On Iain M. Banks

I found it very poignant when Iain Banks announced — 4 years ago now — just a few months before his untimely death, that he had inoperable cancer. I resolved then to sit down and write the piece about his Culture novels that I’d been meaning to write forever. I did that in relatively short order. Publishing such a piece, however, proved somewhat more difficult!. Now, however, thanks to Sci Phi Journal, it is in print (here).

This is, by the way, the first half of the piece. The second half should be coming out in the new year.… Continue reading

Jour du Souvenir et engagement militaire démocratique

À toutes les époques, la guerre fut discutée et critiquée de diverses manières. On a certes souvent condamné les guerres mal menées, qui mènent à la défaite. Mais ce n’est pas tout, les Athéniens ont de manière célèbre condamné à mort leurs généraux victorieux en 406 avant notre ère pour avoir négligé de traiter morts et blessés selon la tradition.

Dès lors, on peut dire que depuis des millénaires, on critique non seulement la conduite de la guerre en termes d’efficacité, mais aussi suivant des critères moraux. On dénoncera par exemple les excès contre les populations civiles et les lieux saints, et divers mouvements ont même remis en question toute guerre, le pacifisme se retrouvant bien avant le 20e siècle, par exemple chez les premiers chrétiens et certains courants bouddhistes.

Cependant, un grand oublié de cette longue histoire est la question de l’expérience individuelle du soldat. Ainsi, on a beaucoup plus rarement critiqué la guerre pour ce qu’elle infligeait psychologiquement au soldat individuel.… Continue reading

Affirmative action for conservative academics?

Back in 2016, some students at Emory University were so traumatized by the appearance of pro-Trump slogans, written in chalk on various sidewalks on campus, that they called upon the administration to investigate the incident as one of “hate speech.” The thought that an entire university campus should constitute a safe space, in which students might be insulated from any expression of support for one of the two major U.S. political parties, struck many as being in tension with the ideal of the university as a forum for the open exchange of ideas. At the same time, the fact that the existence of Trump supporters in their midst could have so alarmed these students shows how unusual or rare the expression of political disagreement has already become at certain U.S. colleges. The fact is, you can search far and wide in American academia, without finding a single Trump supporter, or even a political conservative.… Continue reading

On Trump, the apocalypse, and missing the forest for the Tweets

At the beginning of every apocalyptic thriller there’s always a scene where the hero is getting ready for work, feeding the kids breakfast, dealing with a dog that has barfed in the living room, and generally dealing with the million minor stresses of every day life. 

Meanwhile, on the TV or radio in the background the news is cycling through the usual mundanities of petty crime and traffic and local weather, except thrown into the mix there are always a handful of Easter eggs: warnings of nuclear sabre-rattling by jumped-up third-world dictators; quirky reports of bizarre weather patterns in Europe; a fun little hit about a couple from the midwest who swore they saw an alien spacecraft collecting samples in a field behind their house.

These scenes play a key role in setting up the narrative, in three ways. First, they establish the family ties that will provide the emotional basis for the film.… Continue reading

Dan Drezner on the Ideas Industry

drezner

I had the privilege last night of seeing Dan Drezner give the inaugural Barton Lecture at Carleton’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs in Ottawa. His lecture was a condensed version of the argument of his book The Ideas Industry, and while I’ve read the book, the talk was useful. It’s often interesting to see people give book talks, since you get a better sense of what they think their book is about.

Drezner begins with a paradox: Everyone laments the decline of the public intellectual in our civic discourse, and yet, via outlets such as TED and related Big Ideas type lecture series’, the demand for ideas has never been greater. Drezner squares this by distinguishing two types of ideas industry labourer: Public Intellectuals and Thought Leaders. They break down as follows:

thought ledrs

What Drezner argues, in a nutshell, is that public intellectuals have been largely eclipsed by thought leaders, so that people like Niall Ferguson and Fareed Zakaria now dominate.… Continue reading

Turbans, paternalism, and the death of liberty

This is a quick afterthought on the piece I posted the other day about religiously-based exemptions, and also a response to some of the comments made on that piece. My central objective in that argument was simply to point out that many rules in our society already have exemptions built into them, in order to handle circumstances in which there is significant heterogeneity in the underlying interests. In some cases, just averaging them all together, or taking the vector sum, is not the best way of responding. This is particularly true in cases where a small minority has an interest (or assigns weight to an interest) quite divergent from that of the majority. In that case, it may make more sense to have a rule that applies in most cases, but then to grant an exemption for those in the minority. The example I gave was of speed limits, which have selective exemptions for emergency vehicles.… Continue reading

Asian community caught in crossfire!

I ride the subway in Toronto several times a week, and have done so for the past 10 years. I have seen a woman wearing a niqab precisely once. She was about 60-70 years old, and appeared to be taking her grandchildren to the museum. But do you know what I see a lot of? I see a lot of this:

 

This is in fact a big fashion trend:

 

Stores sell them in all sorts of colours and styles:

 

It is sad to think that people will no longer be allowed to wear surgical masks on the Montreal subway, or on buses anywhere in Quebec. I did not realize that it had become such a major social problem. Nevertheless, it seems to me that banning them is a bit of an overreaction on the part of the Couillard government.

Backgrounder here.… Continue reading

Singh, Sikhs, and turban exemptions

The other day I was sitting at my computer, writing an abstruse philosophy paper on an abstruse topic, when suddenly the very issue that I was discussing found its way into the headlines. The new leader of the NDP, Jagmeet Singh, was accused of failing to respect the boundary between religion and politics, on the grounds that, while in the Ontario legislature, he introduced a private member’s bill that would have granted an exemption for Sikhs from motorcycle helmet laws. (There was a lot of grousing coming from Quebec about the “ostentatious” religious symbolism of Singh’s mode of dress.) The example, I thought, was ill-chosen, because one need not appeal to any exotic religious concerns in order to support such accommodations, they follow rather straightforwardly from the liberal norm of equality. Or so I argue. This is what I was writing:

___________________

The impression that exemptions necessarily involve some violation of equality is, of course, encouraged by the popular view that treating people equally involves treating them all the same.… Continue reading

First do no harm: Why Melanie Joly was right to stay out of the news biz

The “Creative Canada” policy framework announced last week by Melanie Joly seems to have left no one happy, but the reaction in the news media and its interested observers has been most interesting. Despite the fact that Joly declined the invitation to empty a few wheelbarrows full of cash onto the doorstep of suffering Canadian news organizations, opinion was soon sharply split between those who saw hope that she was planning to do so by stealth, and those who feared she was planning to do so by stealth.

For the most part, these responses have been little more than occasions to grind well-worn axes, and it’s not worth going over them here. But for background reading, if you are interested:

McMaster commmuications prof Sara Bannerman arguing in The Conversation that the government is ignoring the crisis in Canadian journalism.

Communications prof, Marc Edge, arguing in Policy Options that Joly was right to do so.… Continue reading

Absent-mindedness as dominance behaviour

My father told me a story once. Many years ago, he was a university professor. He taught history at St. Thomas More College at the University of Saskatchewan. He would drive his car to work, park it, and go teach his classes. But when it came time to go home, he would often find himself unable to remember where he had parked. University of Saskatchewan being one of those universities with vast parking lots extending out in all directions, he would be forced to wander through the lots looking for his car.

Life as a professor turned out to be much less than he had hoped it would be, on top of which he found himself embroiled in all sorts of acrimonious conflict with his colleagues. It got so bad that one day he just quit. He turned in his resignation, went out to the parking lot, searched around until he found his car, and drove home, never to return.… Continue reading