Uber’s Left Turn

By offering to take hundreds of thousands of cars off our roads through its upcoming carpool service, Uber is set to become the unlikely darling of Canadian progressives

Published on December 19, 2014

Earlier this week, as police in Sydney, Australia were surrounding a café where a mentally unstable man with a shotgun had seized dozens of hostages, the rates charged by the city’s Uber drivers shot up by a factor of three. Australians were outraged by what some denounced as “price gouging.” When Twitter lit up with complaints, Uber—the app-based transportation network that connects riders to drivers via their smartphones—entered damage-control mode, paying the costs of all riders fleeing Sydney’s central business district.

It was smart PR: When a city is in a state of terrorized panic, even corporations are expected to display a spirit of selflessness and solidarity. But Uber had no legal or moral obligation to pay for anyone’s ride. The company is quite upfront about its “surge pricing” business model. When demand spikes (during a snowstorm or a mass-transit outage, for instance), an algorithm automatically jacks up rates, which in turn draws more Uber drivers onto the roads, thereby giving everyone faster (albeit more expensive) service.

In other words, surge pricing is just microeconomics at the simplest undergraduate level. And the system works beautifully—which is why, in the space of a few years, Uber and other ride-share companies have made the old-school model of a fixed pool of city-registered taxis charging set rates seem absurdly obsolete. The problem for Uber is cultural acceptance of this massive change to an established industry. As the Sydney example illustrates, many of us simply haven’t yet been conditioned to accept the laws of supply and demand being applied in such an up-close-and-personal way.

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Stand-up Guy

Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois talks about winning the Governor General’s Literary Award for French-language non-fiction

Published on December 16, 2014
Photograph by Ben Powless
Ben Powless Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, author of Tenir Tête.

During the 2012 Quebec student strike, which grew into a wider range of anti-austerity protests generally known as the Maple Spring, student leaders frequently complained that their voices were being shut out of media reporting and political discourse. The only narrative to which the public had easy access, they said, was the provincial government’s talking points about necessary austerity measures, often repeated as fact by much of the French and English media.

For that reason, the recent choice by the jury of the Governor General’s Literary Awards to give this year’s award for French-language non-fiction to Tenir Tête—a blow-by-blow memoir of that spring of protest penned by student leader Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois—came as a vindication for many.

“One of the main reasons I decided to write the book was when the movement ended, I was happy,” Nadeau-Dubois says, “but I was kind of frustrated that, travelling around Quebec, I realized how much the media’s story that was told about the movement was so different from what I saw in the street and in the general assemblies.”

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Canada’s First Scapegoat

The movement to cast John A. Macdonald as nothing more than a racist, colonialist, drunk is an insult to our history

Published on December 16, 2014
Phrenological Chart of the Head of the Country (Sir John A. Macdonald)/Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. 1937-455
Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. 1937-455 Unknown artist, Phrenological Chart of the Head of the Country (Sir John A. Macdonald), 1887.

Stephen Marche’s article about our first prime minister (“Old Macdonald,” January/February) may impress some readers with its sweeping, condemnatory tone. But look behind the attention-getting claims—the display copy tells us “Sir John A. was a racist, a colonialist, and a drunk”—and one finds gaping holes in Marche’s interpretation of Canadian history.

Marche’s first salvo is a yawn: Macdonald was “corrupt.” True—but so were almost all politicians in that era. Macdonald certainly was “a drunk,” too. So as not to spoil the story, though, Marche doesn’t add that Macdonald quit the bottle, an excruciatingly difficult accomplishment even today.

Then Marche gets nasty. Macdonald, he tells us, was a “racist” who implemented policies toward Aboriginal peoples that were “genocidal.” In fact, he argues that Macdonald irrevocably damaged not just First Nations, but the fabric of our entire country: “Our national vision is so compromised, so utterly lacking in any idea . . . that the mess our first prime minister left behind has spiralled into a series of crises that may never be resolved.” Among those crises, he cites “the spectre of Quebec separatism,” and concludes, “[Macdonald] was the father of the country, sure. But he was the father of the country we don’t want to be.”

Poor little us, so helpless before this devious, cynical, power-mad leader.

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Happy Ending

An interview with Michael Harris, winner of the 2014 Governor General’s Literary Award for non-fiction

Published on December 15, 2014
Author photograph by Hudson Hayden; book jacket courtesy HarperCollins Canada
Author photograph by Hudson Hayden; book jacket courtesy HarperCollins Canada Author Michael Harris; The End of Absence.

Hadani Ditmars: Tell me about the process of writing this book, The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection. How inspired were you by fellow Vancouver scribe Douglas Coupland, who wrote in his biography of McLuhan and in one of his novels about a future world where people speak in “text” language that eventually devolves into caveman-like gestural gibberish?

Michael Harris: I was certainly inspired by Coupland, McLuhan, Neil Postman, and Alberto Manguel, but also by Elizabeth Eisenstein. She came after McLuhan and cleaned everything up. He had the crazy ideas and she did the work. She was the one who wrote about the printing press as an agent of change.

The Walrus was actually part of the book’s genesis, via an assignment to write about gay hook-up culture. There is something fundamental that disappears when we have instant access. Eros demands distance: you cannot desire that which you have. This idea of solitude being dismantled by our technologies was eventually incorporated into the book.

The book was stupidly ambitious. I didn’t know what I was doing. I just kept on talking with geniuses trying to download their brains. The book works because it synthesizes smart people’s ideas by running them through my personal experience.

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Waterboarding’s Right-Wing Enablers

In the wake of this week's scathing Senate report, American conservatives need to ask: How did torture apologism become part of their creed?

Published on December 12, 2014
Photograph courtesy of Commonwealth Club
Commonwealth Club John Yoo, America’s most prominent torture apologist, photographed in 2012.

This week, the world is digesting the contents of a scathing United States Senate report on the Central Intelligence Agency’s post-9/11 torture of detainees—a catalogue of practices that includes waterboarding, ice baths, imprisonment in tightly enclosed spaces, and something called “rectal feeding.”

But University of California, Berkeley, law professor John Yoo—who since 9/11 has ranked as America’s most prominent torture apologist—would prefer to shoot the messenger. In a New York Daily News op-ed, the conservative legal scholar argued that the Senate report “marks a new low in congressional oversight of intelligence,” and “risks undermining the ability of [US] intelligence agencies to protect the nation at a time when threats abroad are rising.”

This reaction is somewhat predictable. As Deputy Assistant US Attorney General in the Office of Legal Counsel under George W. Bush, Yoo drafted the original memoranda that provided ostensible legal justification for practices now widely regarded as torture. These included not only waterboarding, but also more exotic techniques: “You would like to place [al Qaeda terrorist Abu] Zubaydah in a cramped confinement box with an insect,” reads one of the top-secret briefs. “You have informed us that he appears to have a fear of insects. In particular, you would like to tell Zubaydah that you intend to place a stinging insect into the box with him. You would, however, place a harmless insect such as a caterpillar in the box with him.” (The upshot? Sounds kosher. Go right ahead.)

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Loving Thy Neighbour in a Secular Age

Religious Canadians give more to charity than their atheistic counterparts. How do we sustain a culture of philanthropy after God has left the building?

Published on December 9, 2014
Video still from The Walrus Talks PhilanthropyTom Jackson at The Walrus Talks Philanthropy.

Last month, at the Beth Torah synagogue in Toronto, I attended a fundraising dinner to benefit the Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem. This was a Canadian event: None of the guests in attendance are likely ever to require treatment at Shaare Zedek or any other Israeli health facility. Yet they opened their chequebooks anyway. In that single evening, the organizers managed to raise half a million dollars for a hospital operated by their co-religionists more than 9,000 kilometres away.

And even that sum is just a small part of the massive annual charitable fundraising juggernaut that takes place within the city’s Jewish community. The UJA Federation of Greater Toronto alone raises more than $60 million annually in order “to encourage and support Jewish education, Jewish community and to strengthen the quality of Jewish life.”

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Kevin McKenzie: Canadian Zombie

Published on December 3, 2014
Artwork by Gary Clement
Letters from Ferguson

On the March

The NAACP mobilizes to carry outrage over Michael Brown’s killing from the streets of Ferguson to the Missouri governor’s mansion

Published on December 1, 2014
Photography by Desmond Cole
Photography by Desmond Cole The memorial to Michael Brown in the middle of Ferguson’s Canfield Drive.

It’s midday on a bright and unseasonably warm Saturday at Washington Metropolitan A.M.E. Zion Church in St. Louis. Local and national leaders and members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) are gathering for a special service. Afterwards, they will embark on a seven-day, nearly 200-kilometre march from Ferguson to Missouri’s capital, Jefferson City, where they will demand justice and reform in the name of slain teenager Michael Brown.

The group plans to depart from Ferguson’s Canfield Drive, where Brown was killed by police officer Darren Wilson on August 9. Last Monday’s grand jury decision not to lay criminal charges against Wilson has spurred peaceful protests across the United States (and in major Canadian cities), as well as incidents of vandalism and looting in and around Ferguson.

And now the NAACP is mobilizing significant resources for the cause. “This is a part of a process of not only healing, but of change, and change will come, I guarantee that,” Adolphus Pruitt, president of the organization’s St. Louis County chapter, tells me just before the service begins. When the marchers reach Jefferson City, they plan to make two demands of governor Jay Nixon: first, to remove Ferguson police chief Thomas Jackson; second, to strengthen state laws against racial profiling.

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Letters from Ferguson

Some Holiday

Ongoing protests about the killing of Michael Brown make for a surreal celebration of US Thanksgiving

Published on November 28, 2014
Photograph by Desmond Cole
Photography by Desmond Cole Cathy “Mama Cat” Daniels, centre, serves up Thanksgiving dinner at St Luke A.M.E. Church.

On US Thanksgiving, a man I met on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri calls to invite me to a small church in nearby St. Louis. I am about to experience home cooking for 100 people, meet a troupe of singing activists from New York City, and observe a night of direct action that will disrupt Black Friday shoppers at four big box stores.

I arrive at St. Luke A.M.E. Church, a small building about ten kilometres south of Ferguson, as the sun is setting and the cool air is beginning to bite. The front door is locked and the chapel lights are off, but a tall, bearded fellow appears from the side of the building and greets me. This man, who calls himself Outlaw, chats me up about policing in the area. “You hungry? ” he offers. “We’ve got plenty to eat downstairs.”

The church basement contains several round tables. I find about fifteen people there, some already dining on turkey, potatoes, cornbread, and string beans. Three boys in matching striped shirts and close haircuts play Uno, Hide and Seek, and I Spy in rapid succession. As others arrive, I notice that everyone seems to be greeting a short, bespectacled black woman in a white chef’s coat. She introduces herself to me as Mama Cat.

Cathy “Mama Cat” Daniels, I soon learn, has been organizing meals like this for months. Her aim is to nourish, comfort, and strengthen those who are rallying against the August 9 police shooting of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown. Earlier this week, a grand jury’s decision not to indict Brown’s killer, Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson, provoked new protests, riots, and the subsequent deployment of National Guard troops into the area.

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Letters from Ferguson

Down Under Ferguson

Thirty kilometres south of the scene of Michael Brown’s shooting, divided opinions about guns, policing, and racism

Published on November 27, 2014
Photograph by Desmond Cole
Desmond Cole A military vehicle rolls through a plaza in Sappington, Missouri, about thirty kilometres south of Ferguson.

“Hey, whatcha doing? ”

The voice comes from the driver’s seat of a dark SUV in a shopping plaza in Sappington, a satellite community of about 8,000 residents located thirty kilometres south of downtown Ferguson, Missouri. Tim and Betsy, locals who have just purchased a kitten from the plaza’s pet shop, saw me photographing a boarded-up shoe store and have stopped to chat.

“They just boarded up probably to be cautious,” Tim says. He and Betsy live about ten kilometres from Ferguson; Tim says they heard gunfire during Monday night’s protests and riots, after a grand jury announced its decision not to indict police officer Darren Wilson, who shot and killed eighteen-year-old Michael Brown in August.

Tim has sympathy for Sappington’s store keepers. Even this far from Ferguson, he believes, they have every reason to fear property destruction. “The verdict didn’t come to what [some people] wanted. They’re trying to force a change, and that’s not how it works,” he says, speaking of those who have been disappointed and angered by the non-indictment.

“Fifty people can peacefully protest, and it takes one ignorant person to cause chaos,” he continues, as Betsy quietly nods along. As for Wilson’s decision to shoot Brown multiple times, Tim believes the officer acted appropriately: “I think the man did his job; he did everything he was supposed to do.”

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