Crowdsourcing Wikileaks

1 12 2010

In earlier posts, I spoke about the use of crowdsourcing by historians and archivists. One example of crowdsourcing is Transcribe Bentham, which ask volunteers to transcribe correspondence from the Bentham archive.

Canada’s Globe and Mail newspaper is now getting into the crowdsourcing business. It is asking the public for help plotting Wikileaks documents on a Google Map.

From the Globe website:

Add to our collaborative map of the most interesting WikiLeaks diplomatic notes

The Globe and Mail is using Google Maps to plot some of the quarter million U.S. diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks. We’d like your help! If you come across any interesting cables relating to Canada or other countries, simply edit this collaborative map.

Here’s how: To plot a point, log into your Google/Gmail account in the top right corner, click “Edit” and select and drag the blue placemark tool at the top left of the map to the most relevant location. Fill in the title field with the year of the cable and a short descriptive headline. Then add a few sentences describing the cable. If possible, use the rich text editing option to add a link to the actual cable from Click “OK,” then “Save” and then “Done”.

Click here to edit the map.

I have mixed feelings about for-profit corporations asking unpaid volunteers to help build up content on their websites. However, it is interesting that the crowdsourcing meme has spread to a major news organization.

Globe Editorial on Prorogation

23 01 2010

Today, anti-prorogation rallies were held all over Canada.

I liked aspects of today’s editorial in the Globe about prorogation, especially the references to the struggle to achieve Responsible Government in the 1840s.

“The age-old struggle for parliamentary rights against an arbitrary governor was settled long ago. In Canada; this was exemplified in the quest by Robert Baldwin and Sir Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine for responsible government. A basic requirement for responsible government in the parliamentary system, where the executive and legislative branches are partly fused, is for the executive to be answerable for its actions to an elected legislature. But a new struggle for parliamentary rights is under way, and this time it is the prime minister who is wielding potentially autocratic powers.”

As someone who spends some of my time trying to interest young adults in the history and principle of Responsible Government, I’m very glad the paper mentioned Baldwin and LaFontaine.The Globe, which itself played an important role in Canadian constitutional history, is helping to perpetuate the memory of these men. Thank you.

That being said, I was a bit disappointed by the timidity and conservatism of the Globe‘s proposed solution to the problem of the unchecked power of Canada’s recent Prime Ministers. The Globe editorial focuses on the codification of the unwritten rules governing prorogation.  This is an excessively modest proposal and one that overlooks some of the other options for constitutional renewal that should be on the table (e.g., Swiss-style direct democracy or proportional representation or more free votes in the House of Commons).

I agree that the codifying  our unwritten constitution would be a good first step towards making Canada more democratic, but we need to go beyond tinkering with parliamentary rules if are to democratize the federal government. It seems to me that ending the democratic deficit will require a profound cultural shift away from our elitist, undemocratic, and unduly centralized political system.  For many years, and indeed, decades, the federal government has been run by a tiny clique of bureaucrats (see Don Savoie’s book on this topic).  The result has been the imposition of policies that are anathema to the wishes of the vast majority of Canadians (e.g., such unpopular policies as the abolition of capital punishment and the participation of Canadian troops in the American-led war in Afghanistan). In some cases the policies rammed down the throats of Canadians are sometimes right-wing, in other cases they are causes dear to the left. What they have in common is that they are schemes hatched by small elites and opposed by the majority.  In a true democracy, such policies would never have been imposed. Alas, Canada’s government is controlled by a tiny group of elites in Ottawa– a handful of unelected judges,  corporate shills, continentalist generals,  and, of course, the powerful denizens of the PMO.

There are many reasons why Canada’s government is less democratic and less responsive to the will of the people than, say, the government of Switzerland, but I would say that the monarchy is a big factor. Other constitutions proclaim the sovereignty of the people (e.g., “We The People”). Although governments in republics frequently flout the wishes of the people, at least there is the idea that the government exists to implement the will of the populace. Monarchies traditionally operated on very different principle, namely, the notion that the ruler was sovereign. The job of the common people, the Third Estate, was to pay taxes, to act as cannon-fodder, and to shut up. Nobody took public opinion polls because the opinions of the peasantry didn’t matter than much. 

Louis XIV

Only gradually did the common people gain a say in their governance. Of course, today’s constitutional monarchies are democracies, but there symbolic and institutional vestiges in the background that legitimize undemocratic behaviour. For one thing, Canadian government officials (judges, MPs, army officers) still swear allegiance to a foreign ruler (the Queen) rather to the people of their country. I would argue that this weakens the link between public servants and the populace and undermines the notion that public officials are the delegates, the attorneys, of the people.

In constitutional monarchies, the rulers’ contempt for the common people is evident in many subtle but important ways. For instance, in the Republic of Ireland, there was recently a referendum on the new EU constitution Lisbon Treaty. In the constitutional monarchy of Great Britian, no such referendum has been held, a small elite of 658 individuals being held to be competent to judge this important issue.

No Side Poster, 2009 Irish Referendum Campaign

If Canadians are to democratize our political system, perhaps we should start by making a symbolic break with the past by abolishing the monarchy, declaring that the people are sovereign, and then creating an elected head of state.

Historical Education in Canada

17 06 2009

Today’s Globe and Mail has an opinion piece bemoaning Canadians’ lack of knowledge of the history of their own country. As a history professor, I have a vested interest in favour of more historical education, so I’m inclined to sympathize with anybody who advocates that our citizens learn more about the past. The fact some provinces do not require the study of any history in high school is a disgrace. However, I’m struck by the fact that the piece’s authors (Marc Chalifoux and J.D.M. Stewart) focus exclusively on the public’s knowledge of _Canadian_ history. It seems to me that an educated person ought to know about both the history of their country as well as that of the world as a whole.  They should also know something about the history of their locality or metropolitan area.

Yes, Canadians should be familiar with the Last Spike, Macdonald, Trudeau, Louis Riel and all the rest of it. But they should also know something about the French Revolution,  Edison, Jenner, Mao, Auschwitz, Lincoln, and Mandela.  Reasonable people can disagree about the right balance of local, Canadian, and world history in the school curriculum, but I think that there should be at least a bit of all three.  To only teach students Canadian history would breed parochialism. In any event, you can’t really understand Canadian history without knowing something about the histories of Britain, France, and the United States. (I say this as a specialist in Canadian history).

Note re the authors of the article: Marc Chalifoux is executive director of the Dominion Institute and J.D.M. Stewart is a teacher of Canadian history at Bishop Strachan School in Toronto.

Flawed Globe and Mail article on the far right in Europe

9 06 2009

Doug Saunders has published a deeply flawed article on the alleged rise of the far-right in Europe. The danger is that the Globe’s Canadian readers  will accept Saunder’s flawed interpretation as accurate.

I normally like Doug Saunders’s work, but his article on the recent EU elections is a travesty of the facts. I will speak about the UK situation, which I know best.
First point: the BNP, which is clearly a racist and fascist party, saw its share of the popular vote fall in this election from the 2004 election.  Saunders wrongly suggests that the BNP is rising in popularity. Moreover, the BNP’s share of the vote is small.

Second point:  Saunders suggests that UKIP is, like the BNP, a racist party and that the jump in support for UKIP shows that Britons are becoming more racist. This is not the case. UKIP is a hard-right party like the old Canadian Reform Party. It believes in tax cuts, deregulation, is against the minimum wage, and it wants to pull out of the EU. UKIP admires the free market economy of the USA. It is not, however, a racist party, although it is opposed to the open immigration policies that have allowed many Polish and other Eastern European workers to come into the UK.

Third: European countries can’t really be compared to Canada, which is very much an immigration country. Britain is a densely populated island that has been inhabited by the same ethnic groups for many centuries. It isn’t Canada, which is sparsely populated and proud of its cultural diversity. One of the things I like the most about Canada is the sheer tolerance of Canadians. Canadian multiculturalism is a great success, something of which I am very proud.