Monthly Archives: February 2012

Vancouver Sun – kind of a crappy paper.

A headline in the Vancouver Sun caught my eye today: “Canada More Right-leaning than Before: Poll.” I read further. Turns out, this was a fairly misleading headline; there is no indication that Canada is actually more right leaning than before, as the title suggests. The poll actually asked respondents if they thought Canada was more right leaning than before, and the majority of people said that yes, they thought that was the case. So the headline should really read “Canadians Believe Canada More Right-leaning than Before.” Considering that Canada has one of the most right wing governments we’ve had in a long time, it’s not surprising that the majority of Canadians would presume that Canada is more right leaning. They’re thinking, “hey, Harper must have got in somehow.”

For what it’s worth, in the wake of the economic crisis and such, I think it’s probably true that Canada has become a bit more right-leaning. But this article was both misleading and not very informative; a bad combination, and one I’ve come to expect from the Vancouver sun. Still hoping my dad will switch his subscription at least to the Globe and Mail.

The Shock Doctrine

I am in the midst of reading Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine and damn, is it eye-opening. I’m not very far in yet – only about 100 pages – but if you have any interest in international politics and economics it’s a must read. The book is essentially an expose on disaster capitalism – what Klein defines as “orchestrated raids on the public sphere in the wake of catastrophic events, combined with the treatment of disasters as exciting market opportunities.”

The book is both disturbing and fascinating; it describes how American politicians and economists (beginning in the ’50s and ’60s, continuing til the Bush administration of the millennium) have used the “shock” of disasters to strategically restructure economies in the interest of big businesses. This is the first “shock,” to be followed by a series of other economic reforms; the next set of “shocks” (hence the title of the book: The Shock Doctrine). So far in 100 pages, the book has discussed economic restructuring in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, political restructuring in the wake of 9/11, and the USA’s role in various Latin American coups (most notably in Chile).

I would like to insert a bit of shameless advertising – though I swear this is not my reason for posting about this book. My reason for posting this book is because I’ve been stressed recently, and when I become stressed I become apathetic, and this book is a veritable cure for apathy. BUT: Naomi Klein is coming to UBC on March 8 (actually funding hasn’t been entirely confirmed yet but shhh pretty sure this is going to happen) and the UBC project that I work for (terry.ubc.ca) is organizing her talk. Also, it’s free for UBC students. So read this book, come listen to Klein speak, and be inspired.

First Draft

Click this to see my roughdraft. It’s very rough. It’s far too long, formatted poorly, and I only have one table… I need a graphing tutorial. But it’s a start!

Trip Advisor vs. Expedia

Trip Advisor and Expedia are probably the two most commonly used Travel sites in North America for hotel reviews and bookings. I have no data to support that, but I believe it’s true. I’m more of a Trip Advisor girl myself, but I’ve been known to dabble on Expedia from time to time… There are lots of things both sites are good for – touristy activities as well as transportation bookings etc., but I am just going to discuss the ways that the two respectively rate hotels.

Trip Advisor ratings are very reliable because it’s a widely used site, thus the sample size is large. Often well over 1000 people will write reviews. Reviewers are given 6 categories, each with a maximum rating of 5 stars. The categories are: Value, Location, Sleep quality, Rooms, Cleanliness, and Service. The one category that I find a bit dubious is “Sleep quality” – it is questionable to what extent a guest’s quality of sleep can actually be attributed to the hotel. They also provide an overall rating out of 5 stars. Additionally, Trip Advisor provides a break down of how many travelers rated the hotel “terrible,” “poor,” “average,” “very good,” and “excellent,” so that the viewer can get an idea of the distribution of votes. Trip advisor then provides a ranking, to show viewers where the hotel stands in relation to other hotels in the area.

Alternately, Expedia seems to have a substantially smaller number of people reviewing hotels. Personally, I have always used Expedia exclusively for booking flights, so that may be why. I compared a few hotels between Trip Advisor and Expedia, and where Trip Advisor would often have something in the neighbourhood of 1500 reviewers, Expedia would often have closer to 50. That said, the ratings are more or less equivocal between the two sites, so perhaps Expedia’s small sample size isn’t a huge issue for accuracy. Expedia also provides 6 categories, also with a maximum rating of 5 stars. The categories are: Hotel service, Hotel condition, Room cleanliness, Room comfort, Location, and Neighbourhood. I think the Trip Advisor categories are a bit better – notably, I do not think that “Location” and “Neighbourhood” should constitute two different categories. Additionally, I think that the “value” Trip Advisor category is informative – it’s good to know if you get what you pay for. Unlike Trip Advisor, reviewers may review something to one decimal, so reviews like “4.8” are possible. This may account for more accuracy. Expedia also provides a percentage of how many reviewers recommend the hotel (“98% of reviewers recommend this!”) but it is not clear how that percentage is calculated. What score does a reviewer need to give for their review to count as a “recommendation”?

One key difference between the two sites is that while Expedia presents only the average ratings for their 6 categories (and the total rating), Trip Advisor does not provide averages for the 6 categories at all. Instead, you can see the breakdown of each individual’s review score – ie. you can see how person A rated the sleep quality, value, etc. The only average presented is the overall hotel score. Expedia also does not provide a contextual ranking for the hotel, which I believe is a strength of Trip Advisor.

Overall, if you’re looking for a hotel review site, I say go with Trip Advisor. The scoring categories are reasonable, the sample size is large, I like that they provide an overall ranking, and I prefer their breakdown of the distribution of votes to Expedia’s % of recommendation.

Coup D’etat in the Maldives

I  just read an article in the New York Times that blew me away.  On February 7 – 2 days ago – the first democratically elected president of the Maldives, Mohamed Nasheed, was forced to resign. On February 8, he wrote this article for the New York Times.

First of all – it’s got to be said – way to go New York Times! They definitely got the scoop of the week. The first democratically elected president in the Maldives is ousted in what was probably a coup d’etat and a day later, they get HIM to write about it. How do these things happen? I was SO impressed when I saw his name at the bottom of the article. Other media sources are reporting on this issue in a slightly more balanced way – see this BBC article. The BBC piece explains that a warrant is now out for Nasheed’s arrest, suggests that the reality of the situation is currently uncertain, and mentions that a coup d’etat is suspected. After reading the NYT piece, I wanted none of that diplomatic bs.

Secondly – I may just be a bleeding heart, but after reading this article, I’m left with the impression that Nasheed is a pretty amazing person caught up in an unfathomable mess. (Here‘s a quick 8 min video giving a bit of a run-down on him.) He explains that he inherited a regime caught between the throes of authoritarianism and Islamic extremism, and the fact that he was even willing to assume responsibility for such a conflicted state seems a small miracle. Nasheed describes his resignation as “a dramatic turn of events;” the way he makes it sound, this was a straight-up mutiny. Nasheed woke up on Tuesday to a spontaneous protest and a gun in his face, and was informed that his resignation was required. There is currently a warrant out for his arrest. The reason for the warrant has not been specified. The counter-protest that he lead the following day (with thousands of supporters) was broadcasted as “an act of terrorism.”

Notably, Nasheed emphasizes the extent to which the lingering autocratic judiciary undermined his regime. He states,  “[I had] a judiciary handpicked by the former president, which was now hiding behind a democratic constitution.” This judiciary worked against him at every turn. This was interesting to me in light of the democratic measures we have been studying in class. The judiciary is a separate branch of government, and often not an elected body, so presumably, by many measures a country with a corrupt judiciary could still be a functioning democracy. However, Nasheed cites this judicial problem as a factor that directly contributed to the decline of Moldivian democracy. When measuring democracy, how do we account for incongruences such as a democratic, constitutional state that is undermined (though not controlled) by a corrupt judiciary?

I highly recommend reading the NYT article. It is so gripping because it is a first hand account of a man who caught got in an (inevitable?) cross-fire when he tried to facilitate his country’s transition from autocracy to democracy. This article, and my subsequent research on the coup, has put into perspective the enormous struggles that countries may face in their transition to a democratic system. Nasheed ends his piece with this paragraph:

“The problems we are facing in the Maldives are a warning for other Muslim nations undergoing democratic reform. At times, dealing with the corrupt system of patronage the former regime left behind can feel like wrestling with a Hydra: when you remove one head, two more grow back. With patience and determination, the beast can be slain. But let the Maldives be a lesson for aspiring democrats everywhere: the dictator can be removed in a day, but it can take years to stamp out the lingering remnants of his dictatorship.”

This is chillingly true, and exceptionally relevant in light of the regime upheavals throughout the Middle East. Can we expect similar upheavals from the emerging fragile democracies in that region? At the risk of undermining real-life struggles for the sake of my intellectual growth: this really is an incredible point in time to be a political science student studying democracy.

 

Region Choice

I am going to do the Middle East for my paper – both because it’s an interesting region in terms of democratic transition, and because I have personal interest in the region.

Sarkozy: Not All Civilizations are Equal

French President Nicolas Sarkozy recently said that in his view, not all civilizations are equal… and people got mad. Essentially, Sarkozy was accused of being a narrow-minded conservative xenophobe (and maybe he is). Claude Guaent, the French Interior Minister, had this to say in support of Sarkozy (click here to read the full article from Al-Jazeera):

“Contrary to what the left’s relativist ideology says, for us all civilizations are not of equal value… Those which defend liberty, equality and fraternity, seem to us superior to those which accept tyranny, the subservience of women, social and ethnic hatred.”

I think it’s pretty interesting that everyone got so upset about this. Sarkozy and Guaent may both be conservative bigots, or maybe they aren’t, but that’s sort of beside the point. It’s no secret: in the West, we love liberal democracy. We love liberal values. We think they’re great. In fact, most of us probably do think that they are “better” than tyrannical persecution. For example, In Pol333, we are looking at different criteria for measuring democracy. These measurements classify certain types of regimes as more democratic than others, and the implicit, underlying notion is that a more democratic regime is a better regime. It seems obvious to me. Regimes are structured differently based on different beliefs and different values; the obvious implication is that regimes favour certain beliefs and values over others. So Sarkozy came out and said it… so what?

 

The Internet & Democracy

Brian Fox of The Huffington Post asserts, “the best way to protect and even promote democracy is to protect the freedom of the internet.” He writes in response to SOPA, the so-called anti-piracy act that has recently been getting so much attention. However, his concern isn’t simply SOPA and the US government crackdown on major free upload sites such as megaupload (bye bye megavideo… :'( ). He also talks about that wildly controversial subject: filter bubbles. In a nutshell, filter bubbles are designed to personalize the information that you receive. What this means is that if I type “Egypt” into google, I may come up with very different results than someone else who types “Egypt” into google. This is marketed as a good thing. It is personalized and efficient. However, there has been increasing condemnation of filter bubbles and similar algorithms by those who make their living in the expanding realm of social media. Here‘s a great TED Talk on this very subject.

There’s been lots of buzz about the internet as a tool of democracy. Especially in light of the Arab Spring, pundits debate the extent of the role that social media sites such as twitter and facebook have played in facilitating social uprising. The internet, as a vast, international, minimally-regulated forum for discussion and debate has obvious utility for activist mobilization. In this way, many have argued that the internet has become a valuable tool of democracy. But now, some maintain that our view of the internet has been excessively rosy. The internet isn’t the lovely, un-regulated knowledge source that many believe it to be. Your internet – google, facebook, etc. –  has now taken it upon itself to make choices for you. It was Herbert Marcuse who suggested that modern liberal democracies are enslaving us by providing us with so many choices that we forget that our array of choices is pre-determined. I’m so excited that I get to choose from an apple, a banana, and an orange, that I doesn’t consider the possibility of having a pear. Is this what the internet has become? A new form of social control, masquerading as a soldier of democracy? A cyber world of artificial choices?

I leave you with this  thought: does it make sense for the internet to be the most important tool in democracy promotion and protection (as asserted by Fox), when democracy has survived for thousands of years without it? Or has the world evolved to such an extent that democracy – as a global phenomenon – can be significantly undermined by a sneakily controlled cyber space?

 

Astroturfing

Courtesy of Wikipedia:

Astroturfing is a form of advocacy in support of a political, organizational, or corporate agenda, designed to give the appearance of a “grassroots” movement. The goal of such campaigns is to disguise the efforts of a political or commercial entity as an independent public reaction to some political entity—a politician, political group, product, service or event. The term is a derivation of AstroTurf, a brand of synthetic carpeting designed to look like natural grass.

(these are actually astroturf coasters... classy)

Now let’s compare this to a term most of us are probably more familiar with:

grassroots movement (often referenced in the context of a political movement) is one driven by the politics of a community. The term implies that the creation of the movement and the group supporting it are natural and spontaneous, highlighting the differences between this and a movement that is orchestrated by traditional power structures. Grassroots movements are often at the local level, as many volunteers in the community give their time to support the local party, which can lead to helping the national party. For instance, a grassroots movement can lead to significant voter registration for a political party, which in turn helps the state and national parties.

Alright, so here’s my question. The Tea Party – Grassroots, or Astroturfing?

“What is democracy, anyway?”

Ah, the highly contested question. It’s a question we hear a lot. Not just in political science circles, but constantly, in various settings. That’s because the answer to this question has very real implications. It’s not simply something for dusty scholars to theorize about; the answer to this question influences the global community, domestic policy, and everyday life on a very basic level. Unfortunately, it is shaping up to be just another unanswerable question. Something akin to “what is the meaning of life?” or “what is love?” Do we ask these questions with the belief that there is a holy grail of truth, waiting to be discovered? Some colossal, absolute truth, that will shed some light on the chaos of life? Because if we don’t believe this, how can we ask such questions, and truly expect an answer?

That said, it is not suffice to claim, “what is democracy? It’s all relative.” It is relative, but that simply is not a very useful response. It’s a scary question, and no one likes to be wrong, so when it comes to the relative, it’s hard to assert yourself. I’m not sure what democracy is. But if I was asked at a dinner party, “what is democracy?” this is what I would say it means to me:

Discclaimer: I am not even attempting to sum up my definition of democracy in one, precise thesis statement.

Democracy is a political system in which an elected government is accountable to it’s electorate. The weaker/less legitimate this accountability, the less effective the democracy. The values of the political community should impact the actions and policies of it’s government, and there must be an effective mechanism in place to ensure a governing individual/body can be replaced if it/he/she is not fulfilling the community’s desires. There must be a degree of uncertainty; the knowledge that the social contract must be upheld and can be broken at any time. Democracy requires competition and free and fair elections, and those human rights that ensure the legitimacy of the electoral process must be enshrined by the state, eg. freedom of speech, freedom of association, universal suffrage, etc.

Contrary to what many Western countries espouse, a democracy need not abide by liberal values to be legitimate. It does not need to allow for gay marriages, or abortion rights, or religious tolerance. The extent to which the state may interfere in the private sphere is a matter for individual political communities to decide for themselves.

I often ask myself  how a democracy can avoid becoming a tyranny of the majority. I’m really uncertain of the answer. This is where the benefits of a liberal democracy become clear – unless minority rights are protected, they can easily be exploited in a democracy. However, even a tyranny of a majority is better than a tyranny of the minority… I think.