27 November 2008

Giddyup, Alberta!

Oh my. Here in the pollution province we have enough trouble convincing the "others" that we are a modern society with a modicum of sophistication and now we have our elected representatives supporting a measure that would brand us as a bunch of rubes. On Monday, Liberal leader Kevin Taft's motion to make rodeo the official provincial sport was passed by the legislature. "Rodeo is so much more than an athletic event or tourist attraction. Rodeo reminds us of our western heritage," exulted Mr. Taft. Debra Probert, executive director of the Vancouver Humane Society, is less rapturous and more analytical about rodeo: "They're exploiting the reaction of the animal to pain, fear and stress. They harass them, they kick them, they goad them ... they harass them into acting like wild animals." They are both right, of course. Rodeo does remind us of our western heritage, just not the more respectable parts.

What got into the Liberal leader is puzzling. He will soon be stepping down, so maybe this was his attempt at leaving a legacy. Considering the Liberals have been reduced to a rump in the legislature, he has precious little else to leave.

Although both Conservative and Liberal legislators voted for the motion, the more sensible comments came from the Conservatives. Jonathan Denis, PC MLA for Calgary-Egmont, suggested, "If we are to adopt an official sport, we should at least adopt a sport that most Albertans participate in." Meanwhile, Edmonton MLA Thomas Lukaszuk wondered if there weren't more important issues to be spending their time on. One could certainly think of a few. Culture Minister Lindsay Blackett opined that a province doesn't need a provincial sport. Mr. Blackett might have added that imposing a rural "sport" on an overwhelmingly urban population doesn't even make sense.

Fortunately, the motion isn't binding on the government, so hopefully they'll ignore it. If not, they will in the not too distant future be proclaiming that Albertans preferred outdoor activity is tormenting animals. Please don't do it, Premier Stelmach. Ducks dying in our tailings ponds was more than enough. Flaunting animal misery would put us beyond the pale.

25 November 2008

The human rights museum, the portrait gallery, and the Asper influence

One can be nothing less than overwhelmed at the federal government's extraordinary generosity toward the human rights museum proposed for Winnipeg. Ottawa is prepared to lavish $100-million on constructing the thing and $22-million a year thereafter to operate it. In addition, the Province of Manitoba will put up $40-million and the City of Winnipeg $20-million in the form of cash and in-kind donations. The proposed museum is depicted in all its gauzy glory in the adjacent photo.

Emphasizing the generosity of the federal government is its recent cancellation of plans for a national portrait gallery ostensibly to save money, even though the gallery would have cost a fraction as much as the human rights museum and a building was already available in Ottawa. And, unlike the museum, the portrait gallery would have focused on Canadiana -- a more appropriate spending of our tax dollars.

What, one wonders, is it about this proposed museum that so taps into the generosity of politicians? Is it their commitment to human rights? Do they just want to do something nice for Winnipeg? Possibly both of these things, but I suspect it has more to do with the fact it is a project of the Asper family who happen to own almost half the private mass media in the country. I suspect that as much as anything it reflects the power of media ownership.

Let's talk practical politics here. Could any party hope to assume power in Ottawa if it got on the wrong side of the owner of half the country's mass media? Not bloody likely. We saw Asper power in action when they bought out Conrad Black's Canadian media empire. The Aspers, it is well known, are ardent supporters of Israel and not hesitant in using their media to promote its interests. This affected Jean Chretien very little as he was a friend of Izzy Asper, but Paul Martin wasn't and when he became prime minister, the federal government hastily shifted gears on its Palestine policy, from a balanced approach to unequivocal support for Israel.

Justifying cancellation of plans for a national portrait gallery, Heritage Minister James Moore announced, "In this time of global economic instability, it is important that the federal government continue to manage its own affairs prudently and pragmatically." Who can doubt that it is anything less than "prudent and pragmatic" for the Conservative Party to curry favour with the Aspers.

21 November 2008

McCarthyism redux -- Islam as America's new Communism

One of a number of disturbing phenomenon in the recent U.S. presidential election was the constant undertone of anti-Islamism. Obama was "accused" of being a Muslim and had to pointedly deny the charge. To his credit, he upheld Islam as a great world religion; nonetheless, the fact being Muslim was something he had to defend himself against is unsettling.

It echoes that dark period in the 1950s when a variety of demagogues, epitomized by Senator Joseph McCarthy, ran roughshod over American civil liberties, to say nothing of common decency, in the pursuit of a Communist threat that was more phantom than real. As a result of the witch hunting, many Americans -- particularly government employees, people in the entertainment industry, educators and union activists -- lost their jobs, saw their careers destroyed, and were even imprisoned.

The politics of fear is very much alive in the United States today and a new McCarthyism is feeding off it just as the old McCarthyism fed off fear in the 1950s. Fear is the enemy, not Communism then or Islam now. Communism never posed a serious threat inside America; it did however provide a convenient catchword for demagogues. And Islam poses no serious threat to the American way of life today, but it too has become a convenient catchword for demagogues. And the demagogues are legion, catalyzed by the Bush administration which has thrived on fear, and include as a major perpetrator Fox News network. Bush and his outlaws will soon be gone, but Fox will persist with its mischief. Some with good reason dismiss Fox pundits as a bunch of clowns, but McCarthy was a clown and still managed to ruin a lot of lives. Demagoguery is a formidable weapon.

If an Obama presidency calms the fear, offering confidence and hope in its place -- "Yes, we can," and so forth -- it will do the nation a great a favour.

20 November 2008

Congratulations to Amal Soliman, world's first mazouna

In another step forward for women in this still far too masculine world, Amal Soliman, a 32-year-old Egyptian, has become the Muslim world's first mazouna, or female marriage registrar. Soliman, who holds a Master's degree in Sharia law, broke into the formerly men-only club in September and conducted her first marriage ceremony on October 25th.

It wasn't easy. When she applied for the job, the clerk laughed and refused to accept her application. But she persisted. As a student of Sharia law, she knew the position was an administrative one and therefore religiously acceptable for women. She consulted both religious and lay authorities to gain support. Finally, Khaled el-Shalkamy, the head judge of the local family court, accepted her application over 10 other candidates, all men, as being the most qualified.

Her appointment still had to be authorized by the Egyptian minister of justice. The all-male Committee of Egyptian Mazouns challenged her application claiming the job would be inappropriate for a woman. Some journalists wrote that she was a threat to Islam and should even be punished for applying. Opponents claimed she couldn't perform marriages because of menstruation (women are not allowed to pray or enter a mosque during their monthly cycle), and that it was inappropriate for a woman to sit amongst men during the signing of marriage certificates.

But she fought back, seeking help from the National Council for Women. Al Akhbar, one of Egypt's leading newspapers, took up her cause, and the debate became national, then global. Soliman was grateful for the international attention and believes it catalyzed the process. Her appointment was finally confirmed. The United Arab Emirates recently followed Egypt's lead and appointed their first mazouna this month.

So ... a small but significant step for women in Islam. It will be a great day for Muslim women, and a much greater day for Islam, when women are accepted as imams and assume a full and equal role in the faith.

Ethnic cleansing in the graveyard

Israel's squeezing of Palestinians off their land now includes the dead. The Simon Wiesenthal Center has been given the OK by the Israeli Supreme Court to build a Jewish "Museum of Tolerance" in Jerusalem on part of a Muslim cemetery. Needless to say, local Muslims are not happy. The Mufti of Jerusalem, Sheikh Mohammad Hussein, called the court's decision an "outrage" and "disrespectful of the dead," which would seem appropriate.

Rabbi Marvin Hier, representing the Simon Wiesenthal Center, referred to the land as "derelict," and said only that part of the cemetery that had already been turned into a car park would be dug up. The cemetery is not used for burials anymore; however, it is still considered sacred by Muslims and is visited by families of the dead. According to Mohammed al-Dejani, whose great-grandfather is buried in the graveyard, "Some of the warriors of Saladin are buried there and other great Muslim leaders from many years ago."

It doesn't help that the proposed museum is designed by prominent architect Frank Gehry. Typical of Gehry's work, it shows absolutely no respect for the architecture or history of the area, but imposes itself on the neighbourhood like an assortment of fancily-wrapped Christmas presents. The first challenge the Museum of Tolerance will pose for local Muslims will be tolerating the desecration of their dead, the second tolerating Frank Gehry's architecture.

17 November 2008

Health care costs are outpacing GDP ... So?

The Canadian Institute for Health Information released its study on health care spending last week, predicting spending for 2008 of $172-billion, or 10.7 per cent of our GDP. This represents an increase of 3.4 per cent over last year after inflation and population growth are taken into account. The predictable panic ensued.

The Globe headline announced "Record costs threaten Canada's picture of health," and Brian Day, past-president of the Canadian Medical Association fretted about the sustainability of the system. A little arithmetic can easily put Mr. Day's sustainability worry to rest. GDP is so large, a small increase simply overwhelms a large increase in health care spending. Assume, for example, that health spending continues to rise at 3.4 per cent a year. Assume further that the GDP rises at only 1.6 per cent (the average over the past three years after inflation and population growth are accounted for). Run the numbers out for 20 years. If your math matches mine, you will find that annual GDP will increase from the current $1,607-billion to $2,207-billion and health spending will rise to $336-billion, or 15.2 per cent of GDP. Sounds disturbing, but it isn't. In 2008, we will have $1.435-billion (1,607 - 172) to spend on other things. Twenty years from now, we will have $1,871-billion (2,207 - 336) to spend on other things, i.e. 30 per cent more than this year. Spending on health can grow very fast for a long time yet leave lots more money for buying cars, homes and whatever.

Much of the increased spending on health care results from better medicine. For example, at one time cataract surgery was dangerous. It resulted in up to a week in the hospital and vision was minimally improved. Today, it's an hour-long outpatient procedure that restores the patient's sight almost entirely. Naturally, many more people are having it done. Spending, therefore, increases, but the cost of surgery has actually dropped significantly. We should be careful to distinguish between costs and spending when we talk about health care. Advances in technology in any area tend to reduce costs and, as a result, expand markets, therefore increasing spending. This is generally considered a very good thing.

Improvements in medicine have also contributed to longer and healthier lives for all of us. This, too, adds to spending, but surely it is also a very good thing.

And the health care industry has more to offer than a thriving population. It provides many hi-tech, well-paid, highly-satisfying jobs. And it is a clean, smoke stack-free industry. Its prosperity and growth should be a matter of applause, and we can be assured that if the automobile or construction or computer industries were enjoying similar growth, the financial pages of the Globe would be saturated with applause.

So, when growth outpaces GDP in this very desirable industry, why do we encounter these furrowed brows? Why the panic? The answer isn't economic, it's political. Because we spend most of our health dollar collectively, as a community, rather than individually, because Medicare is redistributive, it runs afoul of the individualistic, small-government philosophy that still pervades North America. And then of course there are the rich and virtually guaranteed pickings that are withheld from private enterprisers.

Of course we should pay strict attention to improving efficiencies in the system, as we should with any system, and undoubtedly there are significant efficiencies to be gained. Our dollars must be treated with respect. That being said, so what if we spend 10.7 per cent of our GDP on our health care, or 12 per cent, or 15? What better way to spend our national wealth than on longer, healthier, more vigorous lives?

13 November 2008

Religious extremists -- theirs and ours

"Terrorist" has become, in the minds of many, a synonym for an Islamic extremist. As a result, we tend to overlook the extremists of other religions, even though they certainly have their share.

The history of Christianity is replete with extremists. John Calvin and his zealots' reign of religious terror in the theocracy they established in 16th century Geneva would have made the Taliban sit up and take notice. Fortunately, the West has largely dampened the ability of Christianity to intimidate populations in the way Calvin did, for the most part by diminishing the importance of religion generally. But Christian zealots still abound, particularly in the most powerful nation on Earth.

Unlike Islamic extremists, they have much greater access to real power. Bin Laden and his colleagues have nothing to compare to being able to call up the president of the United States and have a chat, as Christian zealots in the U.S. have been able to do for the past eight years. These believers in Armageddon may be in no small part responsible for Bush's cavalier attitude toward global warming, the greatest threat facing all of us.

Such attitudes filtering into the mind of the most powerful man on Earth is a lot more frightening than a pack of bearded fanatics plotting in caves in the wilds of Pakistan. And then there's the man himself. President Bush insisted that God advised him to invade Iraq. Meeting with a group of Palestinians he told them, "I'm driven with a mission from God. God would tell me, 'George, go and fight those terrorists in Afghanistan.' And I did, and then God would tell me, 'George, go and end the tyranny in Iraq …' And I did." He did indeed, and the result is over a million dead, four million refugees and a country destroyed. The Christian God has guided Bush to inflict a great deal more pain than the Muslim God has impressed upon Osama bin Laden.

Christian zealots in the U.S. also form a major component of the Israel lobby which seriously deters the Americans from a balanced approach to Palestine. The resulting bias in favour of Israel is a major factor in precluding a peaceful settlement. As a result, that toxic situation continues to fester and contribute to mischief throughout the Middle East and beyond.

And on the subject of Israel, let's not overlook Jewish extremists. With their fanatic belief that God gave all of Palestine to the Jews, they too are a major roadblock to peace. One of them assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, thus derailing the Oslo peace process. Now, some observers believe they may be behind increased violence on the West Bank aimed at scuttling any efforts to limit continued Jewish colonization. According to Israeli human-rights lawyer Michael Sfard, "A new phase of settler violence, or Jewish terror, is about to start."

Ah, religion. Such a comfort.

10 November 2008

Why did we fight?

As poppy day is once more upon us, I found myself pondering the question of why Canadians died in the two great wars of the 20th century. What were they about anyway?

There is a memorial in Calgary that would answer that question. In a grove of poplars along Memorial Drive a sign explains that the trees were planted to honour the men who died in WWI. It announces, "They died for your freedom." The truth of course is the war to end all wars wasn't about anyone's freedom. It was little more than an exercise in bloody-minded hubris by a collection of decaying empires. No great cause. Just pointless slaughter.

World War Two was also about empire. About those who had one against those who didn't but wanted one. Post-WWI, the British and French shared large parts of Asia, Africa and the Middle East. The Dutch had Indonesia, the Americans the Philippines, and so on. If you were a major power, you had an empire. It was de rigueur. Two major powers, however, Japan and Germany, did not. Naturally, they aspired to the status of their contemporaries.

There were, however, rules about empire. One, was that only white people could have one. Two, was that they could only rule over non-whites. In their quest for empire, the Japanese violated the first rule and the Germans the second.

Japan no doubt felt particularly hard done by. All those European powers occupying colonies in Japan's backyard, on its turf so to speak, while the Japanese were confined to their islands. Not surprisingly they found this offensive. They decided to correct this perceived injustice and create a Japanese empire in Asia. The Europeans could not, however, abide this ambition as it threatened both rule number one and their own empires. And they had the leverage. They had access to ample natural resources -- particularly oil, the life blood of the industrial state -- and Japan didn't. Japan's need to conquer a vast range of territory to guarantee itself access to oil and other resources resulted in an overreach which ultimately undid its dream.

The Germans, too, dreamed of empire. Hitler both envied and admired the British version, and mused at times about a kind of partnership, the British dominating Asia and Africa, and Germany ruling over Europe east to the Urals. In 1941, he referred expectantly to Russia as "our India." The Russians demurred, and with some help from their allies they buried Hitler's ambition in the rubble of Germany.

So what was Canada doing in these wars of empire? Not fighting for our freedom certainly. Nor anyone else's in WWI. We joined that war because of our association with the British Empire -- "ready, aye, ready" and all that. Not much of an excuse for wasting 65,000 Canadian lives. Some suggest it was our coming of age. How sad if we came of age by engaging in arguably the stupidest event humanity ever inflicted on itself. If we had courageously and sensibly refused to participate, now that would have been a meaningful statement of independence. The young men who volunteered probably did so out of misguided senses of nationalism and adventure, tragic victims of a lack of wise counsel from their elders.

Our involvement in WWII came in two parts. The war in Asia was purely a war about empire, the Japanese attempting to replace European power with their own. By defending British colonization over Japanese we fought for race, not freedom.

We did defend freedom in the European Theatre, however. We were OK with Europeans subjugating Asians and Africans, but we would not accept white people, certainly not our fellow Anglos, being subjects of an imperial master. Here, at least, we were on the side of the angels. Here, our sacrifice had a measure of justification.

05 November 2008

All hail Obama ... and wish him lots of luck

The election of Barack Obama as president of the United States is a huge breath of fresh air after the stifling atmosphere of the Bush administration. Obama brings great promise to his country, for both its domestic and foreign policies, and therefore I suppose for the rest of the world as well. None can escape the power and influence of the empire.

We should not set our hopes too high, however. Obama will have to deal with appalling messes at home and abroad left by the infamous Bush. Once the financial mess is cleaned up, he should not have too great a difficulty improving things at home, starting with a decent medical care system for Americans and possibly even new and desperately needed fairness in broadcasting legislation. It is enormously encouraging that the three challenges facing his nation he identified in his victory speech included "a planet in peril," the greatest challenge facing all of us.

Other than the environment, it is in the realm of foreign policy that the rest of us will be most concerned. He has indicated a greater inclination to work with America's friends and negotiate with its enemies, so there is room for optimism. On the other hand, while he is in haste to get out of Iraq, he has indicated unequivocal support for Israel in Palestine, has promised to more ardently pursue the war in Afghanistan, and has threatened to raid Pakistan as he sees fit. He seems to see himself as commander-in-chief of the American Empire no less than his predecessors. And then, of course, the military-industrial-congressional complex is now nearly beyond challenge, almost making war inevitable.

So, a better America internally, fairer and more compassionate, but abroad .... well, we shall see.

04 November 2008

Brown brings his begging bowl to the sheiks

How the mighty have fallen. Only a very short time ago, the U.S. and the U.K. were extolling the virtues of their deregulated financial markets and encouraging the rest of us to join the party. Now, as a host of countries face bankruptcy from financial collapse caused by that deregulation, the U.S. and the U.K., as they too plunge into debt, look to dictatorships such as China and Saudi Arabia to bail out the victims.

Over the weekend, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown went cap in hand to the Middle East begging "billions of dollars" to prop up the lender of last resort, the International Monetary Fund. Already Iceland, Hungary, Belarus and Ukraine are seeking IMF loans in order to stave off financial collapse. Others are lining up.

"The world is changing," said John Curtis of the Centre for International Governance Innovation, "This reflects the slowly changing balance of financial power." When the West starts begging the sheiks for a bailout, "change" is putting it mildly.

Discouraging democracy with attack ads

An Angus Reid survey before the October 14 federal election revealed that 11 per cent of Canadians had been dissuaded from voting as a result of the Conservative TV ads targeting Stephane Dion. Not from voting Liberal, but from voting at all. Comments on the ads included words such as "disgust," "lies," "unethical" and "unCanadian." Long-term pollster Andrew Grenville insists the attack ads were instrumental in producing the lowest voting turnout in history, saying they are "poisoning the well" of the Canadian political system.

If the 11 per cent had voted, the turnout would have been 69 per cent rather than 58 per cent, very close to the 72 per cent of the 1993 election when vicious attack ads made their debut into Canadian politics.

So will political parties take the high road in support of greater democratic participation and stop using attack ads? Not a chance. Why? Because they work. The survey indicated that 10 per cent of Liberal voters switched to Conservative as a result of the ads. Political parties are in the game to win. They are concerned about power, not democracy. Encouraging more people to vote at the possible cost of losing an election is not on the table.

The only way the standard of campaigning could be raised is if all parties agreed to drop the attack ads. That way the playing field would remain level. The parties wouldn't lose and democracy would win. And the chances of that? As one of the Angus Reid pollsters said, regarding the coming Liberal leadership convention, "[The Conservatives] are probably preparing their attack ads right now."