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February 22, 2013

Festival au Desert 2013 Cancelled Due To Uprising In Northern Mali


Almost since I began reviewing music seven years ago I've been receiving press releases inviting me to attend the annual Festival au Desert. This year instead of my annual invitation I received a release announcing the festival's cancellation due to the ongoing war in Northern Mali. However, the press release did announce they would be holding events in exile. Since the world can't come to North Africa this year they will attempt to bring North Africa to the world.

The situation in Northern Mali is confused right now, to say the least. In an effort to understand the situation better and find out more about what's happening with the Festival I contacted Chris Nolan who is the Festival's North American associate. For those who might not be familiar with the Festival perhaps a little background information is in order. The first Festival au Desert was held in 2001. However its origins lie in an annual Tuareg festival, known as Takoubelt in Kidal and Temakannit in Timbuktu, held at this time of the year. The Tuareg are a widely scattered nomadic people united by a common language, Tamashek whose traditional territory stretches from the Algerian Sahara in the north to Niger in the south. These were times when people could gather in one place to exchange information and resolve any difference that had arisen between tribes during the previous year. While in the past the meeting place had changed locations from year to year, it was decided to create a permanent location for the modern version of the festival. The current location is in Essakane, two hours north of Timbuktu, making it accessible to both locals and international attendees.

Initially the festival was limited to musicians from the region, dancing, camel races and other traditional activities. It has since been opened up to musicians from all over the world. For three days 30 or so groups representing a variety of musical traditions perform for audiences who come from all over the world. It is now not only a celebration of Tuareg culture, but all the cultures of the region and a cultural exchange between the area and the rest of the world. The current dates of the festival were chosen specifically to commemorate "La Flamee de la Paix" (The Flame of Peace). This was a ceremony which took place in 1996 to mark the end of the last Tuareg uprising and involved the burning of over 3000 firearms which were then transformed into a permanent monument. At the time it was hoped the treaty signed between the Malian government and the Tuareg would mean peace for the region and see real improvement in the living conditions among the Tuareg.

Ironically, and sadly, this year's festival has been cancelled because once again violence has returned to the region. The echo of the last notes from 2012's festival had barely died away when a new rebellion sprang up. The Malian government had failed to live up to its obligations under the treaty and there had been sporadic outbreaks of revolt since 2009. This time though it was a full scale and well organized uprising. However, unlike previous Tuareg revolts it soon became apparent this one was radically different. Previously they had been about preserving their land and culture, this time there was a new and rather nasty undertone.
Camal Race.jpg
For more specific information about what has been going on since last January I turned to a series of articles written by Andy Morgan which have been published in various newspapers and gathered together at his web site Andy Morgan Writes. Morgan had been manager of the Tuareg band Tinariwen and helped them make the transition from a regional band to the international presence they are today. Morgan has lived and worked among the Tuareg enough to be able to offer a perspective few others can. One of the most important things he says we have to keep in mind is there is no one voice speaking for the Tuareg. Geography and the nomadic way of life ensure they are scattered over the entire Western Sahara. In each region tribal groups have their own leadership and govern themselves as autonomous units. Therefore those in Mali speak for the people of Mali and no one else. Complicating the current situation even more is the sharp division among those claiming to speak for the Tuareg of Northern Mali.

First there is the traditional chief of the Ifoghas tribe who are the hereditary leaders of the Tuareg in the North. While the chief himself is a traditional Tuareg, his son and heir, Alghabass Ag Intalla, is a recent convert to a fundamentalist form of Islam. He is head of a group calling itself Islamic Movement of Azawad (MIA) whose goal is the establishment of an Islamic Republic in the Tuareg territory of North of Mali - known as Azawad. Until recently he and his group were allied with the even more radical Islamic group Ansar ud Dine, headed by Iyad Ag Ghali, another Tuareg convert to radical Islam. It was his group who were responsible for the implementation of Shira law in the region. They also have direct links to and are funded by Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb.

Al Qaida's funds for their operations in North Mali came from smuggling operations (drugs, arms, cigarettes and people) and money laundering. All activities which would appear to be in contravention of Shira law, but as we've seen elsewhere, when it comes to raising money politicians tend to turn a blind eye to its origins. Iyad Ag Ghali's ambitions weren't just limited to the creation of an Islamic state in North Mali, he wanted all of Mali brought under Shira law. However, he had no claim to the leadership of the Tuareg. When he demanded to be made leader of what was meant to be a Tuareg uprising, he was refused and broke away from the body who most represent the Tuareg's interests, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA).

Ag Ghali and Ansar ud Dine were able to take over the rebellion as they were the only group with funding. He was able to offer young unemployed Tuareg men money and equipment. As in other poverty stricken areas of the world there's nothing like financial security to bring people flocking to your cause. Philosophy and political ideals fall by the wayside when in competition with cash in hand. The depth of Ghali's followers beliefs can be measured in how quickly they abandoned him when the French troops arrived. It was one of the reasons armed resistance to the combined French, Chadian and Malian armies collapsed so quickly.

However, since hostilities began last year they were able to cause enough damage in the territories they controlled (they had captured Timbuktu and had begun to move South towards the Malian capital) to ensure a massive exodus of refugees from the area. At the same time the imposition of Shira law saw the banning of all music and to forced all musicians, Tuareg and others, into hiding and exile.

While Ansar ud Dine and their Al Qaida backers have disappeared into the mountains and the desert the question of who is leading or speaking for the Tuareg in North Mali still remains unclear. For while Alghabass Ag Intalla and his MIA can lay claim to being heir apparent to the hereditary chief, his father, who is still chief, is said to be opposed to his vision of an Islamic state. Intalla and the MIA have retreated to the Northern Mali city of Kidal where they have been joined by the ruling council of the MNLA. As of early February they were preparing to open negotiations with the French in an attempt to find a resolution to the conflict.

Unfortunately, just because the Al Qaida backed forces have fled the battlefield, it doesn't mean they aren't around. Much like the Taliban in Afghanistan and elsewhere they have merely faded into the background awaiting another opportunity. As long as the French troops remain on the ground they will continue to be dormant, but who knows what will happen after they leave. The only way of combating them is to ensure the conditions that led to their being able to recruit among the disaffected of the region are resolved. This means there has to be some resolution come to concerning the demands of the Tuareg people of the area.
Tinariwen 2.jpg
In an interview Andy Morgan conducted with Ag Intalla by phone near the beginning of February it was clear the MIA are still pushing for the establishment of an Islamic Republic in North Mali. However, as the majority of Tuareg would not be happy living under even his "kinder gentler" version of Shira law, he says some music will be tolerated as long as its not obscene, it's doubtful his vision will become a reality. He's currently doing his best to distance himself from his earlier position of supporting Ansar ud Dine and backing away from advocating violence. However he also says in the interview if you don't want to live in an Islamic Republic, live somewhere else. That's not going to play very well with either the Malian government, the French or the hundreds of thousands of people who have been displaced by the conflict and want to come home.

When all this is combined with a military coup which overthrew the democratically elected Malian government in March of 2012 and how the conflict has revived old tribal conflicts between the various people's living in the region, the fate of this year's Festival au Desert was in doubt from early on. According to Nolan organizers had hoped they might be able to move the location of the festival into the neighbouring country of Burkina Faso where a number of musicians had gone into exile. The idea was to caravan performers from Mali and the surrounding area to a place which was still accessible to international visitors but safe from the conflict. With the strictures against music and musicians in place that would have meant some difficulties in logistics, but it would have been possible. However when the French and Chadian armies showed up and hostilities intensified the idea had to be shelved. There was just no way they could have guaranteed anyone's safety under the new circumstances.

Aside from concerns of having to shepherd people through a war zone there was the risk of terrorist attacks. With both Al Qaida and Ansar ud Dine followers taking to the hills and desert there was no way to track their movements. Considering the recent hostage taking crises in Algeria and Al Qaida's penchant for fundraising through kidnappings, the risk involved with gathering musicians and foreign tourists in one spot was just too great. Even turning the festival grounds into an armed camp, which would have put a damper on proceedings, wouldn't be a guarantee against a rocket attack.

So, this year the festival will be held in exile at locations scattered around the world. As of now there are events scheduled to take place in Chicago in September and then in Scandinavia in November. Festival organizers are also in the process of arranging for three other performances in North America during July and August, two in the US and one in Canada. Those plans still need to be finalized but as the season advances keep an ear out for announcements about dates, locations and performers.

Of primary concern to anyone who has been following events in Mali has been the fate of musicians under the Shira law imposed by Ansar ud Dine. When I asked Chris Nolan about this he said the majority of musicians are probably better off than other refugees as they do have some financial resources at their disposal. While it's true they had to leave their homes, and any equipment left behind was confiscated or destroyed, they would not be suffering the same level of deprivation as most displaced people. He also reminded me some of the people living in the refugee camps had been there since the uprisings of the 1990s, too afraid to go home for fear of reprisals from the Malian army.

However, he also added we shouldn't underestimate the impact the imposition of Shira law had on the region. Aside from the role music plays socially - he posed the question imagine what your life would be like if all of a sudden all music was banned - this an area where history and cultural identity is kept alive orally through music. Griots, who Nolan likened to European bards, are the keepers of a tribe's history and stories. Through song and music they teach new generations about their history and culture. In recent years Tuareg bands, like Tinariwen, have been employing the same techniques to help ensure the continuation of their culture's traditions and to instil in their listeners a sense of pride in themselves.

According to Nolan the banning of music was an act of cultural genocide with the aim of suppressing the traditions of the indigenous peoples of the region. Once you begin to understand the implications of such a ban, it really makes you wonder how the leaders of any of the groups working towards an Islamic homeland would think they would have the support of either the Tuareg or any of the people native to the region.
Festival Stage Alice Mutasa www.placesandseasons.com.jpg
However, as Nolan said, and Andy Morgan confirms in his writings, it's what happens after the fighting stops which is really important. If the status-quo is maintained and nothing is done to address the rights of Tuareg people in the area and their justified fears of retaliation from the Malian army, unrest in one form or another will continue. It seems obvious to me what needs to happen. International pressure has to be brought to bear on Mali - and the other countries in Tuareg territory - forcing them to honour the treaties they signed with the Tuareg. These agreements have done everything from guaranteeing them land, rights and economic opportunities in exchange for surrendering parts of their territory. In what will sound like a familiar story to Native North Americans these treaties seem to exist only to be ignored or broken.

Some sort of international monitoring by neutral observers must be put in place to ensure all parties live up to the conditions of any new treaties negotiated, or the terms of the old ones are being implemented, If these types of guarantees are in place it might be enough to convince people it's safe to return to the region and generate hope for a better future. If people can be given evidence their lives will improve then just maybe the next criminal who comes around flashing guns and money won't be able to turn their heads with his blandishments. There might still be terror attacks in the future, but they won't have the sympathy or support of local people.

The cancellation of Festival au Desert this year is more than just another music festival not taking place.This festival was a symbol of how co-operation between cultures and the meeting of traditional ways of life and the modern world are possible and a benefit to all involved. It was also a symbol of pride and hope for the Tuareg. It was a chance for them and their African neighbours to celebrate their cultures with the rest of the world. For Western pop stars it was a reminder of the power of music and what it was that drew them to it in the first place. "It's one of the few honest things I have been part of in a long, long time...It reminded me of why I sang in the first place." said Robert Plant in an interview with Rolling Stone Magazine in March 2003. However, as Chris Nolan and Andy Morgan remind us, the cancellation is also emblematic of the problems which have plagued the entire region for the last half century.

Since 1960 the Tuareg have seen the gradual erosion of their way of life. While their land remains some of the most inhospitable on the earth, its also rich in natural resources. In Niger Uranium mining has not only displaced people but poisoned precious watering holes and upset the balance of nature in one of the most delicate ecosystems on the planet. Even the supposed economic benefits promised have failed to materialize as any profits from the operation leave the country without any spinoff for the local community. The same story is repeated across the Sahara as the Tuareg have been tossed aside in the hopes they will be fade away until the world forgets about them.

The first Arab armies, nearly a thousand years ago, named them Tuareg, rebels - rebels against Islam - in honour of how fiercely they defended themselves and their territory. Their pride in self and as a people which fed that initial resistance remains and continues to propel their efforts to survive. While musicians of other backgrounds were affected by the implementation of Shira law and it has been more than just Tuareg people displaced by the war, they are still the region's flashpoint. This most recent uprising might have been co-opted by those with ulterior agendas, but its origins have the same root cause of all the uprisings for the last 50 years. The Tuareg won't be cast aside or forgotten, and the sooner Mali and other countries face up to that reality the sooner there will be real peace in the region.

Festival au Desert 2013 has been forced into exile. Like the people and music it celebrates its been forced from its home by the very violence whose end it was meant to be commemorating. Hopefully 2014 will see Mali heading in a new direction, one which guarantees all its peoples their rights and freedoms. Most of all I hope next year to receive an email press release inviting me to cover the Festival au Desert at its home near Timbuktu and music will once again ring out across the desert.

(Article first published as Festival au Désert 2013 Cancelled Due to Uprising in Northern Mali on Blogcritics.)

(Festival photos by Alice Mutasa www.placesandseasons.com)

March 10, 2011

Music Review: Bombino - Agadez

I've been sitting with a CD for a couple of weeks now, listening to it, thinking about it and sort of letting it percolate inside of me. It's not often I have the luxury of doing this with a recording that I've been asked to review, but the company sent this one out to me well in advance of its release date hoping I could give them some quotes to help promote the performer. All of which is very cool, but the problem is that I'm sitting here and I don't really know what to tell anybody who reads this about the music. It's not that I don't like it, because I do, I think the music and the performer are bloody amazing, and what he's doing with his music is important.

You see there's the rub, there's a lot of history that comes with this recording, not just of the person whose made the recording, but something like 1400 years of a people's, and a place's, history. Writing about the music on this CD without touching upon any of that would be ignoring at least half of what has gone into the music's creation. So, while people don't read a critique of a CD for a social/political history lesson, the specifics of this man, this music, these people and this land are as important to talk about as the music. As you'll see, in some ways, that's the point of the music in the first place.

The land is some of the harshest in the world, the Sahara desert, specifically the parts of it which fall within the boundaries of Algeria, Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger. The people are the Kel Tamasheq, more commonly referred to by the name given them by the Arabs who invaded these lands, Tuareg, or rebels, for their refusal to accept Islam without a fight. Nomads and herdsmen, they have guided caravans from Algeria to Niger and raised their flocks throughout the Sahara for centuries. Steadfastly refusing any outside influence they have fought to remain independent against any and all who have tried to control them. The music has roots that can be traced back through the history of the people, to the electric guitars of modern rock icons Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Page, and the armed rebellions against the Niger and Malian governments during the 1980s by the Kel Tamasheq. For it was veterans of those uprisings who put down their machine guns, picked up guitars and changed the nature of their rebellion.
Cover Agadez by Bombino.jpg
Omara "Bombino" Moctar, whose given name is Goumar Almoctar, was born in 1980 in a desert encampment adjacent to Agadez in western Niger. When the Niger government lashed out against Kel Tamasheq people living in their territory in retaliation for the rebellion in the 1980s, Bombino's family fled to stay with family in Algeria. In the early part of the 1990s his family returned to Agadez when it appeared there was a chance for a settlement of the conflict with the Niger government. While he had started learning guitar while in exile, upon his return to Agadez Bombino was taken under the wing of a more experienced musician. He was the youngest and smallest member of the band and they gave him his nickname, "Bombino", as a play on the Italian word, bambino, baby.

For as long as the peace lasted in the 1990s and into the new century Bombino's musical career grew steadily. However in 2007 the uprising began again and the Niger government began targeting "guitar players", naming them enemies of the state. When two of the musicians he played with were killed by the army, Bombino went back into exile again, this time to the west and Burkina Faso.

It was here, after a year of searching, he was tracked down by a documentary film maker named Ron Wyman who had heard a cassette of his music while making a movie about the Kel Tamasheq (Agadez - The Music And The Rebellion) Wyman was so impressed with Bombino's music that he took him back to America where they began to record Agadez, which will be released on April 19 2011 on the Cumbancha label. Then in 2010 the army in Niger overthrew the government and signed a peace treaty with the Kel Tamasheq rebels and exiles were able to return home. So Wyman and Bombino returned to Agadez where they completed recording the CD and finished the movie at the same time.

Like the first generation of musicians who play what they call "Ishoumar", a derivative of the French word for unemployed, chomeurs, and which is now synonymous with rebel music, Bombino's sound is a mixture of the modern and the traditional. Electric guitars overlay the steady beat of the drum to create an almost hypnotic effect which wraps the listener in a cocoon of sound. Periodically Bombino's guitar will take flight into a solo, weaving in and around the rhythm like an expression of his people's desire for freedom. Unlike far too many rock and roll guitar solos which always seem to interrupt a song, Bombino's feel like emotional extensions of the material. At times they capture his excitement and enthusiasm for the promise of the better future he obviously hopes lies in store for his people, and at others they express a yearning that can make the heart ache.
Bombino, Kawissan, & Ibrahim by Ron Wyman.jpg
In interviews quoted in the press materials accompanying the CD he talks about his relationship with the desert and how it serves as his inspiration and how, like for the rest of his people, its his home. While I can't understand the lyrics he sings, nor are translations included with the CD, reading the English translations of individual song titles, and listening to his guitar and his voice when he performs them, you begin to understand just how deeply these people and where they live are interconnected. Of the three traditional songs on the disc he has adapted, two, "Ahoulaguine Akaline" (I Greet My Country) and "Tenere" (The Desert My Home), by their titles alone, tell you all you need to know about the depth of that bond. Listening to them, and maybe this is because I've seen footage of the Sahara, I couldn't help but visualize the stark beauty of the land and experience the same feelings that pictures of it evoke.

During the uprisings the Niger government first banned the music of, then targeted the "guitar players" because their songs spread the message of the rebellion. They weren't calls to arms, rather they were reminders to the people to take pride in who they were and to hold onto their traditions. With so many of the Kel Tamsheq displaced into the cities because of drought and loss of their territories to uranium mining, those messages have become even more important as a means of helping them retain their identity and instil within them a sense of pride in who they are. Of his original material, two of Bombino's songs, "Tigrawahi Tikma" (Bring Us Together) and "Azamane" (Mr Brothers United), on this disc are obviously meant to encourage his people to stand firm against anything that would take away their freedom or force them to change how they live their lives.

The Kel Tamsheq have survived this long by being able to live in one of the harshest environments on the planet and by learning how to adapt to the changing realities of the world around them. While they have fought fiercely over the centuries to preserve their independence, they also know there are many different ways to fight and win a war. The music of Omara "Bombino" Moctar and the message his songs have for his people, are one of the strongest weapons they have in their arsenal right now. A passionate voice, a guitar that sings and the ability to communicate through sound alone will bring tears to your eye and a send a shiver running up and down your spine. Agadez is being released on April 19 2011, and it will take your breath away.

Photo of Bombino and band members Ibrahim and Kawissan by Ron Wyman.
(Article first published as Music Review: Bombino - Agadez on Blogcritics)

February 23, 2011

Egypt, Sadat, Mubarak and The West

Six years ago, when I first published the story appearing below, I was just starting to write this blog and the world wasn't much different then it is today. One of the big stories in the summer of 2005 was a horrible terrorist attack that took place in Egypt as the country was again punished by Islamic fundamentalist terrorists for not only its close ties to the West, but its recognition of the state of Israel and the peace existing between the two nations. Anwar Sadat, who had signed the historic peace treaty when president of Egypt, had already paid for his courage with his life and his people continued to pay for their support of the deal with attacks like the one that occurred that summer.

While there is no way either Sadat's or his successor, Hosni Mubarak's, governments could have been described as democratic, the role they played in the stabilization of the region and the easing of tensions in the Middle East can never be under estimated. This may explain some of the hesitancy on the part of Western leadership in endorsing the forced resignation of Mubarak from his position as President. What does this mean for the future of peace in the Middle East? What will happen if an Islamic regime along the lines of the one in Iran is established in Egypt? Now the chances of the armed forces in Egypt allowing that to happen are extremely unlikely, as like the armies of Turkey and Algeria, they are pragmatists who understand the importance of maintaining good relations with the West. Still, the revolution in Iran started off as a secular revolt with the religious leadership only wresting control by exiling and killing off their secular allies. So anything is possible. Now I'm no supporter of military dictatorships, but sometimes there are worse things for a country so lets try and keep things in perspective over the next little while and give the people of Egypt the chance to find their own way.

Six years ago the Western media almost ignored the terror attack on the people of Egypt, a country that was fighting the war on terror when the USA was still funding Al'Quida and other Islamic fundamentalists and Saddam Hussein was the big ally in the region. Instead of consulting Mubarak we expected him to toe our line and try not to hang himself on the tightrope we forced him to walk when ever the West would take unilateral action in the Middle East. Egypt was expected to do what we wanted them to with very little in return in the way of support aside from being allowed to buy the second best arms the Americans had to sell. Perhaps if we had done a little more on the economic and social side of things instead of leaving them to suffer the consequences of the world economy without any assistance - in fact if we hadn't continually treated them like a second class ally, the events of the past month might not have played out in the same way. We asked a lot of Egypt and her people and didn't give them much in return - we need to do better in the future.

Nearly thirty years ago a leader of a country that had been at war for the previous thirty years took the courageous stand of extending his hand in peace. That he was Anwar Sadat of Egypt and the person he extended his hand to was Menachem Begin the Prime Minister of Israel made it all the more courageous.

For the first time since the formation of the state of Israel a peace treaty between them and an Arab nation existed. One of the five countries that had sworn to drive them into the sea had reversed their stand and opened the door to the possibility of peace for the region. While there can be doubt that for both parties this involved an immense leap of faith, Anwar Sadat was stepping the furthest into uncharted territory.

Just five years after the Yom Kippur war in which Israel had once again fought off a determined attempt to conquer their land by their neighbours, neither side could be blamed for mistrusting the other. But Egypt was truly on their own in this foray. Perhaps they had tacit understanding from Jordan, but publicly every other Arab League nation condemned them as traitors.

We may never know what truly prompted Sadat's change of heart. Probably it was a combination of realizing how crippling continuous warfare was becoming, the need to establish better relationships with the U. S., and perhaps a little of "if you can't beat them join them". Whatever the motivations the fact remains that from that moment on they have been the one guaranteed not openly hostile Arab country within the region towards Western and Israeli interests.

Certainly there have been falling outs at times, disagreements that have threatened the fragile peace, but it has never collapsed in spite of pressures on the Egyptians from countless sources. Even the assassination of Anwar Sadat by Islamic fundamentalists did nothing to shake their resolution.

Egypt has a long history of being a secular nation, and there in perhaps lies some of the answer to the desire for peace. Even prior to the signing of the Camp David Accord in March of 1979 they had experienced outbreaks of violence similar to those that ended up toppling the Shah of Iran in 1980.

By expanding the economic opportunities available to his country through peace with the U.S. and Israel Sadat may have hopped to improve the lot of his people. The fewer people who were discontent the less chance the fundamentalists would have of whipping up discord. There is also no doubt that he clamped down very hard on those sects advocating violence against Israel and in doing so probably sealed his own doom.

President Mubarak has continued this hard line against fundamentalists while working to build on the peace process started by his predecessor. He walks the tightrope between keeping his Arab allies happy and maintaining ties with both Israel and the U.S. He was a key player in prodding the Palestinian leadership away from terrorism and into recognising the right of Israel to exist as a nation.

His ability to do nothing and keep his Arab allies in check has prevented escalations of retaliatory actions. His refusal to allow the fundamentalists any sort of toehold within his country, mainly due to self interest, has served as a bulwark for the region against the more radical elements.

Mubarak and his government have been fighting the war on terrorism long before George Bush thought of it. Next to Israel they have been the favourite targets of suicide bombers and other acts of terror. For more then a quarter of a century they have been under these attacks and have not once wavered in their commitment to the peace process.

Hundreds, thousands even, of civilians have been killed. The armed forces and the police devout themselves to the prevention of attacks and rounding up potential threats. But what recognition do they ever receive from the west?

During the last two weeks bombs have exploded in both London and Egypt. When the bombs went off in London we were inundated with pictures and stories. The brave Londoners carry on with business as usual; personal stories of some of the victims; statements of outrage; and avowals of revenge.

When the bomb went off in Egypt killing eighty eight people and injuring hundreds more we got the story. Nothing else. To their credit George Bush and Tony Blair's government both issued statements of support and condolence. No other world leaders said a word. No condolences, no personal stories, no guarantees of support. Nothing but silence.

It was the same people doing the bombing, or at least people with the same motivations and interests. Yet it was treated as having nothing to do with us. Egypt has been on the front lines of the war against terror for twenty five years and nobody acts as if it matters.

If you were an Egyptian and compared the reactions of the Western press and leadership to the bombings of London and the most recent killings in Egypt how would you be feeling right about now? I think I would be pretty pissed off. It smacks of indifference of the worse kind.

I don't believe in coincidences. The people behind both bombings knew what the reactions would be like and they'll use it against us. Look, why are you doing anything for them, they don't care about you, they'll say. There is already enough distrust for us in the Middle East that it wouldn't take much turn more people against the West.

Anger and emotions are dangerous and easy to manipulate. There will be enough people willing to listen to that kind of talk that it is dangerous for us to take it for granted. The Egyptian government has a hard enough time as it is without us compounding their difficulties by giving short shrift to attacks on their people.

While Tony Blair may be George Bush's buddy in the occupation of Iraq and he feels obligated to make a big display over the terrorist actions in London (as well he should) Egypt has been working for peace in the Middle East for close to thirty years. They have been on the receiving end of countless acts of terrorism including the assassination of their leader. Hasn't that earned them some sort of standing in our eyes?

Without Egypt the Middle East would be in a lot worse shape than it is now. Our reaction, governments, press, and individuals, to the events of the past week there have been shameful. We can not continue to display indifference to our allies in the Muslim world. That just plays into the hands of the terrorists.

February 8, 2011

DVD Review: The People Speak

Open a newspaper, any newspaper, in order to read about what's going on in the world and you'll usually be treated to reports on what's been said by a select minority. Spokespeople from government, business leaders and, if you're lucky, a politician in opposition to the government's position will all weigh in on the issue at hand. They usually talk in broad generalities about the big picture without ever giving any indication on the impact their actions might have on people further down the food chain. When the government announces a ten per cent cut in the corporate tax rate and the business leader says he can live with that and the leader of the opposition says he would have cut it more although its a good start, nobody bothers to mention what will happen because of the ten per cent lose of revenue.

In theory paying ten per cent less in taxes is supposed to allow business to increase productivity, lower prices and hire more workers all of which will generate sufficient revenue to make up for the short fall created by the tax cut. In practice what happens is the companies simply increase their profit margins and nothing ever is passed onto the consumer or the labour force. But we never hear from the single mom who is trying to buy food and pay rent while working minimum wage about how the increase in food costs, rent, utilities and medical expensed not covered by her health insurance because of government cut backs in social services to pay for the ten per cent cut in the corporate tax rate have affected her. We never hear how the streamlining of departments in order to save money has resulted in the number of workplace health and safety inspectors being reduced and she's working in increasingly unsafe conditions or how she is forced to quit her job because the day care she had her kids in was closed due to "rationalization".
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Not only won't you find her voice in most newspapers, you can pretty much be guaranteed of not finding her voice, or voices like it. in most history books either. It's pretty difficult to get a balanced picture of events when you only read one view point don't you think? How accurate a picture do you think you're getting when you read about the labour unrest in the early part of the 20th century and you only read about what the government and corporations have to say and nothing from the rank and file of union workers? The late American historian Howard Zinn had the idea that people might want to read about history from the point of view of the workers and the single mothers and it turns out he was right. Since his People's History Of The United States was first published it has sold over a million copies, which must be some kind of record for a history book. Taking the concept a step further in 2009 he and co-author Anthony Arnove published Voices Of A People's History Of The United States, a collection of speeches, letters and other documents giving first hand accounts of events throughout the history of the country by those whose voices aren't normally heard. From soldiers who fought in the Revolutionary War to the parents of people killed when the World Trade Centre went down, all of them gave readers a perspective on history they might not have read or heard before.

In an effort to bring these words to the public actors Matt Daemon and Josh Brolin put together a touring show of their fellow actors that went university campuses and the occasional public hall, in order to present live readings from the book. The show was filmed at two separate locations and that footage has been edited onto one DVD, The People Speak. Also edited into the movie are performances of various musical pieces by performers who either played live with the actors or who recorded their segments especially for the DVD. Unfortunately the only review copy I was able to obtain was via a download from I-tunes, which didn't contain any of the special features which are included on a second disc when you purchase the package. It also meant there were no notes available to consult to double check the identities of who was reading what. (Oh, and I-Tunes has to be the worst facility for downloading video - it took me over three hours to download something less then two hours in length using a high speed connection)

Howard Zinn serves as the narrator and host for both the DVD and the live performances, and he starts off by telling us a little about himself and the impetus for creating both his first book and this follow up. He makes no bones about the fact the voices we are about to hear are ones of dissent - the people who spoke out against the status quo and who refused to toe the official party line. However, as he says, since America was founded through dissent, it only seems appropriate these voices should continue to be heard. The first account we hear is of how during the Revolution, officers acted pretty much like they would have were they in the British army and lorded it over the enlisted men. The enlisted men were poorly clothed and starving and when they dared protest they were whipped or hung. The first reading of the night, by Viggo Mortensen, was of a letter describing the whipping and hanging of one Sergeant Macaroni for having the nerve to protest about conditions on behalf of his men and then during his whipping continue to do so which resulted in his being immediately hung.
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So much for the myth of soldiers freezing to death willingly out of patriotism. As we continue down through the years balloons continue to be popped. The great emancipator Lincoln writes to the effect that he would willingly allow slavery to continue if it meant the salvation of the Union. There were also riots in the cities of the north protesting the fact that rich people could buy their way out of the draft for $300.00 (somethings never changed as wealthy people were able to obtain deferments from service as long as there was a draft). As to the myth of Johnny Reb which exist even to this day - well most of them were conscripts who would desert at the first chance as they had little interest in dying for the big landowners.

For those who might doubt the veracity of some of the material being read during the performance, it's interesting to note how much of it comes from the trials of various people who were arrested for doing things like voting illegally or trying to abolish slavery. John Brown was hung for trying steal weapons in order to liberate slaves and Susan B Anthony tried to vote before it was legal for women in the United States. Both were tried and found guilty of their crimes and what the actors read are the speeches both gave when asked if the defendant had any words to say before sentencing was carried out. Other readings are from speeches that were given at public events like ex-slave Soujourner Truth's "Ain't I Woman" speech from 1851 given to a group of white abolitionists.

The performers on the DVD are pretty much instantly recognizable: Viggo Mortensen, Danny Glover, Josh Brolin, Morgan Freeman, Jasmin Guy, Benjamin Bratt, Marisa Tomei, Mat Daemon, Don Cheadle and David Straitharn to name a few, and their performances range from simple readings to near dramatic re-enactments. Interestingly enough it was an actor I was unfamiliar with before this, Kerry Washington, who made one of the strongest impressions with her performance of the above mentioned Sourjourner Truth's speech. Not only did she do a fine job of assuming the accent of a black woman from the times but she was also able to bring the speech to life. While all the performers did capable jobs of reading their pieces so an audience would understand what was being said, there were times when I wished they had invested them with a little more emotion - created more of a performance.
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On those occasions an actor chose to give a performance you were given a much deeper understanding of what the original document was about and the intent behind the letter or speech. Ironically I can't remember the people he depicted, but David Straitharn's presentations were some of the most emotionally powerful of the night. It wasn't that he ranted or raved, it was the way in which he was able to raise his level of intensity while talking to match his character's emotions. Another performance of note was Viggo Mortensen's reading of a letter from a parent whose child was killed in the bombing of the World Trade Centre. First of all it was the only reading in Spanish during the night, and second of all you didn't need to speak the language to understand the depth of the father's anguish and the passion he felt for his subject. The actress performing the wife read the letter in English - the couple are Hispanic - so we were able to understand they were pleading with people not to use their son's death as an excuse to perpetuate violence.

Interspersed between the speeches were the occasional musical performance. Bob Dylan, accompanied by Ry Cooder and Van Dyke Parks, went back to his roots and played Woody Guthries "Do Re Mi" from the days of the dust bowl quite credibly and Bruce Springsteen did a typically intense solo version of his own "Tom Joad", the performer who took me most by surprise was Pink. I had only heard of her vaguely before and her performance of "Dear Mr. President" is the highlight of the DVD. The passion for her material and her vocal ability were a remarkable combination and one wondered how anybody could have listened to this song and not be moved. Some might wonder what she or her song have to do with history, but according to Howard Zinn, we are all living history all the time and what goes on today is just as important as what happened yesterday.

The People Speak represents an opportunity very few of us are given. Not only does it present aspects of history not everybody is familiar with, it brings it to life and makes it real. For too many people history has been confined to the pages of dusty books and boring classrooms - this represents a chance to see and hear it brought alive. We may not be able to travel back in time, but this DVD brings the past to us.

(Article first published as DVD Review: The People Speak on Blogcritics.)

December 25, 2008

Medecines Sans Frontieres' Top Ten List For 2008

Every year at this time the media begins to reflect back on the events of the past twelve months in order to tell us everything of importance that occurred. While there are news items of significance that will be hashed out on editorial pages or in comments sections, things really begin to heat up when the best of and worst of lists start to make their appearances in entertainment sections. Ten was the magic number for these lists long before a certain late night talk show host began his parody of them, so top and worst ten lists of everything from movies to cell phones from the previous year are produced by anyone with access to a computer and the Internet.

While some of the news stories that appear in lists aren't always cheerful, the majority of them are events that we are familiar with and that won't cause us to lose any sleep at night. Unfortunately there is one list, that is now entering its eleventh anniversary, of which neither of those two statements are applicable. Every year since 1998 Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) have been issuing a top ten list of the past year's worst humanitarian crises. For the most part these situations have boiled over into crises status because they have gone largely unreported in the press and aid agencies are not being supported in their efforts to take care of those affected.

For those of you unfamiliar with Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) or Doctors Without Borders as they are known in the English speaking world, they are an international medical humanitarian organization created by doctors and journalists in France in 1971. MSF provides aid to people whose survival is threatened by violence, neglect, or catastrophe, due to armed conflict, epidemics, malnutrition, exclusion from health care, or natural disasters. They provide independent and impartial assistance to those who are most in need and reserve the right to speak out to bring attention to neglected crises, to challenge inadequacies or abuse of the aid system, and to advocate for improved medical treatments and protocols. In 1999 their efforts were recognized when they were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for the work have done to make the world a slightly more caring place.

Needless to say as a completely independent body with no alliances to any religion, military, or government, they tend to piss people off all over the world as they don't care who they criticize. They adhere strictly to a system based on the humanitarian principles of medical ethics and impartiality, so they don't set any stock by anybody's political or social agendas. It's probably because of this that MSF has usually been one step ahead of the rest of the world when it comes to getting the word out about humanitarian disasters. In 1985 they warned about the Ethiopian government's forced displacement of hundreds of thousands of its population that preceded the famine in '85; in 1994 they called for military intervention in Rwanda in response to the ongoing genocide; in 1995 they condemned the Serbian massacre of civilians at Srebrenica; denounced the Russians for their bombardment of the Chechen capital Grozny in 1999; and more recently called for international attention to the crisis in Darfur in 2004 and 2005 at the UN Security Council.

Since 1998 they have been using their "top ten" lists of humanitarian crises to let the world know of the situations that are the most dire and where people are most affected. This year's list is no exception to the previous ones in that there has been little or no mention of any of these situations in the mass media, nor has there been any concentrated effort made to alleviate the crises. One thing each of these circumstances has in common is that they are all on going, all of them are preventable, and in most cases they are occurring because aid workers are being prevented from assisting those in need.

This past year's (2008) top ten ongoing humanitarian crises according to Medecines Sans Frontieres are: the worsening humanitarian crises in Somalia; a critical need of assistance required in Ethiopia's Somali Region; critical health needs remaining unmet in Myanmar; civilians being killed and displaced due to intensive fighting in Northwest Pakistan; the health crises sweeping Zimbabwe as violence and economic collapse spreads; no end in sight to the violence and suffering in the Sudan; civilians trapped by war raging in Eastern Congo; civilians in Iraq in urgent need of assistance; there are still millions of malnourished children throughout the world despite advances in lifesaving nutritional therapies; and the rise of tuberculosis as a cause of death among people living with HIV/AIDS.

Unlike other lists this one doesn't celebrate anything except our failure as a species to look after our fellows and our ability to look the other way. If you have any doubts as to the importance of this list, you only need to look back to the crises that MSF has warned the world about in the past to be reminded about the consequences of inaction. This is one top ten list that can't just be dismissed as a typical exercise in end of the year rumination. Please take the time to follow the links in the list above, and maybe even forward them to a local aid agency or political representative. Although I enjoy top ten lists as much as anyone, this is one, as I'm sure you'd agree, that I would happily see made obsolete.

July 21, 2008

Book Review(Play): The Portrait Of Mahatma Gandhi Himendra Thakur

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was born on October 2nd in 1869 and was assassinated by a Hindu fanatic January 30th 1948. To the majority of us he is now more familiarly known by his honorific, Mahatma, meaning Great Soul, rather than the names he was born with, and for his dedication to non-violent resistance as a form of protest. Such is his international reputation that in 2007 the United Nations designated his birthday International Day Of Non Violence.

While political leaders of all stripes have cited him as an influence on their lives, paid lip service to his ideals, or praised his life, not a single political figure since the Mahatma has actually lived up to those ideals. The drive for equality between the races in the United States during the 1950's and 1960's under the guidance of Martin Luther King Jr. was the last major attempt at non-violent civil disobedience to enact social change. Aside from that though, the majority of mankind has not proven mature enough to live up to the ideals espoused by Mahatma Gandhi.

While Gandhi has aroused almost universal admiration among people internationally, the same can't be said about his home country of India. He was opposed to the partitioning of India into separate Muslim, Pakistan, and Hindu countries and advocated equality for all people. In fact his assassination was spurned by the final hunger strike he staged in order to force the new Indian government to hand over money owing to the Pakistani government. The radical Hindu who killed him saw that action as an act of betrayal. He also angered traditionalists with his demands for an end to the caste system (initially the caste system was devised as a means of defining a person's responsibilities to society based on their job without there being any distinction in social standing, but it was eventually corrupted to the point where a person's caste no longer defined what they did but their status. So a person could be a Brahmin, without being a priest, and enjoy all the advantages associated with that position without having to fulfill any of the obligations formally associated with the title.) and equality for women
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With the play The Portrait Of Mahatma Gandhi, published by Antarjyoti, Himendra Thakur has written a response to what he sees as a continuation of that opposition in today's India. In his introduction to the play he says that India has moved away from what Gandhi's vision for the country and there is a concentrated effort by some political leaders, business people and thinkers to discredit him in the eyes of the people. While they may stand up on national holidays and praise him as the father of the country, or give speeches lauding his achievements in the West, they are actually rejecting everything he stands for.

The two act play is set in the home of a wealthy Indian industrialist (Mishra) who is running for parliament. It is expected that if he wins his election that he will be given an important position in the government, but his campaign has hit a slight snag. With the redefining of electoral districts the area he is seeking to represent has recently been expanded to include a large number of rural voters whose interests don't necessarily mesh with his own. Unless he can convince them that he has their best interests at heart he could very well lose the election.

Since the majority of rural people still revere the memory of the Mahatma he orders his servant to make over his house in a style that will suitably impress two representatives from the village he has invited to meet with him. As the play opens the household servant is removing various objects d'art from the set as part of the pretence that will also include hanging a large portrait of Gandhi on the wall and covering the furniture with Khadi (a type of fabric) made from the hand weaving Charkha, (spinning wheel) used by the Mahatma.

Rakesh is Mishra's future son-in-law and a business man. He is the embodiment of everything that the playwright thinks is wrong with modern India's business community as he out and out rejects everything Gandhi stands for. How, he says, can he support non-violence when his own father is an arms manufacturer? Anyway Gandhi doesn't agree with any of things he's been taught in business school about how to maximize profits by reducing the work force. If we followed that model how could we get rich?

Initially the only voice arguing against Rakesh is his fiancee Sarojini whose grandmother taught her about Gandhi. She argues that India has become overly fixated on greed and that the people are suffering for it. Eventually her side of the argument is also taken up by the men from the village when they show up. Part of the second act of the play revolves around them debating both Rakesh and Mishra on the validity of Gandhi to today's India.

Himendra Thakur makes no secret as to what his beliefs are, and while that is noble, and I'm in complete agreement with him, that does not make The Portrait Of Mahatma Gandhi a good piece of theatre. The characters are nothing more than stereotypes, with both Rakesh and Mishra made out to be nothing but greedy cowards, and the two villagers and the humble servant are idealized as paragons of virtue.

Near the end of the play an extremist Hindu terrorist breaks into the house with the intent of killing Mishra because he said something favourable about Gandhi in a speech. While Rakesh and Mishra are begging for their lives and crying - the two villagers debate the terrorist and the servant sneaks up on him and overpowers him. Making the two anti-Gandhi characters objects of ridicule might have seemed like a good way of weakening their arguments, but it gives a false picture of reality and makes for lousy theatre.

Real businessmen and politicians aren't that ignorant and craven, any more than a school master and farmer are going to as stoic and brave as the two villagers are represented in the play. Wouldn't it have been better if the characters had been real so the audience would have a better picture of how they are being manipulated by their leaders instead of presenting something this simplistic? While the script claims to support the people who are being hurt by the behaviour of characters like Rakesh and Mishra, by the way it has been written it appears that the author does not have a very high opinion of his audience's intelligence and it comes across as very condescending.

Mahatma Gandhi espoused great ideals and saw the potential in humankind for living in harmony with itself and nature. He was truly one of the greatest visionaries that the world has known and we would all be better off if more of us could live up to the standards he set. Unfortunately The Portrait Of Mahatma Gandhi by Himendra Thankur does not succeed in bringing that vision to life, or even presenting convincing arguments on its behalf. Surely there must be a better way of defending the Mahatma's grand vision than this?

May 2, 2008

Book Review: The White Tiger Aravind Adiga

It's probably safe to say that you can't go a week these days without reading at least one article talking about the economies of either China or India. It always seems there is someone in some business section of some newspaper always willing to write another breathless instalment in the rise of the East as economic powers. The majority of the writers always seem torn between their amazement that countries like India and China can actually have an economy and citing them as examples of how great the Free Market is.

What most of these articles fail to mention is the cost that's being paid for these great economic miracles. In China the majority of the labour being supplied to fuel the motor of the economy is as close to salve labour as you can get and still be paid for your work. People work long hours for little pay. in conditions that would see plants in North America closed in a second. Of course these are merely technicalities, nothing for us to worry about; it's not like we live there.

India has become the call centre to the world it seems. Almost every time you phone a company for technical support these days, no matter what country you're calling from, you're more than likely to end up talking to someone in Mumbai or Bangalore. But call centres and a burgeoning IT class don't hide the inequities that still exist in Indian society or that huge numbers of people still live in poverty so abject that we wouldn't even begin to comprehend its depth.
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The only place you're liable to read about the reality of life in India today is on the pages of one of the many books making their way out of India to the shelves of book stores in North America. Joining those ranks is The White Tiger by first time novelist Aravind Adiga published by Simon & Schuster and just recently released in North America. In his book Adiga not only peels back the gloss of the economic miracle to expose the rot beneath, he instructs us in the means by which a small minority of the population are able to subjugate the majority.

A white tiger is the rarest creature in the jungle, only coming along once in every generation. When Balram Halwai was still able to attend the excuse for a school in his village he was singled out by a school inspector as being the white tiger of his contemporaries for being able to read and write when nobody else could. The inspector promised that Balram would be given a scholarship to attend a proper school so that he could fulfill his potential. Unfortunately fate had other plans, and his family were forced to pull him out of school to help pay off their debt to their landlord.

We learn Balram's life story courtesy of letters he has taken upon himself to write the premier of China in order to educate him so that he won't be fooled by any of the false pictures the politicians he meets might paint about life in India when he comes for his official state visit. He decides that the best way for the premier to understand what life in India is like by telling him the story of his, Balram's, life.


The first lesson Balram has for us is the reality of rural life in India. In his small village everybody is beholden to one of four landlords. If you want to grow anything you have to pay money to one person, it you want to graze animals you have to pay money to another, if you want to use the roads to make money as a rickshaw driver you pay 10% of everything you earn to a third, and finally the fourth one owns the waters so if you wanted to fish or use the water to transport goods you pay him.

It's after Balram's family is forced to borrow money from one of the landlords to pay for a cousin's dowry that he has to leave school and start working in teahouses. But Balram is destined for greater things, and his grandmother comes up with 600 rupees so that he may learn to drive and get a job driving for a wealthy man. Through blind luck he happens to show up at his landlord's compound on the day the youngest son has returned from America and needs his own driver, and begins his long climb out of the darkness of poverty.

Of course he's not just a driver, it turns out he's expected to cook, clean, and do whatever else his new master needs him to do. When his master moves to New Delhi, Balram moves with him and drives him around the capital as he greases the palms of all the various political fixers and parliamentarians that need greasing in order to ensure the family business survives. A hundred thousand rupees here, two hundred thousand there, and Balram sits in the front seat seeing nothing, but witnessing it all.

At one point he asks the premier why he thinks and Balram and the rest of the servants are so loyal to their masters. Why don't they demand a cut or threaten them with the police, or at the very least stand up to the masters who they out number by at least a thousand to one? Balram calls it the Rooster Coop syndrome. In the markets in New Delhi hens and roosters are stuffed into wire cages where they spend their days pecking and shitting on each other fighting just to breathe. According to Balram it's the same for the poor of India, they are so busy fighting among each other for the chance to breathe that they will never be able to escape their cages.

Of course the threat of violence against their families if they misbehave is a factor as well. Balram recounts how a servant of one of the landlords in his home village did something wrong, and the landlord had his entire family killed in retaliation. Balram says it would take a unique individual, a White Tiger even, to be depraved enough to risk the lives of his entire family to steal the seven hundred thousand rupees his employer is carrying in a red leather bag to bribe a politician.

In The White Tiger we watch Balram suffer humiliation after humiliation and be expected to take it. His employer's wife gets drunk one night and forces Balram to let her drive and she kills a child. They make him sign a confession saying he was driving just in case the police decide to press charges against. It's just taken as matter of course that as their servant he would only be too glad to go to jail for them, after all you can't really expect them to go to jail now can you?

Balram's letter to the premier of China is like the confession of a Catholic penitent to his priest, save for one detail. He's not seeking absolution for any crimes that he has committed, he's just using himself as an example to let the premier know the facts of life in modern day India. Bribery and corruption are what grease the wheels of the great economic miracle of India, wheels that are still being turned by slave labour. Underneath the statues of Gandhi, behind the pictures of the beautiful temples, is corruption so ingrained that it's taken for granted as being the way things are and always will be.

The picture Aravind Adiga paints of India in The White Tiger is of a nearly feudal society in the guise of a democracy. If even a tenth of what Balram describes as normal operating business is actual, and there is no reason to believe otherwise, than India's economic miracle is as much a lie as China's. The country might have gained its independence from the British at the end of the 1940's but the majority of people in India are still trapped in servitude.

In the end what makes the events in the book so believable is the character of Balram. He is the perfect servant. He worries whether his master is eating enough, takes pride in him when he behaves honourably, and is disappointed with him when he is weak. For all his protestations about the system, he is still as much a part of it as anybody else and it takes an enormous amount of strength and luck for him to live up to his name of white tiger.

When he does he shows that he's learned his lessons well and knows how to grease the wheels with the best of them. He's not some reformer advocating change, although he dreams of opening a school where children get a real education so they too can be white tigers. There's no room for mercy in the jungle that is Balram's India, and the more tigers he has on his side the better.

The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga can be purchased either directly from Simon & Schuster or from an online retailer like Indigo Books

April 22, 2008

Book Review: The Hakawati Rabih Alameddine

I've always believed that if you want to understand a people's culture than you need to know the stories they tell. Everything from the tales about the heroes who people their mythology to the stories that form the basis for their belief system will tell you more about how a people define themselves than any fact based history.

In some way stories are the popular history of a culture. They may be dismissed as legend or myth by so-called serious scholars, but if you look closely enough you'll find out that they were all based on fact. Over the years they have all been embellished to some degree or other, but what stories haven't had their lilies gilded to some extent anyway? For the longest time the only records that we had of Troy's existence were from Homer's account of the war, and nobody believed them to be true until Troy was unearthed in the late 19th century. There might not have been the direct involvement of the Gods and Goddesses in the battle as was depicted in Homer's Odyssey, but the fact remained the war between Greece and Troy really occurred.

Although in the greater scheme of things a family's stories may not seem important, they bear the same relationship to a family's history as a culture's stories do its history. Whether you know it or not, all families have stories, even yours, that are as unlikely as any mythology in some ways. You may not think so looking at your parents, but think about where they came from. Look back to your great-grandparent's generation on each side of the family and find out where they were. What are the odds that they would have children who would marry, have children of their own who would meet and marry to finally meet to create you? If that's not the stuff of myth I don't know what is?
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In his newest work, The Hakawati (roughly translated as the story-teller) being released today (April 22/08) by Random House Canada's Knopf imprint, Rabih Alameddine has created a glorious tapestry by interweaving the threads of one family's story with the stories of the Arab world. In doing so not only does he give truth to the cliche fact can be stranger than fiction, he shows how fine a line there really is between myth and history, and how the one gives birth to the other.

While recounting the history, and the rise in fortunes of the al-Kharrat family, through the eyes and memory of their prodigal son, Osama, on his returning to Beirut from Los Angeles for the death of his father, Alameddine regales us with the stories that entranced his characters when they were children. While most of us are probably familiar with the story of Abraham and Isaac, (although judging by the way the world acts today it seems like most of us have also forgotten that each of the Big Three: Christian, Jew, and Muslim recognize him) I doubt that many of us know anything about Ishmael, father of the Arab tribes, the true story of Fatima who was lover to a djinn, or Baybars the slave prince who vanquished the Crusaders once and for all.

Of course every history has to start somewhere and with the al-Kharrat family, at least on the father's side, it started with Osama's grandfather. The illegitimate son of an English missionary doctor and his Armenian maid he is the Hakawati of the title. At the age of twelve he had to flee the city of Urfa in Turkey where he was born, when, for his part in pigeon war, his life was threatened. His mother had died two weeks after he was born, and the doctor's maids who raised him sent him to Beruit where one of them had a cousin.

At least this is the story that Osama tells us his grandfather told him when he was young. Osama is our Hakawati, regaling us with his memories of his father, mother, sister, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends, and enemies. Stories that he was told by his grandfather, his uncles, and other members of his family of the history of the Arab world make up a goodly portion of his memories. Within those stories, other stories live, and as the book unfolds all the stories take on lives of their own.

As a result, in the course of telling us the history of his family, Osama tells is also telling us the history of the Arab world. Each history starts with the tale of the founder, and parallels the other for the rest of the book. Through war and peace in Lebanon, and the stories of Arab heroes fighting to preserve their freedom in the face of treachery, we learn both the modern legend of the al-Kharrat family and the ancient myths, as the heroes of each tale give birth, survive warfare, and travel the world.

Rabih Alameddine has created a beautiful epic that combines the modern and the ancient world into one extraordinary story. There is an elegance to his story telling that elevates the mundane to the mythical and a straight forwardness that makes the legendary human. By blurring the lines between his "real" world of Osama's family history and the "legendary" world of the Arab heroes, he makes the reader examine the whole concept of story and history and question what is real and what is myth.

At one point young Osama asks his uncle whether a story he is telling him is true or not and is told that he should believe the story but not the storyteller. The story of the horrors suffered by Lebanon during its seemingly endless civil war is true, the number of Lebanese people who were forced into exile is true, but whether or not this story teller is telling the truth doesn't matter. What matters is the essence and the feelings generated by the story and Alameddine has been able to communicate the experience of that country's betrayal and abandonment by both the Arab and the Western world.

In the end what makes this so effective is that we care about the people. Osama and his family could just as easily be any one of our families. They are drawn with love, so that even the character who is like your annoying aunt who tells everybody what to do, makes you smile. The Hakawati is a wonderful story told by a masterful storyteller, which on it's own is sufficient reason for reading it. The fact that it pulls back the blinds a little further on the Arab world and introduces you to some of the beauty and magic that has existed in the Middle East for thousands of years is just an added bonus.

The Hikawati can be purchased either directly from Random House Canada or from another on line retailer like Amazon Canada.


March 27, 2008

Book Review 28: Stories Of AIDS In Africa Stephanie Nolen

I'm sure most people have noticed how numbers play this strange trick on the human mind; the higher they get the less meaning they have. I mean when somebody mentions the size of the American government's deficit as being in the trillions of dollars, does anybody really understand what that means? Or if they do why aren't they as upset about it as let's say you or I are about our personal debts that may only amount to a few thousand dollars?

The whole, the higher the number the less it means is especially telling when dealing with casualty figures. While we can get whipped up into a state close to hysteria when we read about the killing of one person, the deaths of millions of people won't cause us to turn a hair. Is it simply a matter of protecting ourselves, in that if we ever let ourselves feel the horror that we should feel from that many deaths we would never stop crying? Or is it because numbers that high are just incomprehensible?

When the death of one person is reported in the news we are usually given details of that person's life. We learn about those left behind to grieve, what they had accomplished to date, and what they have been prevented from accomplishing by their untimely demise. When the death total is from an earthquake or other natural disaster we might be told something about the town or city which has suffered the calamity, and be shown pictures of collapsed buildings, but we won't learn anything about individuals and the grief will stay impersonal.
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Currently there is somewhere between 26 and 30 million people infected with the AIDS virus in the continent of Africa. To give you some idea of what that number means it's the equivalent of saying that nearly the entire population of Canada has AIDS, as we have a population of around 33 million. Those numbers are only estimates, as many governments in Africa are either unable or unwilling to provide an accurate count of the numbers of people with the virus.

A trade paper back edition of Stephanie Nolen's 28: Stories Of AIDS In Africa, that was first published last spring by Random House Canada, being released this coming April 15th, is a timely reminder that there are faces and lives that go with each one of those 26 to 30 million people. Each of them have families, had hopes and dreams that are now withering, just as surely as anyone who is killed in a car accident or a house fire.

In the introduction to the book Ms. Nolen explains her rationale behind choosing twenty-eight as the number of people she would profile in the book; one person for roughly every ten million infected with the AIDS virus. She also says in the same introduction that she fears that even the thirty million figure quoted above is a conservative estimate based on how deeply rooted AIDS has become in Africa and how often she witnessed case numbers far exceeding official estimates in areas she visited researching this book.

In 2003 Ms. Nolen convinced her editors at The Globe And Mail, Canada's national newspaper, to allow her to investigate the AIDS pandemic in Africa. She moved to Johannesburg, South Africa and spent four years travelling across the continent and attending international AIDS conferences, as she struggled to come to grips with the enormity of the situation facing Africans of every race, creed, nationality, and social status.

The amount and depth of her research is obvious when you read the introduction to 28; its probably the best written history of AIDS, not only in terms of Africa, but the disease period, that I've ever read. The disease did not spring up overnight among North American homosexuals in the early 1980's as I'm sure many believe. The first known human cases of AIDS can be traced back seventy years ago to Cameroon. Simian Immunodeficiency Virus (SIV) is a disease found in Chimpanzees, an animal that used to be fairly commonly eaten and hunted in Africa. A virus that is non-lethal in one species, can be death to another, and such was the case with SIV which was not particularly dangerous to chimps, but as HIV has proved incurable in humans.

Scientists figure that it would only have taken ten or twelve incidences of hunters butchering infected chimps and becoming infected themselves for HIV to take root successfully among humans. Once that happened it was only a matter of time before it spread. Thankfully HIV, in spite of any propaganda you might hear to the contrary, is not one of the easily transmitted diseases and requires the transference of bodily fluids in order to have a chance at survival unlike airborne ones like TB, Ebola, influenza or the common cold.

There's no way of knowing for certain how many people were infected with the disease prior to the discovery in the mid 1980's of the test we now have to detect its presence, but Africans were dying of what they called "Slim", a mysterious disease that caused people to waste away since the 1950's. As we learned in North America when people caught HIV from tainted blood products, there are many more ways than sex and drug use to catch the disease. In Africa, mass immunizations where thousands of people were vaccinated with the same needle, looks to be one of the ways AIDS was able to establish a firm grip among the general population.

While Ms. Nolen's skills as a journalist make the introduction invaluable reading, what makes 28 Stories Of AIDS In Africa so compelling are the stories of the twenty-eight people of the title. Some of them will be known to you, like Nelson Mandela, who in 2005 announced to the world that his son had died of AIDS. Since his retirement from the presidency of South Africa has dedicated himself to the fight against the pandemic. Others, like Manuel and Philomena Cossa, a migrant gold miner from Mozambique and his wife, you'll have never heard of, and their stories will break your heart.

From 1967 until 2005 Manuel would spend two years at a time away from home and family working in the gold mines of South Africa. Most of those years were spent working under the iron fist of apartheid for little more then slave wages, but it still meant he brought money home to his family. But in 2005 he came home sick, and both he and his wife have now tested positive for AIDS. They now have no income; because Manuel did not test positive until he was home the mine owners don't have to pay him a disability pension as they would if he had tested positive while on the job. No income means their children have to drop out of school, or can't even start school because they can't afford the ten dollars for school fees.

Alice Kandzanja is a nurse in a hospital in Zomba in southern Malwai that operates at 400% capacity, meaning that each bed has three patients laid out head to foot. She has seen 2,000 of her sister nurses die since the AIDS epidemic hit Malwai. In 2006 Cynthia Leshomo of Botswana won the Miss HIV Stigma-Free pageant by taking her medication as part of her traditional wear portion of the competition. In Botswana, which used to have a lower infant mortality rate than most of Eastern Europe, people didn't get AIDS because it was only a poor person's disease. Yet in the year 2000 37% of pregnant women were HIV positive.

That is the real face of AIDS in Africa, how it effects more than just the person infected, and cripples the futures of so many people. Governments don't have the money to provide free education to their people thanks to the policies of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank that have demanded they cut social spending if they want to get any aid money or debt forgiveness. A country like Mozambique doesn't have enough doctors and therefore no way to distribute drugs to people who need them even if they could afford to buy them.

One of the most common questions that Stephanie Nolen reports being asked is how can the world let this happen to us? Even when they do finally cough up money, as the Bush administration admirably has done to the tune of $15 billion dollars over five years, it's a case of too little too late, and with far too many strings attached. How can you insist that money for AIDS prevention not be given to groups that advocate condom use or planned parenthood or stipulate that only expensive patent protected American drugs can be purchased with the money?

From South Africa to Egypt in the north, tens of millions of Africans have been diagnosed with AIDS. Each day there is a good chance that a baby is born somewhere in Africa who is HIV positive, and the numbers continue to grow. Although conditions have improved since the early 1990's when governments in Africa refused to acknowledge AIDS even existed and in 2000 when funding was non existent, the hole that has been dug is so deep that it might take decades just to reach the surface.

28: Stories Of Aids In Africa helps you remember that behind the numbers in the headlines, and behind the politician's talks of costs, are human beings who are suffering. I defy anyone to read this book and still feel that governments the world over are doing enough to make a difference.

28: Stories Of Aids In Africa is being released as a trade paperback on April 15th/2008 by Random House Canada and can be purchased directly from them or from an on line retailer like Amazon Canada.

March 8, 2008

DVD Review: Invisible Children

I've started wearing a bracelet on my right wrist. It's not the most comfortable of things, being made from strands of plastic and what looks like wire, and I have to keep adjusting it because it tugs on my skin periodically. It's not even particularly attractive, what with the band being made up of six strands or so of black wire and held together by two pieces of red wire wrapped around it that also serve as slides to adjust the size. I'm constantly aware of it sitting there on my right wrist because of both those things, and while that may not be a desirable characteristic in most jewellery, I think it's an essential component in this case.

Every time the bracelet makes me aware of it's presence, I'm reminded about the story that goes with it; where it comes from, who made it, and why it exists. The bracelet symbolizes an effort being made to help deal with what has been referred to as the most ignored humanitarian crises facing the world today. The mass abduction of children in Northern Uganda by the Lords Resistance Army to serve as conscripts in their twenty year war against the government.

Up until a short while ago cities in Northern Uganda were used to the sight of hundreds of thousands of children "commuting" from the surrounding country side every night to sleep in protected areas like hospitals or bus stations because they were so afraid of being abducted during the night. Sometimes their parents would come with them, some of them were among the nearly million and half children orphaned in Uganda by the AIDS epidemic, and some had escaped from the rebels and had no idea where their parents even lived.
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The government of Uganda has finally got around to setting up displacement centres for these children and their families so they can have permanent protected shelter. These camps don't offer much better conditions than sleeping on the streets as they have become quickly overcrowded and lack proper sanitation facilities. Families have been forced to leave their jobs, schools, and homes behind, and there are no facilities in the camps for them to either receive an education or earn money.

Over the last few years a grass roots campaign has been underway in the United States to try and raise money and awareness in an effort to alleviate the situation. The bitter irony of the Invisible Children campaign is that might have happened if it weren't for the severe problems in Uganda's neighbouring Sudan.

In the spring of 2003 three young film makers left for the Sudan in an attempt to document the ongoing horror story that was the civil war in that country. Jason Russell, Bobby Bailey, and Laren Poole never shot a movie in the Sudan, instead they made the documentary Invisible Children about the plight of the children in Northern Uganda who were being conscripted into the rebel forces and those trying to avoid being kidnapped.

One of the things I found refreshing about this movie was the fact that they have made no attempts to edit out the parts that make them look less than professional. The whole idea of going over to the Sudan to make a documentary comes across as impulsive and you may not question their sincerity, but you sure do question their judgement. Initially they are the subject matter of the movie as they show us their fruitless efforts to "find a story" in the Sudan.

After days spent traipsing through deserted villages and not finding anyone to talk to, they are advised to head over to Uganda where they can at least interview some of the thousands of Sudanese living there in refugee camps. It's on the trip back from one of these camps that they find their story. They are driving home when they are forced to stop because a truck travelling along the same road they are driving on had been attacked by members of the Lords Resistance Army. They are told by their guide that the army has closed the road and everybody will have to stay put because of the worry about rebel activity in the area.

It's another sign of the honesty of their film making that they show their naivety on screen; they had gone into an area without knowing that a civil war had been raging for the last fifteen years. Since they have to stay put for a while they begin to ask questions about the war and who the rebels are. They supply some good solid history at this point in the documentary that explains how the rebellion started and it quickly becomes clear that the person behind it is very dangerous. Although Joseph Kony, leader of the Lords Resistance Army, claims to be trying to fight for rights of the local tribes it is their children his troops abduct and kill, and their food and supplies they steal.

Kony uses a mixture of spiritualism and violence to keep his followers in line, claiming to want to take over the country and run it according to the laws of the ten commandments - although as he's able to ignore the "thou shalt not kill" doctrine and young girls abducted are turned into sex slaves his sincerity about that is debatable. Recent news - as of this month - shows that progress is finally being made in peace talks, but the real sticking point is what to do about the former rebel soldiers who want to live in Uganda. Even more horrifying is the thought of what's to be done about the children who have been brainwashed and turned into killers once a peace plan goes into effect. Who will take responsibility for "deprogramming" children who can field strip an AK47 but can't read or write?
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I'm getting ahead of the movie here, it's hard not to get caught up in this story once you start writing about it; it's just so damned heart rending. Anyway, back to the movie where our three young film makers are now witnessing the phenomenon that was a fact of life in Ugandan cities at the time. The nightly commute of hundreds of thousands of children from outlying areas into the city core seeking shelter from the rebel forces that sneak into their villages at night to pressgang them into the army.

They show us footage of children lying stacked together like chords of wood on the verandas of buildings through out the town. They discover that six boys have created a shelter for themselves in a concrete cellar underneath the hospital and they follow them down into it and watch them make preparations for the night. That first involves having to mop up all the water that's leaked in during the day if it has rained and then laying out thin mats on top of the damp concrete. A couple of the boys had managed to escape from the rebels after being abducted, and they talk about how they were forced to watch other children killed as a warning as to what would happen if you tried to escape.

The movie continues along in the same rough, semi-professional style that it started with, but that makes it even more effective. These three young men find the right people to talk to who can explain the situation properly; an American aid worker, a Ugandan member of parliament who has been one of the few political voices in the country talking about the plight of the children, and Ugandan journalists who have been reporting on the story of the war and the children since the beginning.

What makes the movie the most effective is their passion for telling the story, and the fact that nobody is the subject of a documentary, everybody is treated like a person. They make no secret about how they feel and how much they are moved by the people's willingness to keep on trying to have a life as normal as possible. The six young boys in their concrete bunker doing homework by the light of a single paraffin light, and rousing themselves at first light so they can get to their school.

Their are moments in this movie that will rip your heart out, and if you don't cry while watching it than I'll question whether or not you have a heart at all. If listening to a fourteen year old boy say he'd rather be dead right now instead of living the life he is living, and then bursting into tears at the thought of his dead brother, killed by the rebels, doesn't make you want to know what you can do to help than probably nothing will. It certainly inspired these the three young film makers.

The special features of the DVD Invisible Children tell you about the grassroots organization Invisible Children that grew out of the movie and lets you know how you can help. In fact they make it easy, they've even included a second copy of the DVD in the package so you can give it to a friend so they can find out about the story. The enclosed pamphlet lets you know about various ways you can either spread the word; hold a screening of the movie for friends or the public - they'll even send you promotional material so you can let people know about the screening.

There are programs for schools to get involved in to help raise money for schools in Uganda. Money raised through the sale of the DVD goes into funding mentoring programs where adults in Uganda are matched up with children to help them deal with everything from life issues to tutoring them in their school work. Than there's the bracelet I'm wearing around my wrist. The Bracelet Campaign is a cottage industry where individuals in the resettlement camps are given the raw materials to make these bracelets that are then sold in North America.

Not only are the bracelets used for fund-raising purposes, but they provide a small income to those who make them. The business of making the bracelets is also being used as a teaching model for business and financial planning practices for everyone involved. The bracelets are packaged with an accompanying DVD that tells the story of an individual child and each colour represents a different child's story. My red bracelets came with a DVD about Emmy. a fourteen year old boy who is the fourth of five children, each from a different father. One father was killed in combat, one died a political prisoner, and Emmy's father died of AIDS.

For so many years the existence of the child soldiers has been denied by everyone except those who live in the villages affected by the abductions during the war. The rebels have denied using them and the government forces have denied fighting against them. The first step in helping these children is letting the world know of their plight. With the movie Invisible Children Jason Russell, Bobby Bailey, and Laren Poole began the process, and they continue to do so with the Invisible Children Campaign.

At the end of the movie they ask if you can spare any one of three things that will enable you to help out. Your time to tell others the story, your talent to come up with a way of spreading the word to lots of people, or your money to help with programming. With the chance at peace on the horizon, it means there is a horrendous amount of work to be done. Over a million people will have to be repatriated back to their homes from the displacement camps, and who knows how many child soldiers will have to be integrated back into society. The story is ongoing, and the best way to help shape future chapters is to ensure that people know about it... that there are no more Invisible Children.

You can find out how to help by going to the Invisible Children web site at Invisible Children.com.

March 4, 2008

Book Review: Human Rights Watch: World Report 2008

I've got a question for you; what are human rights? You probably hear or read the phrase at least once a day in the media, but have you ever stopped to think what they should entail? Don't worry if you haven't because I'd lay odds you're not alone. The phrase is bandied about so much these days that if it ever had an agreed upon meaning in the eyes of the general public it's been long forgotten.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights created by the United Nations in 1948 has 30 articles, most of which will probably sound familiar to any of us who live in countries which have a Bill of Rights or the equivalent. You know the usual stuff - everybody will be treated the same regardless of race, colour, sex, religion creed, no one will be subjected to torture or cruel and inhuman punishment, everyone is entitled to protection under the law and nobody is above the law, everybody has the right to privacy, freedom of thought, and freedom of opinion.

Over the years its of course been updated and some specifics have been added like the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Of course that these addendum were needed goes to show just how well people were complying with the original declaration. If countries had been treating people equally regardless of sex there would have been no need for any convention dealing specifically with violence against women.
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That's the thing isn't it, everybody talks a good game, our governments in the West especially, but there's probably not a government in the world that's not guilty of a violation of somebody's human rights. Take a look at the partial listing of articles I've mentioned above, and you'll notice that the United States, who have one of the most comprehensive Bill Of Rights of any country, has contravened every single article listed.

Of course they aren't the only ones; according to the organization Human Rights Watch (HRW) there's a distressingly huge number of countries all over the world making a mockery of the declaration according to Human Rights Watch World Report 2008, their annual report on how well countries around the world are abiding by the statues put forward more then fifty years ago.

After my first glance through the volume I couldn't decide which was the more depressing thought; the fact that it exists at all, that it is over 560 pages in length, or that it doesn't list all the countries or all the categories where there were infringements of Human Rights around the world in the year 2007. I think it's the last one that bothers me the most, especially when the writers say that they really have no way of knowing how much they miss, because there aren't many countries that are going to give you access to documentation proving they've been violating the rights of their population.

Before you ask, who the heck are Human Rights Watch or assume they are just another plot to discredit the U.S., there's a couple things you should know about them. They describe themselves as being a Non Government Organization (NGO) that refuses funding from any politically affiliated body or government, and are dependant on the donations of private citizens and foundations for finances. They rely on first hand accounts from people on the ground in countries where abuses are taking place as their primary source of information, but they will never base a report on information that can not be verified by one of their own field people.

Initially founded in 1978, and called Helsinki Watch for the location of it's head office, it started off with only two divisions Europe and Central Asia. Currently it has expanded to six geographic divisions so it now includes, Africa, the Americas, all of Asia, and the Middle East, and added three thematic divisions, arms, children's rights, and women's rights. Other permanent divisions include a country's treatment of refugees and immigrants and how that stacks up against U.N. declarations on their treatment; HIV/AIDS and Human Rights; International Justice; Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgendered rights; Arms; and Business and Human Rights.

Let me tell you about the litmus test that I use for organizations like this; when it comes to the Middle East do they ignore transgressions on the part of the Palestinian authority and only criticize Israel, or do they apply the same standards to both sides? Far too many so called rights groups are all prepared to stomp one side in the dispute and allow the other to literally get away with murder. Well not these guys, they hold both sides accountable for any and all violations of a groups Human Rights. So while they criticize Israel for firing upon civilian populations in Gaza and Lebanon, they hold Hamas to account for firing rockets and mortars into civilian areas in Tel Aviv, for targeting civilians with suicide bombers, and for the unlawful detention of an Israeli soldier in clear contravention of Human Rights and the Geneva Convention.

After reading that, I felt a lot more comfortable about the fact that this is an organization without an agenda aside from doing their best to make countries accountable for their treatment of their citizens. They don't except any excuses from anybody, be it George Bush and company or Putin and his cronies in Russia. From Albania to Zimbabwe if you're government has abused the rights of it's people HRW are going to let the world know about it whether you or the world want to know.

That's the rub isn't it; HRW may be without an agenda, but the rest of the world is nowhere near as unbiased. Governments the world over will turn a blind eye to violations conducted by the countries that do them favours, while condemning the exact same activities in others. Human rights for some but not for others is a cynical and gross violation of the spirit of original declaration, and also happens to be the breech that most countries have in common. Running almost neck and neck for infamy are the number of countries who try to pass themselves off as democracies while denying their people the rights that ensure democratic governments.

While international human rights law says that each citizen is entitled to take part in the conduct of public affairs either directly or through a freely elected representative, and to vote in genuine and periodic election with full and equal suffrage, in a secret ballot guaranteeing the free expression of the will of the electorate, it also guarantees the societal elements that are essential for a true democracy. A press that is independent of the government, rights that defend the interests of minorities, and rights ensuring that government officials are subject to the rule of law as much as private citizens.

What kind of democratic election is it when only one party runs for power, or when the press only reports what the government allows, when people aren't allowed to attend political rallies unless approved by the government, when there is no free and open debate on the issues, and there is nothing in the constitution guaranteeing an arms length body monitoring elections? In his introduction to World Report 2008, "Despots Masquerading as Democrats", Executive Director of HRW Kenneth Roth, cites these examples to point out the importance and necessity for human rights monitoring.

Anybody can and does call themselves a democrat, and even worse there are always those in the international community who seem willing to endorse them for their own convenience. It's ironic isn't it that the supposed ideal form of government, the one so many wars are fought to protect, has never been internationally codified? You don't think it's because half the world's governments who currently claim to be democratic would be revealed as just the opposite, or that it's not in best interests of countries like the United States and Russia to have their various friends proven to be just as despotic as their enemies? No it couldn't be that, nobody is that cynical or hypocritical are they?

So the only meter we have to measure a government's true democracy is their willingness to ensure the protection of human rights no matter what it costs them in terms of their ability to retain power. There used to be a rather common saying along the lines that a man was judged by the company he keeps. Perhaps a variation along the lines of: a government should be judged by how it keeps its people, would be more appropriate for today's world.

With disinformation raised to an art form, and government influence over media reaching a zenith in all parts of the world, a non-aligned body monitoring how people are treated based on the principals espoused by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is the only hope we have of getting a true picture of the health of democracy in the world. Human Rights Watch makes a very good case for being that body through their willingness to judge each and every country against the same measure; their adherence to the Declaration.

Human Rights Watch: World Report 2008is this years status report on the health of democracy in the world, and it doesn't look good. While there have been some positive signs in a few countries, indications are that overall the patient is in danger of expiring due to extreme cynicism and complications caused by opportunistic despots. That's not a very good prognosis for the future.

January 24, 2008

Graphic Novel Review: The Complete Persepolis Marjane Satrapi

As a kid I used to love comics. Almost anything put out by Marvel, from The Avengers to Dr. Strange were read and re-read by myself and my older brother. We weren't the collector types, there wasn't a plastic sleeve to be found in our house, comics were to be read and enjoyed. Our parents were suitably appalled, that their otherwise well read sons could devote so much time, and money, to reading comics.

Around the time we stopped buying seriously, 1980, comics were just beginning to enter into the graphic novel era. It was still long before the days of people like Neil Gaiman but large format issues featuring stalwarts of the Marvel and DC Universes were starting to appear. Some were merely omnibus collections of a particular sequence of comics gathered together, but some were stories specifically written and drawn for the larger and more in depth format.

Since Marvel had brought out Spiderman in the early sixties, comics had begun to move away from the one dimensional heroes of the forties and fifties. The graphic novel, with it's full length story and fully developed character was the next logical step in that evolution. I seriously doubt that anybody at that time could have predicted that they would ever be anything more than glorified comics.

But with "serious" writers like Neil Gaiman not only adapting their work to the form, but writing directly for it, publishers, who ten years ago might have turned their noses up at the idea, have jumped on the bandwagon. Unlike other instances in popular culture where mainstream involvement has meant the watering down of quality to suit the needs of mass consumption, graphic novels have continued to evolve, tackling new and more complicated subject matter.
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One of the best examples in recent history has been Marjane Satrapi's excellent autobiographical series about coming of age in Iran. Originally published in two parts, and now a full length feature film of the same name, The Complete Persepolis, published in Canada by Random House Canada through its Pantheon imprint, gathers the whole story together in one volume.

Starting in 1979, the year that the Shah of Iran was overthrown in a popular uprising, Persepolis not only tells Marjane's story, but the story of Iran. From Marjane's father and her own studies, we learn the history of this unique country that lies between the Arab world and Asia. Throughout her history, whether as Persia or Iran, they were constantly under attack and being invaded by one foreign power after another. After World War Two the father of the last Shah of Iran led a revolt sponsored by the British in return for allowing them access to Iranian Oil. Instead of the republic that most people had hopped for, they merely replaced one dictator for another.

The uprising in 1979 started as a popular rebellion against the tyranny of the Shah, but was corrupted. A great many of those who helped ensure its success ended up imprisoned, tortured, and eventually executed by the new regime. Any chance that there might have been for the overthrow of the religious leadership was quashed by the American sponsored Iraqi invasion, as those in power seized upon it as an opportunity to quash what remained of the opposition. Political prisoners were given two choices - die on the front lines as cannon fodder or be executed. After eight years of war nothing was accomplished save for the deaths of close to a million Iranians and ensuring the elimination of any opposition to the religious authorities.

Primarily though, this is the story of Marjane from the time she was ten, until her early twenties. We see how in the early days of the revolution people protested against women being forced to wear veils and the oppressive nature of the new order. Marjane's parent's were among those who demonstrated and hoped that things would improve. But as the war with Iraq intensified and conditions worsened, they decided to send Marjane to school in Austria.

In Austria she experienced the separation anxiety felt by all exiles. While on one hand she was delighted to be out from under the rule of the Mullahs, on the other she didn't have anything in common with the her fellow students. She was studying at a French school, but since she didn't speak any German she could barely communicate with anyone outside of classes. The aunt she was supposed to have been staying with made her move into a boarding house for students run by nuns, which only increased her sense of isolation.

But life is no better in Iran as she discovers when she eventually returns home. The comfort of the familiar is offset by the suppression of individual rights. In order to go to art school she must be deemed ideologically fit, she must wear her veil in such a way that not a hair on her head is visible, and she risks arrest merely being seen on the street with her boyfriend. In the end, after she graduates from school with a degree in graphic arts, and her marriage to her boyfriend fails she again goes into exile, this time to Paris, where she currently lives.
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Ms. Satrapi could have told her story just as easily in a straight autobiography, and I'm sure it would have made for fascinating reading, but by telling as a graphic novel she brings a visual dimension to it that increases it's impact. The graphics themselves are plain black and white, pen and ink drawings, but her ability to use imagery to tell the story as a compliment to dialogue and narration makes them as effective as if they were in full colour.

The visual element allows her to include the offstage, and imagined, action as part and parcel of the main narrative flow. Instead of having to impart information as separate incidents, where its impact is reduced by removing it from the context of the story, we see things as they happen increasing the emotional power of the moment. There is something about the directness of her style, that allows her to do two things admirably; to distinguish between individuals easily with just small strokes of the pen (and when all the women are clothed in all over black that's very important), and the other is to make her depiction of horrors, death, torture, and anguish, emotionally realistic without being graphic or gruesome.

The other day George Bush got up and said that's its time for the world to "do something about Iran". What he has in mind, the bombing and destruction of the country and the theft of her oil reserves, won't do anything for the people of that country. All it will do is lead to the further anguish for people like Marjane Satrapi's parents and friends who suffered first under the rule of the American and British puppet the Shah of Iran, and are now suffering under the rule of religious fascists.

The Complete Persepolis doesn't pull any punches when it comes to depicting life under the current leadership, but it also makes you realize there are amazing and wonderful human beings who are doing their best to live dignified and noble lives. They love their country and would no more welcome it being invaded by a foreign power than you or I. I'm sure they would fight against any such invasion in spite of their disagreements with those in power. Just because you don't like your leaders, doesn't mean you don't love your country and want to see it taken over by a foreign power.

The Complete Persepolis is an amazingly powerful story about a person's struggle to find her place in the world. That Ms. Satrapi has chosen to tell it in the form of a graphic novel not only shows us how far that medium has come as a means of expression, but allows us a glimpse into a world that few of us know anything about. Before anybody makes any decisions about whether they think the world "needs to do something about Iran" they should read this book.

The people of Iran have suffered enough bloodshed and war since 1980, do you really think they deserve to suffer more destruction?

Canadians wishing to buy The Complete Persepolis can order a copy directly from Random House Canada or pick up a copy from an online retailer like Indigo Books

January 20, 2008

Cross Border Finger Pointing

Two seemingly unrelated stories caught my eye in my morning scan through the news at the Globe And Mail newspaper's web site. One was the head of Homeland Security, Michael Chertoff's decision to ignore the wishes of Congress and toughen identification requirements for Canadians entering the United States. The other was the shooting death of an innocent bystander, Hou Chang Mao, on the streets of Toronto.

While at first glance the stories would appear to have nothing in common, there is a certain amount of irony in the fact they appeared on the same day. In the first instance, Mr. Chertoff deemed the threat of terrorist activity with origins in Canada real enough all Canadians entering the United States, and American's returning to Canada, will not only have to carry identification providing proof of citizenship, but an official document, like a driver's licence, bearing their photograph as well.

While Mr. Chertoff doesn't believe these steps will do anything to prevent terrorists from crossing over into Canada he claims that the step needs to be taken now to protect Canada from any backlash if there were a terror attack against the United States. According to him because steps to beef up security are being taken now, if an event happens that can be traced back to Canada, there won't be an overreaction, a demand to shut the border completely.

While I'm sure all Canadians are grateful at his concern for our reputation - I know I am - I fail to see the logic in his statement. If a terrorists were still able to get through in spite of his so-called beefed up security, wouldn't that increase calls for even tighter security, if not a closing of the border? He freely admits that he believes al-Qaeda is actively recruiting people with Western European and Canadian identities in order to circumvent the very obstacles he is suggesting as stepped up security measures, so his logic escapes me.

Funnily enough border security is on the minds of Toronto, Ontario area politicians as well. For the second time in a week, an innocent bystander was killed in a gun battle on the city's streets. Not only has this led to calls for the federal government to ban private ownership of handguns, or at least increase prison sentences for crimes committed with them, but for increased border security to stop the flow of illegal weaponry from the States into Canada.

While handguns aren't illegal in Canada, they are no where near as readily available, or as accessible, here as they are in the United States. This has led to the creation of the idea that there is a constant flow of illegal weapons crossing into Canada from the United States. Whether it's justified or not, this has led to the vision of cars with false bottomed trunks stuffed with side arms streaming across the border supplying Canada's criminal class with the means to stage fire fights on our peaceful streets.

You'd think that with politicians from both sides of the border wanting relatively the same things, assurances that their populations aren't under threat from the other country, that they could come up with a common plan that would work for both of them. But on this side of the border politicians are expressing concerns that asking people to show two pieces of identification instead of one, will cause irreparable harm to business and disrupt the travel plans of Canadians.

Maybe I'm a bit slow, but since these new border requirements are going to be for land crossings only, and a great many people drive from Canada into the United States, how much of a hardship will it be to have to present your driver's licence as well as your birth certificate when crossing the border. I can't see how a border guard looking at two pieces of identification instead of one, is going to, in the words of Canadian Trade Minister David Emerson, "significantly hurt cross border trade".

If that will impeded crossing the border significantly, what do people think that any measures taken to prevent hand guns crossing the border the other way would do? The only way you're going to stop someone from hiding a cache of weapons in their vehicle and taking it across the border is to either know about it in advance or x-ray every car that enters Canada. I can't see even the most zealous of Canadian politicians supporting that last suggestion, as it is bound to have a negative impact on the tourist trade.

So, there's the quandary that our poor politicians have created for themselves. On the one hand they all want to have a free and easy access to each others markets, but on the other hand they both have developed scenarios wherein the other country is depicted as being a threat to security. In their efforts to find somebody to blame for their problems - Canada's lax immigration laws allow terrorists easy access to targets in the United States and America's lax gun laws are flooding the streets of Canada with weaponry - they have created an even bigger problem for themselves. How to be seen to be doing something about the problem they invented without making their solution another problem.

Perhaps they should have been looking for a real solution to their problems in the first place instead of being so quick to blame someone else. What were the root causes of the terrorist attacks (not the reasons spouted by the leadership of al Qaeda but the real ones) and what could be done to address them, and why has there been such an increase in violence in the streets of Toronto? In fact it's one of the saddest commentaries on the whole state of affairs, how two friends like Canada and the United States find it so easy to point the finger of blame at each other for their problems.

Something amazing happened in Canada on September 11th 2001. With American air space closed and flights cancelled there were Americans stranded in Canadian airports all across the country. In every city with an airport people took it upon themselves to drive out to the airport to invite people home with them for the night. To offer comfort to a friend in trouble.

I think politicians on both sides of the border need to remember things like that before they start making wild accusations about whose responsible for what. America is no more responsible for violence in the streets of Toronto than Canada is responsible for terrorist attacks on the United States. Closing the border between our two countries won't change the fact that either event happened or prevent similar events from happening in the future.

December 30, 2007

Book Review: As The World Burns: 50 Simple Things You Can Do To Stay In Denial Derrick Jensen & Stephanie McMillan

The day doesn't go by anymore without there being at least one story in the news that concerns the environment. From either business denials of the Kyoto accord, arguments for and against the validity of global warming, to a story about the latest change in conditions around the world. Today was no exception as American Marine Biologists have moved the polar bear onto the endangered species list primarily due to loss of habitat.

While many animals have been forced into near extinction by our physical encroachment into their natural territories denying them the ability to sustain themselves, the polar bear is the first creature to feel the affects of our indirect influence on an area. The polar ice cap is melting and depriving them of their habitat and hunting grounds. Normally the pack ice would have no trouble supporting the weight of even the largest adult bear allowing it to roam at will hunting for the seal meat it needs to sustain itself. As the ice thins due to rising temperatures they are either drowning or starving to death.

The plague of global warming has extended the reach of our death grip over the planet until now we no longer even need to live in a place in order to kill off its native species. While reports like the one issued by scientists concerning the North may be finally convincing people that global warming is a danger to our planet and life itself, the means to combat it are still being contested by those whose interests demand that the conditions causing global warming continue unabated.
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As the danger has increased to the point where it has become an accepted fact by a good percentage of society, there has been a corresponding increase in corporate and political makeovers utilizing code words for environmental friendliness like "Green" and "Natural". If nothing else global warming has been responsible for the development of intensive advertising campaigns as everybody from governments to the oil and gas industry rushes to convince the public that they are doing their bit to save life.

In response to these campaigns, and the various band-aid solutions offered by folk such as Al Gore, author Derrick Jensen and cartoonist Stephanie McMillan have created the new graphic novel As The World Burns: 50 Simple Things You Can Do To Stay In Denial. Published by Seven Stories Press and distributed in Canada by Publishers Group Canada it will hit the shelves of bookstores in January offering truths that make Al Gore's inconveniences pale in comparison.

It's a retelling of the classic "Rome burning while Nero fiddles" story, except now it's the earth that's burning while the human race fiddles. In this case our fiddling consists of all the great ideas and plans that have been proposed as the means to save the planet from our destructive behaviour, and the burning is the death of the planet. While it may sound good in theory to change all your light-bulbs, recycle aluminum and tin cans, walk more and drive less, and buy goods with less packaging, the truth is the actual impact is so negligible that you may as well not bother. The only people benefiting are the manufactures of the light bulbs, and the owners of recycling plants.

The two young girls who are As The World Burns' protagonists are discussing "the list" of things that individuals can do in order to prevent global warming that appeared at the end of an unnamed movie about climate change. While one waxes enthusiastic about it, the other makes increasingly biting, and sarcastic comments. ("You're going like this one - you won't even have to change your lifestyle"... "Well thank goodness for that!!")

But when they sit down and do the math, figuring out how much the actual reduction in carbon dioxide emissions would be, the list just doesn't seem as thrilling as it once was. Even if every single person in the United States were to change all their light-bulbs to fluorescent, cut the amount they drive in half, recycle half of their household waste, inflate their tire pressure to increase gas milage, use low flow shower heads and wash clothes in lower temperature water, adjusts their thermostats two degrees up or down depending on the season, and plants a tree it would result in a one time, twenty-one percent reduction in carbon emissions.
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Even if by some miracle you were able to get every single person in America to actually do all that, there's a problem. America's current emission level is 7.1 billion tons of carbon dioxide every year and increases at a rate of 2 percent per annum. That means, for those with weak math skills, that after ten years levels would be right back where they started from.

At that point in the story the question is asked, why is it individuals are being asked to do all the work when the biggest culprits are industry? If America, and the rest of the world, (Acid rain in Germany is so bad that huge chunks of the Black Forest has been defoliated; Siberia, eastern Germany, and other remnants of the Soviet Union are industrial wastelands; and nobody knows what the environmental cost of the Chinese and Indian economic miracles is going to be) aren't willing or able to change the demands put upon the manufacturing sector for material wealth and mass production, any efforts made by individuals will be in vain.

In our story, As The World Burns, things come to a head when aliens strike a deal with a President of the United States (looking a lot like Ronnie Reagan) that in exchange for lots of gold they get ot eat the planet. The Aliens had been expecting resistance, and were happy to find that humans were only to willing to destroy their own world in order to make a quick profit. Of course this upsets corporate America; weren't they supposed to be allowed to eat the world in exchange for letting the President be President? Something has to be done!

It turns out that the Aliens are afraid of the wild, ("You know Mr. President, the wild, it's kind of like what you see on eco-tours. Trees, bushes, plants, and animals."), but how do you use the wild to fight Aliens? It turns out you don't, but the wild can fight back on it's own, especially if humans are willing to help them. With the survival of earth at stake the animals, trees, and elements feel like they have nothing to lose and throw themselves into the fight no matter what the cost is in life. If they lose this battle, they won't survive much longer anyway.

There's nothing subtle about the message As The World Burns delivers and the majority are going to dismiss it as radical nonsense. As a society we are still too much enamoured of the things that are produced by industry and enthralled by the convenience of our amenities. It's far easier to dismiss the message that our lifestyle is responsible for destroying the planet than it is to even contemplate changing it. Anyway, doesn't everybody say our way of life is the best in the world?

Only dangerous radicals or the very naive would suggest otherwise and recommend governments enact, or even enforce existing environmental regulations, that make a difference in the fight against global warming. Anyway all that would happen is companies would close here and open factories in other countries where the laws aren't as strict and the people are desperate. Of course if all the countries in the world were to prevent a unified front against polluters, they'd have nowhere to run and would have to change their ways if they wanted to stay in business.

It comes down to how much of the planet are we willing to lose? If we don't care about preserving a natural existence at all and seeing how far we can survive artificially without the wildlife that we were entrusted with as caretakers, than the course we are currently following is not a problem. But if we are to have any hope of preserving what's left, and maybe even reversing what's been done, we need to rethink our whole way of being.

As The World Burns: 50 Simple Things You Can Do To Stay In Denial is unabashedly radical in it's call for change, and provides convincing arguments that we aren't doing enough to prevent the destruction of the natural world. The decision is ours - trust the politicians and the leaders of industry who tell us that everything will be fine, or trust our senses; sight, smell, sound, touch, and taste, that tell us the world has changed irrevocably for the worse and that we need to do something about it.

This is definitely not a graphic novel for those looking to escape the troubles of the world, or for those unwilling to accept that we've been wrong all along. Unfortunately it's speaking the truth, and unless more of us are able to realize that fact, the world as we know it will succumb to the rapacious greed of a few and it's very possible that polar bears will be a thing of the past by the time our grandchildren inherit the earth. That's not a legacy I want to leave behind - how about you?

July 4, 2007

Canada And The USA - Simillar But Different

The other day I made some reference or other to Canada Day, Canada' s birthday, to an American and she completely missed it. So I wrote her back and said, "Canada Day, it’s a lot like your Independence Day on July fourth except less weapons are involved". And come to think of it Canada is one of the few I know of that don't celebrate with a parade of armed might for the world to see.

Of course that could be explained easily enough by the fact that we probably don't have enough equipment to parade anyway. Most of our troops are already being shot up in Afghanistan by friendly fire from American pilots who can't tell the difference between enemy and allied troops.. Can't really take that personally since during the invasion of Iraq the largest number of casualties they incurred were own kills. ( I don't know if that's true or not but I wouldn't be surprised if it was)

Anyway the fact that Canada Day, July 1st and July 4th, are so close together got me thinking about the differences between our two countries. One difference can be found in the name of our respective countries national holiday. Up to a few years ago we referred to our day as Dominion Day, in while the American national holiday is called Independence Day.

On July 1st 1867 Canada was created by an Act of the British Parliament, The British North American Act, witch also served as Canada's Constitution until the 1980s. The American's on the other hand were a bunch of dissatisfied British nobility who had grown tired of sending a tithe of their takings back to the homeland. This is what provoked the now infamous Boston Tea Party.

Its interesting to note how the two countries have such different attitudes to government and its role in society. In Canada we have no problems, in general, with government run programs that act as a social safety net. In the United States the thought of government controlled Health Care is considered a dangerous threat to liberty by more extreme factions and tantamount to socialism and communism by others.

Some where along the line in the development of America they began to consider themselves an Empire and exhibit the attitudes that come with that. The first sign of this was the Monroe Doctrine of 1810 that claimed it was the United States' Manifest destiny to rule the entire Western Hemisphere without the interference of any foreign power.

Not surprisingly they tried to invade British Canada in 1812 but were repulsed. In fact British troops landed in Washington DC and burnt down the White House and were barely repulsed in Louisiana when they landed troops there. After that the American's concentrated of expanding their interests into South America.

Unlike America Canada has only had two minor internal wars. The first took place in the 1830s when leaders in both French Canada and English Canada fought for more responsible government and sought to break the power of the few families who controlled the political power in that area. The one in English Canada lasted all a day when the leaders were allowed to march through the streets of Toronto until they met barricades manned by armed militia and trained solders. Quebec was different story as the revolt lasted for two weeks as they based themselves in the rural areas and were simply harder to hunt down.

The second major revolt took place after Canada was formed and involved Louis Riel leading the Metis and Natives of Manitoba and Saskatchewan in a desperate attempt to hold onto their land against the onslaught of settlers who were taking treaty land without offering compensation. Riel paid for having the nerve to stand up against the government with his life. (He was also used as an excuse for ensuring that Canada's national railroad was built – but that's another story for another day)

The United State on the other hand almost tore themselves apart with their civil war pitting the Northern part of the Country against the South in a vicious war that lasted nearly five years. With the North trouncing the South it was a victory of industry over agriculture and the economic path of the country was set

Not only had the war been a spur to build rail lines everywhere, it ensured the quick development of an industrial base which helped propel them to becoming the economic power they are today. It was in this time that the Americans began serious empire building and exercising their manifest destiny to the south. They had long ago stolen Texas and California from Mexico and were set to begin their economic conquest of South America.

The carrot and the stick were used to great effect throughout the region. With the carrot being bribes for political support of whatever corrupt officials they could find to endorse the American way and the stick military might to pacify any popular resistance to slave wages, exploitation of natural resources, and the theft of indigenous lands.

Sometimes it became convenient to provide an excuse to go to war, and so the American's sank a decommissioned ship called the Maine in Havana harbour and declared it an act of armed terrorism they would not stand for. They invaded Cuba, installed a puppet government who did what they were told by the Sugar and Fruit companies.

It was pretty much the same all over South and Central America until Fidel Castro and Che Guevara came along and liberated Cuba in the 1950's. Unfortunately Cuba was an anomaly and South America has only just begun to remove itself from under the heel of the American boot in the last decade. As late a the 1970's and 80's they were involved with either propping up repressive regimes who favoured their policies and doing their best to remove from power those who opposed them.

While the United States was busy setting up their empire what was Canada doing? Well, Canada was setting up its country. The biggest problem was finding people to settle the western Prairie Provinces to prevent the land from being taken by Americans and having to pitch our neophyte army against the hardened Americans to protect it. So the government sent out agents to Eastern Europe where conditions were similar, but land was less plentiful and offered the equivalent of forty acres, a cow, and plough to anybody who would take their families to a brand new country and hostile weather conditions and homestead.

Which explains to this day why there are so many Ukrainian and other Eastern European names scattered throughout the ranch land and farms of Western Canada. We were also getting caught up in the Wars of Great Britain, first the Boer War in South Africa and then the First World War. It wasn't until the 1920's that Canada was allowed control of it's own foreign affairs.

Canada's development on the world stage didn't really flower until the 1950's and the Suez Canal crises. It was Canada's minister for foreign affairs who won the Nobel Peace prize for coming up with the idea of sending in a multinational force of troops under the lead of the United Nation to serve as buffer between the warring parties. Thus were born peacekeepers thanks to Lester B. Pearson .

Canada began to excel in the role of compassionate middle power country that all sides in a dispute would trust. As a result Canadian soldiers would find themselves in some of the hottest spots of the world from the Golan Heights to Cyprus being asked to keep people from killing each other.

In my mind it is this that separates Canada and the United States. While the United States thinks of the world in terms of what it can take from it and use for itself, Canada looks to see what it can do for the world. Since the time of the 1950's we have geared our soldiers to be either rescue workers delivering care and comfort where needed. (This also explains our high casualty rate when it comes to our soldiers in Afghanistan as they are not equipped or trained for combat situations of this nature)

It wasn't until 1990 and Prime Minister Brian Mulroney wanting to look impressive sent troops to the first Gulf war that Canada's role on the world stage began to emulate the American one. We weren’t becoming empire builders, but we were being seen to be their buddies, which was bad enough.

But at the same time we still considered ourselves to have a moral obligation to help right injustices in the world and believed in the ideal the United Nations. While Canada was working to help free Nelson Mandela and supporting aid programs to the developing world, the U. S. were propping up the Afrikaner government in South Africa and not paying their dues to the UN.

They considered the U.N. to be almost an enemy, as they do to this day, because they will not act as a rubber stamp for American ambitions. The United States of America is the biggest obstacle in the road towards helping Africa pull out of it's downward spiral of poverty and disease because it is not in their best interests for it to happen.

Canada and the United States live side by side in North America, but they are miles apart when it comes to how they view their places in the world. Canada sees itself as a citizen of the world with responsibilities toward helping her fellow man. The U. S. on the other hand sees the world only in terms of what it can do for the United States.

We are most definitely two different countries

June 7, 2007

DVD Review: Darfur Diaries: Message From Home

There's a point in one of the interviews with a director of Darfur Diaries: Message From Home in the special features section of the DVD where she mentions one of the bitter ironies of the crises in Darfur. A group of dignitaries from the international community had come together to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda and apologise for having allowed it to happen.

As they were all standing up there swearing that they would never let something like that happen again and how they would be supper vigilant to prevent it, the government of Sudan was busy bombing and slaughtering its own people in the province of Darfur.

Darfur Diaries: Message From Home was shot in 2004 by three young film makers who traveled to Darfur on their own and spent time in both Northern and Southern areas of the province, and refugee camps in the neighbouring country of Chad, interviewing the people who had been affected by the attacks. Burnt out houses stand as mute testimony to the bombing raids conducted by the government against its own citizens.

Even as they filmed an Anatolov bomber flew over dropping bombs randomly on the countryside. Parents cried out to children "don't run, sit down under the trees so they can't see you". The pilots of the bombers circle around and target movement and release their bombs killing indiscriminately. Livestock, humans, it doesn't seem to matter as long as the people and their abilities to survive are destroyed.
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Just like genocides that have been conducted all over the world, from North America to Asia, the theory goes to completely destroy a people destroy their means of survival. With the natives of North America it was taking away their food supply by exterminating it, with the people of Darfur the policy seems is to destroy their villages and steal their livestock as well as killing them.

After the bombers the strategy of the government was to send in both the Sudanese army and vigilante groups to kill, rape, and steal from the people. Families are exterminated and survivors are forced to flee after watching their loved one killed in front of them. The excuse the government makes for these attacks is the existence of the Sudanese Liberation Army.

They conveniently forget that the rebel army only formed in response to increasing discrimination against Africans in Sudan and to the attacks upon their villages by the government forces. The little that the media has reported on what was happening in Darfur was to ape what the government said; not bothering to find out for themselves what the story was.

What's wonderful about Dafur Diaries is that the only times stuff like politics is mentioned is in the interviews with the filmmakers in the special features. For the people on the ground what matters is what's happened to them and being given opportunity to tell their story. From the young boy who looks into the camera and talks of watching his brother being shot, to the mothers talking about their babies and their injuries.

The filmmakers interview children who draw pictures of men on camels and horses firing guns; of soldiers in jeeps firing guns; and planes dropping bombs on villages and setting them on fire. They draw pictures of people running away with their arms in the air from men with guns and swords who are charging on horses. They draw pictures of dead people laid out on the ground.

Sudan has long been comprised of two distinct Muslim populations, Arab and African. According to the people interviewed it has a long history of the two races co-existing peacefully with intermarriages commonplace. Only since the coup that brought the existing government into power have measures been taken against the majority African population to reduce their means of making a livelihood. There were occasional disputes about grazing rights but the people interviewed in this movie claim they were always settled amicably.

Now however the government has created a racial war, to keep a majority population in check. But not even within the minority Arab population is there unanimity for this war. It appears that aside from the government and it's army – the only people who support the war are the crooks, rapists, and miserable excuses for human beings who raid the villages after the bombing raids.

The government started attacking the Africans by cutting funding to the village schools, until there was no money to pay for teachers and supplies. They also arrested all the teachers on charges of treason and tortured them. One man interviewed showed the scars where he had been beaten with bricks by his guards and told about other teachers still in jail.

What's wondrous is the lack of anger displayed by the Africans towards the Arab population of Sudan in general. As one puts it the government is using the Arab people like a weapon and don't really care about them anymore than they care about us. In fact according to the Sudanese Liberation Army in villages to the north where there is extensive intermingling between the two peoples just as many Arabs are dieing as Africans.

Nobody seems to want to venture as to why this has happened. But in some ways the why is not as important as the fact that it is happening. A government is systematically killing a segment of its own population through without remorse or hesitation. They are destroying whole villages and forcing people to leave their homes for any shelter they can find elsewhere.

To me it seems obvious why the government is doing this – they want the land for the people they would prefer to have it. Just like everywhere else that indigenous people have been inconvenient enough to be living where the government wants to make use of the land, the quickest and easiest way of dealing with the matter is to kill or force them off the land.

Darfur Diaries: Message From Home is wonderful in its simplicity. The people tell the stories of what happened to them, tell you about themselves and their families, and are completely matter of fact. These are the faces of the people we never see in the news stories, and the voices we never hear.

Who better to tell the story of what is happening to them than the people to whom it is happening, and this movie acts as a direct pipeline from them to whoever will listen. Don't you think you owe it to them to listen?

April 24, 2007

Canadian Politics: Canada Ignores Geneva Convention In Afghanistan

Up until a little over a month ago the Canadian Minister of Defence, Gordon O'Connor, was assuring Canadians that prisoners of war that Canada handed over to the Afghanistan government were having their treatment monitored by the Red Cross. Unlike any of the other countries serving as part of the occupying force in Afghanistan Canada has no arrangement in place allowing them to monitor the well being of the detainees they turn over, so we have to rely on third party reports.

It turns out he was wrong about that one as neither the Red Cross or the Red Crescent societies were monitoring the conditions of any of the Prisoners Of War being held by the Afghan government. When Mr. O'Connor came clean about that in the Canadian Parliament last month, he said not to worry though because the Afghan Human Rights people would let the military know if anybody was being mistreated.

You see according to the Geneva Convention no nation is allowed to turn over a prisoner to another nation if it suspects it will be tortured. If it finds out the prisoner is being tortured it must intervene on his or her behalf to prevent the torture from continuing or demand that the prisoner be returned to their custody.

Of course in order to do this a government must have the means in place to be informed of the well being of anybody who they had handed over to an allied power. For reasons best known to themselves, Defence Minister O'Connor and Chief of Staff General Rick Hiller couldn't be bothered insuring that we had anyway of living up to our responsibilities under the convention.

The only reason I can think for not having that language in a prisoner transfer agreement is that they don't have it the one they've established with the United States, even though those detainees end up in Guantanemo Bay where they are tortured. Of course the United States circumvents that problem by claiming none of the people they are fighting in Afghanistan are eligible for status as Prisoners of War.

Because the war is over anybody taking up arms against the occupying forces are terrorists and not soldiers. This despite the fact that while the Taliban may not be fighting a conventional war they have primarily gone after military targets and terrorist type attacks on civilians have been few and far between. (Please don't get me wrong, I've no sympathy whatsoever for the Taliban, but that doesn't mean we treat them any worse than we would want our people to be treated)

That means when Canada transfers prisoners to the United States we are able to ignore the fact that they will probably be tortured or at least kept in conditions contrary to the Geneva Convention. In fact the Americans havn't even felt the need to release the names of those being held let alone allow third party monitoring.

In the agreement signed with Afghanistan both parties agreed to comply with the Convention to ensure that all detainees' were well treated. But the Afghanistan security forces obviously have a far different opinion than the rest of the world as to what constitutes cruel and unusual.

You see it turns out that at least thirty people who the Canadian army have turned over to the Afghanistan security forces have been tortured while in custody. In a series of face to face interviews with thirty detainees Globe and Mail reporter Graeme Smith heard stories of beatings, electric shock, whippings, starvation, choking and freezing during interrogation.

Of course with these revelations the opposition parties want Defence Minister O'Connor's head on a platter. After over a year of assurances from him that there was nothing to worry about concerning the treatment of detainees after they left Canadian hands it's proven that he and all others involved in the agreement were either lying from ignorance or with deliberate intent to mislead the people of Canada.

Either way they are guilty of allowing the circumstances for these people being tortured to develop. If the Canadian government's representatives had only made a small effort to ascertain the condition of their former detainees they could have intervened as was their responsibility as set forth by the Geneva Convention. If a reporter for a newspaper was able to get access to these people how difficult would it have been for the military to keep tabs on them?

The ironic thing is that each and every one of the detainees interviewed had nothing but positive things to say about their treatment at the hands of the Canadian armed forces. They were treated with kindness and respect even though they might have been trying to kill their captors hours earlier and the detention facility was comfortable. One man did say he was certain that the soldiers knew he was being mistreated because some who visited him told him that he should give his Afghan interrogators real information or they would continue to hurt him.

It makes one wonder how is it Canadian soldiers were able to get into see their former prisoner so easily, and know what was going on in terms of torture, but somehow their superiors didn't. Is the chain of command that useless soldiers don't feel comfortable informing their superiors about events like this, or did they report the matter and nothing was done?

There are far too many unanswered questions and loose ends for the Minister of Defence Gordon O'Connor and Chief of Staff General Rick Heller to simply say we didn't know what was going on. There is no justification for them to have allowed this situation to develop and to not do anything about it until they were forced to. Whatever moral high ground they may have thought they had from trying to rid Afghanistan of the Taliban is fast eroding out from under them.

April 17, 2007

Guernica: Seventy Years Later And Nothings Changed

There have been quite a number of ceremonies in recent years honouring historic battles and the like from the twentieth century. Just last weekend Canadians "celebrated" the ninetieth anniversary of their participation in the slaughter of Vimy Ridge during World War One (why if they've waited this long they couldn't hold out for another ten years for the centenary I don't know) with the opening of a new memorial in France at the site of the battle.

Of course the Canadian Prime Minister, Steven Harper, couldn't pass up the opportunity to link Canada's presence at Vimy with the Canadian troops being killed in Afghanistan today. Not that he said anything remotely resembling the truth; ninety years later and we still haven't learned anything, our soldiers are still dying in someone else's war.

No he hauled out the usual platitudes about paying the ultimate price, making the supreme sacrifice, and dying for your freedom. Nobody has bothered to explain how a Canadian soldier getting blown up on either Vimy Ridge in France in 1917 or some outback near Kandahar in Afghanistan guaranteed or is guaranteeing my freedom.

Hell the men who are dying in Afghanistan aren't even ensuring the freedom of the people who live in that country, so I don't know how anybody can claim they're doing anything for me. But that's what politicians do, they try and make use of symbols to generate emotional responses in people so they don't think about the illogic of what is being said and question things being done in their name.

But amidst all the hoopla surrounding Vimy this year, the invasion of Normandy during World War Two three years ago, and every November 11th commemorating the end of World War One, an anniversary of import has managed to slip by most politicians. This April 26th will mark the 70th anniversary of the bombing of the Spanish village of Guernica by German bombers supporting the fascist rebellion in Spain led Francisco Franco.

The bombing raid has the distinction of being the first full scale attack on a strictly civilian target during a war. While Mussolini had used some air power in his ugly conquest of Ethiopia the year earlier and others have tried to lay claim latterly to being the first civilian targets hit by bombs, the attack on Guernica still holds the dubious distinction of being the first ever deliberate targeting of civilians by the military.

Reading the eye witness account at the link above leaves one no doubt of the intent behind the attack. If they hadn't meant to bomb civilians they could have stopped after the first bomber dropped his payload and realized it wasn't a military target.

Instead, according to the eyewitness the raid lasted for three and one quarter hours during which three types of German plane dropped bombs of up to a maximum of 1,000lbs and over 3,000 2lb aluminium incendiary devices. Nor would the accompanying fighters have deliberately sought out and machine-gunned people who had taken shelter in the fields surrounding the town if it hadn't been a deliberate attack on the civilian population.

Of course it's not really that surprising that no one is making a big deal of this being the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Gurenica. None of the Western governments wanted to pay attention to the war when it was happening. In fact Canada even went so far as to try and make it illegal for Canadian citizens to volunteer to help the Republicans fight off Franco.

No one should get involved because it is an internal dispute, was the line bandied about by Great Britain, Canada, America, and France. So they stood by while Mussolini and Hitler warmed up for invading the rest of Europe by sending troops and planes to help Franco. I have to hope that the reason no one commemorates this war to this day is that all of our governments are embarrassed about their behaviour.

By not interfering they missed the chance of cutting the nascent German power off at the knees. Instead they sent out a pretty clear signal to Hitler that he was going to be allowed to do pretty much what he wanted for the next couple of years. Besides there are some things that haven't changed about American foreign policy – always support the right wing dictators over the democratically elected socialist.

It was a pretty common thought in those days that a strong Germany under Hitler was a good thing because it kept Stalin and the Soviet Union at bay. Of course that theory got thrown out the window when Hitler and Stalin signed a non-aggression pact in 1939. It was Stalin's way of thumbing his nose at the West for trying to throw him to the wolves, and it freed Hitler to attack Europe in 1940.
PicassoGuernica.jpg
When was the last time you looked closely at Picasso's Guernica? To me it had always seemed like the most accurate portrayal of the aftermath of a bombing that I'd ever seen. Photographs don't really do anything, even if the occasional body is strewn about, they just never had the impact that even the smallest reproduction of this work had on me.

But nothing prepared me for actually seeing the piece on display. I had no idea it was a mural that took up an entire wall of the Metropolitan Museum Of Modern Art in New York City. In 1980 when I walked in the front doors of the museum I was stopped dead in my tracks by its sheer magnitude. (In his will Picasso had prohibited the painting from ever being seen in Spain until a democratically elected government was elected again. Ironically if I had come to New York City a year later I would never have had an opportunity to see the painting as it was shipped back to Spain shortly after I saw it with the election of the first government since the Republicans in the 1930s) I couldn't believe that anyone after having seen that work could give an order that would allow civilians to be bombed.

So maybe that's the other reason no one is going to be opening any champagne on April 26th of this year to celebrate the 70th anniversary of Guernica. What would a politician say at this event? Ultimate sacrifice and supreme price or whatever their damned phrases are just don't cut it for this one do they.

Standing up and admitting you haven't learned squat from the past isn't something that politicians are very good at, and that's not going to change in a little over a week's time. If they were honest they could get up and say today we remember our first lesson in mass destruction using airplanes and bombs. Seventy years later and we can now take out people in greater numbers and from further away then we dreamed of back in those primitive days.

We salute the people of Guernica for being the first victims of mankind's descent into brutality in the modern era. They gave of themselves selflessly so others could die in greater numbers in the future. They made the supreme sacrifice and paid the ultimate price, and the entire arms industry salutes them for opening up a whole new target group – civilians.

No I guess that wouldn't look too good on a commemorative t-shirt or ball cap, and don't even think of a monument. Nobody wants to be reminded of Gurenica, Dresden, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, London, Singapore, Saigon, Baghdad, Beirut, Warsaw, Stalingrad, Hong Kong, Berlin, Tel Aviv, Gaza, Jerusalem, Dafur, Rwanda, Bosnia, Armenia, Somalia, Ethiopia, Argentina, Brazil, El Salvador, Rome, Kabul, Teheran, Algiers, Mumbai, Karachi, Kashmir, Punjabi, or any other place where civilians have died or continue to be killed.

Seventy years ago, on April 26th 1937, German bombers fighting with Francisco Franco bombed Guernica a small village in the Basque region of Spain. There was no discernable military target. The combination of incendiary, devices and high explosives plus repeated passes by fighter planes with machine guns left no doubt that the target of this raid were the citizens of Guernica themselves.

They must not be forgotten.

April 15, 2007

Globalization And The International Monetary Fund

I have to wonder what world the people at the International Monetary Fund (IMF) are living in. A number of Finance Ministers and Central Bankers from countries around the world met up together in Washington D.C. this past weekend and issued a communiqué saying that they thought everything was just peachy.

They expressed satisfaction with what they called the robust expansion of the global economy and that and quite happily predicted that the world economy would continue to expand through 2008 underpinned by solid economic foundations. Of course they have a couple of worries; what to do about any inflationary problem if the price of oil bounces up again and what to do if the American economy goes into the tank instead of just slumping as expected.

Now normally I can't be bothered to read any official reports or press regurgitations about IMF meetings, because the lie hasn't much changed in all the years. They're still pushing the same "Globalization will save the world economy" crap. Of course they don’t mention the fact that's only if you are in one of the so called developed countries where they take things like running water, a proper education, and medical care for granted.

But on this occasions the headline of IMF Needs To Correct Trade Imbalance caught my eye. For a second I thought they were finally going to try and figure out someway of helping countries that are being forced to have fire sales on their natural resources just so they can eat. But I should have known better.

They were talking about China and the Untied States and how they needed to reduce both America's trade imbalance with China and how the Chinese needed to play fair with the rest of the world by not fluctuating their currency. In other words all they are giving a damn about is propping up the status quo and making sure the wealthy stay wealthy.

I guess I shouldn't have been so surprised. The IMF seems to exist only to make the world safe for the American economy. But, I can hear everyone of you commerce type people out there saying, without the American economy the rest of the world would be in trouble. What I don't understand is how the world let itself get so dependant on a country that has a debt in the trillions of dollars?

If they are so important to the world why didn't the IMF step in and say, Mr. Bush stop spending a billions of dollars a year on pointless wars and military hardware? Why hasn't the IMF said anything about the escalating cost of America's continued occupation of Iraq? It wouldn't be because the IMF are an American tool for ensuring artificial trade conditions exist that favour the Americans?

Well according to the The Global Exchange web site the IMF doesn't just favour, it damn well caters to them and any other member state with enough money to buy control of it. You see the more money you put into the IMF the more you control it. This might sound logical on the surface, but what it results in is a few nations end up controlling the fates of the entire developing world by dictating to them the terms and conditions of loans.

When you consider the fact that the IMF was set up after World War Two as a means of trying to ensure that another global depression could be avoided, you would think that meant they would have the best interests of the poorer member states at heart. Originally the idea was to give developing countries short-term loans so they could start up trade with developed countries. But what's ended up happening is the IMF now controls the economies of around sixty countries in the world.

The way they work is really nasty; more like a form of black mail than anything else. A country approaches them and says we need X amount of money to help us buy some necessary technology so we can build up our manufacturing base or strengthen our ability to develop our natural resources so we have something we can sell on the world market.

First of all seeing as how they are supposed to be assisting its member states, you'd think they would offer favourable interest rates and flexible arrangements for repayment, unlike a bank. Supposedly the idea is to get countries on their feet and be competitive in the brave new world of the global economy.

Instead of doing something helpful what they do is attach conditions to the loans that no bank would ever consider doing, or bank regulator would allow. They have what they call Structural Adjustment Policies (SAPS) which they claim are needed to ensure debt repayment. They demand that governments cut spending to frills like education, health care, environmental controls and that's just the start. They then insist that restrictions on foreign ownership for things like natural resources are relaxed, publicly owned services are privatized, wages are frozen, and labour laws gutted.

The result of all this is that country takes out a loan to supposedly improve their economy but the conditions attached to the loan are so usurious that they actually cripple it. All of a sudden natural resources that would have supplied much needed trade goods and money coming into the economy are owned by foreign corporations that put as little money as possible into the country.

The workers who are employed by the company get bare minimum wages and have little or no money to spend on manufactured goods and what they can afford to buy are the cheap imports flooding the markets due to tariffs being removed. Local industry, without financing like the big multi nationals can't compete and go under or barely survive which means that no manufacturing base is being developed.

With workers wages frozen and funds for education and health care frozen or cut, families aren't able to afford higher educations for their children that would help pull them out of poverty while illness and disease can be devastating to a family's financial survival. With environmental controls relaxed to accommodate the needs of foreign owners and currencies devalued to export the goods easily and at a profit (everything just costs that much less for them now doesn't it if the local currency is twenty to the dollar instead of ten) the long-term prospects of the country suck.

Just so you understand how rigged this system is against the debtor nations, you know who it is who comes up with the repayment package ideas? That's right the same guys who have the most money and the most control. They get to set it up so they get full benefit from the loans not the poor debtor country whose had to bend over and take it in a desperate bid to survive.

Oh and just one other little thing about all these strings that the IMF attaches to loans. Remember all those promises of debt forgiveness? Well all the same rules apply to them as well. The IMF can say to some starving African nation with a horrible debt load but big nickel deposits – "lets make a deal". They wipe the slate clean and the country loses its one asset to greed heads from other countries.

Is it any wonder that most of the developing world is beginning to hate us with such an intensity. Sure their colonial masters might have given them independence, but it's a sham without economic freedom and nobody is going to be giving them that any time soon.

The only way to change this situation is to abolish the IMF in its current format. No country should be made to sacrifice its future to receive help in the present. Right now the reality is that only a few nations in the world are benefiting from the great globalization of economies.

So when they release their communiqués announcing things are going great it's just another lie in the series of lies we are told on a daily basis. Aren't you getting tired of being lied to? I know I am.

April 14, 2007

Canada Releases Alledged Terrorists From Jail

The results of the Supreme Court of Canada's overturning the use of security certificates to hold refugee applicants in permanent detention without trial if there was any suspicion of terrorist activity are now being seen. Two men who had been held under the law for years were both released from federal penitentiaries in the past two days.

Mohamed Zeki Mahjoub was released on this past Thursday after being held in Kingston Penitentiary for the last seven years because he had run a farming operation in the Sudan for Osama bin Laden. He has been released under conditions tantamount to him being under twenty- four-hour surveillance.

The terms of his house arrest includes being monitored by The Canadian Border Authority via a GPS bracelet permanently attached to his ankle, video cameras in his house, taps on his phone, and being followed by agents on the rare occasions he is allowed to leave his house. His family are also being held responsible for him adhering to all of his bail conditions.

Mr. Mahjoub has been the Canadian suspect with closest ties to Osman bin Laden, but he claims his association was innocent. The farming concerns he ran for the leader of al-Qaeda were during the time before bin Laden even lived in Afghanistan, and he claims to have just been another employee and eventually left the job over money disputes with bin Laden.

Mr. Mahjoub has never been accused of any terror activity, but the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) claims that he was part of an Egyptian extremist group called the Vanguards of Conquest and knew al-Qaeda operatives including a person alleged to be a Canadian financer of the group and an Iraqi who the American 9/11 commission calls al-Qaeda's principal procurement agent for weapons of mass destruction. ( It may be just me, but any American announcement containing the words Iraq and Weapons of Mass Destruction just doesn't seem to have much credibility)

The second man was released on Friday from a detention centre in Kingston Ontario Canada as well. Mahmoud Jaballah has been in detention since 2001, although the government has been after him since 1999. When they attempted to have him deported in 1999 they lost their case held under normal circumstances, but when the opportunity arose with the security laws in place he was immediately rearrested.

Attempts by the government to have him deported back to his native Egypt have been constantly denied by the courts because of the very real threat of torture he would face if returned. Although the current government continues to insist upon Mr. Jaballah's guilt (In a statement released by Stockwell Day, Minister of Public Safety, in response to Mr. Jaballah's release Day implied he was the murderer of women and children.) the judge said that although the initial evidence against Mr. Jaballah did at one time warrant the security certificate, now that he has spent six years in detention and no additional evidence has come to light she had to defer to the Supreme Court's ruling that the longer a person spends incarcerated the less likelihood there is of them being a security risk.

Based on those grounds the federal court judge changed Mr. Jaballah's sentence to that of house arrest, similar to the conditions imposed upon Mr. Mahjoub. The judge asserted, but offered no proof to back her words, that the conditions were imperative in Mr. Jaballah's case because she had no doubt that if not monitored he would get in touch with terrorists.

Mr. Jaballah first came under suspicion because of a series of over a hundred phone calls he placed to the United Kingdom, Azerbaijan, and Yemen to an alleged al Qaeda front. When those are added to the twenty calls he made to those destination and Pakistan in a subsequent two-day period and the fact that when asked to explain he either was evasive or didn't answer the questions it served to confirm his guilt in the eyes of the courts.

Given the atmosphere in North America in the days following 9/11 you can understand why he was placed under suspicion. The bombings he was accused of co-ordinating were embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998. But now nine years later and no further evidence has come forth, and, according to his lawyer, when the United States released a list of suspects, he wasn't even named as an un indicted co-conspirator.

The government of Canada's reaction to these events has been highly predictable. Aside from his insinuations about Mr. Jaballah being responsible for killing women and children and just awaiting his opportunity to go on another bloodthirsty rampage, he also has stated that the government would prefer that all these people remain locked up.

In another tidy bit of fear mongering he also said he hoped that the house arrest rules would be enough to keep Canadians safe from them. He then added that the court agreed that Mr. Mahjoub had clearly worked for Osama bin Laden and received a salary for that work. Well who wouldn't want to be paid for working, and since when has it become a crime to work for someone when there is no proof that your activities were criminal.

I mean if we're going to start rounding up people who've had business associations with Osama they better be picking up Dick Cheney and almost everybody on the Halliburton Board of Directors. At one point they had owned around 30% of bin Landen's company. Not just his families business – but his company. Doesn't anyone find it at all odd that on the day after 9/11 when all the planes in and out of the United States were grounded, that all the members of the bin Laden family living in the United States were able to fly home?

Who arranged that for them, and why was it allowed to happen? If Dick Cheney and George Bush, both of who would have to okay something like this, come to Canada will they be picked up on a security certificate? They've had some pretty suspicious contact with bin Laden and his whole family immediately after 9/11.

What does that sound ridiculous? Why is it anymore ridiculous than wanting to keep a man in jail because he ran a farm for bin Laden long before he even went to Afghanistan? What proof do they even have that either man had of any involvement in any terror activity? Well, none, actually. One guy made a lot of phone calls to the countries where he could have family just as easily as he could have terror contacts. Why so many calls in two days? Hell if my mom has to contact her family about an event like a death she could make twenty calls in an afternoon no sweat.

Mr. Mahjoub worked for someone who turns out to be one of the bad guys, but how was he supposed to know that back whenever it was he worked for him. In fact the government hasn't said when he worked for him, only that it was before bin Laden was in Afghanistan, which means before 9/11/01. In fact he even says he quit working for him over a dispute with money. No one has given us any reason not to believe him.

Mahmoud Jaballah and Mohamed Zeki Mahjoub were both held in Canadian prisons with no trial, not knowing what exactly they had done to end up there, and knowing if they were to lose they'd be deported to torture and death in their former homes. Perhaps it was understandable seven years ago to keep an eye on people like them, or even detain them temporarily. But now it 's just cruel and unjust.

If you're having any doubts about which side to err on in Canada, freedom or so called safety, think about Mahar Arar and his time in an Egyptian jail being tortured. It was our security service that put him there with their inaccuracies and incompetence. Do you trust them with any more lives?

April 10, 2007

Vimy Ridge To Afghanistan: The Lie Remains The Same

Ninety years ago Canadian soldiers went over the top at Vimy Ridge in France during that great waste of life in the twentieth century known as World War One. There was nothing honourable or noble about that war – at least in World War Two you had the Nazi leaders of Germany as a canker that had to exorcised from the earth – it was just the last stuttering gasps of the Empires of Europe.

If we think our political leaders today our callous and stupid, and there is no denying they are, even George Bush jr. would be hard pressed to match the inbred stupidity of those folk who allowed a whole generation to be destroyed under the guns of France. Canadians like to bleat how our soldiers attacking the guns at Vimy Ridge in 1917 was a coming of age for our country. Yep it proved we could be as stupid as anyone else and knew how to spend the lives of our young men as ably as the next country.

Yep we had the balls for slaughter so that made us a country just like our former colonial masters the British and the French, or our new economic master the Americans. It sure is something for us to be proud of isn't it? So proud that we built a huge monument in France so on the ninetieth anniversary we can celebrate how many people were cut to pieces by machine gun fire.

My idea of a memorial for the fiasco that took place from 1914 – 1918 is to erect a huge plaque saying that this was a futile waste of life that accomplished nothing except set the stage for all the wars for the next hundred years . Out of that war came the mess that is the Middle East right now, the horror that was the ethnic cleansing of the Balkans, and the Treaty of Versailles that ended World War One gave Hitler an excuse for war.

On the weekend of the ninetieth anniversary six Canadian soldiers were killed in the first pointless war of the Twenty-First century – Afghanistan. Their personnel carrier was blown to shit and back by a homemade bomb buried in the dirt on the road. The six soldiers were killed instantly while two more were injured, but it looks they'll pull through.

I wonder if the Canadian press will get tired of printing the headline, "The Most Canadian Soldiers Killed In Combat Since The Korean War". This is the second time they've written it in the last four months and both times it's been because one of those road side bombs had blown the crap out of a convoy. (We don't count accidents like when the Syrians shot down some Peace Keepers on the Golan Heights in the 1990s or when the American National Guard twice used Canadian troops for target practice in Afghanistan because they can't tell friend from foe. I'm sure telling parents that their child was killed by friendly fire makes them feel all warm and fuzzy inside about their allies, I know that's how I feel)

I can't remember how many "The Most Since Korea" was last time, it's getting hard to keep track of things like this when there is a steady trickle of deaths. Although come to think of it they do seem to come in clumps. A few months will pass and there will be no fatalities, casualties sure, but no deaths, then all of a sudden, as if making up for lost time there will be a series of them.

Either it means that there has been increased activity on the part of the Taliban, or it means the Canadians have moved into an area where they are more active. Either way it seems the result is the same. Dead soldiers.

What I find is interesting is that the Taliban were supposedly defeated before Iraq was invaded in 2003 – almost four years ago, and a new government was installed. Our troops were supposed to be helping to rebuild the country, yet here they are being killed by people who our government call the Taliban. Were they all really hiding in Pakistan, Iran, and wherever else they have armed camps.

Or, as is more likely, did they simply blended back into the scenery again. Went home to their villages and waited for the new government to prove itself as corrupt and ruthless as they were before the Taliban took over last time. You see there is an unpleasant truth we haven't been told about the current "democratically elected" government in Afghanistan.

Do you remember one of the reasons that were cited for going to war in Afghanistan? To free women from the oppressiveness of life under the Taliban, where they were treated like so much chattel and were denied basic human rights. So why is it that nothing has changed for women at all in Afghanistan? Where is there much vaunted freedom? Why are girls still not going to school, and women still scared to go out on the streets, even in major cities like Kabul, without being fully covered in traditional garb?

It's because the current government are only different from the Taliban in that they accept American weapons and food and present a veneer of respectability so that the press buys the lie of change occurring. Did you know that until people understood how bad the Taliban were they were welcomed as liberators when they overthrew the same people who are power now?

Yep that's what our soldiers are giving their lives for, a regime that is as oppressive and repressive as the Taliban. Why do you think so many villagers give support to the Taliban? At least they are honest about who they are. Sometimes the devil you know is better then the alternative. At least with the Taliban they knew exactly where they stood, even if it was in hell.

But our politicians, especially Canadian Prime Minister Steven Harper, one of the most duplicitous people to ever enter politics, aren't going to tell you any of this. They are just going to tell you about soldiers making the supreme sacrifice, paying the ultimate price, and all the other euphemisms they have for saying they got blown to shit and died a horrible death thousands of miles away from home for no good reason.

Of course the timing couldn't have been better these poor schmucks getting killed this weekend if Steven Harper had planted the bomb himself. There were all the dignitaries assembled at the memorial to the great waste of humane life at the beginning of the Twentieth century and everyone was ready to talk about ultimate sacrifices anyway. This was actually a gift from the Gods for Mr. Harper and his gang. What a perfect way to tie the two circumstances together and gain some sentimental support for a war that is becoming more and more unpopular at home.

Canadians have been told from their first history class how important Vimy Ridge was in our growth as a nation and that the soldiers who paid the ultimate sacrifice there did so for freedom and democracy. Now ninety years latter they're still off in foreign lands paying the price for the very same ideals. The same qualities that made them heroes at Vimy Ridge are making them heroes in Kandahar.

Well I have to give Mr. Harper credit for getting it part right. It's true that Canadian soldiers are still dying overseas, and yes it's true it's for the same reasons – just not the ones that government is giving. In both cases, Vimy and Kandahar, France and Afghanistan, there were, and are, no good reasons for Canadians to be dying.

In 1914 we went to War as a subject of Great Britain; we had no choice because they controlled our foreign policy in those days – they were at war so were we. We didn't fight for Canada; we fought for King and Empire. This time around we went to war because America did. We're not fighting for Canada over in Afghanistan, we're fighting to clean up a mess the American's made back in the 1980's when they armed the Taliban in the first place.

The Canadian government has the gall to say that the people of Canada are only against the war in Afghanistan because they don't understand how important it is. Excuse me, I think they have that backwards – the people of Canada are against the war in Afghanistan because they do understand how unimportant it is.

We're over there propping up a government which is as bad as the one it replaced, maybe even worse because they could start fighting amongst themselves at any time over who is in charge. In the meantime we're wasting valuable manpower and equipment that could be used for peacekeeping missions if places like Darfur, Ethiopia, Somalia, or anywhere in the Middle East.

Or even better our army could do what it does best and be over in the Solomon Islands helping the people to recover from the tsunami that left the island's population virtually homeless. Or they could be travelling through Africa setting up medical relief stations in some of the places hardest hit by AIDS. I'm sure army issue condoms are the toughest on the market for preventing the spread of disease so they would be a boon in Africa. Not to mention the fact that our people are superb at coordinating activities in areas to see that the maximum good is done with minimum strain on resources.

Can you imagine what field hospitals dispersed through some of the hardest hit areas of Africa could do for the people of those areas? Think of what would happen if they co-ordinated with on the ground aid agencies for the distribution of not just medical supplies, but household goods that are so essential for preventing the spread of AIDS and other diseases.

But no, that's not sexy enough for our politicians; they want to be able send young men off to die in noble causes because it makes them feel important. Anyway if you send people off to treat AIDS they might give out condoms and that according to our government is wrong. It might encourage people to have sex or something equally obscene.

What they don't get is that they are committing the biggest obscenity around. When they stand up in a war memorial that's been built to honour the people who were sent needlessly to their deaths ninety years ago and talk about the ones who they've sent to their deaths all that it tells me is that they haven't learned anything.

I was angry when I started writing this article and now I'm just sad. It's heartbreaking that young men and women continue to be sent off to die for causes that don't exist by people who continually betray the faith placed in them to lead us with integrity. Our leaders put so much energy into teaching us who our enemies are so that we can go out and kill or be killed.

Wouldn't it be nice for a change if they put that same energy into teaching us how to like people instead? When they start doing that then they might be worthy to stand up in front of us and talk of honour and nobility. But not now, not as long as they equate it with death, killing, and hate.

March 10, 2007

European Union: New Treaty Reduces Greenhouse Gases Twenty Per Cent

On Friday evening The European Union issued a statement announcing a new agreement aimed at cutting greenhouse gases and emissions. The three steps announced will be in addition to their previous commitment to abide by the terms of the Kyoto Accord.

Under the terms of the agreement the Union agreed to ensure that over the next 13 years that greenhouse gas emissions would be cut by 20%; ten per cent of all automobiles driven in the member states would be fuelled by biofuels made from plants; and that a total of 20% of all energy used by the member nations will be generated through renewable sources compared to the current six %.

But there are a few items in the accord that have given environmentalists pause, and caused some voices to be raised in concern. First is the fact that the French and some of the newer Eastern European member states like Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic have insisted that Nuclear Energy be listed as a viable alternative to fossil fuels.

Some of these countries are landlocked and are at Northern latitudes, which reduces the viability of solar and wind power acting as a substitute for coal fires driving the engine of industry. While nuclear fuel might burn cleaner the problem remains of what to do with disposal of the spent fuel rods. Would using nuclear fuel just be a matter of exchanging a short-term problem for a long term one?

Then there is the fact that not all countries in the union are going to comply within the time period allowed. Once again it’s the former Soviet Bloc countries that are facing difficulties. Having only joined the Union in 2004 some of them have not yet benefited completely from their membership and would face real economic difficulties in meeting the goals established by the agreement.

In order to accommodate these countries the language of the agreement is vague about the commitment of individual countries, only stipulating that over all the Union meet these targets. So while some countries might fall short, as long as others make up the difference they will be able to claim success.

What the leaders of the European countries are hoping for, aside from preserving the earth a little longer, is that by showing a commitment to lowering greenhouse gases above and beyond that agreed to under the Kyoto Accord they will encourage some of the other major polluters to at least sign off on Kyoto. With neither China, Russia, India, nor the United States doing anything about mandating controls, four of the largest polluters and consumers of fossil fuels in the world are doing nothing to in the fight against global warming.

Since the biggest concern that each of the four countries has about Kyoto or any agreement that forces emission controls, is the impact it would have on their economies, this new plan by the European Union can be effective in a couple of ways in offering them encouragement. First of all is the fact that they have managed to come up with an effective means of ensuring that nobody within a group of twenty- four nations is going to have to do anything that will endanger their economic growth.

Then there is the fact that the Union will be reducing its own overall economic stability for the period of time it takes to adjust to its new reality. The other four countries will be in a position to institute Kyoto type controls and yet still be under fewer restrictions than the Europeans.

If they can get at least Russia on side that will be a big plus, as Russia is a big trading partner with the Union it might not prove that complicated. Especially if it can be made clear to Putin, president of Russia, that doing so will make him look better in the eyes of the world then the Americans. The Cold War maybe over but the "competitive" spirit still remains between the two ex-foes. Nothing seems to motivate intent on the part of Russia's political leadership more then an opportunity to make the American government look bad.

The politics of the environment is a tricky thing, where governments are more concerned with their chances of re-election or the fate of their political party than protecting our future. Somehow the European Union is managing to find a way to achieve results above and beyond the minimal requirements of Kyoto. Now that's an example we can only hope that other countries can follow,

January 19, 2007

The Age Of The Individual: The Loss Of The Tribe

I've written quite a number of pieces that have been, to put it mildly, scathing when it comes to the so-called "New Age" movement. I think I've referred to it as everything from cultural appropriation to inane. But unlike other critics of the people who comment on the issue I've shied away from the whole question of spirituality.

Many people insist that the rise in interest in all things "New Age" is due to the failure of the conventional religions to fill the spiritual needs of their traditional congregations. According to proponents of that theory, mainly those involved in the selling of "New Age" products, the baggage that accompanies Catholicism, Protestantism, and Judaism, is what pushes people away from them.

Whatever excuse they want to use doesn't really matter all that much, the implication is that people are turning to alternatives for their spiritual comfort, and that is what's offered by the "New Age" folk. The thing is though if you walk into a "New Age" emporium you won't find anything that is specifically a "New Age" bible. You'll find books on Celtic, Native American, Tibetan, Hindu, Jewish, Ancient Egyptian, and every other kind of spirituality you can think of with Guardian Angels and Faeries thrown in for good measure.

But are the people haunting those stores really looking for spiritual enlightenment or is it something else they're searching for; maybe even something they can't identify. They have the feeling that there is something missing in their lives but aren't quite sure what the void is. They label the emptiness spiritual because it feels like their spirit is being deprived of something, but I think it's something a little more concrete

In North America we celebrate the cult of the individual; we all strive to get ahead for our own purposes and create ourselves to fulfill the goals that we have established for ourselves. Even if we join with someone and bear children together you are only creating an extension of yourself.

Not to long ago, relatively speaking in terms of the planet's history, man existed in tribal groups. We lived to together in small communities in the Mohawk Valley in New York State, the convergence of Tigress and the Euphrates, the mountains of the Himalayas, and the steppes of Russia. As a member of a tribe you belonged somewhere, and played some vital role ensuring the continual existence of your people.

As today's world gets more and more impersonal; communication done through third party instruments like portable phones or email programs, perhaps we are increasingly made aware of our lack of real community? Even if we don't articulate it as such the need for a sense of identity and the feeling of belonging somewhere provided by community appears to be growing in the face of the world's uncertainty.

A church's congregation is supposed to be a meeting place of people of like minds; people who share the same sense of purpose and belief. While it could be easy to say they once were places that tied people together through those commonalities, I wonder if the unifying factor was more circumstances then anything else.

Church, or whatever you want to label it, used to be the only social activity for the vast majority of people. If you were no longer in school, the only time you ever met up with everybody in the neighbourhood was at the church, or at a church sponsored event. I know there are some small rural communities around where I live where that is still the case.

But as alternatives to the church became available as a social focus, these communities dissolved in the face of competition, weakening their claims at being a unifying force. Perhaps some people still belong to churches but their numbers are far less then they used to be.

In the mid to late seventies when Cults were in full swing, organizations like the Moonies would seek out people who looked like they were lost and would promise them a home and a sense of belonging. Much the same motivation is now used to recruit the young men and women into terrorist organizations around the world. They become members of a tribe that works together – they belong and have a real purpose in life that nothing else has been able to offer them.

I recently had a conversation with my mother about her relationship to Judaism. She was raised in a family that were the epitome of secular Jews, in that they never set foot in synagogue except for the usual triad of Weddings, Funerals, and Bar Mitzvahs. At one point in her life she became a member of a Reform synagogue, but that only lasted for a year.

But she said what Judaism does give her is a place in history, a sense of where she's come from as part of something greater than herself and her family. Even though she doesn't participate in the religious life, or even hang out with very many Jewish people, she can still say I'm a Jew and feel like she belongs somewhere.

This wasn't something she picked up in a book from a bookstore; this was something she inherited from her parents, who in turn, well you get the picture. For my mother it's an unbroken line stretching back through more then five thousand years of tribal history that she is a continuation of. It's the place in the world where she belongs that has nothing to do with geography, politics, or religion.

Human beings need to have the sense that they belong to something bigger then themselves. Some find a kind of comfort in patriotism, while others find it in fighting for a cause, and others in religion. Still others are left searching for something external in the hopes of finding their place in the world.

But in reality, with a few exceptions, the trade off for our civilization and our lifestyle has been the loss of our connections to others and the past. We truly live in the age of the individual and we all feel just a little bit lost and lonely because of it.

January 18, 2007

When Camp Became "The Camps"

Camps Award.jpg

Do you remember as a child when you would get words that had two meanings confused? The adults around you would be talking about something and you'd hear a familiar word but in a context that made no sense to you. I'm sure it's happened to most of us so I'll just assume you know what I'm talking about. Things are going to get complicated enough as it is without me having to worry about that part of the story.

First off I need to explain my mother's extended family to you a little for this to make any sense at all. Her mother's family were Polish Jews who settled in Toronto in the early 1900s. They had been your typical Fiddler On The Roof type farming/peasant people who managed somehow to get the heck out of Poland with what they could carry on their backs and made their way to Canada.

On the other hand her father's family were Romanian Jews; well-educated city dwellers that probably never got their hands dirty in their lives. According to my grand father they came to Canada because his father had an altercation with a Cossack – he knifed him – and the family was forced to flee forthwith. They settled in Montreal because they were fluent in French but spoke very little English at the time.

Even during the times our family lived in Toronto we always seemed to end up seeing more of our Montreal relatives than our Toronto ones. Part of it was that my Grandfather wasn't that thrilled with what he called "the dumb Polacks", (even among the downtrodden there is a hierarchy: with European Jews the only thing lower on the scale than a dumb Polack, was a Litvack – Lithuanian) and my mother was closer to her cousins on that side of the family than on her mother's side.

So we usually ended up in Montreal at least once a year, more if by chance we happened to be living in Ottawa at the time. (My father worked for the Canadian government in the Justice department, so he'd be transferred between Toronto and Ottawa every three to four years until he quit) Ottawa was only about an hour's drive from Montreal so it was easy to even just go up for a day visit if we wanted.

For some reason I remember a period of a few years when we seemed to end up in Montreal every year for Passover. I don't know if this was accidental, but I do know that they always would invite my grandfather and grandmother to come from Toronto, and I think it was a good excuse for all of us to get together when we were living in Ottawa. My grandfather was the last of his generation alive for the Montreal family, he had been the youngest child, born in 1900, and all of his brothers and sisters had died young.

It was during one of those Seders, traditional Passover meals where the story of the Exodus is retold. (Not the movie starring Paul Newman – the original one featuring Moses and a cast of thousands) Before the actual stuffing of the faces could begin there were certain ritual foods that had to be consumed with the readings of passages from the story, but eventually we were all able to settle in and begin eating.

For most of the family this meant a lot of talking and very little eating. The seating was worked out so that the older the generation the closer to the head of the table you sat, and us young folk were usually seated at card tables that were attached like an extended kite tail to the main dinner table.

There is one year in particular that stands out for me, because of word confusion and its nature. That year it seemed we younger folk were even further away from the head of the table, in fact we had to watch people in the middle of the table to know what to do because we couldn't hear anything the reader was saying that year. It wasn't until we all began the regular eating of the meal that we found out the reason for our being even further away from the centre of things.

The first words that trickled down the table to us exiles were that there were some very special guests in town. They were first cousins of our mom's cousin's wife. Of course she wasn't really part of our family, so these first cousins weren't related to us except by marriage and if was rumoured they might actually be Litvaks.

"Mary's family," the voice's drifting down into our outer provinces, "God Bless them, are sweet people…" No words: I don't know, maybe it's because Hebrew has no vowels that Jews are so good at saying so much without using words. An eyebrow, a tilt of the head or a lifting of one hand says plenty for those who can read.

Even I, who was almost illiterate in that strange language of gestures and silences, could read something about cousin Mary's family wasn't what it should be…I craned my neck to try and see these cousins who weren’t cousins…who might not be all they should be.

They were sitting near the very top of the table, almost in the place of honour where my grandfather was ensconced, but for two chairs that contained his eldest niece and her husband they would have been seated beside him. From where I sat they didn't look much different than those folk across from them except they weren't nearly so fleshy. Aside from my grandmother who had something wrong with her thyroid, they were the only two who didn't have the sleek look of the well fed.

If forced to guess I would have said that maybe they would have been a few years older them my mom, but I couldn't be sure; something about their faces could have taken it either way. They looked both like young children and aged wizened elders. There was a quality about them that made you feel protective and wanting to keep them from harm. Just like any other orphans.

While I was looking up the table something was making it's way down; its passage was marked by a head turning to one side to present a good ear to the mouth beside it, a lifting of shoulders and splaying of hands, or even the slightest of nods. You just knew that everyone was watching, awaiting their turn to be passed whatever morsel was making the rounds, so they to could chew it over and add it to their hoard of information that they could hand out over the coming year.

When the words "the camps" finally made it down to me, and obviously in reference to the two who weren't anyone's family really, I didn't know what to do with it. The only thing the word camp meant to me was the place I was subjected to for two to four weeks each summer.

They didn't look like the type of people who ran a place where kids slept together in log cabins, and had pretend Indian stories and rituals foisted on them. They had none of the heartiness or pretend friend to every child attitude of all those camp directors whose hands my parents entrusted me too each summer. I couldn't see either of them, for one thing, getting up and leading everyone in rousing choruses of "Johnny Appleseed" before each meal as thanks for mass-produced slop.

I looked around to try and get some clue from my younger cousins on what it could mean and saw they had looks of awe, and something close to fear on their faces as they talked together, in little whispers. Not for the first nor last time did I htink about the unfairness of having a gentile father. If not for him perhaps I would understand more about these mysteries that my cousins all seemed to be understand without trouble.

It was while I was thinking these confused thoughts, feeling even more being a guest at a party where you were the only person who didn't wear the right clothes, I caught an inadvertently thrown lifeline: Auschwitz. I knew that word – the camps – must mean concentration camps. So those cousins who weren't cousins except by marriage had been in a concentration camp – surviving things far worse than having to sing "Johnny Appleseed" before each meal.

The rest of the meal, as I remember, was spent trying to grab surreptitious glances up the table as if we hoped, or at least I hoped, to gain some insight into what they had experienced by merely staring at them. They did exist in a space of their own up there near the head of the table. It was as if they had extra room for the memories that were part of their permanent state of being.

Something had changed about them since the information had been passed around. They'd gone from being possible Litvaks to almost celebrity status. Most of us had never seen survivors before; all of our families had been in Canada long before World War One to have to worry about being caught up in the fires of the Holocaust. Our parents and grandparents had lived out the war in school and the war factories, so this was the closest any of us had ever come to tangible contact with anybody who had been through those horrors.

We all wanted them to be special, and might have each been a little disappointed in how ordinary they were. Two very quiet people in normal clothes that didn't quite fit properly who were quieter then the adults we were used to. I don't know what we expected for our first survivors, but being raised on images of fighters, two little mice like creatures that leaned into each other for protection, were a slight disappointment.

We were driving home that evening after the meal, with no staying around afterwards to talk with anyone so I was left alone with my confusion. Why did we use the same word for where I went to spend weeks during the summer, as was used to describe those places where millions – a number far too big for anybody really to understand – of people died.

Obviously not all of them who entered the camps had died, some of them had walked away, somehow or other, and I saw two of them that night. Two very ordinary people who unless you saw them in the company of others really were no different to look at, which made it even harder to understand what had happened to them.

The lights of the oncoming cars as we travelled down the highway back to Ottawa that night could have been the search lights in a camp, or the flashlights of campers out on a walk at night in the woods. Sometimes it was so hard to tell things apart.

December 26, 2006

International Politics: We Can't Afford To Ignore Africa Anymore

Every year at this time the leaders of both the Church of England and the Catholic Church give a state of the world address to their flocks. According to the tenets of their faiths they will let the world know what they consider to be the most important issues of the day.

Of course they aren't the only ones who get to have their say, other religious leaders, national leaders, and the deep thinkers in the press all have their lists ready for consideration. Political events, war, terrorism, intergovernmental relationships, and all the other matters of importance which affect policy, economics, and the perceived balance of power in the world.

For people who share the same planet it is quite amazing how so few of them agree on what are the major issues facing the earth. They all have their own agendas and advocate what's important from their perspective: events that have helped fulfil their goals, events they are involved in, or things that challenge what they believe to be the way one should lead a life. Nothing that does not directly impact upon the objectives of their country or way of thinking seems to ever make it onto a lot of people's end of the year summations..

Some of them will offer platitudes about world peace, famine, and the scourge of AIDS in Africa but only in so far as it suits whatever social-political agenda they stand for. It's easy enough to say what a shame it is, but it's another thing all together to actually advocate doing something about it.

The pundits worry about where the next wave of terrorism is going to come from, but the answer is right in front of their faces and they don't seem to have noticed. But then again why should that be different from the way that Africa has been treated in the past. If the refugee camps of the Palestinians were hot beds for recruitment by the PLO and others in the 1960's what about the camps currently in Africa?

It's been the policies and beliefs over the years of the major powers of all persuasions that have allowed situations to get to the acute and chronic level they're at now. Why is there still fighting in Somalia when the Americans invaded it years ago to pacify the region? Why is there still the same border war between Ethiopia and Eritrea that filled refugee camps and led to famine in the 1980's?

How did the massacres in Rwanda occur when the United Nations' commander on the ground kept telling the world it was happening and nobody could spare any troops to help deal with the situation? Why are there people living in camps in Darfar when the American government declared it was a case of genocide in the making?

Because we still haven't clued in that matter what we consider the important events of the year, Africa has to be the story soon or we will all be paying the price for our neglect. What kind of anger and resentments must be brewing there that could easily be inflamed and brought to focus against us for real and perceived injustices?

What the reality is doesn't matter any more. Facts like the fundamental Muslim groups in Somalia being no more likely to agree to family planning practices when it comes to preventing the spread of AIDS then the Catholic Church or the current American Administration will be irrelevant in the face of emotional appeals for vengeance.

Unless we change our policies towards Africa from being where we are perceived as an exploiter, the one who caused all the problems, to being the compassionate friend who offers help with no strings attached, anti Western sentiment in Africa will begin to escalate. Any group that is looking to recruit for the "cause" probably won't have too much difficulty finding individuals to volunteer

It's not just a matter of us giving money or relieving debt; we need to be on the ground in the camps working with people on an almost one to one basis. Our governments need to be serious in their attempts to get AIDS medicines to African victims and push for the development of a free vaccine. Our presence needs to be felt above and beyond celebrities adopting cute black babies.

Compassion has to rule our dealings with Africa not profit or belief systems. We can no longer only consider the present, but have to take into consideration the future and how we can ensure there is one for the people of that continent. It shouldn't have to be for political reasons, we should be doing out of compassion for our fellow human beings who are suffering. But if nothing happens soon for whatever the reason, it might be too late.

Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Middle East are all current hot spots that we can't ignore of course, but neither can we continue to ignore the situation in the Sub-Sahara, and the rest of Africa. Maybe they don’t have to be on this year's listing of top events, but if we don't start making Africans important, they might just become so for all the wrong reasons.

That can't be allowed to happen.

December 3, 2006

Refugees From Iraq

Everyday we can count on at least one if not more stories about Iraq in the pages of our newspapers. Whether debates on when the troops are withdrawn or recitations of the latest casualty figures it remains the dominant story across the media. But amidst everything else one aspect of the story is being ignored.

According to figures kept by the United Nations High Commission On Refugees (UNHCR) between January and mid November of 2006 about 425,000 Iraqis have been displaced from their homes. At mid-year the displacement rate had reached the level of 50,000 people a month.

These numbers have increased the numbers of Iraqi refugees to 1.6 million people displaced internally, and 1.8 million forced to leave the country. The majority of these people have crossed over into one of Syria, Jordan, or Egypt. Once there they either seek permanent residency (over 150,000 Iraqis have applied in Egypt) if allowed, or continue their journey onwards to either Europe or North America.

The UNHCR's has specific concerns for each of these populations, but primary among them is the strain being placed on those who are currently looking after the refugees inside and outside the country. The continued violence in Iraq itself is making it next to impossible for any aid agency, including the UNHCR to reach those people in most need.

Although we mostly read about the sectarian violence between the Shiite and the Sunni sects, the groups that are actually most at risk are those who comprise minority elements within the country. Christian Iraqis and an estimated 20,000 Palestinians who live on the Iraqi Syrian border are two groups considered at high risk currently. The former are considered to because of violence directed against them, and the latter because of the inability of aid workers to supply them on any consistent basis with essential necessities.

Aside from the violence that impedes their efforts the UNHCR is also being placed under huge financial strain. With an annual budget of only 29 million dollars they have already reached a point of such overextension that they are almost broke. If that happens what little they are able to do will come to a halt and cause even worse hardship and raise even higher barriers for those wishing to emigrate to safety.

One of the services the Centre offers is to act as a referral agency for people wishing to be considered refugee claimants in those countries recognising Iraqis as refugees. Without sponsorship it's almost impossible for a person to even apply to be considered as a refugee in countries like Canada. In Canada the ministry responsible for reviewing applications demands either a recommendation from UNHCR or sponsorship from private individuals who already reside in Canada for a person to even apply for refugee status.

One of the reasons that the UNHCR is so over extended in trying to assist and feed so many refugees is the fact that far too many countries are refusing to designate the displaced people of Iraq as refugees. According to the organization Human Rights Watch that in spite of their being over a million people displaced from their homes since the invasion the United States, Great Britain, and the majority of Iraq's neighbours refuse to recognise them as refugees.

Without that recognition they are unable to apply for legal admission to any of these countries. Jordan, which has one of the larger numbers of expatriate Iraqi populations in the Middle East, never granted them refugee status but allowed them to take up residency. But when the hotel bombings in Amman occurred they started to arrest and deport any that didn't have legal status.

For those who are being deported their options are limited to either returning to Iraq or hoping to find another country to take them in. The problem is that with the system breaking down, UNHCR running out of money, avenues for legal applications are becoming virtually impossible to negotiate.

According to one immigration lawyer in Canada those wishing to apply for refugee status in Canada are far better off getting to the country one way or another, even if illegally, and filling their application here. Even though Canada has accepted over 80% of those who have been referred by UNHCR as refugee applicants that means is no longer viable.

Working in favour of those who do make it to Canada illegally is the fact that since 2003 Canada has introduced a policy of "no return" for those already over here. The situation in Iraq is considered so extreme that no one will be sent back even if their application is refused at first hearing. This way they are at least guaranteed safety and a chance to appeal the decision.

Canada doesn’t have the most unblemished record in the world when it comes to treatment of refugees in general. Depending on the government in power qualifications for approval can change at random. But it seems like even the Conservative Party of Canada can show compassion on occasion, by allowing the no return policy to stand after they took power has probably saved quite a few lives.

I have no idea why the United States is refusing to allow Iraqi people to claim refugee status in their country, it's the least they can do for the people whose lives they have turned upside for the last three years. Sure declaring them as refugees would be to admit that the country is pretty much uninhabitable in places, but isn't it a good thing to show a little compassion at the expense of face?

Pride may come before the fall, but is it really fair to inflict you're unwillingness to admit that not everything has turned out how you planned on the innocent? Wouldn't if be nice if the reason that the headlines didn’t talk about a refugee problem was the fact that the problem really didn't exist instead of no one wanting to talk it.

Paying attention may not necessarily save people's lives, but the chances are better them if we ignore them. Perhaps if all of those who gave such wholehearted support to the war would each invite a refugee to stay with them for the duration a good portion of the problem would be solved. We all have to make sacrifices in wartime.

November 30, 2006

Canadian Politics: What Are The Conservatives Conserving?

I guess the one positive thing there is to be said about the Conservative Party of Canada is they never cease to amaze me. If not on a daily basis then at least every week those rascals have always got some new thing up there sleeve to announce that can leave me slack jawed with wonder.

For a party with the word Conservative in its title they seem far more intent on tearing down decades of work done by their predecessors than conserving anything. If they are not intent upon preserving a Canada based on respect, compassion, and tolerance, what exactly are their plans for conservation?

They obviously don't include anything to do with:


The environment
reneging on the Kyoto accord
Caring for children
repealing the universal child care program/replaced by non-refundable tax credits maximum of $1200 per year per child
The First Nations people
Allowing situations like the Caledonia blockade to create resentment against natives by letting them get out of hand and not dealing with the treaty issue under dispute.
The rights of women
Cutting five million dollars from under funded Status of Women and closing all but four regional offices across the country
Human Rights and our constitution
Opening debate in the House of Commons on the issue of same sex marriage when the Supreme Court of Canada has already ruled it unconstitutional to prohibit the unions.

While Prime Minister Steven Harper and his buddies had been promising the last item on the list since before even the last election, it's till sort of appalling to see them actually going through with re-opening the debate on same sex marriage.

The wounds have barely healed from the last time and he's giving people the opportunity to get their knives out and open them up one more time. The really nasty part of this is that no matter what anyone says or does the law can't be repealed without the government choosing to invoke the "Not Withstanding Clause" of the constitution. This clause, which was a sop to Quebec so they could have could opt out of minority language protection laws, allows a government to say, "not withstanding what the constitution says, we're going to go against it and deny people their human rights".

Since I believe you need to win a vote with at least a two thirds majority to invoke the clause, the Conservative party wouldn't be able to set same sex marriages aside no matter how much they may want to because they don’t' have the votes. All this debate is doing is sending a message to those who support Prime Minister Harper's party that he's still their guy and can be counted on to conserve the bad old days.

While the Conservative party's action on same sex marriage have been well telegraphed some of their other policy decisions have been receiving far less publicity. But it's going to be hard for people to ignore what they're doing when the federal Liberal party's Women's Caucus accuses them of wanting to keep women "barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen".

Although you might find that rhetoric a little over the top, it's hard to argue with their claim that the Conservative party is attempting to role back the clock when it comes to the level of financial support offered to women's issues by the government. Since 1971 there has been a Status Of Women Canada (SWC) department as an entity within the Canadian government.

The SWC has worked to promote gender equality, and the full participation of women in the economic, social, cultural and political life of the country. The three areas that the SWC focus on primarily are improving and ensuring a women's ability to gain economic autonomy, (in other words not need a husband to pay her way) eliminating the systemic violence against women and children, and advancing the basic human rights of women.

The past twenty-five years have seen women make what appear to be significant gains in all areas but the reality is not as pretty a picture as we're led to believe. What does it matter if a women can get a job if she can't get day care for her children? How come the words "glass ceiling" still exist if they have parity with men in terms of pay and potential advancement? Why is that most murder victims are still the result of domestic violence and the women's shelter's are filled night after night if things have really changed?

Mr. Harper is very quite to condemn places like China over its human rights violations, but his government is cutting funding to programs which work with woman to ensure their basic safety, health, and well being. But maybe he doesn't think slashing nearly 25% from The SWC budget is that big a deal. Maybe reducing the number of regional offices from sixteen to four seemed like a good way to save money, but what kind of message does it send to women?

Now instead of being able to go for help about an issue concerning them, or a loved one, at a placed specifically designed for women, they are being shunted off into the regular bureaucracy. Instead of having a woman who has been trained to help you deal with negotiating the paths you have to travel to get a restraining order, you'll now be helped by the first available operator at the ministry's call centre.

When the government responds to the fact that women still only make 71% of what men make by saying we don't need to separate men from women in this country, but plan for them together, they have an agenda that does not include advocacy for women's rights. In fact one of the reasons for closing the regional offices according to Heritage Minister (for some reason the Heritage Ministry is responsible for the SWC, perhaps because the Conservatives plan on making it part of our heritage instead of a functional part of government) Bev Oda is the fact that they were too concerned with being advocates and lobbying the government on behalf of women.

It seems to me an odd thing to say that an advocacy group doing advocacy work is not doing their job properly. In fact she makes it sound like the fact that they had the nerve to be lobbying on behalf of women meant that somehow or other they no longer cared about their clients. In spite of the government denials, I can't help but think that the opposition has it right; it really looks like they are trying to completely eliminate SWC.

Budget cuts are one thing, but to already start a misinformation campaign aimed at making it sound like the people who work at SWC are out of control and need to be stopped before they can waste all of the taxpayer's precious money is another all together. I wouldn't be too surprised that if the Conservatives hang on to bring in their own budget by the spring, they will either take steps to try and phase it out all together, or completely reshape its focus.

I'm sure that if you asked a Conservative Party of Canada spokesperson what it is they are actually conserving, as they seem to be dismantling so much of what defined Canada as a country, he or she would have some nice set answer. They'd probably mention something about values and standards with absolutely no meaning except to them and their cronies.

Their values and standards are exactly the sort of thing that the legislation that created the Status of Woman Canada was designed to fight, and that the Charter of Rights and Freedoms section of our Constitution was created to defend us against.

The Conservative Party of Canada exists to conserve itself and what it believes in, not the Canada that many people have spent so many years making into one of the most tolerant nations of the world. Let's try to conserve that country instead of one that's based on some being better then others.

November 27, 2006

A Government's Priority

It's all a question of priorities isn't it? I know that's stating the obvious, but sometimes it's the things staring us right in the face that we pay the least amount of attention to.

Everybody has their own list of things they consider important; it's simply a means of ordering our lives. When we give activities a value it enables us to decide how and when the duties and responsibilities in our lives will be met and fulfilled.

When someone uses the excuse of "It's a question of priorities" for either not doing something or doing something in an order that an other person doesn't understand they could just as easily be saying "It's a matter of what's important to me". As individuals we are going to differ in what's important in our daily routine. Mitigating factors could range from whether or not you have children, to what appointments you may or may not have scheduled for that day.

While the majority of us will set our priorities based on our individual needs and wants, there are certain areas where the needs of society at large set a value upon our actions. Municipal recycling programs dependant upon individual members of the community sorting through their refuse each week offers a perfect example.

Before programs such as the curb side pick up of recyclables or what ever system an area uses, would anyone have considered it a priority at all to sort through and separate their plastics, metals, and papers from each other? It was only when it became obvious that we were running out of space to our solid wastes that local governments made it a priority to put their energies into convincing us that it was the right thing to be doing.

For most of us it has now become second nature to sort out garbage in between collection dates and put out appropriately coloured receptacles when we are told. But in order for that to come about governments and environmental groups had had to mount an extensive educational campaign. It was made into a priority by appealing to people's sense of public duty; doing their bit for the environment and their neighbourhoods.

Recycling falls into a category of priorities that can be referred to as the societal instead of individual. True we as individuals make it a personal priority to do our recycling each week, but it's not something that would have happened if it had not become a government priority as well.

Of course government priorities are what make the world go round. From Communist to Capitalist it doesn't matter, they have their list of things they want to accomplish and they mean to do it. The difference between their list and yours is a question of who it effects and how, and the motivation behind it.

Of course, even when you know the priorities of your government that may not be of much use in helping you understand how they make their decisions or explain how they decide what's most important. Some government's claim they are guided by the hand of God, others claim that they stand for lofty ideals, another says they are guided by the traditions of their country, and yet another lays claim to a political philosophy.

Yet how is it, if there is so much diversity, that nothing seems to change anywhere in the world? How is it that so many of the world's leaders; so many different people of different backgrounds, beliefs, and philosophies; always end up with the same priorities?

At least if we are to judge by results and the continually screwed up state of the world what other conclusion can we draw. Millions of people, if not billions are starving to death on a daily basis. Millions of people are dying of one pandemic, AIDS, while other ailments that we once though extinct are coming back more virulent then ever.

The water we drink is becoming increasingly unpalatable and in some places undrinkable. The quality of our air has depreciated so badly that every summer sees an increase in respiratory ailments, and an increased number of people with those ailments dying.

While our world is burning our leaders seem to be more concerned with devising ways and the means for killing us through wars, insurgencies, rebellions, jihads, than doing anything about any of those problems. It doesn't matter if they are Muslim, Christian, White, Asian, Semitic, or African none of them seem to have the preservation or the improvement of quality of life as a priority.

It's funny you know, I always used to think that most of the world's faiths believed that life was sacred. There was the whole thou shalt not kill thing as one of the Ten Commandments, with variations through out the faiths. But what I didn't realize was that it meant Thou shalt not kill those who are like you, but go ahead and lop off the heads of anyone who is different.

Have you ever wondered what would happen if we ever decided to work as hard at preserving life throughout the world as we do now at destroying it? If we were to make it a priority that everyone in the world was fed, sheltered, clothed, and went to bed at night feeling secure they wouldn't be killed over night?

How do governments develop their priorities? Did we give them the idea that we want them to be more concerned with killing the people we share the planet with rather then helping them? Or are these just ideas they've come up with on their own?

When you develop the priorities for you family, don't you always do so with their comfort and well being in mind? How often does that include going downtown with a gun and shooting people who may be drug dealers on the off chance they could sell to your children? No usually you'll talk to your children and educate them about any potential dangers they could face.

Our governments have made it their priority to go downtown and not just shoot those they think maybe drug dealers, but blow up the downtown as well. They don't seem to give much thought to our comfort and well being. They all claim they are just trying to make the world better for their citizens, to keep them safe, but it seems like more and more of the world's population dies a violent death each and every day.

Killing another people is no way to guarantee you own people's safety. Perhaps if governments started making it a priority to keep everybody safe, not just the people who voted for them, we all might live and feel a little safer.

November 25, 2006

Canadian Politics: Conservatives Sing The Same Old Song - Election Coming?

My goodness you'd think after all these years conservative politicians would find something new to try and sell people. But they've been singing the same refrain since the early eighties, no matter how many times it's been proven to have a detrimental effect on society. Then again maybe they understand human nature and selfishness better than liberals give them credit for.

More then twenty years since it was first introduced the good old trickle down effect still remains the popular economic theory among politicians of the right. Cut taxes and watch the economy grow as those with more spend it and encourage job growth.

Cut taxes and regulations for corporations and watch them create more jobs to hire more people to spend more money to keep making the economy grow, which will create more jobs. At the same time use government's revenues, which somehow still exist in spite of tax cuts, to pay down the nasty budget deficit.

Paying down the deficit, the theory goes will reduce the amount it costs the government to do business, and decrease the need for revenues. Why heck that results in another round of glorious tax cuts because the government won't need your hard earned dollars to pay off its debt.

It all sounds great doesn't it, and in the past has proven popular with the economic pundits; bankers and business men, who have, of course, no vested interest in this type of budget. They in turn can be counted on to make statements to the press about "new economic realities", "global competition", and other dire sounding proclamations predicting doom and gloom if we don't "take our medicine now"

When that stick is combined with the carrot of tax cuts it usually ends up being a pretty fair vote getter, especially when the editorial boards of newspapers can usually be guaranteed to go along for the ride. It's become so good that even parties closer to the centre of things politically have been forced to adopt these "sensible" economic practices or worry about not being competitive where it counts, at the polls.

So it shouldn't really come as any surprise when the Conservative Party of Canada released it's fiscal update outlining that exact program. For those of you not familiar with how Canadian politics work, a fiscal update is sort of like a budget, but it's not. It's doesn't say anything of substance – like how anything is going to be paid for, how much anything will be cut by, what will replace the tax revenues, or any other trying thing that could resemble detailed plans.

They really have very little in common with a budget except for two things; one it is introduced to parliament and must be voted on like a budget as it is considered the financial blueprint for the country's economy, and two the vote taken on the update is always deemed a "vote of confidence". The latter is only important if the government is, like the current one, in a minority position where if they lose the vote they will have to call an election.

So if in the past couple of years these updates have read quite a bit like election promises, or the opening salvos in campaigns it's because they have been. Last year at around this time the Liberal government barely survived the release of their update by giving the New Democratic Party assurances that instead of corporate tax credits in the millions of dollars the statement would outline how that money would be spent on social issues like housing, health care, and education.

The fact that the government went down to defeat shortly after, and very few of the measures in the update were enacted before the election which saw the change in government, meant it was all for nought anyway. But the Liberal party would probably have lost that election no matter what they had promised in their "update" so the document never ended up being of much relevance.

That's a major difference this time around. If the government goes down to defeat in the house on this issue (and that's a very real possibility with the Bloc Quebecois threatening to withhold support unless 4 billion dollars is earmarked specifically for use by Quebec, which has as much a likelihood of happening as ice skating in Hades) it will become a defining plank of the Conservative Party's election platform.

The Conservative Party has already shown it cut programming with the best of them, not only have they reneged on the Kyoto Accord but they have taken steps to eliminate almost every program associated with reducing green house gases. In one of the nastier moves I've ever seen, they are actually have people write reports detailing what saving will be realized by having the program they work for cancelled.

The majority of the programs affected are educational ones like teaching householders how to conserve energy, teaching farmers how to dispose of manures safely and cheaply so it doesn't impact the water table, and other things where the results won't be seen immediately, but will pay dividends in the long term. But all these guys can see is the short term, which means cutting costs today and to hell with tomorrow.

Of course the Conservative Party of Canada isn't alone in that thinking and they are counting on that. They are also counting on the fact that people won't remember what happened when they've lived under governments that practiced this style of economics before. Not only did social services like health care, housing, and education suffer; that more money ended up the hands of the people who already had lots while everybody else stayed in pretty much the same boat; and that somehow or other the debt kept rising.

As it stands right now I can't see any of the other three political parties being able to support this financial update that the Minister of Revenue has just issued. It flies too far in the face of the principles of both the Liberal party and the New Democratic Party, and it contains nothing special for Quebec, which will put the Bloc Quebecois in the opposition as well.

What it will come down now to is timing. The Liberal party is without a permanent leader and their convention is scheduled for January. The Conservatives can risk introducing the legislation now, force the vote, and try to catch the Liberals in disarray coming off a convention with a new leader either in the middle of an ongoing campaign or right at the start.

But the opposite side of that is the amount of publicity that person will have because of the convention. The "bounce" the Liberals receive in the polls could be enough to not only defeat the Conservatives, but also return them to a majority. In fact the worst thing that could happen for the Conservatives would be for a Liberal candidate to join the campaign a week or so late.

The New Democrats and the Bloc would be spending that time hammering away at the Conservatives, not having to worry about defending their plans to govern because neither of them will be have a hope of doing so, and weakening them in Ontario and Quebec where the Conservatives need to retain seats to keep their minority and gain quite a few to win a majority.

When the Liberal candidate joins the campaign, he will come across as a strong alternative to the Conservatives without even opening his mouth because they will have been on the defensive for the previous week In fact he may be able to get away with saying very little of substance his first week or so, as he focuses on introducing himself and slamming the Government.

By that time the campaign will be half over so when he introduce the Liberal, policies no matter how much the opposition chip away at it, they won't be able to erase his bounce unless he breaks the cardinal rule of politics and is found in bed with a dead human or a live animal.

Conservative insistence on playing the same tune over and over again, without even changing the lyrics that much, is beginning to become risky as people start to realize that the savings have to come from somewhere. They have already seen the quality of the Health Care system be eroded, public education be trivialized, and the Welfare Act of Canada be ignored or twisted.

While the federal government can talk all they want about those being provincial responsibilities, the majority of the money to pay for anything in this country still comes from federal coffers. The next election will most likely be fought over if not the direct terms of this financial update, than at least the philosophy behind it.

The Conservatives will play to everyone's baser instinct of more money in their pockets, while the remaining parties will work to remind them of how much that money actually costs. This should be a much more interesting election than last years foregone conclusion of a Conservative minority. It may well decide the future of Canada for a good long time to come.

November 16, 2006

When Not If For American Withdrawal From Iraq

Sometimes you read things in the paper that make you wonder. Yesterday two news stories about Iraq in the Globe and Mail newspaper made me wonder about the fate of that poor country. Now that the Democratic Party controls Congress the withdrawal of American troops is now a matter of how soon not if. But nobody seems to know, and maybe even care, what that means for Iraqis.

Top United States commander in the Middle East General John Abizaid had the gall to appear before the Senate Armed Service Committee and say the situation in Iraq was improving. Only last August he had warned of the potential for a full-scale sectarian civil war as the justification for continued presence of 141,000 American troops in Iraq. Now he was using the opposite argument in an attempt to not only prevent a schedule for troop withdrawals being decided on, but to increase the number of troops in Iraq.

Refuting his claims of improvement another story from the same day had an update on the mass kidnapping of employees from the Ministry of Education, (an unknown number had been rounded up at gunpoint by men in uniform on Tuesday, loaded into vehicles and driven away) and listed the combined civilian and military casualty report for the day.

Twenty Iraqis were killed and forty-seven were wounded. Eleven of those deaths were caused by a car bomb, three by a suicide bomber driving his car bomb into a tent where a funeral was being held, two were Shiites killed by gunmen, a police officer was killed in a drive by shooting, as well as various other individual killings throughout the country.

Journalists continue to be signalled out for special attention as two more were killed yesterday. Since 2003 ninety-one journalists have been killed in Iraq, many of them specifically targeted by killers as both of Wednesday's victims appeared to be. Gunmen intercepted Fadia Mohammed al-Taie's car and she and her driver were shot, while Luma al-Karkhi was also shot on her way to work.

Finally, the American military announced the death of four American servicemen who had been killed in fighting on Tuesday. With the death of a soldier attached to the 1st Armoured division and three Marines in Regimental Combat Team Seven, the number of American war dead in Iraq has now reached 2,856.

If this is a fairly typical day in Iraq, and it is beginning to seem like you can't open a paper without reading about either a fresh grave being discovered or another suicide bomb going off, it wouldn't appear there has been any abatement in violence whatsoever. Given the attitude of the Prime Minister towards the sentencing of Saddam Hussein, (he sounded like he was ready to lead a lynch mob himself) and the threats of retaliation from Shiite Muslims for the death sentence, it appears the divide between the factions is worsening.

But according to General Abizaid that's not the case. While arguing to the Senate Sub – Committee that any attempt to impose a timetable for the withdrawal of troops would impede commanders in the field in their attempts to continue the training of Iraqi troops and police he also claimed the situation on the ground was improving.

While admitting there was still a problem, he claimed that Iraqis were starting to show confidence in their government's abilities. He didn't say what they had confidence in, but guaranteeing their security can't be high on the list. When the government can't even tell how many of their employees were kidnapped, let alone prevent them from being snatched from their place of work as happened on Tuesday, it's hard to image anybody believing in their ability to guarantee safety and security.

It appears the general is trying to walk the fine line between threatening Congress with disaster and promising them success. The problem with this formulae is while there is ample proof of threats to peace and security, there is very little he can offer as proof of success. The newly elected Democratic House and Senate aren't going to be satisfied with vague assurances about almost turning the corner and seeing a turning point.

They were elected in part because of widespread dissatisfaction with the war and the length of time that American troops have been deployed. Barely a third of the American population in a recent poll support the Administration over the war. Even President Bush is saying he'd welcome advice from anybody on how to best find a resolution to the mess.

When the future chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Jack Reed from Rhode Island, (he will become chair in January when the results from Nov.7th election results take effect) asked General Abizaid how much time the was left before the situation is completely out of control and descends into civil war, the response was four to six months. Senator Reed's reaction was that should be the deadline for starting the withdrawal of troops.

He wants the President to force the Iraqis to realize the enormity of their situation and get it together to take care of themselves. He figures the only way to do that is begin the withdrawal of troops. Fellow committee member and Democrat Senator Carl Levin of Michigan summed up his party's position by saying that American's could no longer protect Iraqi's from themselves.

As the Democrats were elected because they promised an alternative to the administration's position, it won't matter what arguments General Abizaid made to them or what any of the other witnesses have to say. They are going to be pushing for the implementation of troop withdrawals from Iraq as soon as possible.

It won't matter to them or the two thirds of the population that support that view, what happens in Iraq after the American troops leave. It doesn't matter that the invasion of Iraq created the situation and that many of those arguing against continued involvement initially supported it. What matters now is that it ends with as few more American deaths as possible

Unless a deal can be worked out with U.N peacekeepers to replace American troops in key places, the chances of Iraq coming through this in once piece are minimal. We are finally seeing the results of the Bush administrations lack of planning when it came to this war. In a country like Iraq with sharp religious divisions it was naïve to think that all the problems would be solved by the overthrow of Hussein.

No matter how you look at it, or what you want, there will be no graceful way out of this mess for the Americans and their military. For the sake of the Iraqi people I hope somebody thinks of something soon or the only thing left to wonder will be what was the point of it all.

November 11, 2006

What To Remember On Rememberance Day?

It was on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918 that the armistice declaring the cease-fire the end of the war to end all wars was signed. Now each day in countries around the world that moment in history is kept alive through ceremonies honouring the soldiers who have fallen fighting in the various wars from that moment until now.

We still call it Remembrance Day in Canada, although what it is we are remembering has changed over the years. Initially it was to honour the generation that was devastated in World War One, but as each year has passed there have been fewer veterans of that war living, until today there are only three survivors. Although the ceremony has been expanded to include the Canadian service men and women who have fallen in battle in the ensuing years, the Red Poppy worn in commemoration is specific to that war and those who fought in it.

When the inevitable happens and the last of three survivors passes all that will remain will be the memory of those we are told not to forget about. But what is it we are supposed to remember? The politicians would have us remember their "supreme sacrifice" and they gave their lives for noble causes. Sure we can do that because most of those poor bastards probably believed that they were doing something of value and worth when they signed up to fight in the trenches.

But perhaps we should also be remembering that war to end all wars for the legacy it produced. Out of the ashes of World War One rose all the ingredients for the wars and nationalistic fervour that currently cause the world so much grief. Britain and France controlled the Middle East and although they devolved power to most of the Arab nations, Britain held on to Palestine after "liberating" it from the Muslim Ottoman Empire.

The near and far east, were divided up between: Britain with India (including what is now Pakistan and Bangladesh), Afghanistan, Burma and other territories in that region; France controlled Indo-China which included Vietnam and Cambodia, while the Dutch had Indonesia and surrounding countries. In Africa it was more of the same save that the European masters also included Italy and Belgium among its membership.

The Russian revolution had started before the end of World War One resulting in the Communist rulers of that country having negotiated a separate peace with Germany prior to the 1918 armistice. In 1919 British and American soldiers joined with troops of White Russians to try and overthrow the new regime but were unsuccessful and by 1925 Stalin had established himself as supreme leader.

Although direct confrontation between the West and the East was still a couple of decades away the new government so scared the Western governments that they were willing to appease people like Adolph Hitler and Mussolini as they were seen as defenders against the socialist hoards. It wasn't until they began their own moves against Europe in 1939 that they realized their own danger and almost didn't live to regret their decisions.

In the years since World War Two we have seen almost every former colonial state become a hot spot of some sort or another. India and Palestine were both partitioned into distinct countries along ethnic lines in an effort to curb the very violence that continues to plague them today. In the African countries where colonial authorities had played ethnic tribes off each other in attempts to ensure their rule, their withdrawal resulted in horrible scenes of genocide and deprivation.

From the 1960's and the refugee camps of the Biafrans, through the horrors of Rwanda and the current situation in Darfur that legacy continues. Europe saw her own share of "ethnic cleansing" with the death of Marshall Ttio and the dissolution of Yugoslavia into its distinct parts. Serbians, Croatians, and Muslims began to slaughter each other indiscriminately for no other reason than ethnicity.

Since the end of the war to end all wars, the world has careened deeper and deeper into the embrace of armed conflict. Instead of remembering the horrors that accompany war we have been asked to remember a set of meaningless platitudes that do little too actually speak to the experiences of those we are claiming to remember.

Would we not be honouring their memory further if we were to use these occasions as opportunities to speak against warfare, instead of using them as fodder to justify current follies? In his powerful anti-war novel, Johnny Got His Gun, Dalton Trumbo creates a character who somehow survives losing his arms, legs, face, and ears. We spend the whole of the book inside Johnny's head sharing his memories and the creeping awareness of how sever his injury is.

When he finally figures out what happened to him, and how to communicate (Using his head to tap out Morse code on his pillow he can spell out demands and questions) he requests to be used as a reminder of how awful war can be. He asks to be put in glass case and taken around to recruiting stations and political rallies – anywhere people are going to congregate – and have a sign hung on him that says this is war.

The reaction to his request is pretty much what you would expect; they drug him and prepare to hide him away. All he wanted he says was to give people the opportunity to see what the flip side of honour and patriotism are, what the true nature of war is.

Remembrance Day in Canada is currently a means of honouring all those who have died in wars occurring in lands far away defending concepts and not their country. But if we truly want to ensure they did not die in vain, we must use this day to remind ourselves of the horrors of war so that we can work towards breaking the cycle of violence that started in August of 1914. Other wise it's all been a waste.

November 9, 2006

Which Way Is Left?

In spite of what some of the more extreme elements of the American conservative political spectrum would have people think, Canada is not and has never been a socialist country. The policies of the welfare state that we implement to this day that might give this impression to some people are merely pale imitations of what is considered the norm throughout Europe.

Universal health care, and other programs are not thought of in most parts of the world as the first sign of an out break of communism. In fact Canada has never had a socialist party form its federal government, and there has only ever been one socialist premier of the biggest industrial province, Ontario, in its history.

The three provinces that have had regular left leaning governments in the form of the New Democratic Party (N.D.P.), Saskatchewan, British Columbia, and Manitoba, are as likely to elect a Conservative Party government as they are the N.D.P. Even the N.D.P. are a far stretch from what anybody would call socialist anymore; think Tony Blair's pragmatic progressiveness as envisioned by New Labour but with a bit more of a social conscience and you'll get a fairly good idea where they stand.

As anybody who has read anything I have written politically should be able to guess when it comes to politics my inclination would be to vote for the N.D.P. I should say that I come by that honestly as my mother and father were both active members of the N.D.P. and its predecessor for most of their adult lives. My father's involvement ended with his death, but my mother's has come about due to feelings of disillusionment over the direction the party, and unfortunately a lot of the left are heading in, regarding their attitudes towards the Middle East and Israel.

It was this fall after the N.D.P.'s national convention that she phoned me angry and upset over a statement the party had agreed to endorse condemning Israel's invasion of Lebanon earlier this year. What bothered my mother about the statement was that there was no word of condemnation directed at either Hezbollah or any of the other terrorist groups who carry out routine attacks against Israeli citizens through suicide bombs or random mortar rounds fired into border towns.

My mother's family is Jewish, but her own history, including her time as a child in her parent's home, has never included religion as an important feature. She refers to her Judaism as her history not her faith, meaning, as far as I can tell, that it defines her cultural place in the world, but not what she believes in.

In our phone conversation she brought up the matter of Judaism and wondered aloud how much a part that was playing in her reaction, although in the past she has never let it stop her from being critical of Israel. But it was something about the way in which the communiqué was worded that felt if not intentionally anti-Semitic, at least being far too specific in its singling out of Jewish people for criticism.

Why did the N.D.P. feel compelled to only blame one side in a conflict where there have been a myriad of circumstances over the years that have precipitated actions and reactions from all sides of the border? It's more than just the N.D.P. of course, it seems to be a prevalent attitude among the left these days that only Israel can be to blame for what happens in the Middle East. Terrorist groups or states that have the avowed aim of driving the "Jews into the sea" seem to have nothing to do with and of it.

During the course of our conversation she mentioned that she was considering not renewing her membership in the party as a protest, which she subsequently did about a week later. This had to be very difficult for her. A huge part of her history was tied up in memories of working with the people of that party for things she genuinely believed in as good and true.

Being forced by the party she had worked so hard for since she had reached legal voting age – more then fifty years ago- to give up her membership because of a policy that went against the very principles that attracted her to it in the first place must have seemed like the ultimate in betrayals. She didn't believe she has changed her principles over the years, she still believes in the same things as before, and in fact had become even more hard line on certain issues then when she was younger, yet she no longer felt welcome in the party because of who she is.

What makes it even more difficult is the fact that the N.D.P. has never been a party in power and those who have been involved with it have done so out of a genuine commitment to the ideals of social justice that it has always espoused. For the longest time it was seen as the only real alternative to either the Conservative party or the Liberals who were fairly much politically interchangeable in spite of their appellants.

It has only been recently that the split between the two major parties along ideological lines has become obvious giving people a distinct choice at the polls without having to look for a third alternative. Middle of the road small "l" liberals can now vote for the Liberal party in sort of good conscience because they are not voting for the extreme social conservatism of the Conservative party.

The business community doesn't really care which one wins because they are equally fiscally conservative, although ironically the Liberals are looked upon more favourably by the business elite because of their Old Boy associations, while the current crop of Conservatives are unknowns to the moneyed classes of Ontario.

This means the N.D.P. have been left scrambling to try and find a way to broaden their appeal across the left, now that they can no longer count on the being able to tar the other two with the same brush as effectively. Instead of holding true to their principles and affecting change whenever possible by being the party of the social conscience, they seem to be pandering to whatever trend that will garner them votes in the short term.

But where does this leave people like my mother (and me for that matter) who can't stomach the results of this catering to special interests at the expense of ideological integrity. While the left gets all heated up with moral outrage over the "war crimes" of George Bush and Israel they are spending an almost equal amount of energy figuring out ways of justifying the actions of people who show no more qualms about blowing up women and children as either of the former.

Hypocrisy works both ways folks; sure the right wing are hypocrites for condoning the bombing of Baghdad and other violent acts in support of what they believe in while condemning those which oppose them, but so is anyone who condones violence from those they approve of while condemning it from those who aren't in style anymore.

A terrorist is a terrorist whether he or she are a Jew, Muslim, Hindu, Christian, Irish, or other nationality or religion that feels the need to blow somebody up to make the world a better place for imposing their point of view. Violence is the lazy person's answer to communication and conflict resolution, and to condone one group is to condone them all. If there is a quicker way to flush the world down the toilet it's going to be pretty hard to find.

Thankfully people like my mother are not as isolated in their opinions as she first thought, and there is a growing disquiet among the left over the direction things are going within political parties and organizations. Over in England a group referring to itself as a democratic progressive alliance and welcoming people of all political stripes, have come up with The Euston Manifesto as on outline of an alternative political philosophy in response to the types of concerns that have been expressed here.

I've not had time enough to study it thoroughly to either endorse it or not, but I offer it as an example of how people with a social conscience are looking to redefine what has commonly been referred to as the left. While on first glance some of it smacks of the wishy-washy attitudes of Tony Blair's New Labour, there are also elements that were very appealing: no justification of terrorism and an even handed approach to the condemning and condoning of actions for example.

In an increasingly polarized world where far too many people see things in terms of my way or no way, it should be obvious that offering an alternative that is only a variation on that theme is not the answer. As the traditional homes for people who believe in social justice seem to be becoming as alien to them as their political opposites they are moving to shape new responses to the issues that concern them.

With groups like that behind the Euston Manifesto, and others around the world like Alternatives To Violence trying to enact change in a real and personal way, there is reason to think that the "left" might actually reinvent itself back to being what it was in the first place: a voice of hope and reason in a world where those items are in very short supply.

November 7, 2006

The Second Coming Of Daniel Ortega And The Sandanistas

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Nearly twenty-six years after they rode a revolution to power, and sixteen years after they were defeated in an election, the political party that American Republicans love to hate is back. Daniel Ortega of the Sandanista party of Nicaragua looks to have won a commanding enough victory in Sunday's elections to win the Presidency outright, without need of a second round run off vote.

There's quite a bit of history behind this election, and perhaps before a new smear campaign is begun against the Sandanista leader, a quick overview is in order from someone who didn't think of the Contras as kin to the American Founding Fathers.

In the late 1970's a popular revolution in Nicaragua overthrew the reign of the Somoza family. De facto rulers of the country since the turn of the century, either directly as president or the power behind the throne, the Somozas had protected the interests of the elite and American business at the expense of the majority of the population.

The 1979 uprising led by the Sandanista National Liberation Front (Frente Sandinista de Leberación Nacional in Spanish or more familiarly known by its initials F.S.L.N.) was aimed at improving the lot of the majority who lived in poverty through an aggressive program of land reform, nationalization of industry, education, and improved health care. Major private landowners – mainly American and British- who used prime agricultural land for ranching instead of food growing were forced to surrender their land for redistribution to the people who had been their former tenant farmers.

After years of seeing American backed governments, like El Salvadore and Chile, in Central and South America oppress and kill its own people, the revolution in Nicaragua became a rallying point for people looking to affect change in the Western Hemisphere. Aid workers from around the world, but primarily the United States and Canada came to the country to help what they saw as building hope.

They helped villages set up agricultural systems that we would take for granted like irrigation, figure out how to maintain the Russian tractors (the United States had imposed a trade embargo in 1985 under Regan so they were forced to turn to anyone who would sell them equipment) they were using, built school houses, and educated teachers in the skills needed to teach young people.

Now I'm not going to idealize them, they were still a single party government in most ways until the 1990 election which saw their defeat, but with the assistance of Cuba and other South American countries they managed to increase the literacy rate to 50% from single figures, and eliminate Polio and other diseases that plague the poor.

Part of the reason for them being unable to hold elections was the Regan administrations creation and funding of armed terrorists called the Contras which placed the country on permanent war footing for most of the 1980's. When the United State Congress refused to fund the Contra's, Oliver North, an American Marine Officer serving with the National Security Council, supposedly set up an arrangement to sell arms illegally to the Iranian government in order to raise money to fund the Contras without anyone else in the Regan administration having knowing about it. (Talking to a Regan staff member about it in 1987 he laughingly said "yeah, everybody knew about it from the secretary pool up – how the hell are you not going to know about an arms deal worth that much money – where do you think he got the weapons from – a pawn shop? But of course none of us knew a thing officially.")

From bases in bordering countries with American friendly leaderships the contras would stage attacks against unprotected villages using helicopter gun ships piloted by "retired" C.I.A. agents and mortar rounds to kill people working in the fields and blow up housing, hospitals and schools.

Friends who were there helping to build school houses in the late eighties tell of coming under fire on almost a daily basis, from small arms and mortar rounds. Whether on purpose of accidentally it seemed that any work they had accomplished the previous day would be destroyed during the attacks. Once a good mortar crew finds the range they can hit the same area day after day without too much trouble, and there just wasn't anywhere else that the school could have been built.

The village was so isolated and near to the border that it took two weeks before a platoon of soldiers from the Nicaraguan army could get there to chase the Contras away. One friend said they were finally able to finish the schoolhouse while the platoon was there, but he has no idea if it survived after the volunteers and the platoon left.

As the civilian casualty toll mounted and the Americans showed no signs of stopping their terrorist campaign against the people of Nicaragua, then President Daniel Ortega entered into negotiations with non-Contra opposition parties to arrange open elections. In 1990, with the promise of restored American aid and the end to terrorist attacks a non-Contra, non-Sandanista President was elected.

But through out their time in opposition the Sandanista's have remained a viable political party always getting at least 35% of the popular vote in federal elections. This year it looks like their time has come again. As in other countries in South and Central America over the past year or so have done, it looks as if Nicaragua is prepared to try a left of centre government.

With more then 60% of the votes counted in the first round of Presidential elections former president Daniel Ortega, the Sandanista candidate, has over 38% of the vote, more then enough to not only win the first round, but guarantee an outright win without the need of runoff elections in January.

Sixteen years after his defeat in the polls Ortega will take power if this lead, as is expected, holds. One of the reasons for his success is the more moderate face he has shown then in previous years. The fact that his running mate is an ex-Contra leader has given people hope that this government will finally be able to unify the country by setting an example of reconciliation at the top.

While the current American administration through their embassy in Managua, the capital of Nicaragua, has made some noise about "voter irregularities" the independent Nicaraguan Civic Group for Ethics and Transparency were responsible for releasing the earliest results showing Ortega's substantial lead at the behest of those running against him. There are over 18,000 international observers monitoring these elections including former U. S. President Jimmy Carter.

While it's obvious that Mr. Ortega will not be as friendly towards the current U.S. administration as his chief rival, a banker, it's too early for people to get hysterical and be painting him with the same brush as Chavez the leader of Venezuela. Even in the days of the revolution he was a reluctant ally of Russia and far less of a Marxist revolutionary he was made out to be. Considering his running mate is Jaime Morales former spokesperson for the Contras, the chances of a Red Flag hanging from the flagpole are relatively low.

The reality that the current and future American administrations must come to grips with is that Central and South Americans no longer want to be part of American Manifest Destiny. For over a hundred years, and longer in some countries, the United States has held undue influence over the internal matters of the sovereign nations of the countries to the South of them.

It's time for the United States to stop forcing countries to put the interests of the United States ahead of their own. If they want to win friends and influence people they should remember what they did in Europe after World War 2 and create a type of Marshall plan to assist the nations of South America to develop their own economies that offer well paying jobs and health care to their employees.

Or at least give them the opportunity to do so without raising insurmountable barriers in front of them in the form of embargos and sanctions. America is looked upon by the poor and the downtrodden of these countries as the enemy because they see them as the friend of the people who have kept them in poverty and ignorance for a hundred years or more. If these people choose to vote for a party that promises an end to that can you blame them?

Communism is not about to take over the world any time soon any more, if it ever were, so don't you think its time to stop worrying about "The Red Menace". Learn how to live in peaceful co-existence with your neighbours and you might be pleasantly surprised at the results. South and Central America are never going to go back to being the personal fiefdoms of the United States and its business community. One way or another they are going to be more and more resistant to that idea.

This doesn't have to a confrontational situation though, but the choice is yours. Use the election of Daniel Ortega and the Sandanistas in Nicaragua as a first step in that new direction. You never know, you could find friends in the most unlikely of places.

October 30, 2006

Arming Iraq: Whoops Wrong Arms.

Ever since George W. and company climbed on their horses to go off and coral them some terrorists in Iraq there's been talk of them going even further a field. Periodically one of the gang, Deadeye Dick, Dapper Don, or even Curious George himself would throw a clay pigeon up in the air for target practice to see if expanding the territory was a viable option.

During the days of full-scale insurrection when there was still fighting going on between American troops and a visible enemy there were all sorts of suggestions being tossed around in the press about who was supplying what to whom. The two names at the top of everyone's list as being the biggest supplier of arms to those resisting American occupation, were always the Iran and Syria.

Now neither country has the best of reputations when it comes to the training and arming of those whose interests run counter to that of the West and animosity between Iran, Syria and the United States has been something that's been pretty much a guarantee for the last twenty-five plus years. (All of which made the Regan administration's sale of arms to Iran in the mid eighties to circumvent Congress' refusal to fund a terrorist organization – The Contras- even more cynical)

Syria has been ipso – facto ruler of Lebanon for who knows how long, and been rumoured to supply aid and succour for proscribed organizations for even longer. But in spite of that the U.S. has not made a habit out of overt threatening gestures towards that country. Whether there is some connection between that and Syrian willingness to torture individuals at the behest of Western governments is anyone's guess.

Ever since the overthrow of the Peacock Throne of the Shah of Iran (another example of the U.S. propping up a despotic ruler and earning the hatred of the locals) by the Islamic Revolution of the late nineteen seventies relations between the U. S. and Iran have just been on this side of outright war. In the hopes of doing away with them without any direct involvement they heavily armed the regime of Saddam Hussein of Iraq and had him attempt their dirty work.

Unfortunately he was far too incompetent and insecure a leader to have permitted the survival of able military minds and the Iran/Iraq war became a bloody stalemate, with neither side ceding territory and both sides suffering massive losses. It was only after it was discovered that Saddam had experimented with biological warfare on a Kurdish town in Iraq that the Americans began having second thoughts about him as an ally in the region.

When he decided to re annex Kuwait back into his territory, it was the excuse the American's needed to move against him. Proving that old adage "If At First You Don't Succeed – Try Try Again" has merit what they didn't succeed in doing in the early nineties they have partially accomplished now. Saddam Hussein is no longer ruler of Iraq, but neither it seems is anyone else. They have a government in name only, and if it wasn't for the American army and friends they probably wouldn't last a month due to continual outbreaks of violence ranging from suicide bombings to minor fire-fights on an almost daily basis.

Originally the plan for the neighbourhood probably included a couple of more stops on the Axis Of Evil tour, but as Iraq has dragged on the clay pigeons fired off dealing with the invasions of either Iran or Syria receive cooler and cooler hearings. No matter how often its repeated that the weapons being used against American soldiers and the rest of the Coalition are coming from one of those two countries the enthusiasm for expanding the war just isn't there.

The news today out of Washington after an audit of the military hardware supplied by the Pentagon to Iraqi security forces isn't going to help that argument in the slightest. According to figures released by the office of the special inspector general for the reconstruction of Iraq, the U.S. Defence Department can't account for four percent of small arms that were delivered to Iraq.

While four percent may not sound like much it adds up to 14,030 semi-automatic pistols, assault rifles, machine guns, rocket-propelled grenade launchers and other weapons that have simply vanished off the face or the earth or can't be accounted for. Now we're not talking about regular G.I. inventory, what each soldier carries and a unit keeps in reserve; we're talking about brand new equipment that was purchased specifically for the Iraq security forces. That means this stuff went directly into the hands of the new government in Baghdad.

I don't think anyone would have too much trouble believing that the majority of that four percent has ended up with other than those who it was originally intended for. How many American troops have come under fire from small arms fire that was manufactured in the same factory as the weapons they carry? That can't be much of a morale booster to find out your buddy was blown away by arms bearing a made in U. S. A. sticker on it.

Now obviously 14,000 plus weapons aren’t going to be sufficient to arm all those forces keeping American troops stuck overseas, but they have to playing a significant role in the proceedings. Maybe before George and the rest of the gang take on anyone new they should learn how to ensure they don't supply arms to the people they're fighting. It might make the job a little easier.

October 26, 2006

Defining Terrorism: Violence Is Violence

In the wake of the September 11th 2001 attacks on the United States, Canada, like her neighbour to the south, created a slew of new laws specific to the detention of people as related to terrorist activities. These laws gave the government the power to detain people not just for committing terrorist acts, but also for their potential to commit said acts.

While that's all very well and good and maybe even necessary, the difficulty lies in defining exactly what a terrorist act is. Part of Canada's law defining a terrorist act was struck down as being unconstitutional the other day by Superior Court judge on the grounds that it impinged upon the right to freedom of religion.

In his ruling he said that defining terrorist activities as criminal acts motivated by religion is a serious infringement on religious freedom. While some are dismissing this action as not really being that big a deal, because it doesn't add anything to the already nebulous definition of what actually is a terrorist act, the fact of the matter is that it does eliminate the possibility that anybody is going to be picked up as a potential terrorist based on their religion,

It seems that Canada is using a process of elimination in an attempt to define what exactly constitutes terrorism and an act of terror. As it stands now our attempts are in line with pretty much the rest of world and the United Nations. But the problem is nobody has actually defined what exactly terrorism is. U.N. Resolution 1566 might say things like attacks on civilians to coerce a government into do or not doing something are acts of terrorism, but there is no definitive definition as to what makes a person a terrorist.

The problem is there is a certain amount of moral ambiguity about some of the ways we would define terrorism. One person's terrorist is another person's freedom fighter is one of the most often repeated paradoxes of the twentieth century when people are talking about geo-political realities. If we have to start with that as an accepted reality are we ever going to be able to come up with a definitive definition of terrorism?

Was the U. N. on the right track in trying to define it by the activities carried out by a group in attempting to achieve it's goals, or is their an actual philosophical difference between those who are freedom fighters and those who are terrorists? Just because we support their cause, the Africa National Congress and Nelson Mandela for instance were declared a terrorist organization by the government of South Africa but they had worldwide support, does that make them right.

Sentiment is a dangerous thing and can cause a person to lose track of the reality of who or what it is they are condoning. Back in 1980 there was a group Irish Republic Army prisoners who went on a hunger strike because they wanted to be political prisoners and not treated like criminals. There was a lot of popular support for them both at home in Ireland and abroad in North America (where it really counted of course because the happy Irishman Reagan was president of the United States) But a few years later the pendulum swung against them when they began their bombing campaign again and blew up a car bomb in a public square killing numerous people for apparently no other reason than to show that they could still get away with it whenever and however they wanted.

The I. R. A. and other groups like them claimed to have fought for freedom but they always seemed more than willing to deny others their freedom when it suited their needs. Denying others the ability to move about at will because you might be waiting to blow them up for no other reason that they are a different religion then you are doesn't sound like fighting for freedom to me.

It sounds more like using innocents to blackmail governments into doing what you want, or to sap the morale of the public so much they will pressure their government into caving. This was much the same tactic used in World War Two by both sides to justify their bombing of civilian targets; destroying the morale of a nation's citizens in the hopes of speeding up the war's conclusion.

If that isn't an example of using the citizens of a country to coerce its government into making a decision I don’t know what is. But at the time most political leaders and public fully endorsed the policy. In fact bombing raids are still carried out where we know that civilians could be at risk, but we consider that acceptable because we are not directly targeting them.

The real problem with trying to define terrorism by its actions, motivations, or the composition of the group doing the deed, is the fact once we start looking too close the case can be made for almost any act of violence or warfare against another people be called terrorism. If one country chooses to attack another country, no matter how noble or just their actions might seem they are still going to be committing acts of violent aggression against another group of human beings.

I'm not saying that I'm naïve enough to believe that there are not times when the only course of action is to take up arms, but I don't believe that we can differentiate between acts of violence by labelling them with words that denote one as being better than another. Blowing up a civilian aircraft is despicable and cowardly and is the action of people who have no regard for human life.

But why is it considered more of an affront then mobilizing thousands of people and pieces of equipment with the intent of taking life and destroying property? Just because one lays claim to the reigns of power in a country does that give you some sort of exemption from being responsible for the deaths of people? We say that terrorism are acts of violence which have no military objective, whose only purpose is to kill and spread fear as if somehow having a military objective makes killing acceptable.

Perhaps the reason we struggle to define, or differentiate between terrorism and other forms of violence is that too many of the justifications used by groups we refer to as terrorist sound far too similar to the ones utilized by everybody else. How can we obtain moral high ground if we let terrorists have the same reasons we have for utilizing violence as a means of problem resolution?

When the judge in Ontario struck down the law which would allow someone to be defined as a terrorist if he committed a crime motivated by his religious convictions he was only bringing Canada into line with rest of the world. We still have laws on the books that will allow us to lay charges against individuals as terrorists, but those same charges could have been laid without any special provision made to the criminal code of Canada.

In fact by giving these acts the appellant terrorist aren't you also giving them what they want by making them out to be some sort of hero instead of being a common criminal? Judges have a lot of leeway when it comes to sentencing a person for an act, or an attempted act of violence and could put a person away for a good long time even without calling them a terrorist.

Whether I like it or not is irrelevant, but our society has two types of violence, authorized and un-authorized, there's no point in beating about the bush and trying to qualify that any further. We are never going to be able to come up with definitions of terrorism that will not in some ways paint us with same brush. It doesn't matter to the person who is killed whether it was a terrorist bullet that took their life or that of a soldier: dead is dead and there's nothing you can do about it after the fact.

October 21, 2006

Canadian Politics: Don't Worry About Them, Nobody Else Does.

One of the claims to fame that the Internet can legitimately trumpet is its international nature. Anything you write has a chance of being read by anyone in any country in the world. It doesn't even matter what language you've originally written something in (I've seen articles of mine reprinted where my computer can't display the letters or the only words I've understood have been proper names) translation facilities are sophisticated enough to overcome any barrier.

If I needed any further proof of the International nature of the Net I don't even have to look beyond where I publish my own work. Blogcritics is an online web magazine with readership and contributors from all over the English speaking world, Desicritics offers content primarily aimed at the South East Asian population scattered around the world, and my own blog, Leap In The Dark, is hosted by the Epic India portal operated by Indian author Ashok K. Banker.

I suppose this is old news to most of you, and it's something I usually don't give much thought to either. I write something, put it out there, and people will read it or not. Under most circumstances there's nothing wrong with that either. I write a lot of reviews on books, music, or films and most of my non-review material can be classified as general interest; topics that can cross cultural boundaries and political borders. It doesn't mean you are necessarily going to agree with me but in most cases the frame of reference is universal.

A couple of months ago I started to write a semi-regular feature on Canadian politics for publication at all three sites. Looking back on it I realize my motivations for this were in no small part influenced by a bout of latent chauvinism. Why, if there was so much being written about the United States by everyone, not just Americans, couldn't there be at least a little bit about Canada?

It's not as if we're some non-entity country with no role on the world stage. We've been a member in good standing of the G-8 group of countries since its inception, part of almost every major peacekeeping force that the United Nations has ever sent out (Heck it was a Canadian who came up with the concept – Lester Pearson during the Suez Crises in the fifties), a member of NATO since the beginning, and are still honoured in Holland and Greece for the part our army played in the liberation of their countries in World War Two.

Given all that why wouldn't people be interested in the internal workings of the country? Now I wasn't talking about reporting on local issues or anything silly like that, but some of the major political issues that face the country as a whole. Health Care, federal elections, nefarious behaviour on the part of elected officials and civil servants, excesses committed under the new anti-terrorist legislation, our role in international situations like Afghanistan, and our social legislation which created a stir when we legalized same sex marriages or talked about decriminalizing marijuana.

While some of those issues did elicit lots of comments, anything about gay marriage is guaranteed to get people going, a good deal of the time, especially when away from my own site, I felt like I was talking in a vacuum. Hardly anyone was interested in the issues that in Canada were considered a big deal. Even topics that affected our neighbours to the south like the arguments over softwood lumber duties and the negotiations for a new treaty didn't attract much attention beyond readership in Canada.

I began to wonder if anyone really cared about what happened in Canada. The fact of the matter is, why should anyone outside of Canada care what happens here?

Do any internal decisions that Canada makes have any real impact on the rest of the world? Perhaps if we all of sudden imposed massive import duties on any goods where the equivalent is manufactured in Canada by Canadian companies (not subsidiaries of foreign owned groups) or slapped massive export taxes on natural resources that other countries depend on folks would take notice.

But that's not Canada's style. We don't hold other countries toes over the fire; in fact we barely even let disputes fester for very long without looking for a compromise solution. What else would you expect from the country whose armed forces helped accept the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of the United Nations? Outside of the hockey arena we are one of the most non-belligerent nations you're bound to meet.

The reputation Canada has created internationally (outside of a few pockets of very strange extreme right wing elements in the United States) is of such a benign nature nobody can believe anything we do will create any ripples that extend beyond our borders. Much like the Northern Scandinavian countries we produce individuals who play a role on the world stage, but are more concerned with the quality of life within our borders than about influencing lives beyond them.

Who but a Canadian is going to be interested in the Romanow report on Health Care and how its recommendations are being ignored by government after government? Is anybody outside of Canada going to care whether the Conservative Party of Canada fiddled the books so as to be able to solicit more money from people as donations? A change in government in Canada has nowhere near the implications of a change of government in the United States, India, Russia, or China for the rest of the world.

Now that I come to think about it, I like the fact that nobody is really concerned about what happens in our country. It means nobody is worried a new government might decide to start bombing them, think about cutting off their oil, or any number of other aggressive behaviours. Other countries know they can count on us to send aid in the event of an emergency and not look to see what advantage there is in it for us or attach any strings and conditions to it so as to exert influence on their social policy.

Other countries don't need to know who the Governor-General of Canada is or because we are a constitutional monarchy she is the titular head of our country to appreciate what we offer the world. Given the option of having people desperate for news about what's happening in Canada because they fear how it's going to affect them, and having them not being interested because they know there is nothing to worry about, I prefer the latter circumstance.

I'm not such a Canadian chauvinist, or egotist as a writer, to want people to read my articles on Canada because all of a sudden we are notorious. In fact my chauvinism says that it's a sign of our good quality that people don't need to read about us.


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October 20, 2006

Iraq And Vietnam: Lesson Of The Past Lost On The Pentagon

It had to happen sooner or later but I'm sure any Republican Senator or Representative facing an election this coming first Tuesday of November would have preferred it four weeks later. George Bush used the V-word in reference to his folly in Iraq. He didn't actually use the word himself, but he acknowledged that the situation in Iraq was indeed analogous to the V-word.

Now die-hard conservatives are going to complain about leading questions from a Clinton Democrat (A.B.C. correspondent George Stephanopoulos who got the President to admit the similarity was a former Clinton administration flak) attempting to discredit the policies of the administration in the lead up to the elections. But George Bush has been around politics all his life and should know how to avoid an easy yes and no question.

In fact all he was asked was if he believed the current circumstances in Iraq were analogous to those surrounding the Tet offensive in 1968. He could have easily said, "No I don't believe the circumstances are at all similar". Truth be told he would have been quite correct militarily if that had been his reply. There is really nothing in common with the situation in Iraq and the circumstances of the Tet offensive in terms of what's happening in the field..

What Stephanopoulos was fishing for, and hooked George on, was a comparison between the feelings of the American public now towards the operation in Iraq and the burgeoning feeling of widespread outrage about the war in Vietnam that Tet engendered. It was George's willingness to go along with that assessment that could prove problematic.

Thinking about it some more I realize that any official administration statement linking the two operations, even saying weather conditions were similar would not look great in print. (Vietnam was never a war – it was a police action and the war has been won in Iraq so we're not allowed to call them wars. It's such a nasty word anyway, implying death and destruction like it does, maybe we should just do away with it altogether.). Bush likens Iraq to Vietnam as a headline, no matter what the fine print, would have any Republican hoping to be re-elected this November running from the President like their butt was on fire.

Vietnam is the great bogey monster of modern American military history. It's not so much that they lost the war on the battlefield; it was they didn't understand the battlefield well enough to be able to obtain the easy victory they felt was their due. From the earliest part of the twentieth century the American military had wandered the globe with relative impunity intervening whenever they felt the need.

Ever since Teddy and his roughriders rode up that hill they had protected American investments and interests without any difficulty. America loves a winner and it is her manifest destiny to be one with ease and end up covered in glory.

Vietnam ended all that. There was no easy victory and there was no glory, there was just a seemingly endless stream of unmet expectations and casualties. The Pentagon can blame the media all they want for turning the public against the war in Vietnam, but all they were doing was there job. They reported what the politicians and the generals promised and then they reported what actually happened. Was it their fault there was such a gulf between the two?

The military has spent the last thirty years restoring the finish to their reputation that Vietnam tarnished, There were a series of small wars and invasions, Panama and Grenada, that they carried out with apparent ease, and the first Gulf war gave them the opportunity to perfect their control of the media during an armed conflict.

America was going to be proud of their military if it was the last thing the Pentagon did and they didn't really care what they had to do to accomplish that end. The one lesson they learned from Vietnam was that without public support they weren't going to be allowed to play with their toys and be given millions of dollars to spend. So all their efforts have been geared towards that end.

For the first while things were going along just swimmingly. The invasion went according to plan, the non-existent Iraqi army collapsed like the house of cards they were and casualties were minimal. They even had a triumphal march into Baghdad. It's only been since the "war" has ended that things have begun to unravel.

First there were the revelations that soldiers had been having fun torturing prisoners, some even going so far as to have their pictures taken with them as mementoes of the occasion. There were the various "rebel clerics" who had to be put down which resulted in the heavier casualties then had occurred in the invasion. (That one of the "rebels" had been an opponent of Saddam', his father had been put to death by the ex dictator, seemed to get lost in the shuffle)

But the torture was able to be passed off as the work of rogue elements ("you're always going to get a few bad apples who are going to spoil if for the rest of the class" – although how they all ended up working together and how nobody else in the prison seemed to know it was going on remains a mystery) and the public was willing to accept a reasonable amount of casualties as long as there was the appearance of accomplishment. You can't make an omelette without breaking a few eggs after all.

So even those events weren't the disasters they could have been. The Pentagon handled them with the dexterity of a Madison Ave. agency smoothing over their celebrity endorser's nasal problems. It's only been as the occupation has dragged on and casualties have mounted that unease among the general public has begun to grow.

The problem for the Pentagon is that they have nothing they can announce except casualty reports. There are no battles, aside from the occasional raid on a suspected insurgency hide out, so there has been no decisive victories to celebrate and make the mission appear to be progressing.

Seventy-three American soldiers and who knows how many Iraqi military have been killed so far in October as they come under increased attack in Baghdad from insurgents. Ten Americans alone were killed last Tuesday and forty Iraqis yesterday in attacks in various regions. Numbers like this make it very difficult for the military and the administration to keep painting a rosy picture or predicting a day when American troops might start coming home.

It's that last detail that is most problematic for many Americans. It's obvious that if American troops were to withdraw today the Iraq would descend into an outright civil war. But it's also obvious that the American public is beginning to tire of the ever-increasing casualty numbers.

In a recent poll two thirds of the respondents said they disapproved of Mr. Bush's handling of the war, and that 45% thought the Democrats were more liable to make correct decisions regarding the war as opposed to 34 for the Republicans. Those are not the kind of numbers that make politicians running for election happy.

No matter how hard they've tried to prevent a repeat of Vietnam the military has failed. Iraq, like its predecessor, was the subject of many promises and while they have fulfilled some of them, they have yet to be able guarantee the one thing that is beginning to matter most; an ending. Public opinion turned against the war in Vietnam because of mounting casualties in a seemingly interminable campaign.

History is repeating itself whether the Pentagon likes it or not, and the longer the conflict drags on the more it will. If George Bush was correct in agreeing with his questioner that there are similarities between the current situation in Iraq and those surrounding the Tet offensive in regards to public opinion then the Republicans should look to their history books.

The Democrats were in power in at the time of the beginning of the Tet offensive. By the time the following November rolled around Richard Nixon was starting his first term as a Republican President. If things are allowed to continue as is it's not just this November they need to worry about, but 2008 as well.

The Pentagon thought they could correct the problem of losing public support by controlling the press. Unfortunately it also depends on producing results as promised. That's the real lesson they've failed to learn from the Vietnam War.

October 16, 2006

Canadian Politics: Afghanistan, What Were We Fighting About Again?

There were two headlines in today's Globe and Mail, one of Canada's national newspapers, that caught my eye. They both dealt with the war in Afghanistan and to my eye provided an interesting perspective on how well the objectives of this conflict are being met. One dealt with the war effort, while another was about life for about fifty per cent of the civilian population.

We can't seem to have a week go by without new reports of casualties, deaths most often, of Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan. Today was no exception as the names of two soldiers killed while guarding road construction were released. It seems the area that we spent so many lives and time pacifying last month isn't as peaceful as was thought.

What was cited as a victory, turned out to be the Taliban just doing what guerrilla forces the world over have done since the Napoleonic Wars in Spain in 1805 when the term was invented (Spanish for small war); retreat in the face of superior firepower and come back to fight again another day. Over the last couple of weeks five Canadians have been killed along the same stretch of highway by either rocket attacks or bombs planted along the roadside.

I think the Canadian military have been taking stupid lessons from someone, which is depressing because you always kind of hope that the people leading the soldiers of your country might have a few brains. Judging by two comments quoted in the press today, I have to say that hope took a pretty sever beating.

The first example was one officer's attempt to paint the Taliban an even darker shade of evil, by saying that they are obviously against roads, because they keep attacking the Canadian soldiers who are guarding the building of a road. You don't think the attacks have anything to do with the fact that the Canadians are seen by the Taliban as an invading force has anything to do with it? Nope its just those godless Taliban are against roads.

The other officer, obviously attempting to offset the death of two more Canadian soldiers reported that in the ensuing skirmish that many rounds were exchanged with the Taliban, and that by the end the Canadians were shooting far more than the Taliban were. You don't think that maybe the Canadians were shooting at an empty hillside and the Taliban had left shortly after they had done all the damage they could without sustaining casualties?

It's not often a lightly armed guerrilla force is going to get into a drawn out conflict with a heavily armed troop of soldiers who can call in air support now is it. But this officer seemed to make it a point of pride that Canadian soldiers could blow up an empty hillside as well as any army in the world.

It was almost five years ago when the Canadian army followed the American lead into Afghanistan with the intention of overthrowing the oppressive Taliban regime and rooting out suspected terrorist training facilities. We were filled with horror stories, true unfortunately, of the horrendous treatment women were undergoing at the hands of the fundamentalists who were ruling the country. Their interpretation of the Koran was the Muslim equivalent of the Christian barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen take on the bible.

So what are we supposed to make of the fact that after five years of supposed democratic rule that just down the street from where the Canadian army is based is a prison housing a thirteen year old girl jailed because she had refused to marry a fifty year old man who she had been traded to by her father in exchange for another teenage girl? Or that in the same prison a husband, wife and daughter are all in jail because they offered a young woman who came to their door shelter not knowing she was a run away from the same sort of arrangement?

Because of their compassion the three of them were accused of prostitution and have been in jail since. According to Amnesty International and other human rights organizations the practice of jailing women for disobeying their male relatives or husbands is almost as widespread now as it was under the Taliban. These aren't isolated cases in small hill towns either but major metropolitan areas like Kandahar where there is a heavy international troop presence.

In other words in five years time the only thing that has happened is that a nice face has been put on the same old attitudes. Even when the fighting was at an ebb and the Taliban was supposedly "defeated" it seems like nothing was done in a real way to try and improve the lot of women in the country. Women are still considered as property that can be bought and sold on the open marketplace and seemingly nothing is being done about it.

Five years ago when our government agreed to send troops into Afghanistan it was an understandable attempt to liberate a people from a truly contemptible circumstances. Can anyone tell me what the objective of the mission is now? Why are we still fighting against an enemy that was supposedly vanquished before the invasion of Iraq? Why are the conditions that we were supposed to correct still in effect? The longer this war lasts the more questions there are raised then are answered about Canada's involvement.

When the Conservative Party Of Canada led by Prime Minister Steven Harper announced they would be keeping the previous government's commitment to expand Canada's role in the war in Afghanistan the majority of Canadians opposed the idea. With the government's parroting of Bush "We will stay the distance" rhetoric and talk of extending the stay of troops in combat situations, Afghanistan is fast becoming a major political issue in Canada.

In fact it is probably fair to say that Steven Harper's political future could hang on how well he deals with this issue. The province he needs to make serious gains in, Quebec, to win a majority government is also the province most opposed to the war. When there was even rumour of a Quebec battalion, The Vingt-Deux, being sent over seas the reaction was strong enough that the idea was quashed before it was spoken of officially.

Even a hint that a further expansion of the war would cause direct Quebec involvement would cause his shaky support in that province to disintegrate completely. His rigidity on social programs already harms his chances in Ontario, so not only can't he afford to lose support in Quebec, he is in need of gains there to even maintain his minority government status.

It would be ironic if the war everybody else seems to have forgotten about brings down a government in Canada.


October 12, 2006

Canadian Politics: Steven Harper: George Bush's Dummy

How long do you think it will take for people to begin to notice that George Bush's hand is stuck up Steven Harpers's butt? They really are like a cheap vaudeville act in that you never see either set of their lips moving. Soon we will start seeing pictures of them together with George drinking a glass of water in order for Steven to look like he is speaking independently?

I wonder what it is about Canadian Prime Ministers and the way they treat American Presidents. With very few exceptions they are either annoyingly sycophantic like Mr. Harper or former toady to Ronald Reagan, Brain Mulroney, or so deathly afraid of them they despise them. Who can ever forget the image of Mulroney and Reagan singing "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling" as the chiselling bastard was selling the country away during the negotiations for the North America Free Trade Agreement?

I think for Mr. Harper part of it is that he's horribly disappointed that the people and press in Canada don't treat him like the way Americans treat Mr. Bush. Canadians don't accord the office of Prime Minister any of the respect that the Americans give the office of their leader. How else could a person like Bush command respect if not for the office; it's sure not for his sparkling intellect?

What Mr. Harper forgets is that he's not Canada's head of state; nope that honour belongs to whoever happens to be Governor General. (In this case a black woman of Haitian decent, Michelle Jean, is the Queen's representative in Canada) Canada is a constitutional Monarchy and for all you listeners out there preparing for Jeopardy and the category "Obscure Forms of Government" that's where you have an elected parliament, with a figure head monarch, or a representative, as head of state.

So Steven can run around acting all presidential, but he has to remember that come the morning after he is beholden to parliament for all or any of his power. In other words his office carries little or no cachet. Our system of government should put more emphasis on what a political party can do rather then any so called leadership qualities of the Prime Minister.

Of course that's not always the case, but so far to my mind the only individual who has been able to make a splash on the world stage while Prime Minister of Canada was Pierre Trudeau. No one else has come close to having the charisma to be able to have a direct influence on events. Sometimes it was a negative influence, but influence it was all the same.

So here we have Steven Harper standing and delivering, or getting one of his minions to do so, in this case Defence Minister Gordon O'Connor, for George Bush. Mr. O'Connor had the nerve to blast fellow NATO members about their unwillingness to offer their soldiers up to slaughter like Canada and The U.S. are in Afghanistan.

He seems to have forgotten that not so long ago Canada was operating under those very rules of engagement that he is so quick to condemn, that Canada has never considered herself one of the aggressor countries, and that close to 60% of Canadians have no interest in seeing our soldiers "pay the ultimate sacrifice".

But the worst part of this is he's changing the face of Canada. We've never been seen as militaristic, aggressive, or any of the words normally associated with countries that have goals and interests they support with military power. We don't want to be that and most of us have been very proud of our record as peacekeepers around the world.

It used to be that a Canadian flag meant impartiality and could be trusted by all sides in a conflict. When the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the United Nations Peacekeepers it was only considered natural that Canada should be part of the team that accepted the award on behalf of the peacekeeping brigades around the world. We invented the term and the concept for goodness sake.

Our original role in Afghanistan was to be doing what those other NATO nations are being criticized for by our government. We were there to help the people of Afghanistan not kill them. Hasn't anyone wondered why after four years of being over there our casualties have pretty much tripled?

Even in the days of the original warfare back before the invasion of Iraq by the Americans Canada's troops weren't subjected to this type of risk because that's never been considered our role to play in armed conflict since Korea. I know it wasn't Harper's decision to change the role our troops are playing in this conflict but he's enjoying being the leader of a country at war far too much for my liking.

If I have to hear the smug, self-satisfied expression "they've paid the ultimate sacrifice" again from his lips I might puke. He sounds like he's proud of the fact that he's sending young Canadian men and women to their deaths. In fact he's so proud of what he's doing he's talking about extending their tours of duty "until the job is done".

That's funny I didn't even see George Bush in the same room, let alone the same country, and his voice is coming out of Steven Harper's mouth. Talk about your dummy acts. Where have you heard those words before, albeit in reference to another war, but still coming from the mouth of George Bush? If Bush's hand isn't up inside Harper controlling his mouth I'd be surprised.

Now wait a minute you say, what about the softwood lumber deal, what about the backing down of passports for the border? What about them I say? The softwood lumber deal pretty much screws Canada's lumber industry out of five billion dollars owed them in illegally collected duties, allows the American industry the right to cancel the deal without notice whenever they want, and instead of a tariff being paid to the American's they have to pay an export tax to our government. Monty Hall couldn't have made that sound attractive.

The passport thing is probably hated as much by the Border States as it is by Canadian industry, and I can see pressure being put on the Bush administration from Vermont to Washington as nobody wants to lose the cross border business. The only ones screaming for the border passes are a few extremist right wing cuckoos, or those who border with Mexico where the "problem" is something different all together.

There's one other thing everyone might want to remember. Just before the last Canadian election Steven Harper had an unprecedented meeting with George Bush. How often does the leader of an opposition party in Canada, or in any country for that matter, meet with the President of the United States? All we were told was that they had discussed items of mutual interest. What's even more interesting was that this meeting lasted longer then the official meeting between Prime Minister Steven Harper and President George Bush, and there were no photo opportunities afterwards.

It was pretty obvious by then that Steven Harper's party was going to be forming a minority government in Canada in the upcoming election. You don't think the two of them might have been planning which bones the Bush administration was going to throw Harper's new government to give them credibility?

Border passports and the softwood lumber deal had been festering for a good long time so if Harper could wave his hands in triumph over his great accomplishment at standing up to the Americans that would go a long to silencing critics that he was merely Bush's puppet.

To be fair, the two of them have a lot in common to begin with; homophobia, misogyny, xenophobia, and a belief in protecting the rights of those who advocate any of the above. In Canada it is illegal to advocate hatred or discrimination against anyone on basis of race, creed, sexual orientation, or anything else that might differentiate one group of people from the mainstream.

But Steven Harper believes that law is unfair because it prevents Christian Schools from teaching that if you are gay or believe that a woman has the right to decide what happens to her body you are an abomination. He sees nothing wrong with teachers getting up in classrooms and using their position of authority to teach new generations hatred in the guise of belief. I don't see much difference between that and them getting up in front of their classes and teaching that blacks are inferior to whites and that segregation is acceptable, Jews are to be hated because they killed Christ, and that Muslims are dirty heathens and have to be killed for their own good.

But even with all that in common, one can't help but suspect that George Bush is pulling the strings that make Steven Harper dance. With one hand up his butt and one pulling the strings the illusion is pretty hard to discredit. But once you think about it, it's obvious, Steven Harper is George Bush's dummy.

October 3, 2006

Communication: Listen And Learn

I guess as a person who uses words everyday for more than just the basic communication of needs that passes as conversation these days, but to try and express an idea or an opinion somewhat comprehensibly in writing, to say I've been thinking of language recently may have a "Coals To Newcastle" sort of ring to it. But than again who is more apt to think of language and how things can be so easily misconstrued than someone who writes for public consumption on a regular basis.

I've had people leave angry comments about things I've written because they've missed the tiny word "not" in a sentence. Sometimes, and I'm not saying this is the situation in all cases, people are so keen to get their own point across that they don't really read (listen) what has been stated by an author and assume that they need to go on the offensive in order for their point to be understood. In those cases it of course doesn't matter what the original opinion was because it is only serving as an excuse for the other person to sound off.

But in either case, wilful and accidental misunderstanding, where the disagreement exists, or the failure to communicate occurs, is on a simple intellectual or philosophical level. The gulf is no more, or less, that a difference of opinion where there is a common body of awareness and comprehension to draw upon. Even if my views on a subject are diametrically opposed to someone else's, we have a similar frame of reference for out ideas.

As long as the person comes from the same philosophical tradition, in my case Western European Judeo-Christian, it doesn't even matter what their native language is, our ways of thinking have been trained in similar manners. There are certain concepts that are simply accepted without question and taken for granted when we enter into a discussion or conversation.

Where things become difficult are the occasions we attempt to bridge the gulf between our way of thinking/being and another group whose core philosophy comes from a different way of thinking. They live according to concepts that our minds can't define because for us they don’t exist. Our language doesn't have the capability to define the concept without years of study, because even if a word is translated to mean the same thing, our comprehension of that doesn't encompass the same comprehension as theirs.

Over the past year and a half I've been offering up reviews of Ashok Banker's modern adaptation of the 3000 year old Indian epic tale The Ramayana. The central character, Prince Rama, is defined by his adherence to the principle of dharma. While we can roughly translate the word to equate to our word duty, in actuality there is far more to it than that.

It has taken me countless discussions with an on line group ("Epic India") over the last year or so to begin to understand the full implications of the word. The problem is that the way my mind has been conditioned to think I lack the means to formulate a definition. My language, hence my brain, doesn't automatically go along those paths and I'm forced to try and adapt them so I can think in a different way.

Those differences have caused me to ponder the question of culture in terms of what could be called the human chicken and egg question. Which came first, the language that we use to define our way of being, our way of being followed by the language needed to define it, or did they evolve in tandem. Language does not necessarily mean English, French, or German, more the means we have of defining the concepts and terminology that in turn define us.

In the eyes of some people the Western concept of being given dominion over the natural world to exploit as we see fit is perverse, Inevitably this philosophy leads to wars for control of more and more territory so as to increase the amount of land you have to exploit for your own gain. It really comes down to a belief system based more on what's good for me, not what's good for us.

That of course over simplifies, but if you were to think about it how else would you define a way of life where actions are guided by "will I receive the final reward of salvation"? If even the most apparently selfless is act is guided by that principle doesn't that imply self-service?

I don't mean for that to sound to judgemental, and I apologise if I've insulted anyone, but I deliberately wanted to state it baldly so I could show how our thought patterns are different from other people's. It's not my intent to analysis the Judea/Christian mind right now and discuss its merits and faults. I'm only trying to point out how all that we do is a result of, or affected by our way of thinking.

Everything is filtered through that philosophical approach to the world from our interpersonal relationships to our governmental decisions affecting foreign policy. The whole structure of our society and our culture take their roots from that base and were nurtured into full flower and bore the fruit we now see.

I've often wondered if a person who is denied access to language – born deaf – has to learn how to think and conceptualize as they learn language skills. Until then what tools do they have at their disposal to formulate anything? I've also often thought when I see a person with a new born infant in a shopping mall that they should be arrested for criminal negligence because of the sensory overflow they are inflicting upon that child.

Until we learn language we can't identify anything except in terms of raw emotion. Is it any wonder that small children when awake are continually in tears when they are brought into areas like shopping malls or any other public location? They are terrified because they have no way of defining what they are hearing, seeing and smelling.

It's only as we develop a vocabulary that we are able to begin to understand and define the world around us. The more we refine our vocabulary the more of course we understand and the less threatened we feel by others. But like the deaf child there are vocabularies that we are born without access to, those of other people's cultures and ways of being.

Like infant children who encounter the babble of the shopping mall before they have the ability to define what it is they are dealing with we are scared and react emotionally to that which we don't understand. Until we allow our vocabularies to widen to include other definitions we shall continue along this path and not be able to communicate with over half the world's population.

Communication has to be a two way street or else we end up sitting alone with no one to talk to. That doesn't sound like a very pleasant future to me.

September 25, 2006

Canadian Politics: Unanswered Questions About Maher Arar

Imagine that one day you are walking down the street in the city of the country that you have lived in since your parents and you immigrated here when you were a teenager. You are all of a sudden arrested and held without charges by the nation's security forces. You have been arrested at the behest of a foreign power because they suspect you might be a terrorist.

The next thing you know is that you are being shipped to this foreign power to be secretly detained and questioned about your supposed terrorist activities. When they are through with you they decide to send you back to the country you came from. Not the country you've been living in since you were a teenager, but the one you immigrated from years ago.

You are sent back as a prisoner and thrown in jail and tortured. Occasionally you are asked questions about your supposed terrorist activities. All of a sudden you are released and sent back to the country you had been originally taken from and released from custody. You couldn't know it but your arrest had set off a furor of huge proportions that resulted in you finally being rescued from oblivion by the country that never should have let you go in the first place.

Sound improbable, like something from a bad spy novel or from the mind of a paranoid European writer of the thirties? Unfortunately it is also the story of Maher Arar, Canadian citizen who was arrested in 2002 by the Canadian security forces as per a request of the Americans. The Americans it turns out were acting on faulty and inaccurate information supplied them by the Canadians, information that gave the impression that Mr. Arar was a terrorist.

Four years after he was picked up the mistakes leading up to his torture and imprisonment are now finally coming to light. Mr Justice Dennis O'Connor's oft-delayed report/inquiry into the circumstances surrounding Mr. Arar's detention were released on September 19th. There is some question whether the complete report has been released as the Government mentioned that some findings may remain sealed from the public due to issues of national security, and we can never know for sure if they have or not, what has been released is damning enough.

Even some of the Arar report's highlights are sufficient to make you question the use of the word intelligence when it comes to the gathering of information in regards to this case and many others. Even worse are the allegations that there were deliberate attempts on the part of both the police and the government to maintain the impression that Mr. Arar was indeed guilty as charged.

A partial list of the findings include:


  • - R.C.M.P. provided inaccurate, overstated, and unfair information to Americans about Mr. Arar's terrorist leanings
  • - No evidence that Mr. Arar was in any way a threat to Canadian security or had committed any offence.
  • - Canadian officials leaked inaccurate information to the media in order to protect their own credibility and damage his reputation.
  • - The Mounties withheld information from the government so as to prevent them from finding out about mistakes.
  • - They broke Canadian law by not ascertaining whether information supplied to them by the Syrians was obtained by torture or not.

One of the final recommendations the report gives is that government should use the report's findings when deciding how much of a compensation package should be given to Mr. Arar. In other words there is no question in the mind of Mr. Justice O'Connor that a horrible miscarriage of justice was allowed to happen in the name of supposed national security measures.

In the late 1970's the R.C.M.P.'s intelligence duties were severely curtailed because it was found that they were continually stepping over the line and engaging in illegal activities. There was the great barn burning in Quebec where they torched some barns and tried to blame the Front de Liberation Quebecois for it so they would have an excuse to round up some suspects. It was behaviour like this that caused the government of the day to form our civilian spy agency C.S.I.S.

Which makes you wonder what the hell was the R.C.M.P. doing supplying unsubstantiated intelligence information to a foreign power in the first place? Isn't that the job of C.S.I.S., or have the R.C.M.P. been called back into the fray because of the other agencey's incompetence in handling the Air India bombing of 1985?

The thing is the R.C.M.P. have a track record of doing what they feel like to obtain a conviction, and yet they were allowed by their political masters of the day to do what ever they felt like and nobody thought to check up on them. Just because the Americans were and are willing to do away with the rights of their citizens, did that mean we had to as well?

What happened to our justice system, and proper extradition proceedings? One country's police service cannot just ask a police service in our country for a Canadian national. How could our Ministry of Foreign Affairs simply allow a Canadian citizen to be deported to a third country without extradition hearings? Who in Canada was asked and approved the sending of Mr. Arar to Syria? Why didn't we protest when he was if we weren’t asked?

Those are the questions that I would like to see answered at some time, but as yet no one seems to have asked them. Maybe they are the ones considered too important to national security to let the public know the answers to. Although the current Conservative government seems to have no problems letting the R.C.M.P. twist in the wind for a while, so who knows what the future could bring.

The Conservative Party of Canada finds itself in a quandary right now; on one hand they can gleefully say that it all happened under the previous administration and they had nothing to do with it, but on the other hand they want to be seen as tough on terrorists by their buddies in Washington. If they are too quick to condemn the treatment of Mr. Arar as an infringement of his civil rights what kind of message does that send?

So they can't do that because that will make it look like they are soft on terror, but at the same time the people of Canada don't like to see their fellow citizens plucked off the street at the behest of another country, and then sent away to be tortured. There is also the slightly embarrassing matter of them having been the staunches defenders of the laws that allowed Mr. Arar to be arrested, and in fact accused the Liberal government prior to them of not doing enough to fight the scourge of terrorism.

Oh how they must hate this, a golden opportunity to jump up and down on the corpse of the previous government and paint the current opposition with the same brush but they can't use it. The simple truth is they would have done the same thing, and would do it again tomorrow if the opportunity presented itself.

What will probably end up happening is they will dismiss it as the actions of over zealous officers in the time of war that overstepped their bounds. They will probably fire the current commissioner of the R.C.M.P. (he was a Liberal appointee anyway) just to make it look good and like they take their responsibilities seriously, and nothing will change at all in the way business is conducted.

As for Mr. Arar, they will probably give him some money; half-heartedly apologise on behalf of the government, but not so as to admit that anything was wrong with the policy, and hope he will go away. It's a sordid end to a sordid story and another dirty little stain on Canada's supposed lily-white hands that will never wash off.

The truly appalling thing is how little anyone seems to care about how in a supposed democracy a person can find their rights stripped away in the blink of an eye. There's a saying that was made up in response to what happened in Germany between 1932 - to 1945 that goes something like this: "When they came for the Jews I didn't say anything because what did it have to do with me, when they came for the gays, the gypsies, the mentally and physically handicapped, and the Catholics I didn't say anything because what did they have to do with me, when they came for me there wasn't anybody left to say anything".

Ask yourself who will be there to speak for you if you don't speak for the unpopular and the easy to blame now? What will happen when they knock on your door?

September 18, 2006

Canadian Politics: The Case Of The Missing Kyoto Accord Part Seven

The bump on the top of my head was starting to make me wish for bed and a cold compress, and the last thing I wanted to be doing right now was sitting in a dank cellar chatting with the two folks, no matter how good their intentions had been, who'd made me feel like this. Still there was something compelling about the way her lower lip trembled when she was emotionally distraught that made me want to investigate how she reacted to other stimuli.

But those were idle thoughts suited to other occasions, and even contemplating them made me wince with pain. Anyway, they looked like a couple of nice earnest, concerned types who wanted to save the world, and from previous experience I knew that was one road better left un travelled. They weren’t casual about anything, and politicized sex was always on the low end of the enjoyment scale for me, especially when working on a migraine.

I suggested that we keep in touch and if they thought of anything more, or if anything happened, that might lead me to an answer about who croaked the professor and what happened to the Kyoto accord. I told them if I ever did get any answers that I would make sure they were filled in, if for no other reason so they could stop bashing people over the head that came into the store asking about the Kyoto accord.

Couldn't be good for business if you kept hauling concerned environmentalists down into a cellar and giving them the third degree. Unless they had a sideline in headache remedies: "Hey does that store of yours have anything for a wicked headache, induced by a minor head trauma?" I asked her pointing at the point on the noggin he had tried to stave in.

He had the good grace to look embarrassed and mumble another apology, while the smile she bestowed made me start reconsidering my earlier resolution and thinking a little tender loving care administered by her capable mouth might not be such a bad thing after all. But when my eyes made contact with daylight, it was still only mid afternoon, when we reached the street all thoughts of anything but lying alone in bed with the blinds drawn and me out cold quickly vanished.

Even her bashful, eye's down looking up at me through her eyelashes, "Is there anything else that I can do for you…" only elicited a request for a cab. Her suggestion as she shepherded me into the cab that she'd call tomorrow to see how I was doing, was laden with meanings, but all I could do was smile weakly and mumble my address to the cabbie.

His initial reluctance on driving me was quickly overcome by my suggestion that the quicker he got me home the less chance there was of me puking on the back of his head. Mentioning the names of a couple of gentlemen I knew in the people cartage business who were known for their efficiency in dealing with those who upset their friends helped to overcome the last of his doubts.

It also ensured I was spared the usual commentary on the state of the world that cabbies seem to believe is their prerogative to deliver. By the time we pulled up to the office whatever placebo she had given me was slowing me down sufficiently that I tipped the cabbie a twenty, which led to the unprecedented site in Ottawa of a passenger having his door opened for him by the driver of his hack. He also did me the favour of pointing me in the right direction of my buildings door, so I didn't wander dazed into traffic.

Harry the day doorman had seen me in quite a number of states before this, but even his eyes showed some concern as he clocked the state of my pupils and the discreet swelling on the back of my head.

"You want me to check on you every couple of hours or so Mr. Steve, to make sure you haven't slipped into a coma?"

"Actually", I told Harry, "a coma sounds pretty attractive right about now. Just get me on the elevator and hit the button for the right floor and I should be able to take it from there." The last thing I needed right now was to be mother-henned by six foot–seven-inch, 300lb, ex linebacker with one eyebrow, a shaved head, and a gold loop earring the size of a hoola-hoop. Nope I just needed my bed and a lot of pitch dark.

Which I almost didn't get until I remembered how a key and lock mechanism worked, after surviving that challenge, navigating through the clutter of the office to the private room in behind was nothing. The only distraction was the flashing red of the answering machine light, which caused a momentary fixation, quickly overwhelmed by the intense pain its pulsation produced in my skull.

I let the back of my knees hit the side of my bed that allowed it to welcome me into the comfortable bosom of its embrace. I wish I could say I slept like a log and didn't feel anything until I woke the next morning, but I was disturbed all night by wild dreams that featured Ms. Magnesen and the environmentalist cutie literally tearing me in half; Professor Magnesen lecturing both of my parts on separate occasions on how to control emissions; and in amongst it all was the sound of people pounding at my door and yelling for me to wake up as they were the police and it was long past time that decent people were awake and at work.

Unfortunately that last part turned out to be true, (I don't want to think about the implications of the other parts thank you very much) and I eventually had to stagger to the door so as to prevent the noise from continuing. It was only as I turned to lead my old buddies from the crime scene back into the apartment that I realized the ten o'clock I had read on the dial of my bedside clock meant the next morning, not later that same evening.

"I didn't even know you drank tea, let alone took sugar in it" was followed by harsh laughter from behind as the assholes chortled at my misfortune. "Was that one lump or two?" That ain't the kind of shit you deal with before coffee on the morning after the day I had had yesterday. I couldn't even muster the energy to give them a baleful stare, let along a snappy retort.

I didn't know what I had done to deserve the honour of a home visit, but I figured I'd better be slightly somnambulant before trying to cope with the excitement of it all. I pointed in the general direction of where I remembered my bathroom as being, and received a leering grin and a sweeping, be my guest, arm gesture in return.

It was only after I had held my head under the cold tap for five minutes that I began to realize the potential for trouble that a visit from two cops, who were being overtly genial, could forebode. For two guys like McIntosh and Gates to show up at my door without kicking it down first meant they had either come to gloat or…I couldn't think of any other reason.

If they were going to arrest me they would have kicked the door down and hauled me away, that would seem more their modus apprehenda- so to speak- over this polite routine. Of course this all could just be an elaborate game of good cop bad cop, as I noticed Gates hadn't done anything except show his teeth at McIntosh's jokes. Like with any wolf that could mean he's laughing or readying himself to go for your throat.

When I could look in the mirror and only see one of me looking back I figured I could just about cope with the boys in bad suits and headed back out to the office area. Still studiously avoiding any sort of contact with them I headed to where the coffee pot that was my morning cup awaited. From the damage inflicted upon my kitchen and the depreciation in the level of the pot, I could see my guests hadn't hesitated on making themselves at home.

"You must have finished the lumps off last night" Gates called through " We couldn't find anything but these packets of "nude" sugar. Oh and your out of cream." It's a good thing I like black coffee cause 25 years with no chance of parole is a long time to spend behind bars, and guards inside don't like cop killers.

After gulping a first cup, burning the roof of my mouth and finishing the process of returning to consciousness simultaneously, I poured a second cup and headed out to meet my early birds, hoping I wasn't the worm awaiting eating. From the way Gates was looking at me like a side of beef I couldn't help feeling that prospect was pretty good.

"Who gave you the love tap?" McIntosh asked pointing his chin at the lump on my head.

"Someone who wasn't as genteel in looking for information as the police officers of our nations capital. Now what can I do for you boys, I wouldn't want to think I'm holding you up from serving and protecting the good people of Ottawa" I tried to look at them with as much innocence as I could muster with my eyes still slightly crossed and the knowledge that the last time I had seen them a dead body with a machete in its back had plopped at my feet weighing heavily on my mind.

"It's what we can for you chum" Gates was licking his lips, hopefully licking off lingering drops of coffee but it was hard to tell what was going on behind those beady little eyes. "We thought you might like to know the identity of the stiff who fell at your feet the other night. We thought hearing his name might jar your memory, although I see others have tried less subtle means. Which reminds me do you need to report a crime, we're police officers you know and we're here to protect the public." He laughed a horrible little laugh that sounded like a cross between a growl and the wind blowing over a grave on a cold November night.

"That was just a misunderstanding, and why should hearing the dead guy's name jar my memory?" I was trying to think if I had given beautiful anything like my card which she could have given her dad which would take some explaining if it were found on his corpse.

"The crime scene boys found this", he reached into his pocket and pulled out a plastic baggie of the type you use for sandwiches, pot, and evidence. This one held a piece of yellow paper torn on two edges so it had obviously ripped from the bottom corner of a larger page. "Your ad in the yellow pages was found in Mr., I should say Dr./Professor Magnesen's jacket pocket with the name of the bar scrawled on it, and the words "last brass pole on the barkeep's side" written in the same hand."

He paused and looked at me, and just in case I hadn't caught the implications of what he was suggesting, spelt it out for me." We think you were arranging to meet him there, and you've holding out on us for some reason and we want to know why?"

I took a sip of my coffee and looked up at him. "Well that's better then your usual average, batting .500 could almost make a person think you know what you're doing. Yes I was supposed to be meeting him at the bar, but I wasn't holding out on you because until you just told me I had no idea that the corpse at my feet was Dr. Morgensen.

We had only talked on the phone up till that point, which is probably why he had the directions on where to find my scrawled on my ad in the yellow pages. I just figured he had shown up after the murder and found the bar locked up and him not able to get into seeing me. I've been hoping to hear from him again since, but now it looks like that hope is a pretty vain one…"

It's always good to leave a thought or sentence hanging when talking to cops, they don't like to think you know everything, and it gives them the illusion that they have some room to manoeuvre with you even though you've built a pretty thick brick wall up for them to run into. And if they do have something in reserve, you can always hold on to I hadn't finished.

I wasn't going to have to worry about that this time, because although it was obvious they didn't like it, they didn't seem to have anything more than that piece of paper connecting me to the dead doc. If they thought otherwise, obstructing a murder investigation would be the least of my worries. I'd have to start worrying about my name finding its way to the attention of individuals I don't want knowing it.

They had finished their coffees by then and knew their chances of refills were non-existent, so they'd have to head over to Tim Horton's and have an official coffee break if they wanted any more. Gates was out the door and McIntosh was close behind him, when he turned and looked back.

"This is more than just a divorce case gone bad, peeper, it's even more than just a homicide. There's a lot of pressure on us to get results, but results that end it without it going far. There's talk of not letting it go further than this room, unless something else shows up soon.

Everybody's called the chief today from the horsemen, to the spy guys, and somebody from Parliament Hill to ask that we keep them posted. Everybody's walking around the station house right now so uptight that they're scared to fart. Whoever worked you over last night was an amateur compared to these boys from up high. I've heard that they can make it so you get to the point that you want to tell them what they want to hear just so the pain will stop."

He nodded at me then and closed the door behind him. Have a nice fucking day. It looked like my time on this case was running out fast no matter what I wanted, so the option of another day in bed, however tempting was a no go. The problem was that unless something fell in my lap pretty soon this case was no go as well.

I had to hope that someone was having more success than me or I could be looking forward to a long time away from home.

September 17, 2006

Know Thy Neighbour...Don't Kill Them

There was a scene in the Douglas Adam's book The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy where his character Arthur Dent says something that we would consider harmless, that turns out to be a deadly insult to another race of beings. The consequences of Arthur's unknowing insult were astonishing; a civilization was wiped out and an invasion of earth was only prevented when a Cocker Spaniel swallowed the invasion fleet (something to do with space, time, and relative sizes)

I might have got some to of the details wrong, it might have been a Labrador retriever that swallowed the invasion fleet, but I think you get the gist of the matter. How hard it is to translate ideas and concepts from culture to culture. It's not even always a matter of having to work translate from one language to another, although that complicates matters even more, because you can share a language but not an approach to conceptualizing with it.

Our way of thinking is shaped by the philosophies that we have been immersed in from the moment of our birth. I can reject them all I want intellectually and search for another means of defining how I live my life, but they are still the concepts my brain uses to bring definition to ideas and philosophies.

To give you an example I've been reading the books of Ashok Banker now for the past year and a half, specifically his retelling of the classic Indian epic The Ramayana. Through out the six books of the series the central figure, Rama, is continually described as an adherent of Dharma and its his absolute devotion to that concept in the face of all obstacles that lends him his greatness and earns him the admiration of even the Gods and Goddesses.

Each time I think that I've come up with a way of being able to put into words what I know emotionally Dharma to be, my intellect fails me. I can use words like fulfillment of duty to my heart's content and although it might tell you that there's a relationship between duty and dharma it still is off the mark.

It's not that the English language is unsuitable for explaining the concept, although it would be probably less awkward if I did speak Sanskrit, it's just that I keep wanting to impose our structure of thinking on it. It's extremely difficult to throw off thousands of years of genetically imprinted thinking, and forty-five years of implementing it in just over a year.

It's like peeling back multiple layers of skin from a fruit or a nut; each time that you think you have worked your way through to the kernel of truth there's another husk between you and the truth. Subtle nuance that aren't thick enough to prevent you from seeing the ultimate goal, but they are sufficient to keep you from touching it.

For instance, I recently ventured the opinion that one could choose to fulfill or not fulfill ones Dharma. But I was gently corrected and told that Dharma was either adhered to or not adhered to and choice had nothing to do with it. I think I understand the difference, but I don’t think I'm capable of putting it into words except to hazard that dharma simply exists and choice implies doing something. I can choose to do, or not do, that which helps me fulfill my Dharma but I can't choose Dharma.

I still don't know if even that's right, but that where my thought process has taken me to after a year and a half of reading, thinking, and talking about it with others. It's been a slow and steady progress towards understanding on something deeper then an intellectual and philosophical level and I'm still only getting occasional glimpses of the complete picture.

To me this diversity of thought is something that is to be celebrated and be in awe of. I find it amazing that the human race, with its one basic pattern, has developed such a diversity of means to express concepts and beliefs. But if we look back at the scenario put forward by Douglas Adams we can also see how this beauty can become dangerous if we allow ourselves to be wilfully ignorant of the rest of our planet's inhabitants.

Instead of having the decency to be grateful for the abundance we have been given, some of us, too many in fact for anybody's safety, believe that they represent the only right way of thinking and being. Not only do these people not make any attempt to see what beauty the person next to them has to offer, they work hard to extinguish it and replace it with there own beliefs.

You want to guarantee that someone is going to resent and hate you for generations to come? Simple, try and steal their language, culture, and belief system away from them and jam yours down their throats. One of the few occasions that I know of that this didn't happen was in Canada. No not with the native people who lived here when the Europeans showed up, but between the English and the French.

In the mid 1700's when the British finally defeated the French at the Battle of the Plains of Abraham outside of Quebec City they knew they would need to keep them as allies in the years to come. So they guaranteed them the right to speak their language, practice their religion, and control the education of their children.

Of course they more then compensated for that one moment of compassion with their actions throughout the remainder of their empire as they blithely banned the languages and beliefs of any and everybody else whose country they expanded into. The residue of that resentment is what feeds a good chunk of the terrorist actions around the world.

Haven't you ever wondered why the men who are the authority figures of these organizations speak like they have gone to Oxford or Cambridge University? It's because they either have, or have been taught English since they started schooling. India is not one of the largest English speaking countries in the world because they chose to be.

After so many years of getting away with our hubris of believing we could act like we want and treat people with disrespect and disdain things have started to come back and bite us in the ass. We shouldn't be so surprised, there is only so long that people can take being stepped on before thy chew the boot.

The only way we can even begin to stem the tide is to change the way we treat others and begin to make the effort to understand our differences and celebrate them. It doesn't mean your going to have to become a devotee of Dharma but it does mean stopping believing yours is the only way. Of course it's a two way street and both sides have to prove to each other that they are willing to take the leap of faith required for this to work.

Nobody says this is going to be easy, it is far easier to try and kill someone than to get to know them. Maybe it's time we started, we need the practice.

September 16, 2006

Wishing I Was Wrong

I spend a lot of time hoping I'm going to be wrong. Does that sound like a strange thing to say? Let me explain, I tend to think the worst of most people, but especially those who are our leaders. Be they political, religious or whatever I'm usually of the opinion that those who want to be leaders are the worst people for the job because they want it.

Most people who strive to be leaders of anything from a country to a clubhouse do so with the intent of imposing their will on who ever is subject to their leadership. How many leaders of anything do you know that have genuinely striven to reach a universal consensus of some sort among those who they lead? I don't care what the politics of the person are, whether I agree with them or not isn't even relevant, they don't give a rat's ass for those who have a different opinion.

Leadership these days is all about divisiveness and the obtaining of power, not about building a unified country or whatever. You can tell there is something wrong with the system when one of the most important polls for a politician is his disapproval rating. As long as I only alienate this many people I can still cling to power and impose my will on whomever I'm ruling. Now that's leadership.

I'm not naïve enough to believe that anybody is going to be able to have a 100% approval rating, there is always going to be extremist elements of a society who aren't going to be satisfied with anyone or anything. But shouldn't the object of a leader be to try and find common ground with as many people as possible while guiding his or her organization, country, or religion to achieve its goals.

That's right I said its goals not his or her goals. Most countries already have a series of goals laid out for them to try and achieve on a daily basis – it's a thing called a constitution. In Ontario Canada where I live when you incorporate a company as a not for profit organization you write out a constitution which contains the objects of the company and how you plan to go about achieving them. So if one of your objects is the eradication of child poverty you have to say how you're going to go about getting that done.

If you are going to be the leader of a country, your focus should be on how are you going to fulfill the objects of your country's constitution, not how you are going to impose your will upon the country. If your constitution says "All men are created equal", or guarantees freedom of speech, and the right to assemble shouldn't you be trying to convince people that you have the best plans to ensure those objects are fulfilled?

But what we mostly get for potential leaders are those who want to impose their will upon a country, or even worse leave their mark on history. Leadership is all about ego and the expression of personal power no matter if the person is on the left or the right. In fact far too many leaders tend to look on their constitutions as things they have to circumvent in order to do what they want to do, or that it should be changed to reflect their view of the world.

Secular leaders are bad enough, but when it comes down to it the worst ones for abusing their positions are religious leaders. Then again religion lends itself to having such a multiplicity of interpretations even among just one faith, it should be no surprise that each faction would have a leader trying to impose their vision of the faith on the flock.

Even within the individual sects (or denominations as Christians say when referring to themselves) there are divisions. Not all Catholics believe in the same ways of realizing the objects of their faith any more than all Suni Muslims agree with how Mohammad should be worshipped. Other religions, like Judaism with its reform, conservative, and orthodox divisions, have degrees of belief that signify the intensity of their adherence to the laws of the faith.

While Muslims may have individuals who speak for, or claim to speak for, an area's population of adherents, and there is a Chief Rabbi in Israel, and Tibetan Buddhists have the Dali Lama (I'm not familiar enough with other faiths to speak about their hierarchies) only the Catholics that I know of have a process akin to an election for their leader. Not that we're talking about broad based participatory democracy here, as the only folk voting are the Cardinals, who were all appointed by a pontiff in the first place.

Here too they are divided into the usual political factions, ranging from the very liberal to the very conservative. The person who is elected pope gets to set the tone for the church's response to issues, and dictate to Catholics and non-Catholics alike whether or not they are being good. While the adherents of that faith may have ceded him that power through their acceptance of the system that elected him, the rest of us are none of his business.

When Pope Benedict (literally translated from Latin as good word or good speech) was first elected slightly over a year ago I had the feeling he was going to be one of those who had to pass judgement on matters that are none of his business. Of course his argument is that everything is his business as he is the representative of Jesus Christ on earth it's his duty to see that we're all adhering to the laws of Christ as interpreted by Benedict.

Instead of simply being content to minister to the souls of the millions of Catholics around the world, which ought to be more then enough power for any one person, he wants to flex his muscles so that he is considered one of the major movers and shakers in the world. He already has the press eating out of his hand, in so far as they will record verbatim any comment he makes, giving him access to the world stage.

He's had the gall to tell Canadians that they are turning their backs on God because we believe in freedom of choice and equal rights for all people. Not being a Christian I always make the mistake of thinking that Christ was about compassion and understanding, but according to the gospel of Benedict there is either his (Benedict's) way, or a path to Hell.

If it's not bad enough that he deems himself fit to interfere in the internal affairs of other countries he also seems to think he has the right to make speeches where he quotes dialogue critical of the Muslim faith without saying whether he believes it or not. Not only is it offensive for the leader of one religion to be critical of another, taking shots at Muslims like that shows an amazing insensitivity to the world around him.

Preaching a sermon which contains "Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman…" is about as stupid as throwing kerosene on a fire in an attempt to quench the flames. What could he have hopped to accomplish by saying that without any explanation as to his motivations. Vatican officials are saying that it was his attempt to open a dialogue between the faiths, but the majority of Muslims, from the most moderate to the extremist, are understandably taking it as an insult. Maybe he's looking to be martyred by a suicide bomber so he can have a fast track to saint hood,

Is he so proud that his thinks because of the position he serves that he is allowed to point out to other faiths the error of their ways? The second part of that quote says: "such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached." The head of the Catholic Church has a hell of a lot of nerve criticizing anyone for using force to spread the word of God in the name of their faith. They have to have one of the worst records in history for doing the exact same thing.

In fact up to slightly more then a hundred years ago, the Muslim empires were far more tolerant of diversity among their populations then their Christian counterparts. They may have charged Jews and Christians an extra tax for practicing their religion, but they never tortured them into converting, or forced them to flee for their lives.

What good is Benedict doing the world he so devoutly claims to serve by spewing forth hatred and hypocrisy? The only thing being served is his pride and his ego. It's like he is saying, I'm the pope, I can say what I want whenever I want and you have to believe me because I'm the only one who knows the difference between right and wrong.

I really wish that the people who become our leaders weren't so damn predictable. Instead of trying to fulfill the objectives of their country as set forth in their constitution, and working with others to do so, they impose their will and push their personal agenda no matter the relevance to the country's objectives. They became leaders so they could be powerful, and they are going to be powerful whatever the consequences.

I'd really like to be wrong more often.


September 14, 2006

Canadian Politics: Fishing And A Question Of Leadership

I came across an article in the most recent edition of The Mohawk Nation Drummer newspaper that was datelined last July. That may sound a bit dated but as the story was dealing with an ongoing situation that faces Native people across Canada the dateline isn't really all that important.

The article was dealing with the reactions of Assembly Of First Nations Chiefs to a letter to the editor of a newspaper that Prime Minister Stephen Harper wrote last July in regards to the issue of Native fishing rights. Mr. Harper referred to Native fishing rights as "racially divided fishing programs"

That expression has been used in the past by people who are trying to rouse racial hatred against First Nations people due to their being given the right to hunt and fish out of season. They're being blamed for everything from the depletion of the Salmon stocks in the Fraser River, to the over fishing off the West coast of Vancouver Island because it is propagated by people like Mr. Harper that they can set up nets whenever they feel like it

The Supreme Court of Canada ruling that guaranteed these rights simply affirmed the original treaties that had been signed by individual bands with the government over a hundred years ago which allowed them to continue on with all their traditional means of survival, including hunting and fishing.

If they are going to enter into an out of season commercial fishery operation, they have to be able to offer some proof that the tribe had conducted trade with other nations with fish in the past, before they can start. The problem is of course when those original treaties were signed everyone still thought they were dealing with the bottomless barrel of fish scenario.

Dwindling fish stocks have nothing to do with the huge trawlers plying the seas off the West coast for years do they? Nope it's got to be those pesky natives and their racially preferential treatment. They're out to steal food out of decent, law abiding, Christian, White folk's mouths with their sneaky rights. They're aught to be law.

Now obviously Stephen Harper didn't say anything like that, but as there have been code words utilized by those opposed to minority rights in the past, "race based fisheries" are the ones most guaranteed to make red neck blood boil in Western Canada. Why else would Mr. Harper write a letter about the fisheries to the editor of the Calgary Herald, a city with no fishing industry, but the heartland of Conservative Party of Canada support, save to send some sort of message to his constituents.

This is a lot like his comments on Gay Marriage, where he has sworn to bring in a free vote on the issue in the house of parliament, where anything the government does is meaningless without mounting a court challenge. Like the rights of same sex couples to have civic marriages, native hunting and fishing rights have been guaranteed by the Supreme Court of Canada.

Any act of parliament that runs counter to a ruling of the Supreme Court of Canada isn't worth the spit of the politician who read it out in the House of Commons. So why does Stephen Harper say he'll oppose racially divided fishing industries when he knows he can't do anything about it? So he's on record as being opposed, and those of like mind will know who they can count on to be sympathetic to their causes.

For me the issue around his writing the letter isn't so much the position he's outlined in the letter, although that is bad enough, but the fact that he wrote the letter in the first place. What is the Prime Minister of Canada doing making policy statements in the Letters to the Editor section of a regional newspaper? He wasn't even acting as a private citizen expressing an opinion; he said, "we will". Unless he's now taken to referring to himself in the third person plural like royalty, that implies he's talking on behalf of his government.

What kind of leader publicly fans the flames of an already volatile situation by implying a linkage between fish stocks depletion and Native fishing rights? He can't be so unaware as to not know there has already been violence and unrest around the issue from both sides in the dispute? Instead of taking a leadership role in trying to find a solution he's just riling up emotions.

It is interesting to note that in spite of various promises and pleas for patience from the new government's Minister of Indian affairs on plans for replacing the Kelowna accord, the only announcements the government has made in regards to Native policies have been along the lines of Mr. Harper's letter to the editor. In spite of any reassuring words to the contrary it really looks like the Conservative Party of Canada is maintaining their old Reform Party platform of "they lost the war, tough luck" on Native issues.

There is no doubt that fish stocks off both coasts of Canada have been horribly depleted. The salmon population making the annual migration in the Fraser River has indeed been reduced substantially. Off the coast of Newfoundland where the Cod have run out, because they don't have any Natives to blame anymore having driven the Beothuk to extinction in the early part of the twentieth century, they use the harp seals as the scapegoat.

Out West they have a better situation because up and down the coast and along the whole path of the Salmon's run there are native tribes who they can blame for depleting the stocks because of their fishing year round. Nobody seems to think that who knows how many years of continual commercial fishing, an ever increasingly polluted ocean, and river systems' environments being changed because of erosion and human wastes, could have anything to do with the reduced populations.

We have reached a point in the history of the world where certain species of fish have had their populations fall to dangerously low levels. There have to be bans on fishing for some fish and set levels for how much in a year any one person can catch of others. I don't care who you are, nobody should be allowed to over fish and destroy a species for money.

But using those circumstances to fan the flame of racial disunity is something low and callous that you'd come to expect from a white supremacist or other divisive organizations. For the Prime Minister of Canada to even begin to walk down that path is irresponsible and reprehensible. The fact that he made these statements in the form of a letter to the editor of a newspaper where he was in no danger of incurring immediate rebuttal and his remarks would be given maximum coverage only compounds the reprehensible nature of his conduct.

A good leader should approach a contentious issue with the idea of minimizing its divisive nature, especially if a solution seems to be a speck somewhere out on the horizon. Stephen Harper seems not to care how deeply he carves rifts between people as he long as he is able to win support for his policies.

It makes me wonder what kind of country he is trying to create; and for who?

September 11, 2006

Canadian Politics: Canada For Sale, First Come First Serve.

In Canada we have three political parties on the national stage that pretty much cover the spectrum of mainstream of political thinking these days (With apologies to the Bloc Quebecois, but they really are a regional party on the national stage) We have the New Democratic Party (N.D.P.) who can't decide whether they are in the "New Labour" mould of Tony Blair or the older European social – democrat form as practiced in Scandinavia; the centre-right Liberal party who are socially liberal but fiscally conservative; and the right – wing Conservative Party Of Canada (Which was the result of a merger of two parties the ultra right wing Reform party and a party very similar to what the Liberals are today the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada) who are socially and fiscally conservative.

The N.D.P. claim to represent the little guy and are defenders of social programs, the Liberals like social programs but also like the business community, the Conservative Party Of Canada calls itself fiscally responsible which means it spends money on things which fit its moral agenda but not much of anything else. Hey but they're all pretty clear about these things in advance and make no bones about it, so if they get elected and start doing what they said they were going to do people shouldn't be so surprised.

The Stephen Harper led Conservative Party of Canada have always been pretty ambivalent about the Kyoto Accord on greenhouse gas emissions and have vacillated between officially withdrawing from it, or just unofficially letting it fall by the wayside. While on the international scene, like the most recent G-8 conference he might sign a communiqué supporting a program to help developing countries reduce their emissions, back at home he's cutting that funding from his spending plans.

Using the familiar mantra of protecting taxpayer's money as their excuse, they are not going to spend the 1.8 million dollars that the previous government had pledged towards that program. Of course they're not so concerned about taxpayer's money when they fast track military spending by cutting out the unnecessary step of asking for tenders and bids on the projects. Nope they'll just hand out 15 billion in spending without any care about getting the best deal for the buck.

But like I said, fiscal responsibility for them means spending money on what they think is important. Although since you can say that about every political party that's not exactly a fair criticism, the only reason people complain about it is because we don't agree with their spending priorities.

There's a problem though if we let ourselves get caught up in the small fry issues of how much is being spent on what and what's being cut from where. We miss out on the bigger problems that face the economy and how the Conservative Party of Canada's agenda will do the most damage in the long term. The whole issue of foreign ownership of Canadian firms, specifically firms involved with natural resources and research and development has implications that may not be felt until years down the road, but could end up causing the most real damage.

There's even a new name for it, the process of losing ownership to foreign companies, it's called Hollowing Out. It refers to the fact that while the company might be located in Canada the ownership is void of any Canadian presence.

In recent months this has been most noticeable in three industries: mining, steel, and natural gas. Much has been made of how both China and India are looking to guarantee their supply of natural gas and fuel through the acquisition of companies in Western Canada and their attempts to purchase various concerns and properties. In fact the two countries have even gone to the extent of beginning negotiations to join forces so they stop bidding against each other and driving prices up to their detriment.

But the ones that have really been striking close to home are the recent sales or bids for some of the biggest names in Canadian steel and mining. These companies have been the cornerstones of industry in Canada for literally more then a century. Inco, Falconbridge, Stelco, and Defrasco are names that are familiar to almost every Canadian who pays any attention to the world of labour, industry, or business.

The major concern about foreign ownership is as usual what happens to the local company now that it's owned by a corporation in France, Belgium, or Germany? If the parent company starts feeling the financial squeeze where are they going to lay off jobs first? Their home country where they need the support of the locals, or Canada where it doesn't really matter what people think of them?

In the first wave of foreign ownership back in the postwar boom of the 1950's we didn't even have our own manufacturing base. Most of the companies were what's known as branch plants. American corporations would open for business here; hire locals to do the factory work and send the profits back home. When times got tough in a recession workers could show up for their shift and find the plant locked and management back in the States owing them wages and severance packages.

The governments of Canada starting wising up to this practice, realizing it was doing nothing to actually help our economy in the long term, and started a foreign investment review board that would make decisions on applications for foreign ownership of Canadian plants, and set regulations for outside companies wanting to set up a business in Canada.

The amount of actual regulating this board would do and does depends entirely on the flavour of the government of the day. But in general they've tried to strike a balance between allowing the capital Canada lacks to be invested in our economy, ensuring that majority control stays in the hands of Canadians. Decisions that effect Canadians are at least being made by people who are going to have to wake up in the morning and see their names vilified in the local news media, not by someone sitting in Paris, Bonn or another foreign capital.

But the cycle of foreign ownership seems to have picked up speed again. Of course the Conservative Party of Canada wasn't around when it started, but they also don't seem to be doing anything about it. In fact they keep bleating on about making Canada a place that's more inviting to invest in. In other words giving out special tax breaks for money invested in Canada etc., jobs created, and plants opened.

Now that all sounds very good on paper, and I'm all for anything that's going to put people to work and give them hope of a better future, but will these jobs be here in five or ten years down the line when the employees are reaching an age where starting over again becomes difficult if not impossible? That's what's happened before when these companies have bailed, employees who had given twenty to twenty-five years of good work were left in their late forties and early fifties with no other marketable skills, or a job market that doesn't want to hire somebody who is going to be retiring in ten to fifteen years.

When government's encourage foreign ownership and investment they aren't going to be placing conditions on how the money is spent. Wouldn't want them to think we don't want them here now would we? Who cares what happens in ten year, we'll have retired on our great government pensions by then. We'll have lots of nice statistics showing how many jobs we created this year when we go into the election and that's all that matters.

Now I'm not saying that the Conservative Party of Canada are the only ones who are guilty of this way of thinking, but they are the ones who are currently pimping us to the world by making ringing pronouncements like "Canada is open and ready for business". What does that mean in reality? How much of our future are they prepared to trade away for a quick roll in the hay to bolster their political fortunes by increasing job numbers?

Is this why they are being so wishy-washy about Kyoto so that they don't have to apply the rule about emission reductions to foreign investors? Are they reneging on our contribution to helping developing nations offset the costs of reducing emissions, because we are trying to steal business from them?

I can see the new brochures they send out now. Thinking of investing in the Developing World? Consider Canada as a viable alternative: laxer environmental controls, no need to worry about Kyoto accord emissions, generous tax allowances, no need to worry about tropical diseases and nationalist revolutions. Canada, the best little developing nation in our hemisphere: you've seen the rest now raid our nest, natural and human resources ripe for the plucking, we're bent over and ready for…!

Conservative governments and economists have been talking about the short term pain of globalization for years now, but no one seems to mention the long term pain of what happens when the global investment heads home with their pockets full and our forests, mines, and oil fields empty. What we really need is a government who would be dedicated to the short term pain of actually developing our own economy and figuring out ways or securing investment dollars from within Canada to establish Canadian businesses.

Without that we will continue to go through cycles of boom and bust dependant on the fortunes of other economies far more then we need to be. We're never going to be a major economic power in the world, our population base is just too small for that, but that doesn't mean we are stuck being dependant on others for creating jobs and industry. But we are dependant on a Government who will care about the future of Canada. This one doesn't.

September 10, 2006

Canadian Politics: The Case Of The Missing Kyoto Accord Part Six

Whether or not I fell like the proverbial ton of bricks, it sure felt like I had been hit over the head with them. When I came to it was with feelings I'd normally associate with the morning after the night before washing over me. The pain cutting through my head made it feel like I was ready to be outfitted for a Frankenstein stitch job, or at the least some sort of zipper assembly that would keep the top part of my head from separating from the bottom.

But there were some noticeable differences, most obviously being the fact that it seemed my legs were bound to the chair I was plopped into and my hands in lap were first tied to themselves than connected to my feet's bonds via yet another cord. For vegetarians they certainly knew their way around trussing the main course for roasting and basting at 375 degrees for a couple of hours until done.

Whoever was responsible was either brilliant or blind lucky and it didn't matter which as the result was still the same. Any time I tried to fidget with my feet in the hopes of loosing their bounds the ropes around my hands seemed to tighten and vice versa. I figured by the time I had loosened anything significantly either my hands or feet would have fallen off due to lack of circulation..

What with my head still feeling like the axe was still sticking out of the back at a jaunty angle, and my limbs trussed like a pork roast, I was quite content to sit quietly and await what was ever coming. It could explain why the next thing I knew was that I heard the sound of voices whispering in front of me. Dozing off had the unexpected payoff of reducing my head pain substantially, as well as allowing some free eavesdropping time as the voices were obviously under the impression I was still out.

"I thought you said you didn't hit him that hard? He looks like he's got brain damage," said the first voice. It sounded like a woman's, deeper than most but still a woman and I suspected it was the one who I had followed into the dead end.

"Hey you were the one who was all panicky about being followed. Anyway what does it matter, he's just another Fed. We'll give him a shot, find out what he knows then let him go. If he shows up back at headquarters sounding like he's a few bricks short of a load whose going to notice over there? Most of them talk like they've seen recent contact with the flat edge of a 2 X 4 anyway."

They thought I was a fed, while it was slightly insulting; it was also understandable given their circumstances. It also made life both a little easier and a little more precarious at the same time. If I was able to convince them of the fact that I was working the same side of the street as they were and not a fed they might not look on me with such suspicion. Of course if I wasn't able to do that I could end up being injected with some sort of truth drug that also seemed to remove a good chunk of a person's reasoning skills.

"Well the horsemen are going be happy if you keep making their job easier by knocking out everyone whose sneaking around behind their backs trying to figure who offed the professor, and who is trying to stuff the Kyoto accord so far up a chimney at the same time, that it will just be so many more toxic emissions if it can't be found soon." I had decided to try and brazen it out with the truth, cause sometimes you never know people might believe you.

It was kind of hard for me to decipher their reactions as I was seated in the centre of the pool of light cast by a naked bulb hanging over my head like that Greek dude's sword, and they were lurking in the shadows. I could tell that I had startled them, but that could just as easily be put down to them not knowing I was among the conscious more than anything else.

Whatever other effects my little speech might have had on them, at least it got them to come into my circle of light. I was right about the woman's voice, it belonged to the one who I'd followed from the store. She was your typical granola number down to her lack of make up, thick socks and expensive German made sandals. It didn't stop her from being attractive, but in an earnest political sort of way that I knew from experience could fast become tedious.

The guy was cut from the same cloth; only he had a slightly harder edge to him. He was that new breed of political activist who the cops hadn't figured out yet, computer and tech savvy, with no worries about employing violence if attacked. Cops hadn't managed to upgrade their thinking from the days of passive resistance and when they ran into people who picked up their tear gas canisters and calmly lobbed them back at them it still confused them.

The demonstrators had their own version of shock troops now who would stand up to the first wave of a baton flailing riot cop charge to give their more passive brethren and sisters a chance to escape. The guy in front of me was a prime example of the type, tall, leanly muscled and tough as whip cord. I had no trouble believing that he'd been the one to administer the love tap that left me counting teeth with the tip of my tongue.

After, I don't know maybe thirty seconds – maybe an hour – of them staring at me and me trying to stare back at them without staring because it seemed to hurt just a little too much to use my eyes that much, and without anybody saying anything. I was just about to try again when she spoke up.

"What do you know about Professor Magnesen?" she asked

"Now that's an interesting first question to ask, not why were your following me, or what do you want, but about a person who I haven't said I even know. What I do know is that you know him, which I didn't know before; thanks" I said brightly.

She certainly turned a very pretty shade of red when she flushed, whether it was with anger or embarrassment didn't make much of a difference in my book. He on the other hand didn't have the same redeeming qualities when he flushed. If he was pissed at her for giving something away, or pissed at me for being a wiseass was irrelevant as he was bound to take his displeasure out on me not her.

"Okay smart ass we you've proved that you aren't just another pretty face, but why should we believe that you're not a cop and you still didn't answer her question about what you know about the professor. So why don't you be a good guy and answer the lady's questions and maybe I'll forget what a rude bastard you were to her." He reached behind him and pulled one of the largest hunting knives I've ever seen out of belt sheath and began cleaning his nails with it. He saw me staring at it, and nodded his head once as encouragement that I shouldn't be shy about speaking my piece for much longer.

"Well first of all I know he was working on a project for the government that would have reduced green house gasses substantially while actually improving the economy instead of harming it, until the government changed and his program funding was yanked. I know that he started meeting with some environmentalists about something or other and that some government department was starting to get very interested in his files at home."

I paused for breath here and tried to gauge their reactions, but neither of them was giving anything away. They both were just staring at me waiting to hear what I had to say next. So far anything I had told them didn't tell them what they really wanted to know; who I was. The feds would have known all that I had said up till now so they still didn't have any reason to believe me when I said I wasn't working for the government. I was going to have to lay as many cards as possible on the table.

"A short while I was contacted by a client to investigate the disappearance of the Kyoto accord. I got a call at the office one night and I was supposed to meet someone over at a strip club in Hull. He showed up alright, but he arrived to see me with one of the biggest hunting knives I've ever seen sticking out of his back." I said this last bit being very careful not to look at the blade whose point the guy was now digging into the wooden tabletop in front of me.

"Since then I've been trying to trace backward through his life in an attempt to figure out who killed him and what he'd been working on that has people so scared that even after he's dead they're still trying to shut him up." I followed you", pointing with my chin at the woman" because I hoped you'd be able to help me find some answers. Given my reception I can only hope that we might be of some assistance to each other."

The guy and the woman exchanged glances, she raised an eyebrow and he nodded his head in return. He kept the knife in his hand and came at me with point pointed directly at my chest. He flipped it over in his hand so that the cutting edge was pointing up and swung the knife up and through the ropes binding my wrists. He then bent down and sliced through the cords around my feet.

He stepped back and took up his position beside the table again as I shook my hands and feet in an attempt to restore some of the circulation that I'd lost while I'd been strapped in. More and more I'm convinced that I would never be cut out for bondage. I just don't like mixing work with pleasure that much.

I was still busy rubbing at my wrists and ankles when the woman spoke up. "Look", she said, "we're really sorry about all this", waving her hand as if taking in the basement, my skull and being tied to a chair, "but ever since the professor was killed we've been really scared about what's going on. Why would they want to kill him just because he had good ideas about how we could reach our commitment to the Kyoto accord and be able to help other countries do the same."

"Yeah", said the guy," I hope I didn't do too much damage, but our nerves are stretched pretty raw right about now. Not only can't we figure out why anyone would have wanted the professor dead, we don't have much idea as to who could have done it. When you showed up nosing around…well we though we might be able to crack you open about who you were working for and get some answers."

He sighed, and shook his head. "But we're still no further ahead and there aren't even any clues to go on. It doesn't sound like you know that much more than we do." He sucked in a big breath of air." Damn this is frustrating. He was so close to answers, in fact we believe he might have even had them already, but was playing it close to the vest as he could see the departments he had built for research and development slowly being dismantled due to budget cut backs and funding not being renewed. He had contacted us late in the summer before the Election, knowing that even a potential Stephen Harper victory would destroy his life's work"

"When they couldn't do that, they destroyed him instead" her voice was choked as if close to tears, and I looked at her closely. "The reason he approached us was that I had been a student to his at the University. One day, accidentally he said, by coincidence he said he came in here and we got to chatting. He wanted to know what I was up to, If I had kept up being active in environmental groups after leaving school. He also wanted to know if I had been following the discussions about global warming in the papers and was as worried as he was by what he called the irresponsible science issuing from some world capitals"

She paused as if to gather her thoughts, or to just take the deep breath that would see her through the rest of her story. "After a while he asked me if I knew a couple of other people who were active in environmental groups who might like to learn some information that they could put to good use. So we began to go over to his house at odd hours to try and shake off any potential tails. Judging by the outcome to date we haven't succeeded in doing much except getting our patron killed"

The silence that followed her little speech was exceptionally empty as we all sat with our own thoughts for a minute or two. Finally she broke it and in a rather choked voice looked at me, then over at her erstwhile companion, and asked the question whose answer I had come looking for. "What do we do now?"

September 7, 2006

Honey don't look he's schizophrenic!

There aren't many illnesses left that carry quite the stigma that mental health issues do. True it is now socially acceptable to go and see a psychiatrist, but even then that's only for something safe called analysis. Once a week you go to the doctor and complain about how awful your life is and he or she sit there and take notes.

In some circles it has become almost a status symbol or a badge of distinction to say, "Oh yes I'm in therapy" They might not be able to tell you exactly why, or if it's done them any good, it's just one more thing to do in a week. To be fair more and more people are seeking professional help for dealing with the ever-increasing amounts of stress that seems to be a prerequisite of living in today's society.

Depression and anxiety are no longer considered "abnormal" as nearly one in four people are now being medicated for one or the other. Hell when the big drug companies are taking out television adse and buying up miles of page space in attempts to sell you the latest be happy pill you know that whatever it is they are for is pretty damn mainstream.

It's when you begin to deviate away from the "normal" abnormalities that the looks start. The slightly fixed smile and the freezing of facial muscles are usually accompanied by a shifting of body weight onto the back foot so in case you start frothing at the mouth or acting in any manner that might be construed as dangerous, they can execute a quick get – a-way.

There's nothing quite like the words bi-polar or schizophrenia to bring a conversation to a complete and stuttering halt You ever want a little personal space in a crowded room all you have to do is work sentences like "my doctor says I'm in a bit of a manic phase right now, but he's hoping the adjustment to my meds will enable me to cope." Grin a little wildly and add a touch of mania to your eyes and you'll find yourself alone in the middle of the room in no time flat.

People with schizophrenia or diagnosed with bi-polar become immediate pariahs to those who were their friends and even some members of their families. If you had any decency at all you would go off and get yourself put away in a mental home and not be such a burden on your friends and family. They'd all be more than willing to help you commit yourself – for your own good of course – if you would only come to your senses and do the right thing.

The convenience of you being shut away is of course all theirs; out of sight and out of mind is how most people would prefer sick relatives or friends. But that sort of behaviour is almost bearable when compared to the abuse some patients are subjected too. Far too often it is family causing the abuse, aided and abetted by the complicity of a society that doesn't care.

When a person suffers from a mental illness one of the assumptions society is quick to make is that no matter the severity of their disease, their ability to assess circumstances has been reduced. When they are living at home and their primary caregiver is a parent, anything the patient says is judged against the parent's description of the same circumstances. A parent could be stealing from his or her own child, be caught and accused by the child but nothing will happen. All the so-called caregiver has to do is suggest the child was off his or her meds for a day or two – and everything the client says is immediately suspect, and will be passed off as paranoid delusions.

Let the child become angry and try to stand up to their parent, and it will be suggested that the patient is becoming dangerous and hard to manage, and the doctor's will up the patient's medication. Let me give you an example of this sort of thing in action.

My wife and I have a friend who is his early thirties. Five years ago he was headed for a nervous breakdown due to stress and other factors. Instead of his mother trying to get him treated for the obvious stress he was undergoing she convinced him he needed to commit himself to a psychiatric ward in the local hospital. While he was there they diagnosed him as schizophrenic.

Since his release from the hospital he has been living with his mother and she has been making his life miserable and he has not a single means at his disposal for resisting. At any time she can arrange a competency hearing that could see him declared incompetent and lose what little say he does have in his life. On a whim she can decide that he's not allowed to have friends or leave the apartment unless it is run errands for her.

Even though she is reaping enormous benefits from his living with her, she continues to act like she is the ultimate martyr and he owes her for all the sacrifices she's made. The truth is that she owes him for quite a bit, the least of which is a guarantee that half her rent is paid for each month by the government of Ontario through our friend's disability pension.

There is also the slight matter that is only paying 30% of the listed rent of "her" apartment because our friend ensures she is entitled to a two bedroom geared to income unit when under normal circumstances she would have had to settle for a single room apartment. So it to her advantage that he continues to think of himself as dependant on her and that he's not capable of surviving a day on his own.

Towards that end, she continually insults him, runs him down to others when he is present, and talks about him in the third person when he is in the same room. Whenever he becomes friends with anyone who encourages him to take pride in himself and his accomplishments she demands that he stop seeing them.

The poor man is so frightened of her and how she can make his life a living hell that he always goes along with what she tells him to do. Like so many other mental health patients he has no one he thinks he can turn to for help and is trapped in a situation where he doesn't have a chance of getting any better.

He is not alone in these types of circumstances. The particulars might be different in each set of circumstances, but the end result is usually the same. There are advocacy groups for mental health patients, but they have to know that they exist before they can contact them. Even if someone manages to establish a contact for him to one of those groups, the patient has to want to change his or her circumstances. In some instances they just feel too frightened to do anything any more.

When a patient is diagnosed with schizophrenia there is no monitoring of their situation done other then a semi annual check up with psychiatric personal to ensure their medication is still working. They are not given access to any ongoing therapy to help them cope with any problems they may be having and are either left to their own devices or the tender mercies of their care givers.

The medical profession makes very little effort to help those patients suffering from schizophrenia once they are released back into the community. Perhaps if there were a more concentrated effort on everyone's part; government, advocates and medical profession this could be changed. Until then people like my friend will be subject to a living hell.


September 6, 2006

Canada Under Fire In Afghanistan - By Americans

The United States of America spends literally billions of dollars each year on military spending. They have one of the most comprehensively equipped armed forces in the world with state of the art military equipment for each arm of the service. If you are in the navy you could be on an aircraft carrier or a submarine that's powered by its own nuclear power plant. If you are in the army, or the marines you have at your disposal all the most sophisticated means of either defending your self or killing others.

The air force claims that it can drop a bomb down somebody's chimney from a thousand feet in the air and has smart bombs that can be programmed to go where you want them to a good percentage of the time. They even have planes that can sneak up on people called stealth bombers because they can elude detection by radar.

It's really quite amazing what money can buy these days when it comes to military hardware isn't it, it's just too bad so little of that money gets spent on training the troops in how to fight a war. Even kids playing with toy soldiers know that in a war the object is to kill more of the enemy's soldiers than he kills of your soldiers. At the end of the battle the side with the most soldiers left alive usually wins.

Now I'm not a military strategist and I didn't go to a military academy, so maybe I'm unaware of some of the finer points of tactics. But it would seem to me that killing your allies and reducing their combat effectiveness would be counter productive to achieving the target of having the most soldiers left standing at the end of a battle.

For the second time since the beginning of the Afghanistan conflict Canadian troops suffered injuries and fatalities from American aircraft either bombing or strafing their positions. On Tuesday September 5th an American A-10 thunderbolt strafed Canadian troops using his Avenger gun. Firing bullets the size of pop cans, he instantly killed one soldier, former Olympian Private Mark Anthony Graham, and wounded over thirty others, five seriously enough to be evacuated out of the country for treatment.

In April 2002 two National Guard air force officers attacked Canadian troops on exercise manoeuvres killing four soldiers and wounding eight others. Yesterday the soldiers were just waking up, having breakfast and preparing their gear for an offensive against the Taliban when they came under attack. Canadian military officers are at a loss to explain how their LAV-3 armoured vehicles could have been mistaken for a group of insurgent Taliban.

Now I can understand how in the heat of a battle situation mistakes can be made, you come under fire, you shoot back but you overshoot or the situation has changed in the ten seconds it took you to respond, and you end up accidentally firing upon your own troops. In theory everyone is supposed to know where everyone else is, but things on a battlefield can change so quickly that enemy and ally positions can switch in the blink of an eye.

According to Major Geoff Abthorpe of the Canadian Army "they're (pilots) supposed to make visual contact…The LAVs were out on an exposed open slope, so what actually happened is hard to say." In other words before you go firing from the hip at anything parked by the roadside you have to have visual confirmation that it's an enemy.

Canadian troops have been taking part in an offensive in the area since Saturday as part of the N.A.T.O. force trying to push the Taliban out of the area. They were preparing to launch an offensive that morning, but were forced to cancel because of the attack. As the day continued the force came under heavier and heavier fire as word spread amongst the Taliban that the troop had been shot up before the offensive that day even began.

So not only did this pilot cause the death of a soldier, seriously injure five others, scuttle a day's operation, he also increased the likelihood of the Canadians incurring more casualties as the Taliban knew they were temporarily stunned by the early morning attack. Fortunately they came through the rest of day unscathed and were able to regroup come nightfall.

The weekend had already been rough on the Canadian troops, as they had suffered four fatalities on Sunday. To lose another of their number to "friendly fire" in such a stupid and irresponsible manner must have been a real moral sapper. The troops had been in position there over night so all air force personnel should have been aware of who was supposed to be where.

Air force pilots in the American armed forces are most often officers, which means the majority of them would have gone to a military academy to help prepare them for their role of leading men into battle. You'd think somewhere along the line they'd have learnt not only about the importance of following the rules of engagement for specific battle field situations but how shooting allies is detrimental to the war effort.

It's really hard to understand how mistakes like this one could happen with all the technology at a pilot's disposal and the fact they were not in a battlefield situation. It's one thing to miss a target and cause "collateral damage". It's another all together to choose the wrong target completely and let loose with your weapons indiscriminately.

The reputation of the American military had taken a bit of a beating in Iraq with tale of torture and vengeance killings against innocent civilians. Killing your allies through carelessness isn't the right way to go about repairing your image.

September 3, 2006

Canadian Politics: The Case Of The Missing Kyoto Accord Part 5

So I admit it, I'm a sucker for a woman in distress. It doesn't hurt that when she says my name it sound like a caress or that four foot nine of her five feet seven are legs. Those are just what we call fringe benefits in this line of work. Sort of like free drinks at a bar, or a discount on a sandwich for work done in the past.

So it was pretty much a no-brainer that when that husky voice, made even huskier by tears, washed over my ear I'd be saying yes to doing anything Ms. Magnesen wanted. If it means ferreting around in the muck of the quagmire that we call politics in Canada then that's what I'll be doing.

Lucy's voice sounded a bit calmer, less full of tears when she called me as agreed the next morning. If we were going to get to the bottom of this whole mess there was no time like the present to begin. I was hopping that she would be able to give me some clues, names of any of the Greenpeace and granola types that had been hanging out with her dad in those last days, would be a good place to start.

Unfortunately she couldn't remember any more details about them that morning then in our previous conversation. It looked I'd be getting on a lot closer terms with soy burgers, herbal teas and hemp shirts than what I'd consider good for a man's soul. But those are the sacrifices you have to be prepared to make for the job.

I'm sure you've noticed how groups tend to congregate into a geographical centre of activities, and the granola rollers are no different. In Ottawa they have taken over a couple of square blocks of what used to be the red light district until the girls got wise and moved out to where all the Embassies are and can now get work as escorts and blackmail material. (usually one and the same thing in the Embassy district)

In the end it meant another nice seedy neighbourhood falling victim to the let's improve the downtown core so people from the suburbs want to come here mentality. It's that type of thinking that has ruined more areas in this city then you can shake a by-law exemption on zoning laws at. The first signs of trouble are when the adventurous ones in their S.U.V.'s and Dockers start showing up in your favourite greasy spoon.

Then it's only a matter of time before they're telling their friends about this "place". The next thing you know there's a Starbucks on one corner, a health food store on another, a new age book store on the third and one of those shops that don't really sell anything in particular but whatever it is they do sell it's for quite a bit of money.

The people I wanted to talk to weren't going to be among that crowd; none of them would be caught dead driving anything powered by anything other than their own leg muscles, eating in a greasy spoon, or, if they drank coffee at all, sitting in a Starbucks. They'd be the ones you see working in the health food stores, or the whole earth type eateries that spring up like boils in these new neighbourhoods

You know the type; never smiling, with a pasty grey complexion from not eating enough protein who drift around filling the bulk bins at the health food stores. Or being your surly wait staff at the new eatery that displaced the greasy spoon within weeks of gentrification. They seem to take some sort of grim satisfaction in watching people pretending to enjoy their tasteless lentil and ground nut burgers or making bulk purchases of certified organic brown basmati rice.

The only time they're known to smile is when some pathetic soul tries to order something that gives them an excuse to for the "lecture". It comes in four standard forms; the evils of globalization, the evils of eating meat, the evils of trans fats and other unhealthy by-products of processed foods, and the evils found in tap water and the air we breath.

The latter they seem to take special delight in listing while people are trying to eat lunch. Nothing like a graphic description of the effects of P.C.B.'s on a person's liver to turn you off your lentil and beetroot tofu omelette. Lucy had wanted to come with me on the grounds that she might be able to recognise one of the people who was visiting her father, but I told her that it wasn't necessary for the two of us to suffer, and besides Ididn't know what danger we could be walking into.

So far all that I had risked was doing some sort of permanent damage to both my intestinal tract and any goodwill I might have towards my fellow humans. I remember reading about the Puritans back in history class somewhere and how they were dour folk who didn't believe in frivolity or fun of any kind. But compared to these environmental martyrs those guys would have been a laugh riot.

For all that I still was no further ahead before I walked into this ring of hell that Dante seems to have forgotten to describe. There was only one store that I hadn't been in yet and I didn't hold out much hope of finding anything there. Factual information and New Age bookstores aren't normally to be found within the same orbit, but as the saying goes no turn un-stoned. I've learned never to discard anything as a potential source of information.

Compared to the rest of the places I'd been in my tour through the pits of despair this was a fountain joy. Bright light, and no smell of rotting vegetation made an immediate improvement in my mood, which was only augmented by the smile and plunging neckline behind the counter. As they were accompanied by a pretty face and a cheery voice asking me if there was anything she could do for me, it almost made the day's efforts worthwhile.

Leaning casually on the counter, trying not to be distracted by what happened whenever she inhaled, I quickly spun the tale I had come up with to cover my real intent. My daughter was doing a school project on global warming and needed to find out more information about the Kyoto Accord. Did she happen to know anyone or could she recommend any good books that a single dad could get for his pride and joy to help her fulfill her dream of becoming an environmental scientist?

As soon as I mentioned the words Kyoto Accord I couldn't help notice an increased agitation in her breathing, how her smile had become a little more fixed, and a look had entered into her eyes that could only be fear. Pressing home what seemed to be an advantage I said surely amongst some of these books there must be something about global warming and the Kyoto Accord.

She was a lousy liar, that pretty little New Ager, and she knew it. But she bite her lip and said no, that wasn’t the type of book they sold here. She then made a show of catching site of the time, and making her excuses about needing to see a doctor she hustled me from the store so she could close up for her appointment.

I quickly took up station in the doorway of a store a half block down; there was no way I was going to let my little bird fly without following her. If my guess was right she was the lead I had suffered lentil burgers for and all I would have to do was follow her to where I needed to be led.

Sure enough she came out of the store a minute later. After locking the door she gave the street the quick once over and began to walk briskly away from the store and me. I let her get a half block away from the store before I began to follow her. She was wearing a very distinctly coloured poncho with some sort of bird on it's back that made her easy to follow so I wasn't worried about losing contact with her.

At one point she dashed into a store for a couple of moments and when she came back out she had added a headscarf to her ensemble. If that were meant to fool anyone who was possibly trailing her she was in for a surprise. Not even the R.C.M.P. would be thrown by such a simple deception. I was being careful to keep well back from her so there was no chance of her catching a glimpse of my face or recognising me by some other means, so I almost missed it when she turned off the main road.

When I got to where she exited stage right it turned out to be a dead-end alleyway with nobody in sight. As my eyes adjusted to the gloom I noticed a couple of doors in each wall. They were made of identical plain materials, banded with metal; obviously fire doors from the old days when the buildings were first constructed.

It was probably that momentary feeling of being nonplussed that distracted me enough that I didn't notice anyone behind me until I felt the first touch on the back of my head of whatever it was they used to knock me out. I can only assume that I fell like a ton of bricks because that's what you normally do under the circumstances.


August 14, 2006

Cultural Imperialism: The Path To Extinction

My guess is that every time there has been a major world power they think of themselves as the epitome of what humans can strive to be. From the times of the Pharaohs through the Hellenistic era on up past the Romans and the Ottoman empires, the Austro-Hungarian, The British and now finally the American empire; they have all shared the same chauvinistic belief that they are the definition of civilization.

In the past for an empire to be effective they would have to physically expand, seizing territory from other nations to give them the benefits of their superior ways. Unsurprisingly the original inhabitants of the country would take umbrage and tended to discover that the way of living they had practised for generations prior to the newcomers showing up was pretty good.

Although there were many mitigating factors that affected the result, there was usually only two ways this type of conflict of interest could be resolved. Either the newcomers would be forced to give up their role as rulers of the land, or they would completely overwhelm the original inhabitants and reduce them to a shell of their former selves. While continental Asia and Europe fell into the former category, most of North, Central, and South America are the latter.

As the world has changed and technological advances closed the distances between countries until they have become virtually non-existent, it is seldom necessary for a country to actually use physical force to impose itself on another. Armies only come into play when physical assets like natural resources are part of the motivation to dominate.

While all civilizations have had the tendency to try and increase their power bases locally, the rationale for a great many expansions has been based on a need for survival. They have better hunting territory which we need access to for feeding our people, or their land is better for growing crops were the types of reasons that would see Native tribes in North America attempt to appropriate another's land.

Conquest for the sake of conquest in order to impose your worldview on other people seems to be reserved to those cultures whose focus has gone beyond basic survival. The need for expansion is therefore one based in pride and chauvinism. It seems impossible for them to understand that anybody could be happy living in a manner they consider primitive, or that the other culture could have anything of value to offer.

When a culture no longer has as its only focus survival, the belief systems that sustained them through that period will become out of synch with the needs of those who no longer depend on a direct relationship with the planet. A new type of system is needed that replicates the new social order of those with more power than others.

Monotheistic religions with their systems of punishments and rewards for good and bad behaviour and codes of conduct to control people are ideally suited to a society where a small number of people control most of the wealth and must ensure the obedience of countless others. Whether this is how the big three of Judaism, Christianity and Islam came about, or that they simply flourished because of that fact is now irrelevant

Especially in the case of the latter two, they have been the focal point and motivation for much of the empire building from around 900AD until today. From the Ottoman empire to the Crusades of antiquity they have each tried to dictate how others live or find new countries where they can establish themselves as the predominate belief system.

In North America we have had around four hundred years of this type of rule, more then long enough to develop the chauvinism required to believe that our way of life is not only the best, but to even consider another way preferable means you are potentially an enemy. But that type of cultural paranoia is not limited to the West. When you isolate any species from the rest of the world or outside influences for too long they tend to become insular and fearful of change.

They cling to their outmoded ways of thinking and attempt to force the world to accede to their wishes even if that threatens the well being of others. One need only look at the linkage between foreign aid and anti-family planning that the current administration in the Untied States has implemented for an example of that. Or check out the Iranian government's attitude towards the same issues and you'll see the same thing if not worse.

In fact the United States and Iran have a great deal in common with each other when it comes to foreign and domestic policy. Both governments are very afraid of anything they don't understand, insist upon turning back the clock to a time when women had less control over their bodies, have blurred the line separating church and state, and have elements who believe that they should be imposing their way of life upon the rest of the world.

Each country either fosters or has fostered insurrections in other parts of the world in order to counter countries they consider too different from what they think of as the right way of being. Neither thinks anything of proceeding unilaterally on issues of international consequence even when a large proportion of the world is lined up against them, and they both believe that they have been chosen to do God's work on this planet.

Aside from the obvious worry about what seems like an inevitable clash between these two polar opposites there are other things to regret about living in a world where societies are still dominated by cultural prejudices. There are of course those who suffer from the fall out of either country's influence when it comes to foreign aid.

In Africa where AIDS steals so many lives, health care services and preventative measures are hindered by both nations' refusal to accept that people are going to be sexually active and that steps are needed to ensure their safety. With aid money from America restricted to agencies that will only preach abstinence, and fundamentalist Muslims preaching that women have no rights and sex is not something to be talked about, a difficult task becomes next to impossible.

Than there are the battlefields around the globe where they both have interests in the outcomes. Somalia where a Muslim militia is trying to overthrow some sort of secular government; The Sudan where similar circumstances are underway, and immense oil reserves are also at state; and of course the Middle East. If the United States is funnelling money into Israel, somebody has to be providing Hezbolah with the wherewithal to be unleashing the firepower it has at its disposal. Caught in between, in all three parts of the world, are thousands upon thousands of innocents who just want to have lives like the rest of us; to believe what we want and live out our days in peace.

Aside from those obvious results of single-minded culture at work there are other less fatal, but equally regretful consequences. I can't speak for life under Muslim rule, but I can speak from my own experiences. I look around and see what people are missing by believing they are the centre of the universe.

Can they appreciate the subtlety of design in the Moorish architecture in Spain, the beauty in the drape of a Sari, or the simple awe that's inspired by a Shinto temple? Or does all that matter to them is what's on television? Our empire building has not created a cultural imperialism that destroys other people's modes of expression, it simply doesn't recognise its existence or cede it enough importance to make it worth bothering with.

I live across the street from a family that has rented out four apartments together in an apartment building. Almost everyday they sit out on the fire escape, drink beer and yell at each other starting at around four in the afternoon and sometimes going as late as after midnight. On occasion they've ended up having fights on their front lawn or screaming abuse at each other at the top of their lungs.

Our society has created the circumstances where these people think they are better than someone who lives in Pakistan because of the colour of their skin and because they aren't one of us. I'm sure they are not exceptional and there are millions of people the world over who think like that, no matter where they live or what they believe in.

Until as a species we can shake off the chains of cultural imperialism that we have tied our self up in we will not evolve. The species that doesn't evolve risks extinction.

August 10, 2006

CD/DVD Review: Palm World Voices - Mandela

When Nelson Mandela came to Canada in his first visit after his release from jail, he gave an open-air speech in a park in downtown Toronto. One of the thousands of people who went to that speech was my mother. She told me later that it was one of most fulfilling and inspiring moments she in her life.

My mother had been one of the people who, long before it became fashionable in the eighties, had boycotted anything to do with South Africa as requested by people like Mandela. For people like my mother, seeing him there in that park was the culmination of a struggle that had spanned more then thirty years in an attempt to win equality for the people of South Africa.

For most of those years Nelson Mandela was in jail, but from his cell on Robben Island he became the face of the struggle, the icon of the revolution. But who was this man and where did he come from before his name became synonymous with the anti apartheid movement. To help answer that question Palm Pictures has released Mandela the fourth instalment in their astounding Palm World Voices series.

As with the three prior releases, Africa, Vedic Path, and Babba Maal Mandela is comprised of a DVD, a CD, a full colour booklet, and an extensive National Geographic map. Not only do these packages give you insight into a particular person or region, but undertake to place them in a social/political, historical, and cultural context. In the case of Mandela that is of course inseparable from the subject matter.
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The DVD that is included in this package is the 1997 Academy Award nominated documentary Mandela: Son Of Africa, Father Of A Nation. The film makers have used stock and archival footage to recreate the historical events of fight for freedom in South Africa, and inter cut them with present day interviews with some of the principle figures in Mandela's personal and political life.

They also have the man himself narrate his younger days and he comes across as remarkably unaffected. Whenever I listen to a person of renown speak of themselves, I don't so much listen to the words but how they are said. When Mr. Mandela talks about himself there is none of the false humility that you so often hear from the mouths of "celebrities".

He talks openly and plainly about his life without hiding his accomplishments or playing down his setbacks; each of them apparently of equal value in his eyes. I tried, with very little success, to visualize any political figures from our society acting in a similar fashion.

For those of us who only know Nelson Mandela as the symbol of resistance and the elder statesman of a nation, the question of who was this man prior to his incarceration and what had he done to merit the idolatry showered on him by his people begins to be answered by this DVD. Neither does it shy away from the controversies in his personal life; the multiple marriages, and the politically motivated separation and divorcing of his second wife Winnie Mandela.

Although politics and the social situation are of course the primary focus of any study of the man Nelson Mandela, the Palm World Voices package utilizes the diversity of the music that made up the soundtrack of the documentary to provide an overview of the different musical styles of South Africa. The CD included in this package is the soundtrack for the DVD, but can also be seen as a documentary in its own right.

It provides a history of the music of the people; as they matured politically and became more militant it was only natural that their music became more militant and nationalistic in tone. What was most commendable on the part of the producers was the fact that they resisted the temptation to utilize a good deal of popular European and North American music that had been written about the struggle and confined it to primarily South Africans.

With the exception of "Free Nelson Mandela" by The Specials, the music comes from musicians native to the country and is indicative of the different cultures of South Africa. As was the case with most of the artificially created borders in Africa, the nation that is South Africa contained many nations with distinct languages and beliefs. While ethnic hatreds have proven horribly deadly in places like Rwanda and Uganda, South African black leaders had realized early on that they must unite as one people in order to gain freedom.

This doesn't mean there weren't problems. The justly proud Zulu people wanted to ensure that they were not going to lose the powers that they had as rulers of their own little fiefdom under the homeland restrictions of Apartheid. In an attempt to polarize the people along tribal lines the white government had created "homelands" which all black South Africans were tied to. A black person could only live in their "homeland" unless they were given special permission to travel from the place of their birth.

Not only did this curtail freedoms and enforce poverty by prohibiting travel in search of better work or permanent residences in the cities, it served to separate the nations so they could be played one against the other. But because of the message of inclusion that Mandela and the African National Congress had preached since the 1950's the horrors of Biafra and Rwanda were not repeated in South Africa. There was still violence but it paled in comparison to the genocides of the other two countries.

So on the CD you'll hear the sounds of the Zulu nation next to the original jazz sounds of the forties by the first wave of South African popular musicians. Of equal quality are the segments of the original score from the documentary that have been included on the CD. In the movie they assist in the creation of ambiance, but here they serve to remind us of the source for this album of popular music and its subject matter.

The Palm World Voices series was created with the intent of giving their owners as complete an immersion as possible in the subject's culture as modern media can allow. Music, video, and support material have been combined in superb packages to achieve that end. In the case of Mandela they were faced with the challenging prospect of doing that job for one of the iconic figures of the past century.

While no one will probably ever be able to claim to tell the definitive story of Nelson Mandela, Palm World Voices, Mandela offers a record of a remarkable man and the country he was willing to die for "if needs be" If you ever wondered why Nelson Mandela and not somebody else; after watching, listening and reading this material, that will no longer be a question without an answer.

August 8, 2006

Canadian Politics: The Case Of The Dissapearing Accord Part 2

Saying yes to something is a whole lot different from actually doing anything about it. Even with my rather specialized knowledge of the ins and outs of the backrooms of Ottawa I was at a loss as to where to go on this one. All of my usual contacts, sources, snitches, and blackmail victims had shut up tighter than someone holding back a fart in church.

At the word Kyoto some hadn't even the decency to say anything just left me listening to the click of their receiver echoing in the dial tone. They'd either all been gotten too early and hard or were just scared by what they knew. It's difficult to believe that something as seemingly benign as an accord governing reductions in CO2 would cause everyone I know to pucker shut, but that was seemingly the case.

The only clue, if you could call it that was the mysterious voice that phoned just as tall, intimidating and gorgeous was knocking at my door. But someone who uses call blocking and hangs up after muttering out "Where has all the water gone?" can't be considered much of any assistance.

So I was wrapping up my day by letting the imagination play around with having to console a certain Mrs. marine biologist, which involved quite a bit of page leafing on my part, when my reverie was rudely ruptured by the phones pneumatic clatter. When I had collected my thoughts sufficiently to finally collar the receiver under my chin and against my ear a voice scratched at my eardrums.

"Have you figured it out yet?" At least this time it seemed inclined to wait around for an answer instead of the rhetorical shit from earlier. So I decided to see if could draw it out by holding some cards back. This was my only source and I needed to play it right or it would end up being just another August fishing story.

"The question shouldn't have been, where has all the water gone?" I said stalling for time, "It would have been better to ask why is the water not coming?" I wasn't quite sure what made me say that, but after it came out of my mouth it was just like toothpaste in that it couldn't be shoved back in the tube. On the other hand since it seemed to impress the voice at the other end enough to keep him on the line, it couldn't have been all bad.

"Very good, shamus, very good. At least you listen when the information comes in the right package. We were afraid it might be a little too distracting given your initial reaction, but now we see that it was the right decision." There was a pause during which I took all this in, including the fact my mystery woman may not have been all she claimed to be, perhaps not even married.

I missed the first part of what the voice at the other end of the phone said next as I let my mind drift along lines that had nothing to do with water, but was wet enough in its own right, so had to try and catch up as it went along. The first words that I caught was a mention of a favourite drinking spot and with a bit of the quick thinking I was known for cut in with, "Yeah I know the spot"

The pause at the other end of the line was long enough that I thought maybe I'd blown it. But the voice came back on the line and said "eight o'clock" before leaving me with my old friend the dial tone. I figured that was as good an indication as any that I could hang up the phone.

So three hours latter I was sitting at my seat by the pole with a cold one sweating in my hand and a hottie working the poll causing those around me to sweat waiting to see who would show up. Part of me was hoping it would be her, I've always wanted to use that line about what's a nice girl like you doing in a place like this. Even better would be the one from that Bogie movie: "of all the Gin joints in all the world she had to walk into…"

Damn the heat must be getting to me worse then I thought if I'm starting to go on about some dame like this who I couldn't even say hello to without my larynx swallowing my tongue. I leaned forward to rest my forehead on my hand and brought the cold beer bottle up in an attempt to cool off my head, when somebody bumped into my back moving me forward in my seat.

That's not too unusual in a crowded bar like this, you get drunks staggering around a lot, and everybody takes it for granted and doesn't get their noses out of joint too often. So I was kind of surprised that the reaction of those around me was so extreme. First the guys on either side of me backed away and turned an even paler shade of civil service never see the light of day pasty, then the girl twirling on the pole stopped, pointed, opened her mouth to scream but didn't make it that far as she collapsed in a heap on the counter.

It was only when I turned around and saw the knife, if something the size of a machete could be called a knife, sticking out of the guy's back. If I was to hazard a guess this was to have been my contact for the evening, if only because of the fact he had a picture of me in the hand that wasn't trying to remove what didn't belong from between his shoulder blades. It looked like this missing Kyoto accord was really starting to heat up, and somebody didn't want me or anybody else to know too much about it.

Well I'm like your stupidest cat that way; curiosity has its claws in deep. Bodies starting to fall and people clamming up is just one sure way to keep me interested and make me even more curious. I wouldn't say nothing to the cops about nothing; it's always better not to let them draw conclusions because it usually ends up with you in the frame, so to speak.

It looked like I was going to be on my own for this Kyoto accord deal, which was fine by me, as that's just the way I liked it. I happened to look up at that moment to see what looked like a familiar head of ash blonde hair leaving through the bar's main entrance. Well, maybe I wouldn't be so alone as I thought.

August 6, 2006

Canadian Poltics: The Case Of The Vanishing Kyoto Accord

It only took me until noon to decide that I wasn't going to like Monday that week, which usually meant that the rest of the week lay stretched out in front of me as invitingly as a three day old corpse in July on the slab. August in Ottawa was so putrid with humidity that even the politicians have fled the luxury of their expense account lives and mistresses to return to the loving arms of family and constituents.

Obviously that meant a drastic improvement in the air quality for those of us still here. Talk about global warming and the release of dangerous emissions all you want, there's nothing that can compete with the Canadian House of Commons for being a source of C02 and, dependant on what was on the menu at the Commons Cafeteria, other noxious fumes.

I was sitting by the one window in the office that could open with a fan blowing, hoping to capture something cooling from the oozing fetidness that passes for a breeze at this time of year. Damn it, I thought, this is ridiculous. We're in the capital city with coldest mean temperature of any country's seat of power. Moscow may have slightly longer winters, and may even get days colder than Ottawa's coldest, but on average we take the cake.

I had entered into that pre heat stroke daze of semi consciences when the sounds of the phone ringing and someone rapping at the door nearly stopped my heart for good. Unpeeling myself from the back of the chair was a matter moments and allowed me to reach the phone within ten rings and yell to the door "Hold your horses". If I had hoped that standing at the phone would give me time to get what felt like a yard of cotton out of my butt cleavage, I was sorely disappointed.

The voice on the other end of the phone was succinct and to the point. "Where has all the water gone?" was followed by a renewal of the dial tone. Swearing under my breath at phone pranksters abusing old song lyrics I really wasn't prepared for what was waiting behind the door. Considering the circumstances I think my reaction was within reason.

She had to be about 5'9" and her three-inch heels only added to the illusion that her legs went up to her chin. Which should have been physically impossible given what lay between the waist and the long swan-like neck, but go figure. Human anatomy has never been my strong suit, but I could see that she would be a wonderful textbook if I ever decided to broaden my horizons and open my mind to new areas of learning.

I could tell any hopes that I may have had of leafing her pages were minimized by the "Holy Fuck' that had slipped out of my mouth on opening the door. The part of my brain that still functioned realized the longer I stayed there gaping like some slack jawed inbred was reducing the chances of me even getting a peek inside the cover. Even so it took a loud throat clearing on her part to get me to come around

Still not trusting myself to speak I stood aside and bowed her ever so slightly into the room indicating the chair directly across my desk from my own. Following her back across the room I was reminded of why I had put the desk at the point in the room furthest from the door. Of course it didn't do my equilibrium any good, so by the time we sat facing each other across a span of pine veneer, I was quite ready to jump out the window if she demanded.

She looked at me and shook her head slightly, which had the effect of making her ash brown hair float halo like around her face. "All you guys are the same aren't you," she said piercing me with the ice chips that were her steel grey eyes. I all of sudden felt pinned to the back of my chair like a butterfly under glass.

After three false tries I managed to get my voice to squeak out " What brings you here today, Miss, what can I do for you?" Instead of the hoped for steady and reassuring voice that was normally at my disposal, I sounded like I had small cricket in my throat.

She looked at me with a grim little smile that implied she didn't think there was much of anything that I'd be able to help her with, but her options were limited. "First of all it's Mrs. not Miss, Ms. or anything implying availability of any kind what so ever." She paused to see what kind of effect that might have on me. Since I was still too numb to do anything but sit and nod blanked faced, there was nothing to indicate how much or little impact her being married might have effected me.

With a purse of her lips, which could have expressed some mild disappointment in reaction to my seemingly nonchalant attitude about her place on the open market she began to talk again. It turns out this drop dead gorgeous woman is in fact a professor of Marine Biology specializing in ecosystems and other words that just were too many syllables for a day like this.

She talked about a lot of things that didn't make any sense but a picture started to evolve of something terrible happening. The average mean temperature was rising around the world by a degree or so a year, and had been for the last ten year or so. Sure it meant warmer winters, but that meant less snow, which meant less spring melt.

When the spring melt is reduced, the water table is reduced and the level in the rivers and lakes drops. The less ground water there is the lower the likelihood of rain which in turn depletes the water table and the lakes and rivers and so on. She stopped than and I looked at her in horror.

"If it's allowed to continue the climate will continue to change and we'll be living in a desert but worse. A dessert has its own natural ecosystem, but here if there is an enforced desert the first things to go will be the trees, followed by the shrubbery and then finally the smaller plants

Farm crops will be devastated and we will no longer be able to produce basics like corn and wheat in amounts sufficient for feeding ourselves. The animal life won't be able to adapt quickly enough as there won't be time for successful mutations to increase the gene pool and allow evolution to occur."

For the second time that day she had stunned me and left me sitting with my jaw agape. This couldn't be possible was my first thought, but it was of course, even during the ice break-up during the spring the Ottawa River failed to rise to the level it had achieved last year let alone any of the previous ones.

She watched me come to these realizations on my own before she continued, " What I need you to do is find out what happened to the Kyoto accord. Parliament had ratified it in the last administration, but now Steven Harper and his Conservative Party Of Canada have said they are going to renege on our country's commitments to meeting certain reductions in toxic emissions.

We think somebody got to him and is putting pressure on him to do this. There can be no other reason whatsoever to go back on a promise to the world. No one could be that inconsiderate or stupid without having a good reason."

She stopped again and looked straight into my eyes, those grey chips of ice had melted into something sad and scared. "Please find the Kyoto accord and bring it back. It wasn't the best solution in the world but it was the only one we had"

How could I say no to that?

August 4, 2006

Canadian Politics: The Lie That Is Afghanistan

Back in 2001, the shock waves had barely abated from the horror of September 11th when George Bush announced his intent of invading Afghanistan to overthrow a regime openly committed to terror attacks on the West. The Taliban had gone from being the plucky rebels fighting the Communist hoards of Russia to being despotic overlords responsible for evil deed after evil deed.

But in spite of the propaganda, and whatever other agenda's may have been pursued, it seemed at the time that the Taliban were something that the world should be concerned about. The people of Afghanistan, for whom survival has been a tenuous and iffy proposition for the last twenty years, needed help badly. The country needed basic infrastructure rebuilt, educational facilities created, and anything that might have promised hope for a future.

It seemed like the perfect country to begin a type of Marshall plan for the developing world. Where the original served to rebuild Western Europe in order to curb the spread of Communism, in Afghanistan hope for the future would be the best enemy against terrorism. Terrorist organizations don't just form overnight, or on the whim of one person.

Rather they require a generation of disaffected and despairing people, and opportunistic zealots who can give the masses something to live for. In the Cold War it was supposedly about economics and ideology; freeing the proletariat against free elections. Now it just feels like hatred in both directions and to hell with issues or causes.

But there are ways to make terrorism less attractive to the majority of people, just as there was a way to make Communism unattractive back in the 1940's. Give people hope for the future. Help them rebuild their houses, improve their irrigation systems so that their crops have a better chance of success, build roads so that their produce can get to markets. Instead of investing money in bombs to drop on them, invest in their industry so that jobs can be created, show you care by investing in their people by rebuilding the local schools that had been destroyed.

Sure there will always be those who are dissatisfied, but they exist in every society – witness the bombing in Oklahoma City if you require any proof – but if we do our best we can at least remove popular support from their cause. Without grassroots popular support it becomes harder for groups like the Taliban to vanish into the villages of the backcountry because they won't be welcomed or supplied.

Unfortunately this opportunity was squandered. Once it appeared that the Taliban had been routed and the terrorist training facilities overrun, victory was declared, a sham government was installed and a token number of multinational troops was left behind to enforce the peace. It was a situation that cried out for long-term aid and direct involvement by the parties involved in assisting with the rebuilding of the country.

Unfortunately token involvement was all that was considered necessary and the new government was left to fend for itself in a country that had nothing and was being offered little. It only took a couple of years and the Taliban is now back as strong as ever, with the support and backing of people through out the countryside. Troops that were supposed to be overseeing the rebuilding of a country have all of a sudden found themselves in the midst of a full-scale guerrilla war.

When Canada became part of the multinational force involved with the invasion of Afghanistan it was with the understanding that the services of our troops would be best utilized in support positions. They would see some combat, but on the whole there work would really begin when the major hostilities were ended.

After all the training our troops have received for the last quarter century or more has been geared towards peacekeeping missions that involve trying to ensure that cease fires are obeyed and truces kept. It's highly specialized and dangerous work for which they have been recognized the world over as being some of the best men and women to place in those situations.

Canadians have had every reason to be proud of the men and women who have done this difficult work in some of the world's hot spots. The Golan Heights, Cyprus, Beirut, Rwanda, and Bosnia have all seen Canadian troops within the last twenty years in the blue hats of the United Nations. We have come to accept that casualties are part of the deal and we mourn each soldier lost as if they were members of our own family. Perhaps because of the rarity of the event we feel it that much more when one is lost, and their lives are not taken for granted or part of a parade of statistics.

For the first time since the Korean War a Canadian government has placed our troops into a full combat situation in a ground war. No one under the age of sixty or seventy in this country has ever experienced the reality of soldiers dying on a weekly basis, and casualties almost daily. It's not something we were prepared for, if you can ever be prepared for it, and we are not liking it.

A majority of Canadians were against the idea of involving our troops in a more direct combat role in Afghanistan for the simple reason that is not what we expect from our troops. Steven Harper and his Conservative Party of Canada in their anxiousness to be one of the big boys and play tough ignored the feelings of the people of Canada.

They compounded that insult by trying to remove the public's means of participating in mourning the loss of the young men and women who lost their lives. First they cancelled the lowering of flags to half-mast on Parliament Hill. Then they banned press coverage of caskets being returned to Canada and the ceremonies for the families at the airports.

The meaningless platitudes about sacrifice and duty are becoming more and more suspect as the question of duty to who forms in people's minds; duty to the Canadian people or Canada? How can that be when they are not dying to defend our soil or even what we believe in? It's more like duty to Steven Harper's ego and his government's misguided policy of drawing us ever further away from a path of respected impartiality into one subservient to our neighbours to the south.

Canada's opposition parties are calling for a review of our policy in Afghanistan in the wake of yesterday's events that again saw the largest number of Canadian casualties in one day since Korea. Yesterday it was four dead and ten wounded.

It seems each week we continue to set a new high water mark for dead and injured. Is this what this government was elected to do, set record numbers for Canadians killed on active service for their generation? What will next week bring; five dead and eleven wounded in one day's fighting?

Fewer and fewer Canadians are willing to find out anymore. Every poll taken since the vote last February deciding to extend and expand Canada's troop commitment in Afghanistan has shown an increasing number of people against the idea. Even the Liberal party who had originally suggested the renewal and voted with the Conservatives last winter are rethinking their position.

Ujjal Dosanjh the Liberal Defence critic commented that the mission has become far more of a combat mission then what had been intended by the previous administration when they had made the proposal in the first place. They had envisioned the Canadian troop continuing with the rebuilding of the country in those parts where pacification was further along than in the region they now find themselves in.

As rumours fly that members of the armed forces don't feel like they have been properly prepared for this type of mission, and that their training is inadequate to deal with the situations they face, the Canadian government continues to spout platitudes guaranteed to sentence more young men and women to death.

Not a single one of these people needed to make the supreme sacrifice on the alter to Steven Harper's ego. How dare he and his Defence Minister claim to know the soldiers in the field and speak of their being honoured to do their duty. These people wouldn't know responsibility and duty if it bit them in the butt. If they did they wouldn't be able to sleep at night for their shame at stealing a family's children, brothers, sisters, husbands and wives from them.

When they say things like they are determined to stay the course until 2009 all I can think of is a line from an old Phil Ochs song: "It's always the old who lead us into war/ it's always the young who die." But we can't just lay the blame at the feet of the Conservative Party of Canada. We have to ask ourselves how did it happen that a party without a majority of the seats in the House of Commons was allowed to involve us in a full scale combat situation?

Steven Harper and The Conservative Party of Canada are arrogant bullies who need someone to stand up to them. Hopefully the opposition parties are finally beginning to show some backbone and will stand behind their public rhetoric and call them on their actions. These people have to be stopped before the damage they do is irreparable.

The Canadian military has a long and proud history dating back to World War One. It is a shame to see such a glorious history treated with such disrespect and callousness. There are times and places when a country's soldiers must expect to find themselves in potentially life threatening situations. But we owe them the courtesy of making it something worth dying for. Afghanistan and their current situation is not one of those times and anyone saying otherwise is lying.


August 1, 2006

Israel And Palestine: Mapping The History

A month or so ago somebody asked me a question that took me aback. Not just because of the question, but because of who this person was. She is someone who I've always thought was informed and knew about issues and their background. So I was quite shocked when out of the blue she asked me if I knew who the Palestinians were.

I must have look puzzled, and some of my shock must have shown on my face, because she clarified by asking, what she meant was where did they come from and how did the situation originally come about. I was still shocked, not the least because I wondered how many other people don't know what had happened back in the late 1940's through to post 1967?

How that when the state of Israel was formed in 1949 five Arab armies attacked determined to throw the country into the sea; that the Israelis fought off their invaders and tried to cross over into the Arab half of the partitioned country but were repelled by Jordanian troops. In the aftermath a majority of the Arab population left on the Israeli side of the partition fled to the Arab side looking for a home and became the original Palestinian refugees.

I'm not sure what the British envisioned as happening with the part of the land not given over to Israel after partition. Did they foresee a new Arab state being formed? As it is the neighbouring countries Jordan, and Egypt absorbed the land. Of the two only Jordan was willing to allow the refugees to enter into their country.

But they were not allowed to settle anywhere outside of areas that the Jordanian government designated. Thus were born the first refugee camps. Jordan was nervous of allowing too much intermingling between her people and the Palestinians because they were afraid of what they saw as a breeding ground for disaffection and terrorism.

Originally there were fears among all the Arab countries who had taken part in the war after partition that those who the land was meant for would possibly take action against them or instigate unrest in their countries. It was one of the reasons that none of them were eager to allow the refugees to make any sort of permanent settlements in their countries.

The Palestinian refugees and what are now known as the occupied lands are two entirely different issues, which is something conveniently forgotten on both sides of the discussion. In 1967 the Israeli air force and armoured brigades staged pre-emptive strikes against a build up of pan Arab forces. By the time the dust had cleared they had "occupied" territory that had not originally been within the boundaries of Israel. This included the West Bank, including the half of Jerusalem that had been deeded to the Arabs, the Gaza strip, the Sinai Desert, and the Golan Heights.

The map remained unchanged until 1982 when as a result of the Camp David Accords Israel returned the Sinai Desert to Egypt, which had no impact on the Palestinian refugees because they were never living there anyway. Since that time the territory that Israel controls, save for the Golan Heights, is all part of the original land mass that was supposed to have been two countries.
00 - Map 1967-1982
The question has always remained in my mind what happened in the post 1949 period to the Palestinian State that was supposed to have been formed simultaneously with Israel? The land was under Arab control – Jordan on the one hand and Egypt on the other – but in the twenty-eight years from 1949 until 1967 nothing was done to form a state.

It wasn't until after 1967 that anyone seemed to come up with idea of the creation of Palestine, after the Arab countries had lost the territory to Israel in the Six Day War. Why during the years that Israel was establishing itself domestically, building infrastructure etc, did the Arab world allow the Palestinians to live in the squalor of camps and not build the state that they were designated?

Part of the reason was of course refusal to accept that they wouldn't one day push Israel into the sea, but you'd think after a decade or two you’d start to want something a little more permanent. Anyway the same towns that exist today in the West Bank existed then. Bethlehem and the rest have been there for a couple of thousand years, and didn't vanish out of existence.

Yes the Arabs who lived in pre 1947 Israel territory felt forced to vacate their lands that some had lived in for generations, and probably I would have felt the same resentment and fear that they did when that occurred. There are Arabs who still live in Israel to this day, but I'm sure the comfort level for them after five armies of Arabs had just tried to wipe out their neighbours must have been pretty low and not conducive to staying put.

There is no denying the poverty that the Palestinians live in, but to lay the blame totally at the feet of Israel for circumstances that have existed before they exercised any control over those territories is wrong. The Arab world has to be held accountable for ignoring the plight of their own people for twenty-eight years. Was it a deliberate ploy to foster hatred for the new state of Israel? Or was it just the governments of Jordan and Egypt wanting as much land as possible?

Those are just a couple of questions whose answers are too late to be of value anymore. The other one being what would have happened if the land had been put to the use it was meant for. Would an Arab state have grown alongside of Israel, and how would that have changed the dynamic of the Middle East, as we know it today?

What ifs are fine for fiction, but can only make you crazy in the real world. What is important is to remember that other options did exist at one time, but for what ever the reason it was chosen not to exercise them. What they do offer us, aside from regrets, is a sense of perspective and the realization that once again grey, not black, and not white, is the predominant colour of history.


July 30, 2006

Canadian Politics: The Scent Of An Election

When you sniff the wind in Ottawa these days you smell more than just the effluence from the combination of too many politicians in one place and the paper factory out on the Ottawa River. A nose made keen after years of ferreting out different scents on the wind will tell you that it's the smell of a snap election call in the offing.

I know what you're thinking; didn't we just have one less than a year ago? Who'd be stupid enough to think they could get away with going to the polls without getting hammered by the public? Change that to who's arrogant enough to believe they could win, and perhaps win big, and maybe you'll start to come up with an answer.

I know, didn't I just solve the case of the disappearing opposition by saying the direct opposite, that neither the Liberals, The New Democratic Party (NDP) nor the Bloc Quebecois, have any interest in calling an election? True enough but if the Conservative Party of Canada wants to go to the polls badly enough they can manipulate a situation to make it happen.

All they have to do is introduce some piece of legislation that is repugnant enough to enough opposition members that they can't help to go down to defeat in the house. Not only do they get the election call they desire, but they can also blame it on the opposition parties in an attempt to garner support.

Of course this involves a whole lot of delicate political manoeuvring in the months leading up to the vote in the House of Parliament in an effort to establish that you are perfectly content with your minority government, but sadly you just aren't being allowed to run the country the way you want to. Carrying this off requires a deft touch, a certain degree of subtlety, and media campaign that puts just the right spin on events.

This type of ploy can come back and haunt you like last night's five alarm chilli and five-beer dinner; feeling burnt at both ends and full of regrets at your own stupidity. It takes a certain amount of arrogance to think you can do tackle that kind of meal without suffering the consequences and it you have the right constitution you'll be okay. But if you've miscalculated by even an nth of degree you'll just be adding it to that list of things "I should have known better not to attempt".

Now all political parties like power, if they didn't they wouldn't exist no matter how high minded and moral any of them pretend to be. Once a politician and a party get a taste of power they can become as easily addicted as any other wide-eyed junkie out there. Power is like any other drug; you keep needing more of it to get that jolt that gets you off.

Steven Harper and his boys have got the needle in their arms now and are looking to set up a permanent intravenous drip for at least four more years if they can. They've been walking around Ottawa since they moved here like they've been anticipating a long-term stay. Forbidding press open access to caucus member and Cabinet Ministers, not working with the opposition, but counting on their fear of an early election to push anything they want through parliament, and just generally acting like a rooster in a hen house whose just been told they're all his to play with.

They haven't exactly endeared themselves to the Canadian public either by saying the reason the people were against expanding Canada's role in Afghanistan was because they couldn't understand the reasons behind our armies being there in the first place. Now there's nothing people like better than being called stupid and ignorant on a repeated basis. They don't have to know why soldiers are somewhere to know they don't want them coming home dead.

When two weeks later they started coming home dead at a rate Canada hasn't seen since at least the Korean War if not World War two. Instead of recognizing the fact as a problem the Conservative government tried to play down the deaths as much as possible. First they tried to cancel the practice started under the previous government of honouring servicemen and women killed in Afghanistan by lowering the flags on Parliament hill to half-mast, and having a ceremony for the caskets when they arrived back on Canadian soil. Then they banned the press from photographing the return of the soldiers, who in the lingo of the government had pain the "ultimate price" by committing the "supreme sacrifice".

It took protests by the dead soldiers parents and wide spread negative reaction from most people across Canada for the Conservatives to make the ultimate price worth more then a plugged nickel but the damage was done. Something Steven Harper hasn't seemed to figure out yet is that Canadians don't talk like that. You don't often hear people say things like ultimate price or supreme sacrifice when they're having their coffee and donuts down at Tim Horton's.

Sure that's pretty standard political hyperbole south of the border, but up here it just doesn't fly very well. It makes it sound like you're imitating another politician. The Conservative Parry of Canada has always been out of touch with the majority of Canadians opinion on foreign policy, but they have this knack for ignoring that.

They say they are mending fences with the folk in Washington, but a lot of people are wondering about how much of a shafting from a fence post they're willing to take. Take the settlement reached in the soft wood lumber dispute. At first they are heralding it as a miracle, but when the lumber industry across the country and the opposition start protesting they fall back on saying it's better then nothing.

Of course just to confuse the issue more another court has found in favour of the Canadian's argument that the American's had no right to collect any tariffs. Which would of course lead the Canadian industry wondering why they shouldn’t be allowed to recoup all the tariffs paid, instead of leaving a billion dollars in American coffers as the new deal allows.

If the courts and the adjudicators keep finding in Canada's favour than nothing is better then the deal that's been negotiated, because nothing will give them back all the tariff money, and open the borders completely. It might even be actual free trade.

Going into an election looking like you're selling out one of the biggest industries in Canada probably isn't the best of ideas, but the Conservative party is threatening to make the vote of their new deal a vote of confidence. That means if they lose the vote an election has to be called.

Now they're entering into this game of chicken because they don't think the opposition will want an election called and be forced to support the deal. With the Liberal party not having a leader yet to replace former Prime Minister Paul Martin, and their convention not slated until next December, it looks more like their playing with dice loaded in their favour.

But there's also the possibility, as I said earlier, that they want an election for that very reason, the Liberal party doesn't have a leader. If an election were called in September, it would mean that the Liberals would have to have their convention in the middle of an election campaign.

Now obviously the Conservative hope that it will be a nasty affair that will split the Liberal party and reduce their effectiveness to run a campaign against them. But this is where the backfire we talked about earlier could really kick in. Usually when a party has a leadership convention they get a healthy bounce in the polls; people are more interested in them, and they have the look and sound of a winner.

If the Liberals come out of a leadership convention, with a semblance of party unity, and a healthy bounce in the polls with only three weeks left in the election, they could easily waltz home with a majority government and return the Conservatives to their backwater.
Right now the Conservatives are thirty seats short of a majority, and most of those are places they really have no hope of gaining. As long as they keep pushing their social conservative agenda they will never get seats in the urban centres of Canada, which is the only place left for them to win seats.

For them to hold on to their minority government and even have a hope of defeating the Liberals, they will have to convince the people of Canada that their foreign policy is the right choice. Aside from their stands on social issues, like same sex marriage, pro-choice, and day-care, it is the only area where the two parties differ in any significant way.

Since that division has already been played out in the polls the only real decision facing Canadians is do they want to continue the path that Steven Harper has begun and take a harder, more American line in foreign policy, or be more concerned with impartiality and peacekeeping.

In fact the Conservative are so sure of this being a major issue they have sent out a fundraising letter to all party members asking them for a contribution of $75.00 to $150.00 to show their support for the Conservative party's stand on Israel and the invasion of Lebanon.

In the letter they talk about the moral stand taken by Mr. Harper and his unequivocal support for Israel (or the Jewish vote in the affluent suburbs surrounding Toronto), while heaping scorn on the policy's of the previous governments by calling it weak and indecisive. Seeing as the majority of Canada had supported the previous two governments equivocation when it came to matters of foreign policy, it remains to be seen whether they will use such strong language when addressing all Canadians.

The letter is also setting the groundwork for laying the blame of an election call at the feet of the opposition. It warns the party faithful to be prepared because the opposition is looking for any excuse to call a snap election. In other words the Conservative are going to be forcing the issue come the fall by presenting legislation that none of the opposition parties are going to be able to stomach.

As the Conservatives have already vowed to bring the softwood lumber deal to parliament and introduce it as a motion of confidence, even the blindest of pigs can see where this acorn lies. They are counting on losing this vote in the fall so they can be "forced" to call a snap election. They are going to be the victims of the nefarious opposition who are standing in the way of what's good for the country, even if the country doesn't know it.

In the private investigation business you have to learn to smell which way the winds blowing if you don't want to get knocked off your feet. Politics is a lot like that, except the winds seem to shift direction a lot quicker then in other professions. If an election happens this fall it will be a question of whether the Conservatives have guessed the prevailing wind with any degree of accuracy.

If they haven't it becomes a question of to what degree they're buffeted. Will they lose their footing all together and be blown off the table (unlikely) will the be knocked back enough for the Liberals to form a majority government (perhaps), or will it end up being another minority government but this time Liberal with the NDP holding the balance of power. (More than likely)

Perhaps the Conservatives don't see it that way, and even if they did they would be the last to admit it, but forcing the issue of an election so early in their mandate seems like a might big risk to take, unless they see it as their only real chance to strike. The economy is doing well, they can still try to portray themselves as the party of patriots, the healer of relations with the Americans, and the Liberals are without a leader.

A lot can happen in a few months to change the political landscape of the world. Who knows what can happen. The economy could tank, Canadian casualties in Afghanistan could continue to escalate, and any number of events beyond anyone's control canl change. If we do get a fall election don't be surprised if it gets ugly fast.

I think it's time to put the gone fishing sign up on the office door and leave town for a while. Anyone wants me I'll be checking in for my messages. Ottawa's smelly enough in the summer without the stink of a forthcoming election choking me.

July 28, 2006

NAFTA, The Environment, And You!

Back in the old days when the governments of North America were still negotiating the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) one of the major concerns raised by opponents of the deal was its environmental impact. The primary concern was that companies in one country might be forced to bend their environmental standards in order to compete with businesses working in an area with less stringent rules.

At the time, in these pre Kyoto accord days and greenhouse emission targets, it was primarily Canada and the United States concerned about whether Mexico's standards would be so slovenly that they would be able to produce products far cheaper than corporations in either of the two biggest players.

Environmentalists were concerned that there long, hard fought battles to regulate aspects of manufacturing that dealt with environmental impact would be for nought as companies slashed budgets in these "non-essential" areas, leading to a return of the bad old days. In an effort to appease both the business communities and the environmentalists a side deal was struck allowing for the creation of the Commission for Environmental Co-operation (CEC) to monitor how well environmental standards were being maintained.

It interesting to note how some things never change for business people, it doesn't matter whether they are dumping Mercury poisoning in the English River system in Northern Ontario as the Reed Paper mills did in the seventies, if it ensures they can compete with polluters elsewhere. The same arguments are being use against the reduction of smokestack emissions and other poisonous wastes into the air we breath, as a reason by the Bush government for not signing the Kyoto accord and the Harper government for reneging of Canada's signature.

We can't compete, they bleat like lost little sheep, we can't compete. What about all those countries that don't sign they say, we can't compete. That argument is as spurious as it selfish. First of all for any country outside of North America who doesn't sign on the dotted line to abide by the Kyoto accord, slap them with such huge tariffs that our borders would be effectively closed to them. Watch how quickly they'd sign on and fall into line.

Within North America the means for ensuring that all countries and companies are complying with the aims of the accord, and that everyone is suffering equally from having to pay for the one time retooling of their equipment exists. That's what the CEC was created for in the first place, right?

Well in theory yes, but in practice it seems not to be the case. First of all there is the matter of their budget. With the money they receive they are supposed to conduct investigations, hire staff, perform research, etc. etc. Activities that are going to run in double digit millions per annum are still being covered by the same $9million dollar budget they were given in the year they were established.

Although they were officially designated as an independent body, in reality they are very much controlled by the three countries party to the treaty. Aside from the 40% reduction in real spending power they have had to endure because of inflation and zero increases in budgets, they are dependant on the respective governments for the data they use in formulating their reports.

As an example, The Globe and Mail newspaper cites the instance of the report on environmental impact of the concrete industry. The information they used to compile their comparison between the American and Canadian industries was supplied by the respective governments, who in turn had been supplied by the industry in question.

So the governments, and everybody involved, are counting on the industry people to step up and say, "oh by the way we went way over the top last year and polluted like crazy – sorry about that". Even the CEC realizes that this makes their findings a little suspect and added an addendum to the report saying that it doesn't fall within there mandate to investigate the provenance or integrity of the information supplied for the report and findings should be judged accordingly. In other words take this side of fries with lots of salt.

It's conditions like this that have environmental specialist and University of Ottawa professor Stewart Elgie thinking the committee is next to useless because they are hamstrung by the governments they are supposed to be checking up on. Instead of being a watchdog he says they have become a house pet, implying they work only to the limits their masters allow.

The outgoing chair of the committee, with only a month left on the job, William Kennedy freely admits there are problems that make their job next to impossible. The primary reason for their inadequacy he says is down to the fact that they were created as window dressing to allay the fears of the public, not because any of the governments actually supported the idea of their creation.

They dare not open their mouths on greenhouse gasses, because the Bush administration would block them issuing the report because it doesn't follow their line of thinking. It's probably safe to say given Steven Harper's decision to ignore parliament ratifying the Kyoto accord that the current administration in Canada would be of the same mindset.

The CEC already ran into hot water when they were able to commission a report on the dangers to Mexico of genetically modified corn. Although the report was written by some of the world's leading agricultural scientists, it's recommendation that a cautious approach be taken so as to preserve wild strains of corn in Mexico, was denounced as fundamentally flawed and scientifically unsound by the Bush administration.

That the American food industry is anxiously trying to sell genetically altered products in markets all over the world wouldn't have anything to do with that reaction would it? With most of the world's markets already resistant to the idea, a bunch of disagreeable scientists could only make matters worse by clouding the issue with facts that seem to offer support for their position.

NAFTA was designed to allow the businesses and people of all three countries freer and greater access to each other's markets. In theory this was supposed to allow the manufacturing and resource industries of each country to flourish, but in practice has fallen far short of that objective.

Never has it been harder for people from Mexico and Canada to cross the border into the United States, especially if they are looking for employment. Canada and America have been locked in a bitter dispute over duty that the Americans have been collecting on softwood lumber being sold by Canadian companies in the U.S. for close to five years now.

Instead of the intended result of countries thinking in terms of one big happy business community working together to strengthen the economy of North America as a whole, more then ten years after the signing of the pact everybody is still as protectionist as before. Is it any wonder that their environmental watchdog pretty much reflects that outlook?

It just wouldn't do, now would it, for one country to admit that they are actually polluting more then their counterparts in another country or that one of their businesses practice's could be detrimental to another county's welfare. The environmental business of our businesses is nobody's business but ours has become the official environmental policy of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

In the meantime instead of studying the impact of 145,100 tonnes (metric) of cancer causing materials into the atmosphere on the health of children, the CEC concentrates on providing reports that their sponsoring governments can really support: energy-efficient buildings. According to Mr. Kennedy there's a lot of support for it and that the agency has got a real winner with it.

If that's the winner, whose the loser?


July 27, 2006

Oak Trees: Link To The Past

I have a couple of tattoos that circumvent my forearms. On each arm are two stylized dragonheads accompanied by leafs of a specific tree; the left arm has Holly leaves while the right acorns and a solitary Oak leaf. In the old beliefs of the British Isles, long before the Romans came, it is thought that the year was divided up amongst the reigns of two kings: The Oak King and The Holly King.

One king represented the period of growth and fertility and the other the period when the land was cold and sterile. Symbolically they can be interpreted, in probably a million ways, but I like to think of them as representing the two halves of the creative process: a period of dormancy for introspection and a period of fertile creativity.

While the Holy tree has been retained in our modern celebration of Christmas as a nod to the pagan past, the Oak was not granted the same leniency. Since so many of the pre-Christian rituals involved sacred groves of Oak trees, the church had many groves of Oak destroyed in an attempt to eradicate the practices of its predecessor.

While the Oak may not have the ritual significance it once did, its effect on people cannot be denied. Who can truthfully say that they have not been moved by the sight of an Oak standing solitary sentinel in some farmer's field? Why is it that even to this day we are moved by stories of Oak trees, and that some individuals have even grown to have mythic status beyond what would normally be associated with a tree.
0-Robin's Oak
In England, just outside the town of Nottingham lies arguably one of the most famous forests in the English-speaking world, Sherwood. Within Sherwood Forest is a venerable old tree that is referred to as "Robin's Oak", in reference to the forest's most infamous inhabitant.

That both Robin Hood and the tree existed is true enough, but the tree's reputation for being his hideout in the woods unfortunately does not stand up to close examination. Although the tree is currently hollow enough for people to move around inside and even take shelter, it is at most only a thousand years old.

So even if "Robin's Oak" was around at the same time as the outlaw, it would have been a mere hundred year old sapling, living and vibrant. Remember, hollowness is a sign of age and death in a tree, not a convenience for human's to take shelter. If the tree had been dying in the 1100's, it would long ago have turned to mulch on the floor of Sherwood Forest.
Windsor Oak
In the grounds surrounding Windsor Castle, Windsor Park, in the Thames Valley outside of London, stands a solitary Oak tree of equal if not more years than its counterpart in the North. It is known simply as Herne's Oak, although there is nothing simple about Herne The Hunter and the Wild Hunt that he leads across the skies on the eve of the Twelfth Night of midwinter. Herne has the body of a man, the beak, of an owl, the antlers of a stag and the ears of a wolf and he rides on the back of a white horse accompanied by his pack of white skinned, and red eyed Yell Hounds.

Twelfth night used to mark the turning of the year for the peoples of England. Twelve days prior had been Midwinter, marking the return of the Sun after the longest period of darkness in the running of the year, December 21st. On the eve of Twelfth Night The Wild Hunt was said to ride the skies looking for prey, which was anyone foolish enough to be out on that evening. Farmers would make sure that all livestock was safely in on that night or they could awake the next morning and find themselves short a few head of cattle or sheep.

Herne was a force of nature, answerable to no one save himself, and was said to reside in the Oak tree in Windsor park. He would serve as a reminder to the people that nature is impartial to them, their needs and desires, doing what it must when it must. Although the longest night of the year may have passed, the worst of winter could still be yet to come.

I was reminded of Oak trees again today when reading through the morning paper full of war and horror I came across this one article in The Globe and Mail about one an older Oak tree in Canada and what steps were being taken to preserve it.
.Papineau Oak tree
About one hundred kilometres (80 miles) outside of Montreal in Montebello Quebec is the former residence of Louis –Joseph Papineau. Papineau was the leader of an uprising in 1837 in Lower Canada (Quebec) that demanded representational government for the colonies. Upper (Ontario) and Lower Canada were ruled by an appointed Governor General and a few wealthy individuals. Due to their nepotistic nature they were known derisively as The Family Compact.

Papineau's attempt at change was a failure and he and other leaders were forced to flee to the Untied States where they spent ten or so year in exile. When he returned to Quebec in 1845 he set to establishing his home in Montebello and it was while having the lands cleared for it's building he preserved this solitary Oak to give his home a sense of history.

Today, 170 years later, the tree is beginning to suffer from symptoms of old age and is need of assistance. Parks Canada (The supervisors of all national parks and historical sites in Canada) sought out the help of an arborist to try and devise a means of preserving the three hundred plus year old tree.

Today, just like some of its older relatives in Europe the Papineau Oak is on crutches. Three props, one ten meters and two six meters, are now being used to help support the weight of the lower branches. Parks Canada is hopeful that this will be sufficient to ensure that the tree outlives the rest of us.

Near the beginning of this post I wondered what it is about Oak trees that makes them appeal to so many people. While some, like me have specific reasons for being attracted to Oak trees; I think the fact that they are so old gives them a certain romantic appeal. You can stand in Sherwood Forest and say Robin Hood walked by that tree. Or you can visit The Chapel Oak of Allouville-Bellefosse in Normandy, France that is two chapels built inside the hollow core of a nearly 800-year-old tree and think of the pilgrims over the years who have worshiped in the shrine.

In this highly impermanent world that we are living in now, the Oak tree is a sign of strength and endurance in the face of all that the world and nature has to throw against it. Perhaps we look to it as an example to help us carry on in the face of so much strife. Or maybe it's just because they make such nice places to have picnics under, with lots of shade.

Either way Oak trees have endured over the centuries, and continue to fascinate and amaze us. They may not be part of any organized religion, but that doesn't seem to have stopped us from doing them honour.


July 25, 2006

Canadian Politics: Reneging On The U.N. Declaration of Indigenous Rights

For the past twenty years or more, a special working group of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights has been working on a draft resolution for a Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples to be presented to the General Assembly of the United Nations. The working group was comprised of forty-seven member countries, including Canada, India, Cuba, Japan, and Security Council Members, United Kingdom, Russia, France, and China, plus representatives of over 200 hundred Indigenous organizations from around the world.

The final draft resolution was approved on June 29th by an overwhelming majority of thirty in favour, two against, twelve abstentions, and three absenteeism's. Aside from affirming that Indigenous peoples deserve the same treatment as other people under the Charter of the United Nations, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and international human rights law, the resolution also allows for them to maintain and strengthen their culture and traditional ways of being, while at the same time actively participate in the life of the state.

What's most telling, and probably the biggest bone of contention, is that it also guarantees the right of self determination. In the eyes of most people self-determination implies at least some degree of autonomy or self-governance; decision-making powers over education, and other state within the state authorities. Already countries like the United Kingdom which voted in favour of the resolution are qualifying their support by saying things like it has no legal standing, and that it shouldn’t interfere with individual state law.

There is also a certain amount of irony, or even cynicism, in seeing countries like Mexico and Guatemala publicly endorsing and voting in favour of the declaration. Both countries have abysmal records when it comes to the treatment of their native population with the latter being particularly notorious for its policies of persecution and oppression. In fact across Latin America the treatment of indigenous people is so bad that it makes North American efforts look exemplary in comparison.

The fact that countries like Brazil, Peru, Ecuador, and Uruguay joined their fellow Latin states above in adopting the resolution despite their records of indifference makes it all the more incomprehensible that Canada would be one of the two nations along with Russia to vote it against it entirely. (The United States was not part of the working group, but they have declared their opposition to the declaration and intent of opposing its passage in the General Assembly) What makes Canada's refusal to adopt the resolution so frustrating for native and human rights groups in Canada and elsewhere is the key role the country has played in the last eleven years in its drafting.

But within the last year Canada had started to be obstructionist to the proceedings. Not only did they call this vote in an attempt to defeat the resolution, (the agreement was supposed to have been by consensus) but also they had previously failed to pass a counter resolution to have a decision delayed so further discussion could take place. The only reasons the new Canadian government have given for the sudden policy change from previous administrations is that some of the provisions of the Declaration are incompatible with Canadian law.

This is an argument without any basis. Remember what the United Kingdom's delegate said about it not being legally binding on any state? Well if it's not legally binding how can it be incompatible with any laws in Canada. The only law it's in contravention of is the law of the Conservative Party of Canada to gut the work started by the previous governments on advancing the rights of indigenous people in Canada.

There still has been no announcement of any new policy to replace the Kelowna accord that Steven Harper and his boys blew out of the water with their budget by not providing the funding agreed upon by the provinces and the previous federal government. At the time they said they would put forward their own policy because they had hesitations about accountability measures.

It's funny how they only have those concerns when it comes to Natives. Why don't they just come out and say: "They're only going to drink it all anyway", or "they're so corrupt that the leadership will pocket it and nothing will get done and we will be right back where we started from."

You can almost see them tipping the wink to the audience when they say shit like "wasting taxpayer's money" and talk about the poor or Natives in the same breath. Remember this is still the same folk who were the Reform party years back whose Native policy was "they lost the war, what do they want?" They don't word it quite that way anymore, now it's just through winks and innuendo.

Obviously Native leadership in Canada is feeling a little blindsided by their country's complete about face on the Declaration. Phil Fontaine, Assembly of Firs Nations National Chief was obviously thrilled with the passage of the resolution of support, but less enamoured of the Canadian government's role in the proceedings.

"It is very unfortunate that in trying to stand in the way of the Declaration, Canada has done so much harm to its credibility and influence…" sums up the feeling of most Canadian natives who participated in the process. Kenneth Deer, who represents Mohawks at Kahnawake and the United Nations Council of Chiefs, took it even further by saying he felt betrayed and found it ironic that " that for 11 years they (Canada) carried the resolution and at the end they voted against the declaration and against their own work." He also warned of strained relations between the Canadian government and Indigenous people's in the future.

It doesn't take much of a crystal ball to see that coming. Phil Fontaine had staked his personal reputation on the Kelowna accord. He has preached patience for the entire length of his term in office to his constituents, promising them great results in return. For the space of about four months it looked like their faith in him had paid off. Not only did he succeed in negotiating a great deal for his people, but he also accomplished something that had been rare in the past; Native people of Canada were unified in their support of their leadership.

If I were the paranoid type I'd say that one of the government's main reasons for letting the Kelowna deal fall by the wayside was to sow discontent among Native Canadians for their leadership. Divide and conquer is the oldest trick in the book, it's much easier to pick off your enemy one small unit at a time, then having to deal with a large scale opposition.

Individual flare-ups like the occupation of the housing development in Caledonia Ontario by members of the Six Nations Reserve can be easily ignored and or stomped out when necessary. If the people start to lose patience with Mr. Fontaine and start working against him, the coalition he has put together will fall apart.

Confrontations like Oka and Caledonia are made to order for this government. They can start spouting off about criminals and not being held hostage by the demands of a few armed fanatics. They can easily turn sympathies against the natives behind the barricades through announcements expressing their concern for the public's safety, implying that the public is in danger whether or not any exists.

The Conservative Party of Canada under Steven Harper is looking to turn back the clock in anyway and anywhere they can. Whether social issues like daycare, same sex marriage, and the decriminalization of marijuana, or political issues like the rights of Indigenous peoples.

There was no way they could have signed the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Doing so would have admitted that Canada's First Nation's people have rights and our government has a responsibility to ensure they are fulfilled. Judging by their actions so far I wouldn't be surprised if the Conservative Party of Canada was considering bringing back Residential Schools and assimilation as Canada's new Indian Act.

Whatever they do end up doing, you can rest assured they are not going to have anyone's but their own best interests at heart. Or at the very least, it sure won't be the people of the First Nations who will be their primary concern when they finally replace the Kelowna Accord.

July 23, 2006

Radio Frequency Identification: Privacy's Last Gasp

I'm sure most of us have heard of the fascinating new industry that's sprung up like a weed as an offshoot of our advances in technology: Data mining. In a nutshell it involves the collection and dissemination of information about individuals for any use that anybody can think of.

From governments conducting censuses to businesses trying to develop profiles of the people most likely to buy their product, raw information about you concerning everything from your preference in toilet paper to how many sheets you use when you wipe is all grist for their mills. If you use three sheets now, Procter and Gamble want to know if you'd be more willing to by a product if you could do the same job with only two sheets, or would you be willing to use four if it were softer?

While most of us don't even think like that, it's those types of questions that plague the minds of the product development folk at big corporations and their marketing departments. Anything and everything they can find out about you will help them build a better picture of how they can get you to buy their products.

Information has become the hottest commodity on the market these days, and it's not just being put to so called innocent use by the corporations and advertising firms Everybody from private insurance companies, mortgage brokers, and credit agencies has ways they can make use of that data.

Do you order a large amount of pizza on your credit card, or buy a lot of groceries with a high fat content? Well don't be surprised if the next time your health insurance premiums come up for renewal that they either increase or you are turned down because you represent too great a risk because of possible cardiac problems.

You think I'm exaggerating, well I wish I were but according to this article in the Globe and Mail newspaper it's already happening in the United States. A chain of grocery stores in New England has developed software that generates a dietary profile of each of its shoppers based on their grocery purchases. In order to help cover the costs of developing the programme they have sold these profiles to organizations wanting to know which of their clients has brought their ill health on themselves through bad diet so they can cut them off from coverage.

The villain behind all this is something that's actually been around for quite a while but is only just being utilized to maximum effect. Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) is small, silent and can be utilized everywhere. Procter and Gamble want to install a chip in your fridge so they can monitor what foods you buy, NCR is installing small screens in shopping carts in grocery stores that will run ads complementing the product you just tossed in the cart, BellSouth has applied for the patent to rummage through your garbage so they can see which chips you threw out so they can sell that list to marketing firms, and finally Pfizer is keeping track on how many Viagra you take and when, through chips in the packaging.

Of course the larger implications for RFID use lie in security issues. I.B.M. currently holds the patent for building RFID peephole in walls and ceilings of public places where they will be able to peek into your purse, pocket and wallet. The chip is being installed in ID cards, like the new American national ID card currently on order and passports that are tagged at the borders.

The fact that data is being collected in ways we can't even imagine is scary enough as it is, but what's even scarier are the implications of what that data could be utilized for. Like the example of the New England grocery chain selling its client information to insurance companies, what's to stop any and all information changing hands from supposedly innocent users like marketing companies, to those who will use it to create some sort of profile of you for insurance reasons or establishing credit.

Finally, it comes down to what gives them the right to gather this information in the first place. This is information akin to that gathered by a wiretap as far as I'm concerned and should be subject to the same rules and regulations. What gives any business the right to know about my eating habits, just on the off chance that they might be able to sell me a product?

A government wants to spy on a person, fine, ask the courts permission like you would in the case of a wire tap and you can than plant RFID devices all over their body. If you're going to have RFID devices in public places monitoring people's activity; which is understandable in these strange times, make damn sure you draw up really tight regulations governing how the information it produces is used and who has access to it.

There is also the question of disposal of the information gathered. What will happen to the literally miles and miles of data that is accumulated? Is it going to be stored somewhere or will it be deleted as soon as it's found to be of no use to anyone?

Radio frequencies can be monitored by anybody, and this technology is highly susceptible to being hacked according to engineers at John Hopkins University, with it only becoming even more vulnerable when they enable the tags to be read from a distance. What kind of guarantees are there that personal information like medical records aren't being lifted and then sold to the highest bidder. Maybe it's naïve to believe that sort of activity doesn't occur already, but this will make it even easier for people to access that information in the future.

A few years back when Benetton found out that consumers don't like being spied on they were forced to recall millions of garments that had RFID chips installed in them. Other companies in Europe have been forced to back down in the face of consumer outrage, so you can make a difference. In the above cases people simply refused to buy products from Gillette and the other companies involved with making use of the chip until they said they had removed them.

But it seems like North Americans, in spite of all our claims to be freedom loving, have no problems giving up their freedom of privacy at the drop of the hat. The governments have plenty of means of collecting information about all of us already, all of which are regulated by laws to protect you from them. RFID is no different from things like wiretaps, telephoto lenses and long-range microphones that are employed to infringe on your privacy now.

I see little or no justification for corporations like Proctor and Gamble to be accumulating personal information on individuals in the name of making sure we see the right commercial at the right time. As these new information technologies get more and more sophisticated it's up to the public to decide whether or not they are willing to allow their personal habits to be public knowledge.

The industry claims that regulations will develop and the technology use expands. To me that is akin to closing the barn door after the animals have escaped. Now's the time to tell them what we will and will not allow them to collect and what we will allow them to do with that information. You have the right to privacy, demand that it is respected.

July 20, 2006

Canadian Politics: Playing For The Crowd

The English language can be a royal pain in the butt sometimes, with its weird spellings and how the same word can be both a verb and a noun. At the same time that is also part of its charm. Turning a noun into a verb can sometimes provide an immediate mental picture and comprehension because of the previous associations.

This may seem like an odd opening paragraph for a political article, but I thought a word of explanation was needed prior to utilizing one such word to describe not only the most recent week of Mr. Harper's term, but his performance overall. Grandstand. My Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary has the following two definitions for that word: "n. a raised series of seats for spectators at a racetrack, sports stadium, etc. – To act in a way so as to impress others or win applause. adj."

Now all politics involves grandstanding to some extent or another, it just goes with the territory of trying to impress people enough to get elected. That's a given and pretty much expected behaviour from those folk. Systems where the office of the leader is elected independent of the rest of the government, as in republics like the United States, seem more inclined to accept the fact that their leader will be playing to the crowds as part of his duties.

But in the parliamentary system of Canada where the Prime Minister is the head of the party that wins the most seats and is not elected separately, there is significantly less power associated with the position then that of head of state. In theory the Prime Minister is simply the most important minister in a cabinet of people formulating and implementing policy to conduct the affairs of the nation.

In practice of course the amount of input individual ministers has is dependent on the willingness of the Prime Minister to delegate responsibility or share the spotlight. In the case of Mr. Harper he seems very hesitant to let the majority of his cabinet out in public. One of the first things he did upon taking office was forbid anybody to say anything to the press without clearing it with his office, then he cancelled the impromptu press conferences that used to happen in the hallways of parliament after caucus meetings and sessions in the House ended.

In the last election no party won sufficient seats to have complete control of the House of Commons. Steven Harper's Conservative Party of Canada won the most seats, but he is outnumbered in the House by a combined vote of the opposition. Under normal circumstances this would make the governing party a little circumspect with their agenda, and send them searching for allies in the house to prop up their government.

They would make concessions to other parties, with the result that the policies implemented would bear a more accurate reflection of the country as a whole instead of just one party's politics. But that's not happening this time for two reasons: the largest opposition party, the Liberals, are choosing a new leader, and the Conservatives are acting like they have a majority government.

The only reason they are able to get away with that type of behaviour is because they know the Liberals dare not vote against them and go into an election with a temporary leader. If the Conservative want to pass a piece of legislation, all they need do is make it a confidence motion, meaning if they lose they have to call an election, and the Liberals are forced to either vote with them or abstain.

They have also done their best to bypass parliament whenever possible, and have to be brought kicking and screaming into the legislature for votes on issues even though they've know they won't lose the vote. Steven Harper much prefers to stand up and make pronouncements to the country than have to deal with the messy business of actually letting other opinions be heard on a subject.

The first major example of this came when it was decided to go along with the previous Liberal government's plan to extend and expand upon Canada's role in Afghanistan. In polls taken across the country it turned out that most people were against the idea and wanted a clearer understanding of what would be involved with this commitment.

When the opposition cited these polls as reasons for recalling the legislature for a debate on the matter, the response was that Canadians didn't understand the complexity of the reasons for our troops being in Afghanistan. Finally the Conservatives were forced into allowing two days of debate on the issue. It was voted on and passed without Canadians feeling anymore comfortable about the issue.

Then there was the whole softwood lumber accord fiasco. For the past few years Canada and the United States have been locked in a trade dispute over the amount of softwood lumber Canada has been exporting to the United States. In spite of their being a Free Trade agreement between the two countries, the United States had charged $5 billion dollars in tariffs on softwood lumber.

Negotiations have been ongoing since before the election and this April Mr. Harper stood up in Parliament and with same degree of accuracy of Neville Chamberlin declaring "We have peace in our time" after allowing Hitler to walk into Czechoslovakia, said, "We have a deal". Two weeks ago, just before his first official visit to Washington, he proudly told the newspapers the same thing again.

It turned out that last April there wasn't a deal so it was made abundantly clear that something needed to be ready for signing on July 6th/06 when Harper was scheduled to meet with George Bush. This way Mr. Harper could look like his policy of toeing the line on American foreign policy, instead of the independent course charted by the previous governments was paying off.

Of course when the Canadian lumber industry started pointing out all the holes in deal, and why they didn't want to sign it, and the opposition parties started to demand that it be voted on in parliament Mr. Harper got in right huff. He told the lumber people to like it or lump it, and that if the opposition dared defeat it in parliament he would make it an issue of confidence and force an election on them.

Which brings us to the events of the past week and a half. Mr Harper went off to his first major international event, the G8 summit in France where supposedly energy was going to be prime on the agenda. That all blew up everybody's faces of course with the way things have been playing out in Israel and Lebanon. The leaders of the eight plus one (Russia) spent the days agreeing on the wording of a release about the situation.

But unlike the rest of the leaders, who know better than to say anything of consequence as a situation continues to develop, Mr Harper proved he couldn't resist the opportunity to be in the spotlight and made a statement where he said that he thought Israel has the right to defend herself and that her response was "measured" in other words appropriate. The next day eight Canadian citizens visiting Lebanon were killed by Israeli gunfire.

Now you can't blame Mr. Harper for Canadians being killed in Lebanon when the country is invaded by a foreign power, and I don't even think you can blame him for the fact that it takes time to get Canadian nationals out of the country, and anybody who does is being a jerk. In fact considering the resources available to Canada I think he's done the best we can hope for in the circumstances. Nobody else could have a done a better job.

His mistake wasn't even in saying that Israel has a right to defend herself, because that's almost a universally held believe in Canada. It was his eagerness to make the big statement of support for the American position in the Middle East, before even finding out the true nature of the situation that grated on people's nerves.

While Canada has always supported Israel, most of our governments have also been able to maintain the respect of the Muslim and Arab world as fair and impartial because we have had a foreign policy distinct from the Americans and British. With the exception of the first Gulf War, we have always been seen as the one to be used as the peacekeepers in these situations. From the Suez crises in the fifties to the Golan Heights in the seventies, Canadian troops have worn the blue helmets in the Middle East and earned the respect of most countries.

But Mr. Harper seems so eager to impress the American's that he went even further then they did in their reaction to the invasion of Lebanon by Israel. By saying this was a measured response on their part was pretty much condoning the shelling of civilian populations in Lebanon, which is bound to occur when going after groups like Hezbollah.

It's not the fact that Canadians were killed; it's the fact that he did not consider the possibility of Canadian civilians being at risk because of the Israeli actions that's the real problem. By condoning their actions one day it appeared he was condoning the killing of anybody who was in the way of their assault, including his own citizens.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not placing a higher value on the lives of those eight people just because they happened to be people who lived in the same country I do. That attitude is even more reprehensible then supporting the assault in the first place. Israel issued an apology to Canada for the killing of those eight people, have they issued one to Lebanon yet for the killing of God knows how many innocents?

Instead of trying to rectify his mistake and helping to search for a solution to the crises or to repair the damage he might have done to our reputation as peacekeepers and a country with an independent foreign policy, Mr. Harper has decided to play to the crowds. He's flying to Cyprus to meet with Canadian citizens who have been evacuated from Lebanon.

You can almost visualize him and his advisors meeting and trying to figure out the best thing to do that will play well for the crowds. What flamboyant gesture can he make that will compensate for looking like he didn't care about the lives of Canadians? Fly to Cyprus and look all compassionate and worried, maybe even get his picture taken with a group of evacuees looking paternal and statesman all at the same time.

Just like his "surprise" visit to Canadian troops in Afghanistan before their tour of duty was extended by two years and they became involved in a more direct combat situation, he's playing for the larger audience then those who are in attendance. While it's understood that politicians will do that on occasion Mr. Harper seems to be making it a permanent fixture of his government.

Steven Harper seems to have forgotten that we are a constitutional monarchy where the Prime Minister does not rule unilaterally. He has done his best to not only cut the opposition parties out of their role in government by avoiding parliament as much as possible, but he has made himself into the sole face of his own party.

While grandstanding to the converted might keep the party faithful in line, it's not doing anything to strengthen his support elsewhere. Not only will he not win his coveted majority in the House of Commons he could very well lose the next election entirely if he's not careful. As the last Conservative Prime Minister of Canada discovered, Canadians don't like being ignored or being drawn too close into the sphere of American influence. That's a lesson Steven Harper would due well to remember.

July 19, 2006

A History Of Abuse

That creaking sound you hear in the background as you start reading this post is the sound made by the runners of my Hobby Horse rubbing along bad kitchen tiles as I climb into the saddle and prepare to ride one of my favourite pet theories into the ground. The fact that this theory springs from my view of the world should be warning enough that it will be one sided and completely biased, unlike the even handed and rational approach that everyone has grown to expect from opinion pieces on the Internet.

Those of you who have read my writing with anything approaching regularity will know that I make no secret of the fact that I'm a survivor of incest – sexual abuse by my father and a recovered substance and alcohol abuser. Thankfully, while I may have emotionally abused some people along the way, the majority of my abuse was self-directed.

Unlike my father, or his father before him my self-loathing and fear never found focus on an external target. What damage I inflicted on others was caused by the inevitable backwash of somebody hitting bottom; imagine a the whirlpool created by a boat sinking and the damage caused to those craft at the periphery of the vortex and you'll get a general idea of what I'm talking about.

I've done my best to make my peace with myself about that by understanding why it happened. Not using the abuse as an excuse, but finding in it for myself the explanation for abhorrent behaviour that I was never able to understand, was a huge relief. There can be no feeling worse than not knowing where a compulsion comes from, or doing something in spite of the voice in your head yelling "It's wrong"

As to what causes somebody to abuse another person, either sexually or otherwise, there are certain generalizations about the character of abusers that that I think are safe to take as givens. One is that the chances are that the abuser had him or herself been abused without ever having been treated for it.

This would create a person so full of resentment, anger, and the need to exert power over someone else, that at the first signs of things going wrong in their life they would find a target, or object of blame, who would become the outlet for all those emotions. This goes a long way towards explaining why men, who are conditioned to repress their emotions, are most often the abusers, and children, the most vulnerable people in society, are most often victims.

Sexual orientation has nothing to do with sexual abuse. It's about exerting control and power over something in your life because you have no control over how the world makes you feel. Resentment at having been treated badly and what you perceive as repeated slights against you gives you the justification for your actions.

If they can do this I can do that is taken to extremes a rational mind wouldn't even consider. Think about any time you have felt resentment towards another person, or about something that had been done to you, and magnify those feelings by the largest number you can imagine and you might get an inkling as to what goes on in the mind of an abuser.

Having experienced those feelings myself whenever I used to justify doing the things I knew would hurt another I can vouch for their seductive qualities. Even now it can take some effort on my part to overcome the path of least resistance that it allows. You never have to worry about standing up for yourself, fear being rejected, or have the validity of your feelings questioned. You just wallow in feeling hard done by until you find a means of venting that repression on someone else.

After I was well into my recovery process and was able to start talking about my father the person, beyond just his role as abuser in my life, I began to remember things that happened to my father as a child, and what his father (my grandfather) had experienced as a young man. I started to formulate a theory about the interrelationship of abuse with the last 150 years of history.

The world my grandfather was born into in Europe of 1898 (Family history note: my father's family name was Chalmers and his father was born in Scotland, my last name is different as I legally changed it to my mother's last name of Marcus) bore eerie similarities to our current world situations both socially and politically. Nationalism had been on the rise for the previous fifty years as the Austro-Hungarian Empire was beginning to come apart at the seams.

Italy and Germany both had become unified countries, instead of a collection of independent city-states and regions. Russia was a seething mass of discontent as the many were becoming tired of the few controlling their lives. The Balkan states were in their usual state of unrest as the myriad ethnic groups all had their own nationalistic desires.

While this was happening politically the world was also trying to come to grips with what at that point was the most accelerated rate of progress ever experienced. The Industrial Revolution was the birth pangs of our free enterprise system of capitalism and although it increased the fortunes of some individuals, and solidified the middle class, it created a vast underclass of working poor.

With coal providing fuel for everything from home cook fires to factory furnaces the air quality in major cities like London was worse than any contemporary circumstances one can consider. Most of the working class lived in a squalor of raw sewage, unsafe drinking water, and violence that we can't even begin to imagine.

For a society that had been mainly agrarian based previously the rapid shift to industry and commerce was far more traumatic than our current progression into the automated computer age. I can't even begin to imagine the levels of stress this must have induced in people and the long-term implications it must have had on family life.

In 1914 the first Great War began and at 19 my grandfather was a medic at the Battle of the Somme in 1917 when he was wounded in a gas attack that cost him a lung. In those days the closest term they had for Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome due to war was shell shock. Even that was so suspect that people suffering from it were on occasion shot for treason as deserters because they were unable to fight anymore. They were able to do a decent enough job of patching people up physically from their wounds, but nobody received any mental medical treatment for the trauma of seeing destruction on such a wide scale.

My grandfather was one of those who could have used treatment, because after my father was born in 1929 he never worked another day in his life. I don't know the extent of the abuse my father suffered at the hands of his parents. At one point he did let slip to my brother that the only memories he had of his childhood were being beaten by his father.

My father's abuse of me was only the continuation of the abuse that had begun back in the 19th century where the conditions that made abusers possible were fermented. Treatment for women who suffered from sexual abuse only really began in the 1970's while it's probably still not commonplace with men.

We are the first generation of people who are dealing with the fallout from the birth of contemporary Western Society. The mantra that is common to all of us is "The Abuse Ends Here". Instead of continuing on the legacy of our sick families, we are seeking to change that inheritance. Not only are we willing to deal with these circumstances, but there are also people and facilities available to treat us, as never before.

Unfortunately that won't make much of a difference for the rest of the world, aside from our immediate families and friend. Conditions in the world haven't changed all that much in the last 150 years, except for on the scale of how things are done and the increase in numbers of people affected. Are we planting the seeds of abuse in the mind of some child that will germinate over generations like so many others before him? Think of the young men and women who detonate their bodies as bombs, the children being turned into soldiers, and the ones surviving the bombings everywhere from North America to Indonesia.

We would never dream of allowing conditions to exist that allows the fermentation of disease, but that's exactly what we are doing with the current path our world is following. If we had set up a petrie dish in a laboratory we couldn't have created conditions any more ideal to create abusers.

July 14, 2006

Canadian Politics: Week In Review: July 7th -14/06

How do you know there is nothing going on in a country's political life? Well there are a couple of clues to look for; the country's so – called national newspaper, The Globe and Mail, is running as it's top political news story something about the travel expenses of the Minister of Veteran's Affairs and his chief of staff. In the normal course of events that probably wouldn't even make it on to the front page of the paper, unless an opposition party member made a stink about it. (But since most of them are still a missing person's report under investigation, that's not about to happen.)

After that there's a toss up between the ongoing softwood lumber discord, (nobody except the Conservative Part of Canada and the American Lumber Industry like the deal), and whether or not George Bush was being too familiar in calling Prime Minister Steven Harper Steve or not. Of course there's a bunch of trivial stuff that nobody is making a big deal about; another case of Mad Cow disease out in Alberta, another native blockade has been thrown up in Ontario – this one in the north, and finally results of a survey on domestic violence showed some disturbing trends.

I know that as a good Canadian I should be up in arms about the softwood lumber deal and how our poor brave lumber industry are getting shafted, but quite frankly I couldn't care less about them, I'm rooting for the trees and hoping the idiots dig themselves a deep enough grave that they can't get out again. It's really hard to sympathise with people whose sole ambition in life is to cut down old growth forest that pre-dates most of Europe, and replace it with efficient logging trees.

Do I really care what George Bush and Steven Harper call each other in public or behind closed doors? Nope. George won't be around after 2008, and if little Steve keeps going on like he has been he'll be gone as soon as the Liberal party gets a new leader and organises a non-confidence vote.

As for Veteran's Affairs Minister Greg Thompson spending $18,000 on charter flights in and out of New Brunswick for work related duties, who cares. You try and get a commercial air flight out of New Brunswick when your on a tight schedule, and anyway senior politicians really shouldn't be taking the risk of travelling commercial flights anyway. Do you have any idea what kind of hell that would represent for security people?

In the long run it would probably cost more money for him to use commercial flights, what will all the security arrangements that would have to be made, the car travel to airports, and the juggling of schedules so that meetings can get off without a hitch. So he spends $18,000 getting to and from meetings, at least it shows he's working and trying to get things done. Just look on it as proof that he's actually doing the job he was elected to do and let him go about his business.

The interesting thing about Canadian politics is how some of the stories below major headline level can sometimes give you a more accurate picture of what's going on in the country. They can tell you what areas of need are being let slide, offer examples of what the government considers important or not, and give clues as to what we might expect in the future.

Crystal ball gazing is next to futile at the best of times, and political issues are anything but predictable. Political expediency usually plays a bigger role in the decision making process of a government than any policy they may or may not have on an issue. But sometimes when activities are in response to government inaction you can be fairly safe in drawing some conclusions and postulate some scenarios.

The blockade near Kenora Ontario of the Trans Canada Highway near the Grassy Narrows reserve is the second such attempt by Native Canadians this summer to attract attention to their causes. While the blockade in Caledonia earlier this year was about land treaty rights, in Grassy Narrows the issue is the clear cutting of forest within what has been traditionally defined as hunting territory

Although, very rarely reported in this manner, blockades erected by Natives at a site only represents the fact that negotiations have produced no results. Native Canadians are tired of being offered a lollipop instead of a full meal in response to their complaints about reneging on treaty promises.

When they see the culmination of years of negotiation being shot down casually as the Conservative's did with the Kelowna accord and nothing else changing all around you, drastic action starts to appear to be your only alternative. I said earlier this year when writing about the blockade in Caledonia, that we could be in for a repeat of the actions that took place during the summer of 1990 in Oka Quebec. For a couple years after, frustrated Naïve Canadians began occupying lands they claimed belonged to them, or blockading territory for the same reason.

We seem to be fast approaching that same level of impasse again, and tempers are starting to get stretched. Living conditions on most reserves in the north haven't improved any great deal, with whole communities having to be evacuated because their water supply has been polluted, and suicide rates among young people still haven't dropped. If your people were being forced to live like that year after year you might have reached the end of your rope by now as well.

Along similar political lines, in other words quality of life and social issues, a study on domestic violence statistics released had some disturbing news about victims of spousal abuse. Most distressing for people who work with survivors of abuse is the fact that still less then 30% of the victims will report the abuse to the authorities and that nearly 60% say when they do their situation doesn't change after the fact.

The demographics of abuse victims have changed too the report said, with the heaviest hit age group being young women within the age range of 15-24. What victim's rights groups and the Children's aid society worry about is how little the situation has actually changed in the last twenty years.

According to these same people what's needed to combat this is not more shelters for the victims, but more protection needs to be offered the women so they won't be afraid to testify against their abusers, studies need to be conducted to root out the causes of domestic violence, and those findings need to be followed up on, not just left to sit and moulder on a shelf somewhere.

Unfortunately the government of Stephen Harper has shown a reluctance to act upon social needs and requirements, and I wouldn't make too large a bet on anything happening anytime soon on that front. In fact as the Reform Party, and then the Alliance Party of Canada, the Conservative Part of Canada has a history of being reluctant to take any action on spousal abuse. It been more important to uphold the traditional definition of the family then protecting one half of that definition from abuse.

But they are also letting things slide out west where they receive most of their support. For the second time in one week a Canadian beef cow has died of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (B.S.E.) more commonly known as mad cow disease. This time it was a pregnant four-year-old cow in Alberta while earlier in the week it was a cow in Manitoba. These were the sixth and seventh cases of positive test results in Canada of B. S. E.

In 1997 Canada took the preventative measure of banning all feeds that contained cattle parts susceptible to B. S. E., and just last month extended the ban to include fertilizers, pet foods, and all other animal feeds. Any cows that are now coming down with the illness has somehow or other come into contact with it from a source other than feed.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (C.F.I.A.) seems to think that offering that bit of information is a comfort to us, knowing that the feed is no longer an issue. But if the feed is not longer an issue what exactly is causing individual cows to come down with the disease? Is there another cow in the herd with mad cow that's passing it along for all to enjoy? Is there no test they can run that could indicate which cow in the herd is the carrier and destroy it before it spreads the disease any further?

For the sake of appearances and probably in an attempt to appease the American authorities and keep the border open for Canadian Beef they have invited the Americans to participate in the search for answers. Further confusing the issue is a statement released by the C.F.I.A. that makes the bizarre statement that the cow in question was never part of the food chain. Well that makes sense since when it was alive it couldn't have been butchered, and it was sent for testing immediately upon it's death so no one was about to do anything with it until after the tests came back. But how was that supposed to have been reassuring to anyone?

For years now they keep saying that we've got the problem licked, on both sides of the border, but mad cow is just not going away. They don't seem to have any answers either on how the disease keeps showing up in "healthy" herds. Is there a chance that the disease can be passed down through the generations?

This is another area that the government needs to desperately start throwing some money at if they don't want to risk losing another major source of export revenue. A little extensive research now could go a long way to making a better future for the ranchers of Alberta and the other Prairie Provinces who are supposedly the Conservative Party's constituents.

Canadian politics is a funny thing; sometimes it's not the splashy headlines that tell the story of what's going on in the country, or what the future holds. Judging by what was considered important news in the past week and what wasn't, this week certainly bears that out.


July 6, 2006

Canadian Politics: Softwood Lumber, The G.S.T., And A Trip To Washington

This should have been a great week for Steven Harper and the Conservative Party of Canada; the hated Goods and Services Tax (G.S.T.) was reduced by one per/cent as a Canada Day present, a deal had been finally reached on the softwood lumber dispute, and he was going to be having his first solo meeting with President George Bush in Washington.

To top it all off his visit will coincide with Mr. Bush's birthday, which will give them a chance to at least present the pretence of a personal friendship between the two leaders. As Mr. Harper is far more of like mind with Mr. Bush then either of the last two Prime Ministers of Canada this is pretty much guaranteed to be a mutual patting of the back, we're doing a great job, type of visit.

The highlight of the forty-minute was to have been the signing of the new trade agreement reached between the two countries around the contentious issue of softwood lumber exports from Canada into the United States. In spite of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) the American government has had duties imposed on Canadian softwood imports at the request of the American lumber industry because of what they see as unfair subsidies provided by Canadian governments.

The alleged subsidies have, according to the American industry, given the Canadians an unfair advantage and allowed them to "dump" product on the American market. In other words because the Canadians receive money from their governments they don't have to charge as much as their American counterparts, are able to sell the same product for less money giving them an unfair advantage in competition, thus allowing them to flood the American market with less expensive materials.

The Canadians of course have claimed that everything they have done has fallen within the parameters allowed by NAFTA, and that any duties being charged are unfair. They have fought it out in the various courts and adjudicating processes available for this sort of impasse with inconclusive results. I think decisions now stand at three a piece in favour of both sides, which means the tribunals have been telling them to work it out on their own.

Since 2002 $5 billion dollars has been collected as duty from Canadian companies shipping softwood lumber into the United States and needless to say that's taken a huge bite out of their profits. One of the major reasons this has been so contentious is that Canadian companies want guarantees that they will be getting their money back, and that this won't happen again. There aren't many industries that can afford to take that kind of hit in the wallet, no matter how lucrative they are.

There have been a few false alarms in recent months but finally over the past weekend the Canadian and American negotiators reached a deal. A lot of people suspect pressure was brought to bear on both sides from political masters to have it ready for Thursday's (today's) meeting between the two leaders. Unfortunately signing it and implementing it are going to be two distinct issues.

The first rumbles of disquiet were heard as soon as Canadian industry people started reading through it and found that only an 80% refund of the $5 billion is being offered, and that they must agree to abandon litigating to recover the rest of what's owed them. In order for this agreement to be ratified 95% of of all Canadian lumber companies must agree to that condition.

The President of the British Columbian Lumber Trade Council, John Allen has said that in British Columbia alone there are more than 5% of the companies affected who are refusing to drop litigation until other details of the deal are clarified. They aren't going public with what's bothering them yet, but it appears to focus on not being allowed to make their own decisions on how much they can export at once, and setting provincial timber cutting fees.

However what seems to be making them especially nervous is the fact that after 23 months either country can just walk away from the deal. So the dust could just have settled from the last toss up, a new president takes office and the deal can end. What had originally been promised as peace and quite for up to a decade has now been reduced to less than two years.

It's not just the industry that has problems with the deal British Columbia Minister of Forests Rich Coleman said that his province will have a hard time supporting the agreement unless something is done about the termination clause. Not only does he object to the 23 months, the other major problem is that only if the Americans dissolve the deal will there be a moratorium on actions taken.

If Canada backs out of the deal American industry could have their government immediately start charging duties or take other actions against the Canadian industry, but if the American's walk away from the deal there will be one year where the Canadian industry and government will not be allowed the same leeway. Mr. Coleman says it will be very difficult for his government to support the deal if that is not rectified.

It seems pretty universal among the industry across the country that they are dissatisfied with the length of the agreement. As Guy Chevrette head of the Quebec Forrest Industry Council said: " "We said initially, on April 27, that the price to pay for seven years of peace . . . was $1-billion… Now, it turns out we're stuck with a peace that could be only two years." There aren't many in the industry who consider that a good enough deal.

Now that the opposition parties, Liberals, Bloc Quebecois, and the New Democratic Party (N.D.P.) have had a chance to see which way the wind is blowing from the industry people they have gotten into the act and are calling on the government to reconvene parliament to have a special session to discuss the legislation. Jack Layton, leader of the N.D.P., when making his statement warned Mr. Harper and Mr. Bush that " "Harper's signature won't mean a thing if he doesn't have the backing of Parliament."

One of Mr. Harper's major campaign platforms was that he would cut the hated G.S.T. by seven down to six on any and all goods and services sold in Canada. Ever since its implementation by the former Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney it has been one the most universally reviled taxes in Canada. Anti-poverty groups hate it because it hurts their continuants and conservative groups hate it because they dislike taxes on principle.

Previous governments have made noises about either cutting it or abolishing it, but Mr. Harper is the first Prime Minister to follow through on his promise to do something about it. But at is turns out when the cut went into effect this past weekend nobody seemed to really notice.

The only people this tax relief seems to have any effect on our people who can afford to pay for very expensive luxury items. A one-cent on the dollar reduction in taxes hasn't had people actively beating down the doors of most retail stores. In fact for a lot of smaller retailers who use automated cash machines, it's meant a lot of bother to have their tills re programmed for the minor reduction.

Most consumers seem to be of the same mind as the person who said "that if I can afford to spend $2,100 I can afford to spend $2,121" referring to the after and before prices of the G.S.T. cut. Of course not everybody is taking such a blasé view of the matter. Peter Woolford , vice president of the Retail Council of Canada seems to think that it makes $5 billion dollars in cash available for consumers to be spending instead of sending to Ottawa as tax dollars.

Putting it in those terms I guess it sounds attractive to some people, but how he thinks that by someone saving 2 cents on a bottle of pop is going to make that big a contribution to the economy is beyond me. Will they save up all those pennies to make some big time purchase latter on down the road?

More worrisome to me is what's a $5 billion loss in tax revenue going to force a supposed cost conscious government to cut in the way of spending? Especially with their recent announcement of $15 million on military spending they may start looking elsewhere for places to cut budgets, which means that somebody is going to suffer so in order to allow a few people to spend less money on their luxury items.

The muted, almost cynical, reaction that greeted the early days of G.S.T. reduction must have been a disappointment for Mr. Harper and his people. It seems like they can't even buy affection in some places. Of course that won't be a problem with his meeting with George Bush today. The administration in Washington has made it abundantly clear how much happier they are to have Mr. Harper in power than either of his predecessors.

I'm sure that at least today will go well this week for Mr. Harper after the disappointments of it's earlier parts. One thing he does need to worry about is looking too cozy with Mr. Bush. The majority of Canadians are still not sold on his policy in Afghanistan and tend to blame American influence for Mr. Harper's decision to extend Canada's of duty tour and expand upon the role the troops are playing.

Whether that is true or not is irrelevant, and as a politician Mr. Harper has to learn that appearances are very important. Canadians won't mind if he appears friendly with Mr. Bush, America is after all our closest ally physically and every other way in the book, but they will mind if Mr. Harper looks like he forgets which side of the border he lives on.

There's not a lot that can be accomplished in a forty-minute meeting except to allow for some nice photo opportunities. For Mr. Harper this should have been the icing on the cake of a good week; especially being able to symbolically close the door on one of the nastier trade disputes between Canada and the United States. Now the best he can hope for is that he comes off looking statesmen like in the photos taken of him and his new friend George.

July 2, 2006

Understand Today Through Yesterday: History And The Truth

I don't consider myself that well informed, knowledgeable about world events, or a historian. So it always comes as a surprise when I find people don't know information that I think of as common knowledge. It's especially surprising when it's people I know who care about issues, or who try to stay well informed.

The biggest hole in people's awareness is history. Even the aforementioned so-called informed people can be completely unaware of the circumstances that have led up to a current situation. It makes me wonder how they can understand the situation they see playing out on television enough to properly formulate a point of view if they don't know how the situation came into existence.

Questions that are never answered during the modern newscasts like where did the Palestinian refugees first come from is information that I would consider essential to understanding the roots of the conflict and how the situation came about in the first place. I'm only using that as an example because I was asked that very question the other night by a person who I've always considered well informed and who tries to be fair minded when it comes to dealing with issues that are important.

She was quite incensed that she didn't have this knowledge and couldn't understand why this wasn't the kind of history taught in schools either when she was a child or now that her son is in high school. In Canada what used to pass for world history was very Anglo centric and dealt with world events as it pertained to British or Canadian participation. I can only assume the same is true for the United States minus the British.

While it is understandable to want to teach students about the role their country has played in the world, and the history of the country they live in, why is there so very little in terms of a broader view of the world's history taught. It seems to me that now, more than ever, teaching students about the diverse nature of the world is vitally important. There are so many situations, like Israel/Palestine, that require more than the surface knowledge provided by the news to understand the full complexity of the issues facing the people involved.

In only one grade did I have anything approaching a world history, and that was strictly Western history, starting from the Greeks and Romans and working up to contemporary times form there. That type of broad survey course is not designed to give students any insight into events that have impacted upon current situations. Neither are they conducive to real learning as they attempt to cram massive amounts of information down your throat so you can regurgitate it on an exam paper or in an essay.

What needs to be done is to define our purpose when teaching history at the secondary school level. Is it merely a means of glorifying our own countries, or is it to show people the origins of today's events in as impartial manner as possible.

The truth is that we soon may no longer have a choice in the matter. We will all have to change our approach to what we teach as history and its content. The countries that were formally colonies up until times in the 1960's have begun to settle down enough for their cultural pride to resurface. They are not going to be satisfied with textbooks that detail the history of occupation and describes them as the villainous natives while their colonial masters are depicted as brave, erstwhile defenders of honour, duty and the Queen.

One of the more obvious incidences of the archaic nature of the history still being taught is the manner in which the rebellion of 1857 in India is still referred to as the Indian Mutiny. This of course casts those attempting to throw off the mantel of the British East Indian Company as rulers and take back their country in a negative light.

Even though India is a now a sovereign nation and no one disputes their right to independence, those who fought for their country's independence in the early struggles are still considered criminals by history. It's to correct impressions like these that historians, archaeologists, and writers are working to amend what 's written down to more accurately reflect the circumstances.

On February 4th 1944, in his column "As I Please" George Orwell wrote about the aftermath of World War Two and the Spanish Civil war of the decade before and talked about how difficult it would be for historians to ever find out the truth of what happened. It was here that his famous quote "History is written by the winners" first appeared.

But the words in that article that in my mind are more important are these "The really frightening thing about totalitarianism is not that it commits atrocities but that it attacks the concept of objective truth: it claims to control the past as well as the future." People's opinions are going to be shaped by what they are told has happened in the past. It's not even needed to tell outright lies, only to change the perspective the story is told from and it makes it sound like the heroes were villains and vice versa.

This technique was used to great effect in the way history North America has depicted our early relationships with the First Nations. The times where native warriors have gotten the upper hand on either British, French, or American troops are referred to as massacres, but the times when troops wiped out villages of women and children are referred to as glorious victories.

These interpretations appeared in history books for ages colouring the opinions of many a generation of student. It has created historical justification for the manner in which Native Americans have been treated over the years. By calling chiefs who fought for their people's liberty renegades, when the very same actions performed by white men a hundred years ago against the British were considered heroic, the myths of the vicious savage was perpetuated.

Some of these myths have started to be dispelled and the untruths revealed. Almost everyone knows the truth of what happened at Wounded Knee now, but the damage is done and it can never be undone. That's the trouble with lies, they are almost impossible to refute once they have become ingrained for a few generations.

History is a complicated thing; we need it to understand the realities of so many of today's situations, but at the same time how can we trust what has been written down in so many textbooks and other forms of historical record keeping? For me a good rule of thumb has been any history that tends to glorify one side over another is suspect, unless substantial proof is provided.

Trying to find sources that recount the same period from more then one perspective has become easier these days as more countries are taking matters into their own hands and telling their own story. But even those can be problematic for the same reasons as the ones told by the other side. To be honest most of my knowledge of history has come from either novels or books written by people who have no national bias towards the proceedings.

In order for us to better understand the times we live in we need to know what led up to the current circumstances. The hard part is finding the right path that will lead us to the answers we seek without heavily flavouring the results. But it's well worth the effort if it results in a clearer and more accurate depiction of today's events.

June 30, 2006

Canadian Politics: Military Spending

People are nearly always surprised by what I have to say about the military. They take one look at me, or read some of the things I've written, and conclude that I'm one of those folks who don't give a damn about the armed forces of my country. My opinion is that if you are going to have a military you can't be half assed about it and not properly fund it. That's unfair to the men and women who we send out into an ever increasingly dangerous world.

Canada has a military that has stood them well over the years, and measured up favourably to many a larger force when called upon. Until the end of World War One Canada's foreign policy was still being set by Great Britain, which meant that when they went to war so did we. Which explains how Canadian troops ending up in South Africa fighting in the Boer Rebellions.

It also meant that Canadian troops were placed under the ultimate command of the British, which may go a long way to explaining the reputation they earned as shock troops in World War One. Whole towns lost a generation of men at Ypres probably because some British general decided to soften up the Germans by sending waves of Canadians at them. It may have cemented Canada's reputation as a military force in the early twentieth century, but it was at a horrible price.

World War two was the first war that Canada actually entered on it's own via a vote in parliament. That it came one day after the British declared war on the Germans, and there was only one vote against (J. S. Woodsworth, a devout Christian and conscientious objector, was the only voice of dissent) probably said more about our strong ties to England than our burning desire to go to war.

Whatever the reason for entering the war, Canadian troops went into battle for the first time led by their own generals. Unfortunately they still ended up being placed under the command of the British armies, which led to the unholy disaster of Dieppe in 1942. Planned by the British, it involved attempting to land a force of troops in occupied Germany, primarily Canadian for reasons that are still unclear to this day.

Perhaps it was to appease the Russians who were clamouring for a second front in Europe to relieve some of the pressure they were feeling being the only the forces actively engaging the Germans in Europe. Or maybe it was to gauge the feasibility of invasion at that time. What ever the reasoning was it ended up being a slaughter and less than half those involved were able to get out again leaving the rest behind either dead or captured.

When the actual invasion took place in 1944 Canada played a key role in the liberation of the Netherlands. To this day the people of Holland remember their liberators and honour them annually. Ottawa, the capital of Canada, has received so many gifts of tulip bulbs for its flowerbeds, that every year they hold an annual tulip festival. These are partially in recognition of the fact that the city sheltered the Dutch royal family during the war, but also due to our troops role in the liberation of their country.

In the 1950's Canadian troops started to wear the blue helmet of the United Nations for the first time. In the early part of the decade it was the civil war in Korea, but it was in 1957 during the Suez Canal Crisis that the role of the Canadian armed forces was to be defined for the next twenty odd years. In order to separate the combatants; Israel, France, and Great Britain, against Egypt and prevent the intervention of the Soviet Union; Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister, Lester Pearson, proposed a buffer zone of neutral troops overseen by the United Nations. Thus was born the concept of peacekeeping forces.

Until the first Gulf War and Prime Minister Brian Mulroney changed the direction of our military, Canada's armed forces became synonymous with peacekeeping. In all the hotspots around the world; Cyprus, the Golan Heights, Viet Nam and any other place the blue helmets were called upon you could usually find Canadian troops. They were respected by people on both sides of disputes as being fair and impartial and served with such distinction that when the Nobel peace prize was awarded to Peace Keeping forces, Canada was called upon to act as one of the recipients.

Unfortunately a succession of governments over the years has constantly under funded the forces. It hasn't mattered which political party has been in power, they've talked a good game and not done what's been necessary to keep Canada's military up to date and adequately funded. A major part of the problem has been an inability to define a clear-cut role for our troops.

Each new political master has a slightly different vision of what duties and actions are forces are to be capable of carrying out. Over the past couple of decades there has been flirtation with changing them from a buffer zone to a direct participant, but no real commitment has been made to match the needs to the desire.

You can't send troops into a combat situation with troop carriers whose armour can't stop the lightest rounds of fire or rifles that date back to the seventies. They need to have more than just one set of uniforms so they don't show up in a desert environment wearing olive green fatigues as has happened in the past. But most importantly they need an annual budget that allows the troops and their families to live without financial worries.

This week's announcement of nearly $15 billion in spending on military equipment to replace the aged fleets of helicopters, supply planes, and merchant ships maybe necessary, but it hardly comes close to addressing the real problems facing individual soldiers. It allows the Conservative Party to say they are correcting Liberal negligence (The Liberals had included $12.6 billion in their last budget for capital expenditures on the military) and stage photo opportunities around the country and look like they are doing something, but the actuality is far less impressive then the perception.

There has been no real increase in the annual military budget for the last decade. Each year they have less money to spend on the troops, but the demands on their resources has increased. What must the morale of the troops be like if they are living close to or below the poverty line?

Kingston Ontario where I live is home to a Canadian Forces Base. During the sixteen years that I've lived in Kingston the local papers have run at regular intervals stories of enlisted personnel having to utilize the local food banks to make it through to the end of the month. Is this a way to run an army where we don't even pay the soldiers sufficient money to properly clothe and feed their families?

Our government seems to want to turn Canada's military into a more a more aggressive force than previously. Instead of just serving as peacekeepers as we have in the past, our troops are seeing front line duty as active participants in a war zone. It's all very well and good to invest in equipment, but shouldn't a commitment in terms of financial support to the people who make up the front line troops be as important if not more so?

Our government just claimed they found $5 billion dollars more surplus than they had counted on, so it's obvious we have the money to increase the military's annual budget without taking money from other programs. In fact if this government wasn't so obsessed with giving it's buddies in the business community tax breaks to lay off workers, close factories and sell out to foreign investment, they could probably afford across the board increases to the military and social programming.

If they can quietly pass a bill raising Members of Parliament expense accounts how can they say there is no money for annual increases to soldiers risking their lives at their government's request? This government had to be shamed into honouring the soldiers who have fallen in Afghanistan, has banned the press from filming caskets of dead soldiers being returned to Canada, and claims that the Canadian public doesn't understand the need for our soldiers being in Afghanistan.

Perhaps what the Canadian public doesn't understand is how, in spite of all the flowery rhetoric wafting out of Ottawa, the government seems to be all talk and no action when it comes to supporting the troops. It's all very well and good to buy expensive new equipment for the armed forces, but without people you don't have much of an army. Maybe the government should try to remember that in the future.

June 29, 2006

Canadian Politics: Harper's Ravens Come Home To Roost

If you happen to live in the Sussex Drive area of Ottawa Ontario Canada and hear the sound of Ravens cackling during the day as they come home to roost, don't be alarmed. They're not coming for you, but rather settling in at 24 Sussex Drive, official residence of Canadian Prime Ministers.

Some nasty stuff is beginning to swirl around the Conservative Party of Canada just now, and you can bet that the Liberal party is going to be there, attempting to inflict as much damage as possible. The cracks in the veneer have been starting to show for a while, and now the breath of scandal is in the air. There's nothing that a party who's as corrupt and venal as the Liberals like more than being able to assume the air of violated virgins.

The Conservative Party should have known better and not even offered the Liberals the teeniest straw to start building bricks from to toss at them. Having spent the last three or so years on the defensive because of the Sponsorship scandal, the Liberals are desperate to go on the offensive. Nothing makes a political party feel better than to be able to scrape off some of the excrement smeared on their faces and throw it right back at their former accusers.

The Conservative Party of Canada eked out a minority government in the past election by promising a change from the corruption and ineptitude of the previous administration. Good, clean, open, and accountable government was what they promised Canadians. The Liberals had become arrogant and out of touch with the needs of real Canadians was their claim and the Conservatives would be different.

They just never said in which direction the differences would lie; every one just assumed they meant they'd be less arrogant, more open, and less devious. But the Steven Harper led Conservatives have proven that you don't have to have been in power for any length of time, or even have a majority government, to scale the heights of arrogant disregard for public opinion.

Garnering less than 40% of the popular vote in an election and less than half the seats in parliament, in most people's minds, mean there is some hesitations about your policies. You would think that a government in that situation might temper its approach and seek out conciliatory means of implementing policies. Perhaps even listening to what the people of Canada want instead of simply imposing policy might be an idea.

While the majority of Canadians support same sex marriage, softening of marijuana laws, agreed with the former Liberal government's day care proposal, and the Kelowna accord signed with all the provinces and the Assembly of First Nations last November, the Conservatives decided they knew better.

First off they decided their day care plan was superior to the one the Liberals had worked out with the provinces. Even though it would do nothing to create more desperately needed spaces, or help those who needed it most, single parents, they made the unilateral decision that it would be better. No need to consult with the provinces at all, just because they happen to have jurisdiction over day care, doesn't mean they should have any input on policy?

Simply because the majority of Canadians think that there are far too many people in jail because they've smoked marijuana, the Conservatives know better. They know that we must continue with the war on drugs and keep increasing the strain on our overburdened prisons and the taxpayers to keep our streets safe from such ner' – do- wells.

Ever since the Supreme Court of Canada said that it violated the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms to deny same sex couples the right to marriage, provinces across Canada have been quietly passing resolutions allowing gay marriages. There's nothing been said mandating religious organizations to perform same sex unions if it goes against their belief, all that's been guaranteed is the right to a civil union.

Due to the fact that same sex marriage is now protected by the Charter of Rights it is impossible for any government to prevent them from taking place without invoking the Not Withstanding Clause that allows them to override civil liberties decisions made by the court. In spite of that fact Steven Harper has been promising an open vote on the issue by this fall.

He's not answered whether he'd be willing to invoke the Not Withstanding Clause; he just keeps nattering on about protecting the sanctity of marriage. In other words he's playing to his constituents and making it seem like he can do something, which is not within his power to accomplish, and that he has no intention of doing either.

Maybe he figures he can define himself as both defender of "family" to the social conservatives, while not alienating the social liberal vote he needs to win another election. Perhaps he thinks they don't read or listen to the news so they won't notice he's talking out of both sides of his mouth, or maybe he thinks people are just too stupid to know what he's doing. It's a good thing this isn't an arrogant government.

Mr. Harper promised what he called accountable government, one that would be open and transparent with all its dealings with the Canadian people. To that end he has forbidden all Cabinet Ministers and back benchers to talk with the press, he has abolished post caucus press conferences, and has almost completely refused to have anything to do with the media at all.

Whenever a politician doesn't want his policies analysed, is worried about being caught out in "miscommunications", or having the fallacies of his programming dissected by the media he or she will immediately announce they "will only speak directly to the public". In other words they will never be publicly questioned by the media about decisions, or have their own words thrown in their face in public. They will pop out in front of the cameras, read a carefully constructed speech praising themselves and vanish again.

You see nothing is their fault; the public would love their ideas if only the press wasn't so hard on them, or on a continuous witch-hunt because of their political bias. Isn't it weird how every government no matter what their political leanings are the victims of anti-them bias in the media? When a party is in opposition they love to talk to the media about how important they, the press, are when it comes to ferreting out the true story.

As soon as they become the government and the true story happens to be about them, while that's a whole other matter. Everything is all of a sudden slanted to make them look bad, the press are out to get them and the public isn't getting the true picture of how great they are doing. They are getting exactly the same treatment that every other ruling party has received, but somehow or other it all of a sudden has become media bias.

So much for Mr. Harper's open government. It didn't last until his swearing in as Prime Minister. Before the caucus was even in their seats in the House backbenchers were under orders that they were not to speak to any member of the press without permission from the Prime Minister's office first. Shortly after that was extended to ministers of the Cabinet as well so that all members of the Conservative Party caucus could now speak with their master's voice.

These are the things that get the Ravens starting to take an interest, looks like there could be some carrion coming, but for them to start roosting takes something a little more then just run of the mill average political misdeeds. The Liberal party thinks they might have found something based on the new legislation dealing with campaign contributions.

The law now states that no individual may donate more then $1000.00 to any political party and corporations are not allowed to make contributions to a party, only to the riding association that their business is in. According to the Liberals the Conservative party of Canada, unlike all the other parties, did not issue receipts for any amount of the fee charged to delegates for attending their last convention. As each individual paid $600.00 and corporations $750.00 this could have easily put many individuals over the top of their limit, and could be seen as corporations donating directly to the national party which is forbidden.

The Conservatives are claiming since no tax receipts were issued that these amounts can't be considered donations, but in the past all of the parties have issued receipts for these types of fees. A sizable percentage of the fee is used for what could be deemed charitable purposes under the Charities act. It is accepted practice to allow charities to issue tax receipts for admission charges over and above what is considered paying for services. It's the same principle in effect if a theatre company has a special fundraising performance where the money paid for the admittance above and beyond the ticket price is considered a donation.

In case you think that the Liberals are just making trouble, the thing is if it is found that by not declaring these amounts as donations the Conservatives are in breach of the law, they themselves will be in a real quandary. The Liberal's upcoming convention requires a fee of $995.00 for admission, and if all of that is considered a donation it means that only people who have donated less then five dollars since January 1st/06 can attend.

So their motivation is two fold, one is try and nail the Conservative's hides to wall for talking out two sides of their mouth about integrity and financial reform, and two to see if the Conservatives have changed the laws without telling anybody. No matter how you slice it the Conservative won't come out looking good from this one without returning a lot of money.

They either been caught exceeding the amounts allowed for contributions from individuals and accepting contributions from corporations in a manner not allowed, or they have technically done nothing illegal but have been morally and ethically slippery by redefining unilaterally what are considered donations.

Under the Income Tax Act, according to the way the Liberal's lawyers are interpreting it, any amount a taxpayer gives to a political party is a monetary contribution under the Elections Act. What that means in English is that, no matter how you slice it, you give a party money, it counts towards your total. Which means of the 2,900 people who attended that little get together last spring, the Conservatives had better hope none of them had donated more then $400.00 over the rest of 2005.

How they are going to explain away the corporate donations is another story, as that's been completely illegal since 2004. If the Liberal interpretation turns out to be correct the Conservatives are going to find themselves with quite a mess on their hands.

After an opening six months of proving they can be just as arrogant as any other party, and have no conception of what the word accountable means, a nice little scandal involving illegal campaign contributions is just what's needed to get the Ravens landing outside the windows on 24 Sussex muttering under their breath words that sound suspiciously like "never more".


June 28, 2006

Nature And Humans: We're Not That Important

It strikes me as odd to hear people talk about how the increase of hurricanes or other natural disasters are Mother Nature's means of getting back at us for our evil ways. Sure we have screwed around with the natural order of things and turned swampland into deserts, deserts into swamp lands by not thinking of the long-term consequences of our actions.

Certainly this is representative of our careless attitude towards the natural world and reflects badly on how we view our relationship with the planet on which we live, but the sentimentalizing of nature into an entity that cares one whit about us either way is just as wrongheaded. It's not the facts that I have a problem with, I have no trouble believing that climate change caused by pollution increases the number and the potency of hurricanes in a season.

But the concept of nature making a conscious decision to create more natural disasters as a result is as equally inane an argument as those who said the devastation of New Orleans was God's punishment for their wicked ways. Both ways of thinking reflect a hubris that is the root of our misguided relationship with the natural world; that we are more important than anything else on the planet.

The Catholic Church used to burn people at the stake as heretics if they claimed that the earth was not the centre of the universe with the other planets and the Sun revolving around us. How could it be otherwise since we were the ultimate creation and everything was built for us? It was only when scientific proof grew too irrefutable did it become accepted wisdom that we, like all the other planets revolved around the Sun.

But even though we reluctantly gave up on the idea that we were the centre of the Universe, we were going to be the raison d'etre for the existence of this planet no matter what anybody else believed or said. What's funny is how many "primitive" and "uncivilized" people in the world at that time believed differently. They had the crazy idea that humans were not more important than anything else in the world.

Let us step even further back in time for a moment to when the majority of human life was taken up with survival. Whether in the agrarian societies of Europe and elsewhere or the hunter-gatherer societies of the woods of North and South America and the deserts of Africa and beyond everything from what we did during the day, to what we worshiped, was wrapped up in insuring survival. More specifically the collection of food that would see a village through times when hunting or growing wasn't possible.

Living on such intimate terms with nature makes you aware of how insignificant you and your concerns are in the natural course of events. Why else would agrarian societies develop rituals that were designed to attract the attention of whoever to ensure rain and sunlight in equal measure and give thanks at the end of the harvest season. If your source of food is wild game it only makes sense that you develop rituals that will ensure plentiful supplies of game. You probably will be careful not to over hunt, or do anything that could screw up your food supply.

We don't have a natural place in the food chain save for the top. There're not many species that make us a regular part of their diet, so anything we do makes an imbalance in the natural order of things by adding in a link that doesn't reciprocate in some manner. Unlike other large predators, like the wolf and mountain lion in North America, or the jaguar in South America, and the lions and tigers of Africa and Asia, our numbers have always been such that we can have a nasty effect on prey if we're not careful.

As our species moved away from this pattern of sustainable living that direct relationship with nature was lost. As food became a commodity from which wealth could be accumulated and the trading of goods replaced hunting as a means of obtaining it, the former harmonious relationship fell by the wayside.

Instead of living according to patterns set forth by the natural world, we looked for ways to dominate nature and make it behave in the way we wanted. The damming of rivers to create lakes, the draining of marshes to build on, and the clearing of forests to make farmer's fields were the earliest and most obvious ways in which we began to tamper.

But it wasn't until the coming of the industrial revolution that not only craved natural resources but generated harmful wastes, did our caviller attitudes start causing real damage and sever any ties that might have been left between the majority of people and the natural world.

The belief that we humans exist in a vacuum separate from the natural world is just as persistent today as it was during the industrial revolution. Each year the amount of habitable land for wild life of all kinds is reduced by larger and larger increments as our insatiable greed for natural resources continues unabated.

Instead of expressing concern over the fact that it's taken us little less than a hundred years of the automobile's existence to deplete a large amount of the world's easily accessible oil supply, we continue to intrude further into what's left of the wilderness in order to buy another generation fuel.

But it's not our exploitation of the environment alone that shows our continued belief that we matter more than other life forms. There's the way in which environmentalists appeal to others with the "aren't those animals too cute to kill" approach. The animal in question usually ends up being relegated to the sidelines and it becomes an opportunity for people to show "how much they care" without actually doing anything constructive.

This almost condescending attitude towards the natural world doesn't do anything to dispel the illusion that we are more important then it is. Like sentimental movies that give animals human characteristics because that way they become "real" to us, hardly anything is done to show the natural world being important on its own without any human involvement.

Some organizations, like the Nature Conservancy of Canada stress purchasing land to buffer habitats. That means that land is being saved from development and biodiversity is encouraged to reform as our interference is removed from the food chain. Programs like that are real attempts to redress the imbalance of years of neglect and recognise we are only a small cog in a very large and diverse wheel.

To say that Mother Earth is fighting back by sending up hurricanes, tidal waves, and volcanic eruptions is to imply that we actually matter. In so many ways we still believe the Universe revolves around us, and that thinking something like that only proves it. All those things were happening on the planet long before we came along, and will continue to happen long after we've died out.

The only thing we are doing with our self-importance is making the earth less and less habitable for us and some other creatures that live here. The Earth is just doing what comes natural to her when she creates huge winds and big waves. Don't take it personally or anything, but we're just not important enough for her to be doing it as revenge for our actions.

As far as the planet can tell we are just another life form. Isn't it about time we remembered that?



June 21, 2006

Satire: Small Arms Sales: A Reasoned Response

The problem with the gun control debate is that people react emotionally instead of dealing with facts and reason. Instead of careful, calm, and realistic consideration of the bigger picture they latch on to cheap sentimental arguments that are meant to appeal to their audience's sense of outrage and decency.

Whether it's a municipal politician trying to score points after an inner city shooting talking about policy that's either beyond his or her comprehension and ability to effect, or their equivalent at the federal level, they don't bother looking beyond the weekend's body count. They can certainly wax poetic and play people's heartstrings like a banjo, when frail, white girls are hit in the cross fire, although their silence when it's black people shooting black people is also telling.

But fortunately most politicians know which side of their bread is buttered, and who spreads it the thickest for them, and can be usually counted on to make the "Tough On Crime" speech at such moments. They use these incidents as opportunities to help foster their tough, I'll keep our streets safe image, which is what people want to hear.

There is always somebody who might try to make a stink about the fact the person was killed by a gun, but not too many people pay that much attention to them. I always wonder what they would have preferred killed them – a steak knife? At least a gun can be quick and painless and they won't have suffered like they would have after being stabbed to death.

Where people really hit their stride and manage to garner attention for themselves is when they take on the international trade in anti-personnel weaponry and small arms. Look at Princess Di, wasn't even married to the Prince Charles anymore, and got herself into the public eye by setting up a campaign against land mines.

Did she once pose in front of a factory where the workers are busy assembling the mines that are being sold around the world? Did she once check out the unemployment lines that exist in those countries and see what a boon to their economies it is to have these positions in the local community?

No she traveled around the world posing with peasant farmers, women, and children (probably even a dog for all I know) who have had various limbs blown off because they ran their tractor, or team of oxen over a land mine. This of course created a wave of sympathy for these people, who normally, the rest of the world doesn't give a rat's ass for. But because they looked so pathetic, standing next to pristine Lady Di., the guilt button was pressed big time.

All of a sudden it became the fault of the land mines that these people were getting injured. The next thing you know some international treaty is created that's banning land mines and putting huge numbers of people out of work. All of this because people weren't with it enough to check former war zones for anti-personnel devices and were losing body bits. It seems only common sense before ploughing your field where fighting has taken place that you should do a quick scan for mines. But instead of teaching people that, they pass a treaty trying to ban landmines and do a lot of damage to the economy.

That whole mess is a perfect example of not looking at the big picture and public opinion being influenced by a manipulative appeal to their sentiments. Just ask the famine folk, nothing works better to guilt people into ignoring their better instincts, than some pathetic, large eyed, dark skinned face wearing a tattered undershirt. Lop off a body part or two and you've got a spin-doctor's dream.

That whole land mine debacle has proven that the threat to small arms manufacturers is real and the industry is in danger. The nest big threat on the horizon is the Control Arms Campaign being run by Oxfam International, Amnesty International, and the International Network on Small Arms. Oxfam and Amnesty International are experienced professionals when it comes to giving the guilt complexes of Western liberals a working over and can't be taken lightly.

Five years ago the United Nations held its first conference on the small arms and light weapons trade, and the second one is this week. Movements like the Control Arms Campaign use these meetings as flashpoints to pump up the volume on their attempts to paint the trade of weaponry in as bad as light as possible.

Expect over the course of the next week to be reading about how small arms kill more people each year then the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, how they contribute to violence against children around the world (25,000 children kidnapped and used as soldiers in Uganda, children being raped at gunpoint, and watching their parents killed or raped), and that there are a minimum of 640 million small arms in existence today.

You won't be hearing anything of course on the direct and indirect effects on the world's economy that the anti-personnel and small arms industry has. Nothing will be said about the countless jobs it creates in countries all over the world, the amount of money made by the shipping industry in transporting the goods, or the numbers of people employed by those responsible for the movement of the weaponry.

Even the numbers are deceiving; 640 million small arms may sound like a lot, until you take into consideration the number of wars that are ongoing at any one time, plus all the standing armies, reservists, police forces, and paramilitary outfits around the world. The industry is just barely managing to keep up with the demand

You can't hold the industry responsible for how their products are put to use; that would be like holding car manufacturers responsible for traffic fatalities. How is a company supposed to know when they are given a contract to supply ten thousand semi-automatic rifles what the purchaser is going to use them for? Of course they have a general idea, they are weapons after all, but they are not in a position of being able to say are you gong to use these to form a child army, burn women and children, and chew veins in your teeth?

What other industries have such restrictions placed on them? None. Like all other industries the armament business strives to provide a product that works, and is as safe as possible for the people utilizing it. It's a highly competitive and cutthroat industry, where you are only as good as your latest innovation.

If the people at the Control Arms Campaign have their way countries will be forced to regulate arms shipments crossing their borders. Any type of control or restrictions placed on this industry will place many firms in jeopardy. Reputations are made based on the ability to deliver quantity as well as quality with the least amount of fuss possible.

What would happen if a company receives an order but is not able to fill it right away because they have already shipped their quota for that month? They lose a contract, and probably a client. Seeing how this is such a reputation based business, word will get around that the company can no longer meet expectations, and their order books will dry up and they'll go under.

This scenario will repeat itself over and over again until a once thriving business will be on its knees, just barely scraping by. Think what a devastating effect this could have on local economies and international trade. But nobody will be mentioning anything about these facts at the United Nations conference on the small arms and light weapons trade this week.

No they'll just talk about fifteen year old girls who have been kidnapped and help captive for nine months, and the children being conscripted to fight wars in the jungles in far off lands. What any of that has to do with the actual business of the arms trade is beyond me.

Logic and reason don't seem to have any place in the arguments marshalled against this long-standing and essential service. Make sure you think with your brain not your heart before you decide which side of the argument you favour.

.


June 12, 2006

Losing The War On Terror

With the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, purported to be the al-Qaeda number one guy in Iraq, the American military is working itself up into a fine old state of excitement. After military personnel combing through the wreckage of the bombsite found Mr. al-Zarqawi's diaries, phone books and computers, Major General William Caldwell said the troops had found a "treasure trove" and that 56 raids had already been carried out as a result.

That after a bombing raid that was strong enough to kill five people, and reduce a house to a large amount of rubble, soldiers were able to find diaries, phone books and one working database in a computer, pushes credibility somewhat. To believe that any of the information written down or recorded at this location is pertinent to the workings of al-Qaeda either in Iraq or anywhere seems a little ludicrous.

You live in an city that's occupied by one of the largest occupying armies ever seen and you head up the operations of the most wanted terrorist group in the world and you're going to leave information like Osama's home number in your diary? Better yet your personal notebooks are going to filled with detailed plans of all future operations in Baghdad, down to detail of everyone's name and address that's going to be involved.

Just in case your memory has really gotten bad, you also create a database that lists all the names, addresses, and phone numbers of all contacts. Even more fortuitous is that it's the one database that manages to survive the bombing attack. Amazing.

There's no denying that some journals or phone diaries survived, or that the American army may have carried out 56 raids as they claim to have in today's Globe and Mail newspaper. But did you notice they're awfully silent as to the nature of whom they've exactly raided and what the raids have accomplished.

Oh they can spout security issues all they want, but have you noticed if they ever do anything right they make damn sure we know about it no matter how important the security issue might be. The only time there are security issues are those occasions when saying something will look embarrassing. It's not quite as impressive to say we hit three take out Falafhal stands, an all night grocery store, and the guy's grandmother's house last night, as it is to we've already conducted 56 raids.

Sure there might be one or two genuine bits of information that they picked up, but remember this guy also ran a web site and most of the stuff he's going to have just lying around in his computers will be the usual propaganda garbage that is of no use to anyone. Why do these guys always feel the need to exaggerate the importance of what's happened? They've been doing it for so long now that it gets harder and harder to know when anything of genuine importance happens.

That they killed Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is without question, but you have to wonder why they had to do it in this manner. Why bomb a house when you occupy the territory the guy lives in. Why not just stake out the place and pick him up off the street one-day when he leaves so you can have him for questioning. If he's as important as they claim he was wouldn't he have been more valuable alive than dead as a source of information?

If the terrorists are able to pick up anybody they want at random off the streets no matter how well protected they are and hold them for ransom, how come the U.S. military and Intelligence forces aren't capable of doing the same thing? They don't seem to have any hesitancy about using torture on low level Iraqi soldiers to try and find out information, why not pick this guy up and try and find out the location of Osama or details of al-Qaeda's upcoming attacks?

What advantage is to be gained by killing one individual, and any civilians that happened to be in that building at the time? All they've successfully done is create another martyr who has died for the cause and created more victims to be held up as proof of American perfidy.

Haven't they learned anything from watching the Israelis attempts to cut off the head of the snake by targeting leaders? These groups are like a mythical creature where you cut off one limb and two more grow to replace it. You may cause a temporary lull in activities, it you're lucky, but the more likely reaction will be an increase in terrorist attacks.

In fact the first word out of al-Qaeda has been that they are planning a series of reprisal attacks over the next little while. General George Casey, the top U.S. general in Iraq, responded by saying he expected them "to try to do what they said" He continued by saying:

I think what you're going to see is an enhanced security operation here announced by the prime minister in Baghdad over the course of the coming week and a tightening of security in the Baghdad area. So ... it's expected, but I think we'll be prepared for it. But again, you can't stop terrorist attacks completely

I thought the point had been to prevent that sort of thing from happening by getting rid of this guy. Isn't that what this all about, the whole war on terror, a matter of ending the attacks and keeping people safe? So why is it that not only when they do bump one of these guys off they not only expect the attacks to increase, but admit that they really can't do anything about them?

Is it because that, even though they know this strategy doesn't work, they have no option but to keep exercising it because they've closed the doors on all other options, too securely too long ago, for them to be reopened? That all of a sudden if they change the focus of their foreign policy to more Marshall Plan and less "bomb them back to the stone age" no one will trust them anymore?

Or is it even worse and they still believe that they are on the right track despite all contrary evidence. The Taliban have regained more of a foothold in Afghanistan and are making life miserable again for the Coalition troops. A Taliban like force has just captured the capital of Somali and has taken over ipso facto rule of the country (including banning televising the World Cup which might see an end to their rule quickly if their not careful). A homegrown terrorist cell, not of immigrants but of people born in Canada, was uncovered in parts of Ontario Canada this past week. Although it waits to be seen how real a threat they were, the fact they exist at all should be worrisome.

In other words the conditions that existed five years ago haven't changed and the motivations, real or otherwise for young Islamic men to become involved haven't decreased. It's very easy for charismatic leaders to whip starving people into frenzied states of hatred against an enemy. It's immaterial whether that enemy is to blame for their woes or not.

Whether it's Israel, the U.S. or just the West in general, it doesn't seem to matter any more. We’ve all come to symbolize in the eyes of the terrorists the cause of their of problems for one reason or another. Our current actions are doing nothing to dispel that image among too many of the people who would be most likely to join the ranks of the terrorists.

Not finishing the job properly in Afghanistan was the first mistake made by the American administration. Instead of scurrying off to Iraq and committing all it's resources there, it should have capitalized on the universal support it had for the action against the Taliban and commenced with a serious rebuilding program. That would have been the heaviest blow they could have struck against al-Qaeda. Don't give them any ammunition of substance.

It might take a while, but people will believe their own eyes sooner or later, and if they saw American troops working with farmers building irrigation ditches instead of foxholes they would know who was and who wasn't the enemy. Sure it won't be universal, but not everybody is going to like everybody anyway.

But twenty-twenty hindsight is pretty much useless except as a means to hopefully learn from previous mistakes. I'm sure the last thing most people expect to hear from me is that troops have to stay in Iraq until the jobs done, but that's just the way it is. Coalition troops cannot abandon that country to civil war and the infrastructure disaster that exists now.

The quickest way out now is to put as much energy and money into helping the country rebuild, but not by depleting their oil reserves to generate the funds necessary. This has already proven a nightmare of graft and corruption as millions of dollars of that money has gone missing in the hands of the American civilians responsible for the reconstruction and the military in one part of the country.

Tangible proof has to be given of the American's desire to rebuild and not just to invade Iraq for them to gain the respect and trust needed to quell the terrorists. Withdrawing the troops without that sort of commitment will leave a vacuum like the one in Afghanistan that will be filled by the terrorists and will be further "proof" of the fact that Westerners don't care about Muslims.

The real war on terror has to be fought in the hearts and minds of the people living without hope in refugee camps and amongst the young men who believe they have no future. There has to be some sort of viable alternative offered to the false lure of heroism that is promised by the terrorists. If not all the victories on the battle field will be for nought, and all the lives of the young men and women that have been spent to this point will have been wasted.

It's still not too late to change from a war on terror to a war on the causes of terrorism, but we need to make that distinction soon, or we may find ourselves trapped in a never-ending cycle of violence. That should be the real terror we are fighting against.


May 30, 2006

Canadian Politics: The Feds And The Provinces

As we approach the fourth anniversary of Canada's newest version of a central government, Stephen Harper's Conservative Party of Canada's minority government, it's about time for the assessments to start rolling in. They've delivered their first budget, established the ground rules that they want to play by, and have started to put their stamp on policy.

That's usually more then enough for anybody to start either composing a hatchet job or singing their praises. We will probably hear the usual stuff about betrayal of public trust from one side and sticking to your guns on the other side. Strong leadership comments will be offset by snide remarks about dictatorial aspirations, as commentators according to their political stripe will let their feelings flow.

I wonder though if there is a story line that might get lost in all the hubbub so I thought I'd get my two cents in now before the opportunity passes. One of the hallmarks of previous the previous Liberal government was there commitment to a strong central government. In Canada there has always been a very clear delineation of what comes under provincial jurisdiction, and what's federal.

It was long claimed by provinces of various political inclinations that the federal Liberals were always encroaching upon provincial matters and not respecting their autonomy as was required by law. The new Conservative Party government promised that they would begin a new era of co-operation with the provinces, heralding a new definition of Canadian federalism.

This is music to the ears of the sovereignty movement in Quebec, and the oil barons of Alberta. The Alberta government doesn't want to have to hand over any more of their oil revenues then they have to, while Quebec nationalists are always on the lookout for any power they can grab to give them that little bit more of control over the lives of people in their province.

For the Conservative Party it ensures them the support of the Bloc Quebecois (Quebec nationalists) party on key votes in the house of commons that would other wise be defeated, and allows them to chalk up brownie points amongst their biggest supporters. I wouldn't be surprised if over half of the current Federal Cabinet were at one time or another Alberta Conservatives.

Interestingly enough though, for all their talk about provincial rights a couple of things have happened in the past week that's making it look like when things come down to the nitty-gritty this government doesn't seem much different from any of it's predecessors. Two announcements in the last forty-eight hours by provincial representatives show that the Conservatives are more than willing to ignore the provinces when it suits them.

The Kelowna accord that was struck between provincial leaders and the previous federal government was to be the means to finally giving the native communities of Canada the opportunity to dig out from under decades of abuse, poverty, and the distinction of being the model for the apartheid used in South Africa. (It was after seeing our reserve system that a delegation from the former South African government conceived the concept of homelands as a means of confining people to certain areas of the country) The five year plan, which was have to begun implementation with this past budget, and would have seen the injection of $5.1 billion dollars into developing a real infrastructure of roads, housing, and education on the reserves across Canada, and included provisions for non reserve natives, metis, and Inuit.

When the government budget was delivered last month and the monies announced for the aboriginal community was significantly less then what was called for by the Kelowna accord, it was feared that the deal was dead in the water. Government talk about the need to reassess the program did nothing to allay those fears.

But some new hope was breathed into the deal yesterday when Western provincial leaders went into their annual meeting calling on the government to fulfill their obligations to the native communities. The fact that this was the Western leaders, who historically are both more reticent when it comes to aboriginal issues then their Eastern counterparts, and more supportive of the Conservative government, makes it all the more significant.

Another sign of how the Conservatives are trying to force their agenda on the provinces is of course their concept of a day care package. While the previous administration had spent a great deal of energy travelling from province to province negotiating individual deals until there was a package that all could agree upon, and that would have assisted those most in need in obtaining day care, the new government has unilaterally scrapped the deal and imposed its own without any consultation

After a meeting with Social Development Minister Diane Finley provincial ministers responsible for child care were saying that the government has overstepped its jurisdiction by it's actions.

While the previous government's program had funds going to the provinces to allow them to pay for their programming, and each province put together programming that was specific to their needs this agreement bypasses any assessment of provincial needs and aims to give money to suppliers to create spaces, and offer parents up to a $100.00 a month tax credit per child to help offset the costs involved.

In a report produced earlier it was shown that the only people who are going to be able to qualify for that full amount are the people who need it the least (married couples with a stay at home parent with an income of $170,000 per annum) you have to wonder about the Conservative party's statement about ensuring "parents have choices". I know that the provinces aren't really standing up to the federal government because of the issue, it's all just part of the ongoing turf war, but a least they're right for the wrong reason, which is sometimes the best you can hope for from any government.

Of course the federal government has no problems allowing the provinces to act independently whenever they want, just don't expect any financial assistance. Now that the Conservatives have announced that they are going to be looking into alternatives to meeting Canada's commitment to the Kyoto accord (interesting how it took an act of parliament to ratify the agreement in the first place, but the new government can cancel it without consulting parliament) the Quebec government has said they will try and meet the standards on their own. The Prime Minister didn't have a problem with that but told them not to expect any monetary help.

Of course everything comes down to money in the end doesn't it? Currently the biggest bone of contention between the Conservative government and all the provinces are the two methods of supplying funds to provincial governments aside from their own tax bases. Those are equalization payments and transfer payments.

Transfer payments are each provinces share of the federal tax pie to help them pay for federally mandated programming like Health, Education, and other social welfare infrastructures. Equalization payments are what each province pays out to their weaker sisters in order to share out the fruits of the national economy amongst the have-nots.

Quite the sizeable rift is starting to between provinces who earn substantial amounts from natural resources and those who don't. Alberta and Ontario, big earners, are demanding that these monies be excluded from the equalization process, and it looks like the federal government is listening. Finance Minister Jim Flaherty went on record saying that the government is inclined to agree with that attitude. Of course what does this mean for provinces without any big share of the natural resource pie? It also raises the question as to what constitutes a natural resource? Can Quebec claim the money it makes selling hydroelectric power across North America as natural resource income?

The current answer to that question is no. Which means that heading into this weeks First Ministers meetings there's bound to be a lot of scurrying around in the back rooms as the federal people try and placate their provincial counterparts so that nobody raises a stink in public. It's still hard to see how the Conservative Party is going to keep everybody happy this time round. Jurisdiction is one thing, the provinces may bend a little here and there, but money is another issue altogether and could cause the most serious inter government problem yet for the new government.

When running for election the Conservative Party promised a whole new era of inter-provincial relations, but through a combination of their own stubbornness and politics as usual in Canada everything seems to be about the same as it was before. This should be a very interesting First Minister's meeting this week.

May 19, 2006

The Trouble With Normal

This past weekend, on Mother's Day in fact, my wife was walking downtown when she saw a cardboard sign that had been affixed to someone's front porch. Roughly, the sign read as follows: "To the person who stole the flowers I had planted in memory of my grandmother, was it because you forgot it was Mother's Day?"

What worried my wife wasn't so much the sign, but the severity of her reaction to it. She said she felt sad, for the people who had their memorial stolen, angry at the bastards that did the stealing, and proud of the people for putting the sign up and not just sitting back and taking the abuse. The fact that the sign had almost reduced her to tears of both anger and sorrow made her feel like there was something wrong with her.

As a little background you should know that my wife has been diagnosed with an acute anxiety disorder and a persistent panic condition. Because of that she is continually worried about her emotional reactions. She continually wonders what a "normal" person's reactions would be in similar circumstances, whenever she has strong feelings about any incident.

Looking at that paragraph as I've just written it, I can't help but be reminded of a song from the early eighties by Canadian singer/songwriter Bruce Cockburn (pronounced co-burn) called "The Trouble With Normal". The line in particular that sticks in my head is the following: "The trouble with normal is it always gets worse"

I've always interpreted that as meaning the way in which society becomes inured to events, and how that we now, while not necessarily deeming it acceptable behaviour, take it for granted that things like someone digging up flowers from another person's garden, are going to happen. Our desensitization is such that in general we require stronger and strong stimuli to elicit any sort of reaction on our parts.

If we can read in the papers about millions of people infected with AIDS virus, or starving to death, or dying in a civil war, without turning a hair, there's probably no reason to expect anyone to get upset because someone has had their flowers stolen. It probably seems pretty trivial to most people right; it's just some plants that can be replaced.

We used to have an asshole crack dealer/fence living across the street from us. What made it worse was how so many people on the block would actually buy stuff from the guy even though they knew it was stolen. A couple of summers ago, a whole bunch of plants, shrubs and even a small tree showed up outside their apartment.

The tree in particular caught my eye, as it looked exactly like one I had seen just being planted in the front yard of a house around the corner. I don't remember what it was called but it was ornamental and obviously quite expensive. On a hunch I went around the corner and noticed the tree was no longer in the same place. I knocked on the front door and asked the woman who answered if she had transplanted her tree.

She said no, it had gone missing sometime the previous day. She had gone out in the morning and come home in late afternoon to find it gone. Someone had dug the tree out of her front lawn in broad daylight and carried it away. I told her I knew where it was and would get it back for her.

I went home and found one of my idiot neighbours had bought it. She started to put up a fuss, even though she knew it was hot, she didn't want to return it. I threatened her with the police, picked it up (it still hadn't been replanted) and took it back to where it belonged. To me it seemed like no big deal, making sure that someone didn't get screwed over by assholes and creeps, but to the woman whose tree it was it was very important.

First there was the material worth of the tree, than of course the emotional investment, but what really amazed her was that anyone would care enough to help get it back for her. In turn I was amazed by her reaction. I was just doing what I considered normal. I saw something had been done wrong, there was a way to fix it, so I did. Big deal

But that's not normal. What's normal is to buy the stuff from the assholes even though you know it's hot and not think twice about whose it could have come from. Or it's normal to know about something and do nothing to correct the situation. It doesn't matter if it's a stolen tree or plant, neighbours selling crack to fourteen-year-old kids, or making enough noise all night long to keep the rest of the block awake; people just shrug and say what can you do, it's just the way things are.

So when my wife starts getting worried that her emotional reactions might not be "normal", I ask her if she really wants to be, or even cares what is, "normal". I look around and see for how many people the world ceases to exist beyond the tip of their nose. Not just because they are locked into their cell phone, or they have portable music wired into their brains. Even unplugged far too many have stopped considering that there might be other people sharing the same planet.

How else could you explain supposed adults in their thirties and forties lining three cars up in a residential neighbourhood and turning all three stereos on full blast and calling the person who tells them to turn them off an asshole? How else could you explain people able to walk by someone lying on the sidewalk bleeding, with out even using their cell phones to call 911?

If being normal means not stopping to enjoy the sound of bird song, getting pleasure from watching birds have dust baths or squirrels chasing each other around the trunks of trees, and not dancing in the rain for the sheer hell of it, I don't see much to recommend it. If being normal means ignoring the fact that there is a person standing beside you who might not like your groceries resting on their foot, or sitting in the elderly and handicapped seats on the bus and making a fuss when you're told to give the seat up to someone who needs it, the argument for abnormality just got stronger.

A while ago I wrote something where I said that given the conditions in today's world being on some sort of anti anxiety medication is probably a healthy sign. At least it means you care about the state of the world. I find it more unsettling that more of the population isn't medicated. That means far too many people think there's nothing wrong and every thing's normal.

May 16, 2006

Leech On Society

Hi there, I'd like to take a moment to introduce my wife and myself to you, Mr. and Mrs. Leech. Well to be perfectly formal and accurate that should be Mr. and Mrs. Leech Upon Society. Not quite as distinguished as other titles perhaps, but it still has a certain cachet, wouldn't you say?

Yep the wife and I happily suckle at the teat of society's benevolent tit, living the live of the idle rich. All you poor slobs are out there breaking your backs so your hard earned money can be taken away from you in the form of taxes to pay for our outrageously extravagant lifestyle.

Just like connoisseurs everywhere we have to choose between a selection of delectable options: do we pay our utility bill this month, or not buy groceries for a week. Hmmm, tricky, but heck the days are longer, winter is pretty much over, who needs electricity. That's the good thing about the warmer weather, you're options are ever so much better then they were in the winter.

Those of you who are Canadian will say, but didn't the government give you a rebate check for heating costs? No, they seem to have forgotten that people with zero income should be considered low income Canadians. Only those in receipt of the Child Tax Credit, and the Guaranteed Annual Income Supplement (GAINS) for seniors received that. They wanted to make sure that only those most deserving received it.

Well I can understand how you wouldn't want a disabled married couple to receive any extras to make their life any easier. You wouldn't want them forgetting that they're supposed to be suffering. I mean we're not well so we be used to it right?

It's not like we're a married couple with a single income of over $170,000 a year, and would really suffer if we didn't get that extra money to help with day care costs to allow who ever the stay at home parent is to attend to their social obligations. They're not used to any deprivations or feelings of low self-esteem, so they wouldn't be able to take any reduction of their income.

Now we disabled people, we're already used to suffering, so what's a little additional economic hardship? Heck if you're going to be disabled you have to expect pain. Isn't it better that those who are already experiencing troubles should have them compounded instead of loading any on to people who live a care free existence? Besides we shouldn't worry those who are actually making a contribution to society, now should we?

It's a funny thing though you know; Mrs. Leech and myself didn't plan this out when we got married. She's been a good little contributor to society, holding down jobs since she was in her teens and paying her taxes every year. I may not have been as good as contributor, being the lay about artistic type who never made all that much money in the first place, but I've had a few high paying jobs that resulted in paying some high tax bills.

In fact in the last two years before we got sick we were an ideal couple. We didn't have children as deductions, made a taxable income, and had built up a good debt load through our purchase of consumer goods. (Which also meant we had contributed 15 cents on quite a few dollars to the treasuries of both the provincial and federal governments)

When I had to leave work, and wait and see if I was deemed crippled enough to receive disability support from the government, not having any coverage through my job, our income was reduced so much that I was even able to increase my debt load substantially just so we could eat and pay rent.

Of course in the year prior to me stopping work I had only limited coverage to help pay for my medications which were costing around $3-$400 a month. The low-income drug program's deductible was still a sufficient chunk of change that I would have to pay for one full months medication each quarter before I received any help. So the debt kept pilling up.

Even after I was accepted onto the roles of those considered significantly disabled it took over three months for someone from the local office to phone me to ask if I still wanted to receive the money. Now it's true they paid me retroactively back to the date my application was received in their office in Toronto, and while it may have covered some of the principle of my debt, it did nothing to offset the interest that had accumulated.

Of course it did nothing to help offset the debt my illness had forced us to accumulate before it became obvious I wasn't going to be able to work again. There was also the matter that in the seven months it took them to process my application we hadn't been able to replace anything that might have worn out, like shoes and other luxury items of that ilk.

Now Mrs. Leech was trying to do her part. In spite of the fact that it was becoming increasingly obvious that she shouldn't be working, the government had turned down her initial application, she worked a part time job. You would think that would have been of some benefit for us, a little extra money coming in and so on, right.

But because of the arcane rules about how much a family member is allowed to earn while one person is receiving a disability pension, and the fact that she had to take a cab to and from work each day due to her inability to walk or cope with public transit, we were lucky to not lose money each month with her working. (They have since changed the system to make it much conducive for people to work while receiving either disability or Welfare in Ontario, which is a very positive step forward.)

Well finally it was recognised that Mrs. Leech wasn't able to work any more than I was, and so they changed the status of my disability check to being double disabled. What that meant was we got another $175.00 a month to live on. Yep Mrs. Leech is worth $175.00 a month to me now, which is actually better then most life insurance policies are offering, so I'll be keeping her around for a while longer I guess. (It works both ways; I'm worth that much to her as well-it's like those mutual non-aggression pacts of the past between nuclear powers where we will inflict too much damage on ourselves to make getting rid of the other worthwhile. That's a joke by the way.)

Anyway so here we sit with a debt load that we accumulated through no fault of our own, (oh all right we could have gone without eating, or been evicted, or froze to death but we didn't consider those viable options) dealing with illnesses that make getting through a day without stress a struggle, and faced with having to move because we can no longer afford to live in the slum we live in now.

We were able to buy some time by utilizing Mrs Leech's balance protection on her credit cards, but all that did was pay the minimum payments for a short while, still leaving us with the principle to contend with at the end of the day. We're so desperate that we've been taking new cards that offer lower interest rates on transfers, just so that we can a) reduce the principle on one card, and b) end up with a slightly smaller debt load by paying a larger proportion of money towards principle instead of interest.

We’ve cut so close to the bone as it is that we've started to whittle off some of the cartridge. Probably the only luxury we're not prepared to give up is the $20.00 a month we pay for dial up Internet service. Without that both my wife and I would go insane. Anyway it's one of the few things that haven't gone up in price.

It's stayed the same price for the last five years, $19.95 a month plus tax for unlimited Internet. It's too bad the same can't be said about the rest of the world. In the last year I've watch the price of a brick of cheese go from $4.99 to $6.70. Those of you who are mathematically inclined can figure that out as a percentage if you want, but I already know it's higher than any increase there's been in the disability pensions.

Back in the early nineties, (1990's not the 1890's), disability support payments had an annual cost of living increase of around 1%. It doesn't sound like much, but every little bit adds up. But from 1993 until 2005 disability and welfare payments were either frozen or cut by up to 20%. Even those programs whose payments weren't cut were seeing their purchasing power reduced at rate of around 2% per annum. (On average the annual cost of living increase)

That works out to be almost a 25% reduction in those twelve years. If you were to factor in the loss of the annual increase of 1% as well, the reduction increases to 36%, or more then a third of its value lost to cost of living increases. Now that's pretty bad in of itself, but there are other factors to consider as well.

In the mid to late 1990's the Ontario government revamped its rent control legislation giving landlords incredible freedom to charge whatever they liked for rental units. While it's true they couldn't increase the rent of an existing tenant by more then a certain amount, any time an apartment came available they could raise the rent on that unit by whatever amount they wanted.

The theory was that market forces would control the rents, preventing landlords from charging too much. But the reality is that people have to have a place to live, and you will pay what's necessary to keep you and your family off the street. When the vacancy rate is less then 1% a landlord is able to ask $800.00 per month for a one-room apartment, with a separate bathroom and kitchen if you are lucky, and find someone desperate enough to rent it.

Now Mrs. Leech and myself receive the maximum you can get for shelter as a couple because we are both disabled. To pay for our rent and utilities we receive $654.00 a month. Now that's going to leave us with a sizable shortfall when it comes to renting out somewhere to live don't you think?

What about geared to income housing? What about it; the waiting list is a minimum of five years, most of the units are built in isolated parts of town and have turned into havens for drug dealers or welfare ghettos. They are places filled with hopelessness and despair, perpetuating cycles of endless poverty.

They seem built for only one reason, to provide a place to hide the poor and disabled away from the rest of society's sight. There a sop to liberal consciences and it lets governments say they're doing something, but all they is deepen the divisions in society and provide people with excuses for failure.

Like I said earlier Mrs. Leech and myself didn't plan on getting sick and becoming incapacitated, it just happened. I'm incredibly grateful that there is some sort of system in place at all for assisting people like us who are in dire straits. The people who work in the offices do the best they can for us, in spite of having their hands tied by regulations that seem intent on making life difficult for their clients.

But being grateful does not prevent me from seeing how bad our situation is, and how the needs of disabled people in Ontario, and I assume elsewhere, are being neglected. Of course there are people who take advantage of the system, just as there are wealthy people who take advantage of te tax system so they can make millions of dollars a year and not pay a cent in income tax.

How often to you hear the government or the pundits talking about all the income they lose from those people? Why is it only the poor and sick that are blamed and made to pay for the economic woes of society? If we are Mr. and Mrs. Leech because we receive a monthly stipend that barely lets us make ends meet, why are they referred to as Captains of Industry for avoiding their responsibilities as citizens?

The next time a politician or pundit starts going on about welfare cheats spending your tax money on beer; ask him or her about tax evaders spending our tax money on champagne and caviar. I'd be interested in hearing their response.

May 8, 2006

Cultural Archaeololgy: Finding Your Past


I am beginning to have less and less patience with people who want to lay the troubles of the world at the feet of someone else. It's all George Bush's fault; it's all the fault of Muslims; it's all the rich people's fault; or those bums on welfare are to blame. Sure some of those individuals or groups who we point fingers of accusation at have things to answer for, but how long can we continue to use them as an excuse for our own inaction in the areas that we can control?

How many times have you heard people complain about the homogenization of the world? Everywhere you look there's a MacDonald's Restaurant or other such evil example of the spread of American culture. It's the end of the world as we know it, cry the defenders of civilization.

Or the ones who decry the lack of spiritual focus in the world today brought about by the crass consumerism of our society. The very same people also seem to have the money to afford to go on retreats costing thousands of dollars to pay someone to help them find their own personal guardian angel, or listen to some faux guru tell them how to achieve enlightenment through the lightening of their wallets.

Both groups point their fingers pretty much in the same direction, away from themselves. Now to be fair there is validity in their criticism, outposts of the North American consumer society are this generation's Hudson Bay trading centres. Although instead of selling the natives cheap whisky and pox infested blankets for furs, they are selling them cheap carbohydrates and the fast buck, high stress world of the quick profit.

For some countries, barely recovered from years of colonial oppression, it must feel like they've only just begun to reclaim some of the ground they'd lost, when a new threat to their identity has appeared. But others, whose hands are not clean when it comes to a colonial past, and are the most vociferous when it comes to complaints, have no such history to overcome.

What do nations who have been around for thousands of years as the dominant culture from the Atlantic Ocean to as far East as Hong Kong, and as far South to the atolls of the South Pacific have to fear from a few MacDonald's stands and movies? It's their own damn fault anyway, if they hadn't been so hell bent on destroying the existent cultures of the lands they travelled to, perhaps they never would have created the "monster" that plagues them today.

The colonies of North America were mainly established by men seeking to make fortunes, for themselves and for their country. They were also seeking to spread the word of civilization and God to all those who were so obviously lost. Sound familiar to anyone?

The so called American Dream of making good, is merely an extension of the old explorers motivation to find new worlds to plunder and secure one's fortune. In a continent where settlement and expansion were dictated by men's desire for money is it any wonder that North America's values are still dictated by consumerism?

Learn to read between the lines of your history textbooks and you'll see that economic forces drove expansion and exploration on the part of the European nations. From India to North America, it was all about taking what you wanted, and ensuring the least amount of interference from the locals.

The end result was the destruction of some cultures, sucking the core out of others, and a dominant culture that existed for the pursuit of individual fortunes. As the colonial powers withdrew, from the mid twentieth century mark onward, they left behind arbitrarily defined borders based on where their territories had existed, ignorant of past tribal and cultural differences.

The cost of this carelessness, and of their attempts to obliterate unique cultural identities, is still being paid today. Whether in the form of genocides like those of Biafra and Rwanda; the need for people to reclaim their identities out of the mists of time; or even the feelings of spiritual angst experienced by some people in the West; all are legacies of the old expansionist, colonial mindset.

There are no easy solutions to any of these problems. You can't solve generations of racial and ethnic hatreds, give people back their languages and observances that have been lost, or fill an emptiness in people's lives, overnight. There are no twelve-step programs towards this type of recovery.

The Indian author Ashok Banker uses the term cultural archaeologist to describe what he's attempting to do by retelling the old stories of India for a modern audience. Digging into the past and uncovering the living relics that were buried alive by an occupying culture that tried to superimpose themselves over what had existed for thousands of years.

Unfortunately it is far easier to destroy than rebuild, and it is made even more difficult because of all the false trails and misleading information that is now being generated by those wishing to cash in on people's quest for identities. Nobody seems to want to know about where they came from, it's nowhere near as exotic as learning the secrets of the ten shamanist chants to enlightenment, or how to invoke 25 angels and 15 ascendant masters through your navel.

The real answers to identity could probably be found in some old, dusty, boring, history book that deals with pre-Christian Europe. Or even better pick up a book on archaeology, a book of traditional stories, and an atlas. It's amazing what you can learn about your ancestors that way. It just takes a little effort on your part.

Don't cheapen somebody else's beliefs by thinking you are learning how to be like them by reading a teach yourself ritual book that you picked up in the New Age section of your bookstore. Most of those cultures are still desperately trying to rebuild on their own and don't need anybody taking a free ride on their beliefs. Unless you are willing to do the work involved in dedicating yourself to a belief system, don't pretend to be something your not.

Human culture does not grow like a bacterial culture for yoghurt. It takes more than a couple of weeks in a sealed container for it to mature. We in the west are spoiled in that we can pick and choose from a variety of cultures that we want to sample and decide whether we like it or not.

Do you ever stop to think how this type of grazing could be insulting to the people's beliefs you are toying with? Instead of looking away for your answers why not look inward and ask some questions. Why are you dissatisfied and what are you looking for would be good ones to start with.

Be your own personal cultural archaeologist; dig and sift through the past of your race and see what you can find there. Look for the answers to your questions within yourself. We of European descent have no reason to blame anyone but ourselves for cultural and spiritual woes. It a simple matter of doing something about it yourself for a change instead of looking for an easy answer elsewhere.

May 2, 2006

Kinky Friedman: Singer/Songwriter/Novelist and Governor?


Many years ago in a galaxy far, far away known as the Seventies I remember watching television one Saturday night in anticipation of that new late show Saturday Night Live. I had watched a couple of theirshows already and had loved both the comedy and the fact that you could see some great music performed live; and not just the music that was being played on the radio.

Well this night I hadn't known who was going to be the musical guest so it was some shock to my system when one of the cast got up and asked everybody to welcome Kinky Friedman and The Texas Jewboys onto stage. Kinky was wearing one of the biggest Stetsons I've ever seen and the most amazing collection of Rhinestones adorned his jacket. I 'm not sure if it was one of his famous message jackets, and I can't even remember what song he sang that night.

All I remember is being blown away by the audacity of an obviously Jewish man getting up on stage and thumbing his nose at convention and bigots by singing genuine country music with lyrics that would make Ray Acuff and the rest of Nashville run for the hills. But while some of his albums may have titles like Asshole From El Passo, or They Don't Make Jews Like Jesus Anymore, he still has an obvious love for country and western music.

He may have been born in Chicago, but he obviously moved to Texas early enough in life to soak up the spirit of individuality that Texans pride themselves in. I don't think anyone but a Texan Jew would have the chutzpah to stand up on stage dressed like him and dare anybody to do something about it.

Kinky was born in Chicago in 1944 and his family left there for Texas when he was smaller then he is now and he's been growing ever since. Obviously he's no slouch in the brain department, because at the age of seven he was chosen to be one of 50 opponents picked to challenge a chess grand master simultaneously. After graduating from the University of Texas in 1966 he did a couple of years with the Peace Corps in Borneo.

The 1970's were his heyday as a musical performer, appearing with Bob Dylan on the Rolling Thunder Review tour, and to date he has released ten albums. His musical career started to slow down after 1980, and so he turned to another means of creative expression, mystery story writing.

That's how I stumbled across him again, by tripping over his long legs sticking out from my local library shelf. When I saw the name Kinky Friedman on the spine of a detective novel, I was shocked to think there were two people in the world with that name. Thankfully there aren't, it was the same Kinky who I'd seen on television almost twenty years prior to that close encounter in the library.

His books are off colour, non-politically correct, iconoclastic, irreverent, (he refers to Garth Brooks as the "anti-Hank") and some of the funniest stuff I had read in years. As hard-boiled as 40 minute eggs, he cruises the streets of New York City as a fictionalized version of himself. His real life friends show up in the pages along with villains ranging from Columbian drug gangs to crazed booking agents. With the help of his motley gang of irregulars he does his bit to keep the streets of New York weird and safe, or at least safely weird.

Sticking his nose, and cigar, in far too many places, and people, where they don't belong, he dodges bullets and the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune with equal aplomb. He's a man's man who is only ever outwitted by his cat and his hankering for Peruvian Marching Powder.

But there comes a time in every man's life where he has to shoulder the burden of responsibility and since Kinky has no desire to get married, he's decided to throw his sizable hat into the ring and run as an Independent candidate for the office of Governor of Texas in the 2006 elections.

The first I heard about this campaign was when I was interviewing Arlo Guthrie and had asked him about the conditions for migrant workers in the United States and how they compared today with the days of the United Farm Workers boycotts. Arlo said the best plan he'd heard of for dealing with illegal immigration was the one his friend Kinky Friedman was proposing as part of his campaign for the office of Governor in Texas.

I was impressed by two things, one was the plan itself made a lot of sense, and two that a person like Arlo Guthrie, who is not politically naïve by any stretch of the imagination, was very serious about his support for both the plan and the person. One of the reasons I've always enjoyed Kinky's irreverent attitude towards is for the reason that there is always thought behind everything he does.

His garish costumes on stage, his song titles, and the contents of his books aren't just juvenile attempts at humour, but carefully aimed jabs of a sharp knife at the pretensions and expectations of a great many people. His targets are never those who don't deserve what they get, and he's never been afraid of including himself in the list of people needing to be taken down a peg or two when the moment warrants.

So the news that he was running for Governor piqued my interest, and I've been meaning to find our more ever since that interview. The first piece I read was a background article at blogcritics.org about the Texas race that does a nice job of introducing all the players and some of the issues that Texans are wrestling with right now. But sometimes you need to get the word from the horse's mouth, so I went to the corral to see what I could find out.

The Kinky Friedman for Governor site provides you with everything you need to know about where Kinky stands on all the hot button issues from Gay Marriage, ("They have as much right to be miserable as the rest of us") education, ("Texas has the 8th largest economy in the world, but we're 1st in drop-out rates") health care, ("the message we're sending our kids is that if you're going to be born poor, you'd better not be born in Texas") and renewable energy ("Biodiesel is fuel you can grow. That's good for farmers, good for the air, good for the Texas energy industry and good for Texans").

Now obviously a lot of his opinions are not ones that are going to win him friends among big business or the religious right. The oil companies are not going to be thrilled with a Governor who is encouraging the utilization of something other than their products to run automobiles, nor his idea of a one percent tax on gas and oil products produced in Texas to pay for his "Fund for the Heroes of Texas" that will pay for the salaries of teachers, firefighters, and police officers to be increased.

But he's running as a populist, an anti-politician political candidate who wants to do things differently than they've been done up until now. The thing is, if his statistics are accurate, there are a lot of people in Texas who feel disenfranchised. According to his figures the two major parties spent 100 million dollars campaigning for a job that pays $100,000 per year, and only 30% of the population voted in the last election.

That's a huge chunk of people out there who Kinky feels are just waiting for the right person to come along that will appeal to them and not the people with the deep pockets who contribute all that money to the Republicans and the Democrats. Of course Kinky has his own special interest group, headed up by Willie Nelson and all his other old buddies in the music industry. But I think it's safe to say that they won't be looking for any favours along the lines of relaxing environmental regulations, or cutting corporate taxes.

I'm sure the biggest question people will have about this campaign is it serious? After reading what I had to say about Kinky initially that's a fair question. One look at his site and his issues page will be more than enough to convince you of his legitimacy. He's thought out careful positions on each of what he considers the important issues facing Texans. You might be a little taken aback by his approach of course, because he doesn't resort to the usual political clichés that you so often hear from politicians.

He's not catering to anyones political ideology either; he's tackled each issue individually, not based on what he's supposed to say because he represents this or that group of people. He's blunt and forthright and doesn't equivocate by hiding behind spin-doctors or spokespeople. With Kinky, what you see is what you get.

Kinky's first challenge in his quest to win the Governor's mansion is to get his name on the ballot. In order to do this he has to hand in a petition with 45,000 signatures by May 11th 2006. Once he's past that hurdle the real race can begin.

In Canada where I live we had four legitimate parties competing in our last federal election. People need to have more than just two options when they are voting for public office; otherwise it becomes far too easy to lose interest in the proceedings. Neither candidate is willing to deviate far from the tried and true and risk alienating the regular voters and the money behind the scenes. A third candidate introduces fresh ideas and new life to a campaign, gives voters a genuine option for change, and can generate fresh interest among the voters.

In Kinky Friedman the people of Texas are not only being given the opportunity to look over new ideas to old problems, but also have the chance to put life into a system that is threatening to become moribund. At the very least Kinky deserves to be on the ballot for this November's race for the Governor's mansion, after that, well it will be interesting to see where the chips fall, that's for sure.


May 1, 2006

American Canadian Relations: The Carrot And The Stick

Oh, oh. We're in trouble again. Yep just when you've been told how everything is so nice-nice between Ottawa and Washington along comes a Bush Administration report saying that Canada is home to Islamic terrorist cells due to our liberal immigration and refugee laws.

Now this has been a rallying point for the political right in America before the dust had even settled in New York City from the destruction of the World Trade Centre. But this is the first time that any official document from the administration has been openly critical along these lines. One has to wonder why they would be releasing this report now when for the first time in over a decade they actually have a willing puppet sitting in Ottawa as Prime Minister.

But lets look at the report and see what sort of evidence they've prepared to condemn us folk up here north of the 49th parallel. First of all they complain about the fact that ever since the fiasco surrounding the mistreatment of Canadian citizen Maher Arar (a Canadian who was handed over to the Syrian government to be tortured by the Americans because he was suspected of maybe having links to people who might have been terrorists and in the end has never been charged with anything) our government has been a lot less enthusiastic about sharing information with the Americans.

Could it be possible, that after our government had arranged for a few others to be handed over to foreign governments for torture at the request of the Americans, only to find out that none of the men have been guilty of anything except being middle eastern and knowing each other, they might not have trusted their sources of information? Is it at all possible that perhaps they had decided they didn't trust the American government with the fate of Canadian citizens anymore?

The fact that our government has proven just as adept as the American's at depriving citizens of their rights seems to have escaped the Bush administration's notice. In this report they name five people who they claim are known terrorists living in Canada. The fact that four of them have been under arrest for years under our security certificate program and the fifth is under tight surveillance and reporting conditions so the government knows where he is at all times seems to have been left out of the report.

What's even more confusing is this piece of text that is quoted directly from the report: “With the exception of the United States and Canada, there are no known operational cells of Islamic terrorists in the hemisphere.” So what does that mean? That all the terrorists come from Canada? That Canada has them and does nothing about them? Or is just a general observation meaning that there are people in both countries that could possibly be terrorists?

Finally they get around to mentioning the one man who has been effectively shown to having contacts with terrorist organizations, but instead of mentioning that he's dead they say we are home to the Khadr terrorist family. Well they didn't seem overly concerned about airlifting Bin-Landin's family out of the United States days after the planes were crashed into the buildings, even though they had connections to a known terrorist. So if those family members could be considered innocent, why can't another man's family, in spite of what he's done? Only Khadr senior has ever been linked to Bin-Landin, which is more than you can say for Osama's brothers and sisters.

But the key question here is why release such a harsh sounding report about a country that has always been one of your closest allies, has been involved in the war on terror right from the start, and is still suffering casualties. (Remember a country called Afghanistan, which was the country invaded before Iraq. Canadian soldiers are still fighting and dying there) The current Prime Minister of Canada is so enamoured of President Bush and his policies that he's even taken to imitating the American way of preventing journalists from being present when the caskets of soldiers come home to Canada from the battlefield. (The father of one of the soldiers who died recently was so incensed by this that at his son's funeral he took the time to criticize the policy twice, once during his eulogy, and once during a video memorial to his son)

While it's true that part of the report was written while the previous government was in power, it wasn't finalized until well after the change of governments. Perhaps that's the point. They know they have a sympathetic audience now who will be more willing to listen to their complaints. The Conservative Party of Canada while in opposition was highly critical of Canada's immigration policy, for reasons of their own, and in support of the terrorist argument.

I don't think it's any coincidence that the Bush administration finally surrendered in the soft wood lumber dispute now that there is a government in power that likes them. Up until the change they were quite willing to defy every court ruling that went against them, and couldn't give a damn about our government's reaction. All of a sudden they have a complete change of mind on the subject and even agree to repay the majority of the duty that was collected illegally from Canadian firms.

You don't think it has anything to with paving the way for Mr. Harper and his Conservative Party to start arguing in favour of being more co-operative when it comes to dealing with issues of security and immigration do you? Mr. Bush and Mr. Harper couldn't have planned any of this during their meeting prior to the election could they?

Mr. Bush tells Mr. Harper that he'll make him look good to the Canadian people by giving him the softwood lumber deal, and Mr. Harper has to get tough on immigration and terror in exchange. They agree that issuing a report critical of the previous government's record would be the perfect thing, because that will give Mr. Harper the ammunition he needs to convince the Canadian people that his approach is the right one.

Look he can say, it's already yielded us results in the softwood lumber dispute which the Liberal government let drag on for years, but I was able to solve after only in three months in office. Even though it has been reported in the papers that the deal has been in the works for over a year, which means most of it was accomplished before Harper was in power, all people will remember was that he was Prime Minister when it the dispute was resolved.

It's classic carrot and stick motivational techniques, with one hand you goad the donkey with the stick to the butt to propel him forward, with the other you dangle a carrot in front of his face to entice as promise of a reward. It's already working wonders, listen to the response from some Ministry of Foreign Affairs mouthpiece in Ottawa named Rodney Moore.

“Canada's new government believes in maintaining a vigorous counterintelligence program to safeguard our national security. The government does not tolerate inappropriate activities and will restore our reputation as a leader and dependable partner in defending freedom and democracy in the world.” The Globe and Mail April 28th/2006

In other words those other guys might have been willing to let all sorts of terrorists run rampant throughout our country, but not us. It's funny you know, because I could have sworn it was the previous government that brought in all the controversial laws that suspended people's right to a trial, or even of being told why they were being arrested. It wasn't until the opposition party protested that they weren't doing enough to protect the rights of Canadian citizens that they reviewed the case of Mr. Arar and began to reconsider some of the harsher measures.

Ten points if you can guess who the opposition party was that was so desperate to defend the rights of Canadian citizens. Isn't political expediency fun?

I wouldn't be surprised if in the next little while we see the Conservative government trying to force through new laws governing the application process for refugees. It's already difficult enough as it is for someone to gain admission to Canada as a refugee. Unless you're from a country designated by the United Nations as a nation in need you or can supply proof of some sort that your life is in physical danger, or that your liberty would be constrained if you were to continue living in your country of origin, you won't be allowed admission into Canada.

I wonder how hard it is to get the people threatening to kill or torture you to put it in writing: "To Whom This May Concern. We are planning on torturing the bearer of this note on Wednesday and all being well putting him to death on Friday. Yours Sincerely etc. etc"

If you are proven to be any sort of threat to society, or there is sufficient evidence to suggest you are a potential threat through either previous associations or behaviour you won't be allowed in either. Sure some people sneak through the cracks, but they will no matter what anybody does. The only way to prevent that is by forbidding people to come and visit your country completely, or implanting tracking devices in all tourists.

In the end it really doesn't matter how the government responds. It's all about sending messages to each other anyway. The American government is simply reminding the Canadian government of Steven Harper that they have to live up to their end of the deal and get Canada back in line with American foreign policy, instead of being independent of thought like the previous government was.

Issuing this report a day or two after agreeing to a new lumber deal was no coincidence. If you don't give the donkey the stick soon after the carrot he might start thinking for himself. And we can't have that, now can we?

April 27, 2006

Illogical Logic

"It's the only logical solution"

How often have you heard that out of the mouths of someone trying to justify their position on anything? It's as if simply utilizing one word will offer reassurance that what is being done is the most reasonable, if not he only means available to solve a problem. Once the word logic has been brought into play you can pretty much be guaranteed that whoever said it considers the topic closed.

Before I go any further with this, let's pause to introduce a working definition of logic. This one is brought to you by the good folk over at the Wiktionary: "A method of human thought that involves thinking in a linear, step-by-step manner about how a problem can be solved".

Obviously that's very simplistic and comes nowhere near to representing the the numberous variations of logic, but I think it's what the majority of us would thing of off the top of our heads when the word logic is mentioned. At the least, it gives us the manner in which the word is used, and what it is understood to imply, in everyday conversation.

The problem with such an openended definition is that it leaves the word open to being used in any and all circumstances when someone wants to prove their point . Instead of starting at zero and using logical thinking to build an answer based on the needs of the circumstances, they will start at their answer then work backwards to create the situation needed to give it validity.

Politicians, of course, are most liable when it comes to the inversion of logic, espeically those who are concerned with making any sort of change in policy. They no longer seem to think that it is necessary to look at the problems of society and create solutions based on the needs of people, instead they have an agenda of things they want to accomplish and they work backwards to show that the problems exist that validates their solution.

Perhaps it's our addictions to ideology based politics and religion that makes this possible. Socialism, Conservatism, Marxism, and Facists alike have painted a picture of society that suits the needs of their solutions. Adherants of a religion will tell you that their way is the right way because God has told them and their God is the only God.

But now instead of this illogical logic being applied in sweeping generalizations, almost every issue, every problem to be solved, is being dealth with in this manner. Answers for everything are provided by how they best fit into the narrow world view of those responding. This of course results in fewer and fewer originial ideas, and policies that make less and less sense.

As an example of a policy that has this appearance I'll site the example of the Canadian Government's much ballyhooed concept for funding Day Care. Now whether you agree with the concept of Day Care or not, I think you would agree that the people who would need subsidizing. Either low income families where both parents are working, or single parent famlies where the sole parent works would be the most logical beneficiares of any sort of subsidy program as they are the ones most likely to make use of those facilities.

Well according to a report in today's Globe And Mail the new policy will allow a family with one parent working that earns more than $200,000 annually to claim almost all of the $1,200. dollar yearly subsidy, $1,076. While on the other hand a family with both parents working and making $30,000 per year will only be able to claim $199 per year towards offsetting the cost of their Day Care.

The government prior to this one had been in the process of completing negotiations with the provinces to implement a universal Day Care program which while flawed at least was attempting to ensure that the people in most need were being given the opportunity to afford places for their children. This program, even if everybody was given the hundred dollars a month promised by it, doesn't even begin to cover the costs of private day care that are incurred by anybody.

The only explanation that I have heard offered for this program, was during the last election campaign, where the Conservatives said they wanted to give people the option of whether to either uitlize Day Care facilities or not. So they wouldn't underwrite individual day care spaces but put the money into the hands of the people. But since the money seems to have ended up in the hands of the people who wouldn't be using Day Care in the first place where's the logic in this program.

The logic that appears to have been applied in this case has less to do with subject under discussion, Day Care, and more to do with two political realities. The Conserative Party of Canada has a sizible followoing among the traditional family values set who find the idea of Day Care abhorant, so a plan that accutaly favours people who don't use the facilities would go over extremely well.

Secondaly, poor people don't usually vote for the Conservative Party of Canada, but those with higher incomes do. Thus this plan meets the needs of this party's constinuents far better than anything its predecessor was advocating which in the end is really what matters to all political parties, keeping their followers happy ( I could have used any party, but unfortunately for the Conservative Party of Canada this was in the news today)

Ensuring that solutions only fit into the neat little box of logic that forms the walls of ideology, no matter what that ideology may be, severly limits perceptions but also solutions. While it's true that logic does play a role in their reasoning, its not used as the means for finding a solution.

Instead of considering all possibilities "in a step by step linear manner", to formulate a solution that is best for all concerned, we are now presented with a fait acompli whose rationale makes no sense unless considered within the context of an ideology. Logic has become merely the latest casulty in our world of political expiedency. I wonder what will be next?

April 26, 2006

Words Of Fear

Words are like terrorist weapons these days, bombs thrown at various topics by those who don't care what damage they inflict upon anyone reading or within listening range. Instead of being utilized as the building blocks to form ideas or the brushes to paint mental images they are exploded to exploit emotions and capitalize on fears.

Listen to anyone wanting to influence people now, and I don't care what moral or political stance they take, or what they call themselves, and they are all doing the same thing. They all play up the chances of their audience losing something precious to them. From the National Rifle Association (N.R.A.) to the Pro Choice lobby everybody has taken to practicing the fine art of fear mongering as their primary means of rhetoric.

Fear based rhetoric has a fine history in politics and certain fire and brimstone branches of religion. What politician running for office hasn't painted pictures of doom and gloom if their opponent should be elected? The late President Johnson of the United States was able to defeat his Republican competitor, Barry Goldwater, in 1964 by depicting him as being more than willing to plummet the world into a nuclear holocaust. With the Cuban Missile crisis fresh in people's minds it was enough to secure him his victory.

(A little piece of political folklore that I read in a book by the late Hunter S. Thompson has Johnson telling a campaign manager for some office or other in Texas to accuse their opponent of having sexual congress with pigs. When told that it wasn't true Johnson said he knew that, but they should make the guy deny it anyway. Making your opponent have to reassure the public of their integrity always makes them look weak and on the defensive)

The image of the fiery preacher standing up in front of his congregation warning them of the perils of sin and threatening them with hellfire is one we are all familiar with from either literature, movies or late night evangelical shows on television. Two o'clock in the morning usually was the haven for either "B" movies or hell fire preachers on independent television stations back in the 1970's and early 80's.

This was long before the days that mainstream acceptance of people like Oral Roberts and the invention of the infomercial, made the offerings of the bad hair set and scream queen redundant and replaceable. But in their prime these preachers ensured that people learned to fear their God, pray for forgiveness, and dread certain days of the week.

But compared to what we experience on a daily basis now, those days seem positively tame in comparison. It's not just politicians and preachers anymore who plant the seeds of fear in our hearts and minds. From every newspaper, radio, and television come the voices of "experts" and "pundits" with an axe to grind.

Many of these people have no claim to expertise in the fields they pontificate on, just an ability to manipulate and increase circulation or the Nielson ratings. They seem to have an inherent talent for finding the buttons to push that will create a panic reaction in their audience. A scared person can quickly become an angry person, and an angry scared person needs someone to blame.

You could be a poor white person without a job and blaming the immigrants for stealing work, a poor black in the inner city blaming the whites for your predicament, middle class watching your savings disappear as the cost of living goes through the roof blaming the poor for stealing tax dollars and being a drain on the economy, a woman blaming men for not being allowed to choose what happens to your body, a Christian blaming gays for the decline of morality and it's all the same thing.

The great American novelist, William Faulkner, in his acceptance speech on receiving the Nobel Prize for literature in the 1950's said that the current generation of people would grow up haunted by the threat of nuclear destruction. He made the point that this atmosphere of fear would affect everything; from the arts to lifestyle and down to basic human inter reactions.

The ensuing years have more than borne out his prediction and we can see the results of such prolonged exposure to fear in almost all aspects of our society. Personal relationships fail due to the fear of trusting another individual, intolerance of differences in culture, religion, race, and sexuality has increased with our fear of anything unknown, the exchange of ideas has disintegrated as our need to protect ourselves has grown, and differences of opinion are less likely to be tolerated.

Who is going to be willing to listen to the ideas of those we are told to fear, especially if the fear is irrational and based on emotional responses? Not very many of us I would think. Dependant on how the fear manifests itself in the world plays a significant roll in our abilities to resolve the circumstances of its creation and continuation.

If our days are filled with constant reminders of the evil nature of this group or that, and that we are under continual threat because of their existence, how likely is it that we will be able to summon the courage to think differently about them, let alone reach out the hand of friendship?

The words good and evil have been devalued by both their constant usage, and their employ by people whose authority is suspect. The only reason for calling a person like George Bush or a country like Iran evil is to make them feared and to let others know that they shouldn't like them. Just because someone or some country does something we don't agree with does not make them evil, yet that is exactly how the word is utilized today.

Good and evil are highly subjective terms anyway; there are very few things that people are in universal agreement on that constitute what is and isn't evil. Even within their own moral codes societies can have double standards on what constitutes evil dependant on who performs the act.

It's all right for the state to order the death of an individual, but not an individual to assist another take their own life, or even to let that person expire in peace. In some people's minds it's acceptable to possibly condemn a birthing mother to death, but not abort a foetus. Other people will abort a foetus for no other reason than it's potential gender. All sides of the issues think they are morally right and the other morally wrong.

Needless to say everybody thinks they are right and the other person is wrong. When everything becomes black and white and greys have ceased to exist the chances of any compromise being reached between two parties is minimal. Very few of us are willing to "walk a mile in another's shoes" anymore to try and understand another person's viewpoint.

I fear that until we are able to do that again nothing is going to change, and this war utilizing words of fear will continue.

April 25, 2006

Reality Check: April 25th 2006

I am beginning to truly believe that I belong to a totally different species than the majority of beings around me. Don't get me wrong; I'm not saying I'm better than anybody else, just different.

Names of people that mean so much to so many others hold no fascination for me, and other names have no meaning whatsoever. Probably the key element in my disassociation is that for the past ten years I have managed to survive without access to more than two television stations. These days, in fact, I'm down to one.

It's not that our igloos up here in Canada don't have cable, or even satellite dishes, hell you need a dish for talking on the phone in parts of the artic. The two issues that have kept television and me pretty amicably separated for the past decade are lack of money and lack of interest.

When my wife and I first got together ten years ago we didn't have much money coming in, and after drawing up a budget that would see us through a month, we decided we'd rather spend the money that cable would cost on other things each month. We had each other for company at nights so we decided we didn't need to park our butts in front of a T.V. and we both had plenty of other interests anyway. That doesn't mean we haven't kept a television, because we have, but we use it solely for watching movies via either our V.C.R. or our DVD player.

In the year prior to us living together I had an apartment that had come with cable and to be honest I had a difficult time making the transition to a television free environment. One can become dependant on passive, spoon fed entertainment just as easily as you can any soporific. But in a far shorter time than it took me to shake off the withdrawal from some other drugs I was living without it quite contentedly. In those initial television free days I wasn't aware of the chasm I was building between others and myself because the people I was around didn't watch television either.

The job I had at the time had no co-employees requiring me to make small talk, so I had no-one else's life to serve as a contrast to mine. It wasn't until I took a position at a small denture factory with about thirty co-workers that I understood the integral part that television plays in so many people's lives as a focal point for conversation.

I started work there during the first episodes of Survivor and can still remember the bewilderment I felt when I overheard my first conversation about the show. I also still remember the looks the two women gave me when I asked what the show's directors did with the other six days and twenty-three hours of video they shot if this was supposedly real.

The ensuing years haven't made things easier. I like to think of myself as being informed as to what's going on in the world and staying aware of things that I consider important. So I'm always taken by surprise when I see things that make no sense to me, but apparently most of the world understands.

Today I was scanning the pages of my online newspaper and on every page was either a large display ad or a small side bar box advertising "Donald Trump's Carolyn Kepcher". Now I haven't been living in such a cave that I'm not aware of whom Donald Trump is, but who the hell is Carolyn Kepcher and what was this ad for.

It seems that Mrs. Kepcher achieved some semblance of fame by appearing on Mr. Trump's television show The Apprentice. From what I can understand of this show premise, a group of hopeful corporate want- a- bees were gathered together to compete to see who could be the best business tycoon.

Mrs. Kepcher, who in real life runs a couple of Mr. Trump's golf courses, served as some sort of advisor to both Mr. Trump and the competitors on the show. I also understand that she had a say in which of the "apprentices" were allowed to continue on with the game. Her official title within Trump world is that of executive vice president of nothing in particular, but she has now become a television personality in the role of Donald Trump's Carolyn Kecher.

Before I had found out any of the above information I had given into curiosity and clicked on the ad, which had taken me to the Ticketmaster web page where you could purchase tickets to go hear Carolyn give forth on a variety of topics. For as little as $109.40 you can hear her talk about such earth shattering topics as; how she honed her skills as a negotiator and deal maker, conquered some of the some of the simplest yet toughest aspects of getting ahead and succeeding in professional life, developed the skill to lead by example, spot opportunities for advancement, and anticipate her next move.

Now maybe there are people out there willing to pay upwards of $128.70 to listen to a golf course manager talk about the secrets of her success, and whose claim to fame is she appears on a television show run by her boss. But I couldn't believe that her name would be enough to attract people to dish out that kind of bread. Why else is this event being advertised as "Donald Trump's Carolyn Kepcher"?

I was under the impression that you weren't allowed to own people anymore, so that can't be the reason. So, could it be that whoever is behind this figures that people are only interested in this woman because of her association with Donald? But the advertising lists her as a "Celebrity" and on blogs and web sites she is treated with celebrity status.

After reading all that I'm forced to believe that this person has enough clout on her own to give a learned talk on topics that any M.B.A. worth their salt already understands. But she has been on television, she is a "Celebrity", and she knows Donald Trump, so she is something special and worth paying the big bucks her speaker's fee demands as a ticket price.

Under normal circumstances I'll have heard of speakers who are appearing in specialty lecture series commanding large ticket prices. Even if they are rather obscure scientists or economists they'll still have come under my radar screen. But as soon as things move into the area of popular culture I'm lost.

I don't know who half the people are that people consider pundits from the left or the right when they are mentioned in blogs. I understand very few references to television shows, with the exception perhaps being Lost because a friend has been taping the episodes for me. (Although I've had all the early episodes on tape for this year for about two months and not had the desire to watch any of them.) Nine times out of ten I won't know the name of the band that comes up in conversation either, but than again I don't have M.T.V.

The thing is I don't feel like I'm missing out on anything either. I know I'm intelligent, that I'm aware of what's going on in the world, (sometimes too aware and it depresses the crap out of me and leaves me stressed to the maximum) and have opinions on those events that I try to form using my intelligence and not my emotions or based totally on my ideology.

But I couldn't tell you which series of Survivor was playing, who the contestants are in either American or Canadian Idol, what people are being apprenticed for on Apprentice, whose dancing with who on Dancing With The Stars, the guest list on Oprah, (or her current weight) or the plot twists on any of the variations of hunt the terrorist by their hair follicles and sweat samples that are now playing on television.

I could if I wanted to without even ever watching one episode of these shows, because there is certainly enough written about them everywhere you turn, but I'm not interested. In fact it's gotten to the point where I can't even understand the interest in these topics or people. Which of course brings us back to where we started from, feeling like I'm a different sub species of human: homo sapiens non-televisionist or something along those lines.

There are other things that make me feel different or perhaps just don't understand; the need to play your music so loud in your car that your car is in the body shop more then on the road, gunning the engine of a vehicle to speed a block to get to a stop sign, wearing your pants around your knees, wanting to impose your way of life on others, not understanding that when you stand outside someone else's apartment window and shout you might disturb them, cutting down healthy trees because it blocks the sun from hitting your lawn, not understanding that every single life form on this planet plays a role in its survival, and not respecting someone enough to let them have a different opinion than yours without insulting them or diminishing it through slights.

I could go on and on, in fact I already have haven't I? I don't remember making any sort of conscious decision to be different, or be confused, it just seems to have happened this way. For a while as a teenager I even made the effort to fit in, but it didn't work out. I seemed to have the habit of saying the wrong thing at the wrong time that would cause most people to look at me strange.

In those days of course it was crushing, all teenagers want to be accepted, but eventually I was able to find a place where my eccentricities were accepted but even there I felt at odds with people, because most of them were just trying to be different as a means of either rebellion against their parents or from boredom.

Running into them years latter they'd wonder at the fact that I hadn't changed and I would smile and nod and feel sort of sad, but not for me. I don't mean that to be condescending, and I don't mean to insult anyone or hurt their feelings by anything I've said in this post so please don't take it that way. This has just been my awkward attempt to explain my confusion and the origin of what must appear to most you, my bizarre way of thinking. Hope this helped.


April 24, 2006

Casualties Of War

Every city, town, and village in Canada, and I would presume the United States, has one. A cenotaph for the people from that locale who have died in the wars that our countries have fought memorializing their contribution to whatever cause was considered worth sending them off to die for.

In Canada some of them are old enough to date back to the first foreign war we sent troops overseas to, The Boer War in South Africa, but the majority of them start with World War One and continue on up to Korea. I don't know what's been done for the men who have fallen since that time, if the names of those lost in Peacekeeping missions are just added on after those names lost in Korea, or if each different engagement has been given it's own monument.

I highly doubt it would be the latter as until recently Canadian soldiers have not been involved in the field of battle for any extended period that has resulted in significant casualties (Outside of a supply plane on the Golan Heights shot down by the Syrians, accidentally, in which nine personal were killed)

In the United States I know you have erected the black wall in Washington D.C. in memory of the soldiers who died in Viet Nam, and perhaps local cenotaphs will have added lines for those who died in the first Gulf War, and more recently Afghanistan and of course the current conflict in Iraq. In Canada individual towns are probably doing the same thing these days as our body count in Afghanistan increases.

But what are our central governments doing? You know the guys who either sent the troops over or decided to extend their mission and increase their role exposing them to increased chance of casualties. They exhort us to support our troops by not speaking dissent against the job they are doing, but what in turn are the governments doing to recognise the fact that son, husbands, and fathers aren't going to be coming home to their loved ones.

What recognition of the responsibility they have for causing these young men and in some cases women, to spend their lives because they were ordered to do so, have they offered? Are there monuments springing up for the soldiers being killed in Iraq? What is the Canadian government doing to honour the troops who have been dying on the roads of Afghanistan?

One of the first of the new press laws that went into effect for the Iraqi war was that no one was allowed to film or take pictures of the soldiers being shipped home in the proverbial box. The only lesson that the government seems to have learned from the Viet Nam war is that they needed to try and limit public outrage over the cost of the campaign in lives. Don't let them see images of flag draped caskets piling up on the tarmacs of airports across the United States and they won't really visualise the numbers seems to have been the logic behind that thinking.

Why else would you prohibit coverage of those who have made the "ultimate sacrifice" as they like to say, for their country? Do they think so little of what these people have surrendered that their only consideration is a public relations issue? It feels like they are trying to sneak the bodies home so that they can be forgotten about. If we don't talk about them, or see pictures of them, it didn't happen in the minds of the public.

They'll continue to mouth platitudes about supporting our troops, but if they have the nerve to get killed, that's a whole different story. We don't want anybody to know about you. I also have to wonder what's happening to all the seriously wounded soldiers. Where have they been shunted aside to be forgotten about?

Up in Canada we're not much better. For the first time in a long time we've begun to experience what's it like to have our military in a war zone. Almost on a weekly basis we are either reading about new deaths or casualties from Afghanistan. Most recently four soldiers were killed on patrol by a roadside bomb that destroyed their military transport and killed three of them instantly while the fourth died in hospital from head injuries.

Under the last government every time a Canadian service man was killed in the line of duty all the flags on Parliament Hill in Ottawa were lowered to half-mast. In 2002, the last time four soldiers were killed at once, then Prime Minister Jean Chretian and his Minster of Defence were part of the party that assembled at Trenton Military airport to honour and greet the dead soldiers.

The death of four soldiers may not seem like a lot to the American army, but Canada is a lightly populated country with a small, close-knit armed forces. The loss of four soldiers is a heavy blow and resounds deeply through out the country. Although nothing can replace the loss of someone's loved one, I'm sure that the families of the slain appreciated the fact that the Prime Minister made the effort to be part of the party honouring the fallen.

By attending the event, he was, in a small way, taking responsibility for his decision to send these soldiers into a situation where they faced the possibility of death. At least he wasn't denying their existence or denying them public recognition for their deaths.

Contrast this to the policy of our new government, Steven Harper's Conservative Party of Canada. Taking their lead from Mr. Bush's administration they figure the less attention paid to the dead the better, and have cancelled the practice of lowering the flags on Parliament Hill to half mast. Their excuse, they don't want to favour one war's dead over another.

While I'm sure survivors of those who died in the Boer War appreciate the sentiment, the families of the four men who died over the weekend might be a little nonplussed. Considering the government reaction in 2002, the last time this many Canadians died at once in combat, they might be puzzled as to why all they get from this Prime Minister is a platitude about paying the ultimate sacrifice and excuses for not honouring their kin.

In fact it seems like they've taken it as another opportunity to haul out one of their favourite pundits, ex Major-General Lewis Mackenzie, to speak the party line of how they hope these casualties don't make the Canadian people less supportive of something whose importance they don't understand. If the Canadian people don't understand the importance of this mission whose fault is that?

It wouldn't be the people in charge whose job it is to tell the people they govern what's going on and why? Of course if it's your official policy to keep the public in the dark about something, than you can't get upset with them for not understanding now can you? Anyway who says they don't understand the importance of the mission, and have still decided they don't think the sacrifice of Canadian lives is worth it.

Instead of insulting people by telling them they don't understand so they can't make a decision about it, why not make sure they know the reasons for the policy? Are you afraid that they still won't support it, and you'll then be without an excuse?

Afghanistan was where the first salvo of the War on Terror was fired and Canadian troops have been there since the beginning. At four years in length our involvement there has become near as long as our involvement in World Wars One and Two and longer than the time our troops were in Korea. For probably the first time since Korea our troops are in battlefield situations on a daily basis and the risk of casualties is mounting as the Taliban focus on them as a prime objective.

It seems to me if the Taliban can recognise the size of Canada's contribution to this effort, the least our own government can do is match their interest in our troops. What's it going to hurt them to publicly acknowledge the deaths of the men who are doing the job that they've been ordered to do. Everybody knows about the casualties anyway, diminishing their importance only insults their memory and cheapens their sacrifice.

April 18, 2006

Partition: A New Solution For Iraq

(The following information was found in Washington D.C. by unknown people and distributed to various other unknown people on the Internet. Given the location where it was found its provenance is obviously good even if it has no basis in fact or bearing on reality.

It appears to be the transcription of a secret meeting of the National Security Council, with people obviously aware they were being recorded because of their use of code names. We can only guess at the identities of some of those involved, but it seems fair to assume that "Sure Shot"(S.S) refers to Vice President Chenny, Red Hot Momma, (R.H.M.) to Secretary Rice, and Top Hat (T.H.) to President Bush. We have no clue as to the others involved, but since their contributions are usually ignored and largely insignificant they don't really matter.

Below is a faithful reproduction of the transcription, just as I received it. I'm telling the truth, so you can believe me)

S.S. "Gentlemen, we need to (sound of a throat being cleared) oh sorry, and lady… geez I just can't help thinking of you as one of the boys… (Sound of general laughter gradually tails off into embarrassed silence)…Well, ahem, anyway, as I was starting to say we need to take a serious look at the situation in Iraq and the whole government issue. The stalemate over their parliament is just not ending …"

T.H "Geez Dick…what…Oh yeah, sorry. Sure Shot, I thought you said your people we're handling this. You and Rumsfield…what, oh crap he ain't here what does it matter if I call him by name, were supposed to have calmed the rag heads down by now. How I'm I going to be able to invade Iran if we can't get these dummies to behave? You told me to say the war was over, so that I could start a new one. I want a new war to wage Dick. This one's boring…What? oh damn Sure Shot."

S.S. "Well, Top Hat, we all admire your enthusiasm, and your eagerness to continue the agenda (murmurs of agreement) but sometimes you can't expect the unexpected…"

T.H. "Well thanks for stating the fucking obvious, Sure Shot, you can't expect the unexpected…I'm not the press, can you please talk something close to English when you talk to me. Goddamn it I need some bourbon, is this going to take a while, the Rangers are playing and I'd like to catch a couple of innings. Hey Connie, can we get the Secret Service boys to tune in the Ranger's game on their earpieces? One of you boys can give me the score as we go okay… thanks. Oh all right Dick just keep your shirt on, (sound of bottle and glass being placed on table) oh hey thanks, I guess I can cope with what you got to say now. (Sound of liquid being poured) Go on now, you look you might hurt yourself if you keep frowning like that. Don't know if I can round up yet another heart for you so soon."

S.S. " Well as I was saying, we all admire your eagerness to get on with our agenda in the Mid East, but we really can't afford to leave Iraq and go after Iran until things settle down a lot more. We need the government there to be in place. The problem is that the three major groups can't agree on anything important. We also need to keep all three of them happy too or we end up with even worse problems than we have now. Unfortunately there doesn't seem to be any obvious or easy solution to the situation. We can't take over governing the country again, that will tie up far too many troops and lose us what allies we have there already."

T.H. " Well, so what is their problem anyway. We got rid of Saddam; we gave them the vote, what more do they want. Some people just aren't very grateful are they? They should just be happy with the fact that we're letting them have their own country, it's not like they 're civilized or anything, good God half of them don't even drink."

R.H.M. "If I may T.H., Sure Shot, thank you. The problem is sir, I don't think they're ungrateful it's just that we're talking about two separate sects, and one group who are a different race altogether. While the Sunni's and the Shites are both Muslim, they practice different types and follow different leaders…

T.H. "Like Catholics and Protestants you mean…"

R.H.M. "Very astute sir, quite similar. Plus the Kurds are a different people completely and have wanted independence from Iraq for ages. Even though there is one group in the majority, there are enough of the other two to create problems. On top of that, each group has experienced discrimination at the hands of the other."

"Saddam was a Sunni, so even though they are a minority they got all the favourable jobs and treatment. Now they are frightened that the Shites will want revenge. The Kurds, on the other hand, have been hunted and killed by the other two groups, and really don't trust either of them…"

T.H. "You could say they are like a Muslim Jew, than couldn't you. Catholics and Protestants may not get along, but we all hate Jews, ha, ha, ha, ha."

R.H.M. "Yes sir, very similar again. So you can understand the depth of the mistrust between the three main political parties, and why Sure Shot and I are having such a hard time solving this situation. It's generations of mistrust that can't be overcome overnight, and might even take years if not a generation or two passing before they begin to trust each other again. The best we can hope for is to find some compromise candidate for Prime Minister that will be acceptable to all parties. Which means we will have to ensure that the current Prime Minister "agrees" to step down."

T.H. "Damn right he'll agree, or he might just get to visit Cuba for a few months, and not with Fidel. (Sound of liquid being poured into a glass) What I don't understand is why with all our damned intelligence are we so surprised by these turn of events. How come no one saw this coming? That's why I gave you this job Sure Shot; you said you knew all about how we could best handle it."

"I didn't think that meant so your boys could line their pockets. By the way you better warn them to start covering their tracks a little better, the auditor general is cracking down. They're not just stealing form the Iraqis now but they're skimming off the top of U.S. money too. Nah don't worry about it too much, we got worse problems than a few hundred million vanishing."

" I think we need to be rethinking the way we're going about this. Trying to make one country outta three people just ain't looking like it's working. Why can't we partition up the country into three parts, and give each of them a chunk for their own, which they can rule autonomously."

"That way they won't be arguing over who gets to be in charge, cause they all get to be in charge of their own little piece of the pie. Each of them can get a chunk of the oil fields, so they don't squabble about that, and than they can govern their own people. Give everybody a couple of months to move into their new neighbourhoods and bingo bango three new countries and everyone's happy"

"We can set a deadline of the fourth of July, so they know who they have to thank for it every year. Our troops pull out, my approval rating goes through the roof, just in time to invade Iran, and quash those mullah jerks once and for all. I don't know why you guys didn't think of that? It sure seems like the easy answer to me. I bet you no one's ever even thought of it before."

"But that's all these situations need is common sense, which I gotta say seems like it sure is short supply around here on some days. I wish you guys would come to me sooner with your little problems; it would sure save us all a lot of trouble."

"I want you guys to get to work with this with Rumsfield right away, and I want to see a logistics report about it on my desk in a week or so. If there's nothing else, me and my buddy Jack here are going to catch the last of the Rangers game. All right class dismissed."

That's where the transcript ended, with T.H. leaving the room. There was no date on the paper, so there's no indication as to what stage these plans are at. But I'd think we should all be prepared for some sort of startling announcement from the White House about Iraq in the near future

April 15, 2006

Passover And Easter: Uneasy Neighbours

A friend of mine sent me an email the other day containing a series of letters to the editor that one of the English newspapers hadn't published. While some were sort of stupid, and others mildly amusing, one had me almost in tears. Like all good letters it was simple, direct, and to the point:

"Did anyone else feel that Mel Gibson's remake of the classic Life of Brian wasn't anywhere near as funny as the original?"

I'm at a loss as to understand why the newspaper in question refused to publish the letter. But than again I agree with the writer of the letter so maybe I'm not the perfect judge of community standards in these circumstances. There are others who would probably take offence to the tone of the letter.

Most likely they would be the same crowd who had taken offence to the original movie in the first place. When it was released, Monty Python's Life Of Brian was considered sacrilegious or blasphemous and any of the other nasty words that people like to throw at works that make fun of their belief systems. Of course Mel's film, The Passion, had its own detractors, and they called it things like anti-Semitic, and pornographic in it's display of violence, so maybe it had more in common with the original than we thought.

I never had any desire to go see Mel's film, not being a Christian the subject matter wasn't exactly appealing to me, and I figured I knew the story well enough already. Heck the whole world knows the story whether we want to or not so I couldn't see much point in retelling it. But, like I said I'm not a Christian so it's not for me to judge whether or not they want to make movies about their religion. (Please do me a favour and don't write in telling me all the reasons for the need to constantly tell this story over and over again or how well it did at the box office, E.T. did well at the box office and I couldn't see the point in it either.)

Every year some church group or another does a Passion play in the community where I live, or a stations of the cross retelling, or something along those lines. We get a live television feed of the Pope addressing the faithful in St. Peter's square for his Easter sermon, and we get images of pilgrims making their way through Jerusalem being shepherded by Israeli soldiers.

The irony of those visuals, Christian pilgrims being protected by the soldiers of the only Jewish state as they go to worship the person in whose name so many Jews have died seems to escape most people. Adding even more irony to the mix is the fact that at the same time Easter is being celebrated by Christians, Jewish people are celebrating Passover.

Passover of course is the celebration of Moses leading the Jewish people out of Egypt and bondage and into the promised land of Israel. That they had to smote a few thousand Canaanites who happened to be living there already seems to have been lost in the shuffle, but the Bible just sort of glosses over that little fact. That annoying little bit of history probably only merits a couple of versus in "Exodus".

Passover is a holiday that commemorates freedom, the birth of the laws of Judaism (the Ten Commandments) and the trials that had to be overcome to achieve that freedom. The first two nights of (Jewish holidays start at sundown of the day prior to what would be called the first day) of the holiday are marked with a serving of a meal, the Seder, in which the stages of the journey are ritually enacted through the foods eaten and the prayers and songs recited.

Now, according to what we are told, it was during Passover that Jesus was arrested, crucified, and resurrected. One could say the celebration of these events is the celebration of the birth of Christianity. As the corner stone of this religion is a belief in those events, and they are celebrated every year it only makes sense that it be considered the beginning of the belief system.

Unfortunately instead of thinking of Passover with respect and fondness, at many periods through out history Christians have sized on it to search for excuses to attack or abuse Jews. The whole Christ killer accusation has been so pervasive that in the 1960's Lenny Bruce, the American comic and satirist, was still utilizing it for material.

First of all he confesses that yes he and his uncles took Christ down to the basement and worked him over a little too much. Than he tells his audience they should be grateful that they (Jews) killed Christ when they did. How would they have felt if it happened in recent history, and they all had to walk around wearing electric chairs around their necks?

Having not seen Mr. Gibson's movie, I can't comment on the anti-Semitic nature, but I'm sure that accusation is based on the fact that Jewish people have a very real reason to be afraid of the Christ killer accusation. If, in any way, the movie depicted events that could leave that accusation as a conclusion, is it any wonder there would have been an outcry against it?

In the days of the Protestant Reformation, when the Catholic Church was lashing out at any "enemy" of Christianity, it was common for the ghettos that the Jews were confined in, to be invaded during Passover/Easter. Some bright spin doctor of his day seized upon the story of marking the door jams with the blood of a lamb so the Angel of death would know not to take Jewish first born children during the plagues, and turned it into Matzah (unleavened bread eaten during Passover) being made with the blood of gentile children.

With the Jews mysteriously escaping the worst of the effects of the plague (having personal hygiene as part of your religion staves off a lot of waste born diseases) and the unrest of the times due to the reformation, it was easy to take such lies and make Jews scapegoats for the ails of society.

Although this was common practice during the year, Easter and Passover provided a means for whipping up mob violence, making Jewish life even more precarious. During the centuries of the Diaspora and even today for Jews who do not live in Israel, the end of the Seder is marked with the toast of "Next year in Jerusalem". During dark times it was a ray of hope symbolizing freedom and a return tothe heart of their religion. As Moses led them out of slavery into the freedom of Israel, so they would hope to return to the city that was their icon of release from persecution.

The treatment of Jews over the years by followers of Christianity has not spoken well for the younger belief system's tolerance of others. When I hear the bells pealing for Easter mass I can't help but think of other springs in different lands where those bells would call the faithful to acts of violence and hatred against people who's only crime was to worship a different God.

We need far more movies like Life of Brian which laugh at the world, and far fewer movies like The Passion which remind us of the hatreds in the world. It doesn't matter what it's intent was, sometimes simply depicting the events is all that takes to fan the flames of old fears and old hatreds. I don't see the necessity of that in any circumstances.

April 10, 2006

The White Rose Society: Bravery Of A Different Sort

Bravery is a funny word sometimes; you hear it bandied about by politician when they refer to soldiers en masse as in "our brave troops", people are sited for bravery for individual acts or deeds that are considered selfless to the point of putting yourself in harms way, and we use it to signify some ones fight to overcome personal hardship.

It's obvious that bravery and courage come in all shapes and sizes, and those who perform the deeds that we so admire are as diverse a group as the term itself. Usually our admiration is reserved for individuals and their actions in the face of adversity.

How do we measure bravery? How can we discern what is truly brave from the hyperbole that we are fed on a constant basis. To say, our brave troops, means absolutely nothing because you could be as easily referring to some staff officer who will never see action as a Marine or Infantryman in the front lines outside Kabul or Baghdad.

Too often when bravery is mentioned in terms of soldiering it's rare for it to be used in reference to the actions of one individual. It's usually just melodramatic manipulation of sentiment by politicians and or pundits who are trying to generate an emotional response to a circumstance instead of having to rationalize a position. To speak against dissent by saying it undermines our brave troops is not saying anything of substance, and thus diminishes the value of the word bravery.

I have devised a means that I find works for me in measuring the bravery of a person's actions. It usually comes down to asking myself the question, could I have done that? Whether I ask it of myself consciously or it just pops into my head in the form of, Holly Shit how did they do that, it amounts to the same thing.

Although all types of bravery are deserving of praise and recognition there is one form that has always meant more to me than others. Those who, at great risk to their own life, are willing to speak their minds about circumstances and situations when everyone else is remaining silent. It's one thing to voice dissent in our society where to a certain extent it is allowed, but it is another thing altogether to do the same thing under less liberal circumstances.

It would be safe to say that Germany of 1943 was not what one would call a free and open society where political and social dissent were encouraged. But it was from 1942 until February of 1943 that a group of young Germans published, printed, and distributed leaflets that condemned not only the actions of the ruling Nazis but the people of Germany for not objecting.

The White Rose Society was composed of five students and one professor at the Munich University in Germany between June 1942 and February 1943, the time of their arrest and execution. A sister and brother, named Sophie and Hans Scholl headed the group and were joined by three ex-soldiers turned students, Christopher Probst, Alexander Schmorell, Willi Graff, and professor Kurt Huber.
WhiteRose

Sophie and Hans Scholl were just normal citizens of their country, in fact like their fellows they had been members of the Hitler Youth as children, and had been awarded with good citizen citations. It wasn't until they became aware of the Nazi policies regarding the euthanasia of the physically and mentally challenged that they began to speak out against the regime.

It was in fact their Bishop's, Bishop Galen, sermon on that topic that was the contents of the first of their six pamphlets that they handed out. The common theme of the leaflets was the evil nature of the regime and a call to arms for the people to oppose the activities of the ruling Nazis

It is not too late, however, to do away with this most reprehensible of all miscarriages of government, so as to avoid being burdened with even greater guilt. Now, when in recent years our eyes have been opened, when we know exactly who our adversary is, it is high time to root out this brown horde. Up until the outbreak of the war the larger part of the German people were blinded; the Nazis did not show themselves in their true aspect. But now, now that we have recognized them for what they are, it must be the sole and first duty, the holiest duty of every German to destroy these beasts. White Rose Society Second Pamphlet

One thing that becomes painfully clear from reading these pamphlets is that although it was forbidden to speak of these things, everybody was aware of the extermination policies regarding Jewish people. In one pamphlet they refer to the deaths of 300,000 Jews since the invasion of Poland. The six members of the group proclaim that if as a country they don't want to be remembered as the embodiment of evil they have to challenge this behaviour.

They did their best to remain secret, mailing the pamphlets to other cities for distribution, leaving the leaflets in deserted hallways of the university for students to find in breaks between classes, until one day, when they discovered they had some left over in their case and just dumped them out over an atrium from the top of a staircase, they were spotted and turned in.

They were arrested on February 18th 1943 and executed February 23rd 1943 by guillotine.

They must have known when they started that would have been their fate, how could they not have considering the knowledge they already possessed about the country. Yet they believed so much in the ideals they were expressing, and loved their county so much, that they were willing to take that risk. To me that is the ultimate in bravery, ordinary people following their conscience and doing extraordinary things, even though they know full well it could result in their death.

Soldiers, fire fighters, and police officers are all called upon to do acts of bravery at certain times in the course of fulfilling their duties, but ordinary citizens are not expected to run into the burning building to rescue someone. Occasionally you will read of a person reacting to a situation and reacting to circumstances impulsively, like racing into a burning building to rescue someone.

While there is a quality of heroism involved in that act, it differs from the activities of the members of the White Rose Society, in that they made a conscious, premeditated decision to act, and continued to do so until their inevitable death. To me that takes a type of courage beyond any other. One that forces me to ask myself, could I have done that?


April 9, 2006

A Bad Fit

In the early 1990's I happened to come into contact with quite a few people who had spent a good portion of the 1980's as guests of the Canadian Government. All of them faced the same problems involved making the transition back into life on the "outside" that I'm sure former inmates have faced for decades. But the ones I knew were faced with the additional obstacle of the massive technological leaps that had occurred in that decade.

Things that I took for granted, like bar coded information on a library card, stunned them. For some of them CD players hadn't been invented when they had gone inside, digital technology was a complete mystery. They eventually adjusted, but for their first few months they were like tourists on their first visit to Manhattan gawking at all the big buildings.

Ten plus years is a long time to be cut off from the rest of the world, and the eighties was a period where technology advanced at a rate faster than any decade previous in the twentieth century. It made sense that they felt like the proverbial strangers in a strange land until they acclimatized.

I've lived and worked out in this society as an adult now for twenty-five plus years. Even before I left University in 1981, I had plenty of life experience through part time jobs and the like. But the fact remains for most of my adult life I've felt just like those men and women did during their first few months out of jail.

It's not the same thing of course. I haven't had to make any adjustments to major changes in technology except in the manner that all of us have, as it's impacted more and more on our lives. I haven't been cut off from what we consider normal interactions with other members of society. Yet in spite of all that most of them have been able to eventually figure out some way of fitting in while I'm still feeling alienated.

I walk down town and I look at people glued to their cell phones walking down the street and I wonder what 's so important that they can't wait to talk about it. Sometimes it's like being in the middle of countless one-sided telephone conversations. It truly amazes me what I hear people say. Maybe it's because they are talking on a phone, but they obviously think no one near them can hear what they are saying or they wouldn't be talking about the things they talk about as they walk down the street.

I think the cell phone is a truly marvellous invention; for people driving I can't image the feeling of security it must give you knowing that you have it at your disposal in case of some sort of emergency. But if I have to hear one more white boy with his baseball cap on backwards flip open his damned phone and say "Whazzup" I may just have to find out how thin those pieces of equipment really are by introducing it to a portion of their anatomy.

That's something that leaves me completely confused, young white males from suburbia trying to talk like poor black men from the ghetto. But instead of at least trying to find some of the rhythm behind the speech, they use it as an excuse to be homophobic, misogynist, and violent.

Instead of this behaviour being condemned by society for being offensive, major clothing manufactures, record companies and whoever else encourage it by offering a multitude of "gangsta rap" styles for sale.

Of course there are those who condemn these activities, but for all the wrong reasons. They're more concerned with the fact that their children might be having sex, than about them turning into mindless regurgitaters of hate.

Why is it that so few people have a problem watching somebody being tortured during an interrogation of a television show like 24 Hours but if a woman's nipple is accidentally revealed they bring the wrath of God to bear on the hapless television station which had no means of preventing the event from happening.

So what's the lesson we're being taught today children? It's all right to hate women, call them bitch or worse, and there's nothing wrong with watching good clean violence (even though it's now been proven that there's something about watching violence that triggers a person's reactions so that unconsciously they believe it is happening to them) but a woman's body is repugnant and must remain unseen at all times.

They call two adults having sex obscene, or pornography but those aren't the real obscenities these days, at least in my mind, or the true pornographers. What about the banks in Canada that make over a billion dollars in profits, and their C.E.O.S that make million dollar salaries without paying taxes, isn't that the slightest bit obscene?

Don't get me wrong; I understand the importance of profits in this society we have chosen to create. Without them companies wouldn't be able to create new jobs, improve their technology so they could compete against other companies in the same fields etc. What I don't get is when the profit margin is what is more important than the people who have contributed to earning the profits of a corporation for years.

It's almost a yearly ritual now for the banks in Canada to lay off a couple of thousand employees so they can maintain their high profits. The fees they charge when you have the audacity to want to make use of your money that they are holding onto increase every year for the same reason. But the guys who use the executive washroom never take a pay cut; they obviously need their disposable income more than the teller who has been with them for thirty years taking the shit and abuse from the customers over their policies.

I love how they refer to laying people off as rationalization, what does that mean? How can there be anything rational about taking away someone's livelihood? What gets me is that everyone just accepts this sort of behaviour as normal and legitimate. The media and the government never question the behaviour of the banks, or any corporation for that matter, that will willingly sacrifice thousands of jobs to increase profits that line the pockets of people who are already have more money than they know what to do with.

Of course these are the same governments who have no problem blaming the poor and less fortunate for what ails society. If it weren't for all those bums on Welfare, why our economy would be in great shape. But because of the poor we have to charge you high taxes and steal money out of your pockets.

People actually believe that stuff, and vote for the party that promises to cut taxes, and they're all happy when they receive a check for two hundred dollars in the mail. But they are also the loudest to complain when services start to disappear, or when they're job disappears because they were all paid for by taxes.

Maybe it's because I don't watch television, I don't have cable and we get one channel on our T.V. and use it for watching movies and nothing else. So I don't have the same frame of reference that so many other people have. I don't watch any of the popular shows, and only have a vague idea of what people are talking about half the time. The term reality television is still an oxy-moron to me along the lines of military intelligence, not a genre.

I remember the first time I heard of the show Survivor. I was at work and two people were talking about it. I asked them what it was, and they explained the premise to me. I think they were very affronted when I asked about the other six days and 23 hours the people were there each week without us watching, and how did one hour in a week's worth of living constitute reality?

It's all these thing that so many others except as normal, that I can't get my head around, that leaves me feeling like I'm some sort of alien creature. Like those guys who I used to know who had just been released from prison, I'm estranged from the world around me.

It's normal for people to have different priorities in life, not everyone is going to desire or want the same things or to have the same job as everybody else. But it feels very strange to not understand the way most people think or process information.

The only explanation I can come up with is that I was abducted by aliens as a baby, and returned here a few years ago as some sort of spy or mole, but my programming wasn't very good, so I don't fit in perfectly yet. That makes about as much sense as any other theory, don't you think?


April 6, 2006

Interview: Arlo Guthrie

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Yesterday afternoon I had gone out with my wife to take her to a doctor's appointment, when we got home she checked our phone messages. She turned to me and said: " Go check your email it sounds like you've got an interview with Arlo Guthrie tomorrow morning"

There have been certain songwriters and singers who have been supplying me with a window on the world for as long as I can remember. They've told stories and jokes, sung songs, and helped bring some things into perspective; make what seems truly overwhelming almost manageable.

Well today I got to talk to one of the people who have been talking to me for more than thirty years. It was nominally supposed to be about the 40th anniversary of the song "Alice's Restaurant", but when I was preparing for the interview I had thought how often do you get to talk to a person who had sung about and lived through as much as he has?

As I'm about as subtle as a brick wall, I think he might have been a little taken aback at the suddenness of the conversation shift, but he was too nice to say anything about it. His answers to my stumbling questions about the mood of the world were thoughtful and as perceptive as any historians, for of course that's what he is.

Folk singers are our cultural historians. The songs they sing are the stories of our society at a certain point in time. You may not agree with the opinion that some of the songs express, but that doesn't stop them from being an accurate reflection of what was happening at the time.

I thought I was going to be nervous about this, but when the phone rang at 9:30 on Wednesday April 5th the familiar cheery voice at the other end of line put me right at my ease. After a few comments about the weather, I asked him if he minded if we began with a few questions about "Alice's Restaurant" and he said, " I'm yours for twenty minutes ask what you want"
alice_poster

"I'm a little confused about something ("There's nothing wrong with that" Arlo interjects laughing and I agree saying I enjoy it immensely) what exactly is this tour (The "Alice's Restaurant" Tour) the fortieth anniversary of?

It's the fortieth anniversary of writing the song. I started writing the song at the time of the incident in 1965- and finished writing it in 1966. We started this tour in June of 2005 and will finish it in 2006, so that's how it works out. (Laughs) Sorry about that, now you're not confused any more

Oh that's okay there's lots of stuff that confuses me….Do you remember why you wrote it Alice?

Nope, I can't really remember any specific reason as to why. We would turn everything into songs in those days. I remember we must have just come back from Officer Obie, and were sitting around, just discussing the events of the day, and started to sing about it.

Then part two, the part about the draft must have been written at a separate time.

I was out at college in Billings in 1965, and came home for Thanksgiving, and we were visiting our friends, and I decided not to go back to college. Well in those days that lost me my deferment for the draft. It took them a few months to catch up to me, so it wasn't until 66 that I had to go … It was actually they who made the connection between the two, bringing up the criminal record when I was up there… so after that it was just a natural connection to make and add it in to the song

When did it hit you that you might be stuck singing it for the rest of your life?

It was pretty soon after the song came out on record that I knew people were going to want to be hearing it all the time. When I first started performing, I've been performing since I was 13 you know, I was performing my dad's songs, and stuff like that from that era. So when I first started playing (Alice) people would say why's he talking why isn't he singing? Then after Alice became popular and all these people would show up wondering why I was singing and not talking…You're just not going to be able to please all the people…

People would get angry that I wasn't going to play it, and I'd say well go and get your money back…we'll play it on an anniversary tour. I don't mind playing " City of New Orleans" or " Coming into Los Angeles" because they're only a few minutes long, and that leaves room in the set for other music, but …

Me: Alice is twenty minutes long…

Arlo: Right and that eats up lots of time. I'm really glad that I don't have a lot of hits, Willie Nelson, a friend of mine, has to do a medley of some 18 songs right off the top of his show so that he can get on with the stuff that he's doing now…

Most of the time there's songs playing in the background on the radio and we don't really pay too much attention to them, but if it's like a day when you've fallen in love, and the song becomes part of your personal soundtrack than your going to pay attention to it. That's why I'm glad they're albums, cause you can't expect someone to play the same songs in concert all the time… I'll play it every ten years now for the anniversary tour, but that's it

So no waiting for the eightieth anniversary?

No every ten years is okay(laughs)

Arlo on Stage
On the Live In Sydney disc, you dusted off another old song "Coming into Los Angeles" But you used the intro to talk about the current situation in America regarding the Patriot Act, and other increased security measures throughout your country. Having lived through one involvement, Viet Nam, before, how would you compare the feelings and mood of your country between those times and the events surrounding the War on Terror and Iraq etc?

There's a lot of questions in that…there are a lot of things that are familiar to people who lived through Viet Nam, and what happened then and things today. In those days, from the president on down the line, the authorities were looking for leaders. The thing was there weren't really leaders for the kids out on the street. It was more a natural groundswell against what was happening. Anybody who was claiming leadership was mainly being opportunistic, and looking to take advantage of the situation for their own gain.

That's the same sort of situation right now, we're looking to get rid of leaders like bin Laden and saying that will stop the unrest, but it won't. What's happening is a groundswell reaction based on the conditions these people are living in. Folk like bin Laden are just opportunists claiming leadership. Getting rid of them won’t stop what's happening. The conditions won't have changed that caused the groundswell in the first place.


Your Dad's song "Deportees" has always struck a chord for me, we were one of those families that never had grapes in the winter, my mom was very much into the boycotts, never shopping at the grocery stores that didn't tell you where the produce was grown. From an outside observer's point of view, it looks like things are actually getting worse, for people coming up from Mexico.

We live in an increasingly sophisticated world that makes it difficult to make simple comments on stuff. There are too many people on both sides of the border who are taking advantage of circumstances and the situation.

Kinky Freedman ran for governor of Texas and he had what I thought was a great solution to the problem. Get five generals and give them each a million dollars in a bank account. Than divide the border up into five equal parts and make each general responsible for that part. For each illegal that crosses the border in their area they would have $10,000 taken out of their bank account.

Me: Make them personally responsible for the problem?

Arlo: Yeah, the other thing is this not just an American problem. There are people all over the world who are willing to exploit others. You can't just point the finger at America. You've got people willing to exploit their fellow countrymen for cheap labour, sell them into slavery…I read about a container on a ship full of Chinese people dead off the coast of Britain I think it was…

Me: Yeah that's happened off the cost of Newfoundland as well…

Arlo: Greed and globalization aren't just America's fault. You get people talking about being worried about their art, and dances…their culture being wiped out or taken over, and yet these same people are taking advantage of their people to use them as cheap labour

Me: You wouldn't have companies moving their plants unless somebody was prepared to exploit the workers where they were going to move the plant too.

Arlo: It's like a groundswell of greed going on right now. You know we've proven we can do the opposite too, in times of disaster, like the Tsunami and hurricanes and floods, and we need to try and maintain that. It's got to come up naturally though. A groundswell doesn't happen quickly and you hope that the people living through these times learn from them and don't let them happen again. We need to have a groundswell to help, not to exploit.

Building walls isn't going to work in the long run. Some people are happy with the wall in Israel, but somebody will get a weapon someday and knock it over or something. Walls aren't the answer between countries though.

Me: Don't you ever want to, or wish that you could point them in the right direction?

Arlo: For those of us in the sixties we had a couple of people who we're examples we could look too, like Martin Luther King Jr. As an alternative to what was around us. People in the Middle East don't have anyone like that right now who they can emulate along those lines. It's like they've never heard of him or (me: Gandhi) yeah or Gandhi.

You bought Alice's Church a while back and have made it a focal point for activities, what are some of the programs that are being run out of there.

There are a lot of crazy people in the world, and we spend billions of dollars a week, or whatever the figure is, on places where they can hang out, like battlefields and the like. And that's okay I guess for them, but what about the rest of the people, the regular people who just want to have a place where they can go.

That's what Alice's church is all about, a place where regular people can hang out. Have some food, a drink, whatever. It's one small building where people can just be, and maybe even one small step in the groundswell process.

That was it, all the time we had. In fact he went over with me, I got an extra eight minutes, which meant he wasn't going to get a break between his ten o clock interview and me. As soon as I got off the phone I set to work on transcribing the interview and what I quickly noticed happening was how flat it was sounding on page. It's the same words as what had been spoken with only a little editing, but it's missing Arlo's distinctive voice.

When I read over what's on these pages I can hear him in my head, because I was the one talking to him on the phone. I only hope I was able to capture some of the feeling and care that came through in his voice.

Folk music and folk musicians are our oral historians. They keep a record of the times they live through via their songs and stories. Arlo Guthrie has been telling us the stories of our times for forty plus years. Spending twenty plus minutes with him the other day gave me a little more insight into what it takes to be that type of person.

If nothing else, I hope that anyone reading this has the same experience.



March 26, 2006

Hostage Crises

On March 23rd/ 2006, three western kidnap victims were rescued from their captors by a joint British, American, and Canadian special operations task force. Unlike the majority of people kidnapped in Iraq, these men were active in work protesting the American occupation of Iraq.

The organization the three gentleman (originally four, but an American, Tom Fox had been found murdered a month ago) work with, Christian Peacemaker Team, primary focus since 2003 has been working to protect and guarantee the human rights of the detainees of what they call the illegal occupation of Iraq.

The three released gentlemen were accused of giving aid and comfort to those opposed to the occupation forces by the new President of Iraq, although his seems to be a minority opinion among Iraqi as religious groups on either side of the Sunni/Shite conflict had pressed for the release and led prayers for the safety of the hostages. They have also been criticized in the Western press for not expressing gratitude to the soldiers who rescued them. Their reply was that they wouldn't have been taken hostage if the soldiers hadn't been there in the first place.

Closely involved with this rescue operation were members of Canada's JTF2, Canada's Secretive anti-Terrorist squad, and officers of The Royal Canadian Mounted Police. No details are being released about raid itself, or the Canadian squads participation, except to say that it was a British led action. When asked to comment on the raid Department of National Defence spokespeople merely said that giving out any information would be too dangerous.

There is a nondescript building in downtown Ottawa that people walk by everyday without giving it a second glance. Why should they, it looks just like any other boring government office building. But behind that boring façade lurks the home of the notorious JTF2 squad whose identity is so well guarded that squad members don't even know they are members.

They are Canada's elite anti-terrorist squad; the beadiest eyed Canadians you'll find from sea to shining sea. As a counter terrorist organization its job is to keep track of all those who pose a direct threat to the citizen of our country. Those guards on parliament hill are not just for decoration purposes. They're in place to make sure that the members of parliament stay locked up in the House of Commons and don't escape to threaten and bother innocent Canadians.

Of course Canadian face other threats to the internal security of their country and the JTF2 must be ever vigilant in making sure that the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (R.C.M.P.) and the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service (C.S.I.S.) do something else aside from spying on each other, or resorting to old pastimes. There's nothing like a barn burning on a winter's night to keep you warm, and it does look pretty against the a cold night sky. (In the late 1970's it was revealed that the R.C.M.P. had set a series of fires, including a barn, and blamed the Front de Liberation de Quebec (F.L.Q.) for them.)

But today there is a more serious task at hand, Captain "X" (real names are presumably never used because it's doubtful that's the gentleman's genuine appellant) has been called to his superior's office to be debriefed from his last mission: the rescue of two Canadian and one British hostages from their kidnappers in Iraq.

Captain "X" entered the office of his superior officer where he was immediately blindfolded so as not to be able see the face of the man across the desk from him. He wasn't worried about the two men who had blindfolded him revealing his identity; they would have their eyes and tongues removed by the end of the day. Such prices had to be paid for the security of the country.

He was guided to a seat and the microphone/vocal disguiser was placed in front of him to talk into. When he spoke he would sound like Minne Mouse crossed with Elmer Fudd and no one would understand a word he was saying. Which was as it should be; these debriefings were so top secret that it had been decided that no one should be able to understand them, including the officer conducting the review.

Initially it had been debated as to what purpose a debriefing had if no one listening. It was decided that it would be good for the one being debriefed for the opportunity they had to go over the operation again in the cold light of day to analyse it for mistakes before he or she had their brains wiped of the information.

Captain "X" described how he and his squad members had met up with members of the British elite Special Armed Services (S.A.S.) squad who were in charge of the mission. They had already been able to secure one member of the kidnap team for questioning and had found out the location where the victims were being held

"We planned to go in at night, taking advantage of their night vision goggles, which would allow us to travel without light. As the one American hostage taken with the two Canadian and single British hostage had already been killed, we had no idea how long we had before they just killed the rest of them.

The raid and the release went off without a hitch, except for the disappointment expressed by some members of the unit at not being able to make us of any of their new toys. They had all wanted to see what the effect of a plague bullet would be on a human. Chimps had succumbed within a minute of being shot.

The hostages had not seemed particularly thrilled to see their rescuers, and there was quite a bit of muttering from the squad members that maybe their duty still needed to be carried out, and how the plague bullets needed to be tested. It didn't go much beyond that level of idle threats at that point.

But then the former hostages started to espouse their unchristian ideas of pacifism and became almost indignant about being rescued. Unfortunately we were not able to take any action against them at the time as medical personnel and press almost always accompanied them.

If worse comes to worst action can always be taken against them on their return to Canada. Accidents have been known to happen to people before, especially people who have just been through a very extended period of trauma. Stumbles down stairs, walking out into traffic are all common enough occurrences for someone whose mind will be having trouble focusing. We are currently evaluating the feasibilities of such activities.

Our assessment of the organization, Christian Peacemakers Team, is that they are a highly dangerous and subversive group that has been continually giving aid and comfort to the enemy. Their attitude towards war is dangerous, and if it spreads among the general population, could lead to severe outbreaks of peace.

Many of my men are good Christians and are highly affronted at seeing their religion being taken in vain in the name of peace. To say that Christ would have supported them over us is proof enough that they are a threat to order and good government in Canada, and must not be allowed to communicate these subversive tendencies to the rest of their citizens.

I recommend that this threat be eliminated in as discreet and expedient means as possible."

March 22, 2006

The Language Of War

War. For a word with only three letters, it sure packs a wallop. War. There is nothing even remotely pleasing to the ear in the sound it makes when you say it. War. Supposedly the state or condition that humans work hardest to avoid, but seem to be most comfortable using as a means of conflict resolution.

We are at war. Four one syllable words that change everything. With those four words thousands of years of intellectual evolution can be erased and humans immediately revert to primal beings that react to me good, you bad stimuli.

There's the internal debate within the country that goes to war that brooks no compromise or middle ground. You're either for us or you are the enemy. Those against the war are just as astringent in their opposition as their opponents are in their support. Listen to the voices of those for and against a conflict, not the words the voices, and most of the time, you can't tell them apart.

For something that most of the world's religions and philosophies preach against, war is awfully popular among us. We create myths around our warriors and our generals, we invoke the attributes of the warrior when we want to praise someone, and the word itself is one we can all instantly identify with.

Why else would our governments continually utilize it when they want to give the impression of action? We have wars on everything now; poverty, child hunger, famine, debt, drugs, and even war. The only times we don't seem to have war anymore is when we are actually involved in armed conflict.

We have police actions, military interventions, occupation forces, peacekeepers, and peacemakers. They all involve the movement of troops, the firing of weapons, the destruction of property and the loss of life, the same as war does, but technically speaking none of them are a state of war.

As much as I hate doing this, I do have to cede Mr. Bush the point, that technically speaking, his announcement that day on the aircraft carrier that the war was over was correct. If you adhere to the definition that war is the existence of a state of conflict between two sovereign nations, then the war in Iraq has been over since that day.

Once the Americans became the official occupiers, they granted themselves the legitimacy that goes along with being the government of a country. This gives them leave to call anyone who continues to fight against them insurgents and terrorists, instead of enemy soldiers. (Which also means none of them need to be treated according to the terms of the Geneva Convention governing the fair treatment of enemies captured during conflict, but that's another story)

One can question the legitimacy of the American backed government until you're blue in the face, but it doesn't prevent it from existing. Much like the American backed government in South Vietnam in the sixties and seventies, the only reason the one in Iraq is able to exist is because of the presence of American military power.

Once again, although I don't agree with his rosy assessment of the situations timeline, I have to give Mr. Bush credit for admitting this truth. He makes no bones about it in fact, that American troops are there to stay until Democracy is established, or the Iraqi troops can handle the dissidents on their own.

(That this scenario could lead very easily to the return of a Saddam Hussein type strong man in power either hasn't crossed his mind or it's not something he likes to mention in public)

Aside from the idolatry we have granted military figures throughout human history, our connection to war comes through in the way our language is replete with its idioms and parlance. Why do we call a successful sexual encounter a conquest? If we weren’t so fascinated with military life would we refer to everyday activities as camouflage or a woman's make up as "war paint"

We have advertising campaigns, and political minefields. Every cooperate executive sees him or herself as a general sending troops into battle against the bottom line and exhorts them to take no prisoners in their war for profits. Even as children we are told to keep in step and not march to the beat of a different drummer.

For all anybody talks of peace, there are very few examples of language that would serve as a reminder of tranquility used in today's vocabulary. We are even told to avoid using the passive voice as it weakens our writing.

That is the heart of the matter right there: war is strong peace is weak. When Mr. Bush, or any politician, wants to lessen the impact of an armed struggle he won't refer to it as war, but something less aggressive. Peacemaking or peacekeeping sounds so much gentler than war.

Even a police action conjures up visions of a state trooper walking down the main streets of Baghdad, not a Marine. Nobody believes for a second that that is the reality, but it's a comforting image to hold onto.

Gentleness is considered weak. Being kind and considerate doesn't get you the recognition that fighting off a burglar does. I don't care how anti-war you claim to be, until we learn to change the manner in which we think, war will still be the primary emotional force of our society.

Conflict, and confrontations are everyday occurrences in most of our lives. Have you ever considered what it would be like to have one day when you didn't confront one person or react in anger to something you heard? Can you even picture a day like it?

Anger at actions done to you on a personal level is a healthy. But we live in a society that is constantly angry, that's constantly utilizing the language of conflict and war to define itself. That's not healthy. Not for us, not for our children, and not for the world. Perhaps it's time we did something about it.

March 20, 2006

In Defence of Idleness

I'm sure most people have heard that wonderful Chinese curse, may you live in interesting times, or something along those lines, at once in their lives. Perhaps the first time you heard it you didn't quite understand it, thinking what's wrong with interesting or something similar. It's only after you've lived through a couple of interesting events that you begin to understand that there is a difference between interesting and interesting.

I'm sure that anyone living in Iraq, be they Sunni, Shite, man on the street, or American soldier, has a finer understanding of that statement right now than most of us. The same probably could be said for anybody living in Afghanistan, the Sudan, Malaysia, or any one of the other places in the world where the times could be said to be interesting. Hell there are days I find it too interesting to walk downtown in my little city, to be able to even imagine what it would be like to live under the continual threat of death like they do.

Boredom just doesn't get the recognition it deserves sometimes. Over the years it has received a lot of bad press with our emphasis on productivity and making oneself useful. Sayings like: "idle hands are the devil's playground" have gone a long way to in contributing to its bad name. That damn Protestant work ethic will get you every time.

Not only does that infamous ethic demand time's constant utilization, it also defines time's meaningful use as that which produces results of intrinsic value through sayings like "Time is money". A second that's used on something that doesn't have a financial return is a second wasted.

Capitalism, the pursuit of capital, that's what we call the way we live. Taken in that context, time is money, is as accurate a statement as any to describe how are lives are defined from the moment we are born to the moment we die. But the same can be said about any of the so-called isms that have been postulated as means for organizing our social structure.

Communism, socialism, fascism, Marxism, Leninism, Trotskyism, anarchism, any ism you want to mention is all about the division of time and how it is used for the ordering of the masses and being productive. It really doesn't make much of a difference if you’re a minimum wage slave for Wal-Mart or working in a collective farm in Minsk (I know they probably don't exist anymore, but let's just call it poetic licence and move on) you can bet the attitude towards time is the same.

Not only is it important that you don't waste time, but that you use it in as productive a manner as possible. Whether it's to earn those big bucks that Sam's kids are paying you or to help meet your quota for the month is immaterial, the social pressure is the same. Be that good little cog in the wheel that keeps the bigger cogs moving around, which keeps the, ah screw it, you get the picture.

So it doesn't matter what kind of government you grow up under, in the European/Slavic Christian world, boredom is frowned upon. (I offer that qualification based on ignorance not on any access to knowledge, I'd hazard a guess and say Japan and South Korea pretty much fall into those categories too, but I don't know enough about other societies and cultures to comment on their attitudes towards "spare time") We fill spare time with either hobbies or passive entertainments like television, movies, or video games. (By passive, I mean you don't need to initiate anything on your own, you simply react to a given situation)

Now I can hear an argument forming on the horizon, running along the lines of; if there is so much regulation and order in people's life, how do you explain all the violence among young people and gangs? The first thing I'll do is ask, what's the root cause of so much public violent crime today? (The majority of violent crime is domestic, which is a whole other valley of fear to walk through at another time) Monetary gain. It may be to get money for a fix, or just to get money, but it's still monetary gain.

If time is money, there's no quicker way to get it than a quick snatch at the local store, especially if your junk habit makes you next to unemployable. A bank robbery is probably the most efficient use of time going. The most gain for the least investment. Of course as with any high yield investment, the risks are higher, but that just makes it more interesting doesn't it?

What's a gang if not a type of corporate model? They have a hierarchy, from the underage "tinnies" who can't do time because of their age, to those running the show back in the shadows where they won't be touched. In a world where you are measured by your monetary worth, and expediency is condoned as a virtue, what easier way is there for a kid from the projects to get ahead than a local gang?

Money, power, and the respect we are taught that goes with them are there for the taking. To our eyes it looks like a perversion of the Protestant work ethic, but when you live in a third floor, cold water, walk up, it could look like the most productive use of your time.

I often wonder where this obsession with time and productivity came from. Was it a reaction to the cultures that preceded Christianity where individuals were encouraged to dream and spend time in contemplation? It's not like Christianity is against that sort of behaviour as its history is filled with Monastic orders that have offered refuges from the world to those wishing to meditate on the higher mysteries of life according to the faith.

But even in those situations look at the word used to describe that activity: retreat. That's a word loaded with negative connotations. Retreat is used to describe a failure to advance in military parlance or even worse to cede territory to an opponent. In most cases, a retreat is considered a defeat.

So what does that imply about people who "retreat" to a monastery. That they have been defeated by society, that they can't cope with the hustle and bustle of day to day living and have been forced to back away, give ground as it were, in order to survive.

That doesn't say much for our attitude towards a life of quite contemplation does it? Most of us would consider it a cop out in fact. You only need to look at the negative implications we have attached to the word dreamer or daydream and you'll begin to understand how deep rooted the antipathy is buried.

This probably goes a long way towards explaining the outsider status of artists. Although it is of vital importance for an artist to be doing his or her painting, writing, singing or whatever as much as possible, it is equally important that they spend time with their minds at rest in quiet contemplation.

I don't mean meditating or anything even that formal, just sitting and letting thoughts chase each other around your brain without any purpose. Sitting and staring out a window at nothing in particular and drifting, without the aid of any stimulant or intoxicant, without any intent or objective, is probably considered the epitome of unproductive behaviour, but I find it essential to my ability to create.

From such idle sitting sprang my novel's entire plot and outline. It didn't appear fully formed or anything, but I watched it take shape before my eyes and figured out how it could be written. The practical writing of it still had to take place, but that was easy considering I had already seen the whole story and only needed to fill in the blanks.

I can't imagine some of the great ideas of the world coming into being without their conceivers having had idle moments. Moments of artistic and creative inspiration are not usually born from the hustle and bustle of day-to-day life. They need to be accessed via our subconscious, and that's not possible if we never let our mind have a moment's rest while awake.

We suffer from constant information overload, continually bombarded with colour, sound, and scents. How can anybody think clearly while continually trying to process all that information? Think of yourself as a computer with an old Pentium 1 200 processor and 32 mb of ram trying to run one of today's complex games, and you'll have a good idea of what I'm talking about.

Is it any wonder so many people are taking anti depressants and anti anxiety medication? Our cerebral cortexes are being fried and we don't even know it, and not only are we encouraged to maintain this behaviour, but told to do otherwise is wrong. At the same time we have pundits wondering why productivity is down, and quality of service is decreasing.

The solution is having the freedom to do nothing. To have time on your hands to sit and stare out the window with no responsibilities weighing you down, or outside information intruding on your thinking. At first you might be bored, not know what to "do" with yourself, but that's the conditioning you need to be able to overcome; the feeling that you always have to be doing something.

Try an experiment, set aside a half hour each week where you will sit and just do nothing in as quiet an environment as you can create. Try not to look at anything specific, that's why staring out a window is so good, and see what happens. If you feel like it, record what the experience was like the first time so you have something against which to judge how things change if you continue the experiment.

Remember though, you have absolutely no purpose for doing this. Don't expect anything, don't anticipate anything, and see what happens. I think you'll be surprised at how much hard work it takes to just sit and do nothing.

I think it is about time that our society got it through its thick skull that there is nothing wrong with doing nothing. So give it a try, after all you've nothing to lose.

March 14, 2006

This Is Progress?

You know how people tell you that as you get older you will get more conservative? Well I never would have believed it of myself when I was younger, but it's gradually dawning on me that it's true. This doesn't have anything to do with politics or social issues; if anything, I'm even more radical now than when I was younger.

The thing is, as strange as it may sound; the two are interconnected. As I find myself more and more in opposition to what goes on around me in the world, I also realize it's because of my desire to conserve things that are in danger of being lost due to the constant push forward called progress.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not some sort of Luddite who is against progress and technology to the extent that I want to smash machinery and return us to the Stone Age. I make far too much use of technology, and appreciate the opportunities it gives me, to want that.

What bothers me is the fact that instead of technology being considered in light of what it can do to improve the human experience, it's the technology itself that has become the focal point. Technology for the sake of technology; building a faster computer because we can, not because we really need to, doesn't do anything except increase the profits of one chip developer at the expense of another.

Does anybody really need a 4gigabyte mhz processor for their home computer? What purpose does it serve? What kind of software is anybody going to run at home, which really merits that type of processing speed?

It used to be said that when you drove your new car off the lot it would depreciate by a good chunk of change. Now a days, by the time you get your computer home, unpacked, and set up its obsolete. That maybe somewhat of an exaggeration, but after six months I'll bet that if you wanted to stay au courant with the latest games or software, you'd have to go out and buy some upgrades.

But I shouldn't pick on computers; they are just an obvious symptom of our culture's ever increasing desire for bigger and faster. From food; super size me and thirty minutes or free, to cars; the Humvee, just like the Marines use for those off road desert battles, and even sexual potency; Viagra, get it up quicker and keep it up longer.

I'm sure people have always made this type of complaint throughout the ages. When the wheel was invented there was most likely somebody making doom and gloom predictions about it being an indication the world was going to hell in a hand basket. But the wheel actually improved the human condition, while super-sizing meals, and fast food in general, has led to North Americans being some of the unhealthiest people on the planet.

So much of our progress is devoted to providing quick fixes to problems. Instead of trying figure out a cause, we look for a means of masking symptoms. Viagra is a balm to the ego of predominantly middle-aged men, allowing them to pretend that the reasons for their impotency don't exist. But it's not a cure. A cure would involve having to actually think about what's causing your problems.

Almost every year Bill Gates and company release a newer, better and flashier operating system. Then the software developers, the game creators, and the hardware builders have to make everything compatible. Woe to the poor consumer who doesn't want to buy or upgrade to a new system. The next time they go to buy something for their computer, it's only to discover it's no longer compatible.

During the last twenty years, as personal computers have proliferated and millions of dollars have been spent on their development and promotion, the AIDS virus has reached epidemic proportions in Africa and is spreading into other South Asia. Just like computers. the AIDS virus has spread rapidly but none of our vaunted technology is being put to use to counter the outbreak and find a cure.

What drugs are available to help slow the onset of the disease are priced so expensively by their manufactures that those afflicted can't afford to buy them. Why we would put something so vitally important into the hands of people who are out to make a profit off the backs of other people's suffering is beyond me.

It seems that whenever we do make some technological advance that could benefit people, there is a price tag attached which puts it out of reach of those most often affected by the problem. Explain to me how that's progress.

We spend hundreds of millions of dollars devising the means to kill people more efficiently and to put cameras in bombs so that generals can give snappy press conferences complete with pictures and jokes. I'll never forget watching a press conference from the first Gulf war and some general showing film footage from the nose cone of a bomb as is closed on some poor person pedaling his bicycle for all he was worth across a bridge about to be bombed. The general made some joke and all the reporters laughed like little sycophants.

They were like children with new toys. That was the war where they started to use technology to supplant reporters, and go over their heads straight to the people using words like collateral damage to describe the death of hundreds of civilians. One of CNN's reporters, Peter Arnett, managed to file reports from Baghdad throughout the bombing raids.

When he started to substantiate the claims of the Iraqis that the "smart bombs" were still killing civilians, and blowing up hospitals he was accused of being brainwashed or un-American. He had the nerve to remind people that their new toys did just as good a job ripping people's arms off and killing woman and children as the old dumb bombs.

So much of our new technology seems to be centred on providing people with instant gratification and mindless entertainment. From the cell phone which can play music, send e-mails, take pictures, and who knows what else, to satellite television which gives you over three hundred television stations, there is always something available to provide you with a distraction from the world around you. To watch the movies you've made with your phone, or the latest episode of your favourite reality show you can now get a 100-inch television to further deaden your senses.

Of course if size is not the be all and end all for you, there are plasma T.V.s and High Definition television and lord knows what else. I look at all this stuff and I wonder why. What purpose does it serve other than to improve your television experience? Am I the only one who finds the idea of television being an experience an incredibility bizarre notion?

Is there anyone who can tell me how any of these things are a benefit to humanity? Do they do anything aside from cost a lot of money to buy? Every night after school and work the family gathers together; daughter goes on line to her chat room to talk to people who want to meet her; son plugs himself into his mp3 player to listen to songs about bitches and fancy cars; and mom and dad stare at there big screen television.

There's nothing wrong with progress when it is progress. The endless manufacture of newer, faster, bigger and shinier commercial goods is not progress; its greed. The constant development of more and more efficient means of destroying other members of our species is not my idea of advancements for the good of civilization.

Instead of moving away from our former existence as near primates who communicated in grunts, and used violence to solve our problems, we've just become far more sophisticated in our choice of clubs. The grunting hasn't changed much at all.


March 10, 2006

Al Jazeera: Press Or Propaganda

Al-Jazeera. Two words guaranteed to set hackles rising among right-wing media pundits. If you dangled them two, like raw meat, in front of someone like Bill O'Reilly he'd be rearing up like a tiger on its hind legs, jaws drooling, trying to rend them limb from limb with his teeth.

Reviled by the West as being in cahoots with terrorists because they broadcast their messages, accused of having an Arab and even perhaps a Muslim bias, the White House has gone so far as to perhaps have targeted them during the bombing of Baghdad. Even if they didn't attempt to blast them apart, any reports of civilian casualties issued by them were dismissed as propaganda or exaggerations, and obviously not to be believed, because they had an Arab bias.

Now, I know this asking a lot of some people out there, but lets try and examine some of those accusations in a calm and rational manner. First off, their willingness to broadcast demands and videos offered to them by terrorist organizations. You tell me, would any of the big American networks, A.B.C., N.B.C., C.B.S., or Fox turn down videotape from an organization holding American hostages?

Would any of them think twice about airing such an obvious ratings coup? If they are so appalled by them showing that video, and if showing that video make you in cahoots with the terrorists, why do all of the media outlets here always pick up the Al-Jazeera feeds for re-broadcast? It's news, nothing more, nothing less.

Al-Jazeera is an Arab language news station with International connections. They are also located in the Middle East, so they are the local station for most of these groups. What, you want them to mail the tapes to New York City? Have them held up in Customs as a potential bomb scare? By that time they might have well as released the hostages for all the good it will do them.

Picture the scene. A small brown paper wrapped package with Arabic writing scrawled all over it, return address somewhere in Iraq; what do you think would happen if that showed up in the American postal system? Mail delivery would stop for as long as it took them to test it for every potential hazard known to man and sniffer dog.

Is Al-Jazeera sympathetic to the insurgents in Iraq? I don't know, maybe they have sympathy for their cause, probably a lot of the Arab world does, who likes to exchange a dictatorship for what's seen as another form of imposed rule? Remember a good many of the countries in the Middle East still remember being under the thumb of either the British or the French. They have a much shorter history of independence than we do here in North American.

Foreign intervention is not something they are thrilled with no matter how noble the intent. Holding a gun to someone's head at the same time as you're telling them, "we're doing this for your own good", is not guaranteed to win too many hearts and minds. Remember, this a very proud and ancient culture, with parts of it predating Mohammad, and they don't take well to what they view as insults to their pride.

Obviously if it were proven that Al-Jazeera were acting as some sort of adjutant to the terrorists and actively aiding and abetting people behind the murder of civilians that would be a different story. But they are an Arab language broadcaster in the Arab world, so they report verbatim what is said around them.

How is that so different from what happens over here? The president or the prime minister speaks, the cameras whir, tape machines record, and the broadcasts are at six. Does that make our radio and television stations dispensers of propaganda? How much analysis do you ever see of video clips from a press conference or sound bight given by a politician on the six o-clock news?

If I don't agree with whatever President Bush says in a speech, and N.B.C. allows him to broadcast it verbatim, only offering up the usual mush mouthed, talking head, which manages to repeat what the speech was about without offering an opinion, as analysis; can I call that propaganda? It amounts to the same thing as Al-Jazeera reporting on the latest dung dripping from the mouth of Assad in Syria or the President of Iran and me not agreeing with him.

All networks reflect the interests of their audience or they would soon be out of business. People in the Arab world want to know what the leaders of the countries in that region are saying. You and I want to know what our political bosses have to say on a particular issue, why shouldn't the people of Jordan have the same right?

In fact, Al-Jazeera has an image problem in the Arab world; they are seen as being too Western by a lot of the more radical elements. They don't just play it safe and broadcast opinions that are going to appeal to the most vocal segment of their audience.

Russel Smith in his media column in the Globe and Mail talks about one show that recently aired on Al-Jazeera that would be guaranteed to raise the hackles of fanatical clerics everywhere. It was a discussion between an Arab-American female psychologist and a Muslim cleric.

Wafa Sultan, the psychologist had some incredibly strong and disparaging things to say about the Muslim faith. She freely admited to being a secular Muslim, but she's still a member of that community and probably has family who are far more devoted than her. Her commentary boiled down a very simple statement; the current struggle between Islam and the West is akin to a struggle between civilization and backwardness.

The thing she made perfectly clear was that she wasn't just talking about fanatics or extremists, but the religion as a whole. That's not the sort of thing I'd expect to hear beyond the confines of The 700 Club myself, let along an Arab language television news station.

Remember this show was not recorded for a Western audience; it was recorded for the Arab world. Now I'm sure there are some who are paranoid enough to say it's part of some really deep game they're playing; look what the corrupt West has done to this nice Muslim girl, but I find it highly unlikely. Nobody who believes that the West is corrupt needs that much convincing and there are more effective ways of proving that point than having someone call you a bunch of despotic misogynists.

I'd think that most on the extremist end of things would be incredibly pissed to hear these sentiments being expressed at all. The fact that a woman is expressing them would make it even worse. To them it would represent an indication of how great an influence Western Secularism has had on Al-Jazeera. People like Bin Laddin, and others of like mind, would see airing that type of show as a betrayal of the highest order.

Would one of our major networks air a segment with a Christian making the same sort o comparison between Christianity and barbarism? They might, but they would receive a lot of pressure before and after the fact concerning their actions. It would be a brave thing for them to air such controversial opinions; just as it was for Al-Jazeera to have aired this program.

The next time you hear somebody going on about the bias of the press in the Middle East, ask yourself what that means and remember, like the person reporting on that bias, they're just repeating what they hear their politicians say. Under those circumstances, is there any such thing as an unbiased media?


March 1, 2006

Letter To George Bush: Wiretaps And Gullibillity

So, two thirds of the American public approve of you, Mr. Bush giving yourself the authority to order wiretaps of anyone you feel like for national security reasons. What does that say about America today that they would trust someone whose administration has repeatedly lied to them about motivations for their most recent incursion in empire building?

That they are gullible idiots, blind fools, or brainwashed? During Hitler's reign in Nazi Germany I'm sure you would have found wide spread support for his programs of expansion and invasion, and loss of personal liberty in the name of the state security too. Did that make what he did right?

(Hey, what's that, did he just compare the United States; its people, its leader, and its government to Nazi Germany's? I don't know did I? I'll leave that for you to decide yourself)

Mr. Bush you have programmed your people to believe they are under constant threat of attack. How many attacks have taken place in the main land United States since Sept 11th 2001? What proof do is there except the words of your government spokespeople that there have even been any attempts? Periodically you issue announcements saying you are currently under code yellow alert.

Do you ever say why after the fact, Mr. Bush? Well no, of course not, it's all a matter of National Security so you can't tell us anything, except to take you at face value. Would you lie to your people?

Actually, come to think of it, yes you would. To start there were the non-existent weapons of mass destruction as an excuse to invade Iraq, and it's been down hill from there. Saddam Hussein was a horrible excuse for a human being, there's no doubt about that, but couldn't you have just said that right from the beginning and enlisted the aid of the rest of the world to depose him, instead of making up some bullshit story about terrorists and weaponry?

Why did you have to lie about stuff? Why were you in such a damned hurry to invade Iraq anyway? Did you need those oil fields that badly? Look at the mess you've created by invading so quickly and not having any plan for infrastructure after the fact. More of your soldiers have died trying to occupy that country then did in the initial invasion.

Every time you or one of your sycophants say that things have turned a corner for the better, the situation deteriorates. The elections in Iraq were a coup for you, no doubt about that Mr. Bush, they went off wonderfully, and the people of Iraq were excited. I admit I felt a twinge of hope that in spite of everything, maybe it would turn out all right for those poor people.

But you didn't plan for the divisions in that society being so deep. The country is steps away from a civil war that will make Lebanon seem like a walk in the park. Your armed forces are stuck in a situation where they are screwed no matter what. They are not trained as peacekeepers, and neither side trusts them anymore. One side sees you as the oppressor; the other side sees you as the incompetents who can't offer them any protection.

Mr. Bush, you've just asked Congress to approve a budget in the trillions of dollar range, with most of it being eaten up by your Homeland Security and your non-war in Iraq. It's not a war anymore because you said the war is over, so what you'd call it now I don't know. An occupation, a police action, I've heard those words before even if you don't remember them being spoken.

While you were drinking with your National Guard buddies during Viet Nam that's what they were calling America's last military defeat. Of course, this won't be a military defeat because you won the war, but oh Mr. Bush, you're losing the peace over there badly.

Why have you made the U.N. the enemy? You've convinced half the people in your country that the U.N. is against America because they wouldn't support your unilateral plan to invade Iraq. Why didn't they support your plan? Because they were afraid of what would happen if proper preparations weren’t taken. They didn't want the horror that's happening now to occur.

What force in the post World War Two period has had the most experience in actually sending people into situations and keeping peace? Well since they're the only ones who even try it, the U.N. They've won two Nobel Peace prizes for their efforts. The first being back during the very first implementation of peacekeepers, the Suez crises back in the fifties.

In the eighties, the peacekeeping forces started to come under fire for their ineffectualness. Since most of this was being directed at them by the Regan administration, which seriously undermined the U.N.'s effectiveness by defaulting on their dues and demanding that the U.N. support American action unquestioningly, it shouldn't have been taken seriously.

But that was the first administration that had learned the real lesson of Viet Nam and Watergate, how to manipulate the glamour of the office to influence the press and the public. Speak in simple, emotionally charged sound bites, which the press dutifully report verbatim, and it leaves no room for debate.

Rebuttals to the president never make the same splash as the original comment, and can't compete with lines like: " The Sandanistas could drive up the road into Texas tomorrow and invade our country" The fact that that argument was used to justify funding and arming the "contras" terrorists without being questioned by a majority of the American public says something right there about the power of the Oval Office as a propaganda tool.

It has always surprised me Mr. Bush, how a country that claims to be the birthplace of Free Speech and individuality can be so easily seduced by the power of a title. The reverence that your office is treated with rivals that of the divine right of Kings, which stated that they ruled through the will of God. Perhaps that's what you and your adherents believe about you and your office. I don't know.

For no other reason than you are the president Mr. Bush, if tomorrow you got up and said, black is white and white is black, your word would be taken as gospel by the majority of your country. No matter how many times it has been proven that you've lied in the past, or even just been wrong, it doesn't seem to matter.

Mr. Bush, you, and by extension your constituents, seem to take it as a personal affront whenever anyone seems to think that just because it's in America's best interests, doesn't mean it's in the best interests of the rest of the world. You refuse to participate in anything that might end up ruling against you, like the world court; by claiming it's controlled by anti-American sympathisers.

You've convinced the people of your country that everyone is out to get them. They really can't trust anyone except themselves to do the right thing for America, and what's right for America is the only thing that matters. Don't you understand how much that frightens and angers people in other parts of the world?

Mr. Bush, by saying things like that, and acting from that position, you make it come true. Why do you want that sort of world to exist? Why have you geared your whole propaganda machine to convincing your people that they are under continual attack by forces they can't see, and that only you can protect them from?

Please don't take this the wrong way Mr. Bush; I don't hate America or its people. Your country represents some of the finest ideals that have ever resonated through out human history. The only problem is that none of them seem to be on display anymore. In the name of freedom, democracy, and human rights, you have gradually eroded those very principles in the guise of protection.

Mr. Bush you have cynically used and abused your fellow Americans love of country to isolate them from the rest of the world. Anyone who is different, or has a different way of looking at things than you do, is suspect and dangerous. You have thrown up walls around your people and blinded them to the beauty of diversity all in the name of expediting your agenda.

What confuses me the most is what exactly your agenda is Mr. Bush. Was it to make the United States the most powerful nation in the world so it could make everybody do what it wanted? Was it to completely isolate your country from the rest of the world so you and yours could have the freedom to do what you wanted with it?

I can't see what it is you've been trying to do, what vision you have to carry what used to be the beacon that could illuminate the rest of the world with its values into the 21st century and beyond? Your country is probably the most polarized it has been since the civil war in terms of moral and philosophical divisions. Is that leadership? It makes me feel very sad to see what has happened to the promise and vitality that existed, be corrupted to such an extent that Americans are distrusted by so much of the world's populace. Doesn't that give you some indication that something, somewhere is not right in paradise?

There's the old story of the mother watching her son in the marching band commenting on how the whole band is out of step, but her son is keeping perfect time. Do you think it's at all possible, Mr. Bush that this story could be applied to your America? Give it some thought and get back to me if you have the time.

Yours truly,

gypsyman.


The Face Of Afghanistan

In this world of ours where it's so easy to forget things when they are no longer front-page news, it's useful to be able to stumble across pictures or other memory stimulants that remind us of events that have been ongoing for years. Everyday the headlines scream out news about events in Iraq, but before Iraq was Afghanistan, and it too is still the scene of ongoing attacks and death.

I know this is an exaggeration, but at times, it feels like Afghanistan has been forgotten about. You very rarely hear or see about it on the news; press conferences are dominated by information sessions about Iraq; and all people care about is when do the troops come home from the Middle East, perhaps forgetting how many thousands of troops, including American and Canadian, are still stationed in Afghanistan.

Perhaps we in Canada are more sensitive to that situation because we have troops there, and our role is increasing in responsibility. On Tuesday, a Canadian, Brigadier-General David Fraser took command of the International force in Southern Afghanistan that is replacing an American security force that had been patrolling the area.

During the acrimony over Canada's refusal to participate in the Iraq coalition it was conveniently forgotten by many critics, that Canada had been one of the first to agree to participate in Afghanistan. Canada does not have a standing army of any real size, so at the time of the Iraq invasion, we couldn't have contributed in any significant manner anyway, without having to drastically reduce our commitments in other arenas.

Although recent polls are showing that more Canadians are against our involvement than in favour, there was initial support for our involvement. As Americans can understand, as casualties have mounted more people have started to question why we are still there.

The answer to that is unfortunately painfully obvious. Afghanistan is no more stable now than it was four years ago when the invasion took place. Unfortunately, the Taliban and their allies are highly experienced guerrilla fighters and know how to use the mountainous terrain of their homeland to full advantage.

They were never defeated, as far as they were concerned, the war has just moved into a phase that is familiar to them from when they fought the Russians back in the 1980's. Like the Viet Cong in the Viet Nam, they just fade back into the villages and towns of the hill countries when they are not fighting and are next to impossible to monitor.

Even after the liberation of Kabul, the capital city, the fighting has never really stopped. There have been lulls in the conflict, where attempts at rebuilding and solidifying the government are made, but this a country that has very little history of central governance.

Power has always rested in the hands of local warlords and tribal groups. Foreign powers from the British Empire, to the Soviet Union, and, now, the current international force, have found it to be a task of immense proportions to attempt the implementation of any long-term central authority.

Unlike Iraq where there are the oil fields that fuel an economy, Afghanistan is still primarily an agrarian society once one leaves the cities. Conditions have always been difficult for people who try and survive through farming in the formidable terrain of the countries rural districts and outlying provinces.

Since the Soviet invasion of 1979, Afghanistan has known little peace. Far too many times the press will use the expression war torn, and it's meaning has become diluted. But if there were a country that qualifies for that assessment, it would be this one. Everything from families to the means to eke out an existence has been torn apart.

People's lives have been destroyed beyond repair, their futures shattered and their hope destroyed. The human spirit may be hard to destroy, but it certainly can be damaged almost beyond repair.
National Geo Afgan Woman

The picture on the left above has to be one of the most famous to come out of the Afghan War. Steve McCurry took this photo of Sharbat Gula in 1985 for National Geographic Magazine when she was perhaps twelve, or thirteen. Seventeen years later, he was able to find her again to take the picture on the right.

For so many of us her picture in 1985 became a symbol representing all the misplaced children in the world. Hauntingly beautiful, her wide eyes stare at us in a silent challenge that we can't ignore. Looking at her we ask ourselves how can we let this have happened.

It wasn't until Steve tracked Sharbut down seventeen years latter that he learned her story, of how she ended up in that refugee camp in Pakistan. In 2002, when he met up with her again, she might have been thirty. She's not sure because both of her parents were killed in a bombing raid when she was around six during the Soviet invasion and the knowledge of her birth date died with them.

The child on the left has grown into the woman on the right. The face has changed, but the eyes are still haunting and tell us all we need to know about life in Afghanistan for the people who have been caught up in the wars that have been continuous for the past twenty-one years.

I'd like to think that the Canadian army is in Afghanistan so that her children will be able to get the education Sharbat dreams of them getting. In the nineties, she was able to return to her home village where she was married at age sixteen. (The only day in her life she can recall being happy was her wedding day) They have no running water, no school, roads, or medical clinics. They grow basic crops on some terraced fields and there is a stream that runs down the mountainside for fresh water.

The debt that is owed the people of her generation cannot be repaid except by providing a future for her children and ensuring that at least she can stay in her village for the rest of her life. This is the task that faces General Fraser and the troops under his command.

If there is a reason for our armies to be in Afghanistan, don't let it be for something as nebulous as the war on terror, or making the world safe for democracy. Let it be to give that face something to smile about again. Than, I think, they will have truly accomplished something magnificent.


February 19, 2006

The Great Cull

It is obvious that something has to be done. Things have been going from bad to worse, Loss of habitat and increasing over population has been putting a strain on the species' ability to maintain sustainable healthy levels.

Behaviour patterns that could initially be overlooked have now become so predominant that the tranquility and harmony necessary for continued existence has been threatened. Overcrowding, inbreeding, and pockets of isolationist behaviour, have combined to cause all sorts of anti-social tendencies to manifest themselves.

Incest, violence between mates, offspring being abused, abandoned and left to fend for themselves, show that breeding patterns have been adversely affected by these trends. But it doesn't stop there. Interrelationships outside of that dynamic have become untenable as well.

Simple interactions between male of the species, and even females, have become fraught with tension. Foraging behaviours have become more aggressive as more are competing for less. Instead of the previously seen willingness towards compassion, the elderly, lame, and others unable to fend for themselves, are being left to the mercy of predators and the elements.

Worse yet, is an increase of clashes that are not based on survival. There appears to be a continual struggle to assert dominance over each other at a personal and species level. Dominant males have become far more belligerent, utilizing their strength not just to secure better forage and favour among females, but to impose their will on lesser elements within the species.

This in turn has given rise to resentment among those less developed, and has caused an increase in bellicose behaviour. Respect for standards of social norms, regarding the resolution of disagreements, have fallen by the wayside. Instead of direct confrontations between individuals to solve disputes, there has been a steady increase in attacks on secondary individuals.

Another disturbing trend that has been noticed due to the alarming increase in population, is the continual degradation of the species' natural habitat. Not only have normal sources of food become depleted from the effects of over foraging, but also their supply of fresh water has rapidly diminished.

The major culprit for this is that with increased numbers comes an increased amount of refuse. Not only does that foul surface water supplies, but it also contaminates the water table. As fresh water becomes scarcer, the chance of disease spreading increases, and the overall hopes of species survival diminishes.

As they are forced to co-habit less and less territory, the incidence of disease increases dramatically. Aside from the fear of water borne, waste generated, bacterial illnesses that can debilitate thousands, (and increase the waste disposal situation substantially) a sizeable increase in viral type infections and ailments has been noted.

Given the chance of continual incubation due to overcrowding, these viruses mutate too rapidly for immune systems to develop defences. Individuals may be able to resist an initial strain, but a second or even third generation mutation could easily overcome their defences.

Obviously, the situation is fast approaching a critical stage for the species. Unless some type of drastic action is taken in the near future, there is the very real possibility that they could face extinction. While on the one hand this may be seen as a desirable result by some, that takes a rather shortsighted view of the situation.

All species, even ones like this that seem to have no redeeming qualities in terms of what they give back to the planet, have a roll to play. They would not have developed and evolved otherwise. No matter how tempting it might be to let Humanity die out because of their own stupidity, we owe it to the world to attempt to keep them alive.

It's obvious that the normal means of keeping their population in check, mortality and susceptibility to death from injury and illness, have not been sufficient. It has become necessary for us to intervene before it becomes too late. The obvious solution is to begin a cull.

But this cannot be just a cull of the sick and the lame, because that won't solve any of the problems. No, we must have a systematic cull that eliminates individuals from all strata of what they call society. Only then will be there a chance of them finding a balance in the future.

Leaving just the avaricious and powerful alive would only allow similar conditions, that caused the problem in the first place, to be reproduced. We will also have to reduce their numbers significantly enough to allow their habitat to recover, and disease to die out.

Therefore it is this council's recommendation that seventy-five per cent of the existing human population be eliminated post haste. We see it as their best chance of survival.


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February 15, 2006

The Dangers Of Herbal Medicine

I've long been an advocate of what I call complimentary medicine. That is using techniques not normally utilized by your family physician to compliment the work they are doing. I refuse to use the word "alternative" to refer to things like acupuncture, herbal remedies, or massage therapy because that creates a connotation both unsafe and untrue.

The word alternative implies that these treatments can be used instead of, or isolated from, the ways in which our medical system does things. While it's true I might make a cough medicine out of a couple of plant leaves that I know will help as much as any over the counter stuff, I'm still going to go see an orthopaedic surgeon when I break my leg.

Somehow or other the word alternative has come to be equated with harmless when it is used in regards to medicinal practice. People have gotten mighty confused over the meanings of the words natural and organic. Just because it wasn't made in a lab it means it won't hurt you. Tell that to Socrates and the bowl of Hemlock Tea he had to drink.

Herbals are not some new fangled remedy. They were used long before we had pharmaceuticals, and have gone in and out of style with genteel society over the generations. Victorian era society women would have a tisane to help calm their nerves and men would take tonics to restore their "vigour".

It wasn't really until after World War one that people began experimenting with ways of synthesising remedies in a lab. Synthetic versions were thought to have the advantages of being easier to mass-produce, and the standardization of doses.

Herbals do have the disadvantage that from plant to plant a variety of factors can affect their potency. Soil conditions, rainfall, and exposure to sun can all come into play. The other advantage to man-made medicines was the insurance of a constant supply.

All plants have a very specific growing season and harvesting schedule. Some plants, like Dandelion, to have medicinal use can only be picked before June, while others in the fall. The other consideration is that in some instances the root of the plant is called for, and not only could it take years for the root to develop in size, once used the plant has been destroyed.

So, while some people may still have been using herbals, during the post World War two years the use of pharmaceuticals took off. They were convenient to take, and had quick results. Two things that were of major importance in our new faster paced world. People wanted not to be bothered by being sick and needed to get back to work fast. They couldn't afford to take the time it took to heal using herbals.

It wasn't until it became apparent that there were problems with some of the prescription drugs in terms of side effects that people began to rethink that attitude. When women who had been taking the anti nausea drug Thalidomide for morning sickness during pregnancy started to give birth to children with birth defects, it was the first sign that these drugs might not be as safe as was previously thought.

As more and more cracks started to develop in the corporate drug world, and as the sixties progressed, people began to "discover" other methods of dealing with illnesses. Unfortunately, too many people had come to expect the quick fix provided by the synthetic drugs as the standard for treatment, and demanded similar results from herbals.

This has resulted in a willingness to overlook the potential for abuse that exists in herbals as much as it does with any drug. One of the best examples is the way in which Echinacea angustifolia has been misused. The root of this flower had long been known for it's anti microbial properties, and works well to fight off low level infections such as fevers brought on by colds and flu.

But it is a remedy not a preventative. Somehow or other people started to believe it was some sort of miracle drug that they could take to prevent themselves from getting colds or the flu. Would you take an anti-biotic before you got sick? No because it would be dangerous to your health.

But that's exactly what people are doing when they take Echinacea and they have nothing wrong with them. What's even worse is that the demand for the root of this flower has been so high that it has now become an endangered species in the wild. It takes four or five years for an Echinacea plant to become fully developed and it was not given sufficient time to replenish.

Open any decent Herbal Book and not only will it tell you all the properties of the plants: what ailments it should be used to treat, what part of the plant is used, when to pick it, and how to best utilize it (tea, tincture, or compress); it will also tell you it's contradictions. What medical conditions make what herbs unsafe, if you have high blood pressure don't use any liquorice root in a tea for instance, and they always say consult your doctor to see what long-term affects this medicine could have upon any other medications you are taking.

It's been a number of years now since herbals have caught the public's attention again, and have zoomed in popularity. So much so, that you can buy them everywhere now. But even after the idiocy of using an asthma drug in diet pills (ephedra) caused people to have strokes, people don't seem to be learning the lesson that these are potentially dangerous.

It depresses me to see that Health Canada still feels the need to hold conferences on the dangers of mixing herbal remedies and prescription drugs. That they still have to spell out for people that natural does not mean it can't be harmful after all these years of them being on the markets is a sign that the people who are prescribing herbals, and the companies manufacturing them are failing the people they are supposed to be serving.

It's because of the abuse and misuse of herbal remedies and medicinal plants in general that we've already seen some of the more effective treatments become harder and harder to obtain. When it was shown that ephedra and it's derivatives were causing strokes when used in diet pills, it became a proscribed drug.

In every Herbal book, that I've ever made use of, it explicitly states that people with high blood pressure should never use it, and it?s sole purpose is for the opening of bronchial tubes to help relieve asthma attacks. Why companies started to put in into diet products is beyond me.

Herbal remedies have been used for centuries as medicines. Until they were saddled with the label alternative they were treated like we would treat any drug prescribed to us from a doctor. But now, all of a sudden, they have become safe as compared to what our doctor's offer us.

If those of us who make use of these medicines aren't able to change that perception soon, we are gong to find governments moving in to ban the sale of loose herbs, and only allow pre-packaged pills and doses to be sold. That would be a shame, because part of the pleasure of working with herbs is having the ability to circumvent buying a product and making your own remedies.

In a world where we have so little control over so many things, being able to have a say in the medicine I take, even if only in a small way, is a privilege. I would hate to have to give that up.


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February 14, 2006

CD Review: Broadcasting The Blues: Black Blues In The Segregation Era

Most of us have listened to some sort of Blues music at some time or another in our lives. You can't have listened to popular music in the last seventy to eighty years in North America without hearing something, that's got at least a hint of that sound to it.

From Heavy Metal through to the standards of Frank Sinatra, the Blues have been the foundation that most pop music has built upon. Try and imagine what our world would sound like today if the Blues hadn't existed, and I think you'd hear the ringing sounds of silence.

Even the traditional Irish and Scott's ballads that were the backbone of the earliest country music wouldn't have made it out of the Appalachians without a generous dollop of blues music. It was that cross-pollination that gave us the earliest Country-Blues, which in turn led to Sun Records and a guy named Elvis.

The saddest part of the story of the blues has always been that the men and women, who were the writers and singers of this most influential music, toiled in obscurity and without recognition for most of their lifetimes. They'd see their songs and music being performed by young white musicians and never once received a dime for their work.

One of the sad truths of racial segregation and discrimination was that it denied a huge segment of the world the opportunity to hear some of the finest music and musicians perform. Even now early recordings of so many of these people are only in the hands of collectors or museums.

A new triple disc set by Document Records is a tiny step forward in changing that situation. Broadcasting The Blues: Black Blues in the Segregation Era is a wordy title for the set, but an apt one. Paul Oliver, the man who edited and compiled this disc, has been writing and broadcasting on the radio about blues since 1952. If you've never heard of him or his shows it's not surprising, they were on the B.B.C.

I've often wondered how people like Mick Jagger and John Lennon ever heard the blues over in England. They always talked about how much this style of music influenced them, but where on earth did they ever hear it for the first time. Well this must be part of the answer, Paul Oliver's radio shows.

A first quick glance through the nearly ninety songs listed on the back cover and certain names just jump out at you: Ma Rainey, Howlin' Wolf, Robert Johnson, Sonny Boy Williamson, John Lee Hooker, and on and on. It's like a who's who of the greats of the past eighty years of the blues.

The material on these CDs is a compliment to a book Mr. Oliver has published called Broadcasting The Blues. These songs, and interviews, are all taken from the scripts of the radio shows that Mr. Oliver has done over the years for the B.B.C. Some of them were specific documentaries on the Blues, and others were just his radio shows; where his play lists were made up of material dating back as far as the 1920's.

Close to four hours of music crammed onto three discs can be a little overwhelming if there is no cohesion. In an attempt to supply some order to the proceedings, Mr. Oliver has arranged the discs historically: Volume One: "Before the Blues" deals with the roots of the music; Volume Two: "Blues How Do You Do" is an examination of the inspiration for the blues; and Volume Three: "Meaning In The Blues" explores the variety of subject matter sung about in the blues.

Now if that sounds dry as dust, don't worry, because it's all done musically. They are just frameworks to hang the music on. Volume one is the only disc where historical sequence has any real pertinence, as after a couple of pieces of introductory blues, it takes us back to the beginnings. Starting with a Ring Dance as performed by Mamprusi Tribesmen in Africa we cross over to the Southern States to listen to "Holler" or work songs.

Along the way, we taste the music that was played for the "Doctors" and their medicine shows, ballads, and what were known as "Coon" songs. These were mainly satirical songs that helped to deflect some to the sneers of prejudice. Some of the songs on this disc seem to have little to do with what we would call blues music. But it was from these tunes that singing styles and content were developed.

It's on discs two and three that we enter territory we are more familiar with. But what makes these two discs special is the sheer diversity of the material. The voices and music of long dead men and women who sang for the release and the joy of singing echo down the years. Ghosts from a time when sometimes the only way you could escape your hardships were to sing about it.

"It gives you relief?" says Henry Townsend in an interview talking about the blues. Relief from the feelings of being a second-class citizen, of grinding poverty, and of being looked down upon. Just as the spirituals helped slaves find escape from the misery of working in the fields; their latter day cousin the blues helped the children and grand children of slaves escape their soul-destroying reality.

Regretting the past doesn't get you very far, but it's hard not to listen to these discs and regret that the men and women singing on them didn't get the recognition they deserved during their lifetime. The best we can do for them now is to honour their contributions to our culture and our lives by learning their names now, and not letting them be forgotten.

Paul Oliver has put together an incredible collection of music and interviews on Broadcasting The Blues: Black Blues In The Segregation Era. It is discs like these that, are not only a pleasure to listen to, will keep those people alive forever. What's even more exciting is that he's only just begun working through close to fifty years of radio shows. There's plenty more where this came from.



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February 13, 2006

Canadian Politics: The Need For Recall Legislation

One of the major differences between the American political system and Canadian is the ability that American voters have to hold their elected officials accountable during their term in office. In Canada, our only recourse is to await the next election to express our displeasure with an incumbent, but in the U. S., you are able to not only impeach, but also have recalls, which force a politician to run again.

I have only heard of one instance when someone tried a recall in Canada, and that was for a government not a specific politician. That occasion was so fraught with difficulties, (I think it included making sure that you had twenty five left handed albino pipe fitters sign the petition) that I doubt anybody will try the process again.

Of course, as everybody on the receiving end of a recall petition or impeachment proceedings will tell you, the process can be highly partisan. But than again, it's not very likely that anybody from within one's own political party is going to initiate impeachment proceedings against them. For that to happen you'd have to be caught in bed with either a dead person or a live animal, and in some States even that might not be enough.

Now what you do with wildlife in the privacy of your own home is nobody's business but you own, but if you're going to run for public office, there are certain rules of conduct that the people you voted for expect you to adhere to. One of the things most voters expect from you is an iota of partisanship. They voted for you because you claimed to represent a certain party and you believed in that party's platform.

Now in some elections one could safely say that there isn't much to choose from when it comes to the two major political parties in Canada. In times past, on the federal level anyway, the Conservative and Liberal parties were pretty much interchangeable. While it's true that the Liberals have moved slightly to the right of the political spectrum economically, they have stilled stayed socially progressive.

The Conservative Party of Canada has metamorphosed into something new in Canadian politics. They have distinguished themselves from the rest of the field by being socially conservative and seemingly intent on rolling back social ? political changes of the last twenty years.

(A quick background note. In Canadian politics the federal party, has little or nothing to do with the provincial party of the same name. The nature of the provincial parties is such that their policies and platforms change from province to province. Probably only the N.D.P. has some sort of cohesion between the federal and provincial levels. In the last federal election, the Conservative Party in Ontario was remarkably quiet and never, to my knowledge, endorsed their federal counterparts.)

For some voters this meant the recent election was about preventing those changes from occurring. Politicians aware of those feelings played upon their fears in order to assure their re-election. Some Liberal party candidates even wooed potential New Democratic Party (N.D.P.) voters by claiming they were the best chance of stopping the Conservative candidate in that riding.

Now I'm sure some of you have picked up on where I'm heading with all of this, but for those who (the majority of the world) don't pay attention to Canadian politics I'll fill you in. In the Federal election of January 23rd/06, the Conservative party won the most seats in our House of Commons. Although they did not win an out right majority, they still won sufficient seats to form the government.

As the new Prime Minister, Stephen Harper's, leader of the Conservative party, first task was to select members of his caucus to become government Ministers. These would be the people who would take responsibility for implementing the party's agenda within the various departments of the government.

Naturally, he was going to want people who were in agreement with the philosophies espoused by his party during the last election. You'd think the last person he'd want would be someone who had campaigned so vigorously against him that he actively solicited N.D.P. voters to vote for him to help stop the Conservatives.

You'd also think that a person who stood up and gave an acceptance speech talking about how he looked forward to thwarting the Conservatives at every step along the way while serving in opposition, would be a bad choice for as a Cabinet Minister. Well the world of politics is a funny old thing that way, because Mr. Harper selected someone fitting just that description for his cabinet.

David Emerson was elected in the riding of Vancouver-Kingsway as a member of the Liberal Party. He had served as Minister of Industry and Trade in the previous Liberal government and had campaigned as a loyal party member and a staunch supporter of previous Prime Minister Paul Martin.

As the Liberal candidate in his riding, he received 44% of the vote, the N.D.P. candidate came second with 33%, and the Conservative trailed badly with 18%. This was a riding that was strongly against the message the Conservative party was selling. Even if some of Mr. Emerson's support came from people who were voting for him as the man, and not for the party he represented, the fact that 82% of the eligible voters in the riding, who cast a ballot, voted for someone other than the Conservatives lends credibility to the belief they did not support the Conservatives.

Two weeks after standing up and declaring that he would be "Stephen Harper's worst nightmare" David Emerson accepted the same position in the Conservative Cabinet that he had held under Paul Martin. He claimed that after having had lunch with Mr. Harper, he realized he wasn't such a bad guy after all. It wouldn't have anything to do with the increase in salary and perks that go along with being a Cabinet Minister would it?

I think the most surprising thing about this whole situation is the fact that nobody on the Conservative side of things seems to have been prepared for the firestorm of protest that this has caused. What's even worse is the rather blas頭anner in which they seem to be taking to the reactions of the constituents in the riding of Vancouver-Kingsway.

Instead of taking a conciliatory tone in their statements, they appear to be going out of their way to antagonize the voters. Saying things like, you should be grateful that you've got a Cabinet Minister out of the deal, doesn't do much to ease the feelings of betrayal that have been generated by this manoeuvre.

Saturday afternoon hundreds of people gathered in a Vancouver high school to demand that Mr. Emerson resign his seat. They want Mr. Harper to call a by-election and have Mr. Emerson run again, but this time as a Conservative candidate.

With no recall legislation on the books the people of Vancouver-Kingsway have no means of forcing the government to take action. The N.D.P. have formally asked the federal ethics commissioner to investigate Mr. Emerson's defection. They think that Mr. Harper could be in violation of Parliaments conflict of interest guidelines, which prohibits members from acting to advance their own or other Member of Parliaments' (M.P.) personal interests.

I can't see there being much hope in that one, since both Mr. Emerson and Mr. Harper have already covered that one by claiming it was in the best interests of the country to have continuity in such a key portfolio. Anyway, when hasn't a M.P. acted in their own best interest? You investigate one for that; you're going to have to put the lot of them under a microscope.

So, what it comes down to is whether the people of Vancouver-Kingsway can shame the government into actually doing something. As it stands now, the chances of that happening look slim to non-existent.

While a couple of Conservative M.P.s are saying that they are going to propose legislation that would prohibit members from switching parties in mid stream, I've noticed that there has been a conspicuous lack of talk about recall legislation. It seems that although everyone is willing to protest loudly about Mr. Emerson crossing the floor and what a betrayal that act is, nobody is willing to open that particular can of worms.

None of them seem to be too interested in handing voters the power to chuck them out of office before their terms are up. I can't say that surprises me, but it does disappoint me. I'm sure that most of them would reply if asked, that what they most fear would be the ease in which partisan attacks could be formulated by such legislation.

Take the case of a riding where the final margin of victory was decided by a recount. If the loser decides he doesn't like it, he could organize a recall petition in the hopes of getting a new election, and this time making sure all the people who were supposed to vote for him do so.

Out of necessity, any legislation regarding recalls would have to be written in such a manner that abuses could not happen. All that means is that it would take some thought to prepare a bill that would ensure things like what Mr. Emerson did are covered, while partisanship is curtailed as much as possible.

Simply making those behind the recall legislation supply sufficient proof of misdeeds, like they would in a civil case, ought to provide enough of a deterrent to prevent abuse of the legislation. Create a list of behaviours that would be considered unacceptable, and than leave it to the accusers to prove that the person or party are guilty of such misdeeds prior to them being able to begin the process of petitioning for removal and I don't think anyone could complain about the process being partisan.

It is high time that Canada ensures its elected representatives are held accountable for their actions beyond just risking re-election. Why should voters be stuck with someone who has betrayed their confidence in the manner that David Emerson has betrayed the people of Vancouver-Kingsway?


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February 12, 2006

Canadian Politics: N.D.P. To Introduce Childcare Legislation

Here's the scenario. You're an opposition party in the federal House of Commons in Canada right now, where, as everyone knows, there's a Conservative Party of Canada minority government. The Conservatives are going to introduce a whole bunch of legislation that nobody in opposition is going to like when the house reconvenes in April

Now you have enough votes that you could defeat them in the house on any vote you so desire, but that could also be seen as Non-confidence vote. The last thing anybody wants to do right away is have another election. Being the one who pulled the plug on the government would cause a big backlash against your party in the next vote.

So if you don't want to have an election, but at the same time you don't want to support what the government is doing, what do you do? Well the New Democratic Party (N.D.P.) has come up with a solution. Olivia Chow, wife of party leader Jack Layton, has announced her intention to introduce national childcare legislation that would confirm the original deal that the Liberal government had worked out with the provinces

Mr. Harper's Conservative Party had rejected that deal and made plans for their own legislation that has no support outside of his own party. Ms. Chow's proposal would receive the support of all the opposition parties ensuring its passage into law.

The Conservative's will be faced with either scrapping their proposal or having to pay for two childcare legislations. Since the later choice would make them look ridiculous they will be forced to swallow pride and enact the more widely supported act that the previous government had negotiated with the provinces.

Now I'm sure there will be much bleating from the right wing about the opposition subverting the democratically elected government. But they don't have a majority government and have already made it clear that they will try and force through any legislation they can.

The Conservative Party of Canada was willing to cynically take advantage of the opposition's unwillingness to call an early election by defeating them in the house. They have not shown themselves to be willing to work with the opposition, and work out compromises that would make their legislation more palatable to the opposition.

The previous Liberal government, who the Conservatives accused of arrogance, were able to hold onto power by showing a willingness to work with other parties to garner enough votes to be able to enact the legislation they wanted. In a minority government situation if you want to be able to govern you have to be willing to bend.

It's the Conservative Party's own intransigence that has caused the opposition to start proposing their own legislation. By refusing to compromise, and even give the appearance of willingness to work with the opposition, the Conservative Party has left the opposition very few choices. The fact that they are willing to offer alternative solutions to issues, instead of just rejecting them and voting them down, should be seen as something positive.

The opposition is giving the Conservatives the chance to prove that they can govern and work with the other parties by offering a counter proposal. It is now up to them to make the next move. If they continue to refuse to work within the confines of a minority government they face the very real possibility of becoming redundant to the actual governance of Canada.

There is nothing stopping the other three parties from forming a loose, unofficial coalition. The N.D.P., the Bloc Quebecois, and the Liberals have more in common with each other than either have with the Conservative Party. If they work things correctly they will be able to ensure that it is their agenda that is carried out and not that of the Conservatives.

This is a situation without precedent in Canadian politics. While there have been minority governments before, the circumstances that have caused this dynamic to develop are new. For the first time ever we have four viable political parties with significant support in the house. The other factor is the governing party has no one in the opposition whom they can turn to for support.

The Liberals and the Bloc Quebecois are the only parties with sufficient seats to guarantee Conservative legislation passing in the house. The chances of the Liberals endorsing any part of the Conservative platform enough to come to an agreement on governing are slim to say the least. ( Of course if David Emerson is anything to go by Steven Harper may just have to offer enough them Cabinet positions and he could have a majority government)

While the Bloc Quebecois may support the Conservatives on issues of provincial rights, they are miles apart on social issues. The Conservatives didn't do anything to endear themselves with the Bloc anyway by appointing a non-French speaking Anglophone as minister in charge of French Language rights. The chances of The Bloc forming any sort of permanent alliance with the Conservatives is slim at best.

Of course that alliance would be problematic for the Conservatives anyway, seeing how they had spent a good part of the campaign condemning any perceived alliance with the Bloc by other parties as a betrayal of Canada. Than again, judging by their actions in the last week they seem perfectly content to say one thing and do another, so that may not be such a problem for them after all.

Ideally what will come from the opposition forcing the government's hand by introducing legislation is we will get a situation where all four parties work together to best represent all of Canada. This will require the Conservative Party of Canada, and it's leader Stephen Harper, to realise they will not be able to cram their legislation down the throats of parliament.

On the other hand if Mr. Harper is not careful he may well become the first Prime Minister of Canada whose a lame duck before he even starts his first term of office.


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February 9, 2006

American Deserters In Canada: Refugees Or Criminals

According to the Ministry of Citizenship and Immigration a person seeking either asylum or refugee status in Canada qualifies under one of two provisions.

The first, A Convention refugee (refers to the 1951 Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol.) is someone seeking to enter Canada: "who is outside of their country of nationality or habitual residence and who is unable or unwilling to return to that country because of a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, political opinion, nationality or membership in a particular social group"

The second, Person In Need Of Protection, is a person: "in Canada whose removal to their country of nationality or former habitual residence would subject them to the possibility of torture, risk to life, or risk of cruel and unusual treatment or punishment."

It is up to the applicant in both instances to offer sufficient proof to the refugee board that any of the above conditions would apply to them if they had to return to their country of origin. There are of course provisos to these clauses to prevent their abuse. Canada, much to the surprise of certain American talk show hosts, doesn't want to find itself a haven for terrorists fleeing "persecution", will not grant such status to those "determined to be inadmissible on grounds of security, human rights violations, serious criminality or organized criminality"

Unfortunately there are a lot of grey areas in this whole situation. Obviously some of the above definitions, especially security and criminality, will depend on the claimant's country of origin. If the country is one that denies its citizens basic liberties, and the person applying for shelter is in opposition, any records obtained from their home country would show them as a criminal and security threat.

Would Canada allow in someone who had actively participated in violent acts against that government? Or would we only allow those who through no fault of their own, or who through peaceful activity found themselves if peril. In most cases it would be no to the first instance and yes to the second.

Obviously there are mitigating circumstances in both instances. A person who can prove that their acts of violence were in self-defence would probably be admitted. On the other hand a person who hasn't committed a violent act, but is proven to have financially or otherwise provided substantial support to acts of terror may not be allowed in the country.

During the Viet Nam war Canada became a safe haven for American youth seeking to elude the draft. Quite a few of them ended up becoming permanent citizens. I'm not actually certain on how that whole process worked, but I think a great many of them simply immigrated and didn't apply for refugee status. In those days it was far easier to just immigrate if you had someone to sponsor your application. (If anyone knows otherwise I would be very interested in finding out, a quick search of the web didn't reveal much of use)

None of these individuals were actually members of the American armed forces at the time of their coming to Canada. They were fleeing the prospect of becoming soldiers so they could legitimately claim to be conscientious objectors, which may have been sufficient grounds to apply for refugee status.

This is one of the major differences in the case that is currently being heard by the Federal Court of Canada in the matter of Jeremy Hinzman's appeal of the Refugee Board's decision to refuse his application for refugee status. Mr. Hinzman had been enlisted in the 82nd Airborne Division when he left the U.S. to come to Canada to avoid serving in the Iraq War.

He is not just a draft dodger, but a deserter from the American army. He has requested asylum in Canada because he fears he will face persecution in the United States for his refusal to take part in the Iraqi war. He claims that he would have considered himself to be committing a crime if he had killed anyone during the course of the war, because the war itself is illegal.

During his initial application the Refugee Board refused to allow arguments to be entered on the legality of the war. They claimed all that mattered was the circumstances Mr. Hinzman would face if he were returned to the United States. They also questioned the veracity of his claim to be a conscientious objector because he had enlisted in the armed forces.

But the biggest question of all is what constitutes persecution. According to the Refugee Board because the United States is a democracy with a justice system. That any prosecution brought against Mr. Hinzman could not be equated with persecution.

There have been two arguments raised in an effort to rebut that statement. Amnesty International claims that because Mr. Hinzman took reasonable steps to obtain exemption from combat duty on the grounds of conscientious objection, that the potential prison term he faces is unjust.

Mr. Hinzman's lawyer, who is also representing another man in the same circumstances, argued that placing his client in the hands of the American justice system would be like asking to be "thrown into the fire". In other words he is questioning the potential of his client(s) to obtain a fair trial.

While the argument presented by Amnesty International stumbles against the "why was he in the military in first place if he was a conscientious objector" question, and thus loses some validity, his lawyer's objection is worth considering. Although the mood in the United States is decidedly less pro-war then earlier, there is still sufficient sentiment in its favour that would make a fair trial a difficult proposition.

Although desertion during wartime is no longer a capital offence in the United States, the underlying emotions behind that sentence are still prevalent in the American psyche. It is taken as a betrayal of the worse kind; a rejection of your patriotic duty. Accusations of cowardliness and treachery are sure to be directed at Mr. Hinzman and any of the other young men who are now seeking asylum in Canada on these grounds.

While he can no longer be sentenced to death, the maximum sentence is five years for Mr. Hinzman, consider what his life would be like after he is released from prison. What kind of social stigma would be attached to him for the rest of his life? He will be forever known as a deserter, a traitor, and unpatriotic.

What kind of quality of life can he expect to live under those conditions? Persecution does not just come in the form of what a government can do to you directly; it can also come from the attitudes created by that government. The Bush administration has created an us or them mentality in the Untied States.

If you support the war in Iraq you are a good American, if you don't you are unpatriotic and working against the well being of your fellow citizens. What would that attitude make of a person who was in the army, but refused to go fight in this war? Especially if he says this war is illegal.

The government of the United States wouldn't need to persecute Mr. Hinzman or any of the other deserters hiding in Canada. The atmosphere they have created, aided and abetted by huge portions of the media, would accomplish it without them. They can sit back and pretend their hands are clean while Mr. Hinzman is ripped to pieces.

One of the grounds for applying for refugee status in Canada is a well-grounded fear of persecution for reasons of political opinion. Well I think it's safe to say that Mr. Hinzman will be heavily persecuted on many fronts for his political opinions. While he may not come to any physical harm, the psychological trauma to him and his family would undoubtedly be severe.

If for no other reason than that, Mr. Hinzman, and any other deserters should be given refugee status in Canada. They are not going to be welcomed back with open arms into their country of origin by any stretch of the imagination, so we should offer them a chance for a new life.

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February 8, 2006

Conservative Party of Canada: Hypocricy In Action

I wonder if there were actually people who believed Stephen Harper when he said he was going to be different from other politicians. "We're not like those other guys, the Liberals" he implied through out his whole campaign, and in the days leading up to the election. "We are open and above board and don't stoop to political chicanery to get things done."

Usually it takes a politician at least a few months in office to succumb to the temptations of power. They make some sort of effort to live up to their promises of accountability and clean living. The Conservative Party of Canada must have set some kind of record for acting like hypocrites.

They hadn't even been given the keys to government washrooms and they've done two things for which they condemned the Liberals in the past. In fact both instances show how quickly they've learnt the lesson of political expediency taking precedence over promises and supposedly entrenched party policy.

Ever since the Conservative Party of Canada was in their first incarnation as the Reform Party, one of their major complaints has been with the Canadian Senate. The governing party appoints Senators in Canada, usually as a reward for service to the party. Our Senate has very little actual power, they might be able to delay the passing of a law, but they can't prevent anything.

The Reform Party, and now The Conservative Party of Canada, has demanded all along that Senators, if not elected by the public, at least chosen by provincial legislators, with each province being guaranteed a certain number of Senators. This, would prevent governing parties from appointing Senators willy-nilly to suit their own nefarious purposes.

One of the things they were most set against was the appointment of people to the Senate in order to offer them a position in a government's Cabinet. Many governments have done this in the past when they do not have a member elected in a province, or a region, so that they can at least have the appearance of representing that part of the country.

After nigh on twenty years of complaining about this practice, the first thing this first time governing party does is (This party had never formed a government in Canada, no matter what newspapers say about the first Conservative government in thirteen years. This is not the same political party that was elected under Brian Mulroney. That party was known as the Progressive Conservative party) that very thing.

They appoint some party hack, Michale Fortier from Quebec to the Senate so they can put him in the Cabinet. This is a guy who is quoted as saying that he didn't want to run in the election, because the time wasn't right to be involved with politics. What could have changed in less then a month?

Maybe being offered a Cabinet post without having to go to all that trouble of being elected, or actually risking getting people's approval had something to do with it. Considering that the Conservative's didn't win a single seat in Montreal and that is where M. Fortier is from, could it have been decided in advance?

Okay it looks like we're not going to get any seats in Montreal, so will you make the sacrifice of taking a Senate seat, and a place in Cabinet? You'll have to run in the next election, but by than it will be fine, everyone will have forgotten how you got in power.

Last spring the Conservative party made quite the stink when one of their members crossed the floor to join the Liberals. Belinda Stronach had lost the leadership race to Stephen Harper, and was considered very liberal on social issues. She supported same-sex marriage and was pro-choice. She had tried to work within her party and it wasn't working.

She was offered a cabinet post in the Liberal government, and more room for advancement. The timing of course was seen by the Conservatives as being the biggest betrayal, because it was the one vote that allowed the Liberals to stay in power last spring. But in some ways that makes the most sense; if you no longer support the party your with, you don't want to go into an election as a member of their caucus.

Naturally at the time, Mr. Harper condemned this behaviour as underhanded and a betrayal of the democratic principles behind elections; she had been elected a Conservative, and was now a Liberal, what would the people of her riding think. She gave the voters in her riding a chance to decide on her in this past election, and she actually increased her margin of victory as a Liberal, over what it had been as a Conservative.

So imagine everyone's surprise that David Emerson who was elected as a Liberal, in a riding where the Conservatives finished dead last, showed up at the Governor General's mansion on Monday to be sworn in as a member of the Conservative party's new Cabinet.

This was a man who during the election was calling Conservatives a party with a hidden agenda that discriminated against immigrants, (his riding is heavily immigrant) and encouraged New Democratic Party voters to vote for him in an attempt to stop the Conservatives. In his victory speech after winning his riding he promised to be vigilant in fighting the Conservatives in any infringements of civil liberties and social issues.

Now he's a Minster in their Cabinet committed to ensuring their survival as a government. Even when it comes to such issues as same ? sex marriage, which he voted for the last time, and tighter immigration laws that he threatened his constituents with if they voted Conservative.

Mr. Harper, of course, sees nothing untoward about a member of another party switching sides to come and work for him. That's totally different than someone going the other way. I just wonder why it doesn't constitute a betrayal of the people who voted for Mr. Emerson as a Liberal, nearly three to one over the Conservative candidate, and a betrayal of the democratic principles behind elections?

The Reform Party used to see themselves as some sort of anti-politician political party. We won't conduct business as usual in that corrupt Ottawa way. But now that they have finally obtained power under the name of The Conservative Party of Canada, they've set a land speed record for political hypocrisy.

They haven't even opened their first session of parliament and they already look like the opportunistic liars and cheats they used to accuse the Liberals of being. They said it was because the Liberals were venal and corrupt from long years in power with no one to challenge them. This Conservative Party has never been in power and has already proven them selves to be as arrogant and cynical as the Liberals ever were.

That doesn't really inspire much trust in anything they say does it? I think we would be wise not to give them too much time in power, for their own good. They wouldn't want to become just another political party now would they?


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February 6, 2006

That's it. I've fuckin' had

That's it. I've fuckin' had it; enough's enough. I suppose everybody has a saturation point and I think I've just about reached mine. What am I on about now you ask? Well just about everything if you really want to know.

It can be pretty much whittled down to what's been in the papers lately. War, war, and just for an alternative how about some talk about a new war. Of course if you want a change in diet from war there's always religion, which usually leads to war so you might as well just see above.

There are the daily reports from Iraq, or if you're really unlucky, about Iraq from the folk safely back home not getting shot at behind their podiums. We can win the war in Viet Nam; oh I'm sorry that would be Iraq. We will only bring the troops home when the job is done not a moment earlier.

How do you know when that happens? Anyone figured that out yet? Does the body count have to fall below a certain level first, or is it when the number of troops that you've got left on the ground has dropped too far. How many lives were budgeted to be lost in advance? " Well if we want to take on Iran afterwards we can only lose so many"?

Iran is the new war by the way. "Can't rule out the military option" is every one's favourite phrase this weekend. It will be easy; just change all those q's to n's and were set.

Nobody pays attention to the names, as long as they sound Arabic nobody will notice that it's the same speech you gave about Iraq two and half years ago. Nuclear weapons ? weapons of mass destruction; what's the difference? Not much really, or at least, not so anybody's going to notice.

Anyway think of how easy it will be. Right next door to Iraq, all we have to do is just cross over the border and we're there. The navy and the air force are getting bored; they haven't had the chance to blow anything up from the sky in a while. The sailor types are just itching to launch more of those tomahawk cruise missiles and I'm sure the air force is looking at having to spend some of its budget if it wants to buy more toys next year.

Give them some new targets for goodness sakes!

Oh and hey, remember Afghanistan? Yeah that was the place the war on terror started, our first victory. Except we still haven't won that one because people are still getting killed over there pretty frequently by those guys we defeated.

The Taliban are still out there in the mountains. They come out of their caves periodically to kill a bunch of people and remind them that if the NATO troops ever leave they'll be running the country again in less than two months. But we won that war didn't we? Didn't we?

If that's not bad enough reading about all of that every single day, there's the ongoing war on terror in North America to curl your toes. The President of the United States has no problem authorizing illegal wiretaps on anyone who might be a security threat. I want to know who makes the list and what constitutes a security threat?

Twenty years ago I was considered too much of a security risk to work at the G-8 conference in Toronto Ontario. There was a pretty picture taken of me in front of the American consulate in the early 1980's protesting the testing of cruise missiles in Canada. I guess that made me too dangerous to hand out press releases to journalists.

I'd guess you wouldn't want to phone Cindy Sheehan up right about now and make any jokes about where she wants the dynamite delivered. Is their list of "Dangerous Subversives" going to be along the lines of Nixon's "Enemy List"? (If so, there's going to be a lot of competition to get on it. What kind of leftist are you if you couldn't get on Bush's "Subversive List). You know the one that had people like Bill Cosby and Warren Beatty on it; threats to America each and everyone of them. (Well maybe they are, but for different reasons than Nixon's people thought)

Of course nobody's going to have to worry about an invasion from Canada now. The border is going to be patrolled by Blackhawk Helicopters and fighter jets. That's good, so now when they see a possible terrorist crossing the Peace Bridge they can just blow him and any fellow travelers away with a rocket attack.

That there's the whole anti-Muslim thing going on that's starting to stick in my craw. Okay some of them are damned scary, and nobody, and I mean nobody, has the right to randomly blow up innocent civilians no matter how justified they think they are. Just because it's being done by bombs from the sky doesn't legitimize it any more then if it's dynamite strapped to some yahoo's body.

The thing is though that the rest of the world has pissed on the Muslims since their inception. It started with the Crusaders and has been going on ever since. "Death To the Infidels" was something that was shouted from as many Christian mouths as Saracen.

They tried to be nice, they let Christians and Jews live under their rule and practice their beliefs. They used to be a damn site more tolerant of Jews than the Christians were, just check out Muslim Spain if you want verification of that little fact.

But you keep pushing people too far and you're going to create the situation we find ourselves in today. It's sort of been lost in the shuffle that the Scandinavian countries have been recently contemplating passing laws prohibiting parts of the Muslim dress code, or enacting legislation limiting Islamic immigration.

Muslim people have been treated like something you scrape off the bottom of your shoe by our erstwhile allies in Europe since the end of World War Two. For some reason there was a serious shortage of able bodied man power at the end of that little set too, so most of Western Europe was more than willing to open their borders to "guest workers".

Some of these guests have been there for two generations but will never be allowed to become citizens or allowed to vote in the country where they born. If it hadn't been for these folk I'd like to see how well off the European Union would be now. In Germany they have an affectionate name for Turkish guests: cockroaches.

Like I said I'm not excusing the behaviour of any of the bomb-toting cowards who won't at least stand up and fight for what they believe in. I've more respect for a soldier who fights his enemy face to face, even if I don't believe in what they are fighting for, than any of these "martyrs". (Although martyrs have always pissed me off: "Oh it's okay I can do it myself, I'm used to it" becomes "Oh look at me I've just blown myself up to kill some women and kids, aren't I special?" real fast in my opinion. And vice versa.)

But, I hate to say it, what really has made me so tired of it all, to the point of having to write this post or cry for a week, is the predictability of it all. Something happens in the world and you know before anyone says anything what everybody is going to say.

Right, left, centre, whatever or whoever can always be counted on to say the same things over and over again. So very few people sound like they thing anymore. My opinion is decided by my politics not what I feel personally.

I can never agree with George Bush even if he's correct because he's a Republican and a Christian. Or I can never agree with Al Gore because he's a godless Democrat. I know those are pretty simplistic examples but you know what I mean.

Hell I'm supposed to be left of centre I suppose, but that's only because I believe if we're going to have governments the least they could do is look after the people who elected them. I don't mean their corporate sponsors either, I mean the people who live in their country and are just trying to make do the best they can.

I've never understood what's so wrong with making sure everybody has a decent education, a place to live, and enough food to eat. Governments don't seem to be good for anything else, so the least they could do are those few things. If that makes me a socialist or worse in some people's eyes, so be it.

But good lord the crap that comes out of people's mouths who I'm supposed to be politically allied with is just as much a conditioned reflex as the stuff that comes out of a conservative Christian's mouth. It's like everybody has a switch they flip which shuts off their brain and ears so they can talk without being interrupted.

Okay, I'm done. I think the pressure gauges have stopped red lining now, and I can go back to being sort of calm and rational for a while. This world is a pretty spectacular place and part of its charm is the diversity of thought, opinion, and belief. We all need to take more time to appreciate it, including me.


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July 25, 2005

Egypt, Anwar Sadat, Mubarak and The West

Six years ago I was just starting to write this blog and the world wasn't much different then it is today. One of the big stories in the summer of 2005 was a horrible terrorist attack that took place in Egypt as the country was again punished by Islamic fundamentalist terrorists for not only its close ties to the West, but its recognition of the state of Israel and the peace existing between the two nations. Anwar Sadat, who had signed the historic peace treaty when president of Egypt, had already paid for his courage with his life and his people continued to pay for their support of the deal with attacks like the one that occurred that summer.

While there is no way either Sadat's or his successor, Hosni Mubarak's, governments could have been described as democratic, the role they played in the stabilization of the region and the easing of tensions in the Middle East can never be under estimated. This may explain some of the hesitancy on the part of Western leadership in endorsing the forced resignation of Mubarak from his position as President. What does this mean for the future of peace in the Middle East? What will happen if an Islamic regime along the lines of the one in Iran is established in Egypt? Now the chances of the armed forces in Egypt allowing that to happen are extremely unlikely, as like the armies of Turkey and Algeria, they are pragmatists who understand the importance of maintaining good relations with the West. Still, the revolution in Iran started off as a secular revolt with the religious leadership only wresting control by exiling and killing off their secular allies. So anything is possible. Now I'm no supporter of military dictatorships, but sometimes there are worse things for a country so lets try and keep things in perspective over the next little while and give the people of Egypt the chance to find their own way.

Six years ago the Western media almost ignored the terror attack on the people of Egypt, a country that was fighting the war on terror when the USA was still funding Al'Quida and other Islamic fundamentalists and Saddam Hussein was the big ally in the region. Instead of consulting Mubarak we expected him to toe our line and try not to hang himself on the tightrope we forced him to walk when ever the West would take unilateral action in the Middle East. Egypt was expected to do what we wanted them to with very little in return in the way of support aside from being allowed to buy the second best arms the Americans had to sell. Perhaps if we had done a little more on the economic and social side of things instead of leaving them to suffer the consequences of the world economy without any assistance - in fact if we hadn't continually treated them like a second class ally, the events of the past month might not have played out in the same way. We asked a lot of Egypt and her people and didn't give them much in return - we need to do better in the future.

Nearly thirty years ago a leader of a country that had been at war for the previous thirty years took the courageous stand of extending his hand in peace. That he was Anwar Sadat of Egypt and the person he extended his hand to was Menachem Begin the Prime Minister of Israel made it all the more courageous.

For the first time since the formation of the state of Israel a peace treaty between them and an Arab nation existed. One of the five countries that had sworn to drive them into the sea had reversed their stand and opened the door to the possibility of peace for the region. While there can be doubt that for both parties this involved an immense leap of faith, Anwar Sadat was stepping the furthest into uncharted territory.

Just five years after the Yom Kippur war in which Israel had once again fought off a determined attempt to conquer their land by their neighbours, neither side could be blamed for mistrusting the other. But Egypt was truly on their own in this foray. Perhaps they had tacit understanding from Jordan, but publicly every other Arab League nation condemned them as traitors.

We may never know what truly prompted Sadat's change of heart. Probably it was a combination of realizing how crippling continuous warfare was becoming, the need to establish better relationships with the U. S., and perhaps a little of "if you can't beat them join them". Whatever the motivations the fact remains that from that moment on they have been the one guaranteed not openly hostile Arab country within the region towards Western and Israeli interests.

Certainly there have been falling outs at times, disagreements that have threatened the fragile peace, but it has never collapsed in spite of pressures on the Egyptians from countless sources. Even the assassination of Anwar Sadat by Islamic fundamentalists did nothing to shake their resolution.

Egypt has a long history of being a secular nation, and there in perhaps lies some of the answer to the desire for peace. Even prior to the signing of the Camp David Accord in March of 1979 they had experienced outbreaks of violence similar to those that ended up toppling the Shah of Iran in 1980.

By expanding the economic opportunities available to his country through peace with the U.S. and Israel Sadat may have hopped to improve the lot of his people. The fewer people who were discontent the less chance the fundamentalists would have of whipping up discord. There is also no doubt that he clamped down very hard on those sects advocating violence against Israel and in doing so probably sealed his own doom.

President Mubarak has continued this hard line against fundamentalists while working to build on the peace process started by his predecessor. He walks the tightrope between keeping his Arab allies happy and maintaining ties with both Israel and the U.S. He was a key player in prodding the Palestinian leadership away from terrorism and into recognising the right of Israel to exist as a nation.

His ability to do nothing and keep his Arab allies in check has prevented escalations of retaliatory actions. His refusal to allow the fundamentalists any sort of toehold within his country, mainly due to self interest, has served as a bulwark for the region against the more radical elements.

Mubarak and his government have been fighting the war on terrorism long before George Bush thought of it. Next to Israel they have been the favourite targets of suicide bombers and other acts of terror. For more then a quarter of a century they have been under these attacks and have not once wavered in their commitment to the peace process.

Hundreds, thousands even, of civilians have been killed. The armed forces and the police devout themselves to the prevention of attacks and rounding up potential threats. But what recognition do they ever receive from the west?

During the last two weeks bombs have exploded in both London and Egypt. When the bombs went off in London we were inundated with pictures and stories. The brave Londoners carry on with business as usual; personal stories of some of the victims; statements of outrage; and avowals of revenge.

When the bomb went off in Egypt killing eighty eight people and injuring hundreds more we got the story. Nothing else. To their credit George Bush and Tony Blair's government both issued statements of support and condolence. No other world leaders said a word. No condolences, no personal stories, no guarantees of support. Nothing but silence.

It was the same people doing the bombing, or at least people with the same motivations and interests. Yet it was treated as having nothing to do with us. Egypt has been on the front lines of the war against terror for twenty five years and nobody acts as if it matters.

If you were an Egyptian and compared the reactions of the Western press and leadership to the bombings of London and the most recent killings in Egypt how would you be feeling right about now? I think I would be pretty pissed off. It smacks of indifference of the worse kind.

I don't believe in coincidences. The people behind both bombings knew what the reactions would be like and they'll use it against us. Look, why are you doing anything for them, they don't care about you, they'll say. There is already enough distrust for us in the Middle East that it wouldn't take much turn more people against the West.

Anger and emotions are dangerous and easy to manipulate. There will be enough people willing to listen to that kind of talk that it is dangerous for us to take it for granted. The Egyptian government has a hard enough time as it is without us compounding their difficulties by giving short shrift to attacks on their people.

While Tony Blair may be George Bush�s buddy in the occupation of Iraq and he feels obligated to make a big display over the terrorist actions in London (as well he should) Egypt has been working for peace in the Middle East for close to thirty years. They have been on the receiving end of countless acts of terrorism including the assassination of their leader. Hasn�t that earned them some sort of standing in our eyes?

Without Egypt the Middle East would be in a lot worse shape than it is now. Our reaction, governments, press, and individuals, to the events of the past week there have been shameful. We can not continue to display indifference to our allies in the Muslim world. That just plays into the hands of the terrorists.

cheers
gypsyman


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May 17, 2005

The Polarization of Politics

Eriana (my wife) and I were talking the other day about the legacy of a Prime Minister of Canada. Brian Mulroney was around during the heydays of Ronald Reagan and Maggie Thatcher and was a big fan of their politics; he was our first right wing ideologue. Being a Canadian he was not as severe as them, but he was enough of one to plant the same seeds as his fellow travellers. Until his tenure you could feel fairly secure that no matter what the political stripe of the party in charge in Canada that things would be governed according to a certain standard. That a certain code: universality of social programs, respect for the poor, and compassion, would be maintained. But in his wake we have been left with the polarization of our political spectrum.

On the one hand are the social and financial conservatives who preach stop spending on social programs, less government interference (read regulating business practices concerning labour, the environment, and equal pay for equal work) and something called traditional family values (American sit-com from the fifties and early sixties lifestyle). The other end of the spectrum ranges from middle of the road liberal/conservatives who preach a more moderate approach, social democrats who want increased spending, and then the variety of groups who have sprung up to defend the various groups affected by the reductions in spending on social programs, or whose lives have been damaged by the imposition of a rigid morality.

On reflection I realize that this of course is not a uniquely Canadian experience. As usual we are a milder reflection of what has occurred in the rest of the world. Since the onset of globalization, the fall of the east block, and increased demands by the "developing" nations for a better life, we have been witness to an increase in regional tensions far beyond anything witnessed during the height of the Cold War. Instead of the easily monitored manoeuvrings of two major players, each day brings a new point of conflict into focus. Divisions fall along lines ranging from tribal, economic, religious and regional. A whole new lexicon has been invented to describe the horrors we have learnt how to inflict on each other: ethnic cleansing and collateral damage make inexcusable behaviour sound mundane enough to be read on the nightly news.

If I were as truly paranoid as I think I am I would give credence to those who claim this is all part of the agenda of the conservative Christian right. These are the people who actively support the idea that Armageddon would be what the world needs right now so that they can ascend and assume their place on the right side of Christ leaving the unbelievers to rot in hell. Believing as they do that the beginning of the end will occur in Israel they actively support the more militant factions who want nothing to do with the peace process with the Palestinians, hoping to ensure the battle to end all battles will occur in their lifetimes.

I know this sounds like the work of a few isolated kooks, and I continually reassure myself of that fact, but sometimes the facts fly in the face of such reasoning. Both Ronald Reagan and the current incarnation of Bush were or are either firm believers in this prophecy or surrounded by people who both endorse it and are capable of bringing it to fruition without leaving any fingerprints. American foreign policy has for the last twenty years (more really but its only recently been so overt) created the conditions that have given rise to the fanaticism in the Muslim world. There's nothing like ostentatious displays of wealth combined with aggressive behaviour, with support for seemingly oppressive regimes tossed in for good measure, to make the job of leaders like Bin Ladin easy.

Add in the hypocritical policy decisions of the past: arming Hussein to fight the Iranians, arming the Taliban to fight the Russians, and working hand in glove with Bin ladin family in order to curry favour with Saudi Arabia's government, you a sure fire recipe for Muslim unrest. This is the ideal situation for the right wing Christian movement. An enemy who is easy to stir up unrest against because they look different, believe different, and whose pride and honour can only take so many beatings.

Now you can't give the policy makers all the credit for the situation we're in, not even they could have orchestrated all the details to fall out the way have, but they sure have taken advantage of them in order to suit their needs. Instead of working with peoples to come up with viable alternatives to violence and poverty they have instituted a policy of hit them while their down. When a people are completely without hope, they are going to grasp at any hand that offers them a chance to retaliate at the one who has seemingly put them down.

Although the polarization of the world appears at first blush to be merely happenstance, or even simple short-sightedness, I do believe that a very definite agenda is being followed. I do not believe it is with the ultimate goal of Armageddon as is so hoped in certain circles (too many wealthy people have too much money invested) but the us against them feelings generated have made circumstances easier to manipulate for governments, allowing them to sway populations to their view points by pushing the right emotional buttons.

There is of course a solution, and that is to provide a viable alternative to what is being offered. It could be left up to people at large to accomplish this by letting politicians know we would support a more conciliatory approach to governing. Politicians do not like taking chances, so until we let them know that this is what we want none of them will have the bravery to stand up and say we have to do something different. Why not keep that in mind the next time you have to vote for somebody?

April 24, 2005

Steven Lewis: My Ethical Compass

Yup that's right even a seemingly cynical guy like me can have heroes. I admit they are few and far between because I have pretty high standards as far as public figures go(there are tons of heroes in this world: single moms and dads who raise their kids up well, people who work 15 hour shifts in emergency rooms etc) For the most part I assume that they have an agenda of their own that they follow and their endeavors are simply a means to an end. But that only makes the exceptions that much more exceptional.

Steven Lewis is currently the United Nations special envoy to Africa. He has the utterly thankless and heartrending job of trying to convince the rest of the world to do something about the plight of people living in that colonial hung over continent. The obstacles to overcome include: distinct cultural groups forced into artificial boundaries thus inflaming old tribal hatreds, famine, overpopulation, extreme poverty(brought about by debt ridden governments, corrupt governments, exploitation of natural resources by foreign nationals with little or no money staying in the countries of origin), complete lack of infrastructure that we take for granted(sewers, schools and roads), poor agricultural practices, decease(about 1 in 4 people in Africa will be or are H.I.V. positive), and, the most difficult of all, the complete indifference of the rest of the world.

Mr. Lewis has a history of being the social conscience for society. His father was leader of the social democratic New Democrat Party of Canada (N.D.P.) who fought long and hard for the rights of the downtrodden in Canada(His book "Corporate Welfare Bums" was the first real expose of how major corporations were able to increase profits at our expense through tax breaks which were theoretically supposed to ensure the development of new jobs, but in reality ended up lining the pockets of the owners) Picking up the political mantle from his father Steven became leader of the provincial N.D.P. in Ontario, Canada's largest most heavily populated and industrialized province.

Although neither man ever held power they both managed to effect meaningful changes in government policy, especially Steven during his time in Ontario politics. Through his efforts we in Ontario had one of the more comprehensive tenant protection acts visa vi universal rent control. Until these laws were gutted by a subsequent radical conservative ruler they kept a lid on drastic increases in rent thus guaranteeing affordable housing with dignity and choice.

As a young man Steven fought against injustice by joining Martin Luther King Jr.'s freedom riders in the deep south. In the late sixties he traveled to Africa for the first time, when he worked as a volunteer during the first horrific famine of this era in Biafra. Civil war caused by the dissolving of colonial rule without safeguards caused massive population displacement and the first contemporary images, that have become all too familiar, of mothers holding babes starving to death in their arms, fly covered and stomachs bloated, were broadcast into our homes. Instead of waking the rest of the world to the potential of the horror that could be unleashed, the warning of Biafra was ignored, as it seems is each subsequent disaster.

All we need do is witness the forlorn efforts of General Daliard of Canada to interest the world powers in preventing genocide in Rwanda to realise that the message still hadn't sunk in ten years ago. With Sudan now a powder keg we can only hope that more then just token admonishments are being considered(The Bush government's declarations of "genocide" months ago when describing the situation ring cynical when considered in the light of their inaction in doing anything concrete and the rich oil deposits in the Sudanese deserts.)

We are left with a single man as our conscience, fighting to keep Africa in the headlines of the papers, making a nuisance of himself by telling anyone who will listen how truly horrific the situation has become. Mr Lewis doesn't just sit at a desk in the U.N.'s offices in New York city. He's out in the villages meeting the aid workers and the people struggling to live with the death sentence of AIDs. Fighting to get condoms distributed, sex education classes implemented, and to just get people to openly talk about the deadly swath that AIDS is cutting through the population against the wishes of the American government, Christian and Muslim fundamentalists, and deep rooted tribal taboos about discussing such subjects.

As Canada's Ambassador to the U.N. in the eighties Mr. Lewis was aggressive in pursuing an agenda of opening the world to the plight of the Africans. The reward for his efforts has been to become a one man spokesperson and fulcrum for anything positive to get done on that continent. He has set up a charitable foundation to fight AIDS through education and medical assistance(I believe it is simply called The Stephen Lewis AIDS foundation) So even if his official ties through the U.N. are ever dissolved, he will always be involved in the fight to put right the wrongs of our past.

If he just simply did this, he would deserve our respect. The fact that he can do this with hope, and without anger and cynicism, with compassion and strength, and still maintain his enthusiasms for life, well that just makes him all the more deserving of our thanks.

Thank You Steven Lewis.

cheers
gypsyman


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April 2, 2005

First Week Of Blogging

Well this brings my first week of blogging to an end. Lots has happened in the world since I signed on, so I'd thought doing a recap of events local and international might be appropriate. The death watch has started for John Paul. After weeks of putting off the inevitable it looks like the Vatican is finally ready to admit that he old guy is dyeing. (I thing I'll wait to do an obit though, I'd like to read what others have to say and react.) It does leave questions on how they are going to proceed from here over in Vatican city. Will they continue down this path that's been started of small c conservatism, pushing against the winds of change and oppressing people with a highly outdated moral agenda? Or will they allow the election of someone slightly more flexible? My own feeling is that they are going to stay the course that this current pope has followed and elect someone who is completely out of touch with needs of the world.(I think that probably gives you an idea of my opinion of the current resident of the chair of St.Peter.) Speaking of the Catholic Church, here in Canada a Bishop is being investigated by a provincial human rights board for comments he made in an open letter to his parishioners. Canadian provincial courts have recently began ruling that denying homosexuals the right to marriage is unconstitutional and contravenes our charter of rights.(marriage is a provincial responsibility)The reaction of social conservatives has been predictable: family values, etc ad nauseum. But this one bishop went even further. In his letter he urged his parishioners to encourage the federal government to use it's coercive powers to outlaw homosexuality and deny them their rights as human beings. This turns out to have too much for even the conservative government of Alberta who have threatened to be the only province not to allow gay marriage no matter what the courts say(a clause in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms allows any province to invoke something called the Notwithstanding Clause which allows them to ignore individual rights and freedoms. This was mainly written into the charter on the insistence of Quebec to allow them to have unalingual French language rights at the expense of minority languages. Before 1980 Canada did not have a bill of rights or it's own constitution. We were under the British North American Act which was an act of British parliament. One of the last things Pierre Trudeau did for us was give us our own constitution.)

All the usual hot spots seem to simmering along again this week, more killings in Iraq, Israel and Palestine stumbling in and out of peace, George Bush trying to figure out who to blame next(Iran and Syria are both looking good) We don't here much about Afghanistan anymore, except that elections seem to keep being put off. Another former Soviet republic is teetering, one of the ones that starts with a K and is near Afghanistan, I think we can predict further unrest throughout most of those former satellites for a long time to come. Haiti is being prepared for another out break of violence, with U.N. troops threatening to isolate and attack the poor slums because surprisingly enough that's where the unrest comes from.(Damn those poor folk, can't they just ever know their place) In the what a surprise category Robert Mugambe was handily re-elected in Zimbabwe. The opposition seems to be rather frightened of making any formal complaints. Wow that was depressing wasn't it?

On a more cheerful note there's a new Robert Rodriguez film being released this week in North America. For those of you who don't know him he's the man who's given us Once Upon A Time In Mexico, and Desperado, two wonderfully tongue in cheek movies staring Antonio Bandarras as the mysterious El Marachi ("we call him El... That means the") Once Upon A Time In Mexico included a typical crazed performance by Johnny Depp as a C.I.A.agent. Rodriquez's latest is call Sin City and is an adaptation of a Graphic Novel(Hollywood's latest source of material: adult comics: sex and violence with artistic license.) I hope that Rodriguez can put his usual stamp on this effort and elevate it beyond the mundane.