Sunday, December 7, 2008

What Michaelle Knew

In my post on Parliamentary Democracy below, I argued that the post of Prime Minister is not well defined in Westminster style democracies. (For example, neither the Constitution of India nor the Canada Act define the office.) There is no clear rule about the length of a Prime Minister's term, or about the conditions under which s/he may hold office. It is also not clear what powers attach to this office. In constitutional fiction, s/he is the first minister of the Queen or the Head of State; by convention, the Queen or Head of State acts on the advice of the Prime Minister. When can the Queen or her viceroy dismiss a Prime Minister? This is far from clear, and constitutional epistemology plays a role.

If the PM enjoys the confidence of the House of Commons, then the Governor-General must do his or her bidding.
On Thursday December 4th, Prime Minister Stephen Harper asked the GG to prorogue Parliament so that he would not have to face the House on a vote of confidence. Should she have acceded to his request? If he had the confidence of the House, she was obliged to do so. If he did not, she was obliged not to do so.

Here's a problem in what I call constitutional epistemology. Does the GG know that Harper did not have the confidence of the House? Well, in the ordinary sense, yes. Nobody could doubt that a majority of members of the House had no confidence in him. They said so. They signed pieces of paper to that effect.

Nevertheless, they had voted to receive the Speech from the Throne. So when the Commons had voted
last in a confidence measure, they demonstrated confidence in Harper's government. Thus, the GG does not know, in a constitutional sense, that he does not have the confidence of the House.

Tortured reasoning? Perhaps, and I'll return to that in a moment. Think of the reasoning that some citizens express on the airwaves and the internet. We know that the electorate rejected Stephane Dion, they say. How can the GG call on him to form a government? This reasoning is irrelevant in two ways. The first and most direct reason for irrelevance is this: as pointed out by many learned people (and by myself in my post on Parliamentary Democracy), we don't get to vote for the Executive. But secondly, just think of constitutional epistemology. If the GG does not know that Stephen Harper has lost the confidence of the House, she surely does not know that the electorate does not want Stephane Dion as PM. We all know it, if we know anything at all. But she does not. Not constitutionally.

OK. On this thread of reasoning, Michaelle Jean was right to prorogue Parliament on the advice of her first minister. Parliament is to open once again on January 26th. On this day, Jean will deliver a speech from the throne. The next day, the Government will present a budget. If the opposition coalition holds, the Government will be defeated on one or both. It will then demonstrably have lost the confidence of the House.

Harper will then advise the GG to dissolve the House and call a fresh election. But as somebody who has lost the confidence of the House, he will not have the right to expect that she will take his advice. He will argue that he has the confidence of the people. But by constitutional epistemology, she will not know this. Perhaps some Canadians will think they know this, and who am I to say they are wrong. The problem is that what they know, or don't know, is irrelevant. The GG cannot know such things.

So here's what I think Michaelle Jean must have said last Thursday: Mr Harper, I will take your advice and prorogue Parliament. But if you lose a confidence vote in the House early next year, don't expect me to dissolve the House. You can't have an election until it is clear that a Government cannot be formed.

If she said all of that, she has my respect. If she only said the first thing, she does not.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Parliamentary Democracy

Those of us who grew up in the British Commonwealth learned about parliamentary democracy in high school. We are used to the idea that we elect a House of Commons, and that the Government -- the Executive -- is responsible to the Commons. We tend to fall into a certain line of thinking about the nature of voting in this country, and in other former British colonies. When people say: I voted for Stephen Harper, or I didn't vote for Stephane Dion, meaning that they voted Conservative, or didn't vote Liberal, we tend to think that they are just confusing our system with the US system. Here we vote for an MP, right? Unless you live in Calgary Southwest, you couldn't vote for Harper.

Right. But let's ponder for a moment the nature and history of the executive branch of our Government. The Commons itself originally had, in England, no function other than to authorize taxation. An important function, no doubt, but not an executive function. Moreover, ministers didn't sit in the Commons; they were appointed by the sovereign, and held office at the pleasure of the sovereign. In the constitutional fiction under which we live, this is still so.

Some people think that the Commons got its present powers after the so-called Glorious Revolution of 1688. And its legislative powers were certainly enhanced then: for all laws had to go through the Commons. Nevertheless, the Prime Minister (who was not even called that) did not answer to the Commons until much later. Wikipedia correctly says: "throughout the 18th century parliamentarians and legal scholars continued to deny that any such position was known to the Constitution. The title was first referred to on Government documents during the administration of Benjamin Disraeli but did not appear in the formal British Order of Precedence until 1905. George II and George III made strenuous efforts to reclaim the personal power of the Monarch, but the increasing complexity and expense of government meant that a minister who could command the loyalty of the Commons was increasingly necessary."

This means that though there is a substantial body of precedents that define the office of Prime Minister, no law defines the office. Every new decision makes that law. In this country, substantial centralization of powers occurred under recent Prime Ministers. It may well be that in India or Australia, there are subtle differences about how much authority a Prime Minister can claim. And these differences would trace not to legislation, but simply to what former Prime Ministers have done or have been allowed to do.

Moreover, it means that though the electorate votes for Parliament, and thus indirectly for the Government, they still vote under a system according to which Parliament was not the home of Government. In the British system, the Executive is separate from the Legislature -- and that's the assumption that defines voting in Westminster style democracies. We don't really vote for the Executive. In theory, the Prime Minister is still an officer appointed by the Crown, though now more than ever s/he must command the loyalty of the Commons, who votes up the money by which the Crown governs.

Contrast this with France or the United States. There, the electorate votes for both the Executive and the Legislature. We vote for those who authorize or reject legislation, but we do not vote for those who propose and execute legislation. Some think of this as "our system" -- different but just as good.

Last week's events have shown us in Canada that however good our system might be, it is less democratic.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Why I am not Voting Conservative Again

When the Conservative Party won a minority government in 2006, I was glad because that non-performing ass, Paul Martin, had lost office, but also unworried because I didn't think that the old Reform social agenda would ever come into law. As explained in a recent post, I thought that Harper would keep his promise about bringing gay marriage to a free vote in the Commons, that it would be reaffirmed there, and that the issue would then die away. This has come to pass, I think -- though God knows how many people are huddling in dark corners in Red Deer muttering about the evils of gay marriage, and plotting to bring capital punishment back.

But at the time, I did worry about anti-intellectualist tendencies in the Conservative government-to-be, and Harper's alarming lack of belief in the ideal of Canada. I'll return in a moment to that lack of belief. But first, a couple of other things.

Two years later, I want to acknowledge that the Government has done some good things. It corrected Chretien's dangerous neglect of the military. It courageously eliminated income trusts -- this tax dodge, though quite beneficial for individuals, had not only resulted in alarming corporate tax avoidance, but also in the smothering of global ambition in many large and successful Canadian companies, who were offered an incentive to de-globalize. The government has also played the Quebec question quite adroitly, though Quebecers have since wized up that if they don't keep sovereignty on the simmer, they will lose bargaining power in Ottawa.

OK. But there are also some disgraceful things. First, Harper cancelled the Kelowna accord -- the all province plus Federal government agreement that was Paul Martin's one substantial achievement as Prime Minister. Kelowna would have seriously addressed the native question that so blights and disfigures the Canadian nation today. Harper did apologize to the natives in the Commons for the abuses they have suffered over the years -- and that was remarkable. But he has not done anything to replace Kelowna. Sooner or later, Canada will suffer for not righting this historic and momentous wrong. We are rightly proud of Canadian social justice -- but we tolerate something not far short of apartheid within the state. Kelowna would have been a step toward dismantling the current system. Harper cancelled it. He simply reneged. He went back on a promise given not by the Liberal Party, but by the Government of Canada with the agreement of the provinces. (He did the same with Kyoto.)

Secondly, Harper has promised to treat fourteen year old criminals as adults in the criminal justice system. This is the most barbaric proposal I have encountered in my thirty plus years as a Canadian. Can you imagine bringing children to adult court? But this isn't all. To add insult to injury, the proposal is only for Canada outside Quebec. In Quebec, the age will be sixteen! Right, let's leave it there . . . I don't think I need to say more.

But what I find most disspiriting about this government is its utter rejection of any Canadian ideal. Judging from the constant loud denials in public media, we all know that Canada has a bit of an identity deficit. But contrary to what Canadians tend to believe, we are not alone in this. The Dutch, the Danes, the Belgians -- quick, what's their identity? Do you think that say Malaya has a national identity?

Now, I tend to think that the identity deficit is a bad thing. The Americans and Brits and even the poor besieged French and Germans have an inbuilt cultural crutch to rely on in moments of reduced cultural genius. Even in periods when the best of British literature is a bit enervated, as it is today, they still have their great literary past, and a confidence that someday the spark will return -- ditto German science and French style. (So: yes, there will be good British novels again, even if Ian McWho?en is as good as it gets today.) But we and the aforementioned northern Europeans are only as good as our performance on the day. When our geniuses die or become senile, our whole culture is diminished.

There is a way to build up our identity. It is to stand for something. Back in the sixties and seventies, when we and the rest of the Commonwealth were pulling ourselves out of the swamp of postcolonial insecurity, Canada did stand for something. The Canadian welfare state was built then, and is today much celebrated -- as was Canadian multiculturalism, Canadian foreign policy (think of opposition to apartheid by the Conservative Prime Ministers Diefenbaker and Mulroney; think of Canada in Suez and in the UN), and (yikes!) even Canadian architecture and design. This is the Scandinavian way too, and it is so even today: if you don't have an identity, at least have some values. Then you can wear your maple leaf with pride -- as Canadian hippies did in the seventies.

Harper is viscerally against this whole line of thinking. He hates state-sponsored values (even when they are not state-manufactured). He's even against state-identified values. He is all for strengthening the military (and so am I), but he is not for strengthening External Affairs and Canadian diplomats. He doesn't like state-funded culture, and he doesn't think that anybody else did -- except for the people who directly benefit from Canada Council grants. He was probably taken by surprise when his arts-funding cuts lost him significant popularity in Quebec. (Interestingly, this might deny him his majority. Just imagine: cut grants to effete opera-huggers, and you lose a government. There's Canadian identity for you: just when you discount it, it jumps up and bites your leg.) Economically, he is generally in favour of individuals doing better -- but he does not like the idea that Canadian collective entities should be strong global entities, whether they be corporations, or cultural organizations, or NGOs.

We have all been diminished by this neglect of the collectivity. I cannot support the person who is responsible. C'mon Harper: let's have a little 'country first'.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Nagel's Prizes

Further to my post about Tom Nagel and Intelligent Design (September 15th), and Brian Leiter's information that Nagel has won the Balzan Prize worth 885,000$, a Swedish friend informs me that he was once "awarded the Swedish Rolf Schock prize in philosophy (or "philosophy and logic", as the statutes have it - "and" to be read as "or"!)."

Monday, September 15, 2008

How I Voted in 2006

In January 2006, I voted for the Conservative Party. I did so in Vancouver East, one of the most reliable NDP ridings in the country. In Jeff Wall's celebrated photos, some of it looks like this, which may explain why:

For the very first time in six elections, I failed to vote for the winning candidate and the winning party.

Why did I vote that way?

First, I was disgusted with the Liberals. They had threatened national unity by their dirty tricks in Quebec.

By contrast, the Conservative Party had made genuinely innovative proposals vis-a-vis Quebec, which still serve them well in that province.

Third, I was horrified by Paul Martin's vindictive treatment of old Chretien supporters, for instance pushing the old warhorse Sheila Copps out of her Hamilton riding, and Stephane Dion out of cabinet.

Fourth, I didn't think that the social yahoo-ism of some Conservatives would do any harm. Harper had promised a free vote on gay marriage, just as Brian Mulroney had promised a free vote on capital punishment in 1984. (For my friends in countries that don't have a Westminster style parliamentary democracy, a free vote is one where members of parliament are freed from party discipline, and are free to vote their own conscience. Since the Government has no stake in the issue, neither result counts as its losing the confidence of the House.) Capital punishment lost in 1984, and it went out of Canadian discourse. I was convinced that gay marriage would go the same way (and it has).

In a word, I was truly tired of the Liberals, and quite ready to see a grumpy old duffer, Paul Martin, leave.

Famous Philosopher Comes Out for Intelligent Design Theory!

Neo-conservatism has been so gratingly strident of late that some liberal intellectuals seem ready to embrace anybody who just turns the volume down. How else to take celebrity philosopher Tom Nagel’s recent defence of Intelligent Design (ID) in Philosophy and Public Affairs? Nagel protests the “campaign of the scientific establishment to rule out intelligent design as beyond discussion.” While he acknowledges that ID is more likely to appeal to those who already believe in God; he pleads that by contrast with “young Earth creationism” it does not rest on biblical literalism. That’s apparently enough to get it into the biology classroom as far as he is concerned.

Nagel’s central scientific observation is that one may legitimately doubt whether random mutation affords natural selection enough variation from which to generate the observed diversity of life on Earth. (“This seems on the face of it to be a scientific claim,” he says, and not “self-evidently absurd.”)

How does this make ID science? By a series of snide equivalences. For instance: “No one suggests that the theory [of natural selection] is not science, though the historical process it describes cannot be directly observed.” No indeed. But then the “purposive alternative” (ID) cannot be so dismissed either. To do so would be to hold that “Only the falsehood, and not the truth, of ID can count as a scientific claim.” Does Nagel think that the entire research program of evolution by natural selection could be summarized as – not-ID! (In passing: it is not axiomatic that if p is science, not-p must ceteris paribus be so. Popper, for example, held that universal statements were scientific because refutable by a counter-instance, but existentials not so.)

Nagel seems to allow that one cannot construct a good scientific explanation out of something so indeterminate as God’s intentions. But he thinks that nonetheless there could be good scientific evidence in support of the proposition “An intelligent designer created the world.” (Not uncontroversial: for discussion, see Elliott Sober, “What’s Wrong With Intelligent Design?”, available here.) According to Nagel, you can exclude this proposition – call it IDE – from the domain of science only if you believe that God is impossible. But if IDE is beyond the reach of science, then so is its contradictory. Though it
is “perhaps” the “nub of the issue,” the impossibility of divine intervention is “a religious assumption” and constitutionally suspect.

It is surprising that, brilliant ethicist as he is, Nagel is not more sensitive to the path-dependence and essential temporality of practical reason. He couches the entire ID question sub specie aeternitatis in terms of probability and evidence. But whether ID (or IDE, for that matter) is science or not depends not on eternal questions of the status of religious belief, but rather on what it has contributed or can contribute to science. This depends on where science is today. It may be true that in Darwin’s time, the hypothesis of divine creation had scientific standing. It is certainly true that in 1859, Darwin’s theory lacked an adequate theory of heredity and was for that reason contestable by proponents of directed mutation. (Fisher famously argued that on Darwinian blending inheritance, populations would not be able to retain enough variation to support significant evolution. This is one of the fundamental motivators for incorporating Mendelian particulate genes into the theory of evolution.) This vulnerability was not forever.

Things are very different today. We should ask: Is there a scientific problem on which ID sheds new light? Does it shed new light on mutation? Does it offer us a systematic alternative to evolutionary theory? And surely, the answer to all of these questions is: No! For a time, the notorious bacterial flagella were touted as a problem better addressed by ID – but this has been thoroughly discredited (as demonstrated in the Dover School District case). As for mutation, none of the tests of Motoo Kimura’s neutralist hypothesis or of junk DNA reveal bias suggesting divine intervention – and something should have showed up if ID is correct about this. And what perspective of scientific value does ID offer us, what prospect of new research? Admission to the biology curriculum requires more than non-infinitesimal prior probabilities; it requires scientific utility now, and utility is temporally dependent. (Remember Lorentz contraction: a theory that might have been useful in the 1890s, but one that became scientifically jejune after Special Relativity.)

Nagel quotes the Dover judgement as follows: “Professor Behe remarkably and unmistakably claims that the plausibility of the argument for ID depends upon the extent to which one believes in the existence of God.” And he objects, in yet another tu quoque, that this is no reason to exclude ID since “evolutionary theory as a complete explanation of the development of life is more plausible to someone who does not believe in God.” The question he should ask is this: would anybody today turn to ID as a scientific program except for a belief in God-as-creator? Nagel quotes a number of respectable scientists who share his scepticism concerning the sufficiency of random mutation – Stuart Kauffman, for instance. These scientists do not turn to ID; rather they try to show, by appeal to considerations of evolvability or to dynamic systems theory, that the evolution of complex systems is not as improbable as might at first appear. These are constructive proposals, and prima facie at least, they have some claim to inclusion within biology, though even here, random mutation and the bottom-up evolution of complexity are “null hypotheses” that will prevail if shown to be possible.

The scientific evaluation of theories involves much more than an enumeration of possibilities, and Nagel would be well-advised to adopt a more nuanced position on the “demarcation question” of what should count as science, and what not.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Day Five and still no improvement

Stephen Harper said yesterday that the Liberal Green Shift plan would be catastrophic, not only for the economy, but for national unity. He said that Government economic modelling has shown that meeting Kyoto commitments would cause a recession equivalent to that of the 80s.

That modelling had nothing to do with the Green Shift, which cuts income taxes and levies a carbon tax. It was about emission controls in isolation.

Of course, the Liberals have done nothing so far to explain their position. In the Green Shift brochure, a clear explanation is offered: "We will cut taxes on those things we all want more of such as income, investment and innovation. And we will shift those taxes to what we all want less of: pollution, greenhouse gas emissions and waste." Yet, Dion continues to respond to Conservative attacks with a message of sacrifice: Mr Harper "does not have faith in Canadians' ability to meet great challenges."

This morning's Globe summarizes the Liberal Plan, but fails to note that it includes personal as well as business income tax cuts. Yet, the cuts are clearly stated: "We will cut the lowest income tax rate to 13.5 per cent from 15 per cent, a 10 per cent reduction. And we will cut the middle class tax rates to 21 per cent from 22 per cent and to 25 per cent from 26 per cent."

Why doesn't Dion introduce some clarity into this debate?

In an interview yesterday, Harper said that only popular arts programmes should be publicly funded. I guess Feist can expect a grant from the Canada Council some time soon.

More than half of the arts funding story in the Globe and Mail is devoted to how well Harper plays the piano. Not clear why this is relevant (except perhaps to soothe the feelings of arts-supporters in this country).

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Still No Green Shift . . .

The campaign remains idea-free. Harper has promised to leave Afghanistan by 2011. That's simply reacting -- he doesn't say why Canada's right decision to support NATO in Afghanistan will become wrong in 2011.

Meanwhile, the Liberals refuse to present the Green Shift in simple terms. The simplest way to put it is this: We're going to cut income tax. And we are going to tax carbon. We're going to take less money from your pay-cheque. If you choose to spend your money on gas, that's your business.

This simple message should be very attractive to city dwellers in particular. Granted, in Canada, they get less than one vote per person -- and so its good politics to ignore them. But remember that Harper opposed the Green Shift even in Richmond BC, a suburban riding where upwardly mobile voters hate taxes, and where carbon obscures the citizens' view of the mountains (for which they pay a lot in terms of property values).

Instead of this, Dion tells a New Brunswick crowd that "transforming to more fuel-efficient practices must start now to ensure economic viability in the future." This is almost like telling them that they have to make a sacrifice for the future. Not a sexy message, is it? (And it's all in polysyllabic words.) What's he thinking?

As for news today: Elizabeth May of the Green Party will join the debate (Good! -- now get Duceppe out of it); the NDP advances in British Columbia.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Paradox on the Campaign Trail

Bored? Don't be. Stephen Harper is playing with our minds:

"The biggest single problem we have is it's a chicken and egg problem -- it's that we are not here," he said, peering through a giant tea-cup in Toronto.

He was talking about dim Conservative prospects in Toronto -- "Once we start electing some people, it will be easier to elect some more." But what's the chicken and egg problem -- "Which came first electing more or electing some?" That doesn't sound like a problem exactly. Hmm . . . And "We are not here" -- don't you have to be?

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

The Green Shift

Another day of vapidity. The Conservatives posted an ad on their website, which showed a puffin (behind Dion's ear above) shitting on him -- Really! -- as it flew by. Harper has apologized. Good, I guess.

In the meanwhile, Dion has a new website, which pushes him as a nice guy ("not rich"), and the papers speculate that his "music of English" statement (see Revelations post below) was sympathetic. (Sure it's sympathetic. Hell, it's almost pandering: when did
you last hear a francophone talking about the music of "the beautiful language" --- English???)

The Liberals announced today that they will reinstate the Court Challenges programme, which (before the Tories eliminated it) used to fund constitutional challenges brought by private citizens against the government. A very worthy idea. (Even Sarah Palin could get behind that, right -- private citizens suing the Government at Government expense? Don't tell her that's how we got gay marriage though.) I hope it is followed by promises of reinstating the cultural programmes recently cut by the Tories. But look: this is not really a nation-sized story. How many people are going to be swayed by the Court Challenges programme, which they have likely never heard about?

I don't get why the Liberals are not campaigning on their Green Shift programme. Yesterday, Harper told the Huangs that it is a revenue grab. (See the Harper in BC post below.) This is nonsense: the promise is to legislate revenue neutrality. For each dollar gained from the carbon tax, the proposed legislation will say one must be cut somewhere else. The Shift cuts personal income tax and taxes carbon emissions instead -- at $40 per tonne, I think. Well: isn't that a good idea? Why are the Grits acting embarrassed about it?

Monday, September 8, 2008

Harper in British Columbia

Today, Stephen Harper travelled to British Columbia to lecture the Huangs. (Those are their friends in the foreground.) I don't know whether they would have liked to say a word or two to the Great Communicator -- but it doesn't look as if they are going to get a chance.

He slammed Gordon Campbell's carbon tax at the Huang residence. He didn't say much about the environment, or what the carbon tax would do for it, or indeed anything about the effects of the tax -- on the economy, or human values, or anything else.

He said:
"Every politician in history who wants to impose a new tax claims that it's either revenue neutral or it's temporary. It's not true.” Later in the day, he said: “The reason politicians impose a new tax is they need revenue.” Thereby, he slandered one of Canada's few competent politicians, one who brought BC from Canada's worst governed to best, one who has rescued the provincial budget, and one who had always been at pains to work with Harper.

Revelations in the Canadian Election

Today is the first real day of the Canadian election, and already a lot of excitement -- of a sort. Stephen Harper tells us that he enjoys playing cards with his kids. Stephane Dion reveals that a hearing deficit keeps him from hearing "the music of English". (Actually, he has been taking speech coaching, and hearing him on the radio this morning made me wonder how he has managed to acquire a Swedish accent .)

Jack Layton should really catch up. Is there nothing he wants to tell us?

Elizabeth May of the Green Party says we should stop watching CNN and get involved in our own election. Well we would if somebody would give us something of substance to chew on -- sorry guys, the music of English doesn't count, nor does pinochle, or whatever it is that Harper plays with his kids.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Election called

Today's the 7th of September, and a federal election has been called in Canada. Stephen Harper, the Prime Minister, claims that Parliament has been unproductive -- though his party has a document on how to obstruct Parliament. (Don Martin of CanWest reported in May.) And that is what they have been doing.

The press has been agog with the news that the Liberals have leased a Boeing 737-200 from Air Inuit, which consumes more fuel than the Conservatives' Airbus 319 -- as if the Liberals had hired this plane because it was deemed more luxurious or prestigious, like a Hummer. Not a word about issues so far. Perhaps this is what will pass for an issue.

(UPDATE: Liberals will pay carbon offsets.)

On the first day of the campaign, Mr. Harper seemed to take a card from Sarah Palin's hand:

"Mr. Dion, I understand, is a father as well. I don't know Stephane Dion all that well but I presume that he's been married a long time, has children. I presume he's a family man also.

Being a family man ... a father of school age children is a big part of my life," Mr. Harper told reporters. People say it must be tough to balance your family life with being prime minister. In fact if I didn't have this family life I don't think I could stay balanced as prime minister."

This from a man who, on his first day as Prime Minister, walked his little son to primary school in front of cameras, and took his farewell by shaking the little one's hand.

The quote is from the Globe and Mail. Mr Harper really should really try to learn the difference between 'presume' and 'assume'. Already, he does far too much of the former.

Nothing about field-dressing a moose: I "presume" this is Laureen's job.

As of today, the pundits deem a Conservative win inevitable. And the polls indeed look that way -- they show the Blues at 39%. Let's see.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Dutch Vandalism in Toronto?

The other day, on my morning walk to the office, I spied this clumsy piece of signage on top of what I knew to be an elegant building:

The Ontario Power Generation building is not perhaps a landmark piece of architecture, but it is simple and impressive, and its front echoes the curve of Queen's Park crescent a little further north. Across College Street, Norman Foster pays it a compliment by continuing its lines in the University of Toronto's new Pharmacy building, which doubles OPG's colonnade with a reflection of its own.

What then did it do to deserve this?

It looks like amateur fixup by a DYI householder. I feel hurt that a Dutch bank would do this to Toronto. Aren't we supposed to be friends? Didn't Canada help liberate Holland after the war? Didn't hundreds of Dutch men and women come over here with their Canadian spouses? And then they do this?

Some of my friends remark that the ING signage is merely an expression of the Toronto craze to brand buildings. That is part of it, no doubt. But there isn't anything seriously bad about the S on top of this building, is there? (Aside from the logo itself, of course.)

The rule in Toronto is that the eye is not allowed to fall unpunished upon a pleasant thing. The Dutch, whose cities are gorgeous even though built by bankers and shippers, should have done better.

Here, by the way, is ING's world headquarters near Schiphol in the Netherlands:

Now, that's a building and a half. Note the signage.

Monday, August 25, 2008

The New MoMA

The renovations at MoMA are fabulous. Maybe a little too much so in places. All that money and technology seems to have magnified and hyper-realized the austere modernist aesthetic of the original building. Its giganticism reminds one in a slightly creepy way of Mussolini or that other guy – little people amongst huge furniture dwarfed by rooms of galactic proportions. The second floor atrium is magnificent, but intimidating. Here is a view of the ceiling:

The sunlit patterns are gorgeous, but they don’t warm.

The galleries and the restaurant are much better. The restaurant's human-scale preserves the New York post-war aesthetic – comfortable industrial-style furniture with chrome legs, beautifully sculptural flower arrangements, long bar with impressive bottles.

The food is simple, but elegantly prepared to the point where the simplicity of the dish is something of a riff. I had liverwurst (tangy and sophisticated) with pickled vegetables (out of this world -- or perhaps one should say "Only in Japan are there pickles like this):

And then, a poached egg cooked in its own Mason jar with lobster meat and corn. I didn't think the corn worked -- the egg and lobster were already sweet, and the corn added a vegetal sweetness that didn't quite match

Definitely an A-.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

A Day at MoMA, New York

There is a line-up to get in – only about ten minutes, but there’s no blockbuster show that draws these folks in, just the star-power of this great museum. Once inside, even the children have a lot of fun. People try to find the coins and nails in Jackson Pollock’s “Full Fathom Five”:

Or get their photos taken in front of his paintings

Even in front of Barnett Newman’s vacuous Vir Heroicus Sublimis. (Newman spent much of his life celebrating Jamaican beer.)

Abstract expressionism is a lot of fun and very instructive, but I was unprepared for the joyous inclusion of these art-works in the touristic experiences of these throngs. (Lots of Europeans, by the way. Which makes sense: a French family visiting New York would prefer Rothko to Renoir over at the Metropolitan.) Picasso is a celebrity – as recently as in my father’s generation, all but the pseuds found him baffling and inaccessible. At MoMA, however, hundreds ogle the difficult cubism of Woman with a Guitar and the monumental geometry of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon and their curiosity spills over to Gris and Braque.

Andy Warhol’s Gold Marilyn Monroe is to MoMA what the Mona Lisa is to the Louvre. The most glamorous woman of the 20th century memorialized by the most famous artist -- never mind that this picture was, along with that of an electric chair, part of a series that commemorates famous and untimely deaths. An endless stream of people is photographed in front of it – with families, it’s always the father, it seems.

But there are also young women, hoping that some of that stardust will fall on to a picture that includes them.

here’s nothing like this at the almost equally crowded Metropolitan Museum, where children whine while their parents snatch a few harried moments in front of Manet or Cezanne and solemn teenagers tour with grandparents, diarizing in notebooks about the Old Masters. The Cezannes there are hardly noticed; here, they are gobbled up with all the other goodies.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Should Canada Try to Be a Country?

After thirty years of immigration and multiculturalism, Canada is not the country it was. The question: is it a country at all?

It is an excellent place to be a citizen. People whose families immigrated here a generation or two ago have had the advantage of an excellent educational system and a prosperous, tolerant society. When they work abroad, they benefit from their exposure to a wide range of cultures thanks to Canada’s cosmopolitanism. When they work at home, they are able to take advantage of their inside knowledge of their parents’ culture. Second and third generation Canadians are at home here – and with their easy mobility, they are Canada’s eyes and ears abroad. Canada is a brilliant base for a glittering international career – ask Adrienne Clarkson or Irshad Manji. And make no mistake: these Canadians are deeply attached to Canada and its values. (It seems superfluous to say this about a former Governor-General – one of the best we have ever had.) Since they embody the best of Canadian values it would make very little sense if they did not.

Let it be clear then that I have no sympathy with rants about how foreigners are diluting our values. Tom Kent, a former principal secretary to Lester Pearson, issued just such a rant recently in the Globe and Mail. I thought it came very ill from an expatriate Brit, who came here in the days where a moderately good job in Blighty gave you immediate entree to the very top jobs in Canada. And the right to expatiate publicly on how the miserable brown and yellow people who followed you have no real attachment to the country, and are only diluting homegrown culture.

My question has nothing to do with “foreign” values, or foreign ways, and whether they have a place in Canada. It has to do rather with the cumulativity of cultural discourse. In a country, people talk to each other. They build on each other. In Canada, people seem to engage only in global conversations. These conversations leave no residue here: as brilliant as many Canadians are, and as much as they have contributed to English-speaking civilization, nobody here picks up their work and makes out of it a national discourse. This is perhaps why the most brilliant Canadians – Glenn Gould, Robertson Davies, Mavis Gallant – leave nothing behind.

David Armstrong tells a compelling tale about Australian philosophy in his wonderful little piece “Black Swans”. He starts by recounting precisely the same kind of sneer about Australia that all the colonies have had to cope with – including the India of my youth. In 1958, one L. Sturch wrote in an Oxford magazine:

It is a mistake to think that the name "Australia" has the same logical grammar as "France", "Switzerland", "Siberia", "Rutlandshire", or "North Dakota". It is no more like such names than "Utopia", "Erewhon", or "Ruritania" are. . . "Australia" is not a real place; . . . the word "Australia" is not a name. (There is a certain heaviness to this: could Sturch have been a satirizing Australian, I wonder.)

Armstrong counters with a great story: how John Anderson in Sydney, George Paul in Melbourne, Jack Smart, Ullin Place, and Charlie Martin in Adelaide – all foreigners – began a tradition so robust that there is now such a thing as “Australian philosophy”. Philosophy – or at least philosophy in the tradition that comes to us from Frege, Russell, and Wittgenstein – is as international a discipline as physics. Germans and Croats argue with Hungarians and Canadians, about the same questions, using the same dialectical tools. Yet, there is in this discipline an Australian style -- virtually no other country can say that. Armstrong himself is one of the great proponents. And today you see something recognizably Australian in the topic-wise extremely diverse writings of Frank Jackson, Kim Sterelny, Michael Smith, and David Chalmers (as well as immigrants such as Philip Pettit and Graham Priest). If you read Clive James’s Cultural Amnesia, you’ll find evidence of the same sort of thing in other intellectual fields. (I venture to say that much the same is true of Australian wine-making -- happily, there is some evidence of an emerging Canadian culture in this field, at least in British Columbia.)

What about Canada? In philosophy, it has had the same opportunities. Some pretty good philosophers have grown up here. Bas van Fraassen, David Gauthier, Ian Hacking, Charles Taylor, and Patty and Paul Churchland are among the most influential philosophers alive today – and Gerry Cohen, David Braybrooke, Barry Stroud, Tom Hurka, Ted Honderich, and Brad Inwood are not far behind. We have had our share of inspirational foreigners: including Jonathan Bennett, Mario Bunge, Terry Penelhum, Kai Nielson, (the same) Charlie Martin, Michael Ruse, and Ronnie DeSousa. Yet there is no such thing as Canadian philosophy. Why not? Partly because there is in Canada no particular ferment around these figures – all of whom are challenging, controversial, and deserving of discussion. Canadians just don’t think it’s cool to get excited about local intellectual controversies: they would rather participate in discussions without boundaries. The figures I have mentioned are just as much discussed outside Canada as they are here: when they leave the scene, they, like Gould, Davies, and Gallant, will vanish without leaving a mark on Canadian discourse.

Countries that have a culture pull up their citizens. A talented philosopher in Australia benefits by participating in the philosophical culture of that country – you do not have to agree with somebody to be excited by their ideas. David Armstrong in Australia did not agree with John Anderson or George Paul, and Kim Sterelny in turn does not have much time for how Armstrong did philosophy. Yet, one thinks of these people as belonging to a powerful and coherent tradition, and deriving some of their influence by so belonging.

Canada is not on a path to developing the same kinds of incubators. I would even question whether there is such a thing as Canadian literature -- there are great Canadian writers, but after Robertson Davies and Alice Munro, they haven't much written about Canada. Australia progressed from colony to country; Canada has chosen the more modern vision of a state that is not a country. Doubtless, that has virtues too.

Is there any harm in starting a little country within our global community? Maybe I could (should?) make a modest start by writing a combative book about Ian Hacking.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

National War Memorial, Ottawa

The National War Memorial in Ottawa, across Wellington Street from the Chateau Laurier, is a remarkable piece of public sculpture, with something over twenty full size figures marching as if through mud. The figures, who represent many different services, look grim rather than heroic, and reflect the privations of war in the trenches.

They include two women, including this charmingly snub-nosed nurse (?), the strap of her handbag falling over the back of her hand as she tramps uphill.

There is, no doubt, more than a little sentimentality in this immensely ambitious work -- I cannot think of anything else in bronze that is half as complex -- which was unveiled only a few months before the Second War. What would you expect? -- It was planned by an Englishman from Farnborough, and executed by his family after he died. A touch of village mawkishness, I guess. But with statuary, my view is put it up first, and think about it later. There is far too little in Canada -- except on this site.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Nose to Tail

Cowbell Toronto (see below) is a place where meat is not only treated very seriously, but where it is not wasted. You don't just get steaks -- in fact, you don't get steaks at all -- you get organ meat, tough cuts cooked tender, nose, ears, tail -- the lot. (The Linkery in San Diego also goes some distance in this direction -- it too is a meat restaurant, but proudly not a steakhouse.)

The movement is worldwide, I have discovered: in London (England) there is St John, a restaurant that promotes "nose-to-tail" eating, and simple cooking.

See here:

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Syrian Christian cooking

The Syrian Christians are an old community in the state of Kerala, on the southwest coast of India. Christianity came to Kerala from the middle east; in the old days, the Kerala Orthodox church fell under the control of the Patriarch of Antioch in Syria -- hence the name.

Kerala cooking has received its share of kudos recently, but most people would be surprised by the consistency of its values -- perfectly cooked, tender fish and meat, vegetables with bite, short grained, unpolished red rice, and a variety of breads. Many Indians are careless about texture and bite -- does that ring true about your favourite local Indian restaurant? -- but not in Kerala. The spicing is in some ways characteristically Indian Ocean. Usually, one starts curries by thoroughly cooking the spice base, which is turmeric and red chilli that you find in most of India, plus coriander seed in place of the cumin that they use in North India. Usually the ratio is turmeric:coriander:red chilli as 1:2:4. After the spice base, comes the fresh base: ginger and garlic made into a paste. On this foundation of spices and fresh aromatics comes whatever makes a dish different: the fish or meat and the special flavours -- very often coconut milk is used as the liquid and thickener.

The fish curry shown above is the emblematic meen vevichathu, commonly known as Kerala
Red Fish Curry. I took the photograph from a good recipe at (Saira's sauce is slightly lighter in colour and thinner than you would find in my family.) The characteristic ingredient in this dish is kudam puli -- the large black pieces in the photo -- a fruit which imparts a somewhat taramindy taste to the curry, giving it an attractive complexity of flavour -- it's a hot curry, with a characteristic back-of-the-mouth sharpness. (I don't know where one would get kudam puli in North America.) The fish is generally dense, not flaky -- a big fish like sea-bass or halibut -- the local equivalents, of course -- not a flat fish. Syrian Christians are good at cooking fish just right -- it's cooked (not raw, as in Japan), but still tender and moist. (Grilled flatfish is divine in Kerala -- I am sorry to my Croatian friends for saying so, but Dubrovnik doesn't have anything to match it.)

This is a Syrian Christian banquet:

You get a glimpse of the red rice on the right edge of the table, three dishes from the bottom. The meen vevichathu is at the back: here is a closer look -- in the long dish:

It's served with a dense fibrous starch, often kuppa or tapioca, but here breadfruit (just above the fish).

Below we have a bread known as appam -- the rice flour is raised with fermented coconut milk and yeast, and eaten with a light coconut milk chicken curry:

Kerala cuisine is complex and varied. Syrian Christians have the best of it, I think -- though the dishes are closely related to those other Malayalis make, there is a refinement in their flavours which surpasses the rest. It is probably not the easiest cuisine to get into -- the flavours are unfamiliar, and the routines and rituals of combination and order and what to eat when are complex. (For instance, you never eat yoghurt until right at the end -- you use it to sop up the left over gravies on your plate.) As a child, I preferred other things. Now, I think it's one of the best country cuisines -- i.e., it's not to be compared with the showy metropolitan cuisines you find in Delhi or Instanbul or Paris -- the world has to offer.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Is Hundred the New Eighty?

A recent New Yorker article remarked on the fragility of health and well-being after sixty. You're not surprised that one of the US presidential candidates is seventy, but you are also not surprised to come across somebody, who at sixty finds it difficult to walk a trail that's a bit uphill and downhill. True, we are not surprised by different kinds of outcome after a longish life, but as we have recently begun to find out, the generation that was born in the years following WWI (1918-1930) is proving remarkably durable.

My grandfather had a tough independence movement: he was a political leader among Kerala Christians, and when the administration of the state decided to fix things so Kerala would be dominated by Hindus, he found his business under attack. He spent time in jail, which shattered his health. Though thoroughly rehabilitated after Independence -- a member of Parliament and India's ambassador to the Sudan -- he suffered from diabetes and insomnia and died in his early seventies. No doubt he very much missed his wife, my grandmother, who died in her early fifties -- she had a weak heart, and it was overstrained by taking care of a large brood in difficult circumstances when her husband was in jail.

Their children, who, like their mother, shared in my grandfather's distress, are nevertheless very well. Six survive, the oldest (my father) and the youngest having succumbed to cancer. They range between 78 and 87 -- very much changed, of course, from when, as a child, I first formed my impressions of their characters and intelligence, and when they were young, glamorous, and in charge.

On a recent trip to India, I found it surprising how well these people, and others, seemed, into their eighties and nineties.
I visited ten or so people of this generation, many of whom I hadn't seen in many years. I was struck by how much the same they were mentally as before, and how little affected by age in quickness of mind, mobility of body, and vitality of spirit.

When I was much younger, we thought it very fortunate when somebody lived to be eighty. Now, we are all familiar with individuals who at eighty and much older, continue to function at much the same level as they did twenty or forty years ago, and even to thrive in conversation and debate.

The post-WWI generation is going to surprise us. Once, we hardly knew anybody older than eighty: soon we are going to know many who function pretty well at a hundred. (I just hope Robert Mugabe isn't one of them.)

First Class/Business Class

Recently, I flew three long legs (Frankfurt-Bangalore, Bangalore-Frankfurt, Dusseldorf-Toronto) on Lufthansa First Class (on points, I might say). The first leg of the trip, from Toronto to Frankfurt was on Business. There is a difference.

Back in the seventies and early eighties, flying economy was quite pleasant, even for long distances. You'd be served a drink (on Canadian airlines, usually a double) -- during the recession of the early eighties, you'd usually have a seat open next to you, and drinks were free. Then, you'd get a hot meal, with a choice between two main courses. Wine of a mediocre standard would be served. And then they'd come around with brandy.

(That was in the seventies and eighties. Back in the thirties, there was only one class, and here is how it looked (on three different airlines):

The New York Times, from which I got this illustration, points out, however, that flights were much bumpier in those days -- with smaller aircraft and lower altitudes. Indeed, I remember flying prop planes in the fifties -- when you boarded, you hit an olfactory wall of eau de cologne, sprayed to cover the smell of airsickness upchuck.)

When bigger aircraft were introduced (747s), their length demanded an extra galley and toilet station in the middle, and so the plane was divided into separate cabins. Soon airlines started reserving a small cabin in front for people who wanted a little quiet -- no children, no movie, that kind of thing. That was the start of Business Class. Gradually, it became quite a bit fancier, as economy class slid into greater and greater squalor. To compensate for the steep price of full fare economy, airlines introduced some perks, primarily fancy seating and good leg room, and somewhat better food.

Today, business class inside North America, or Europe or Asia is very little different from the economy class of the early eighties. It is attractive only because utter misery prevails behind. Lufthansa's business class from Toronto to Frankfurt was a lot better than even ancestral economy, but it too bore the stamp of its origins. Meals came from a cart; you could get a drink only when the cart passed by; the main course is loaded pre-assembled and heated up on board.

First Class is a different matter altogether, starting with the airport lounge, which is sumptuous, has luxurious meals, bathrooms with a tub you can soak in -- the works. Above, you see a tray in one of Lufthansa's Frankfurt lounges: malt whiskies from Germany, Japan, New Zealand, and Austria. Now who would have thought of that?

First Class too has its origins in the old days, where it was an experience quite distinct from the pleasant but plain fare in the back. Here, there is service. You are addressed by your name, usually by charming, more senior stewardesses, who know how to entertain in the grand style. Meals are assembled in front of you, or in the on-board galley, and brought to you individually; you taste the wine before it is poured; you are not tied to your seat -- there is a bar from which you can serve yourself and chat with the other members of the elite. And there is luxury. Today, brand names are a kind of currency of hospitality, a way somebody knows how much an arms dealer or lobbyist paid to entertain them. This is how it is in First. The champagne is vintage; the wine is from a well-known chateau; the Scotch is 18 years old; caviar is always one of the entrees.

And there was something I thought quite unusual on a plane: soup!

And that most German of delicacies -- fresh white asparagus, which happened to be in season:

By the way, Air Canada has something called Executive First on intercontinental flights; it is a mixture of both. It has the service of First, but not the luxury. The flight attendants address you by name; they are charming senior staff; and included in the crew is a cook who assembles each main course plate on board; there is a stand-up bar. On the other hand, the champagne is Drappier; the Scotch is 12 years old; neither caviar nor fresh white German asparagus is available. But you get a good appetizer, and a main course "cooked" for you on board, and served individually.

A while ago, Joanne Kates wrote a column in which she strongly preferred Lufthansa's Business class food to Air Canada's. I find this hard to believe. (Was she actually flying Lufthansa First?) How can a meal assembled off plane and heated up in a closed container be better than something assembled on-board? Moisture and pressure are the enemies of airline food, and that's why this procedure has mediocre results -- in Economy you have no choice, of course. The Business Class service on Lufthansa's Toronto-Frankfurt leg was almost comic. Everything was served from a cart. When I asked for another glass of red wine, I was told to wait for the next cart -- which happened to be when dessert came through. They had the cheese and nuts on the meal tray, but whisked it away when the main course came -- Did the others eat cheese before meat? The first was nice enough: a warm duck salad, but the main course came with the foil cover on: it was a over-soyed Chinese-"inspired" meat dish with plain white rice and mixed vegetables, which had been steamed under the cover.

Friday, May 30, 2008

The Linkery, San Diego

San Diego is very green, and you forget how close it is to the desert:

But this guy is a reminder:

Up until recently, I am told, the city was not noted for its food. I went one evening to a Mexican restaurant named Candelas, and found out why. The food here was good, the wine-by-the-glass excellent, and the service elegant. But I was depressed by a party of six, who ordered enormous plates of food and scarfed it all down before my soup came. I don't know if they were military or athletes or what, but the mere sight made me feel slightly queasy. And they're the customers. No wonder the plates are full of food to the point that you face the main courses with apprehension in your heart.

I ordered two primi: a black bean soup made with beer, which was terrific -- lots of complex flavours -- the black beans, pretty much as expected, and then a nice dark beery finish. Then, an avocado and shrimp concoction that tasted more of lime than of the seafood or fruit.

The next night, Jonathan and I tried The Linkery, a restaurant that advertises single-source everything, and having been to Chez Panisse and Cowbell recently, I thought it would be interesting. Jonathan even had a coupon for a free main course.

The Linkery turned out to be an industrial looking restaurant, which had just moved into new quarters:

Single sourcing is at new heights here. They even tell you how the paper is made and where it comes from:

We ordered a charcuterie plate to share, and then lamb. The charcuterie itself was very good -- from top to bottom, landjager, bresaola, copa -- but it was the accompaniments that made this plate:

Each carrot, date, walnut was full of flavour and it was all that I could do to leave Jonathan his fair share. And a wonderfully inky, deep tasting Nebbiolo from Mexico. The main was breast of lamb with merguez, the former tasting milky and the latter perfectly spiced with pepper (but no turmeric that I detected). A great Bordeaux-style blend called Chukker accompanied. (It's wonderful being in California, where one regularly drinks wine of quality that one would go broke for in Canada.) Like Chez Panisse, the vegetables were terrific; unlike CP and Cowbell, the meat was good enough, but not memorable.

With dessert, another first: a dessert beer. An edifying end to a most enjoyable evening.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Two Equestrian Statues

This is a statue of King Edward VII: an egregiously stupid and gluttonous man with a flexible sense of private morality. Son of Victoria, he became heir to the throne because his brother, who was severely retarded, died before their mother did.

This fine statue once stood in Delhi, as this plaque below it recounts:

Now it stands in Queen's Park in Toronto, a sadly shabby space in the centre of this appearance-oblivious city. Paul Fonseca remarks in the Globe and Mail about the "rundown fountain surrounded by unplanted gardens," "the dilapidated benches" and "the neglected monument to a dead monarch." As for the last: how did it get there?

Delhi had many such statues, some of which had their ornamental qualities. The one shown below was at one end of Rajpat, or Kingsway, which has the fabulous Rashtrapati Bhawan, or President's Residence, at its other end.

This one has now been removed, and the pedestal stands empty. It is of George V, a somewhat thinner, but equally uncultured son of the man on a horse. The statue of Edward VII was also removed. These and many other statues were stored in kind of graveyard for imperial relics, on the grounds of the old Coronation Durbar, in Civil Lines near Delhi University.

Sometime in the sixties, Henry Jackman had the good idea that Toronto was in need of an equestrian statue. It had many good statues in front of the legislature building in Queen's Park, but all the men so honoured stood on their feet. Jackman contacted his friend, Roland Michener, then Canada's High Commissioner to India, to see if the Government of India would give Toronto its exiled Edward VII-on-horseback. GOI was only too willing to oblige.

The statue was cut into three pieces, shipped to Toronto, rewelded here, and erected in 1969. It looks good where it stands (though grass, as you can see, is a struggle in Toronto).

Canada and Toronto were unappreciative recipients. In her memoir of her father's time in India, Michener's daughter complains about how long it took to process the papers needed to export the statue. Nowhere in this memoir is there a word of gratitude for the gift. Nor is Toronto properly appreciative for who gave it its equestrian statue. Look closely at the plaque above: you'll see it says that the gift was "made possible" by the Government of India, along with "the former High Commissioner to India, His Excellency Roland Michener C.C, C.D., Governor General of Canada." Michener did indeed make the gift possible, and Jackman paid to transport and install it, but surely the Government or the people of India should be acknowledged as the donors (rather than as facilitators).

Jackman was right about equestrian statues: no city is complete without one. Soon others began to hear the call. A couple of blocks away, in St. Michael's College, there now stands this charming example of the genre:

Not quite as imposing as Edward Emperor of India perhaps, but at least this one doesn't look like the type who cadges money and mistresses from his