29 May 2008

Welcome, Nepal, to the world of democracy

Nepal fired their king yesterday. The country's newly-elected Assembly voted overwhelmingly to abolish the monarchy and establish a republic. Ex-king Gyanendra has been given 15 days to pack his bags and vacate the palace. That may seem like short notice but he wasn't paying rent, so he can't complain. Losing his $3.1-million annual allowance will probably hurt a lot more, to say nothing of seeing his face disappear from the national currency.

In any case, we don't have to worry about his ex-majesty's future. Apparently, he is quite wealthy with interests in a number of industries. I wish him a long, happy life, but much more importantly, I wish Nepal great success in its democratic adventure. The hard work starts now.

23 May 2008

What the hell is Gary Doer up to?

The NDP has consistently supported abolishing the Senate. The Manitoba NDP government is on record as agreeing. And yet they are planning on conducting province-wide hearings on how senators should be elected. Is this goofy or what? If they believe the Senate should be put out of its misery, why on earth are they acting to rejuvenate it?

The only argument with any merit in support of the Senate is that it equitably represents the regions. But equitable representation of the regions can be achieved with a proportional representation voting system and democracy greatly improved in the process. And the NDP claims to be a strong supporter of proportional representation. So why is Premier Doer pursuing the Conservative agenda of senate reform rather than the NDP agenda of proportional representation? He owes party members across the country an explanation.

22 May 2008

Why would the Israelis want an agreement with the Palestinians?

In the Bible, when the Israelites wanted someone else's land, they did an ethnic cleansing. It was easy to justify -- God made them do it. According to the Old Testament, Numbers 33:
And the LORD spake unto Moses ... saying, Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them, When ye are passed over Jordan into the land of Canaan; Then ye shall drive out all the inhabitants of the land from before you. And ye shall dispossess the inhabitants of the land, and dwell therein: for I have given you the land to possess it.
God warned them that the cleansing had to be thorough:
But if ye will not drive out the inhabitants of the land from before you; then it shall come to pass, that those which ye let remain of them shall be pricks in your eyes, and thorns in your sides, and shall vex you in the land wherein ye dwell.
God issued these instructions a few millennia ago, but they could have been issued in 1948, when the modern Israelites ethnically cleansed 750.000 Arabs from Palestine and created the nation of Israel. But, failing to heed God's warning, they allowed a substantial population of Arabs to remain. This population has pricked their eyes, been a thorn in their sides and vexes them to this very day.

The ideal for Israel would be to possess a Palestine bereft of Arabs. The international community, on the other hand, has consistently proposed two states, side by side. It continues to push for that solution, with various "road maps" having been proposed over the years. But does Israel have any real interest in this solution? Or does it find the current situation a quite acceptable second best?

One could argue that Israel has the best of both worlds. It has the West Bank available for increased Jewish settlement while keeping the Arabs nicely segregated. It expands its control of the best land and most of the water, destroying Arab assets in the process, while having little responsibility for the Arabs, who have no right to citizenship, welfare, or indeed much of anything. Almost 40 per cent of the West Bank is taken up with Israeli infrastructure which ties the settlements together while separating and isolating the Palestinians. It might be called ethnic cleansing by stealth.

And Israel is under no great pressure to allow an Arab state. It has the most powerful army in the region, nuclear weapons, and the unequivocal support of the most powerful nation in the world. It can do pretty much whatever it wants and the U.S. will back it up.

The only real threat to the Israelis is demographic. It can't incorporate the West Bank and Gaza into Israel because that would add millions more Arabs to Israel's population, gravely diluting its ethnic purity, thus defeating the very purpose of Israel which is its existence as a Jewish state. This is why leaders like Prime Minister Olmert occasionally seem amenable to the two-state solution, albeit reluctantly.

And the demographic threat increases as the Arabs outbreed the Jews. Even within Israel, the Arab portion of the population, already at 20 per cent, steadily grows. The situation is repeated in the West Bank and Gaza. And lurking in the background is the Palestinian diaspora.

But in the meantime, Israel is secure behind its wall, its military and its unequivocal American support while it increases its grip on Jerusalem and its expansion into the West Bank. The longer it delays any agreement, the more leverage it has. And a two-state solution won't solve the demographic problem, the ultimate threat, anyway. So what, from Israel's perspective, is the point of offering the Palestinians anything?

14 May 2008

The Globe and the Post: Canada's Pravda and Izvestia

Some wit once compared Canada's two national newspapers, The Globe and Mail and the National Post, to those infamous Soviet twins Pravda and Izvestia. The idea was that just as the Russian twins were both voices of the Communist Party, the Canadian twins are both voices of the corporate sector. The comparison is unfair, of course ... but, not without a kernel of truth.

The Globe is only moderately conservative while the Post is rabidly so; nonetheless they are both conservative and corporate with similar agendas:
  • Both insist that taxes must come down in order to maximize our economic success. This is a lie, totally disproven by countries such as Sweden, Denmark and Norway. These countries have both the world's highest taxes and the world's most prosperous economies. And, as an aside, the world's highest standards of social justice.
  • Needless to say, both papers are content with a small special interest group controlling the mass media. Plutocratic control of the public forums is naturally quite amenable to the plutocrats. The only independent mass medium, and the only democratic mass medium, we have, at least at the national level, is the CBC, and the National Post would like to privatize that.
  • Both papers have dragged their heels on global warming. While the Globe offers a disproportionate amount of column inches on global warming to know-nothing skeptics like Margaret Wente, the Post seems reluctant to recognize the crisis exists at all. The greatest fear of the corporate sector is that people may decide it's necessary to consume less, and when your major source of revenue comes from trying to convince people to consume more, i.e. from advertising, the idea is particularly frightening. That consuming less may be the only answer to global warming is an idea that must be buried at all costs.
  • Both support NAFTA, the WTO and globalization on corporate terms generally. China is welcomed into the WTO even though it enjoys an unfair trade advantage through its use of coerced labour. But cheap labour is advantageous to corporations and is therefore quite acceptable to our two national dailies. If the corporate ox was being gored, that would be a different matter.
  • On the Middle east, both papers, but particularly the Post, incline toward Israel, dismissing Hamas and Hezbollah -- both critical to the peace process -- as terrorists.
And so it goes. The Globe is generally more moderate, but this is a matter of degree rather than difference. Here in Calgary, I can buy one of four daily papers, two national, two local -- all conservative. The choice is rather like Henry Ford's famous offer on Model Ts: ""You can have it any colour you like, as long as it's black." The free market in Calgary offers any newspaper philosophy you like ... as long as it's conservative.

In this democracy/plutocracy of ours we should be holding thorough debates on the proper level of taxation, media control, the environment, and other issues of substance, but with the agenda set by the corporate sector the debates are either truncated or hardly occur at all. That, I suppose, is the inevitable result of allowing plutocratic control to trump democratic control of the "public" forums.

01 May 2008

Drugs: worth the risk?

We are a drug-dependent society. From tranquilizing our kids with Ritalin to reinvigorating our old men with Viagra, we are a cradle-to-grave drug culture. In between birth and death we almost all rely on drugs at one time or another to mitigate or cure disease, relieve pain, or simply to enjoy ourselves. Good stuff, but always there are side effects. Always we must balance the benefit against the harm. We must deal with risk.

Unfortunately, we often aren't aware of what the risk is. A spate of lawsuits against the pharmaceutical giant Merck & Co. illustrates just that. In 2004, Merck pulled its top-selling pain-reliever Vioxx from the market when research indicated it increased the risk of strokes and heart attacks and may have contributed to thousands of deaths. Furthermore, recent studies allege that Merck manipulated public and professional opinion in order to promote the medication. Arthur Schafer, director of the Centre for Professional and Applied Ethics at the University of Manitoba says, "... all of modern medicine is floating on a sea of drug company money and the result has been utterly corrosive."

So even the medical use of drugs is often much riskier than the user might reasonably expect. What about recreational drug use then? These products range from those which have been used extensively, and studied extensively, to those relatively new. We are quite knowledgeable about the commonly-used drugs nicotine, alcohol and marijuana, yet oddly we have legalized the first two but not the latter. Particularly odd considering it is less harmful than the others.

And so what if a recreational drug is risky? Does that justify criminalizing it? Everything is risky. Driving your car is risky. Sports are risky. Every year people maim or kill themselves skiing, mountain climbing, sky-diving, etc., but we don't demand criminalization. It's their life, we say. So why isn't it "their life" if they want to smoke, drink, toke, snort or shoot up? If it's legal to take a big risk skiing down a mountain, why is it not legal to take a small risk smoking a joint?

How then does the public decide what risks it will allow individuals to take? One approach is to evaluate the risk to society. If a behaviour has little effect on the general public but only on those engaged in it, why should they be deprived of their pleasure?

But are we not our brother's keeper? If we see individuals doing harm to themselves are we not morally obliged to help them? The answer lies in the state of their knowledge and the state of their mind. If they are acting in ignorance, they deserve advice; if they are mentally disturbed, they deserve medical assistance. If they are mentally sound and refuse help, they are on their own. If they are mentally incapacitated and refuse help, we may have the right to interfere. And of course if they are harming others we have the right to restrain them.

Consider marijuana use. Does the relatively minor harm caused to the individual and society justify restraint? Does it justify the enormous cost of policing, trying and incarcerating people for marijuana infractions? To the contrary, it seems grossly disproportionate. Oddly, the biggest risks -- harm to the user and expense to the public -- are caused not by the act but by its illegality. Legalize it and most of the risk vanishes. The answer here would seem to be obvious.

Or consider an example outside the realm of drug use -- driving a car for pleasure. This carries a not insignificant risk. Automobile accidents are a major cause of injury and death, and we all pay the price. If someone out for a Sunday drive is seriously injured, we all pay the medical bills. And, through our insurance, we all pay for the property damage. And we all pay for the policing. And of course we all pay for the pollution the car emits. And so on. It's an expensive pleasure. Yet we don't even consider making it illegal. Perhaps we should. It's certainly more expensive, to the individual and to the public, than smoking marijuana (except of course for the cost society has imposed upon itself by making marijuana illegal).

Our approach to drugs is irrational. Two that are guilty of broad social harm, tobacco and alcohol, we legalize. One that is more innocuous, marijuana, we don't. And many recreational drugs are no more harmful to the individual or society than a host of other activities we never consider criminalizing. Obviously deep prejudices are at work. Alcohol for some reason, perhaps because it has become intricately involved in our habits and traditions, has reached a plateau of respectability. Marijuana, perhaps because of its association with the socially marginalized, remains an outcast.

Our attitude to recreational drug use should sensibly depend upon risk analysis, drug by drug, including comparison to other behaviours. Only then will we escape mischievous biases and develop rational responses.