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The Secret History of the Failed NDP-Green Alliance of the 90s (part 1)

In September 1997, my most trusted advisor took me aside confidentially to show me something he had been working on for a few months. I had just been acclaimed to my second term as leader of the BC Green Party following sixteen-month period of instability in which my star candidate and his allies had been drumming up a series of non-scandals in an effort to prevent me from seeking a second consecutive term.

I was twenty-five years old and had served as leader of the BC Green Party for more than four years. I enjoyed the ongoing support of the party’s founders, Paul George and Adriane Carr, who ran BC’s then-largest environmental group, Western Canada Wilderness Committee. I had the support of Greenpeace co-founders and lifelong rivals Jim Bohlen and Paul Watson. Following Andy Shadrack’s two attempts to tar me with allegations of financial impropriety backfiring, it seemed like plain sailing for the BC Green Party.

We had run in seventy-one of seventy-five ridings and placed ahead of the Social Credit Party in the previous election. And thanks to Julian’s persuasive and tactical skills, Angus Reid had changed their polling methodology and we had jumped to 5% in provincial opinion polls. Julian and I had also teamed-up with Troy Lanigan of the Canadian Taxpayers’ Federation and Sonja Sanguinetti, president of the BC Liberal Party to create the Electoral Change Coalition, a collection of groups across the political spectrum representing more than 100,000 British Columbians in their membership rolls, calling for proportional representation.

But in that meeting, Julian suggested that we gamble all that and take the biggest political risk of our lives. He suggested that if we wanted to achieve real power in BC, we would have to reach some kind of accord with the NDP and follow the lead of European Green parties in forming a Red-Green governing alliance.

This would involve nothing short of a 180-degree turn in all my public statements about the New Democratic Party and unknown consequences for the base on which we relied to remain in charge of the Green Party’s governing council.

Let me be clear: we failed. Two and a half years later, we and everyone we had tried to make a deal with was out of a job, politically, except Art Vanden Berg, Canada’s first Green city councillor who would, by the end of his term, be sitting in the NDP municipal caucus in Victoria

I never achieved the high office John Horgan and Andrew Weaver have, nor am I an instantly-trustworthy stalwart for either group of partisans. Still, I think the Nobel Prize winner and premier-elect might benefit from knowledge of our small story from the 1990s and how such promising accords can come crashing down no matter how much they seem to be delivering. Maybe this cautionary tale can avert a similar fate for North America’s first Red-Green governing coalition.

Let’s begin with the poem I recited prior to every meeting after I adopted this plan:

There are those who would build the Temple,

And those who prefer that the Temple should not be built.

In the days of Nehemiah the Prophet

There was no exception to the general rule.

In Shushan the palace, in the month of Nisan,

He served the wine to king Artaxerxes,

And he grieved for the broken city, Jerusalem;

And the King gave him leave to depart

That he might rebuild the city.

So he went, with a few, to Jerusalem,

And there, by the dragon’s well, by the dung gate,

By the fountain gate, by the king’s pool,

Jerusalem lay waste, consumed with fire;

No place for a beast to pass.

There were enemies without to destroy him,

And spies and self-seekers within,

When he and his men laid their hands to bebuilding the wall,

So they built as men must build

With the sword in one hand and the trowel in the other.

In 1997, Julian reasoned that the first step towards a provincial coalition needed to be made where left-Green vote-splitting had produced the worst consequences. And so we began our project in Vancouver at the municipal level. The Coalition of Progressive Electors, which had formally absorbed the Civic NDP in 1993, had lost every seat on Vancouver city council, parks board and school board in 1996 and the mainstream media had placed the blame for the loss pretty squarely on us, the Green Party, after a spirited campaign in which our candidates got as much as 23% of the vote.

The fact that the NDP name was not attached to COPE also made them an easy starting point, along with the long history of crossing party lines with mixed slates of Communists and New Democrats. It was not hard to obtain an audience with COPE, still reeling from their first total electoral shutout since their founding in 1968. The late Frances Wasserlein took the lead on the COPE side in championing an alliance but, despite our shared interests and literal mutual destruction in the previous campaign, it was hard to cut a deal.

In particular, the electoral system proved a nearly insurmountable barrier in negotiations and led to the agreement’s ultimate unravelling during the 1999 campaign. COPE had been fighting for a single-member plurality first-past-the-post municipal voting system since its founding; “the ward system” as they euphemistically called it, was as close to a COPE article of faith as any policy could be. With the NDP generally winning a majority of provincial seats under first-past-the-post in Vancouver, implementing the same system municipally appeared to be a recipe for a permanent COPE majority.

But for Greens, this would mean, at best, chronic underrepresentation and, at worst, no representation at all, with our party’s vote evenly distributed across the city’s geography. In the end, Julian had to produce a series of maps for COPE showing that we could still implement municipal wards in the city even with the proportional representation that formed the foundation of our negotiating position. We also had to sacrifice all of our “limits to growth” and development freeze language from our policy in order for COPE to agree to a proportional system of municipal wards. But that took over a year of negotiating, to push that through, ultimately requiring the skill of our most personable negotiator, Paul Alexander, the first Green candidate to place third in a provincial election back in 1996.

By that time, I had moved to Victoria to join Art Vanden Berg who had only narrowly lost his 1996 municipal election bid to attempt to replicate the agreement with an official NDP affiliate and begin the work of fashioning some kind of provincial bargain. But there were other reasons to move by then. Shadrack and his allies, emboldened by my recent bout with clinical depression, had begun an aggressive campaign to remove me and my allies from the leadership of the party. As we hit 11% in the polls in the fall of 1998, there was a growing sense of urgency to move forward with the alliances because our time might be running out.

We might be inking deals with municipal NDP affiliates and the labour councils that backed them but, to do so, we were burning through our own political capital at an alarming rate. More on that in part 2.

Suffer the little children to come unto me: How Mormon homophobia is causing an unintended theological crisis

On Thursday, November 5th, 2015, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), colloquially known as the Mormons, announced a new set of policies to reinforce the hard line it has taken against homosexuality. Since becoming the primary sponsor and proponent of Proposition Eight, the 2008 amendment to California’s state constitution to prohibit same-sex marriage, the LDS have jockeyed for position among conservative American religions to distinguish themselves as the most intractably opposed to homosexuality.

In those seven years, the LDS have engaged with questions of women’s access to priesthood and other offices in the church hierarchy in the same spirit, offering more vehement, robust and conclusive denunciations of gender equality that competing religious formations, such as the Roman Catholic Church under Benedict XVI.

While each round of anti-gay pronouncements and policies has elicited protest and criticism from more liberally-inclined LDS members, this new set of policies has immediately engendered far deeper and more broad-based opposition, going well beyond the usual chorus of liberal voices at the margins of the Church. Indeed, many opposing these new policies are, themselves, convinced, faithful Mormon opponents of same-sex marriage and female ordination. On social media, many of even the most orthodox Mormons are seeking to explain the policy away as an ephemeral error or mis-statement that will soon be cleared up.

Until this week, Mormons were encouraged to convert youths and adolescents in non-Mormon families. And they still are. Unless those families have two parents of the same sex. Children raised in Catholic, Muslim, Buddhist or even Satanist families are welcome to join the LDS Church but not the children of same-sex unions; they are specifically prohibited from joining until they reach the age of twenty-one and, even then, must swear special vows condemning their parents and voiding their family units. While the LDS declaration that living in a same-sex union is now understood to constitute apostasy, irrespective of its legality, might constitute a problem for liberal Mormons, it is the elements of the policy concerning the children of these couples that is producing a much more far-reaching outcry, rooted in the faith’s unique scriptures and foundational narratives. Thursday’s announcement appears to do considerable violence to fundamental aspects of the Church’s core theology.

Mormons distinguish themselves from other Christians based on scriptures that only their church recognizes (The Book of Moses, Book of Abraham, Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants), scriptures that non-Mormons understand to have been authored by Joseph Smith in response to burning theological questions of the early and mid- nineteenth century. Mormons, on the other hand, understand them to have been translated by Smith but authored by various Hebrew prophets including Abraham and Moses, and, in some cases, by God himself.

There was a lot of controversy over infant baptism in Joseph Smith’s day and Mormon scripture responded with a detailed theology dealing with intersection between the age of majority/consent, free will, parental prerogatives and salvation. Mormon scripture, speaking with the voice of either God or Jesus, explains that children between the ages of eight and eighteen are absolutely free to make adult decisions about their salvation and religious affiliation and those decisions, for good or ill, count in eternity. It also explains that children under eight must not be punished, on earth or in heaven, for the decisions taken by adults, even if those adults are their parents or priests.

Upon reaching the age of twelve, according to current Church practice, young men are eligible to become priests, holding the “Aaronic priesthood” and receiving an ecclesiastical rank in the church. The “age of accountability,” of eight, from which time forward children may make decisions about their salvation as adults, Mormon scripture sources directly to God himself:

“And, behold, and lo, this is an ensample unto all those who were ordained unto this priesthood… And again, inasmuch as parents have children in Zion, or in any of her stakes which are organized, that teach them not to understand the doctrine of repentance, faith in Christ the Son of the living God, and of baptism and the gift of the Holy Ghost by the laying on of the hands, when eight years old, the sin be upon the heads of the parents… And their children shall be baptized for the remission of their sins when eight years old, and receive the laying on of the hands… Behold, I am Alpha and Omega, and I come quickly. Amen.” – Doctrine and Covenants 68

There is a long tradition of faith-promoting literature in the LDS tradition in which children of non-Mormon parents see the correctness of Mormonism and convert despite familial opposition and even disownment. Such stories have only grown in importance as the LDS missionary program has globalized and its missionaries—often themselves under the age of majority in the US—have reached out to adolescents the world over who are questioning their parents’ faith and familial religious traditions. Indeed, much of the appeal of the LDS missionary program, which seems structured in some ways as a reverse-Rumspringa, has come to inhere in the youth and sincerity, as opposed to seasoned proficiency of the faith’s global missionary army.

Mormon missionaries are typically eighteen- and nineteen-year-old men who have just received the ironic title of “Elder” prior to their missionary vocation are, as of Thursday instructed that they may not convert individuals their own age if they are being raised in a family rooted in a same-sex union. And, if approached by such individuals, unsolicited, must turn them down as unworthy converts.

These doctrinal changes, more than simply confirming a two-decade trajectory of social conservatism, eviscerate a core doctrine of the Mormon faith, that of “free agency,” which Mormon theologians proudly trumpet as distinct from and superior to mainline Christianity’s “free will.” Much of Mormonism’s seductiveness in gaining and retaining young members has come from its recognition of the capacity of children and youth to make real choices for which they are accountable. Today, for many Mormons, it appears that that foundational principle, on which so much Mormon culture and organization—never mind doctrine—depends, is now in retreat.

The impending crisis the Mormon world now faces may have been occasioned by bigotry towards same-sex couples. But the bigotry, itself, is no long the central issue. Rather, it is the over-reach, the hubristic effort to rewrite Mormon theology from the bottom up to serve that bigotry, that has thrown Mormondom into its biggest doctrinal crisis in more than a generation.

The Miller Legacy and the Lobotomization of Toronto Civic Discourse

Toronto civic politics has become a sorry sight over the past decade, culminating in the current mayoral race that is drawing to a close. The 2010 mayoral race was bad, ending in the election of a troubled, confused, angry man, far out of his depth in running Canada’s fifth largest political jurisdiction. Rob Ford came into office in four years ago with 47% of the popular vote on a platform that made little sense when subject to the most basic scrutiny; it included, for instance, the construction of $23 billion worth of new subways, paid for with $10 million in municipal program cuts.

The current race features two frontrunners with fiscal plans no more credible than the one on which Ford was elected four years ago. But another important thing unites Doug Ford and John Tory and distinguishes them from Olivia Chow: they understand the role they aspire to play on council in a non-legislative sense. Both Ford and Tory understand the role of the mayor to be one halfway between a CEO and a General Manager; where they differ is on the style of corporate management they wish to employ with their inferiors or junior managers, the city council. Ford favours an old-fashioned confrontational one; Tory would be a softer touch, more consultive and collaborative.

Since Rob Ford’s election, it has become increasingly popular to explain the failures in Toronto governance and the incoherent, lobotomized character of public policy debate as resulting from the moral failings of individual bad actors. No one is to speak of a systems failure. It’s supposed to be just a coincidence that the 2010 race was a contest between “Furious” George Smitherman, the cabinet minister with a reputation for volatile behaviour and a tyrannical management style and a man who kept—for some reason—having the police come to his house to investigate domestic violence reports. And it’s just a coincidence that the two men with the greatest thirst for this office are proud to identify as “buck stops here” bosses.

But the character of people attracted to a job and voters’ estimation of candidates’ suitability for it has a lot to do with the rules defining said job. And much of the crisis and failure surrounding the office of mayor can be traced, sadly, to the last competent person to hold it and the premier with whom that man partnered to restructure the city.

In 2005, David Miller began a major undertaking: negotiating a new governance structure for the city to accommodate the reality of its role as Canada’s fifth-largest government, representing a two and a half million people, providing transit, housing, childcare and a host of other services often associated with provinces not cities. I say “negotiating” because it would insult everyone’s intelligence to claim that Miller consulted Torontonians in order to establish his agenda. Certainly, there was a panel and a set of public meetings but these bodies reached pre-ordained conclusions, dictated from the mayor’s office. I actually don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, besides the pointless and insulting deception that wasted my time and that of other participants.

At the time, Toronto was undergoing a series of budget crises; Miller was just short of a majority (23) of NDP- and centre-left votes to pass his major fiscal initiatives. Because of the lack of a formal party system, the de facto NDP-aligned caucus that backed Miller could not make lasting, stable agreements with centrist elements on council to create a stable, governing coalition. The prohibition on formal parties on council further hobbled efforts because the NDP minority government governing Toronto was, by law, prohibited from making its workings in any way transparent or accessible to voters. Instead, the actual practices of governing Toronto had to be actively obfuscated and driven underground, into an unaccountable, covert party system.

For Miller, there was a fork in the road. It was clear that endemic budget crises, brinksmanship and instability were not the way forward. Something had to change.

I intervened in the debate that followed. I worked with a small cross-partisan coalition of democracy activists like John Deverell, Linda Sheppard and John Thompson. Our argument was this: Toronto needed to grow up; its 45-seat legislature should function like a real legislature. Instead of operating covertly and, sometimes, illegally, Toronto’s municipal parties should become transparent and accountable to the public. The city should stop using the office of the Integrity Commissioner to actively prevent councillors from speaking out about issues outside their ward and instead, it should become important for councillors to offer not just a hyper-parochial laundry list of potholes to be filled but instead campaign by declaring clearly what their city-wide vision was on the major issues, who their allies were and how people across the city could work for that vision. While we were at it, we suggested that it might be useful to reform the voting system to represent non-ghettoized and city-wide communities. After all, for most people the whole point of living in a city with a good transportation is being able to form diffuse communities with people other than one’s neighbours. In such a system, direct election of the mayor would end and we would choose mayors the way we select prime ministers, premiers and school board chairs: through assembling a legislative majority.

Miller and his allies had another vision, one on which New York, Chicago, San Francisco and other “great” American cities had based their recent governance reforms: draining significant powers from the dysfunctional city council into the office of the mayor. In such a model, many of the crises of the Miller era could be averted. In this new model, the major city committees and commissions to which substantial powers are delegated, could be constituted by the mayor unilaterally, without resort to council vote.

At the time, we produced two studies, addressed Toronto city council and presented to the Ontario Provincial Parliament committee reviewing the deal Miller had negotiated with premier McGuinty. It all came to naught. New Democrats, organized labour and key civil society organizations sided with Miller; the solution to a dysfunctional legislature was not transparency and democratization but the transfer of power to an elected autocrat. Parties were not to be made accountable or reformed; they were to be rendered irrelevant by making council a place in which big ideas ceased to be discussed. The big ideas would be sorted out in the mayor’s head or in his hand-picked committees.

As we grew increasingly desperate in our attempts to mobilize progressives about this impending, anti-democratic centralization of power we became more teleological in our rhetoric. “What will happen when David Miller is gone and the city’s business elites buy themselves a new ‘strong mayor’ who will put these new tools to very different uses?” we asked. “Won’t people with ambitions as petty dictators be drawn to this position and purchase it with their private fortunes, as has happened in the US?” we asked. The response was as unintelligent and devoid of abstract thought as the Toronto political discourse it has generated. It was essentially, “but David Miller IS the mayor.”

The US study we often cited during this debate explains the emptiness of such a position: “The success or failure of a strong mayor depends a lot on experience and personality… No structure is going to substitute for good politics. Even though many of America’s great cities—among them New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco—have visible, charismatic strong mayors, [one] can never design on an individual…” This was ignored so we began making dire predictions. We predicted that, when Miller retired, his successor would be an aspiring petty dictator who was either installed by the city’s major real estate interests or who purchased the office himself out of a private fortune. As history shows, that plan was so ineffective nobody even remembers it.

Essentially, in exchange for enlarged powers in his second mandate, Miller and his allies lobotomized Toronto civic politics. Today, elections are about the vision of the one person seeking the mayor’s chair and little more than the list of potholes each city council candidate intends to fill and the order in which they are to be filled. The plurality of ideologies, identities and communities in Toronto are not to be represented in parties, programs and political movements; they are to be placed outside the discourse. Ideologies are to be denied and obfuscated. Communities are to be ignored or shoehorned into quaint, racialized ghettos with demarcated by twee multilingual signage. Identities are to be reduced to aesthetics and tastes to be celebrated in parades and not understood to have anything to do with political representation.

And the consequences continue to pile up. Today, the biggest, most vibrant governance reform movement in Toronto is RaBIT, the “Ranked Ballot Initiative of Toronto” whose main project is to make sure that the mayor is elected through instant runoff voting, the system used to elect the leaders of political parties at the national and provincial level. The quest to make extra-sure that Toronto’s chief executive enjoys is the first, second or third choice a bare majority of voters in the city. After all, as the only person allowed to run on a vision, platform or program, the mayor had better embody in his person at least a majority of the city.

The idea that a legislative assembly is a body that represents a representative diversity of ideologies and communities, in which coalitions are forged and deals made, that it should be the site where a jurisdiction thinks and talks aloud with itself to choose a vision for its future and a program for achieving it, are ideas on which Toronto has given up. Instead, each councillor, elected by a plurality of as little as 19% of the 40% showing up to vote in an arbitrarily-bounded polygon containing about 60,000 residents, colloquially known as a “ward,” is supposed to represent some mythical neighbourhood consensus, colloquially termed “the community.” No matter that most communities, be they cultural, ethnic, ideological or interest-based are geographically diffuse and reach across all or most wards in the city; the point isn’t to represent actual communities but instead to shut down meaningful debate with the empty signifier “the community.” This surrender under the leadership of David Miller, the decision to create an elected autocracy rather than a transparent democracy is what has produced the ugliness, stupidity and incoherence of the 2010 and 2014 Toronto elections.

As long as formal political parties are illegal and driven underground, as long as it is a breach of councillor integrity to express an opinion or position about an issue outside the arbitrarily-bounded, numbered polygon one is elected by a plurality of voters to “represent,” as long as major policy decisions are taken out of the hands of the city council and placed within the purview of one white man with the title “your worship,” Toronto political discourse and civic culture will remain the thin gruel voters are choking down today.

Director Sara Polley speaks usefully and intelligently of the city’s trauma and the curtailed possibilities for big or intelligent thoughts, for courage and creativity in her piece endorsing my preferred candidate, Olivia Chow. But her mistake is to trace it to the failure of virtue of one sad, drunk man. The trauma was already lying in wait, a poison pill left by her (and my, I’m afraid) 2006 mayoral candidate, an inevitable event once the office of mayor was “reformed” into one that would attract the likes the Ford brothers.

In all likelihood, the Toronto left will have another four years out of power to brood on their irrelevance and marginality. Perhaps during that time, we can consider the road not taken, the possibility of offering voters a different Toronto, one that trusts in the fundamental principles of democracy and seeks to provide the city’s communities with the institutional tools to represent themselves in its legislature and, through deliberation and negotiation, enact a political program that arises from a genuine and mature conversation about what Torontonians can do together.

Justice for Anthony Smith

Imagine if, instead of a media scrum, Rob Ford were forced to push his way into Toronto City Hall past hundreds of protesters dressed in black, holding candles with signs saying “Justice for Anthony Smith.” If he were the disgraced mayor of pretty much any other Midwestern lake city running for re-election, black community organizers would have hired buses to Nathan Philips Square from Jane and Finch and attention vampires and vultures like Jesse Jackson Jr., Al Sharpton and Louis Farrakhan would have flown in to stymie the mayor’s return to the campaign trail. And Toronto’s 220,000 black residents would not be split on the mayor’s re-election bid but instead resolutely opposed.

Some of the reason for that is that Toronto understands itself not as just another Midwestern lake city but as a kind of urban sui generis, aided by the strange aging hippie boosterism hawked by the likes of Richard Florida and former mayor John Sewell. Toronto has a penchant for a kind of provincial grandiosity rarely seen outside long term outposts of empire. Yet, when it comes to economics, demographics, ecology, infrastructure and the other physical fundamentals of a city, Toronto is not, as it imagines itself to be, “the Little Apple.”

Instead, it is one of about a dozen major metropolitan areas surrounding Lakes Erie, Ontario and Michigan, which range in population from Green Bay’s 300,000 to Chicago’s 10 million; Toronto and Detroit are on the upper end with between four and five million residents a piece. These cities are, generally, diverse, multiracial places with high levels of income diversity paired with serious structural economic problems of the North American “Rust Belt,” where manufacturing infrastructure is decaying due to the region’s lack of access to clean, inexpensive energy and consequent dependence on expensive fossil fuels to fire its manufacturing sector.

Toronto’s black community has mostly arrived a little more recently than the black residents of the American Midwest, who mostly arrived between 1880 and 1940. While US Jim Crow apartheid was the force that produced new demographic realities on the lakes’ south shore, it was a targeted state-run campaign to recruit Caribbean black women as domestic servants in 1959 that began the reshaping of Toronto demography. But we should not make too much of this minor historical difference. The importance of figures like former Lieutenant-Governor Lincoln Alexander and events like the annual Harry Jerome Awards remind us of the centrality of African Canadians to Toronto civic life.

While law and order conservative councillor Michael Thompson can demand, as he did two weeks ago, that Rob Ford apologize for calling the quarter of a million African Canadian residents of Toronto “niggers,” for him to raise the question of Anthony Smith’s murder would be, by Toronto standards, beyond the pale. The great racial injustice of the Ford mayoralty is not the mayor’s penchant for using derogatory slurs; it is the probability that he ordered the death of a young black man and has suffered no political consequences from that very reasonable suspicion. While black activists like Samuel Getachew and Desmond Cole are doing work to raise questions about Ford with black Torontonians, their public condemnations are focused not on the fact that the mayor, who is already facing a lawsuit for a savage prison beating against another potential informant, who has already been caught on tape bragging, in a drug-induced frenzy, about how he will have those who inform on him violently beaten and killed, likely ordered the hit on young Anthony Smith. Instead, they are focused on the hurt feelings generated by Ford’s use of the word “nigger.”

Toronto’s problem isn’t that it has a mayor who sometimes uses the n-word in ways that reveal his malice towards the city’s black population. Toronto’s problem having a violent thug for a mayor who, it is clear, would wish he had ordered the hit on Anthony Smith, on the off-chance that the young man’s other enemies got to him before his associates, like Sandro Lisi, could. Cole’s talk of “victim impact statements” for all the people whose feelings might be hurt by name-calling seems—as I am sure it is designed to do, given his political ambitions in a city that hides conservative, racialized politics under a shabby multicultural veneer—quaint, provincial and non-threatening when compared against what black community organizers in Cleveland, Buffalo or Detroit might be doing, saying and demanding about now.

While respectability-focused, genteel Torontonians express shame and outrage at their mayor’s public drunkenness, drug use, ignorance, crassness, dishonesty and foul mouth, their response to the death of Anthony Smith is one of silence. While the Toronto Star, Canada’s last bastion of liberal investigative journalism, dogs Ford for answers to questions about his sobriety, questions about the murder of a street-involved, racialized young man are strangely absent from the shouting media scrums that besiege Ford at his public appearances. Those who have made the most of the murder, for which a young man of colour was arrested but will not be brought to trial, for reasons not disclosed by the Crown, are the city’s two conservative papers, the National Post and Toronto Sun.

Let us consider the possibility that what is wrong with Toronto and its body politic is that it is far more conservative than Green Bay, Duluth, Toledo or Rochester. Sure, it has better transit, more bikes, a bike-riding socialist former mayor, a world-famous hip, blog-writing, chest-shaving urban futurist, heritage street cars and those nice multilingual signs demarcating ethnic shopping strips. But what about the fundamentals of the city’s politics? What really hides under the polite veneer that makes a Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton—let alone a Cornel West—seem absurd or impossible? Surely, Toronto’s black community can’t be more fearful, conservative and respectability focused than Rochester’s!

Could it be that Toronto is the city it has always been, a bastion of cutting edge British Empire politics, a carefully ordered and maintained hierarchy of ethnic and confessional groups, deftly managed by the best technocrats the Empire could offer? Could it be that those lovely signs in Amharic, Punjabi and Mandarin are just the latest elaboration of the old Anglo imperial motto, “a place for everyone, and everyone in his place”? If so, then perhaps Toronto’s black community leaders are wise in focusing on hurt feelings about name-calling and shutting up about the murder. While the Family Compact might be embarrassed into sacking a mayor so unsophisticated and indecorous as to not know where one can and cannot say “nigger,” Toronto’s establishment may have no problem at all with a mayor whose regime guns down a young, gang-involved black man in front of a night club with impunity.

Still, foolhardy or not, if someone starts holding Justice for Anthony Smith vigils in Nathan Philips Square, I may have to grab a bag of tea lights and hop on a plane.

Stuart Parker rarely taunts the city in which he earned his PhD. But these are extraordinary times.

Stepping Down As Fair Vote Canada Vice President

September 24th, 2013

Dear Fair Vote Canada,

I am tendering my resignation from the national board effective September 30th, 2013, as soon as I wrap up my commitments to the Executive Director hiring process. I returned to activity at the national level in FVC this winter not because my interests are focused at the national level or because I feel that the FVC organizational culture is a comfortable fit for me but due to a threefold crisis.

  1. A Toronto “social entrepreneur” and the personality cult centred around him were attempting to seize control of Fair Vote Canada in order to place FVC under the direction of an affinity group whose main activity is shilling for elements in the Liberal Party of Canada that are working to stymie reform in Ontario and BC.
  2. Fair Vote Canada had made disastrous personnel and leadership decisions that had sent it into a near-fatal organizational tailspin.
  3. The endemic conflict and scorched-earth tactics that the above two factors produced were fundamentally altering the social contract of the voting reform movement in Canada, making it an unsafe and conflict-ridden space in sharp contradistinction to its previous social contract that had prized gentleness and diversity.

By the end of this week, issues 1 and 2 will have been successfully addressed. The challenge before us and our new executive director and the new executive you select following my resignation will be issue 3. Fair Vote Canada, as the largest group in Canada’s voting reform movement, will have to find a way to balance the need to provide a safe, stable working environment for volunteers that is free of harassment with the equally pressing need for an open organization in which newcomers feel welcome, one that can embrace a greater ideological and cultural diversity than it does today.

Because I am a poor fit for the Central Canadian culture of FVC, I will be making my contribution to the third issue in a different way. I will be working with Troy Lanigan, John Carpay, Stephen Broscoe, David Marley and others to build MOVE: The Movement for Voter Equality as an organization that pays special attention to the task of bringing conservatives back into the fair voting movement. We also hope to model a different, more consultive style of inter-organizational cooperation than other national and local voting reform groups that have recently appeared. We look forward to partnering with FVC and supporting our allies in their important work.

It is seventeen years since I co-founded the BC Electoral Change Coalition and chaired the first YES to PR referendum campaign in Canada. I am not exaggerating when I say that I love this movement. I helped to start it in its modern form when I was at my best. When I was at my worst, the movement took me in and helped to rebuild me not just as a political activist but as a human being, treating me with great gentleness and generosity. I owe so much to the fair voting movement. It (and tabletop RPGs, of course) have been the constants of my life, the communities that have been there for me wherever I have gone and whenever I have needed them.

It has also been – and remains to this day – the cause of my life. The equal participation of all people in the governance of their society is the political value upon which all others must rest. FVC must never lose sight of this by falling into political paternalism or manipulating processes for predetermined ends. We are here because we trust the people. When PR loses a referendum or a vote in a legislature or convention, it is not because the people have failed us. It is because we have failed them.

Fair Vote has important work ahead of it. It will be a long time before we recover from the trauma of recent years; do not be too quick to pronounce us well. Let us remember that we are all healing and do what we can to rebuild the culture of gentleness our movement once exemplified. If a culture of gentleness could arise simply from individuals being nice on an ad hoc basis, the evangelical movement would have transformed society long ago. If a culture of gentleness entailed tolerating the intolerance of misbehaviour of others, George Galloway and the Respect movement would be the way forward. But neither of these is the solution. A culture of gentleness entails doing what reformers do best: thinking systematically about big groups of people and how they relate to one another and then making positive, systemic changes.

Let’s move forward together in doing just that.


Stuart Parker,

Founding Director, Movement for Voter Equality

PS        For the time being, I will be staying on as a director of my local chapter, Fair Vote Vancouver

Don’t Celebrate Rob Ford’s Deposition Too Hard

This morning my Facebook feed has lit up with left and liberal friends celebrating the court-ordered deposition of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford. Although I knew Ford would be a terrible mayor, vigorously encouraged strategic voting in order to block his election and strongly agree with the court’s decision, I lack any of the sense of triumph so many of my friends are displaying. That doesn’t mean I feel sorry for Ford or sympathize with him in any way. He was and remains an incompetent, bullying liar who has worsened the lives of Toronto’s poor, unionized workers, cyclists, transit riders, youth and seniors during his short reign as mayor.

When describing him to non-Torontonians, my usual shorthand has been to say that Ford was a character Chris Farley would inevitably have created had he lived long enough, a piece of Saturday Night Live sketch comedy come to life in Canada’s largest and most arrogant city. I pointed out that no one was more surprised than Ford, himself, that he was unable to make good on his election promise to fund $23 billion worth of new spending with $10 million worth of cuts or that simply saying “new subway lines will be built by the private sector,” did not result in private construction firms constructing free subways all over the city.

Nothing about Rob Ford the politician was an act; he was just as stupid, just as ignorant, just as confused, just as flustered as he seemed, unclear even on his last day on the job as to the most basic information about what it entailed. Ford was deposed for the simple reason that he believed that attaining the office of mayor emancipated him from all rules governing his city’s other 2.5 million residents. In my view, he sought the office of mayor so that he could finally be free of conflict of interest rules, traffic laws, the Criminal Code, and the various other laws under which he had chafed his whole adult life. And, like most of his other beliefs about how the world works, this was demonstrated to be false.

So why am I not joining my friends in celebrating his court-ordered removal from office?

Despite his abandonment by nearly every serious conservative in Toronto, including members he appointed to his own executive committee, Ford has maintained a sizeable following, according to polls, about 30% according to Angus Reid’s most recent survey. Those who support him are the kind of people to whom leftists once sought to appeal. They make less money; they have less education; they live in the least-serviced neighbourhoods; their apartments and homes cost less; and they are deeply distrustful of elites. And what I find most unsettling in my friends’ opinions is their relief at Toronto’s anticipated return to business as usual.

In 2010, Ford appealed far beyond Stephen Harper supporters and the small number of Torontonians who actually believed the previous government was corrupt or lavish in its spending. Nearly half of Toronto residents voted for him because of his populist rejection of the way Toronto had been run since its founding by conservative war refugees in the late eighteenth century. The United Empire Loyalists and Family Compact set a tone of high-handed, patronizing elitism that has defined Toronto’s governing class ever since.

During the six years I lived in the city, what struck me was that, like the Roman and American senatorial classes, this crew seemed to control every political faction, movement or party that had any real shot at power, providing an extraordinary continuity in the basic principles of governance that prevailed in the city. Not until Mike Harris’s dramatic break with this tradition at the provincial level was this hegemony threatened. By forcibly amalgamating Toronto with the four suburban municipalities that surrounded it, Harris was able to drown temporarily drown the old Anglo elites in immigrants and suburbanites to destabilize the city’s political culture and give those outside a certain class of educated Anglos real, as opposed to tokenistic, access to the city’s levers of power.

By the time I moved to Toronto, the mayoralty of Mel “what is this World Health Organization!?” Lastman had ended and Toronto had returned to its political traditions under the leadership of Harvard-educated social democrat, David Miller, traditions eloquently described by former mayor David Crombie during a dispute over the City of Toronto Act. Speaking against this new legislation expanding the powers of the mayor’s office, Crombie lectured council, “You have forgotten what your job is as city councilors. It is not your job to run this city. It is your job to listen to the people who run this city and follow their advice.” Western rube that I was at the time, I thought, initially, that he was talking about the voters but he soon made himself clear: the city was run by career civil servants who were far better-educated and better-informed than mere elected officials, whose job, I took it, was to report potholes and overflowing waste bins to them.

Toronto, in Crombie’s vision, was a mandarinate, a complex system that needed to be run by an elite group of technocrats who could guide it far better than some hypothetical uneducated immigrant councilor from North York. The debate between Miller and Crombie was over how to run a proper mandarinate; Miller believed that, as a man better-educated and more qualified than the mandarins, he should govern and manage the system directly. Crombie, with a longer view, correctly discerned that Torontonians could not be trusted always to elect men like Miller and himself and that safeguards needed to remain in place to prevent it from devolving into full-on democracy.

So my problem is this: the people who backed Ford were not ignorant fools; they were people who, for the most part, chose to vote against the mandarinate, despite the deep flaws in the candidate who emerged to challenge it. On the other hand, those who welcome his removal with the most enthusiasm seem to be expressing support for the return of elite governance. At last, they seem to say, we can get back to having the city governed by qualified condo-dwelling technocrats and make sure that we never again have to chafe under the rule of an uneducated suburbanite from a low-income ward.

The upset Ford caused the constituency David Brooks terms “bourgeois bohemians” extended far beyond his policies to what he represented culturally. Like George W. Bush, Ford adopted working class cultural mores because he simply could not master the cultural affectations of the haute bourgeois class into which he was born. While he was not, himself, a man of the people, it seems that what rendered Ford most objectionable to his critics was his sincere embrace of proletarian culture and values. It was his weight, his love of sports, his lack of emotional reserve, his lack of education and his big, noisy parties that pushed people over the edge. Leftists and liberals certainly found Ford’s policy similarities to Stephen Harper infuriating but I am left with the disquieting feeling that they found his stylistic similarities to Hugo Chavez equally upsetting.

And that is the tragic legacy of Rob Ford. As an assault on Toronto’s mandarinate, his regime has been a dismal failure. The only significant group he has managed to marginalize has been unionized city employees working in the dwindling handful of decent-paying manual labour jobs in the city. Meanwhile, the credibility of suburbanites, low-income voters and of populism, itself, have suffered enormously. And once again, people who imagine themselves to be socialists have come to identify ever more closely not just with liberal elites but with elitism, itself.

There is nothing, wrong, in itself, with electing a mayor who comes from a poor and underserviced part of town, instead of the self-consciously hip downtown core. There is nothing wrong, in itself, with electing an autodidact with no university credits under her belt. In fact, there is much right about these things, if we truly believe in the social democracy of Rosa Luxembourg. The mandarins whose grip on the city will once again tighten do not see such people as full citizens, much less potential mayors, of the city. They are people to be managed, patronized and gently guided until the forces of gentrification push them into some adjacent, less hip suburb.

Rob Ford’s election was an angry, desperate cry from Torontonians who feel marginalized and unheeded by downtown elites of all political stripes. Leftists would do well not to join these elites in crowing overmuch about their triumph over the suburban rabble and its unlikely champion. Instead, we should ask how it is that we are welcoming a return to Torontonian normalcy instead of beating the bushes for a better champion to challenge the heirs to the Family Compact.

Submission to the Electoral Boundaries Commission

Still no Age of Authenticity Part III. Instead, here’s my ultra-geeky submission to the Electoral Boundaries Commission that I’ll be doing tonight in Richmond. Warning: this is only for hardcore political geeks.

Submission to the Electoral Boundaries Commission

Presented by Stuart Parker, Los Altos Institute

Since 1988, the principles for Canadian riding boundaries have been set by the landmark BC Court of Appeal Dixon judgement which established that electoral district populations should vary no more than 25% from the average representation by population except in “very special circumstances.”

I agree with the commission’s approach, unlike that of recent provincial boundaries commissions, of refraining from declaring “very special circumstances” in British Columbia. While British Columbia presents diversity, transportation and other challenges unequaled in most provinces, its problems do not rise to the kind of circumstances faced in Labrador, Northern Québec, the James Bay Lowlands or the three Territories. As such, I concur with the commission that 25% variation is more than sufficient to accommodate BC.

Where I differ with commissioners is with respect to their apparent criteria variation within the Dixon bound. Of the forty-two proposed electoral districts, the following have received higher than average per-capita representation: Skeena-Bulkley-Valley, Pitt Meadows-Maple Ridge, Port Moody-Coquitlam, Fort Langley-Aldergrove, Richmond West, Richmond East, Mission-Matsqui, Delta, Vancouver Kingsway, Langley-Cloverdale, Burnaby South-Deer Lake, Vancouver Granville, Vancouver Quadra, Chilliwack-Fraser Canyon, South Surrey-White Rock, Abbotsford-Sumas, Vancouver South, Coquitlam-Port Coquitlam, Burnaby North-Seymour, Victoria and Vancouver Centre.

With the exception of Skeena and, to a limited extent, Chilliwack, these districts are urban or suburban in character. Furthermore, with the exception of Skeena and Victoria, all are Greater Vancouver districts. I must ask: why is it that commissioners felt that the British Columbians meriting the highest per capita representation are overwhelmingly urban and suburban Vancouverites whereas those meriting the lowest representation are rural British Columbians who do not have the good fortune to live in Skeena?

This is not to suggest that voters living in densely populated areas do not have significant representation challenges that commissions should address. In particular inner city voters wrestling with poverty, urban aboriginal voters, voters with limited official language proficiency all might merit deviation within the Dixon bound to deliver higher per capita representation. Yet curiously, it is where one finds the highest concentrations of such voters in urban BC that the commission deviates from its policies of over-representing urban and suburban Vancouverites at the expense of rural British Columbians. Vancouver East is the only district in the City of Vancouver to receive below average per capita representation; Newton, Whalley and Guildford are likewise singled-out for underrepresentation in a map that significantly over-represents all other suburban voters south of the Fraser River. Finally, the lower mainland’s only other significant inner city, New Westminster is also underrepresented.

Typically, the reason to downwardly vary district magnitudes is to deal with one or more of the following three issues: (a) the presence of difficult to represent voters, (b) geographic or transportation constraints that limit the adjacent communities that may reasonably be united in a single district and (c) the “shelf life” argument, i.e. over-representing communities with high rates of anticipated population growth. I fail to detect the consistent application of any of these principles in the draft boundaries presented by the commission.

Excepting the admirably drawn boundaries for Skeena-Bulkley, it almost seems as though the commission has inverted principles (a) and (b), while simply ignoring (c). This latter approach is something with which I concur. So, in offering my suggestions as to how the commission might improve its map, let me begin with where I concur with the commission in breaking with the last boundaries panel.

The 1998 provincial and 2002 federal boundaries commissions both explicitly spoke to the principle of “shelf-life,” that the commission should not draw electoral boundaries based on current population levels but instead based on anticipated levels. The absurdity of this approach was showcased almost immediately when the Comox Valley municipalities changed their community development plans in order to receive higher per capita representation in the 1998 provincial boundaries. Obviously, it is highly problematic for a districting commission to alter the level of representation voters enjoy based on the land use and development policies of their municipal and regional governments. I am therefore pleased that the commission chose not to grant increased representation on that basis to high-growth areas like Southeast False Creek, Kelowna, Whistler and North Nanaimo.

However, it is my view that the commission should look seriously at offering higher per-capita representation to groups that facing representation challenges on the following bases: (a) poverty, (b) official language challenges, (c) rural and remote location and (d) aboriginal ancestry. It should be noted that the districts of Vancouver East, New Westminster-Burnaby East, Prince George-Peace River, Cariboo-Prince George, Kootenay-Columbia, Kamloops-Thompson-Carioo, South Okanagan-West Kootenay, North Okanagan-Shuswap, Surrey-Centre, North Surrey-Guildford and West Surrey-Whalley are already underrepresented on a per capita basis. Yet these ridings contain disproportionately large numbers of hard-to-represent voters and thus merit downward not upward deviation within the Dixon bound. It is my view that these ridings merit serious re-evaluation by the commission.

There is something amiss when a member of parliament representing the Similkameen, Kettle, South Okanagan, Boundary, Arrow, Lower Columbia, Slocan and West Kootenay valleys has nearly twenty thousand more constituents to represent than the member representing Pitt Meadows and Maple Ridge. This is true not only from the difficulty of representation standpoint but from the perspective transportation logistics and traditional communities of interest.

While my main point in this presentation is to urge the commission to vary district populations downward rather than upward based on the difficulty of representing their voters, I would like to offer some suggestions about how commissioners might consider responding to certain particularly controversial boundaries decisions in key areas:

  1. The North Shore: The combined population of Vancouver’s North Shore suburbs, North Vancouver City, North Vancouver District, West Vancouver and Lions Bay is approximately 186,000, meaning that two north shore suburban districts could be created within the Dixon Bound with approximately 93,000 residents each, slightly smaller than the proposed Maple Ridge district. Alternatively, two districts could also be sustained, again within the bound, incorporating the Sunshine Coast and Bowen Island along with the North Shore Suburbs, yielding districts with approximately 115,000 residents each, slightly larger than the proposed West Kootenay district.
  2. The Squamish-Lillooet Regional District: Even since the paving of the Duffy Lake extension of Highway 99, boundaries commissions have continued to split this area between a southwest portion districted with West Vancouver and a northeast portion districted with the Cariboo; the commission has innovated upon this by moving the typical dividing line southwest of Pemberton. It is my view that the commission should consider districting all of the Squamish-Lillooet Regional District with the South Cariboo. The commission might also consider the inclusion of Hope and Electoral Areas A and B of the Fraser Valley Regional District in such a district.
  3. Nechako Region: Skeena-Bulkley Valley, despite being the lowest-population district still only varies 16% from the average district magnitude. This means that the commission could choose to remove Fort St. James from Skeena and place it with the community through which one is required to pass in order to reach it by car, Vanderhoof. Fraser Lake, also highly integrated with Vanderhoof, merits similar consideration.
  4. North Thompson Region: There are many options for districting Blue River, Clearwater and Vavenby. While they are most closely associated with Kamloops, their placement with 100 Mile House or Valemount is also reasonable and should be considered in any significant modification of the proposed map.

It is my view that, by removing the Squamish-Lillooet Regional District and Fraser Canyon from Greater Vancouver’s districts and instead placing them with the Interior and by applying conventional difficulty-of-representation standards to the question of district magnitudes, the commission can and should reduce the number of new districts in urban and suburban Vancouver by one and increase the number in the mainland interior by one. I believe that in doing so, the commission should be especially attentive to the voters in the Kootenays, North and Cariboo who face substantial representation challenges.

Based on my survey of census data, it strikes me that the following districts could be sustained without a deviation of more than 25%:

Prince George-Peace River: This district could shed a substantial portion of Prince George in order to facilitate the creation of Prince George-Yellowhead.

Prince George-Yellowhead: Given a larger proportion of Prince George, there exists sufficient population to create a crescent-shaped riding beginning east of Burns Lake, taking in the Nechako Region, most of Prince George, the Robson Valley and the North Thompson/South Yellowhead to Clearwater.

Cariboo: There exists sufficient population to enable the commission to recreate this historic riding which has been part of nearly every BC electoral map since Confederation. By incorporating the whole of the Cariboo, along with the Fraser Canyon and Squamish-Lillooet Regional District, the commission could end the division of the Cariboo and create a viable rural district in the Central Interior.

In the same spirit, I encourage the commission not to further dilute West Kootenay representation in a South Okanagan district but instead to downwardly vary riding populations to enable the Arrow Lakes and other regions to remain with the Castlegar and Nelson.

Most importantly, however, I want to reiterate the importance of establishing and articulating clear and reasonable principles for varying riding populations. It is my view that the commission has not yet done so. While not identical to the criteria I articulate for this, I draw the commission’s attention to the legislation passed by the Alberta government following the Dixon judgement to govern future boundaries commissions, which articulated the basis on which a district should receive high per-capita representation:

(a)     the area of the proposed electoral division exceeds 20,000 square kilometres or the total surveyed area of the proposed electoral division exceeds 15,000 square kilometres;

(b)     the distance from the Legislature Building in Edmonton to the nearest boundary of the proposed electoral division by the most direct highway route is more than 150 kilometres;

(c)     there is no town in the proposed electoral division that has a population exceeding 4,000 people;

(d)     the area of the proposed electoral division contains an Indian reserve or a Metis settlement;

(e)     the proposed electoral division has a portion of its boundary coterminous with a boundary of the Province of Alberta.

While not addressing language or poverty, except with respect to indigenous peoples, I consider this list to be an excellent starting point for the commission in considering the conditions under which to vary district populations and would hope both that such a list is adopted and that whatever list is developed is presented transparently to the general public.

I want to thank the commissioners for their hard work and the time and thought they have put into their proposals. It is exciting to see British Columbia finally receiving the representation it deserves. Let us work together to make sure that the benefits of this new representation are enjoyed equally and fairly.

David Lewis – Part II

I’m close to finishing both chapter five of my book and part three of my Age of Authenticity essay but neither is quite ready yet. So here is the second David Lewis tribute post. Here we again have scans of copies of copies of twenty year-old material. But again, it’s up-to-the-minute relevant. David was making ends meet as a labourer on the expansion of the Celgar Pulp mill which the company insisted on continuing to run, even as it was being renovated. The result: a chlorine gas leak; David came to work the next day and circulated this memo.

Sadly, I’ve lost the daily “official bulletins” he continued distributing until he was fired. All subsequent bulletins began, “It has come to the attention of Celgar Pulp that bogus official bulletins are being distributed in its name. This is not one of those bulletins.”

David was most famous for his variant on Bob Bossin’s Home Remedy for Nuclear War: small bottles of air that he would sell using an antique nineteenth-century portable sales display. He rented a booth at the Globe 90 UN conference in Vancouver and attempted to sell a bottle to Gro Harlem Brundtland, the author of Our Common Future and inventor of sustainable development. She didn’t buy one. While I’ve lost my bottle, I do have some tattered copies of the brochure.

Here’s a one-page version, even more tattered.

David Lewis – Part I

As I’ve acknowledged in previous posts, the most significant influence on my political thinking was David Lewis of Crescent Valley, BC. Here are some highlights of his satirical work in the 1990/91. Pardon the poor quality of the copies of scans of twenty year old material.

Here is his political self-portrait:

And here is his mock version of the newsletter of the BC Round Table on the Environment and Economy:

Back in the 90s, David Lewis spoke to the big issues the environmental movement still has yet to confront: the unimaginability of a society that is not on a collision course with the planet’s life support systems, the centrality of scale as the issue we must confront and the importance of climate change relative to all other issues. His incredible clarity as to the magnitude of the crisis was matched with an superb sense of humour and a belief in electoral politics as a means not to model a future society but as the way we can most powerfully witness against this one. In future posts, you will be able to see the piercing intelligence with which he dissects the smallness of the thinking of environmental leaders, not to demobilize but to radicalize.

The movement still needs a Socrates: someone who knows how little we all know and who asks questions that nevertheless drive us towards knowledge. I wish David would once again, as he put it, “polish off [his] daily allowance of puffed grass and stroll out into the deadly UVB radiation at high noon to announce that this town isn’t big enough for any of us.”

The Dangers of Balanced Journalism

According to Mitt Romney, Barack Obama has ended the work requirements for welfare and stolen $716 billion from Medicare. Independent fact-checking organizations report that these claims are lies but the Romney campaign continues to put them forward as the truth in their ads and media interviews, explaining, “We’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers.” Independent fact-checking organizations need to pronounce on this question because of the need for balanced journalism. Two decades ago, the media would have been the independent fact-checkers but today, that role has been delegated to a new crop of organizations because of something called “balanced journalism.”

We need independent fact-checkers today because of the post-Cold War shifts in journalistic ethics. Mistakenly, we often use the terms “journalistic balance” and “journalistic objectivity” interchangeably, even though they verge on being opposites. Journalistic objectivity is a theory that has been with us for some time and dates to the First Gilded Age (I think we may have entered the second) before the postmodern critique, when we still understood that if one believes society exists, one cannot declare agnosticism as to the existence of the physical world. Journalistic objectivity is premised on the belief that journalism refers to things that have objective existence, not just people’s opinions about the world but to the world itself.

Practitioners of objective journalism often believe that they should talk to all those involved in the attempt to discern the truth of what is going on, in order to report that truth in their ultimate article, radio or television report. In objective journalism, it is important for the journalist be a successful autodidact because they will often encounter information about things for which they have minimal professional training. Science journalism is the most obvious example of this and it is for this reason that journalists often must locate experts to interview, in order to discern what is actually going on in the story they are attempting to report.

In order to successfully practice objective journalism, it is not only necessary to locate experts who might have specialized knowledge about story; it often helps to visit the location where events have taken place, again order to confirm the basic facts of what is going on. The goal of all this is for journalists to be able to verify information and to educate themselves about general subject matter of their story. Retaining a sense of objectivity is crucial in this theory of journalism because it is necessary for the journalist put aside wishful thinking about what they want to be true and who they wish were correct and focus on ferreting out truth of the matter. This all sounds pretty idealistic; and, of course, for as long as journalism has been around people have fallen short of these standards. However, objectivity has, until recently, survived as a worthy aspiration; and this striving toward objectivity has enabled journalists to present people new and often shocking information about the world. Even if we have never achieved objectivity, generations of us have grown up believing that it was the ideal against which journalistic practice should be compared.

In the era of the great patriarchal news men, Walter Cronkite, Edward Morrow, etc. audiences looked to these great news anchors and reporters as trusted authorities not because they understood themselves to be in ideological accord with them but because they believed that they were upstanding members of a guild committed to the pursuit of truth through objectivity.

Beginning in the 1990s a new journalistic theory began to emerge that did not initially seem contrary to the ethic of objectivity. This theory is best termed “balance.” The idea behind the theory of journalistic balance is that there are two sides to every story and that to favour one side is to not be objective. Of course, in the old objectivity theory, it is true that journalists failed at objectivity if they did not equally examine and equally consider the views put forward by two opposing groups in a news story. If, during the investigative process, the journalist dismissed certain informants as untrustworthy while implicitly trusting others, they would have failed to conduct an objective investigation.

However, the sleight of hand associated with the theory of balance is that these ideas about the investigative process are now applied to the outcome of that process as well, to the news, itself. The point in balanced journalism is to simply report that two sets of claims are being made about a thing; to pronounce, as an objective journalist would, on which set of claims is true and which is false is to be unbalanced. Stephen Colbert, arguably the most eloquent authority on America’s epistemological divide, mock-excoriated the national press corps for their objectivity because, “it is a well-known fact that reality has a liberal bias.”

In an objective theory of journalism, journalists reporting that no weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq have carried out their journalistic responsibilities with integrity, having listened in an unbiased fashion to the claims of the Bush administration that there were WMDs and to contrary claims that there were not. They might then have interviewed weapons inspectors, traveled to Iraq, themselves, and otherwise sought to assess the objective veracity of those claims. But to report that no weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq is to succeed at objective journalism but to fail at balanced journalism. This is because the principles of journalistic balance relocate the practice of giving a fair hearing and equal treatment to those who making true claims and those making false claims from the process of investigation to the act of reporting.

A balanced story about evidence of weapons of mass destruction would require that the journalist report that certain people claimed there were weapons of mass destruction and certain people claimed there were not. Each side would be given an equal opportunity to make its case to the viewers but in order to avoid bias, it would be crucially necessary to conceal whether or not the weapons were actually there. To state that there were no weapons of mass destruction would be to admit bias against those who claim there were and, therefore, to be unbalanced. It is based on this theory of journalistic integrity that the UCLA journalism department conducted a study a few years ago that found “fair and balanced” FoxNews to be, just as it claims, the most unbiased news source in America because on Fox, truth and falsehood are treated equally. The objective truth or falsity of a claim does not affect its treatment by reporters or anchors.

UCLA is not the only journalism school that teaches the principles of balance rather than objectivity. Such principles are spreading in North American journalism for reasons I will speak to a future post. Suffice to say that the ascendance of balance and the decline of objectivity is not simply about the evil corporate media nor about journalistic sloppiness or laziness. It is an attempt on the part of journalists to respond to what has become a normal situation in America. Objectivity can only function as a standard if there is a social consensus about how to determine what is true, how to investigate and authenticate the objective conditions of the world. Without such a consensus, journalists have no choice but to retreat from objectivity, unless they wish to speak only to a subset of the population that is in accord concerning truth-seeking processes.

Between 1988 and 1993, I led a five-year campaign against ozone-destroying foam packaging in Canada. It succeeded because of objective journalism. We made the case to the news media about the specific chemical compounds that were being used to manufacture Styrofoam packaging and the misleading things that manufacturers were saying about them. This success was possible because there still existed a social consensus about how to determine what chemicals did in the atmosphere. Were I to attempt the same campaign today, I would fail. Journalists would not be allowed to reveal whether the companies I was attacking were lying or telling the truth. To do so would be biased and contrary to the fundamental principles of journalistic balance.

In this way the journalistic profession has become like science teachers working in the Kansas school system. They might know creationism is empirically false but they are nevertheless required to “teach the controversy,” their jobs dependent on never letting on to their students which theory of human development is true and which is not.