26 February 2010

GM buries the Hummer

It won't be missed. U.S. sales, two-thirds of the total, plunged from 56,000 in 2007 to 9,000 last year. The days of the infamous Hummer, symbol extraordinaire of gas-guzzling excess, are numbered. After Chinese regulators rejected a $150-million bid for the brand by Sichuan Tengzhong Heavy Industrial Machines Co., General Motors announced that unless it receives another bid "in pretty short order," it will wind the brand down.

Jobs will be lost (hopefully to be replaced by jobs building sensible cars), but the environment will benefit. It will not miss what has been referred to as "the most polluting way to get from one place to another in the most public way." A loss for conspicuous consumption will be a gain for the planet.

25 February 2010

U.S. demands a more aggressive Europe

The United States is the most violent country on the global stage. No other country fights more wars. Western European nations have, by contrast, been relatively peaceful since the slaughter of WWII, at least with each other. The Obama administration does not appreciate this new ethos. It has accused the Europeans of being too pacifistic. According to U.S. Secretary of Defence Robert Gates, "large swaths of the [European] public and political class are averse to military force and the risks that go with it." Horrors. The Europeans are "averse" to solving problems by brute force. How very unAmerican of them.

Gates claims that European pacifism is "an impediment to achieving real security and lasting peace." An interesting observation considering that massive military spending and interminable warfare by the United States -- it spends almost as much on defense as the rest of the world combined -- doesn't seem to have achieved security for Americans. At least not in their minds. They feel so besieged they spend ever more to fund the "war on terror" while becoming ever more paranoid.

Nor has it done much for other people's security. Three million Vietnamese lost their lives in that lengthy exercise in American belligerence. Over 100,000 Iraqis have died violently and over 4,000,000 driven from their homes since the U.S. invaded in 2003. And now the slaughter grows in Afghanistan.

The Americans are targets of extremists precisely because they are constantly getting in other people's faces. Instead of being concerned about European pacifism, they could try practicing a little of their own. It just might do wonders for their security.

24 February 2010

Tobin tax attracts some heavyweights

A global financial transactions tax, a Robin Hood tax, a Tobin tax ... call it what you will, it's day may finally be dawning. In 1972, American economist James Tobin proposed a tax designed to reduce speculation in the international currency markets which he saw as dangerous and unproductive. He suggested using the proceeds of the tax to fund projects for the benefit of Third World countries, or to support the United Nations.

Now, 350 prominent economists from around the world have written to the leaders of the G20 calling on them to implement a 0.05% tax on all speculative financial transactions "as a matter of urgency." The economists include Nobel prize winner Joseph Stiglitz as well as Jeffrey Sachs, George Soros and Warren Buffet.

Their letter reads in part: 
This tax is an idea that has come of age. The financial crisis has shown us the dangers of unregulated finance, and the link between the financial sector and society has been broken. It is time to fix this link and for the financial sector to give something back to society.
This money is urgently needed. The crises of poverty and of climate change require an historic transfer of billions of dollars from the rich world to the poor world, and this tax would offer a clear way to help fund this.
Trading in foreign currencies, stocks, bonds and their derivatives is now over $3,260-trillion a year, about 60 times the world's GDP, powerfully facilitated by networked computers. The result has been described as turning the financial market into an "electronic pinball," with billions ricocheting blindly across continents in split seconds in pursuit of instant profits. Regulating the pinball is in itself necessary for financial stability, and using the regulation for good works, as the economists suggest, is the icing on the cake. Alleviating poverty and fighting climate change are international responsibilities so an international tax is perfectly appropriate.

The G20 will probably reject the idea at this summer's meeting, but the consensus in favour is growing. And it is attracting some very prestigious champions.

22 February 2010

A tale of two courts

Our Supreme Court is a splendid example of both equality for women and the ability of women. The Court consists of five men and four women with a woman as Chief Justice. That's about as equitable as you can get. Canadian justice is the main beneficiary of this maximizing of Canadian talent, but not the only one. Our Court is internationally respected with its judgments quoted in proceedings around the world.

Egypt, in contrast, has only one woman on its highest court and if the Council of State, an influential body that advises Egypt's government, has its way, they won't have any more. Last Monday, the council voted 334 to 42 against the appointment of women. Incredibly, the decision contradicts the Egyptian constitution which reads, "All citizens are equal before the law. They have equal public rights and duties without discrimination between them due to race, ethnic origin, language, religion or creed."

Up until 2007, Egypt had only one woman judge, Tehani al Gebali, who was appointed to the Supreme Constitutional Court by the president. Then the country's supreme judicial council selected 31 women for the bench. Conservatives, who claim women are not suited for the role, strongly objected. They are now getting their revenge. Both Egyptian women and Egyptian justice will pay the price.

19 February 2010

The death of John Babcock and the Great Lie about the Great War

The papers this morning featured the death of the last Canadian veteran of the First World War, John Henry Foster Babcock. A sad day indeed for the friends and family of Mr. Babcock although he did live a long and active live, dying at the remarkable age of 109.

Sad, too, is the occasion being used to perpetuate the Great Lie about the Great War. Prime Minister Harper, referring to Mr. Babcock and his compatriots, said "They paid dearly for the freedom that we and our children enjoy every day." That of course isn't true. Quite aside from the fact Mr. Babcock never saw action, no one "paid dearly" for anyone's freedom in the First World War. The only possible exceptions are those Africans and Asians who served in British, French and German regiments. They may have naively thought they were fighting for their freedom, but they were quickly disabused of that dream once the war was over.

The 67,000 Canadians who died in the war certainly paid dearly, as did the 173,000 who were wounded, but they weren't paying for anything of value. They didn't sacrifice their lives for any great cause. They died in a bloody-minded exercise in mass stupidity perpetuated by a bunch of arrogant, decaying European empires. They died participating in easily the stupidest thing Canada has ever done. They died for nothing, for less than nothing.

The war is often referred to as a defining moment in Canadian history. And it was. It defined the low point in our history. It defined the nadir of misguided colonial loyalty. We participated for no other reason than we were part of one of the arrogant empires involved in the Great Folly. If we had had the imagination and courage to stand up and say no, we are not participating in your foolishness, now that would have been a defining moment worth commemorating.

If we want to learn from history we have to accept hard truths, including the hard truth that the Great War was little more than pointless mass slaughter, that we made a huge blunder in immersing ourselves in it, and that we threw away the lives of thousands of Canadians like we would throw out the garbage. We should stop telling ourselves easy lies, as comforting as that may be.

17 February 2010

Gay rights confronts biblically-inspired hate in Africa

Homophobia is running rampant in Africa. Thousands of Ugandans demonstrated this week in support of proposed anti-gay legislation. The Ugandan parliament is considering a bill that would impose life imprisonment as the minimum punishment for anyone convicted of having gay sex. The maximum will of course be the death penalty. Ugandans are obliged to report any homosexual activity to police within 24 hours or risk up to three years in jail. Malawi is prosecuting two men jailed in December for holding a wedding ceremony. They could be imprisoned for up to 14 years. Gay sex is illegal in 36 African countries.

And what is fueling this outburst of hate? Phumi Mtetwa, executive director of the Lesbian and Gay Equality Project, a South African-based group, suggests at least one culprit. Commenting on the current binge of homophobia, he says,  "It's exploding at the moment, but it's been happening for a year and a half. We have proof of American evangelical churches driving the religious fundamentalism in Uganda." Knowing the attitude toward gays among fundamentalists in the United States and combining that with their missionary zeal, we are not surprised they should take their toxic views to Africa.

And of course they can rely on the Bible to support their bigotry. The good book says, in Leviticus 20:13, "If a man lies with a man as he lies with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination. They shall surely be put to death. Their blood shall be  upon them." Not known for tolerance, the Bible.

As a non-believer, I've never quite understood why people who claim to believe in the teachings of a gentle Jesus allow this Old Testament poison to infect their philosophy. I imagine quite a few gays in Africa are wondering the same thing. For them, however, it's a rather more serious matter.

15 February 2010

Utah -- the Tennessee of climate change?

In 1926, high school teacher John T. Scopes was charged with teaching evolution at Clark County High School in Dayton, Tennessee. After a famous trial, dubbed the Scopes Monkey Trial, Scopes was convicted and fined $100, a fine later set aside by the Tennessee Supreme Court.

Scopes was accused of violating Tennessee's infamous Butler Act which made it unlawful to teach in any state-funded school or university "any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals."

Utah’s House of Representatives has now passed a resolution that might be thought of as true to the science-denying spirit of the Butler Act. Fortunately, because it's only a resolution, it has no force in law. Nonetheless, it illustrates the same rejection of science in favour of special interests. In the Scopes case, the vested interest was fundamentalist Christianity; in the Utah case, it is more likely king coal. Ninety per cent of the state's electricity comes from coal. Utah also has a substantial oil and gas industry with extensive deposits of tar sands and oil shale.

The resolution, which passed 56-17, calls upon the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to “immediately halt its carbon dioxide reduction policies and programs." Typically, it also trotted out a conspiracy theory. The resolution claims there is "a well organized and ongoing effort to manipulate global temperature data in order to produce a global warming outcome."

All is not darkness in Utah, of course. A group of Brigham Young University scientists were so disturbed by the resolution, they wrote to the legislators highlighting several errors and urged them to reconsider. "We feel it is irresponsible for some of our legislators to attempt to manipulate the scientific evidence in order to support a political agenda," they wrote. Unfortunately, the people who actually know what they are talking about were ignored. 

There are moments in science when new knowledge delivers such a shock to the human ego, large numbers of people simply can not or will not deal with it. One such moment was when Copernicus discovered heliocentricity, telling humanity in effect that we were not at the centre of the universe. Another was when Darwin discovered natural selection, telling us we weren't special, just another species evolved from a lower order. And now come climate change scientists delivering the unwelcome message that we, God's chosen species, are wrecking God's creation. It's just too much for many of us, including 56 members of the Utah House of Representatives.

This time it's different, however. If a lot of people didn't accept heliocentricity or natural selection, so what? Life went on. But if too many people don't accept the reality of anthropogenic global warming, life may go on, but civilization likely won't.

12 February 2010

Is this what sucking up gets us?

Our federal government has, in the past few years, turned our foreign policy away from a role as honest broker and peacemaker toward a role as uncritical partner of our traditional allies, particularly the United States. We obediently followed the Americans into Afghanistan, adopted their policy of unequivocal support for Israel in the Middle East, and made it clear we would do no more than they in dealing with climate change. We will be more than good allies, we will be obsequious allies.

And has this brought us greater esteem in the eyes of their people? Hardly. According to a global BBC survey, the number of Americans who think our influence in the world is "mainly positive" dropped from 82% in 2009 to 67% in 2010. The only larger drop was in China, from 75% to 54%. The third largest drop was in Great Britain, from 74% to 62%. Even we think less of ourselves. Whereas in 2009, 86% of us thought our influence in the world was mainly positive, now only 75% of us do.

China we can understand, but why are our friends souring on us? Doug Miller, chairman of GlobeScan, who conducted the survey, believes the drop is due in part at least to our policies, or lack thereof, on climate change. Bob Johnson, a senior adviser at the Canadian International Conference, a non-partisan research council established to strengthen Canada's foreign policy, believes that's the entire reason.

It seems that catering to the U.S. on other issues doesn't overcome our reputation as environmental laggards. If the question is "Will they love us in the morning?" apparently the answer is no. However, less sucking up and more environmental leadership might just do it.

10 February 2010

Misogyny among the mitres

Anglican fundamentalists seem tireless in their determination to live in the past. Along with their routine gay-bashing and the occasional broad wink toward Rome, they insist on keeping women in their place, a place well away from the wellsprings of power. And, like sulky six-year olds, they threaten to split the church if they don't get their way.

A group of conservative evangelicals in the U.K. which refers to itself as Reform has stated its parishes will raise money to train their own clergy if women are allowed to become bishops. So there. If you won't play ball with us, we'll take our mitres and go home.

Not that the evangelicals consider women to be lesser vessels, oh no. In a statement signed by 50 vicars, they insisted, "We are not for a moment saying women are less valuable than men … this is the point we find hardest to communicate, since the world about us equates value with power." Well, yes, value and power are not the same thing, but unfortunately those who hold the power usually set the values. And, in the eyes of the evangelicals, that's damned well going to be men.

Their justification is that book for all seasons, the Holy Bible, which the Reform evangelicals insist does not allow women to be in "headship" of any organization, including businesses and families. It is, they say, an issue about "Holy Scripture."

Meanwhile the Church dawdles at bringing women fully into the Anglican fold. Ordaining women as bishops was approved 18 months ago, yet the group assigned to frame the appropriate regulations has so far come up with nothing. The Right Reverend Nigel McCulloch, Bishop of Manchester, explained that "the scale of the task made it impossible" to show results so soon. They've been ordaining men for centuries, how can it possibly be that difficult to ordain women?

Organized religion is supposed to provide moral leadership, yet it seems replete with moral reactionaries. A bunch of men using Scripture to suppress women is a sordid business, not exactly a high-water mark of moral rectitude.

08 February 2010

The Dalai Lama and the oh so sensitive autocrats in Beijing

The Chinese government has 1.3-billion people to be concerned about, yet they obsess about one man. The problem is he isn't one of theirs, so they can't control him. That, however, doesn't stop them from using diplomatic muscle to attempt to control anyone who fraternizes with him.

The man is of course the Dalai Lama. His goal of autonomy for his homeland is understandably annoying to a regime that thinks Tibet is rightly part of China, particularly to a regime composed of control freaks. They express their annoyance loudly and frequently. When Prime Minister Harper welcomed the Dalai Lama to Canada in October, 2007, the Chinese accused Canada of interfering in China's internal affairs and claimed the feelings of all Chinese people had been hurt. They are currently expressing great umbrage over the Dalai Lama's visit to the U.S. later this month where he will meet with President Obama in Washington. And not only heads of state feel the wrath of the Chinese. The granting of an honorary degree to the Dalai Lama by the University of Calgary in December has resulted in the removal of the university from one of the Chinese minister of education's accredited institution lists. The man's persistent popularity in the democracies seems to drive the dictators frantic.

05 February 2010

Wall Street, where failure pays big

In late 2008 and early 2009, the U.S. government bailed out American International Group (AIG), the largest underwriter of commercial and industrial insurance in the country, with $180-billion in aid. The boys and girls at AIG had screwed up big time. The executives of the financial products division had brought the corporate giant to the brink of collapse, triggering the largest corporate bailout in American history.

So, of course, they must be punished. Whereas last year they received bonuses totaling $168-million, this year they will only receive $100-million. That will teach them.

But wait a minute! They're still getting $100-million for screwing up? Can't help it, says Obama's "pay czar" Kenneth Feinberg, the contracts were drawn up years ago and "we've got to abide by the law." Well, OK, the law's the law, but that doesn't quite explain how any employer would be stupid enough to sign contracts that hand its executives massive bonuses even if they trash the company. Aren't bonuses supposed to be for doing something especially good? But these guys are getting bonuses for doing something especially bad. Capitalism is so entertaining.

04 February 2010

Omar Khadr, conservatives and the tribal impulse

The Harper government's refusal to seek Omar Khadr's release from Guantanamo is the most callous act by a government of Canada that I can remember. Allowing a foreign government to torture and otherwise abuse the rights of a Canadian teenager is almost incomprehensible for a civilized society. Every other Western government successfully retrieved their citizens from that tropical hellhole. But not us.

The obvious reason is that he is a Khadr, a member of a family despised by Canadians. Stephen Harper is, by his own admission, thinking strategy every moment of his waking day, and there are no votes to be gained and possibly some to be lost from the Conservative core by catering to a Khadr. But this just makes it all the more callous: punishing a boy because of his parents. And it fails the ultimate test of human rights. Defending the rights of those you like is easy, defending the rights of those you don't like is hard.

And it is particularly hard for conservatives. We are all tribal, hence we all care more for those who are like us than those who are not. But conservatives are especially tribal. They are more inclined to think in terms of us and them, black and white, good guys and bad guys. Thus their tough stance on crime, their passion for things military, their urge to patriotism, and their contempt even for simple decency for Omar Khadr.

The Khadrs are alien to the Canadian majority in almost every respect: ideologically, religiously and ethnically. So they are beyond the pale, and one of their tribe can be freely sacrificed to the American lust for revenge. To the Harper Conservatives, there are citizens and then there are citizens, some worthy and some not, some too different to be considered one of us and therefore not deserving of the rights the rest of us take for granted.

Omar Khadr is a tough luck kid. Betrayed by his parents to a life of extremism, then betrayed by his country to incarceration and abuse. For him, justice is a stranger.

02 February 2010

Could we please stop "going forward"

Every once in a while yet another obnoxious word or phrase pops up, seemingly out of nowhere, and attaches itself like a leech to everyday discourse. A few years ago what might be the ugliest word in the English language, "exacerbate," was showing up everywhere. What the writer usually meant was "aggravate," a word quite satisfying to the senses.

More recently, we have become plagued by the nonsensical phrase "going forward." In last Saturday's Globe, Michael Ignatieff was quoted as saying, in reference to brain disease, "This is a central health challenge facing our country going forward." The phrase is of course completely redundant. (Could there be a challenge going backward?) What he means to say is: "This is a central health challenge facing the country" ... period, full stop, 'nuf said.

On the Jon Stewart show last week, his guest Elizabeth Warren, bailout watchdog for the Obama administration, marred a lively and passionate interview with her incessant "going forward." Warren and Ignatieff are bright, articulate people, they should be setting an example for the rest of us with their command of the language, not relying on crutches.

But that seems to be the nature of these infectious phrases. They tend to afflict the professional talkers more than the amateurs, as contrary as H1N1. Unfortunately, there seems to be neither preventative nor cure.