The Kindness of… Rich People


Twice, I’ve stood outside Notre Dame Cathedral without going inside, daunted by the long line-ups and the admission fee. After all, I’m an atheist who has already visited his share of impressive churches. This one was a youngster compared to some I’ve been to in Italy and Spain. Still, I now wish I had gone inside so I could see the not-quite-original interior. The present-day church was largely refurbished in the mid-19th Century largely at the urging of Victor Hugo – art intimidating life, as it were. And, I expect, despite the outcry of some folks, the church will be refurbished again. And that’s a good thing–the preservation of human history and art everywhere is part of what makes us human. I hope I live long enough to see it (they think it will take 10-15 years).

People have been shocked and surprised to see how quickly a billion dollars was raised from donations for the project—a lot of it coming from 2 French billionaires. It was quickly pointed out that there were lots of problems in France already, poverty and illness and so on, that a billion dollars could be used to fix. In Canada, the favorite has been the lack of clean water on First Nations. It reminds me of the similar outcry against spending money on the space program. But where would social media be without globe-circling satellites?

I get it. We see all these social issues and think something should be done (well, something other than supporting progressive politicians and paying our fair share of taxes) and, well, those guys have a lot of money, so shouldn’t they do it?


The last thing any one should want is to live on the largess of the rich. Noblesse oblige was the basis of feudalism not of modern democracies. If the rich are going to pay for things, it should not because they are feeling generous to the poor little serfs beneath them but because we live in a system that reduces rather than exacerbates income inequality.

Because the root of the problem is not that billionaires exist but rather that, in late stage capitalism, where monopolies and oligopolies are the rule not the exception, our economy is designed to concentrate wealth and manufacture poverty. Even if you took a billion or a hundred billion or a trillion away from the mega-rich and gave it to the poor (the latter figure would give them each a thousand dollars), it wouldn’t change that system. The cash, sooner or later, would wind up in the same place.

And right now, it seems there is no alternative. (And don’t point to China or Russia either—whatever they call their system it is still a variation of the capitalist means of production). If we really want to make things better for the masses of humanity, we need fundamental changes in how we operate.

There are hints of what a post capitalist society might look like – you can occasionally find them in the talks of futurists or, even, in science fiction. It won’t be anything like the past, that much I’m sure of. With the end of regular employment caused mostly by automation (another thing people decry but seem powerless to stop), we will need a radical reordering both of social priorities and reward systems as well as the redistribution of wealth through guaranteed basic incomes and carefully designed tax regimes that get at international money transfers and hidden wealth stored in crypto-currencies. We will also likely need more free trade and more open borders, rather than less, so that the wealth of the world—there is no shortage of that—can be monitored and shared more equally.

Meanwhile, the people who would benefit the most fall for the old con, that the rich are somehow better than us and should care for their weaker cousins. And we vote for populists who distract us with fear of the other while their masters laugh all the way to the bank. Or the cathedral.

And that’s ten minutes.

The Economics of Entertainment


March has arrived with its usual mix of hope and despair. Spring is right around the corner/will this winter never end? In Ukraine neither hope nor despair are sufficient to define what people are experiencing but you don’t need me to tell you that. Or anything, really (see, despair) though you might find this interesting (hope springs eternal).

The baseball lockout continues cancelling spring training and putting opening day in doubt. For fans, despair looms, while for those who don’t care about battles between billionaire owners and millionaire players, there is always hope for classic movies or perhaps opera performances to fill the programming gap.

In seemingly unrelated news, author Brandon Sanderson popped out four unplanned novels in his spare time over the last couple of years (I assume he has no personal life) and is running a Kickstarter to bring them to the world. He was aiming for a million dollars but is over $20 million now. Good for him, though I won’t be contributing since I haven’t been able to get more than 50 pages into a fantasy novel in over 20 years.

I don’t begrudge him the money any more than I begrudge baseball players making millions for playing a game. It’s all entertainment and people love to be entertained. Better that the creators and athletes get the money than the rent-takers that make up most of the capitalist class. Still, it is somewhat sad to see writing increasingly look like every other aspect of the entertainment business, a few incredibly well-paid stars and thousands of others struggling to make a living wage.

Back to baseball, the very top players make $15-20 million a year (a couple of recent contracts provide in excess of a quarter of a billion dollars to the player over 8 or 12 years). The minimum big league salary is around $1 million so the 26 guys on the big league roster are doing okay. Of course, 20% of non-pitchers only play one season in the bigs and the average career for all players is reported to be 5.6 years. Meanwhile most players in the minors make a lot less. The minimum salary for a player in Single A (still considered professional) is now $500 a week (raised in 2021 from $290). They only get paid for the weeks they play so that works out to $10,000 a year. In other words, less than the minimum wage. Semi-pro players may get less than $50 a game or a few thousand for the entire season.

Thirty to forty years ago, a writer who got a professional advance for a novel could consider quitting his day job. A 2-book deal made going full time a viable option. Professional writers weren’t exactly rich but a middle-class lifestyle wasn’t out of reach. Even those who were less successful could combine their writing income with part-time work in other fields such as teaching (or they could find a supportive spouse with a decent income and do alright as a family). Even then there were a few writers who got big advances or sold a lot of books and did better than alright but million-dollar advances were unknown. In fact, according to Forbes, the first person to make a million dollars strictly from writing books (we’ll leave movies out of this) was J.K. Rowling in 2004. Now well-established authors or first-time authors with buzz or celebrities (Brittany Spears just got a $15 million advance for her tell-all biography, yet to be ghost-written) can easily make a million a book.

Good for them, you might say, and sure why not?

Meanwhile, average advances have been falling. Typically, a first-time author selling to a large or medium size publisher will get less than $10,000. Small presses offer even less and, of course, self publishers get no advance at all. Meanwhile the median income for full-time writers (from writing alone) is just over $20,000, down nearly 30% since 2009. In other words, the rich are getting richer while the poor as usual are getting poorer. And of course, the average career of writers, like those of baseball players is short. One and done is not uncommon with the big publishers and many writers are finished after 5 books (in other words 5.6 years like ball players). Self-publishing is always an option for those who love the game—just as retired major league players can get a gig playing semi-pro—but there is little or no money involved (unless you are in the satellite industry of editing, book design, coaching or selling courses to help self-publishing writers become rich and famous).

That is what the entertainment business is like. The same analysis can be made for actors, musicians, even talk-show hosts and stand-up comics. Hierarchies of income and status exist in all professions but none do it quite the way the entertainment business does where you are either a star or you’re a flash in the pan or you’re just an extra.

What keeps so many people going? In writing as in sports it is often the love of the game or the undying hope that next year will be better.

Photo by Tim Bechervaise on Unsplash

By the way, buy my book.

Standing with Ukraine


The brutal invasion of Ukraine has entered its sixth day with missile attacks on civilian areas. The Russians claim that only military installations are being targeted but if so, they obviously can’t hit the broad side of a barn, which does not bode well for the ongoing campaign. Western governments are sending everything except troops (but are not preventing their citizens from volunteering to fight) while hammering the Russian economy with (almost) everything they have in the way of sanctions. One suspects the last few arrows in the quiver will be loosed soon.

Meanwhile, China covers its eyes and sings “La, la, la, nothing to see here,” while slowly inching away from actual support for the “non-invasion.” And why not, trade with the USA and Europe is ten times as big as that with Russia and China’s carefully cultivated post-colonial partners in Africa and elsewhere are wondering exactly where China stands on national sovereignty.

Russia may well win this battle for Ukraine territory. Despite the reported ineptitude of their soldiers, they have a lot of them compared to their opponent and they are better armed. Fire enough missiles and some are likely to find vital organs. But what will victory look like—an ongoing insurgency at tremendous cost, paid for by a crumbling economy? Perhaps Muscovites might get used to bombs going off in their city the way they did with the interminable Chechen resistance. Or perhaps they will seek a kinder gentler president. As to relations with the west, Russia can threaten to nuke their cities (is he truly that mad?) but what use are nukes against your own people?

We’re not there yet and maybe we won’t get there. Strong voices in Russia—billionaire oligarch voices and brave ordinary citizens—are beginning to question this adventure. Are those voices being echoed in political and military circles? We are likely to find out in the coming weeks.

Sitting here, far from the battle’s fray, it can easily seem like something happening to someone else. I’ve never been to Ukraine (it’s not even on my bucket-list) but I have friends stationed at the Canadian embassy who have managed to convey the beauty of the country and the strength and kindness of the people there. Some of my closest friends in Canada are of Ukrainian background (more than 15% of all Albertans are) and I share their concern for their ancestral homeland and the relatives that live there. The war in Ukraine is also here, by the way, with two incidents of Ukrainians being targeted for hate crimes in Toronto this weekend. No arrests have been made but I expect the culprits will have been inspired by Putin-infatuated conservatives south of the border.

There is little that individuals here in North America can do but we should do what we can to stand in solidarity with Ukraine, because, Ukraine, by embracing democracy, is standing in solidarity with us against all the would-be dictators in the world. I’ve made a little donation to provide humanitarian aid to the country and placed their flag on my Facebook page. I will boycott Russian products (though I’m not sure yet what that entails) and will politically support on-going sanctions of the Russian economy, even after the fighting stops, if that doesn’t include the full withdrawal of Russian forces.

It’s not much but magnified millions of times it might just make a difference. Which is how freedom works. Nobody is free unless we are free together.

What Really Matters


The Madman of Moscow has invaded Ukraine (again!) and dares anyone to try to stop him. “I’ll nuke you—I swear I will!” Putin has spent the last ten years trying to persuade the world he is just mad enough to think Russia, or anyone, can win a nuclear war. He’s probably bluffing now, but who wants to take the risk? The West responds with severe sanctions—let’s take their money! Hey, it sort of worked with people in convoys, why not try it on people in armoured columns?

The funniest gesture of support—if anything can be funny today—is the demand from Mr. Obvious, Jason Kenney, Premier of (oil rich) Alberta to immediately block all oil and gas exports from Russia. Are we really supposed to believe he’s thinking about the Ukraine’s interest right now?

Meanwhile, every one and their dog (yes, I know of dogs that have Twitter accounts) is lashing out on social media demanding that something be done. I suspect even Russian bots have been caught up in the frenzy, though the right-wing of the Republican Party seems dubious as to whom they should support. Let me help you. When Ronald Reagan said: “Tear down that wall!” he was speaking to a Russian leader (and, indirectly Vlad Putin who was head of the KGB in East Berlin at the time).

You might think I am adding to the wave of condemnation by blogging today. I am not. Of course, I condemn the Russian invasion and worry that one wrong move by someone—who knows who—will bring about nuclear Armageddon, just when I got used to the reality of the much longer slower extinction promised by climate change. However, I know that absolutely nothing I write here or on Twitter, Facebook, TikTok, Reddit or whatever other popular or unpopular social media site exists will slow a single tank from rolling into Ukraine or prevent a single Ukrainian soldier from firing an anti-tank missile at said tank. Taking Putin’s money may seem far removed from the immediacy of an angry tweet, but it probably will work in the long run—if there is a long run.

The sole purpose of social media is to provide an outlet for outrage, the comfort of cat pictures and the proliferation of clever comments by me. Oh, yeah, and to make oodles more cash for the people who own them. Don’t believe me? Then why does J. K. Rowling still make more money annually than almost any other author despite a years-long social media campaign against her? I’m sure someone will explain it to me at great length and in high dudgeon. Save it, it doesn’t really matter.

So, what does? I’m getting to that.

One might think that the invocation and termination of the Emergencies Act, given that I was living in the centre of the emergency in question, would be a matter of great import to me. Sort of. I had no doubt that the Act needed to be invoked. Nothing else was stopping the torment and if it was an overreach, who cares? It got the job done and, surprise, surprise, it was used exactly as advertised, in a focused, geographically limited way, respecting Charter rights and ending when it was no longer needed. A tool was taken out of the tool box, used to fix what was broken and then put away again.

It’s true that things might have been solved using existing laws (by the way, the Emergencies Act is an “existing law” and has been since 1988) but the Ottawa Police, recently criticized for its brutality and tasked to do better, was slow to respond forcefully either because of being surprised or unprepared or too mellow. One can say they should have done things differently but, my friends, hindsight has always been and always will be, more accurate than foresight. Some speculate that the response might have been quicker if it had been indigenous or black protesters, and, given our history, it is not an unreasonable speculation, but it is still unproveable as speculations about alterative histories always are. Besides, should we really criticize the police for acting in a limited and proportionate way? Now, we can point to Ottawa in the future and say to them—see, that’s how it’s done.

By the way, the use of existing laws would have required the Premier of Ontario to step up. While he made a few tut-tut remarks he did little else. Even after the state of emergency was called in Ontario (and where was the Conservative outrage at that?), he did almost nothing, leaving it up to municipalities to do the heavy lifting. At least, he had the guts, unlike his conservative counterparts in Parliament or Alberta, to speak out against the damage the blockades were doing and to distance himself from Randy Hillier and even his own daughter.

Meanwhile, two conservative Senators demonstrated clearly why patronage appointments to the Upper House are a bad idea. One in a drunken rant, denigrated the people of Ottawa and his own wife (he subsequently sort of apologized for his remarks which he didn’t know would actually become public). The other described the convoy members as kindly and patriotic, which given the stated goal of some of them to overthrow the elected government and hang the Prime Minister, suggests either complicity or stupidity.

Not that I care. They will eventually turn 75 and retire and be forgotten. If Putin doesn’t kill us all first. Meanwhile Jason Kenney says anyone who supported the Act must now feel humiliated. Ha! Not me! Dear Jason, I know it’s been tough being dumped on from all sides, but projecting your feelings on others is a sign of mental disorder. Seek help.

Of course, I’ve seen on Twitter and Facebook claims that the expressed outrage of Canadians made Trudeau back down. What utter nonsense. If he didn’t blink at a bunch of yahoos, blowing horns and threatening mayhem, if he consulted the Premiers and said this is what I’m doing no matter what you think, if he stood up to being yelled and insulted by the chattering right wing,  if he did all that, do you think he even read your posts? No, what he read was the riot act. To be fair he also read the polls which showed that 57% of Canadians were for his action and 30% were against and most of those 30% were supporters of the Conservative party or the far right PPC. BTW, how could 13% of Canadians have no opinion on this?

But that doesn’t really matter.

It is increasingly clear to me that we will not have a federal election for two or maybe three years, by which time Premiers Kenney and Ford may well be in retirement (though like their mentor, Steven Harper, still stretching out their dead hands to try to influence current events). The federal Conservative Party may find a leader who can lead rather than being jerked from pillar to post by internal factions and external polls, or more hopefully, will have once again split in two. It would be lovely to have the right once again as divided as the left. Infinite diversity through infinite combination, I say (as long as none of those combinations involve conservatives).

Not that it really matters. Putin is going to kill us all next week and, if he doesn’t, the coming US civil war will do the job and, if not that, the desperation of a diminished China which is on the demographic road to have the oldest population in the world within a decade or two is in the running, or maybe our old friend, climate change, will still have a shot, or a planet-killing asteroid will strike or an evil AI will lead us all into the Metaverse, I mean, the Matrix and turn us into a power supply. Or Elon Musk will take us all to Mars to die in the cold dusty vacuum of a dead planet.

Or maybe we’ll all just get old, get cancer or dementia, and die anyway. Certainly, in a hundred years, every one I know and all their children will be dead. I suppose immortality is always an option. If they actually get fusion power to work, we can start saying immortality is just ten years away and always will be. Too late for me in any case.

But that doesn’t matter, either.

Are you depressed yet? Because I’m not. I’m increasingly at peace and I’m happy to be there. I intend to become more peaceful. No, I’m not dying, nor am I becoming a Buddhist monk or going to live in a medieval village in the woods of northern Ontario.

I am entering a new stage of life, the final one. This has been slow to dawn on me. I retired from my day job but kept being a publisher, retired from publishing but remained a freelance editor, retired from editing but continue to write. I will likely continue to write but I may retire from being a writer—the jury is still out on that one.

Last year, I published two mystery novels but, to be honest, they were written several years before that. I’ve been plugging away at a third, currently writing 500 to 700 words most days. I may write a fourth or I may not. I’m still completing a couple of contracts and am enjoying the work but I won’t take on another job. I really don’t need either the money or the effort.

This January, I started up this blog again after five years of relative inactivity. I wanted to see if I could build an audience again and I did (thanks, ironically, due to the convoy). I’ve had as many readers this year as I did in all of 2016 when I was last really active. In a week or two, I could surpass 2014 and even my glory year of 2015 is within reach, it I were to keep at it day after day.

But I won’t.

For an avowed socialist, I’ve always cared too much about money. Maybe it was because I grew up poor in a household that believed in work. Maybe it’s because I started making my own money at 13 and found how liberating it was in a society where it sometimes seems you are only as valuable as the things you own I don’t know, but now that I have enough (though not much more than enough) to live comfortably, to buy books and give to charity, and maybe, pandemics and my inevitable declining strength willing, to travel a bit, more money seems pointless.

I sold two stories this year (yippee!); the income will pay for a dinner out but not in the best restaurant in town. My last story out to market was rejected today. I may send it and the half dozen others in the inventory out again—it costs nothing, not even much time–or I may not. I still have story ideas but I only have written one piece of fiction (other than the novel) since last August and I’m not happy enough with it to do the needed re-writes.

I had a new idea yesterday and it may get written but only because it interests and challenges me, not because I think it might interest you. Writing now has become personal; I am writing for myself rather than any potential audience. I want to play, to explore and experiment, to delve deep into language for its own sake and for mine. None of that requires more than a reader or two.

I guess what I’m saying is that I no longer need to talk to the world even as I grow more and more interested in listening to it, not through social media, but through thoughtful analysis, through books and art, through history and the discovery of place and human difference. I need to think more and speak less and be present for my wife, my family and my closest friends.

I recently read that we really only have deeply intimate connections to at most a dozen people, most of us only four or five. Think of that, all this effort to have five thousand friends on Facebook or a hundred thousand followers on Twitter will never mean what we want it to mean, it will never replace those intimate partners that make our life worth living and whom we could lose through neglect or in the endless noise of the world. (Of course, I want you to know that you are all my closest intimate friends!)

Is this good bye? Oh, I don’t think so. As the old man said as they carried him to the plague wagon: I’m not dead yet. But I will be quieter, less present on social media and more present in my life. My writing may appear from time to time, though I expect more and more it will be shared with a limited circle or kept to myself as befits a personal pastime.

For those who have become addicted to my daily blogs, for god’s sake, get a life! I’ll still be around on those days I have something to say but that won’t be every day. I’m not sure if it will even be every week. Or month.

If you miss my writing, you can always buy one of my books. They are easy to find, just google my name, I seem to be smeared all over the Internet.

Not that it matters if you do.

Photo by Javardh on Unsplash

Rejoining Society


Once again, we are being told that the pandemic is receding, that it may indeed be over, that we can now learn to live with it like we do the flu or the common cold. The numbers suggest they could be right this time. Case rates, hospitalizations and deaths in Canada have been dropping steadily for the last few weeks; the most serious cases remain among the unvaccinated, a solvable problem that won’t be solved. The reported cases worldwide have dropped dramatically each of the last three weeks, though that may be a testing/reporting anomaly.

Time will tell. A new variant may emerge among the hundreds of thousands who are currently sick. It may be more contagious and more deadly than Omicron or it might not.

In Canada, Alberta and Saskatchewan have kindly volunteered to experiment on their populations to give us a few weeks notice before other provinces lower their guard. With apologies to my friends who live there, canaries have always been a useful addition to coal mines.

But let’s suppose the pandemic has indeed run its course. All things do end, whether you are talking about fads or world-spanning diseases, though they generally leave remnants in their wake. We all know people who cling to fashions or TV shows long after their time has passed.

The same will be true of COVID-19. There is, of course, long COVID, a syndrome we don’t yet understand but one that afflicts a significant number of people with on-going fatigue and a compromised immune system among other symptoms. But there are other troublesome fragments as well.

No matter when the scientists and public health officials say it is over and we can live our lives as we used to, there will be those who remain unconvinced, unsure if it is really safe. They are a strange mirror image of those who denied the reality of the pandemic. Though less antagonistic to the doctors than the anti-vaxxers, they still reject the conclusions of science and the advice of medical professionals who tell us the isolation is damaging our mental health or interfering with our children’s ability to learn. They remain reluctant to rejoin society and almost insistent that those who are ready, should continue to stay home and stay away from others.

Of course, some people have always preferred to limit their social contacts, whether because of introversion or social anxiety or personal choice. For them, socialization is a chore, being with strangers is painful, clustering with a few familiar bodies is comforting. This is part of the broad spectrum of human behavior that constitutes normal. They are no odder than those who can’t stand being alone or silent, who insist that gathering in crowds is desirable, that small talk is the breath of life. Extroverts are normal, too.

The enforced seclusions and the limiting of social contacts has changed people. Those like me, who can take or leave social contact—enjoying it tremendously in small doses before needing to retreat—may find themselves, as I do, feeling uncomfortable with the idea of seeing other people (not in an open marriage way but, you know, for coffee). My inner introvert is rearing its head, but it doesn’t comfort me, it makes me sad. I now yearn to be with others while supressing the urge to do so.

Others may be having the opposite reaction, feeling the need for social gatherings that surpass what they might have wanted in the past. Their inner extrovert has taken hold; every rule is made to be broken in the frenzy to be part of the crowd, at the heart of the party.

Neither approach is a long-term solution to the long, enforced pause we have endured (other than the flouters) or, for that matter, enjoyed. We are, even introverts, social creatures; that’s how we evolved. Though evolution also made us only so social. It’s no more natural to want to be with everyone than it is to want to be with no one.

Finding our way back to normal human interactions, away from screens and speakers, is the next challenge. The first step may be to realize that everyone has suffered differently in the pandemic. That differential suffering has led many of us to adopt fixed opinions about those who responded in a way different from us; fixed opinions have been magnified by social media, to the point families and former friends are divided and filled with anger at the other.

No matter what side of the divide you are on, you know that feeling of rage when your feelings, your experiences are diminished or denied. Learning to be civil, even to those who are different or who we don’t really like, may be the biggest challenge that COVID will leave us with.

I’m not sure how to proceed. I may start by unsnoozing, refollowing and unblocking all those people on Facebook that I’ve clicked away. Well, at least some of them. I think a few invitations, offered and accepted, may be in order to. Slowly, slowly, I will emerge. Tomorrow. Or maybe next week. Or soon.

But if you’re still staying inside, you might enjoy one of the books I wrote or edited (here) or my recent mysteries, In the Shadow of Versailles or By Dawn’s Early Light.

Photo by CHUTTERSNAP on Unsplash

When Evidence Fails


It is an enduring myth of the Enlightenment that humans are rational creatures, seeking their enlightened self-interest based on the evidence of their senses. While reason has proven a powerful tool in science and technological advances, in the realm of other human endeavours, it has revealed considerable weaknesses. Emotion, instinct, gut feelings have all proven more powerful from time-to-time leading decisions which evidence and reason could never support but which we somehow justify. We are, it seems, the rationalizing animal.

This is not a criticism of my fellow beings. I am as prone to these things as anyone else and if I fall into the trap less often, I can only thank those people who taught me to question everything, including my own conclusions, with a critical mind. I don’t always get it right.

It would be a disaster if we were to accept, as some polemicists would urge us to do, to abandon reason and evidence as the guiding principle of both our public and private lives. We would succumb quickly to the loudest voices, to the popular will, which, in retrospect, is so often not merely misguided but incredibly harmful.

The recent conflict between the Truck Convoy (I will neither use their self-congratulatory name or the derisive ones used against them) and the government is a case of point. The people who occupied Ottawa and their supporters in Canada and abroad seem to believe they are being oppressed. They also seemed to believe their non-evidence-based “science” was accurate and that people who actually do science were wrong. They also believed a lot of things that could easily be shown to be false.

But not to them. They were emotionally and psychologically committed to their beliefs and those who attempted to question them or even asked the protesters to clarify what they meant by words such as “freedom” or “oppression” were met with howls of rage and abuse and in some cases, assaults. Reason is a limited tool against rage. Evidence has little impact on emotion.

What are we, those of us for whom the balance tips toward reasoned debate and away from emotional diatribes, to do? Engagement and persuasion can be tried but only by those with deep stores of patience and specific skills; most of us soon fall into the trap of anger and invective. Our rage confirms the validity of theirs. Everything devolves into us versus them.

Of course, there were many people who could talk to the convoyeurs: people who validated their opinions, grievances and anger, often for their own benefit. As long as you confirmed their bias they seemed like gentle reasonable folk and it would be easy to be fooled into thinking they were. Certainly, I think a number of politicians were so fooled—some woke up and realized their error, but it was difficult for then to back away from their previous public displays of support. Some tried; others doubled down.

Eventually, the government decided to rely on the one tool of reason that has an effect on everyone: the law. It was clear, to anyone who lived in Ottawa, at least, that the protesters would have never left, even after the pandemic ended and the government mandates were over. The emotions that drove the original protest had morphed into deeply held grievances that could never be assuaged. They could not and did not listen to their fellow citizens or to the politicians who had befriended them—ignoring their calls to depart. They did not listen to their own so-called leaders (leadership means little to libertarians, or, if you prefer, anarchists). They would not go until the government made them go.

But they haven’t gone far. They have an agenda and it has little to do with democracy or freedom. And what can we do about that? Try to be reasonable, I guess, try to think critically, questioning everything, especially our most strongly held beliefs. Try always to be kind and do the right thing. Try to listen and persuade with reasoned argument and evidence even when it seems pointless to do so.

I’ve been wrong about things and changed my views when evidence overwhelmed me, but it was hard. Sometimes, it seems that it would be easier to just go with my gut. But then I think, my brain spews out thoughts and words—some of which have value—what my gut spews out is only good for fertilizing flowers and spreading disease. Not entirely comforting but it’s what I’ve got.

Photo by Wonderlane on Unsplash

The Great Bear


First, you say you will and then you won’t, then you say you do but you don’t…

What is up with you, Vlad? You haven’t been this indecisive since you thought about burning down East Berlin in the wake of the wall falling.

According to President Joe Biden, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is imminent. President Putin doesn’t exactly deny it but suggests maybe it’s just a training exercise. Meanwhile, various European leaders have trotted dutifully to Moscow for an audience in an effort to calm the waters. Putin hasn’t had this much attention since he invaded Crimea, which may be the point of this whole exercise.

Russia is not your dad’s Soviet Union. The collapse of communism was inevitable. Authoritarian states always contain the seeds of their own destruction, especially when the authority is vested in one man. Well-established democracies, on the other hand, take a concerted effort to bring down. Unfortunately, there are plenty, including those who live in and benefit from democracy, more than willing to lend a hand. Which brings us back to Putin.

French President Macron was the first to drop by for a chat. France, of course, is always interested in playing an independent role even in a more or less united Europe. They remain out of NATO and are active in their former colonies, as an advisor or military ally of last resort, and they have their own supply of nuclear weapons, so that must count for something.

There may be more at play: Macron is likely to run for re-election and, by all accounts, is likely to win. However, there are a lot of wild cards in the race and anything can happen between now and the election days (they have 2, the first to pick the top two contenders then another to decide the matter). Many of the other candidates, on both the far right and far left are openly admiring of Putin’s approach; at least one is being investigated for taking Russian money. If nothing else, Macron may be interested in seeing what Putin has that he doesn’t.

The political dance gets even more complicated when you add in the role of China to the world stage. Despite the recent “glum” Olympics and push back on the great belt and road initiative for trade, China certainly counts as the second most powerful country in the world economically and politically and is rapidly overtaking Russia as a military force as well. Putin made a quick visit to President Xi Jinping recently to affirm the close relationship between the two powers. This is an interesting reversal when you consider the last war these two countries openly fought was with each other. In those days, China was breaking away from Soviet influence and one has to wonder if Putin is now feeling resentful of the role China is playing, especially in former Soviet client states.

Meanwhile, Putin has more immediate problems. The Russian economy has a lot going for it, mostly in the form of natural gas that Europe has become dependent on. However, other sectors are more fragile and if Europe bites the bullet and begins to find alternative energy sources, the economy might not be able to withstand extensive sanctions from the west. The fact that so much of the Russian oligarchs’ wealth, including Putin’s vast fortunes (he might well be as rich as Elon Musk), are held offshore and could well be frozen in any conflict with Europe has to weigh heavily on his mind.

All out war in Europe is unlikely but not impossible especially if Putin tries to extend his control past the chunk of eastern Ukraine now in open revolt against the central government in Kyiv. Russian overreach could quickly spread to the Baltic states or even Poland and we all know what happens when someone invades Poland.

My own cynical theory is that Putin is getting old (he’s 69) and like all aging dictators he is determined his legacy will live on. As the world faces catastrophic climate change, Putin is saying to Mother Nature: Hold my beer!

Photo by Mark Basarab on Unsplash

The Rise and Slow Decline of Jason Kenney


In 2014, Jason Kenney was the heir apparent to Steven Harper. Though there were a few others vying for the crown, Kenney was the leader of the pack. Already the most powerful minister in the federal government, he had shown a particular gift for wooing minority groups to the Conservative cause (he was dubbed “Curry in a Hurry” by his colleagues for his frequent appearances at community banquets across the country).

Kenney’s road to the top was a somewhat winding one. After attending a Jesuit university in California (he didn’t finish his degree) where he became a noted anti-abortion and anti-gay campaigner, he returned to Canada and briefly served as executive assistant to Ralph Goodale, the Liberal premier of Saskatchewan. Very shortly thereafter, he was hired to run the Alberta, then Canadian, Taxpayers’ Federation, a small but influential conservative lobby group. He entered federal politics, winning as a Reform MP in the 1997 election at the age of 29.

Eight years later, the path to the Prime Minister’s office seemed clear. They would easily win the 2015 election against the solid but uninspiring Tom Mulcair. The Liberal party was dead and the insult machine was already taking aim at new untried leader, Justin Trudeau, expecting to destroy his chances the way they had the previous two party chiefs. A few years later, Harper would retire and Kenney would be king.

 By 2015, things were not so clear. The NDP was climbing in the polls and it became clear the Conservatives were in for a fight. They responded by rolling out massive advertising buys in advance of the longest Canadian election campaign since 1872. The party’s coffers were full and they were sure they could easily outspend and outlast the opposition. It was the first of several key strategic errors, Harper and his crew would make.

The second was to underestimate Justin Trudeau. It was if they had come to believe their own propaganda. Trudeau had already won a seat (when Liberals all around were losing theirs) in Papineau, which had long been a stronghold of the separatist Bloc Quebecois. He then united a party that had been split into two factions for nearly twenty years. Yet, the Conservatives largely ignored him to take on Mulcair. Then came the first leaders’ debate, where Trudeau didn’t merely survive but was the consensus winner.

By the end of the campaign, the Conservatives were growing a little desperate. After taking a hardline against Muslim women wearing head scarfs when swearing their oath to Canada, a small bounce in the polls lead them to go all-in with the announcement of a “barbaric practices hotline,” to encourage Canadians to snitch on fellow citizens. Instead of wide popular approval, the proposal was widely condemned and ensured both the defeat of the Harper government and the entrenchment of a solid group of very conservative MPs and activists in the federal party. Kenney, always a loyal solder, had come out swinging in defense of the idea, saw much of his work with minorities washed away.

In the aftermath of the defeat, Harper resigned as leader and most leading Conservatives, convinced Trudeau would be invincible for at least 8 years, found something else to do, mostly in the cozy confines of corporate boardrooms. The federal party was left in the hands of a dozen lightweights who vied for the leadership. The final winner was Andrew Scheer, a pale version of Harper with a thin resume and few ideas. Maxime Bernier, who finished a close second, left in a snit to form the far right Peoples’ Party of Canada.

Jason Kenney had other ideas. The NDP shocked Canada by winning the 2015 provincial election in Alberta, leaving the right fragmented and fighting among themselves. Rather than pursue the federal party head in 2017, he chose to run for the Progressive Conservative leadership and, having won that, launched a campaign to “unite the right.” By 2019, he was solidly entrenched as the leader of the United Conservative Party, despite allegations of questionable (and perhaps illegal) tactics in the leadership campaign. In the subsequent election, he won a landslide victory.

It is difficult to know what Kenney had in mind at that moment. Was he satisfied to be premier of the 4th largest province when the Prime Minister’s job had seemed so close? Did he see the premiership as a step back to Ottawa (despite the fact that no Canadian premier has ever become Prime Minister)? He had defied conventional wisdom before, why not again?

It hardly matters now. Oil prices that had peaked at over $100 a barrel in 2014 had fallen below $60 and remained stubbornly low, falling to just over $50 weeks after Kenney, a strong defender of oil and gas, was sworn in as Premier. Although Kenney had no control over the world price of oil, he claimed credit for its rise toward the end of 2019. Then COVID-19 struck and the price of oil collapsed, falling as low as $12 in April, 2020. Although the price has risen again as the world economy re-opens, the damage to the government’s finances, which had frequently relied on oil to keep provincial taxes the lowest in the country, was already done. Crippling budget cuts in the midst of the pandemic—while federal coffers were wide open—started the party’s slide.

The subsequent inconsistent and often dangerous handling of the pandemic infuriated both left and right in Alberta (though for very different reasons) and soon Kenney saw his personal popularity collapse (he is now the most unpopular elected leader in the country) and his party fall behind the NDP in the polls, as new extreme parties began to nip at his right flank. Having no room to maneuver on the left, he is now fighting a read guard action to preserve his leadership of the United Conservative Party. It is rumoured (though he denies it) that he even allowed some backbench MLAs negotiate with recent blockaders of the US border, a move that backfired when a cadre of well-armed extremists bent on murder was discovered in their midst.

Like most provincial premiers whose polls are sagging, Kenney is now trying to point the finger of blame at the federal government in Ottawa, with growing levels of cynicism and unreality. First came the absurd and pointless referendum on the equalization program, which Kenney (who had a major hand in designing the latest version) knows full-well is fully in the power of the federal government. Now, he is proposing to sue over the invocation of the Emergencies Act (which was passed by the government of Conservative PM, Brian Mulroney), although the basis for such a suit is utterly unclear.

Will it be enough to keep Mr. Kenney his job? He might well stave off a challenge by the right to remove him, though only by moving farther to the right himself. I know some of my progressive friends in Alberta are wondering how he possibly could go farther right. Just watch him.

He might decide that it is now or never and re-enter federal politics, but I think the well has been poisoned for him in the federal party. A failed provincial premier is unlikely to be a palatable option for the increasingly divided federal party. Ironically, Trudeau was not as invincible as they all thought and Kenney may now rue avoiding the federal leadership race in 2017, when the mantle might well have been his for the asking.

A year is an eternity in politics. Kenney may retain his leadership though winning a subsequent election when most urban areas in the province now solidly reject the far-right blandishments of their rural cousins, seems unlikely.

The political road may be ending for Jason Kenney but don’t shed too many tears for him. He has a career with his corporate friends to look forward to and, at the end of the day, a fat federal pension to retire on.

Photo by Jason Blackeye on Unsplash

Return to the Parapet


I have completed my time of reflection and retreat; I am refreshed and strengthened by it. Still, the continued presence of the occupying force is disturbing despite the waning of their numbers. The prince has declared that this occupation cannot abide and has moved forcefully—despite the opposition of certain factions—to end it.

His vizier and her tax collectors have commanded the banks to stop the flow of gold to the occupiers, especially sums being secretly carried across our borders. Bit by bit, it is being seized and held fast. Many of the leaders of the invading force have been taken into custody and are being held under bar or bond until they can be judged. Some have eluded capture but the chief spymaster declares he knows their habits and habitual haunts and his long arm will reach for them in due course.

Today, our forces have won a great victory, seizing many of the siege engines and driving others away but I fear they have not gone far and will regroup to test our mettle once again. Some of the occupiers have lost heart or have discovered the duplicity of their masters and departed. Others are determined to remain, hurling taunts and insults at our loyal troops and even, it is said, using their children as a shield against capture. Condemnation has rained from all quarters at such dangerous abuse.

The old Captain of the Guard has given up his office and been replaced by a more forceful figure who has promised to being the occupation to an end. The bell is tolling now for those who still remain, unrepentant in their defiance. There are those who worry that the prince has moved too forcefully while others bitterly complain he should have done so sooner. Such is the burden of leadership, assailed on all sides while trying to find the judicious path to peace.

I was disturbed to find that some in our fair city have given succor to the occupying force, despite the assault on the livelihood (and ears) of their neighbours. Some have even joined the horde and demanded the overthrow of our lawful government. Such, of course, is the price of freedom in a peaceable kingdom: everyone has the right to be wrong.

Everyone also has the right to resist the law but must suffer the consequences if they do. The philosophers disagree on much but most accept that there can be no freedom without responsibility.

In happier news, the plague that has scoured our land these past two years has begun to recede, though it may, as it has before, arise again. Still, the coming of spring may bring release to a people grown tired of hiding from the world and from each other. It seems odd that at the moment of our salvation, brought on by the diligence of our people in following the prescriptions of our physics and barbers, the horde chooses to cry out inchoately as if their sacrifice was greater than ours.

For myself, I find my return to the parapet both gratifying and yet fraught with anxiety and distraction. Some of our seers warn that this is the beginning of the end for our way of life, while others dismiss it as nothing untoward. I do know that it has silenced other voices, calling out for justice and pleading for action to save us from a changing Nature. Perhaps that was the aim all along, to turn us from the proper course with noise and contradiction. It is no surprise that those who support the horde and its presence in our city also shelter hateful men of vile opinions and deny the need to curb the present behavior. This may ultimately make everything else we do or think mere sound and fury signifying nothing.

All things must pass. Both the trivial concerns of the moment and the greater tribulations to come will pass and the world will go on as it must. But, I fear, unless we attend to larger matters, it may go on without us.

Photo by Rémy Penet on Unsplash



Man is born free but everywhere he is in chains. So said Jean-Jacques Rousseau in the opening line of his book The Social Contract. Of course, he then goes on to propose a set of rules which constrain individual actions which we all agree to in order to live in a civil society.

Karl Marx didn’t merely turn Hegel on his head, he also tried to subvert Rousseau with the opening lines of The Communist Manifesto: Workers of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your chains. He argued that only when you became conscious of class oppression could you understand the necessity of change. Karl was big on necessity as the foundation of freedom.

 Wikipedia, the fount of all knowledge in the modern world, defines freedom “as either having the ability to act or change without constraint or to possess the power and resources to fulfill one’s purposes.” Check back tomorrow, it might have been edited to say something else. The freedom to edit is the very basis of Wikipedia.

Some argue that freedom belongs only to those who can seize it, with force if necessary. It is the law of the wild west—a fundamental myth of American life, which like all myths is mostly divorced from the truth. It did give us the axiom that no matter how fast you are with a gun, there is always someone faster (which carried far enough suggests the means for faster-than-light travel). In such a world only one person can ever be free, which makes everyone else what?

Others, like Nelson Mandela, argue that freedom is not merely casting off one’s chains but to live in a manner that respects and enhances the freedom of others. Freedom ends when it impinges on the freedom of others. That sounds like what the majority of Canadians would consider accurate. A free society is one that allows everyone as much freedom as possible but not all the freedom in the world.

Freedom without responsibility to me is mere license, the ability to do whatever you like no matter what the cost to others. License is only freedom to those who are unconstrained; to others, it can seem like brutal repression.

The other aspect of license that seems to appeal to so many is choice without consequence. Yet, many philosophers and rebels both would beg to disagree. Freedom is not the power to do as we like but to do as we ought. That is, freedom can only be understood and attained through moral action and the acceptance of personal responsibility for doing what we choose to do.

Of course, like most things in our lives, freedom is a social construct, one that is highly malleable and can be bent and twisted to serve anybody’s agenda. Wrapping yourself in freedom excuses the oppression practiced by racists, homophobes and misogynists. The trick for the rest of us is to see through the pretty shiny wrapping at the reality that lies beneath.

To return to Rousseau, we find a fatal flaw in his argument. Freedom did not predate the social contract but grew out of it. There is no state of nature where man existed as a solitary figure, totally free from constraint. Such feral creatures could never survive. If we are born free, it is only because we are born into a society that recognizes, encourages, supports and limits our freedom.

Anything else is nothing but a happy lie we use to justify our selfishness.

Photo by Hussain Badshah on Unsplash



Unity is either a glorious aspiration or a pretty illusion, depending on who you ask and how you define unity. Canadian and Canadian politicians are frequently obsessed with the idea and much of our history revolves around it.

The railway is the first myth of the “ties that bind.” The construction of a railway from coast to coast, culminating in the driving of the last spike is often portrayed as one of the great nation-building projects of our past. It was what first unified us, right?

It’s true that an east-west rail line was a condition of British Columbia entering into Confederation but the project itself predates 1867 and is mostly a tale of entrepreneurs and, sometimes, governments building lines here and there, either to make money or stimulate the economy. More often than not, the ventures ended in bankruptcy. The national railway consisted mostly of linking these failed projects together (at least where the gauges matched up) while millionaires schemed and corrupt politicians aided and abetted them. Never mind how it impacted indigenous communities and Chinese immigrants, it was good for those who counted at the time.

The resulting Pacific Scandal has lived on in Canadian lore. Every case of government malfeasance, big or small, has been called the greatest scandal since… well, you know the rest. One must find one’s symbols of unity where one can.

Of course, the question of national unity has infused every discussion of the relations between Quebec and the Rest of Canada (ROC) since at least the Quiet Revolution. Talk of Quebec separation is fairly quiescent now (only about 35% of Quebecers support it) as the two, like couples stuck in an unhappy but financially beneficial marriage, stay together because it is better than splitting up. The unity of economic desperation.

Let’s not forget the west. Every time things don’t go their way, a few folks in western Canada will immediately suggest they would be better off as a separate country or as part of the USA or at least in a more autonomous part of Canada. These movements have been more successful in spawning political parties (Progressives, CCF, Social Credit, Reform, etc.) then in actually fostering independence. Unity Through Division is a good way to go. Of course, most Westerners can’t quite agree on what is and is not part of the club (not Winnipeg or Vancouver, for crying out loud).

What do we mean by unity anyway? For centrists ( of the left or the right), unity means we all share the same basic values and we have no differences that can’t be resolved through reason and discussion. Well, except for massive income inequality spawned by the class divisions of a capitalist society or the persistent impact of racism and misogyny on all of us (though the burden on white males seems remarkably light).

The right has a different take on unity. Do what you’re told and we’ll all be one big happy family and if we catch you doing anything un-Canadian (whatever that means), well, there will be consequences! Anyone got the number of the Barbaric Practices snitchline?

The left is more nuanced (or is it more disunited?) in their definition. Unity is only achieved through inclusion. Everyone needs to feel that are part of something bigger while retaining every possible distinction in their personal life. It’s a different kind of happy family based on tolerance and acceptance. Well, except for those guys over there.

As usual, I’m being a bit cynical, there are lots of good people, with different views, who have every right to call themselves Canadian. We are united on so many things – love of hockey (never watch it), Tim Horton’s (can’t stand their coffee) and not being American (except for the dudes in Ottawa waving the USA and Confederate flags).

And we are also united in real ways, at least most of us are. We believe in the rule of law (if not always the police or the courts), we believe in helping our neighbours (even if they are sometimes annoying), we are united in having strong feelings about Toronto (and about vaccines). But no matter what the topic is, there will always be some who disagree and sometimes that minority means me and sometimes it means you.

Unity through shared dissatisfaction. Better than nothing I guess.

Photo by Riccardo Ginevri on Unsplash