31 May 2010

Are the Palestinians a lesser race?

Are the Palestinians a lesser race? Winston Churchill thought so. At the Peel Commission on the future of Palestine in 1937, he responded to concern for the Palestinians if a Jewish state was established in the region, a cause he strongly supported, by replying, "I do not agree that the dog in a manger has the final right to the manger even though he may have lain there for a very long time. I do not admit that right. I do not admit for instance, that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America or the black people of Australia. I do not admit that wrong has been done to these people by the fact that a stronger race, a higher-grade race, a more worldly wise race to put it that way, has come in and taken their place." So there you have it, in the words of the great man himself, the higher-grade races replace the lower-grade races, and that presumably is the proper order of things.
So do Canadians, as the "higher-grade" race that took the place of the "Red Indians," believe what Churchill did about Jews displacing Arabs? The Conservatives certainly seem to. They support whatever Israel decides is in its best interests, regardless of the suffering this may inflict on the Palestinians. And well they might as the philosophical descendants of Mr. Churchill, their greatest hero and inspiration. But then the Liberals are hardly less committed to unequivocal support for Israel, nor for that matter is our daily press.

This unquestioning support for Israel infers a cavalier, even contemptuous, attitude toward the Palestinians. How can this be explained except by a belief they are less worthy? How else can you explain the indifference to the ethnic cleansing, collective punishment, terror, segregation and relentless land theft they have suffered and continue to suffer? How else can you explain our Prime Minister's Orwellian justification of Israel's assault on Gaza which included the slaughter of 400 children -- 400 children! -- as a "measured response"?

Canadians generally, despite the urgings of their politicians and their daily press, remain decidedly less enthusiastic about Israel's colonial project and much more compassionate toward the Palestinians. But for the powers that be, it seems the assessment of Churchill, the champion of empire, remains their guide -- brothers and sisters in Manifest Destiny.

26 May 2010

The billion-dollar meetings

Conservatives have whined incessantly about the billion-dollar gun registry, ignoring concerns from those Canadians who consider guns a threat to their security. But when it comes to putting on a show, it seems a billion dollars isn't such a big deal after all. They spent $898-million on the Olympic games for security and now they are about to spend $933-million for the G8 and G20 meetings. It almost seems they are more concerned about the security of strangers than about the security of Canadians.

Not that I think we shouldn't keep our visitors safe and sound and snug in their beds, but a billion dollars for two meetings? Are these guys, even collectively, worth that much? 

And what are we going to get for our billion? Workable regulation of the world economy? Serious attention to climate change? A just agreement in Palestine? Concrete measures to alleviate world poverty? If there is significant progress on any of these fronts, I will curb my criticism, but I am not optimistic. I doubt they will achieve anything that couldn't just as easily been negotiated by their flunkies at minimal taxpayer expense.

At this price, there is no way we should hold these meetings. Let's leave that to nations who are a lot more desperate for attention than we need to be.

22 May 2010

The imams aren't laughing

When the now infamous Danish cartoons created a raging response among certain elements in the Muslim community, I admit to siding entirely with the cartoonists. Partly because I believe in free speech; partly because religions deserve at least as much criticism as other institutions, being the influential and troublesome institutions they are; partly because I have done a fair amount of cartooning myself in my time; and partly because some of the cartoons were pretty damn good.

Now another cartoon featuring Mohammad has caused a bit of a scandal. This time in South Africa. And once again I support it for the same reasons. The Mail and Guardian, a leading South African tabloid, critic of Apartheid and the first colour-blind newspaper in the country, published "a gentle and irreverent poke" at the furor over the hysteria generated by Facebook's "Everybody Draw Muhammad Day." The cartoon, drawn by the award-winning Zapiro, aka Jonathan Shapiro, has created a certain amount of hysteria itself, with the Council of Muslim Theologians taking the newspaper to court to prevent it publishing the cartoon. They failed, but added ominously that while they wouldn't advocate violence, they couldn't guarantee there wouldn't be any.

The Mail and Guardian's editor-in-chief, Nic Dawes, responded, "My view is no cartoon is as insulting to Islam as the assumption Muslims will react with violence." Touché. Nicely said.

With their ridiculous overreaction, the Council of Muslim Theologians not only confirmed the cartoon's point about a lack of humour among Muslims, they insulted the humour and tolerance of Muslims generally. Ironically, the  editor-in-chief of the newspaper shows more respect for ordinary Muslims than they do.

21 May 2010

Are liberals masochists?

The United States presidential election of 2004 presented two candidates with sharply contrasting war records. John Kerry had served honourably in Vietnam, done his duty so to speak. George W. Bush had used his family connections to duck the draft and spend the war flying jets around Texas. He ran away, so to speak. Yet during the election, the Republicans attacked Kerry on his war record, putting him on the defensive, and he let them do it. He had an extraordinary opportunity to imply his opponent was a coward and reap the benefits, but he was too much of a gentleman -- or something -- to do it. And of course he lost the election.

Now here in Canada, the Conservatives are doing a job on Ignatieff, claiming his erudition and lengthy sojourn out of the country make him suspect as a Canadian, and it too seems to be working. He admits they have "done a number" on him. Yet, as with Kerry, what an opportunity to retaliate. "Firewall" Harper has on more than one occasion shown his contempt for this country. He has made a speech in the United States ridiculing us. Yet the Liberals let it pass. They could be running ads asking why a man wants to be prime minister of a country he doesn't much like, but they are too much the gentlemen ... or something. Like Kerry, they are allowing the opposition to take one of its weaknesses and turn it into a strength. Ignatieff just takes the punches and doesn't swing back.

But what do I know. Politics isn't my game. Maybe the Liberal strategy will be seen as honourable in the long run and receive its just reward, and God knows politics could use more people with principles. Just ask John Kerry.

20 May 2010

Climate change is a sideshow

The Prime Minister has spoken. Climate change is a sideshow. At a recent event on Parliament Hill, PM Stephen Harper, addressing host Senator Mike Duffy, said, "Everything else that also gets so much attention from your former media colleagues, Mike, these are sideshows. The economy is what matters." So there you have it. According to our leader, global warming and all that stuff is a mere distraction.

Personally, I find the Prime Minister's inability to grasp the seriousness of climate change, in effect to grasp reality, frightening. The environment does not need our economy. Indeed, it would be vastly better off without it, but our economy must have the environment. It is utterly dependent on it. Any talk, therefore, of putting the economy first is dangerous nonsense. Nor should we be talking about balancing the two. The only sensible approach is to design an economy that fits the environment, that sustains and enhances it, because only then can we sustain and enhance our civilization.

The failure to recognize this has, throughout history, been a major cause of the collapse of civilizations. Civilizations that put their economy first tended to exhaust their environment. As a result, they could no longer sustain themselves and they fell into ruin. If our leaders don't recognize this and act accordingly our civilization, too, will collapse, only this time the collapse won't be one civilization, it will be global. And that, global civilization, is what is at risk, nothing less. Sadly, our leader seems as oblivious to history as he is to the environment.

19 May 2010

"the supremacy of law or the law of the supremes?"

Turkish prime minister, Recep Erdogan, recently asked a central, if politically incorrect, question. “This is the time to discuss whether we believe in the supremacy of law or the law of the supremes and superiors," he states, “While they still have nuclear weapons, where do they get the credibility to ask other countries not to have them?” The "they" he refers to are, of course, the five permanent members of the security council who have just announced agreement on another round of sanctions against Iran.

The announcement followed quickly on the heels of an agreement mediated by Brazilian president Lula da Silva, in which Iran agreed to ship 1,200 kg of low-enriched uranium to Turkey in return for nuclear fuel rods for a medical research reactor. The deal is intended to defuse the crisis over Iran's nuclear aspirations. Prime Minister Erdogan said the deal obviated the need for new sanctions.

But the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, "the supremes" to borrow Mr. Erdogan's phrase, are not about to allow upstart secondary powers such as Brazil and Turkey steal their thunder. They, and they alone, will decide on what action to take with Iran, needed or not.

Nonetheless, the dilemma nicely pointed out by Prime Minister Erdogan, remains. The five are in violation of their obligation under the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty to rid themselves of their nuclear weaponry, yet they complain that Iran may be violating its obligation by attempting to develop a nuclear capacity. Why should they be taken seriously when they are steeped in such hypocrisy?

Iran, after all, has a credible justification for nuclear arms. It is bracketed east and west by wars fought by nuclear-armed and hostile powers. How, by comparison, do the U.K. and France justify nuclear weaponry? They are surrounded by friends. As, of course, is the United States. It's time to end the hypocrisy and demand every signatory to the Treaty respect their obligations. And time to include the nuclear non-signatories in the obligations as well.

The New York Times critiques the GDP

That the GDP is not only a poor but a highly deceptive measure of the health of a society is hardly new. In fact the inventor of the GDP, Simon Kuznets, was worried from the start that it might lead to a nation’s economic activity being mistaken for its citizens’ overall well-being. And that of course is exactly what has happened, with nations' health now commonly being considered solely in terms of their GDP. Despite a variety of critics, this misguided practice has persisted. Economists like numbers, the media likes things simple, and the GDP is a relatively straightforward way of describing countries with a number, so it prevails.

Opposition has been growing, however, with more comprehensive and meaningful yardsticks presenting themselves, such as the Canadian Index of Well-Being. This, and many more indexes are mentioned in a very thorough article in the New York Times. The article provides an excellent overview of the GDP, its history, its strengths and weaknesses, and its challengers. It is well worth a read.

Perhaps most importantly, when the debate reaches the level of the Times, the possibility of replacing this over-used index as a measure of societal health greatly improves. And better ways of measuring the health of society should lead to improvement in the health itself.

15 May 2010

Greeks, guns and Turks

That the Greeks have been living beyond their means is common knowledge. Not so commonly known is their excessive spending on their military. They spend 3.3 per cent of their GDP on weaponry, more than any other nation in the European Union and substantially more than their chief antagonist, Turkey. Greece is the biggest importer of conventional weapons in Europe. The chief providers of its military fix are France, Germany and the United States.

That it can no longer afford its lavish military was amply demonstrated by its last annual military parade. Unlike past parades, there were no tanks. The reason? The government explained it couldn't afford the fuel.

The reason for its big defence budget is of course its long-standing quarrels with its Aegean neighbour, Turkey. Now this is changing. Meeting with Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou in Athens, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan announced both countries planned to cut military spending and stated, "I believe ... the 21 accords and co-operation protocols that we will sign with our neighbour and friend Greece will mark the beginning of a new era in our relations." Panos Beglitis, the Greek deputy defence minister, has said this year alone the Greek defence budget will be reduced from from €6.8-billion to €6-billion. 

"A new era" with its neighbour. Good sense is prevailing. If Greece's economic woes have helped end an animosity that endured for centuries, then that is a very silver lining indeed.

14 May 2010

U.K. election result disappointing for fair vote supporters

Proponents of a fair voting system for Canada can hardly be encouraged about the results of the recent election in the U.K. The new Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition hasn't committed itself to much despite all the pre-election hype about proportional representation. All the two parties have agreed to is a referendum on the Alternative Vote (AV) system. The possibility of a successful referendum is probably better in Great Britain than it is here because voting reform is actually a relatively high priority among the British electorate; however, even if successful the result would be only a modest improvement. About all you can say for AV is that it's better than first-past-the-post and that isn't saying much -- almost anything is.

In this election, for example, under AV the Liberal Democrats would have increased their seats to 79 from 57, still well short of the 150 their share of the popular vote entitled them to. The Conservatives would have seen their seats drop from 307 to 281, still considerably more than the 246 they deserved. Labour's position would have changed little even though they earned 30 more seats than they received. And, of particular importance to Canadians, significant regional imbalances would still have remained between the parties. AV offers little to us.

Some of the other reforms promised have merit. Fixed-term Parliaments will better balance the parties' chances. Fewer MPs should make Parliament more manageable and reform of political donations and party funding is overdue. Statutory registration of lobbyists is an obvious improvement. And proportional representation was not entirely overlooked: a committee will consider fully proportional representation for an elected House of Lords, although again, the commitment is only to consider, not to actually change anything.

So the reforms should improve the British system overall, but proportional representation is nowhere in sight for the Commons. A disappointing outcome for fair vote supporters on this side of the pond. One consolation, I suppose, is that Canadians may at least realize now that coalitions are a legitimate and appropriate mechanism in a democracy.

12 May 2010

Climate change denial ... let me count the whys

A prestigious group of the world's leading scientists, all members of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and representing institutions such as Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, the University of California and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, have written an open letter condemning "the recent escalation of political assaults on scientists in general and on climate scientists in particular." The 255 scientists, including 11 Nobel laureates, while emphasizing that "there is compelling, comprehensive, and consistent objective evidence that humans are changing the climate in ways that threaten our societies and the ecosystems on which we depend," decry the "many recent assaults on climate science and, more disturbingly, on climate scientists by climate change deniers, [that] are typically driven by special interests or dogma, not by an honest effort to provide an alternative theory that credibly satisfies the evidence."

My question is what, specifically, drives these "special interests or dogma"? I can offer more than half a dozen possibilities, operating alone and in combination:

1. Greed. Vested interests, such as oil and coal companies, are determined to defend shareholder value, to say nothing of their own financial interest, against what they perceive as a threat.
2. Power. The governments of jurisdictions in which these companies operate are determined to defend their tax bases.
3. Fear. Working people, often thoroughly indoctrinated by the above two groups and their media allies, are afraid that curbing greenhouse gas emissions may cost them their jobs.
4. Ego. Big ideas, such as heliocentricity, natural selection and climate change, diminish humanity, too much so for many people to accept.
5 Ignorance. Many people don't understand how science works. As long as science has not proven absolutely that anthropogenic climate change is occurring, why worry they ask. But, as the letter says, "There is always some uncertainty associated with scientific conclusions; science never absolutely proves anything. When someone says that society should wait until scientists are absolutely certain before taking any action, it is the same as saying society should never take action."
6. Resentment. Some people consider environmentalists to be part of some kind of liberal elite. Who are they to tell us ordinary folk how to live?
7. Contrarianism. This particularly affects media types. Many columnists and radio and TV pundits get paid to be provocative, particularly toward those imagined liberal elites. Science is not deemed to sell newspapers as effectively as controversy.

When other big ideas brought irrational assaults down on scientists, it mattered rather less. What difference did it make if the masses didn't accept heliocentricity or natural selection? Progress persisted regardless. But it matters very much if the masses don's accept climate change. As the scientists' letter puts it, "Society has two choices: we can ignore the science and hide our heads in the sand and hope we are lucky, or we can act in the public interest to reduce the threat of global climate change quickly and substantively ... delay must not be an option." If the masses don't demand action, the politicians will quite likely delay, and that could mean the end of progress. And worse.

"Freedom of the press belongs to those rich enough to buy one."

American journalist A.J. Liebling's famous observation rings true again as a group of wealthy creditors led by Paul Godfrey, former CEO of Sun Media, buys up the Canwest Global newspaper empire for over a billion dollars. Passing from one group of the very rich to another is a huge chunk of Canada's daily press, including the major dailies in every major city west of Manitoba. The nation's principal public forums are the property of the rich, to be bought and sold as mere commodities, the public interest incidental. The West is particularly deprived, its major centres in three provinces largely dependent upon a press owned by one tiny special interest group.

Healthy democracy needs a broad and balanced range of news, something the Canadian press is ill-equipped to provide, beholden as it is to its capitalist masters. As long as Liebling's aphorism applies, that will not change. Freedom of the press is crippled without equal access to the press. Here lies a critical democratic challenge: the daily press remains our major public forum -- how do we ensure that forum provides equal access for all, including those not blessed by great wealth or corporate favour? Until we meet that challenge, democracy will be obliged to continuing sharing the stage with plutocracy.

11 May 2010

My oil is safer than yours

I wasn't surprised to see Premier Ed Stelmach down in Washington tactfully exploiting the Gulf spill to promote the tar sands. I am, however, a little surprised to see our federal environment minister playing the same game. Expressing his horror at the tragedy in the Gulf, Jim Prentice said it put the tar sands into perspective as a less risky alternative to offshore drilling. I guess it all depends on what you are risking.

Trying to make tar sands production look good by comparing it favourably to a deep water blowout is a bit like saying being killed with an axe is better than being shot to death. It's a mark of desperation. And when you are the environment minister, you must be very desperate indeed.

10 May 2010

Will Clegg do a Layton?

During the run-up to the 2004 federal election, Jack Layton suggested he would make proportional representation a requirement for co-operation with a Liberal minority government. And well he should have. Nothing would improve the NDP's standing in the House of Commons like PR. In the 2008 election, for example, with PR the NDP would have won 50 per cent more seats. But when the Liberals did find themselves with a minority government and negotiating with the NDP began, Layton seemed to set PR aside.

Will the same thing happen with the current negotiations in the U.K.? The Liberal Democrats have been pushing hard for PR. And well they should, too. If the recent election had been run under PR, they would have increased their representation in the British House of Commons by a startling 160 per cent. That kind of incentive might just drive Liberal Democratic leader Nick Clegg to stick to his guns and demand that PR be part of any arrangement with either the Tories or Labour.

Clegg, unlike Layton, has strong support from the public. A recent survey showed electoral reform was fourth on British voters' priority list, ahead of such things as unemployment, taxation, political sleaze and climate change.

Supporters of a fair voting system for this country will be watching the negotiations in the U.K. closely, crossing their fingers that Nick Clegg will remain loyal to PR.

06 May 2010

NAFTA and the Arizona immigration law

"Any intervention in a complex system may or may not have the intended result, but will inevitably create unanticipated and often undesirable outcomes." -- Wikipedia's version of the law of unintended consequences.

One possible unintended consequence of our old friend the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) is the new Arizona anti-illegal immigration law, much in the news these days. The  Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act makes it illegal for an alien to be in Arizona without carrying legal documents. It criminalizes illegal immigration and allows police to question and demand papers from anyone who they suspect might be an illegal.

Apparently most Americans support the law; however, critics accuse it of racial profiling and it has lead to mass demonstrations, even calls for a boycott of Arizona. Some police chiefs and mayors have criticized it, concerned about police being bogged down enforcing the law and worried about what it will do to police rapport with the Hispanic community. The entire Phoenix Suns basketball team, currently battling for the NBA Western Conference title, are protesting the law and Major League Baseball may move the 2011 all-star game out of Phoenix.

With its long border with Mexico, Arizona has long been a major destination for Mexican immigrants, illegal and otherwise. Pressure to move north in search of work was greatly intensified by NAFTA. While the trade agreement eliminated tariffs on corn, the Mexican staple, coming into Mexico, it did not reduce the massive subsidies American corn farmers receive from their government. Whereas a U.S. corn grower receives an average annual subsidy of $20,000 a year, a Mexican farmer receives only $100. Without a protective tariff, the Mexican farmer simply cannot compete. As a result, Mexico has been flooded with cheap corn from the U.S. driving thousands of small farmers out of business and costing millions of farm workers their jobs. The vast majority head north.

Such are the unintended consequences of a trade agreement that was loudly proclaimed as win-win-win. For Mexican workers and Arizonans alike it may be rather more lose-lose.

01 May 2010

Oh my, now it's the Boy Scouts!

Last week, a jury in Oregon made the largest award for punitive damages to a single plaintiff in a child abuse case in the history of the United States. And which arm of the Catholic Church was this awarded against, you might well ask. Well none, actually. It was against the Boy Scouts of America. For being repeatedly assaulted by former assistant scoutmaster Timur Dykes in the 1980s, Kerry Lewis was awarded $18.5-million.

And this appears to be only the tip of a very large pedophilic iceberg. The jury in the trial was allowed to see about 1,200 files kept by the Scouts on suspected pedophiles, part of what is to believed to be a cache of up to 6,000 files held at the organization's Texas headquarters. Lewis's lawyer, Kelly Clark, said the jury was shocked by the existence of the "perversion files." The files revealed that the organization removes about 180 of its leaders every year.

Lewis's abuser was treated in a not atypical way by the Scouts. He confessed his behaviour to the local Scout co-ordinator, who also happened to be a Mormon bishop, but was allowed to continue working with the organization. He then molested Lewis, and other children, over the next two years.

The Boy Scouts of America is no stranger to controversy. It has been mired in legal actions for decades, dealing with dozens of out-of-court settlements for victims of sex abuse and defending its ban on atheists and gays. Not that it isn't in a position to defend itself. Like the Catholic Church, despite a declining membership it is rich, with $900-million in assets, including a $45-million art collection and large property holdings.

What is it with these all-male organizations and little boys? It's not that pedophilia creeps in -- it's bound to, there's always a certain amount around -- it's their reaction to it. The denials, the cover-ups, their refusal to honestly recognize its reality and to act responsibly when it occurs, their pretence that their organizations are immune to contamination when their all-male atmospheres may in fact be just the places that attract it. Maybe the scandals will wake them up. Maybe the experience will bring them into a new era of honest recognition of sexuality and how to deal with it in all its forms. Maybe.