31 January 2011

Anglicans and gay fights

You can find just about any view you want on homosexuality among the clergy of the Anglican Church. In Britain, the archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams, urges the government to offer protection to gay and lesbian people seeking asylum in the U.K. His urging follows the murder of a prominent gay rights activist in Uganda last week, an event magnified in Britain by the threatened deportation of a Ugandan lesbian, Brenda Namigadde. Namigadde insists she will be tortured or killed if she is sent back to Uganda and claims most of her friends in that country have disappeared.

Meanwhile in Uganda at the funeral of the murdered activist, as if to justify Namigadde's fears, Anglican pastor Thomas Musoke shocked the gay men and women present, as well as the foreign diplomats in attendance, by launching into a homophobic tirade. Police had to escort him away.

Somewhere in between these extremes is the Anglican archbishop of Uganda, the Most Rev Henry Orombi. Orombi has been outspoken in his opposition to homosexuality, gay clergy and same-sex marriage, yet opposes a bill before the Ugandan parliament that would imprison homosexuals for life.

The British people have come to accept that gays should be treated equally and the Anglican Church, reluctantly perhaps, follows their lead. In Uganda, the mob wants gays persecuted and the Church, with less reluctance perhaps, responds accordingly. The Church it seems, rather than preach eternal truths, on this issue at least just follows the trend. And this is no bad thing. In the case of gay rights, people generally seemed to have arrived at a compassionate conclusion well ahead of the Church. It seems they have done a better job of tapping into the teachings of the gentle Jesus than his self-appointed interpreters.

28 January 2011

Alberta submits to home builders association on energy

In  2008, the Government of Alberta stated its intention to “implement energy efficiency standards in building codes for homes and commercial buildings” as part of its climate change strategy. Technical reports showed that  higher energy efficiency standards would result in net savings for homeowners in every year of ownership. A 2010 poll showed strong support from Albertans for stronger standards. Nonetheless, the Government has abandoned its plans to increase energy efficiency requirements in its Building Code and instead wait for the next version of the National building Code.

Why, one might wonder, would a government abandon an energy-conserving initiative that was supported by both technical experts and the general public? Well, not everyone is in support—the home builders association, for example. And According to the Minister of the Environment, government won't proceed with an interim building code as long as the home builders association is opposed.

To understand the clout home builders have with the Alberta government, you have to understand the province's political funding. In 2009, corporations contributed almost as much to the Progressive Conservatives as all the other parties combined raised from all contributions. And which industry is the major contributor, you ask? If you guessed the oil industry you would be wrong—it's the development industry. So if the home builders say no, it's no.

But then rolling over for industry is par for the Alberta government. He who pays the piper ...

26 January 2011

Conservative magic - turning political antipathy into government antipathy

A recent article in Harper's magazine contains some intriguing insights into the relationship between Americans and their government. Americans would seem to be utterly disillusioned with their federal government these days. The right insists it is too big and taxes them too much, the left insists it is too cozy with corporations and too militaristic. Fifty years ago, 70 per cent of Americans said they trusted their federal government. Today that has been reversed: when a recent Gallup poll asked Americans what they thought of it, 72 per cent of the replies were pejorative.

But are Americans unhappy with government? Other statistics suggest otherwise. For example, when asked about particular services provided by the federal government, whether it be Social Security, Medicare, the military, the Postal Service, the Centers for Disease Control, NASA, education or highways, Americans show strong support. So what is going on here? Do Americans hate government or love it? The Harper's article suggests the answer is probably both. They love government services, but politicians not so much.

Republicans exploit this disenchantment with politicians, i.e. with them, to justify downsizing government as a whole. A clever trick, and it seems to work, at least among a portion of the electorate. An amusing example was evident at a town hall meeting held by Rep. Robert Inglis. A retired gentleman righteously warned Inglis to, "Keep your government hands off my Medicare." At a Tea Party rally protesting federal spending, when a reporter reminded an elderly lady that the federal government provided her Social Security, she thought for a moment, then smiled and said, "Maybe I'm at the wrong rally." Indeed.

Most Americans won't be fooled by the Republican sleight of hand, but with a little help from media rabble-rousers and well-heeled corporations, enough can be fooled to win an election. If the Democrats want to regain control of the House, they might start by removing the confusion between politics and services that Republicans so cleverly exploit.

22 January 2011

Creeping democracy in China?

When we think of China, about the last thing we think of is democracy. We think of clothing, toys, electronic gear, and damn near every manufactured good on sale in the stores these days, but we don't think of democracy. Yet, according to an article in the Guardian, democracy may be creeping into the Chinese way of life.

China has more elections than any other country, but up until recently these elections meant little or nothing. They were local elections manipulated for the purposes of the Communist Party. Now, however, according to the article, these elections have been growing more competitive, with more independent candidates and greater use of the secret ballot. Furthermore, where there is real competition, the elections seem to be having positive effects. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao has indicated elections may be extended to townships, the next political level.

The Chinese have also experimented with direct democracy. China hired Stanford University professor James Fishkin, the guru of deliberative polling, to select a scientifically-representative sample of citizens from the city of Zeguo for a citizens' assembly to decide how their city should spend a $6-million public works budget. The project was considered a huge success and repeated elsewhere. This is an exercise we could profit from ourselves.

Even the Communist Party is getting in on the act with competitive elections being held for party posts at the lower levels.

Some Chinese intellectuals are proposing models of democracy based on Confucian ideas, i.e government service based on merit, possibly in combination with Western models. One proposal is for a tricameral legislature with the legislators of one chamber selected by merit, the legislators of another elected by members of the Communist Party, and the legislators of the third elected by the Chinese people as a whole. Some observers have been so bold as to suggest the Chinese might ultimately develop a model superior to those of the West.

That, however, will take a long time. But then the Chinese have always taken the long view of history. I'm reminded of the famous story of former Chinese premier Zhou Enlai who, when asked what he thought the influence of the French Revolution was on history, replied: "It's too early to tell."

Guess who is warning of increasing greenhouse gas emissions

"Rising greenhouse-gas emissions pose significant risks to society and ecosystems. Since most of these emissions are energy-related, any integrated approach to meeting the world’s growing energy needs over the coming decades must incorporate strategies to address the risk of climate change."
Nothing new in those remarks you might say and you'd be right. But what is new is who made them. ExxonMobil no less. In its annual Outlook on Energy report, the energy giant is warning that society is facing the challenge of addressing "the societal and ecological risks posed by rising greenhouse gas emissions." It predicts that global carbon emissions will rise by 25 per cent in the next 20 years, a projection gloomier than those publicly expressed by many scientists and governments, and one that douses optimism that runaway climate change can be prevented.
Beyond 2030, the report says, any progress on cuts will require "more aggressive gains in energy efficiency as well as the use of less carbon-intensive fuels. New technologies will by then be essential." This is no surprise to most of us but strong stuff for ExxonMobil.

Not long ago it was one of the most influential deniers of climate change, engaged in intensive lobbying efforts against the Kyoto protocol, running ads that questioned the scientific basis for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and as late as 2008 funding organizations dedicated to undermining climate science. Now the leopard seems to be changing its spots.

It may have been encouraged by a shareholder revolt in 2008. That year, members of the Rockefeller family, descendants of the founder of the company, were scathing in their criticism of the company's policies. "There are an awful lot of people who are getting increasingly annoyed with Exxon," said Neva Rockefeller Goodwin, a great-granddaughter of John D, while accusing the company of "an inability to listen to outsiders and an assumption that they know all the answers." The Rockefellers were joined in their dissent by 19 major institutional shareholders, including public investment funds from California, New York, Illinois, Maine and Vermont, the United Methodist Church, and the AFSCME public employees' union. All backed resolutions calling on Exxon to appoint an independent chairman and to set up a task force tackling global warming.

Whether convinced by shareholder outrage or by science or by simply recognizing what's best for the company's long-term interests, ExxonMobil seems to be accepting the reality of the climate change threat. ... Finally.

19 January 2011

Iran goes for hanging record

Iran isn't a leader in many things, but no one tops it in hanging. Iran executes more people per capita than any other country, and in absolute numbers is second only to China. Last year the numbers dropped to 179 from 388 in 2009, but this year is off to a record start. In the first three weeks of 2011 the mullahs have already executed 47 of their citizens. It looks like a banner year for the hangman.

Iran has a long history with hanging. It is credited with being the first country in the world to adopt the practice 2,500 years ago. Even the Bible records a hanging in ancient Persia, when King Ahasuerus hanged Haman for plotting against the Jews (Esther 7:10).

Most of this year's hangings are for drug-related crimes although some are politically motivated as well. Aaron Rhodes, a spokesman for the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, accused the Iranian judiciary of being, "on an execution binge orchestrated by the intelligence and security agencies."

The fact that Iran is a theocracy, a government guided by religious principles, might lead one to believe it would set a high standard for respecting human life. But that would be naive. The victims of righteous religion are legion. God is a hard taskmaster, as the Bible and the Koran make eminently clear, and those who deem themselves to be in His service must therefore be hard taskmasters as well. At least that's what the mullahs seem to believe.

14 January 2011

One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter

The adage "one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter" is being nicely illustrated by U.S. House of Representatives Peter King, new chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee. King says he intends to hold hearings on the radicalization of young Muslims in the United States.

The American Muslim community is not, to say the least, amused. Abed A. Ayoub, legal director for the American-Arab Anti-discrimination Committee, accused Mr. King of "bigoted intentions" while pointing out that Muslim leaders around the country have been working closely with law enforcement officials since 9/11.

The irony of King's crusade against Islamic extremism is that he was once a stalwart supporter of the IRA. Speaking at a pro-IRA rally in New York in 1982, he said, “We must pledge ourselves to support those brave men and women who this very moment are carrying forth the struggle against British imperialism in the streets of Belfast and Derry." At the time, he was involved with NORAID, an organization that the British, Irish and US governments accused of providing the IRA with weapons. The same man who complains that "no American Muslim leaders are co-operating in the war on terror" once refused to condemn IRA terrorist attacks in the UK.

Terrorism, it seems, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.

13 January 2011

We are all tribal - oxytocin makes us so

We are all tribal. Or, as social scientists would say, ethnocentric. This is, of course, old news. Observing the way humans loyally attach themselves to their groups, whatever those groups may be founded on—race, religion, country, profession, favourite hockey team, whatever—while exhibiting suspicion of other groups, makes it clear we are tribal creatures. Us and them kind of creatures.

What is new is that scientists have now identified a hormone that makes us that way—a tribal hormone. It's called oxytocin and it's the same hormone, produced in the hypothalamus region of the brain, that does everything from urge rat mothers to nurse their pups to make people trust each other more. But it doesn't inspire our warm and cuddly urges toward all others. In an article published in Science magazine, scientists report that the love and trust it promotes are only directed toward one's own group. It is, as a New York Times story puts it, "the hormone of the clan, not of universal brotherhood ... it is the agent of ethnocentrism."

It does not, however cause aggression toward the other, just defensiveness against them. In the words of the Science article, "Oxytocin drives a 'tend and defend' response in that it promot[es] in-group trust and cooperation, and defensive, but not offensive, aggression toward competing out-groups." That, at least, is a relief.

A principal author of the study, Carsten K.W. De Dreu, a psychologist at the University of Amsterdam, states, “In the ancestral environment it was very important for people to detect in others whether they had a long-term commitment to the group. Ethnocentrism is a very basic part of humans, and it’s not something we can change by education. That doesn’t mean that the negative aspects of it should be taken for granted.” No, to say the least, they should not be taken for granted. In a complex society, it often doesn't matter whether you are actively discriminating against others or just favouring your own, the result is equally harmful.

The important thing to understand is that we are all prejudiced in favour of our group and against the outsider. We can't help it—it's in our genes. What we can help is what we do about it. We can allow it to foster mistrust and hostility toward those who are different from us, or we can keep it in its place, apply the better parts of our minds, and treat others with unfailing kindness and respect. In other words, we can include everyone in the tribe.

That is the choice: submit to the dark side of the love hormone and intensify our tribalism, as we do in sports and in the military, or extend the good side to include others. Which we choose is the measure of our morality.

07 January 2011

Why is the Human Rights Museum creating an atrocity contest?

Scheduled for completion in 2013, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg has already initiated its fair share of controversy. The generous funding from all levels of government (over 20 million federal dollars a year will be expended just to maintain it) has exercised some taxpayers who are becoming even more apprehensive as escalating construction costs bump the final tab from $260-million up to $310-million.

As if a financial row wasn't enough, the museum has put the human rights cat among the ethnic pigeons by declaring that only the Holocaust and the Native American displays will have permanent galleries of their own. They should have known that by giving preference to the suffering of two groups, they would be met with challenges from other groups who have suffering of their own to relate. They are, after all, human rights specialists, they must know this much about human nature. And, of course, the challenges are coming.

In December, The Ukrainian Canadian Congress expressed concern that the museum has no plans to have a full exhibit to mark the Holodomor, a genocidal famine that took place in 1930's Ukraine, even though the Holodomor will be displayed permanently in the "Mass Atrocity" zone. The Ukrainian Canadian Civil Liberties Association is calling for an independent committee to decide what content will be featured in the museum. The German-Canadian Congress has said it is “alarmed and concerned” about the museum’s dedication of permanent galleries to Holocaust and Canadian aboriginal issues. Congress president Tony Bergmeier calls on the museum to be “inclusive and equitable in its treatment. … No suffering by one group can be more important than the suffering of others.”

The choice of the aboriginal display for a gallery of its own can—arguably—be justified because that, after all, is where human rights violations started in this country, with the theft of the land from its native peoples. Furthermore, it's a Canadian story and the museum is mandated to place special emphasis on Canadian history.

But why the Holocaust? It wasn't a Canadian story. A case for its priority can be made, but then a case can be made for the Atlantic slave trade which cost millions of lives and massive suffering, went on for almost four hundred years, dramatically changed the histories of four continents and the effects are still strongly felt today. No doubt, good cases could be made for other atrocities. And probably will be.

The kind of me-tooism generated by the museum's decision is, to say the least, unbecoming. Unfortunately, unless the choices for permanent galleries are made on objective and clearly established criteria, it is inevitable. The best approach would be to follow the lead of the other 10 galleries which are based on themes. Place the Holocaust and Native American displays in their appropriate theme areas rather than suggesting, as the museum now does by allocating them galleries of their own, that they alone are as important as all other injustices of their kind. This way they could still be preeminent in their respective theme areas but without acrimony. And the museum could do with a great deal less acrimony.

05 January 2011

When will the growing income gap become a major political issue?

A recent report by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, authored by Armine Yalnizyan and entitled "The Rise of Canada's richest 1%," considers an issue that, despite its very great importance to this country, receives remarkably little attention. That issue is the reversal of long-term trends toward income equality after 1980, i.e. the growing income gap. While average family incomes stagnate, the incomes of the rich rapidly rise.

The report points out that the richest one per cent of Canadians took about a third of all income growth in both the slow-growth decade 1987-1997 and the fast-growth decade 1997-2007, i.e in good times and bad. This was the largest slice in history. The share of all Canadian income that went to the richest one per cent had dropped to 7.7 per cent in 1977. It is now up to 14 per cent and increasing.

From 1998 to 2008, Canada's 100 best-paid CEOs' compensation rose from 104 times the average Canadian's to 174 times, representing a 53 per cent increase after inflation compared to the average Canadian's four per cent.

The higher up the income ladder you are, the faster your income rises. The income share of the richest .01 per cent of Canadians more than quintupled. To quote the report, "Canada's elite are breaking new frontiers in income inequality." This record-breaking growth is combined with the lowest top tax rates since the 1920s.

One thing the report clearly shows is that rewarding CEOs with ever greater incomes does not enrich the rest of us. The trickle-down theory has proven to be a fraud. A rising tide is not raising most boats.

The importance of the income gap is not simply about money and a fair share, but about the overall health of society. Inequality is a comprehensive social problem. Evidence increasingly shows that unequal societies are unhealthy societies. This is thoroughly illustrated in epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett's book The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better in which they graphically show that rates of heart disease, crime, drug abuse, obesity, mental illness and other social ills depend on relative levels of wealth within societies. If we are concerned about all of these issues, we should be concerned about the growing inequality.

The need for a debate is obvious. The challenge is how to have the debate when our public forums—the mass media—are controlled by the very same one per cent who are benefiting from the inequality. The media moguls are hardly interested in a debate that might challenge their privileges.