Category Archives: Mini Assignments

The Zuma Case

Initial Thoughts

How could the decision to re-open Zuma’s corruption case in any way be construed as un-democratic?

Quote from the Mail & Guardian: “‘It is clear that democracy can be undermined by simply approaching courts to reverse any decision arrived at by a qualified organ of state,’ spokesperson Jackson Mthembu said on Tuesday.”

So what Mthembu is saying is that it would be more democratic if “qualified organs of state” could not ever be over-ruled by other “qualified organs of state”? This is a logical fallacy if I’ve ever heard one. The statement doesn’t even make sense. It’s hardly a violation of democracy when a previously binding decision is over-ruled. In fact, that’s why democracies have a separation of powers: nothing should be absolute or completely invulnerable to change. Even constitutions can be amended. The term “constitutional democracy” isn’t entirely accurate if the judiciary is separate. However, if the judiciary isn’t separate, democracy will be compromised and the law may become stagnant and archaic.

According to the Times Live:

“Zuma has throughout questioned the DA’s motives, arguing that the case involved more than his personal financial affairs and could be a national embarrassment. He said that, if the DA were successful, sensitive and confidential NPA data about other people would also be exposed. Zuma asked the court to dismiss the DA’s application, saying that if it did not, not only would his image be tarnished, but so would that of South Africa and the NPA.”

… Is he joking? Because “embarrassment” isn’t really valid ground on which to claim that a corruption case should not be re-examined.

Further Reflections

Upon doing a bit more research and reading my classmates’ blogs, I still feel the same. I don’t even see how re-opening the case could be construed as un-democratic. Even if the opposition is politically motivated and wishes the case to be re-opened because it will reflect badly upon Zuma, this doesn’t make it non-democratic. All I see here is a non-sequitur. “It will gravely embarrass the President, therefore it is undemocratic.” “It is in the opposition’s best interest for the case to be re-examined, therefore it is undemocratic.” Huh??

Digital Democracy: Online Voting

Voter turnout in Canada is a problem. If we could vote online, it is possible that we will see a significant spike in voter turn out. Introducing a cyber ballot would make voting more convenient and more appealing. However, is it possible? The UK Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology outlines a few key aspects of the voting process: voter registration, voter authentication, obtaining the ballot, marking the ballot, delivering the ballot to the ballot box, and counting the votes. Could these key processes be replicated by a computer?

The greatest issue would probably be with voter authentication. Turning voting into an online process raises substantial security questions. Even if the process required an array of security measures and identification, it would be easier to sell your vote, etc. Without supervision, the integrity of the democratic process could be compromised. Additionally, there is the problem of internet hackers – if the whole process was online, a cyber whiz could change the outcome of an election.

I would argue that online voting is better in theory than in practice. Even arguments about accessibility are flawed, if not classist – we need to re-think that premise that everyone has a computer (only 35% of Brits have home internet access!).  This idea that the internet will revolutionize democracy is really a bourgeois claim, because it will only revolutionize democracy for those with access to the technology.  Potentially unavoidable security issues aside, I think this is the biggest problem: by giving those with access to technology better access to the political system we would likely create an inherent and unequal imbalance. We would see an increase in voters from a higher income bracket, which could easily impact election results. In this way, internet voting could contribute to the gap between the rich and the poor. Until access to technology is more widespread, we should remain careful about placing administrative duties in the hands of computers. Especially if that administrative duty contributes to the integrity of democracy. Too much emphasis on technological avenues may result in unintended marginalization.


I’m polishing my post on “astroturfing vs. grassroots activism” because I think it had the potential to be a good post but my contrast fell flat. There wasn’t enough critical analysis or engagement with the terms, and that may be because it was a bit of a rush job. I mainly relied upon wikipedia, and my only useful contribution was the comparison of the terms and the accompanying photos. Here’s a re-do with some additional commentary.

Says 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.

Says I:

It’s interesting how words make such a difference. Since being introduced to the term “astroturfing”, I’ve been more aware of the phenomenon itself, though all that has changed is my knowledge of the label. I’ve always been skeptical of corporate or commercial agendas. But since the introduction of this term into my vocabulary, I more consciously ask myself: “grassroots movement or astroturfing opportunity?” In light of this, it is interesting to consider Invisible Children. Though IC claims to support a good cause, it is noticeably not a non-profit organization. Hmm. Do ulterior motives, even if they are secondary motives, automatically transform a grassroots organization into an astroturfing group?

These are astroturf coasters. Classy.

Says Wikipedia:

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.

Says I:

Canadian politics is in desperate need of more grassroots activism. If we saw an increase in grassroots movements, we may see a decrease in voter apathy. The Climate Change debate does, however, seem to be ushering in a new era of grassroots activism in BC… at least hopefully. For my part, I’ll be going to Storm the Riding on Saturday to pressure premier Christie Clark & the provincial government into taking more responsibility for BC carbon exports.

Alright, so here’s a question: The Tea Party – Grassroots or Astroturfing movement?

Bloggin’ on Kony

Two main things I look for in a good blog post: interesting critique and accessible layout. I want to be enlightened, but efficiently. Kony’s the hot topic right now, so I took a look at how two different blogs represented the Invisible Children campaign.

First I look at Salon, a prominent political blog. Their Kony blog post was called “How to Catch Joseph Kony“, and it was pretty lack luster. There was almost no critical engagement whatsoever. The post used the same techniques as the Invisible Children campaign: restated some unthinkable atrocities, featured an angry photo of Joseph Kony, discussed how difficult Kony will prove to catch. Though the post did provide some interesting background info, what I am looking for from a blogger is an opinion. The only engagement with the campaign was reflected in the blogger’s assertion that even with widespread support for the Invisible Children Campaign, catching Kony isn’t quite as simple as just spreading awareness. The post was laid out sort of haphazardly, similarly to a small essay rather than a short, snappy blog post. Overall… shmeh.

The second blog I read is lesser known, it’s called Unmuted: digital rumblings of a passionate heart. This post was much more compelling. The blog post was entitled, “You Don’t Have My Vote”, which already promises some critique and engagement. The blogger had a bone to pick with the Invisible Children campaign, and the post was parsimonious and blunt. Her various arguments were presented as bold typeface subheadings, and it would have been easy to just scan the post and leave with some sense of what the author was trying to communicate. The author presents her argument boldly, her post is easy to navigate through, and her points of emphasis are clear. Thumbs up.

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.

“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.

Occupy Wall Street’s “Leaderless, Consensus-based Participatory Democracy”

I love The Economist. Though slightly dated (Oct 2011), this article “Leaderless, consensus-based participatory democracy and it’s discontents” brings up an interesting point. The article is about the political organization of Occupy Wall Street, and it commends OWS for practicing what it preaches. It advocates for democratic reform, and it exemplifies the system for which it advocates. This type of democracy sounds like the direct democracy experienced in the Greek polis. It is ideal because it offers perhaps the purest manifestation of total enfranchisement. This is, at a glance, a very meaningful “subtype” of democracy. The adjectives (“leaderless, consensus-based, participatory”) in no way undermine a democratic system. Yet the author of this article explains that this system could only work in a small political community of like-minded individuals, and the criticisms of this type of democracy are as follows:

- this type of democracy cannot deal with “the ineradicable diversity of moral belief and the impossibility of consensus.” The author explains that communes that rely on complete participation and consensus operate because those who have beliefs contrary to that of the commune stay away. Furthermore…

- “the ideological homogeneity of self-selection may make deliberation tend towards extremism.” This is based on research that shows that when like-minded people interact continuously without much exposure to competing views, extremism is much more likely.

- “communal egalitarian living” often results in “heavy communal pressure to maintain the conformity of belief”, and thus this system can “point in the direction of radical decentralization and hyper-local control.”

It’s not news to me (nor would it be to any other poly sci student) that participatory democracy doesn’t work in a large, diverse, political entity. That’s okay. A democracy that only works in small communities of like-minded people is, technically, still a democracy. I think the question here, is how democratic is a system that fosters heavy pressure to maintain a certain ideology? Is this any different than liberal democracy – a system in which liberal values are firmly entrenched and marketed as absolute and morally necessary?

This article explains that though “leaderless, consensus-based participatory democracy” sounds like an ideal, it is nothing more than another dream with a corresponding, imperfect reality. However, maybe the truth is that this is the face of true democracy – “leaderless, consensus-based, and participatory” are certainly three adjectives I would use to describe the democratic ideal. In this case, maybe “true democracy” can only function in small, homogenous communes. This article’s criticisms of this participatory system reflects the Western sentiment that true democracy does not exist alongside extremism. Could it be that it only exists alongside extremism?



Turkey as an “illiberal democracy”?

The Daily News,  quoting Fareed Zakaria, defines an “illiberal democracy” as “a political system in which free and fair elections take place, but civil liberties are not fully protected and governmental power is not limited with liberal principles. It is a much better model than any dictatorship, but it is far from the blessings of liberal democracy.” This article’s main condemnation of Turkey’s illiberal practices centers around it’s disregard for freedom of speech: there are currently 100 journalists residing in Turkish jails, charged with creating and distributing propaganda against the state.

What I found most interesting about this article was the operative definition of illiberal democracy. I am still in the process of formulating my personal notion of what democracy is, but I don’t believe a democracy necessarily needs to include Western liberal priorities. However, I do believe that “free and fair elections” are a necessary component of any democracy, and I see that phrase as a very loaded term. I don’t believe that free and fair elections can exist unless governmental power is limited (there must be competition!) and some freedom of expression prevails. As advocated by many scholars of democracy, I believe the deliberative function of democracy is necessary for a successful democratic regime. And this deliberative function cannot successfully operate without the freedom to associate, discuss, disagree, compete, etc.

That said, I would like to reiterate that I do believe the term “illiberal democracy”  is not necessarily a misnomer, nor a devaluation of democracy. Collier and Levitsky present illiberal democracy as an example of a diminished subtype of democracy, but I think the phrase can be valid, and have meaning. However, usually “illiberal democracy” is used to describe a regime in which their is an absence of basic freedoms needed for a political system to function democratically. The example given by Collier and Levitsky is Guatemala. In this case, “illiberal democracy” is an empty phrase, used to describe the existence of elections, but not much else.

There are many rights and freedoms that are enshrined in most Western democracies that are not necessary for the democracy itself to function. For example, the “mobility rights” and “official language rights” in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms are not integral to the functioning of Canadian democracy, but reflect the values of our country.Of course, if the people of a nation are legitimately enfranchised, they will often opt for the codification of such rights. However, hypothetically, if the majority of citizens in state X voted to exclude mobility rights, language rights, and religious rights from their constitution – opting instead for a more conservative and restrictive state – that would be their perogative.

However, the situation in Turkey seems to concern freedom of expression and the lack of limitations on government power. In my mind, this is not an illiberal democracy. It is a fake democracy. Turkey does not need to be secular or espouse the accepted Western liberal values to have a functioning democratic system. But a democracy with a questionable rule of law (the article also mentions Turkey’s corrupt judiciary) is not illiberal – it’s not democratic.


Of interest?

Just a shot in the dark, but I hope this strikes your fancy!

to Tyler Thibault – You say you like food… As do I. There are a lot of things I could post that would be of interest to a fellow foodie… but I chose this article. It’s really more about the spectacle of eating than food itself, but it’s really weird. Which appealed to me.

to Christa Bicego – It’s so cool that you want to be a veterinarian! I too, am an avid animal lover. If you haven’t seen this clip before… it kills me. I watch it when I’m sad. Also –  here is the online version of a really cool National Geographic article a read about animal domestication. They have been domesticating wild foxes in Siberia for generations, and they are starting to act just like dogs! They’re also insanely beautiful. I don’t believe in capturing a wild animal and keeping it as a pet of course, but after generations of domestication, these foxes are pretty pleased to be ‘lap dogs’.

to Jairus Yip – you mentioned that you are an exchange student from Singapore who would like some advice on what to do in Canada/Vancouver. Here are a few of my favourite things…

  • Whole Foods on Cambie st. and W. Broadway: this is an amazing organic food store. That sounds a bit boring, but it’s really not. They have a salad bar, a sandwich bar, a burrito bar, a pizza bar, a smoothie bar…. all fresh and homemade. It’s my favourite place to go for a casual lunch. They also have an incredible assortment of cheeses. It’s a great destination for both oral and visual pleasure.
  • Raw Canvas on Hamilton st. and Nelson (Yaletown): A really fun place to go with friends (or on a date). They have an amazing beer and wine list, and a nice assortment of appetizers… though it’s a bit on the pricey side. Sometimes they have live comedy or music, though the calibre of performance may vary… I don’t recommend the comedy. The back of the bar is an art studio, and you can buy a canvas and some paint and sociably drink and create art! (If you aren’t artistically inclined, you can always focus more on the drinking and attempt to finger paint.)
  • Zulu Records on 4th: Zulu is great because they sell tickets to almost all of the upcoming music shows in Vancouver. You can stop by, browse the records, and see which shows are coming to Vancouver. If you aren’t familiar with any upcoming artists but want to see some good live music, you can always ask for a recommendation :)