Fire Him, America.

Many of those who voted for Donald Trump in 2016 did so because he was a “successful businessman”, and because they felt it would be good to have somebody in the White House who would “run America like a business”.

Let’s put that sucker to the test.

Say you hired Donald Trump as general manager of your business four years ago. During those four years, he:

— Alienated other companies with whom your company had good relationships.

— Was presented with credible evidence of corporate espionage within your company, and did nothing about it. He even denied it was happening.

— Made foolish and impulsive decisions that cost the company money and sank it further into debt.

— Hired department heads on the basis of their competence, and then suddenly declared them incompetent when they fell out of favour with him for refusing to cater to his worst impulses.

— Refused to implement the necessary steps to deal with a computer virus which infected the company’s network and brought it to its knees. He insisted that the IT department were against him and were trying to make him look bad. Oh, but he did block emails from China, and declared that a victory.

— Promoted division of the company staff into two warring factions who now have daily shouting matches in the cafeteria. (Oh yes, and one of those warring factions was just caught trying to kidnap one of the department heads he doesn’t like. And he seems okay with that.)

And, he:

— Thinks all of this makes him look tough, decisive, and competent.

But yeah, while he was general manager, your company’s stock price happened to go up.

You tell me: would you keep that guy on? Of course you wouldn’t. You would fire him.

Fire him, America.

Confidence Is Not High: RBG, America, Canada, and the EU

First off, full disclosure.  I’m Canadian.  I’m not a historian, beyond the undergraduate level anyway.  However, I’m certainly a lifelong student of history, particularly of the past hundred years.  With that in mind, hopefully you’ll forgive my presumption in voicing my views.

US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died on September 18, 2020 at the age of 87.  I’ll put aside hagiography and observe simply that, whatever flawed decisions she may have made in her time on the bench, she did much to advance the rights of women in the United States.  That’s a legacy that cannot be ignored and should be recognized and remembered.  But there are bigger fish to fry.

With her passing, only fifty-odd days before the most consequential presidential election in postwar American history, the future of America and – no exaggeration – the world is even more uncertain than it was only a day earlier.

With Justice Ginsburg’s passing, Republicans have made it clear that they are ditching the “principled” stance they took not quite four years ago when they refused to even grant a hearing to President Obama’s very middle-of-the-road Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland.  (If there was one moment during his presidency that probably caused the calm, cool, collected Barrack Obama to shout “those [expletive deleted]s” behind closed doors, it was probably that one.)  They will swiftly appoint a replacement who is all but guaranteed to resolve any disputes over the inevitably contested results of the upcoming presidential election in the Republicans’ favour. 

If that happens, Donald Trump will probably be president for another four years.  And if the Republicans manage to keep the Presidency and their Senate majority, they will use the next four years to cement their control over the United States.  Which means that the brand of authoritarian nationalism taking root in America will probably continue long after Trump leaves (?) the Presidency in 2025.   

Trump and the Republicans are going to do nothing to combat climate change, and they will probably make it worse.  We know this because Trump has told us as much, through his statements and actions.  Nor will his spawn, if one of them succeeds him.  The rest of us, living through (according to the best scientific understanding we have right now) this most critical decade in the history of human civilization, that decade in which we either have to turn back the clock or hope that we figure out a bunch of amazing science stuff really quickly, well…. we just plain straight up don’t have time for that crap.  But with another four years of Trump, that crap is what we’ll get.

The gulf between rich and poor in America will grow, caused in sizeable measure by the steadier and steadier erosion of America’s farmland as climate change worsens and results in another dust bowl across much of the American Midwest, only permanent this time – this ain’t your great-granddaddy’s dust bowl of the Thirties, kids.  Such deleterious effects are always visited disproportionately on the poor, in this case in the form of massive job loss and probably creeping starvation in America.*  A permanent Republican authoritarian government won’t readily send food aid to the starving or chronically underfed, because that’s socialism or a disincentive to work or some other Ayn Rand-derived rubbish.

Whichever particular authoritarian nationalists happen to be occupying the Oval Office over the next few decades under this scenario, they’re probably going to be progressively more authoritarian and nationalist than the present wannabe authoritarian nationalist in the Oval Office, because authoritarian nationalists don’t tend to cede control (except on rare occasions when left with no other choice).  And authoritarian nationalists will always need enemies, and will always find them.  So an authoritarian nationalist American government will first suppress its enemies at home, because they can’t exactly exert power credibly on the world stage if their own house is a mess, can they? 

Well, they probably can’t. 

I mean, they could probably still threaten a significantly smaller, much less powerful neighbour while in that condition.  Like, say….

Oh.  Oh Canada.… hoo boy.  Okay.  Canada.

Second largest land mass on earth.  Almost every strategic resource there is, especially as escalating climate change melts our Arctic permafrost (causing it to start spewing out its trapped methane, which is a far more potent greenhouse gas than boring old CO2).  Not to mention that while all that is happening, there’s going to be even more arable farmland and accessible strategic resources in Canada due to said melting permafrost.  In big, sprawling Canada.  With our puny population of 37 million people just across the world’s longest undefended border from a nation of 328 million people led by an authoritarian nationalist government in need of farmland, strategic resources, and a foreign enemy to triumph over.

“Nations have no permanent friends or enemies.  Only interests.” — Henry John Temple, UK Prime Minister, 1855-1858, 1859-1865

Any professional or amateur student of history, or even any vaguely informed observer of it, has probably noticed a clear pattern: authoritarian nationalist governments get tired rather quickly of asking nicely for things they need or want. 

It’s also worth pointing out that, in addition to increasingly nationalist authoritarian America and her 328 million people, there’s also nationalist authoritarian China (1.37 billion people, massive military) just across the Pacific from us, and nationalist authoritarian Russia (146 million people, historically pretty good at war) just over the North Pole from us.  All three have nuclear weapons.  Yep…. Canada is surrounded by actual or soon-to-be nationalist authoritarian superpowers.  That fact is inescapable.  A quick glance at a map of eastern Europe circa August 31, 1939 indicates what a rotten position that is to be in. And based on the above map of the world in 2050 after a measly four degrees of warming, we have what two of the three are going to lack, want and need.

It seems like no exaggeration to suggest that Canada faces a looming crisis, not only of security, but of existence.  But the solution to this crisis is, in my humble view, simply stated:

Canada needs to start campaigning to join the EU.  Immediately.

(Yes, yes, I know, Canada’s not in Europe.  But neither is EU member Cyprus.  Greenland has been suggested as a possible future member (admittedly, they’re already part of Denmark, though autonomous), and they’re not technically in Europe either.  So it’s largely a spurious objection, and quickly overcome.  It can be renamed the North Atlantic Union or something.  Or not.  Labels aren’t important.  Let’s stay focused here.)

The EU is a superpower in its own right.  It already has 447 million people – almost as many as America and Russia combined.  It has massive multinational industries and banks with global influence.  It has 1.4 million active military personnel and 2.3 million reserve personnel.  It has large domestic armaments industries.  It has a nuclear deterrent and SLBMs to deliver it.  And their people hold a lot of the same views as we Canadians in terms of how a healthy and just society should function.  We have far more in common with them than we do with America.  (Common language?  Well, to a large extent no, but most European kids learn English nowadays anyway.  And we can learn their languages.)

Canada is imperfect, absolutely.  And we’re too self-righteous for our own good, or anybody else’s.  But notwithstanding, these are the facts: we have 37 million people, more than all but the largest 5-6 EU nations. We have a GDP larger than all but four of them.  That’s a lot of potential money from Canada in EU contributions.  We’re an industrialized democracy with existing infrastructure, a remarkably stable system of government, and a non-politicized judiciary.  We have decent schools and excellent universities.  We have vast rich farmland and strategic resources that Europe will need.  Europe is experiencing a steady stream of immigration from the less advantaged parts of the world, and Canada has room for more people – many more people.  (And we’re going to need those people, too.) In short, we have a lot to bring to the table.

Not to mention that, by all indications, the Trump administration now views the UK-less Europe as a rival.  (This is a moment at which it’s okay to feel a tiny bit sorry for Boris Johnson: that guy is so screwed right now and he’s too blind to see it.  He’s Britain’s very own Mussolini-in-the-making, except with hair. And we know how that eventually worked out.)  But even if what I’ve written still seems a tad alarmist at this point, since you’ve gotten this far, consider this: how much would it really take for a nationalist authoritarian America in need of strategic resources and arable land (which I’ll call “lebensraum” – you know, for fun) to fairly quickly come to see Canada as a potential conquest/colony?  They’ve done it before on the other side of the world in the last two decades, when they were still sort-of a functioning democracy. And it scarcely needs pointing out that powerful nationalist authoritarian countries don’t generally do their conquering/colonizing by peaceful or friendly means.  We need only look at the last hundred years to know that.

In the coming decades, tens of millions of climate refugees are going to stream northwards.  Justice, compassion and humanity require that we Canadians, with our vast land mass and abundant resources, extend a hand to these unfortunate millions, and welcome them.  But it’s critically important that we be able to do so on our own terms, not at the dictates of said powerful nationalist authoritarian regimes. 

Nationalism is ultimately a primitive, outdated, destructive concept, and it needs to be put in the ground if humanity is to eventually build a better, fairer, kinder, more equitable and more peaceful world.  But in Canada’s specific case, it must be sacrificed for the sake of survival.  And if our national sovereignty must be sacrificed, then it should be sacrificed for a union with people in other countries who share our relatively enlightened social and political values.  We need the EU, and the EU needs us.  And in this troubled world, balanced as we are right now on a the edge of a knife, there’s no more time for childish nationalism.  It is time for Canada to embrace collective security as the basis for our foreign policy, and to do so expeditiously while our powerful and increasingly authoritarian nationalist neighbour to the south still has some vestigial semblance of checks and balances to suppress its worsening impulses. Right now is probably the best opportunity we’re going to have. And we likely won’t get another one this good again, at least not for a long, long time.

Going forward, there’s no other evident option.  

“We can do it the easy way or we can do it the hard way, but one way or another, the world is going to be politically united in the next fifty-five hundred years.  The exact time scale doesn’t matter.  It may get destroyed in the process – the unity of the mass grave – but it is going to happen.” — Gwynne Dyer, 1983 



* For a detailed discussion on this topic, I recommend Abrahm Lustgarten’s recent article in the New York Times Magazine, “How Climate Migration Will Reshape America”. (https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/09/15/magazine/climate-crisis-migration-america.html)

The New “Normal”… For Now

There’s an old favourite movie of mine, “How To Get Ahead In Advertising”, in which the main character, in the midst of a creative crisis, describes his mind as being stuck in a “dreadful oily neutral. I just sit there for hours, chewing the ends off pencils, smoking myself daft.”

Between the legions of public health officials warning us that the worst of the Covid-19 pandemic is still ahead and a feckless American president insisting until only the other day, in the face of the voluminous evidence to the contrary, that everything would be all better by Easter, we find exactly that dreadful oily neutral, on a societal scale. Remunerative work for tens of millions in the West is suddenly non-existent, and with it the prospect of acquiring the necessities of life. And for those lucky enough to have more resources and used to a minimum cushy level of comfort, let’s all shed a tear, because the year’s calendar with its many frivolous diversions is officially in the bin.

We’ve passed through the shock phase of this crisis now, the “oh shit, this is really a thing, what do we do” stage, the one that encouraged panic buying of everything from toilet paper to pasta sauce to guns. Now is the grim resignation phase, the gloomy doldrums in which we adjust to the new reality and scrape our way through the days, in whatever form that takes, until the victory conditions are met, in whatever form those take.

In a historical sense, none of us are innately entitled to stability, security, or predictability. The very concept of those things as possibilities is a recent creation. Until maybe a hundred years ago, “long term planning” for most people didn’t mean anything further away than the coming winter; even an assumption that you and all of your family members would make it through said winter alive was a dodgy one at best. And that’s without the risks of war, famine, or epidemic disease. Fast forward a century, and most of us in this part of the world — even those living paycheque to paycheque — normally live a life of relative luxury that our ancestors couldn’t even have dreamed of. We have enough food, enough shelter, enough warmth in the cold months, and more entertainment options at our fingertips than we know what to do with. It’s the shock to our usual state of predictability — and if we’ve been particularly fortunate until now, that of stability and security — that’s so jarring for most of us.

And back around to the dreadful oily neutral: we have no idea when this new reality will end. We know we’re to practice social distancing; we know we’re to self-quarantine for two weeks if there’s a risk we’ve been infected, for the sake of others in the community. But after those two weeks, what then? No returning to “normal” for us: we venture blinkingly out of self-quarantine into a world where we still have to practice social distancing, and where there’s not much to distract us except more Netflix and occasional Facetiming with friends or loved ones we can’t physically embrace.

So what do we do? Some of us simply deny, with varying degrees of naivete and irresponsibility. Some of us hoard toilet paper. Not, I believe, because deep down we’re all heartless sacks of barbarian shit. No, because we’re scared — and pretending it’s all not true or buying up mountains of toilet paper, while both superficially excessive and ridiculous, allow us to regain the tiniest sense of control to replace what the pandemic has taken from us. We’ve been assured incessantly since the end of the Second World War that everything we need or want is there in abundance, just ripe for the taking and fully available to anybody willing to work hard for it. And it had the illusion of truth until, suddenly, a couple of weeks ago, it didn’t. It sure was a comforting illusion while it lasted, though.

It’s strange that “a month ago” now seems so distant. And the stuff that was occupying our collective attention a whole two months ago in January — the impeachment of Trump, the fires in Australia, the almost-war between between America and Iran, the scandals and squabbles of the British royal family, which rich famous person was dating which other rich famous person — is now pretty meaningless and irrelevant. That, I suppose, is the nature of transcendent events: they change things. Radically, but peacefully if we’re lucky, or violently if we’re not.

But in the midst of all this change, we see humanity. People picking up food or medicine for those in quarantine. Downtown residents collectively cheering health care professionals. And most of all, the heroic, ceaseless work of those very legions of professionals. The fact that this crisis has no known end date admittedly poses a challenge to these efforts at collective solidarity — might they simply sputter and die out of sheer exhaustion? Possibly. But history gives us reasons to be optimistic; we need only look at the national mobilizations against Nazism in Britain and the Soviet Union for examples. And the fact that there’s no known end date opens up the possibility that the collective solidarity just might have enough time to take root and become a part of who we are. That we might come to expect and demand better of those who lead us, of each other, and of ourselves.

I’ve always had a streak of mindless optimism in me, so to my mind there’s no better way to end this blurb than with some words from the deeply flawed but always eloquent Winston Churchill, delivered in the dark circumstances of the day:

“Good night, then — sleep, to gather strength for the morning. For the morning will come. Brightly will it shine on the brave and true, kindly on all who suffer for the cause, glorious upon the tombs of heroes. Thus will shine the dawn.”

Commute in the Pandemic

Back to work in the office today (our branch of the government works with vulnerable kids and adults, so we’re essential) in downtown Vancouver. It’s been eleven days since I last made the journey.

Riding down in the elevator, a grizzled older fellow boards on the floor below me. “Jeez man, you ever seen anything like this?” I readily agree, I haven’t. “Never seen anything like this. I’m scared, man. I’ve got a messed up lung.” I tell him I’m sorry to hear that, and to hang in there. What else is there to say? When the elevator reaches the ground he leaves first; I hang back a bit. Force of habit dictates that he holds the building door for me as he exits. I tell him to let it go and I’ll get it myself. Can’t be too careful.

Four people on a bus that’s normally full. The bus terminal is deserted. None of this is helped by the return of the usual late March Lower Mainland rain and gloom after a week of sun and its attendant hopefulness. Two people have passed through the entry gate to the train in the ten minutes I’ve been standing here. Oh, wait…. there’s a third.

Social distancing does weird things to people. Swerving as we walk past others to maintain the recommended distance carries with it an odd little geisha-esque head bow, a bit of a shrinking into the scenery so maybe they won’t see you as you avoid them. Forget droplet transmission – meeting eyes with someone might spread it too.

I fell in love with the Velvet Underground’s first album a couple of years ago. There’s something suitably apocalyptic in it that struck me from my first complete listen. Can’t resist a spin now. It’s Monday, not Sunday Morning, but still.

There’s no shortage of seats on the normally full commuter train. Everybody has a row to themsel–

Ahh shit… did I touch the railing on the way up to the top deck? Think… nope, I had my hands in my pockets. All good.

Glad I put some music on – it covers up the fact that I’m ever so slightly sniffy this morning. Only for my own benefit, apparently; the lady in the empty seat quad across the aisle from me just moved a few rows forward. Or did she just want a different seat? We’re far too polite to say anything, or even to directly look at each other to express our disdain, so I’m drawing conclusions left and right. Anyway, her seat with an unobstructed view of the water is now vacant, but…. no. Who knows whether she’s a carrier or not. I stay put.

Thought for a sec that I might sneeze, but no. Would’ve been like a rifle shot to this crowd.

Lou Reed’s singing about shiny boots of leather and tasting the whip, while John Cale works the electric viola. Bloody hell, this was daring stuff back in 1967. Strikes me every time I listen. Now there’s the bit about sticking a spike in his vein, which never fails to make me squirm as a longtime needlephobe. Not sure how I’d make it through a lengthy hospital stay if I were to be one of the poor unfortunates whose lungs give out.

Crap, I touched the armrest. Glad my wife sent a pack of wipes with me. I dutifully use one on my hands. And the armrest.

The train approaches the station. Passing through Gastown, I see a line of disadvantaged people queueing for something. Maintaining six feet distance from each other.

I always put my hand on the escalator railing on the way up. Always. Not today – the armrest incident was traumatic enough to make me hyper aware from the moment I get out of my seat. Into my pockets they go for the ride up. Plenty of elbow room here besides.

I’m running out of synonyms for “empty” and “deserted”, so I’ll let the images do the talking.

Now, just where the hell am I supposed to get a coffee?