21 August 2009

Odious blogger exposed

Anonymity is the bane of blogging. Nothing undermines the quality of discourse in the blogosphere more than the ability of anyone with a computer to spew toxic verbiage into the web world without any accountability whatsoever. It is as surprising as it is depressing to observe what mischief even normally responsible people will get up to under a pseudonym. I believe there is a blogging law that says if a thread reaches more than ten posts someone will have been called a nazi.

Perhaps the uncivilized behaviour characteristic of so much blogging will be suppressed a little by a recent court case in New York. Model Liskula Cohen, slandered by an anonymous blogger, went to court and forced Google, whose Blogger service the culprit used, to reveal the identity of her tormentor. The case has been described as a "landmark." Ms. Cohen is now able to sue the offending blogger for slander.

Most people who abuse blogging are probably quite decent human beings who would never say the trashy things they do in their posts if they were speaking to their victims face to face. Anonymity simply brings out the worst in them. If this case curbs some of the worst, it will be a victory for responsible blogging everywhere. As a blogger myself, I thank Ms. Cohen, her lawyers and Madam Justice Joan Madden of the Supreme Court of the State of New York.

17 August 2009

Want to get high? Sniff your wallet

Don't panic, but you are probably carrying cocaine around in your purse or wallet. Scientists from the American Chemical Society report that 85 to 90 per cent of American and Canadian banknotes are contaminated (their word, not mine) by cocaine residue. This is up 20 per cent from a study conducted only two years ago.

The scientists tested banknotes in five countries -- the United States, Canada, Brazil, China, and Japan -- and found “alarming” evidence of cocaine use. The U.S. and Canada had the highest levels while China and Japan had the lowest.

Of course this doesn't mean that 85 to 90 per cent of Canadians are rolling up their banknotes to snort cocaine. Much of the contamination is no doubt being spread from bill to bill. Nonetheless, obviously a lot of people are using their money to do more than just buy the stuff. And hey, you over there, stop sniffing your purse.

Guilty or ill? A crime problem or a health problem?

At one time, mentally ill people, with their often anti-social behaviour, were locked away in what were little more than prisons. Eventually our understanding of mental illness improved and allowed us to advance beyond this barbaric practice. Now we may be on the verge of yet another advance in both our understanding of and our reaction to anti-social behaviour.

Studies on impulsively violent men and psychopaths show that their brains are different from those of normal people. Brain imaging technology reveals that the amygdala, the part of the brain that processes emotions and aggression, and the orbitofrontal cortex, which handles impulses and decisions, are structurally and functionally different in psychopaths. Furthermore, levels of serotonin, the neurotransmitter that regulates aggression and impulsivity, are generally low in these people. To put it simply, their brains don't work right.

It may be hard for us to accept, but the fact is that the impulsively violent and the psychopathic are victims. They suffer from a mental handicap. They are no more responsible for their condition than a crippled man is for his crooked leg, and they are no more responsible for their antisocial behavior than he is for his limp. When they harm others, how are they more guilty of a crime than someone who has a contagious disease who unknowingly spreads it to others? Their disorder is much worse, of course, because it robs them of their basic humanity.

When they pose a threat, they must be sequestered from society, but should they be imprisoned or hospitalized? We can legally detain people with contagious diseases. It's called quarantine. It would seem reasonable to do the same with the dangerously antisocial. We have long had mental institutions for the criminally insane, but their incarceration has always depended on an arbitrary definition of "insane," specifically, knowing right from wrong. Well, psychopaths know right from wrong, at least in the legal sense, yet they too are "insane." They, too, are not responsible for their actions, or at least only marginally so. They do not have free will. (Of course, maybe none of us do, but that's another question entirely.)

This new knowledge offers real promise. If these people suffer from mental conditions, we can develop ways of treating them. By therapy, with drugs, perhaps even with a computer chip in the orbitofrontal cortex. We might eventually be able to turn a serial killer into a perfectly normal human being. Courts and prisons could be replaced by medical treatment just as the old asylums were.

This would be an enlightened age, but it would throw many of our concepts about justice into confusion. The desire for vengeance is very powerful. If a serial killer was cured, if he was literally a different person free of antisocial urges, what would be the point of incarcerating him? And if he were allowed to walk freely amongst us, how would we sate our desire for vengeance, particularly that of his victims?

And then there would be the question of our right to engage in mind control. How far might some in authority want to go in controlling the minds of "anti-social" citizens?

We might do well to ponder these questions. We see promise of knowledge that could revolutionize crime and punishment, and offer us much safer societies, yet offer us also moral challenges we haven't yet faced.

15 August 2009

Anti-Semitic Semites?

Critics of Israel's policies toward the Palestinians are frequently charged with anti-Semitism. Which inevitably leads to the question, is the charge justified or is it the old demagogic tactic if you can't attack your opponent's argument, attack your opponent. Bernie M. Farber, CEO of the Canadian Jewish Congress, has attempted to clarify the matter. "Criticism of Israel crosses into anti-Semitism ," Farber says in a letter to The Globe and Mail, "when it calls into question the legitimacy of Israel's identity as a Jewish state."

Unfortunately, Farber's definition sounds rather like the demagogic tactic. How can one not call into question the legitimacy of Israel as a Jewish state? Twenty per cent of the population is Muslim Arab. What are these people? Invisible? Nonentities? Members of a lesser race as Winston Churchill once referred to them? To ignore such a substantial minority and define a state by its racial majority is in itself racism. And if this minority is Semitic, as of course it is, then is not the racism anti-Semitism? If so, then Mr. Farber would seem to have his argument backwards.

And we should not be surprised. The whole point in creating Israel was to create a racial state. So we should expect its supporters to justify its definition as such. And to support, also, the continued exile of millions of Palestinian Arabs, denying them the right to return to their homeland solely on the basis of their race.

Or is it race? Is the failure of the Arabs not race but religion? Is it being Muslim that puts them beyond the Pale? Is the prejudice religion rather than race, or is it both? Racio/religious prejudice, so to speak. Not that it matters much, defining a nation by either or both is an odious practice.

Jews such as Mr. Farber are often in the forefront in defending human rights. They were prominent in the struggles against segregation in the American south and against apartheid in South Africa. Yet when it comes to Israel, the same people exhibit a curious blind spot. The rednecks in the South and the Afrikaners in South Africa only wanted one thing -- to maintain the integrity of their race, to maintain their identity as a people. And that is what the Jews of Israel are trying to do. Unfortunately, they are doing it with ethnic cleansing, collective punishment, apartheid and relentless land theft, all of which puts them roughly in the same league as the rednecks and the Afrikaners. Perhaps they have now discovered a little empathy for their former foes.

Farber accuses critics of attempting to "punish Israel for wanting to retain its Jewish identity." Unfortunately, Israel retaining a Jewish identity means marginalizing and punishing Palestinians. So what choice do people of conscience have but to call into question that "identity"?

13 August 2009

The Globe leads with an environmental story? What is the media coming to?

I reached for The Globe and Mail today in its usual place on the paper rack and immediately thought my news dealer had messed up. The paper I was reaching for had a lead story about an environmental crisis. Couldn't be the Globe, I thought, must be some ecology rag that got stuck in there by mistake. But I was wrong. Sure enough, the lead headline in the Globe today was "Salmon Run Disaster: 10.6 Million Sockeye Expected... Only 1.7 Million Came: Where Have All the Salmon Gone?" A long headline emphasized with half a page of very red fish.

Destruction of the environment isn't something the corporate press has shown a lot of interest in. Global warming, humanity's greatest threat, ought to be the number one media issue yet it struggles to get a mention. Preserving the environment might involve consuming less, and that's something the corporate press, whose prime function is selling stuff, really isn't eager to talk about.

Maybe the only reason the collapse of a fishery makes the front page is because it's worth a lot of money, but nonetheless I appreciate front-page attention to the biggest challenge facing us -- saving our planet from our own greed, stupidity and arrogance.

Will the Globe keep it up? My mind says not a chance. My heart says maybe. Hope springs eternal.

Is protectionism a bad thing?

The chief economic bugaboo among politicians at all levels these days seems to be protectionism. American protectionism specifically. Prime Minister Harper whispers his concerns in President Obama's ear at every opportunity. The premiers cry out for a new trade deal to save us from Buy America policies, frightened by Canadian municipalities' threats to apply their own buy-local policies in retaliation.

But is protectionism such a bad thing? Indeed, it seems odd for Canadians to wail against protectionism when a version of it just saved our financial bacon. Despite enormous pressure from the U.S. to deregulate, i.e. globalize, our banking system, Paul Martin resisted. If he hadn't, our system would have crashed just as the Americans' did, and Stephen Harper wouldn't be able to boast about what good shape our financial house is in.

John Maynard Keynes, the economist we keep returning to because of his good sense, once said, "Ideas, knowledge, art, hospitality, travel -- these are the things which should of their nature be international. But let goods be homespun whenever it is reasonably and conveniently possible; and, above all, let finance be primarily national.” Keynes was talking about the conservative virtue of self-reliance -- let us be open to the world but let us take care of our own needs. That worked for our banking system, why not for other things and for other people?

So I have a certain sympathy for those Americans who choose to depend primarily on their own resources. Why shouldn't they take care of their own people -- their own companies and their own workers -- first? Why shouldn't they seek self-reliance? And why shouldn't we?

In any case, what is so often pedaled as "free trade" is nothing more than corporate advantage. NAFTA is a good example. It allows American corporations to freely exploit cheap labour in Mexico but does not allow Mexican workers the right to exploit high wages in the U.S. What kind of "free" trade offers freedom to corporations but denies it to working people? Some freedom. The protectionism so feared by politicians and business people is revealed as essentially protection for corporate profit, particularly through exploitation of cheap labour.

Recent events have suggested that strength in the economy is like strength in nature. Strong systems need flexibility and that means they need variety. The more uniform the international economy is, the more a failure in one part affects the whole system. Our banking system remained strong precisely because it retained its individuality, its independence.

Sadly, all political parties have joined the "free" trade bandwagon. Premier Gary Doer has threatened Manitoba municipalities with legislation if they reject a new trade deal with the U.S. "If we have an agreement with the United States, it's my responsibility to deliver it in my own province, through the legal means we have possible," he has said. The right of local governments to choose their own economic path would be overridden. One wonders what happened to the "democratic" in New Democratic Party.

Knee-jerk acceptance of globalized trade, with its erosion of local democracy, workers' rights and self-reliance, is dangerous. We have just witnessed a good example of just how dangerous it is as the whole international system crashes because of irresponsibility in the United States. Protectionism, or self-reliance, or independence -- choose your term -- deserves more than simple dismissal. The fact it was advocated by John Maynard Keynes tells us that.

12 August 2009

The welfare state as recession-proofing

One set of countries -- Sweden, Denmark and Norway -- seem to be enduring the current recession rather better than most. According to Harvard Business School economist Christian Ketels, "The outlook for these countries is good. They are going to return to normal quicker, and in better shape, than everybody else."

There are a number of reasons for this. All had sound public finances to begin with. All were running budget surpluses and all had tightened their banking regulations in the 1990s. Norway has accumulated its oil and gas revenues into a sovereign wealth found now worth $420-billion which provided ample funds for stimulus without running a major deficit. And the Scandinavians run highly competitive economies.

That competitiveness hints at yet another reason. It is supported by large, well-funded public sectors. The World Economic Forum insists that high levels of investment in education and training are a key to Scandinavia's success, stating in its competitiveness report, "This has provided the workforce with the skills needed to adapt rapidly to a changing environment and has laid the ground for their high levels of technological adoption and innovation in recent years."

Of particular importance in a recession, these countries' high-tax, high-benefit welfare systems stabilize their economies. Swedish workers who lose their jobs can expect to receive up to 80% of their wages for the first 200 days out of work, dropping to 70% for the next 100 days. In Norway, unemployed workers receive 62% of their salary for up to two years. This makes for a powerful economic stimulus by helping to keep demand high, and it does it by subsidizing working people rather than bankers and car companies.

Norwegian Finance Minister Kristin Halvorsen observes, "We notice more interest around the Nordic model because we manage to combine productivity, growth and welfare. A large public sector is a buffer against the turmoil of the markets." That others are interested is hardly surprising. It has recently become graphically clear how very important a buffer against economic turmoil is in a globalized capitalist economy. We Canadians will be well-served by taking the message to heart and beefing up our welfare state.