30 January 2010

On climate change -- even Osama gets it

Not all religious fundamentalists are immune to the threat of global warming it seems. One of their more prominent brethren has seen the light and spoken out. I refer to Islamic zealots' favourite cave man, Osama bin Laden. 

From somewhere in the misty reaches of the Hindu Kush, according to an audio tape obtained by Al Jazeera, bin Laden declared, "All of the industrialized countries, especially the big ones, bear responsibility for the global warming crisis,"  and emphasized that, "Speaking about climate change is not a matter of intellectual luxury -- the phenomenon is an actual fact."

Wow! One of the world's true weirdos may have a better grip on the problem than a goodly number of national leaders, including ours. Perhaps our Prime Minister should spend some time in a cave recalibrating his understanding of what science is desperately trying to tell us. If it led to environmental enlightenment, it would be prorogue time well spent.

28 January 2010

Everyone agrees with Taliban Jack now

Late in 2006,  New Democratic Party leader Jack Layton suggested that talking to the Taliban was important in bringing peace to Afghanistan. He was excoriated in the daily press and treated with contempt by both Conservatives and Liberals. They called him Taliban Jack and laughed him out of the House.

Well, Taliban Jack is laughing now. It seems that almost everyone agrees that talking to the "scumbags" is the only way to peace in that tortured country. That Pakistan is talking to "all levels" of the insurgency is hardly a surprise. But Afghan President Hamid Karzi is also interested in discourse with the more moderate elements. Most surprisingly, U.S. General Stanley McChrystal, commander of the International Security Assistance Forces and the American forces in Afghanistan, agrees with talks. “As a soldier, my personal feeling is that there’s been enough fighting,” McChrystal told the Financial Times. “What I think we do is try to shape conditions which allow people to come to a truly equitable solution to how the Afghan people are governed.” U.S. Secretary of Defence Robert Gates concurs that the Taliban are a part of Afghanistan’s “political fabric.”

Canada's position, too, has evolved over the past four years. Having once ridiculed Layton's position, in 2008 the Conservatives said they would support talks with those Taliban who renounced violence. Now talks with the insurgents is one of the official priorities of the Canadian mission.

The Taliban are a bunch of brutal theocrats but, like the murderous IRA in Ireland, they have a lot of support among their people. They are the dominant force among Pashtuns in the south, where Canadian troops operate. Taliban leader Mullah Omar remains perhaps the foremost spokesman for Pashtun interests. Just as dealing with reality in Ireland meant dealing with the IRA, so dealing with reality in Afghanistan may mean dealing with the Taliban. NATO's special civilian representative in Afghanistan, former British ambassador to Kabul Mark Sedwill, appears ready to deal with that reality, recently stating "If we are going to bring conflicts like Afghanistan to an end … that means some pretty unsavoury characters are going to have to be brought within the system. Because if you don't bring them within the system in some way … you risk whatever fragile peace you build falling apart." Sedwill said further that refusing to deal with the Taliban because of their past behaviour is hypocritical when there are warlords responsible for appalling abuses on the government side.

Bringing the Taliban into a government would be unpleasant, but we are on good terms with the oppressive, misogynistic Sauds in Arabia, a regime that recently sentenced a 75-year old woman to 40 lashes and four months in prison for having two unrelated men in her house, so we can hold our noses and live with similar religious thuggery in Afghanistan.

27 January 2010

Obama vs. the big banks -- what are the odds?

If U.S. President Barack Obama is serious about bringing his country's big banks to heel, he will be embarking on a very courageous political act indeed. He will be biting the hand that feeds him. In the 2008 presidential election he, like his opponent John McCain, got well over a third of his campaign funding from the financial industry.

In this year's congressional elections, candidates will be heavily dependent upon the banks for campaign dollars. And with the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that allows corporations to donate without limit, supporters of Obama's policies could be facing a veritable flood of corporate money. And then of course there is the bankers' lobbying machine with 1,500 lobbyists in Washington, three for every member of Congress, to drive home the reality of American politics in the 21st century. Congressmen and women will eventually have to approve Obama's measures and the lobbyists will make it very clear what the price of that approval would be.

It will certainly be clear to the Democratic head of the Senate's powerful banking committee, Chris Dodd. In the last four years, financial companies have provided the good senator with $8-million in campaign contributions. He is retiring at the end of this year, but it's unlikely he will forget who his friends are.

So I'm betting on the banks. As Democratic Senator Dick Durbin said last year about the banking industry's Washington lobby, "They own the place." Still, it's a gutsy move on Obama's part, and if he can somehow get anything substantial through Congress, it will be a great victory for the American people, both politically and economically.

Stephen Harper discovers Canada

Canadians, like most peoples, have an image of themselves that carries both a certain amount of truth and a certain amount of wishful thinking. A favourite image of ours depicts us as a gentle, reasonable people, cautious in our worldly affairs and caring toward each other. This image is how many others see us as well, rightly or wrongly, but it is not an image our Prime Minister has seemed to hold in very high regard. After all, he once described us to a crowd of Americans as "a Northern European welfare state in the worst sense of the term."

And yet, and this is my surprise of the day, I read in the morning papers that when he addresses the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, on Thursday, he will emphasize a couple of very Canadian themes. First, he is expected to talk about how Canada's well-regulated banking system brought our banks relatively unscathed through the global economic crisis. And second, he will call on countries to address the challenge of maternal and child health care in the developing world, something he wants to be a key priority when he hosts this summer's G8/G20 meetings.

22 January 2010

Cindy McCain -- poster girl for NOH8

Cindy McCain – attractive, intelligent, filthy rich and married to a prominent U.S. senator – offers a picture of the best and brightest of Republican womanhood. Yet she has a flaw. She supports gay marriage. And isn't shy about it. She not only has come out in support of the NOH8 gay marriage campaign, she has posed for a campaign poster. NOH8 opposes California's proposition 8, a law banning same-sex marriage.

Her husband, former presidential candidate John McCain who once supported a similar law in his home state of Arizona, has been forced to declare that while respecting the views of his family he still "believes the sanctity of marriage is only defined as between one man and one woman." Gossip-mongers have suggested Cindy is simply taking a shot at her husband because of his behaviour toward her in the past. (He once publicly called her a cunt.) I prefer to think she genuinely believes in gay marriage and is making the point that Republicans can be progressive on the issue. As her daughter Meghan McCain, who also appears in the poster campaign, said, "I couldn't be more proud of my mother for posing for the NOH8 campaign, I think more Republicans need to start taking a stand for equality."

Good for Meghan. And good for Cindy.

Supreme Court further undermines U.S. democracy

I have frequently emphasized in these pages that Canada is not a democracy. When corporations own most of the mass media, dominate the economy and fund political parties, think tanks and lobby groups, we are as much a plutocracy as a democracy. We have a hybrid system.

Occasionally we do take measures to advance the democratic component. The federal government, for example, has banned corporate funding of election campaigns. 

Our neighbours to the south have just been told they will not be allowed to take even this reasonable step to protect democracy from the corruption of wealth. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled, by a 5-4 margin, that governments can not restrict corporations and unions from spending on ads expressly urging a candidate’s election or defeat. Big money is moving quickly to exploit the ruling. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has promised the largest, most aggressive election campaign in its history to defeat congressional Democrats who support Obama's proposals for overhauling the health insurance and financial systems and limiting carbon emissions.

20 January 2010

Is "tough on crime" bankrupting California?

Everyone knows the state that was once the epitome of the American dream is crumbling into bankruptcy. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has recently proposed an $82-billion budget for California, a state with a population larger than Canada's. It will almost certainly be inadequate. Out of that $82-billion, $10-billion will go to the prison system. And that of course excludes police, courts, and all the other paraphernalia of criminal justice.

California's prison population has exploded with an array of get tough on crime legislation including the infamous "three strikes and your out" law. While the population of the state has doubled over the past thirty years, the number of prison inmates has increased almost six-fold. Before the incarceration binge, California spent about $5 on higher education for every $1 on prisons, today it spends more on prisons and corrections than on its universities. As a result, its once vaunted university system is in decline.

And, ironically, all this money spent on incarceration hasn't even produced a decent prison system. The system's physical and mental health care is so bad the federal courts have declared it unconstitutional, and its drug rehabilitation and vocational training programs are being dismantled.

The get tough on crime laws proposed by the Harper government are certainly not as severe as those in California, but it is nonetheless worth keeping in mind the road we are on to make sure we don't travel too far along it.

19 January 2010

There is spending and then there is Olympic spending

Some juxtapositions in your daily paper leap off the page at you. Such a one did just this in Saturday's Globe and Mail. On Page A5, we find an article discussing spending on the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Games. The total is estimated at a whopping $6-billion. But the number that really caught my eye was the expected $900-million on security. Almost a billion B.C. and federal taxpayer dollars for security at a sports event!

Turn over to Page A6 and you find an article about a lack of funding for cancer studies. Apparently clinical trials that could significantly improve patient care are being stopped or not performed at all because the money isn't there. Michael Wosnick, vice-president of research for the Canadian Cancer Society, observed "... I have no way to know whether the next Nobel Prize winner in cancer research ... doesn't get funded because we just don't have the money," and Ralph Meyer, director of the NCIC Clinical Trials Group, asked "Where does it place Canadian investigators in a global environment, in terms of the competition to be successful in research?"

Lots of money to compete for Olympic medals, not so much to compete for Nobel Prizes in medicine. Is it just me or is there a fundamentally flawed set of priorities at work here?

Of all the records set at the Olympics, spending is the one that more than any other gets the gold.

18 January 2010

Who does this lazy Parliament represent anyway?

As Parliament snoozes away the winter, we might ask just who isn't being represented during this hibernation. An answer to that question has been offered by that indefatigable pursuer of democratic representation, Fair Vote Canada. FVC has recently written two letters, one to the Conservatives and one to the opposition parties, suggesting they make use of their winter break to think about creating a democratic Parliament. A telling passage from one letter particularly caught my eye:
Judging from the current “representation” most Quebecois want to quit the federation; most Canadians are reluctant to elect women; there are no Conservative supporters in Vancouver, Montreal or Toronto; there are no Liberal supporters in Alberta. There are no New Democrat supporters in Saskatchewan and remarkably few elsewhere, and no Green supporters anywhere in Canada.
Although it appears farcical, this is indeed what the current makeup of Parliament suggests, and it's a sad and disturbing message. The fact that Conservatives are not represented in our three major cities and Liberals are not represented in Alberta, even though many people in those areas support those parties, contributes to dangerous divisions in an already regionally divided nation. That millions of Canadians are unable to help elect someone who represents them is a democratic tragedy.

This doesn't justify shutting the thing down, but it certainly gives our "representatives" something to occupy their minds while on their extended holiday. You can read both Fair Vote Canada letters here. And, if you too are concerned about our undemocratic Parliament, you can support the letters with your own.

15 January 2010

Moneymen go green

The voice of $13-trillion of assets is speaking out loudly in favour of a green agenda. A group of 450 investors, meeting in New York, is urging world governments not to wait for an international climate change treaty but to take immediate action on global warming. They warn that delay will risk loss of the opportunity for a clean and sustainable low-carbon economy.

Peter Dunsombe, chairman of the Institutional Investors Group on Climate Change, a forum that includes some of the largest pension funds and asset managers in Europe, said "Given that Copenhagen was a missed opportunity to create one fully functional international carbon market, it is more important than ever that individual governments implement regional and domestic policy change to stimulate the creation of a low carbon economy." Anne Stausboll, chief executive of the California Public Employees Retirement System, largest public pension fund in the U.S., said that they are prepared to increase their green investment as soon as Congress passes climate change legislation.

Pension funds are heavy hitters in the investment world and if they are keen to invest in a low-carbon economy there should be no shortage of funding for green technology. If $13-trillion won't bring the politicians around, what will.

Kudos to the feds on Haiti

So far, our federal government is responding admirably to the catastrophe in Haiti. Things are moving well on a number of fronts:
  • Our emergency aid has been swiftly dispatched.
  • Red tape has been reduced for aid transports from other countries refuelling in Canada.
  • Ways are being discussed to fast-track Haitian immigration.
Prime Minister Harper may have given Parliament a long winter's nap, but he is wide awake on this issue.

13 January 2010

Google stands up

These attacks and the surveillance they have uncovered--combined with the attempts over the past year to further limit free speech on the web--have led us to conclude that we should review the feasibility of our business operations in China. We have decided we are no longer willing to continue censoring our results on Google.cn, and so over the next few weeks we will be discussing with the Chinese government the basis on which we could operate an unfiltered search engine within the law, if at all. We recognize that this may well mean having to shut down Google.cn, and potentially our offices in China.
Thus, in a public statement, Google has finally stood up for freedom of speech in its China operation. After succumbing to Chinese censorship since launching Google.cn in January, 2006, the mighty search engine has decided to do the right thing. The final straw was apparently "a highly sophisticated and targeted attack" on Google's corporate infrastructure that originated from China and resulted in the theft of intellectual property from the company. Google stands to lose over 30 per cent of the largest internet market in the world.

Some Chinese appreciate their courage. "Google is a great soldier of freedom. You don't bend to the devils," said a note on one site. Unfortunately, mesmerized by the huge Chinese market and cheap labour, corporations routinely do bend to the devils. Finally one has stood up to them in the name of basic human rights.

For Google's complete statement, "A New Approach to China," go to http://googleblog.blogspot.com/2010/01/new-approach-to-china.html.

11 January 2010

The Globe dispatches Murphy to the Post

Some years ago, when I first started reading The Globe and Mail, the paper had two columnists—Terence Corcoran and Spider Robinson—who tediously insisted that cigarette smoking didn't cause cancer. Both eventually disappeared from the pages of the Globe, Corcoran moving on to the National Post, a much more congenial home for his reactionary views.

Recently, there have been two columnists in the Globe manifesting a similar denial about global warming—Margaret Wente and Rex Murphy. In Saturday's edition, Murphy was absent from his usual prominent place on the op-ed page. And where had he gone? The National Post of course. No doubt he too will feel much more at home. A treat for Globe readers was to find Murphy replaced, at least for last Saturday, by Doug Saunders, one of the Globe's best and most perceptive journalists. Let's hope this becomes a tradition.

I have no particular quarrel with writers such as Wente and Murphy. They get paid for being contrarian, for provoking liberals, so they are just doing their job. If progressive thinkers say one and one is two, their task is to say it's three. But Wente and Murphy have been getting far more column-inches in the Globe to write nonsense about global warming than scientists, i.e. people who actually know what they're talking about. This perversion of debate about the most important issue facing us is not healthy journalism. Perhaps the Globe has finally realized that and has decided to behave more responsibly, just as it did with cigarette smoking.

08 January 2010

Barack Obama and the new centurions

Perpetual war—from the Romans to the British to the Americans, this has been the price of empire. There are always tribesmen out there on the fringes who resent the imposition, who fail to appreciate the benefits of civilization, and who often therefore misbehave and must be put down. Barack Obama now finds himself in this Orwellian dilemma. As much as he might like to create peace, he cannot. Empires corrupt their own leaders.

George W. Bush arrived in office with a limited interest in foreign affairs. He sought less involvement in "nation-building" and small-scale military engagements. However, the perils of empire soon overtook his agenda and turned him into a war president as they are now doing to Obama. He has rejected the term "war on terror" but in a speech this week he emphatically declared, "We are at war." And they most certainly are. Already the new commander-in-chief is involved in five wars: two overt in Iraq and Afghanistan, and three covert in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen. Five wars. The fringes are restless indeed.

One thing that is new in the American case is the reach of the tribesmen. In the case of previous empires, the imperialists might face danger on the frontier but they could always return to the homeland, be it Rome or London, and there find sanctuary. They could sleep peacefully in their beds at night. But the world has shrunk. With modern technology, the malcontents can gain access to the very heart of the empire. And that's what the Islamist extremists are doing. They are saying in effect, if you come into our house and do mischief, we will come into your house and do mischief. They have changed the rules, and now the imperialists live in fear.

And what of us? What is Canada's role in the empire? We must as always deal carefully with our elephantine neighbour. In our early history, we were a military lackey of the British empire and paid the horrific and pointless price of the First World War. We do not want to be led down that path again. Or are we already on it?

07 January 2010

British may abandon important legal precept

When courts in Great Britain issued arrest warrants for former Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni and Defence Minister Ehud Barak, a certain diplomatic flutter was to be expected. Livni's warrant was withdrawn when she canceled her planned visit to the U.K. Last September, and Barak avoided arrest by pleading immunity as a serving minister of his government. The warrants were issued under the 1988 Criminal Justice Act, which gives courts in England and Wales universal jurisdiction in war crimes cases. Both Livni and Barak were accused of war crimes committed during Israel's invasion of Gaza early in 2009.

Israel has complained loudly and the British foreign office plans to change the legal process so that the attorney general would have to approve warrants before suspected war criminals could be arrested. Lawyers are outraged at this proposed political interference in the legal system. Daniel Machover, a partner at Hickman & Rose, who obtained an arrest warrant for Israeli general Doron Almog in 2005, asked, "If there is evidence against Israeli leaders and a judge thinks that there is a case to answer, then why does the process need to be changed?"

Good question. Why should the legitimate pursuit of war criminals be hampered for the convenience of political discourse? If British politicians feel they need to talk with these people, they can visit them in their home countries. Indeed, British Foreign Minister Lady Scotland is currently in Israel promising to look at "ways in which the U.K. system might be changed to avoid this situation arising again." How unfortunate that the Lady wants to abandon a measure to hound war criminals. 

War criminals should be hounded. They should be given no rest, even if appropriate measures sometimes inconvenience our friends. And after all, not only Britain's friends would be affected by this change. What other reprobates would be protected? Another Pinochet perhaps?

Let's hope the British government comes to its senses and cleaves to the rule of law.

06 January 2010

Can conservatives be democrats?

Stephen Harper's proroguing of Parliament as if it sat at his pleasure has raised questions about the Prime Minister's commitment to democracy. But a larger question might be whether conservatives, by the very nature of their philosophy, can ever truly be democrats. They may believe in our system, but our system isn't a democracy. We have elections, so there is obviously a democratic component, but there is also a powerful plutocratic component.

Democracy means political equality, and we are a long way from that. For example, our public forums, the mass media, are owned and controlled by a small special interest group within the corporate sector. The only independent mass medium, at least on the national level, is the CBC. The rest is the property of media barons. The most powerful media empire in the country was, until recently, controlled by one family. That is plutocracy or, if you like, oligarchy, but it is not democracy.

In Calgary, we have four daily newspapers, two national, two local—all conservative. That is the choice the vaunted free market system offers us. It is reminiscent of Henry Ford's famous offer on his Model Ts: any colour you like as long as it's black. In Calgary, we can buy any philosophy of newspaper we like, as long as it's conservative.

Nor does corporate control stop with the media. Corporations dominate the economy and economic decision-making by our politicians. Trade agreements such as NAFTA, which so powerfully affect all of us, were driven by corporate demand, certainly not by the wishes of ordinary citizens. And corporations are still allowed to contribute to political parties in most provinces, quite aside from their propaganda and political lobbying through front organizations such as the Fraser Institute, the C.D. Howe Institute, the Canadian Council of Chief Executives, and so on, and so on. Most annoying is that we all pay for corporate funding of these organizations through our consumption of corporate goods and services.

So what kind of system do we have? Part democratic, part plutocratic. Essentially, a hybrid system.

The question then becomes, do conservatives support our hybrid system or do they support a democratic system? Preston Manning, perhaps the leading conservative intellectual in the country, has established the Manning Centre for Building Democracy. The centre is ostensibly about promoting democracy and it expresses some fine values such as individual freedom, principled leadership and even informed, deliberative democracy. But it supports all these good things within a conservative framework and never mentions the greatest challenge in creating a democratic Canada—overcoming the power of the plutocracy. Manning clearly wants to improve our current tattered system, but apparently not at the expense of challenging the privileged position of the plutocrats. We can only conclude he is content with a hybrid system, considerably improved yes, but hybrid nonetheless. And this, I suggest, is the conservative position generally.

Furthermore, it is what we should expect. Conservatism has always been about protecting privilege. To support a democratic system, conservatives would have to advocate a dramatic reduction in the political influence of the rich generally and the corporate sector specifically. They would have to support democracy in all our institutions as any true democrat must, including a democratic media and democratic workplaces. All this would go against the very grain of conservatism.

This is not to say all conservatives support the Prime Minister's cavalier treatment of Parliament. We have heard from some who don't. Nonetheless, although conservatives may want to improve the current system, and although they may strongly support freedom (which is quite another thing from democracy and deserving of a separate discussion), they are not comfortable with broad political equality. Conservatism and democracy in its fullest sense are simply incompatible.

04 January 2010

If you doubt Dawkins, ask Jesus

The Irish recently took a retrograde step with freedom of speech. The Irish government passed legislation effective January 1st making blasphemy a crime punishable with a fine up to $37,000. Blasphemy is defined as "publishing or uttering matter that is grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters sacred by any religion, thereby intentionally causing outrage among a substantial number of adherents of that religion, with some defences permitted."

Irish secularists are fighting back. Atheist Ireland has published a series of anti-religious quotations online to challenge the new law which they have promised to fight in court. One of the more intense quotations is by the famed biologist and atheist Richard Dawkins:
The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.
Intriguingly, ever word is true. Dawkins, a consummate scientist, is ever thorough in his research. But don't take his word for it. In the New Testament, John 8:44, Jesus has a few words for the Jews about their God,

Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and abode not in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaketh a lie, he speaketh of his own: for he is a liar, and the father of it.
Richard Dawkins and Jesus: tough team to beat. If you want to read the full list of quotations, and I heartily recommend it, go to http://www.atheist.ie/.