29 March 2008

bin Laden's puppets

Listening to U.S. presidential candidate John McCain reminds me once again how remarkably successful al-Qaeda was with their bombings of 9/11. Far be it from me to try to get into the heads of people who fly planes into tall buildings, but I suspect their first goal was to trigger a war between Islam and the West. And secondly, to undermine Western values. They succeeded at both, but only because the Bush administration played beautifully into their hands. They wanted a war, Bush gave them one, and now the U.S. is bogged down in it and has reinvigorated al-Qaeda in the bargain. As for undermining Western values, the Americans performed on cue here as well, with everything from torturing foreigners to massive spying on their own people.

Furthermore, the U.S. and its allies have created over four million refugees in Iraq. It takes little imagination to realize that included among those millions are tens of thousands of unemployed, uneducated and angry young men -- a host of potential recruits for the next generation of jihadists.

Now we have McCain, possibly the next president, insisting if elected he will carry on the war for 100 years if necessary. Bin Laden's eyes must light up like candles when he hears that. Who would have thought a guy hiding in a cave in Pakistan or wherever would have the leaders of the world's most powerful nation dancing at his fingertips?

27 March 2008

Talking to the Taliban

The Globe and Mail deserves applause for its courage in publishing its new series "Talking to the Taliban." Rather than simply demonizing the enemy as is the custom when you are at war, as we seem to be, the Globe is talking to them and attempting to gain insight into what motivates them.

The Taliban have always struck me as a bunch of hillbillies: dirt-poor country boys, uneducated, illiterate, steeped in fundamentalist religion, gun-loving, ignorant of the outside world, living in a clan and tribal feud-riddled society. What must benighted souls like this think of a bunch of heavily-armed infidels marching through their country attempting to change their ways and impose a government on them run from a very distant Kabul? I frankly don't know, but I'm not surprised they reach for their guns. In any case, the better we understand them, the more we recognize our common humanity, the more likely we will set the right policies for our relationship with their country.

The Globe series should make a major contribution to that end. Heaven knows, after stumbling into war in this alien land, we need all the help we can get.

26 March 2008

Welcome, the ethnic cleanser

Moshe Feiglin, notorious member of Israel's Likud party, favours us with a visit this week. Feiglin, who has supported expelling Israel's non-Jews from the country, was recently banned from Great Britain. Considering Britain's large Muslim population, that government's action is understandable considering that Feiglin is an ethnic cleanser and the ethnics he wants to cleanse are Muslims.

Feiglin hopes to establish a theocracy in Israel, governed by Jewish law. A settler who graduated from a religious school, he believes the Bible, interpreted literally, should form the basis of Israel’s legal system. And he isn't exactly a fringe politician, having garnered almost a quarter of the votes in last year's election for Likud's leadership.

Bringing the message of ethnic exclusion to our multicultural country will no doubt offend many Canadians. Some will complain we have let in a racist. But is Feiglin a racist? Well, in a New Yorker article, he was quoted as saying, “You can’t teach a monkey to speak and you can’t teach an Arab to be democratic. You’re dealing with a culture of thieves and robbers. Muhammad, their prophet, was a robber and a killer and a liar. The Arab destroys everything he touches.” He isn't a fan of Arabs, certainly. In any case, what do you call someone who believes only people of his race have a right to citizenship in his country?

Despite Feiglin's hateful philosophy, we shouldn't ban him from Canada. If we are to err, best we err on the side of freedom of speech. Even racists have a right to speak their fevered minds. Anyway, I understand he's only here for a short visit.

20 March 2008

Is Kosovo a precedent or not?

Bob Rae says it's an "insult to the intelligence" to tout Canada's recognition of Kosovo's independence as a precedent-setting case. Foreign Affairs Minister Maxime Bernier claims, "You cannot compare this with Quebec."

On the other hand, Serbian ambassador Dusan Batokovic insists it has set a "dangerous precedent," and Daniel Turp of the Parti Quebecois agrees, not with the dangerous part, but with the precedent part, because separation was achieved "despite the objections of the country which it left."

So is it a precedent or not? Ultimately a question for constitutional lawyers to fight over, I suppose, but to this layman it certainly seems to be. In any case, does it matter what Bernier, or Rae, or Canada thinks? I doubt those regions of the world contemplating separation - Quebec for example - will opt for their interpretation. They will agree there are historical differences, there are always differences, but they will focus on the similarities. And there would be similarities - powerful ones. For example, if a Quebec government were to unilaterally declare independence, it could claim, correctly, that Canada has already accepted a unilateral declaration of independence by a legislature as valid. No referendum, no clear question, no consideration for minorities, no negotiation with the other side. If Canada has accepted all this, how could it oppose the identical action by Quebec? And what if other countries agree that what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander, and recognize a new nation of Quebec?

What would we have had to lose by waiting and insisting on the criteria we have established for legitimate separation? We quite reasonably insist on a referendum asking a clear question and receiving a clear answer followed by negotiation of the separation. For that matter, what would the Albanian Kosovars have had to lose by engaging in this process? Are these criteria not reasonable? And would the Kosovars have had any trouble meeting them? If Serbia refused to negotiate, it would be removing itself from consideration.

What we have done is weaken our position in defending against a separatist argument and we have done it needlessly. Now we must keep our fingers crossed that we won't rue this day.

19 March 2008

Here's some good news

Lots of blood and violence in the news these days: Iraq, Afghanistan, Kosovo, Tibet, and so on ad nauseam. But it isn't all bad. On the bright side, a woman has been elected speaker of the new Pakistani parliament. Fehmida Mirza, the first woman to hold the job, was elected overwhelmingly. And a very impressive woman she is. A doctor and businesswoman, Ms. Mirza has been elected to parliament three times. A member of Benazir Bhutto's Pakistan Peoples Party, she ensures that a female face remains prominent in that party, the most popular in the country. This is of no small importance in the very macho nation of Pakistan.

The party has yet to choose a prime minister ... is it possible? No, that's too much to hope for.

18 March 2008

There's drugs and then there's drugs

Reading my morning Globe recently, I encountered a prominent half-page ad (very pricey those), paid for by the Government of Canada, warning of the dangers of various recreational drugs parents should be talking to their kids about. The ad even offered a free booklet to give parents a helping hand. What immediately struck me about the ad was that it omitted two of the most pervasive, and dangerous, recreational drugs -- tobacco and alcohol. Alcohol abuse is by far the biggest drug problem facing teenagers (and adults).

So why, I asked myself, did the government omit them?

My first thought was because they are legal. But that doesn't make sense. If they are legal, they are even more dangerous simply because they are more accessible. Then I thought maybe it's because they are widely used by adults and the gov doesn't want to embarrass the voting public or perhaps admit that drugs are in fact an integral part of our culture. I mean, what would older guys do without that wonderful recreational drug Viagra?

And the thought of Viagra suggested a possible answer. Viagra, like cigarettes and alcohol, is manufactured by large, immensely profitable industries. Could it be that our government is only concerned with drugs that corporations can't make billions of dollars off? Sounds a bit conspiratorial, yet I would make a large bet that's a major reason why the U.S. government is so hostile toward marijuana. Marijuana is useful for treating a range of ailments, both mental and physical, yet the pharmaceutical companies can't make a nickel off it. That has to infuriate the drug barons, a fury the U.S. administration is highly sensitive to.

So when parents talk to their kids about drugs, is it OK to have a beer in their hand? I guess I'll have to read the free booklet to find out.

17 March 2008

Free trade or slave trade?

In 2001, the World Trade Organization accepted China as a member. China made the usual promises: opening its markets to foreign investors and enterprises, treating national and foreign enterprises equally, reducing tariffs and subsidies, and so on. One massive subsidy however was not mentioned in the agreement -- coerced labour. Workers in China are bereft of rights we take for granted in this country, specifically freedom of speech and, of special interest for working people, freedom of association. They have no right to form independent labour unions and bargain for their pay and benefits. This coercion of labour offers goods made in China a huge advantage over goods made in free countries. It is a subsidy in all but name, yet is excluded from WTO agreements.

Chinese workers are subject to appalling exploitation, particularly migrant workers who come in from the countryside desperate for work. These workers see their pay delayed for months and sometimes they are not paid at all. They are routinely denied overtime pay, even when working as long as 18 hours a day. A government survey showed that migrant construction workers were forced to work, on average, 10 hours a day, 27 days a month. They commonly have no medical care or other benefits, and do not receive accident insurance. They often live in unheated dormitories and may even have to use the beds in shifts. An interesting note is that migrant labour is building most of the Olympic venues.

It isn't quite true to say that workers have no rights in China. For example, Chinese law restricts working hours and dictates that wages be paid monthly. The problem is that many workers are reluctant to complain because they don't have permits to work in the city and those who do complain can be beaten, even killed. In any case, public officials are commonly open to bribes from employers.

The question is why, under WTO rules, countries like China must treat foreign investors equally but are allowed to treat their own workers like slaves? The answer I suspect is that while coerced labour harms workers, both Chinese and those in other countries who have to compete against them, it is very good indeed for corporations. It has been argued that is exactly what the WTO is all about, aiding the corporate pursuit of cheap labour. Like NAFTA, it's more about serving corporate interest than serving free trade.

We cannot expect Chinese workers to receive the same benefits as workers in wealthier countries like ours, but we can expect them to enjoy the same basic human rights. And we can make it a condition for China to be accepted into international trade agreements. But first, of course, we have to design trade agreements for people rather than for corporations.

14 March 2008

Afghanistan: the pig in the poke

Yesterday, the House of Commons voted to extend our mission in Afghanistan. One might think the first question to be asked would have been how much this is going to cost. If it had been, there wouldn't have been an answer. If anybody knows, they aren't saying. Hard to believe, but our legislators in their wisdom voted to sink us in deeper without any idea how many more billions of our dollars it will require.

We may be assured, however, it will be a lot. Since we first embarked on this adventure in 2001, we have spent at least $7.7-billion, double what we budgeted for. This fiscal year alone, it appears we will be $1-billion over budget. According to a spokesperson for Defence Minister Peter MacKay, "This is not a cost overrun - it is simply an adjustment to the estimated incremental cost of the mission." There will, no doubt, be many more "adjustments to the estimated incremental costs" in the future.

So the war is going great. We're extending it ad hoc. We're begging our friends for help. We're spending double what we expected. Do I hear echoes of Iraq out there?

Support our troops indeed.

10 March 2008

Was Moses a doper?

Who or what inspired the ten commandments? God. you say. You may believe so, but Benny Shanon of Jerusalem's Hebrew University suggests it may have been ayahuasca.

According to Shanon, when Moses and his fellow travellers spent 40 years crossing the Sinai, a good part of the time they were stoned. Psychedelic drugs, Shanon claims, formed an integral part of the religious rites of Israelites in biblical times. Conveniently, plants in the Sinai peninsula contain the hallucinogenic drug from which the brew ayahuasca is made, a substance still used today by Amazonians in Brazil for religious rituals.

Thus is explained the voice of God emanating from Mount Sinai, the ten commandments, and the burning bush. According to Shanon, "As far as Moses on Mount Sinai is concerned, it was either a supernatural cosmic event, which I don't believe, or a legend, which I don't believe either. Or finally, and this is very probable, an event that joined Moses and the people of Israel under the effect of narcotics."

Needless to say, rabbis and other religious figures take issue with Shanon's theory. On the other hand, Karl Marx may have been more right than he realized when he said religion is the opiate of the people.

What a diabolical species we are

Here's a series of logic for you:
  • Alberta Sustainable Resources Development is initiating a project to shoot adult and baby wolves.
  • Why? To increase the elk population.
  • And why increase the elk population? So that hunters have more to kill.
  • Ergo, we are going to kill more wolves so that we can kill more elk.
In other words, the Alberta government would rather have hunters killing elk for fun than wolves killing elk to feed themselves and their families. Such is the arrogance of Homo sapiens.

A representative of the department, one Darcy Whiteside, justifies the killing with the comment, "No one has a problem swatting a mosquito." So here we have someone in charge of our wildlife that doesn't know the difference between a mosquito and a wolf, between an insect and a mammal. This is wildlife management in the environmentally benighted province of Alberta.

06 March 2008

Another case of pots and kettles

The United States has taken umbrage at China's buildup in its defence forces. China revealed a 17.6 per cent increase in its military budget this year, continuing the trend of double-digit increases over the past two decades. This is discouraging indeed -- if there's one thing the world doesn't need more of it's weapons. But then the Americans are hardly the ones to lecture. They currently outspend the Chinese six to one, and in fact spend almost as much on defence as the rest of the world, including China, combined. Their military spending has doubled since George W. Bush was elected. This pot shouldn't be calling any kettle black.

Particularly ironic is the Americans' concern abut China's rapid development of hi-tech tactics and weaponry. These are the same people who are building a "star wars" anti-missile system that includes launching pads suspiciously close to Russia.

Rather than setting an example for peace the Americans are setting the pace for war. They have military bases around the world, whereas the Chinese military are confined to China. Furthermore, the U.S. demonstrates a willingness to use force to guarantee access to resources, its current establishment of massive military bases in Iraq -- at the center of the world's largest supply of conventional oil -- being a prime example. The Chinese, by contrast, seek to ensure secure oil access by the use of diplomacy and aid.

So far, at least. But if we don't curb our use of oil, a depleting resource in ever-greater demand, nations may be driven to fight over it. The United States is obviously preparing for that eventuality. We can't blame China for simply responding to the threat.

05 March 2008

Alberta election: is the environment a lost cause?

Monday's election result in Alberta, a major victory for the incumbent Conservatives, wasn't exactly my first choice. Not simply because we elected a Conservative government, but much more importantly because we elected a government that has shown little serious interest in combating global warming. Considering Alberta is Canada's worst polluter, this is definitely not good.

Particularly discouraging is the obvious lack of interest Albertans showed in the issue. Everyone talks about climate change, and Alberta's irresponsible approach to it, yet not only did the electors return the same irresponsible government, almost 60 per cent of them didn't consider the environment or any other issue important enough to drag themselves out to the polls. On the contrary, they collectively decided to set a record for electoral apathy.

This prompts a disturbing question: do Albertans, and perhaps Canadians, take global warming seriously enough to let it affect their vote? Or is it just something to make small talk about? Stephane Dion has promised to make it a major issue in the next federal election. Is he making a big political mistake?