Sometimes I interview people in Starbucks…

Chuck is from Toronto, lives in Toronto, and I met him in this Toronto Starbucks. He spoke to me reminiscing about his experiences of moving to Alberta in the 1970s to work in the oil sands. Here’s he discusses the wildlife, scenery, working conditions, and his fond memories.

Here’s his response to my question about negative perceptions of the oil sands.


Don’t be a Nodder: Painting, Poem, and Periagoge

On Saturday I visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City with a group of wonderful students with whom I am currently attending the Witherspoon Institute‘s First Principles seminar.

Although it was my first time to the Met, being there reminded me of attending “Museum School” as a child. For one full week in Grade 3, my class and I had daylong visits to the Glenbow Museum where we explored art, artifacts, exhibits, historical documents, and international collections. We were given journals and encouraged to be curious and careful observers. The goal was to be still and observe with a sense of wonder, reflectively considering the “5Ws” – who, what, when, where, and why. We were encouraged to not try to observe everything, but rather to observe a few things well. We were educated to not race throughout the museum saying superficially, “That’s nice” and “That’s interesting.” In short, the most memorable lesson of Museum School was: “Don’t be a nodder.”

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What are the Foundations of International Political Economy?

Here are some initial thoughts I have for a paper I am writing in a class called Politics of the International and Economic Order.

I would like to argue that among political scientists, there is a tendency to personify non-persons, while, at the same time, dehumanizing actual persons. This is an especially common temptation for international relations theorists. Though they are often called “actors”, states, governments, international organizations, agencies, departments, programs, the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, non-governmental organizations, corporations, etc. do not act. Only human persons act. Action is important because it denotes intellect and will. Only upon recognizing that actions are what human persons (and only human persons) do, can we assign moral responsibility to the persons acting within these larger organizations. Otherwise, individual persons are shielded from responsibility within a bureaucracy and among the masses within a system.

Possible titles include:
Toward a Praxeological Approach to International Political Economy OR,
A Return to International Relations Rooted in Natural Law OR,
A Deconstruction of International Relations

My professor warned me to make sure that it is an International Political Economy paper. The below post is an attempt to understand a bit about the nature and foundations of the sub-discipline.

Dr. James Keeley also advises his students to remember the adage: before you study something, understand it thoroughly. This reminds me of a quotation attributed to Francis Bacon: “A prudent question is one-half of wisdom.” Sir James Steuart references this quotation in his 1767 work An Inquiry into the Principles of Political Economy in which he says:

I have read many authors on the subject of political oeconomy; and I have endeavoured to draw from them all the instruction I could. I have travelled, for many years, through different countries, and have examined them, constantly, with an eye to my own subject. I have attempted to draw information from every one with whom I have been acquainted: this, however, I found to be very difficult until I had attained to some previous knowledge of my subject. Such difficulties confirmed to me the justness of Lord Bacon’s remark, that he who can draw information by forming proper questions, must be already possessed of half the science.

In his preface to the Inquiry, Steuart discusses the “complicated interests of society”, the habit of running into “systems [that] are mere conceits”, and the imperfection of language insofar as “the signs of our ideas take the place of the images which they were intended to represent.” It is with these prefatory comments that Steuart anticipates, at the outset, the underlying problems that continue to exist for any person endeavoring to give an account of political economy, whether of the domestic or international variety.

Before analyzing the meaning of “international”, it is worthwhile to first consider the meanings of the terms “politics” and “economics.” The etymologies of these words reveal the oxymoronic quality of such phrases as “International Political Economy” and “International Relations”. Politics is derived from the Greek word politika which Aristotle used to denote “the affairs of the polis[1]“. Economics is derived from the Greek word oikonomia which refers to that which is “practised in the management of a household or family.”[2] Xenophon wrote a treatise titled “Oeconomicus”, or “The Economistin which Socrates and Critobulus dialogue on the science of the household. And so, the origins of the terms politics and economics seem to involve accounts from the perspective of the soul [or the individual] as the city writ small rather than from the perspective of the city as the soul [or individual] writ large.[3]

The preposition ‘inter’ meaning ‘between’ or ‘among’, is derived from Latin and appears in such Latin phrases as: “inter alios, amongst others, other persons”; “inter nos, between ourselves”; “inter partes (Law), of an action: relevant only to the two parties in a particular case”; inter se, between or among themselves”; and “inter vivos, between living persons”.[4] The noun ‘nation’ shares a root with nāscī, meaning to be born and “nation” came into origin in order to describe ‘a people united by common language and culture’, and ‘family, lineage’.[5] Both ‘inter’ and ‘nation’ are etymologically rooted in defining the nature of local phenomena, that is, persons, families, and communities.

From appeals to justice in Thucydides’ History of the Pelopponesian War, to arguments for legitimacy in Shakespeare’s The Life of Henry the Fifth, to the rules outlined in the Geneva Conventions, international relations in its current expression should be understood within the order of history. Providing context serves elucidate that, though a relatively new sub-discipline within political science, international relations is not actually new. Persons perpetually debate about power, authority, legitimacy, duty, stewardship, human dignity, law, nature, and morality.

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Iberian scholastics now referred to as ‘the School of Salamanca’ were foundational in laying the intellectual groundwork for contemporary international law and international relations. According to Alves and Moreira:

The origins of (what we now call) international law go back to the Roman law concept of ius gentium [law of nations], a set of principles and rules that are derived from natural reason (and not from national legislators), and are common to all peoples, and apply equally to all mankind. […] Vitoria, Soto, Molina, and Suarez all agreed that the ius gentium was common to all mankind and that it could be recognized by reason even though it was not created through the will of an assembly or human legislator.[6]

In order to rescue international relations from its capture by Machiavellians[7] and men of system[8], political scientists should rekindle the relationship of international relations to international law and the relationship of international law to natural law. A return to understanding international relations as one aspect that is but an extension of natural law would lead to a restoration of moral judgment in this domain of politics. Where moral judgment is the primary aim, individual persons, their acts, and their motives will be returned to the centre of the study of politics. A personalist approach is preferable to a systematic, institutional, statist, or any other approach based upon abstractions. Theorists’ use of abstractions, often involving calling non-persons “actors”, leads to a deflection of responsibility. The problem is that you and I are not sure where to direct our moral judgment… either praise or blame.

As Steuart says: “Man we find acting uniformly in all age, in all countries, and in all climates, from the principles of self-interest, expediency, duty, or passion. In this he is alike, in nothing else.”[9] It is through studying the human person and by offering a humble effort at striking at some truth of human nature and the human condition that international political economy can be helpful to understanding what is local. Claiming to account for the mystery of what is macro is most often a conceit of knowledge and the impetuous for planners to lead communities into “the highest degree of disorder.”[10]

Please leave comments and recommended reading for me in the comments section below.

[1] Polis. Greek “city state” with a certain population and connected to the concept of citizenship based on birthplace.

[2] Oxford English Dictionary.

[3] With reference to Plato’s discussion in The Republic.

[4] Inter, preposition, OED. “inter, prep.”. OED Online. December 2012. Oxford University Press.

[5] “nation, n.1”. OED Online. December 2012. Oxford University Press.

[6] Major Conservative and Libertarian Thinkers. The Salamanca School. Andre Alves and Jose Moreira, 59.

[7] Steuart discusses the Machiavellian tendency to “approv[e] the sacrifice of private concerns in favour of a general plan”.

[8] Smith discusses ‘men of system’ who are “so enamoured with the supposed beauty of their own ideal plan of government that they cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it.”

[9] An Inquiry into the Principles of Political Economy by Steuart.

[10] Smith’s warning about the ‘men of system’.

Blessed are those who do not “work the room”

Today the second reading at Mass struck me.

Here it is:

“My brethren, show no partiality as you hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory.

For if a man with gold rings and in fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in,

and you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, ‘Have a seat here, please,’ while you say to the poor man, ‘Stand there,’ or, ‘Sit at my feet,’

have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?

Listen, my beloved brethren. Has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which he has promised to those who love him?” James 2:1-5

In a room there is a common temptation to scan the room for the so-called important people. The failure to resist this temptation often leads to someone dismissing one conversation partner so that he or she can “work the room.”

A friend with whom I volunteered at a lofty dinner event lamented that one of the other student volunteers turned her back on her mid-sentence to shake the hand of someone who she determined to be more worthy of her time.

Sometimes it seems that adults will follow the person with the most dignified title or position in a foolish manner comparable to how small children will all chase after a soccer ball in a cluster.

The above reading challenges us to recognize the equality in the sanctity of each person. While we can respect certain offices and authorities, ultimately we should be able to shake someone’s hand in a similar spirit of respect and charity whether that person is the prime minister or a person outcasted by much of society.

Mother Teresa was able to do her good work because she said, “I see the face of Christ in one of his more distressing disguises.”

A friend of mine named Laura Locke reflects on this topic very beautifully. She writes:

“Why is it that we so often feel drawn to people on the other end of the spectrum?  We give our attention to the powerful, the good-looking, the rich, the talented, the confident ones who are very successful at looking after themselves.  I guess we naturally lean towards people whom we secretly strive to be – and who strives to be an outcast?  But Jesus invites us to follow in his footsteps, to walk with him down the dusty back roads, seeking the people that normally garner no one’s attention.”

The gospel is filled with paradoxes. This is true of philosophy also and very untrue of ideology.

It is interesting to reflect on the different experiences of community from an informal gathering sharing coffee and donuts with strangers after church to the experience of attending a political convention which tends to consist in swapping business cards and credentials. There is something to learn from both and really from any experience with others. However, I think it is important to balance these sorts of experiences so as to not become blinded by the partiality mentioned in scripture.

At every mass the congregation says, “I confess to Almighty God and to you my brothers and sisters that I have sinned through my own fault….” Whereas, at political events we tend to essentially find a way to say, “I profess to you my colleagues and acquaintances that I have succeeded through my own achievement…”

The more that we derive our sense of identity from what we do rather than who we are, the more challenging it is for us to see the instrinic dignity of others.

Young people are often encouraged to network so that they can “get ahead”, but this seems to be a perverse notion of relationship. Instead, let us be encouraged to love one another so that we can get to heaven. I think that the authenticity of the latter will bear more fruit both in this life and the next.


A few thoughts on conference etiquette

“Etiquette is the science of living. It embraces everything. It is ethics. It is honor.”
– Emily Post

Attending numerous conferences renders one particularly perceptive to the unique kinds of manners and conduct that can be typically observed at such gatherings.

Recently I attended a political conference and inspired by a few observations I made, I would like to share a few thoughts on conference etiquette.

Arrival: When arriving to a conference there is usually a registration desk. Regardless of how much you may expect to be recognized and greeted by name, it is a courtesy to take the initiative to introduce yourself upon arrival. This way you help expedite the registration process and make it easier for those at the registration desk to find your name tag and confirm your attendance on their list.

Dress Code: Sometimes the conference organizers inform attendees of the dress code. If not, it is appropriate to ask the organizers. Otherwise, err on the side of professionalism. Sometimes I like to look at photos of the same conference or event from previous years to get a more exact sense of how people dress for the particular occasion. If you find yourself making excuses to yourself for your attire, chances are that you should change.

Business Cards:
Everyone who attends a conference should bring business cards -enough cards for every conference attendee even. A key purpose of conferences is networking and exchanging business cards is a great way to make connections. When you receive a business card, you should receive it graciously. This may mean taking note of the design or some interesting piece of information on the card and making a comment or offering an affirmation. Then, the card should be respectfully placed in a pocket or cardholder. Cards should not be carelessly left behind on tables, the floor, or the buffet table. At the earliest opportunity, write a note about the individual you met on the back of their card. Perhaps note the key topics of your conversation or the most interesting things you learned from them. Then, when you return home from the conference, send them an email to follow-up and thank them for the pleasure of meeting.

Language: Avoid jargon and acronymns. Both jargon and acronyms can serve to exclude people unfamiliar with the terms and also tend to carelessness in speech. There is a way to explain words that may not be known by everyone rather than patronizingly defining them. By taking the time to explain what you mean, people will be attracted by your inclusiveness and thoughtfulness.

Research: Conference programs are generally released in advance and usually you can predict what kinds of people will be there. It is a good idea to research the panelists, keynote speakers, attendees, and organizations involved. This will make introductions smooth and you can have a solid frame of reference for most conversations.  People are flattered when you recognize their place of work, their research interests, their latest media appearance, and especially anecdotes from their biography. Be careful not to lead on to just how extensive your research has been or to how sharp your memory is. This somtimes comes across as creepy.

House Rules: The recent conference that I attended invoked the “Chatham House Rule.” Essentially, this rule was summarized: “What is said here, stays here.” Curious about the origin and nature of this rule, I did some research.

The Chatham House Rule reads as follows:

“When a meeting, or part thereof, is held under the Chatham House Rule, participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed.”

It is important to respect the conference rules because how you honour or dishonour the rules will be a reflection of you. It is especially helpful to know the spirit of the rule so that you can adhere to it accordingly. All of this is especially good to bear in mind in light of new technologies that grant us the opportunity to publish instantly. As the adage goes: “Think before you tweet.”

Questions: At most conferences there is an opportunity to ask questions publicly. In this excellent article How to Ask a Question Peter Wood laments that we seem to have lost the art of asking good questions. He begins his article explaining what happened when the floor was opened for questions at a debate:

“The questioners by and large had no questions. Instead they offered up prolix piles of words that led nowhere in particular. Some sought to show off what they mistook as their own superior knowledge. Others scolded. A few got lost in their own labyrinths. The closest we came to a question was the j’accuse rhetorical jab more or less in the form, ‘Don’t you agree that you are an ignorant buffoon?’

Some of the questioners were deliberately abusing their opportunity. That’s bad manners and an erosion of the civility that is needed for worthwhile public debate. But a good many of the questioners simply didn’t know how to ask a question. They were caught in the fog between wanting to communicate something that seemed to them urgent to declare and the need to ask.”

When asking a question at a conference, I recommend beginning by stating your name and where you are from (city or university or company, for example). Avoid providing an oral resume. Far too often individuals spend two minutes describing how qualified they are to ask the question before finally taking a full minute to ask it. When asking a question, remain standing at the microphone until the question has been answered.  Avoid the most specific references in questions that are outside of the parametres of what has been the focus of discussion. For example, it seems odd when, after a session on the principle of religious liberty or the global financial crisis, people stand up and ask very particular questions about Latvia and Pakistan. Share your personal and niche interests when you mingle, not during question period.

Speakers: When you are the speaker at a conference, arrive early. It is good to arrive early enough to visit with conference participants and perhaps to join them for a meal. Then, it will also be appreciated if you can stay for a short while after to address individual questions and to receive compliments! Making time for participants when you are the speaker in this way will show that you respect your audience and are willing to go above and beyond showing up to speak and collect a fee or honorarium.

Speakers should definitely avoid apologizing during their presentations and confessing to a lack of preparation. A speaker should not say “in conclusion” or “I have only a few minutes remaining” when he is only halfway through his presentation. This makes the audience anticipate a speedy end to the presentation that they would otherwise likely be far more attentive to sit through were the speaker to make no reference to time.

The chair of a panel or the master of ceremonies should always greet the speakers who they invite to the podium with a handshake. It is important for the chair to take this initiative and for the other speakers to respond the gesture. The podium should never be left unattended. Applause should occur consistently before and after each speaker and it is the role of the chair to model this to the audience. Applause should be held until the speaker arrives to the podium to be greeted by the chair. Even when the chair and a speaker are friends, hands should be shaken rather than a hug or any other reception at the podium.

For more resources on public speaking and leadership, check out Toastmasters.

At conferences there tends to be buffet meals, plenty of socials, and lots of occasions to go out for drinks. It is typical to not feel even a bit hungry or thirsty throughout such a conference. However, consider how moderation and a little sacrifice can serve to cultivate discipline that can sharpen your conscientious dealings with others. Intentionally foregoing some of the luxuries at conferences is a good way to stay focused on the purpose of the conference and to be sensitive to others.

Intensity: Conferences are intense experiences. They provide opportunities for tremendous growth personally, professionally, academically, and even spiritually. Aim to strike a balance between total immersion and a bird’s eye view.

Reflection and Goal-setting: After a conference has ended, take the time to reflect on your experiences. Write down your observations, memories, highlights, etc. Then, set goals. What actions do you resolve to take inspired by this conference? Do you intend to attend the same conference again? Are there similar ones that you can attend? What were the highlights? How will you transform your experience into action? How has the conference shaped your character?

Happy conference-going!