Idle Chatter

George Orwell’s prescient masterwork 1984 is more or less required reading if one wishes to critically appraise the modern political world. To be sure, it has always been the case that people have exploited war and propaganda for the purposes of seizing and maintaining power, but in an era where mass communication has never been so accessible, the lessons taught by Orwell have perhaps never been so valuable. When it is trivially easy to completely selectively tailor which news outlets, columnists, television stations, and essentially every aspect of information communication that one listens to in such a way as to flatter our inherent biases, we find ourselves with a shrinking number of opportunities to be presented with the kind of cognitive dissonance that forces us to examine facts.

One of the most chilling elements within 1984 was the “Two Minutes Hate“:

The next moment a hideous, grinding speech, as of some monstrous machine running without oil, burst from the big telescreen at the end of the room. It was a noise that set one’s teeth on edge and bristled the hair at the back of one’s neck. The Hate had started.

As usual, the face of Emmanuel Goldstein, the Enemy of the People, had flashed on to the screen. There were hisses here and there among the audience. The little sandy-haired woman gave a squeak of mingled fear and disgust. Goldstein was the renegade and backslider who once, long ago (how long ago, nobody quite remembered), had been one of the leading figures of the Party, almost on a level with Big Brother himself, and then had engaged in counter-revolutionary activities, had been condemned to death, and had mysteriously escaped and disappeared. The programmes of the Two Minutes Hate varied from day to day, but there was none in which Goldstein was not the principal figure. He was the primal traitor, the earliest defiler of the Party’s purity. All subsequent crimes against the Party, all treacheries, acts of sabotage, heresies, deviations, sprang directly out of his teaching. Somewhere or other he was still alive and hatching his conspiracies: perhaps somewhere beyond the sea, under the protection of his foreign paymasters, perhaps even — so it was occasionally rumoured — in some hiding-place in Oceania itself.


In its second minute the Hate rose to a frenzy. People were leaping up and down in their places and shouting at the tops of their voices in an effort to drown the maddening bleating voice that came from the screen. The little sandy-haired woman had turned bright pink, and her mouth was opening and shutting like that of a landed fish. Even O’Brien’s heavy face was flushed. He was sitting very straight in his chair, his powerful chest swelling and quivering as though he were standing up to the assault of a wave. The dark-haired girl behind Winston had begun crying out ‘Swine! Swine! Swine!’ and suddenly she picked up a heavy Newspeak dictionary and flung it at the screen. It struck Goldstein’s nose and bounced off; the voice continued inexorably. In a lucid moment Winston found that he was shouting with the others and kicking his heel violently against the rung of his chair. The horrible thing about the Two Minutes Hate was not that one was obliged to act a part, but, on the contrary, that it was impossible to avoid joining in. [Read more…]


I have loved some of Brett Easton Ellis’ novels. While he himself is a difficult person to have positive feelings about, his work is excellent and unique. Reading and watching American Psycho has been singularly useful to me in explaining corporate behaviour in the age of #Occupy.

And so when I saw this clip of Mitt Romney talking about the mortal lock that President Obama has on poor people:

I couldn’t help but think of this clip of Patrick Bateman saying much the same thing:

Now sure, Mitt’s knife is only metaphorical, but he’s running to have enough power to stab everyone.

It should not be overlooked, by the way, that even when he’s alone, Mitt Romney lies like a cheap rug. It’s also worth taking a look at where this supposed Obama-loving, no-tax-paying, freedom-hating 47% live.

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Catching them being honest

One of the pieces of political language that drives me absolutely nuts is the term ‘illegal immigrants’. The system of immigration in both Canada and the United States disincentivizes documented immigration by making it nearly impossible and subject to interference by the capricious whims of the party in power. Looking at it cynically, one could make the argument that there is a huge economic benefit to the elite class, who can exploit undocumented immigrants for what is essentially slave labour, secure in the knowledge that threats of deportation are usually enough to quell any resistance to the illegal working conditions. The system punishes the exploited, not the exploiters.

Of course, there are few places in the USA that are more openly and notoriously malevolent to undocumented immigrants than the state of Arizona. Despite the blatant racism inherent in their newly-minted anti-Mexican law that they try to pass off as a way of handling “illegals”, they are still legally allowed to detain and deport anyone who looks ‘foreign’ and can’t prove their non-foreign-ness to the satisfaction of the towering legal intellect of folks like Joe Arpaio.

And, apparently, this lady: [Read more…]

A ten-percent solution, a ten-percent problem

An enduring American meme within the contemporary Republican party*, especially in this latest primary season, is that America is a white country. This one is no longer explicitly vocalized as plain and notorious expressions of racial supremacy have become less acceptable, but in the current political climate the layer of rhetoric that is cloaking the racist motivations behind many of the statements made by mainstream politicians are about as thick as an onion skin (and nearly as transparent).

Another salient foundational myth (and one that has more than a little currency in Canada) is that it is, and always has been, a “Christian nation”. The contemporary face of this quaint notion is the Republican Party’s current fascination with historical fiction yarn-spinner David Barton (a man who lacks the decency to advertise or even admit that his accounts are not based on fact). And despite the minimalizing language I’m using to describe the meme and its champion, the idea of America as a Christian nation has major national currency, to the point where it meaningfully informs policy.

It is an interesting exercise to try to imagine what the world looks like when seen through Republican eyes. In order to maintain any of these myths, one needs someone like David Barton with a knack for selectively abstracting enough fact to build a framework and then plastering over that framework with a thick layer of conveniently-invented bullshit. However, knowing what we know about how privilege can strip away levels of awareness by blinding you to significant facts, and the magnifying effect that being surrounded by others who share your perspective can have, I found the following exercise interesting. [Read more…]


I will likely never get a chance to ‘boo’ Mitt Romney in person, so I will have to do it on the internet.

You may have heard that political windsock Mitt Romney* visited the NAACP yesterday. The audience, obviously predominantly black, booed him when he announced his intention to repeal “Obamacare” should he be elected into office. He then said… well he said a bunch of stupid shit. It was a fairly typical example of a white conservative politician rolling in and telling black people what they should care about instead of the silly frivolous things they do care about (like, y’know, being able to access health care):

Mr. Romney received polite applause at several points during the speech. But he was interrupted again when he flatly accused Mr. Obama of failing to spark a more robust economic recovery.

“I know the president has said he will do those things. But he has not. He cannot. He will not. And his last four years in the White House prove it definitively,” Mr. Romney said as the crowd’s murmurs turned to louder groans.

Finally, he stopped amid loud jeers.

“If you want a president who will make things better in the African-American community, you are looking at him. You take a look,” Mr. Romney shot back.


The part that I love about this story is the photos of the audience reaction. This one is my favourite: [Read more…]

The paradox of science and conservatism

I expend a great deal of time and effort in the disparagement of conservative ideologies. They oversimplify complex issues to the point where the ‘solutions’ that arise from such ideologies are often more harmful than the problems they purport to ‘fix’. Reality is a multifaceted state of affairs with a lot of moving parts that defy the panacaea of upper-class tax cuts and ‘common sense’, and yet those who hold conservative ideologies are often openly contemptuous of the nuanced view of the world that is required to make any headway or improvement.

Despite my irritation, I must confess a certain sympathy for conservatism. Not a sympathy borne of pity (considering the way in which conservative policies are decimating not only my own country but others around the world, there is no room left for pity), but one borne of understanding. The conservative impulse, in its essence, is the human tendency to grind to a halt when new challenges face us. To put that another way, it is to address new problems with the solutions that have worked before – tradition and ‘common sense’ (which, in light of this view of conservatism, is simply what we call those things which used to confound us but we have answers for now). [Read more…]

The worst thing in the world (Tuesday edition)

Trigger warning: graphic violence and extreme racism. Also, Republicans.

There was a subtle visual gag in an episode of The Simpsons where a Fox News chopper flies by the camera with a “new” slogan emblazoned on the side:

The chopper says "Fox News: Not racist, but #1 with racists"

This is more or less how I feel about political conservatism. I don’t believe that racism and political liberalism are antithetical – indeed, the racism one hears from liberals is often the most frustrating in that it is subtle and well-meaning, but no less damaging. That being said, there is a special relationship between conservatism and racism – a relationship we are beginning to understand. Conservatives will complain until they are blue in the face* that they are not racist, that liberals are the “real racists”, that calling someone “a racist” is just as bad as being racist… there are any number of weasel phrases. The fact is, however, that insofar as contemporary conservative ideology when followed to its natural conclusion will result in the continued (or exacerbated) disadvantage of non-white folks. The policies are racist, without necessarily meaning to.

And whether or not you fully accept the idea that non-human things (ideas, institutions, behaviours) can be racist in the absence of conscious hatred, you simply cannot ignore that when you scratch the surface of a racist extremist, you find a conservative. Sometimes you don’t even have to scratch: [Read more…]

Edwina Rogers: the unanswered questions

Like many of you, I was a bit stunned to learn that the Secular Coalition for America had hired a former Republican operative as their new executive director. Considering the extent to which the Republican party is and has been decidedly anti-secular, the appointment of a party insider to this position struck me as strange. However, I decided to keep an open mind and extend the benefit of the doubt. After all, her political savvy and connections could be useful, and an unorthodox choice like Ms. Rogers would certainly shake things up. So she used to work for the wrong people, so what? People change, right?

Yeah… then I read this:

People are going to do a double-take when they hear a Republican strategist is now the leader of an organization working on behalf of atheists… what do you hope the public reaction will be?

I hope it will be a positive reaction and one that gets everyone thinking about the right direction for the secular movement. Often times, problems are arising from the conservative side and that’s one reason why it’s important to include both sides. The majority of the gubernatorial positions and state legislatures are controlled by Republicans. The Religious Right is a segment of the Republican Party — but it’s not a majority within the party and it certainly does not represent a majority of Americans. It’s a very active, vocal part of the Republican base, but it’s a minority.

I do think that for the vast majority of conservatives and Republicans, they are true believers of secularism — the majority of Republicans believe in the separation of church and state. Many of them are simply laissez faire about the issues, which gives us an opening to recruit them to the movement. Just within the last few months, talking to all my Republican conservative friends, the majority of them are in line with our thinking. They can be recruited, they just haven’t been active.

Hoooo boy. [Read more…]

Woodworth? ABORT! ABORT!

This morning I recounted the somewhat bizarre tale of a Republican North Party member of Parliament who tabled a private member’s bill to, in a semi-oblique way, spark debate over access to abortion in Canada. To my sincere surprise, the bill’s author (Stephen Woodworth of Kitchener) was rebuked by all parties in Parliament, including by a high-ranking member of his own party. Considering the fact that a sizeable proportion of the RNP voting base is anti-choice, it seemed odd for the government to come down so heavily on its own MPs motion, especially to have a high-ranking member dish out the tongue-lashing.

As I said in this morning’s post, all that really matters is that women’s reproductive autonomy is preserved and appears to be well-safeguarded from Parliamentary interference, even under this government. However, what I am profoundly unclear on is why this motion – doomed to fail as it was – even saw the light of day. There are a number of potential explanations I can think of, and I will spend a little time on each one.

1. The obvious one: everything is exactly as it seems [Read more…]

Cognition, conservatism, and “common sense”

If there is one phrase I would like for people to stop using, at least in approving tones, it’s “common sense”. What I’m sure is meant by the term, when used to praise someone’s rationality, is that someone exercising good “common sense” is making a decision based on good, clear thinking as opposed to convoluted and self-contradictory premises. The problem is that the world is often a complicated place that requires convoluted, or at least non-obvious thinking. Too often, “common sense” simply means adherence to stereotypes and cultural memes in the place of evidence-based reasoning. As I’ve said before, the moment that someone makes an appeal to “common sense” is the moment that I stop listening to them.

One of the things I have noticed is how frequently arguments based in “common sense” are used to defend positions based in conservative ideology. I lived in Ontario during the back-to-back reign of premier Mike Harris – an era known by the political monicker “the Common Sense Revolution”. Of course the idea of a conservative revolution boggles the mind, but we’ll deal with counter-intuitive political branding another time. What I remember is that these supposedly revolutionary ideas involves crippling cuts to the public sector (particularly nurses and teachers), expansion of the private sector and a poisonous political climate.

Now, it is entirely possible that, because of my own unabashed liberalism and the very human tendency toward confirmation bias, my association between political conservatism and arguments from “common sense” is merely my brain selectively pairing things I think are stupid. After all, I have heard people from all walks of life, my own liberal father included, talk about “common sense”. A new study, however, suggests that there may be some evidence to support my broad-brush generalization: [Read more…]