Friday, October 9, 2009

Movie Review: Documentary spotlights Kansas politics

Based on Thomas Frank’s best-selling political book on the socio-political conflicts, contrasts and contradictions of his home state, Joe Winston’s "What’s the Matter with Kansas?” explores how real people live, work, think and vote in Oklahoma’s neighbor to the north. While it addresses clearly the fractures in Kansas’ body politic, it is the rare political documentary in which no one is labeled the enemy, leaving it up to the viewer to reach a conclusion.Frank’s 2004 book, named for a famous 1896 political column in the Emporia Gazette, covered the rise of conservatism in Kansas, a state that was ground zero for 19th-century, left-wing populist politics, but beginning with the presidential election of 1968, it has been one of the most reliably conservative states in the Midwest. One of Frank’s main points is that conservatives in Kansas are mostly working or middle-class citizens voting against their economic self-interest out of their support of the Republican Party’s stand on social issues such as abortion, gay marriage and creationism.

But using Frank’s book as a jumping-off point, director Winston takes a less strident view of the state. It would be possible to watch Winston’s "What’s the Matter with Kansas?” from either extreme on the political bell curve and see it as a plain-spoken depiction of life as it is. Liberal populists such as farmer Donn Teske have their view of the demise of their livelihood at the hands of conservative economic policies, but then fellow farmer Angel Dillard, a conservative Christian, sees only good coming from conservatism and mostly evil coming from liberalism.

How the viewer sees "What’s the Matter with Kansas?” could serve as a Rorschach test of their own leanings. In this sense, "What’s the Matter with Kansas?” is an unusually straightforward documentary in these times: There’s no agitprop, no snarky use of public-domain education films from the ’50s or a narrative spin in either direction.

Winston takes his cameras to the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kan., and gives dispassionate voice to people who believe that Earth was created 6,000 years ago. Again, depending on the viewer, this is likely to elicit a "You’ve got to be kidding” or an "Amen” — Winston is just depicting Kansas attitudes as they are. But the film recognizes that Kansas politics is not monolithic: Winston trains his cameras on a Republican watch party on Nov. 7, 2006, and while the supporters of Rep. Todd Tiahrt saw the 4th District Republican congressman sail to easy victory, they also saw a Democratic victory in the state’s attorney general race, and the shift of both national legislative bodies to Democratic control. One young Republican, looking for an explanation, claims his party cannot get out the vote as well as the other side, but that is a claim made by both parties of their opponents.

"What’s the Matter with Kansas?” is unlikely to change anyone’s mind, but it feels like the truth. No one on either side is treated like a caricature, and that in the current social and political environment, a wind blowing right down the middle of the plains can be a refreshing breeze.

Read more:

How a scattered army of insurance brokers outmuscled the Big Five

They're not household names or Bay Street powerhouses, and their companies don't top the TSX 60.

But in the rural and suburban ridings across the country that are key to the Conservatives, Canada's 33,000 insurance brokers are a force to be reckoned with.

Finance Minister Jim Flaherty's move this week to block banks from marketing insurance on their websites caps a furious lobbying campaign by the insurance brokerage industry.

The brokers have practised retail politics so assiduously that their network of members in towns and cities across Canada now matters dearly to Conservatives. While banks often focus on building relationships with ministers, brokers have concentrated their friend-making skills on Parliament's grassroots: the 308 MPs across the country, and in particular on the 143-MP Conservative caucus.

The strategy has allowed the group to out-politic Canada's big banks. The Tories even made a 2006 election pledge to ban banks from marketing insurance via their vast network of branches – a promise directly aimed at the brokers.

When the Liberals were in power, the brokers had equal clout with the Liberal caucus.

The brokers were able to spur this week's change despite fierce opposition from the much bigger banking sector. The move puts a sizable dent in the banks' aims to push further into the insurance business, with Canadians increasingly shopping for financial products online.

When Mr. Flaherty notified the banks of his decision Wednesday in a letter faxed to each of the chief executives ahead of his announcement, he noted that “this is an issue of importance to insurance brokers and agents in Canada.”

Both Mr. Flaherty and the industry group representing the brokers played down the role of the brokers' lobbying efforts.

But in recent months, since a regulatory ruling that bolstered the banks' case for marketing insurance on their sites, the brokers' industry group has stepped up its pressure on MPs. At the riding level, insurance brokers have been raising the issue with their local MPs.

The trigger for the campaign was a decision by Canada's financial services regulator that effectively went against insurance brokers. The Office of the Superintendent of Financial Institutions announced in June that bank websites could not be considered branches under existing federal law, meaning that banks weren't breaking the rules by marketing insurance through their main online portals.

Sources say Mr. Flaherty has for months felt the legislation needed to be updated to forbid banks from marketing insurance on their banking websites because he viewed bank websites as effectively branches. “That's a 2006 campaign promise and it's not open for discussion,” one government source said.

Mr. Flaherty told reporters Thursday that “I'm not caving in to anybody. We are trying to do the right thing in line with government policy.”

Dan Danyluk, chief executive officer of the Insurance Brokers Association of Canada, disputed the idea that Mr. Flaherty was responding to a powerful lobby group. “I think this was the right thing to do,” he said. “There is a profound cynicism about the political process that I don't share. The fact of the matter is that ... parliamentarians want to do the right thing.”

When a consumer shops around for insurance online, they are supplanting some of the work a broker traditionally does for their client. Royal Bank of Canada offers consumers a 5-per-cent discount if they buy their insurance online, and there are insurance industry websites that allow consumers to check around for a better price.

“There should be no surprise in this for anybody. We've never entertained the position that this policy was open for discussion,” one government source said.

“They've been trying to push the boundaries and find a loophole in the legislation ... they can sell insurance on websites but these have to be separate and distinct” from their banking sites.

The move to curtail online insurance sales has prompted some bankers to talk about looking into whether they can lodge a complaint with the Competition Bureau or even take legal action, according to industry sources.

Those preliminary ideas were being bandied about at a number of banks yesterday, where officials said they were shocked by the government's move. “The industry is trying to figure out what options it has in reaction to an outrageously political move,” said an official in Toronto at one of the big banks. “Part of the challenge we have right now is we're not sure what we're dealing with.”

For example, bankers say the Finance Department has not made it clear whether the rules will apply to all of their websites, or only the portals where banking customers sign in.

Body Politic Course

A seven week course starting on Wednesday 14th October.

What makes you want to act for justice? Racism? Climate change? Poverty? The price of food? Are you looking for new creative ways to make change happen? Do you need a space to reflect, think and refuel? This course, run by PLATFORM is for people who want to study how social justice, the environment, arts and activism work together.

This course is designed for people who want to study how social justice, the environment,
arts and activism work together. Whether you're concerned about local, national or global
issues, we investigate how creative approaches and collaborations combined with
research can make your work more compelling, politically effective and also sustainable.
This is also a chance to reflect on your own position and experience, think about where
you are, and how you want to proceed. This course will give you a grounding in the fertile
and sometimes difficult relationships between campaigning, art, activism, power, and
action. Learning is done through sharing ideas, creative workshops, and visiting speakers.
The course is very flexible and responds to the needs and desires of the group.

The Body Politic is run by interdisciplinary group PLATFORM, as part of C Words: Carbon, Climate,Capital, Culture, a two-month season of events and exhibitions at Arnolfini, Bristol 3 October - 29 November 2009.

Dates: Wednesdays 14, 21, 28 October, 4, 11, 18, 25 November
Fees: £90 full, £45 concs
Enrol:; Box Office 0117 917 2300
Led by: Jane Trowell (PLATFORM) and other contributors.

Political Culture: Seeing the Best (And Worst) in One Another

As a wired citizen of our not-terribly-United States, you’ve no doubt received your share of cranky, mass-distributed partisan e-mails. I get them all the time, and my favorites (a phrase I use here ironically) are the ones that purport to show the differences between two viewpoints by offering the best possible description of one side and the worst possible slander of the other. The preponderance of these seem to come from the right side of our political discourse – the side that’s much better at name-calling and manipulating good ideas to sound like terrible ones. (But there I go again…)

One might think I have better things to do than take personal offense when one of these anonymous hatefests appears in my inbox … but, no, I can never seem to let these things pass without a response. Sometimes I offer a reasoned debunking of whatever bilge is contained in the diatribe, but too often I crank up the flamethrower and launch a torrent of my own uncivil rantings. The latter was the case recently, and as soon as I hit “send” I regretted my contribution to the coarsening of the national dialogue … even if it was just between myself and a friend.

And then I thought it might be interesting to conduct a bit of a thought experiment. (Actually, it’s just a cut-and-paste experiment, but whatever.) What if we compared only the “best” views of both sides, and ignored the “worst” views? Might that reflect the true essence of the body politic? Or, alternatively, is a comparison of the “worsts” more representative of how blue sees red, and vice versa?

Here, then, is my cut-and-paste job. It’s not perfect – even I could make more profound arguments for conservatism or against liberalism than the anonymous creator of the e-mail blast I received this week – but you can decide for yourself how well any of the statements represent prevailing viewpoints on the issues and attitudes of the day. (In each of the following comparative statements, italics are used not for emphasis, but for differentiation.) First, a look on the bright side:

If a liberal sees a child killed by gun violence, he looks for ways to stop the next such incident through responsible restrictions.
If a conservative doesn’t like guns, he doesn`t buy one.

If a liberal is a vegetarian, he hopes that his meat-eating friends will consume food that’s grown with respect for animals and the environment, that’s handled cleanly during processing, and that’s eaten with consideration for the health of the consumer.
If a conservative is a vegetarian, he doesn’t eat meat.

If a conservative is homosexual, he quietly leads his life.
If a liberal is gay, he wants to enjoy the legal rights and choices everyone else has.

If a black man or Hispanic is conservative, he sees himself as independently successful.
If an African-American or Hispanic is liberal, he proudly places himself within a tradition of civil-rights activism and tolerance, and expects equal opportunity.

If a conservative is down-and-out, he thinks about how to better his situation.
An unemployed or working-class liberal strives — together with his wealthier counterparts when possible, in opposition to them when necessary — to find ways to make life better and more equal for himself and those who share his status.

If a conservative doesn’t like a talk show host, he switches channels.
If a liberal doesn’t like a talk-show host, he laughs or complains and then finds more intelligent sources for information (usually not involving talk-show hosts).

A liberal non-believer expects his non-belief to be respected as much as the beliefs of those around him, in a free-flowing marketplace of ideas.
If a conservative is a non-believer, he doesn’t go to church.

If a conservative decides he needs health care, he goes about shopping for it, or may choose a job that provides it.
A liberal believes that affordable, high-quality healthcare is the right of every individual, and that if the private sector won’t do the right thing, then government must.

A conservative considers himself a child of God, endowed by Him with the freedom to make his own choices in life for himself and his family.
A liberal recognizes that America is a land of many faiths and creeds, and that favoring one over another is inappropriate in the public sphere.

A conservative believes in individual responsibility and free choice.
A liberal believes that society functions best when all Americans receive equal treatment and opportunity — and that government is often needed to counterbalance man’s baser instincts.

So much for live-and-let-live. Here comes the hammer:

If a liberal doesn’t like guns, he feels that no one should have one.
If a conservative sees a child killed by gun violence, he wishes the kid had had a gun, too, because more guns ALWAYS result in fewer dead people.

If a liberal is a vegetarian, he wants to ban all meat products for everyone.
No matter what a conservative eats, he believes that considerations like conservation, safety and health should be secondary to the accumulation and retention of wealth by the businesses that grow, process, sell and serve food.

If a liberal is homosexual, he loudly demands legislated respect.
If a conservative recognizes and accepts that he is gay, he quickly becomes a liberal, because there’s no place for him amidst conservative intolerance.

A liberal who’s black or Hispanic sees himself as a victim in need of government protection.
If a black man or Hispanic is conservative, he automatically gets a place in the Republican leadership (because there are so few minority conservatives, yet the GOP loves to pretend it’s a “big tent”).

A down-and-out liberal wonders who is going to take care of him.
A working-class conservative allows his political and religious leaders to convince him that minorities/immigrants/gays/Jews/atheists/liberals are to blame for his plight, which gets him so worked up he ignores the way those leaders are perpetuating his own troubles.

If a liberal doesn’t like a talk show host he demands that those he doesn’t like be limited or shut down.
If a conservative doesn’t like a talk-show host it’s usually because that host points out the idiocy, intolerance, corruption and hypocrisy of the conservative’s leaders.

A liberal non-believer wants any mention of God or religion silenced or removed.
A conservative non-believer wonders why he doesn’t get invited to parties, and questions his affiliation with people who are so intolerant.

A liberal demands that the rest of us pay for his healthcare.
A conservative believes, “I got mine — now you get yours. And if you can’t afford it, get out of the way. And keep your government hands off my Medicare!”

A liberal believes that he is qualified to make everyone’s choices about how to express their faith (whether they like it or not).
A conservative believes that the tenets of his own faith should be the law of the land, all others be damned (literally), and that every other American really ought to convert.

A liberal believes that he knows what is best for everyone and wants to use government force, in totalitarian fashion, to compel them to comply.
A conservative believes it’s every man for himself, and that he has a right to feel aggrieved and throw around words like “totalitarian” if minorities or the poor are granted “special rights” to the freedoms and privileges he himself already enjoys.

A quick observation: The positive characterizations sound entirely reasonable on both sides … but the negative depictions sure are funnier, aren’t they? I suppose that’s the point of such dumbed-down partisanship, as reflected in mass e-mails and extreme talk radio and TV – to legitimize your own argument by making the other side look ridiculous. But it’s nice to imagine that while screaming pundits and internet nasties continue to amp up the negativity – and I freely admit my too-frequent participation in all of that – there might still be a few actual statesmen in positions of power who are not only able, but willing, to see the merits (or at least the humanity) in both sides of these arguments.

Like I said, it’s nice to imagine.

“Honest Talk” Has No Place In Politics


I can see by the clock on the wall, that it’s almost time for a Conservative majority government. Michael Ignatieff and the Liberal party stock is falling faster than they can sell it, with the Conservatives taking a 14-point lead in the latest Ekos poll. The two parties traded a total of 8 percentage points in distance from last week, leaving a wide gap from polls which indicated a deadlock only a short month ago.

More remarkable than those numbers, as Kelly McParland perceptively observed, is that the Conservatives are 10 points ahead of the Liberals in Toronto, and four times better than the NDP. That’s in Toronto, the so-called Liberal stronghold recently accused by Denis Coderre of exerting too much influence in the party.

But I think the most important part of this poll is that it continues to fit within the concept that the Conservatives are poised to seize the centre and rule as Canada’s “natural governing party“, usurping the Liberals from that title role. Gaining support from urban areas, women, university graduates, visible minorities and recent immigrants, all demographics that have traditionally gone to the Liberals, is a big indicator that Michael Ignatieff’s party has jumped the shark.

As for the anointed one himself, 51% of respondents disapproved of the way Mr.Ignatieff is handling his job, with just 19% approving of his performance. Recently he’s been trying to do something, anything, to resonate more with Canadians, but the inexorable slide into irrelevance continues unabated. And even the normally cooperative media seems to have turned on him.

There was a bit of silly word play in the media yesterday that could really be described most accurately as “gotcha” journalism. Mr.Ignatieff was widely quoted as saying that he was going to embark on a politically risky venture to have an “adult conversation” with Canadians about the kind of painful measures that will be necessary to eliminate the deficit in Canada. The Conservative Party was all over this story immediately, and the media were only too happy to oblige with the headlines:

Ignatieff to talk tax hikes

It’s a bit disingenuous to aid and abet the misinformation of party propagandists by suggesting that a blunt and realistic discussion about what will be required to balance the deficit is tantamount to a sudden call by the opposition to raise taxes. The fact is that Michael Ignatieff is right about the fact that we do need an important discussion about what’s going to be done about the deficit, because I can guarantee you that the current Conservative plan doesn’t answer those questions.

Realizing immediately how negative any hint of raising taxes was, Michael Ignatieff immediately issued terse denials. The shame about this is that it means this “honest talk” about the deficit is unlikely to happen until such time that the Conservatives are actually awarded a majority government, and they let us all in on what kind of magical economic theories they have crafted which don’t involve raising taxes or cutting spending. As Dan Arnold wrote in his blog:

“While I tend to agree that a promise of raising taxes might not be the wisest strategy, what does it say about the state of our political system when party leaders have to deny reports that they’re going to treat the voters like adults?”

Of course the truth of the matter is that Michael Ignatieff, just like his predecessor, hasn’t really offered any plans of his own along with facts and figures describing how he would manage to balance the budge, probably for the same reason he backed down from having his honest talk with us. There’s also a certain off-putting hint of arrogance in Mr.Ignatieff’s wording, by inferring that until now he’s the only one who has been acting like an “adult” here. At a certain point this leader is going to have to stop being indecisive about everything and simply take a stand on something. Unfortunately it looks like it’s way too late in the game to make that decision.

Sotomayor, the King's Two Bodies, Corporations and Property

So the story goes, a Justice, a King and a Property Teacher Walk into a Bar and the Justice says how are we supposed to turn the other cheek on Corporations when they are given all of the privileges of people but all of the immunities of an immortal." The King turns to the professor and says, "it helps to have two faces." (Rim Shot -- and if you want to know why the punch line makes sense, read on....).

In the wake of Sonia Sotomayor's first entre' into Campaign Finance Reform on the court, she asked what many scholars have asked over time: Why do corporations get to be treated as people for certain things. Sotomayor said: Judges "created corporations as persons, gave birth to corporations as persons," she said. "There could be an argument made that that was the court's error to start with...[imbuing] a creature of state law with human characteristics." Of course, the historical precedent is not what Sotomayor is taking issue with, its the correctness of that decision. Indeed, Abraham Lincoln warned that "Corporations have been enthroned and an era of corruption in high places will follow, and the money power of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign by working upon the prejudices of the people until all wealth is aggregated in a few hands and the republic is destroyed." Clearly, American Corporation law draws its roots in the nineteenth century's industrial revolution and the transformation of the American economy. And ever since Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific, American law has recognized that corporations are entitled to assert the bill of rights much like an actual person. But the concept of the corporation as a person, is far more nuanced and mystical, yea its a Dan Brown novel waiting to be written...

The first scholar to dive into the concept of origins of the Corporation was F.W. Maitland. In two early twentiethcentury articles titled The Corporation Sole (1900), The CrownCorporation (1901), Maitland dives into the question of corporations as artificial persons. Maitland begins Corporation Sole by quoting Edward Coke:


Persons are either natural or artificial. The only natural corporations are either aggregate or sole. Persons are men. The only artificial persons are corporations.

Maitland then goes on to describe the creation of the concept of artificial persons as one directly attributable to property. Specifically, the first English Corporations were in the form of the Parson of the church, who as the "corporation sole" represented the body that held the lands on behalf of the church. In Coke's day, there were three distinct corporation soles, Ecclesial or parsons, the Chamberlain (or Treasurer) of the City of London, and the King.  Its the King, however, that becomes the most prominent artificial person. Indeed, the King is said in the Case of Dutchy Lane at Sergent's Inn, (Plowden's Reports) to possess

a body natural adorned and invested with the estate and dignity royal, and he has not a body natural distinct and divided by itself from the office and dignity royal, but a body natural and a body politic, together indivisible, and these two bodies are incorporated into one person and make one body and not divers, that is the body corporate in the body natural et e contra the body natural in the body corporate.

But the body politic and the body natural, though joined in one "corporation" held distinctive natures. As stated in the same report:

His body natural... is a body mortal, subject to all of the infirmities that come by nature or accident, to the imbecility of infancy or old age, and to the like defects that happen to the natural bodies of other people. But his body politic is a body that cannot be seen or handled, consisting of policy and government and constituted for the direction of the people and the management of the public weal, and his body is utterly void of infancy, and old age, and other natural defects and imbecilities which the body natural is subject to, and for this reason, what the king does in his body politic cannot be invalidated or frustrated by any disability in his natural body.

Thus, the concept of the body of the king recognized that in the capacity as King a number of conclusions were appropriate including that he was flawless and that time did not run against him (nullem tempit occurit regis). What's perhaps the most interesting, is that these fictions begin at the property level. Property represented in the early days of the fiction the point in the material world where the mystical properties of corporations, kings, and governments interceded into normal human activity. It is, as Ernst Kantorowicz analogized, the metaphor of the Eucharist in one political person -- the mystical joined with the tangible and therefore made known in an understandable form. In the early days, it was the property or the person that made the corporation a meaningful entity. And thus, the corporation did not speak or exist outside of the tangible form, but rather adopted the tangibility, cleansed it, and made it sacrosanct. 
Perhaps that is why Sotomayor has a point. It seems that Sotomayor struggles with the idea of imbuing corporations with eternal qualities at the same time that we offer them human existence and privileges. In large measure this is a function of the intangible entity. Do we really want corporations that are not tied in some tangible way to human existence, whether by the actors that can be held accountable for their actions, or the property that can be taken away and therefore stripping the corporation of its existence in the real world, with the perpetual ability to speak. That seems to be a relevant point in a day in which Corporations so easily vanish without a trace of their existence except the path of destruction they left behind. 
And if Dan Brown does write a novel about King's and corporations, I expect my royalties. 

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