A Democratic Failure

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The world continues to watch the Trump era unfold, many of us with bated breath. We’re only a little over a week(!) into his presidency and, with rare exceptions, the streets are mostly filled with peaceful protesters and dissatisfied dissidents. Not only do some Americans believe that Trump’s presidency is illegitimate, but terrible brand reinforcement from the White House, in addition to an endless flow of questionable Executive Orders, has caused an eruption of public furor not seen in at least a decade.

To be perfectly clear, the Democrats and Trump-haters need to get over this idea that his presidency is illegitimate. The argument borders on the Trumped-up notion that President Obama’s birth certificate was a fake. (As an aside, remember when Obama released his birth video? Amazing.) And regardless of FBI Director Tim Comey’s announcement of further investigations into the Clinton email scandal or possible Russian involvement in the election, the actual political damage is near impossible to quantify. After all, this is politics: all the sleaze, dishonesty, and mudslinging one can handle. Anything short of treason is political – good luck proving a Trump-Putin conspiracy, and it is not an act of treason for the president-elect to suggest he knows more than the electorate. Eat your heart out, Joy Behar. Trump won. It’s over, Jill Stein. Time to move on, Michael Moore.

However, that does not mean that the American electorate must accept anything and everything that comes out of Trump’s mouth or Twitter account. Any centre of power and authority should be challenged and held to account with great aplomb and unending veracity. This is what the “left-wing” media continues to do with facts and accountability, though the President, the Press Secretary Sean Spicer, and political adviser Kellyanne Conway continue to insist that any negative press coverage is actually Fake News that does not take into account the “alternative facts” that are the real fact-facts.

Millions of people, both domestically and internationally, have marched against the White House’s newest administration. From the Women’s March on Washington to the protests over bans against immigration and travel from seven specific Muslim countries, the anger is palpable. And rising. Again, this all happened in the first week of his presidency.

The best protest sign so far: “Don’t blame Trump – He did everything he could to prove he was unfit to be President.” The best financial outcome thus far: the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has raised $24 million dollars online (six-fold what the organization normally makes in a year through online donations). The Attorney General of Washinton State suing the White House over the immigration ban: priceless.

Equally hilarious (read: sad and embarrassing) was one of President Trump’s first official Twits as Commander-in-Chief. When surveying the massive crowds for the Women’s March on Washington while Spicer and Conway defended their use of “alternative facts” to legitimize claims that the inauguration crowd was the biggest in history, Trump – in childish anger and bereft of wisdom – tweeted, “Watched protests yesterday but was under the impression that we just had an election! Why didn’t these people vote?” This is the President of the United States: churlish, dismissive, and trite. He might be right – Trump didn’t win the election so much as Hillary Clinton and her supporters lost it – but grow up.

About an hour and a half later, someone tweeted out the following on behalf of Donald Trump: “Peaceful protests are a hallmark of our democracy. Even if I don’t always agree, I recognize the rights of people to express their views.” How is it known that Trump did not make this tweet? It is coherent, befitting of a president, the syntax is near-perfect, and no one was offended by it. Again, his Twitter account should be suspended or run only by White House staffers: it is merely a conduit through which Trump can embarrass himself and degrade the Oval Office whilst sitting on the toilet.

Speaking of degrading the Office of the Presidency, Trump has started maneuvering, via Executive Order, to build the wall instead of bridges to Mexico, which immediately ended in Mexican President Nieto cancelling his trip to Washington; banning Muslims from entering the United States, which caused Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau to offer a helping-hand to those negatively impacted by the order; breathing new life into the dismantling of the Affordable Care Act (often chided as Obamacare); bullying multi-national corporations with tariffs, trade barriers, and taxes; creating further insularity by abandoning the Trans-Pacific Partnership; and now training his business-eye on Wall Street to ease the “restrictive” Dodd-Frank Act that was passed by Congress, following the 2008 financial implosion, to reform businesses and banks, alike.

All of these acts are in an effort to carry out the populist platform that Trump campaigned on for eighteen months: bring back good-paying jobs to US soil; defeat ISIS and Muslim extremists, which has already resulted in a highly-decorated Seal Team 6 member being killed in Trump’s first actionable foray into international intrigue; take on China, Russia, North Korea, and Iran all at once because American swagger, bravado, and no-brains is back in town; stop Mexicans from illegally entering the country with a multi-billion dollar wall, even though they sell ropes and ladders in Mexico and El Chapo has unwittingly shown the Mexican people that they can build tunnels; help veterans more; help the middle class more; and open America for business more (well less, but internally more. Right?)

It’s still unclear how Trump is going to fund all of these “great” ideas, or how revoking Obamacare or building something new in its place is better and cheaper for the middle class, or how the US can build cars, iPads, iPhones, shoes, and a host of other products cheaper than international competitors. One thing seems absolutely certain: the short-term political gain for Trump will not offset the long-term losses for the American economy, democracy, and the country as a beacon of hope and moral authority to those that only dream of living in what was once an open, diverse, and welcoming country.

Trump’s Gaffe for Nuclear Winter 2016


Yesterday, on the topic of nuclear armament, there was an impromptu exchange between Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump. Putin’s commentary on the current state of Russia and global affairs was planned. Trump’s response was not. Putin believes that Russia is now THE world’s superpower, and apparently that means building more nuclear weapons. Trump surely wanted to play his cards close to his chest. However, like a child on Christmas morning, revelry took over.

Trump, without hesitation, took to Twitter, the new home of POTUS’ policy: the US “must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.” When asked to further clarify that remark, Trump pushed right through the sober-second-thought phase of a reasoned mind and unequivocally stated, “Let it be an arms race.” Well played, Sir. Nailed the sneak attack. 

Honestly, Putin would not go down this road. It makes little sense. Russia doesn’t have the money for another arms race (neither does the US). And the last one didn’t end so well for the USSR. Putin is an astute, seasoned politician schooled in KGB-esque brinksmanship. In a world that has been working toward nuclear disarmament for decades, it is more likely that Putin is goading the president-elect, and sharing some hearty laughs with his Kremlin cronies. 

In this potential missile crisis, Trump is the USSR’s Nikita Khrushchev. I can see him banging his shoe on the table to make a point, or wearing a sombrero at Disneyland. I just hope Trump turns out to be a rational actor in nuclear brinksmanship, and is willing to back away from his arms race comments. 

Between the two countries, Russia retains the majority share of a combined 14,000 or so nuclear weapons. Under the guidance of the United Nations, both Russia and the United States first agreed to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons in 1968 and then ratified it in 1970. Of course, that did not stop either country from continuing to stockpile warheads with the combined total reaching for 80,000. Insane. Asinine. Since Ronald Reagan defeated the Evil Empire in the late ’80s (🤔🙄), both countries have been steadily working toward lowering that number, although the collective arsenal remains absurdly high. And while a majority of UN nations adopted a resolution to ban nuclear weapons in 2017, the US and Russia stayed the course and voted against it. 

To put it into perspective, the western world is deeply concerned about North Korea or Iran acquiring just one nuclear weapon. Why? Not only because of the geo-political issues it would create (potentially tipping the balance of power to NK, Iran or their friends), but the wonton devastation wrought by that weapon. Complete destruction. Nuclear winter. Darkness and death. It would trigger a Total War, and likely kill every last one of us. No Mutually Assured Defence. Just MADness. 
It is absolutely astounding that the world is discussing this topic in 2016. Much to the delight of Doomsday Preppers, their absurd quest for non-perishable food items and building impenetrable basement shelters might have been worthwhile. Just kidding. It’s never been worth it. Except if the zombies come …

This was a calculated risk Putin was willing to take to demonstrate to the world how easily Trump is goaded into making terrible, policy- and world affairs-altering decisions. Likely, while he was sitting on a toilet. Trump must suspend his Twitter account. Like Bush, Jr., he needs his Dick Cheney. Mike Pence won’t cut it. Trump turned the slightest Putin provocation into a ridiculous pissing contest. His response was daft, irresponsible, and childish; a conversation normally relegated to the playground between 8 year-olds gathering troops for an after-school snowball fight. The stakes might be high for those children, but life would go on. 

Both international actors were careless in this situation: Putin for playing the nuclear card with the president-elect when he knows Trump has a hair-trigger, and Trump for falling for the embarrassing ruse. Putin understands what he is doing; Trump, seemingly has yet to grasp the value of his words now that he sits in the waiting room of the Oval Office. It might have been worth a few laughs this time, but next time it could spell war.

Aleppo: A Personal, Embarrassing Truth

Like many people around the world, I have been struggling for catharsis on the Syrian question. How did it come to this for the Syrian people? Why hasn’t the international community done more to help these people? Why is the United Nations both gutless and weak? Short of mocking Trump on Aleppo and writing a brief comment on a friend’s Facebook page, I have been silent on the topic.

I know that I am mostly upset and angry with the situation. I want to know what is happening there. I have to look. I must read. Every day there is another image or story shared or released through the (social) media on Syria, the Middle East, ISIS, the UN, the US, or Russia. Many reasons for this latest conflict circulate. Most rely upon argumentative speculation meant to manipulate people like you and me who are a world away form this humanitarian crisis.

But those images and stories cause a ground-swell of emotion in anyone breathing: anger at the gas attacks on innocent civilians; heart-break for the children and caregivers in a bombed-out hospital; sadness at the dust-covered child sitting or walking alone in a hospital with no one to care for him or her; fear for the people that take daily videos of continued aerial bombings and ground assaults; and remorse that this will continue unabated until one side claims victory and brutally stamps out any remaining vestiges of rebellion or loyalism.

It has been years. What started as a demonstration and protest for democratic rights in the Arab Spring turned into a civil war, and eventually devolved into a proxy war including ISIS, the United States, and Russia. Lines have been drawn in the sand many times by international actors; those lines have been stepped over or simply ignored. The political elite share their personal shock and outrage; fists are shaken; proverbial sabres are rattled; and condemnation rings through the halls of democratic legislatures. Countries resolve to hold diplomatic meetings to reinforce the idea that something must be done. Letters are written. Pacts of intention are signed. To the jeers of “Do something!”, the political elite settle on the path of least resistance.

The course of military action: give guns and munitions to the Syrians, and fly impersonal air sorties to indiscriminately drop bombs. Diplomatic action: attempt to squeeze blood from a stone and cut-off as many resources as possible. Also, continue to write letters of condemnation and outrage. Outcome: Syrians of all political stripes continue to be killed, starved, and otherwise devastated.

Thousands of people have died fighting for their cause, likely with divided loyalties only trying to survive another day in hopes of returning to their families and friends. Still hundreds of thousands more have been displaced, a dismal fraction of which have been accepted as future citizens – as equals – into well-meaning countries.

Through years of watching this unfold, I find my personal, uninspiring, and embarrassing catharsis. I haven’t said anything about Aleppo because I’m not willing to sacrifice my life or the lives of my family and friends – of fellow citizens who share similar values and ideals – to hopefully conclude a crisis that none of us actually understand. It’s not simply an US vs. THEM situation: even though neo-conservatives wanted Iraq and Afghanistan to be this simple to understand, they aren’t either.

If I call my MP, if I write a letter to Trudeau, I will not be seeking a diplomatic solution to Assad and Russia. Diplomacy has utterly failed the people of Syria. I would be asking for unprecedented military intervention in this conflict. I would be asking others to put their lives on the line, and I will never ask another person to do what I will not. I am not willing to die for a geo-political game of cat-and-mouse in hopes of ousting a dictator and artificially instilling democracy on a war-torn people. Remember America’s attempt at state-building in post-Hussein Iraq? Not going so well.

I still have hope for the Syrian people. Regardless of their side’s agenda the actual people fighting, or those that are caught-up in the fighting, are simply trying to survive. I want to see this Arab-Spring-civil-ISIS-proxy-war, and the human misery it has created, come to an end. But it won’t. Not any time soon. And there is not one palatable answer: our age-old refrain of “Do something!” isn’t enough. It only demonstrates that we are as gutless and timid as our political leaders who are biding time until someone else ends the conflict. Right now, it appears that will be Assad.

The Trudeau Foundation gets Money from Abroad!?


In a National Post article today, two authors did their best to give credence to an investigation into the Trudeau Foundation, apparently horrified that the coffers of a world leader’s foundation would swell with foreign investment only after Justin Trudeau became the leader of the Liberal Party of Canada. And then the Prime Minister. Seriously? That’s the biggest concern here? Of course, domestic and foreign agents are going to attempt to persuade or curry favour with the PM or any other leader – like Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump – through any means possible, legal or illegal. The real question, in 2016, should be how is this practice even allowed to occur; why has this obvious ethical and monetary loophole – having a charitable foundation, serving on an influential board of governors, or running a business – not been completely closed by our elected leaders through democratic legislatures?

For pages and pages, the authors drone on about what they have uncovered in publicly available records in an embarrassing attempt to create political intrigue where there is none. Businesses and private individuals give massive sums of money to political parties, especially the Liberals. This is not news. If nothing else, Trudeau and his handlers know how to make money and attract investment to further push their agenda. Trudeau is deeply charismatic, suave, sophisticated … and that hair. I mean, wow. He is affable and seemingly always camera-ready, no matter his state of dress. All of this should be blatantly obvious. And it is the Trudeau brand, replete with central Canada’s deep affections for his father, that propelled him to the pinnacle of political power, much to the chagrin of social and fiscal conservatives. It most certainly was not his political platform, although, it didn’t hurt after almost a decade under the perceived robot-sweater-vest-wearing-economic-doom-and-gloom Stephen Harper. 

Of course, interim-leader of the Conservative Party of Canada, Rona Ambrose, had already written a strongly-worded letter to the ethic czar on Parliament Hill to investigate this completely legal practice. With dramatic hyperbole, Ambrose suggests, “any efforts by Mr. Trudeau to use his position as Prime Minister to encourage donations may be a violation of the definition of a conflict of interest.” Any efforts to encourage donations may be a violation of a definition. Palpable prose proffered by the poetic Ambrose. I have goosebumps. The problem: good luck proving what would actually be a serious matter. For Ambrose, she might as well throw mud at the wall and see what sticks: there is nothing to be lost if this funding matter dies over the holidays. Yet again.

Perhaps memory runs short, but this was a deeply troubling issue that dogged Prime Minister Paul Martin until Harper finally unseated him in 2006 (Harper lost his first general election to Martin in 2004). Martin was a Canadian shipping magnate. His business, Canadian Steamship Lines (CSL), was held in a blind-trust and eventually owned by his sons, but not before the issue of ownership, tax-avoidance, and collusion politically-hurt the former heavyweight Minister of Finance. Harper used this issue for political gain several times during the 2004 and 2006 elections, but nothing was done about it once he held the reigns of power. Remember, candidate Harper was Mr. Accountability after the inquest into the embarrassing Liberal sponsorship scandal (dating back to the Chrétien days), but stopping money flowing through legitimate businesses and foundations was apparently accountability pushed too far. 

(“Accountability is vital. Let’s ensure we follow government funds through to their end-use. No need to worry about outside money coming in through the back-door of privately-held businesses and privately-founded foundations to fund political agendas. Obviously, all of that is above-board, honestly procured, and given without pretence. Now, remind me of my position on refugees and immigration, and don’t try and tell me what to do – I’m no dummy!”)

The obvious answer is intuitive: once Harper won the election, Martin’s business dealings fell out of the political spotlight and became a non-issue. The less-obvious answer is that it was allowed to dissipate; both parliament and prime minister loathe to enact legislation that might place further restrictions upon effective politicking for mountains of money. For the political establishment, such a discussion could lead to the unthinkable proposition of ending absurd personal tax credits for political party contributions. In other words, for every dollar given to a political party, a portion of it is subsidized with our federal tax dollars (75% on the first $400 given; 50% on the next $350 given; to a maximum credit of $650 on contributions over $750). Or the electorate might want further overhauls on campaign finance reform. Hat-in-hand, queue the politicians’ refrain: “Never!”

The Trudeau situation is not dissimilar from that of the Clintons with their foundation that witnessed significant foreign investment while Hillary served as Barack Obama’s Secretary of State (2008-2012), and the Clinton’s subsequent efforts to distance their family from the Clinton Foundation when Hillary won the Democratic ticket for the 2016 election. Regardless, the damage had been done. That is, the money was already with the foundation and no one can prove that it wasn’t given in good faith or that it was directly tied to political favour, though rumours, conjecture, and innuendo abounded. 

Similarly, President-elect Trump has a foundation as well as a massive multi-billion dollar company that makes global business deals. He will place his business in a blind-trust, but leave it in the hands of his children – because that will ensure Trump, Sr. doesn’t meddle in business affairs or know what powerful person is leasing or buying a luxurious floor in a trumped-up tower. Trump has been an active businessman for decades. He has political and business connections the world over. So do both of the Clintons. And Trudeau. There is an inherent and obvious conflict of interest at play for all of these individuals which automatically calls all monetary dealings into question. Even if they are completely legitimate.

Thus, I ask again: how is it still legal in 2016 for a serious political contender, especially in the United States where a candidate requires at least $750,000,000 for a chance at governing from the White House, to have business interests outside of a blind-trust or within the hands of immediate family members (like Martin and now Trump); to be actively engaged on any board of governors; or have direct ties to a charitable foundation (like the Clintons, Trump, and Trudeau)? It’s legal because it very much serves the likely-maligned interests of the political and social elite. 

It’s perfectly legal quid pro quo (“I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine.”); enigmatic pork-barrelling; another way to conduct official business unofficially. Until the electorate demands change and remains actively engaged in the matter, the elite will continue to prosper through completely legal transactions even though most of us believe those transactions do not pass the ethical smell-test. And we will continue to read newspaper articles highlighting the obvious for the social media horde to devour and rage against. For, like, the next thirty seconds. 

Abuse of Authority Ruins Lives


This morning, I watched Robert May’s Cash for Kids in which the documentarian chronicles the recent history of two federal judges, Mark Ciavarella and Michael Conahan. Through their positions of power in Pennsylvania, these two authority figures managed to build a private, for-profit youth detention centre and then fill it with allegedly corrupted and delinquent youth. There is no better depiction of what corruption and greed can do to devastate families and lives. If you haven’t seen the film, do so: my focus is the legal aspects of the film, but the most important stories are those of the victims and their families – stories that must be told through their own voices.

The lesser of the two judges, Conahan, was eventually found guilty of using his “budgetary discretion” as the President Judge of Luzerne County (while he was still a sitting judge) to stop funding the public detention centre, and then have newly remanded youth sent to the private jail that he and his business partners developed. That job was left to Ciavarella.

President Judge Ciavarella presided over thousands of cases in the criminal youth court, incarcerating children in the new facility that corruption and greed built. For his share of ensuring the new facility would burgeon with ample recalcitrant and obstinate children, he was modestly remunerated in excess of $1 million. Hence, the terminology Cash for Kids. But, don’t fret: the project-builder provided Ciavarella with a “finder’s fee” which in no way can be misconstrued as bribing a public official. 

Ciavarella’s interviews in the film are astounding in the immutable sense of how financial corruption absolutely corrupts. For example, when Ciavarella discusses the bribery aspect of the federal charges with filmmaker May, the former believes his actions amounted to an ethical violation at most:

I had two choices: I could take the money and report it and if I wasn’t going to report it, don’t take it. … Did I think it was a crime? No. Did I know I was committing an ethical violation? Absolutely.  And the dark side is, I wasn’t strong enough, ethically, to not do that. 

Remember, this is a federal judge. He went to law school. His life’s work has been to judge and adjudicate using criminal codes. And Ciavarella was working with another federal judge that preceded him as the President Judge of Luzerne County. Unbeknownst to Ciavarella, 1996’s and 2005’s get-tough-on-crime candidate for this particular federal judgeship, the FBI believed his actions were illegal: as he explains it, he was merely getting a “finder’s fee” for helping establish the youth detention centre, and Conahan suggests this transaction “is a normal course of business.” Sure it is. During the course of a mafia shakedown. 

Let’s deconstruct Ciavarella’s seasoned and reasoned approach: he knew it was unethical for a sitting judge to accept money from a secondary source other than his employer (the state) without disclosing it and further using his authoritative position to fill the halls of his “friend’s” private facility with incarcerated children, but his keen legal mind could not make the infinitesimally-small logical-leap that this might be considered illegal. Too bad Ciavarella wasn’t surrounded with legal books and other judge-y paraphernalia, friends and lawyers, the internet and a copy of The Godfather I, II, or III, or he would have had his “eureka” moment and side-stepped this embarrassing debacle – the circumstances of which were wholly thrust upon him. 

(“Hey, Mikey. What we’re doing might be a little dicey on the ethical side, but it’s not illegal. Pass me that racket so we can bounce this ball of unethically-obtained money back and forth in the basement of this fine Italian restaurant. Oh, a new shipment of boys will be arriving tomorrow: have your guys ready for the pick-up after making that drop in the art district. And other mafia stereotypes. Capish?”)

It gets worse. Every year, Ciavarella would visit all of the schools in his county and lecture kids on staying on the straight-and-narrow. Then, if they broke the law, he would ask them in court and under oath if they had heard his speech. Apparently, the school assembly was their warning – the proverbial shot-over-the-bow – that Ciavarella used to justify harsh sentences and remand for children as young as twelve and thirteen years old. We’ve all been to school assemblies. And we’ve all fallen asleep in them. Just imagine listening to a judge drone on and on about a system you never thought you would appear before to explain some egregious criminal act like buying a stolen bicycle. Children are not career criminals masterminding their next plot to high-jack an armoured truck.

What’s worse, Ciavarella’s court also created a waiver system by which parents could waive their children’s rights to an attorney in hopes that the judge would give a lighter sentence to their child. Remember this is happening to these parents in real-time; parents that are often mis-informed and unaware of the legal ramifications of their choices, scared for their child, and seeking the path of least resistance. That is, a parent likely understands the words on the paper that they’re reading and signing, but they don’t necessarily understand the intricacies involved in signing away those rights. Don’t worry, though, the legal system has plently of redundancies and opportunities for the naive to get a do-over. Oh, wait …

When May asked Ciavarella about his court’s actions and its inexplicably high statistic of parents waiving their children’s right to legal counsel when compared to other counties throughout the state, he countered with this impregnable admission: “I never denied a kid the right to an attorney. I shouldn’t say that. Once I did.” That’s right. He openly admitted to denying a child his or her constitutionally-protected right to counsel. But that’s only one kid. Spoiler alert: almost 2,500 of Ciavarella’s cases were ultimately overturned and the young offenders’ records expunged. 

Finally, May does film a number of scenes regarding Ciavarella’s continuing justifications for his involvement in this scheme. As of 2009, according to the Pennsylvania Code for judicial salaries, a President Judge made an annual base salary of $181,349, excluding benefit coverage and other ancillary perks that accompany a prestigious position. For argument’s sake, even if we assume Ciavarella made twenty percent less than this salary over the course of his active career (1996-2009), he would have been making $145,079 per year for a total of almost $1.9 million over thirteen years. 

While awaiting his sentencing hearing already found guilty of several offenses by a jury of his peers, May questioned Ciavarella’s motives. Still believing in his personal innocence and justifying his disastrous decisions, Ciavarella opined:

It wasn’t like we lived this grandiose life. Most of the money that I received I used to send my kids to school, pay off some debt, and here I am – I’m sixty years old today – and I have nothing. I’m living with my brother-in-law and sister-in-law … I’ve struggled with why I took this money … I don’t necessarily know if it was greed … I think it was more a sense of financial security. 

Good to know: if a person is seeking financial security, ipso facto, they cannot be greedy. Greedy people, by their very nature, would never use illegally-obtained money to send their children to an ivy-league school or pay off past debts. No, greedy people only use illicit funds to live the “grandiose” lifestyle; a lifestyle completely out of grasp for a federal judge making approximately $150,000 a year. 

Above all else, this speaks to how out of touch Ciavarella had become – his inability to see that his family was already living the American Dream without his extracurricular activities. Apparently, it’s the only justification Ciavarella required to actively participate in racketeering and fraud. He still believed he was Conahan’s lackey. Conned. A judge-turned-patsy by his close-turncoat-friend. And his hope was that the rest of us, even if his jury of peers did not, would still believe it. It’s this abuse of authority – that Ciavarella is somehow beyond reproach – that set thousands of lives upon a different trajectory that included PTSD, drug and alcohol abuse, depression, and destroyed relationships. Greed destroys lives. It’s heart-breaking. 

We will never know how these affected children and their families would have turned out if they had not ended up before the corrupted Ciavarella, but we do know that his actions and decisions were anything but judicious and blind. The legal problems aside, Ciavarella’s story is a cautionary tale of how close we all are to being corrupted; of wanting more and doing the unthinkable to get it. And, the uniquely-human ability to justify those actions even in the face of overwhelming and damning evidence.

The Facepalm that is Social Media


Yesterday, I discussed Michael Den Tandt’s piece on the “kid from Ontario wine country,” Sam Oosterhoff, who has made a big splash in his riding, but apparently left a sour note in the mouths of his detractors. Part of Tandt’s dismissive diatribe focused on the inexcusable attention the young politician has thus far attracted from some of social media’s most-profound thinkers:

Later, as the video made the rounds on social media, the Greek Chorus of revulsion chimed in: “This guy is an ignorant f—!” read one Facebook post. “Scum,” wrote another. “Seriously f— this little shit,” wrote a third. “Somebody buy the little twerp an hour at a massage parlour,” ventured a fourth. “Maybe then he’ll shut up.” 

Regardless of context or circumstance, these comments are unwarranted. Period. There is not one respectable justification for this abusive language to be hurled at anyone, let alone those that choose to serve the public good. And most reckless, ill-informed commenters hide behind the veil of anonymity (Drunkguy151, ImCanadian_eh?, or whitetrash401); too meek and pitiful to put their face or name with their impulsive, irredeemable invective.

And the above-quoted comments are hardly the worst that our refined, digital society has to offer today’s leaders. How about the online comments that former Progressive Conservative Sandra Jansen endured and then read to fellow MLAs in the Alberta Legislature, or the literary genius displayed by these troglodytes when Jansen crossed the floor to Rachel Notley’s NDP. The comments are vile, misogynistic, and threatening. Both disheartening and disrespectful. Simply, pathetic. And Jansen suggests that she didn’t even share the worst of it. I believe her. 

This is not a passive-aggressive attempt to otherwise scold and berate users on the efficacy of the comment section. We are human and fallible. I know: I didn’t believe it, either, but it’s in black and white on Yahoo! Answers. We all make comments that we wish we hadn’t the moment we hit send. That is normal and part of growing up. I do it. Like four times a day. I’m talking about the people that go out of their way to spread hatred, spewing unsophisticated, ignorant, and otherwise harmful commentary at or about people they don’t even know. I’m writing to the Canadian that thinks he’s disenfranchised and unemployed by immigration policy and decides to wield his keyboard with tempestuous, dictatorial authority (“My family has been in Canada for three generations! Damn immigrants. I demand satisfaction!!!!”); or the person that thinks Donald Trump’s filterless world means that he’s a “straight-shooter” and “tells it like it is.” Sure he does, as @realDonaldTrump backs away from yet another 3am Twitter campaign promise.

In this era, the infancy of social media, it has provided the great bulk of internet users with a positive platform they would otherwise not have to enter into political discourse in a meaningful and thought-provoking way. On the whole, digital venues create an unending space to discuss, share, build, and expand ideas in real-time; it allows citizens to openly and directly challenge those in authority; it allows the ‘silent majority’ to speak up without having to put on pants and travel to the nearest polling station. The fact that traditional newspapers have been forced to have (only) an online presence with a working comment section – that is monitored and edited for content – to remain relevant is a good thing.  To be sure, everything I write here is edited several times over, and then I wait to see if it passes through the final and most important filter – that of my peers. 

I know that it is apoplectic to most savvy and sophisticated users – I’m looking at you, @intheknow2019 – to suggest that censorship is positive. Especially within the context of social media, many jobs would have been saved if users had first sent their action, text, tweet, or post though a filter: like the geniuses that took up yelling FHRITP to female reporters that were live on the air; the party girl uploading pics of her latest drunken debauchery; or Anthony Weiner (yes, that’s actually his name) sending yet another phallus-pic to an unsuspecting woman. The censorship I’m talking about is your mom standing behind you completely aware of the comment you’re about to share with the world: a momentarily disappointed mother is better than searching the help-wanted section on indeed or workopolis. #motherapproved

We need to be held accountable for our thoughts, actions, and ideas. That’s why scientific studies should always require peer-review before publication: to ensure the study’s conclusions are accurate (informed) and acceptable (shareable), other scientists must be able to successfully replicate it (without burning down the lab). The problem is that social media is a bastion for those that think their opinions have inherent worth and value. They do not; not even close. Most thoughts lack edification, and are destined for the “trash” folder (I empty it several times before posting).

Social media remains a sanctuary for the internet-tough-guy or “troll” (thanks, Justin M). The person that gets a momentary emotional rush from telling someone in power where-to-go and how-to-get-there, or makes a disturbing statement to get a rise out of the social media horde that is offended by … well, everything. Trolls are the equivalent of the after-school bully that thumps his chest in triumph after meting out vigilantism on a kid half his size; the class-clown-turned-asshat because she still has her peer audience but no teacher to dole out discipline; the guy in the safety of his parents’ basement ruling the comment section with an iron fist, finally using curse words never acceptable during dinner prepared by mom and dad (again); or the adult-turned-petulant-two-year-old with an iPhone and internet connection throwing a mega-byte-my-ass temper tantrum in the middle of a digital coffee shop, the traditional place for serious political discourse, for no other reason than because she can.

We must expect more from one another on social media. We must shine a light on the darkest corners and recesses of anonymous internet commentary and hold each other accountable. It is the only way forward; it is the only way to ensure civility in the digital age. Political leaders should absolutely be held to account: but telling a 19 year-old that he requires sexual-servicing before commenting on behalf of his constituency or suggesting that two female politicians are lesbians because you’re upset with a change in the political headwinds is positively embarrassing. What’s more, the Weiners and Trumps of the world that bask in the afterglow of social media sensationalism; their actions perpetuating the belief that this behaviour is both acceptable and justifiable. It is not. And if you’re willing to put your name and face with the vulgarity and crassness mentioned above, you’re the asshat that will eventually be served his comeuppance. 

More than a Conservative Christian

Last night, Michael Den Tandt wrote an Op-Ed piece for The National Post on 19 year-old Sam Oosterhoff who recently crushed his political opponents in a November by-election for Ontario’s Niagara West-Glanbrook riding. Oosterhoff is a Progressive Conservative and he won by a landslide, taking over former PC leader Tim Hudak’s seat. With nine candidates in the running, Oosterhoff accumulated 54% of the vote; his closest rival wasn’t even able to attract 25% of the votes. Tandt’s disappointing thesis: Oosterhoff’s “political career is already doomed” because the young man is a social conservative and an orthodox Christian. Oh, the horror! And, so far, the media hasn’t been nice to the young upstart from wine country.
It should be expected that the climate in which politicians operate is one of distrust and intrigue. No politician gets a free-pass and no one should expect to put their political hat in the ring without notching a few cuts and bruises, maybe even a black-eye, along the way. In a word, politics is brutal: reserved for only those with leather for skin and a stomach cast in iron. In many ways, practical, pragmatic, and pliable politicians have brought this fate upon the entire group.  Unfortunately, that includes their younger, untested colleagues. And those that make their living holding politicians to account – reporters – are always searching for the next scoop, slip-up, or scandal from the political class: a ten-second soundbite that will solidify the masses misconceived and contrived notions about those in power, especially if they openly associate or identify with a particular group. Just ask black, Muslim, or lesbian politicians – some of the traditional groups that are cast aside as the “other” in electoral ridings throughout the western world.

In this particular case, reporters were baiting Oosterhoff to say something off-putting about homosexuals, marriage, gender issues, or anything else that could be construed as yet another Christian being hateful, bigoted, elitist, or otherwise offensive. To his credit, Oosterhoff handled himself very well in those political scrums, easily deflecting tough questions and wisely refusing to answer others, as though his personal beliefs should be available for mass consumption. To the chagrin of reporters, Oosterhoff has demonstrated a high-degree of political and social acuity. If that deftness is more than just luck and circumstance (which it appears to be), Oosterhoff could make politics his career.

Tandt the Defeatist, however, wants his readers to believe the opposite to be true. Tandt is projecting his own attitudes, biases, and conjecture upon Oosterhoff. Tandt finds the media’s treatment of this young member of the provincial parliament to be over-the-line, yet he fails to point to any specific questions that were problematic, only noting the “contempt” shown by reporters. It’s unclear how Oosterhoff’s treatment differs from that of elected leaders across the country during political scrums. Reporters can be vicious and nasty, saddled with the cumbersome baggage of their own biases and past experiences. Tandt sees contempt where others see opportunity – a young, untested politician that can be flustered into saying something foolish. It appears that Tandt is really establishing a self-fulfilling procephy for his own I-told-you-so moment: Oosterhoff is a Christian and “liberal Ontario” will never accept him because of his views. 

Perhaps this comes as a surprise, Mr. Tandt, but voters that consider themselves socially liberal are also Christians. In the real world, as opposed to the one Tandt is attempting to create, there is no monolithic Christian (or non-religious) viewpoint: there is an array – a spectrum, if you will – of political viewpoints that are entirely accepting of Oosterhoff who will hopefully continue to usher in a more progressive conservative viewpoint than his predecessor. Unlike other professionals, Oosterhoff already knows when to share his thoughts, and when it’s wise to keep them to himself. 

Tandt then turns to how Oosterhoff has been treated by social media followers, as though this carries the same weight of a reporter or columnist. If Tandt is truly concerned about the way in which politicians are treated in social media, that conversation is an important and relevant one. However, to bring this into the discussion about “Poor Sam Oosterhoff” is to treat the young adult with kid-gloves: Oosterhoff chose to run in politics (a seemingly brilliant choice); he chose to enter an arena where anyone with an internet connection and an app think that their views and opinions have inherent worth and value (they do not); and he chose not to scurry out the back door when faced with an unpleasant, unsavoury, and unfavourable political scrum (deserved or not). 

If anything, Mr. Tandt, your viewpoint is dismissive of Oosterhoff and only drags him down into your abyss – a world where Christians are the “other” and are socially and politically handicapped by their belief system. Perhaps the young, charismatic Oosterhoff will change people’s minds about Christians or change the way in which religion is understood by Ontarians. Maybe not. But don’t count-out the “kid from Ontario wine country” just yet: allow him the opportunity to refine his voice and stand his ground as a politician, as an elected official to represent his constituency in the provincial legislature. There is more to Oosterhoff than his identity as a Christian and social conservative.