Tuesday, July 25, 2017

On Culture, Church, ISIS, the Alt-Right, AI and Self Worth

Why would a kid, born and raised in one of the richest, most peaceful and tolerant countries in the world leave to go blow himself up in a desert on the other side of the world?

Why would another kid born in the same country abandon all the evidence of the successes of a modern global marketplace and champion protectionism and racism?

Why are some of our children choosing to buy into such disastrous ideologies?

Perhaps it's because the one we're selling seems, a tad broken?

I've just finished reading Lou Keep's discussion of James C. Scott's "Seeing Like a State", this is the third review of the book I've read, though I'm ashamed to admit that I have yet to actually read Scott's work. Still, from Keep's article (Which I really do recommend), I've picked up some new thoughts about the challenges facing our culture, and how we can work towards fixing this.

It's occurred to me for some time now that the hard Alt-Right has a lot in common with the Westerners ISIS recruits, and that a large part of the vulnerability of liberal society to these groups has to do with the weakness of our cultural institutions right now. I'm going to propose that there have been three main forms of cultural institution in the Western world over our last few millennia, war based, faith based, and economic based. What is important about these institutions for this discussion is how these institutions provide psychological well-being (or not) to the members of their community, most importantly, with a sense of purpose and identity that members can be proud of.

War Based.

Many of the social institutions we've developed over the centuries centered on defense. (Or offense depending on the time and the place) The entire feudal system was based around war. Nobility and Aristocracy evolved from the upper echelons of military service, those who were the best at war were afforded titles and status, and then trained their children to fill the high echelons of their liege's armies and retain those titles and status. In the early medieval era this provided a direct social cohesion between the members of a Kingdom. If a King decided to raise his armies he would call upon all his vassals to raise their levies and they would call upon their vassals to raise theirs.

These levies would mostly consist of ordinary villagers, raised as a militia in times of crisis. The nobility would lead their own forces on campaign, and this produced a sense of loyalty and camaraderie both between commoners, and their lords, which also contributed to loyalty, and a sense of belonging.

As technology has advanced, the use of levies has disappeared. If we go to war tomorrow, you will not be expected to stand beside your neighbour and fight for your country, (unless you both happen to be part of the  0.002% of Canadians serving in our Forces) You'll be expected to go to your desk, do your ordinary job and pay your taxes so that we can buy 1/1000000th of a fighter jet. Somehow, that just doesn't have the same bonding effect as sleeping on the cold hard ground next to your mates after marching 40km in a day. It's more efficient for winning wars, and it saves the vast majority of the population from the horrors of war, but it removes one way in which we have historically bonded and kept our societies cohesive; as well as allowed the testosterone of young men to bleed off in a way that is at least not destructive to their own society. (I highly recommend "The Professor in the Cage" by Jonathan Gottschall for more on male pattern violence)

Of course, for war to work as an effective bonding agent you need to have a threat to face off against. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, we were, for a great time, lacking any serious enemy against which we could rally. The Global War on Terror gave us battles, casualties, and bad blood, but not really an enemy we could fear or bond against. Terrorists have always been too small of a group to be a threat; too few, too hard to find, which I suspect is why so many have been keen to associate groups like Al-Qaeda, ISIS, Al-Nusra and the like with all Muslims. If we were under threat by Muslims in general, we would indeed have a significant adversary, a tiger the tribe could band together and fight, instead, we have a few malaria carrying mosquitoes, they do have the capacity to kill a few of us, but we can't really all pitch in to defeat them. At least, not in a direct way that "Feels" like we're doing something. (Your taxes paying for a .tenth of a kilo of the explosives dropped on ISIS positions is probably one of the most efficient ways the average Canadian can fight terrorism, but it really doesn't "Feel" like you did anything, especially since the government doesn't send you a receipt telling you.)

I think this is a large part of why so many in the Alt-Right are willing to demonize all Muslims so quickly and brand them all as terrorists. Alienating and defaming an entire religious group for the actions of a tiny few is entirely irrational: unless you WANT an enemy. But it turns out, having an enemy can be useful.

Luckily(?) it seems we have our old enemy Eurasia  I mean Russia, back to face off against. While the return of the Cold War is less than ideal for economic growth, it does have side benefits. By aligning ourselves against a powerful, nuclear armed state, we don't just have a tiger to fight, we have a goddamn dragon. Attempts to portray "Muslims" as some sort of existential threat will be more clearly seen as a petty attempt at infighting, and fear will in some ways bind us together. Of course, the fact that we have our own dragons in the United Kingdom, France, and the United States should* keep this threat entirely theoretical, allowing us to reap the social benefits without the cost in blood, though with some expense in treasure.

*Fingers crossed.

Faith Based

I am probably one of the least qualified people to write about religion or the church, having been an atheist since about age ten, but Lou Keep's observation on this institution is what triggered this post. Keep argues that churches and church attendance actually has an awful lot going for it, from increasing marriage rates, to incomes, to local GDP. Keep goes as far as to assert that "they’re probably the single most important economic institution in rural America. Period."

Religion likes to hold itself up as the major social glue that holds our communities together. They have a point. For centuries the church(es) have been a focal point of our communities, a meeting place, a home for charity, you know the arguments in general. But what Keep points out is that most pastors are terrible at selling their churches on a worldly basis, they don't say "Come to our church, you'll meet a lot of great people, we'll help the poor together, have picnics, and work together to be better people." they appeal to the supernatural, quoting from a 2000 year old tome or offering to save a soul you're pretty sure is in no danger.

I'd like to at this point draw a comparison between the Monarchy and the Church. Both claim their authority from the same supernatural being with the same level of credibility, which, initially, was very high, but has steadily declined and continues to do so. That makes the original argument for both rather weak, so how have they and their defenders responded? In the case of the monarchy, the original supernatural justification has been almost entirely dropped, we acknowledge that there's no particular reason the Royal family of the House of Windsor deserves to hold the throne, we know they are, in essence, simple humans like us, yet we continue to go along with the whole thing, almost suspending disbelief in their superiority if you will. Why? Because there are practical benefits, the Queen, as our head of State, provides a unifying figure above politics, an incredibly tight connection with our cousins in other Commonwealth Realms, and a part of our national identity. Yet this is only possible because the suspension of disbelief is just that, a suspension. No one is asking you to actually believe the Queen's family has been chosen by God to rule, instead, we all just accept that it's a tradition, one that works well for us, a bit of national Metis if you will.

Our brains are happy to accept the suspension of disbelief, if it were difficult for us there wouldn't be such a market for fiction. But suspending disbelief in something is quite different from believing it. And the church is still selling itself as an institution you have to "believe in" in order to be able to reap it's benefits. People can suspend a little disbelief in their own self interest, especially in the name of tradition; asking them to full out "believe" something they feel is silly is unlikely to bring them into your pews.

If religion is to survive as a major institution, one capable of stabilizing itself and regrouping, it will need to market the worldly benefits of attendance far more strongly, and market the supernatural elements as what they are, the legends and parables of a tradition that has stretched over two millennia. I want this change to happen, as I think that there are a lot of problems today that could be better addressed with a more tight knit community that churches help to create. (Particularly the problem of social isolation, which is nearly always a precursor to acts of mass violence.)

Of course, if I'm discussing church reform, I also need to mention that they need to drop the whole "Anti-LGBT" thing, it's pretty clear that rule was originally there to ensure that the tribe grew as fast as possible, (if 5% of your population is opting out of procreative sex it's going to have a major effect on your population size over a few generations, and a tribe that insists all members have procreative sex will soon outnumber a tribe that allows it's members to follow their hearts into same sex relationships;) but as I pointed out above, large amounts of manpower are no longer needed to win wars, and as I point out below, soon it won't be needed for commerce either, leaving this rule glaringly outdated and pointlessly harmful.

Economic Based

The third and final of my three categories of cultural institutions is economic, this is where we've made amazing strides more than anywhere else. People are far, far richer today than ever before. There are more people employed today in rewarding work that they are passionate about than ever before. Our investments in making education accessible have allowed a great many people to follow their dreams and work in careers that interest them, rather than whatever factory happened to be nearby. Many, maybe most of us, find our sense of identity and self worth in our employment. We find our self value in our economic contributions, and the subculture of our workplace largely becomes our culture. In times past a young man might have identified himself an archer in his liege's service when required, a member of the local Catholic congregation, and a farmer. Today, those first two pillars have crumbled and he is left with only his occupation for identity.

This becomes more troubling with more and more automation. As well build better, smarter, stronger and more agile robots, more and more tasks will be automated and less and less manpower will be needed to do work. This is a good thing economically, it's almost the definition of economic growth, but it's also going to mean a lot of obsolete workers who don't have much in the way of an Emotional Safety Net, if your identity and sense of self worth is tied up in being a welder, and all of a sudden your welding skills are useless because of the new Welderbot2400, you don't have anything left to fall back on, to feel proud of.

At that point you're in a very vulnerable state, either you accept that you are now worthless (and work to try to change that, which will be increasingly difficult as automation takes on more and more complex tasks) or, you blame someone else. In a situation where you have no value, anyone even vaguely charismatic coming around, telling you that you're the victim, and that you should strike back is quite appealing, and hating someone is a lot easier than trying to retrain for an economy that spit you out and rejected you.

This last one troubles me the most, especially because of the collapse of the first two as unifying factors. I worry that over the coming years, extremists of all flavours will have a buffet of angry, identity-less young men who have no way to prove their bravery,  no strong social support network, and few economic opportunities, from which to recruit.

I don't know how we can fix this, I don't even know if my diagnosis of the problem is accurate. What I do know is that having a large chunk of disheartened young men who don't feel like they have a place in our society is dangerous. It's exactly what both ISIS and the Alt-Right are banking on, and the only way to prevent them from selling their ideology to our kids is to sell them something better, not just better in a general sense, but better for them personally and attractive to them emotionally.

For Critics

1. Response to the inevitable "But so and so terrorist WAS religious and went to church" A. I'm not trying to oversimplify people's motives, there are some terrorists who are just straight up evil, and some who's families pressure them into it. B. I suspect that in a lot of these cases you might find that the individual became a "True Believer" type because of the lack of cultural identity available elsewhere in our society. Could be wrong.

2. I didn't touch on family as a cultural pillar, now that I've written this, I bet a lot of people would, and I can see how it could be a major actor in all of what I'm talking about here. That said, I left it out, mainly because I want to explore it in particular in more depth later.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Drug policy, the first issue of the Conservative Leadership Race?

The first policy difference to be highlighted in the media in this 2017 Conservative Leadership race is an interesting one; I would have thought we'd be discussing tax policy or national defense first, but apparently, it's going to be marijuana, dope, weed, whatever you want to call it. A Nanos research poll in February found 68% of Canadians favour legalizing the drug, with strong majorities in all provinces, from a low of 55% in the Prairies to a high of 75% in BC, people are done with prohibition.

Our new Liberal government has promised to legalize marijuana for recreational use, but has provided no details or timeline on how it plans to do so; but we can expect a bill to this effect to come from the government benches at some point during this term. How our Conservative caucus reacts will largely depend on whom we choose as our new leader.

Kellie Leitch, the first Conservative candidate to register for the leadership race (Though she insists she's only formed an "exploratory committee) seems to be trotting out the same old tired arguments that lost us the last election. As recently as February 25th, 2016, she was railing against the Trudeau government, accusing them of giving access to marijuana to children "Now, the government wants Canadian kids to have access to a drug to smoke – marijuana" when there is clearly no evidence to that effect and no indication that children would be any more able to get a hold of marijuana than they are able to get a hold of cigarettes today. If this is the best argument Leitch can come up with against legalization, she's building her campaign platform on some very shaky ground. 
Positioned opposite her is Maxime Bernier, the only candidate to officially be in the running, Bernier has spoken several times recently about marijuana legalization stating that "I'm open [To legalization], and I want to see the details of that legislation before voting for or against it, I hope I'll be able to vote for it, I think if you have a good regulation that can control sales of marijuana, the details are very important when you speak about that, and it is why I cannot say today if I will vote for or against that bill, but I hope the regulation will be based on what's happening in other countries and I hope I'll be able to vote for that, Canadians are ready for that." Clearly stating that he's ready and willing to help implement marijuana legalization sets Bernier apart from the former government's record and shows that he's on side with the majority of the public. It also shows his ideological consistency, a conservative libertarian, Bernier knows that the government has no business telling people which plants to smoke. He's also showing that he's willing to work with the Liberals on important issues, not simply play the sort of angry "Oppose everything" politics that some seem eager to engage in.

The consequences of the drug war have been felt far and wide across this country, too many families have been broken by it, too many innocent young people incarcerated. Over a million Canadians have been arrested for simple possession of Cannabis, countless lives ruined, largely at random, based on who gets caught and who gets away. (Spoiler alert, you're more likely to get caught and charged if you're part of a visible ethnic minority.) It's past time for the Conservative Party to denounce this legacy and move forward with marijuana legalization. Though we should have a free vote when the Liberals bring forward their bill to legalize cannabis, we should have a leader who's ready to work with the Liberals to implement the best legalization program possible, not one who wants to score minor political points at the expense of everyday Canadians who happen to enjoy recreational marijuana.

Friday, April 25, 2014

PMO Staffer's (imagined) responses to May.

On Wednesday, staffers in the Prime Minister’s Office confirmed that they are highly encouraged by Green Party Leader Elizabeth May’s April 13th remarks on their job performance. “It’s just so nice to have someone recognize you for the work you put in.” Nick, a communications assistant with PMO said. “I mean, when May referred to us all as “Ruthless cutthroat psychopaths” I knew that at least someone was watching.”

Justin, a media designer in PMO echoed his sentiments. “With this job we’re on call 24/7, always ready to spring into action at the slightest misstep of our opponents. It’s generally thankless work, being by your Blackberry constantly, ready to take advantage of the situation in case the leader of the opposition kills a puppy or something; so it’s really nice to see that May recognize our hard work with comments like: “They’re really just all about winning and they have a take-no-prisoners attitude.” I mean, here’s someone who just gets us, you know?”

One of the PMO’s deputy directors, who asked not to be named, said he felt his organization’s morale had improved significantly since the remarks came out, saying that “Really, we all know that we’re a crack team doing good work here, but when even your staunchest opponents like Elizabeth May acknowledge what an excellent job you’re doing at “Completely offending the principles of parliamentary democracy.” well, sometimes appreciation means more coming from your opponents than your superiors, and my team has definitely doubled down on their efforts to stop just shy of slandering our adversaries.”

At press time, the “Unelected, hyper-partisan political operatives” that May had been speaking about were undecided about whether to send her a gift basket including wine produced from the tears of their enemies or an edible arrangement cooked from the corpses of endangered animals.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

How can we make life more difficult for those struggling with suicidal ideation?

That seems like a counter intuitive question, and it’s doubtful that anyone in our various police services is asking it. Instead, carelessness seems to be causing them to stumble into ways of making life worse for those who consider suicide.

Last Monday, Ann Cavoukian, the Ontario Privacy Commissioner, revealed that many Ontario police services are routinely uploading attempted suicide calls to CPIC, the Canadian Police Information Centre, access to which is shared with the American FBI, and Customs and Border Patrol, who have refused at least one Canadian woman entry to the states because of an attempted suicide a decade earlier. The ludicrous nature of a policy that results in individuals being barred from travelling on vacation simply because they have been suicidal at some point in the past is incredible, the emotional effect on the victims must be horrible. Imagine being told that because of how utterly miserable you were several years ago (or even at present for that matter.) you would not be allowed to take the vacation that you had already booked and paid for.

Still, I think that privacy breach pales in comparison to the one reported by B.C. Privacy Commissioner Elizabeth Denham. Denham recently revealed that police departments in B.C. are, when conducting routine background checks for new employees, including mental health data, including suicide attempts. While we can, and should, try to fight the stigma attached to suicide, to force individuals who have previously attempted suicide to openly identify themselves to potential employers is so terrible it’s hard to believe it’s happening in our present society. While discrimination may or may not follow one of these background checks, it’s clear that by giving the information out, B.C. police services are needlessly putting people at risk of discrimination on mental health grounds, and are certainly violating their privacy.

Is it any wonder that people suffering from mental illnesses have severe trust issues? It seems to me that this sort of behaviour on the behalf of police agencies erodes any confidence those with mental health issues might have had in law enforcement. Given that these people often already have extremely small support networks, won’t making them hesitate before calling 9-1-1 lead to more completed suicides, and less close calls?

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Politics isn't a high priority for most people.

On Sunday, Matthew McKean argued that low voter turnout is due to a lack of confidence in
Parliamentary institutions, and the independence of our Members of Parliament. While I support
initiatives to break party discipline, I think Mr. McKean is guilty of an all too common offense, one that I
myself have been guilty of until very recently. He’s extrapolating the conversations had within the
Ottawa Bubble to the population at large.

Those of us who have spent time working and socializing in the political circles of Ottawa often make
reference to the “Ottawa bubble” but it is difficult to comprehend just how significant that factor is
when you live inside of it. Not until I left my job as a staffer on Parliament Hill and moved to the West of
the country did I begin to appreciate how insular the Ottawa Bubble really is.

People within it are well versed on the issues Parliament debates, and they care about them. Folks
within the Bubble know about the robocalls scandal, the Senate shenanigans, and which MPs have
defected from which parties. Many Canadians in the real world don’t know who their Member is, nor do
they care. While the debate on supply management rages on in the columns of the National Post, and
over freshly poured pints on Sparks Street; many Canadians don’t even know the program exists, let
alone how it could be affected by the terms of free trade deals.

Do not assume that I am attributing this ignorance to vice or laziness, I am attributing it to priorities.
Those of us who have invested our time in the political arena sometimes forget just how much time we
have invested. Most of us, on all sides of the issues, have spent more hours reading news stories, press
releases and opinion columns than we could possibly count. We each do it for our own reasons, some
are passionate about a particular cause, some are ideologues hoping to bring our version of utopia
closer to fruition, others are in it for the fame and power. We all have our own separate reasons to care,
but care we do. For most of us, this was our hobby before it became our job; but it’s a rather dry hobby
isn’t it? We choose to allocate our time to reading articles on the nuances of foreign policy, the
government’s latest immigration reforms, or the implementation of the destruction of the Long Gun
Registry. The vast majority of Canadians don’t enjoy reading about these things at all.

 Without the same odd fascination that us politicos have, most normal, well adjusted people would
rather spend their limited free time doing things they prioritize; going skiing, watching a movie, or
working overtime to pay off their debts. These people are choosing to spend their time on things that
matter to them, and have a far greater effect on their overall wellbeing; instead of on our weird political
sport. As a result, they are not informed on the issues that the elections are being fought on. Without a
knowledge of the issues, the parties, and the politicians, many of them are choosing not to vote, not
because they can’t be bothered to get out to a polling station, but because they recognize that they
don’t have any idea whether the oilsands are causing “Dutch Disease” or not, and they consider it
irresponsible, and irrational to cast a ballot when they are not informed on the issues.

The people who don’t vote won’t be swayed to the polling booth by more independence for Members
of Parliament, chiefly because they wouldn’t even notice.

Thursday, October 3, 2013


Yesterday, Charles Lewis published this column in the National Post. Below is my response to his final question; "What changed?"

Dear Charles,

At the conclusion of your column, published October 2nd, 2013, you asked "What changed?" with regards to our society's view of euthanasia. I feel compelled to provide my own meager answer to that question, though I also feel that you have already answered it without realizing as much.

In the middle of your column, you write "I should probably say that I have never been a libertarian and I suppose the autonomous life is part of libertarian thinking." This I think is what has changed.

For a long time we have been content to place the "good of the many" above the "good of the few" but we have borne witness to the flaws of this course of action again and again. We have seen homosexuals persecuted for their sexual orientation, allegedly because it would cause social degradation if allowed unchecked. We have seen those addicted to intoxicating drugs punished and victimized by our legal system, allegedly to serve as an example to keep our kids from drugs. Just recently we have come to realize how much each of us has been victimized; our privacy stripped away, in the name of public safety, with government surveillance programs monitoring our every communication. Indeed, even the email I am sending to your now is likely being logged by several security agencies.

Perhaps bearing witness to so many situations where individual’s needs and interests were supressed in the name of some "greater good" has made more of us realize that there can be no society without individuals, and that asking some individuals to suffer for "the good of society" is not ultimately in anyone's best interest.

Perhaps we are simply becoming more compassionate to other individuals, and thus, less willing to restrict their choices, less willing to claim that we know what is best for others.

Perhaps we are becoming more libertarian.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Getting it right on Foreign Policy

I frequently quarrel with the government over issues when I think they're getting it wrong, that's natural. We tend to focus on the bad things and those that we wish to change instead of the things that are already going well, it's why your news every night is filled with plane crashes instead of stories of the thousands of safe landings every day. I advocate looking at the broader picture, not putting on blinders and only focusing on the negatives.

In that spirit, I'm very pleased with the Government of Canada's response to the Syrian Civil War. Prime Minister Harper and Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird have been very clear that they will not send weapons to the Syrian Rebels, nor to the Syrian government. In a situation like this, where two groups of people are both morally objectionable, and have both committed war crimes, the solution is not to pick what you think of as the lesser of two evils, as the United States have done, nor to defend your strategic resources, as Russia has done; but instead to roundly condemn the war, and offer assistance to the innocent people who are caught in the crossfire.

So far the government has committed $180 million dollars to help with humanitarian aid. While I disagree with government aid in general, I think that this is a far better use of tax dollars than purchasing weapons for either side in the war.

Even better, and what I would prefer to see more of, are the actions begun by (Now former) Immigration Minister Jason Kenney to bring 1300 Syrian refugees out of the conflict zone and here to safety in Canada. Of those, 200 will be resettled by the government, the other 1100 by private sponsors.

This action is one of the best things that Canada can do for the people of Syria, simply offering them a way out, and I am proud that our government has recognized such. I hope that they will allow more refugees to come once these intial 1300 have been allowed in, as no one deserves to live in a war zone, nor a refugee camp.

Update: in 2013, only 45 of the 1300 slots were taken.