29 November 2015

Putin's Christian crusader

After 9/11, the Americans declared war on terrorism. Now Russia has gone them one better. According to the Very Reverend Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, prominent spokesman for the Russian Orthodox Church, “The fight with terrorism is a holy battle, and today our country is perhaps the most active force in the world fighting it.” So it’s official. Christianity has spoken. We are on a crusade and Putin wears the cross.

ISIS has already responded to the challenge, claiming responsibility for the bombing of the Russian passenger jet which went down in the Sinai and triumphantly celebrating the deaths of the “Russian crusaders.” Russia has acknowledged that the airliner was brought down by fighters challenged, at least in part, by Chaplin’s “holy battle” comment.

And if ISIS welcomed the deaths of 224 people, including children, so did Archpriest Chaplin. He explained, “The plane crash in Egypt was necessary for Russian society. Society saw death and realized that life in pursuit of entertainment, material well-being, holidays, and so on, is the incorrect way to live. ... If a person does not understand this, then God will remind him of it.” So there you go. God cannot let a vacation in the sun go unpunished.

Aside from war-mongering, gay-bashing and evolution-denying, Chaplin refuses to pray with Christians of other denominations. This idiot priest sounds not a little like his counterparts in ISIS, a reminder that Christianity, too, has its depraved zealots.

Vladimir Putin has made a considerable effort to restore the influence of the Russian Orthodox Church, frequently commenting on the importance his deep Christian faith holds for him. If Archpriest Chaplin is any example, the Church is a good fit with a former KGB thug.

16 November 2015

Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and their progeny

Neil Macdonald had an interesting article on the CBC website Monday morning about the options for dealing with ISIS. One of the comments—by "western island"—had a suggestion that in my opinion was much better than the options presented by Mr. Macdonald. Western island suggested:

"Maybe we could offer to hand over Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld."

If only, I thought. Although many believe this appalling trio should be prosecuted for war crimes, I doubt they will ever be called to account for their sins, the worst of which may yet prove to be their ultimate responsibility for the creation of ISIS. If only ....

Paris—the blowback of imperialism

U.S. President Barack Obama has referred to the atrocities in Paris as attacks "on all of humanity." He is wrong, of course. The attacks were specifically directed at France, an ex-imperialist European nation that has a long history of colonizing, oppressing and exploiting the Muslim peoples of North Africa and the Middle East, and that continues to interfere in their affairs to this very day.

It is also a nation with a large population of disadvantaged Muslims replete with a great many angry, frustrated, unemployed young men—another legacy of its imperial past.

Western leaders seem to assume that Islamic terrorists appear fully formed, materializing out of the ether almost without cause. In fact, they materialize out of generations of Western imperialism acting on the Muslim peoples of the Middle East. The Paris attacks are the latest result, and the latest lesson, of Western meddling in Middle Eastern affairs.

As for President Obama, he is being disingenuous. ISIS is a direct outcome of the wrecking of Iraq by the U.S. and its coalition partners. If the Paris attacks were indeed carried out by ISIS, then the U.S. and its allies are partly responsible. They have an obligation to deal with the monster they unintentionally created. They have an obligation to clean up their mess.

We don't. We wisely opted out of the Iraq invasion. Now Prime Minister Trudeau has promised to opt out of the bombing campaign against ISIS and appears intent on keeping his word. No Canadians should be put at risk because of the imperial adventurism of the Americans and their partners in crime. We are not an imperial power and have no need to reap the whirlwind of those that sowed the wind.

10 November 2015

Lest we forget—enough already

Lest we forget? How could we possibly? At this time of year we are overwhelmed with noise about not forgetting.

Now the warrior worshipers are demanding that stores not put up their Xmas displays until after November 11th. It is disrespectful, they say. Frankly, I wouldn't be unhappy if stores didn't put up their displays until the last week before Xmas, but it seems to me we are overdoing this Remembrance thing.

Blasphemy, some will say. You should be ashamed. Those dead soldiers died for your freedom to write your blog and say what you think. Nonsense. No one in the Canadian military ever died for my freedom, for other people's yes, but not for mine.

Even the fighting for other people's freedom has been a mixed bag. For example, during WWI while Canadians were trying to protect the Belgians and the French from the Germans, Belgium was oppressing and exploiting the Congolese, and France the Vietnamese. And, of course, the British were doing the same thing to Indians and Africans. And as soon as the war was over, France and Britain greedily gobbled up the remains of the Ottoman Empire to add to their ill-gotten gains. In short, we fought for freedom for some at the expense of others.

The Second World War echoed the First. The Japanese were bad guys because they wanted to do what the European powers had done—build an empire. And since the Europeans had expropriated most of Asia, i.e. Japan's back yard, why shouldn't the Japanese get a piece of the action? Canadian troops died keeping Asia safe for European imperialists.

In Europe, the Germans too wanted to build an empire, but we would have none of that. Subjugating Asians and Africans was quite acceptable in those days, but subjugating white people was simply not on. Nonetheless, the brutality of the Nazis put us on the side of the angels and in that case at least Remembrance is justified.

One of the most politically correct traditions in today's society demands the veneration of warriors. As someone who has little respect for the military, I find myself on the incorrect side. In the minds of many, warrior is the highest calling of man, but I simply don't believe that a profession dedicated to the fine art of killing people is a particularly noble one. So no poppy for me.

09 November 2015

Would you pay the cost of a cup of coffee for democracy?

Canadian taxpayers are reasonably generous funders of democracy. Federally, we support political parties in two ways through our tax system. We subsidize political contributions up to $1,275 with an income tax credit up to $650. And we reimburse political parties for 50 per cent of their election campaign expenses and candidates 60 per cent, if they meet certain minimum requirements.

Both subsidies have their unfortunate downsides. For example, only a tiny fraction of registered voters make political contributions, and therefore the contribution subsidy is controlled by a few per cent of the electorate. These few have a grossly disproportionate influence over funding. With the campaign expense reimbursement, the more a party spends, the more subsidy it receives. In effect, the richer the party, the more the benefit.

A much fairer way of public funding is available and in fact was in place from 2004 until 2015 when the Harper government terminated it. This was the roughly two dollar per-vote subsidy which parties received annually for each vote received in the preceding election.

One flaw in this otherwise excellent scheme was the subsidy being distributed on the basis of votes received in the last election. The democratic way would be for taxpayers to make their own choice. Registered parties could be listed on the income tax form and people could simply tick off the parties they wanted to receive their contribution.

And how much would the contribution be? Very little as it turns out. The spending limit for a 37-day federal election is roughly $300-million for all parties and candidates combined. This sounds like a lot, but when divvied up between 25 million taxpayers it's trivial. Over the four-year pre-election period, it works out to three dollars per taxpayer per year. That, you might say, is the price of democracy.

In order to ensure that parties don't become lazy, they could continue to collect privately the funds they need for expenses between elections. (The maximum contribution would need to be strictly limited in order to keep the rich at bay.) An approach to funding elections that eliminates the advantage of wealth is at our fingertips. Would Canadians be willing to pay the cost of a cup of coffee once a year for fairly-funded elections?

08 November 2015

Making Canada a leader in the world again

Canada has a distinguished record of contributing to the use of hard power in the world, as our performance in two world wars and Korea attests. As a third-rate power militarily, however, we are always a follower, never a leader. In the realm of soft power, things are rather different. Here we have often been a leader.

For example, in 1956, working through the United Nations, our foreign minister, Lester Pearson, played the key role in defusing the Suez Crisis. For this, he won the Nobel Peace Prize, the nominating committee declaring he had "saved the world." Pearson is also considered the father of modern peacekeeping, an endeavour in which we once played a major role.

After coming to power in 1984, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney led the fight for sanctions against apartheid in South Africa (despite the opposition of his fellow Conservatives Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan). This proved to be an instance in which sanctions worked.

Mulroney, once named by leading environmentalists as Canada's greenest prime minister, was also an international leader on environmental issues. His government and our scientists were leaders in dealing with acid rain. Canadians were prime drafters of the Montreal Protocol which aimed at reducing emissions of chemicals that deplete the ozone layer. Former United Nations secretary general Kofi Anan called it the most successful international agreement.

Under Liberal governments, Canada has played a crucial role in creating various international institutions and agreements, including the International Criminal Court and the treaty to ban anti-personnel mines (known as the "Ottawa Treaty").

This history was a virtuous circle. We were able to lead because we were considered an honest broker, and leading in turn burnished our image as an honest broker. Unfortunately in recent years, we have entered more into a malicious circle. We have seemed more interested in stalling progress than leading it and have as a result burnished a reputation as a reactionary.

Bur under our new government, that should change. Prime Minister Trudeau has informed our top diplomats that Canada has entered a "new era" for our international engagement, and they have a critical role to play. This marks a radical change to the tight control the Harper government imposed on the diplomatic service. Foreign Affairs Minister St├ęphane Dion has stated that, “The Canada that helped the world to build its multilateral institutions is back,” while pointing out that former Conservative Prime Ministers Brian Mulroney and Joe Clark were critical of the Harper government’s approach to foreign affairs. Regarding Palestine, he insists the new government will "stop making it a partisan issue."

As a middle power, we simply don't have the military might to lead hard power adventures, we can only follow. But there is a leadership role for Canada in the world and it lies in soft power. We have been good at it in the past and we can be good at it in the future.

Religion is bad for kids

It might strike some as surprising, but it shouldn't. A study by academics from seven countries suggests that children from religious families are less kind and more punitive than those from non-religious families. According to the researchers, "Overall, our findings ... contradict the common-sense and popular assumption that children from religious households are more altruistic and kind toward others. More generally, they call into question whether religion is vital for moral development, supporting the idea that the secularization of moral discourse will not reduce human kindness—in fact, it will do just the opposite."

The study included almost 1,200 children, aged between five and 12, in the United States, Canada, China, Jordan, Turkey and South Africa. Almost 24 per cent were Christian, 43 per cent Muslim, 28 per cent non-religious, and five per cent other. They were tested on their willingness to share and their reaction to film of children pushing and bumping one another.

Not only did the results “robustly demonstrate" that Christian and Islamic children were "less altruistic than children from non-religious households,” but older children, i.e. those with a longer exposure to religion, “exhibit the greatest negative relations.” The study also found that religious children, “frequently appear to be more judgmental of others’ actions.”

A Pew Research Center study in 2014 found that most people around the world think it is necessary to believe in God to be a moral person. Most people would appear to be wrong. The world might well be a much better place if children were never contaminated with religion.

05 November 2015

A fine, feminine cabinet

Good to see that Prime Minister Trudeau (haven't said that for a while) has kept an important promise and formed a gender-balanced cabinet. He said his cabinet would reflect Canada and a 50-50 male/female cabinet does just that.

Not surprisingly, some detractors insist that cabinet appointments should be made strictly on merit. They never have, of course. Other factors have always been important—regional interests, bilingualism, ethnic background, balancing veterans and rookies, etc. Merit has never been more than one factor.

And who's to say gender balance doesn't enhance merit. Our political system has been built over the centuries by men for men. It heavily favours a male ethos—aggressive to the point of belligerent, competitive to the point of ruthless—and therefore male politicians. This has created an atmosphere in which many women (and more-civilized men) are not comfortable.

One woman member of the British House of Commons once referred to behaviour in the chamber as “very public-schoolboy primitive,” a description that applies aptly to our House. Former Calgary MP Jan Brown opined that party politics creates, “an unnatural and combative setting that does not support positive relationships. A place,” she added, “where power and gamesmanship determine the rules.” One result of rules flaunting masculine culture and male libidos is a shortage of women in politics. Affirmative action is simply leveling the playing field.

Balancing the cabinet is not only fair but should encourage more women to go into politics, which would be good for women, but more importantly good for all of us. As we devour and pollute our planet, never have we been more in need of the feminine ethos in governance, more empathy and more caring. Trudeau's cabinet is an immediate start in bringing more of these traits into our current government. This should do nothing but good.

As a postscript, I should express my delight at the appointment of one of these women in particular. I refer to the highly-qualified Jody Wilson-Raybould assuming the mantle of Minister of Justice. Who better to appreciate the needs of justice in Canadian society than a Native person? Ms. Wilson-Raybould was reported as having been overcome with emotion at her swearing in. I confess I felt a flutter of emotion myself.