The Electronic Collective Unconscious

You don’t happen to know the average May rainfall for Seattle off the top of your head, do you? If you had to do a search to find out, don’t feel bad, I did too (2.16″, if you couldn’t be bothered). Now, do you happen to remember the name of your second grade teacher? Don’t feel bad if you can’t remember, but I think it would be a fair bet that you were able to pull up your teacher’s name, even though you haven’t used that information in an active way for several years. Now, take a second and think about the two bits of mental gymnastics you just performed. In the case of Seattle rainfall, unless you’re some sort of savant who happens to store up meteorological data from the Pacific Northwest, you relied upon a physically external source for the information, likely by typing “Seattle May rainfall” into the search bar on your browser. In the case of your teacher’s name, you probably used an internal source to get the answer. Other than the source, was there a significant difference as far as your mind was concerned? Was one type of knowledge different from the other in an appreciable way?

For many of us, the internet has become something of a brain extender, the place we keep all the trivia and statistics we don’t want to waste skull space for. I don’t remember phone numbers, my smartphone does it for me; I don’t know birthdays, facebook keeps track of them for me. I might be alone in this, but I have a hunch that I’m not; I have a hunch that if you’re reading an obscure blog you saw linked somewhere with a weird title about “The Electronic Collective Unconscious”, you’re one of the growing number of digital natives wandering around, trying to figure out how to make your phone run your TV and wishing it had an app to help you run even more aspects of your life. More and more of us are looking for more and more ways to integrate the internet and various devices into our daily lives in order to do more, see more, maybe even be more.

The question I’m preoccupied with right now is where the line is between mind and environment, just how much of our mental processes occur entirely within our heads, and how much of it takes place somewhere out there, wherever that may be. This is not something new in human evolutionary terms; the first person to use her fingers to count took her mental processes and used something outside her head to augment it, we’re just doing the same thing in a much more complicated and larger way. Books, pictures, movies, sound recordings, there is an endless list of things human beings have used to extend our minds; twenty years ago, if you wanted to know something, you went to a book and found the information, you asked someone if they knew the answer, or you used some other avenue to take that information out of the external world and into your own grey matter. Now, the process is much faster and more convenient, but there isn’t a difference in the nature of the act of data retrieval from our outer world to our inner one.

Well, that might not necessarily be true; maybe there is something that differentiates our mind’s new tool from its old ones: the fact that it looks very much like a mind itself. Where a book is a physical object, you actually have to walk over to the shelf, open it, and locate the desired information somewhere in space before taking it in, but in the case of the internet, it is drawing closer and closer to being physically co-located with us, through one device or another, and science fiction is rapidly becoming everyday reality. People are looking for ways to have the internet floating in front of us, displayed on our glasses as we walk around, and the question becomes at what point do we stop asking about sentient machines and realize that in fact we are those machines, or at least the ghosts in them. It is not an unimaginable future where we find ourselves living our lives through the filter of the ‘net via implanted devices that become as natural to us as our hands; it’s a near-reality that’s getting closer by the day.

One thing we really need to consider in all of this is once we’re all living online 24/7, where is all the information we’re drawing on coming from? Right now, if you enter “Chinese restaurant” into your search bar, you’re going to get localized results that filter for restaurants in your area based on your IP address. Now, who is doing that filtering? Chances are, you’re a google user, so you know that it’s google doing the filtering of your search results, tailoring them to be the most useful for you, right? Well, yes and no. Certainly, there is a great deal of utility for users in this, you don’t need to scroll down through every Chinese restaurant on the entire web until you find one in your town, it’s right there at the top of the page, probably even with a map giving you directions to each, that much is obvious. However, there is also the question of which restaurants may or may not have purchased advertising from google, which could potentially be affecting the order your search results appear on the page. Say Mao’s Manchurian has paid a little extra to have their restaurant appear at the top of your area’s searches, while Xiang’s Xtreme has not; that money buys Mao’s some prime internet real estate, and you more often than not check them out first, increasing their share of your local Chinese food market.

Well, that’s just Advertising 101, right? Pay for placement, and you’ll raise awareness of your brand and increase business, simple. But what if it goes deeper than just places to get extra MSG in your diet and floats into the political arena. Now, when you do a search on local politicians, the results for the guy whose campaign manager paid for preferential searching might fail to bring up the minor scandal of the day while also bringing up results including stories from years ago mentioning their opponent’s most embarrassing political gaffes when you search his name. Again, this is just advertising, right? It’s just fair and free expression, with the market of ideas being regulated by the invisible hand, nothing untoward, right? Or are we looking at something a little more corrosive to our political process? Is this something that could potentially derail democracy? Spreading it further, we already know how effective misinformation is when it’s propagated through cable news, what about when it’s displayed right on people’s glasses as they’re going about their business?

Something we all need to be aware of as we step into this new reality is who holds the gate keys when it comes to how information is delivered to us. The kind of stealth censorship that can result when a search provider decides that the money to be made by customizing their search algorithms to suit paying customers is something we already see whenever we open our gmail pages. Right there on the side of the page is “targeted advertising” based on the contents of your emails. Having a private conversation with your significant other about what (didn’t) happen last night? Just look to the right, and there’s a helpful link pointing you at some little blue pills. Now, are we really so gullible as to think that governments haven’t made note of this kind of thing and looked for ways to play the game to their own advantage (or rather, for the advantage of their patrons)? It may not be happening here just yet, but most of us have already heard of the Great Firewall of China, and it’s not hard to imagine something like that elsewhere in the world. The rapid spread of information across the globe is a two-edged sword for world leaders; on the one hand, it allows them to respond quickly to situations happening thousands of miles away, but on the other hand, it also means that the truth about what they do in their own countries gets out just as fast as it happens, and oppressing your people in private is becoming a thing of the past.

If a government were to do something like our local restaurants and tweak people’s search results to favour their current policies and agendas, is that a legitimate use of the system, or is it something we should be putting protections against in place? The way we use the internet is becoming more and more like the way we use our own memories, wouldn’t we have a serious problem with the government or corporations tinkering around with the way our memories work? As we increasingly depend on our web-enabled devices for every little thing and get a growing amount of our news and information from it in what we think is a more transparent manner than broadcast and print news and media can provide, the prospect of anybody rigging the way we are able to think about certain things makes the censorship of the past look like nothing in comparison. This is the kind of thing that would have made George Orwell sit bolt upright in the middle of the night, and yet it’s not really something we’re talking about in a serious way. I mean, just think of how people would react with outrage if we heard that a corporation was buying up news outlets in order to suppress certain stories and demonize their opponents, we wouldn’t sit still for that sort of thi- . . .

Crap.

So, I guess the take home message here is either get ready to get your Walden on in the nearest bit of wilderness to get off the grid, or just get used to the idea that in the near future, our memories will be filtered by people we’ve never met for purposes we may have nothing to do with. But at least the resolution level is going to be fantastic.

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Getting Tougher on Getting Tough

In Part One of “Getting Tough”, I focused mainly on the negative consequences “Tough on Crime” policies have had in the past and the odds that we will see similar consequences here in Canada once the crime bill recently passed by our Conservative government come into effect. This week, I’m going to be looking at the arguments underpinning the Tough on Crime train of thought in general. I touched briefly on the perceived value of focusing on victims’ rights, and I will be coming back to expand on that a little, but in addition I’ll take a look at things like “three strikes” and retributive justice theory more generally. There are a lot of people out there who are really on board with this idea, but I have my doubts that they’ve ever taken the time to sit down and take the whole thing apart to see what parts are solid or not (spoiler: there are way more parts that are not), and I think it is a good idea to be prepared to address these well-intentioned people in open and honest terms, rather than dismissing them as bigots or ignorant brutes, because they usually aren’t either one.

Walking over some previously covered ground, the appeal to victims’ rights is one that holds a considerable amount of emotional cache, and is very compelling to many people. The idea is that when we exact larger punishments and penalties from offenders, there is a ledger of harm that is balanced out by an unseen bookkeeper, giving victims of crime a better credit to their account. While emotionally appealing in a, “You’ve hurt me, now I want to see you hurt at least the same amount to make up for it,” kind of way, when you look at the reality of things, it doesn’t track very well to the real world. What is the conversion rate between prison time and physical or emotional harm? How much time in prison balances out against punching someone in the face? What cash value for a fine ought to be assessed against a rapist? Do we really want to say that life experiences and cash are fungible, that we can trade harm for harm like some kind of karmic trading floor? When stated in these terms, the flaw in the “victims’ rights” argument starts to become clear, but to bring the point home, how much cash would you require in exchange for your child’s life? Let’s say someone has murdered your child; what financial penalty would you say balances the books on your son or daughter’s life? Name whatever figure you’d like, there is no sum of money, and no length of time that will fill the ragged gap in a parent’s heart that kind of thing tears out. Trying to apply accountancy to that kind of question is like trying to use a screwdriver to cut a piece of wood; it may be able to get the board cut eventually, but anyone with sense knows it’s the wrong tool for the job at hand. For far too many crimes, there can be no direct correlation between the offence and the punishment laid down by the justice system, and trying to sell citizens on the concept of victims’ rights is misguided good intentions at best, disingenuous pandering at worst.

In connection to the matter of mandatory sentencing touched on in my previous post, what is commonly referred to as the Three Strikes Rule in the US or the Dangerous Offender designation in Canada, the UK and Wales can be seen as a point of contention. In states with a Three Strikes rule, anyone convicted of three felony offences is given a life sentence, regardless of the severity of the crimes committed in some cases; people have been given 25 years to life sentences for crimes as minor as having a couple of pockets full of cookies after a failed burglary attempt, on the basis that it was the offender’s “third strike”. As in the more general case of mandatory sentencing, the application of the three strikes rule ties the hands of judges and prevents them from doing the job they were put on the bench to perform. We have judges in our courts so that they can, for lack of a better way to say it, judge; these are people who have spent years, decades, in the legal system and it is the experience they gain in that process that is valuable on the bench when determining guilt or innocence, and when deciding what the appropriate punishment for a given crime ought to be in that particular case. Legislation can give guidelines for punishments, but there is no way for legislators to assess what would be a fair punishment for all crimes in all cases, but this is precisely the position minimum sentencing puts them in. Blanket pronouncements are not a good tool for criminal justice systems, for what I think are fairly obvious reasons, but what may be obvious to me could be obscure to others, so I’d better show my work.

Given Case A, wherein the offender has been found guilty of drunk driving, but makes an honest and convincing case that he had been unaware that the beverages he’d been drinking contained alcohol, ought we demand the same punishment as we do in Case B, where the offender knew full well that he was drinking alcoholic beverages, and still chose to drive while he was aware that he was definitely over the legal limit? A mandatory sentencing outline would apply the same penalty in both cases, but would anyone call this justice? One man was unaware of his rising blood alcohol level, and did not realize he was impaired when he drove his car, the other knew he was drunk but didn’t care; who would judge the two acts as deserving of the same punishment? Ignorance of the law is not an excuse, but shouldn’t it be a mitigating factor when deciding on how severely we want someone to be punished? This is just presented for the contrast, of course there are going to be cases that fall all over the spectrum of ill intent, negligence, or accident, but that is exactly the point; treating all crimes as equivalent the way minimum sentencing does results in an inevitable justice gap when put into practice.

While it is being expanded in some ways I personally disagree with, the Dangerous Offender designation stands in contrast to the Three Strikes Rule in that it is applied after the fact, by a parole committee who are evaluating a prisoner’s relative threat level to the community. It is not applied as a blanket covering all offenders who have committed a prescribed number of crimes (yet), it is a discerning process that looks at context, the prisoner’s personal history, and makes a determination based entirely on the particular person. If someone genuinely represents an unacceptable risk to the community, it is not unreasonable or unjust to continue holding them indefinitely; that is prudence, not vindictiveness. The reality is that there are people in our prison system who are simply not safe to have out on the streets; they objectively present a high risk of harm to society, and keeping them separated from the rest of us is kind of the whole point of prison in the first place. Jails are for holding people away from the community when they have done something that indicates they are incapable of co-existing peacefully and lawfully with others; it isn’t about ensuring victims’ rights are accounted for properly to the penny, it’s about reducing the number of victims in general.

One of the biggest flaws in retributive justice theory, as stated in the previous post, is that it is incapable of dealing with “victimless” crimes like drug use and prostitution, because there is no individual injured party to gain retribution for, no harm to visit upon the offender in return for the harm they’ve done someone else. At best, these can only be accounted for in some kind of “crime against society” sort of way that makes the entire community into the injured party seeking a reckoning, but this can only be done by viewing society as a unified agent with a common interest in outlawing the act under consideration. By recognizing the simple fact that the offender is almost always a member of that supposedly unified agent, the argument begins to unravel almost immediately, and falls apart completely in cases like cannabis use, where in fact most of the community favours decriminalization. While decriminalizing pot isn’t something I oppose, the many people out there who subscribe to a retributive justice model face an impossible challenge in hanging on to both their theory of justice and their desire to keep pot and prostitution illegal. There is as much justification (or more) for making alcohol and cholesterol illegal when you zoom the concept of “victim” out so broadly that moral offence comes to be seen as a legitimate harm that merits retribution.

Finally, there is the second justification for “Getting Tough on Crime”, that it serves as a deterrent to potential criminals and reduces the number of crimes committed out of fear of stiffer punishments. As illustrated previously, this is simply not borne out in the actual data. States with harsher punishments do not have lower crime rates, the opposite is true almost universally; whatever reason you want to give for this, the fact remains that cranking up punishments absolutely does not reduce crime rates. Personally, I think it’s a combination of crime rarely being the result of careful, rational deliberation weighing out the pros and cons of various courses of action, and the effects of packing more and more criminals into “Con College” for longer and longer terms. When you stop and think about what must be going on in the heads of people committing crimes, how many of us picture a calm, reasoned inner monologue going over the outcomes of a set of considered options? Does anyone really think that a rapist gives any consideration to the potential negative consequences of his actions? Or maybe that a heroin addict is considering the length of prison terms she faces in the event she’s caught in possession of narcotics? Can anyone seriously present these as likely scenarios? Of course not, criminals are, by and large, the result of poor impulse control and a narcissistic inability to picture anything bad ever happening as a result of one’s actions. Deterrence only works in cases where you’re dealing with rational people choosing their course of actions based on good reasoning, and this simply does not describe the real world we live in. The result of longer prison terms is that you extend the time small-time criminals (who may have been rehabilitated through community outreach programs) spend among hardened career criminals and learning how to commit more serious crimes. The 18-year-old thrown in jail for three years on a minimum sentence for pot possession under some circumstances comes out a very different person, and our current prison systems very rarely change people for the good. What your mandatory minimum sentence has done is turn a kid (let’s be honest, 18-year-olds are mostly still kids, we just decided to draw an arbitrary line and have stuck with it) into a victim looking to pass on the hurt he experienced while he was in prison. Or do you think forced sodomy is good for a young person’s character?

In the end, there really is no solid argument to be made for policies like what we’ve seen in the Three Strike states or in Harper’s newly passed crime bill. These are not laws that protect the community, they do not balance the books on victims’ rights, and they result in heavy negative consequences for everyone who doesn’t own a prison. All that will ever come of “Tough on Crime” policy is a self-sustaining cycle of victimization and an ever-increasing prison population; I don’t know about you, but this is not something I’m interested in seeing implemented in my community, and we need to voice our opposition to this wrong-headed movement in our governments. It is nothing but pandering to the worst instincts of humanity: a desire for vengeance when we feel we’ve been wronged, prejudicial attitudes against the “other”, and a misguided and outdated notion that sparing the rod spoils the child. Basing our legal system on this foundation is the surest way I can think of to separate the concepts of “Legal System” and “Justice System” completely.

Getting Tough on Getting Tough

Recently, the Canadian government passed a new crime bill into law with some rather strong penalties for what many consider minor offenses. Non-violent drug related crime in particular has been pointed out as a glaring disconnect when placed alongside general Canadian attitudes toward drug use, particularly when it comes to cannabis. On top of these stiffer penalties, mandatory sentencing has been introduced, stripping our courts of their ability to assess the appropriate penalty for individual criminal cases, applying blanket punishments regardless of the details of each case. A university student growing a few pot plants for his personal use is going to face the same minimum penalty as a small-time gang member who just got started growing for distribution to minors, so long as the same numbers of plants are found in each case. Even stranger, there are circumstances where the minimum penalties for growing pot are heavier than those measured out to child pornographers, based in part on whether the grower owned or rented the property where his plants were growing. Because of this odd inclusion in the sentencing rules, the university student would face a stiffer penalty than the gang member if he was renting his apartment and the gang member owned his home. Personally, this all seems like nonsense to me, but I’m willing to allow for the possibility that some personal bias could be entering into my considerations. The Harper government has based their justification of their crime bill on the idea that getting tough on crime will result in safer streets and a reduction of criminal cases, so let’s examine this claim’s merits and see if it holds up under scrutiny.

It seems like the best way to determine the likelihood of a proposal’s success would be to look around to see if other jurisdictions have implemented similar legislation in the past and gauge how well things worked out for those people. Of course, for we Canadians, the first place we think of when we start talking about getting tough on things is the good old U. S. of A., our good neighbour to the south. Several US states have passed laws that are very similar to what Mr. Harper has pushed through our Parliament, and there are not too many countries that are more alike than America and her favourite hat, so it seems to be an ideal test case to look at for predictions as to how well our new laws are going to work out for us. Surely we are not likely to find a country much more like Canada than the US, but by all means feel free to add in your own preferred example if you can think of a country that would be a better predictor of outcomes for us.

So then, armed with these two strong examples to consider, let’s take a look at how well “Get Tough on ______” has worked out in similar countries passing similar laws. In the US, the results of these laws have been somewhat less than spectacular. According to one estimate, “there are 100,000 more non-violent drug offenders in U.S. prisons than the entire prison population of the European Union – even though the EU has 100 million more people.” At first blush, this does not seem to recommend the American model of getting tough on crime, but let’s look at the things its proponents tout as virtues, rather than giving too much time right off the bat to critics of this system. First and foremost, getting tough on criminals is presented as the course of action that gives the most weight to victims’ rights by providing much stiffer punishments to offenders. The family of a murder victim receives the peace of mind that comes from knowing that the state laid a much heavier penalty on the killer than they might have received under a more lenient judicial system, and this is something very attractive to a great many people out there. The idea that people are punished “enough” for their wrongdoing certainly has a strong appeal to those with a retributive streak running through their theory of justice; and if the punishment goes a little over the “enough” line? Well, that’s OK too, right? Victim impact statements are definitely important in determining what a fitting punishment might be for a given offense, but should that be our top concern, or even our only concern? In practical terms, what is the “enough” line for victims? Are we going to look at going straight, “An eye for an eye,” in our criminal justice system, and if the answer is yes, what does that look like when applied in a courtroom? Is a rape victim entitled to rape her attacker? Is a murder victim’s family entitled to kill the killer? Is the victim of a grow-op entitled to . . . um . . . who is the victim of a grow-op again?

This is where retributive justice falls flat on its face: it simply cannot address the matter of victimless crimes. Where there is no direct harm to an identifiable victim that can be measured so a proportional punishment can be worked out and applied, a system based on getting retribution on offenders is completely useless. It may in fact be worse than useless if your aim is to maintain these victimless acts on the books as crimes, since it cuts the legs out from under that position. If there is no victim, there is no crime, and no punishment can be prescribed, period. If you want to make growing pot for your own use illegal, you need to find a different way to justify your position, because “an eye for an eye” does not apply to the case of “a high for a high”. If you want to make the case that pot and other recreational drugs ought to be criminalized on the grounds that drug abuse causes social harm that indirectly affects everyone, so punishment can be based on that broad-based harm, you’re welcome to try, but that identical reasoning would also apply to fast food, alcohol, tobacco, video games, air pollution, and any number of other social harms that nobody is looking to criminalize in at least an equal measure. While there are plenty of people who are perfectly fine with using special pleading in order to support a pet argument, I unfortunately have some background education in logical fallacies that prevents me from joining in the fun.

So, between realizing that for many victims, there is no such thing as “enough” when it comes to punishing their assailants, and getting stuck on the fact that it cannot prescribe any punishment at all for certain criminal offenses, a retributive justice argument fails to provide a solid grounding for the Conservatives’ newly passed legislation. It certainly has a strong emotional appeal to victims’ rights groups and other similar supporters, along with those among us who feel drawn to the “eye for an eye” style of frontier justice, but it would be nice to think that our criminal justice system would satisfy more than an emotional itch among people who like to see the guilty “pay” for what they’ve done. What would be nice would be to set up the criminal justice system in such a way that it offered something more than vengeance-seeking for injured parties, maybe even some kind of restorative justice model for those of us who view criminals as still being human beings and fellow citizens.

Call me an old softie, but I genuinely do think that committing a crime does not necessarily take a person and set them outside the human race. I think it would be worthwhile to set up a justice system that did what it could to reduce recidivism by reforming offenders so that when they are released from prison, they can re-enter society and contribute to the common good in a way that maybe even makes some amends for what they did. While victim’s rights are important, and ought to have a strong bearing on the disposition of a criminal case, unless you’re going to apply capital punishment across the board, these people are going to be coming back out of jail at some point, like it or not. It is up to us whether our justice system does what it can to promote reform or just throws people in a cage for a period of time, let the chips fall where they may once their time is up, and I don’t see a whole lot of the former in what Harper and his Tories have passed into Canadian law.

Sorry, I’ve digressed from what I said I was going to do, examine the merits of our newly passed crime bill by taking a look at how similar systems have worked out in similar legal settings. Going back to this point, it seems relevant to point out that while the US has spent something in the neighbourhood of $1 trillion on its War on Drugs, mainly on law enforcement and prisons, drug use rates in the US are showing no signs of dropping off, and it is still topping the charts for *the* place to ship your illegal narcotics if you happen to run a drug cartel. Canadians are no slouch in this department though; we spend $454 million every year on controlling our drug problem, with $426 million of that total (93.8%) going to law enforcement. Nearly half a billion dollars each and every year is spent by the Canadian government in order to shrink our country’s drug problem, and it can just be taken for granted that this has had a strong, positive effect on reducing drug abuse rates. I mean, it has to be taken for granted, since there is an “almost complete absence of basic management information on spending of resources, on expectations, and on results,” according to a recent report released by the Chief Medical Health Officers of Saskatchewan, Nova Scotia and BC, along with a UBC Medicine professor. Also according to that report, drugs have gotten stronger and cheaper over the past few decades, and the US National Institutes of Health conducted a survey where American 12th graders responded saying 80-90% had “very easy” or “fairly easy” access to cannabis (which has gotten about 170% stronger since the 80’s).

So what are we to conclude from all of this? Could it be that Mr. Harper and the Conservatives have passed a law that holds a strong possibility of leading to all sorts of negative unintended consequences, while providing little or no benefit to Canadians in the long run? It certainly seems so from what we’ve looked at so far, but we haven’t really looked at the whole argument in favour of what they’ve put into our legal system. Forget all about that whole question of pursuing methods that have proven to be disastrously ineffective in other, similar jurisdictions, what we really need to focus on is reigning in all those activist judges out there, letting the guilty go free while families suffer. That’s the real issue here, the affront to justice we open ourselves up to by giving judges discretionary powers during sentencing. Applying a blanket minimum sentence to every infraction of any law is the way to ensure that the guilty are punished and none are let off the hook by bleeding-heart judges who don’t care about victims or their families. Just look at any newspaper and you’ll find a story of some offender getting a light sentence just because the particulars of their case warranted a reduction in jail time or possibly even an alternative punishment like probation or conditional sentencing. These insults to justice will no longer be able to exist, since those activist judges will have their hands tied by prescribed minimum sentences.

Except, don’t we make people judges on the basis of them being good at judging things, generally speaking? I mean, obviously there are some crap judges out there doing a terrible job of things who have no business serving on the bench, but as a whole, don’t we usually give the job of “Judge” to people who actually merit the position in some way? Is it really a good idea to remove their ability to exercise discretion in cases where mitigating circumstances genuinely do reduce the severity of the crime committed? Are we meant to believe that the university student and gang member mentioned above really present an equal threat to society and deserve to go to jail for the same minimum amount of time? I’m sorry, but I can’t find a sensible way to justify this idea; if you can think of something, please drop me a line in the comments below and clue me in to how to get on board with all this, I’d welcome any insight anyone has to offer. I didn’t get to cover a few things I wanted to in this post, but I’m already over my self-imposed 2,000 word limit, so there’s going to have to be a follow-up post to this one, and any contributions that offer support to this whole thing will certainly be addressed then.

If You Have Nothing to Hide…

Well, if you’ve got nothing to hide, you’ve got nothing to fear, right? Isn’t that how the saying goes? In a conversation about drug testing welfare recipients, this bit of popular political philosophy came up, and I was a little taken aback by how strongly I reacted to this sentiment. I guess it’s one of those things, like how the first time you hear “If I Had $1,000,000” on the radio, it’s not so bad, but the millionth time you’ve heard it in a week, that one makes you want to commit a hate crime against quirky Canadian bands with multiple lead singers. And like that fun little tune, it has a catchy kind of ring to it; say it out loud and it has a nice, even rhythm to it, the saying just rolls off the tongue: “If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear.” There’s a certain sort of upright, white-bread poetry to it, the sort of thing your grandparents would have said to your parents when they were kids trying to hide something behind their backs. You know, a respectable working-class ethic, an honest openness and respect for authority that we ought to encourage in the younger generation. And when you’re talking about parents speaking with small children who are obviously trying to get away with something they know they aren’t supposed to be doing, it’s a right and fitting aphorism for the situation.

The problem is, the federal government isn’t your kindly old parents trying to get you to fess up to taking a cookie from the jar, they’re actually trampling on some rather fundamental rights to privacy that we as citizens of a free society should stand up to protect. It’s not that if I have nothing to hide, I have nothing to fear; it’s that if I have nothing to hide, you and nobody else has a right to search me or my property. If you believe you have just cause to search my person or possessions, then you go right ahead and talk to a judge and get a warrant to search me. Present the evidence you already have to support your suspicion of me, and then come knock on my door, but not before. The fact that someone is collecting government assistance is not probable cause to accuse them of being drug addicts, any more than being a politician is probable cause for accusing someone of accepting bribes and kickbacks from special interest groups to influence government policy. If you want to treat a citizen like a criminal, you need to have some kind of evidence to justify that treatment, period. Without real evidence that can be tested and examined by an impartial judge, nobody has the right to violate another person’s privacy rights.

Before you get all up my nose about being soft on welfare abuse, this isn’t the only place where this argument applies. Gun owners, how would you like it if the government were to set up a federal firearms registry and make it illegal to own an unregistered rifle or buy ammunition without a license? The anti-gun lobby would say that if you are in fact a law-abiding, responsible gun owner with nothing to hide, then you have nothing to fear from the government intruding in your gun cabinet and snooping around for contraband. “But wait!” cries the anti-gun lobby, “There are thousands of gun-related deaths and incidents every year, we need this registry to protect lives!” Now I’m not unsympathetic to this objection; I do realize that many people are injured or killed with firearms every year, and that a federal gun registry could potentially save someone’s life, maybe, possibly. However, treating the millions of responsible, law-abiding gun owners who do not use their varmint rifles to hold up liquor stores or carjack people as though they were criminals is totally unwarranted.

By the same token, you might possibly save tax-payers a few hundred bucks a month by cutting an addict off welfare, potentially, maybe. However, treating the rest of the responsible, law-abiding people receiving government assistance as though they were cashing their welfare cheques at a crack house is equally unwarranted. In the constituencies where drug testing for welfare applicants has been implemented, the incidence of positive tests has proven to be lower than the general average rate of drug abuse found in the rest of society. You can explain this by saying that drug addicts are stupid, but not stupid enough to take a drug test while on drugs, or you can explain it by saying that people on welfare simply don’t have money for drugs, that doesn’t matter. What matters is that in the process of grossly violating people’s privacy rights, these governments have incurred far greater losses in lab fees than they could ever hope to save on paying out benefits without the testing. So, not only are these laws an unwarranted invasion of privacy, they are having the exact opposite net result on the cost of operations that their proponents promised voters.

Which brings us to the question: Who supports this kind of law, and why? Well, in a word, Bigots. Because that’s what bigots do; they take the worst stereotypes of a group they don’t like, assign those largely fictional characteristics to the entire group, and then elect politicians who will set policy up in a way that treats people like the caricatures bigots carry around in their heads, rather than the actual rights-holding citizens and tax-payers they really are. Bigots call social aid recipients crack addict welfare queens, and they call gun owners red-necks and criminals. What’s more, politicians know that this is how bigots think, so they tailor their message in such a way as to take advantage of this mode of thinking. They point at “those people” as outsiders, as enemies, as being not *quite* as human as you are, and then they propose the kinds of laws that are designed to put “those people” in their place. Don’t like your tax dollars going to help people in need of assistance, but don’t want to look like a selfish prick? That’s ok, they’re all lazy drug addicts who don’t deserve your saintly generosity, so it’s alright to cut off their payments and leave them to starve? Got a deep-seated irrational fear of guns, but don’t want to look like a coward and can’t afford therapy? Hey, it’s not you, it’s all those dangerous gun nuts out there buying up AK-47’s and bazookas so they can take down society and create a Lord of the Flies-like anarchist free-for-all who need to be tracked by the government and monitored closely.

Really, anything that can locate the problem with society and its solution outside of you and your circle of friends, right? Anything that places blame on the other, while leaving us to play the role of victim, of hard-working pillar of the community, a saint among the sinners, that’s what we want our politicians to tell us, so they do it, and we reward them with power. If we stopped electing the people who feed off our fears and prejudices and started seeing each other as equals and fellow citizens, how many of our current political problems would evaporate all on their own. Right now, we simply have the government we deserve; we have earned our current crop of parasites and weasels by rewarding them for playing into our biggest character flaws. There are still people working in the public service who are actually working for the sake of serving the public, but they are becoming more and more difficult to find. If you know of one, if there’s someone running in your constituency who refuses to speak the language of bigotry to get elected, then get out there and support them, even if they aren’t members of the party you happen to belong to. Start rewarding politicians who treat citizens like citizens, and perhaps we could see some real change in the way government conducts itself, but if we keep electing the people who want to hang on to power by making us fear one another, it’s just going to keep going on the same stupid path we’ve been heading down for far too long now.

One last thought, just to wrap this up, if you still think that “If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear,” is a good rule to live by, I would invite you to post your facebook and email login information in the comments below, along with a screencap of your last month’s browser history. If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear, right?

That’s what I thought.

How to Avoid McCarthyism v. 2.0

Perhaps you haven’t heard the news, but Rep. Allen West (R.-FL) has a bombshell to share with you: Up to 80 House Democrats are actually Communists. I hope you’re as shocked as I am by this revelation; I had no idea anyone was still crazy enough to use Communists as a boogyman to scare up political support. I mean, he even used a kind of vague-but-still-oddly-specific number (81, in case you missed it) that Senator Joe McCarthy used in his infamous Wheeling speech: “The State Department is infested with communists. I have here in my hand a list of 205—a list of names that were made known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist Party and who nevertheless are still working and shaping policy in the State Department,” which was amended down to, you guessed it, eighty-one “security risks” a few days later. As Charles Siefe states in his insightful book, “Proofiness: The Dark Arts of Mathematical Deception,” It didn’t really matter whether the list had 205 or 57 or 81 names. The very fact that McCarthy had attached a number to his accusations imbued them with an aura of truth. Would McCarthy make such specific claims if he didn’t have evidence to back them up? Even though White House officials suspected that he was bluffing, the numbers made them doubt themselves.” It seems that Rep. West is not just making history rhyme, he’s doing a straight up copy/paste out of the Chief Witch Hunter’s playbook, right down to having the t-ball question coming from an almost certain plant using the phrase “card-carrying Marxists or International Socialists.” Have you heard anyone refer to anyone as a “card-carrying” anything in the last decade or three, outside of a history lesson about McCarthyism?

As an explanation of the Rep. West’s comments, his office released the following statement: “The Congressman was referring to the 76 members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. The Communist Party has publicly referred to the Progressive Caucus as its allies. The Progressive Caucus speaks for itself. These individuals certainly aren’t proponents of free markets or individual economic freedom.” (emphasis mine) The justification of West’s alarming accusation is that the Communist Party has referred to the Progressive Caucus as its allies, and that is enough guilt by association for him to go ahead and refer to the Progressive Caucus as “card-carrying” members of the Communist Party in at least two public speaking engagements. With this standard of “proof”, how is anyone accused of the high crime of having Communist sympathies supposed to defend against this withering attack?

I have an idea.

This is addressed directly to the Communist Party of America, if any of you have connections to this organization, please pass this along to them, I think my idea could really work. OK, Communists of America? I want you to comb through Rep. West’s political statements and platform, and I want you to find as many completely non-controversial statements and positions as you possibly can. I understand that he is kind of a lunatic, but even a broken clock is right twice a day, right? OK, West is ex-military, he probably runs on 24-hour time, so his clock’s only going to be right once a day, but still, the guy says enough stuff in public, you have got to be able to find something you can agree with the man on. Found it yet? I’ll give you a minute, take your time . . . all right, now that you’ve found something to agree with him on, I want you to make as public a statement as you possibly can that you support Rep. West in that position (or positions, I’m nothing if I’m not an optimist), 110%, and you consider him one of your strongest allies on this matter.

I mean, if he’s made a passing reference to being in favour of having dogs licensed and leashed in cities, that’s good enough, just run with it. Talk about how Rep. West understands that dog leashing and licensing isn’t such a serious issue for rural families, that dogs in the heartland are hard-working, dependable members of many farming operations, the furry soul of America. It’s those semi-wild urban dogs you need to keep tabs on, make sure they’re registered with the proper authorities and kept on a short leash whenever they’re let out in public so they won’t present a menace to decent families by roving around in untamed packs. Go on to express your strongly held belief that responsible dog ownership as outlined by Rep. West is at the very core of Communist philosophy and politics, and unequivocally voice your support and dedication to his political career.

By doing this, either you will convince Mr. West to shut the hell up about hunting down Communists in Congress, or in an absolute best case scenario, you will break his mind and convince him that he is actually a Communist himself because he can’t escape the feedback loop of his own twisted logic, and that would just be awesome.

Rick Santorum is a Jerk

Here I am, happily sitting at my desk, writing a new blog post about why Rick Santorum should drop out of the presidential nomination race, and he has the unmitigated gall to go right ahead and do it before I can finish up. Now, everything I wrote just looks like I’m beating a dead horse, so I ended up deleting everything for a fresh start. All the stuff about how hypocritical it is for Republican Christians to demand that their moral standards be codified in secular law and applied to non-Christians while working their hardest to ensure that none of the Bible’s standards for charity and taking care of the poor and sick get applied to . . . well, to anyone, ever, just seems to have lost much of its force as the leading “Christian” brand candidate has pulled out for the first time in his life.

Up here in Canada, the religion in politics thing is much more subsumed, but it’s still there underneath a lot of the things Conservative politicians have to say. Nobody has repeated Stockwell “Doris” Day’s mistake of wearing his faith on his sleeve, but all the right phrasing is there in their statements and proposed policies. Not that subtlety in advancing a hypocritical agenda is a good thing per se, but it is nice not to have to actively defend my associations with both a Pentecostal church and the NDP.

So, wrapping things up, I guess what I’d say is the short version of everything I wrote about Santorum is that I personally would not have nearly such a problem with politicians branding themselves as Christians if they would use the same zeal they have for banning gay marriage on the problem of taxation of the rich and taking care of the sick and needy, instead of looking for loopholes to get them out of selling all they have and giving it to the poor.

We Have Met the Enemy, and He is Us

For over a decade, the West has been fighting the War on Terror, and maybe it’s time to sit down and assess how things are going for us in this great global conflict. More than ten years on, are we any closer to putting out the flame of terrorism that burned so fiercely at the dawning of the new millennium; have we won the hearts and minds of people living under tyrannical regimes opposed to our very existence, or have we continued to lose ground? In several measurable ways, the West has definitely won some significant victories; taking down Saddam Hussein, toppling the Taliban, eliminating Osama bin Laden, these are all legitimate achievements we can point to and have little doubt about. However, do these and other victories balance the books when set aside the cost in blood and treasure? This kind of calculus is well beyond my abilities to work out, and I don’t think anyone else is really qualified to do the math either, so I’m going to leave it as an open question. At any rate, the question I’d like to focus on isn’t so much if it was worth it, but rather whether or not it is worth it to continue with this war. What’s done is done and we can’t change it now; best case we could hope for would be bringing responsible parties up on charges of crimes against humanity, but we both know this is never going to happen, don’t we?

Better then to look at the current situation and try to figure out if we’re getting back an equal or greater return on our investment of blood and treasure, or if maybe a change in direction is warranted. According to the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, the Canadian government is spending more on the military than it has since WWII, and more than it ever spent during the Cold War. Keep in mind, that period also includes the Korean War and the First Gulf War, and Russian nukes were an ever-looming threat over everything our armed forces did. This means, in my interpretation, that the current threat from global terrorism is worse than anything since the Second World War, worse than the threat of nuclear war, worse than the threat of Communism. We’re talking about tens of billions of dollars, so the risk to Canadian security must be extremely high, right? There must have been a rash of terrorist attacks that drew us out into Afghanistan to confront our tormentors and bring the fight to their doorstep, yes? But wait, I hear you saying, there actually haven’t been any bombings by militant Islamists in Canada, and only one of the 40+ terrorist acts (depending on how you count them, I chose to take the FLQ bombing campaign of the 60’s as one event) in Canada’s history was a failed plot by the Toronto 18 back in 2006. In fact, French-Canadian separatists account for the vast majority of terror attacks in Canada, and yet we hear little or no political rhetoric about the threat of Francophone extremists living among us. We don’t hear tales of French-speakers being taken aside disproportionately for “enhanced screening” at airports, nor do we hear about French schools being vandalized in retaliation for . . . well, for whatever is it that people who vandalize mosques think they’re retaliating for. Must be something, right? Surely to goodness, our fellow citizens wouldn’t just go out and deface someone’s place of worship just out of ignorance and bigotry, right?

Well, let’s leave that question alone for the moment too, since I’m sure it must just be a failing of research on my part to find the incidents these brave patriots are paying back upon their nation’s enemies. Perhaps it would be a good idea to look at the things that are protecting us from future attacks by radical zealots bent on sowing terror among our civilian population out of an unquestioned hatred for us born out of years of religious brainwashing. One thing we have going for us is that it is extremely difficult to mount a terrorist attack on civilians that would bring an entire metropolitan area to its knees in fear of sudden death. Only, that’s not exactly true, is it? A quick search brings up four incidents involving multiple shooting attacks that terrorized various cities between 2002 and 2006. The Beltway Sniper, West Virginia Sniper, Ohio Highway sniper attacks, and Phoenix, Arizona’s Serial Shooter were all cases where a couple of guys with a rifle and a car were able to kill dozens of people, wound several more, and struck entire regions with fear that anyone could be the next victim. This is how easy it is to execute a terrorist plot, just by a rifle and a Chevy Caprice, and you can make an entire city fear you. All you need to do is claim credit and release a manifesto, and voila, you’ve got yourself a successful terrorist attack, all without having to blow yourself up, so you’re free to carry out one attack after another until you’re finally caught and put on trial, where you can continue to spread your message of jihad.

In order to strike fear in the hearts of a civilian population, you don’t need a dozen fanatics to blow up buildings or planes, a relatively simple attack carried out by one or two people will generate a similar result with much less expense and planning. So why is it that we’re not seeing this sort of attack on North American soil on a regular basis? It’s nearly impossible to defend an entire country from this kind of attack, and they have a proven track record of effectiveness, so what is it that’s stopping our enemies from carrying out a similar shooting spree every single day? Could it be that these evil masterminds simply haven’t thought of this, and I should shut up before they come by and read my blog in a search for new ideas? Or could it be that the evil masterminds don’t really exist, and the threat of sudden, painful death at the hands of radical Islamists isn’t something we should be putting so much effort into preventing?

Maybe an important question to ask would be whether there could be someone besides these alleged terrorists who would stand to gain by keeping everyone afraid, and maybe something along the lines of several billion dollars could point us in the right direction. Is it really that hard to believe that people who benefit to the tune of tens of billions (hundreds of billions in the US) in taxpayer money, along with the political power that comes along with presenting yourself as the National Security Party to voters you’ve whipped up into a lather of fear? I don’t think you have to be a conspiracy nut to suspect that maybe the threat has been exaggerated in order to direct the public onto the policy path certain political interests would prefer, it simply stands to reason that a rational actor would use something like this to his advantage, especially when the reward is so great for doing so. Honestly, I’d be disappointed in the hawks if they didn’t run with this whole thing, it’s such an obvious boost to their position. Keeping people afraid of the monsters in the closet is an excellent, low-risk way to get rich selling Monster Repellant Spray and make yourself look like a hero in the process. With an imaginary enemy, you get all the benefits of political power and unlimited spending in the name of National Security, without the downside of your enemy actually attacking your people, which could lead to embarrassing questions about why you weren’t able to protect them.

All this being said, what I believe is that the best way to win a war on terror is to stop being afraid, period. Stop letting fear dictate public policy, stop letting it decide who you vote for, what spending agenda you support. The threat is not real, or it would be in our faces daily. We live in an open society, where any crazy with a gun can shoot up an urban area and sow panic in a wide area; if there really were the kind of evil masterminds working against us that our leaders say they’re protecting us from, there is no way on earth they could possibly protect us from them. With the long gun registry now taken away, it would be even easier for someone with malicious intent to get hold of a high-powered rifle and start shooting up any city in North America, but instead it’s teenagers shooting up schools. Think about that for a minute: this is the kind of attack that teenagers carry out with some regularity, what possible reason could there be that would be keeping terrorists from doing the same, if they actually are living among us?

So in closing, I’d like to say to you the same thing I plan on saying to my son when he calls me at night because he’s afraid of the monsters under his bed and in his closet: “Look, there’s no monsters here, see? It’s ok, you don’t need to worry about them because they aren’t real. Now go to sleep, and I’ll see you in the morning.”