Tuesday, January 20, 2015


My fellow Americans. I did not write these words. They were written for me by a team of professional speech-writers. They were tested before small focus groups ahead of time in order to determine their likely impact on the polls. The speech you are about to hear will be devoid of substantive content. Nothing that I will say will be surprising. Ninety percent of what I say could have been said by any of my predecessors in the past forty years. The speech will contain at least two dozen tiresome political cliches. I will pause for just a moment after delivering each of these so that members of Congress and others in attendance will know when to rise and applaud. You will notice that the Justices of the Supreme Court and the Joints Chiefs of Staff seldom will clap. This is their way of maintaining the ridiculous pretense that they are somehow apolitical, when in fact they are some of the most ideologically zealous people you will ever meet, and have been chosen in part precisely because of their ideological zealotry.

I will now insert a word of thanks to the brave men and women of our armed forces. Members of Congress, you will wish to be first on your feet to applaud for them. If you believe that it is not merely absurd but actually insidious and indeed even fascistic to valorize martial virtues over civilian ones, or if you think that it impedes badly needed argument about the conduct of America’s foreign and military policy, you should rise and applaud anyway. To do otherwise would be to commit an immediate act of political suicide, with implications not only for your own career but for your party.

In addition to offering a succession of banal statements written at approximately an eighth-grade reading level, I will also deploy a number of rhetorical cliches. These ring familiar to the ear, like a repetitious hit song, or the formula that drives your favourite Hollywood movies. They have been shown by the marketing and public relations firms that drive so much of our political culture to produce the most statistically favourable poll results. To that end, I will not and shall not just say “will not.”  I can not and will not just say “can not.”  I will also be referring to Americans as “folks” and will never say “taxpayers” without inserting “harding working” in front of it. I promise to make no literary references except to the Bible. My only historical references will be to the Founding Fathers, though I have been advised to downplay Thomas Jefferson.

I have invited guests today to hear the State of the Union Address. They are good people who have done good things for their communities. Some of them have saved peoples’ lives. You will be comforted to know that they have been carefully vetted to ensure that they haven’t done anything in the past that might embarrass me; they have also been selected in a precisely calculated manner so as ensure that their selection plays out favourably in terms of likely and probable voter support.

I wish to stress again that this speech will include no substantive content. For instance, I will not and shall not mention that we borrow money China in order to pay for ridiculously bloated armed forces that irrationally regard China as their greatest foe. And I can not and will not mention that a powerful lobby has somehow convinced millions of Americans that gun crime is unrelated to guns. Or that we alone do not use the metric system. Or that forty percent of you think the world is less than 10,000 years old and that this in turn explains why we are falling behind in scientific achievement relative to the rest of the world. 

Nonetheless, this content-free speech will be analyzed down to the last word by journalists, a very special breed of people paid to write and speak at great length on matters about which they have no professional expertise. They will judge the value of speech – and note once again, that it has none in particular – based on their pre-existing ideological predispositions. They will pay particular attention to the one or two times in this speech when I make a gracious remark about a member of Congress from another political party, like the guy sitting behind me. I can not – and shall not – reveal just how much I hate that guy’s guts. Instead, I will make a point about how great America is by observing that he came from humble origins. You may now applaud.  

Once again I’d like to thank the brave men and women of our armed forces for protecting our freedoms, even if it demonstrably true that our government in the conduct of its foreign and military policy has provided vital political, economic, and military aid to a litany of dictatorships while progressively encroaching on individual liberties at home. I’d also like to thank the hardworking taxpayers who make it possible for us to spend $1.5 trillion on a jet that we don't need and that doesn’t work while our urban infrastructure crumbles.

I do not believe in God but am required by poll evidence to conclude this speech by asking God to bless America, because despite the widely held view amongst the religious that their faith is under attack and in retreat, they constitute an overwhelming majority of the population.  So, God Bless the United States of America. He didn’t stop the Holocaust but maybe he’ll intervene on our behalf in this particular instance, and straighten out a health care system that costs two or three times as much per capita as ones that we deride as being "socialist."  Thank you and goodnight. Especially if you're one of the brave men and women of our armed forces.

Sunday, January 11, 2015


Feeling more aggrieved than usual, your unbending author interrupts regularly scheduled programing to clear his throat in defense of civilization. 

Yes, I tweeted #JeSuisCharlie. Yes, I put the hashtag on Facebook. Yes, I even put it on the wipe board on my office door, which isn’t really my office door, hence the “even.”  #JeSuisCharlie is a small thing, but not meaningless, a gesture of solidarity with victims of religious fascism. As someone who makes his living in the world of thought and ideas and written expression, I found the murders at Charlie Hebdo particularly poignant even though far worse acts of violence against innocents were committed elsewhere in the world that week.  Boko Haram murdered several hundred people in the town of Baga around the same time as the Paris shootings, and despite what some people seem to think, I am not ignorant of the one if I care about the other. 

The very minute I saw the #JeSuisCharlie hashtag, I knew that the backlash against it would begin with a couple of days or so. Sniping of the kind I just described was inevitable. Even before the Ice Bucket Challenge (remember that?) reached its zenith last summer people started saying, “Why all the attention about ALS? Don’t people know that heart disease kills more people?” And so on.  If you’re ever giving a eulogy, try that line of reasoning out. “Well, sure, this guy is dead. But, come on. A lot more people than him died this week. Don’t you people care about them? What kind of monsters are you?”  See how that goes over. 

So the backlash against #JeSuisCharlie has taken on a perfectly predictable form and has come from perfectly predictable people, including a number of journalists who make a living writing Op-Eds that wouldn’t make the cut for emergency backup columns on Measure of Doubt.  To those people, I say: just how stupid do you think I am?  Did I anywhere claim that posting #JeSuisCharlie is an act of bravery? That it constitutes a serious blow against religious fascism? That it mitigates the need for vigilance about freedom of expression in my own country? Does it mean that I am unaware or uncaring about other acts of violence, including some committed by the government of France in the past? Does it mean I am not aware of the complexities and nuances of the political, economic, and cultural conflicts that underpin the attacks? Does it mean any of those things about anyone who posted it?  To listen to and read many cranks you’d think so.

There’s another distressing side to this, too, even though it was equally predictable. You wouldn’t think you’d have to defend the idea that people ought not to be murdered for hurting the feelings of the kinds of people who murder people for hurting their feelings, but you do. There are hordes of people saying right now, “Well you poke the bear…” or “I’m against murder, but…” and so forth. We've been listening to that noise since The Satanic Verses pissed off people who never read it. So, here’s the thing. Am I committed to freedom of expression? Yes. Do I understand the nuances and complexities of the statement I just made? Yup, some of them. You can explain the rest to me if you feel the need. But will I post any of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons here? No. Why not? I already told you, and it’s not because I’m afraid of terrorists. 

Thursday, January 1, 2015


OK. I want to see places where I don’t already live. See the problem?  To listen to some people, you’d thing that being a tourist was some sort of inherent crime against humanity. How dare I not be a native Parisian? Where do I get off not having been born in Thailand? What was I thinking, choosing parents who didn’t live nearer to Venice? 

There’s a large body of literature that interrogates what it means to be a tourist and sometimes very cleverly distinguishes between the tourist (who comes as some sort of cultural imperialist, if I understand things correctly) and the traveller, who is respectful and discerning about what he encounters. Oh, please.  If I’m in Paris I’m going to tie on my bright white running shoes, grab my day pack, see the Mona Lisa, go up the Eiffel Tower, buy a fridge magnet of Notre Dame, and photograph the hell out of the place.  Then I’m going to damn well put those photographs on Facebook, that weird world where people ask to be your friends and then complain when you use it for what it’s intended for. By all means get snooty about that while you wallow in whatever hellhole you’re from.

I'm writing this from Portugal, where there are important archeological sites, medieval towns, cathedrals, museums, and galleries that would slide into total ruin and decrepitude if not for the massive stream of tourists whose spending supports these places or the local economies that support them. And around the world whole countries depend on tourism as the backbone of their economy. This comes at a price, of course, because the tourists change the places they’re visiting. In some cases, such as Paris’s famous Latin Quarter, there is very little left of what drew tourists in the first place, just shops selling junk gifts and restaurants selling junk food to tourists who can’t imagine anything worse than eating something they’ve never eaten before (the kind of people who will line up on a Friday to eat at East Side Mario’s.)  

And there really are tourists who are culturally ignorant and insensitive. They use their camera flashes in places where they’re asked not to and don’t even bother to learn to say “hello” “please” or “thank you” in the local language. Last year a perfectly nice evening we were having in a very good restaurant in Paris was very nearly ruined by four people at a nearby table. Why was the service so slow? Why didn’t the waiters speak English, after all we had done for them in the war? And they demanded to know of a lovely couple from New Zealand, sitting (thankfully, for they absorbed the brunt of this) between us and them, how New Zealanders could possibly get by without gun rights? How did they defend themselves? (At this point you can probably guess which country the four were from, and probably who they voted for in its last several elections.)  With good humour, one of the New Zealanders opined that he’d never considered the need to defend himself at all in New Zealand, there having been five homicides, three of them committed by sheep, the previous year.  Game, set, and match, I thought, but it was more of a moral victory than an actual one. The big hairs carried on. They really need to fix the roads – they’re so narrow! And the locals are so rude!  I ordered a second bottle of wine to dull the pain.

It’s also true that there are weird forms of tourism: “dark tourism” (visiting sites of murders, massacres, genocides, and the like), and “poverty tourism”, where people who are rich pay money to see “authentic” people who are not. But I’m not sure that what I’ve done is much different: I’ve led battlefield tours, and spent the day today photographing character-filled medieval neighbourhoods in Lisbon, behind whose walls and doors are people who are by Canadian standards really quite poor.  

So I’m not sure what it all means. But I do know this: in about three days our plane will land in Toronto and one of the first things I will see will be that most ubiquitous of Canadian restaurant chains, and weary travellers who will immediately queue for a coffee that’s so bad they have to double the sugar and milk just to drink it, and a little part of me will die. But it won't be the unapologetically elitist part.