Police and Large Data

The first item on the CBC radio news last evening concerned criminality, the criminal use of data in elections. Not the issue of Russian interference to facilitate the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States. Instead, CBC reported on the four hours of testimony that Canadian whistleblower, Chris Wylie (a data scientist who helped found Cambridge Analytica and an advocate for Britain leaving the EU), gave before a committee of the British parliament on the role of data aggregating firms hired by Vote Leave with respect to Brexit and led by Cambridge Analytica funneling money illegally to the Canadian company, AggregateIQ (AIQ), to collect Facebook data and, in the last days of the Brexit vote, influence “persuadables.” Further, he opined that it was reasonable to conclude that the effort altered the outcome of the Brexit vote.

Two criminal acts were allegedly involved. First, aggregate data was illegally collected. Second, money, significantly in excess of that permitted to be used by Vote Leave, was funneled through several data collection companies in order to appear to fall within the limits permitted. On this charge, Wylie backed up the testimony of another whistleblower, Shahmir Sanni, who provided concrete evidence of the breach of spending limits to Parliament. Of course, the companies continued to insist that they had complied with all legal and regulatory requirements.

Wylie testified that the British vote was but one instance of such efforts. The activities ranged around the world, from the Trump election to the Kenyan presidential race, clearly implying that Cambridge Analytica and its parent and related companies were systematically involved in manipulating voters illegally and undermining the democratic electoral process. This past Friday, the Walter Gordon Symposium dealing with “Making Policy Count: The Social Implications of Data-Driven Decision Making” in its first panel took up the issue of Contemporary Policing and Surveillance.

One message came through loud and clear. Police departments are barely into the computer age and are ill-equipped, to say the least, to deal with law enforcement related to abuses in the use of data analytics. Electoral Commissions do not have people on staff that even comprehend let alone are trained to counter such efforts, whether used by Russian hackers or domestic cheats.

Rosemary Gartner, the chair of the panel and a Professor Emeritus from the University of Toronto program on Criminology & Sociolegal Studies zeroed in on how the issue of large scale counting can be unfair when it comes to individual cases of blood alcohol levels, meting out punishments, or even deciding on what is considered a crime worthy of police attention. In light of the big news items, these concerns, however significant, seemed picayune when our whole faith in democratic institutions has been under attack.

Paul Sloly, former Deputy Chief of the Toronto Police Force, who now works for Deloitte, did zero in on mass surveillance and digital crime at its broadest, from cyberfraud to cyberbullying. However, police lacked the most basic servers to do their work let alone counter such criminality. At the same time, there has been an exponential increase in surveillance. The ethical issue of most concern seems to be privacy. In the name of privacy, cameras cannot be used to record and charge speeders who race down our residential streets endangering the lives of children. Automatic Speed Cameras (photo radar) were phased out in the mid-90s. When the Conservatives regained power in Ontario in the mid-1990s under the leadership of Mike Harris, the experimental use of such cameras was phased out.

A report by Drive Safely Michigan stressed improving safety on residential streets by proposing alternatives to surveillance, that would decrease speed or reduce through traffic on local residential streets and in general developing a “traffic calming program” (stop signs, speed limit signs, turn prohibitions, one-way streets, warning and portable signs, speed bumps, rumble strips, street closures, traffic diverters and even road narrowing) to control speeds, but, at the same time, warning or “advising” drivers with permanent markings or signs about the cautions introduced. We have all seen the huge multiplication of these techniques, but I personally – and this is clearly anecdotal – have only observed increased speed on my residential street.

Why not assign officers to monitor traffic? How many? When? Use warnings or tickets? Two problems – the large cost and the effectiveness is restricted to only those periods and places where officers are deployed. What about Automated Speed Enforcement Devices, that is, speed radar and a 35 mm camera interfaced with a computer that could or could not be equipped with issuing automatic tickets? If a vehicle travels down a residential street over a preset threshold speed, the camera photographs the vehicle and its license plate. Tickets could be automatically sent out indicating the date, time location, posted speed and travel speed of the vehicle. Instead, in most jurisdictions, only warning letters are issued. Enforcing speed limits by general surveillance is viewed most frequently as an unwarranted expansion of surveillance. The fact that such surveillance might be significant in analyzing traffic problems that induce speeding and suggest intervention measures, gets slipped to one side in the debate.

There seems to be a misfit between the ethical principles at stake and the nature of contemporary crime. When I interview people on the issue, their concern is not privacy per se, but theft and fraudulent use of private information. They are not so much concerned with keeping their personal information private as preventing its misuse and criminal use. Perhaps, instruments to build in “Privacy by Design” might be helpful, but detection and intervention with actual criminality might be a greater issue.

Professor Akwasi Owusu-Bempah from the Department of Sociology raised the issue of race and the criminal justice system with the old issue of carding, collecting information on “suspicious” individuals, a process that disproportionately, and significantly so, focused on visible minorities, a practice evidently detrimental to policing itself and the integrity of the criminal justice system. Surveillance of what police do in their interactions with the public has undermined almost completely the practice of carding. I thought I had received a double message. On the one hand, traditional values, such as fairness and privacy were critical. On the other hand, in order to protect those values, the police themselves had to be continually subjected to surveillance.

Dr. Valerie Steeves, Associate Professor in the University of Ottawa Department of Criminology, directly addressed the issue of big data and the search for patterns using algorithms to both prevent crime and apprehend criminals. For one, big data can and has been used to undermine the thesis that harsh measures of incarceration cut down criminal activity and to establish that the decline in traditional crimes has taken place independently of such efforts. As far as prevention is concerned, using large data sets and algorithms have not proven to be useful in identifying potential criminality. The feeding frenzy accompanying the mastery of large data and analytics seems to her to be misguided and one must be humble in presenting proposals, implementing them and evaluating the results. Relying on efforts to create smart cities with monitoring sensors everywhere may also be misguided. Steeves was very wary about the process of privatizing the public sphere.

My sense was that the panelists were more concerned with traditional ethical concerns of privacy, transparency and fairness – valuable as those concerns may be – but totally out of touch with the need to understand and be equipped to counter the pervasive kinds of criminality in the use of big data now given almost free reign by the absence of both tools and training to even detect let alone interfere with this raging epidemic. Just because individuals generally are not being killed does not mean that enormous harm is not being carried out – from the pervasive fears that someone will steal my identity and hack into my financial accounts to the undermining of the very political structure on which the health of our society depends.

Hegel in his writing on police in the Philosophy of Right noted that the police were part of civil society and not the state, that they were given exceptional powers of coercion, but only to serve and protect the members of civil society, including, and most importantly, their right to vote in fair elections. The administration of justice is first and foremost needed to ensure that offences against property and persons are negated and the safety of persons and property sustained.

Police and the system of justice more generally were created in a modern nation-state first and foremost to deal with a subjective willing of evil – whether that evil be predatory sexual behaviour, racist victimization or criminal mischief-making. The latter activities, quite aside from a myriad of other pressures and influences, undermine the ability of individuals to make rational choices. Private actions outside of our individual or collective control that either do or could injure others and wrong them must be prevented and offset or compensated for when offences are committed. This is why traffic cameras to monitor speeding and automatically issue tickets should be instituted – not because they are perfect instruments, but because the benefits to personal safety and well-being far outweigh risks to privacy or error.

For the issue is not merely countering injury, but reducing the possibility of injury to as close to zero as is feasible given the need and desire to protect other norms. If police lack the training, if police lack the tools – and I use police in the broadest sense to include institutions such as an electoral commission – if police lack the budgets to counter both actual and possible offences of this order, instead of preventing and limiting harm, the system of justice will be abetting such harm.

This does not mean that surveillance need become ubiquitous. Rather, careful judgement and weighing of ethical norms as well as effectiveness are required to mediate between suspicion and commission of criminality, between suspicion and surveillance, between suspicion and inquiry, between suspicion and what is actually injurious as distinct for what is believed to be injurious, and between what is supposedly suspect and what is claimed to be injurious but is really innocent.

Let me give an example of a failure of policing and the justice system having nothing to do with large scale data and analytics. It was the second item on the CBC 6:00 p.m. radio news last evening. The issue had to do with the case of sexual predatory behaviour at Michigan State University. Yesterday, a former dean of the university, William Strampel, was charged for not preventing a sports doctor, Larry Nassar, from sexually harassing students. It had already been proven that Larry Nassar had for years violated girls and young women, particularly gymnasts, with his finger examinations. This once world-renowned sports physician was sentenced to 175 years in prison.

William Strampel was the dean of the College of Osteopathic Medicine and was responsible for oversight of the clinic where Nassar worked. Strampel failed to enforce orders by, at a minimum, not allowing Nassar to examine students unchaperoned. Nassar was eventually fired in 2016, but between 2014 and 2016, when Strampel had been fully apprised of the risk Nassar posed to students, he failed to set up procedural safeguards thereby allowing Nassar to commit a series of additional sexual offences.

However, in the process of the investigation, evidence turned up that Strampel’s computer had 50 photos of female genitalia, nude and semi-nude women, sex toys and pornography. Further, Strampel himself had solicited nude photos from at least one student and had harassed and demeaned, propositioned and even sexually assaulted students. Strampel insisted in his defence that he was not guilty of any of the charges, but that the problem of enforcing Nassar’s practices rested with the university’s Title IX investigators and not himself. Whether true or not, why was the university itself not charged with negligence with respect to its duty to serve and protect its students?

This is an old-fashioned case of an injustice, though one involving the accumulation of data as evidence. But it is not a case of analytics and large data. The question it raises is that if existing institutions are so grossly negligent in ensuring protection and safety for those for whom they are directly responsible, how can they be tasked with the much larger goal of preventing and inhibiting the epidemic of crimes committed through the use of analytics and large-scale data?

The root of the problem, in my estimation, is the widespread belief in untrammelled individualism. It is why Mike Harris pushed the policy cancelling the use of automatic speed cameras in Ontario. The belief is widespread that personal conscience is the supreme judge of morality precisely at a time when the consciences of individuals are being subjected to widespread manipulation. It is why sexual predators complain that their rights to privacy are being abrogated. It is why they argue that laws should only be introduced to which the individual consents explicitly to bind his or her will. The source of justice, in this misguided view, is seen to be each individual’s unrestricted and unguided conception of virtue and the common good. The result – the diminution of inherited practices of order and good governance that not only respect the individual’s rights to consent and freedom, but reinforce them precisely by also respecting community values and norms already developed to defend our institutions against new assaults. That now entails relatively minor investments in items like automatic ticketing speed cameras, which save money (and lives). Such initiatives also entail massive investments in the technology and skills necessary to counter cyber-criminality.

The 2013 Framework for Cooperation Agreement (FCA):

The 2013 Framework for Cooperation Agreement (FCA):

Transparency, Inspection and Verification


Howard Adelman

In Tehran, with the aim of “ensuring the exclusively peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear programme through the resolution of all outstanding issues that have not already been resolved by the IAEA,”  on 11 November 2013, IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano, and Iran’s Vice-President, Ali Akbar Salehi, signed a Framework for Cooperation Agreement (FCA). Those outstanding issues included disputes over IAEA verification activities, Iran supplying timely information about its nuclear facilities and the implementation of transparency measures. More specifically, the FCA laid out initial practical steps for Iran to take within three months, including allowing IAEA access to the Heavy Water Production Plant at Arak and the Gehine uranium mine in Bandar Abbas. Iran promised to provide IAEA with information on all new research reactors and nuclear power plants that Iran planned to build on sixteen sites. In addition, Iran agreed to provide information on Iran’s announced additional enrichment facilities and its laser enrichment technology. In return, IAEA agreed “to take into account Iran’s security concerns, including through the use of managed access and the protection of confidential information.” The latter qualification to the principle of transparency would offer an enormous target for critics of the IAEA agreement with Tehran.

The FCA is a short agreement that went to the heart of the IAEA role of inspection and verification as well as Iran’s responsibility to be transparent. The qualification: Iran demanded that this not give IAEA free reign to access Iran’s conventional military program. IAEA acknowledged that this would be accomplished through “managed access” and the non-disclosure of sensitive data. As Professor Toope pointed out, the transparency requirement and the inspection and verification procedures were necessarily intrusive because of IAEA’s decade long experience with Iran’s evasions, secrecy, misrepresentations and very low marks for demonstrating transparency. The record clearly shows why this deep distrust was warranted.

However, this absence of full transparency and the provision of misleading information were also characteristic of the data and analysis the U.S. Intelligence services provided to IAEA. The situation got so bad under the Bush administration that in February 2007, IAEA presumably leaked a report by some of the IAEA diplomats that most intelligence reports provided by U.S. intelligence to IAEA had proven to be inaccurate. The information did not lead to any discoveries that Iran had been surreptitiously conducting a military nuclear program.

This IAEA frustration with the U.S. even broke into the open. On 10 May 2007, IAEA, as well as Iran, denounced the report that Iran had blocked IAEA inspections of Iran’s enrichment facilities. Marc Vidricaire, the spokesman for IAEA, stated unequivocally, “We have not been denied access at any time, including in the past few weeks.” Thus, IAEA had to walk a fine diplomatic line between hyperbolic and false claims of the Americans under the Bush administration and efforts to sabotage the principle of transparency by the Ahmadinejad government in Iran. It seemed also clear that Iran was only really moved to demonstrate cooperation and transparency to try to head off further sanctions. This seemed certainly to be the case when Iran on 20 July 2007 gave IAEA access to the Arak complex over eight months.

There were even encouraging reports, such as the 30 August 2007 IAEA assessment, that Natanz was operating well below its capacity in enriching uranium; only 12 of the 18 centrifuge cascades were in operation. IAEA was also able to verify that there had been no diversion of the declared nuclear material. Even IAEA’s much repeated complaints about access to Iran’s plutonium experiments and the problem of contaminated spent fuel containers were resolved. Given IAEA’s stringent protocols for inspection and verification, these were impressive findings, especially since they took place midway in Ahmadinejad’s first term in office.

There was even a plan of action to resolve a number of remaining issues within a reasonable time frame. These measures proved to be insufficient even though they addressed the transparency, inspection and verification side of the puzzle. For Iran under Ahmadinejad was unwilling to curtail let alone cut back on Iran’s nuclear enrichment program. However, under the work plan, IAEA would be enabled to inspect and verify a number of issues related to the nature and scope of Iran’s nuclear program that it had not been unable to do heretofore. As a result, and seemingly undercutting the American push for more sanctions, Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the IAEA, in October 2007 told the International Herald Tribune that IAEA had no evidence of Iran developing nuclear weapons. However, IAEA still had a number of concerns about weaponization.

Subsequently, IAEA confirmed on 15 November 2007 that Iran’s claims and what was revealed through inspection and verification measures were consistent. The big issue remaining was Iran’s refusal to sign the Additional Protocol of the non-proliferation agreement to include plans as well as activities within its monitoring program. This was the key obstacle that was resolved in 2013. On the more substantive issues, Americans were pushing for complete cessation of all enrichment while Iran insisted on its right under international law to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes. This insistence persisted for a short period even when Ahmadinejad was replaced by a more progressive political leader in 2013. The logjam was only broken when Iran agreed to allow full transparency re both nuclear weapons production and planning, with the qualification that the secrecy of its conventional military not be breached.

At the end of 2007, after what appeared to be a sincere though very inadequate effort to satisfy IAEA and the P5+1, Ahmadinejad proposed a detour which was also interpreted as a feint. Enriching uranium for Iran would take place in a neutral third country, presumably one of the Gulf states. This was more than the P5+1 achieved in the end, but, as in 2004, a potential opening was closed because the P5+1 under U.S. pressure had adopted a very hard line – no enrichment whatsoever. Iran insisted that no self-respecting state could permit such a limitation on a peaceful nuclear enrichment program and refused to bend.

In spite of IAEA’s stellar performance of integrity as an international inspection and verification agency, the Israelis, Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s then Minister of Strategic Affairs in particular, denounced IAEA-director AlBaradei as a lackey of the Iranians.

On 22 February 2008, IAEA issued a clean bill of health on Iran’s nuclear enrichment program, including on all outstanding issues. This was confirmed three months later in the IAEA May Report, but Iran still refused access to its centrifuge manufacturing sites. Iran’s acceding to the Additional Protocol was important since, without that and the inspection and verification regime that went along with it, IAEA could only state that there was no evidence that Iran had a nuclear weaponization program. It could not verify the total absence of such a plan and program in undeclared nuclear facilities, for example, whether the claims by Iran’s critics that Iran had clandestinely received information on how to design a high explosive charge suitable for an implosion nuclear device.

What had been revealed? The list included such items as the fact that the number of operating centrifuges at the Iranian fuel enrichment plant in Isfahan had increased. All uranium hexafluoride was under IAEA safeguards, contrary to the multitude of rumours otherwise that uranium hexafluoride was missing. To summarize:

  • Even under the Ahmadinejad regime, and under pressure of increasing sanctions, the IAEA had gained access to all of Iran’s declared nuclear facilities
  • The outstanding issue on the inspection regime was whether Iran would accede to all the contents of the its nuclear program to enable the AIEA to investigate Iran’s past plans and its potential future ones
  • Beyond the transparency, inspection and verification issues, the S. kept insisting on complete cessation of Iran’s nuclear enrichment program.

The IAEA and Tehran were at a standstill. In its 19 February 2009 Report, IAEA noted that Iran continued to enrich uranium and had produced over a ton of low enriched uranium, contrary to the requirements of the UN Security Council, but at levels consistent with similar enrichment plants elsewhere. The Report also confirmed that no ongoing reprocessing had been taking place at Iran’s Tehran Research Reactor and Xenon Radioisotope Production Facility. However, Iran still refused to provide design information or access to verify design information for its IR-40 heavy water research reactor in accordance with the Additional Protocol and in spite of Iran’s February 2003 agreement to do so.

The Agency insisted on its right to verify design information independent of the stage of construction or the presence of nuclear material. Hence IAEA’s concerns about possible military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program. So the disagreement over Iran’s repeated refusal to implement the Additional Protocol continued, though the IAEA confirmed that, thus far, the agency had not been able to find any evidence that Tehran was seeking to make a nuclear weapon and that no nuclear material could be removed for further enrichment to make nuclear weapons without the agency’s knowledge though in September 2009 the IAEA reprimanded Iran for not disclosing that it had built another enrichment facility at Qom. IAEA demanded that Iran freeze its construction and any uranium enrichment.

By February 2010, IAEA had become thoroughly exasperated on learning that Iran had purchased additional sensitive technology, had conducted secret tests of high-precision detonators and modified designs of missile cones to accommodate larger payloads, all steps associated with the development of nuclear warheads. Since by May 2010 Iran produced over 2.5 tons of low-enriched uranium, enough when further enriched to make two nuclear weapons. The breakout period was now estimated to be about a year.

The IAEA-Iran dispute escalated. In July 2010, Iran banned two IAEA inspectors. In August, IAEA accused Iran of initiating a new cascade with 164 centrifuges at Natanz capable of enriching uranium to 19.5%. Fifteen months later, IAEA reported that it had credible evidence that Iran was designing a nuclear weapon and, through satellite imagery had identified a large explosive containment vessel inside Parchin. Iran continued to deny IAEA access to Parchin.

By the Spring of 2012, IAEA and Iran were engaged in a loud war of words, of accusations and counter-accusations. It was clear that Iran was operating more cascades, was enriching uranium to 19.5% but had not yet been able to get its advanced design centrifuges to work. Even more frightening, in May 2012, IAEA reported detecting uranium enriched to 27% at Fordow, an enrichment level that clearly pointed to the aim of producing a nuclear weapon. By August, Iran had doubled the number of centrifuges enriching uranium at Fordow and was now in possession of 190 kg of 19.5% enriched uranium, creeping very close to Israel’s red line of 250 kg, especially since in September 2012 AIAE reported that Iran had completed advanced work on its computer modeling pointing to advanced nuclear weapons research.

The situation continued to worsen. At Fordow, 16 cascades of 174 IR-1 centrifuges each had been installed with half in production mode, though only half of that half were actually operating. By November 2012, the total of highly enriched uranium had reached 233 kg, perilously close to Netanyahu’s red line. Iran continued to deny IAEA access to Fordow. Arak was expected to be operational in early 2014.

By February 2013, Netanyahu’s red line had been crossed. Iran had 280kg of near 20% enriched uranium. The rate of increase was 15 kg per month. The air was filled with rumours of an imminent Israeli air strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities in the aftermath of Israel’s 2007 destruction of the Syrian nuclear facility at Rif Dimahq. (See the 28 September 2012 Report of the Congressional Research Service analyzing the possibility of an Israeli strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities –   https://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/mideast/R42443.pdf) The signals to Iran and the rest of the world were unmistakable. Even Saudi Arabia let it be known that it favoured such an attack. Netanyahu warned that Iranian nuclear weapons would unleash the possibility of nuclear terrorism, provide Iranian sponsored terrorists with a nuclear cover and would threaten the world’s oil supply as well as instigating Turkey and Saudi Arabia to join the nuclear arms race in the Middle East. However, Israel still lacked the support of the U.S. for such an initiative as the Americans favoured further diplomacy, especially in light of the imminent elections in Iran. Israel had been supplied with bunker buster bombs, the U.S. continued to refuse to supply Israel with deep penetration ones. Even though Israel had only two planes known to be equipped to carry such bombs, Israel let it be known that it had plans to “go it alone.”

2013 was the tipping point. Israel’s chief of staff, Lieutenant General Benny Gantz in April 2013 said that Israel was still willing to give sanctions a chance, but warned that Iran could achieve “nuclear capability before the end of the year.” The doomsday clock had only eight months at most left.

Everything changed with the change in government in Iran, especially in the aftermath of Barack Obama becoming president. A Framework for Cooperation Agreement (FCA) was signed by IAEA.

Tomorrow: The 24 November 2013 Joint Plan of Action

On Stupidity: Rob Ford and Stephen Harper.22.05.13

On Stupidity: Rob Ford and Stephen Harper                                                         22.05.13 


Howard Adelman

Many will be offended by this blog. It is one thing to call Rob Ford, the Mayor of Toronto, and Stephen Harper, the Prime Minister of Canada, arrogant, insensitive, lacking in principle, full of themselves – you name the characteristic. But to call them stupid is to be abusive and insulting. That is why when I read the many and various articles and commentators and listened to pundits, I cannot recall hearing or reading anyone dubbing them stupid. Pundits do not want their own outrage turned against themselves by their readers or listeners. But the reality is, as Woody Allen cracked, “Some people drink deeply from the river of knowledge. Others only gargle.”

In Rob Ford’s latest imbroglio over a film of him allegedly smoking from a crack pipe and using derogatory words to depict Justin Trudeau and racist expressions for the teenaged footballers he coaches, and in Stephen Harper’s equally tight-lipped response to the Senate spending scandal and the much larger scandal of the Office of the Prime Minister being used to pay a Senator over $90,000, whatever the evidence for impropriety, unethical behaviour and even illegal behaviour, the greatest sin both men have committed is not even the sin of stupidity, though I believe that is their primary sin, but the sin of thinking that voters are stupid without acknowledgement of their own superiority in that realm.

We must be stupid. We may not have voted for them but we elected them. And we are stupid. For all humans are stupid. Everyone knows that when Confucius said that, “It is impossible to sling mud with clean hands” he was dead right. If we call someone else stupid, we must recognize our own stupidity. Stupidity is the fundamental condition of man, his original sin recognized by both Socrates and in the opening chapters of Genesis in the description of Adam’s behaviour.

Adam was the epitome of stupidity. That does not mean he was unintelligent. Webster’s dictionary is misleading in equating stupidity with unintelligent behaviour or unreasoned action. Adam was the archetypal scientist beginning with the most basic of traits of a scientific mind – classification through noting similarities and differences. Adam was made in the image of God because he brought things into being through language, by giving them names. He said and there was. But while very intelligent, Adam was also very stupid. After all, he did not even know he felt lonely. God had to tell him. And when Eve was created, he was so stupid that he did not recognize she was another person but imagined she was an extension of himself – an essential trait of the most fundamental forms of stupidity particularly characteristic of the male gender. Further, when the erect snake seduced Eve, he objectified that erection and said it was another, an independent being and not himself. “Oscar (or Peter) did it, not me.” The complementary behaviour of projecting onto everyone else one’s own stupidity is then blaming someone else for your own actions and failing to assume responsibility for what you do. This is the essence of stupidity.

“Stupid” is rightfully regarded as a derogatory term because we are stupid. That is why when Liberal MP Scott Brison yelled at Conservative MP Shelly Glover in Parliament to say, “You’re stupid,” the language was called “unparliamentary” and Brison was both ruled out of order and required to apologize. We must not say what we most fundamentally are, especially in parliament. We can say to someone that they are misinformed or deceptively misleading. But we cannot say they are stupid. We denigrate the adjective and demean it lest we have to accept it as our essence. That is why Socrates thought that the most fundamental moral lesson required is that we first learn that we know nothing and are essentially stupid. To make a mistake in reasoning is not being stupid; it is just being illogical. But not to recognize a fact staring us in the face is to be stupid. That is why Forrest Gump is such an intriguing character. He may have had an IQ of 70 – intelligence is measureable after all – but he was not stupid. His mother taught him to be wise. As he says sitting on his park bench, my momma always taught me that, “Stupid is as stupid does”.

Forrest Gump’s mother recognized that stupidity is not a trait, like beauty or intelligence. Stupidity is a practice. It is what we do, not how we are. Stupidity is a form of behaviour and not a reference to our intelligence. Stupidity cannot be measured but we can smell it, taste it, see it and hear it. It is a behavioural characteristic that most assaults us. And the assault was best captured by the response of one Tory supporter to the scandal on a CBC call-in show, “Cross Country Check-up”. “Does Harper think I am a blockhead?” Because that is how we recognize stupidity most acutely – when those who behave stupidly think and say or imply that in questioning stupid behaviour that we are the stupid ones.  

Stupidity is an embodied behavioural trait. It comes out in our sweat, in our pursed lips, in the way we use our tongue and haunch our shoulders. Most significantly, stupidity is the body language of the throat and larynx and emerges in the way we form our words. The most usual expression is stupefaction: “What me! I’m innocent. He – the snake, the Toronto Star, the Chief of Staff – did it.” Anyone else but oneself! That is the grossest language of stupidity. When our thinking is befuddled, when it is drowning in the recollection of stupid behaviour, we say stupid things. “It is ridiculous.” It is deserving of the mockery of a Jonathan Swift. It is not The Toronto Star that invites derision, that behaves ludicrously, but the language of the stupid perpetrator who denies responsibility that is absurd and laughable.

Stupidity is a disease. It can be diagnosed like an illness for it has a set of notable symptoms, an anatomical locale, a particular physiological pattern and a definite genetic aetiology in some. And the disease comes in different types and varieties. But we can take note of the general symptoms first of all in forms of the disease characterized primarily by general denial of what quickly becomes self-evident. The following traits of denial (DEODER) are symptoms of stupidity:

a) Displacement;

b) Evasion

c) Obfuscation;

d) Deception;

e) Egoism;

f) Remorse only for being caught.

Let me illustrate by reference to the behaviour of both Rob Ford and Stephen Harper who otherwise might appear to be at opposite ends of the disease spectrum. Displacement is the characteristic of blaming others for a current brouhaha for which one bears a primary responsibility. For Rob Ford, the fault is laid at the passion of journalists, and, particularly The Toronto Star, to get him. The displacement in his case is characterized by outright dismissal. Stephen Harper’s denial and displacement onto others is cooler, less emotive and more subtle. Look at his statement the day before yesterday. Nigel Wright alone and without the Prime Minister’s knowledge and against the Prime Minister’s ethical principles made the payment to Duffy and he, the Prime Minister, knew nothing about the payment. This is denial by displacement in the most blatant way by telling a partial truth.

Of course, Harper did not know that the payment was made or how it was made. Nigel Wright was Stephen Harper’s chief of staff, his fixer. He is expected to carry out his fixes in controversial and ethically problematic areas without the knowledge of the Prime Minister so the Prime Minister can maintain deniability. The leader of the Liberal Party, Justin Trudeau, betrays his naiveté and ignorance when he insists that the only way the public can learn about the secret payment is if the key players testify under oath. Harper could testify under oath with impunity and Trudeau fell right into the clever trap of the wily Harper. The denier tells a partial truth, but it is partial and reveals the lie behind it. And it came out in the profession of the higher ethical ground on which he stands. If I had known I would have disapproved it, he said. Precisely! The structure was set up to allow you to say that. But why would you have someone as intelligent and well trained as Nigel Wright in your office if you were so principled and he was so unprincipled? Why would you have someone in your office as your spokesperson defend Nigel Wright days earlier for acting out of the goodness of his heart, out of a generosity of spirit to save the taxpayers money? And why, if you were so ethically upset would you dismiss the whole affair the day before as a distraction? As the Tory caller from the Maritimes on the call-in show remarked, do you think we are blockheads?

Then look at the evasion. “I’m very sorry this has occurred.” Not, in retrospect I apologize for hiring such an unprincipled person as Nigel Wright that he would betray my trust and the trust of the Canadian people. No. Harper apologizes for the occurrence, for an event that embarrasses him but not for creating the context and the conditions that allowed the scandal to take place in the first place. And the irony is all the greater for Nigel Wright evidently has a reputation for being a man of integrity and principle, a straight shooter and not someone who practices displacement onto others and evasive responses.  

Does Harper agree to release all the documents and allow his staff to testify under oath about the circumstances that led to Nigel Wright agreeing to reimburse Duffy for $90,172 in ineligible housing expenses and per diems?  No. The denial is simply ratcheted up several notches so that the displacement, evasion and obfuscation are further compounded by more deception. Of course if he had been asked, he would not have approved the payment. The structure was designed so that he would not have to be asked. “Had I, obviously, been consulted, more importantly I would not have agreed, and it is obviously for those reasons that I accepted Mr. Wright’s resignation.” So why was Wright not asked to resign many days earlier when Harper did know if it was “obviously not correct for that decision to be made and executed without my knowledge or without public transparency.”

Nor is NDP critic, MP Charlie Angus, correct in suggesting that if Harper was unaware of Wright’s repayment, it raises questions about his management of the Prime Minister’s Office. Quite the opposite! That is precisely how top officials have always managed in a position of high office, whether they are Liberals, New Democrats or Tories. At least if you are a “good” manager. And Duffy, a former Capital Hill CBC reporter, could have taken the script right from Harper’s writers. As he said, “Canadians deserve to know all of the facts. I am confident that when they do they will conclude, as Deloitte has already concluded, that my actions regarding expenses do not merit criticism. I intend to co-operate fully with the board and with all other authorities and will have no further public comments until those processes are complete.” In the supreme egoism of the denier, there is no remorse for one’s own actions whatsoever, only remorse for the brouhaha.

The rest of the Tory cabal simply join the same chorus. In the House, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird said, “no one in the government knows about any legal agreement with respect to this payment.” The disease is clearly infectious. For no one was expected to know about any agreements. The question is whether the government will ensure that all discussions and all documents relating to the affair are made public instead of ignoring such requests. And everyone knows that the Senate and the PMO are both masters of their own worlds and can deny access to the RCMP to those documents and records or memories of discussions. You can be assured that the PMO did not have any built-in device to record all conversations for, however sick, no one is as monomaniacal in their egoism as Richard Nixon revealed himself to be in the Watergate scandal.

Thus, though Harper’s process of denial is far more sophisticated than Rob Ford hiding in an elevator and putting Doug Ford up front to insist that he believes his brother, the general locale and pattern of behaviour reveals the same basic elements. Both affairs stink to high heaven and cannot pass the smell test of even my generally insensitive nose. 

Look at the core issue. A mayor is accused of being a druggie. The Prime Minister is accused of having an office that illegally pays monies to Senators without clearance or revelation to an ethics commissioner. This is malfeasance of the highest order. In neither case will those acts be sufficient to force Mayor Rob Ford or Stephen Harper to resign because their backers have been chosen and hand picked and been conditioned to be sycophants and incapable to standing up to the shenanigans of either Rob Ford or Prime Minister Stephen Harper. The reality is that when the ethical and legal rot can be traced directly to the highest centres of power, then the public in a democracy must act to throw the bums out. Though the public is impotent for several more years, it can build its strength of disgust. The real pity is the absence of a leader waiting in the wings who with clarity and principle could step into those empty shoes.

The symptoms and the anatomical locale for the disease must be recognized for what they are. But the diagnosis requires more. Look at the physiological pattern of stupidity. In the case of Rob Ford, he wears it on his sleeve as a badge of honour. Over and over again he insists: “It is just lies after lies and lies.” And he is right. But it is not the Toronto Star that is lying. It is Rob Ford. He is a serial liar.

As The Toronto Star editorial yesterday morning opined: “Beyond any one incident, or gaffe or anecdote, consider Mayor Ford’s overall, long-term conduct…the mayor’s staff, troubled by his drinking, have encouraged him to enter a rehabilitation program.  The Star’s Robyn Doolittle and Kevin Donovan also reported that Ford was asked to leave a gala celebrating the Canadian Armed Forces last month because he appeared impaired… Earlier this month Ford was at another public event where former mayoral candidate Sarah Thomson accused him of grabbing her backside while posing for a picture. …Ford caused embarrassment a few days later when he reportedly showed up disheveled at a gathering attended by several orthodox rabbis and awkwardly delivered a pro-casino rant… Ford hardly ever schedules meetings or events after 3:30 p.m. — a remarkably lax attitude for the chief executive of a $9.4-billion corporation…Then there are Ford’s repeated calls to 911, including an allegation that he resorted to obscenities with a dispatcher; his drunken tirade at a hockey game, inflicted on a Durham couple and flatly denied until overwhelming evidence forced him to confess; and Ford’s no-contest plea on a 1999 Florida charge of impaired driving.  He didn’t tell the full truth about that, either.”

I think that this is a misleading litany, not because the list of failings is incorrect, but because the failings as presented reinforce a portrait of an individual with a substance abuse problem in terrible need of compassion and treatment. What is left out is Rob Ford commandeering a TTC bus so that his Don Bosco football team could be “escorted in safety.” Or Rob Ford advocating subways, subways, subways but offering no mechanism to pay for them and opposing any taxes to do so. Or Rob Ford, against the advice of a city lawyer, not only speaking but voting on a matter in which he was in a conflict of interest. Or Rob Ford, in perpetual campaign mode, pinning magnets on cars. Or Rob Ford bumping into a camera man who has been backed into a corner and then swearing at the camera man for hitting him. So when the Star says that, “What Toronto needs from Ford — what he owes everyone, including himself — is a full and frank explanation of what’s really going on. That’s the essential first step in making it better.” “Full” and “frank” and “explanation” are NOT part of Rob Ford’s repertoire.

Stephen Harper lacks Both Rob Ford’s crassness and his propensity to slip on banana peels. However, Stephen Harper is far more dedicated to institutional stupidity than Rob Ford. He gutted the basis of the Canadian long form census so crucial to collecting comparative data. He let 600 scientists go from Parks Canada who were the backbone of our collection of data on the natural environment. Though I am only really familiar with the Department of Foreign Affairs and the Immigration Department, Harper’s attack on the intellectual basis of policy analysis extended across the government; he closed the libraries and archives of the various departments so that policy could not be based on intelligent analysis by mandarins. Harper appointed an “economist” who knew nothing about libraries to be Canada’s chief librarian and archivist. Daniel Caron, that appointee then had the audacity to run up personal expenses of $174,000 over two years as he dedicated his appointment to cutting $10 million in the budget by laying off staff, cancelling grants to independent archives and ending the interlibrary loan program that made access to much vaster collections available to civil servants. After all, why would they need them if civil servants were not being used to develop policy options based on data collection and analysis or permitted to speak to the public without permission for the dedication to ignorance as the foundation for action had to be insulated from any wider discourse or interaction.   

As Christopher Hume wrote last year when hundreds of scientists protested against “the Death of Evidence,” “Not only was the protest unprecedented, even extraordinary, it struck at the dark heart of the New Canada, a nation more interested in hiding the truth than understanding it, exploiting resources than conserving them. Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s decision to search-and-destroy the environmental movement has now been ratcheted up to the next phase; his government has launched a war against science itself, an attack on the collection and analysis of the very data that enable us to comprehend the world of which we are part and on which we depend.”


What is the cause of this disease whether it expresses itself in a crass form or in a polished and suave way? The cause, as philosophers and theologians throughout history have recognized, is in all of us, and deepest and most intractable to those of us who wear a costume of transparency or profess profusely about a dedication to accountability. Rob Ford is the authentic man; he is what you see, a fat, sweaty doofus but a real guy’s guy, highly opinionated and lacking a self-critical gene in his DNA.  Stephen Harper has been dressed by the experts and talks in cool and melodious tones. He became Prime Minister and the first act of his government was to table the federal accountability legislation following the Gomery Report and the Sponsorship Scandal. Harper’s changes focused on building a moat against undue financial influence from outside. But who knew that Harper’s expertise would be in building far more important moats, moats against any intellectual influence from within government and intelligent intercourse between government officials and the public. Undue economic influence is not to be equated with undue intellectual influence, but Stephen Harper believes in cutting off both. His major changes to the government were about the latter rather than about the former recommended in the Gomery Report. As Christian Rouillard from the University of Ottawa, an expert in governance and public management, said at the time, “I fail to see how any change of law, or how any additional norms or rules and regulations could make sure that political actors that deliberately choose not to follow the law, will from now on.”

Transparency is as transparency does. Accountability is as accountability does. Stephen Harper has constructed the most secret government in the history of Canada.

When we deny who we really are – especially males with a more pronounced dedication to stupidity – then we will act out in a war against reason. It will be a never-ending war secretly dedicated to the life of non-reason. Only when we recognize that propensity, only then will criticism by others and self-criticism be esteemed and valued.  However, when we inherit an anti-critical gene, then those who carry this handicap will be a danger to us all. Rob Ford’s dedication to non-intelligence is only surpassed by Stephen Harper’s dedication to protecting his esteem for his own intelligence against the intrusions of either his own self-critique or the criticism of others. As the German poet, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, wrote, there is nothing more frightful than ignorance in action.” Or, as one of the greatest scientific minds, Einstein, put it: “Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I’m not sure about the former.”

Stupidity is as stupidity does.