation program, we could test various adaptationist explanations.

Before I am dismissed as an adherent of the view that the Darwinian maximum reduces to completely vacuous “only survivors survive”, let me say this. Populations change from generation to generation and often in a particular direction. This is denied by no sane person. The rub for scientists has always been how to account for these changes. There have been many ill fated attempts. Lamarck’s theory of acquired characteristics being passed down to the next generation being the most well known. Darwinians say that “natural selection” can explain at least some of these changes in populations and most people, even creationists, have no trouble conceding that it can (e.g., as in the moth example quoted at the beginning). Darwinian Theory fits with our understanding of genetics and there are powerful mathematical models that explain how selective pressures can change the distribution of any one gene in a given population and at can explain at what rate that change occur. (Of course, these models also explain why artificial selection works) All in all, Darwin has offered up the most coherent and popular theory to date. Where they part ways with many lay people, at least in the States, is that Darwinians believe, as any believer in evolution does, that these changes can eventually lead to speciation.

All that being said, it seems outrageous to say that the success of Darwinian Theory rests on some slight of hand. There is good reason for this. When you really get down to it what Darwinians do is to come up with just so adaptationist stories for why this or that trait or behavior evolved and make predications about survival rates based upon what who they think is fit. As noted, there is nothing suspicious about the latter. As for the former, many are admittedly speculative. However, they are no more mysterious, or on a less academically sure footing than many other historically based fields of endeavor. Moreover, many of the best known evolutionary theorists (e.g., Stephen Jay Gould) reputations rest or rested on their willingness to rein in those who went beyond the available evidence.

Another fundamental misunderstanding concerns the nature of the maximum itself. A statement is tautological in so far as the meaning of the terms are defined by means of each other. In this case, so the argument goes the fittest are those who survive, and those who survive are deemed the fittest. With regards to the famous Darwinian maximum this is false. It only makes sense to talk about fitness in terms of populations that have undergone or are undergoing selective pressures. A segment of the population is fit relative only to another segment of the population that is unfit. If one invokes another mechanism to explain some trait’s dominance, then strictly speaking there is no segment of the parent population that is fitter than any other and consequently it would be inappropriate to describe the offspring (i.e., survivors) of that population undergoing, for example, genetic drift as being fit or not. To think it otherwise leads to the strange conclusion that any Darwinian who wanted to stay true to the maximum would have to avoid ever adopting another evolutionary mechanism.

In coming to this conclusion about the nature of Darwinian maximum, I did not draw my inspiration, Popper, who at one time thought the Darwinian maximum to be a tautology, but rather Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein rejected the Logical Positivist mantra that some propositions are true by definition (e.g. “All bachelors are unmarried men” is true by virtue of the meaning of “bachelor” and “unmarried men”). However, Wittgenstein thought the positivists like so many before them were right to think so called analytic statements were special. He thought, though, they were wrong to think them propositions. According to Wittgenstein such statements are, rather, explicit rules for how to use words (e.g., “All bachelors are unmarried men” rules out the use of word bachelor in the following sentence. “She was a lifelong bachelor.”) Wittgenstein likens these explicit rules to the hum drum rules of grammar. Indeed, he deems them as being part of grammar proper. Like the everyday rules of grammar, they help constitute the bounds of what is sensible and unlike propositions are neither true nor false.

Wittgenstein thought that not all grammatical statements were so easy to pick out. In fact he held that people frequently mistake some grammatical rules as normal propositions (e.g., Sensations are private) When that happens he said, “language goes on a holiday” and the only way “to shew the fly the way out of the fly-bottle” is to investigate, hence the title Philosophical Investigations, the relationships between the offending rule and others parts of language. In Wittgenstein’s case, what such a typical investigation involved was Wittgenstein showing how treating a particular grammatical rule as a proposition leads to absurd conclusions. If successful a cloud of philosophy would be condensed into a droplet of grammar.

If I had to classify “only the fittest survive”, I would say it was a grammatical statement and the absurd conclusion that is avoided by treating it as such is the possibility that sometimes the weakest survive.

Official Multiculturalism: Part 2

I would like to make two clarifications about the last post. First, Multiculturalism helped speed up the process of cultural change and make the transition less painless. It was not the driving force behind cultural change; increased immigration was. Another important factor that helped birth the new Canada was that social mobility for new Canadians has been, relatively speaking, pretty good. Too be sure, there are areas of Vancouver, say, were virtually all school children are members of minority groups. However, all regions of Vancouver have a large ethnic mix. This is in marked contrast to areas of many ethnically diverse cities in the UK and the US, where white enclaves still exist. (Speaking of ethnically homogenous, you could literally have counted the number of people of colour at the Yankees and Red Sox games playoff games.)

Yes, multiculturalism sometimes encourages people to fail to take ownership of their membership within Canadian society, but outside of Canada’s native communities (a separate issue really) I do not see this as a big problem. More and more Canadians describe themselves as Canadian and this is particularly true of young Canadians. More than anything else, the risk is that multiculturalism could provide fertile ground (e.g., by making various cultural institutions (e.g. Sharia law) more available) for this trend reversing itself. Since 911 and start of the War on Terror, some members of well integrated and prosperous groupings in the States (e.g. in LA’s Iranian community) have started to turn their back on American society and have sought to crave a more “authentic” identities for themselves. (The New Yorker had a profile of two Americans of Iranian decent who had sought to create such an identity. It made for strange reading. The teenage son of long time US citizens was using the very writings of the same Mullahs his parents left Iran to escape to create for himself a new identity. Also strange was how much to his consternation and surprise the Iranian traditions and language he picked up in LA alienated him from his Iranian cousins. The idiom and slang he used was 25 years out of date and made him sound not like his peers put like their parents.)

Official Multiculturalism

Official multiculturalism has been a success, but not in ways usually appreciated. Official multiculturalism proved to be the death nail Anglo Canadian identity based on god, king and country. As it stood Anglo Canadian values were not woven together by prominent national myths as in the United States and without official state sanction such an identity simply dissolved as Canada opened its borders to more and immigrants. Only trace elements remain.

The policy was not nearly so successful when it came to Quebec. Quebec nationalists have for decades used to state institutions to sew together a new secular identity out the historical threads of an older catholic Quebec that modernity had unraveled. Thankfully, the emergence of a large “ethnic” community has made Quebec nationalist identity based on blood and shared historical grievances into an anachronism. Perhaps with help of Harper, the sovereigntists dream may very well be realized, but it will not be the Quebec Lévesque wanted.

Official multiculturalism has done something else. It has severed as an anticoagulant, preventing a crust from forming on top of the Canadian melting pot. Canadian identity is, as it should be, a work in progress. There is no Canadian dream as there is an American dream. We are not limited that way. We do not believe in passing down a script of what it means to be Canadian down from one generation to the next. We leave it up to each generation to decide who they are through existential engagement. The process only allows a generation to do decide who they were by retrospectively looking back; for Canadians as for Hegel, the Owl of Minerva only flies at night. For those who are still the sunshine of their lives, they simply say want they know they are not, viz., Americans.

If there is a downside of official multiculturalism it is this: it has helped encouraged certain forms of ethnic essentialism. Cultural traditions are not something that can be boxed away and put in a museum. Cultural traditions are by products of a great interplay of forces (political, social, and economic) and it is these forces that give the traditions their meaning. Take the Hindu prohibition against killing cattle. Taken alone the prohibition seems strange. However, the important role the cow has played, and indeed in some parts of India continues to play in the lives of peasants, such a prohibition becomes intelligible. (Cow dung was important source of fuel and building material. Cattle were used to plow fields and of course cows are source of milk.) Removed from social-economic body, these traditions harden and eventually die.

That said, not everyone recognizes this, including it seems the government of Canada, and here in lays the rub. Things can go badly in one of two ways. Parents may force these traditions that once where alive for them onto their children for whom they never where, or children can adopt these dead traditions as means of creating an identity for themselves (e.g., the large number of North African youth in France turning to Fundamentalist Islam). The former creates generational divisions and is natural enough. The later is far more serious. I think it is safe to say that it heightens ethnic tensions, but it does something else as well. As these cultural traditions are not given any meaning by the larger societal forces, they only come to have meaning by virtue of them being practiced exclusively by a particular group and more often than not by all supposedly self conscious group members. The many people who stray from identity supposedly prescribed to them by such things as skin colour are not looked upon kindly by “self conscious” members of the same group and a whole host of names have evolved to describe them. Apple for example is used to describe a native Canadian who is red on the outside but is white on the inside. Banana is used to describe someone of Chinese origin who is yellow on the outside but white in the inside. Oreo is used to describe Black person who is black on the outside, but white in the inside. On the flip side of things, people who are supposedly not free to develop such practices are guilty of cultural appropriation.

Belief and Desire not Choosen

Beliefs are not something one chooses. I do not choose to believe there is a computer screen in front of me, nor do I choose to believe I am now typing. I just so believe. The same goes with desires. I do not choose to desire a glass of water. I just desire one. Why anyone would think it any different when in comes to sexual desire is beyond me. The whole debate about whether homosexuality is a byproduct of biology, while interesting, is complete red herring. Whatever the casual history of a desire it is not chosen.

Why we should not care about a guility Mind

In order to be found guilty in our system one has to have a guilty mind. It is for this reason that young offenders, children, people with mental defects and the criminally insane are given lesser sentences or no sentences at all. They are deemed not as capable of understanding all our some of the consequences of their actions. It is also for this reason that people found guilty of manslaughter receive a lesser sentence than people guilty of first degree murder. And finally, it is for this reason that people of Native decent are to be treated more leniently by the courts. In the eyes of the law makers, the social environment is a mediating factor and must be taken into account when sentencing Native Canadians.

One problem with all this is roughly as follows. Rather than being able marshal the full weight of the sciences in its efforts to curb future criminal acts, our legal system is undermined by some of them. Indeed, the social sciences, in so far as they are, as any first year professors will tell you, deterministic, are like little factories producing ready made mitigating factors.

Now, when defense attorneys use one of these ready made mitigating factors, the response of many people is to jump up and to do what amounts to denying the validity of these areas of study. “His childhood had nothing to do with it. He knew exactly what he was doing and he chose to do wrong.” This response is neither legally sound nor rationally convincing. Worse still, it takes the focus away from the true source of the problem, i.e., the notion of culpability. There is no better demonstration of this than the XYY chromosome defense and the decision to have the courts treat Native Canadians more leniently.

Used in the 1970s the XYY argument is in its most basic form this. Males with an extra Y chromosome are inherently violent and thus are not criminally responsible for their actions. The defense failed, but only because the defense was based on bad science. In theory is could have worked. In our legal system, it is possible that someone could be found not guilty because they are inherently violent.

As for Native Canadians, the powers that be looked at the crime figures and saw that Native peoples commit an unusually large number of crimes and have a higher rate of recidivism. They, rightly, concluded that their social environment had something to do with it and in a highly controversial decision decreed that Judges must consider the social environment when sentencing Native peoples. Put differently, their reasoning was this. The social environment predisposes Native Canadians to commit a greater number of crimes, hence high crime rate, and because they are so predisposed Native offenders are not as culpable and therefore should be sentenced more leniently. This is, indeed, consistent with our current understanding of culpability, but needless to say it seems just, well, ass backwards. If someone is more likely to re-offend, or commit some other crime, than it only seems reasonable to give them a stiffer sentence and not a lighter one.

Smoking Bans

While people, can certainly choose what pubs and clubs they go to and while people can refuse to work in a certain establishments, most people have no choice but to work. As such, most people would agree that in theory that the government should prohibit employers from needlessly exposing their employees to danger. Alas though, theory is one thing and practice is another. For all sorts of reasons, regulatory bodies sometimes turn a blind eye to work place dangers and when called on this they simply deny the obvious. There should be no such discrepancy in the case of second hand smoke. The government readily acknowledges that second hand smoke is dangerous. It is for this reason that they require tobacco companies to say that “second hand smoke kills” on cigarette packaging and it is for this reason that they have already banned smoking in most workplaces already. Some governments have even mulled over the suing tobacco companies over the damage that second hand smoke has caused. All of this makes the failure of certain governments to extend such a ban to all workplaces particularly galling. But there is more. Eventually someone will get around to suing one or more levels of government for this and while private individuals and entities can always argue the merits of claim that second hand smoke is dangerous, the government, whose stated position is that second hand smoking is dangerous, would be forced to either concede the point, or undermine the basis one of largest public health campaigns in the country’s history and worse still the very legitimacy of all future public health campaigns.

Dangerous Offender Status and Capital Punishment

Even though there is no proof that capital punishment serves as a deterrent, I think a case for capital punishment can be made. From time to time certain criminals hit a societal nerve. Not surprisingly, once caught and convicted these people become the face of evil for whole communities. Here in lies the problem; so long as these people remain alive these communities remain haunted by such figures. There is no better example of this than Clifford Olson. Since, his arrest in 1983, Olson has found himself in the media spotlight from time to time and whenever that has happened old wounds where once again ripped open. Olson also has become the living embodiment of what people think is wrong with the justice system. Executing Olson and his kin seems the only way giving afflicted communities, but certainly not loved ones, a sense of completion and peace and clear sense that justice has prevailed.

The problem is that if Canada were to reintroduce the death penalty as a punishment for first degree murder, some of the same problems that plague the States and helped get capital punishment abolished in the first place would again plague the Justice System. Most notably, while the introduction of DNA evidence has lessened the likelihood of innocent person being put to death, the likelihood of an innocent person being convicted of a capital crime, somewhere down the line, is still pretty high. As such, just as Olson has become a living argument for capital punishment, Guy Paul Morin has become a living argument against capital punishment.

I think there is a way around this objection, but to my knowledge I am the only one to have put it forward. What I purpose is that the state be allowed to execute someone not for what they have done per say, but for what they are. In a Canadian context what this would boil down to is this: Rather than defining what is a capital crime, the notion of Dangerous Offender should be refined to include people convicted of murder and that authorities should have the option of executing, at least offenders, deemed such because they met the first criteria listed below. Technically speaking, the possibility of executing a person for a crime they did not commit would not exist. Currently, “under the Dangerous Offender provisions, the Crown can ask that an offender be sentenced to remain in prison for as long as he or she is considered dangerous, which in some cases, can be indefinitely. This must be done through a special court hearing held soon after the offender has been convicted. Not all offenders are considered dangerous. In order to be considered a DO, an offender must have committed a "serious personal injury offence" (for example, sexual assault, manslaughter or aggravated assault). Murder is not included since a conviction results in an automatic life sentence. In addition, there must be evidence to show that the offender constitutes a risk to others, based on any one of the following:

•a pattern of repetitive and persistent behaviour that is likely to lead to injury or death, or a pattern of aggressive behaviour showing indifference to the safety of others;

•the likelihood of injury through a failure to control sexual impulses; or

•a crime so "brutal" that it is unlikely the offender can inhibit his or her behaviour in the future.

Incidentally, "as of September 24, 2000, there were 276 active Dangerous Offenders in Canada; representing approximately 2% of the total federal offender population.”

Tuition Hikes

I am puzzled as to why I keep coming across the following rather stupid argument for hiking tuition fees in Canada. The argument goes something like this. There is a wide income gap between people with university degrees and those without degrees. Clearly, obtaining a university degree leads to better things and given that gap seems to be ever widening, having a degree will probably be even more valuable in the future than it is now. That being the case, it is only right that those that who benefit from obtaining a degree pay more towards what it costs to educate them.

Now, leaving aside the problems associated with drawing a causal relation from a correlation, problems associated with projecting data well into the future and whole host of other missing caveats, let us just assume that they have hit the nail on the head. Obtaining a university degree is well worth it.

Does it follow from this that the only way of having students give back to society is by having them pay higher tuition fees? Of course, it does not. As a population, those with degrees earn more than the rest of the population and so pay more taxes. Once more, the way the system is currently set up the more you benefit from your degree the more you pay.

I dare say, the tax route is a much more attractive option for other reasons too. People are not burdened with the expense of having to pay for their education at a time when they can least afford it (when they first step into the working world), but will instead be able to pay for it at a time that they can most afford it. What is more, this way the person that benefits from the having a degree is more likely to assume more of the financial burden. After all, in many cases a student’s family fits all or part of the cost associated with obtaining a degree.

The real beauty of this argument, though, is that it can be employed against those who object to tax option on the grounds that a degree holder pays the same tax rate as a non degree holder in the same tax bracket. Tongue firmly in cheek, simply agree that, alas, this is true. Despite the fact past graduates had their education supplemented by tax payers to a much larger degree then is the case now, university graduates pay no more than non degree holders in the same tax bracket. Having said so, ask the following question: If current students, who have yet to benefit from their education, should be made to pay for a larger chunk of what it costs to educate them, should those who are currently benefiting from having a degree also be made to pay retroactively for a greater chunk of what it cost to educate them?

Different rules Different Game

During a conference on female circumcision a French theorist stood up and questioned the very validity of the conference. I can not remember exactly what he said, but he was a moral relativist and what he said went something like this: Who are we to tell them that female circumcision is wrong? There are no absolute criteria by which they can be judged.

Now, typically moral relativists buttress their arguments by employing concepts like "language games" and "incommensurability". However, I have not come across someone who has employed concepts such as those against moral relativism. This, though, is what I will attempt to do.

"Who are we tell them that a rook can not move diagonally?" What makes this sentence seem perfectly odd and "Who are we to tell them that female circumcision is wrong?" common place? Are we right to treat the two differently?

With regard to the first of these questions, there is, of course, nothing wrong of a conceiving of a game in which the “rook” can move differently. It is just that that this game would not be chess. The pieces might be the same and the board might be the same and the other pieces might move in identical manner. However, the game of chess is, by and large, no more then the sum of the rules that make up the game and moving a “rook” thus would violate those rules. (It should be pointed out that a chess piece, such as a rook, is a chess peace by virtue of the rules of the game not by virtue of what it is called or how it is shaped. For this and other reasons, a move is only a move in a game.) Different rules different game. (To be sure, it is possible to conceive of chess as being played in alternative manner. Imagine for example that in the Western world the pawn can be moved two spaces forward on its first move, like it is now, but that the Chinese forbid it. My playing partner and I could then ponder whether we wanted to play by Western rules or by Chinese. However, there would be no non question begging why of determining what was the right way to play chess, the Chinese way or the Western way. Minor differences do not always add up to a difference in kind.)

Now, there are societies in which female circumcision is consistent with “moral” teachings of those societies. That is not in dispute, nor is the notion that female circumcision violates “western” ideas of what is right. What I think should be disputed is the notion that we can not condemn the practice because other people “conceive” of “morality” differently. The problem for the moral relativist is not that, dammit, female circumcision is just wrong. His problem is it is not enough to say that Westerners engage in particular language games and that the rest of the world plays in some cases altogether different games. What he needs to do is akin to explaining how a game of chess is more than just the sum of the rules of the game. He needs to show that the game westerners play is the same game that other people play, only it is played according to entirely different rules. Only then will he be able to say in the case of female circumcision that for one group the move is legitimate and for the other group illegitimate.

The problem is, though, that failing to condemn female circumcision would send logical tremors that could threaten to break apart the series of interlocking language games we call morality. We can no more recognize an alternative account arising from a different set of moral precepts than we can recognize a game in which a “rook” moves differently as chess.

All told, if we conceive of morality as simply a bunch of interlocking language games, what we end up with is remarkably similar to the static universal morality that the moral relativists dismiss. The moral relativist is right about the very human origin of morality and chess. However, what makes, say, a game of chess a game of chess is simply that the game is played in accordance with the rules that make up the game. As such, there are limits to the extent we can change the rules of the game and have it still have it remain the same game.

Dick Pound is an Idiot

IOC should stop trying to ban every conceivable substance that might enhance an athlete's performance. There is simply no way of ever achieving a mythical level playing field. Indeed, the fact of the matter is that access to good trainers and good training facilities, being able to afford the right equipment, good nutrition, excess to health care and having the time to train are far more of an advantage than downing a few cans of Coke before a race. This is the reason why Norway (population 4.5) beats China (population 1.4 billion) in the Winter Olympics. Instead, what the IOC should seek to do is to ban substances that both improve performance and that have not been proven to be safe. In other words, the IOC should seek only to ban substances whose use would threaten workplace safety.

This should go for other sports as well. As it stands, the emphasis on potentially banning any substance that may improve performance regardless of the health costs associated with it has driven a wedge between various parities in the sporting world in part by obscuring just how some performance enhancers can reduce workplace safety. (It has also led to some pretty strange talk. For example there was talk of banning oxygen cambers for awhile. The reason being there is that although they are not in anyway dangerous, there is some evidence that by speeding up the healing process -- god forbid! -- it “artificially” improved performance.) No where is this more apparent than in major league baseball. Fearing what testing might mean for a few individual players, the major league players union has lost sight of the following. Most major leaguers who use steroids feel that the lax testing in baseball, do in large part to the players union, has created an environment where they are forced to take them in order to keep up with other players that use. Asked if they would then welcome more stringent testing, the vast majority said yes.

A Paradox

If you feel that a group should abstain from a particular activity for the simple reason that they lack the ability to fully appreciate the consequences of carrying out such an activity, then what sense does if make to try to convince them of that? Indeed, either such an enterprise would undermine the very basis for having them abstain from the activity in the first place (by helping see the possible consequences of a given course of action), or it would be a complete waste of time (i.e., they would not grasp the link between a given course of action and a possible outcome). However, such seems to be the case for many school programs. Teachers regularly delineate possible outcomes of certain activities (e.g., choosing to become sexually active). They then test them to see whether they understand these links. At the end of the day, however, no teacher that I know tells students that have mastered the subject matter that they should now feel free to become, say, sexually active.

At best, what can be said in the case of alcohol is this: "Yes, there are plenty of teenagers that know how to drink responsibly and you might be one of them. However there is a critical mass of teenagers that do not. With this in mind, the courts have set the drinking limit at 19. Now, in order for the law to be workable, the law must target all of those under the age of 19 and not just those who drink irresponsibly.

Continuing on in rant mode, it is clear that the just say no drugs and alcohol model simple does not work. Now, let me add to the speculation as to why. Somehow it is not dawned on the just say no crowd that some teenagers will continue to drink and do drugs no matter what and that by tailoring their message only to those kids who are having drugs pushed on them they are, among other things, failing to reach one of the most influential segments of teenager culture, viz., those that push drugs onto other kids. One needs to acknowledge this group and teach them to respect those who refuse their overtures.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Liberals must Court Controversy

The timing of the 2004 election call was all wrong for the Liberals. I told this to a Liberal MP during the 2004 election. He agreed. I said that he should have called a late fall election to coincide with the US election. The Liberals could have more easily painted Bush and Harper as two peas in a pod. However, Martin never fully realized what a pariah Bush had become until well into 2005 and he was reluctant to go back on a promise to Canwest Global and CEOs everywhere to improve relations with the Bush administration (Incidentally, when CEOs call for improved relations with Bush what they are really calling for is for the road to further integration not be blocked by politics.) In typical fashion, Martin took that tact an election too late. By December 2005, Harper had realized that he had to distance himself from Bush if only on the surface. Harper managed to do this rather effortlessly. It did not matter a lick that Harper uses Republican talking points by the volume, has repeatedly bashed Canada in terms that would make Carolyn Parrish blush, ends his speeches with “God bless Canada”, supported the Iraq war, promised that SSM would wreck havoc on the country and what he has to say about government is more or less indistinguishable from Grover Norquist. Harper’s word that he was not a Republican want to be was good enough for docile, biased, gullible, ignorant and lazy political Canadian punditry.

The other reason why Martin was an election too late in his anti-Bush rhetoric was that Bush was a spent force politically in December 2005; he was less threatening as a result; he no longer represented the same ideological challenge and Canadians could not as easily define themselves as being anti Bush because America, Canada’s identity foil, no longer believed in him. Indeed, by the fall of 2005 it was clear to everyone that Bush administration had made some serious errors in Iraq and top officials, most notably Rumsfailed, are incompetent. After Katrina, the competence critique became received wisdom and not only with regards to Iraq but virtually all areas of governance. The red state blue state debate that many Canadians had lived vicariously through various US media outlets died down and after a while it just seemed that the media was piling on.

Yet another reason why the timing of the 2004 election was all wrong was that it was too close to the breaking of the sponsorship scandal. The more time that eclipsed the better for the Liberals.

Without Bush as foil, what is the Liberal Party to do? Set the media agenda. The Liberals might have been in power for the last 13 years, but it is conservatives have determined what the media has talked about for most of it. Not all this is the Liberals fault.

Tory Toadies Worthington, Yaffe, Michael Campbell, Frum, Harvey Enchin, Trevor Lautens, Don Martin, Charles Adler, Lorrie Goldstein, Paul Jackson, Ken Whyte, the list goes on and on, are all de facto agents of the Conservative party. These pundits figure that it is too much trouble to critically examine Conservative talking points when you can mindlessly repeat them as if they are some sort of Buddhist chant designed to clear the mind. Take Dingwallgate, for example. For a whole month various Tory Toadies across the land went off about Dingwall wild expenses. Assuming that most of them truly believed what they said, they had no excuse for not having done some basic fact checking and their lack of outrage at Conservative Pallister for magically transforming, for one, a 2 day conference for 24 a romantic dinner for two speaks volumes about their complete lack of regard for the most basic tenant of their profession, i.e., a respect for the truth. The fact that some of the pundits are now blaming only Chicken Little Martin for having fired Dingwall is a further affront to the reading public.

As a group, these Tory Torries are not, however, without a sense of humor. Virtually all insist they are courageously fighting a rear guard action against the “mainstream media”; in their mind the "MSM" love the Liberals and are dangerously anti-American. Needless to say, all of available evidene proves that anyone who believes this is either ignorant or retarded. Declan from Crawl accross the ocean sums up the findings of the 2006 McGill Media study and makes clear that things were no rosier for the Liberals in 2004.

"During the campaign there were 3,753 articles written about the election in the 7 newspapers studied (The Calgary Herald, The Globe and Mail, The National Post, the Toronto Star and the Vancouver Sun, La Presse and Le Devoir)

Of those 3753, 3035 mentioned the Liberal party. Out of those 3035, there were 40 with positive mentions of the Liberal party and 445 with negative mentions of the Liberals, giving a 11 to 1 ratio of negative mentions to positive (slightly higher than last election's 10-1 ratio).

Meanwhile, for the Conservative Party, the figures were 2730 total articles, including 144 positive mentions and 127 negative mentions, for a slightly positive overall slant (the positive mentions were similar to last election, but the negatives were cut in half).

The NDP garnered 2% positive mentions and 3% negative mentions, while the Bloc received 2% positive coverage, 4% negative.

The numbers for the party leaders are quite similar with Martin getting 5 negative mentions for every positive one, while Harper received more favourable than unfavourable mentions."

Operating under this assumption, they give Conservative leader Stephen Harper free reign to deride Canada as some second class banana Republic whenever the urge strikes him, but screamed bloody murder when back bench Liberal MP blasted arguably the most hated man alive, viz., George Bush. Indeed, such unforgivable blasphemy was countered in a front page editorial (The Vancouver Sun) on at least one occasion. All of this has left a remarkably strange record in the annals of Canada’s press. References to former Liberal back bencher Parrish’s transgressions abound, but Conservative Leader, and current Prime Minster, Stephen Harper’s Canada bashing has only ever reached the light of day when the Liberals have leaked it to the media and is never touched by pundits working outside of Toronto. Type in "Damn American, I hate those bastards" (Parrish) in a Canwest archive and you get 324 hits. Type in "second-tier socialistic country" as in

Harper: "Canada appears content to become a second-tier socialistic country, boasting ever more loudly about its economy and social services to mask its second-rate status, led by a second-world strongman appropriately suited for the task.Albertans would be fatally ill-advised to view this situation as amusing or benign. Any country with Canada's insecure smugness and resentment can be dangerous."

You get 28 hits. Indeed, when such an unfortunate speech came to light last election, Canwest global did its best to both distance itself from the bad news, by implying that their reporters and pundits would never dream of actually finding out what Harper has said of their own accord, and to try to harm the Liberals at the same time, by printing the following from the Conservative war roomers at Canadian Press.

“OTTAWA (CP) _ An eight-year-old Stephen Harper speech dug up by Liberal researchers cracks a rare window into campaign war-room strategy, media manipulation and the ethical quicksand that sometimes underlies an election leak. This is a tale that reflects well on no one. In its simplest terms, the Liberals used a third party to put a buffer between them and a story that was unflattering to the Conservative leader. It began the day before the first
televised leaders' debates in Vancouver, with the Liberals scrambling to change the channel following the already infamous ``beer and popcorn'' gaffe by communications director Scott Reid and an unusual mid-campaign broadside from the U.S. ambassador to Canada.Alex Munter, a former Ottawa city councillor and
well-known gay rights activist, helped set the ball in play.”

Once one gets past the Tory Toady crowd, there is the Conservative ideologue crowd, Andrew Coyne being its most prominent member.

However, truth be told Paul Martin never met a Conservative issue he did not like. Whether it was addressing the “democratic deficit” or as mentioned previously promising better relations with the US, Martin was there. Indeed, it is debatable whether Martin or Harper liked to talk about the sponsorship scandal more. (It was obvious to all but Martin and the beer and popcorn crowd that calling the Gomery inquiry would a) prolong the amount of coverage the sponsorship scandal would receive, b) drive up support for separatism, and c) magnify the affects of scandal on party by airing the party’s dirty laundry in a public forum. The smart thing to do would have been to call an RCMP investigation. However, I have sneaking suspicion, and I am just speculating here, that Martin, confident in the belief that he was not involved, thought he could use the Gomery inquiry as a means of crushing the Chrétienites once and for all. If this was his motivation and he seriously thought that he could call such and inquiry and not fatally damaging his party’s reputation at the same time, he was hopelessly naïve. One can not wholly rebuild a ship while out at sea.

The only way the Liberals are going to set the agenda in this media climate is if they grow some balls and court controversy. One would think that a party rocked by scandal would have done so long along (e.g., Martin could have used the Terri Shivio debate late last March, just before the April bombshell, as a pretext for promising to introduce something that might actually find favor with Quebecers because it is well progressive, viz., a euthanasia bill.) After all, doing so would have been a good way of changing the subject. However, Martin had his eye on the ball the whole time; he did not wish to divert the public’s attention from the sponsorship scandal least they forget that it was he who called the Gomery Inquiry.

So, what issues are likely to grab the media’s attention and to be treated by them in judicious manner? I just mentioned one. Euthanasia is a so called hot button issue. Another issue is the liberalization of Canada’s marijuana laws. (In the wake of the Alberta shootings, the number of articles dedicated to the subject was fairly substantial. If legalization was ever seriously on the table, the amount of coverage this subject would garner would easily match the amount of attention SSM garnered and, given the weightier consequences, likely surpass it.) If things worsen there and public opinion is marshaling against the mission, Afghanistan is potentially another.

One reason the Liberals have avoided hot button issues in the past is that voters, as older people vote in disproportionately large numbers and young people vote in disproportionately small numbers, tend to be more conservative than the population on the whole. Older people tend to be bigger defenders of the status quo then younger people. On the surface not rocking the boat is the smart play.

However, politics is all about defining yourself and opponent(s) in terms that are favorable to oneself. SSM was not a winning issue in terms of the support it garnered amongst voters, but having the Conservatives defend a legally, morally and intellectually bankrupt position certainly helped the Liberals. Indeed, it was the only issue that Martin and crew really stuck it to the Conservatives.

Of the three mentioned above, there is one issue in particular that could turn into next election’s SSM issue and that is a promise to legalize marijuana. It not a particularly pressing issue and it is certainly not the most important, but then again neither was SSM. Tackling it would, however, put the Conservatives in the position of defending an intellectually bankrupt prohibitionist stance. It is also an issue that would garner a lot of international attention, particularly south of the boarder -- attention that would not be flattering to the Conservatives. Rock stars, sports stars, Hollywood, academics, high brow papers and magazines, such as the New Yorker and NY Times, would side with the Liberals; the Christian right, a Bush administration with no credibility and fox news would line up behind the Conservatives. The prospect of such a policy dealing a death blow to the US war on drugs would really stoke interest.

The bonus for the Liberals is support for such a policy is strongest in BC and Quebec, two provinces that they really need to make gains in.