27 August 2010

Ominous rumblings from Zuma

"Is the political discipline in China a recipe for economic success?" So asks South African President Jacob Zuma, currently on an official visit to the Asian nation.

Is Zuma just being polite to his Chinese hosts? Or is he taking advantage of his visit to tweak the West's nose? Certainly African leaders do get tired of the conditions and lectures attached to Western aid compared to the typically unconditional offers from China. So a little teasing of Western donors is understandable. Or is it something more ominous?

South Africa is currently beleaguered by labour strife. Strikes by public service workers are paralyzing the nation's cities and half of the country's young black men are unemployed. The relationship between Zuma's African National Congress (ANC) and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), an ally in the anti-apartheid struggle and a kingmaker within the ANC, has sunk to a serious low. Cosatu has threatened to shut down the economy if the government doesn't agree to an 8.6% wage increase and a 1,000 rand ($144) monthly housing allowance.

Is Zuma looking at these troubles and envying the "political discipline" that China applies to its workers? The Chinese government keeps working people in line by depriving them of the freedom to associate and form strong, independent labour unions like those represented by Cosatu. And this clearly provides China with an economic advantage. Perhaps that advantage is looking good to Zuma at the moment.

Let us hope not. The Chinese leaders, despite their predilection for dictatorial discipline, do seem to keep the welfare of their people in mind. African leaders, on the other hand, have a sordid record of using any extraordinary powers they can muster to ruthlessly enhance their own interests at the expense of their people. The last thing South Africa needs is another strongman.

26 August 2010

The American Empire: will the sun ever set?

The United State recently announced the departure of its last combat troops from Iraq. Yet 50,000 troops will remain in over 100 bases in an "advisory capacity." That is an occupation by any measure.

At one time it was said that the sun never set on the British Empire. Now Great Britain is the mere poodle of the new Anglo empire, the American version. And on this version the sun truly never sets.

The United States deploys its military on more than 700 bases in over 100 countries around the world. Add to the military the private contractors who do everything from prepare meals to carry out covert operations. And then there's the CIA, largely responsible for secret wars that extend the Empire's reach beyond occupation, including assassinations by the use of drones. These wars have been intensified under the Obama administration to the point where The New York Times recently referred to the CIA becoming a "paramilitary organization."

Much of the Empire's muscle is directed at the Muslim world, with 50,000 troops occupying Iraq, 100,000 fighting an insurgent war in Afghanistan and covert operations in a host of Arab and other countries including Algeria, Somalia, Sudan, Iran, Pakistan and Yemen. The potential for creating Islamic hostility and potentially terror would seem almost infinite. Such is the price of empire.

Perhaps as their country plunges ever further into debt, Americans will eventually begin to question the price. Perhaps they will even begin to recognize that they create the very terror that leaves them in constant fear. But there is little sign of that now. Obama seems as caught up in the web of empire as his predecessors. Iraq is a good example. He "withdraws" but leaves an occupying force of 50,000. Next year he promises to leave Afghanistan. One wonders how many tens of thousands of "advisers" will be left there. And then there's all those possibilities in Iran, Yemen, etc.. No, no sign of the sun setting any time soon.

25 August 2010

Earth Overshoot Day arrives a month earlier

Last Saturday, August 21st, was Earth Overshoot Day. Each year, the international think tank Global Footprint Network calculates the day on which we humans have consumed as many of the Earth's natural resources as it can provide in a full year. Every year that day, "the day when humanity begins living beyond its ecological means," falls earlier, this year a full month earlier than last year.

By the Network's calculations, we first went into overshoot in 1986. Until then we were consuming resources and producing waste consistent with what the planet could produce and reabsorb. By 1996, we were using 15 percent more resources per year than the planet could supply. Now, we are using almost 50 per cent more. We are devouring the Earth.

Earth Overshoot Day is a good day to pause and reflect on our profligate ways. Those of us fortunate enough to live in the First World live a life of great indulgence. Unfortunately, our indulgence is imposing an ever-increasing ecological debt on future generations. We are enjoying our way of life largely at the cost of theirs. This reminder from the Global Footprint Network is timely indeed.

To calculate your own ecological footprint, go to http://www.footprintnetwork.org/en/index.php/GFN/page/calculators/.

20 August 2010

Barbaric justice - Iran vs. California

Which is the worst travesty of justice: being stoned to death for adultery or sentenced to 25 years to life for stealing food? Both are barbaric, what is surprising is the countries that impose these sentences. We could easily guess who would practice stoning: Iran, for example, or Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia. But many would be surprised that the country that sentences a man to 25 years to life for stealing food would be the United States, and in the great state of California at that.

Actually, when Gregory Taylor broke into the kitchen of St. Joseph's Church in downtown Los Angeles because he was hungry, he wasn't committing his first offence. Taylor, a homeless man, had been convicted years earlier of a purse-snatching and an unarmed, failed attempt to steal a wallet. As to breaking into the kitchen, the pastor of the church testified on Taylor's behalf saying that he was often given food and allowed to sleep in the church. The priest said he was a peaceful man struggling with homelessness and crack addiction. Nonetheless, trying to pry open the door to St. Joseph's food pantry was a third offence and in California that can get you, as it did Gregory Taylor, 25 years to life.

I don't know what drove Taylor to his "life of crime," but it isn't hard to imagine. The life of another victim of California's three strikes law, Norman Williams, is illustrative. Williams' third strike was stealing a floor jack from a tow truck. His two earlier offences were burglarizing an apartment that was being fumigated and stealing some tools from an art studio. Williams was the eighth of 12 children and was raised by a binge-drinking mother who pimped him and his brothers out to pedophiles for money to buy wine. When he grew up he not surprisingly became addicted to cocaine and lived on the streets.

Both men eventually got a break, if that's the right word. With the help of a Stanford University legal clinic, both Taylor and Williams gained their freedom after serving 13 years.

Thirteen years in prison for petty theft is better than being stoned to death for adultery, but it is barbaric nonetheless. The real crime is that two men so desperately in need of help, and living in a country with more than ample resources and know-how to provide it, were instead cruelly punished for misdemeanors that were nothing more than symptoms of their distress.

Iran is a benighted theocracy; the United States is a modern democracy. Taking that into account, California's three strikes and your out doesn't look that much better than stoning.

18 August 2010

Do we really expect refugees to queue up?

As the son of immigrants, I am intrigued by the current situation with the Tamil boat people. My parents arrived legally but, I ask myself, what if they hadn't. What if they had broken the rules? Would I hold it against them? Would I feel any less of a Canadian? The answer is no. I enjoy being a Canadian so much I would be glad they did it. Indeed I might very well feel that sneaking in added to the romance of their adventure. And indeed they may have had to sneak in if they came today. They immigrated in 1929 when anyone from the British Isles pretty well got a free pass. Today, Brits have to meet the same requirements as anyone else and my parents, not being well-educated, may not have had the skills to qualify. I am, therefore, tolerant on the subject of immigrant queue jumpers.

But the Tamils don't come as immigrants, they come as refugees, and that's quite another thing. Sensibly, one expects them to break the rules. If you were expecting a knock on the door in the middle of the night by the secret police, would you stand patiently in line waiting for a nod from the Canadian embassy? Would you take the time to apply for a passport from the state authorities? Or if you were living in a squalid refugee camp, watching your children suffer constantly from diarrhea and unable to offer them hope for the future, would you be willing to wait for years to get out if you had an alternative? I wouldn't. I'd get the hell out of there anyway I could and as quickly as I could. And I would head for any decent country that would take me in - Australia, the U.S., Canada, wherever, and I would be grateful for the sanctuary.  But queue up? Only as a last resort.

So if these Tamils are genuine refugees, I say welcome and good luck to them. If they aren't, then I expect they will be deported. In any case, I believe I'll withhold judgment until they have been duly processed.

12 August 2010

Arabs support a nuclear-armed Iran

The Brookings Institution's annual Arab Public Opinion Poll has shown some remarkable changes in Arab views in the past year. The survey, conducted in late July in six Middle Eastern countries - Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Lebanon, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates - shows, for example, that a positive view of  U.S. President Obama has declined form 45 per cent to 20 per cent while a negative view has increased from 23 per cent to 62 per cent. This echoes the dramatic increase from last year's 15 per cent of Arabs who were "discouraged" by the U.S. administration's Middle East policy to the 63 per cent who are discouraged this year. The number who said they felt "hopeful" shrunk from 51 per cent to 16 per cent.

The survey indicated other shifting currents in the Middle East. For example, for the first time in recent years, more Arabs said they identified as Muslims rather than as citizens of their country. But most surprisingly, and most disturbingly, not only do an increasing majority believe Iran has the right to pursue a nuclear program even if it is seeking weapons, 57 per cent now say that Iran acquiring nuclear weapons would be positive for the Middle East.

As support for Obama has declined, support for Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has soared. The survey indicated he is now the most popular leader in the Arab world. Obama's fall and Erdogan's rise has no doubt been boosted by the Israeli raid on the aid flotilla. Indeed, Palestine remains the great sticking point for improved relations between the U.S. and the Arabs. Of the American policies with which the survey respondents were most disappointed, 61 per cent chose Palestine/Israel. Iraq was a distant second at 27 per cent.

An overwhelming majority of those surveyed said they were prepared for peace with Israel if it was willing to return all the territory it has occupied since the 1967 Six Day War, including East Jerusalem, but most don't believe that will happen for a long time.

It appears that until the United States leans on Israel sufficiently to push it into a fair deal with the Palestinians, American and Arab relations will either stagnate of get worse, an unhealthy situation both for the Middle East and the rest of the world.

09 August 2010

Kenya's new constitution - a lesson for us?

Last week, 67 per cent of Kenya's electors voted for a new constitution. By all accounts, voter turnout was large and enthusiastic. Any discussion of the constitution in Canada meets with something less than enthusiasm; nonetheless, there are aspects of Kenya's new constitution that we might think about adding to ours.

Specifically, the new Kenyan constitution contains a Bill of Rights which guarantees a long list of social and economic rights. It says every child has the right to free and compulsory pre-primary, primary and secondary education. It says every person has a right to a high standard of health care, to food of acceptable quality, to clean and safe water in adequate quantities, to accessible and adequate housing and to reasonable standards of sanitation.

It has always seemed odd to me that constitutions provide for certain human rights, such as freedom of speech, religion, assembly, etc., while failing to provide for rights to the most fundamental needs of all: food and shelter. To which we might add, in a modern society, the right to good health care and education appropriate to one's needs and abilities. Rights such as freedom of speech are wonderful but not of much use if you are starving. First things first.

Perhaps we feel that in a country as rich as ours we don't need to guarantee our people access to sufficient nourishment and shelter, or even health and education. But our wealth just makes it that much easier to ensure every one of us has these things, so why not do so? Why not establish the proper foundation of a constitution - basic human needs?

05 August 2010

Pomegranates and U.S. foreign policy

The Left is often accused of being anti-American. It does indeed have an anti on its shoulder, but it's often more anti-American foreign policy than anti-American. Most Lefties, and I include myself, greatly admire much about our southern neighbour, particularly when it behaves in accordance with its founding principles.

And there is even much to admire about its foreign policy when it isn't in empire mode. A recent example of this was the trade deal signed between Afghanistan and Pakistan which will allows Afghans to ship their goods across Pakistani territory to India and its vast consumer market. The Americans pushed hard for this deal and were instrumental in its consummation. Appropriately, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton attended the signing.

The Afghan economy, which produces a range of goods from carpets to fruit to fine marble, will receive a huge boost. Of particular importance is its pomegranate crop. An arid area fruit that needs little or no water, foreign development workers have long insisted that it is critical to creating a reasonable alternative for poppy growers. After poppies, pomegranates are Afghanistan's most famous crop, but to get top prices farmers need access to international markets. The opening of the Indian market will be a major step in this direction.

The U.S. deserves full marks for helping to bring this deal about. This is an America the Left can love.