The Walrus Blog

Monthly Archive: October 2007

Elliot Spitzer is somewhere on the spectrum between stubborn and crazy. Last month, the governor said he would allow undocumented immigrants to get driver’s licenses, to cut down on the number of uninsured drivers on New York streets. He might as well have declared that henceforce, every baby boy in the state will officially be named Nancy.

Spitzer’s sticking to his proposal, and he’s gotten support from some high-profile figures, who point out that the first priority for security officials is to have information on who’s living in the state. But facts only go so far. In this country, it’s hard to find support for any measure perceived as pro-immigrant, whatever the reason behind it.

Earlier this week, Democratic Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois held a press conference in support of a bill to give legal status to illegal immigrants who graduate high school, then go to college or serve in the United States military for two years. (more…)

Posted in Bright Lights  •  1 Comment

Uh-oh, GEO

Nairobi—More bad news, people. The (fourth) Global Environment Outlook has just been published by the UN. It’s an epic, 450-page tome, five years and 1,500 experts in the making. Their worldwide gaze looks every catastrophe you can imagine square in the face. (more…)

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Posted in Notes From Vancouver  •  3 Comments

The Greater White North

“The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold.”

- Robert Service, “The Cremation of Sam McGee”, 1907

The same year Robert Service published his famous poem about the mystery and grandeur of the Far North, Canadian Senator Pascal Poirier was busy staking his country’s Arctic claim in Parliament to a world that largely didn’t care. One hundred years later, a Russian icebreaker led two research vessels to the North Pole to plant a symbolic Russian flag 13,200 feet below the surface, encased in titanium. This time everyone noticed.

It was territorial brinksmanship at its finest: a shot across Canada’s Arctic bow. Past efforts to define the country’s northern frontier have been largely reactive and rarely successful, but this time the Russians are playing for keeps. If Canada doesn’t respond with strength and resolve, there will be more to lose than a few Arctic trails in the land of the midnight sun.


Posted in Uncategorized  •  4 Comments

Alberta let your hair hang low
Alberta let your hair hang low
I’ll give you more gold than your apron can hold
If you’ll only let your hair hang low
—Doc Watson, “Alberta”

Good chat on oil royalties with Dr. Keith Brownsey of Mount Royal College over at the Globe‘s website today, debating whether or not Ed Stelmach is going to wave his freak flag high, high1 and stick it to the Oil Man. This is the part I found most interesting: (more…)

Posted in The Bironist  •  1 Comment

Tribal Tribulations

Nairobi—Not long ago, the bosses of the newspaper I work for in Nairobi – The Daily Nation – urged its editors and journalists to avoid mentioning the tribal origins of their subjects. A federal election is underway in Kenya, and the purveyors of public discourse want their readers to vote as Kenyans rather than Luos, or Kambas, or Kisiis. It’s a tall order. There are over forty tribes of long standing in this country, and everybody belongs to one of them – speaks its language, tells its jokes, votes for its leader. This has been the case for much longer than Kenya has been a country. It isn’t immediately obvious to those of us used to the American version of tribal culture. For one thing, the only reservations in Kenya are for wild animals; and the fact that virtually everyone here belongs to a First Nation makes tribalism the rule instead of the exception. Except for the odd urban Masaai, no one sticks out.

This is arguably the biggest point of divergence in the colonial experience of Africa versus that of the Americas: In the end, the Africans got their continent back. (more…)

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Posted in Notes From Vancouver  •  4 Comments

Harper Steps In It

Two things are absolutely clear about Prime Minister Stephen Harper: he has no hidden agenda and never had one; he is quite desperate for majority rule.

Descriptions of the Conservative government’s Speech from the Throne on Tuesday night as conciliatory are laughable. The throne speech (and subsequent statements made by Harper) had less to do with getting tough on crime (at a moment when crime in Canada, even gun-related crime, is hardly a pressing concern); little to do with undercutting John Manley’s panel on Afghanistan (by indicating the government’s preference to extend the mission beyond 2009); was not really about abandoning Canada’s Kyoto commitments (as the prime minister had already indicated his preference for US President Bush’s self-serving parallel synod on climate change); or any of the other quisling statements made to attract votes. Rather, Mr. Harper’s speech, made after a four month Parliamentary recess — an extended absence designed to prove that Ottawa and Parliament do not matter — was about the reduction of federal spending powers to matters of defence and foreign affairs (that is, weaponry and soldiers and the odd diplomatic mission, at a ratio, probably, of 10:1), granting provinces a veto on all other matters, telling them to create more “tax room” (the subtext of another chop to the GST), and, generally, reversing the flow of Confederation such that Ottawa can never again play a significant role over the commons.

Posted in Uncategorized  •  2 Comments

My Generation? Hello?

Just when it seemed like nothing more of interest could possibly be written about Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, New York magazine comes out with a surprisingly engaging look at their respective political activism in law school — Clinton fighting for civil rights in the early ’70s at Yale, Obama caught up in the affirmative action debates of the late ’80s at Harvard. The article is focused on the two candidates’ early lessons in politics, but I read a more pressing question: what happened to student activism? If every generation is defined by the cause it fought for, what’s ours? And if you can’t answer that question right away, what does it tell you?

Last week, the Times’ Thomas Friedman called the current crop of students “Generation Q.” (more…)

Posted in Bright Lights  •  4 Comments

In anticipation of tomorrow night’s Throne Speech Throwdown, I bring you this, from the days when civil discourse wasn’t always so civil:

“You damned pup! I’ll slap your chops!”

–John A. Macdonald, to his former Kingston legal pupil, Oliver Mowat, on the floor of parliament in May 1861. Mowat had just suggested that Macdonald was exaggerating Mowat’s views on representation by population.

Donald Creighton’s John A. Macdonald: The Young Politician, sets the scene beautifully:

There must have been some provocation in [Mowat's] remarks—some charge that Macdonald had wilfully falsified his views. Macdonald gasped. These impertinences were actually coming from the fat boy who had been his inky junior at school and his respectful apprentice at law! Suddenly, as the plump, bespectacled, rather self-important little man finished his statement, Macdonald’s brittle temper was shattered into splinters as at a blow. In a minute—as soon as the Speaker had left the chair—he walked quickly across the gangway. Blind rage in his heart, he confronted Mowat.

“You damned pup,” he roared. “I’ll slap your chops!”

John Sandfield Macdonald quickly stepped between the antagonists. Others helped to pull them apart.”


Posted in The Bironist  •  3 Comments

Character Allocation

Although the publisher sits in the office next to mine, I’m rarely aware of specifics on the fundraising side of things. Turns out some major Walrus events have been taking place over the past few weeks, in Vancouver and Ottawa, with two more, in Calgary and Toronto, still to come.

One idea we’ve come up with for Calgary that’s worth the price of admission is an auction to become a character in an upcoming work by a well-known author. The roster is an impressive one: Margaret Atwood, Karen Connelly, Charles Foran, Wayne Johnston, Jake MacDonald, and Guy Vanderhaeghe.

I’ve often pondered how authors generate their character names,1 but the idea of a bazaar is a new one on me. I could see it having been the case for Duddy Kravitz, at least.

Calgarians with names like Zbigniew DeLeon and Martyr Lovehandles are encouraged to come out, bid early and often, and put Margaret Atwood’s legendary cleverness to the test. Jane Smiths are welcome, too.

1Save for Jack Kerouac, for whom they somehow always seem obvious.

Posted in The Bironist  •  No Comments

The Dilemma of Blog

This blog was supposed to have launched months ago. Not at all in keeping with the off-the-cuff spirit of the thing, however, I’ve been paralyzed coming up with answers to two questions common to would-be bloggers who have nothing in particular to say.

Question 1. What’s the point?

Purpose 1: Self-love, the ur-motive of bloggery and columnization

The Bironist will eventually be known as the most self-indulgent blog in the history of blogs (in case the composition of a 900-word introduction doesn’t mark it as that already). Should I forget to mention it later, I enjoy fruit smoothies for breakfast. My middle name is Lin, after my father. I dream of owning a Fender Jaguar guitar. Of the places I’ve lived, I like Montreal better than Toronto better than Edmonton better than Vancouver.

Go on, try and turn away.

Purpose 2: Promotion of media host

Publishing a magazine in Canada is a cash-intensive prospect. It’s stunning how much money it costs to print and distribute a treeware journal, even given such a vast and relatively underpopulated country. Fill it with 5,000-word articles such as “The Nature of Chocolate Bars: A Heideggerian Analysis” and go light on the T&A1, and it gets still harder.

Self-indulgent columns are a proven economic driver for media enterprises. I know, fans of Sports Illustrated‘s Peter King thought his unending updates on his daughters’ softball and field hockey teams were designed to sate America’s huge appetite for girls’ softball and field hockey news. Not so! In fact, they’re part of the brand that is Peter King, everyman reporter of NFL football, friend to the American soldier and barista, and vaguely dissatisfied critic of the Bush administration.

My goals are humbler: if all eight of the lit-mag fans in Canada, plus my parents, read this blog at least once next year, that will raise $0.04 in ad revenue for The Walrus Foundation’s coffers, leaving only a few million dollars, less four cents, to raise from other sources.

Purpose 3: Imparting of expertise

Imparting expertise is especially important here, given The Walrus‘s educational mandate. In accordance with our deal with the Canadian Revenue Agency, our content is supposed to be entirely edumacational.2

The most successful blogs, for instance, tend to focus on one particular area (in Sullivan’s case, politics). Sadly, I’m a generalist. That’s why I work at a general-interest magazine. I’m not qualified to do anything but read Saul Bellow novels while playing tennis with my left hand and harmonica with my right.3

This limits me, essentially, to imparting what little expertise I have on general-interest magazines.4 As this isn’t likely to be of note to anyone outside of the nation’s handful of journalism schools, I’ll rely instead on distracted analyses of Bellow, tennis, and harmonica—or, more accurately, interests such as sports, international affairs, and the lives of past prime ministers.

Question 2. What’s the name?

I’ll spare you the list of rejected appellations for this blog, most of them involving horrible puns on my last name.

In keeping with Purpose 1, The Bironist’s origin story is peppered with references to cool people I know and fabulous trips I’ve taken. The short version: the term was inspired by former Walrus intern and current Stéphane Dion speechwriter Gillian Savigny, codified by former Walrus editor and current Globe and Mail writer Joshua Knelman, and coined by yours truly. This happened following the consumption of several Baltika syems5 at a beer garden in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Birony, defined: a literary device wherein a statement is designed to seem ironic, but is in fact sincerely meant.6

For an example of birony, please see my on-its-face-absurd reference to the possibility of running a 5,000-word analysis of chocolate bars through the lens of Heidegger, the most impenetrable European philosopher this side of Slavoz Žižek.

Guess what: I wasn’t kidding. I’d assign that piece in a heartbeat if I thought I could get away with it. I’d call it “The Noumena of Nougat,”7 and you’d drool over every Dasein8-infused word.

So there you have it, the mission statement of The Bironist. Consider our lives mutually enriched.

Next, on The Bironist: I break the story that Adolph Cameron, president of Jamaica, has secretly been acting as leader of another country.

1Not to mention the P&A, S&M, and A&W.
2Hence my decision to use spurious footnotes, which confer all of the sheen of education but require none of the noxious learning.
3Fortunately, I’m ambidextrous. Also, I’m not especially good at tennis, harmonica, or reading.
4Fun fact: in the early years of the New Yorker, managing editors were referred to as “the new Jesus” (or “new Jesi,” in plural), an allusion to both the saviour status conferred upon them by Harold Ross and to the ongoing cycle of death and resurrection the position saw until eternal life arrived in the form of the true Messiah, William Shawn.
 Here at The Walrus, I’m referred to as “the new Bachman Turner Overdrive.” It’s complicated.
5syem=seven in Russian.
6Birony accrues an additional layer of meaning when it refers to matters of the heart, thus alluding to Lord Byron. However, as the concept then becomes, technically, trirony, the bonus layer is immediately deducted, restoring bironic balance.
7Noumena are, roughly, the aspects of an object that we may inquire into and comprehend. Visit Wikipedia to learn more. Tell them I sent you.
8Dasein is the main concept in Heidegger’s Being and Time. It’s a long book, and I only have the first half memorized (in English, anyway), so I’ll reduce it to an individual’s, um, being in time.

Posted in The Bironist  •  4 Comments

Dandora Burning

Dandara Municipal Dump
Nairobi—The Dandora Municipal Dumping Site is a heap of world-class toxicity festering on the east edge of Nairobi. Formerly a rock quarry, it became the city’s domestic, medical, and industrial waste basket in 1973; it filled up by the late eighties and has been overflowing ever since, these days at the rate of 2,000 tonnes of unfiltered garbage a day.

The only checks on its growth are the fires that convert a small portion into acrid smoke, and the legions who scavenge off it for a living. About a million people live within sight or smell of the dump site. They have formed a separate economy based on recycling other people’s garbage. The dark irony is that the source of their livelihoods is poisoning them to death. (more…)

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Posted in Notes From Vancouver  •  5 Comments

Referendum Day

New York—Whoever wins tomorrow’s Ontario provincial election, it’s going to be remembered as a test case for the maxim that in politics, big ideas don’t sell. John Tory, as I wrote a few weeks ago, will probably become code for what happens when politicians forget the maxim. From now on, party leaders are going to think even harder before going to the electorate with a sweeping proposal for change.

Tomorrow’s referendum on proportional representation looks likely to reinforce that conclusion. Whatever the wisdom of a mixed-member proportional system, there’s no justification for putting it to a vote when 3 million Ontarians can’t tell you what it means. (more…)

Posted in Bright Lights  •  1 Comment
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