31 May 2007

Norway: land of peace and plenty

Not only is Norway one of the world's most prosperous nations, it has now been ranked the world's most peaceful by the Global Peace Index. The index, compiled by The Economist with a team of international experts, ranked 121 countries on the basis of 24 indicators which measured ongoing national and international conflicts, national safety and security, and militarization.

New Zealand and Denmark came second and third. Canada ranked eighth -- not bad. Rock bottom, not surprisingly, was reserved for Iraq. Our wayward neighbour to the south, instrument of Iraq's woes, managed to break the top 100, but barely, at 96th.

So kudos to Norway. What with its vigorous economy (its petroleum-based heritage fund is now worth over $300-billion), it sounds like a very nice place to be indeed.

30 May 2007

The catch-22 of Omar Khadr

Omar Khadr is the young Canadian who was captured by the Americans in their war in Afghanistan. He fought heroically. The last survivor of a five-hour battle, he was subdued only after being seriously wounded (he is now blind in one eye). Before succumbing to his injuries, he threw a grenade that killed one GI and wounded others.

Omar can hardly be blamed for his actions. He was only fifteen at the time, a victim of brain-washing
in extremist Islam since his birth. He was sent to Afghanistan by his father. And he was, after all, fighting in a war. Nonetheless, the Americans intend to try him for murder.

But how, you might well ask, can he be tried for murder for killing an enemy soldier during a war? Well, the Americans answer, he isn't a prisoner of war, he is an "unlawful combatant," a term invented by the U.S. administration to circumvent the Geneva Convention.

Now, the Americans have declared that if he is acquitted of the charges, they can hold him indefinitely anyway. Why? Well, they say because the war on terror isn't over and convention allows them to hold captives until a war ends. But if he was captured in a war on terror (their words), and he is held indefinitely because the war continues, mustn't he be by definition a prisoner of war?

So this is Omar's predicament. He can be tried for murder because he isn't a prisoner of war. If he's convicted, he could be sentenced to life in prison. But if he's acquitted, he can still be imprisoned indefinitely because he is a prisoner of war. Catch-22.

How sad that Joseph Heller isn't still with us. He would have appreciated yet another example of his famous phrase in action.

28 May 2007

Why are subsidizing these counterfeit Canadian TV networks?

The two private Canadian TV networks, CTV and CanWest, recently went on a huge buying spree in the U.S., continuing their trend to spend more on American shows than on Canadian. CanWest alone bought 13 new U.S. dramas. They did announce one Canadian production -- set in Boston.

In 2006, private broadcasters spent $478.6 million on drama, a 15 per cent annual increase, for American shows, and just $70.9 million, a 16 per cent decrease, for Canadian shows. That's seven times as much. As for overall programing, they spent $686 million on foreign programs in 2006, $619 million on Canadian programs.

Every penny the networks receive, they receive from Canadians. Their revenue depends entirely on advertising and of course the source of all advertising revenue is us, the buying public. Every time we buy something, we pay for the cost of advertising the product, and therefore, whether we like it or not
, we pay for the mass media (and yes, that includes the daily press). We have no choice, at least not if we want to buy food, clothing, gas for our car, and all those other mundane things. Unfortunately, this coercive subsidizing of corporate media we can do nothing about.

Government handouts to media we can do something about. Canada's broadcasters receive over
$200 million a year in public support from the Canadian Television Fund, Telefilm Canada, and several provincial tax supported programs. Considering that we already subsidize all their expenses via advertising, handing out another $200 million ventures beyond generosity into foolishness. That money should be spent on programming for the one truly Canadian network, the CBC.

24 May 2007

Is fighting global warming a lost cause?

Yet another article in my daily paper has me wondering if exercising environmental responsibility, and fighting global warming in particular, isn't delusional.

The article in question had to do with house size in the United States. As the average number of people per household declines, now down to 2.6, the houses they live in get bigger. The fastest growing house type in the country is those with five or more bedrooms. The average new house is now 2,434 square feet. That's almost 1,000 square feet per person -- what are those 2.6 people doing in all that space? Do they ever run into each other? And why do they each need two bedrooms?

So as I truck down to the recycling bin with my little collection of newspapers, cans and bottles, am I kidding myself? Are my efforts for the year undone with the building of just one more monster house?

Maybe the only sensible thing to do is get in on the hedonism. Drive the big SUV, buy the big house, fill it up with stuff, and enjoy, enjoy, enjoy. Life is short, you only live once, let the future take care of itself, etc., etc. Or maybe I just got out of the wrong side of bed this morning.

First the Cloverdale Rodeo, next the Calgary Stampede?

To its credit, the Cloverdale Rodeo in suburban Vancouver has dropped four events from its program. Calf roping, team roping, steer wrestling and the cow-milking race will no longer be part of the "fun." Finally, somebody in this questionable business has recognized that tormenting animals for pleasure is not perhaps the most humane thing to do. Other events will continue, but this is at least a start.

Debra Probert, executive director of the Vancouver Humane Society, has this to say about rodeo: "They're exploiting the reaction of animals to pain, fear and stress. They harass them. They kick them. They goad them. ... they harass them into acting like wild animals." All true, of course.

As a Calgarian, I am embarrassed each July when our internationally famous Stampede, "the greatest outdoor show on Earth," features the torment of innocent animals as prime entertainment. And it appears I will continue to be embarrassed. A spokesman for the Calgary Stampede & Exhibition stated they don't anticipate eliminating any events, claiming, "The Calgary Stampede is passionate about the proper treatment of animals."

So the cruelty will continue. Ya-hoo!

23 May 2007

The Manitoba voter -- an analysis

The Manitoba NDP won a convincing victory on Tuesday, capturing their third term in a row while winning more seats each each time out. The results depended on some interesting demographics, as revealed by a Winnipeg Free Press/Global TV survey conducted just prior to the election.

Not surprisingly, women were much stronger NDP supporters than men. Forty-eight per cent intended to vote NDP with only 34 per cent supporting the Conservative opposition. Men were much more evenly split at 41 per cent NDP, 40 per cent Conservative.

Voters over 55 showed majority support for the NDP (51 per cent) compared to 34 per cent for the Conservatives. Youth on the other hand, those between 18 and 34, narrowly went the other way, 41 per cent Conservative, 37 per cent NDP. Those in-between sided with their elders, 47 per cent NDP, 37 per cent Conservative.

Interestingly, income made little difference with all groups from rich to poor favouring the NDP at a ratio roughly 1.2 to 1. University-educated voters, on the other hand, showed a strong preference for the NDP, 48 per cent to 33 per cent, while those with less than university education split about evenly between the two parties.

Town and country made a major difference. Winnipeg voters, particularly in the inner city, strongly preferred the NDP, 51 per cent to 29 per cent. In the rural areas, the picture reversed with the Conservatives topping the NDP 49 per cent to 34 per cent. Liberal support varied little, 17 per cent in Winnipeg and 15 per cent in the countryside.

So that's the picture. NDP voters are more likely to be women, over 30, university educated, and urban. And, of course, they are more likely to vote for the winning party.

21 May 2007

Is George Bush fulfilling Osama's dream?

According to Lawrence Wright, author of The Looming Tower, a history of the events leading up to 9/11, Osama bin Laden's master plan was to do a Soviet Union on the U.S. He would provoke the Americans into invading Afghanistan where they would be humiliated by the mujahedeen. The collapse of the United States would quickly follow. That, after all, was what happened to the Soviets.

But he spectacularly miscalculated. He drew the Americans into Afghanistan all right, but instead of being humiliated, they nearly destroyed al Qaeda. And if they had pressed on, they probably would have. But of course they didn't. Inexplicably, they eased off and threw their efforts into Iraq instead.

The result, of course, has been the fulfillment of bin Laden's plan. So far, at least. The Americans are being humiliated while Islamic extremists grow in numbers and expertise. But will the final phase of his plan come about -- the collapse of the United States? The war has bitterly divided Americans, but collapse? Of course not. Nonetheless, things could get very much worse.

Bush and his neocon advisers have not only precipitated bloody chaos in Iraq, they are destabilizing the region. Forty to fifty thousand refugees are fleeing Iraq every month, mainly to Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, and these countries simply cannot sustain such a migration. Just feeding them and providing shelter is a huge burden. The refugees often face tough restrictions that prevent them from finding work or gaining access to health care and other public services. As they become increasingly angry and bitter, they will increasingly threaten the stability of their host nations.

No, the US. will not collapse, but Iraq has and much of the rest of the Middle East could follow. The stage is being set, by the United States no less, for a triumphant surge of militant Islam in the Middle East. Osama must be smiling in his cave.

18 May 2007

Paul Wolfowitz -- neocon to the end

So they didn't have to drag Paul Wolfowitz kicking and screaming out the front door of the World Bank after all. I would say he had the decency to resign; unfortunately he didn't resign decently. Admitting to no sins, offering no apologies, he had, according to The Globe and Mail, "only praise for himself."

He exhibited the same arrogance, the same self-righteousness, the same contempt for the opinions of any who had the temerity to disagree with him, that was characteristic of the neocons who led the United States into the Iraq debacle, of which he was a chief architect.

The damage he has done to the Bank is serious but should be easily reparable. Not so reparable is the damage done to the influence of the United States on the Bank's affairs. The disenchantment of the Europeans is manifest, and
already the right of the Americans to appoint the president is being challenged.

This is symptomatic of what the neocons have done to their country. They have not just created immediate problems but have done deep damage to their country's interests. The next administration will have a big repair job on its hands.

16 May 2007

NATO - the new arm of empire?

NATO's Director of Policy Planning Jamie Shea has announced his organization is considering deploying sea-borne rapid-reaction forces to help private oil firms. So far, NATO has been in discussions with Shell and BP. "We are looking very actively at using our maritime resources ... to see how we can link up with oil companies," Shea said. This could mean sending forces to Africa, Asia and the Middle East to protect oil company facilities. NATO has also approached Qatar about securing its liquified natural gas facilities and may approach Saudi Arabia. All this, of course, is in the name of energy security.

First the North Atlantic, then the world.

14 May 2007

Holding the bully's coat

The Bush administration is doing it again. They will persist in picking fights. And we apparently are, to borrow Linda McQuaig's phrase, prepared to hold the bully's coat.

As host of next month's annual summit meeting of the G8 industrial powers, Germany has prepared a strong declaration on climate change which includes pledges to limit global temperature rises to 2C this century and reduce world greenhouse gas emissions to 50% below their 1990 levels by 2050.
A modest goal, yet according to Reuters news service, the United States has "rejected any mention of targets and timetables, don't want the UN to get more involved and refuse to endorse carbon trading because it must by definition involve targets." Yup, sounds like the Bush administration. And apparently our benighted government intends to support the U.S. position.

In addition to pushing
for an ambitious plan to combat global warming following a European Union deal earlier this year, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has also made a sincere attempt to improve Germany's relations with the United States. With their opposition to her initiative on global warming, the Bush people could undermine that budding relationship before it blossoms. This administration seems bent on alienating its friends.

Nothing is more important than dealing with global warming, and the United States produces more greenhouse gases than any other country. This is an opportunity for Americans to show some responsibility and support Chancellor Merkel's proposal. They could even show some leadership and propose even tighter targets than the Germans. But no, they refuse even to follow, never mind lead.

And, sadly, we will tag along behind. Holding their coats.

11 May 2007

Gouged at the pumps: good or bad?

The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives has issued a report claiming oil companies are overcharging us to fill up our gas tanks. Even if they are right, I admit to ambivalence.

Of course I don't want to see consumers ripped off. Nor do I believe corporations should profit through oligopoly rather than through honest competition. But I also recognize the higher gas prices go, the less gas people will use, and isn't reducing consumption the best way to reduce greenhouse gas production?

I also recognize the price of gas deceives us about the real cost of driving a car. If we had to pay directly for all the associated costs, including tax subsidies to the oil industry, the full cost of transportation infrastructure, the cost of policing roads, and the vast range of environmental, health and social costs created by environmental degradation and urban sprawl, the price of a litre of gas would be many times the current pump price.

So if the price of gas is artificially high because of the oil oligopoly, drivers are still getting a free lunch, and a hearty one at that. If environmental damage and urban sprawl are mitigated even a little, the higher price certainly isn't all bad. Making progress requires picking the right battles. I'm not sure the
Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives chose well in this case.

10 May 2007

Alberta's cowboy caucus: Rent problem? What rent problem?

Despite a government task force report advocating controls on Alberta's overheated rental market, Premier Ed Stelmach is digging in his heels. "Rent controls will only make the situation worse," the premier insists, without explanation.

Meanwhile, renters in Calgary suffer from increases up to 200 per cent. Fred Bisschop, who suffers from
a heart and lung condition, lives on $1,212 per month in government assistance. He will see his rent increase by 50 per cent to $1,110. "This is going to wipe me out," he said.

The position of Stelmach's government is not surprising. Even though Calgary and Edmonton make up over half the population of Alberta, his cabinet is dominated by rural MLAs. But it is in Calgary and Edmonton, particularly in Calgary, where the rental crisis is most severe, and rural MLAs are not known for their sympathies for the problems of big cities. At least one urban Tory
, Calgary-Nose Hill MLA Neil Brown, has openly broken ranks and voiced support for controls.

Stelmach's government is essentially a rural government, but the big problems of the current rampant economic growth are suffered predominantly in the cities. If this government can barely understand the challenges facing Alberta, how can it be expected to deal with them?

09 May 2007

Sarkozy and the work ethic

The election of Nicolas Sarkozy as president of France will no doubt be welcomed by capitalists and their supporters everywhere. Certainly his decision to spend the first few days after his victory on a luxury yacht belonging to one of the richest men in France does not suggest otherwise.

The French are constantly criticized for a relaxed attitude toward work, epitomized by their introduction of the 35-hour week. Editorials in the corporate press -- The Globe and Mail serves as a good example -- are amusing in their frustration with the French. They find French workers' approach to life and work incomprehensible. Why, they seem to plaintively cry, would people want more time with their families, more time to engage in politics and community life, more time to simply enjoy themselves, when they could be producing and consuming ever more stuff? Isn't producing and consuming stuff the purpose of life? These French, the editorial writers conclude, must be mad.

But what, a person less sympathetic to corporate obsession and more sympathetic with the French view might ask, is the point of decades of extraordinary technological advance and globalization, if it only means we must work harder, we must submit to the soul destroying mantra "we must compete in the global marketplace," we must serve the economy rather than have it serve us, if the only measure of progress is rising GDP?

After all, the corporate sector and its political puppets promised us globalization would improve the lives of all of us. Working harder than ever in some kind of mindless competition would hardly seem much of an improvement. But then to the corporate mind, progress is more production, more consumption, more growth, more profit, more market share, more GDP. And GDP doesn't measure happiness, pleasure, healthy family life, responsible citizenship or respect for the environment that sustains us.

Sarkozy sides with the corporate crowd. He will serve them well. For those of us who believe modern technology should be freeing us to make more choices about how we live our lives rather than submitting us even more to economic servitude, his election is bad news indeed.

08 May 2007

Alberta public schools and the lies they tell

In the beginning, only water lay beneath the sky. There being no solid place to dwell upon, the first people lived in the heavens. One day the chief’s daughter fell ill and he could find no cure. An elder told the people to dig up a tree and lay the girl beside it. As the people dug, the tree suddenly fell through the hole and dragged the chief’s daughter with it. Two swans, swimming on the water below, heard a clap of thunder and looked up to see the sky open and the tree and the girl fall into the water. The swans swam to the girl and supported her, and took her to the Great Turtle, master of all the animals. The Great Turtle called a council. He told the animals that Woman Fallen from the Sky presaged good fortune. He commanded them to find the tree that had fallen and bring up earth from its roots so that they could build an island on his back for the woman to live upon. The swans led the animals to the place the tree had fallen and Otter, then Muskrat and then Beaver dived into the depths. But the dive was so deep they returned to the surface utterly exhausted, and rolled over and died. Many others tried but they too succumbed. Finally old lady Toad took her turn. She was gone so long everyone thought she was lost forever when suddenly she emerged and before she too died she spat a mouthful of earth onto the back of the Great Turtle. The earth was magical and began to grow. When it was large enough, the animals set the girl down upon it. Still it grew, until it became the great earth island we live upon today.
This charming myth, this delightful bit of nonsense, was once an ancient truth to the Iroquois people of eastern North America. It was their theory of how the earth was formed and how people came to dwell upon it -- their creation myth. This myth will not, however, be taught as truth in Mitford Middle School, a public school in Cochrane, Alberta. The Christian creation myth of Genesis will.

It, too, is charming, a delightful bit of nonsense, but it will be taught as scientific fact at Mitford. The Rocky View School Division is instituting a Christian program at Mitford, supplementing one it already has in place in a school in Chestermere and adding to similar programs in Elk Island, Pembina Hills and Red Deer public school districts.

Mitford's principal, Bill Bell, says Christian beliefs will be woven through every subject in the program. Regarding teaching the Christian creation myth as science, he added, "The first teaching will be from a Christian point of view and then there will be an acknowledgment that there is another theory."

Another theory? If he's referring to evolution, that life evolves is a fact not just "another theory" -- at least as much as we can know a fact. He may be thinking of Darwin's theory of evolution, i.e. natural selection, which is the mechanism of evolution, the way it works, not evolution itself. And a sound theory it is, having withstood any serious challenge for nearly 150 years.

As to Genesis, it is one creation myth among hundreds, even thousands. All peoples had one at one time, at least until science came along. To teach a creation myth as science is to insult science, education and, indeed, Mitford public school. To say nothing of betraying children to lies. And to do it at public expense is outrageous.

Public money spent on education should not be used to indoctrinate children in theology -- that's the questionable business of home and church -- and it should certainly not be spent on programs that exclude children because of religious belief. The "Christian" program at Mitford doesn't just exclude atheists, Jews, Muslims, Hindus and other religious groups, it even excludes most Christians. It isn't so much Christian as fundamentalist Christian. Most Christians after all, including the Catholic Church, have come to terms with the fact of evolution.

If we are going to exploit public education to substitute fairy tales for facts, then in all fairness we should give the Great Turtle his due as well.

Why are we tight with these Saudi misogynists?

While we send soldiers to Afghanistan to do battle with the Taliban, ostensibly to promote human rights in that country, particularly for women, we remain cozy with the most misogynistic country on the planet, Saudi Arabia. Even when they shove their misogyny in our face.

Just last week, at an education fair in that benighted country, the religious police shut down a Canadian embassy booth, as well as a booth run by LaSalle College, because they were staffed by women. According to George Chrysomilides, president of the Canadian Education Network, "... the religious police were very rude. They shouted at them in a way that was disrespectful ..." The women were then run off the grounds.

The Canadian embassy claims it had prior permission for the women to be there, but this cut no ice with the Saudi Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice. Because the women were staffing these booths alone, Canadian organizers had even gone to the trouble of separating them from the main pavilion to show respect for Saudi sensibilities. Even that humiliating act of deference
apparently wasn't enough.

So why do we defer to these barbarians? Well, in this case it may have something to do with the fact they send hundreds of very rich students to Canadian universities and colleges. One wonders if the Taliban were flush with oil wealth, and were willing to send a little our way, we might be willing to overlook their idiosyncrasies.

03 May 2007

Brit general supports Iraqi insurgents

Retired British General Sir Michael Rose, who has in the past called for the impeachment of Tony Blair for going to war on false pretenses, now says Iraqi insurgents are justified in opposing the occupation of their country. He says the U.S. and its allies should admit defeat and depart. As to the dire consequences some predict, he insists they won't happen, observing, "The British admitted defeat in North America and the catastrophes that were predicted at the time never happened. The catastrophes that were predicted after Vietnam never happened. The same thing will occur after we leave Iraq."

As for the insurgents, he compares them to George Washington and his rebels during the American revolutionary war and quotes 17th century British politician William Pitt, the elder, who famously said: "if I was an American ... as long as one Englishman remained on American native soil, I would never, never, never lay down my arms". "The Iraqi insurgents," Rose says, "feel exactly the same way."

Now here's a general who learns from his history.