Conrad Black: Hipster arriviste?

Former news baron Conrad Black is expected to be released from his US prison later this week, and despite having given up his Canadian citizenship in order to accept an appointment to the British House of Lords, he has obtained a temporary resident permit from Canada's department of citizenship and immigration. This will allow him to remain in this country for one year, for starters. 

I'm of at least two minds about this. From the late 1990s until his indictment in the United States in 2005, Black had very little in the way of good things to say about Canada. He made it clear he preferred the culture of Great Britain, the tax regime of the United States, and the companionship of a global wealthy elite to the people, policies, and politics of his home and native land. 

He didn't just change his tune when he was incarcerated -- he switched genres entirely. The Canada's-a-socialist-dump dirge switched overnight to an upbeat pop number called "Canada Rocks!" Since 2005 Black has used the podium of his column in the National Post to praise Canada, its people, its laws, its former Liberal leaders, and its... animals

The timing of it all is more than a little suspicious. I don't think it speaks super well of the man that he only started saying nice things about this place when it was clear that it was the only country where he might be even remotely welcome, but that he'd --oops -- gone and told his compatriots where they could shove their economy-class passport. I'm inclined to the view that the measure of a man is not how he acts when he needs the goodwill of others, but when he does not. 

But Jon Kay, Black's editor at the National Post, has argued that Conrad Black is a genuinely changed man, that prison has given him an empathy for the unjustly accused and for his fellow man that he never had before. How sincere is any of this? I honestly don't know, but I'm willing to take Jon's word for it. People can change. 

Not that it matters, since it isn't up to me. Conrad Black is coming home, and on the whole I think Canada will be the better for it. He invested more in journalism in this country when he owned the Southam chain than anyone has done since, and it has been my great privilege to work for and with journalists, editors, and publishers whose careers he made happen, directly and indirectly. Plus he's loads of fun and endlessly entertaining. 

The only remaining question then is, where shall he live?

The assumption is that he'll go back to his pad in Toronto's ritzy Bridle Path. But I think it would be a mistake for him to go back to living, as he did for so long, amongst the elite and the out of touch. It would be a shame for him to lose contact with the common man for whose travails he has discovered such awareness and compassion. 

Besides, isn't wanting to live amongst the high-powered and the high-priced precisely what got him into such trouble in the first place? His troubles with the law were in many ways a direct consequence of his enthusiasm for social climbing, in particular of his desire to be a peer (and later, Peer) of the crowd that Paul Fussell calls the "Top Out of Sight" class -- the billionaires and multi-millionaires who are so wealthy they can afford exclusive levels of privacy. You never see them, and they never see you. 

Instead of aping the English upper crust, Black might have taken his lead from his fellow rich guy Richard Branson, who turned his whole personality into a global brand. But Lord Black isn't an exuberant adventure-seeker like Sir Richard. So even better, he might have picked up the gauntlet tossed down by seriously rich guys Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, and devoted his considerable genius and energies to charitable one-upmanship.

But Conrad Black never had remotely enough money to play in these leagues. Now he has even less, which is probably a blessing. What he really needs to do is jump into a pond where he can keep in touch with people who have no money and no real life prospects, while engaging his particular talent for status-seeking. That is, he needs to become a hipster. 

Black is never going to look good in skinny jeans and a v-neck 70s t-shirt, but the spirit of Orson Wells that permeates Conrad's character could be leveraged into a mid-century Mad Men sort of cool that would be perfect for Montreal's Plateau. Better, given his Victorian-era vocabulary and a few tweaks to his wardrobe and Black could reinvent himself as a steampunk entrepreneur, selling carboys of science experiments out of a food truck in Ottawa's Hintonburg.  But given how easily he managed to adopt the one-pantleg-rolled look of the prison yard, maybe his best bet would be to move into Toronto's gentrifying, but still ethnically complicated and economically downtrodden, Regent Park neighbourhood. 

It doesn't really matter where he chooses to live, and with whom, as long as it isn't amongst the old tribe with its old values, the ones that got him into such trouble. Conrad Black has his country back: now all he needs is a people to keep him grounded. 



Copenhagen Graffiti

Copenhagen is one of the most quietly beautiful cities I've ever seen. It's one of those European capitals that as a North American, you walk around in and spend most of your time wondering "how did we get it so wrong." A lot of its elegance comes from the uniformity of building height across the city, and the similarity of the architecture. (Compare that with a city like Toronto or Ottawa, where a given street will have three-storey Victorians abutting 8 storey offices sandwiched between a fifteen storey highrise and a two-storey grocery store.)

But there is one thing about Copenhagen that I found a bit jarring: It is easily the most aggressively graffiti'd city I've spent any significant time in. Virtually every building, facade, transit station, park bench, or pillar has been tagged, bombed, or stenciled, including the storefronts in the more chi-chi part of town. This isn't necessarily a problem: 'm a big fan of street art, and a some of the bigger pieces help underscore a neighbourhood's identity, like so:

And so it was into this seemingly welcoming environment that Shepard Fairey arrived last August for the opening of an exhibition of his work at a Copenhagen gallery. While in town, he swung by one of the most notorious vacant lots in the city -- Jagtvej 69, the site of a lefty squat at in the wonderfully multicultural Nørrebro district that was demolished by the city in 2007. Since then, the lot has become a sort of martyr of negative architecture, a sign of The Man's ongoing persecution of the counterculture. Here is the building right next door to the old squat:

On the side of a building facing the vacant site from the east (above), Fairey painted a mural that showed a dove in flight above the word "peace" and the number 69. The locals didn't seem to like the mural or its message. After the mural went up it was immediately defaced with "NO PEACE!" and "Go home Yankee hipster". A few days later, Fairey was beaten up outside a nightclub in Copenhagen's rather douchey meatpacking district (very similar look and feel to New York's) by someone who called him "Obama illuminati" and ordered him to "go back to America".

It really is an appalling work -- the street-art equivalent to John Lennon's ode to empty-headed peace-mongering, "Imagine". Fairey tried to make it better by trying to tidy up the work and make it cooler by adding a black helicopter to the bottom, but that only seemed to make the locals angrier. The thing continues to get vandalized, to the point where the bottom twenty feet are a riot of paint-bombed resentment. Here's how it looked when I was there last month:

The saddest part is that there is already plenty of excellent indigenous art on the buildings surrounding the vacant lot:

As a result, it isn't clear how Fairey thought he was helping, or what he thought he was adding. If anything, it looks like he was trying to keep his cred by piggybacking on the authentic anti-establishment politics of the Jagtvej 69 diehards.

But then again, it isn't clear just how authentic those politics ever were. A few doors down from the commune there was a McDonald's that used to get vandalised every night by anti-corporate lefty types. But someone was patronizing the joint, and it is significant that shortly after the building at Jagtvej 69 was knocked down, the McDonald's went out of business. There's a crappy little bakery there now.


"Then kablooie, they changed": How Coke lost its authenticity

Pop quiz: When did Coca-Cola stop being authentic? 

Never, you might answer. After all, as the company's own promotional material puts it,  Authentic Americana -- with all of the "happiness and uplift" that implies -- has been the core of the Coca-Cola brand ever since the first Coke was served at Jacob's pharmacy in Atlanta 126 years ago.

If you're a bit savvier, you might suppose that the day Coke stopped being authentic was the day it announced the introduction of New Coke. As it turns out, that was 17 years ago yestersday, and the CBC has posted the news story Ann Medina did a the time. 

View the CBC story here. 

It's hard to imagine now what a big deal the story was at the time, partly because it is hard to think of a contemporary parallel. Soft drinks, groceries, and other consumer-goods markets tend toward healthy competitive duopolies, while the inevitable network effects in the the tech and software industry tend to lead to successor monopolies. And it is hard to think of a contemporary product that has the myth and mystique of Coke's secret formula. (Any ideas? Send me an email).

Anyway, few new product launches have gone as badly. As this article from Fortune shows, a month after the launch of New Coke, Coca-Cola executives were still confident they had made the right decision. 

Yet Pepsi knew that something fundamental had happened: it gave its employees the day off to celebrate what it saw as Coke's gaffe. As Pepsico's Roger Enrico put it: "These two products, Pepsi and Coke, have been going at it eyeball-to-eyeball. And in my view the other just blinked." Reinforcing success, Pepsi quickly came out with a devastating ad showing a young woman wondering why Coke had abandoned her. The ad was famously written in about thirty seconds and shot in one take, and starred the actress Kim Richards (who would go on to star in Meatballs II). 

When I was in Denmark last month, I spent a day at the University of Southern Denmark at Odense in a workshop on authenticity and marketing. Over the course of the day, Soren Askegaard, a professor of marketing at the school, asked the question I posed at the very top. Most of us answered that Coke lost its authenticity when it brought in New Coke. 

But as Soren pointed out, it wasn't the changing of the formula that undermined the authenticity of Coke's brand. After all, the product's formula, however secretive, had undergone plenty of changes over the years. No, the really bad move from a branding point of view was when they introduced a new product, a variant of the original, called "Coca-Cola Classic," on July 10, 1985.

Why is this signficant? Because that is the moment when Coca-Cola became a copy of itself. It was no longer Coca-Cola, it was "Coca-Cola" or -- just as bad -- "Coke Classic". Just as no true VIP ever goes into the "VIP Room" at a bar, nothing that calls itself  "genuine", "famous" or "classic" is genuine, famous, or classic. 

On July 10 1985, Coke ceased to be a living brand, evolving organically with the changing tastes and attitudes of America. With Coke Classic the brand was put in a museum, where it remains a simulacrum of the powerful brand it once was. 

For those who are interested, here is a video of a conversation I had with Soren Askegaard the morning of our seminar:





Journalists who fell in the line of duty

In parliament yesterday, Canadian senator Joan Fraser rose "to bear witness to the more than 50 journalists and media workers who died in 2011 because they were journalists." She then made a short statement, and read out the names of media workers who fell in the line of duty. It is a depressingly long list. 

Nearly half of the journalists were murdered outright. Others were killed in crossfire or combat, as they were doing their jobs. Others were killed on dangerous assignments of one sort or another covering demonstrations, riots, mobs and racial clashes.

They were: in Afghanistan, Ahmad Omaid Khpalwak and Farhad Taqaddosi; in Azerbaijan, Rafiq Tagi; in Bahrain, Zakariya Rashid Hassan al-Ashiri and Karim Fakhrawi; in Brazil, Edinaldo Filgueira, Luciano Leitão Pedrosa and Gelson Domingos da Silva; in the Dominican Republic, José Agustín Silvestre de los Santos; in Egypt, Ahmad Mohamed Mahmoud and Wael Mikhael; in Iraq, Muammar Khadir Abdelwahad, Sabah al-Bazi, Alwan al-Ghorabi, Hadi al-Mahdi and Mohamed al-Hamdani; in Ivory Coast, Sylvain Gagnetau Lago and Marcel Legré; in Libya, Ali Hassan al-Jaber, Mohammed al-Nabbous, Anton Hammerl, Tim Hetherington, Chris Hondros and Mohammed Shaglouf; in Mexico, Luis Emanuel Ruiz Carrillo, Maria Elizabeth Macías Castro, Noel López Olguín and Rodolfo Ochoa Moreno; in Nigeria, Zakariya Isa; in Pakistan: Nasrullah Khan Afridi, Wali Khan Babar, Asfandyar Khan, Shafiullah Khan, Javed Naseer Rind, Faisal Qureshi and Saleem Shahzad; in Panama, Darío Fernández Jaén; in Peru, Pedro Alfonso Flores Silva; in the Philippines, Romeo Olea and Gerardo Ortega; in Russia, Gadzhimurad Kamalov; in Somalia, Abdisalan Sheikh Hassan, Noramfaizul Mohd and Farah Hassan Sahal; in Syria, Ferzat Jarban and Basil al-Sayed; in Thailand, Phamon Phonphanit; in Tunisia, Lucas Mebrouk Dolega; and in Yemen, Jamal al-Sharaabi, Hassan al-Wadhaf and Fuad al-Shamri.

Every one of them died in the service of bringing the truth to the rest of us. They died, in the most profound sense, for us. This is our small way to bear witness to their sacrifice.

Fraser is the former editor-in-chief of the Montreal Gazette. 



Getting to Denmark

(Copenhagen Airport)

Is there any country that punches further above its weight class than Denmark? It is a small country in both size (43000 square km, smaller than Nova Scotia) and population, with just over 5 million people. But from Hamlet to Hans Christian Andersen, from Niels Bohr to Bjorn Lomborg, from Kierkegaard to Lars Von Trier, Danes both real and imagined have had a hugely disproportionate influence on global culture, science, and politics. 

(I reviewed Fukuyama's book for The Progagandist)

It is perhaps no surprise then to discover that Danes are supremely happy. By a recent measure, they are the happiest people in the world, out-happying the rest of Scandinavia and the entire Anglosphere. What is interesting about Danish happiness is that the result is based on the measure pioneered by the Kingdom of Bhutan, with its metric of "Gross National Happiness". Yet while Bhutan has always used GNH as a political tool to show that wealth is an obstacle to happiness, in Denmark wealth is one of its very sources. That is, while the Bhutanese are looking for happiness by turning their backs on the modern world, Denmark's path to happiness is profoundly and enthusiastically modern. 

That shouldn't be too controversial: Look at the list of the top ten happiest countries, and compare with the bottom ten. The most obvious differentiator is wealth. But not just any sort of wealth, but wealth leavened by high level of trust, a strong welfare state, high employment, substantial gender equality, low levels of corruption, and a high degree of social integration.

This is Denmark. 

I recently spent a week or so in this peaceable kingdom, mostly in Copenhagen with a side-trip to Odense. I originally went at the invitation of Professor Per Østergaard of the Institute for Marketing and Management at the University of Southern Denmark. I also met some journalists and various young thinkers, including David Turner and Markus Bernsen. Both are on staff at Weekendavisen, a weekly broadsheet that seems pitched at the the same sort of audience as The Economist.  I also got to hang out with a gang associated with the think tank CEPOS, including the author/anthropologist  Dennis Nørmark, the sociologist Ulla Holm, and a handful of other academics, journalists, and public sector workers, all of whom were extraordinarily generous with their time, ideas, and booze budgets. 

The trip was remarkable in a million ways. A constitutional monarchy, Denmark has a lot in common with Canada -- notwithstanding the enormous differences in geography and demography. In many ways, Denmark is Canada's idealised version of itself. In the face of rising levels of immigration, Denmark is struggling with existential questions of national identity, something that Canadians have become extremely good at. 

The nature of Danish masculinity is also in play. A surprising number of youngish men and women I met freely admitted that Danish men were emasculated and that Danish women were authoritative and independent. But as with so many issues that arose over the course of conversation, the answer was a laughingly self-deprecating "at least we aren't as bad as the Swedes!". And in that, they are probably right. 

The crisis of Danish masculinity (if it indeed exists, and is not just an artifact of the phenomenon known as Traveler's Insight) is reflected in the broader national angst over their participation in the war in Afghanistan. Fighting alongside the Brits in Helmand, the Danes have suffered the highest death rates of any allied country.  It is also providing one of the highest per capita contributions the war -- 750 troops, compared to Canada's 3000. 

Like Canadians, Danes had grown accustomed to thinking of themselves as a nation of peacekeepers, and the shock of finding themselves killing and being killed in a shooting war in Asia was profound. To get a sense of this, watch the movie Armadillo, a Restrepo-style documentary  that shows the soldiers doing the usual things -- goofing off on base, handing out candy to Afghan children, and messing around in LAVs trying to avoid IEDs. But one extended episode, that involved  Danish soldiers pulling Taliban bodies  from a ditch and stripping them of their weapons, caused a huge fuss back home. There was talk of charging the soldiers with war crimes, though they were cleared after an investigation. 

I don't want to make too much of the similarities between Canada and Denmark. They are there for sure, but Denmark is interesting enough in its own right. In the next few posts on this blog, I'll try to do justice to one of the more intellectually and personally rewarding trips I've ever taken.  



Thomas Kinkade and the Ideology of Natural Taste

Thomas Kinkade, "Painter of Light", artist to the masses, has died. In the Wikipedia entry for Kinkade, it says that in "Joe Heath and Andrew Potter's book The Rebel Sell: Why the Culture Can't Be Jammed, Kinkade's work is described as 'so awful it must be seen to be believed.'"

Sort of. 

In our book The Rebel Sell, Joe and I used Kinkade's work to illustrate (and support) Bourdieu's critique of the ideology of natural taste, i.e., the view that aesthetic judgments are judgments of true properties of the artwork. Here's how we began:

Ever notice that the masses have incredibly bad taste? Admit it. Take a look at a painting by Thomas Kinkade ("Painter of Light"), the best-selling visual artist in the United States. His work is so awful it must be seen to be believed. Or go down to one of the discount furniture warehouses, the kind that are constantly advertising "no payment until 2037". Try to find a single piece that you would be willing to put in your living room. Or listen to an entire album by Kenny G, the best-selling intrumentalist in the world. Your typical urban sophisticate would find this experience not just unpleasant, but positively harrowing...

The popular view of aesthetic judgment is dominated by what sociologist Pierre Bourdieu calls "the ideology of natural taste." According to this view, the difference between beautiful and ugly, tasteful and vulgar, stylish and tacky, resides in the object. Bad art really is bad, it's just that only people with a certain background and education are able to recognize it as such. Yet, as Bourdieu points out, this ability to detect bad art is distributed in an almost miraculously class-specific fashion. In fact, only a tiny percentage of the population has it. And as Bourdieu documents quite exhaustively, this capacity is almost entirely concentrated among the high-status members in society. The lower classes uniformly love bad art, while the middle classes have resolutely "middle-brow" taste.

Anyone with an even moderately critical turn of mind can see the obvious explanation for this pattern...

So, we don't quite say that his work is "so awful that it must be seen to be believed", but that for people of a certain class, it certainly seems so. Millions of people, obviously, think otherwise. 



"Let me remind Mr. Potter that Adolf Hitler was ever so affectionate to his pet dog"

A month or so ago I wrote a column about the metaphysics of meat-eating and wondering how we, as a society, might react to the prospect of lab-grown meat products. I received a letter from an unhappy reader today:


Iran's influence in Afghanistan

The NYT today fronts a story about how the US is beginning to detect signs of Iranian influence behind the unrest in Afghanistan, with special attention to the riots that arose "spontaneously" after the news of the burning of Koran's by American troops leaked out. Yet according to the Times, US officials are unsure of how much success the Iranians are having:

One United States government official described the Iranian Embassy in Kabul as having “a very active” program of anti-American provocation, but it is not clear whether Iran deliberately chose to limit its efforts after the Koran burning or was unable to carry out operations that would have caused more significant harm.

The issue of Khomeinist machinations in Afghanistan has received far too little notice, especially in contrast with the obsessive attention paid to Pakistan's double-game in the Pashtun regions. One person who has been paying attention is the Vancouver writer Terry Glavin, who is also a columnist for my newspaper. As Terry wrote in February about the post-Koran burning riots, the whole thing followed a familiar script -- the similarly staged riots after the idiot Pastor Jones burned a Koran in Florida. 

It was Jones who was supposed to have caused an April 1 protest rally at Mazar-e-Sharif's grand Blue Mosque that got out of hand. A UN compound was stormed, seven foreign staff were slaughtered and five Afghans were dead before the afternoon was over. A dozen more Afghans died in various rampages all the way down to Kandahar. Those excitable and inscrutable Afghans, everybody said.

But it was an event between Pastor Jones' disgusting March 20 sacrilege and the April 1 Mazar massacre that set the drama in train. On March 24, simultaneously incendiary alarms emanated from Afghan President Hamid Karzai's office, the Iranian government's propaganda bureau in Tehran and the Khomeinists' Lebanese proxy Hezbollah. In the next scene, Afghanistan's Tehran-allied Olama-e Shiia council marshalled the usual fist-shaking rioters to shout the usual slogans in Kabul. And then, Bob's your uncle.

Terry's point is that there is very little that happens in Afghanistan that is the raw expression of the Afghan "street". The Afghan people are being pulled this way and that by competing forces they can't hope to control. And the countervailing powers that could help them are unwilling to do so. Karzai denounces the Americans while accepting bags of cash from Khomeinist emissaries. President Obama cravenly capitulates on all fronts while maintaining the preposterous fiction that the ANA will take over security for the place in 2014. And "Green on Blue" attacks escalate, while Western intelligence agents speak off the record to the New York Times about Iran's "surprisingly low level of professionalism". 





France is a comedy theme park

There's a shortage of eggs in France. This happened because the European Union Welfare of Laying Hens Directive banned the use of battery cages on January 1. France is now suffering through a shortfall of 21 million eggs per week. This has angered the French Union for Crusty and Soft Breadmaking, among other interested parties. 

Yet somehow, there are enough eggs available for throwing at the President of the Republic. Nicolas Sarkozy was forced to take shelter in a bar in the Basque region after he was mobbed by socialists and separatists who yelled insults and threw eggs at him. 

Meanwhile, a call girl has apparently told police that Dominique Strauss-Kahn was "treated like the Messiah at orgies I went to."



Electoral Fraud and Canadian Law

We're in the middle of an electoral fraud scandal here in Canada -- full details can be found here and here. But I have yet to see a full explanation of what laws are involved, and what possible punishments might be in order for whoever is caught. 

I'm no lawyer, and if anyone has more insight on this please send me an email. But I've been poking around the Canada Elections Act and it looks like article 482.b of the elections act is the key clause:

482. Every person is guilty of an offence who

  • (a) by intimidation or duress, compels a person to vote or refrain from voting or to vote or refrain from voting for a particular candidate at an election; or

  • (b) by any pretence or contrivance, including by representing that the ballot or the manner of voting at an election is not secret, induces a person to vote or refrain from voting or to vote or refrain from voting for a particular candidate at an election


And if I read the punishments right under Section 500 (5) It looks like this is punishable by either summary conviction or indictable offence -- with the latter punishable up to $5k in fines and five years in prison:

(5) Every person who is guilty of an offence under any of subsections 480(1) and (2), sections 481 to 483, subsections 484(3), 485(2), 486(3), 487(2), 488(2) and 489(3), section 490, subsections 491(3) and 492(2), section 494, subsections 495(5), 496(2) and 497(3), section 498 and subsection 499(2) is liable

  • (b) on conviction on indictment, to a fine of not more than $5,000 or to imprisonment for a term of not more than five years, or to both.
But what's a bit more interesting is what happens if the person convicted is either a candidate or an agent of a candidate and they are convicted of an "illegal practice" under s. 482b. If I read Section 502 correctly, anyone so convictedcan't sit as an MP or hold any government appointments for five years:

Consequences of illegal, corrupt practices

(3) Any person who is convicted of having committed an offence that is an illegal practice or a corrupt practice under this Act shall, in addition to any other punishment for that offence prescribed by this Act, in the case of an illegal practice, during the next five years or, in the case of a corrupt practice, during the next seven years, after the date of their being so convicted, not be entitled to

  • (a) be elected to or sit in the House of Commons; or

  • (b) hold any office in the nomination of the Crown or of the Governor in Council.

Saving food from the refrigerator

Copyright jihyun ryou

Today most fridges are filled with stuff that would last just as long and probably would taste a lot better if it was never lost in the back of the fridge. They are expensive air conditioned parking lots for what Shay Salomon called "compost and condiments."

That's pretty much my fridge. Is there another way? In an article on TreeHugger that stops juuuust short of declaring war on refrigeration, Lloyd Alter promos the work of the Korean artist  Jihyun Ryou, who has some pretty cool, minimalist designs for devices aimed at replacing the role of the refrigerator. The key is to understand what food is, how it works, and the changes it undergoes as it ages. 

Yes, lines like ""we hand over the responsibility of taking care of food to the technology, the refrigerator" grate; what's wrong with handing responsibility for things we care about off to technology? And it's also a bit annoying that it is only at the end that we are reminded that these designs "are artworks, not consumer products." That's part of a long-standing pattern in authenticity-mongering, of rejecting not just the technological, but the mass-produced or commonplace of any sort. It is generally obnoxious that the opposite of a crude technology has to be some haute-artisanal objet d'art.

But still. It's pretty cool.

Thanks to Jeffrey Mackie for the link.  


Radical Chic Occupies the Catwalk

We are by now all familiar with the concept of rebel consumerism: the way the desire to stand out from the crowd, to not be one of the masses, drives the increasingly rapid turnover of trends in consumer culture, from music to fashion to sports to social causes. But as the various strains of the counterculture congealed into the jello-mould mass mainstream consumer culture from the late sixties through to the late 1990s, it became easy to treat almost all forms of consumer-based status-seeking as variations on that same theme -- shoehorning the subversive political posturing of the antiglobalists, the mumbled ironies of the hipsters, and the earnest authenticities of Portlandia into the same explanatory schema.  And it works, for the most part. But what gets lost along the way are the more wonderfully conceited variations on that general theme.  


One such example is the phenomenon of radical chic. We all think we know what it means: the guy at the Santana concert in the Che t-shirt, or the dude who wears the kaffiyeh in your International Development class. But as coined by Tom Wolfe, radical chic had a more pointed reference. It didn't refer to your standard-issue undergraduate-level political agitation, but rather to the distinctively frivolous form it takes amongst the upper classes. For Wolfe, the point was to lampoon the especially preposterous ways the rich engage in radical chic only insofar as it raises their social standing amongst other members of Society. Wolfe's classic example was Leonard Bernstein hosting a fundraising party for the Black Panthers. 


You don't get a lot of radical chic anymore -- the upper classes are too busy still trying to be cool. But every now and then something happens that reminds you that no one does absurd politics better than the rich. 

Take a look at the top of this post of the Girl in the Green Hat, who became the poster child for last fall's Occupy Wall Street Movement. There's a lot to love in this picture: for starters, there's the who-gives-a-fuck smirk on the girl, contrasted with the grim, no-funny-stuff look on the cop's face. But most of all it's the goofball outfit on the girl: the hoodie, the hair, and that awesome hat. Thanks in large part to this picture, those hats became part of the standard uniform of occupy protesters around the world. 

So you know where this is going. After all, it was Fashion Week in New York last week, where Rooney Mara and Emma Stone showed up in sleeveless shifts to watch models show off clothes designed by people who want to sell clothes to people who want to look like Rooney Mara and Emma Stone. But the best part was when a couple of Occupy Protesters showed to disrupt the Calvin Klein show. It didn't come to much, except that... well, I'll let Eric Wilson of the Times explain:

In other news, the reported plans of Occupy Wall Street protesters to disrupt the show turned out to be vastly overstated. It was never really clear why they would target Calvin Klein in the first place, given that the majority of the company’s business, like underwear and T-shirts, is solidly aimed at the 99 percent.

A crowd of two protesters who arrived before the show had swelled to four by the time it was over. And despite their antifashion stance, one of them was wearing a knit owl cap that looked almost identical to the ones that were in Anna Sui’s show last night.

Justin Trudeau and the myth of shared values

I feel a bit sorry for Justin Trudeau. He has spent the last two days being roasted for doing nothing more than make explicit the consequences of a set of beliefs that are held by many, perhaps even most, Canadians, including most of the people who are crapping on him. 


First things first, what did he say? Last Sunday, he said (in French) to a Radio-Canada host:
"I always say, if at a certain point, I believe that Canada was really the Canada of Stephen Harper — that we were going against abortion, and we were going against gay marriage, and we were going backwards in 10,000 different ways — maybe I would think about making Quebec a country."


Lots of people -- including me -- went a bit nuts. Trudeau, after all, is the son of Pierre Trudeau, the arch anti-nationalist loved by (some) anglophone Canadians for putting separatists in their place. What Justin Trudeau appeared to be doing was outing himself as yet another conditional Quebecer, yet another adherent of "profitable federalism." Typical was Colby Cosh of Maclean's, who wrote that Justin Trudeau "is like most other Quebecers in regarding separation as a negotiating position, adopted or discarded according to circumstances." 


Oh please. Justin Trudeau has never given any indication that he's a Bourrassa-style federalist (or even Charest-style federalist, for that matter), and I doubt he has any dream of using federalism as nothing more than a device for extracting better terms for Quebec. I honestly don't think Justin Trudeau has any more sympathy for conditional federalism than I do, or Stephane Dion does, or Andrew Coyne does. If Justin Trudeau did have any such leanings, he'd be a hell of a lot more popular in his home province. 


What Trudeau was doing was expressing his understanding of the theory of shared values. According to this theory, what guarantees the social and political cohesion of a country like Canada -- what ensures that the country hangs together -- is that the population has shared values. What Canadians have in common, what makes Canadians Canadians, is that they share a set of strong values that underwrite the national identity. 


Shared values talk is everywhere in this country, and has been for decades. Jean Chretien never shut up about Canadian values. Ken Dryden never shuts up about Canadian values. Stephen Harper and his ministers never shut up about Canadian values. Roy Romanow's Future of Health Care report was entitled "Building on Values". Michael Adams' best-selling book Fire and Ice was one long argument that what makes Canadians distinct from Americans is that we have different values than they do. I doubt any of these people have the same values in mind when they invoke Canadian values. 


Shared values talk also permeates the discourse of not just Quebec separatism, but most forms of regional alienation. Stephen Harper's firewall letter is filled with shared-values language, in the negative: "They" don't share "our" values, therefore "we" need to take steps to protect ourselves from "them". 


So what was Justin Trudeau getting at? Basically he was saying: Look, there is a set of shared values, bestowed upon the country by the Liberal Party of Canada between 1965 and 2005, that collectively define what it means to be Canadian. And (thinks Trudeau), those values are not consistent or compatible with the social conservatism of Stephen Harper's Conservative Party. (Set aside the issue of whether this is an accurate picture of Tory policies; the issue is what Trudeau thinks). And so, thinks Justin, if the values expressed and represented by Harper's Conservatives are the new, genuine "shared values" of Canadians, then he draws the logical conclusion: The Canada that Justin Trudeau loves and feels allegiance to no longer exists. Justin Trudeau has no country. 


And so he says look, if that Canada is really and truly gone, then maybe he might find a reasonable replacement for it in the political collectivity that best expresses his preferred Canadian shared values, namely, those of Quebecers (again, accuracy is not the issue here).
To sum up then, what Justin Trudeau was getting at was something like: If Harper's Canada is the new genuine Canada, then the only place you might find a political community based on the old shared values of Trudeauvian Liberalism is in Quebec. That is, Quebec could become a country, in the name of defending and protecting the shared values of the Canada of Pierre Trudeau. In which case, Justin Trudeau's remarks make him less like René Lévesque, and more like Alec Baldwin.


But here's the thing: If you accept the theory of shared values, then there is nothing remotely crazy about this line of thinking. Just the opposite: Justin Trudeau's argument follows directly from the theory of shared values. 


The good news is the theory of shared values is a myth. Canadians don’t have shared values. We never have, and we never will. But that’s not a problem, because  the ongoing cohesion of Canadian society is not seriously threatened by deep pluralism. If it was, we would never have got past the sectarian, linguistic, and cultural divides of the 19th century.


But the bad news is that a lot of people don't realize the shared values theory is bogus.


Canada is a liberal democracy, and like similar societies, it is designed to allow us to get along despite widespread and non-negotiable disagreements over values — that is, over how people should live their lives. Our political institutions, underwritten by constitutional declarations such as the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, don’t assume that citizens have shared values. Instead, they provide the legal and institutional scaffolding for allowing us to get along despite the absence of shared values. 


This is where some shared-values theorists try to get clever. "Oh look," they say. "You have just argued that we have no shared values, by pointing to the constitution and the Charter. You've clearly contradicted yourself." But the Charter doesn't express values, in the sense of a thick, comprehensive account of the good life. The Charter provides a framework of principles that are neutral with respect to controversial questions of value, that allows us to live in the same political space while pursuing highly divergent, contradictory, and even antagonistic visions of the good. 


The liberal requirement of neutrality with respect to the good is why we have freedoms of expression, of religion, and of association. It is also what motivated a young Pierre Trudeau to declare that the state has no business in the bedrooms of the nation, and which inevitably led to homosexuals winning the right to marry.


You can call these principles "values" if you like (though it has the effect of eliminating one of the most useful and relevant distinctions in political philosophy), but at the price of impaling yourself on one of two horns of a dilemma.


On the one hand, if you adopt "liberal principles" as your shared values, these values are so thin, and so general, that they don't distinguish Canadians from Americans or Europeans in any significant way. Going in the other direction, if you call liberal principles "values", it isn't clear why Quebec can't simply found its own state on these "values." 


But on the other hand, the more you thicken up these values, to make them express a comprehensive vision of the good, the fewer Canadians will actually share them. Tens of millions of Canadians share the "values" of the Charter. About thirteen million are Catholics. A few thousand share the values of Mennonites. The idea that there is a set of values thin enough to capture the hearts of all Canadians and bind the nation together, but thick enough to exclude all others, is forlorn.


So yes, Justin Trudeau was wrong, and what he said was dangerously misguided. But I think most of his critics have an equally misguided theory. if you're a shared values theorist, then you have a choice: Accept his conclusions, or abandon the theory. You can't believe that Canada is held together by shared values and keep crapping on Justin. 

Populism is not authenticity: The case of Larry O'Brien

As I argued below in my critique of Allan Gregg's call for more authenticity in politics, it is a mistake to confuse the low-rent populism of people like Toronto mayor Rob Ford with authenticity. In a column last week for the Ottawa Citizen, my colleague Kate Heartfield makes a similar point on the way to shredding Ottawa's former Mayor, Larry O'Brien.

O'Brien had caused a bit of controversy over a few tweets he wrote during the debate over the Florida primaries, including one that said "“the spics are getting way to much airtime." Citizen reporter David Reevely jumped on this remarkable case of a former mayor tweeting racist remarks, which promoted O'Brien to play the role of the non-conforming rebel, sticking it to the lamestream elites: He tweeted, “Thanks to the Citizens ‘David Reevely’ for raising my profile on Twitter. The OC is just so MAIN STREAM, and so irrelevant.”

Heartfield proceeds to Fisk the life out of O'Brien's self justification, and you should read the whole column. But here's the key graph

What exactly is elitist — or socialist, for that matter — about not calling people “spics” in a public forum? The implication is that using a racial slur, because it’s “politically incorrect,” makes O’Brien a regular guy, someone who tells it like it is. O’Brien told a Citizen reporter a couple of years ago that he likes being a multimillionaire because it “feels secure” and gave him “the freedom to be a mayor,” never mind live in a luxury condo and drive a Porsche. But in the Bizarro World of populist-speak, he’s a regular joe, because he’s openly racist.

But as she laments, this schtick works -- for Sarah Palin, for Rob Ford, for Newt Gingrich. Which serves as a double reminder: That populism is not authenticity, and to the extent to which we conflate the two, authenticity serves the forces of reaction, not progress.


*Wislawa Szymborska*

The Nobel prize-winning Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska has died. The New York Times obituary is here. Paul Wells has a blog entry about her here.  I was introduced to her work by John Geddes, who pulled her book off his shelf one night and read this poem aloud to me. I loved it immediately.  


From scalp to sole, all muscles in slow motion. 
The ocean of his torso drips with lotion. 
The king of all is he who preens and wrestles 
with sinews twisted into monstrous pretzels. 

Onstage, he grapples with a grizzly bear 
the deadlier for not really being there. 
Three unseen panthers are in turn laid low, 
each with one smoothly choreographed blow. 

He grunts while showing his poses and paces. 
His back alone has twenty different faces. 
The mammouth fist he raises as he wins 
is tribute to the force of vitamins


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