28 June 2007

A few millennia late, but Egypt finally bans female circumcision

Believed to have begun in the time of the pharaohs, it is one of the more despicable atrocities committed upon women to control their sexuality. I refer to clitoridectomy, an exercise in barbarism to which 97 % of Egyptian women, Christian and Muslim, are subject. Now, after all these millennia of suffering, The government of Egypt is finally banning the practice. Anyone performing circumcisions will be punished, according to a health ministry official.

Meanwhile the practice will continue in almost 30 countries across Africa. What a barbaric species we are.

"She made it clear that [Brown] is not our poodle"

Is there hope after all for nuclear responsibility in the West?

While Western nations, particularly the United States, express alarm over Iran possibly developing nuclear weapons and thereby violating the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, they continue to violate the treaty themselves. The treaty, after all, is a quid pro quo, the non-nuclear nations agreed not to develop weapons and the nuclear nations agreed to get rid of theirs. None of the latter are filling their part of the bargain.

But there is at least one indication that may change. Britain's foreign secretary, Margaret Beckett, is calling for major reductions in the nuclear arsenal of the two major powers. Ms. Beckett pointedly said that the "stagnant" condition of nuclear disarmament is undermining efforts to rally international opinion against nations like Iran. She noted that of the world's 20,000 nuclear warheads, 96% are in the U.S and Russia.

Of course convincing either country to reduce its armaments at a time when both are in a belligerent mood is quite the challenge. And Ms. Beckett will probably be replaced by the new prime minister, Gordon Brown. Nonetheless, British officials made it clear she was speaking for Mr. Brown, and the fact her remarks were made in Washington, only a few hundred metres from the White House, indicated the new prime minister will not be catering to Bush intransigence on the issue. As one American official remarked, "She made it clear that [Brown] is not our poodle." A welcome change, indeed, and on a critical issue.

26 June 2007

Israel and the dictators gang up on Hamas while Tony rides to the rescue

So Egypt's president, Hosni Mubarek, invites Jordan's King Abdullah and Israel's Ehud Olmert to join him in a summit with the now autocratic leader of the Palestine Authority, Mahmoud Abbas.

All are delighted, of course, with Abbas ridding the
Palestine Authority of its democratically-elected Hamas government. Israel fears Hamas because it won't submit to their design for the region. Abdullah and Mubarek fear Hamas because it is prepared to take the democratic route to government and dictators fear nothing more than democracy. Both Egypt and Jordan have nascent movements associated with Hamas, and the dictators no doubt would like to strangle them in the cradle.

Meanwhile, Western powers cheer the process on, all their talk of wanting democracy in Palestine, or indeed in the Middle East, now revealed as hypocrisy.

What mischief this all is. The possibility of achieving peace in the Levant without including a force as powerful and popular as Hamas in the process is remote, while d
ealing for peace with the hopeless Abbas and his corrupt Fatah is futile.

But will the appointment of Tony Blair as envoy for the "quartet" turn things around? One thing he has going for him is the
recognition from his experience in Ireland that all parties, even those you like to call terrorists, have to be brought to the table. But can he convince Israel and the United States to sit at the table with Hamas? As Bush's poodle, it seems unlikely he can convince the president of anything. Furthermore, he has thoroughly discredited himself in the Middle East with his contribution to the catastrophe in Iraq, The prospects are not good.

The Palestinian people, it seems, their freely elected government crushed by forces greater than themselves, have a lot of suffering to do yet.

25 June 2007

The Darfur crisis: Are we the cause?

For millennia the herders and the farmers of the province of Darfur in western Sudan managed to get along in relative peace even though they followed different occupations on essentially the same land. Then, in 2003, all hell broke loose. Militias called Janjaweed, formed from among the nomadic herders, descended upon the farmers, committing rape and mass murder and driving millions from their villages. Something terrible had happened.

Various factors were in play. The farmers, after years of neglect by the central government, had risen in revolt. The government, exhausted after fighting a brutal civil war in the south, responded by arming local militia and supplementing them with criminals.

But the underlying question remains. Why would the nomads turn on their agricultural neighbours with such ferocity? What had changed? The answer lies in a shrinking land base. Populations have been increasing, as has the size of herds, straining the land. Meanwhile, the rains have failed and the region subjected to massive drought. The land becomes less capable of sustaining life and the desert creeps down from the north.
In parts of Darfur, precipitation has fallen by a third in the past 80 years. The climate has changed.

The rapists, murderers and pillagers are desperate men, their traditional way of life unravelling in the face of catastrophic change in the weather. To quote The Guardian, "Global warming created the dry tinder. Khartoum supplied the match." And the tinder will become drier. Forecasts suggest that as climate change continues, rainfall will continue to decline and crop yields will drop further, up to 70 per cent in the worst areas.

And who is the principal perpetrator of global warming? Not the Janjaweed, and not the government in Khartoum. It is us, the industrial nations of the West. We are the guilty party.

So the question is what are we going to do about it, other than
letting them kill each other until their populations have been reduced to a level the land can carry. The only response offered so far is stopping the violence. It goes without saying this is the first priority, but it is obviously not a long-range solution. We could immigrate the surplus populations, but this may be far from optimum for either them or us. The answer lies in dealing with global warming. In the medium term, this means dramatically reducing the amount of greenhouse gases we vent into the atmosphere, and in the short term, instituting massive land reclamation projects in the affected regions. In other words, we need to give them their land back, the land we are stealing from them with our profligate use of fossil fuels.

Darfur may be the first climate-change war, possibly the first of many -- yet another challenge to add to our global warming agenda.

20 June 2007

Knighting Salman Rushdie

Britain's knighting of Salman Rushdie has predictably caused great distress in and, sadly, threats of violence from the Islamic world. Perhaps the most serious comes from a minister in the Pakistani government, Ijaz-ul-Haq, who is quoted as telling his country's national assembly, "If someone commits suicide bombing to protect the honour of the Prophet Muhammad, his act is justified." This intolerant gentleman is, as we might expect, the minister for religious affairs.

Yet again we witness the dangerous and violent passions that religion arouses. Maybe Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens
, et al., are right in confronting organized religion. It may simply not be wise to leave such mischievous institutions unchallenged.

19 June 2007

Why are we opposed to a Muslim democracy in the Middle East?

As I read about our enthusiastic restoration of full relations with the Palestinians now that they have rid themselves of their democratically-elected government, I can't help but wonder why we in the West are so opposed to Muslim democracy in the Middle East.

We can go back to the 1950s when the United States and Great Britain conspired with the Iranian military to overthrow the Mossadegh government and replace it with a police state under the Shah. The chickens from that atrocity are still coming home to roost in very dangerous ways today.

The most recent episode of course is our concerted and now successful effort to undermine the Hamas government in Palestine. Chosen by their people in a free and fair election with a voter turnout better than we can muster, Hamas met with nothing but scorn from the West.

The answers to why we opposed democracy in these two cases are obvious: Mossadegh was threatening our control of his country's oil reserves, and Hamas would not submit to Israel. Perhaps more difficult to answer is why we aren't satisfied in simply undermining democracy wherever it rears its head, but why we also ardently support the region's dictatorships. Egypt, whose torture chambers are notorious (a great place for renditions), receives more foreign aid from the United States than any other country in the world except for Israel. As for our very favourite dictatorship in the region, Saudi Arabia, the British government recently offended one of the basic principles of our civilization, the rule of law, so as not to interfere with its massive supply of armaments to that most misogynistic of places.

On the one hand we crush their democracies while on the other hand we generously support the dictators who oppress them. And then we wonder why some respond with rage.

14 June 2007

Public services: the key to capitalism

One - two - three, that's the order in which Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal ranked for ease of doing business in MasterCard Worldwide's new MasterCard Worldwide Centers of Commerce Index.

MasterCard's index ranks the world's top cities in terms of their performance as centers of commerce in the global economy. It consists of six dimensions designed by a team of eight independent economic, urban development and social-science experts from leading academic and research institutions around the world. Canadian cities topped the index in the dimension "Ease of Doing Business," defined as "Availability of quality, cost-competitive trade logistics; level of interconnectedness; and ability to attract and retain talent due to a high quality of living."

"The strong performance of Canadian cities as Worldwide Centers of Commerce reinforces how fortunate we are to live and do business here," said Kevin Stanton, president of MasterCard Canada. "Canadian cities stand shoulder-to-shoulder with leading global economic centres."

The criteria that made Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal the top three in the world included "a strong national health care system, excellent infrastructure, low traffic and easy access to public transportation." The index illustrates how good public services are essential in making cities good places to do business, i.e. to do capitalism. Investing heavily in items like health care and public transportation doesn't just make for better living for people, it makes for better business opportunities. It makes us, if you'll forgive the somewhat clich├ęd expression, more competitive in the global marketplace.

It's no coincidence that high tax regimes in northern European countries produce both prosperous economies and high social standards. As MasterCard's index demonstrates, it's precisely what's to be expected.

12 June 2007

For American children, every year is 9/11

As we are incessantly reminded, on September 11th, 2002, Islamic extremists flew planes into the World Trade Center in New York and into the Pentagon, killing up to 3.000 people. As a result, President Bush declared a war on terror.

What we are rarely reminded of is that that many children are killed by firearms in the United States every year, about two-thirds of them homicides. That's not once in all of history, but each and every year. Yet, curiously, the U.S. administration has not declared a war on guns. On terror, yes, and of course on drugs, but not on guns, even though American children are 16 times more likely to be killed by firearms than children in 25 other industrialized nations averaged together.

If George W. Bush's first concern was the security of the American people, as he so often claims, clearly he would be waging a war on guns in his own country rather than a war on terror internationally. Indeed, not doing so seems inconsistent, even perverse, yet it is in fact perfectly consistent. Waging a war on terror is the macho thing to do, and packing guns is the macho thing to do, so a war on the former and a peace pact with the latter meshes perfectly with the mores of a macho administration.

The death of 3,000 children a year is simply collateral damage.

09 June 2007

"The hanging gardens of Halliburton"

Babylon is being turned into an archaeological desert.

In an article in the Guardian, Simon Jenkins describes the rape and pillage of the heritage treasures of Iraq under the American occupation. The greatest storehouse of ancient human history faces two assaults: first, the trampling of
archaeological sites by the heavy boot of the American military and, second, the unrestricted looting carried out by thieves operating with impunity in a climate of chaos.

It may seem callous to worry about artifacts -- mere things -- when tens of thousands of people are dying and millions are turned into refugees, but we aren't talking about any old archaeological dig here. This is the birthplace of our civilization. This is where intensive agriculture began, where the first city states arose, where written language and arithmetic were invented along with the wheel and the plough, where time was first measured with clocks and 12-month calendars, and where the first codified systems of law and administration were developed.

We are witnessing one of the greatest acts of vandalism in history. And as trivial as vandalism may be relative to human suffering, this one is nonetheless a crime against all of us.

08 June 2007

Kudos to Dara Fresco and friends

Earlier this week, Dara Fresco, a head teller with the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, launched a $600-million class-action lawsuit against her employer. Ms. Fresco launched the suit on behalf of 10,000 of her colleagues who regularly work overtime for which they aren't paid.

And it's about time. Statistics Canada reports that over 1.6 million Canadians worked unpaid overtime in April. Almost a quarter of the work force regularly puts in over eight hours a day but only ten per cent gets paid for it.

Employees are protected against unpaid overtime by labour laws, but it isn't difficult to have them "volunteer" for overtime when employers can hold promotions, raises, or even just keeping their jobs, over their heads. And a round of layoffs, real or threatened, is often enough to whip recalcitrant employees into line.

And why wouldn't employers take advantage? Keeping costs down and profits up is the name of the capitalist game. Without the occasional swift kick, employers will push their advantage to the limit. Ms. Fresco's courageous suit may just deliver the kick business seems in need of at the moment. Similar suits in the U.S. have squeezed huge retroactive overtime payments to employees out of a number of companies including $78-million out of Wal-Mart's Pennsylvania stores.

Incidentally, after ten years with the bank, Dara was making the princessly sum of $30,715 a year. She claims she is owed $50,000 for unpaid overtime. She deserves every penny. Plus interest, of course -- at the bank's top mortgage rate.

07 June 2007

Quebec's carbon tax may just work

Quebec has announced it will implement Canada's first carbon tax in October. The tax will be applied to gasoline, diesel fuel and heating oil at just under a penny a litre and collected from petroleum companies.

Natural Resources Minister Claude Bechard said he hopes the companies will pay the tax without passing the cost on to consumers.
If Mr. Bechard's vain hope was somehow fulfilled, and the companies absorbed the cost themselves, the tax would do nothing to discourage people from driving. The minister is quoted as saying, "Every Quebecer has a responsibility." He then institutes a tax that is designed to relieve every Quebecer except the petroleum companies of that responsibility.

But of course Mr. Bechard is just playing politics. He knows full well
the companies will pass the cost on to the consumer. They pass all their costs on to the consumer.

So, despite Mr. Bechard's political gamesmanship, the tax will add to the cost of gasoline and should therefore discourage driving. The more someone drives, the more they pollute, and the more they will pay. Each will be accountable, each will pay for his or her own mess. Just as it should be.

If the $200 million a year the tax is expected to raise goes toward energy-saving initiatives such as public transit, as the Quebec government promises, it will be a model and a challenge for the rest of the country.

05 June 2007

Television, advertising and the CRTC

In an editorial in Monday's Globe and Mail, the writer suggests the CRTC, who he or she (will editorial writers hide forever behind anonymity?) refers to condescendingly as “a bunch of civil servants,” should not be setting the advertising limits for television. Rather, he (or she) insists, viewers should do this via the magic of the remote control.

The writer is being disingenuous. He (or she) knows perfectly well if the viewing public could choose the amount of advertising on TV, they would choose none. This, the broadcasters, who are instruments of advertisers, could not abide. They will thus dismiss the viewers most meaningful choice and offer them only those options amenable to their own narrow interests. Such is often the working of the “free” market.

A good example is the BBC,
a service the market could never provide. A truly meaningful alternative to the sameness of commercial broadcasting, the BBC not only operates without advertising, it is probably the finest broadcaster in the English-speaking world.

If the CRTC doesn’t set the limits on TV advertising, network executives will. I fail to see how giving this right to “a bunch of corporate servants” is better for the public interest than leaving it to “a bunch of civil servants.” Not surprising the editorial writer would think so, though; after all, Globe editors are corporate servants themselves.