29 February 2008

Running away from anti-Semitism

Israel has recently said nice things about Canada's misguided approach to a UN-sponsored anti-racism conference. The conference, entitled Durban II, will be held in South Africa next year.

At the 2001 World Conference Against Racism, a number of countries were offended by texts that referred to Israel as an apartheid state. Such language seems hardly out of place -- even such human rights crusaders as Jimmy Carter have applied the term "apartheid" to Israel's treatment of Palestinians. In any case, the references were removed from the final versions of the texts. Nonetheless, the Canadian government insists the upcoming conference will be a forum for anti-Semitism and is refusing to attend, a decision Israeli Foreign Affairs Minister Tzipi Livni has lavished praise upon.

So is this the way to deal with anti-Semitism? By running away from it? This is an international conference, sponsored by the United Nations, isn't it the perfect place to confront anti-Semitism? Before the world? Or can it be our government lacks the confidence it can defend Israel's treatment of the Palestinians? That, at least, is the appearance they are giving. Not much grist for the mill of anti-Semitism there.

27 February 2008

You go, Hillary (and you, too, Barack)

If the two Democratic candidates for the U.S. presidency were both looking good before, they are looking even better today. Hillary Clinton stated if she's elected she will insist on renegotiating NAFTA under threat of the six-month opting-out clause. She will demand tougher labour and environmental standards and a new dispute-resolution mechanism. She will also eliminate the right of foreign firms to sue the United States over protection of American workers. Barack Obama supported her position.

What these two splendid candidates are advocating is nothing less than a NAFTA for workers and the environment rather than just for corporations. What an idea! And shielding governments from lawsuits by corporations restores a little of the democracy the current version took away. I'm starting to take a real interest in this election.

The Kosovo divorce: should we or shouldn't we?

Kosovo, it appears, is divorcing itself from Serbia. This has raised no little angst in Canada with its obvious analogy with Quebec. So the question leaps out at us: should we recognize a new, independent state of Kosovo as the United States, Great Britain and France are doing or should we not, thus aligning ourselves with Spain and Russia?

In this country, we accept as we should the democratic right of people to decide their own future, therefore we recognize the right of a people to secede. As we make the comparison to Quebec, logic would dictate we follow the rules we have laid down for secession in Canada. As upheld by the Supreme Court, there are three:

1. Withdrawal cannot be unilateral.
2. The people of the jurisdiction concerned must be asked a clear question in a referendum.
3. The people must clearly vote for secession.

Considering number one, we might make the apt analogy to a divorce. We recognize the right of a person to divorce their spouse but one cannot do it unilaterally You just don't announce to your partner one day that the marriage is over, this is the end. It isn't the end. It's only the beginning of the end and the end can be a very messy process. There are two sides involved, and they both have to be assured of a fair settlement. Let us hope the Albanian Kosovars realize this. We should make it a condition of our recognition.

Regarding the second and third conditions, a referendum has not been held in Kosovo, however with an Albanian population of over 90 per cent, the results are a foregone conclusion. Nonetheless, the people should make their voice clearly heard on a clear question, and we shouldn't recognize a new state until they have.

And then comes the really sticky part. Minorities in the region have the same right to determine their futures as the majority do. If the Serbian population wants to remain part of Serbia, that choice must be seriously considered. If Serbs are scattered throughout Kosovo, then of course separation is impractical, but if they are concentrated populations -- and they are in the north, conveniently abutting Serbia (see the attached map) -- then they have the right to remain part of Serbia. Ironically, but not surprisingly, the Albanian Kosovars reject this with the same argument about territorial inviolability that Serbia uses.

Recognizing the right of Serbian Kosovars to remain Serbian where practical is not only just, it is of fundamental importance to Canada. After all, we have Anglophone populations in Quebec to consider if separation should ever occur there. This right, too, we should insist on before we recognize Kosovo as an independent state.

26 February 2008

Time to listen to the Arab street

Doesn't this shout out that something is fundamentally amiss? Iran, a dictatorship, supports two of the most democratically successful organizations in the Arab world. We in the democratic West refuse to have anything to do with them. When one wins a remarkably fair election, we reject the government it forms and do everything we can to undermine it. And for supporting these two organizations, Iran is labelled "a state sponsor of terrorism."

The two organizations I refer to are, of course, Hezbollah and Hamas. Hezbollah has done well electorally in Lebanon and Hamas did well enough in Palestine to win the last general electon.

We dismiss them both as terrorist organizations. This is rubbish. Do they use terrorism as a weapon? Yes. And who doesn't when it suits their purpose? The two major Western players in the Middle East, Israel and the United States, certainly do. The United States committed the two most horrific terrorist attacks in history.

Both Hamas and Hezbollah have a military arm and those arms have used terrorism. When you lack a conventional military and your enemy has a modern army, navy and air force, and the support of the most powerful nation in the world, you have little recourse but to to fall back on the weapon of choice for the poor. But both organizations are much more than their military arms. Their social arms provide better social services than most Arab governments, and, what should be of particular importance to us, their political arms accept the democratic process and are rather good at it.

And why shouldn't Iran support them? Essentially they are engaged in war against Israel. And is this war justified? If challenging Israel's ethnic cleansing, oppression, collective punishment, and theft of land from the Palestinians is justified, then the answer is yes.

And herein lies our hypocrisy. The West, the United States staunchly in the lead, claims to want democracy in the Middle East, yet when democratic forces emerge, as with Hezbollah and Hamas, we whack-a-mole them. Our justification is their hostility toward Israel. But that is exactly what we should expect. Democratic parties represent the people and, by and large, the Arab people don't approve of Israel. They empathize with their Arab brothers in Palestine and oppose their oppressors. If democracy means representing the people, in the Arab world it means being anti-Israel.

Out of guilt or whatever, we in the West will not accept this antipathy of the Arab street toward Israel. We cannot, therefore, accept democracy in the Arab world. We have got ourselves in a box. While we ignore the Arab people, we dote on their oppressors, the dictators -- thugs like Egypt's Mubarek and of course our favourites, the misogynistic Sauds of Arabia. We have created an unholy alliance of anti-democratic forces. The dictators, too, fear democracy so they are quite happy to collaborate in suppressing it.

This rejection of the sensibilities of the Arab street not only makes democracy difficult to achieve in the Middle East, it makes peace in Palestine difficult, perhaps impossible. As long as the Palestinians must submit to the West's preconditions before serious negotiation can even start, and Israel holds all the cards including the unequivocal support of the United States, chances for a peaceful solution are slim indeed.

If we would simply listen to the Arab people and take their views and feelings seriously, whether we agree with them or not, we would at least stand a chance of settling the Palestine conflict, and yes, even extending democracy in that benighted part of the world. We might, in the bargain, make peace with Iran.

25 February 2008

Even the oil industry says slow down

Voices ranging from environmentalists to Alberta elder statesman Peter Lougheed have been warning that oil sands development is proceeding far too quickly, environmentally, economically and socially. But the Alberta government has refused to, in Premier Ed Stelmach's words, "touch the brake." Now even members of the Conservative government's nearest and dearest friend -- the oil industry -- are lobbying for a slow down. A letter presented to the departments of Energy, Environment and Sustainable Resources on behalf of the Cumulative Environmental Management Association (CEMA) expressed the opinion that further lease sales at this time might reduce the options for establishing conservation areas. The letter was signed by some industry heavyweights, including Petro-Canada, Suncor, Husky, Shell and even Imperial Oil, son of Exxon.

The letter concerns only lease sales and focuses on conservation areas; nonetheless, it's an impressively progressive step for the exploiters of the sands to take. The group did not expressly challenge the pace of development but, according to CEMA president Randall Barrett, the framework the organization is creating represents a "more reasonable and orderly approach toward development." Welcome words indeed.

So will common sense finally touch the premier? When even some of the government's closest friends and benefactors suggest caution, will the premier take heed? That may very well depend on who the premier is. We'll know that next Monday.

20 February 2008

Kudos for Campbell

B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell is cutting quite the environmental figure these days. His government's new budget, delivered in the legislature yesterday by a green-bedecked Finance Minister Carole Taylor, set a new Canadian standard for what governments can do in the fight against global warming. Featured was a revenue-neutral carbon tax, surely a key instrument in the struggle. Where Campbell, Taylor, et al., have gone, will others now follow? Fingers are crossed.

19 February 2008

Oil profits ignore Alberta's royalty increase

The whine from the oil industry was positively ear-splitting during the recent royalty debate in Alberta. When the Royalty Review Panel released its report last September stating that oil and gas royalties should rise significantly to ensure Albertans a "fair share" of their resource revenues, industry spokespeople trotted out the predictable doomsday projections.

EnCana warned it would slash spending in Alberta by $1 billion in 2008 if the full report was adopted. The president of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers called the report "unrealistic," claiming its recommendations would lead to a significant cooling off in the Canadian energy industry. Former oil industry CEOs Gywn Morgan (EnCana) and John Buckee (Talisman Energy) warned that capital would flee the oil patch. Increasing royalties like the report recommended would be a major blow to growth and investment in the energy sector, went the refrain.

Not everyone in the industry went into panic mode. Suncor CEO Rick George, for example, expressed confidence the Alberta government's approach wouldn't harm the industry. As it turned out, the sane voices were right.

When the government raised royalties along the lines of the report's recommendations, the sky did not fall. Neither did the stock market. And industry just kept on keeping on. BP PLC, which abandoned Canada a couple of decades ago, returned with a bang, announcing it would participate with Husky Energy in a $5.5 billion joint venture to develop Husky's huge Sunrise oil sands project and retrofit a BP refinery in Ohio to handle the bitumen.

The Conference Board of Canada now predicts oil industry profits will soar to new heights in 2008, hitting almost $23-billion, up 18 per cent from 2007. The Board also expects Alberta’s royalty increases to have little effect on investment in the industry.

All the critics of the recommended increases were not wrong, however. Some said they weren't enough. It now appears those critics were closest to the mark.

15 February 2008

Why not an Afrocentric school?

As the Toronto District School Board prepares to set up an Afrocentric school, the question of the day becomes, Is it justified? Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty doesn't think so. Nor do the people of Ontario. According to an Angus Reid poll, 79 per cent of Ontarians oppose the school, 85 per cent in the Greater Toronto Area. And our liberal instincts are quick to support the naysayers. Certainly mine do.

I instinctively oppose the segregation of any ethnic or religious group on any basis. However, my instincts may be ignoring something of very great importance about black people in North America. Their experience is unique. Of course every ethnic group's experience is unique, but the black experience is unique on a level well beyond the rest of us. They are the only group that didn't come to this continent voluntarily. They alone were coerced -- and with almost unimaginable cruelty.

Furthermore, all other groups were allowed to retain critical elements of their culture to sustain them in their new life -- their religious beliefs, their family relationships, etc. Not so with the immigrants from Africa. Their culture was obliterated. About all they were able to retain was their music and even that was suppressed -- drumming, for example, integral to African music, was often forbidden to prevent slaves from communicating and thus initiating a rebellion. Not only were these people enslaved, they were subjected to a particularly vicious form of slavery.

We often hear about the absence of fathers in black communities, about the disproportionate number of women who are raising families alone. Where are the men, we ask? Well, the answer may lie in that unique experience. Under slavery, men were often considered less as fully sexual beings, i.e. as lovers, husbands and fathers, and more as studs. Like farm animals, their responsibility as males was to produce more slaves. They could at any time be sold away from their women and children.

And when slavery ended, segregation began. Under this system, men were subject to constant humiliation in front of their families. Grey-haired old grandfathers were called boys, and treated as boys, and didn't dare object on pain of serious retribution. Unlike other family men, blacks could not aspire to anything but the more menial roles in society. While men of other ethnic groups could expect to see family commitment rewarded by their children reaching higher levels of society than they did, black men could see nothing for their children but the same drudgery and humiliation they endured. After centuries of slavery followed by a century of segregation, it would be surprising indeed if black men had not had their connection to conventional family life thoroughly fractured.

History is long with us. It doesn't vanish at the stroke of a pen. Modern Canadian law and custom may now guarantee black people equality, but the unique inequalities they have suffered in the past will disadvantage them for a long time to come.

It may be the case then that blacks, like no other ethnic group except the Native peoples, require two educations, one conventional, the other to rebuild a shattered identity. Perhaps this can be done within the present school system, perhaps not. Justice demands we try. But if that fails, it doesn't seem unreasonable to set up just one special school to ensure we have an alternative available.

12 February 2008

Anti-American? Do I have a choice?

Anti-American. The tedious old saw that conservatives, and even liberals from time to time, hurl at leftists when they challenge American foreign policy. It is a reliable fallback position when criticism of U.S. actions and policy is hard to rebut, yet there is some truth in it as well. The left often seems to simply dislike the United States.

But wherein lies the fault? With the anti-Americans or with the Americans? I suggest the latter. Since the end of the Second World War, at least, the United States has time and time again acted against those principles the left holds dear.

Consider, for example, democracy. The U.S. has collaborated in overthrowing democratically-elected governments around the world, including Iran, Guatemala, Chile and Palestine. At the same time, it has supported some of the world's most repugnant dictators, including Indonesia's Suharto, Zaire's Mobutu Sese Seko, Egypt's Mubarak, Argentina under the generals, Chile under Pinochet, and the misogynistic Sauds of Arabia.

The United States has denied its support to agreements progressives consider necessary to making a better world, including the Ottawa Treaty to ban land mines, the Kyoto Protocol and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (the only country, aside from Somalia, to refuse to sign). It unilaterally abandoned the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, violates both the Geneva Conventions and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and has attempted to undermine the International Criminal Court.

The American rejection of international agreements is aggravated by its dependence on brute force to impose its will. It has troops stationed around the globe and doesn't hesitate to use them, waging a war in some part of the world or the other at least once a generation, if not once a decade. This unilateralism, this mark of empire, is anathema to the left, which seeks co-operative solutions to world problems. And the militarism of the U.S. seems to increase along with its fundamentalism.

And it gets worse. At times, the U.S. has seemed to declare war on the left. Not just on Communism, for which progressives share American disdain, but on the democratic left as well. American proteges have murdered tens of thousands of leftists. Of the 3,000 victims of Pinochet in Chile, the up to 30,000 "disappeared" by the generals in Argentina, the 200,000 victims of the war of repression in Guatemala, we can reasonably assume the great majority were progressives of one stripe or another.
Many of the military leaders responsible for these crimes, including Argentine dictators Roberto Viola and Leopoldo Galtieri, were trained in the United States' infamous School of the Americas. And then of course there was the CIA's collaboration with Operation Condor, a campaign involving assassination and intelligence operations implemented by South American right-wing dictatorships against the left.

In addition to the murder of leftists is the theft of legitimate power the left has earned through the democratic process or could have earned if they weren't repressed or murdered. And this explains in large part why conservatives are rarely anti-American. Their philosophical cohorts in other countries have not been subject to repression or murder by friends of the U.S. To the contrary, they benefit by the suppression of their natural opposition, so naturally they decry "anti-Americanism."

The left is not anti-American comprehensively, but it is selectively. Leftists enjoy and appreciate much of American culture -- its music, science, technology, writing, ideas, even its respect for human rights when it's on its best behaviour. Not so much appreciated is the excessive individualism of the U.S. economic system, but that's for Americans to struggle with. The left is not anti-American, it is anti-American foreign policy, but more important it is pro-welfare state, pro-democracy and pro-international co-operation, and that often puts it at odds philosophically and practically with American administrations.

The United States has often assaulted both the principles and the persons of the left, and naturally when it does we confront it. But they picked the fight, not us.

06 February 2008

Freedom of the press ... nice, if you can afford it

An editorial in Monday's Globe and Mail took umbrage at human-rights commissions for agreeing to hear complaints from Muslim groups about the work of two journalists. The Globe accused the commissions of "policing ideas," chastising them for taking seriously, "the notion that privately owned publications do not have the right to offend or that they are required to give equal space to both sides of every issue."

The Globe's claim is fancifully over-stated; nonetheless, they do raise a good question. How far should human-rights commissions go in entertaining complaints about personal points of view publicly expressed? This prompts yet another, bigger question, about the media itself. The Globe, after all, and its fellow members of the daily press do a great deal more policing of ideas than human-rights commissions do. Why should a tiny special interest group, i.e. the corporate owners of the mass media, be the arbiter of whose views are broadly heard?

American journalist A.J. Liebling answered this question many years ago when he observed, "Freedom of the press is limited to those who own one." And owning a daily paper takes hundreds of billions of dollars. In other words, you get to be an arbiter if you are very rich or, in the case of the Globe editors, a servant of the very rich.

Having vented its spleen against human-rights commissions, perhaps the Globe will now deal with the much larger problem of the daily press -- the nation's public forums -- being owned and controlled by a handful of oligarchs. That is, of course, if the oligarchs will give them permission.