Controlling the flow of information – a guide for corrupt politicians

A critical element of a functional democracy is an informed electorate.  It is one of the most important checks against rampant corruption and abuse.  Intelligent, well informed voters can ensure that checks and balances are put on government actions, and that the profits that arise from the sale of the country’s resources are spent on improving the lives of citizens.


So if you happened to be a corrupt politician, benefiting from bribes and kickbacks, you would have a strong desire to keep the populace uninformed.   Now, in the past this was easier to do.  You could, for example, mandate that only state approved information sources were to be used.  Citizens are only allowed to read the ‘Banana Republic Daily.’  Perhaps you would fire teachers and close down schools in an attempt to keep the population illiterate.  Or maybe you would put restrictions on travel to prevent the spreading of ideas.

Today, though, in the age of the internet and free information, it is much harder to stop people from learning, discussing, and sharing ideas.   So what alternative does the poor corrupt politician have?

One obvious idea presents itself.  If you can’t stop the populace from consuming information, then maybe the next best step is to pre-emptively stuff them with false, misleading, or simply useless data.  Keep their brains occupied with the trivial, the meaningless, or the politically convenient.  Better yet, try to scare them off of sources of information that have not been vetted.  Teach them to be afraid of ideas that come from outside the country, that come from other political groups, that come from rigorous, peer-reviewed, reproducible research.

What would you end up with?  A country that was deeply distrustful of foreigners, of intellectuals and of political opponents, but very well informed perhaps about local sports franchises, television dramas and the lives of non-political celebrities.

Fortunately, I can’t think of any places like that.

Reconciliation in Palestine

I talk about reconciliation quite a lot.  I’m convinced that it’s one of the concepts at the heart of the Christian faith.  But today I found out about some folks that are actually getting on with the hard work of reconciliation.

c27d2addf49241498fc2b0652fb6c6eeThe Parent’s Circle is a joint Palestinian Israeli organization of over 600 families, all of whom have lost a close family member as a result of the prolonged conflict.

I am inspired to see Palestinians and Israelis who have every reason to resent, distrust and hate each other, sitting down together and working towards peace.

Take some time to read their stories, such as this one from an Israeli who lost family members in a rocket attack and later had the chance to meet Yassar Arafat, the Palestinian leader who signed the order authorizing the attack.

We need more people like this. People who can come out of a tragedy and go beyond assigning blame and calling for revenge.  People who can concretely work towards peace and reconciliation.

Character Traits and Labour Disputes

One thing I have hugely appreciated about having children in the Ontario public school system is their commitment to character education.  Integrity, respect, cooperation and responsibility are not merely buzzwords but are taught, modelled and reinforced at every opportunity.  Which causes me to run into difficulty when trying to explain the current labour dispute to my children.


Students in Simcoe county schools are encouraged to demonstrate these character traits: Integrity, responsibility, cooperation, caring, respect, optimism, honesty, empathy, courage and inclusiveness.  In general, I have seen that the staff at our local school have genuinely modelled these traits as well as taught them.

However, I do not feel that I can say the same thing about the education ministry or the teacher’s unions.   When Lauren Broten, the education minister, unilaterally imposes an agreement on the province’s schoolteachers, this is not an act of cooperation.  When Sam Hammond, president of the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario accuses the government of ‘disgraceful misuses of power’, he is not demonstrating respect.

When unions call on teachers to withdraw from all extra-curricular activities, this cannot be understood as being a caring act towards our children.  And when all parties talk past each other and accuse each other of being disingenuous, they are not displaying the character trait of honesty.

I would like to be able to tell my children that the teachers, their unions, and the government sat down together in an atmosphere of cooperation and respect, that they listened to each other with empathy.   That they  honestly and courageously looked at the very real financial constraints the education system is dealing with, and figured out how best to provide a caring and inclusive education system for all of our students.  And that they then went forward with optimism to implement their ideas.

But at the moment, I unfortunately cannot.



Ontario Teacher’s Strike

At some point in this month every parent of a child in the public school system may find themselves scrambling to figure out what to do with them, as the various teacher’s unions threaten strike action.

I find this deeply frustrating on several levels.  As a parent, I am concerned that my children will suffer from this action.

Ken Coran, the president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation, says that he is  “very hopeful that the public will see that we are trying to do what is best for the students,” but I find it hard to see how stopping classes, field trips and extracurricular activities is ‘best’ for students.

As an Ontario citizen, I’m frustrated with my government.  We expect a number of things from our representatives, one of them being to provide a comprehensive education system for our kids.  My MPP, Rod Jackson, does not seem to have any useful information on his website regarding the labour dispute.

More than anything, I, and the students I have spoken with, are frustrated by the lack of clear communications.  We would like it if all parties could state their positions clearly, without demonizing their counterparties.  If the government, the teachers, and the unions truly have the students’ best interests at heart, they will work together productively to resolve this issue as soon as possible.



Prisoners and the right to vote

image from The Guardian

The European court of human rights, just like Canada’s supreme court, ruled that member states should not ban prisoners from voting.  Unfortunately the UK government is dragging its feet in implementing the required reforms.

This is a legal decision that I’m proud to say Canada got absolutely right.  I’m convinced that denying prisoners the right to vote is very dangerous to democracy.  We should not be creating large classes of people who have no say and no stake in our political processes.

This might make some people uncomfortable, but that is kind of the point.  If prisoners were to actually form a political constituency, we would have to have an ongoing dialog about crime, punishment and rehabilitation.  Every time election season rolls around, politicians rush to hold public debates in nursing homes, at city hall, and in schools.  What would happen if they also held them in our prisons?

I believe it would help ensure that we as a society didn’t conveniently ignore the correctional system.  Politicians would have to be actively engaged in issues of prison conditions, recidivism, parole, prisoners’ families and rehabilitation.

The stated mission of Correctional Service Canada is ‘encouraging and assisting offenders to become law-abiding citizens.’  At it’s heart I believe that this can be a fundamentally redemptive process – recognizing social brokenness and taking active steps towards building a more healthy, whole society.

And ensuring that both victims and perpetrators of crime remain connected to our political conversations is one important step in helping this happen.

Economy, Ecology and Ecumenism

I learned today, (in this remarkable book), that the words economy, ecology and ecumenical all share the same Greek root, the word for ‘home’.

I find this fascinating.  Globally, it is clear that in many ways we have a fractured and broken economic system, a fragile ecology that is facing many challenges, and likewise a fracture ecumenism.

These are all related.  Economics is the way we choose to structure and order the world that we all share.  Ecology  is our effort to understand our shared environment: every life form, every eco-system, and the complex and beautiful relationships between them.  And ecumenism is our attempts to figure out how we as broken and divided members of the family of faith can live together, bless one another, and celebrate our diversity rather than cling to our divisions.

I  am convinced that as a society one of our biggest failings is our failure of imagination.  As we think about economics, the only question we seem capable of asking is ‘how can we make more stuff?‘   This is, after all, the definition of a growing economy.  The financial press is full of charts showing rates of GDP, and worrying about output and productivity and interest rates and bond defaults.   What if, instead, we chose to ask ourselves ‘how can we build a healthy and sustainable world, with freedom, peace and opportunity for all?’

Then we’d really have to start looking at our ecology, our economy, and our ecumenism.  Because we all share this oikos, this house, this world.

Corporations are People

I listened this evening to part of CBC’s story about the $18 billion dollar judgement for pollution in Ecuador that Chevron is still fighting.

As a representative of the indigenous Ecuadorans discussed the lack of environmental controls in place at the time, and the huge legal challenges that they had had to go through to even get the case heard, it struck me that perhaps one of our problems is that we forget that corporations are people.

Not in the sense of Corporate Personhood, but that every enterprise, organisation, business or corporation is made up of individual human beings.  ‘Chevron’ may be refusing to take responsibility for the ecological disaster it has created, but this is merely the aggregate behavior of a group of individual employees.  Forty years ago real, living, breathing people decided that an Ecuador drilling operation didn’t need the same environmental safeguards that would be required in North America.  Today, real, living, breathing human beings will get up, eat breakfast, and then go to work on drafting legal arguments explaining why no further effort needs to be made to clean up the mess created by the dumping of 18 billion gallons of oil-contaminated water.

The ‘limited liability’ nature of the modern corporation may well legally protect shareholders and executives from unlimited prosecution, but it cannot protect them morally from culpability for their actions.

Rather than just talk about Chevron, or any number of other ethically-challenged corporations, perhaps we should talk about the real human beings who made and are still making the decision to treat the lives and livelihoods of those around them with contempt.



Now this is fascinating.

Thanks to wikileaks, it is now possible to compare versions of some U.S. government documents that have been released under Freedom of Information Act requests, but in redacted form, with the actual raw documents themselves.  Thus we can have an insight not only into the material the documents cover, but also what topics the government censors feel must be withheld.

In software development, one of the most frequently used tools is something we call diff.   A diff tool compares two versions of a text file, typically a design document or a the source code for a program, and highlights the changes between them.  For the programmer, this is a useful tool to see what has changed between versions, to see if any errors have crept into the source, to see what modifications other team members may have made to the file, and to see how the code has evolved over time.

I have a feeling that in the future this technology will become more prevalent in the legal and governmental world.   It will be possible to track all the changes on a government bill as it proceeds through the legislative process.  Any attempt by a politician to make significant changes shortly before the bill is passed will become very obvious.  In fact I hope that with the rise of this kind of tool, along with collaborative websites along the lines of Wikipedia, the Canadian population can become much more involved in understanding, reviewing and  contributing to the legislative process.

General Assemblies – A Lesson in Patience

This evening I had the privilege of attending a General Assembly for Occupy Barrie.

Much of the media attention for the Occupy movement has focused on public protests and the aggressive way that some jurisdictions have responded.

However to me the most interesting aspect of this movement is its decision making process, which centres on the idea of consensus.  For someone used to board rooms, or company meetings, or parliamentary votes, this process must appear slow, unfocused and repetitive.  There is no ‘show of hands’, no chairman, no binding rulings.  Any individual can speak, and everyone is listened too.  A few basic mechanisms exist to ensure order, and a set of hand singles are used to indicate points of order, agreement or disagreement, and speakers running over their allotted time.

It became very clear this evening that ‘efficiency’ and ‘consensus’ are two very different goals.  This is not the way to quickly and decisively take action.  But I suspect that that is not the point.  I have a feeling that if the Occupy movement has any lasting legacy, it may well be that it introduces an entire generation to this alternative method for making group decisions.