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Alan Walter: Pandemics, politics ….and our pets – TheChronicleHerald.ca

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Thank heaven that our cats and dogs are immune to COVID-19. Can you imagine having to enforce mask-wearing, social distancing, and regular paw-washing of our four-legged friends?

But I am curious about their biological make up, and what protects them from this coronavirus curse. After all, they rely on respiratory and cardiovascular systems much like our own to keep them alive.

Could they have developed feline or canine versions of “herd immunity” over the ages? I am sure a first-year biology student could enlighten us.

In the meantime, it puzzles me that in recent years our politicians are making less use of family pets as props in their campaign publicity photos; what could be more appealing to a voter than a couple of “goldens” snuggling up to even the most hardened political stooge?

Unfortunately, politicians no longer see benefit in displays of the finer human qualities that once counted for something. We went through the “kinder, gentler” period of politics some time back, but it is now assumed that to be successful in the current political world candidates must go all the way and appeal to the baser instincts of the electorate.

I refer to the new politics of division, whereby victory in the polls demands that candidates cynically deride the competition, as opposed to promoting worthwhile ideas and collaborating with the likeminded to make them happen. Clearly, a very nasty corruption of the democratic process.

To return to our pet’s role in this picture; dogs in particular have proven time and again to be loyal, kind, and understanding. They greet us happily after what may have been the worst day of our lives and make us feel better with a wag of their tail and a playful grin. What better character reference from a friend could you want?

One of the less attractive aspects of human friends is that they don’t forget the times you’ve wronged them and will hold them against you for the rest of their lives. Dogs, on the other hand, have the “gift” of poor memory. That means you can mess with their tail, tease them with their food, and tug on their ears to your heart’s content, even if it annoys them. You get to have your fun, and your dog will forget all about it and treat you like their best bud within a few minutes!

As we become friends with them, they become friends with us, and we have a dependency that enriches both the dog lives and our own. And dogs think of humans as “family” and therefore well suited to appear in family snapshots.

As for how cats fit in this picture, it’s generally accepted that they can be emotionally unavailable and known for their chilly independence, and don’t get to appear much in family portraits. It turns out that there’s an evolutionary reason for what may be tense relationships…….cats are in many ways still wild, and unlike dogs their genes haven’t evolved to make them dependent on humans quite so much.

It was the wolf ancestors of our dogs that entered into a partnership with humans as far back as 30,000 years ago. Apparently, it began with a “self-domestication” period when less aggressive wolves scavenged around the campfire and learned to behave to maintain that privilege.

An unwritten contract developed over time between canines and humans. who transformed them through selective breeding to help meet man’s practical needs, such as guarding and hunting….and eventually appearing in helpful political promotions!

Alan Walter is a retired professional engineer living in Oxford. He was born in Wales and worked in Halifax. He spends much of his time in Oxford, where he operates a small farm. He can be reached at alanwalter@eastlink.ca.

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Commons showdown highlights tension between politics and science – Campbell River Mirror

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Monday’s vote on a Conservative motion to launch an in-depth review of the Liberal government’s COVID-19 response highlights a key challenge of pandemic politics: how to hold a government accountable for decisions based on science, when the science itself is changing nearly every day.

The opposition wants a committee probe into everything from why regulators are taking so long to approve rapid testing to an early decision not to close the border to international travel, and what concerns the Liberals is how that probe is being framed.

“One of the narratives that I find most distressing coming from the opposition, is that somehow because advice changed at some point that the government was hiding information or that the government was giving misinformation,” Health Minister Patty Hajdu said late last week.

“And nothing could be further from the truth.”

It’s not the science itself that’s up for debate, said Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole.

“In a pandemic, borders, since the Middle Ages, have been part of a stop of spreading of the virus and that was a failure of elected officials to put the health of Canadians first,” O’Toole told reporters last week.

“There has been conflicting information on masks and other things. My concern is that the Trudeau government relies more on open source data from China than our own science and intelligence experts.”

The relationship between a nation’s scientists and their senior politicians is a challenging one, said Ian Culbert, executive director of the Canadian Public Health Association.

Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam provides the scientific evidence there is, but at the end of the day, it is the politicians who make the call, he said.

A decision on whether or not to close the borders is a good example, he said.

In the early days of the pandemic, the World Health Organization cautioned against widespread border closures. Scientific research has suggested there’s little medical benefit to them and the economic impacts can be severe and wide-ranging.

READ MORE: Companies warn Tory motion could deter domestic production of PPE

But the optics of border closures, the idea that if countries can keep out a virus out they will be immune, creates political pressure to act, Culbert said .

“The tension between what is in the public’s good, as opposed to all of the varying political considerations the politicians have to take into consideration — there’s always a tension there,” Culbert said.

While heated, the interplay between Liberal government and Opposition Conservatives is a far cry from the hyper-partisanship around pandemic response in the U.S., where even the president has circulated misinformation and challenged that country’s top scientists.

Canadian researchers studying the response of political elites here in the early days of the pandemic found no evidence of MPs casting doubt on the seriousness of the pandemic, or spreading conspiracy theories about it. In fact, there was a cross partisan consensus around how seriously it needed to be taken.

“As far as we can tell, that story hasn’t changed,” said Eric Merkley, a University of Toronto political scientist who led the study.

Both he and Culbert said a review of the Liberals’ pandemic response is warranted, but a balancing act is required.

“Everyone has 20/20 hindsight and thinks that they can go, look back, and and point to points at which bad decisions were made,” Culbert said.

“But that’s with the knowledge that we have today. We didn’t have that knowledge back in March.”

The Liberals have sometimes hit back at criticism by pointing to how the previous Conservative government handled the science and health files, including budget cuts and efforts to muzzle scientists.

But critics can’t be painted as anti-science for asking questions, Merkley said.

“There’s plenty of scope for democratic debate about proper responses to the pandemic, there’s plenty of scope for disagreement,” Merkley said.

“And just because there’s that disagreement and an Opposition party holding government accountable, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, that’s a sign of a healthy democracy.”

Stephanie Levitz, The Canadian Press


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Commons showdown highlights tension between politics and science – Chilliwack Progress – Chilliwack Progress

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Monday’s vote on a Conservative motion to launch an in-depth review of the Liberal government’s COVID-19 response highlights a key challenge of pandemic politics: how to hold a government accountable for decisions based on science, when the science itself is changing nearly every day.

The opposition wants a committee probe into everything from why regulators are taking so long to approve rapid testing to an early decision not to close the border to international travel, and what concerns the Liberals is how that probe is being framed.

“One of the narratives that I find most distressing coming from the opposition, is that somehow because advice changed at some point that the government was hiding information or that the government was giving misinformation,” Health Minister Patty Hajdu said late last week.

“And nothing could be further from the truth.”

It’s not the science itself that’s up for debate, said Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole.

“In a pandemic, borders, since the Middle Ages, have been part of a stop of spreading of the virus and that was a failure of elected officials to put the health of Canadians first,” O’Toole told reporters last week.

“There has been conflicting information on masks and other things. My concern is that the Trudeau government relies more on open source data from China than our own science and intelligence experts.”

The relationship between a nation’s scientists and their senior politicians is a challenging one, said Ian Culbert, executive director of the Canadian Public Health Association.

Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam provides the scientific evidence there is, but at the end of the day, it is the politicians who make the call, he said.

A decision on whether or not to close the borders is a good example, he said.

In the early days of the pandemic, the World Health Organization cautioned against widespread border closures. Scientific research has suggested there’s little medical benefit to them and the economic impacts can be severe and wide-ranging.

READ MORE: Companies warn Tory motion could deter domestic production of PPE

But the optics of border closures, the idea that if countries can keep out a virus out they will be immune, creates political pressure to act, Culbert said .

“The tension between what is in the public’s good, as opposed to all of the varying political considerations the politicians have to take into consideration — there’s always a tension there,” Culbert said.

While heated, the interplay between Liberal government and Opposition Conservatives is a far cry from the hyper-partisanship around pandemic response in the U.S., where even the president has circulated misinformation and challenged that country’s top scientists.

Canadian researchers studying the response of political elites here in the early days of the pandemic found no evidence of MPs casting doubt on the seriousness of the pandemic, or spreading conspiracy theories about it. In fact, there was a cross partisan consensus around how seriously it needed to be taken.

“As far as we can tell, that story hasn’t changed,” said Eric Merkley, a University of Toronto political scientist who led the study.

Both he and Culbert said a review of the Liberals’ pandemic response is warranted, but a balancing act is required.

“Everyone has 20/20 hindsight and thinks that they can go, look back, and and point to points at which bad decisions were made,” Culbert said.

“But that’s with the knowledge that we have today. We didn’t have that knowledge back in March.”

The Liberals have sometimes hit back at criticism by pointing to how the previous Conservative government handled the science and health files, including budget cuts and efforts to muzzle scientists.

But critics can’t be painted as anti-science for asking questions, Merkley said.

“There’s plenty of scope for democratic debate about proper responses to the pandemic, there’s plenty of scope for disagreement,” Merkley said.

“And just because there’s that disagreement and an Opposition party holding government accountable, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, that’s a sign of a healthy democracy.”

Stephanie Levitz, The Canadian Press


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Curtis Sittenfeld on Politics and Ambiguity – The New Yorker

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Photograph by Colin McPherson / Getty

In “A for Alone,” your story in this week’s issue, Irene comes up with a kind of conceptual art project based on Mike Pence’s credo that, if you’re a married man, you don’t spend time alone with another woman. The story is set in the fall of 2017. What is significant about that time period, and what does working with recent history allow you to do, narratively?

There are two reasons I set the story in 2017. The first is that it’s not now—that depicting events in a time clearly before the pandemic means the characters can do things that once seemed unremarkable, like meet for lunch inside restaurants, without those actions needing to be explained. The second reason is that when Irene, the protagonist, refers to “an article about Mike Pence that got a lot of attention,” there’s a specific article I had in mind: it ran in the Washington Post on March 28, 2017; it was written by the journalist Ashley Parker; and the headline was “Karen Pence is the vice president’s ‘prayer warrior,’ gut check and shield” (yes, it was actually a profile of Karen Pence). Parker’s article refers to a 2002 article in another publication, The Hill, revealing that Pence “never eats alone with a woman other than his wife and that he won’t attend events featuring alcohol without her by his side.” I believe that the Post article brought the Billy Graham rule into the wider cultural consciousness.

Irene sets about having lunch alone with various men to ask them their thoughts about the Mike Pence rule, and to have them fill out questionnaires about whether they spend time alone with women. These lunches give the story its structure. Is it a relief to light upon that kind of organizing pattern? Or does it feel somehow constraining?

Well, constraints can actually be a relief. The story’s structure is, indeed, very simple—though possibly misleading in the first half—and I made two choices that imposed additional constraints. I decided to give information about the protagonist only as needed, rather than preëmptively, and I decided to reveal central facts within dialogue, which is often considered taboo by writers. Or, even worse, it’s considered cheesy, the kind of crutch employed by, say, a soap opera: “Bernard, how can I run away with you when you’re the man who burned down my mansion and tried to run over my cousin?!” Naturally, I enjoyed flouting these supposed rules.

This is, in its oblique way, a political story. Much like two of your novels, “American Wife” and “Rodham,” it uses political facts and narrative to go off in its own direction. What repeatedly draws you to politics as a source for your writing? Are there novels or stories that you look to as examples of the form done really well?

In general, I’m interested in the discrepancies between our public selves and private selves, and those discrepancies can be particularly dramatic and intense in politics, which feature literal popularity contests. There’s just so much pressure on politicians, and those close to them, to act a particular way. I suppose I’m also drawn to fiction about politics because there’s an idea (that perhaps no one believes) that, in the political realm, personality is peripheral and policy is what’s being sold, debated, et cetera. But, of course, this pretense just makes personality more intriguing. As for overtly political novels that are done well, “The Line of Beauty,” by Alan Hollinghurst, is pretty perfect.

An irony of Irene’s project is that maybe Mike Pence is right. There’s a sense, though, that, even if Pence is right, that’s not the worst thing in the world. Tell us more about the ambiguity of that ending?

Perhaps the point of ambiguity is that it’s ambiguous? And a story should speak for itself? With that disclaimer out of the way, I definitely, unequivocally don’t think Mike Pence is right. I can’t imagine any adult disputing the fact that sometimes some individuals who are in monogamous relationships are attracted to people other than their partners. But that’s not Mike Pence’s insight any more than America was Columbus’s discovery. The part specific to Pence, Graham, et cetera. is how to behave in reaction to that fact. And their choice is wrong for a bunch of reasons, foremost among them that they’re imposing their will on other people in a way that (professionally and financially) disadvantages the others. They’re also ignoring the existence of anyone who isn’t heterosexual. Even as she tries to dismiss the Billy Graham rule, Irene is implicitly giving credence to it rather than simply ignoring it—and perhaps her inability to ignore it is due to her being a married heterosexual woman. But I actually don’t think the salient question is whether adhering to the Billy Graham rule achieves its goal. As Irene’s friend Maude reminds her at the end, that’s one way to live a life, but there are many others.

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