Book Reviews

Bart’s Books: Stephen Harper, Episode II

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“On any day, [Harper] has a choice, he can do the big conservative thing that would be the end of his career, or he can do some of the small conservative things that won’t.”

I’ll save you the trouble of reading the rest of this book review – if you like Paul Wells’ writing style, and you liked Right Side Up, then go out and buy “The Longer I’m Prime Minister” now. Because you’re certain to find that book more interesting than the rest of this blog post.

For those of you still with me, it’s best to think of this book as Episode II of the Paul Wells Stephen Harper trilogy (or maybe Episode V, if there are plans for a few boring prequels about life at the National Citizens Coalition). In Right Side Up, we saw the rise of Harper. In The Longer I’m Prime Minister, we get a look at how Harper governs. Time will tell how long we’ll need to wait for the fall of Harper, but this book provides valuable insights into how he has made it this far.

Much of his success has, no doubt, been due to lackluster opponents, on whom Wells is merciless (e.g. “the owlish and intermittently comprehensible Dion”). But Wells shares the opinion, to which I also subscribe, that Harper has been underestimated by too many people for far too long. This isn’t a case of Mr. Magoo stumbling out of trouble – Harper owes his success to meticulous planning and discipline.

Take for example, Harper’s governing style. Wells paints a picture of a leader wanting to avoid the tragic flaws that claimed his predecessors. So after watching Lucien Bouchard and Paul Martin undo successful Prime Ministers, Harper has been careful to ensure no minister’s clout grows to the point where he becomes irreplaceable. After seeing Mulroney slain by Meech and Charlottetown, Harper learned not to chase dragons.

So there’s a method to his monotony. Harper intentionally dulls his speeches so that quotable lines pop. Moreover, by being formless, he becomes harder to hate and easier to project ourselves onto.

Most of this is Wells’ analysis, built by interviews with backroom conservatives. There are few on-the-record quotes and, as a result, no bombshells about the Harper years. We don’t learn a lot about Harper the person – only Harper the Prime Minister. However, the book serves as a nice stroll down memory lane, from Lawrence Cannon’s bafflegab on Quebec as a nation, to Michael Ignatieff putting the Tories on probation, to the case of “Liberal zombie spy” Linda Keen.

This refresher course on the Harper years is enjoyable – and relevant in light of recent the Nigel Wright controversy. Most will remember the Chuck Cadman affair, when Conservative operatives allegedly offered the dying MP a life insurance policy, in exchange for his vote. Even more interesting is the largely forgotten case of Alan Riddell, who was offered $50,000 to step aside in favour of another candidate. Sound familiar?

I’m sure there will be more about Nigel Wright in Epsidosde III but, for now, The Longer I’m Prime Minister provides an enjoyable overviw of the Harper years and sheds some light on why the man we all love to underestimate has been so succesful.

A copy of this book was provided by Random House for review.

Bart’s Books: The Michael Ignatieff Experiment

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“I had made myself into a politician, and I didn’t much like what I was becoming.”

On my Christmas reading list this year was Michael Ignatieff’s latest book, Fire and Ashes, which takes the reader from the moment “the men in black” recruited him to come back to Canada, to his historic defeat on May 2, 2011. So for Michael Ignatieff buffs curious about his adventures overseas or how often Bob Rae did the dishes when they were roommates, you’re out of luck. What the book does offer is a tidy summary of “the Michael Ignatieff experiment“, from the perspective of the test subject.

Because, after reading the book, you really get the sense that’s what Michael Ignatieff’s time in politics was – a large scale ill-fated experiment. Ignatieff admits he was taken aback when three politicos from Canada visited him at Harvard in 2004 and asked him if he’d like to be Prime Minister, calling it “an astonishing proposition”.

As Ignatieff grapples with the decision, we get the first bit of foreshadowing that there’s there’s going to be a lot more about failure than success in this book. While Ignatieff says he admired the way Trudeau (the elder) “knew exactly why he was going into politics and who he was doing it for”, not once does Ignatieff consider what he’d hope to accomplish as Prime Minister. Indeed, the first hint there are even issues Ignatieff cares about doesn’t come until page 64, when he discovers the challenges of life in rural Canada.

Once he decides he wants to be Prime Minister, Ignatieff goes at it full throttle, pushing aside doubts about his own abilities. When beginning his leadership bid in 2006, barely a few weeks into his political career, Ignatieff says he “felt like a trainee skier starting a descent at the top of a black diamond run”. While it’s refreshing to see a politician admit their worries and fears, it says a lot about Ignatieff that he felt he could teach himself how to ski on the way down the hill.

So the book is largely about him learning to slalom at 50 miles an hour. Early on, Michael discovers that quotes can be taken out of context. Then he learns that national unity is kind of a big deal, and that terms like “war crimes” shouldn’t be tossed around cavalierly. In the 2008 election, he learns that voters don’t like new taxes. A year later, he learns that minority governments lead to “permanent campaigns”. His entire political career comes across as a journey of self-discovery, largely explaining why the man never looked completely comfortable doing what he was doing.

It’s not exactly a bombshell revelation that Michael Ignatieff was in over his head, but what I found most interesting about the book was seeing how Ignatieff responded by essentially trying to become a generic cardboard cut-out politician. Consider this excerpt, where he talks about what he “learned” during the 2006 leadership race:

“I had to unlearn being clever, being rhetorical, being fluent, and start appreciating how much depends on making a connection, any connection, with the people listening to you.”

Though I’ve never been a fan, I’ve always felt Michael Ignatieff oozed of potential. He’s intelligent, thoughtful, and, when he’s not spewing out talking points he doesn’t believe in, quite likable. Even charming. However, rather than playing to his strengths as the anti-politician, he set out to turn himself into Bob Rae – without realizing it took Bob Rae god-given talents and a lifetime to hone them, before he become Bob Rae.

I don’t know if the Michael Ignatieff experiment was ever going to be successful, but it wasn’t going to work by turning Ignatieff into a conventional politician.

A copy of this book was provided by Random House for review.

Iggy Returns

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le_timhortonsEverywhere you go these days, there’s Michael Ignatieff. I’ve even seen him walking around Yorkville twice within the past month.

For those who miss seeing Ignatieff’s face on every third commercial, you can read some juicy nuggets from his new book here, an excerpt on how he handled defeat here, and an interview with Aaron Wherry here. I’m not convinced he’ll outsell Harper’s hockey book, but the man can still generate buzz.

Even though Ignatieff is out of the game and has had two years for sober second thoughts, he still comes across as very much the same man he always was. A great writer. A thoughtful intellectual. Politically naive. Honest. Insightful and even brilliant at times. Stubborn at others.

And incredibly frustrating.

Reading through the last round of excerpts and transcripts, it’s clear that Ignatieff refuses to accept any of the blame for what went wrong, though he’s quick to criticize others. In his interview with Aaron Wherry, he says it’s “unbecoming and naive” to complain, then blames the Tory attacks for his undoing. In one breath he claims to take full responsibility for the party’s defeat, with the next he states “I’m not taking the wrap for the party I inherited. I’m just not.”. He says he could have beaten Stephen Harper, but when asked if there’s anything he would have done differently, his only response is that he should have won the leadership in 2006.

So in the end, all signs point to this memoir being vintage Ignatieff. Like Ignatieff’s political career, this book had the potential to be different from standard political memoirs thanks to the author’s unique background and perspective. And while the finished product shows us fleeting glimpses of that potential, it largely conforms into the trite finger pointing you’d expect from any defeated politician.

That was always Ignatieff’s problem. He ran as a regular politician, when he was anything but regular. And he did it against two very talented career politicians. Given that, it should be no surprise Ignatieff’s politicial career ended the way it did – even though he still seems perplexed by the whole experience.

Bart’s Books: Coyne Unscripted

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Deborah Coyne, her daughter, and Justin Trudeau's dad.

Deborah Coyne, her daughter, and Justin Trudeau’s dad.

Despite the ever growing sense that the LPC leadership race is all but over, as a voting member, I still intend to do my due diligence and fully research the candidates before casting my vote. And since Deborah Coyne is on the top half of my ballot at this point, I recently gave her new 85-page e-book a read through.

Contrary to what the newspaper excerpts would suggest, the book is not a check-out line tabloid about Pierre Trudeau (apart from the bombshell that our 15th Prime Minister didn’t trust microwaves). Nor is it a policy-heavy leadership manifesto. Rather, it’s very much a political memoir – albeit one no doubt written with this leadership race fully in mind.

So like all Canadian political memoirs, we get a bit about Coyne’s upbringing, passing mentions of watching hockey as a child, and tales from youthful travels to Soviet Russia. While the memoir touches upon her time with Pierre, and has a few passing mentions of Justin (and Marc Garneau) that will no doubt make readers smile, the body of the book focuses on her work fighting against the Meech Lake Accord. As a someone who believes in a strong central government, that spoke to me – but even Meech supporters would have to give Coyne grudging credit for sticking to her convictions.

Memoirs always cast their subject in the most flattering light possible, and the picture this one paints of Coyne is certainly appealing – a bold and highly driven individual, who has seen the world and had her nose in politics from a young age. In her twenties, she wrote and called the PMO to get herself credentialed for a Summit in Mexico, as part of her thesis research. The girl has spunk and, unlike Lou Grant, I’m a fan of spunk.

Indeed, after reading through the book, I was left with a far more positive impression of Coyne than I had coming in (and not just because she quotes a certain progressive blogger in it). Here’s someone who was fighting for greater grassroots engagement in the Liberal Party 30 years ago. Someone who sees the Liberal Party’s inability to define what it stands for as its largest challenge. Someone who genuinely believes in politics for a purpose.

That’s not to say Coyne has my vote. Although she has seen the political process from many vantage points, she lacks the elected experience and political skills of her more polished opponents. However, Coyne’s book is certainly worth a read for any undecided Liberal supporters – and not just for the Trudeau gossip.

Bart’s Books: Deadly Fall

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After a campaign like that, we can all use a bit of political detox. Me, I’ll be Just Visiting New York for the next week. I’ve got a few blog posts time stamped to go up, so there will be action going on here – just don’t expect a lot of fresh reaction to all the NDP MP gaffes-du-jour.

And if you are looking for a bit of political detox of your own, allow me to suggest purchasing Deadly Falla hot new mystery novel by an author who also happens to be my mom.

Given the obvious bias, I won’t pretend to give an impartial review. I’ll simply say that I loved it, and I’m sure you will too! The novel is set in Calgary, and there is a local (fictional?) politician as one of the suspects, so you might get a kick out of that.

The synopsis is below – be sure to check it out.

Deadly Fall
by Susan Calder
TouchWood Editions March 15, 2011 Hardcover

Paula Savard’s life has stalled. Her lukewarm love life, job as an insurance adjuster and grownup children are more frustrating than exciting. However, she gets more than she asked for when her once best friend, Callie, is murdered while jogging to Paula’s inner-city Calgary home. The police suggest Callie was coming to Paula for help, which is news to Paula since they hadn”t seen each other in ages. Soon, Paula’s suspicions zero in on Callie’s new husband, Sam.

An ill-considered investigation turns personal for Paula when she begins to get close to Sam, but is Sam’s interest a front to trick Paula? Lies begin accumulating. Suddenly, Paula’s not sure who she should protect and who she should fear. As the truth reveals itself, Paula hatches a plan to draw the killer out. The plan’s success would not only allow her to solve the murder, but also give her life a fresh start.

Bart’s Books – Straight From the Heart 2

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After finishing up the Mulroney tome, it was time for another round of prime ministerial memoirs – Jean Chretien’s My Years as Prime Minister. Reading the two back to back means this review will likely feature a lot of comparisons between the books which might not be fair because the two are vastly different.

Mulroney approached his almost as a historical essay on his time in office, going into lengthy detail on most decisions and arguing his case vociferously with as much supporting evidence as he could find. Chretien’s book, meanwhile, is ghostwritten in the same folksy style as Straight from the Heart and you get the sense that he didn’t approach it with the same intensity that Mulroney did. From the start, he’s frank that his book isn’t a weighty account of his time in office since that “should be left to the historians and scholars”. The result is a book that is written at a lower political reading level than Mulroney’s; it’s clearly targeted more to the mainstream population than to political junkies. Elections and “inside baseball” government decisions are glossed over and content is grouped by subject rather than chronologically.

Because of this, My Years as Prime Minister cannot be considered the defining book on the Chretien years – there’s probably more meat in the Eddie Goldeberg, Lawrence Martin, or Susan Delacourt books. Where Chretien’s memoirs excel is by treating the reader to very personal recollections of events like the break in to 24 Sussex, the “Shawinigan handshake”, and non-political conversations with the likes of Bill Clinton, Queen Elizabeth, Tiger Woods, and Fidel Castro. On the downside, major accomplishments of Chretien’s government like Same Sex Marriage recognition or the innovation agenda seem glossed over. Contrary to Peter C. Newman’s review, Chretien does use a considerable amount of ink on the various “gate” scandals that hit his government, although he does dismiss Adscam rather off handedly. It is a shame that the book ends with his resignation as Prime Minister, if only because Chretien recounting his “golf ball” testimony at the Gomery inquiry would have been quite enjoyable.

Chretien admits in the introduction that he couldn’t bring himself to write a “warts and all” recap of those close to him although he is certainly willing to point out the warts on Paul Martin. In his review, Cherniak concludes that Chretien’s jabs are uncalled for because Martin wasn’t planning a putsch. Well, maybe. And, if you’re in the 4% of the population who believe Martin wasn’t organizing against Chretien, you’ll probably find Jean a bit vindictive in this book. But really, he doesn’t dwell on it, he’s a lot nicer than Sheila Copps was, and, with the exception of his Afghanistan jab, you don’t get the sense that Chretien is going out of his way to smear Martin in this book the way Mulroney set out to attack his enemies. Instead, he tries to get his revenge by pushing hard on the story that he wouldn’t have run for a third term if Martin hadn’t been organizing against him – true, or not, (and I have some doubts) it is somewhat fitting to think of Martin’s over ambition as being the cause of his downfall.

Apart from Martin, the only former Cabinet Minister getting a noticeable amount of attention is Stephane Dion, who Chretien says nothing but good things about. This is probably partly to help the party out but you really do get the sense that Dion was his favourite Cabinet Minister. It was Aline Chretien who suggested he bring Dion into politics and the two men worked closely together on the unity file which was near and dear to Chretien’s heart. Like Mulroney, this was probably the issue he felt strongest about, even if his view was vastly different from Brian’s. Reading the two books back to back, it’s amazing just how different their recaps of the constitution repatriation, Meech Lake, and Charlottetown accord were…the two didn’t agree on much except from their disdain for Lucien Bouchard. It was also interesting to hear of Chretien’s frequent behind the scenes discussions with Trudeau on unity topics – although Trudeau appears to have influenced his former Cabinet Minister’s view of federalism, the two did disagree at times on the more pragmatic side of politics.

If you’re looking for a detailed recap of the Chretien years, then there are probably better reference sources. But Chretien has injected so much life into his memoirs that it will certainly make for an enjoyable read, even for those who aren’t huge political buffs. Because of that, I imagine Chretien’s book will find its way into more stockings this Christmas than Mulroney’s (also, it would take a really big stocking to hold Mulroney’s book).

Recommendation: Certainly worth asking Santa for it, even if you only have a passing interest in politics.

For more Chretien goodness, be sure to check out Jean and Rick’s return to Harveys.

A copy of the book was provided by Random House for review

Bart’s Books – Mulroney’s Memoirs

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It’s been interesting reading through Brian Mulroney’s Memoirs over the past two weeks, especially given the whirlwind of controversy that has enveloped him. Although the book is over a thousand pages long, it’s a great source of information and fascinating enough that I could probably have read another couple hundred pages. And even though Mulroney is arrogant, spiteful, and incredibly self-biased throughout the book, I can’t help but feeling a little bit sorry for him over the Schreiber stuff. And that sympathy alone is proof enough that he has injected some personal humanity into the book. In short, Memoirs is one of the best political books I’ve read in years.

Unlike Bill Clinton’s equally lengthy autobiography, Mulroney doesn’t dwell on his childhood and plunges into content that will appeal to politicos within 30 pages. Mulroney’s recap of young Tory events, political conventions, and his early encounters with politicians of the day like Diefenbaker or Paul Martin Sr. are as interesting as the stories from his time as PM. Mulroney also manages to tie early events to later ones by including journal entries from his time as PM throughout the book.

As for the man himself and his record? Mulroney was one of the most successful Prime Ministers on the international scene in Canadian history. He led the charge against apartheid in South Africa, negotiated Acid Rain and Free Trade treaties with the Americans, and certainly appears to have managed G7 politics with finesse – at least by his accounts. Given the amount of ink he uses to recount his many fights with Margaret Thatcher on apartheid, it’s clear that Mulroney regards it as his finest accomplishment as Prime Minister and he certainly deserves full marks for moving Canada into a leadership role internationally on the file.

That’s the good. As you might expect, Mulroney glosses over the black marks on his government. The parade of ministerial resignations is casually ignored and some clever accounting numbers are used to paint his lackluster economic record in a positive light. However, Mulroney does anything but ignore his largest failing – instead, the national unity struggles of the day are centre stage throughout the book.

Mulroney’s university thesis was on Quebec politics and he won the PC leadership on a promise of a Quebec breakthrough. For Mulroney, this was really his raison d’être in politics and, because of that, he considers the end of Meech “a death in the family” that has left him with “a throbbing sense of loss for one of the greatest might-have-beens in Canada’s 140 year history”. It’s truly remarkable just how many references Mulroney makes to Meech throughout the book and how virulent and vindictive he becomes when discussing the deal which was “suffocated in a cruel act of political infanticide by the premier of Newfoundland.” That’s just one of at least 20 or 30 pejorative references to Clyde Wells throughout the book. And Wells got off easy compared to the man who haunts Mulroney still.

When Memoirs was first launched, there was a big brouhaha over its attacks on Trudeau. Mulroney is a vicious critic of the 1982 constitutional repatriation in the book and takes every opportunity to belittle Trudeau and his accomplishments. The weird thing is, the journal entries pre-1987 where Trudeau is mentioned are mostly positive – it’s clear that Mulroney can’t forgive Trudeau for having the audacity to speak out against a constitutional deal that P.E.T. (and many Canadians) clearly could not accept on an intellectual level. Just as it was Trudeau’s right to attack Meech, Mulroney certainly has the right to fight back in his memoirs but he loses all credibility when he resorts to ad hominen attacks, trying to discredit Trudeau because he didn’t serve in the military 40 years before the Meech affair (and, in that sentence, the “he didn’t serve in the military” refers to Trudeau, although it should could just as easily apply to Brian). It appears Mulroney himself would agree with my assessment in a deliciously ironic passage, just 12 pages after his attack on Trudeau’s military record:

I may well be wrong, but I think [Trudeau] mitigated whatever value his arguments might otherwise command by such a violent and vicious diatribe against so many people –living and dead – that he appears unhinged.

But these are just the sort of fun contradictions that make the book an enjoyable read, even for Liberals. How can you do anything but chuckle when Mulroney attacks the Liberals for their free trade flip flop when he railed against Crosbie’s free trade proposal during the ’83 PC leadership convention? Or when he attacks Joe Clark for allowing provinces to opt out of a federal program? That’s all to be expected in a memoir and when I move on to Chretien’s after this, I wouldn’t expect it to be any different. After all, this is Mulroney’s version of events, not a historical dissertation. A historical dissertation might say that criticism of Mulroney over his lack of experience in ’76 was fair game. A historical account might conclude that the Tories ’88 victory was not solely because of Mulroney’s soaring popularity. A historical account might not quote hundreds of positive newspaper stories about the PM and then dismiss all criticism as being part of media bias.

That said, as a historical document this book is incredibly invaluable. Appendices at the end recap behind-the-scenes conversations between the PM and Premiers about Meech and Charlottetown. And, having written a history essay or two on this time period during my years at University, I would have loved to have a resource like this book to get the official Mulroney position on such a wide range of topics. Beyond that, Memoirs works as popular political literature too. Getting a glimpse of private conversations between Mulroney and the likes of Reagan, Thatcher, and Gorbachev makes the book worth its sticker price ($50 in Canada, $40 in the US). And the chapter where Mulroney recounts the betrayal of Lucien Bouchard has everything you could want in a political book. Compared to current hot topic political debates on Senate abolition and 1% GST cuts, the content of this book is quite riveting.

So, despite his flaws – or maybe because of them – Mulroney has written a truly impressive memoir.

Recommendation: Get a hard cover copy. Personally, I’m very glad to have a signed copy.

Other Reviews: Jason Cherniak, Pample the Moose, Kerplonka

A copy of this book was provided by Random House for review.

Bart’s Books – Rick’s Rants

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Satirist and sporadic blogger Rick Mercer has a new book out this fall, cleverly titled “Rick Mercer Report: The Book“. Unfortunately, there’s nothing really new, per se, in the book. It’s a transcript of Rick’s rants and blog postings from the past couple years. That’s a shame too, because Rick could certainly put together something the caliber of America: The Book. I know Will Ferguson has written Canadian political humour in some detail, but I think there’s some fresh ground to be covered and Mercer is certainly the man to best do it.

That’s not to say that his book isn’t enjoyable. Even though I watch his show on a weekly basis, a lot of the jokes seemed new to me and I was lol’ing quite a lot. It certainly makes for an easy book to read on the bus (as supposed to, say, Mulroney’s autobiography) in bits and pieces.

So, rather than a full review, I present some of my favourite highlights from the book for your enjoyment:

You remember Focus on the Family. They’re the ones who think that SpongeBob SquarePants is gay. Take a look at their website – these people think about gay sex more than gay people do.

And, tragically, watching a few thousand socially retarded adults jump up and down [at the Liberal leadership convention] and wave signs with someone else’s name on it is what passes for excitement.

I’m not saying [appointing Fortier] was easy for Stephen Harper. It must be hard to look all your MPs in the eye and tell them they’re imbeciles.

From the teleprompter of Michael Ignatieff: “It has been almost one year now since I made the difficult decision to immigration to Canada and run for the leadership of the Liberal Party of Canada. Since that time I have taken clear positions on difficult issues and I have taken difficult positions on clear issues. Unfortunately, people do not seem to understand what I am talking about. If anyone is at fault here it is me; please bear with me, Canada, I am used to teaching the advanced class.”

And Quebec…cripes, if you’re a federalist in Quebec, you couldn’t get elected as a prostate examiner.

The Conservative ad where they’ve taken the ugly picture of Paul Martin and turned him red so he looks like Satan is very effective. By and large, Canadians do not like the idea of being governed by Satan, no matter how well the economy is doing. And then there are the Liberal ads. These have shown that while negative ads work, stupid ads don’t. Because the Liberals have taken stupid to a whole new level. It’s an art now. It’s like the Liberals woke up one morning and said, “You know, Canadians, they think we’re arrogant and corrupt. Let’s add stunned to the list and make it a hat trick.”

Wouldn’t our 60 million in aid be better off going to Sudan [rather than China] – which, you know, doesn’t have a space program?

Now they’ve gone completely off their heads. Martin is spending like Belinda Stronach in a shoe store.

And what’s Quebec going to do with that money? They’re going to give the people a personal income tax cut. That noise you can hear is the sound of blood vessels bursting in the heads of Tory voters across the country.

So if you are dead or near dead, hurry now and give your body to the party – all leadership candidates are looking for support from dead people. Bob Rae, for example, has recently accepted the public endorsement of Hedy Fry.

Meanwhile, the new leader of the Liberal party’s out there running around, and he’s wearing so much green he’s looking like some sort of demented Keebler elf.

This must be driving Donald Rumsfeld completely nuts. Suddenly the only thing standing between him and his Buck Rodgers missile shield is a nation of pot-smoking, homo-loving peaceniks.

Book Recommendation: Pick it up in the bargain bin

A copy of this book was provided by Random House for review

Bart’s Books – The Black Swan

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After some prodding by Gauntlet, I decided to take a read through The Black Swan and, I must say, I’m glad I did. It’s simply one of the most thought provoking books I’ve read in a long time.

So what is The Black Swan about? Well, statistics. And history. And economics. And philosophy. And pretty much everything else under the sun. Nassim Nicholas Taleb doesn’t really touch on politics except for a few veiled shots at the stupidity of thinking liberating Iraq would be a walk in the park, but the black swan principle certainly has some very useful applications to politics – I’ll get to that in a second.

First, the book. The Black Swan is about randomness. Not controlled randomness like casinos, but about things that we just don’t see coming that change the world. 9/11 would be a black swan. The dominance of the internet and of Google would be a black swan, because no one would have even conceived of it a decade before it happened. In politics, the 1993 election, featuring the rise of the BQ and Reform Party, would be a major black swan since no one saw it coming. Kim Campbell certainly didn’t think the party of John A would be down to a pair of seats and, at most, the Bloc was just a temporary ad hoc rainbow coalition that no one believed would ever become her majesty’s loyal opposition.

NNT takes this somewhat basic concept of the black swan and explores it from several angles. He divides the world into mediocristan and extremistan. In mediocristan, you don’t get big outliers or deviations. So body weight would be in mediocristan because one person, no matter how many Tim Hortons triple chocolate donuts he eats, will never deviate dramatically from the average body weight. Something like wealth would be in extremistan since a guy like Bill Gates can really skew the average. Events in extremistan are susceptible to black swans which is why war casualties, stock market crashes, and disease outbreaks can come out of nowhere to dramatically change the world.

The part of the book probably most relevant to politics is NNT’s rant against “experts”. Most of his scorn is directed against economists whose speculation is hardly ever accurate, but it could just as easily be an attack on political pundits. “Expert” pundits are almost always wrong. Consider predictions for things like election timing, leadership races, or even politicians and elections (Prime Minister Bernard Lord anyone?). Rather than pick on the print media to illustrate this point, I’ll take a shot at myself (since I’m not paid to make predictions, I really don’t mind being wrong). In 2005, I got to musing about the next Liberal leadership race and concluded that the four main contenders for the crown were John Manley, Frank McKenna, Martin Cauchon, and Scott Brison. Three of those guys didn’t run and the other probably wishes he hadn’t. I mentioned the 1993 election before, but the rise of the ADQ, or any of the three government changes Alberta has enjoyed in its history could all be considered political black swans. I think the moral is that politics is rooted in extremistan and that making predictions, especially long term predictions, is an exercise in futility. It also means that things we could never even conceive of today are certainly possible. Maybe that’s why lifelong Dippers or Alberta Liberals stay around in politics.

Another beef of NNTs that is especially applicable to politics is his complaint against historians. After taking an undergrad degree in history, I have always felt there was a certain over eagerness to explain everything and make every historical event seem predictable. I think every person alive has had to do a “causes of World War 1” essay at some point in their lives. Maybe the rise of Hitler or the fall of communism were predictable, but when hardly anyone was predicting them you have to wonder if it wasn’t just a fluke that historians are trying to find a logical reason for post hoc. In politics, it seems that pundits (who were 100% wrong beforehand) will pontificate after the fact about how obvious event X should have been to everyone beforehand. Winners are deemed to be political geniuses who ran flawless campaigns and losers are deemed to be inept fools. I can guarantee you that had Martin fluked into a majority government in 2004, pundits would be praising the Mad as Hell tour as a stroke of genius. And by “pundits”, I don’t mean just John Duffy.

NNT also talks about a lot of problems with statistics that I’m 100% in agreement with. I won’t get into a lengthy lecture on this since I doubt many of my regular readers are bell curve enthousiasts, but the cavalier disregard for outliers and need to normalize distributions has always stood out to me as a problem in statistics. Not so much among people who know what they’re talking about but more so among amateurs. NNT’s passionate hate of the bell curve borders on the obsessive and that’s probably a little unfair since it does serve it’s purpose for normal data from mediocristan – you only run into problems when people toss the underlying assumptions out the door and misuse it.

As for the book itself, it’s certainly not an academic text by any means which makes it a fun read. NNT’s sarcasm and jokes (mostly about frenchmen) are sprinkled throughout the book and he can be scathingly critical of those he dislikes. Good for him – it makes it a more enjoyable read. NNT comes across like an arrogant know it all at times but his arguments are generally sound so it’s hard to get too worked up about it.

So if you’re looking for a book that will make you think a bit and explain society – something kind of like Tipping Point – I would certainly suggest you pick up a copy. If you’re using statistics for predicative purposes in a field other than statistics, I would insist you pick up a copy.

A copy of The Black Swan was provided free from Random House, for review

Guest Blogging: John Scully

Posted on by CalgaryGrit in Book Reviews | Leave a comment

I’m putting the finishing touches on this year’s “Politicians in Cowboy Hats” stampede fashion review…expect a post shortly on that. Until then, I turn things over to John Scully for a guest blog post on Canada’s role in the world.

And just like all talk show hosts plug their guest’s latest movies, I’ll engage in a bit of that now. You can check out John’s blog here. And, of course, his book “Am I Dead Yet” is available for sale at fine bookstores across this country. It makes for a great summer read!


The world exhaled last week when one BBC reporter, Alan Johnston, was released. Thugs had held him hostage in Gaza for 144 days. But few anywhere were paying attention to another extraordinary event in Bogotá, Colombia. Defiant protesters demanded the release of 3000 hostages being held by guerrillas. Three thousand. Some for as long as 11 years.
When Edmonton Liberal David Kilgour was Secretary for State for Latin America and Africa, he made four trips to Colombia. Kilgour was deeply concerned not only about the drug wars in Colombia, but also the human misery they created. He took active steps through various NGOs to try alleviate a desperate situation. Sadly, he failed.

An estimated four million peasants have been now forced off their land. Half a million have fled the country. And no wonder. The murder rate at about 20, 000 a year, is described as the second highest in the world (South Africa is apparently number one). Favourite targets are the usual do-gooders: reporters, union leaders, teachers, the Popular Women’s Organisation, missionaries and anyone who tries to step in the way of the mighty drug gangs. One of them, the AUC, the United Self Defence Force of Colombia, is allegedly a front for U.S.-financed government para-militaries who reportedly dispatch enemies of right wing U.S. supplicant, President Alvaro Uribe.

The demonstration last week seemed, if there can be such a thing, a final straw. It was a rare show of national unity for the 44 million people of Colombia. They have seen civil war and drug cartels dominate them for 50 years. The catalyst this time was the execution of eleven politicians held hostage for five years by several gangs and the FARC, or Revolutionary Armed Forces For Colombia.

The BBC interpreted the protest as a chance by the Uribe government to channel the outrage at the killings into support for Uribe’s alleged stand against FARC. But Uribe and Colombians are dreaming if they think FARC, the AUC and other gangs holding the hostages will be influenced by banners and slogans. But unlike Alan Johnson, the question is: will these hostages ever be seen again, alive and free?

Earlier this year Uribe himself was accused of being involved in massacres in his home province of Antioquia. Former U.S. vice-president Al Gore took the unproven allegations so seriously he cancelled a meeting with Uribe about the environment.

There have been improvements in Colombia under Uribe who has received $3 billion worth of help from the U.S. but human rights groups say that, as usual, the rich continue to benefit and the poor continue to suffer.

And that brings us back to David Kilgour.He said in Bogotá in 1999:” Prospects for a solution to the civil conflict remain uncertain. The Colombian government (has) begun a formal peace dialogue with the major guerrilla groups. Canada has expressed a willingness to assist in the peacemaking efforts if all parties agree.”

That was eight years ago. Perhaps someone should ask Stephen Harper how willing Canada is now to assist in the peacemaking. Oh, wait a minute, aren’t we busy somewhere else?

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