Our Dear Leader gazes from atop the Archives Canada Preservation Building in Gatineau, Québec. Photo-illustration by Geoffrey Dow. Original photo of Archives Canada Preservation Building by Bruno Schlumberger/Postmedia News
Can we say cronyism, ladies and gentlemen? Can we say corruption? Can we say rewarding one's friends?
A mere four and a half months into their majority government, the Harper Government hoists its true colours — the real Joly Roger.
The federal government is paying a high-powered management consultant firm almost $90,000 a day for advice on how to save money.
It's probably not criminal, since governments write the laws, but it is blatant theft from the citizens to the very thieves whose genius for self-dealing has been destroying the working and middle classes of this country for decades.
Who wants to bet that the final report won't include the following points among its top five recommendations?
- Fire several thousand civil servants and replace most of them with contract workers (which will turn out to cost more, once the contracting firms' profits are (re)calculated)?
- Cutting back on and/or eliminating several departments which serve the public good — perhaps environment, or science or education?
- Funding more prisons, but as for-profit, non-union institutions?
If you can stomach it, the full article is at http://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/story/
Jack Layton's positive campaign bears unexpected fruit
(Originally posted at True North Perspective.)
I admit it. Neither I, nor anyone else here at True North Perspective, saw it coming. And even now, there is an aura of doubt, of disbelief, as we watch the polls and see the continuing ascent of the New Democratic Party under Jack Layton.
Can this really be true? we wondered last week, when the New Democrats began to poll even with Canada's one-time Natural Governing Party. One poll led to another and another and another.
If stated intentions turn out to be votes on Monday, it looks like it really is true.
If present trends continue, it's just (barely) possible that Monday night will see Layton elected Prime Minister of Canada.
Kim Campbell's revenge
(Nothing new in the boys' room)
After two debates and an in-person attendance at a rally, I'm finding myself kind of depressed about the election, enervated instead of energized. Though I still think the choices facing us are important — Very Bad versus Not Very Good — it's not easy to get excited by the latter.
And it's not easy to get excited by canned rhetoric, by half-truths contending with lies, lies with half-truths, or by the fact the most inspirational actor in either the French- or the English-language debate was a separatist whose primary goal is to destroy the most successful and successfully complex civilization in the history of the world (ask me what's good about Canada some day!).
Tuesday and Wednesday nights saw me staring at the television, and Wednesday morning hopping on my bike for a hurried ride into downtown Ottawa, where Jack Layton was holding court at a Bank Street eatery at the ungodly hour of 8:00 o'clock in the morning.
Layton was introduced by my local MP who got predictable cheers for asking the partisan crowd of maybe 150 people who won the previous evening's debate.
Layton himself was, more or less, the same as what I've seen on television. Clear and concise, kind of funny, and a just a little stiff, as if even after decades in politics he's still not entirely comfortable speaking to a crowd. He stuck very close to his script; aside from a joke about the political points to be made from kissing "ma blonde" after the debate, I had already heard everything he said at breakfast almost verbatim on Tuesday night.
The NDP, it seems, is pro-family and pro-small business, anti-Senate and anti-credit card companies; pro-environment and pro-health care, against over-paid bank CEOs and, er, Stephen Harper — the rhetorical specifics are already fading, as are those from the "debates" themselves.
Harper's self-serving 'apology' exposes the cowardly venality lurking beneath his unbutoned shirt
"... if anybody is kept out of any of our events that's there to hear our message we obviously apologize to them. Our interest is in having as many people out to hear our message as we can. We're having huge meetings, we had another huge one last night and we want people to hear our message." — Stephen Harper 'apologizes' after being asked if he would take responsibility for a teenager's eviction from a rally because her Facebook page included a photo of herself with Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff.
On April 3rd, two young women, students at the University of Western Ontario, attended a Conservative Party rally and were taught a valuable lesson about Conservative values and ethics.
About a half-hour after being admitted, both Awish Aslam and an un-named friend were hustled out of the meeting, publicly berated and had physically stripped of the stickers pinned to their shirts — all because they had both had the naive temerity to post a photo of themselves taken while meeting Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff on their Facebook profiles.
The London Free Press broke the story on April 5th.
"A week ago, Aslam, readying to vote federally for the first time, attended a Liberal rally in London where she and a friend snagged a photo with Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff. Both made it their Facebook profile pictures.
"A few days later, the pair attended Harper’s rally, for which they signed up in advance online.
"But about 30 minutes after arriving, Aslam says, they were ordered out by a man who accused them of having "ties to the Liberal party through Facebook."
"He ripped Conservative stickers off their shirts, tore them up and ordered them out, Aslam says."
Note that no one accused Aslam or her friend of being disruptive in any way. They weren't demonstrating, or passing out leaflets or even asking questions — they were just, y'know, watching.
Further note that the Conservatives consider it an efficient use of their time to stalk the Facebook pages of attendees at their rallies, that they consider public humiliation of teenagers appropriate behaviour (Ms Aslam was reduced to tears) and that, as we'll see, Stephen Harper himself sees nothing wrong with any of this.
The Globe and Mail ran the story and followed up with the Prime Minister Who Would Be President himself.
Harper ducked the issue. "The staff runs our campaigns," he said, "and I can't comment on individual matters like that," typically passing the buck of blame to those below him.
See An apology means never having to say you're sorry for more.
It's not easy being Green
For Elizabeth May, it's debata-vue all over again
Tuesday was a good news/bad news sort of day for the Green Party.
On the one hand, Elizabeth May's band of political upstarts lost their bid to have the Federal Court make an emergency ruling giving her a seat at the table for next week's televised leaders' debates.
On the other hand, if the results of a poll commissioned by the Globe and Mail are to be believed, a significant majority of Canadians either "strongly" or "somewhat" support her presence at the boys' table.
Now May is calling for a boycott of next week's debates by the other party leaders and hoping for a repeat of 2008, when an enormous public outcry more or less forced the broadcasting consortium to let her in (and, don't forget, for Jack Layton and Stephen Harper to rescind their threats to withdraw should she be permitted to take part).
But should the Green Party have a seat at the table? After all, they've never elected a Member to the House of Commons and the party managed only 6.77% of the popular vote last time out.
'Parliamentary democracy?' Wat dat?
Can we say 'presumption of privilege', ladies and gentlemen?
Iggy's leap at comic's tweet shows he shares Harper's contempt for Canada's democratic traditions
'Ok i'll produce a Iggy Harper debate. 50 grand to a charity of their choice. I'll find a broadcaster or 4.' — Rick Mercer, tweeting on Saturday, April 2, 2011.
'I'm in.' — Michael Ignatieff, Saturday, April 2, 2011.
I wish he Rick Mercer for trading in his satirist's badge in favour of court jester's (forgive the generic link to the Mercer's homepage; if one of you can tell me how to make a permanent link to a tweet, I'd be most obliged), but that wasn't fair. If Mercer ever was a real satirist, he gave it up a long time ago. And you can't blame a comedian for cracking wise. That's his job.
You can, though, blame Michael Ignatieff for taking the comic's bait.
The ostensible public intellectual and one-time Professor of Human Rights showed no respect for, or understanding of, Canada's history or our parliamentary culture and traditions in answering Mercer's tweet with his own, "I'm in."
On the proverbial first glance the idea of a Harper/Ignatieff face-off sounds not so unreasonable. After all, neither Jack Layton nor Gilles Duceppe (let alone Elizabeth May, whom the aptly-self-styled "consortium" of Canadian broadcasters has once again refused a spot in the boys' room) has a realistic chance at making the Prime Minister's office their own, so why not let the 'front-runners' have at at each other one-on-one?
In fact, this isn't just an example of a politician serving himself at the expense of his competitors, but a betrayal of Canada's political culture and traditions.
Read the full article at Edifice Rex Online
Peter Watts, arguably the best hard science fiction writer in the game today, thinks my analysis of the recent G20 imbroglio "makes a scary kind of sense" and quotes me fairly extensively to explain why he does.
I don't know that I should admit to being more pleased by this recognition than I was when I received a cheque from the Globe and Mail last year, but the truth is, I am.
(Now I need to figure out why Google Alerts didn't let me know about it.)
Why Stephen Harper turned downtown Toronto into an occupied city
Downtown Toronto is a ghost town [...] Stephen Harper and his buddies have [...] made a bloody mess of the downtown [...] They have transformed a bustling, prosperous city into a microcosm of the world they wish to create. Governed by martial law, cordoned off, leaders isolated from the people they claim to represent. This is what democracy looks like, indeed. They used to accuse activists of hiding our faces behind black kerchiefs and balaclavas — now they're the ones hiding behind walls.—The blogger Sabotabby on 23 June 2010, before the violence began.
|In Toronto, freedom of assembly was somewhat curtailed|
They came, they saw, they spat upon civil society, the rule of law and democracy, those 'leaders' of the G20, of the world's most important economies. Titular democracies, absolute monarchies and a peoples' republics, their 'leaders' came to Toronto to gather behind fences of steel and barricades of concrete, and behind the arms of 19,000 armed 'security' personnel. Together they occupied the heart of Canada's largest city like nothing else but a conquering army as a bewildered and frightened and sometimes even angry citizenry was shown in no uncertain terms the limits of democracy.
Outside the walls, citizens raised voices and shook fists in the face of heavily-armed, masked and shielded men and women who, at the whims of their masters, might — and sometimes did — attack the very people they had sworn to protect.
More than 900 people were arrested, among whom were protesters naively exercising their constitutional rights to speech and assembly; journalists covering those assembling and some people just caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. It may be that even some of the thugs who cloak their desire for excitement and broken glass in the mantle of politics were swept up in the mass arrests, but one suspects any of those were caught by happenstance and not genuine police-work.
In any case, the real violence, the genuine aggression, was not that of scattered bands of stone-throwers and window-smashers, but of the strong against the weak: of the armed and uniformed agents of the State turned against its own people.
Just why was this billion-dollar summit held in the midst of Canada's largest city in the first place? What sort of 'conservative' government would think the resulting and inevitable economic disruption would be worth the price when so many alternatives were easily available?
Why did Ontario's provincial government rush to secretly pass a law decreeing all streets within the security zone a "public work" — and why did Toronto's Police Chief blithely lie to the city's citizens, claiming the law allowed the police to arrest anyone who refused to provide identification for the "crime" of approaching the barrier?
What was the purpose of inflicting such a nakedly aggressive show of force on the economic and cultural heart of English Canada — in front of the eyes of the world, not less?
It was not, as some have suggested, due to some personal animus on the part of Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Said animus may well exist but it is not sufficient to explain what happened, nor to explain why public displays of dissent throughout the Western world have more and more often been met with violence in recent years.
(some suggested further reading):
This list is too short and extremely idiosyncratic, but it won't take you much digging to learn much more.
The de facto occupation of Toronto was perhaps not a fully conscious choice, but it was a deliberate choice, and one designed not so much to cow the nation's citizens (though that was the unstated but obvious goal), but to comfort our so-called leaders.
Presidents and prime ministers, chancellors and chairmen, emirs and kings, our 'leaders' must be frightened men (and women), and such shows of force are one way those leaders can reassure themselves that their world is not, in fact, spinning utterly and irrevocably beyond their control.
As the western economy stands revealed as a ponzi scheme, and the polar ice-caps melt; as oil grows scarcer and fisheries collapse; and as, paradoxically, the genius of capitalism sees so many goods produced so cheaply that almost no one can turn a real profit; in short, as the assumptions of liberal democratic triumphalism — a state of mind barely two decades old — lie in ruins and capitalism itself seems to be running up against its own limits and contradictions, our 'leaders' want reassurance as much as any of us might do.
And they must now know (whether they admit it to themselves or not) that the reassurances they will get from their yes-men experts and true-believing economists are but empty words, ritual incantations of impossible infinite growth, of trickle-down and rational markets.
They may tell themselves as well as the rest of us that their plans will "fix" the economy, that cutting the deficits by cutting jobs, for example, will lead to greater prosperity for all down the line, but in the long dark bankers' meetings of the soul, most of them must at least suspect their solutions are smoke, that staying the course is simply impossible, that sooner or later, something unexpected — and quite possibly something horribly destructive — will arise to sweep them and their works into the recycling bin of history.
Stephen Harper deliberately "made a bloody mess" of downtown Toronto not only because he could, but because doing so made him feel strong; exercising the power to order 19,000 armed men and women is a form of magical thinking which he "and his buddies" feel will translate into the power to order about the economy and the weather.
Consciously or not, Toronto was turned into an armed camp, because our 'leaders' foresee a time when brute force will be all they have to hold on to the reigns of their illusory power.
Originally posted at Edifice Rex Online.
By their words shall we know them
Harper and friends never cease playing the politics of division and fear
|Steven Harper, not exactly as shown. (Photo-illustration by Geoffrey Dow.)|
I would like to apologize for inflicting a four-letter Anglo-Saxonism upon you, but I can't in good conscience do it. All too often the truth is offensive and sometimes, using crude words is the best way to get us to confront the ugly truth in question.
In this case, Conservative Senator Nancy Ruth seems to have let slip an ugly truth about her party that she might not even fully understand — otherwise, if she is the pro-choice feminist she said to be, she would surely have to cross the floor — wouldn't she?
Senator Ruth made the statement this past Monday to a meeting of international equality rights groups. The subject was the Harper government's decision, as announced by International Co-operation Minister Bev Oda back on April 26, that Canada will not fund abortions in developing countries.
The next day, in what was either a remarkable case of foot-in-mouth disease, or else a cynical calculation that there were more votes to be had in pandering to the Conservatives' right-wing, "socially conservative" base than there might be in acknowledging that women in the third world sometimes also have unwanted pregnancies and so, like those in the west, will seek out abortions whether or not they are legal or affordable or safe, Harper disengenuously claimed the decision was meant to be "unifying".
According to the Toronto Star, he said, "We want to make sure our funds are used to save the lives of women and children and are used on the many, many things that are available to us that frankly do not divide the Canadian population."
As if he didn't know that implicitly declaring women in the third world should not have the rights Canadian women take for granted wouldn't be devisive.
In any event, Senator Ruth wasn't not telling people to "shut the fuck up" about the issue this week because she is anti-choice, but because she is pro-choice and scared. Scared of her own party's leader.
And that fear speaks volumes about the nature of Steven Harper's so-called "conservative" government.
As I have noted before (and almost certainly will again; in the face of lies, the truth must be repeated twice as often), I am not convinced that Canada's Prime Minister, Steven Harper, has mellowed during his years presiding over a minority Parliament. It is just that minority status that has kept a frustrated Firewall Steve from enacting either the economic or the social "conservative" — in fact, reactionary — policies he would have had he a fully-subserviant House of Commons at his beck and call.
According to CBC News Senator Ruth continued by saying, "If you push it, there'll be more backlash. This is now a political football. This is not about women's health in this country." She went on to say, "Canada is still a country with free and accessible abortion. Leave it there. Don't make this an election issue."
You can argue that Senator Ruth was simply giving activists some pragmatic advice, offering the benefit of her experience and position in government, but the subjext sounds to me like it is coming from someone who knows her leader and her party and is all-too-well aware of what might come if he gets the majority government he so desparately desires.
This government, which fires civil servants for doing their jobs, which panders to fears of crime while crime is decreasing with expensive "reforms" that won't work (see Sentencing reform could cost $10B over 5 years), which prorogues Parliament whenever it pleases, hides evidence that Canada has been complicit in torture and — the list is nearly endless; no doubt most of you can make your own lists. This government's own members seem to believe it is a danger to the Canada we have known, a reactionary, dangerous leopard held in check only by the fragile leash of a Parliamentary minority.
Harper does his best to colour his spots, but they keep showing through the second-rate dye-jobs and Senator Nancy Ruth's fear suggests it's not only his enemies who worry about what might happen if he gets free reign over the nation, but his allies as well.
With the ongoing global economic crisis now nearing its third year, the neo-conservative "revolution" has been revealed as nothing but a sham and a fraud. To its credit, Canada avoided many of the excesses of the past 30 years. It would be a tragedy were we to let Harper institute his own scorch-and-burn revolution so long past its best-before date.
As others have noted, "Canada Day" is about as banal a name for the celebration of a nation's (official — in most important ways, Canada is a great deal older than 142 years, but that's a rant for another time) coming-into-being as can be imagined.
The Americans have Independence Day, not America Day; the French, Bastille Day, not France Day; the Germans, Unity Day, not Germany Day ... I think those three examples alone serve to make the point.
Canada is short-form for this country's full name, the Dominion of Canada, a phrase of historical importance with a Biblical allusion and a certain poetic gravitas.
"Canada Day", by contrast, is a-historical, utterly prosaic and completely lacking in imagination, suggesting to me a weird kind of self-loathing that implicitly denies there is anything worth celebrating in a day that is meant to be, well, a celebration.
"Canada Day" is a name that should be retired as a first step towards reclaiming our history, towards facing both the good and the bad within it.
Still, 142 years of unbroken constitutional history that has led to one of the most interesting and ever-more dynamic cultures in the world. I'll raise a glass, whatever the nomenclature.
"A Mari usque ad Mare!"
Cross-posted from my website and to canpolitik. It will also be the lead story in tomorrow's True North Perspective.
Harper's budget both incompetent and dishonest
Ignatief gives a pass to Harper's not-so hidden agenda
The front page of Wednesday's Globe and Mail said it all:
$12-billion in new infrastructure spending, $20-billion in income tax cuts.
If the recent, panic-driven consensus of both liberal and conservative economists around the world is true — that what is needed to stave off the worst financial disaster since the Great Depression is a massive and concerted boost in spending by governments around the world, then the Harper government has just delivered a budget that almost completely contradicts that consensus.
In the midst of bank failures, an international real-estate crash, bankruptcies and layoffs, deficit spending is supposed to provide immediate and concentrated stimulation of the economy. In other words, to create jobs and services that private money is currently unable or unwilling to do, and to do it now.
Canadians all over the country know all too well the results of cut-backs in government spending since the Chrétien government slew the deficit in the 1990s: crowded hospitals, pot-hole riddled streets and collapsing bridges. With or without the current economic shambles, it is glaringly obvious the someone needs to start spending money on the literal and figurative arteries that knit our country together.
Estimating the amount of money it would take to maintain and repair the physical backbone of this country is not easy task, but there is a general agreement that far too much work has been put off for far too long. A CBC news report as far back as 2007 suggested we need to spend $123 billion just to maintain what we have now, never mind building for the future.
In other words, in a time of economic distress, when even the Harper Tories who, only a couple of months back claimed their next budget would see the government narrowly in the black, have accepted the need for a return to deficit-spending, spending a good chunk of that borrowed money on infrastructure seems a no-brainer.
But what does the budget offer?
I repeat: $12-billion in infrastructure spending and $20-billion in income tax cuts! (Which, even worse and as the Globe and Mail's John Barber has pointed out, in this case comes with all kinds of red-tape when what is needed is money spent now.)
Maybe a politically smart move, "giving" tax-payers a $20-billion gift in borrowed money is the Great Stimulus That Isn't. $20-billion sounds like a lot of money — it is a lot of money — but spread out over the entire population it isn't going to repair any roads or sewers, build new transit lines or replace aging buses; it isn't going to stop more bridges from falling down or hire more doctors and nurses.
It will knock $417.00 off your tax bill next year if you're a two-income family with two kids. Enough, maybe to buy a new flat-screen television set, but not enough to fund a librarian at your local public school.
And remember, that tax "saving" is borrowed money. We, citizens and tax-payers, are going to have to pay it back.
This is trickle-down Reaganomics in Keynesian clothing. And since Steven Harper is an economist, he has to know it.
So what is it really all about?
It's the neo-conservative agenda, hidden in plain sight, an ideology-driven attempt to capitalize on the current panic to ensure that, when the recession is over, there still won't be any money to spend on the public good — on the services and infrastructure that even the wealthy need whether they know it or not.
After all, what politician will have the courage to run a campaign two or three or four years down the line saying, in effect, Remember those tax-cuts we gave you at the start of the recession? Well, we need that money to pay that money back — with interest!
No, whatever government comes after this one will find its hands politically tied and Harper knows it. This is his chance to cripple the federal government for a generation.
And what about the Official Opposition? What does Michael Ignatief have to say about it?
Quite a lot, as it turns out. The budget is "far from perfect," it "threatens pay equity for women," it "breaks [the Conservative's] promise to every province from only two years ago on equalization." Ignatief's statement goes on to blame the crisis on "choices made by a government that has systematically mismanaged our public finances for the last three years."
That's quite an indictment. What are the Liberals going to do about it?
Nothing at all, as it turns out.
They're going to propose an amendment to the budget which will, "include a requirement that the Government report back to the House of Commons repeatedly, with the first report being required within 60 days on their progress. Mr. Harper must accept these accountability measures or his Government will fall."
And that's it. A regular "accountability report" to the House of Commons.
Choosing political expediency over the common good, the Liberals are going to go along to get along, preferring a dream of impotent power a year or two down the line to taking a principled stand now.
P.S. A tip 'o the hat to deweyintoronto, from whom I've shamelessly snagged that lovely photo.
I thought Dion won (whatever the hell that term means in this context). He struck me as passionate but calm, and as someone who very much knew what he was talking about. (The 8:00 PM CBC Radio newscast suggested a quick poll of Quebecers agreed with me.)
Harper struck me as little more than smug (but note that I despise the man nearly as much as I loathe his policies), occasionally defensive but always convinced not so much that he was right, but that he was better than those he was debating.
Layton impressed me more than I thought he would (and I speak as someone who has almost always — though more often than not, with nose plugged — voted for the NDP). His French was very good and he too seemed to know what he was talking about, though his robot-like insistence on bringing every question around to "families" and ordinary people also makes me cringe as sounding contemptuous.
May impressed me largely because I had heard that her French was really, really questionable, and it was clear she understood what was going on around her; when she stumbled, you knew it was because she was having problems with vocabulary, not because she was retreating to sound-bites because she had nothing else to say.
And Duceppe? Well hell, he's the eminence grise of these debates. He tore into Harper with a will and I suspect he did a lot of good for the (temporary) future of the Bloc.
In a nutshell, a Muslim girl was thrown out of a soccer tournament for wearing a hijab - apparently the headscarf is banned by the Quebec Soccer Association on grounds of safety, "...to protect children from being accidentally strangled."
I'll leave the question of the risk of being strangled by a hijab during a soccer game to the experts. But I want to talk about is the story itself - or rather, about how it was written.
Most of it was told as a human-interest piece - how the girl felt, how the coach felt, how the girl's team-mates felt. The girl's team withdrew from the tournament in protest, apparently with the full backing of the team itself.
To me, the real story here was alluded to in the second paragraph and then never mentioned again.
Calling the rule banning the headscarf worn by Muslim women racist, four other teams followed Asmahan Mansour's team, the Nepean Selects from Ottawa, after she was thrown out for running afoul of a Quebec Soccer Association rule.
That sports leagues have rules about proper attire is not news. That a team withdraws from a tournament because one of its players was ejected is minor news. That four other teams in the tournament also withdrew to support another team's player is interesting news.
Why no interviews with players from other teams?
The CBC's headline was, "Muslim girl ejected from tournament for wearing hijab". Shouldn't it have been, "Four other teams support Muslim girl's right to wear hijab"?
That's the story! Jesus, somebody get re-write on the phone ...
It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.
As that brilliant, complex hero and villain of the 20th century implied, democracy is seldom pretty, let alone inspirational, but it has the virtue of providing for a change of government without blood flowing in the streets.
We've had almost a week to digest the results of our recent federal election, so let's take a deep breath, then open our eyes to our new situation.
Stephen Harper, Prime Minister ...
A nerd from a young age, I began reading adult magazines in grade 6 or 7. No, not that kind of "adult" (though I admit I'd sneak peeks at my big brother's collection of smut when I got the chance), but the kind of magazines that grown-ups read.
While I was still buying up the latest adventures of The Batman or the Justice Society of America, I was also buying (or stealing - but never mind that; my early life as a petty thief is a story for another day) such magazines as Analog Science Fiction/Science Fact, the late, not-so-lamented
Omni Magazine and other periodicals of either a scientific or science-fictional bent.
Taking a quick look at my shelf, I can confirm that I had broadened my intellectual range by the time I was 16 - the earliest issue of Harper's I have is the August 1981.
You may note that none of the magazines I've mentioned were Canadian. I would occasionally pick up an issue of Saturday Night, or This Magazine, but could never bring myself to buy them regularly; simply put, their quality was no match for their American equivalents and my meagre
resources would not stretch so far as to support my nationalistic tendencies. Besides, if the product's not that good, why buy it? I suppose I was already a free-trader at heart, in some ways (as I remain now: in some ways).
But it is Harper's that in many ways brings me to the topic at hand - a new, Canadian, magazine that is not a "lad's" mag, a women's magazine like Elm Street, or a wannabe New Yorker crossed with Esquire like the execrable Toronto Life. Rather, this new publication aims squarely at the small field dominated in North America by such magazines as the
aforementioned Harper's, The New Yorker, as well as The Atlantic and a precious few others.
And so, The Walrus, a name that will either create its own cachet or be perceived after-the-fact as emblematic of the publication's failure, should that be its fate.
The Walrus is consciously modelled on Harper's, up to the fact that it is owned by a non-profit foundation that promises sufficient resources to publish it for 5 years, paying word-rates unheard of in Canada; that Harper's editor Lewis Lapham was consulted about setting it up; and that he is one of the authors in the inaugural issue.
And what of the first issue? Does it live up to pre-publication hype, or to its editorial's claim to be a non-partisan magazine dedicated to contributing, "... real narratives to the public discourse," one that will help, "... to create a better-informed public and a larger cadre of writers and public intellectuals"?
At worst, The Walrus shows a great deal of potential. The first issue suffers from a lack of focus and from a few too many lightweight articles. That said, for a first issue, it is very good indeed.
The opening section, "The Observatory", is a series of short pieces - the Soviet-style "solution" to the problem of thousands of homeless children in Moscow; the lack of awareness of the European Union's draft constitution among the chattering classes in London's Islington district; a look at the political situation in Jordan; ethnic tensions in Croatia; John Geiger's adventures purchasing a walrus penis in Cape Dorset; the return of a scientist studying Bonobo Chimpanzees in the Democratic Republic of Congo; and a look at the upcoming Gubernatorial recall/election in California. All of these pieces are readable and mildly engaging; none of them are especially memorable. The section also suffers from marginal factoids that are mostly pointless and entirely irritating, as the reader (or this one, at least) found himself checking them twice, lest he missed one while trying to pay attention to the main article.
"The Observatory" is followed by a two-page chart providing a brief history of IQ tests (did you know that the Chan emperor in China used intelligence tests to award political positions in 1115 BCE? Neither did I). This looks as if it will be a regular feature, and works well. Easy to read, and kind of fun, it is also informative.
Next up is a one-page piece on Claude Simard, a Quebec artist who is shipping - in pieces - a number of churches, mosques, a synagogue, a Hindu temp and other buildings from India to Quebec, where they will be re-constructed as art galleries in the Saguenay. This is followed by another, and much less
interesting, meditation on trash, by Douglas Coupland, and then by what is likely the magazine's worst piece, â€œWhy I Writeâ€, by Neal Pollack, who manages to pack in an entire vanity website worth of self-indulgence in under 1,000 words.
Things pick up with Mireille Silcoff's report from Tel Aviv, and its citizens largely negative reaction to having had over 3,000 of its buildings declared a United Nations World Heritage Site. The unhappiness stems from the fact the buildings are mostly decrepit examples of the Bauhaus school of design, one I associate with ugly, minimalist concrete structures. Photos, rather than stylized drawings might be in order here, for those of us not up on the varieties of architectural experience, but the essay itself is interesting, in fact, almost compelling.
The cover story, on Paul Martin's business holdings and the conflicted position in which they place him as our soon-to-be Prime Minister is disturbing both from a Canadian point of view and - I think - fulfils the editorial's claim that the magazine's pieces will not be parochial. Martin's conflicts of interest could just as easily apply to any number of Western leaders who have feet in both the business and the political arenas. Any Canadian who wonders where our next Prime Minister came from and where he might lead us would do well to read Marci McDonald's story; any foreigner would likely find it of interest due to its expose of the byzantine ways of the globalized business
The Walrus' other centrepiece, "SARS, Censorship, and the Battle for China's Future" is a fascinating look at the political consequences that seem to be emerging from the Chinese government's initial attempt to hide from the world and from the Chinese people, the extent of the SARS epidemic that came close to spreading 'round the world last winter.
Things lighten up with a look at one of the world's stranger sub-cultures: from Bavaria, "... a German obsession with a past it never had". It seems that thousands of Germans spend a good deal of time pretending to be Native Americans, to the point of dressing up in buckskin and loincloths, and holding rodeos (though these are almost entirely bereft of horses or bulls).
Then Lewis Lapham discusses the legacy of Marshall McLuhan, arguing that McLuhan "...may be a better prophet for this century than for the last. Sadly, Lapham's piece lacks the passion of his editorials in his own magazine.
The lack of passion continues in "Resisting the Veil", Margaret Atwood's essay on 6 books about contemporary Iran and Islamic history. As one would expect, Atwood writes well, but there is an aridity to it that I hadn't expected.
The final piece, Adam Sternbergh's "Fairy Tale Ending", on American television's current fad for gay shows, argues that we may be seeing the end, rather than the beginning, of a genuine popular culture acceptance of gay-themed television. He compares the current crop with the prime time explosion of black-theme programs that ran its course from the mid-70s through the 1980s and suggests that gay programs too will lose their place in centre stage.
All in all, the first issue of The Walrus is a solid one and I have no hesitation in recommending it to those of you who don't find Maxim, or Elle satisfying intellectual fare.
But there is a bloodless sort of feel to much of the writing in the magazine, a strange sameness to most of the article, as if all of the writers were, perhaps, trying too hard to make a good impression, like a nervous debut ante determined, first and foremost, not to offend, not to make a fool of herself.
I hope it is merely a case of the jitters; I fear it reflects a lack of intellectual passion on the part of the magazine's editors.
Only time, as they say, will tell.