National Post Letter

Electoral reform opponents are once again pulling out the old Israel canard. I’ve responded with a letter attempting to set the record straight in today’s National Post:

Electoral reform

Re: Think you want elect­oral reform? Kelly McPar­land, July 9

Accord­ing to Kelly McPar­land, “Israel has a pro­por­tional rep­res­ent­a­tion sys­tem of the type reform enthu­si­asts like to advoc­ate.”

In fact, Canada’s elect­oral reform sup­port­ers almost uni­ver­sally favour sys­tems like mixed-mem­ber pro­por­tional and single trans­fer­able vote. While these are forms of pro­por­tional repres­ent­a­tion — i.e. they pro­duce elec­tion res­ults that closely match the wishes of the electorate — they also pre­serve local rep­res­ent­a­tion and allow voters to choose indi­vidual candid­ates.

If elect­oral reform back­ers had their way, Canada would look less like Israel than like New Zealand, Ger­many or Ire­land.

David Taub Bancroft, Vancouver

National Post Letter

The old poli sci major in me could not allow John Ivison’s column to stand. Please see the letters section in today’s National Post for my response to the argument that it is somehow “illiberal” for governments to impel individuals to get vaccinated.

Re: Trudeau shows liberal principles have left the Liberal Party, John Ivison, Jan. 12

The essence of liberalism is not, as John Ivison claims, that “individuals should not be forced to conform to other people’s beliefs,” but rather John Stuart Mill’s harm principle: “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”

Choosing not to get vaccinated against a dangerous and highly transmissible virus puts the lives and safety of other people at risk. This places vaccination squarely within the rightful exercise of government authority.

We can agree or disagree on the specifics of any given policy, but let’s not muddy the terms of debate. For Justin Trudeau or anyone else to employ legislative power in favour of vaccination falls well within the parameters of Mill’s liberalism.

David Taub Bancroft, Vancouver

Requiem for a Fascist Clown

File:President Trump Postlaunch Remarks (NHQ202005300077).jpg

In a fitting end to four years of chaos, bigotry, and wilful aversion to the truth, Donald Trump is refusing to accept the results of the election that he lost, surprising no one. His campaign has filed lawsuits in multiple states, seeking to overturn, or at least forestall, Joe Biden’s victory. His surrogates proclaim massive voter fraud without offering any evidence. His supporters, some carrying assault rifles, flood the streets parroting his deluded talking points.

But despite the sound and the fury that accompany the soon-to-be-ex-president everywhere he goes, Biden’s victory is decisive. He is on track to win an absolute majority of ballots cast and appears to have flipped some once-reliably red states.

Democrats are flying high, having now won the popular vote in seven out of the last eight presidential elections. Indeed, from some vantage points, Republicans seem poised to enter a new age of darkness, left behind by an America that is becoming younger, more urban, more educated, and less white than ever. As I argued four years ago, the antiquated Electoral College might just be the Republican Party’s only remaining chance to game the system going forward. Yet even that funhouse mirror of an institution could start giving Democrats the edge if current demographic trends continue.

But while Democrats might be tempted to rest on their laurels, that would be a mistake. The “emerging Democratic majority” may yet prove to be a mirage. Biden is unlikely to make the country deliberately worse — a refreshing change of pace in today’s politics — but it is an open question whether things will get better under his leadership. He represents the kind of placid neoliberal centrism that has failed to deliver the goods for millions of Americans.

The status quo ante of 2016 was not some golden age. It was an era of unfettered capitalism and growing inequality, the instability of which threw a wrench in the works, disrupting “politics as usual” in the most malignant way possible. It is in this context that the ascendance of a buffoonish demagogue like Trump, skilled at manipulating populist anger, must be understood. To prevent the reemergence of Trumpism in its next more refined avatar, Democrats must move in a bolder direction, embracing egalitarian policies that benefit the population — like progressive taxation, Medicare for All, and a Green New Deal.

So yes, celebrate Trump’s loss, celebrate the repudiation of authoritarianism, celebrate Kamala Harris’s historic rise to the vice presidency. But do not grow complacent. In the current political climate, the threat of fascism is never far away.

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Globe and Mail Letter

Clifford Orwin argues in a Globe and Mail op-ed that both Republicans and Democrats are behaving hypocritically in their fight over filling the Supreme Court vacancy before the election. In today’s Letters section, I concisely defend the Democrats’ approach:

It does not seem like hypocrisy for U.S. Senate Democrats to invoke the same arbitrary rule on Supreme Court appointments that Republicans invoked four years ago. It is more like tit-for-tat – a one-time corrective to restore the balance that was upset in 2016.

David Taub Bancroft Vancouver

Kidney March 2020

Hello out there in Blog Land!

I realize I haven’t posted in a while, but for a change of pace I thought I’d let you know that I am participating in this year’s Kidney March, a 100 km walk to raise funds for The Kidney Foundation of Canada. The money goes towards research, organ donation initiatives, and patient services for those living with kidney disease.

Due to the pandemic, this year’s march will not look like it has in the past. Rather than congregating with hundreds of others in Alberta, I will be putting in my 100 km here at home in a physically distanced fashion. I also get more time in which to do so.

During these difficult months, kidney health is just as important as ever, which is why I would like to appeal to you, dear reader, to sponsor me on my trek. Any amount you can give is greatly appreciated. Please donate to my march by clicking here.

Thanks for reading!

Globe and Mail Letter

Today’s Globe and Mail contains a letter to the editor from yours truly (second from the bottom) in response to an op-ed criticizing those who take offence at J.K. Rowling’s misguided views on trans people. I discuss one of my pet peeves in the current “free speech” wars — namely, the conflation of condemnation with censorship.

Top 10 Films of the 2010s

I don’t really write about movies on this blog (lately I haven’t written much of anything), but with the decade coming to a close, I figure why not take a look back at a few cinematic standouts? There may be omissions (Marvel and Star Wars fans need read no further). Plus, I have yet to see some of the 2019 releases, such as Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and Jojo Rabbit, which I most eagerly anticipate. But Top 10 lists are nothing if not arbitrary. And why should I be the only one on the internet to wait until I have all the facts before hitting “Publish”?

With that, I present my timeless picks (alphabetized as always) for the 10 best films of the years 2010-2019:

Another Earth (2011)

Written by Mike Cahill and Brit Marling
Directed by Mike Cahill

A teenage girl with a promising future drunkenly causes a fatal car accident. At the same time, a heretofore unknown twin Earth is discovered orbiting the Sun. This sci-fi drama explores the protagonist’s guilt and regret in the years that follow, and ruminates on the cosmic possibility of a second chance.

The Cabin in the Woods (2011)

Written by Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard
Directed by Drew Goddard

I’m not sure who would get more of a kick out of this — those who love horror movies or those who hate them. (Personally, I’m right down the middle.) In any case, this satire about sexy college kids attacked by hillbilly zombies deconstructs horror tropes by having the action manipulated by technicians in an underground bunker. Lovecraftian chaos ensues.

The Double (2013)

Written by Richard Ayoade and Avi Korine
Directed by Richard Ayoade

Adapted from the novella by Fyodor Dostoevsky, this stylishly dark absurdist comedy pits one man against his much more confident and successful doppelganger.

Get Out (2017)

Written and directed by Jordan Peele

No Top 10 list is complete without this one. A Black man is invited by his white girlfriend to meet her family. That’s where the horror begins. What follows is an unsettling allegory that examines racial injustice with Kubrickian attention to detail.

Leave No Trace (2018)

Written by Debra Granik and Anne Rosellini
Directed by Debra Granik

After living off the grid for years, a father and daughter are forced into an alienating world of social services. Every word in this understated drama speaks volumes. Elegant symbolism abounds.

Melancholia (2011)

Written and directed by Lars von Trier

In this visually stunning downer, a woman’s severe depression, compounded by other people’s lack of empathy, ruins her wedding reception and sabotages her new marriage. Meanwhile, a gigantic rogue planet enters the solar system, threatening to destroy the Earth and everything on it … because metaphors! It is worth noting that the filmmaker has a history of highly problematic statements and behaviours, all of which need to be addressed.

mother! (2017)

Written and directed by Darren Aronofsky

Though it polarized both critics and audiences, this surreal biblical allegory about a poet and his wife living alone in a great big house is wonderfully acted and explores important environmental themes. This was kind of marketed as a horror movie, but don’t be fooled — it’s so much weirder than that.

Ruby Sparks (2012)

Written by Zoe Kazan
Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris

A young writer falls in love with a character he created, then is shocked to find her alive and present in his home. Part rom-com, part fantasy, this variation on the Pygmalion myth injects a feminist ethos into its story and gently critiques the lazy misogyny of male writers.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)

Written and directed by Martin McDonagh

Following the unsolved rape and murder of her daughter, a mother erects a trio of billboards to put pressure on the town’s police chief. A master class is pacing, this movie is unexpectedly funny, albeit uncomfortably so.

Wild Tales (2014)

Written and directed by Damián Szifron

This Argentine anthology film is composed of six distinct shorts, each one presenting violent revenge in a darkly comic fashion. Highlights include homicide by plane crash, a Jewish wedding gone awry, and defecation on a windshield.

Honourable mentions: All About Nina (2018), Appropriate Behavior (2014), Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014), Bridesmaids (2011), Incendies (2010), Inside Llewyn Davis (2013), The Lobster (2015), This Is the End (2013), Upstream Color (2013), What We Do in the Shadows (2014)

Globe and Mail Letter

The Letters section in today’s Globe and Mail is filled with readers’ thoughts on climate change. One such reader is me. Please see the fifth letter from the top for my response to the “What about China?” excuse for Canadian climate inaction.

Pro Rep: Infinity War; or, In Defence of Endless Referendums

File:Guelph Rally on Electoral Reform - National Day of Action for Electoral Reform - 11 Feb 2017 - 02.jpg

Winston Churchill (apocryphally, as it turns out) is believed to have said, “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” In light of British Columbia’s referendum on electoral reform this past fall, one is tempted to agree. But let’s not let the media, politicians, and third-party campaigners off the hook.

Regardless of where you come down on proportional representation, the referendum was a shameless exercise in fearmongering and misinformation. Confusion was ramped up at every opportunity. Minor quibbles over process were inflated into frothing conspiracy theories. A rigged vote was proclaimed, an NDP/Green Party power grab in the offing. Nazis lurked around every corner. And the inclusion of not one but two ballot questions? The horror!

While the NDP government campaigned for reform, it rarely did the “Yes” side any favours. Premier John Horgan performed abysmally in his televised debate with Liberal leader Andrew Wilkinson (who, to be clear, was no better). If only the government had fleshed out a few more details in advance, some of the “No” side’s deliberate mischaracterizations might have been more easily debunked.

Referendums are poor vehicles for nuanced policy discussion. Some electoral reform advocates even take the position that a fair voting system is a civil rights issue — something no less crucial to our democracy than the universality of the franchise — and thus ought to be above the fickle whims of majority rule. Should we really be holding votes on whether to make every vote count?

And yet, valid though this perspective might be, it is hard to shake the idea that choosing an electoral system is the rightful prerogative of the electorate, that leaving the whole thing up to politicians is a fundamental conflict of interest. Referendums are flawed, yes, but elected governments acting on their own initiative, even if guided by ostensible public consultations, face insurmountable incentives simply to preserve their own power. Indeed, how else to explain the perseverance of first-past-the-post?

Hence a proposal that I suspect will be found equally distasteful both by pro rep evangelists and by guardians of the status quo: perhaps the problem isn’t too much voting, but too little.

What if we held regularly scheduled electoral reform referendums every four years? What if, as a matter of course, the task of choosing next election’s voting system was taken up by this election’s voters? Pairing the ballot question with a general election would help to keep the former’s costs down. Plus, serendipitously, the mechanics of voting would already be on the public’s mind. A permanent, repeated exercise of this nature, if properly executed, could infuse our democracy with a spirit of innovation, experimentation, and open-minded inquiry.

So who would be responsible for writing the referendum question? Which variant or variants of reform (plurality, majoritarian, proportional, or otherwise) would make it on the ballot? In order to prevent governments from gaming the system, these matters would have to be determined at arm’s length — perhaps by citizens’ assemblies or by citizen-initiated petitions. The threshold for victory would be a simple majority — anything more rigorous would serve only to stack the deck in favour of the status quo. And lest this idea be perceived as nothing but an underhanded attempt to lock in proportional representation by fluke and throw away the key, a necessary feature for this running proposition would be its permanence. For the sake of fairness, switching back to first-past-the-post would have to be just as easy as abandoning it.

Is there any public appetite for such an exercise? Maybe, maybe not. Here in British Columbia, fresh off the conclusion of our third electoral reform referendum in just over 13 years, many voters are exhausted. But, to put it bluntly, anyone who doesn’t want to vote doesn’t have to. One person’s experience of voting system fatigue should not prevent another from having their say.

Furthermore, the idea of a perpetual ballot question is not wholly without precedent. The City of Vancouver includes capital plan borrowing proposals on every municipal election ballot, which nobody seems to mind (or, for that matter, notice).

Is there something special about electoral reform that makes it uniquely divisive, that wounds our body politic more widely and deeply with each new iteration? It’s hard to say. Voting systems are a wonky and technical subject matter, not what one expects to ignite the public’s imagination. That something so objectively boring would inspire fierce passions on all sides of the debate is not to be feared. On the contrary, this sense of polarization might even signal something positive. The state of public discourse can probably withstand a little extra strain.

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Vancouver Sun Letter

LetterI have a letter in today’s Vancouver Sun, not so much supporting proportional representation (although I do support proportional representation) as addressing what I consider to be baseless objections to the current electoral reform referendum. My letter is second from the top, under the (perhaps regrettable) heading “Complexity isn’t a real concern.”

Remember to vote and mail your ballots in before November 30!