January 7th, 2010

[BRIEF NOTE] The Galilean moons, 400 years old

I have to thank 80 Beats for their blog post "400 Years After Galileo Spotted Them, the Moons of Jupiter Are Looking Fly", and for this image showing the four Galilean moons--Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto--against their parent body of Jupiter.

On January 7, 1610, Galileo Galilei pointed his “spyglass” to the heavens and stared up at Jupiter, one of the brightest lights in the evening sky, and noted what he at first assumed to be three bright stars near the planet. But over the following nights, he realized that those three bright bodies weren’t fixed in the heavens like stars, but rather seemed to dance around Jupiter along with a fourth, smaller body.

Galileo triumphantly announced his discovery of four “planets” that revolved around Jupiter in his March treatise, Starry Messenger [pdf]. Thinking of his pocketbook, he dutifully proposed naming them the Medicean Stars in honor of his patron, Cosimo de Medici. But the name didn’t stick, and today we honor the scientist rather than the patron by calling Jupiter’s four largest satellites the Galilean moons.

The discovery dealt a death blow to the Ptolemaic understanding of the universe, in which all planets and stars were believed to orbit the Earth. For, as Galileo wrote in his treatise, “our own eyes show us four stars which wander around Jupiter as does the moon around the earth.”

In the 400 years that have passed since Galileo first laid eyes on them, we’ve learned a great deal about the moons Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto (all named after the mythological paramours of Jupiter). If all goes according to plan we’ll soon get to know them much more intimately–NASA and the European Space Agency are currently planning missions to closely observe three of the moons.

[LINK] "History repeats itself for 'Vestur Islendingurs'"

Patrick White writes about what's supposed to be another wave of Icelanders arriving in Canada.

[W]when the Olympic torch went bobbing by the construction project where he was pounding nails yesterday, Steinthor Jonasson couldn't help but walk over for a closer look, joining hundreds of other fair-haired and blue-eyed Scandinavians who comprise the biggest Icelandic settlement outside Iceland.

It's all part of a sometimes harsh adjustment to his new life as a Vestur Islendingur, or west Icelander - one of some 30,000 Manitobans with roots in the little island in the Atlantic.

But one thing makes Mr. Jonasson, 45, unique among most residents here: He arrived just six months ago, placing him in a small but prominent group of Icelandic newcomers trickling into this region in what amounts to a bit of demographic history repeating.

"Gimli is quite well known for taking in people from Iceland many years ago," Mr. Jonasson said.

"Now I suppose it is happening again."

Gimli has been one of Canada's great demographic curiosities for over a century. It was around 1900 that an economic collapse in Iceland prompted many residents to cross the Atlantic in search of greener - or at least icier - pastures.

They found them here, 75 kilometres north of the provincial capital, on the fertile shores of Lake Winnipeg.

Today roughly 6,000 people live here in all and the Icelandic influence is evident in the Viking statue on the lakeshore, the Icelandic flags in yards and the Scandinavian accents.

When Iceland's economy once again collapsed earlier in October, 2008, the phones of local officials began ringing steadily with calls from Iceland.

"We were all getting numerous calls," said Ben Rempel, assistant deputy minister of Manitoba Labour and Immigration.

"It was natural considering Manitoba's cultural and historical links with the country."

Later in the article, the program notes that not many Icelanders have actually come over--Mr. Jonasson is only one of a few. But soon, they hope, soon.

[BLOG-LIKE POSTING] On Canada's unsurprising decline

Veteran Canadian political journalist Jeffrey Simpson argues that, as other national economies surpass Canada's and new international forums replace the old, Canada's influence in the world is set to decline.

This year, Canada will play host to a Group of Eight summit followed by a Group of 20 summit that it will co-host with South Korea. In the fall, another G20 summit will take place in Korea, organized and led only by South Korea.

The confluence of the two summits in this country will be trumpeted by the Harper government as an example of Canada's relevance, whereas the more accurate story line suggests the reverse.

For a long time, the G8 (the G7 before Russia joined) suited Canada perfectly. It got a seat at the table when Gerald Ford was U.S. president because the Europeans overplayed their hand, demanding a seat for Italy. Mr. Ford said yes, provided that Canada entered the club to balance the new European country.

Canada became a member of a group that, by population or economic weight, it should not have been allowed to join. But now the G8 is finished. From one of eight, Canada will henceforth be one of 20.

The annual Davos conference that will open shortly has already announced that this year's session of G8 representatives will be the last. The Canadian G8 meeting might also be the last, but even if the organization lingers, its utility will have shrunk, because the main action has moved to the G20. Indeed, at the last G20 summit in Pittsburgh, the communiqué described the group as “the premier forum for our international economic co-operation.”

Canada, amusingly enough, does easily qualify for membership in the G-20, with a GDP that, measured using purchasing power parity or international exchange rates, is very nearly the size of Russia's or Brazil's or South Korea's, although a similarly-sized Spain doesn't qualify and Argentina and South Africa seem to have been included at least as much of geographical balance as for anything else. How is Canada dealing with this downgrading, this relegation to the second tier of an organization that, well, Canada supported?

Procedure aside, the morphing of the G8 into a G20 was a Canadian idea back when Paul Martin was finance minister. The question now for the federal government is what relevance Canada might have in the larger group, because axiomatically the country will have much less.

Maybe countries won't want a secretariat for this new organization, but it would be worth it for Canada to sound out the others and offer to place a permanent secretariat, and to pay for some of the costs, in an international city such as, say, Montreal.

Canada could argue that it is not a major power such as the United States or China, and not a European country, there already being too many international institutions located there. Canada does know how to organize events, is relatively innocuous yet more or less efficient, and once had a reputation for being constructive, even innovative, in international affairs.

Or Canada could propose a kind of secretariat in cyberspace, with headquarters moving around, and membership at the top of the secretariat involving the U.S., China and the hosts of the previous and next year's summit, plus the host of this year's.

If Canada were really innovative, it would understand that the major international issue remains climate change. The Copenhagen disappointment showed that a smaller group of countries is needed to work on something better, and the G20, or a subset of G20 countries, would be a sensible group.

Of course, this idea would never be advanced by the Harper government, which dislikes the climate-change file and wishes it would disappear. Instead, news reports this week suggest that Mr. Harper wants the G8 meeting to revolve around nuclear non-proliferation, a worthy subject but more a matter of U.S.-Russian relations. The subject really smacks of an attempt to divert debate away from climate change.

The Harper government's small-minded and unimaginative, who's surprised? Simpson's being excessively optimistic about the federal government's ability to change things. This pompous 2006 Conrad Black article aside, Canadians have tended to think of their nation as a middle power, a country of some influence that's ultimately dependent on an external power and alliance system (the British Empire then Commonwealth, the United States and NATO). Wikipedia's quote of one definition of the middle power is as good as any.

[M]iddle power status is usually identified in one of two ways. The traditional and most common way is to aggregate critical physical and material criteria to rank states according to their relative capabilities. Because countries’ capabilities differ, they are categorized as superpowers (or great powers), middle powers or small powers. More recently, it is possible to discern a second method for identifying middle power status by focusing on behavioural attributes. This posits that middle powers can be distinguished from superpowers and smaller powers because of their foreign policy behaviour – middle powers carve out a niche for themselves by pursuing a narrow range and particular types of foreign policy interest. In this way middle powers are countries that use their relative diplomatic skills in the service of international peace and stability. Both measures are contested and controversial, though the traditional quantitative method has proved more problematic than the behavioural method.

In the Cold War context, I'd imagine that countries like Sweden and Yugoslavia in Europe, Australia, Brazil and Argentina in South Africa, India, would have qualified according to this definition. This bpook identifies the Netherlands, Norway, and Denmark as other middle powers alongside Canada, Economic and cultural and military power was otherwise centralized in the NATO/US alliance and Warsaw Pact blocs, with China a distant third, and these nations shared with Canada a long-standing interest in a stable, rules-bound international system that would protect their interests and avoid complete superpower dominance.

The Cold War has been over for two decades, and economic and other kinds of power have permeated the world, creating new influences and new influencers and patterns of behaviour. South Korea and Spain weren't comparable to Canada in the 1970s or even the 1980s, for instance, the European Union is now quite comparable to the United States, the BRIC powers--or BICI powers, or BRICE powers, or BRICI power, or whatever--are going to follow suit, migration and popular culture is tying the entire world together, et cetera, et cetera. Canada's no longer a uniquely powerful middle power poised to take advantage of the post-Second World War power vacuum; Canada's just part of a crowd. The only way to avoid this overshadowing, really, would be to keep other countries and their inhabitants from enjoying the same conditions that Canadians enjoy. How detrimental would that be to Canadian interests, ethics aside?

A permanent G-20 secretariat would be nice, and the idea of Montréal (or better yet, Toronto!) as an international centre alongside Brussels and Geneva and Vienna and maybe even New York City, is wonderful. It's best not to exaggerate our future prospects and, frankly, world leadership's a bore and a drain. It's time to share the load.

[LINK] "Uprising in Iceland"

Conservative journalist writes approvingly of Iceland's opposition to the mooted plan for Iceland to reimburse British and Dutch depositors in Icelandic banks. To what extent, he wonders with some justice on his side, can an entire country be held responsible for some people's bad decisions?

Under pressure from voters and taxpayers, Iceland's President, Olafur Ragnar Grimsson, this week refused to sign a bill to reimburse almost $6-billion to Britain and Holland for money paid to depositors who put money into two high-flying Icelandic banks that failed in 2008. The president was responding to taxpayers who are essentially rebelling against being forced to pick up the tab for a financial bailout of depositors, regulators, foreign governments and even their own government and politicians. It is only a bit of an exaggeration to say that the people of Iceland are refusing to pay for all the schemes of private bankers and public officials who, over the course of the last decade, drove the whole of Iceland into bankruptcy.

The tiny-population country (330,000 people and about 220,000 taxpayers) is widely seen as a microcosmic version of the financial mayhem that ripped through the world financial system in the last half of the last decade. In a world of floating currencies and state manipulation of lending markets and banks, Iceland's politicians and local power brokers decided to become big-time players. A nation of fishers became dominated by investment bankers with connections, a central bank that ran amok, a currency that rose on high interest rates, and a government that went along for the ride. Iceland was the first country to crash in the wake of the finanical crisis; its three main banks collapsed within one week.

[. . .]

The Iceland rebellion has been characterized as foolish. Fitch, the credit rating agency, warned of "a renewed wave of domestic political, economic and financial uncertainty" for Iceland and downgraded the country's main sovereign rating to junk status. Paul Rawkins, senior director in Fitch's Sovereign ratings team, told a news agency that the standoff "represents a significant setback to Iceland's efforts to restore normal financial relations with the rest of the world."

Well, maybe. But there must surely come a time in the affairs of a nation when the people have a right to rise up against bumbling politicians, incompetent regulators, private scammers and international agencies who appear to be part of the problem. Such is the case in Iceland. While widely viewed in the conventional media as the victims of the rampant excesses of free markets and laissez-faire Milton Friedmanism, Iceland in fact fell into the hands of inept politicians, bumbling regulators, a farcical central bank, abuse of deposit insurance and the adventurous world of currency traders.

[. . .]

If Iceland wants aid and loans from the IMF to help lift it out of economic crisis, then Iceland would first have to agree to repay the Icesave money. The current Iceland government and legislature initially passed the Icesave bill by a narrow margin, agreeing to the $6-billion pay out over a number of years. But a popular uprising prompted the President to refuse to sign it. The legislature meets again tomorrow.

The price of the bill is steep. Up to 4% of Iceland's GDP will be paid to Britain (in sterling currency) between 2017 and 2023. The Netherlands would receive up to 2% of GDP (in euro currency). Meantime, the IMF has moved in with currency controls and other heavy-handed policies. No wonder many, even a majority, of Icelandic voters believe they are being asked to pay for private banking failures brought on by conniving and scheming government officials.

Then again, Iceland's government is democratically elected and did embrace these terribly failed policies.

[LINK] "John Tory won't run for mayor"

The Toronto Star lets us know that John Tory has decided against risking another embarrassingly failed political campaign, this time for mayor of Toronto.

John Tory said Thursday that he won't run again to become Toronto's mayor, choosing instead to "pursue a different course with my life and career."

The former Progressive Conservative leader issued a statement this morning announcing his decision to serve as volunteer chair of the Toronto City Summit Alliance, a position previously held by David Pecaut who died in December.

Before his death, Pecaut had urged Tory to take over the helm of the non-partisan organization, which has been an effective force in city-building efforts that include pushing diversity, investment in research, green initiatives and helping low-income residents.

[. . .]

Since last fall, Tory has been hosting a CFRB radio show on Newstalk 1010, which has freed him up to discuss the issues and concerns of the day. Friends say he has enjoyed the experience. Tory worked briefly as a radio reporter before going onto a successful career in law and business, and has said hosting a radio show was always his dream job.

In a morning interview with CFRB host Bill Carroll Tory said: "I want to find ways to contribute, but you don't need to be a politician to do it."

He said he made his decision on Sunday after a long conversation with his wife, Barbara.

"I would say if they checked the polls that were published...it showed that I had a healthy lead."

In his statement, he added that he looked forward to being an analyst and commentator for the municipal election campaign. "That will be a new experience," he said.

Others wonder whether Tory was truly up for a return to politics, faced with a gruelling 10-month municipal campaign. He suffered a devastating defeat last year when he lost in a provincial by-election in Haliburton-Kawartha Lakes-Brock in Haliburton. That came after other defeats, including the 2007 provincial election, where he lost his own bid to win a seat in Don Valley West.

[LINK] "Harper goes prorogue"

"A legislature matters more than the luge" is the line most frequently quoted from this Economist editorial critical of Prime Minister Harper's proroguing--suspension and postponing--of the Canadian parliament.

Canadian ministers, it seems, are a bunch of Gerald Fords. Like the American president, who could not walk and chew gum at the same time, they cannot, apparently, cope with Parliament’s deliberations while dealing with the country’s economic troubles and the challenge of hosting the Winter Olympic games. This was the argument put forward by the spokesman for Stephen Harper, the Conservative prime minister, after his boss on December 30th abruptly suspended, or “prorogued”, Canada’s Parliament until March 3rd.

Mr Harper’s supporters might argue that there is nothing wrong with this. Precedent allows it, and Canada is a decent, well-run place, where much is decided at the provincial level. Since most countries already have too many laws, a pause for parliamentary reflection might count as progress. Some places, such as Texas, manage well with only a part-time legislature. Politicians’ ritual slanging matches should not be allowed to distract Canadians from weightier battles, such as the bobsleigh, the giant slalom or round-robin curling. Come to think about it, why not shut down Parliament altogether, perhaps until the economy is growing again at full throttle? At least that would help cut the federal deficit.

The argument that previous prime ministers frequently prorogued Parliament is no more convincing. In almost every case they did so only once the government had got through the bulk of its legislative business. The Parliament that Mr Harper prorogued still had 36 government bills before it, including measures that form part of the prime minister’s much-vaunted crackdown on crime. When it reconvenes, those bills will have to start again from scratch. Past prorogations were typically brief (see article). This time sessions will be separated by a gap of 63 days.

Never mind what his spin doctors say: Mr Harper’s move looks like naked self-interest. His officials faced grilling by parliamentary committees over whether they misled the House of Commons in denying knowledge that detainees handed over to the local authorities by Canadian troops in Afghanistan were being tortured. The government would also have come under fire for its lack of policies to curb Canada’s abundant carbon emissions. Prorogation means that such committees—which carry out the essential democratic task of scrutinising government—will have to be formed anew in March. That will also allow Mr Harper to gain immediate control of committees in the appointed Senate, where his Conservatives are poised to become the biggest party.

[MUSIC] Lhasa, "Anywhere On This Road"

When I saw the phrases "Lhasa" and "37" earlier this week, paired earlier this week in a line of news on the Yahoo!Canada front page where I was logging in to check my E-mail on break, I didn't stop long enough to read the full sentence. It was ominous that the name of Canada-based Lhasa de Sela was matched with a number that looked like the age one would announce in an obituary, but could it really? It was; at 37, after a struggle, Lhasa died in her Montréal home of breast cancer.

Her 2003 album The Living Road is one of the most remarkable I've come across, one of the first really new albums that I encountered after I came to Toronto, one of the albums that I'll always use to punctuate my personal biography. News of her cosmopolitanism help attract me to the album, as she's really quite a North American: born to Mexican and American parents in upstate New York, she grew up in a nomadic family and ended up establishing herself in the Montréal café scene in the early 1990s, where her intimate songwriting and throaty singing voice secured her a position first in Québec and then in Canada. That cosmopolitan wouldn't have meant anything if not for her fantastic music, as described in this 2004 Philip Markowitz interview/review.

At the end of 2003, she released her long-anticipated sophomore album, The Living Road, the follow up to her stunning 1997 debut La Llorona. Once again, Lhasa lends her velvety voice to impassioned songs about love and loss.

Lhasa toured extensively after the surprise international success of La Llorona. In concert, Lhasa was by turns both shy and generous, and she gave a lot of herself away to her audiences. When the strain of touring threatened to overwhelm her, she knew she needed a break. Her escape route was waiting. Lhasa ran away to France join a contemporary one-ring circus "Pocheros" created and mounted by her 3 sisters. "When I left to go to France, it was almost like going to my death. I gave away everything. I did everything but shave my head and become a monk!" she laughs. "Afterwards I looked back and thought it was a bit drastic."

In France Lhasa lived a busy nomadic life, embraced by the loving and chaotic extended family the circus provided. "It was amazing. My little niece would wake me up every morning by knocking on my caravan door and she'd climb into my lap and say she loved me. If only touring could always be like that." The 400-seat circus in the round kept her busy "whenever you're not doing something up front, there's something to do behind the scenes, prop changes, costume changes". Lhasa also took time to pursue her visual arts, to eat well and to play. She still sang most nights accompanied by an accordion-wielding trapeze artist, but the spotlight was now on the talents of her whole family, not Lhasa alone.

Feeling refreshed, by 1999 Lhasa began to write new songs. She collaborated with French singer Arthur H, and contributed to a duet on an album by The Tindersticks. Eventually a relationship took her to Marseilles, where Lhasa began to hone the ideas she had gathered on the road and write songs about love and creativity, apocalypse and hope. These are the songs of The Living Road. To the casual listener,
The Living Road will seem similar to La Llorona, but a deeper listen reveals many differences between the two albums. La Llorona was a Spanish-only album, The Living Road is sung in three languages: Spanish, French and even Lhasa's first tongue, English (albeit with a lovely French accent acquired on the continent). The band features a broader range of instruments, sometimes bordering on the orchestral. On La Llorona it was difficult to tell where Lhasa's voice ended and Montreal-based guitarist and producer Yves DesRosier's intimate accompaniment began. The two musicians felt like one musical entity living in two bodies. This time out, Lhasa chose producers Francois Lalonde and Jean Masicotte, also of Montreal. Together the three created a lush and spacious studio sound, placing Lhasa's voice above the band rather than mingling it with the instruments (in a few places the band has to be kept at bay for fear of overpowering her fragile-diva sound).

[. . .]

This time, Lhasa isn't giving all of herself away. "The songs are autobiographical for the most part, but sometimes it's easier to stand back and write as if the story is happening to someone else who's just like me, but not me." The songs, though, are still startlingly intimate. "Anywhere On This Road" could be the theme song of the album, dealing as it does with both restlessness and heartbreak. It starts with the sounds of travel footfalls and bicycle bells give way to percussion and trumpet, then Lhasa's voice.

I like her BBC performance of that song.

And now she's dead. It doesn't seem fair at all, not at the early age of 37 and not after only three albums. Her sentiments in "Anywhere On This Road" do apply to the rest of us, sure:

You've travelled this long
You just have to go on
Don't even look back to see
How far you've come
Though your body is bending
Under the load
There is nowhere to stop
Anywhere on this road

Lhasa set precedents. She will almost certainly be cited by avant-garde musicians as a vital influence for decade. And how little that means, really, without her continued, active presence.

To Lhasa.

[BLOG-LIKE POSTING] On how we're getting nicely paranoid

Konrad Yakabuski's recent article in the Globe and Mail, "Paranoid style is in again", is principally concerned with the craziness that currently is infested the United States' Republican Party.

Americans looking for evocative language from their public figures in 2009 had to turn to the anti-Obamas. It wasn't hard to find them – they have dominated the national soapbox since mid-year, outdoing each other in their preposterousness.

Picking the choicest quotes of 2009 is, hence, not quite the uplifting affair it might have been in 2008, when Mr. Obama was still compelling and Republicans still aspired to more than the political equivalent of demolition derby. The past 12 months have served up more sinister stuff.

Take Glenn Beck, the Fox News host who emerged last year as the U.S. right's conspiracy-theorist-in-chief. Government ownership of General Motors, he warned, enables the Obama administration to spy on Americans by way of the OnStar GPS devices installed in GM products: “I just don't believe in giving that kind of technology to this government.”

Sarah Palin launched her crusade against Obamacare with this: “The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama's death panel so his bureaucrats can decide … whether they are worthy of health care. Such a system is downright evil.”

And Michele Bachmann, another syntactically challenged Republican politician on the rise, greeted a Dec. 15 rally against the Democrats' proposed health-care reform by crying: “That is our wish for fellow citizens here in the United States – for freedom, not for government enslavement.”

Yes, well. "Death panels"? I suppose that wanting an equitable national health care system for our southern neighbours hoping that our neighbours see the good in rendering useless eaters into transplant organs is a crime, then? Certainly the American system is superior, anyway; Stephen Hawking certainly couldn't have survived in the United Kingdom!


Richard Hofstadter's "The Paranoid Style in American Politics", an essay originally published in Harper's Magazine in 1964 and available in full here. Yes, Yakabuski seems quite right to connect this essay on the American tradition of paranoia to what's going on with the tea-partiers.

The paranoid spokesman sees the fate of conspiracy in apocalyptic terms—he traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders, whole systems of human values. He is always manning the barricades of civilization. He constantly lives at a turning point. Like religious millenialists he expresses the anxiety of those who are living through the last days and he is sometimes disposed to set a date fort the apocalypse. (“Time is running out,” said Welch in 1951. “Evidence is piling up on many sides and from many sources that October 1952 is the fatal month when Stalin will attack.”)

As a member of the avant-garde who is capable of perceiving the conspiracy before it is fully obvious to an as yet unaroused public, the paranoid is a militant leader. He does not see social conflict as something to be mediated and compromised, in the manner of the working politician. Since what is at stake is always a conflict between absolute good and absolute evil, what is necessary is not compromise but the will to fight things out to a finish. Since the enemy is thought of as being totally evil and totally unappeasable, he must be totally eliminated—if not from the world, at least from the theatre of operations to which the paranoid directs his attention. This demand for total triumph leads to the formulation of hopelessly unrealistic goals, and since these goals are not even remotely attainable, failure constantly heightens the paranoid’s sense of frustration. Even partial success leaves him with the same feeling of powerlessness with which he began, and this in turn only strengthens his awareness of the vast and terrifying quality of the enemy he opposes.

The enemy is clearly delineated: he is a perfect model of malice, a kind of amoral superman—sinister, ubiquitous, powerful, cruel, sensual, luxury-loving. Unlike the rest of us, the enemy is not caught in the toils of the vast mechanism of history, himself a victim of his past, his desires, his limitations. He wills, indeed he manufactures, the mechanism of history, or tries to deflect the normal course of history in an evil way. He makes crises, starts runs on banks, causes depressions, manufactures disasters, and then enjoys and profits from the misery he has produced. The paranoid’s interpretation of history is distinctly personal: decisive events are not taken as part of the stream of history, but as the consequences of someone’s will. Very often the enemy is held to possess some especially effective source of power: he controls the press; he has unlimited funds; he has a new secret for influencing the mind (brainwashing); he has a special technique for seduction (the Catholic confessional).

This sort of anti-elite conspiratorial populism isn't unique to the United States. I'm thinking of the popular right in interwar and 1950s Europe, fighting against the cosmopolitans and the elites with their aims to undermine the way things should be. The MetaFilter article "Sarah Palin's Poujadist Agenda" pointed to Jonathan Raban's London Review of Books essay "Cut, Kill, Dig, Drill", which connects Palin to the right-wing/little-man populism of Poujadism in 1950s France.

Sarah Palin has put a new face and voice to the long-standing, powerful, but inchoate movement in US political life that one might see as a mutant variety of Poujadism, inflected with a modern American accent. There are echoes of the Poujadist agenda of 1950s France in its contempt for metropolitan elites, fuelling the resentment of the provinces towards the capital and the countryside towards the city, in its xenophobic strain of nationalism, sturdy, paysan resistance to taxation, hostility to big business, and conviction that politicians are out to exploit the common man.

[. . .]

Most large American cities, especially in the West, are situated in counties that extend far beyond the city limits. Liberal urban governments with high property-tax rates and progressive environmental policies wield great power (some say tyranny) over their rural hinterlands, delivering ukases about land use and conservation: brush-cutting is to be limited to 40 per cent of the property; ‘setbacks’ of 100 feet are required from streams and wetlands; new churches are denied building permission because they are deemed ‘large footprint items’ in ‘critical habitat areas’ etc. So the householder or farmer sees ‘the city’ making unwarranted infringements of his God-given right to manage his land as he pleases, and imagines his precious tax-dollars being squandered on such urban fripperies as streetcar lines and monorails. These local quarrels spread to infect whole states. In Washington state, where I live, almost every ill that befalls people in the timberlands and agricultural regions, far from any city, is confidently attributed to ‘liberals from Seattle’, a nefarious conspiracy of wealthy, tree-hugging elitists with law degrees from East Coast universities, whose chief aim is to destroy the traditional livelihoods of honest citizens living on either side of the Puget Sound urban corridor.

I can't disagree with what Yakabuski concludes, not least about what this paranoia's doing to the Republican Party. (Palin in 2012?)

When Ms. Bachmann accuses Mr. Obama of holding “anti-American views,” or when Ms. Palin decries “the agenda-driven policies being pursued in Copenhagen,” they feed into the same anger that drives thousands of Americans to show up for “tea parties,” where they give voice to many who feel dispossessed. “They refuse to listen” is the slogan of the Tea Party Patriots. It expresses the frustration of those who feel their country and their government have been usurped by Mr. Obama and his “socialist” cohorts.

The tea party movement has sent the Republican establishment (what's left of it) into a state of panic. You know what they say about imitation? A recent Republican National Committee Internet ad against Mr. Obama's health-care reform features a series of speakers uttering, in succession, the same plea: “Listen to me!”

That such a volatile and vitriolic faction as the tea party movement is now influencing the conduct of the party of Lincoln is indicative of the desperate state of Republicanism, which has embraced the paranoid style in a manner that would make even Mr. Goldwater cringe. At the party's meeting this month in Hawaii – which, at least if you believe what's written on his birth certificate, is where Mr. Obama came into the world – Republicans will decide whether to impose a “purity test” on prospective candidates seeking the GOP nomination in the 2010 congressional elections. If adopted, those who fail to profess their faith in at least eight of 10 core beliefs would be deprived of RNC backing and money.

That will do bad things. Still worse is the fact that these attitudes of conspiracies by powerful elites are also being replicated on the left, with stories of the malign influence of Leo Strauss or the secret networks of Christian fundamentalists who secretly control the United States or wars against the secretive corporations or "9-11 Was An Inside Job." So many of these networks of friends and influences that people describe are the sorts of things necessary for civil society, products of shared interests and experiences uniting people of diverse backgrounds into networks aimed at achieving common goals, in a rich, ever-fluctuating, web. This is normal, very normal. Destroying these networks would make organized public life quite difficult. Can you imagine achieving anything in public life without connections?

It isn't only in the United States, either, as suspicion of democratically elected governments and regimes, even, as out of touch and corrupt and unaccountable seem to be spreading worldwide. Even in Canada; Harper wouldn't have gotten away with this prorogation, as early and unprecedented as it was, years ago, certainly not with the support of the party. Arguments don't matter nearly so much as charisma, the ability to convince your followers that the other side is completely wrong, so wrong as to be illegitimate and undeserving of power, of any influence on the country or the world. "The world must be manichaean if there is to be a world, and guess whose side I'm on?" And there goes the public space. Poujade the prophet?