Thursday, April 30, 2009

To Fear Flu or Not?

"Ordinary" flu kills thousands of people in North America every year. Yet some exotic flu killing very few can get massive attention.

I guess there are three possible scary things about a flu virus. It can be a new hybrid, so none of us has any antibodies against it; it can spread very quickly; and it can kill a high proportion of those who get sick.

The new swine flu or whatever qualifies on the first two grounds but not (so far) the third. The bird flu that Bush was scaring us about in 2003 qualifies on one and three, but not two. (It apparently hasn't adapted so as to infect human beings efficiently--but when it does, it kills about half its victims).

It seems to be taken for granted among experts that there will be a true dangerous pandemic one of these days, and when it happens, it's most likely to be flu.

Bush's Torture and Churchill

George W. Bush said in 2003: "Torture anywhere is an affront to human dignity everywhere." Nevertheless, he authorized torture in a somewhat undiscriminating fashion. Detainees were tortured before it was known whether they were even likely to have useful information. Some detainees had said a great deal without being tortured, and then were tortured in the hope that they would indicate a link between the 9/11 attacks and Saddam Hussein. There was no such link, and American leaders had good reason to know that. The American torturers learned their techniques from a school that taught how to resist Communist torture--torture that was primarily intended to elicit false, yet somehow plausible, confessions. Was there a point when senior American officials were trying, and knew they were trying, to elicit false confessions?

The old question: lying or clueless? Was there a point when Columbus realized he wasn't in Asia?

It seems to be widely understood that the use and non-use of torture separates liberal democracy from every other regime. That doesn't mean, of course, that liberal democracies never use it. Officials, even senior ones, may decide that the benefits outweigh the costs. The U.S. has trained torturers in Latin America over the years--partly, I think, in the belief that a liberal democracy was not coming to that area soon, so it was best to be just as nasty as the other guys, so as not to show weakness. If a country is fighting for its survival, or the survival of its constitution and way of life, I think sane people would make allowances that would not normally be made.

On 9/11 itself, surely no one knew whether more attacks were coming, or what they might be like. The Bushies speak as though they were so lacking in information, and so desperate for it, that they almost had to torture willy-nilly to find out anything. Their ignorance is presented as an excuse--as in the case of invading Iraq over WMDs. But actions that would otherwise be completely unacceptable do not become acceptable simply by proving that you were completely, almost unbelievably ignorant. It is also hard to believe--an insult to their intelligence with a small "i"--that they were as ignorant as they say--that their Intelligence with a big "I" was such a failure. Also I don't think it is merely easy hindsight to say that the 9/11 bombers never had the means to overthrow the government of the United States, kill or injure a high proportion of the population, or even immobilize a major city.

What did Churchill do when Britain really was at risk of losing her constitution and way of life? One story, which has apparently inspired President Obama, concerns one facility where the commanding officer refused to condone torture. Despite the fact that some prisoners refused to cooperate (and were hanged), this facility was known for the excellent information it generated. Another story concerns a facility in ritzy Kensington, in London, where torture was definitely used.

Perhaps what is most galling about the Bushies is their attempt to come up with a doctrine that excuses them, allows for extreme differences in circumstance, yet has the rigidity of moral dogma. "There was good reason to believe all the people being tortured were evil, even if we had very little idea of what they would tell us." Unlikely. "We don't really torture, because we're boy scouts." False. "OK, we torture, but we do it differently from everyone else because we're Boy Scouts." Unlikely.

Institutional torture probably generates and then multiplies a group of sadists in your midst. They are authorized to torture when information is not forthcoming. As long as there is still something inadequate about the information, the authorization to torture stands. All sense that a human being deserves to be treated like a human being gives way.

Strauss said that Beccaria's recommendation to abolish capital punishment was contrary to the letter of Hobbes, but faithful to his spirit. The whole purpose of liberal government is to protect the bodies and property of ordinary human beings--to recognize the dignity in these material things, or even invest them with dignity. Without denying there is a soul, liberals are somewhat sceptical as to whether the soul can easily be separated from the body. Hobbes actually makes the point that is now often repeated, that a tortured person will say, not something true, but something that is calculated to stop the torture. In a way Hobbes exaggerates the case against torture because he simply doesn't think anyone should be treated that way. (He thinks ordinary people won't consent--won't authorize the sovereign representative which is modern government--unless they have some confidence that they won't be treated that way).

Of course there are people who show themselves to be so dangerous, they remove themselves from the protection of the state. The Bushies are correct that pirates and "armed combatants" have different status than soldiers. Even here, I would think there is a stronger case for summary execution than for either incarceration or, above all, torture.

Here is Churchill on his own fate as prisoner of war--he had recently changed from being a soldier to being a journalist, but he was, as we would say, "embedded" with British forces in South Africa.

I had enough military law to know that a civilian in a half uniform who has taken an active and prominent part in a fight, even if he has not fired a shot himself, is liable to be shot at once by drumhead courtmartial. None of the armies in the Great War would have wasted ten minutes upon the business. I therefore stood solitary in the downpour .... After about a quarter of an hour ... I was much relieved when ... I was curtly told to rejoin the others.... I need really never have been alarmed. The Boers were the most humane people where white men were concerned. Kaffirs were a different story....

Not Young and Not Beautiful

At least in this photo, I don't look quite like I'm going to die.

I struggled with one or both sleeves for about half the race.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Bob Hartwell Challenge Results


Runner #93, under one hour and 54 minutes. I'm very pleased. If I were to keep up that pace and do a whole marathon in 2010, I could qualify for the Boston Marathon just after my birthday in 2011.

The training paid off. I kept up a faster pace than when I did the Zoo Run 10K in October, for more than twice the distance. The course was a bit hilly--I think this scared some people off. Cool and rainy--on the whole these are good conditions for a run.

222 finishers in the half marathon run, 308 in the 5K, 48 in the half marathon relay, 32 in the half marathon walk. Less than 650 people in all. After the bunching up at the start, there was always room to run. The course was out and back, so we encountered the leaders as we approached the half way point. Plenty of runners overcame walkers, so that sometimes made for slight crowding.

UPDATE: It was a pleasant surprise to see Nicole from the Learn to Run group I recently led, working as a volunteer at about the half-way point on the run. The volunteers surely felt the rain and chilly temps more, in a way, than we runners did. Also Keith, somewhat of a wounded warrior in the local running community, working as a volunteer near the end of the route.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Show Time Tomorrow

I've picked up my race kit for the Bob Hartwell Challenge tomorrow. Bob was a 54-year-old who died of a heart attack while running the Boston Marathon. I just turned 53, and I'm about to run my first half marathon. I never met Bob, but I feel that spiritually, he and I are two peas in a pod--almost brothers. Possibly even life-long friends.

I did just a little 3K yesterday evening. Felt a bit stiff, but on the whole I think I've trained both hard and smart. Goal: I'll be disappointed to be slower than two hours; 1:53 would be fantastic. 1:55 might be more realistic.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Stephen Harper Thinking of Quitting?

I owe my recent thinking on this to Chantal Hebert in the Toronto Star.

Harper's situation is in no way what he bargained for--even as recently as the Fall 2008 campaign. Despite showering Quebec with literally billions of dollars, he didn't win the seats there that he needed for a majority--falling only about a dozen seats short. Then Harper pulled a stupid stunt, galvanizing the opposition parties, and practically forced the Liberals to replace the hapless Dion as leader with Michael Ignatieff, who seems to be performing very well. (One of Harper's smarter moves was getting the House of Commons to vote yes to the proposition that "the Quebecois are a nation." Who is included in "Quebecois" was left deliberately ambiguous, yet the Bloc Quebecois had little choice but to vote yes. Apparently Ignatieff deserves a lot of the credit for suggesting this master stroke). Polls show the Liberals leading everywhere except Alberta. There are probably few observers who believe Harper will ever win a majority. If he couldn't form a majority running against Dion, he can't form one, period.

Harper himself is certainly smart enough to know that the Reform Party from which he sprang was to the right of most Canadians. He has promised not to take any action on abortion or gay marriage, and now he is spending like a drunken sailor. The Mulroney situation, which might seem to come down from a very distant past, haunts him. There are still some former Progressive Conservatives around who think Mulroney deserves to be treated with great respect as a conservative leader: after all, he won two majorities, and Harper has yet to win one. On the other hand, the Reform Party partly came into existence out of hatred of Mulroney.

The Khadr case is a reminder of when Harper was a knee-jerk supporter of George W. Bush and all his wars. That position probably always sat a bit oddly with a lot of Canadians, even when Bush was popular in the U.S., and now the situation is completely changed. There is a backlash against the Bush torture and detention policies, even in the U.S. Khadr is a Canadian citizen. Why exactly can't he just be brought back here for a trial? Harper cut his teeth politically on the position that everything American was better than everything Canadian. As Frank magazine used to paraphrase the National Post: Canada sucks. Harper, despite his considerable intelligence, is crippled in trying to inspire Canadians by his own convictions, especially those he has defended forcefully and publicly in the past. He also hurts himself by doing stupid things during his angry periods.

Why shouldn't Harper just split, rather than face another election even more humiliating than the last? Sure, he would probably screw his party, but he might just say that's life.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Pride and Prejudice

We were in Edmonton for my mother-in-law's memorial service. We helped with cleaning up her last apartment, and we got a few items. I got a fairly nice old edition of Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice, so naturally I re-read it.

Things that struck me this time: the characters appear to be Christians. This is not always the case in her novels, and Chesterton said Austen displays what can only be called atheism. In one novel a character reports that there was formerly a chapel or something right in the master's house, with some kind of daily observance, but that had all been replaced with weekly church attendance. Another character says something like: "every generation has its improvements." Here Mr. Darcy goes to church (it may be taken for granted in all the novels that respectable people do at least this much), Mr. Bennett talks about Christian forgiveness, and Elizabeth teases Wickham, who turns out to be no good, about whether he would like giving sermons if he got the "living" (including a job as priest) that he says he wants. The message delivered in sermons seems to have at least some overlap with Austen's message about morality.

One sentence I really don't understand. Elizabeth meets Darcy's cousin, Colonel Fitzwilliam, and has a chance to compare this man to Darcy. Chapter 32 ends this way:

[The Colonel] was, beyond comparison the pleasantest man; he certainly admired her, and his situation in life was most eligible; but to counterbalance these advantages, Mr. Darcy had considerable patronage in the church, and his cousin could have none at all.

Elizabeth's striking remark to her sister Jane in Chapter 24: "There are few people whom I really love, and still fewer of whom I think well. The more I see of the world, the more am I dissatisfied with it: and every day confirms my belief of the inconsistency of all human characters, and of the little dependence that can be placed on the appearance of either merit or sense."

Chapter 43, Elizabeth along with her aunt and uncle are able to tour Mr. Darcy's estate. The housekeeper has effusive praise for Mr. Darcy. Elizabeth reflects: "What praise is more valuable than the praise of an intelligent servant?" It is with servants, I suppose, that one can be vicious with a kind of secrecy or confidentiality--or so it seems. The virtue of the oligarchic man in Plato's Republic is exercised only when he is being watched.

My Edmonton

My wife and I last lived in Edmonton in 1980. We had a year in Ontario in 1978-79, we were back in Edmonton for a year after that, and we've been away since then. For some time we travelled back at least once a year, often with financial assistance from parents. (I was the perennial student, perhaps evoking some sympathy). I think we were both back for Christmas 1987, with my wife pregnant with our first child. I think we kept assuming that we'd be back at least once a year, that people and places would be familiar and we would just need a little updating.

If I'm right, we weren't back again until my father-in-law's memorial service in the fall of 1990 (I held our second child, who was a few months old). I went back on my own for my father's memorial service in 1995, and I went again in 2005 partly to celebrate my niece's graduation from high school. My wife and son joined me on a trip in 2007--the first time they were there since 1990.

Part of the reason for absence was that we lived so far away: Toronto, Minnesota, New Brunswick, the Toronto area again. Our daughter was severely handicapped, and we were usually her main caregivers. (She died in 2004). Our income was limited, etc. Still, it's a bit of a shock to me to go back (I still want to say home) and think and feel that I wanted to be more a part of the lives of people there than I have been.

We owe a lot to my mother for paying for family reunions on my side in 1996, 1998, and 2000. It was great to see my brothers and their families, and these were about the only vacations my wife and I had in those years. There were no similar gatherings on my wife's side, nor among friends in Edmonton.

My race day approaches, and I got some runs in the beautiful river valley in Edmonton. I think this shot shows part of the McKinnon Ravine, leading from the bottom of Government Hill, at the north end of Groat Bridge, more or less straight west. In the 1970s there were those who wanted to build a freeway through here to connect the west end to downtown. I had a job with a community newspaper that allowed me to interview members of City Council along with other local notables. One councillor showed me plans for the freeway with great pride.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Warrior and Thinker

This is partly in recognition of seeing Heidi Studer yesterday, for the first time in many years, and partly because my son is reading the Iliad and talking to me about it as we walk to the bus in the morning. (He is finishing up a co-op job in Toronto; as Heidi said, it doesn't get much better than that). I'm going largely from memory.

Homer's Iliad and Odyssey are two masterpieces focused on two different individuals: Achilles and Odysseus. Both are highly intelligent warriors and leaders in the Greek cause. Both are "gentlemen" in the sense of Aristotle's Ethics. Yet they are different: Achilles is more the warrior, more inclined to action and less to deliberation; Odysseus is more the intellectual.

It is possible that Homer simply presents us with two alternatives, similar but different, in order to suggest or reinforce the suggestion that both are admirable. Perhaps it is a sign of the success or spendour of the Greeks compared to other people known to Homer that both Achilles and Odysseus were, so to speak, produced among them. The Trojans, although basically worthy opponents, and somehow partly Greek, do not have great individuals comparable to Achilles and Odysseus.

Another possibility is that there is a development or ascent. The Odyssey clearly comes after the Iliad in chronology--the events of the Iliad take place with the war at Troy still underway, those of the Odyssey center on Odysseus' long journey home after the war. Odysseus is somewhat obscure in the Iliad, before becoming the hero of the Odyssey. Achilles becomes more like Odysseus over time. In the Iliad, at a moment my son recently discovered, Achilles is practically begged by the other Greek leaders to set aside his dispute over honour, and join the fight. (Everyone assumes rightly that his participation in the fighting will be decisive). Achilles says this appeal to him really depends on the whole notion of being willing to sacrifice one's life for a great or noble cause, or simply for the honour for which he has been contending in his deliberate decision not to fight. As if for the first time, he questions whether this promptness to sacrifice oneself, even if noble, really makes sense. At this point he may be rationalizing for his continued abstention from the fight (it is a personal matter of friendship or love that finally draws him in). But in the Odyssey, Odysseus encounters Achilles in Hades, and the latter famously says that now that he has experienced the afterlife, he knows that he would rather be a serf on earth than a king in Hades. The whole quest for honour, or the life of service to the noble, now apparently seems futile to him compared to living a modest life, as long as possible, on earth.

Odysseus, in a funny way, personifies the desire to live a long comfortable life on earth. His service in Troy is apparently required by his position as king--it would have been very difficult to avoid. He does his best to get Achilles to bring the fight to an end--he is in no hurry to fight at the head of the troops himself. And although he performs bravely as well as cleverly in his adventures, he does not seek any of them, and it is clear in fact that his main desire is to get home to his wife and comfort. Odysseus is practically bourgeois compared to Achilles, and like the bourgeois, he is rational in a powerful if not particularly noble way. In the Iliad, with the tremendous fighting going on and the gods themselves apparently regarding the war as the greatest thing ever--something in which one must long to participate--Odysseus can appear slightly ridiculous, like Sancho Panzo to Achilles' Don Quixote. Yet over the course of the two works, the cooler and more rational life arguably emerges as the superior one. Among other things, it may be more coherent: is Achilles fighting for girlfriends and boyfriends, for his home country, for all the Greeks, for the disembodied honourable or noble, or what? For another thing, rationality may be something we can make progress in. We may even figure out how to shorten wars, or how to limit the damage they cause, or how to prevent them. This brings to mind the bourgeois again.

If I am right in all this, Homer is waiting for a hero like Socrates who questions the nobility of all lives other than his own, and at least implicitly debunks them. If Nietzsche is right that Western rationalism has culminated in nihilism, and the seed of nihilism is sown by Socrates, more or less at the beginning, then Homer may be among the plants that give rise to the seed (sorry for the horrible figure of speech).

Seeing Heidi reminded me of the whole company and phenomenon of students of Leon Craig at the University of Alberta. Leon, like all the so-called Straussians, came to emphasize the teaching of the great books as the fundamental approach to political philosophy and political science. He added some personal points of emphasis of his own, delivered to students in carefully crafted lectures. Heidi was one of his closest students, if not the closest, and later became his colleague. He and Heidi have both been literally inspirations to many students, and Heidi updated me on how many former students at Alberta are now teaching in the U.S. She said something like: if any prof in political science at Alberta has ever had an international reputation, it is Leon. What has inspired students? This is obviously hard to say, but a demonstration of personal passion is certainly part of it.

Going way beyond anything I could prove, I would venture to say Leon and Heidi know that Western rationalism "as read," as known to thoughtful observers, corresponds at least roughly to what Nietzsche says: the end has been nihilism, and that end was at least somewhat anticipated in Socrates. They want to say to students, and they obviously have some success in delivering this message, that the end need not be nihilism, that there is real hope of restoring or re-discovering natural right.

How this compares to Leo Strauss himself, who certainly inspired students in his day, I'm not sure. From what I gather, he had a kind of cheerfulness about him, as opposed to a zealot's conviction that righteousness lay ahead. His actual published sentences about natural right are famously cryptic and deliberately comic. He agreed with Nietzsche to the extent of saying the West has come to a crisis, the crisis has been driven largely by great books and great thinkers, and presumably there is not likely to be a resolution or improvement without new and different great books. Leon as I recall came to use Nietzsche to interpret Plato, rather than the other way around, and I'm not sure Strauss did that. And at a fairly simple level, Leon has argued that the warrior and the philosopher are not far apart in Plato's Republic or in Nietzsche. Their closeness is somehow related to Leon's hopefulness about natural right.

I'm in way over my head, but having written this, I may be able to come back to it some day.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Thought for the Day

There are far more talkers than listeners, more bloggers than readers, more modern poets than poetry readers, perhaps more writers than readers period.

One can see this with parents talking about their kids. They can barely let other parents have a turn before they start on their own kids again.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Edmonton Capitals on Edmonton

Edmonton used to have a AAA baseball team in the Pacific Coast League (the Trappers); more recently they've had a team in an independent league called the Cracker Cats; now they have the Capitals.

On their website, the Capitals say:

Edmonton’s Golden Baseball League franchise is proud to introduce the Edmonton Capitals as the team’s new name. The new moniker pays homage to Alberta’s capital and reflects qualities of wealth, prominence and many redeeming qualities that makes the City of Edmonton one of the best cities in the world.

The authors don't seem to realize that you would bring up a city's "redeeming" qualities only when you are all too aware of its shortcomings. This is hardly the boosterism you would expect from the very first page of a newly christened team's website.

Coincidentally, I am in Edmonton for a week or so. A sad occasion--the death of my mother-in-law, who was 90. But also a chance for some visiting, and looking around. I often think I miss Edmonton, and would like to live here again (as I have not done in almost 30 years). But then I wonder.

The Capitals should have a beautiful park to play in, now called Telus Field. Set down in the river valley, by far the city's best feature, you can sit in the stands and be unaware you are in a city. I like running in the valley, I even like the scruffy charm of the parts of Edmonton that are, well, scruffy. But of course, as my wife says, the winters are just too long and cold.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Modern procedures

I think this is pretty well definitive on whether anything more could have been done to prevent Natasha Richardson's death. (Thanks to Getting Closer to Myself/Grand Rounds). Yes, delays caused by her own decisions, by the remoteness of the resort, and by the lack of air ambulance, played a role. But this doctor says: someone should have drilled a hole in her head. Certainly after the CT scan at a local hospital, but probably even before.

The fact that this was not done--the fact that it is unthinkable now without more tests being done--is common to the U.S., Canada and other Western countries. More "primitive" doctors, in more primitive settings, would have been more likely to just go ahead and do it.

In fact, this may be the oldest known medical procedure. Yet a rich celebrity in the modern world was deprived of it.

Wrong Again?

This piece by Jacob Weisberg in Slate stays with the Freeman Dyson theme to a certain extent, but it might also be a chapter in a book called "The Boomers are Always Wrong About Everything."

Two key points: climate change, if it is occurring (and it surely will sooner or later) might not be catastrophic; and we might not be running out of fossil fuels (with a favourable reference to Thomas Gold).

Monday, April 6, 2009

Green Products Causing Infections?

One reason hospitals face a growing problem of infections that spread within the hospital itself: the use of green products. There is something funny about this:

Like many other well-meaning institutions, most hospitals are increasingly using "green" products, which are not as efficient as the traditional ones in combatting bacteria and viruses. The problem has reached such proportions - 70 per cent of Quebec's hospitals now use ecological cleaning products - that the province's Ministry of Health recently felt obliged to issue a warning calling for extra vigilance about the kind of products hospitals use. Typically, those labelled "ecological" are often milder - and thus less prone to kill infectious agents.

"This trend toward green products is not without risk," says Richard Marchand, a microbiologist and member of a government committee that monitors hygiene and safety standards in Quebec's hospitals. He says that, since the industry escapes regulation, some products are diluted by the manufacturer and, once delivered to hospitals, diluted again by infection-control staff eager to save money - just as cheap beauty salons do with hair shampoo. The difference is, while a low-quality shampoo has no other consequence than a bad hairdo, overdiluted cleaning products in hospitals are inactive and can lead to an increase in nosocomial infections such as Clostridium difficile, a superbug that can kill older and weaker patients and attack the immune systems of younger and healthier patients.

April Flurries

Blue Jays home opener, 1977: snow.

Blue Jays home opener, 2009: snow.

Thirty years of Global Warming, and all we get is more snow.

Al? Al? Oh Al?

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Population and Wealth

Matthew Yglesias is still on my list of must-read blogs--whereas several others have fallen off. On global warming I am convinced he has simply drunk the Kool-Aid, but he has lots of bright and well-informed things to say.

In recent days he has posted a few times on the issue of population and wealth. Why do we tend to take for granted that more people is good, fewer people is bad? Isn't having fewer people a way to ensure more wealth per person? Some of the anti-immigration people, including Steyn and others at National Review, stir up worries about the loss of "our way of life," and being taken over not only by foreign others but by "their way of life." This is to be feared, it seems, especially if the way of life happens to be Muslim. This generally has some racist clap-trap mixed in with it. Of course it will be hard for modern society to accommodate anyone who absolutely refuses to become modern, but there is no evidence that whole groups such as Moslems, and even more (mostly) non-Moslems like South Asians or Chinese, will bring some crazy non-modern way of life with them. The great novel The Children of Men presents the horror of a British population which has ceased to produce children altogether, but another part of the horror (emphasized in the movie) is foreigners in refugee camps, fighting to get in to this land of plentiful resources, but very few people. Why not let them in?

So Yglesias raises good questions. If Western countries, Russia and Japan all go into population decline, what is bad about this? He admits that in post-Malthusian or modern economies, it is no longer true that a suddenly growing population basically means dividing the same pie into smaller pieces, and hence poverty. A growing population can also enjoy a growing pie--Yglesias doesn't quite say, because of capitalism. But he says that in pre-modern societies, Malthus was right: population would grow,causing a lot of poverty, until something happened to kill a lot of people, like war or plague, at which point the survivors would be richer. Growing population bad, shrinking population good. Today, this is at least partly reversed: growing population is not necessarily bad. However, even if it's true that a growing population need not cause poverty today, does it follow that a declining population is bad?

Modern political philosophers, especially those anticipating or recommending capitalism, suggest that a growing population, other things equal, is a sign of success, and a source of pride, but as Malthus and Yglesias suggest, it only remains good if there is an economy to support it. To embrace capitalism was to embrace the possibility that a growing population might always, or almost always, be greeted as an unmixed blessing. All pre-capitalist societies, by comparison, are doomed to subsistence.

The ancient political philosophers recommend that good or decent cities remain small, and they discourage anything that resembles capitalism because of its limiting effect on the soul. Real-life ancient communities probably thought, without thinking ahead very much, that a growing population meant your city was successful. Locke tweaks the churches of his day by reminding readers of the injunction "Go Forth and Multiply," while also suggesting that the rules imposed by Christian leaders doomed the multiplying people to poverty. (A similar thought, of course, is expressed in the famous "Every Sperm is Sacred" scene in Monty Python's The Meaning of Life). Only capitalism, as it were, which probably routinely encourages a deadly sin or two, allows us to fulfill the Biblical injunction in the confidence that more population is good, not bad.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

The old Stalinist

I have to laugh at Rick Salutin, the old Stalinist at the Globe and Mail. When the much-lamented Frank magazine was in business, they used to claim that Salutin was the highest-paid columnist for that paper. If so, he is some kind of must-read for Globe readers--those doing well in business (or, as Peter Naglik used to say, stockbrokers who love the theatre).

In a way, the idea that successful business people feel compelled to read Salutin supports his point here. As long as Communism existed as a real possibility and hence a threat, he suggests, it was possible to make capitalists give up some ground, concede something to ordinary working people.

He repeats reports that capitalists "up in the towers" were betting on how many anti-capitalist demonstrators at the G20 meetings would get injured or killed.

How do you rattle that kind of complacency? I'll tell you: by having an alternative out there in the real world to their gluttonous, failing, yet still smug capitalist system. Of course they're smug. They're the only option available.

Another model existed during the last global depression, in the 1930s. The Soviet Union was socialist and the bloom wasn't yet off that rose. Visitors from the West often returned with accounts of how well it worked. That shook up enough powerful people to help make the New Deal possible.

Today, he says, there is no real alternative to capitalism, so even in the face of the manifest failure of capitalism, obvious to everyone, the same people basically remain in charge. "The guys in the towers can weather almost any degree of common sense with a mixture of denial, mild reform and, above all, patience. They'll even try a dash of socialism now, as long as it doesn't involve any socialists."

So: capitalism with a substantial degree of welfare state is better than capitalism without. The only way the welfare state comes about is when the capitalists are afraid of a real alternative, such as being "tried and executed for 'economic crimes' - a rare feature of Soviet communism that one can actually feel nostalgic for."

As far as it goes, this may be true. Certainly capitalists have never given up without a fight, and the history of the trade union movement alone shows that blood had to be shed before many owners would share profits with workers. What's troubling or funny, however, is that Salutin uses all this to support at least some degree of nostalgia for actual, the-way-it-always-was-in-this-world communism, as opposed to the classroom kind.

He has come some distance since 1989. He now suggests that bright Westerners could no longer defend Stalin once "the bloom came off the rose"--that is, actual information was forthcoming about the way Stalin made continuous war on his own people--and not only relatively rich people committing "economic crimes." Stalin came to realize what all actual Communist governments come to realize: there are no actual examples of "socialist man" alive--or at least, very few. Extreme violence is necessary, and it turns out that violence against the rich and powerful is by no means sufficient, to even make a serious beginning at bringing about socialist man. Capitalists may break strikes if they can, but their more usual crime, if crime it is, is to keep and enjoy their profits in a kind of normal indifference to the fate of their fellow man. Experience shows that this indifference is a Sunday school picnic compared to organized state terror, with the guns turned on virtually everyone, under Communism.

Socrates' proposals for communism in Plato's Republic are serious insofar as they show how far most of us have to go to live like him, but they are a kind of high-spirited, philosophic, typically classical Greek fun as political proposals. If the problems are serious enough to call for Socrates' drastic solutions, then they are too serious for those same solutions to work,as Socrates confirms by moving beyond one stage of impossibly radical solutions to another stage of still more radical ones. Finally he admits that only the philosopher is sufficiently free of the usual desires and ambitions to rule justly, and since this lack of "negative" desires is in no way compensated by a "positive" desire to serve his fellow citizens, he admits that he can't think of any reason why a philosopher would actually want to rule.

Salutin knows that every actual Communist government, while piously protesting their love of the poor, as if it should only be a greedy minority that they have to shoot, has always ended up, and in a remarkably short time, making a relentless brutal war on the people as a whole. It is difficult to read the hearts and minds of monsters such as Stalin and Pol Pot, but they were forced to commit this mass slaughter, far beyond the Protestant vs. Catholic wars, the Inquisition, or the Crusades, precisely if they meant well, i.e. they were more or less seriously trying to bring about socialist man, instead of the pathetic creatures they saw in front of them.

Nostalgia about people being executed for "economic crimes"? I recently read a book called The Concubine's Children, by Denise Chong, which tells of a Chinese man who lived in Canada for years, sending both his own and his concubine's (menial) earnings back to China, where he eventually accumulated some land and built a house. Because he was relatively rich for a peasant, the Communists eventually gave him some kind of trial for "economic crimes," took his land, moved someone else into half of the house, and encouraged other peasants to ostracize and humiliate this man's family in every way possible. Salutin is giving voice to the last remnant of Stalinism, and he reveals that it was always largely about what Thatcher called "the politics of envy."

Friday, April 3, 2009

Airport Security

The Minister who is supposed to be responsible for Canada's airports finds out there are problems with security at Pearson in Toronto--our biggest.

It's a lot easier to hassle passengers, who expect to have severely limited access to the airport facility, than staff, who by definition have much wider access. Locked doors are an inconvenience, etc., and genuine security checks on new hires, and on people with access to planes and cargo, are very expensive.

The whole range of air cargo shipments are simply less secure than passenger travel.

The Obama Administration and Canada

Thank you, Mickey Kaus:

Pointing out that Homeland Security secretary Janet Napolitano has made the sort of mindless PC-trumps-common sense statement that gives Democrats a bad name--calling for "parity" in security on the Mexican and Canadian borders:
"We shouldn't go light on one and heavy on the other," she said of the Canadian and Mexican borders.
"This is one NAFTA, one area, one continent, and there should be parity there."
That's because of the vicious Canadian drug gangs now threatening to take over Vancouver. ... Or is it bootleg CuddleCore CDs?

Thursday, April 2, 2009


This weekend is three weeks out from my half-marathon race day. The training is paying off--I can feel myself getting stronger--but it is also getting more intense, so I'm feeling some sore muscles.

Last Saturday I did 16K for the second week in a row, and took an ice bath afterward. Only my fourth or fifth ice bath. I think it really helped--I felt fine Tuesday and Wednesday evening, in contrast to the week before. Six hills Tuesday, and then 6K tempo or fairly fast run last night. Today, muscles sore, I was scheduled for 8K steady, but I did a bit less than that. Lots of stretching, and another ice bath.

This weekend: 18K. The following weekend 21K, the actual race distance. The weekend before race day, a glorious taper down to 6K. This coming week and the following week, pretty much my usual runs, but the six days before race day, maybe one 10K at race pace, and not much more. I look forward to taper week like an oasis in the desert.

One wrinkle is that I'll be in Edmonton for a week. My mother-in-law passed away at the age of 90. My wife and I are going for a memorial service, and to help dispose of things. So my 21K training run,and some other pretty intense runs, will actually be there. A nice spot to run when it's not winter.

The runner's dilemma: don't overdo training, since it will be very frustrating to be injured in such a way as to be slowed down, or unable to race, or even to run. On the other hand, you will probably have a time goal, so don't undertrain and miss your target.