30 November 2009

Olympic pettiness

No one protects their brand more zealously than the International Olympic Committee. They are an arrogant outfit and once they alight on a city, they like to control every aspect of the games, including the money game. It isn't surprising then that the Vancouver Organizing Committee (VANOC) is perturbed that some hoteliers in the city are charging rates during the 2010 winter games in excess of those agreed upon by most hotels. The majority signed a pact with VANOC to limit their rate increases to 16 per cent. A few didn't.

Why, one wonders, shouldn't those few make hay while the winter sun shines? It's called free enterprise, supply and demand, and all that. If the majority wanted to sign a pact, that's their problem. And why is VANOC so upset when it has the great majority of the hotels under its thumb? Is absolute loyalty to the OIC required if they grace a city with their favours? Must every last one submit to the Olympic ego?

In any case, these wayward hoteliers will feel the heavy hand of VANOC. It monitors rates and leans on hotels who earn its displeasure. It has requested Tourism BC remove the offending hotels from the Olympic-sanctioned travel website, and is urging those hoteliers who have signed the pact to put pressure on their peers.

Considering the big, big bucks involved in the 2010 winter Olympics (almost a billion dollars for security alone), it seems incredibly petty to pursue a few small entrepreneurs. If those who want to go their own way are being greedy, they are just getting into the Olympic spirit. Or at least into the IOC spirit.

28 November 2009

Ed Stelmach's "reasonable" world

Premier Ed Stelmach is asking the other provinces to unite with Alberta in adopting “reasonable” greenhouse gas reduction targets. Ed is particularly upset about the strategy recently announced by Quebec which includes reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 20 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020, a target similar to the one set by the European Union.

Any target Ed would set would almost certainly be unreasonable, at least if by reasonable we mean avoiding the collapse of civilization, or worse. Global warming is that serious, but Premier Stelmach, like his federal counterparts, doesn't, or perhaps just won't, recognize how serious it is. They continue to talk about balancing the environment and the economy, but the environment cannot be balanced with the economy, the economy must defer to the environment. After all, the environment doesn't need our economy, indeed it would be vastly better off without it, but our economy absolutely must have the environment. The only reasonable goal is to create an economy that fits into a sustainable environment. You don't balance the two because the importance of one overwhelms the importance of the other. You recognize the primacy of the environment, you determine what it needs to remain healthy, and you design an economy which serves that end.

That, and only that, is reasonable.

27 November 2009

Welcome, Al Jazeera (with reservations)

In my morning tour of news sites on the web, Al Jazeera English (AJE) is always on my list. If you're looking for a more Third World perspective on the news, AJE is the place to go. Now the CTRC has given it permission for digital satellite broadcasting in Canada.

Qatar-based AJE offers a 24-hour news service in over 100 countries. Its coverage has at times offered not only a different perspective but a unique perspective. For example, following the 9/11 attacks, it was the only channel to cover the war on Afghanistan live from its office there. During the Israeli invasion of Gaza, it had six reporters in the territory when the Western media had none.

I do have a reservation or two about AJE joining the Canadian broadcasting world. The network has, and I find this particularly galling, agreed to work with the Canadian Jewish Congress and B'nai Brith Canada on concerns they may have about its content. This kind of self-censorship by the media is offensive. And then of course we will be receiving Al Jazeera English, a toned-down version of the original, Al Jazeera Arabic. Still, it's another voice, a more Third Worldly voice, a much-needed voice in a media world immersed in conservative, Western perspectives.

26 November 2009

Bush had his Blair; Obama has his Harper

On Wednesday, Prime Minister Harper said he wouldn't be attending the climate change meeting next month in Copenhagen. On Thursday, he said he would. Why the change of mind? Simple. U.S. President Obama declared he will be attending.

Former prime minister of Great Britain, Tony Blair, gained a reputation as a poodle for dutifully following the policies of the Bush administration. But not even Blair was as subservient to the U.S. as we have become under the Harper government.

We used to take a relatively balanced approach to the Middle East and as a result wielded considerable influence in the region. Under the brilliant diplomacy of Lester Pearson we even managed to end a Middle Eastern war and we gained a Nobel prize for it. Now we meekly follow the American lead of unequivocal support for Israel and have no influence at all.

We once gained respect in the international arena through our efforts at peace-keeping. Now we have abandoned that honourable role to commit ourselves to little more than marching in the tracks of American troops in the futile Afghan war.

Then there's the global warming challenge. Here, with our wealth, we could be a leader. Instead we wait for the Americans to do something significant so that we can mimic them.

At least Bush had to ask Blair for support. Obama doesn't even have to do that. He heads for Copenhagen and his poodle trots obediently along behind him.

20 November 2009

School daze: the homework rebellion

Parents, it seems, are starting to rebel against the amount of homework given their children. A couple in Calgary, for example, have contracted with their children's school to free their two kids from homework. Speaking from my own experience as a child, I applaud their effort. Although it's been many decades since I was little, the memories growing very vague indeed, I still remember the joys of after-school. And I was a kid who liked school.

I've always thought of school as a kid's job. Everybody should enjoy their job, but there's much more to life than work, and school can be hard work. Just as a healthy adult life needs lots of time for other things -- family, community, fun, etc. -- so does the life of a child. Indeed, especially the life of a child. Children need to play. They learn from play as much or more than they do from academic pursuits. Play expands their brains in ways of its own.

And as for homework, it doesn't seem to do any good anyway. According to a variety of studies, homework is of little or no benefit to elementary grade students. It does, however, add to the stress on children and on families, rather like what happens when adults bring their work home. In other words, it may be leading kids into bad habits.

So let them play sports, make music, read, goof off, whatever. Liberate the little rascals.

14 November 2009

Telling lies about Canada: the new guide for immigrants

I confess to being a history buff. I am a member of our local heritage society, a member of the Alberta Historical Society and editor/designer of the local chapter's newsletter, and a member of Canada's History Society (and, needless to say, an avid reader of each issue of The Beaver). So naturally I read with considerable interest the history sections of the new guide for immigrants issued by the federal government . I was appalled. The guide, "Discover Canada: The Rights and Responsibilities of Citizenship," presents a grossly distorted view of this country's past.

While it goes on at great length about Canada's wars, including an in-your-face poppy, it contains exactly one sentence on peacekeeping. About our non-military contributions to the international community it is silent. Nothing about foreign aid, whether it be food aid, helping countries create democratic institutions, or any of the other substantial contributions we have made toward a more democratic and equitable world. Nothing on our involvement in negotiating the Land Mines Treaty or on the leading role we played in creating the International Criminal Court, one of the finest contributions to international justice in all of history. And incredibly, nothing on our greatest international hero and father of modern peacekeeping, Lester Pearson, the only Canadian to win the Nobel Peace Prize, a man who actually ended a war.

By omitting the peaceful side of our contribution to the modern world, the document lies about us, a lie of omission. It carries the lie into our domestic affairs as well. It only mentions the Canada Health Act in one sentence, yet the struggle for Medicare was one of this country's greatest battles for what many Canadians believe to be the institution that more than any other defines us. Needless to say, the architect of Medicare and the man chosen "greatest Canadian," Tommy Douglas, is absent.

Perhaps the omission of the Liberal Pearson and the NDPer Douglas is not surprising in a Conservative document; nonetheless, we should be able to present a reasonable approximation of the essential Canada to newcomers. Instead we have something that is simply not us, a narrow part of us, yes, but much less than what we are.

The document does nicely illustrate why we shouldn't teach history in our schools. It is simply too difficult to teach fairly. If it were taught objectively such that it increased students' understanding of our species, including the Canadian version, I would support the idea. Unfortunately, it is more often used to propagate tribal myths. And the myths propagated are often warrior myths. History is often captured, as it has been in this document, by militarists.

How sad that that the picture of us future citizens will get is a view through the distorting mirror of militarism. I hope the guide will, at least, be kept out of the schools. We shouldn't lie to children.

13 November 2009

The colonial legacy: why the Third World supports the Palestinians and we don't

One of the persistent divisions that crops up in the United Nations General Assembly has to do with Palestine. While the West can usually be counted on to support Israel's side on an issue, the Third World can be counted on to support the interest of the Palestinians. Such was the case with the recent votes on the Goldstone report which criticized Israel and Hamas for actions in the Gaza war.

This division in views arises for a variety of reasons, an overriding one being our relative experiences with the colonial enterprise. We in the West were the winners in the imperial adventures of the last few centuries. In North America we were particularly successful. We created our nations by stealing the lands of the native peoples and colonizing them. We have therefore an empathy, a bond, with the Jews in Palestine: noble settlers creating their country out of a wilderness amidst hostile natives. That's our experience, our history.

Third World people, on the other hand, have the opposite experience. They were the natives. They were the losers, the victims of the colonial enterprise. They were deeply humiliated and will take a long time to recover their confidence. The opposite experience gives them the opposite perspective. In Palestine, we see the noble enterprise of building a nation; they see the ignoble enterprise of stealing one from its rightful owners. We see the Jews as builders, they see the Palestinians as victims. We all see events through the lens of our own history.

Bias rooted in historical experience was largely responsible for the U.S. debacle in Iraq. The Americans saw themselves as liberators, the bringers of freedom and democracy. Their self-righteousness blinded them to the fact the Arab people see them as patrons of Israel, the last vestige of colonialism in the Arab world and the tormentor of Arabs. Until the U.S. forces itself to comprehend the sensibilities of the Arab street, its aims in the Middle East will be confounded.

Specifically, its ability to bring peace to Palestine will falter, and there is probably no issue more important to international order. The Palestine situation has created a toxic relationship between the Arab, and to a large extent the Muslim, world and the West. This toxicity has spread internationally, reaching New York on September 11th, 2001. It will continue to make mischief until the West learns to put itself in the shoes of the Arab people and appreciate their animosity toward what they see as a colonial imposition on their region. They may be right about Israel, they may be wrong, but they have to be understood. Trapped within the boundaries of our experience, we refuse to try. Meanwhile, the Palestinians continue to suffer, a just settlement moves further away, and the failure continues to spread its poison.

12 November 2009

What the hell is this? The GG in military drag?

I avoided buying a morning paper yesterday to spare myself yet another dose of militaristic mush, and what do I find front and centre in this morning's Globe and Mail? Governor-general Michaƫlle Jean looking like the head of the Girl Guides. Obviously my timing was wrong, I should have avoided this morning's paper.

What is this military binge were on all about?

For the first ninety years or so of our history we were proud defenders of the British Empire. That's why we fought in the First World War. Not for freedom but for the right of the British to lord it over Africans and Asians. We fought in the Boer War, for God's sake.

After WWII we changed tack, switched to the more moral and sensible course of peace-keeping. We even won a Nobel Prize for it. Now we are told that's over and done with and we are warriors again, fighting for the right of the Anglosphere to dominate world affairs, this time for the new version of Anglo power, the American Empire.

So now we must watch our Governor-General strut about in military uniform just like the royals love to do. Has the office gone to her pretty head? Does she think she's a royal now? Quite a switch for a lady who once flirted with separatists. Personally, I preferred the old Michaƫlle.

11 November 2009

Why is November 11th only for those who sacrifice in war?

Today, many Canadians will commemorate the sacrifice of men and women who died serving their country in battle. And why not? Sacrifice in a good cause is certainly honourable. Sacrifice in a bad cause, such as the First World War ... well, best save that for another day.

But why, on this day of memory, do we only honour those men and women who give their lives in war? We all serve our country, and people in various professions sacrifice their lives for the greater good. Fishermen, police officers, miners, firemen, loggers, journalists, and others take risks in their working lives serving the rest of us. When they too make the ultimate sacrifice, why are they not included in the wearing of poppies, the moment of silence, the memorial services of November 11th? Memorial services exist for groups other than the military but they are restricted to the periphery of our national consciousness.

Is dying in the act of killing others more honourable than simply dying in the service of others? Is a fisherman who dies at sea less worthy of commemoration than a soldier who dies in Afghanistan? Personally, I have a great deal more respect for a killer of fish than a killer of men.

I understand the primitive urge to defend the tribe. It is genetic and powerful, and has always made the defender of the tribe, the warrior, the first among men. But in an age when our weapons for that defence - nuclear, chemical and biological - can destroy us all, surely we must get beyond the primitive instincts and rituals of the warrior ethos. We should at least include equally in our rituals those who make the ultimate sacrifice in constructive endeavours rather than destructive ones.

10 November 2009

The elusive truth about drugs

Earlier this month a great row erupted in the U.K. when the government fired Professor David Nutt, chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, for claiming that evidence about drug harm was being distorted and the issue politicized. One of the things that intrigues me about the affair is Professor Nutt's findings about what he refers to as "a peculiar media imbalance in relation to drugs."

In reference to a comprehensive study in Scotland, he noted that over the decade of the 1990s, Scottish newspapers reported on 546 drug deaths out of the 2,255 that occurred. The reporting ratios were as follows:
  • For aspirin, one out of every 256 deaths was reported
  • For morphine, one in 72
  • For heroin, one in five
  • For methadone, one in 16
  • For amphetamines, one in three
  • For cocaine, one in eight
  • For ecstasy, almost every death was reported
Certain facts jump out at the reader. For instance, the limited attention paid to legal drugs such as aspirin and morphine compared to the close attention paid to heroin, cocaine and even amphetamines even though amphetamine deaths were relatively rare. Ecstasy deaths were even rarer, yet the newspapers hardly missed a one, clearly creating the impression ecstasy is more dangerous than it is.

No alcohol deaths were reported on even though this would have added another 2,000-3,000 to the total, as many or more than all the other drugs combined. No cannabis deaths were reported either, but then you can't die of cannabis overdose.

Obviously, newspaper readers in Scotland get a distorted picture of the relative danger of various drugs. It would be interesting to see a similar study done in this country. If our newspapers are as biased as theirs, we may be basing our drug policies on misconceptions.

03 November 2009

Is Obama abandoning the Palestinians?

The game has gone on for a long time. The Israelis steal more land in the West Bank, the U.S. dutifully chastises them, the Israeli prime minister visits Washington and the U.S. quietly submits to the new reality on the ground. Hope arose that the election of Barack Obama might finally put a stop to this charade and apply the necessary pressure to force Israel into ceasing its colonization and offering a just deal to the Palestinians.

The Palestinians themselves were skeptical. As it turns out they were right to be. In direct violation of what both Israel and the U.S. agreed to in 2003, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has supported Israel's position that it doesn't need to freeze settlement activity as a prelude to resuming peace talks with the Palestinians. According to Clinton, "This offer falls far short of what our preference would be, but if it is acted upon, it will be an unprecedented restriction on settlements and would have a significant and meaningful effect on restraining their growth." So, apparently the new American position is that growth of the settlements is OK as long as it's "restricted" and Israel defines what restricted means. As for the settlements that have been established to date, Clinton, not surprisingly, had nothing to say.

This is a severe slap in the face for Palestine Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. According to Alastair Crooke, a senior advisor to Obama's Middle East envoy George Mitchell, "This pulls the rug out from under everything [Abbas] has stood for." One wonders how many more humiliations he can endure.

The Israeli tail wags the American dog for a variety of reasons: guilt over the Holocaust, the similarity of cultures, the empathy of one people who stole their country from the natives for another people who stole their country from the natives, and so on. But shouldn't Obama, with his background, have been able to rise above this and do justice for an oppressed people?

Perhaps, but now he faces another reason. He desperately needs every vote in Congress to pass a health care bill, his most important piece of legislation, as well as an environment bill, his second most important piece of legislation. And who is the most powerful lobby in Washington, who has the most influence on Congress? Why, the Israeli lobby of course. Obama knows that if he offends Israel, the Israeli lobby could very well undermine his domestic priorities. Politics is all about tradeoffs, and it looks like the Palestinians are being traded off.

The dog continues to wag, under Obama just as it did under his predecessors, leading one to suspect that Israel's colonization of the West Bank will continue until there's no more land worth colonizing.