29 June 2009

Welcome, Al Jazeera

Good news. The CRTC is expected to allow the Al Jazeera English-language television network to be broadcast in Canada. The Qatar-based international network has been attempting to enter this country since 2003. The CRTC approved carriage of the Arab version at that time but attached such stringent conditions none of Canada's major carriers wanted to take it on. It has agreed to work with some of its opponents such as the Canadian Jewish Congress and B'nai Brith Canada and has agreed to have its on-air content reviewed ever six months. These concessions are a slap in the face to freedom of the press but such is the power of the Israeli lobby.

While I welcome the entrance of Al Jazeera TV into the Canadian broadcasting realm, the network is not new to me. I have been checking out its English website daily for years. Although not as edgy as the Arabic version, it nonetheless provides something of an alternative to the Western media while doing some excellent journalism. It was, for instance, the only international English network on the ground during the recent Israeli invasion of Gaza.

Tony Berman, managing director of Al Jazeera English and former CBC executive, says the network is trying to shed some of the old stereotypes about anti-Western bias. Considering that it's material is watered down from the Arabic version already, I hope he doesn't go too far. Some of that bias is a refreshing change from the Western-centric, pro-Israel perspective of the commercial media in this country.

27 June 2009

Gay birds - an evolutionary advantage?

The most common argument against accepting homosexuality as a social norm is that it is unnatural. Sex is for reproduction the argument goes, and same-sex couples can't reproduce (they can, of course, just not with each other), so it goes against nature. Furthermore, homosexual sex can't produce progeny, therefore it is an evolutionary dead end and must be not only unnatural but a conscious choice.

All of this has now been debunked. Same-sex relationships have been observed in a host of species, including bonobos, dolphins, penguins and fruit flies. The relationships show great variety. Male penguins form long-term sexual bonds. Toads will hop on any other toad that gets within range, regardless of gender. Marine snails all start out male, but when two males copulate, one conveniently changes gender. Male and female bonobos fornicate indiscriminately.

Given that it is universal in nature, the argument that homosexuality is unnatural falls apart. Nor, if fruit flies and penguins are doing it, can we argue that it's a matter of conscious choice. Obviously, evolution has not only allowed for same-sex relationships, it would seem to have a purpose, or purposes, for them.

Scientists are now ferreting out those purposes. They believe, for example, that male bottlenose dolphins engage in same-sex liaisons to facilitate group bonding. In a social species, stronger groups mean stronger individuals. Female Laysan albatrosses (shown above), who may remain pair-bonded for life, co-operatively raise their young, with greater success than heterosexual couples. About a third of Laysan albatrosses couples are female-female, for whom males apparently are of but transient utility.

According to Nathan Bailey, a biologist at the University of California, "Same-sex sexual behaviors are flexibly deployed in a variety of circumstances, for example as alternative reproductive tactics, as co-operative breeding strategies, as facilitators of social bonding or as mediators of intrasexual conflict. Once this flexibility is established, it becomes in and of itself a selective force." Why it evolved in humans is rather more difficult to determine than with albatrosses given the distance that human behaviour has drifted from what might be termed "natural." The mystery is deepened by the presence of our fertile imaginations. Sexually-speaking, are we bonobos, dolphins or fruit flies? I'll leave that question to the biologists.

26 June 2009

Iran - an historical perspective

Iran is building a new kind of society -- an Islamic republic -- a project it has only been at for 30 years since it emerged from the dictatorship of the Shah, a dictatorship imposed by Great Britain and the United States. The events in Iran today are tragic, but building new societies is a process often replete with bouts of violence.

Consider, for example, the United States. Some Americans, former presidential candidate John McCain among them, are criticizing President Obama for not responding more strongly to the events in Iran. They forget their own history. In building its republic, the United States has endured repeated events of intense violence. It was founded in war. Within a century, it was engaged in one of history's bloodiest civil wars. It grew by crushing the native peoples. The struggle for human rights convulsed its people in violence up until the late 20th century -- two hundred years after the birth of the republic, its cities were burning and blood ran in the streets. Mr. McCain et al. can hardly expect more from the Iranians after only 30 years.

For Iran, whose civilization dates back millennia, 30 years is but a moment. We can only hope the violence of the current moment will be minimized and will lead ultimately to a better society, i.e. a step forward. In the short term, unfortunately, it's looking much more like a step back.

23 June 2009

Getting beyond the GDP

Gross Domestic Product. The total value of all the good and services produced in a country annually. The GDP is not only the most common measurement of our economic well-being but often of society’s overall health. It is quoted ad nauseam as “our standard of living.”

This was not the intent of Nobel Prize winning economist Simon Kuznets, the inventor of the forerunner of the GDP. Kuznets had grave reservations about applying such an instrument too broadly. In his first report to the U.S. Congress in 1934, he warned, “The welfare of a nation [can] scarcely be inferred from a measurement of national income as defined above.” He later added, “Distinctions must be kept in mind between quantity and quality of growth, between its costs and return, and between the short and the long run. Goals for ‘more’ growth should specify more growth of what and for what.”

Kuznets cautions have been long forgotten and the GDP is applied very broadly indeed. Yet its weaknesses are as obvious as they are dangerous. For starters, it only values in terms of money, so those activities in which money doesn't change hands, including some of the most important work done in society, volunteer work for instance, or housework, are considered worthless. Unlike sensible accounting, it fails to include negatives as well as positives. Forests cut down are counted when they are sold for lumber, and later for finished products, but the cost of the loss of a forest, economically and environmentally, is ignored. Nature is not paid for her losses, so Her contribution doesn’t count. The planet could be sucked dry while the GDP soared merrily upward and our progress celebrated. The GDP has no interest in the future even though responsible accounting would insist that depleting Nature is depreciating an asset. Nor is polluting Nature a debit even thought its costs may prove catastrophic.

And many of the positives in the GDP are socially destructive. For example, a major growth industry in the U.S. in recent years has been incarceration. Imprisoning ever-increasing numbers of young men would seem to represent a failure in society, but the GDP notes the boom in expenditures on prisons, police, lawyers, courts, etc. and declares it a success. According to the GDP, crime definitely pays.

Factors that illustrate social progress may be of little account or even negative. Falling crime rates may lower the GDP. Reducing disparity between rich and poor is irrelevant. In Canada, while our GDP has steadily risen over the past two decades, income distribution has become increasingly skewed, living standards have been stagnant, housing affordability has diminished, job quality has deteriorated, and Canadians' own rating of their health has declined.

Some economists and others have called for better yardsticks to measure human progress -- or lack of it. The San Francisco-based group Redefining Progress has created a more comprehensive measure of progress which they call the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI), an instrument that starts with personal expenditures similar to the GDP but then deducts social and environmental costs such as crime, pollution, loss of leisure time, unemployment, etc., adds in non-monetary contributions such as housework, volunteerism and natural resources, and also adjusts for income disparities. It represents something closer to the economy that people actually experience as opposed to an economist’s abstraction such as the GDP. Indexes such as the GPI have shown that when the GDP is rising, overall quality of life may well be falling, i.e. that our belief our standard of living is improving may be an illusion.

Now Canada has come up with its own yardstick. Former Saskatchewan premier Roy Romanow has spearheaded the creation of the Institute of Wellbeing, an organization dedicated to reporting on the quality of life of Canadians and promoting a dialogue on how to improve it through "evidence-based policies that are responsive to the needs and values of Canadians." The institute recognizes a growing consensus about "the need for a more holistic and transparent way to measure societal progress – one that accounts for more than just economic indicators such as the Gross Domestic Product and takes into account the full range of social, health, environmental and economic concerns of citizens."

The institutes's "signature product" is the Canadian Index of Wellbeing (CIW), which will evaluate the quality of life of Canadians overall and specifically in areas such as health, quality of the environment, education and skill levels, the use of time, the vitality of communities, participation in the democratic process, and the state of our arts, culture and recreation. It will provide detailed reports on the various areas and ultimately a composite index, a single number that will give a snapshot of whether the overall quality of life of Canadians is getting better or worse. At long last we will have a single, national instrument, designed from a Canadian perspective, that shows whether our quality of life in all of its dimensions is getting better or worse. The institutes's first report entitled How are Canadians Really Doing? can be found here.

22 June 2009

Cocaine ... the hidden report

In the early 1990s, the World Health Organization (WHO) undertook the largest global study on cocaine ever. It collected information from 22 cities in 19 countries about the use of the drug, the users, and the effects it has on users and the community. The conclusions it came to include:
  • By far the most popular use of coca products worldwide is the snorting of cocaine hydrochloride. Most participating countries and sites did not report significant cocaine-related problems among this group of users.
  • The smoking of coca paste and crack, and the injection of cocaine, are very much minority behaviours in the countries surveyed, and are mainly seen among the unemployed, the homeless, the poor and other minority and socially isolated groups such as sex workers and street youth.
  • Most participating countries agree that occasional or experimental cocaine use does not typically lead to severe or even minor physical or social problems.
  • Current national and local approaches which over-emphasize punitive drug control measures may actually contribute to the development of heath-related problems.
  • Despite a broad range of educational and prevention approaches, this project has determined that most programs do not prevent myths but perpetuate stereotyping and misinformation in the general public.
  • Users of minority background or low socioeconomic status are most subject to arrest and prosecution, while wealthier users are virtually immune to prosecution or rarely imprisoned.
  • The aim of education about cocaine and related products should be to increase understanding about known high-risk patterns of cocaine use, in particular the intensity of use, drug combinations, and the potentially greater levels of harm associated with smokable and injectable methods of coca product administration.
  • Use of coca leaves appears to have no negative physical effects and may have a therapeutic value as a tonic.
About cocaine use in Canada, the report had this to say, "Use in Canada does not typically cause even minor physical or social problems and use remains confined to a small minority of individuals. The few who suffer serious or chronic effects are usually intensive users. ... ex-addicts list more negative effects of use. Recreational users report positive results, claiming that cocaine provides energy for work or study and enhances creativity. ... Few recreational users intensify use over time or experience financial distress, though "addicts" are often made insolvent by cocaine expenditures."

Despite the comprehensive nature and quality of the report, and the substantial contribution it could have made to dealing with cocaine use, and drug use generally, it never saw the light of day. The United States government went apoplectic over heresies such as, "Most participating countries agree that occasional or experimental cocaine use does not typically lead to severe or even minor physical or social problems," and, "Current national and local approaches which over-emphasize punitive drug control measures may actually contribute to the development of heath-related problems." The Americans threatened to cut off their funding for all the organization's research projects and interventions unless it dissociated itself from the study. It did. Publication was canceled and as far as the WHO is concerned the report no longer exists. However, if you would like to read it, try www.tdpf.org.uk/WHOleaked.pdf.

19 June 2009

Another corporate front, this one in the capital

The Fraser Institute is about to be complemented by another right-wing think tank, this one in Ottawa. Brian Lee Crowley, president of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies and F.A. Hayek disciple, is raising support for his Macdonald-Laurier Institute. Needless to say, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty is ecstatic. He will host a private dinner at the Albany club to drum up Bay Street support for the institute.

Crowley claims his think tank will be non-partisan, but there's little doubt who will be paying the piper to hear appropriate tunes. Now that corporations are severely limited federally in their contributions to political parties, think tanks make excellent outlets for their propaganda. Of course they claim to be non-partisan, but who are they kidding with Bay Street picking up the tab. You don't have to tell hookers to wear short skirts -- they know what the boys like.

What annoys me is that we all have to pay the hookers. The money that corporations contribute to their various interests ultimately comes out of our pockets. If we want to eat, wear clothes, put a roof over our heads, etc., we have to buy stuff and that means putting money in the hands of businesses. That they use a portion to support right-wing propagandists like the Fraser Institute is damned annoying, yet impossible to avoid. You may prefer not to buy products from companies that contribute to groups you disapprove of, but because this is private business, their benefactors are confidential. You can never be sure who contributes to whom. You are not free to choose.

Democracy means political equality, and nothing corrupts political equality like money. If we want a truly democratic society, the effect of money must be neutralized and that means any organization that involves itself in politics, not just political parties, should be subject to strict funding rules. Contributions should be limited to individuals and to amounts most citizens can afford. Only if Crawley limits his institutes's funding thusly can he claim it to be non-partisan.

18 June 2009

Gun love is killing the U.S.

In 2001, the year Islamic extremists took 3,000 lives in the United States, Americans murdered 8,000 of their fellow citizens with handguns. Almost three times as many. And they do this every year. George W. Bush could have done his people a far greater favour by declaring war on handguns than by declaring a war on terror. But that would have been a mighty challenge indeed, declaring war on a love affair, the love that his fellow citizens have for guns.

The results of American gun-love transcends borders. The thousands of guns that pour into Mexico every year, from handguns to high-powered assault weapons, most bought legally in the United States, arm the Mexican drug cartels. There are over 6,600 licensed gun dealers along the border alone. Whatever damage drugs do in the U.S., other than that done by their own drug laws, can be attributed in large part to those weapons.

And not only Mexican drug lords take advantage. The U.S. is a veritable supermarket for terrorists seeking high-end weaponry. During a recent investigation, government agents posing as private buyers bought military-grade body armour, technology to stabilize and steer guided missiles, a device that can be used to detonate nuclear weapons, and other munitions -- all by legal means.The companies selling the equipment had not violated any laws or regulations. Investigators reported that the problem was sensitive military equipment barred from export was often legal to sell within the country. Smuggling the material out is apparently a minor challenge. How much of this weaponry is then turned against Americans is difficult to assess but given the American presence throughout the world, particularly in regions of violence, it could be a lot.

The American proclivity for guns as a solution to problems leads them into a war every generation if not every decade and sends young men and women to die often pointless deaths -- almost 60,000 in Vietnam and over 4,000 in Iraq to date.

And there are other ways to die than needlessly in war. One cannot help but wonder if the United States wouldn't have provided all of its people with good health care years ago if it didn't spend excessively on armaments. Its military spending is almost equal to the total of all other countries in the world combined which is absurd. One of the few American politicians who dares to challenge the military-industrial-congressional complex, Congressman Barney Frank, insists it should be easy to persuade Americans "that their well-being is far more endangered by a proposal for substantial reductions in Medicare, Social Security or other important domestic areas than it would be by cancelling weapons systems that have no justification from any threat we are likely to face." I doubt it's anywhere near as easy as Congressman Frank thinks.

But the greatest damage to the United States from its grossly inflated military spending may be that it is simply bankrupting the country. The American federal government is expected to run a record deficit of $1.8-trillion US in 2009 (13% of GDP), adding to the rapidly rising U.S. federal debt of 11.4-trillion US (about $37,000 for every American). Not even the richest country in the world can persist in this degree of financial irresponsibility forever. Yet not even Barack Obama dares to cut spending on weapons.

How ironic that the paranoia created by 9/11 is doing more harm than the attack itself.

17 June 2009

Civilized behaviour trumps politics as usual

So Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff have agreed their two parties will work together to examine employment insurance reform. Two political leaders not shouting at each other long enough to agree on a common effort for the public good is a rare and beautiful thing indeed.

After a series of face-to-face meetings -- in my mind the heart and soul of democratic process -- the two leaders will create a working group on employment insurance with three members selected by each of their parties. The prime minister is "optimistic" a deal on "realistic" changes to the EI system can be reached, and the opposition leader added, "We have found a way to make progress. We’re going to try and make it work and get good results for Canadians." How salutary, how refreshing.

If only this could become the modus operandi of the House of Commons. If politicians of all parties could work together to deal with issues, we the people would benefit from the intelligence, wisdom and imagination of all our elected representatives. We would have better legislation, we would be better represented and we would probably have a great deal more confidence in the system. But I'm dreaming, aren't I? This display of good will is really just a one-time exercise in election-avoidance. Still, it's nice to see, rare as it is.

08 June 2009

Obama's curious confusion about violence and history

Obama's speech in Cairo would certainly seem to signal a new era in American foreign policy. It sounded rather like a retreat from empire, even though the audience was required to sit in their seats for two and a half hours before the imperial president appeared. He even spared us the word "terrorist" which was refreshing. But quite aside from the overall direction of the speech, on the critical issue, Palestine, he lectured the Palestinians with some curious logic.

Palestinians must abandon violence," he insisted, "Resistance through violence and killing is wrong and it does not succeed." If he had just limited his remark to the Palestinians, he may have been on solid ground, but once he generalized he was in strange territory indeed, territory very much at odds with the American experience. He seemed to have completely forgotten that the United States liberated itself from Great Britain through violence. Can he possibly be implying that the American Revolutionary war was wrong and did not, in fact, succeed?

He went on to say, "For centuries, black people in America suffered the lash of the whip as slaves and the humiliation of segregation. But it was not violence that won full and equal rights. It was a peaceful and determined insistence upon the ideals at the center of America's founding." Violence may not have won American blacks full and equal rights but it certainly liberated them from the lash of the whip. Is he suggesting that Abraham Lincoln was wrong and freeing the slaves was a failure?

"It's a story with a simple truth: violence is a dead end," he concluded. Well, the simple truth hasn't ended the American use of violence. They are the most violent nation on Earth, currently fighting two wars and prepared for more with dozens of military bases established throughout the world. Obama himself is a big fan of the Afghan war.

It's when he goes on to say, "Hamas must put an end to violence, recognize past agreements, recognize Israel's right to exist," that we get a a hint of what this may be all about. The Palestinians must put an end to violence, but not the United States, and certainly not Israel, the most violence-prone nation in the Middle East. Violence, in other words, is legitimate for us and our friends, but not for you Palestinians.

As far as the American contribution toward peace in Palestine is concerned, he said, "We cannot impose peace." Actually, they can. They can get tough with Israel. Indeed, that may be the only way to achieve peace in the region because Israel has little incentive otherwise. Every day it steals more land from the Palestinians and further intensifies their segregation. Obama's position seems to be the United States will not pressure Israel into making peace and the Palestinians must forego violence. That would seem to leave the Palestinians entirely at the mercy of Israel. One could be excused for thinking Obama had been briefed by Netanyahu. To the point of forgetting his own history.

05 June 2009

Contemplating the extinction of Homo sapiens

The recent report by the Global Humanitarian Forum, entitled "Climate Change – The Anatomy of a Silent Crisis" contains some news which I would say is alarming but, since so few people in the corridors of power are alarmed by climate change, I won't. For example, it states that climate change kills over 300,000 people a year through hunger, sickness and weather disasters, seriously affects 325 million people, and creates economic losses of $125-billion U.S. Four billion people are vulnerable and 500 million are at extreme risk, with the number of those affected more than doubling in the next 20 years. Meanwhile, scientists tell us that the problem isn't a greenhouse gas effect but rather a runaway greenhouse gas effect. In other words, barring dramatic action, it will soon be beyond our ability to control.

And the will to get it under control seems lacking in both leaders and populations at large. The only Canadian leader who took a serious policy on global warming into an election was Stephane Dion, and we all know what happened to him. We not only rejected him, we humiliated him. Get out of here, you silly man, we seemed to say, and take your carbon tax with you. The winners of the election show little interest in doing anything serious about climate change except meekly following the American lead.

This leaves Barack Obama as the great environmental hope. But this hope is increasingly faint. The U.S. House of Representatives is working on legislation that includes a cap-and-trade system for greenhouse gases. This would provide improved environmental protection but is being so watered down it will be nowhere near strong enough. Scientists claim the U.S. must cut its emissions to 20 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020 to slow global warming. This legislation calls for only four per cent. And even this weak effort may not ultimately pass the House and Senate.

So global warming marches on and we fail to face up to its challenge. One wonders how far this can go. To the collapse of civilization, perhaps, or even to the collapse of life on Earth? Could we turn our planet into another Venus or would the collapse of our civilization limit the damage we could do? In any case, the extinction of Homo sapiens has become a real possibility.

And not only from climate change as we know it. Catastrophic war seems to be an increasing possibility as more nations go nuclear in order to play with the big boys, and nuclear war could in itself cause climate change. And then there's the possibility that chemical or biological warfare could run amok.

Any of these could result in our inability to physically or financially contain our technologies once catastrophe has unleashed them. Nuclear power plants, oil fields, chemical factories, could rage out of control. Add in the political and social breakdown that would result as governments collapse, massive population shifts occur and rogue armies rampage, and Armageddon starts looking like a real possibility rather than just a metaphysical prophecy.

Quite aside from catastrophe, our technology could turn on us in other ways. It may simply evolve beyond us -- the next logical step in evolution, so to speak. We have, for a long time, built machines that are vastly superior to us physically, now we are building machines that are superior to us, in some important ways, mentally. There doesn't seem to be any reason we can't build ones that are superior to us in all ways mentally. Maybe even superior to us emotionally. That certainly wouldn't be hard. And if we do produce machines -- robots -- who are physically and mentally superior to us, what will they need us for? House pets? Will they put us in kennels while they go off to explore the universe?

We are an intelligent species but not a wise one. We have always used our intelligence to destroy as much as to create. We are bright enough to create ever more advanced technologies but not wise enough to restrict their use to productive purposes. We are too violent, too greedy, too arrogant, too narrow, or at least too many of us are.

You might say we are too smart for our own good. We are like the dinosaurs in a way. They dominated the Earth for 1,000 times longer than we have been here. Their advantage was their size, their big bodies. Then one day, because of an asteroid landing or whatever, size became a huge disadvantage and the dinosaurs were finished. Our advantage, the thing that has allowed us to dominate the Earth, is our big brain. Now, it has become a disadvantage, a terminal disadvantage, like the dinosaurs' big bodies. It has led us into creating the means of our own destruction.

Oddly, I find myself quite philosophical about the possibility of our extinction. I am distressed neither intellectually nor emotionally. Maybe it's because at my age I'm facing my own extinction, but I don't think that's the reason. I have just become more analytical about Homo sapiens, simply recognizing that, whether individual or species, extinction is part of evolution, the natural road of life. We have our little moment, our speck of existence in an infinity of time and space, and then we disappear. If we, Homo sapiens, were a credit to our home, there might be room for regret, but we aren't. In our little moment, we have done massive damage to the planet, including driving thousands of other species into extinction. There would be a certain ironic justice in doing the same thing to ourselves. If we are to go, we won't be missed.

02 June 2009

All hail Stephen the Red

Oh how time and fortune wear on our principles. Not very long ago Prime Minister Stephen Harper was among the strongest advocates of smaller government. Now he has made the biggest leap into the market by a Canadian prime minister since Pierre Trudeau and Petro-Canada. He has, on behalf of Canadian taxpayers, just "invested" $7.1-billion of our money in General Motors Corp.

This is the same Mr. Harper who once referred to Canada as a "Northern European welfare state in the worst sense of the term" and insisted we were "very proud of it." Well, we are now the very proud owners of 12.5 per cent of a bankrupt American corporation.

So rejoice Canadians. Led by our intrepid neo-socialist leader we are now in the car business.