27 January 2012

Anti-American or anti-American empire?

Americans are a militaristic people. That, I suspect, is why President Obama made praise of the military a major theme in his State of the Union address Tuesday night. He began his speech by praising the military and he ended by praising the military. And in between he practically boasted about murdering Osama bin Laden and made it clear he would wage war on Iran if it doesn't come to heel.

Furthermore he stated, with due humility, that "America remains the one indispensable nation in world affairs—and as long as I’m President, I intend to keep it that way." In other words, he will maintain the empire.

No doubt Obama felt this appeal to American jingoism is necessary for success in this election year. Unfortunately, it also displays the arrogance that leads many to criticize the United States, criticism that in itself leads to accusations of anti-Americanism. I have been the target of such accusations myself from time to time.

And yet, I am a great admirer of much that is America. I love their respect for the individual, perhaps their greatest strength. I love what their culture has given the world: the blues, Hollywood movies, baseball—my cup runneth over. And I love their irreverence: I love Michael Moore, and Jon Stewart and Bill Maher, and I adore the Montana Supreme Court which recently contradicted the U.S. Supreme Court by ruling that their state's laws limiting corporate donations for political purposes would stand.

But I am anti-American something. Not anti-America the country, but anti-America the empire. I am anti the misguided, self-righteous, violent and all too often hypocritical behaviour the U.S. habitually imposes on the world. I am anti their efforts to dominate the world in their interest.

And I will continue to speak out against the empire. The United States is the most powerful nation in the world and as such deserves, as most liberal Americans would no doubt agree, the closest attention. As for accusations of anti-Americanism, that kind of name-calling simply means someone has run out of arguments ... and it isn't me.

26 January 2012

Rivers drying up in England?

When trout waved lazy in the clear chalk streams, Glory was in me …
So wrote poet John Betjeman about his beloved River Kennet. Sadly, the trout have had trouble waving lazy in the Kennet lately. The river, like many in southern England, ran dry this past winter, a victim of high water demand and below-average rainfall. Brown trout and grayling had to be rescued by officers from the Environment Agency, and one fish farmer lost three tonnes of trout.

"When I started here 32 years ago, 60 per cent of the trout were wild fish," said the fish farmer. "Now I reckon it's down to 10%. The whole of the upper river has been destroyed. The lack of water flow means that we've lost almost all the ranunculus weed that holds lots of invertebrates and produces cover for the fish. This is unprecedented."

Alan Crook, an 80-year old who has lived by the Kennet all his life, remembers swimming in the river as a boy: "There were hatches to control the flow of water for the mills. The water there was 10 feet deep. We used to jump in from the bank and have a whale of a time. Now the river's so low that children could never do that. Those days are gone for good." The river is mentioned by Izaak Walton in his seminal work on the art of fly fishing, The Compleat Angler, published in 1653.

With millions of litres being pumped from the Kennet every day for municipal water supply combined with declining rainfall, those carefree summer days of swimming and fishing may indeed be gone for good. A recent report by the Environment Agency starkly warns that rivers across the country are at risk.

What is happening to England's rivers is an example of both sides of our assault on the planet: Our insatiable demand for resources combined with the dumping of our waste into the atmosphere. Declining rainfall, a result of climate change, robs the rivers of their life source while increasing demand for water depletes them.

As even England's green and pleasant land faces a future a lot less green and pleasant, we have yet another warning to mend our profligate and destructive ways.

25 January 2012

Bully for you, Minister Baird

John Baird has never been one of my favourite politicians. There is too much of the bully about him. Nonetheless, I applaud him for his speech Monday in the UK in which he criticized other Commonwealth nations for denying fundamental freedoms to homosexuals and others. "Dozens of Commonwealth countries currently have regressive and punitive laws on the books that criminalize homosexuality," he said, referring to the unfortunate fact that homosexuality is illegal in 41 of the 54 member states. His position is particularly welcome at a time when gays are increasingly under attack in a number of African countries.

Last November, Baird condemned legislation in Nigeria that toughened anti-gay laws and made same-sex marriage punishable by 14 years in prison. The legislation also targets anyone who supports or even witnesses such unions or those who form gay-rights groups. In the 12 Nigerian states that have adopted Sharia law, same-sex sexual activity is punishable by death by stoning. Baird's view of all this was unequivocal. "The government of Nigeria must protect all Nigerians, regardless of sexual orientation," he said at the time. "Through the Commonwealth and other forums, Canada will continue to make this point in the most forceful of terms."

One suspects that there are more than a few members in the Conservative core that are not impressed by the government's stand on gay rights. That makes Baird's forceful views all the more commendable. In any case, he also criticized discrimination against those practicing their faith, emphasizing attacks on Christians, so the core is by no means overlooked. And then there is the new Office of Religious Freedom which should also ensure the core that Christians are firmly in the government's mind.

"For we cannot be selective in which basic human rights we defend," Mr. Baird said in his speech, "Nor can we be arbitrary in whose rights we protect." We can but agree.

20 January 2012

One pipeline down, one to go

So Obama has sunk the Keystone XL pipeline—at least temporarily. He has said Trans Canada can apply again, so perhaps he's just being an election-year tease. Nonetheless, it's a victory against the tar sands monolith. And that's what it's all about, not just shutting down a pipeline, but shutting down the tar sands. James Hansen, one of the U.S.'s foremost climate scientists and the head of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, said about tar sands development "Essentially it's game over for the planet."

With Keystone currently stymied, the next proposed "fuse to the biggest carbon bomb on the planet” is the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline through B.C. to the coast. If the tar sands are to be strangled, one pipeline at at time, one market at a time, Northern Gateway is next up on the list.

Everyone who puts the environment first, who wants to help make sure it isn't "game over for the planet," can contribute to stopping Northern Gateway. National Energy Board hearings on the pipeline by a Joint Review Panel are underway and you can participate by writing a letter to:
Secretary to the Joint Review Panel
Enbridge Northern Gateway Project
444 Seventh Avenue S.W.
Calgary AB  T2P 0X8
or you can use the online form here. The deadline is March 13, 2012.

19 January 2012

Gingrich drives Christ out of the room

During the latest debate by the candidates for the Republican nomination for president, Newt Gingrich declared, “Andrew Jackson had a pretty clear-cut idea about America’s enemies: Kill them.” He got a standing ovation. Andrew Jackson was, of course, the president responsible for the Trail of Tears, the forced relocation of Native American nations from southeastern parts of the United States to the West. 

For a party whose members ceaselessly declare allegiance to Christianity, Gingrich and his standing ovation would seem to heap more than a little contempt on their Lord and Saviour. Christ, after all, had quite a different idea about how to treat your enemies. In Mathew 5:43-44, He says, Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you." In Mathew 5:38-39, He says, "Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth. But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil, but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also."

Christ's advice, it seems, is not welcome in the Republican Party. It's all an eye for an eye there.

18 January 2012

A premiers' meeting with a significant feminine presence ... finally

The premiers' meeting this week in Victoria had a new look. Normally an assemblage of men in suits, this one had a definite feminine presence with four of the 13 premiers being women. These include host Christy Clark of B.C., Alison Redford of Alberta, Kathy Dunderdale of Newfoundland and Labrador, and Eva Ariak of Nunavut. Only four women have held premierships in Canada prior to the current group and now we have four all at once.

We have a powerful need for more women leaders in the modern world. Although human characteristics are distributed among both genders, those that involve caring are, on average, more predominant in women and those that involve aggression are, on average, more predominant in men. Perhaps when we were nomadic hunter-gatherers, male aggression was of evolutionary value, but in the highly complex, high-tech world of today, replete with nuclear weapons and massive assaults on the environment, it is not only redundant but dangerous. If we are to avoid catastrophe, we must have more caring, for ourselves and for our environment, and that means more of the feminine characteristics in leadership, i.e. more women.

Unfortunately politics, created by men for men, is an extremely aggressive business, violent in word and often in deed, unattractive to a feminine sensibility. Even those relatively few women who thrive in politics are often of a masculine nature—a perfect example being Margaret Thatcher who was once aptly referred to as the only man in her cabinet.

A lot can be done to create a more civilized and balanced politics, and one way is to get more women into the game. So I salute our four women premiers, may they herald a much more feminine future.

13 January 2012

Harper—the prime minister of oil

In the paranoid corridors of Harperworld, opponents of tar sands development are radicals. And the most dangerous among the radicals are those who receive funding from foreigners.

This is a rather curious accusation coming from Stephen Harper. After all, he faithfully serves the oil industry, much of which is foreign-owned. And it was Mr. Harper who insisted we should join the Americans in their invasion of Iraq. I would not pretend to delve into the recesses of the man's mind, but I suspect he supported the U.S. simply because they are our friends and he believes we should always support our friends even when they are invading other countries. At the time, he claimed, "They are our biggest asset in this very dangerous world." But the world wasn't dangerous in the way he thought. He was conned by the claim Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, and of course they didn't.

But there is no doubt that climate change is creating a very dangerous world. And "world" is the operative word—pollution cares little for borders. So Americans who believe that tar sands emissions are contributing excessively to climate change are obliged to help those Canadians who are working to reduce the threat. Harper was willing to use taxpayer dollars—your money and mine—to help his American friends, and to risk Canadian lives in the bargain, and he now resents Americans helping their Canadian friends with their own money—the hypocrisy reeks.

Nonetheless, Harper's hostility toward tar sands opponents is perfectly understandable. He is the oil industry's man—the prime minister of oil—and therefore anyone who attacks the oil industry attacks Harper.

Those who recognize the need to put the environment first deserve all the help they can get. They certainly can't expect much from "their" government.

12 January 2012

Corporate chiefs beginning to see the dark side

The world's capitalists are worried. The World Economic Forum, an organization composed of 1,000 of the world's most powerful corporations, is concerned that the financial crisis gripping the global economy may be leading us to a "dystopian future."

In its report Global Risks 2012, the Forum warns, "a society that continues to sow the seeds of dystopia—by failing to manage aging populations, youth unemployment, rising inequalities and fiscal imbalances—can expect greater social unrest and instability in the years to come." It went on to say, "Two dominant issues of concern emerged from the Arab Spring, the 'Occupy' movements worldwide and recent similar incidents of civil discontent: the growing frustration among citizens with the political and economic establishment, and the rapid public mobilization enabled by greater technological connectivity."

Although we may quarrel with the Forum's priorities and their business bias (for instance, they had little to say about the undermining of democracy by corporate power, a major concern of the "Occupy" movement), they at least seem to recognize that "rising inequalities" is now a serious problem contributing to "frustration among citizens with the political and economic establishment." We must give the capitalists a little credit—they are learning.

11 January 2012

Peacekeeping—"Canada can and should do more"

Sometimes a graph is worth a thousand words. A good example is a graph depicting Canada's contribution to U.N. peacekeeping that appeared in the December 2011 edition of Mondial, the newsletter of The World Federalist Movement. The graph, attached, shows Canada hovering around number one in the early 90s and then declining to 53th today. Out of almost 99,000 peacekeepers serving in 2010, we contributed the grand total of 198, mostly police.

We were a leading contributor under a Conservative government led by Brian Mulroney, our contribution declined under the Liberals, and then collapsed in 2006 under a very different Conservative government commanded by Stephen Harper. For a country that very nearly invented peacekeeping, and at one time had a reputation in the world as an honest broker, this is a sad development.

Author of the peacekeeping article, Michael Byers, points out that the United Nations is now deploying more peacekeepers that at any time in its history, yet some missions remain understaffed. In other words, we are needed. And as we have been boosting our military recently, and as we are finally pulling out of our misadventure in Afghanistan, this is an opportune time to meet that need. As Mr. Byers concludes, "Canada can and should do more."

10 January 2012

Slowing Harper's rush to environmental ruin

The federal government, it appears, is in a hurry. We cannot exploit the tar sands fast enough and bad guys are getting in the way. In an open letter to Canadians, Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver declared, "Unfortunately, there are environmental and other radical groups that would seek to block this opportunity to diversify our trade. Their goal is to stop any major project no matter what the cost to Canadian families in lost jobs and economic growth. No forestry. No mining. No oil. No gas. No more hydroelectric dams."

Wow—for someone who's criticizing radical groups that is quite the radical letter. Mr. Oliver went on to suggest the federal government will pursue ways to overhaul the hearings of independent regulatory bodies.

What, I wonder, is the rush. We are extracting resources from the Earth faster than it can replenish them and we are polluting it faster than it can absorb the pollution. The sensible approach at this point, if we want to avoid crashing our civilization, is to SLOW DOWN.

Slowing down development would accomplish at least four good things:

• Offer the planet more opportunity to recover from our assault on it.
• Give more sustainable technologies a chance to catch up.
• Make sure we do the proposed projects right, i.e. in the most sustainable way.
• Ensure we avoid projects that do more harm to the environment than any economic benefit warrants.

Oliver's comments came one day before federal regulatory hearings began on the Northern Gateway pipeline, designed to deliver crude from Alberta's tar sands to Kitimat, B.C. for shipment to Asia.
Over 4,300 people have signed up to address the hearing. Good for them. And good for us. This kind of interest in projects that have major environmental effects is healthy for the natural world, i.e. the world that sustains us. After all, the environment doesn't need our economy—indeed it would be vastly better off without it—but our economy ultimately depends entirely on the environment. Caring for the future of the environment is caring for the future of the economy.

Yes, in its currently depressed state the economy needs jobs, but trading jobs today for a ruined environment tomorrow is a fool's game. Unfortunately, our federal government is playing the fool

09 January 2012

A good day for democracy in Montana

One of the biggest blows against democracy in American history occurred in 2010 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the Citizens United case that government could not place limits on independent spending for political purposes by corporations and unions. The ruling, by essentially giving corporations the same First Amendment rights as citizens, opened the door to even further corruption of the American political system by big money, in effect allowing plutocracy to further dominate democracy.

But last week, the Montana Supreme Court took exception. In an extraordinary decision, the Court upheld the state's 1912-era corporate contribution limits. The decision applies only to state elections, but if appealed, and it probably will be, could provide a long-awaited opportunity for the U.S. Supreme Court to revisit the issue.

Writing for the majority, Justice  Mike McGrath stated, “Clearly the impact of unlimited corporate donations creates a dominating impact on the political process and inevitably minimizes the impact of individual citizens.” The Court ruled that various factors—a history of citizens fighting corporate corruption, political traditions of low-budget campaigning, and the vulnerability of judicial elections to corporate spending—were sufficiently compelling to preserve the century-old ban on corporate spending. It said it wanted Montana to remain a state where candidates run low-budget, personal campaigns and do not rely on anonymous, well-financed messaging from outsiders.

Even a dissenting judge, James C. Nelson, who opposed the ruling only because he felt bound to defer to the U.S. Supreme Court, lashed out at the Citizen United's decision. "I do not have to agree with the [U.S.] Supreme Court’s decision," he wrote, "And, to be absolutely clear, I do not agree with it. ... The truth is that corporations wield enormous power in Congress and in state legislatures. It is hard to tell where government ends and corporate America begins: the transition is seamless and overlapping."

Montana has a long history of dealing with corporate power. In the early 20th century, when copper companies dominated the state, Anaconda Co. controlled judges, legislators and newspapers, prompting the people to fight back with the legislation that the Court has now defended.

I will leave the last word to Justice Nelson: "Corporations are not persons. Human beings are persons, and it is an affront to the inviolable dignity of our species that courts have created a legal fiction which forces people—human beings—to share fundamental, natural rights with soulless creatures of government. Worse still, while corporations and human beings share many of the same rights under the law, they clearly are not bound equally to the same codes of good conduct, decency and morality, and they are not held equally accountable for their sins. Indeed, it is truly ironic that the death penalty and hell are reserved only to natural persons."

06 January 2012

Harper's paranoia reaches a new level ... a dangerous level?

Stephen Harper was in full psychic mode on a Calgary call-in show Thursday. He telepathically declared that Iran is "a regime that wants to acquire nuclear weapons ... and has indicated some desire to actually use nuclear weapons." An impressive feat—reading the minds of the mullahs.

The man is starting to look increasingly dangerous. As the Americans ratchet up their provocations of Iran, no doubt at the behest of the Israeli lobby, war looms and we can have little doubt that Harper, with his slavish devotion to Israel and his love of things military, would not hesitate to drag us into it.

The man feeds off paranoia. He pumps billions of our hard-earned dollars into prisons to protect us from the enemy within and weapons to protect us from the enemy without. Yet Canadians could hardly be safer. We live in a country with a low and declining crime rate. No other country has an interest in attacking us. Indeed, we have no enemies, unless of course we create them as Mr. Harper seems keen on doing with Iran.

According to psychologist and Harvard professor Steven Pinker and others who have researched the subject, we are living in the most peaceful period of our species' history. A fascinating talk by Pinker on the subject can be found here. What we Canadians really do not need is our prime minister exercising his psychic skills to manufacture hostility.

05 January 2012

Obama disses due process

Another disappointment from U.S. President Barack Obama. On New Year's Eve, perhaps a time when he thought his nation was sufficiently distracted, he signed into law the National Defense Authorization Act of 2012 which includes a clause granting the executive branch the power to indefinitely detain any person, including American citizens, it accuses of being a terrorist without charge or trial.

He attempted to modify his action with the curious statement, "I have signed this bill despite having serious reservations with certain provisions  ... I want to clarify that my administration will not authorize the indefinite military detention without trial of American citizens. Indeed, I believe that doing so would break with our most important traditions and values as a nation."

He is certainly right about the latter, which prompts the obvious question, if it would break with the most important values of his nation, why in hell did he sign it? What is his promise never to act on the power worth? Maybe he won't, but are we to believe that the next George W. Bush or Richard Nixon won't?

Amnesty International ridiculed Obama's assurances, stating "Once any government has the authority to hold people indefinitely, the risk is that it can be almost impossible to rein such power in. President Obama ...  has allowed human rights to be further undermined and given al Qaeda a propaganda victory."

A victory for al Qaeda it surely is. I have no idea what goes on in the minds of people like those who blew up the twin towers, but I suspect their motives might have been one, to create a war between the U.S. and Islam, and two, to fracture American values. They achieved both and Obama has assured that the fracturing of American values will continue.

Hopefully, this story is far from over. To my untutored legal eye, this power violates the Fifth Amendment to the American Constitution which states, in part, "nor shall [any person] be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law." Many Americans, although obviously only a minority in Congress, still believe in their constitution and we may look forward, therefore, to a challenge of this legislation in the courts.