18 January 2015

French hold most favourable views of Jews and Muslims

How the French view their minority populations after the violent events earlier this month will probably take a while to sort out. But a poll conducted last year suggested they were about the most tolerant in Europe.

Eighty-nine per cent of French men and women hold a favourable view of Jews and 72 per cent hold a favourable view of Muslims. The British were second, with 83 per cent and 64 per cent holding favourable views of Jews and Muslims respectively. Next came Germany at 82 and 58.

Some countries had distinctly unfavourable attitudes. In none of the countries surveyed did the people hold an unfavourable opinion of Jews (although the Greeks split 47-47), but in Greece, Italy and Poland opinions were more unfavourable than favourable toward Muslims, with Italy having the lowest opinion.

Even in the more tolerant countries, Jews were much more favourably viewed than Muslims. It will be interesting to see if attitudes change after the attacks. The relatively low esteem in which Muslims are held already does not bode well for the future.

Why are Americans so frightened?

If you were asked what the American people's top policy priority was, what would you answer? The economy perhaps? Immigration? Global warming? You would be wrong. According to the Pew Research Center, Americans' top policy concern is terrorism, with 76 per cent ranking it as a top priority, just edging out the economy.

Why, one wonders, are they so afraid of terrorists when the threat is so miniscule. Over the last five years, the chance of an American being killed by a terrorist anywhere in the world is about one in 20 million. An American is four times more likely to be struck by lightning, 25 times more likely to drown in his own bathtub. And attacks have been decreasing. Conservatives might say this is due to additional security since 9/11, but in fact the decline has simply continued a trend established before 9/11. The fear is clearly irrational.

Nonetheless, there are many beneficiaries. Demagogues have a useful stick to beat their political opponents with. (I suspect our own federal government would love to have us in the same fearful state as our American cousins.)

The NSA and the CIA are prospering. As is Homeland Security, the most bloated government department outside of the Pentagon. And of course the defense industry happily makes its billions. And the military happily spends its billions. The military is perhaps the only publicly-funded institution in the U.S. that has nearly unanimous bipartisan approval in Congress combined with little oversight.

A frightened citizenry meekly accepts a militarized state, and the military-industrial-Congressional complex feeds on its fear. That the nation finds itself in a condition of perpetual war is not surprising.

16 January 2015

A sales tax for Alberta?

Alberta Premier Jim Prentice recently committed heresy. Faced with plummeting oil prices and the possibility of a $500-million deficit, the premier actually encouraged discussion about adopting a sales tax.

“I don’t think Albertans generally advocate a sales tax," he said, "but I’m prepared to be educated and to hear from people.” And he's not alone. Even Ted Morton, former Alberta finance minister and minister of energy, and one of the most right-wing members of the Conservative Party, followed suit. “I’ll just repeat what every economist has told the government of Alberta for the last decade," said Morton, "that a sales tax .. is the most competitive and most efficient type of tax.”

So here's a possible scenario. There's no way the premier will announce a sales tax before an election, so first we get the election call. Then the premier continues to scare the electorate with dire financial predictions, including the possibility of severe cuts to basic services. With Wild Rose now tucked safely into the fold, he may even mention increased revenues. The Conservatives then proceed to win an overwhelming majority (guaranteed). Early in the new term, with Albertans now conditioned for the shock, he announces the tax.

Of course, all this may be unnecessary. Oil prices could bounce back up and have the province swimming in revenue once again. I pretend I was never foolish enough to predict Alberta would have a sales tax, and the province quietly returns to the folly of a boom and bust economy. Life goes on.

So what did Raif Badawi say?

The world is now aware of Saudi Arabia's satanic punishment of blogger Raif Badawi—ten years in prison and a 1,000 lashes for saying things unacceptable to the country's powerful religious establishment. But what exactly did he say? A lot of sensible things, as it turned out.

For example, here is his view of secularism: "Secularism respects everyone and does not offend anyone ... Secularism ... is the practical solution to lift countries (including ours) out of the third world and into the first world."

Or about the possibility of Hamas establishing a religious state in Palestine: "Look at what had happened after the European peoples succeeded in removing the clergy from public life and restricting them to their churches. They built up human beings and (promoted) enlightenment, creativity and rebellion. States which are based on religion confine their people in the circle of faith and fear."

On the Arab Spring in Egypt: "It is not yet clear whether Egypt is about to change, but it is our hope that a new Egypt will emerge from the painful birth pangs its people are experiencing ... after years of subservience and oppression."

On the nature of liberalism,: "For me, liberalism simply means live and let live. This is a splendid slogan. ... the other faction, controlling and claiming exclusive monopoly of the truth, is so hostile that they are driven to discredit it without discussion or fully understanding what the word actually means. They have succeeded in planting hostility to liberalism in the minds of the public and turning people against it, lest the carpet be pulled out from under their feet."

On the need to separate religion and state: "No religion at all has any connection to mankind's civic progress."

Tough talk, but not critical of Islam as such, critical rather of excessive power of religious authority. It is exactly the kind of enlightened voice that the Arab world needs to hear if it is to, as he says, lift itself out of the third world. Obviously the clerics of Saudi Arabia are determined to anchor the Kingdom right where it is.

The pope's diminished freedom of speech

Did the pope just display an iota of sympathy for the zealots who massacred Charlie Hebdo staff? In response to a question about the attack, he replied, "One cannot provoke, one cannot insult other people’s faith, one cannot make fun of faith."

The pontiff justified his position by stating that if someone cursed his mother, he would punch them. "It’s normal," he insisted, "You cannot provoke." With all due respect to the pope's logic, an institution is not your mother. If insulting an institution justifies violence, then why only religious institutions? Many people are as profoundly and passionately committed to their political beliefs as deeply as others, including the pope, are to their theological beliefs. Why, therefore, should religious believers be spared offence, but not political believers?

If religions did not intrude on public life an exception might be justified, but they do. They have done terrible things throughout history, causing much suffering and death, and they still do. They have earned no right to avoid criticism any more than any other kind of institution.

One can sympathize with the pope's sensitivity to satire. His institution has been subjected to a flood of criticism, including much mockery, for its provision of sanctuary to pedophiles and other sins. There must have been times when the pope would dearly have loved to give mother church's tormentors a damn good punch. There was a time when such as he could have and would have. The Catholic Church has in the past often punished heretics with as heavy a hand as the Islamic zealots punished Charlie Hebdo. One hopes the pope's sentiments aren't flavoured with a trace of nostalgia.

14 January 2015

AI—will they keep us as pets?

It isn't as if we don't have enough BIG things to worry about—global warming, resource depletion, nuclear war, for starters—now renowned physicist Stephen Hawking and brilliant entrepreneur and inventor Elon Musk are warning about the threat of artificial intelligence (AI). "The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race," says Hawking, while Musk suggests that AI is probably "our biggest existential threat."

This isn't surprising, really. Like technology generally, AI has steadily advanced and has already passed the point where it can beat the best human players at chess or Jeopardy. Machines can learn some things much faster than humans and are better at reprogramming themselves to do certain tasks more efficiently. Our brains are simply matter driven by electrochemical processes; there would seem to be no reason why they can't be duplicated ... or exceeded. And if AI exceeds our own, it would seem to be in charge. As science fiction writer Robert J. Sawyer puts it, "By the point when you sit down in front of your computer and your computer says, 'Good morning, I'm in charge now,' it's too late."

A machine with AI could be quite superior to flesh and blood humans both physically and mentally. For example, a robot could be designed as a perfect space explorer, immune to radiation, no need for oxygen or water, etc. Equipped with AI it could master space in a way we couldn't hope to. We might think of AI as simply the next step in evolution, a superior creature better adapted to a more challenging future.

So, we might ask, in this new scheme of things what would become of us? Our comparative weaknesses might become tedious to AI. With little to offer them, they might just dispose of us. Considering that much of the research into AI is being done by the military, such a ruthless attitude might well be imbued into the resulting creatures. On the other hand, if they are imbued with the attitudes of, say, environmentalists, they might declare us an endangered species to be carefully protected and preserved. At the very least we could, with a little house training, make quite endearing pets. And as a species with a greater intelligence than ours, they might actually deal with issues such as global warming and resource depletion. The future need not look so dark after all.

11 January 2015

The House of Saud—they may be terrorists, but they're our terrorists

During the Cold War, the West made allies out of some brutal dictatorial regimes. A challenge on this often met with the cynical answer, "they may be bastards, but they're our bastards." The Cold War is over, but the sentiment and the policy that generated it live on.

Western countries continue to ally themselves with brutal dictatorships, perhaps the first among them being Saudi Arabia. A Saudi blogger, Raif Badawi, was recently convicted of insulting Islam. As punishment, he is to serve 10 years in prison and suffer 1,000 lashes. The lashes are to be delivered 50 at a time once a week over 20 weeks ... in public, outside a mosque. The point of this barbaric punishment is clear—a message to other Saudis that criticism of the powerful religious establishment will not be tolerated. This is classic terrorism: the use of violence against civilians to frighten people into submitting to a political or religious idea. Indeed, this atrocity is the most common form of terrorism, not that of al Qaeda or ISIS or various individual actors, but that of a government to coerce its own citizens.

The Saudis are also known to sponsor terrorism, quite possibly including the attacks of 9/11, yet they are good friends with Western nations, particularly the U.S. And why not? They offer a seemingly inexhaustible supply of oil combined with a seemingly inexhaustible market for weapons. The U.S. recently consummated the biggest arms deal in its history with the Sauds. On its part, our government proudly announced a Canadian firm has contracted a $15-million sale of armoured vehicles to the desert kingdom. Selling guns to terrorists—what a pretty picture that is.

So the sentiment—slightly modified—lingers on: "they may be terrorists, but they're our terrorists." Hypocrisy is ever the handmaid of foreign policy.

Harper's histrionics

Terrorist attacks are theatre. And what theatre they have been presenting lately. The 9/11 spectacle of planes flying into tall buildings was the most spectacular event ever seen on television. The shooting spree by Michael Zehaf-Bibeau on Parliament Hill put Canada in the global spotlight for days, and the recent mass murder in Paris has mesmerized the world. It's hard to beat a terrorist attack for high drama.

It's not surprising therefore that these events attract massive publicity, which of course is largely the point. But outside of sensational news days, how important are they? According to our Prime Minister, very important. They, in his words, "threaten the peace, freedom and democracy our countries so dearly value."

Let's parse Mr. Harper's comment. Terrorist attacks certainly threaten the peace, but to what degree? The answer is not very much. In the U.S. for instance, the land of 9/11, Americans are four times more likely to be struck by lightning than killed by a terrorist. In Canada, the peaceable kingdom, the risk is even less, that is to say hardly any risk at all.

As for democracy, the answer is much the same. Islamist extremists don't threaten the state, at least any Western state. They aren't going to overthrow the American government, or the Canadian, or the French. They pose no threat to democracy. And as to the threat to our freedoms, it isn't terrorist attacks that pose the threat, it's our reaction, or overreaction, to those attacks that has eroded our freedoms.

So when these random events, vicious though they may be, pose such little threat, why does our Prime Minister prattle on about threats to our values? Why does he, and many of his political colleagues elsewhere, use these events to greatly expand the powers of our spy agencies and our security forces, thereby doing more to threaten our civil liberties than the terrorists could hope to do?

One answer is panic. Politicians fear terrorism because it makes them look weak, and little terrorizes a politician more than looking weak. Another answer is demagoguery. Since the dawn of politics, leaders have rallied their people around them by instilling fear, by convincing citizens they are in mortal danger. One hates to think a Canadian leader would exploit mass murder for political advantage, but our leader isn't exactly the prince of ethics and he desperately needs a stick to beat Mr. Trudeau off with.

Both these reasons may apply to Mr. Harper's histrionics. On the other hand, perhaps it's just that terrorism is an issue that nicely accommodates his view of the world. The Prime Minister is a man who sees the world in black and white. He is uncomfortable with subtlety, with nuance, with grey areas. You are either with him or against him, friend or enemy. Terrorism plays perfectly into this mindset. The terrorist is pure evil, we are pure good, no need to clutter our minds with attempts to understand the motivations of the wicked other, no need to consider the century of abuse the West has inflicted on the Muslim people of the Middle East. Combine this with Harper's predilection for war and he morphs into his Churchill persona, simply being himself, with political expediency as a bonus.