Don’t Confuse Voter Apathy with Voter Despair

Whether or not you’re pleased with the outcome of the recent Nova Scotia provincial election, you have to be concerned with the low voter turnout. Only 53.5% of eligible voters cast a ballot. This has politicians and pundits scratching their heads. Don Mills, chairman and CEO of the market research firm Corporate Research Associates summed it up in a CBC interview: “It’s very difficult to understand,” Mills said. “Honestly, I don’t get it.”

Mills also tweeted, “Is it time to institute mandatory voting based on declining voter turnout in Nova Scotia? I am beginning to think so.”

Brazil, Mexico, Thailand, Egypt and eighteen other populous countries now have mandatory voting. Considering the sociopolitical climates and economic status of the countries on this list, it’s more than fair to say that forcing citizens to vote does not produce balanced governance.

In fact, one might argue that obliging citizens to vote is counter to the very notion of democracy.

There will always be a segment of the population who just don’t care about governance. Apathy, however doesn’t account for the abysmal voter turnout in Nova Scotia’s 2017 election. There is a growing sense of despair among many Nova Scotians; a sense that the political flavour of the government makes no real difference at the end of the day. Since 1758, the people of Nova Scotia have chosen one political party after another – mainly Liberal and Conservative.

Historically the Liberals have stayed in power until they anger the voters and lose the house to the Conservatives for a term or two. Then the Liberals get elected again for another try. Then the Conservatives … the Liberals … Conservatives … Liberals … ad nauseam.

The common thread that remains woven, unbroken, throughout every term is disappointment. Time after time, generation after generation, Nova Scotia voters elect new governments, hoping for change, buying into new promises of prosperity, equality, accountability and transparency. Time after time, their patience wears thin. It’s no surprise that after ten or more generations of this cyclical behavior, hope has faded. Would-be voters have finally come to the realization that it makes very little difference which party gets elected. Voters are giving up. This is not disinterest or apathy. This is despair.

When almost half of the electorate can’t be bothered to vote, they are sending a message. And it’s not directed at one party or another. The message is clear: The current partisan style of government does not work. We’ve been using the same system since 1758. We have 259 years of data to show how ineffective this tug-of-war really is. The adversarial nature of our legislature is counterproductive, if not destructive.

The actions of politicians in the house of assembly and the language used by candidates while campaigning clearly indicates that their priorities and allegiances lie with their parties, not with the people they are supposed to represent. Most of their energy is devoted to eroding the credibility of  the party that poses the greatest threat to their hold on power.

Rather than forcing citizens to vote, perhaps the time has come to force our elected officials to abandon the competitive practices that are so entrenched in the partisan culture. If politicians were more collaborative and less combative, voters would feel a sense of purpose and pick up their pencils on election day.

 

Agreeable Content is a Polarizing Social Force

Racists become more racist, homophobes get even more homophobic, patriotism becomes extreme nationalism, and the gap between opposing ideologies grows wider and wider.

Opinions, preferences, beliefs, convictions – these are the elements of which our individual identities are constructed. We are creatures of proclivity. We like what we like – that’s our opinion – and we don’t like being asked to consider the possibility that we might be wrong. We have shown time and time again that a familiar falsehood is always preferential to an unpleasant truth.

This most human of traits is quite literally the very basis of the mathematical algorithm that generates your Facebook feed – and it’s fracturing society.

If you just rolled your eyes and thought, “Oh gawd, here we go. More of Glen’s paranoid Facebook-bashing”, please just read another few lines before you click away.

Think about your own Facebook newsfeed for a second … If you like Donald Trump, Facebook delivers pro-Trump news to your feed.  Oh, you don’t like Trump? Then Facebook delivers anti-Trump news to your feed.  If you believe that vaccines cause autism your newsfeed will reinforce this with agreeable news stories that support your anti-vaxxer stance, and vice versa.

You see the bias – Facebook shows us what we like, but we don’t consider what Facebook is hiding from us. Facebook biases our newsfeeds with content that we are most likely to “like” and hides the content that we are least likely to “like”. In marketing terms, a “like” is called “engagement”, and advertisers will spend billions to reach a highly-engaged audience. Great, right? A biased newsfeed full of content that supports our opinions; a newsfeed that validates our beliefs. We get a little surge of dopamine every time we see content that offers even a glimmer of hope that our opinions are correct. We are all dopamine junkies and we will spend every waking minute watching that news feed for something that says, “You’re right”.

So what. We like our dopamine. Where’s the harm in that?

Well, first you need to know two things

  1. Worldwide, 1 in 3 adults has an active Facebook account
  2. Facebook is the world’s #1 distributor of news information

The harm? One-third of the world’s literate, adult population is forming their opinions around information that is specifically tailored to agree with whatever opinions they already held – just reinforcing whatever they already believe. The harm is that racists become more racist, homophobes get even more hate-filled, patriotism becomes extreme nationalism, and the gap between opposing ideologies grows wider and wider. The harm is that Facebook’s nifty algorithm, which exploits the human tendency to be rather narrow-minded, is adding its energy to a wave of social chaos that we haven’t seen in our lifetimes.

 

Murrant’s Rant: The Sea of Bureaucracy

 

From what I am told, my grandfathers built boats.  Their fathers and grandfathers also built boats.  It was an essential skill and a tradition sixty or a hundred years ago in Port Morien and New Waterford.  I am sad to say that I never got to know my grandfathers.  If I had, I might have learned a thing or two about boat building.  It seems like such a Nova Scotian thing to know about.  We’ve been building boats for generations.  The instructions should be written into our DNA.

Since I don’t know about boat building, I won’t rant about the Bluenose II.  I won’t rant about the $21-million cost and how that money could have been better spent on education, healthcare, social services, or economic development.  Instead of ranting, I will just tell you what I learned.

The original Bluenose was built in 1921 with a wooden hull and wooden rudder, and as we all know, it worked really well until it hit a reef in 1946.  The Oland brewing company built the Bluenose II in 1963 to promote Schooner beer.  The province bought it in 1971.  It too had a reliable wooden hull and a wooden rudder.  This replica operated until 2010 when it was dry-docked for a complete reconstruction.  The newly rebuilt Bluenose II (which should really be called the Bluenose III) was also intended to have a wooden rudder.  That is, until the Texas based American Bureau of Shipping had their say.

After hundreds of years of constructing ships with wooden rudders, the Lunenburg builders were told by the American Bureau of Shipping that wood was not acceptable.  For the iconic Nova Scotia schooner to receive “class certification” it needed a steel rudder.  I imagine the conversation went something like this: “Yes, we know schooners have always been made of wood, but super tankers and oil rigs are made of steel, so we’re afraid your wooden schooner will need a steel rudder.”  The modification delayed the launch of the Bluenose II by a year and put the project even further over budget.

Another reconstructed schooner, the Columbia, is sailing in maritime waters this summer.  It was built in Massachusetts around the same time the Bluenose II was being reconstructed in Lunenburg.  A couple of weeks ago, in late August, the Columbia and the Bluenose II had a chance to sail side by side.  To me, because I don’t know anything about ships, they look almost the same. Below the water, however, there is at least one critical difference: the Columbia has a wooden rudder.  According to a report by the Auditor General of Nova Scotia, the new Bluenose II likely could have kept its wooden rudder too, if Bluenose II project managers had simply appealed to the American Bureau of Shipping.

I can’t help but wonder what my grandfathers would have said if a bureaucrat from Texas tried to tell them how to build a wooden boat?

“Call Me” – It’s the New Facebook

mailboxThanks for the cat videos.  Thank you for all the pictures of your protein smoothies, and for letting me know that you worked out this morning. Thank you especially for inviting me to play Candy Crush Saga.

Facebook, like the internet itself, had a lot of promise.  It had the potential to allow people to reconnect and share aspects of their lives with loved ones across great distances.  It allowed for a cultural exchange of ideas, art, and information.  It provided a network through which millions of strangers could unite as one to accomplish what they could not do alone.

Just like the internet, however, Facebook is a cultural mirror.  It shows us exactly who we are; what we like, what we desire, and what we believe.  For those willing to look beyond the trees to see the whole forest, Facebook is an unflatteringly accurate reflection of modern society:  narcissistic, self-centric, superficial.  There can be no other explanation for the volume and nature of the content we share.  To look at a Facebook feed is to see the world as the backdrop to somebody else’s selfie.  Intelligent expression has been reduced to little more than an endless string of witty and sarcastic captions typed across photos of famous faces.

I recently came across a news story about a collection of letters that had been written by Albert Einstein to his friends and colleagues over the course of his career.  I read many of them.  These letters are a portrait of a man’s mind; sometimes brilliant, sometimes romantic, sometimes humorous.  In the age of Facebook we no longer write letters. Even email usage is on the decline as we send shorter, more frequent messages through the ether.

In this Facebook-ized society we are having fewer and fewer meaningful conversations.  As a result, we are not only depriving ourselves of the opportunity to interact on a deeper level with others, but we are also depriving future generations of the opportunity to experience and learn from the intimate exchange of our brilliance, our romance, our compassion, and our humour.

I have long believed that the greatest strength of the human species is our ability to communicate; to share complex and meaningful ideas so our individual accomplishments can be shared and reproduced by others for the betterment of all. By design, Facebook would seem perfectly suited to this function.  In practice, however, we have proven otherwise.

 

It’s Time for a ‘Human Day’

Rainbow_humanYou won’t find rainbows on my Facebook page.  Before you get angry and call me nasty names, let me explain … I fully support gay marriage and have tremendous respect for the members of our LGBTQ community. The recent decision to legalize gay marriage in the US is a win for human rights and I am genuinely happy for all those who will benefit.  So why won’t I adorn my FB profile pic with a rainbow?

If we are sincere in our desire for universal human rights we need to celebrate our humanity. We need to stop celebrating our differences, and start celebrating our sameness.  We are one species; homo sapiens sapiens (yes, two ‘sapiens’ – it means the “wisest of the wise”).  We must resist the urge to draw distinctions.  We must avoid the exclusivity that arises when we identify ourselves as being a member of an ideologically unique group.  This means a complete rejection of the cultural practices which prevent marriage between people of different races, religions, and castes; a complete halt to barbaric cultural practices like female genital mutilation and other ‘rites of passage’.  We need to openly and fearlessly address the hypocrisy of our religious institutions.  We must demand the re-writing of public policy to abolish poverty and homelessness and to improve the quality of life for all.

Racism, anti-semitism, homophobia, and the myriad variations of discrimination are alive and well around the globe.  It only takes a moment to peruse the daily headlines and realize that world wide, we devote most of our resources to protecting ourselves from one another.  In the United States, gun Control is a more contentious issue than child-poverty.  Military spending among the G20 nations eclipses the combined spending on education, social services, and healthcare.  Let me rephrase that: G20 nations spend far more on killing humans than on helping them.

Social media is a chronicle of our ideological differences.  It is a snapshot of our species’ state of mind. On my Facebook feed this morning I can see that Christians are afraid of Atheists, Jews are afraid of Muslims, Creationists are afraid of Science, and Americans are afraid of almost everyone and everything.  One thing they all have in common is that they claim to belong to a group.  They are holding their virtual hand in the air and declaring, “I am Christian”, “I am Atheist”, “I am Canadian”, “I am Republican”, and so on.  It is these implied-declarations that are tearing us apart by driving ideological wedges between us.  If religion hadn’t bred homophobia into the collective human psyche, would we need to pass a law legalizing gay marriage?  If twentieth century American foreign policy hadn’t contributed to the marginalization of half the world’s population, would ISIS ever have formed?

I propose a Human Day.  Pick a day, just one day this year, where we collectively step back and examine the ideologies we identify with and say, “Today we, as a species, will not murder, enslave, mutilate, subjugate, exclude, ignore, malign, impoverish, or otherwise cause suffering to any other member of our species. Today we are Human.  Today we are all the same.”  Make a flag for that, and I won’t just put it on my FB page; I’ll climb a mountain to wave it in the wind.

Murrant’s Rant: Mother Canada

 

mothercanadaI was fortunate as a young boy to have lived for a few years in Ingonish.  Like all kids, I was a sponge, and I soaked up every ounce of the experience.  My father was the General Works Manager for the Cape Breton Highlands National Park; he was my personal Park guide.  Over countless hikes along the Highland’s  wooded trails and rugged shorelines, I came to understand (insofar as a child can) the importance of National Parks.  As he explained it to me those many years ago, the “National Park” system was, and is, intended to protect the natural beauty of the Canadian landscape from human development; to ensure that certain small regions of this country’s wilderness would survive the onslaught of a resource hungry species; to provide Canadians with a means of temporarily escaping the shackles of urban and suburban modernity.

War was never part of that dialogue; perhaps I was too young, or perhaps it was still too soon after Vietnam to be comfortably discussed at the dinner table.  After all, the Highlands were a refuge for many Americans seeking to avoid conscription.  Likewise, the Highlands were home to Canadian veterans who had risked their lives in active duty; memories were still too fresh and scars had yet to heal.  Now, almost forty years later, conversations about war are still unpleasant and uncomfortable, but are also unavoidable.  A century of horror and loss demands reflection and contemplation; sacrifice demands recognition

When Toronto businessman Tony Trigiani proposed the erection of a ten-storey high, war memorial in the Cape Breton Highlands National Park, the reception was understandably mixed.  “Mother Canada” would be an elegant, granite statue of a woman peering out across the Atlantic in the direction of Vimy Ridge; an inspiring symbol commemorating the the sacrifices that have been made to ensure our freedom from tyranny.  In all likelihood, the site would become a destination for tourists from around the world; a place where they could find closure, lay their memories to rest, and seek solace in the quiet permanence of the cliffs at the edge of the continent.  To accommodate large crowds at peak times of year, the venue would  include the necessary parking for up to three-hundred vehicles.

As would be expected, there is much debate over the design of the Monument.  Beauty is, as they say, in the eye of the beholder.  For many, myself included, it is not the appearance of the monument, but rather the proposed location that raises eyebrows.  Green Cove sits on the northwest shore of the The Cape Breton Highlands National Park. The location is unarguably picturesque, with its pink granite boulders rising defiantly up from the sea.  This type of shoreline is not uncommon in Cape Breton.  Safe within the boundaries of the National Park, it should be assumed that Green Cove would have some immunity from the impact of human development.  Though some man made structures are necessary to facilitate and support Park visitors, these structures are purposefully constructed to be as unintrusive as possible with a purpose that reflects the original intention and philosophy of a natural park.

With utmost respect to our men and women of uniform, past and present, the proposed monument is simply out of place within the boundaries of the Cape Breton Highlands National Park. The northwestern coast of Cape Breton is dotted with coves very similar to Green Cove.  The monument could just as easily be built with the same resolute solitude in one of a dozen other unprotected coves, open to development, on either Crown or private land immediately north or south of the National Park boundary.

 

Anti-Bullying PR: Lots of Smoke, but No Fire

When I suggested to Charles Sheppard, of the Cape Breton Victoria Regional School Board, that recurring suspensions were ineffective and that more serious steps had to be taken, he replied, “That’s just the way we do things now. I don’t know what else you expect from us.”

 

“At the end of the day, in all but the most extreme of cases, bullies are welcomed back into the schools with open arms while the victims are left looking over their shoulders for the rest of their lives. – GM”

I was bullied from my first day of school to my last; physically, verbally, psychologically.  I was the quiet kid, not very good at sports, shy around girls.  I was the awkward kid with the fuzzy hair, who  listened to the wrong music, and wore the wrong clothes; a prime target for bullies.  I managed to survive and I moved on, but not without scars: twenty-five years on and I still suffer from depression, anxiety, and a host of social phobias.  You could say that bullying, in part, made me who I am.

Bullies, too, have their reasons for being who they are.  There may be psychological causes, abuse, or other factors behind the behaviour.  In many cases the bully is also a victim in their own right, equally in need of support. The underlying reason for the bully’s aggression has to be taken very seriously.

So when my child told me he was being bullied, I reported it to the school and the bully was suspended for three days.  The offending child is now on his fourth three-day suspension and will, in all likelihood, continue the cycle of bullying and suspensions in the weeks to come.  According to the school, this troubled youth has been reprimanded numerous times for verbally harassing other students with sexually explicit taunts, in addition to the anti-Semitic insults directed at my child.

When I suggested to Charles Sheppard, coordinator of school services at the Cape Breton Victoria Regional School Board, that his solution of infinitely recurring three-day suspensions was ineffective and that more serious steps had to be taken in this matter, he replied, “That’s just the way we do things now.  I don’t know what else you expect from us.”

What I expect is the same thing all reasonable and responsible parents expect: a safe and welcoming learning environment for my children.  I expect my children to be afforded the opportunity to learn and grow, free of fear and anxiety.  To that end, I expect the administration of the school board to provide adequate support and counselling to children who exhibit aggressive antisocial tendencies, but more importantly I expect the school board to enforce policies that are meant to protect the general student population from the harmful actions of bullies.

The school board does not appear to recognize the long term effects of bullying.  A child who suffers ongoing harassment throughout their school years will most likely become a fearful adult, always watching their back, always anticipating the next assault, robbed of the freedom to enjoy adult life to its fullest.  It’s an exhausting way to live and it exacts a heavy toll not only on the victim, but also on the victim’s families and friends.

We cannot assume that simply reporting the problem will result in any resolution.  As I have seen first hand, the current system of laws and policies are written in such a way that they protect the rights of the offender more-so than the rights of the victim.  The recent public relations campaigns around bullying and cyber-bullying do little more than instil a false sense of security.  At the end of the day, in all but the most extreme of cases, bullies are welcomed back into the schools with open arms while the victims are left looking over their shoulders for the rest of their lives.

Murrant’s Rant: Greed and the Senate

dna
the “Greed Gene”

To justify $16,800 in travel and living expenses, which you and I payed for with our taxes, Senator Nancy Ruth complained that on her frequent Toronto-Ottawa commutes she had to endure “cold Camembert with broken crackers”.  The senator’s comments are disturbingly reminiscent of the infamous and inflammatory words, “Let them eat cake”, spoken by Marie Antoinette, Queen of France, when she was informed that the French peasants were starving and could no longer afford bread.

And who can forget Pamela Wallen?  Or Mike Duffy?  Or Mack Harb?  Or the ever-growing list of elected government officials who feel entitled to a lavish lifestyle on the taxpayers’ dime.  Oh wait … sorry.  My mistake.  Did I say elected?  I meant Appointed, since citizens do not have a say in who becomes a senator.   But let’s be fair.  If the prime minister called to inform you that he was appointing you to the senate, would you refuse?  Of course not.  That would be like telling Atlantic Lottery that you weren’t interested in cashing in that winning 6-49 ticket in your pocket.

The fact is – and let’s not confuse facts with opinions, here – the fact is that senators are humans. Humans have an unwavering propensity for greed.  Greed is everywhere.  There is greed in monasteries and mosques, boardrooms and bus-stops, corporations and yes, even in governments.  There is greed in each and every one of us, but not in equal measure. I admit, I’ve reached for the biggest slice of pizza from time to time, but I’ve also given my slice away.  I like to think that most people are like me; we look out for one another.

Greed, like wealth, is not equally distributed.  I’m not a geneticist, but I strongly suspect that there is a greedy-gene.  Like so many other human characteristics, greed would have been advantageous when we lived in caves and were driven by an underlying primordial need to ensure the survival of our familial DNA.  By their very nature, certain professions and institutions undeniably attract individuals still driven by these ancient, self-serving tendencies.  Greed tends to coagulate in pockets at the top of the economic food chain, while generosity and altruism settle into the crowded strata below.

It is almost impossible to find one year in Canadian history when there has not been a scandal involving unscrupulous behavior or abuse of privilege in Ottawa, so, as taxpayers, it is easy for us to paint our politicians with only one brush, but we must resist the urge.  I applaud the men and women who choose to enter politics for all the right reasons.  I have the highest regard for those individuals with integrity and conviction who are willing to submit to the scrutiny and pressures of public life because they believe they can improve the lives of their fellow citizens.  It must be made doubly difficult when those good people have to work side by side with others, in whom the greedy-gene is so fully and completely expressed.

 

Cape Breton Island – Future For Sale

CBNS_RAILFor the entire twentieth century Cape Breton Island was a hive of activity, churning out steel rails like silk from a spider’s belly to be woven into a global web of railways.  There is no better example of irony, however, as Cape Breton Island’s very own railway now sits abandoned.  These days there is more blame to be laid than rail, but I am not going down that track.  Instead, I am imploring the federal and provincial governments of Canada and Nova Scotia to act on reason and logic.

A section of the Cape Breton and Central Nova Railway is for sale.  It is time for government action.  Instead of spending millions of dollars to either court a potential buyer or to decommission the line, the government should view this as an opportunity to invest in the future of the region and purchase this section of railway.  Like any capital investment, I (a taxpayer) would expect to see a return on this investment within a reasonable period of time.  A government owned and operated rail line would create new economic export opportunities for the region, in manufacturing, mining, energy, transportation, agriculture, etc.  These new opportunities, facilitated by the rail line, would potentially create thousands of jobs and generate millions of dollars in tax revenue each year for generations to come.

Railways are essential infrastructure, no different than ports, highways, power lines, or sanitation.  Without this infrastructure, the region’s population is unsustainable.  Though Canada’s ports and railway’s have been privatized by varying degrees since the 1970’s, they are recognized as having critical importance to the country’s economic performance, as shown in this 2014 Transport Canada discussion paperhttp://www.tc.gc.ca/eng/ctareview2014/discussion-paper.html.

If you care about the future of Cape Breton Island and see the logic in this approach, please share this with your friends and open the dialogue.