30 December 2010

Religion flaunts its nasty side in Israel

When bigotry starts to lag, you can always count on religion to give it a shot in the arm. In early December, 40 municipal chief rabbis in Israel signed a letter in support of a ruling by Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu instructing his followers not to offer accommodation to non-Jews. The rabbis didn't allow their status as public servants (their salaries are paid out of the public purse) to preclude their mischief-making.

Not to be outdone by their menfolk, rabbis' wives have now gotten in on the act. The wives of 27 prominent Israeli rabbis have signed a letter of their own urging Jewish women not to date or work with Arab men. The not dating is one thing, but the not working with is something else. Do they think their young women will get pregnant from drinking at the same water fountain as Arabs? No chances are to be taken it seems to prevent the defiling of the flower of Jewish womanhood by Arab seducers.

An array of Israelis have expressed outrage at these sentiments, including top political leaders, the prime minister and the defence minister among them. Ordinary Israelis are not so righteous however. A recent poll showed that 44 per cent of Israeli Jews support the rabbis' ruling banning the renting of apartments to non-Jews.

Actually, if the rabbis and their wives are so concerned about Jewish purity, they should welcome their young women mixing it up with Arab boys. After all, their Semitic blood has been diluted by 2000 years of miscegenation with Europeans. Intermarriage with their fellow Semites would restore them to a purer Semitic state. Sounds like win-win to me.

24 December 2010

The Denisovans enter the human story

I would greet the latest addition to the human family with a hearty hello; unfortunately they are all dead. Thirty thousand years dead, in fact. Scientists announced that the remains of a finger discovered in the Denisova cave in the Altai mountain range of southern Siberia belong to a previously unknown human ancestor. They believe that the undocumented human species lived alongside Neanderthals and modern humans as recently as 30,000 years ago.

The Denisovans join Homo floresiensis, or the "hobbits," a diminutive species of human discovered on the island of Flores in Indonesia in 2003. Although some scientists persist in the belief that the hobbits were in fact Homo sapiens with a brain-shrinking disease, the evidence increasingly suggests they belonged to a different human species that shared the planet with us up until 13.000 years ago.

We humans are a lonely species, with only one of our kind left on Earth. Most creatures have many species, even thousands. It appears that not all that long ago in evolutionary terms, we too had rather more company, with perhaps four of our kind roaming the planet: Homo sapiens, Homo neanderthalensis, Homo floresiensis, and now Denisova hominim.

One is intrigued by these ancient relatives of ours. What were they like? How did they pass their days? What happened to them? Did we, in our characteristic savagery, exterminate them? We have exterminated so many other species, why not a few of our own? We will never be able to answer many questions about them, but I wish the scientists great success in increasing our knowledge about these distant cousins.

23 December 2010

Shame on Apple

As a long-time fan of Apple (the only computers I have ever owned are Macs, including my current iMac), I was more than a little disappointed to hear the company had joined the corporate mob attempting to suppress WikiLeaks. Earlier this week, it pulled a WikiLeaks application from its iTunes store. And this isn't the first venture into censorship by the company. Apple has also banned apps with political cartoons and gay travel guides, leading the Guardian newspaper to observe that "many magazine publishers developing 'apps' for the new iPad... have had to self-censor."

As for pulling the WikiLeaks app, Apple explained, "We removed WikiLeaks because it violated developer guidelines. An app must comply with all local laws. It may not put an individual or target group in harm's way." What nonsense. WikiLeaks hasn't been convicted of breaking any laws and the release of the diplomatic cables has caused no loss of life. In fact, WikiLeaks has released the material quite responsibly. By channeling it through respectable newspapers like the Guardian and The New York Times, it has combined its ability to gather vast amounts of data with the editing and reporting skills of the conventional media. Names, locations and dates that could put people at risk have been carefully redacted.

Strictly speaking, the WikiLeaks app did violate the store rule that apps enabling donations must be free and this one was not (it cost $1.99). However, Apple could have gotten around that simply by insisting the app be given away. Instead, it banned it permanently.

What next, one wonders, will Apple and its corporate friends like Amazon, MasterCard, Visa and PayPal be up to? Suppressing the Guardian and The New York Times? This is not one of Steven Jobs finer moments.

I would hate to stop buying Apple, but for the very first time I'm having doubts. And, fortunately, I can still get WikiLeaks on my browser.

U.S. Senate offers a Xmas present to the world

Yesterday, the United States Senate voted 71-26 to ratify the new strategic nuclear arms treaty (New START) with Russia. New START, in addition to establishing a system for monitoring and verification, limits the two countries to 1,550 nuclear warheads each, down from the current 2,200. Considering that between the two to them, the U.S. and Russia possess more than 90% of the world's nuclear weapons, this is of global importance.

It is also a small step toward the two nations fulfilling their responsibilities under the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, which requires them to rid themselves of nuclear arms. So at this holiday time, let us be grateful for small mercies.

To the U.S. Senate, a merry Xmas and a happy New Year.

Ivory Coast - a democratic riddle

Everyone it seems, agrees that Laurent Gbagbo should step down as president of Ivory Coast. The UN, the African Union, the United States and the EU are all in agreement that his opponent in the recent election, Alassane Ouattara, should now assume the presidency. Considering that Ouattara won by 54 per cent to 46 per cent, they have a point. Gbagbo, unfortunately, demurs. And considering he controls the Constitutional Court (which insists, contrary to international observers, that Gbagbo won the election), the state television channel and the army, he has to be taken seriously.

If this were simply a matter of another African strongman refusing to give up power, and that may be partly the case, it would be a straightforward issue. But there is more to it than that. Ivory Coast is part of a swath of Africa from west to east that contains countries with Muslim populations in the north and Christian populations in the south. And therein lies the problem. Gbagbo is a Christian southerner and Ouattara is a Muslim northerner.

If we think strictly in numbers, then Gbagbo must go. But democracy is about more than numbers. Democracy is about representation. And, since Ivorians voted strongly along ethnic and religious lines, we can assume the southerners don't believe their interests can be represented by a northerner. If that is the case, does Gbagbo have a point? Is the result democratic if the south is to have imposed on it a president inimical to its interests?

We have a certain experience with this in Canada. The perception that certain prime ministers favoured Quebec caused rumblings of secession here in Alberta. And rumblings of secession are heard constantly in Quebec rising in part from distrust of les maudits anglais.

Fortunately, our trust in each other has overcome our suspicions, as it must if democracy is to work in a pluralistic society. Perhaps this trust has simply not developed in Ivory Coast, in which case democracy simply by numbers may be unworkable. This suggests two possibilities: Ivory coast can follow the path taken by Sudan, i.e. hold a referendum on splitting the country in two, or it can develop some kind of power-sharing agreement to keep both north and south reasonably content.

The latter has been the Canadian approach to Quebec's yearning for independence. We established structures that allowed Quebec sufficient autonomy to feel comfortable within the union. Of course, Quebec has also tried the referendum on secession approach, but there was enough trust in the union—barely—to prevent a breakup. Accommodating Quebec has caused grumbling in the rest of the country about a tyranny of the minority; nonetheless, the system has worked for over 140 years, longer than most countries have existed. Perhaps there are some lessons here for Ivory Coast.

There is of course a third approach—a return to civil war until one side is battered into submission. This may work in the long run, as it has in the United States, but it can cause horrific tragedy in the short term, also as it did in the United States, and there are no long-term guarantees. I doubt either the international community or the Ivorians want to take this route. Although maybe Gbagbo does.

Perhaps the greatest risk here is that the international community will impose a "democracy" on Ivory Coast—in the name of Alassane Ouattara—that is no real democracy at all for half the people. This may do nothing more than provide Laurent Gbagbo with more justification for bloody-mindedness. The UN et al. should, therefore, sponsor a democracy that has real meaning for Ivorians north and south. This is clearly a major challenge for the international community. It requires a Lester Pearson moment. The alternative is yet more misery for West Africa.

21 December 2010

Why the Pope should try relativism

At least Pope Benedict XVI recognizes that child abuse is a major problem for his church. "We must ask ourselves what we can do to repair as much as possible the injustice that has occurred," he said in his Xmas speech. "We must ask ourselves what was wrong in our proclamation, in our whole way of living the Christian life." If he's talking about the behavior of priests, indeed they must.

He isn't quite ready, however, to accept all the blame. Apparently it's as much our fault as theirs. Referring to child pornography he declares, "We cannot remain silent about the context of these times in which these events have come to light, that seems in some way to be considered more and more normal by society." So the fault isn't so much the priests paedophiliac inclinations or the fact they aren't allowed to marry, it's the "context of these times." In other words, everybody's doing it.

The old boy is being more than a little disingenuous. In no modern country is child pornography considered normal, or for that matter, legal. He went on to say, "In the 1970s, paedophilia was seen as a natural thing for men and children." If that was the case, I must have missed the 70s. As I remember them, pedophilia was as unacceptable and as illegal then as it is now.

And who is he kidding that this all began with the wicked 70s? More likely it's been going on for centuries but only in the last few decades have Catholics gained the courage to speak up against their licentious priests.

Benedict was playing off a theme he's used in the past, that the fault lies with the modern world's moral relativism, something the Catholic church has the task of challenging and defeating. But it isn't society's relativism that's the problem, it's the church's absolutism. If priests were allowed some leeway to enjoy sex, say in marriage, the problem of child abuse would largely diminish. But the church insists on no sex, a highly unrealistic expectation. The church's absolute positions on abortion and contraception create other problems.

Relativism essentially means tolerance. It offers us the opportunity to use our brains, to think for ourselves, to entertain diverse views, to consider circumstances and make decisions, rather than blindly following ancient dogma. So embrace it, Benedict, drop the absolutism and answers will come.

The problem doesn't lie in the context of society, it lies in the context of your church. Allow priests normal sex lives, and you'll attract men with normal sex drives. Hell, go wild and crazy and include women in the priesthood. I'll guarantee the molestation of children will drop impressively. I offer this advice as my Xmas present to you.

Have a happy holiday.

17 December 2010

How the Christians stole Xmas

This is the time of year when Christians tend to complain that their favourite holy day is being trampled upon by pagans. Christ, they insist, is being removed from Christmas. The holiday is too commercial and too secular. The too commercial I sympathize with, but as for the too secular, I must protest. After all, the Christians stole Xmas from the pagans, so they can hardly complain about the pagans enjoying the holiday in their own way.

The Xmas season is the season of the winter solstice, and this was celebrated well back into neolithic times, long before there were Christians. To the ancients, it was the time of year the sun came back to life. The world would continue. The sun god was reborn.

It has been celebrated in some form or another by many cultures. In cold climates, people prepared for the hard winter to come. Cattle would be slaughtered so they wouldn't have to be fed during the winter, making this almost the only time when ample fresh meat was available. Wine and beer had now fermented and were ready for drinking. It was the last, best feast of the year. In December the Romans celebrated Saturnalia, the origin of many of our Xmas customs. Schools were let out, gifts were given, and there was much feasting and drinking.

This in fact is rather how my family has always celebrated Xmas: Santa Claus, gifts under a tree, turkey dinner with all the trimmings—and not a jot of religion in it. A Saturnalian holiday sans Saturn. Indeed one of the best things about Xmas is that it is a holiday that can be enjoyed by people of any faith or of no faith, thanks to its pagan roots. Xmas is now a major festival and public holiday in most countries of the world, including many that aren't Christian.

No one knows when Christ was born, either the date or the year, so imposing it on the solstice was as good a choice as any and in fact rather clever—replace Saturn with Christ and Saturnalia becomes Christmas. But to many of us, it's nothing more than a merry time. Ho, ho, ho.

15 December 2010

Suing the drone masters

That American drones are killing innocent Pakistanis is not news. When you fire a missile into the house of a Taliban or al Qaeda leader, you can never discount taking out members of his family or friends. And of course there may not even be a Taliban or al Qaeda leader in the house in the first place. This drone-killing is not popular in Pakistan, but with the government privately complicit with the Americans, there hasn't been much the victims' friends and loved ones can do. Now a Pakistani journalist is trying to change that.
Karim Khan, whose brother and son were killed in a CIA drone attack on their home in North Waziristan last December, has lodged a civil suit for $500-million in damages against the U.S. government. Khan claims that the target of the attack, Taliban commander Haji Omar, wasn't in the house and that his relatives had nothing to do with the Taliban.

Khan has also called for the arrest of Jonathan Banks, the CIA station chief in Islamabad, on a charge of murder. He has applied to the Islamabad police to prevent Banks from leaving Pakistan, saying "He should be arrested and executed in this country." His lawyer plans to file a constitutional petition in an effort to end the attacks. A report issued to the UN Human Rights Council earlier this year accused the U.S. of inventing a "law of 9/11" and warned the attacks left CIA employees exposed to prosecution "under the domestic law of any country in which they conduct targeted drone killings."

The report also warned that the drone program could create a "PlayStation mentality" (the drones are remotely operated by private contractors at CIA headquarters in Virginia) that could spread to other countries. If the Americans can do it with impunity, why not others? The U.S. are not alone in possessing drones. At least 40 other countries, including Turkey, Russia, India and Iran, have drones although not all have the technology to fire guided missiles from them. Yet.

Mr. Khan's chances of successfully suing the CIA are, of course, remote. PlayStation war offers the United States a risk-free method of suppressing troublesome tribesmen at the ends of the empire, and they won't easily give it up. Nonetheless, Khan may have started something and, in any case, with a lawsuit he's speaking a language Americans are very familiar with.

11 December 2010

The gorillas are coming!

As humans continue to despoil the planet, making life ever more difficult for so many of our fellow species, it is nice to get the occasional piece of good news. Thus I was delighted to read in the Guardian that the mountain gorillas living in the Virunga Massif in central Africa are experiencing a population boom. At a growth rate of 3.7 per cent a year, their numbers have increased from 380 to 480 since 2003. With 300 more in Bwindi Impenetrable national park in Uganda, there are now 780 mountain gorillas in total living in the wild.

More and better-paid park rangers, offering local people livelihoods that reduce trespass on gorilla territory, and closer monitoring by veterinarians has significantly reduced the incidence of poaching and disease.

I feel good for these great, shambling beasts. Long harassed by us, their fellow primates, they deserve a break. So mate on, cousins, may your generations multiply.

07 December 2010

The roots of blowback - the Saudis support terror and the U.S. supports the Saudis

"Donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide." So claimed Hillary Clinton in a secret (now, due to WikiLeaks, not so secret) paper issued in December, 2009. She goes on to add, "Saudi Arabia remains a critical financial support base for al-Qaida, the Taliban, LeT and other terrorist groups." It would appear that in the U.S. war on terror, Saudi Arabia is the main paymaster of the enemy.

One wonders why, then, does the United States sell massive amounts of arms to the paymaster of al-Qaida and associates? Saudi Arabia is the Americans' top customer for military equipment. The U.S. administration is currently pursuing the biggest arms sale in the country's history, worth $60-billion, to this selfsame sponsor of terror.

Isn't this madness? Don't you have to be insane to strengthen the very power that funds, indoctrinates and encourages your enemies? Perhaps, but what if that power has oodles of oil and is more than willing to sell you as much as you want, say over a million barrels a day? And what if you had a serious balance of payments deficit and you desperately needed to put some of the billions of dollars you were spending on oil back in your pocket? Well, it would still be crazy, but an addiction to oil, like any other addiction, can drive you to do crazy things.

The Americans have engaged in this folly in the Middle East before. Back in the 1950s, they helped depose a democratically-elected government in Iran in order to imose a dictator, Shah Reza Pahlavi, who was more amenable to their oil interests. This blew up in their face when the people of Iran turned on the the Shah, overthrew his regime, and installed a government that has never forgotten the American insult and causes the U.S. grief up to this very day. This was where the expression "blowback" originated as a spook term for unintended consequences.

Saudi Arabia is, like Iran, ruled by a ruthless dictatorship generously supported by the United States. Like any dictatorship, it could disintegrate in a moment, leaving the country, armed to the teeth, in the hands of God knows who, quite possibly Wahabi extremists. And they, like the Iranians, may not easily forget who befriended their oppressor. Blowback redux.

04 December 2010

WikiLeaks and collateral damage

Not only University of Calgary professor Tom Flanagan has suggested assassinating WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. A variety of American politicians and media types express similar sentiments. And why do they entertain this murderous impulse? Well, according to Flanagan, "what he's doing is very malicious and harmful to diplomacy and endangering people's lives, and I think it should be stopped."

I might take the "harmful to diplomacy" part seriously if governments didn't tell us so many lies, but they do, so just once in a while I'd like to know what they are really up to on the international front. Endangering people's lives is another matter entirely. That we have to take very seriously indeed. It would not, however, seem people's lives are being endangered. Even the Pentagon admits they are not aware of a single mutilated body showing up as a result of WikiLeaks behaviour. One cannot, of course, say the same thing about U.S. behaviour in Iraq which has resulted in many mutilated bodies showing up.

But what if WikiLeaks disclosures did result in killings. There's a phrase for that, it's called "collateral damage." There has been a lot of that in Afghanistan. Entire wedding parties have been inadvertently blown up, scattering body bits of men, women and children across the landscape, as a result of NATO or American bombs landing where they really shouldn't have. Oddly, people like Flanagan, who express such concern about WikiLeaks, have little to say about that collateral damage.

I suppose it's a matter of the greater good. If the knowledge of international relations that WikiLeaks brings us is as important as whatever we are doing in Afghanistan, then it would justify as much collateral damage. Flanagan et al. would insist it isn't. Many others would insist it is. The point is you can't simply support censoring WikiLeaks on the basis it might result in innocent casualties. You have to prove the amount of benefit isn't worth the number of casualties. And that is obviously a matter of opinion.

However, seeing as Wikileaks' information deluge doesn't seem to be causing any casualties at all, except maybe a few diplomats' careers, it appears that so far the debate is strictly academic.

03 December 2010

Kudos to Dave King - and his call for a single school system

“We want little Catholic kids to be educated beside little Protestant kids, beside rich kids, poor kids, Indian kids, refugee kids. I believe in our kids being educated together.”

So says Dave King, Minister of Education under Premier Peter Lougheed and former executive director of the Public School Boards' Association of Alberta. Along with Ontario, Saskatchewan and the Northwest Territories, Alberta offers the constitutional right of minority faiths to have their own school systems fully funded from the public purse. Or at least it does if the minority is Christian. Other minorities -- Hindu, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, whatever -- are denied the right.

King has created a website with an online petition to end the special privilege. He not only believes that in a multicultural society, children of all backgrounds should have the opportunity to mingle, but he is concerned that the privilege discriminates against non-Christian faiths. He also feels that two systems, with the attendant duplication, spreads education resources too thin. As an atheist, I would add a concern about my taxes being used to indoctrinate kids in beliefs I neither share nor respect.

King has a mountain to move. Abolishing the separate school system would require changing the Alberta School Act and, a much bigger challenge, changing the constitution. Nonetheless, Newfoundland and Quebec have done it, so it is doable if the political will is there.

At the moment, it isn't. Current Education Minister Dave Hancock states that he doesn't "see any real public groundswell saying that they don't want to have what we've got now.” King will just have to make the ground swell. You can help by signing the petition here.

02 December 2010

Assange or Cinton - who's the law-breaker?

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is looking for legal means to shut Julian Assange up. Presumably she believes the WikiLeaks founder has violated some law or other in his career of exposing troublesome secrets. The irony is that one of the secrets Assange revealed in his latest data dump is that Clinton herself is orchestrating illegal activity.

In a cable headed "Reporting and Collection Needs: The United Nations Ref: State 048489" issued in Clinton's name, U.S. diplomats are instructed to collect a mass of personal information on UN officials including credit card and frequent flier account numbers. This is sometimes called identify theft and it is illegal under both U.S. and international law.

State Department spokesmen have insisted that thousands of messages go out under the Secretary's name but she isn't necessarily familiar with their contents. That may be, but if it goes out under her name, she is responsible for it. One spokesman even hinted that it came from another department, but the man who classified the document, Michael Owens, is acting director of the Bureau of Intelligence and Research, an agency listed as part of the Department of State. No doubt here, the buck stops with Hillary.

So who should we be arresting? Julian Assange or Hillary Clinton?