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March 19, 2014

Blu-ray Review: Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom


I remember asking my mom as a kid in the 1960s why we didn't ever have Granny Smith apples in the house. She replied that she refused to buy anything from South Africa because of what the government did to its people. As the years passed and I became more aware of the world around me, I began to understand why my parents refused to buy anything which came from South Africa. However it wasn't until the 1980s I first heard the name Nelson Mandela. By the time he had become the rallying point for anti-apartheid activists around the world he had already been in jail more then 20 years. For us living outside South Africa he became more than a man, he was a symbol of all that was wrong with what was a corrupt system.

When he was released and began the slow painful business of trying to rebuild his country he became even more than a symbol, he rose in status to that of almost an icon. While the transition from white majority rule was not without violence, somehow, through force of personality and leadership he was able to make it far more peaceful than anyone could have had a right to expect. After more then fifty years of oppression African anger at their former rulers could have spilled over into horrible acts of vengeance.

Yet, after all his accomplishments and his extraordinary life, few of us know much about Mandela aside from those bare facts listed above. The movie, Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom, now available on Blu-ray from The Weinstein Company and Anchor Bay Entertainment, and based on Mandela's autobiography of the same name, attempts to fill in some of the blank in our knowledge and give us a more complete picture of the man.
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Starring Idris Elba as Mandela and Naomie Haris as Winnie Mandela, the movie traces his life from childhood through to his election as the first African president of South Africa. While there are some noticeable gaps in the story, there's nothing about how he managed to do the next to impossible of gaining a law degree, the movie does the best it can to show us how he went from being a lawyer to becoming one of the leaders of the African National Congress (ANC) and one of the most wanted men in South Africa.

We also see how he made a mess of his early personal life. His political activism ended his first marriage when his wife became sick of his never being home and his occasional affairs with other women. However, it also shows us how as he became more committed to the cause of working for the freedom of his people, he also began to mature as a person. So when he met his second wife, Winnie Mandela, the relationship was initially far smoother. It helped that Winnie was just as committed to the cause of African freedom as he was, and supported his efforts.

In fact, one of the things I appreciated most about the movie was its depiction of Winnie Mandela. There were a lot of things said about her and her split from her husband in the early 1990s that weren't exactly pleasant. However, in the movie we see the torments she was subjected to by the South African police while her husband was in jail. We see her being beaten, tossed into solitary confinement for sixteen months and left to wonder what has become of her children. Harris does an amazing job of portraying Winnie's transformation from a loving wife and fun loving woman into an angry and vengeful woman who desires only to fight back against those who took her life away from her. As she says to her husband upon one of her rare visits to the Robben Island Prison, "it's my hate that keeps me going".
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As Mandela Elba, does a magnificent job of capturing both the man's humanity, and his amazing charisma. Even in his early days as a lawyer defending his black clients in the white court rooms we see how he uses a combination of intelligence and humour to fight an unjust system. We also see how he gradually transforms from working towards a peaceful resolution to the problems of his country to taking up arms against the government. While you can see a gradual build up in his anger, the tipping point for him came during the demonstrations against the imposition of the pass laws in 1960 when police opened fire on unarmed demonstrators in the township of Sharpeville killing 69 unarmed people.

After three years of planting bombs Mandela and the rest of the ANC leadership were caught and sentenced to life in prison on Robben Island in 1963. While the movie does bog down a bit during his term in prison, how much can you say about the interminable boredom and misery of hard labour and prison life, it tries its best to give an accurate depiction of the life these men had to endure. Cut off from their families and outside world almost completely they know almost nothing of what's happening in the world beyond their walls. While the movie does try to keep us informed, the clips they use aren't really enough to give us more than a general impression of violence and upheaval. I know the movie is supposed to be a history of the man, not the struggle, but as the two became inseparable in most people's minds it might have been good to show a little bit more of what was happening while he was in jail.

However, in spite of some minor drawbacks, the movie does a remarkable job of depicting Nelson Mandela as a man and not just an icon. I think a lot of the credit for that must go to Elba, who manages to not only imbue Mandela with the indomitable spirit the world came to recognize and admire, but the humanity few of us ever saw. Elba is shows us how Mandela was able to overcome his personal pain and anger to see the need to create a country where all were treated the same no matter the colour of their skin. It is a remarkable performance, and combined with the work of Harris as Winnie, more than compensates for any weakness in the script.

The Blu-ray edition of the movie (the package I was sent includes Blu-ray, DVD and a code to download a digital version) comes with the usual compliment of special features; director's (Justin Chadwick) commentary, a making of featurette, and a tribute video gallery. While the latter doesn't really add much to our knowledge of the Mandela, the featurette has some interesting interviews with Elba, Harris and director Chadwick which tell how they felt about making the movie and the process they each used in its creation.

Nelson Mandela was the face of the fight for freedom in South Africa. Turning that kind of icon into a human being is a nigh on near impossible job. However the movie Mandela: A Long Walk To Freedom comes as close as is probably possible. This is a man around whom the whole world rallied, and this movie helps fill in some of the blanks in the picture we have of who he was and how he became the revered figure we remember today.

(Article first published at Empty Mirror as Movie Review: Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom)

March 10, 2014

Book Review: IR 30: Indigenous Visions In Dub


I guess it's appropriate blockades have gone up again on the Tyndengia Mohawk reservation in South Eastern Ontario Canada as I begin to write this review. Here in Canada the First Nations people are usually out of sight and out of mind unless they manage to capture the media's attention with some event which inconvenience the population at large. While the fact the majority of them live in conditions equivalent to the destitution most in the developed world equate with the poverty of the developing world should be news enough in itself to keep them in the papers on a daily basis, we only read about them when anger and resentment over conditions reach the boiling point and spill over into angry protest.

Last winter's Idle No More grass roots movement pushed First Nations issues into the spotlight temporarily, but the government has done its usual good job of simply ignoring, it understanding if they say nothing the media will soon move on to something else. Canada, and by extension North America, aren't unique for their mistreatment and ignoring of the indigenous populations whose lands we now occupy. Around the world, from the South Pacific to the High Arctic, indigenous people are marginalized, starved, pushed off what little land we leave them and generally continue to face bleaker and bleaker futures while nobody seems to give a shit. We give them the worst land available and then pollute or steal it when we discover natural resources beneath it ripe for exploiting.

However, a grassroots collective of writers, activists, visual artists and musicians from indigenous communities around the world have started taking advantage of the communications tools offered them by the Internet in an attempt to get the message out. The Fire This Time (TFTT) has been facilitating the bringing together of musicians, poets and lyricists from indigenous communities around the world via their web server. Individuals can upload music tracks, songs, poems and beats for others to download and create new songs with. These dubs are then released on TFTT's record label, Indigenous Resistance (IR). To date 29 recordings featuring music from The Solomon Islands in the South Pacific to Brazil, mixed by artists from India to North America have been issued. This year they have also released something a little different, the book IR 30 Indigenous Visions In Dub, a collection of writings and images which have provided the lyrical content and visuals used in many of these recordings.
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A number of years ago I had reviewed one of the earlier recordings on the IR label, but somehow or other I lost track of their releases over the years. Which is what makes this book all the more interesting and valuable. For the texts they've selected to include not only deal with the major themes and stories from the indigenous world they've been trying to cover over the years, they also bring the words of some of the more insightful minds among indigenous people together in one volume.

Like the recordings the words gathered in this book come from all parts of the globe. They've included lyrics/quotes from musicians from the Solomon Islands (Tohununo and Pesio), stories about an incident which occurred in Brazil where an indigenous man was burnt alive by four wealthy youth (who received only minimum sentences), articles exploring the ties between the indigenous people of North and South America and African Americans, and quotes from two of the most interesting minds among the North American indigenous population, architect Douglas Cardinal and musician/poet/former chair of the American Indian Movement (AIM) John Trudell. While the story of the murder of the Pataxo Galdino in Brazil is sickening in the way it reflects the indifference of the Brazilian population at large to the indigenous peoples whose land the Portuguese stole it makes valuable reading, if only for the contrast it provides to how we normally see these people. Instead of being gaudily dressed props for pop stars' photo opportunities, these are flesh and blood people barely eking out an existence in some of the biggest and roughest slums in the world.

I have to admit while the points about there being common cause between the situation of African Americans and indigenous people through out the Western hemisphere are valid, some of the attempts to tie their spiritual practices together did stretch my credibility. To my mind the writer was making the same assumption far too many do of believing there is a universal "Indigenous" belief system, when not only would you find radically different beliefs among each nation, but from village to village within the same language group. However, there can be no denying the writer's points about the intermarriage between the two groups or the fact many indigenous populations in North and South America share many of the same physical characteristics of African Americans - the indigenous people of Puerto Rico for example.

To my mind the most fascinating readings in this book are the quotes from Douglas Cardinal and John Trudell. Cardinal's words on the nature of power and the way women are treated are stated so matter of factually it makes you wonder how anyone could act any differently. On women he sums things up very succinctly, "One has to state that all the premises that men have of women are basically wrong and you start from there. Even the language is wrong". He uses the same directness of language in his discussion on the nature of power, "I have learnt...that the most powerful force is soft power, caring and commitment together. Soft power is more powerful than adversarial or hard power because it is resilient".
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Trudell's words resonate with a different kind of power. He is someone who knows the power of the mind and the power of words (The FBI once referred to him as one of the most dangerous men in America simply because of the power of his oratory). In a poem quoted in the book he speaks out against the frameworks of European society imposed upon his people as being the instruments of their destruction. Why should he support purported democracy when all it has done is make of his people (along with African Americans and women) second class citizens who are treated like chattel? "We live in a political society/Where they have all power/by their definition of power/but they fear the people who go/out and speak the truth".

Trudell summation of his oppressors attitudes is spot on. Why, if they believe themselves to be so powerful by their own definitions (money and societal position being the two we value the most) are they so scared of those who speak out about injustice and the poverty of the few? Are they afraid people will see how insubstantial their claims to power truly are?

Our governments give occasional lip service to the plight of Native Americans and Canada's First Nation's people, but their policy of doing nothing and hoping the problem goes away has now become official. New acts passed in both the Federal legislations of Canada and the US are designed to ensure the numbers of registered, or status, indigenous people decline to the point where they can take back the reserves and reservations because there will no longer be enough "Indians". Yet anyone who dares speak this truth is called paranoid and deceptive. Who in fact are the more paranoid and deceptive - the ones cynically trying to get rid of "The Indian Problem" or the ones who are the subject to these draconian laws? (For anyone interested in reading about these new acts I recommend Thomas Kings's The Inconvenient Indian)

From the Sahara Desert to the Australian Outback, the rain forests of Brazil to the tundra of Siberia, the Black Hills of Dakota and northern Alberta Canada indigenous people are seeing the land promised them by treaties gradually stolen away from them. What lives they've been able to carve out for themselves in this post-colonial world are gradually being eroded and destroyed. Their culture is appropriated and turned into a commodity, they are depicted as stereotypes not humans and more and more government policy is being directed towards their destruction as distinct societies.

One of the few means at their disposal to remind people they are living breathing cultures is to find the way to speak with a unified voice - one that is loud enough to be heard around the world. Through their record label IR, TFTT is doing its best to provide the opportunity for those voices. IR 30: Indigenous Visions In Dub gathers together some of the most powerful words and images used during the creation of the label's 29 recordings in a single volume as an intense collage of ideas and visuals. It offers a far different perspective on indigenous life around our planet than that offered by either governments or your New Age book store. Isn't it about time you read the truth?

(Article first published at Empty Mirror as Book Review: IR 30: Indigenous Visions In Dub)

August 19, 2013

Book Review: Music, Culture & Conflict In Mali by Andy Morgan


Can you imagine what life would be like without music? If somehow it became illegal to listen to CDs, i-Pods and even cell phone ringtones in public. Or, if you were a musician, to live in constant fear of having all your equipment taken away from you and destroyed in front of your eyes and the threat of torture, prison or death hanging over you all the time? Maybe you could still play music in the privacy of your home, but only if you made sure all the windows and doors were shut and there's no way the sound would leak out into the street where somebody passing could hear.

Sounds pretty far fetched doesn't it? There's no way it could happen. Well that's exactly what happened in Northern Mali from around March 2012 until very recently. For Malians what made this even worse was how large a role music plays in their culture. Not only does music provide them with the same pleasure it does everybody else in the rest of the world, it is also a significant part of their cultural identity. From those who rely on traditional bard type figures known as griots, oral historians to their people whose songs can recount everything from the history of a family to a listing of the significant moments in a nation's history, to people like the nomadic Tuareg who rely on music to pass on cultural traditions, music is the backbone of their cultures. If music were eliminated for any length of time it would result in cultural genocide.

So how did this atrocity come about? How did music, and Mali has become famous for producing musicians of international calibre, end up being made a criminal offence and being a performer meant risking your life? The story is both simple - Northern Mali was taken over by Islamic Jihadist who imposed their version of Muslim religious law - and incredibly complicated - there are real problems in Mali which paved the way to make the take over possible. However, a new book written by Andy Morgan, Music, Culture & Conflict In Mali published by Freemuse ( a kind of Amnesty International for musicians) does a wonderful job of not only detailing what happened during that awful period, but explaining why it did, and how it could easily happen again if things don't change.
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Morgan is able to provide information from first hand sources you're not liable to read elsewhere because of his personal connection to the area. He was the manager of the first Tuareg (or Kel Tamashek as they refer to themselves) band, Tinariwen to become well known outside of Mali, for seven years. Through them he not only became known and trusted by the Kel Tamashek, he established relationships within the musical community throughout Mali. So, unlike reports you'll have read in the newspapers which have only told the bare minimum, Morgan is able to not only give us first hand accounts of people's experiences during these events, he supplies us with information about the various factions involved with the uprising, the details of what happened and the historical, political and social context which made it possible to begin with.

Mali, while its population is predominately Muslim, is a secular country, meaning the church has no influence over its governance. The majority of the people follow an Islamic tradition heavily influenced by their own tribal beliefs. They don't adhere to any of the restrictions on men and women associating, the prohibitions against alcohol or any of the more repressive tenets of the conservative fundamentalists. So it doesn't sound like a country ripe for an Islamic government of the kind normally associated with groups like the Taliban. However, over the past fifteen years there has been a gradual increase in the presence of foreign financed and taught pressure groups trying to influence public opinion in favour of this kind of society.

Mali has been victim, like many of the poorer African nations, of corrupt governments and military coups during its short lifetime since independence in the early 1960s. This has led to the type of unstable social and economic atmosphere history has show us is how groups promising stability and order are able to gain power. Of course its only once they gain power anybody finds out their version of order is to take away everybody's freedom. In Mali, they have been working just this kind of campaign - advocating a return to traditional Islamic values as the cure for everybody's ills, without actually saying what that means. Thus they've been softening up the ground for a potential takeover.
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The other important thing needed to know about Mali is the longstanding dispute between the central government and the Kel Tamashek people. Nomads whose territory once stretched from Algeria in the north to Niger in the South, their way of life has been seriously impacted by the encroachment of cities and industry into their lands. A series of rebellions over the years finally resulted in a treaty being signed between the Malian government and the Kel Tamashek in 2006 which guaranteed them certain rights and economic assistance. Unfortunately the Malian government has reneged on the majority of the treaty. As a result early 2012 saw another Kel Tamashek uprising in the North. By March they had succeeded in capturing the three major cities in the region and send the Malian army packing which precipitated the military overthrown of the Malian government.

Unfortunately for the forces fighting for the Kel Tamashek, one of their more powerful factions was led by a convert to radical Islam and had established ties with Jihad groups in Algeria. As soon as the battles were won, he and his allies ousted the Kel Tamashek nationalists and set up their own fiefdom. While the Kel Tamashek's goal was to create a homeland for themselves in Northern Mali, their usurpers saw it as a springboard for taking over the whole country.

Morgan does an excellent job of outlining all the players and the details of what happened in Northern Mali in 2012. However, more importantly he shows us how susceptible developing nations are to this type of take over, with or without the general populations support. As one of the people interviewed said Malians have become so used to being pushed around by the military and corruption they have reached a point where they're just grateful to be alive and have forgotten they deserve more than just survival.

Morgan's connections to people in Mali, both in the music business and otherwise, gives him a perspective on the situation few others can offer to the outsider. Not only do we learn the details of how the music ban has affected culture in the country, but how the uprising has brought disruption into the entire region. While the combined forces of France, Chad and Mali have been able to retake the major cities in the north, the future remains uncertain as the terror groups have simply retreated to their bases outside the country or into the desert.

While there are reports of a new treaty brokered by the French between Mali and the Kel Tamashek it remains to be seen whether the Malian government will be any better in honouring this accord than the ones previously signed. As Morgan so astutely points out, as long as conditions throughout Mali, and by extension the Sahara region as a whole, do not improve, there's no saying we won't see a resurgence of terror activity.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Book Review: Music, Culture & Conflict in Mali by Andy Morgan)

July 8, 2013

Book Review: Let's Start a Pussy Riot Curator Emely New, Edited by Jade French in collaboration with Pussy Riot


On February 21 2012 members of the Russian feminist performance art group/collective Pussy Riot put on an agit-prop performance in a priests only section of Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. Accused of religious hatred, two of the members of the group, Maria Alekhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnnikova are now serving two year sentences for hooliganism motivated by religious hatred in separate penal colonies - forced labour camps by any other name. A third member of the group, Yekaterina Samutsevich, was also arrested and sentenced to two years imprisonment, but her sentence was commuted to probation.

The defendants were held without bail from the time of their arrests in March 2012 until their trial on July 30 2012, an indication of how the course of justice is being perverted in this case. The trio claim their performance was not an act of hatred agains any organized religion, rather a protest against the increasing ties between the Russian Orthodox Church and Russia's President Putin. Considering how immediately after their performance in February the Church called on the government to make blasphemy a criminal offence, and it was only after this a criminal case was opened against the band, they have a point.

In Russia, the charge of "hooliganism" is used as a catch all for prosecuting unapproved behaviour. The final indictment of the three women for what was only a one minute performance ran to 2,800 pages. Its rife with statements condemning their blasphemy and corruption of Russian moral values through the importing of feminism and the idea of gender equality. One group, The Union of Russian Orthodox Women, went so far as to warn the population these ideas would inevitably lead to gay overpopulation and Russia vanishing from the world map. The only stumbling block for conservative commentators in their condemnations is the Russian language lacks the equivalent of the slang word "pussy". Which meant television viewers were treated to the site of priests mouthing the word vagina and "mad vagina" as a substitute for Pussy Riot.
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As the Russian government of Vladimir Putin and the Russian Orthodox Church attempt to turn back the clock to the dark ages, groups and individuals within and outside of Russia have begun the process of trying to secure both Alekhina and Tolokonnikova's release through actions and fundraising activities. One of these fundraising projects is a new book being published by Rough Trade Books called Let's Start a Pussy Riot. As the title implies this is more than just a project to raise funds for the two women still incarcerated, its also a celebration of what the Pussy Riot collective stand for.

Artists from a variety of media and gender have all contributed samples of their work which either reflect support for the cause of feminism or are expressions of their own liberation as individuals not willing to be defined by anyone else's idea's of who and what they are. At issue of course is the continued assault on women all over the world in a variety of situations and circumstances. Whether women being raped as acts of war, subjugated for reasons of religion or just treated as second class citizens in general through the roles their society's designate for them.

In Russia, the United States and other countries feminism is being denigrated as being against the values of respective societies. Who's values? What are they based on? Why are one group of people allowed to stipulate values specifically designed to control the behaviour of another group of people? What gives anyone the right to designate one gender identity more acceptable than another? When we are dealing with something as benign as gender and personal identification what do values have to do with the issue anyway? It's not as if whether a person is gay, straight, bi, female, male, heterosexual, transgendered or whatever is going to affect anyone else's life. The state should take issue with what people do, how they treat others, not who or what they are.

These basic inalienable rights, the right to be yourself, are what each of the artists in this book are defending in their own way. Call it feminism if you wish, but the reality is the fight isn't about equality for women, the fight is for equality period. The fight isn't about women wanting to act like men or becoming men. It's not about gays and lesbians wanting to take over the world and corrupt our youth. No it's about accepting each of them for who they are and letting them be themselves no matter what role they want to play in society as individuals.
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The work in this book has been donated by artists, male, female and transgendered, who are concerned with the issues raised by Pussy Riot. They are concerned at the way simple human dignity is being denied people because of their gender identification. From an essay and interview with Antony Hegarty, lead singer of Antony and the Johnsons, the opening and closing court statements of the three members of Pussy Riot, to contributions from Peggy Seeger, Yoko Ono, Peaches and an amazing variety of artists from across all media and styles, each in their own way are starting a Pussy Riot. Their work will make you think about the issues the collective raises in terms of gender equality and feminism in particular and why the notion that feminism is something whose time has come and gone is a dangerous lie.

Some might be offended by some of the images in the book and not understand what they have to do with the topic at hand. However, you have to remember feminism is about reclaiming control of one's own identity and the freedom of expression that goes with it. The point of this book is to show support for the women arrested and to defend creativity as a means of both protest and an expression of ideas. On page eight appear the words "Call For Action" and they are followed on page nine by a brief explanatory poem/manifesto explaining what the book is about.

"Let's Start a Pussy Riot is a celebration:/A celebration of freedom of speech,/of visibility, of not taking our own situations for granted/Let's Start a Pussy Riot is a creative response:/culture and creativity to form our activism and inform our minds./Writing, painting, singing our opinions in order to get our message heard/Let's Start a Pussy Riot is a call for action:/To use what we have at our fingertips to fight/To show support for those brave enough to speak out/To challenge injustice through dialogue and conversation/To create a response that can say something larger than ourselves."

Supposedly freedom of expression and speech are one of the keystones of democracy. Art in all its myriad forms is humanity's purest form of expression as it allows us to express ideas and emotions realistically, metaphorically and symbolically in ways that stimulate thought and conversation. Once anyone starts to try and limit the means of expression through control of content they are putting limits onto what we're allowed to think and talk about.

Let's Start a Pussy Riot, in supporting the right of a group of women to express dissent, is more than just a book about the rights of women and gender equality. Its an expression of support for everyone who has the courage to stand up and be heard in the face of those who would keep them silent. While the money earned from sales of the book will go towards helping pay the costs of trying to secure the release of the members of Pussy Riot still in labour camps, in spirit it supports every artist around the world.

(Article first published at Blogcritics.org as Let's Start a Pussy Riot - Curator Emely New, Edited by Jade French in collaboration with Pussy Riot)

July 6, 2013

Interview: Alex Cox - Author of The President and the Provocateur


Alex Cox is best known as the director of the films Sid and Nancy and Repo-Man. However, anyone who has seen either of those movies will know he's both an astute observer and intelligent commentator on both society and politics. It was the combination of those two elements which piqued my interest in his newest book, his third to date, The President and the Provocateur, an in depth examination into the assassination of the 35th President of the United States John Fitzgerald Kennedy. As the title suggests the book also deals with the man, Lee Harvey Oswald, who was arrested for the assassination and then in turn assassinated before he could stand trial.

With 2013 being the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination, November 23 1963, all the questions surrounding the two killings will once again come out into the open. For while the official word has always been Oswald both killed Kennedy and acted alone, there have been countless arguments over the years disputing this theory. Cox's book is not just another conspiracy theorists rantings, it is a carefully put together, thoughtful and articulate history of both men, the times they lived through and the events surrounding the assassination. The picture he pieces together is of a President surrounded on all sides by powerful people who have a lot to gain from his death.

After reading the book, I was fortunate enough to be given the opportunity to ask Mr. Cox a few questions about what he wrote and how he came to write the project. I sent him the following questions by email and reprinted his answers verbatim without any editing. I hope this interview will convince of the integrity of his work and his motivations for writing the book in the first place. He has no axe to grind, nor does he openly support one theory over the other, save to call into doubt the official line of Oswald did it. His concern is to find the truth, and for us to want to find the truth as well.


You're best known as a film director, why the switch in media? Aside from the obvious technical ones, how did your process differ in approaching this project from when you prepare for a film?
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I'm a writer, too. I've written about 40 screenplays and published two books before this one. So it isn't really a switch in media. Books and films complement each other and are equally worthwhile! The process of writing a book is more solitary than making a film, which is a group
activity. But both involve preproduction, production, editing, and a deadline.

It's been 50 years since Kennedy was assassinated, why do you think the subject is still relevant or people will still be interested in it?

It's certainly relevant or Hollywood wouldn't be putting a lot of money into a Tom Hanks film called Parkland in an attempt to convince us that the Warren Commission was right. Nobody believes that story any more - at least, no one who has researched the assassination - but as November 22 approaches we'll see a lot of media energy and corporate money invested in expensive efforts to convince us that Oswald killed the President all on his own. Errol Morris is already making videos for the New York Times with that goal in mind. Oswald - lone assassin! It's the one think Noam Chomsky and Bill O'Reilly can agree on.

The murder of President Kennedy, in broad daylight, by riflemen who got away with the crime, sent a powerful message to the political and media class. Careers were made - think Dan Rather, think Arlen Spector - by those who supported the official version, no matter how ridiculous it was. The theft of the democratic franchise in 1963 still hasn't been addressed. It needs to be, and those who profited from it need to be exposed.

You not only spent a considerable amount of time on Kennedy and Oswald's biographies, you give quite a detailed history of the postwar era leading up to Kennedy's presidency. Why was it important to provide this background and historical context?

Because who knows this stuff? I grew up in this period but if you were born in 1990 you might need a little background info on HUAC, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, Civil Rights, and the Cuban revolution

It was quite frightening to read about the attitudes of the Joint Chiefs Of Staff towards nuclear war and how they tried to manipulate both President Eisenhower and Kennedy into believing America could win such a war. Was this mindset limited to them, or was this a widespread popular belief at the time?

In the 1950s and 1960s the US military really did believe that a nuclear war was "winnable" and that a surprise nuclear attack on Russia was the very best policy. They even had a date for it - December 1963 - and pushed both Eisenhower and Kennedy to greenlight the surprise atomic attack. To their great credit, both Presidents refused to do it. Today we know that even a "limited" nuclear war (Israel vs. Pakistan, India vs. China, whatever) would cause massive firestorms and a nuclear winter. We would all die. But this wasn't known in the 60s and we have
to be very grateful that Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson had strong characters and were able to say no to the fruit salad. Would Clinton or the Bushes or Obama have stood up to the Joint Chiefs so forcefully?

It might be hard for people today to understand the virulence of the opposition to integration or how governors of individual states could be so outspoken in their opposition of the federal government and the law. How were they able to get away with it under both Eisenhower and Kennedy?
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In Civil Rights terms, both Eisenhower and Johnson were more forceful than Kennedy. As a Democrat, Kennedy felt he had to appease the racist element within his own party -- egregious characters but high-ranking Democratic senators. Johnson came from Texas and whatever his faults he wasn't a racist: he'd already lost the Blue Dogs' support by joining the Kennedy ticket. He was also more interested in domestic politics than Jack Kennedy was.

Kennedy was considered a fairly conservative Democrat, in fact you mention how Rockefeller, a Republican, was actually more liberal than Kennedy. He supported the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, Joe McCarthy was an old family friend and he brought the world to the brink of a nuclear war by blockading Cuba in order to prevent Soviet ships from landing missiles. So how did he manage to alienate the ultra right so badly?

Any support for Civil Rights was going to alienate the ultras. They hated Lyndon Johnson, too. But Johnson was politically very canny: his career was financed by a big military contractor, Brown and Root. He gave them the Vietnam War in return. Kennedy humiliated the heads of US Steel, fired the top ranks of CIA and the Joint Chiefs, took charge of printing US currency, and threatened the oil industry with the loss of serious tax breaks. He also encouraged violent Cuban terrorist groups and then deserted them. And he was a Catholic! So there were many
reasons the ultra right disliked him.

You mention a variety of groups and individuals on the right who were both very outspoken in their opposition to Kennedy and his policies and their desires to remove him from the White House. With all the evidence against these people, why was it so easy to convince the public a communist/marxist was responsible for killing the president?

Was the public ever convinced? I don't think so. The media were speedily convinced, but that was a matter of saying what their bosses told them to say. When Kennedy was killed, the general assumption was that right-wing gunmen had done it, and that the Dallas police were in on it and connived in the murder of the "only" suspect.

If Oswald wasn't the one who assassinated Kennedy, a lot of people went to a lot of trouble to set him up as the fall guy. Why him in particular?

Oswald was an intelligence agent - an FBI COINTELPRO infiltrator of left-wing groups, or an IRS infilitrator of right-wing groups, or both - and a former CIA or Naval Intelligence spy, wouldn't he be the ideal fall-guy? He had been "sheep-dipped" so often and so obviously that any agency connected to him was bound to run for cover, and destroy evidence, as we know his FBI handler, Hosty, did.

In order for the assassination to be carried out and for Oswald to end up taking the blame it meant the plot would have had to include people in almost every level of government. The intelligence agencies, the military, the Dallas Police force, the Secret Service and others would have had to be in on it. In the book you provide plenty of evidence in support of this widespread corruption and treason, but the question remains, how could it have happened? How could so many people charged with the protection of the President, who swore oaths of loyalty to their country, or have positions of trust, be traitors?
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In an operation like this, how many people know what's going on? Very very few. Some people were tasked to impersonate a guy, on a rifle range or at the Cuban embassy in Mexico City. Some people were set to be arrested and held in custody while the riflemen escaped. The riflemen (if they were US citizens) were definitely traitors. The Secret Service men who failed to ride on the President's car, permitted the deadly parade route, and rearranged the order of the motorcade, were clearly culpable and guilty of treason. The Joint Chiefs, when they proposed the Northwoods Operation - false-flag terrorist ops on US soil, involving the murder of US citizens - were guilty of treason, too. No matter how many loyalty oaths they signed!

You've had access to what seems substantial amounts of research and documentation on individuals and organizations connected to either Oswald or the assassination in some way. Some witness statements have always been available and were ignored by the Warren Commission or given less weight than others, but has all the information in your book always been available for those willing to ask the right people and the right questions or is some of it coming out now due to access to information laws?

A lot of information came out as a result of the ARRB, itself inspired by the JFK film and the "Free The Files" movement. Some information came from KGB archives, care of Boris Yeltsin. And some is genuinely new information - the "Hunter Leake" story, for instance. And much info in the book was developed, over many years, by researchers writing for The Third Decade and The Fourth Decade. There is always more to be learned, and leads to be pursued!

If this information has always been out there why hasn't there been more of an outcry over the obvious errors committed by the Warren Commission?

There has been lots of outcry. It is just ignored by the major media.

What did you hope to accomplish by writing this book? How do you hope readers react to the book?

I hope it makes the story a little clearer, though it is by no means clear! And that the terribly bad photographic evidence used to convict Oswald after his death can be recognised for the fakery it is.

As a conclusion you suggest America needs to consider forming the equivalent of the Truth and Reconciliation committees formed in South Africa at the end of Apartheid in order to deal with questions people have about events in recent history, the Kennedy assassination being only one of them. Why do you think such a committee is necessary? What do you think it can accomplish, and finally do you think there's any chance of one ever being formed?

There has been such a committee in the US already - in Greensboro, North Carolina, where a massacre of trade unionists and communists occurred in the late 1970s. If we want it, why can't we have it? Whose permission do we have to ask?


Whose permission indeed? If we want the truth about the death of Kennedy, or about anything else we might have doubts about, it is our right as citizens of whichever country we live in to demand it. Governments hide information behind the screen of national security with out ever having to justify themselves. In times of open warfare this argument might have merit, but for events which happened fifty years ago there is no longer any excuse for protecting anyone or anybody. No one should be above the law no matter who they know, how much money they have, or the position of power they hold. A country is not a democracy until this is true in fact and deed.

As long as people believe their government is capable of lying to them than how can that government be said to be of the people? Some people say we get the government we deserve, however it can also be said we get the government we ask for. Shouldn't we be asking for so much more? Cox's book ends with a simple request, a request for the truth. Is that too much to ask for?

(Article first published at Blogcritics.org as Interview: Alex Cox Author of The President and the Provocateur)

June 29, 2013

Book Review: The President And The Provocateur by Alex Cox


Its a conspiracy theorist's dream. Forget UFOs, the assassination of John F Kennedy, (JFK) the 35th president of the United States, on November 22 1963 remains to this day the most pored over, talked about and controversial event in modern history. No matter how loudly the official version stating Lee Harvey Oswald fired the only shots and acted on his own is shouted from the rooftops, there have always been other voices shouting other theories almost as loudly.

Depending on who you talk to JFK was killed because of a communist plot hatched by a combination of KGB and Cuban interests or a right wing conspiracy of anti-segregationists, the Secret Service, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and right wing members of the military. Of course there are various offshoots of each and even wilder and more outlandish theories to be heard as well. One goes as far as saying Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, the 36th and 37th presidents respectively, were principal movers behind the plot. Trying to the various scenarios straight, let alone judge their credibility, is next to impossible. It's just too much to sort through on your own. Without some kind of semi-objective overview there's not even much point in even trying to make sense of it all.

Amazingly enough, that's exactly what Alex Cox has done with his new book The President And The Provocateur published by Feral House Press. Best known as the director of the films Repo Man and Sid and Nancy Cox is also something of a conspiracy theorist himself. However, anybody coming to this book hoping he will reveal some brand new theory on who killed JFK will be disappointed. Instead what Cox has done is do his best to unravel tangled mess of information and weave it into something resembling coherency with an eye towards as an objective a view as possible. The only slightly subjective note he strikes in the whole book is his scepticism of the official view, Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in assassinating Kennedy, as expressed by the Warren Commission.
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Instead of starting with any pre supposed theory about who killed JFK Cox has written a combination history/biography of the era the events took place in and the two men who have become the central protagonists, Kennedy and Oswald. Starting with their early years Cox switches back and forth between the two men in relating their childhoods, education and service records. Of course the differences in their lives are obvious from the start. The Kennedys were and still are the American equivalent of aristocracy and JFK's life was one of privilege from the moment he was born. Oswald on the other hand was born into a poor family in New Orleans and would have lived out his life in anonymity if not for a couple of decision as a young adult.

As the book moves forward we not only learn about the details of each man's life, we are also treated to a history of events occurring the States which end up being relevant to the matter at hand. It's once we hit the 1950s the action for both men picks up. Kennedy's dad, Joe, starts buying his son's political future by bankrolling his campaigns for Senate in preparation for the big push at the presidency in 1960. Meanwhile it was during the 1950s Oswald, a Marxist, defected to Russia where he renounced his citizenship and took up permanent residency in Minsk. As a Marine he had been stationed at facilities where operations involving the U2 spy planes were planned. However, it does not appear as if he was ever debriefed or even questioned by Soviet intelligence, the KGB. He merely took up the life of a factory worker in Minsk where he met the woman who would become his wife. However, while Kennedy was prospering back in the States, Oswald was discovering life in the Soviet Union wasn't all he had hopped for. Claiming he was bored and missing the material pleasures of the States, he negotiated with the Russians for exit visas for him and his wife and permission from the Americans to return home.

It was also during this time, the Eisenhower presidency of the late 1950s, things were starting to heat up domestically in the US. The slow progress towards the end of segregation had begun in the southern states and in reaction to the baby steps taken by the federal government attempting to ensure voter rights extreme right wing groups began organizing and bolstering their memberships in order to fight back. This was also the time America began stockpiling and testing nuclear weaponry, including early Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) capable of reaching targets in Russia.

By the time Kennedy took office in 1960 the ultra militant right wing had established not only various organizations through out the South, including armed militias, the Ku Klux Klan and other even more shadowy organizations, but had established a network of well placed operatives in the military, intelligence and police communities, including most members of the White House Secrete Service team. Cox's book, drawing upon FBI records and other reputable sources, does a very good job of not only detailing and offering credible proof as to their funding, power and influence, but detailing their memberships as well. Serving army generals, police chiefs, CIA field officers and millionaires who made their fortunes from oil were all on record as supporting one or another of these groups advocating violent opposition to government interference.

However, while this information is vital for establishing there were plenty of people with the motivation to kill Kennedy, Cox explores the even more intriguing way Oswald seems to have been able to be in two places at once many times over the course of his life. While the discrepancies in the accounts of where he and his mother lived when he was a child are easy to understand and explain away, the same can't be said for accounts of his movements in the weeks leading up to November 22nd 1963. According to the CIA Oswald supposedly made a trip to Mexico where he visited the Russian embassy. However, according to what J. Edgar Hoover told LBJ after the assassination, no one matching Oswald's description was seen near the premises. As the FBI routinely photographed everybody entering and leaving the embassy they would know. In fact there is no record of Oswald having ever made a trip to Mexico when he's supposed to have been visiting the embassy.

Cox raises all sorts of other questions about Oswald which not only calls into question his ability to be the assassin but also makes it look like he was set up to take the fall for whoever actually carried out the job. How did Oswald get from the sixth floor of the Texas Book Depository down to the lunch room on the fourth floor where he was seen shortly after the assassination took place so quickly after the shooting when there was no elevator to the top two floors? Why, out of all of his employees, did the manager of the Depository mention only Oswald's name to the police as being someone who left the scene when he had sent half his employees home? How is it the police knew in advance Oswald would be involved in the shooting of a police officer in a suburban Dallas neighbourhood shortly after the assassination? Why would Oswald, after shooting the president and then a police officer in two separate incidents, go and see a movie? Why was Oswald never allowed to speak to a lawyer after he was arrested?

Of course those questions are nothing as to the ones Cox raises about the actions of the people who were supposedly there to protect Kennedy on November 22 1963. Dallas had been the last stop on Kennedy's tour through what he and his advisors considered key states he would need to win to be re-elected in 1964, Texas and Florida. In each city prior to Dallas the president's motorcade had an escort of police motorcycles riding on either side, and secret service agents walking either beside the car or standing on the running boards. Why were neither in place for Dallas?
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Motorcades were not supposed to travel along any route requiring the president's car to slow down or break speed significantly, making it an easy target. Why was the motorcade taken on a route which saw it having to navigate both severe left and right turns, making Kennedy an easy target for a shooter? If the president's car comes under fire the driver of the vehicle is supposed to immediately accelerate out of the location. Why did his driver on hearing the first shot ring out bring the car to a complete stop?

These are only samples of the types of questions Cox's raises about the assassination. They are more than enough to raise reasonable doubts about Oswald as a lone nutter theory. Even if you can somehow swallow he was lucky enough to kill Kennedy using a cheap rifle he supposedly bought through the mail, with no previous experience as a sniper or any military records indicating he was any sort of sharp shooter, the idea he was able to carry it off without help is ridiculous.

Now some might be tempted to dismiss Cox's book as the ramblings of yet another conspiracy theorist. However, the only conspiracy he sees is the one which has kept the truth of the assassination from the world until now. He has been incredibly scrupulous in his research and nothing he says or claims is idle speculation. The footnotes for each chapter are in some cases nearly as long again as the chapters themselves as he makes sure to point out the sources for all his facts and quotes. He will on occasion give us his opinion of the source or let us know if he thinks information is suspect. However he is equally sceptical of the wilder claims made about who was in on the conspiracy to kill Kennedy as he is of the Warren Commission and other official reports on his death.

Anyone who has seen one of Cox's films know he is a great story teller, and this book is no exception. He lays out the history of events leading up to and after the assassinations of JFK and Lee Harvey Oswald in a clear and easy to understand manner. He not only does a remarkable job of bringing the charged political atmosphere of the late 1950s and early 1960s to life on the page, but does his best to be as objective as possible. However, what I found most impressive was how he concluded the book. He doesn't end by accusing anyone, or even hinting at where the finger should be pointed. What he does say is the American public deserve the truth. Not just the truth about the Kennedy assassination, but the truth about every contentious issue which has ever captivated the public's imagination.

The President And The Provocateur is not another book postulating some wild and unfounded conspiracy behind the assassinations of President Kennedy and Lee Harvey Oswald. Instead Cox has taken the killings and put them into their historical context. He has also assembled what seems like every scrap of information ever reported on or recorded by a human being concerning the murders. While he makes no claims to know what exactly happened, who or how Kennedy was killed, the points he makes calls into question what currently stands as the official explanation for his murder. If reasonable doubt is grounds for acquittal in a court of law, shouldn't it also be grounds for a careful re-examination of history? The evidence Cox provides in his book is more than enough to raise reasonable doubts about the findings of the Warren Commission and any subsequent official inquiry into the killing of the 35th president of the United States of America.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Book Review: The President and the Provocateur by Alex Cox)

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.
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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.
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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.
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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)

November 13, 2012

Book Review: The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account Of Native People In North Americaby Thomas King


That Thomas King is sure one good writer. He writes those funny stories about Indians. Not funny ha-ha, even though sometimes they are that too, but funny that's kind a weird funny. Like his Indians aren't Indians like you know them right. I mean some of them are doctors, some of them are lawyers, some are university professors, some are professional photographers and there's even some who are private detectives on the side. Hardly any of them ride horses or wipe out pioneers or hunt buffalo and they all talk really good English. Weird huh?

Still they're good stories, even though sometimes they're hard to understand. Sometimes he gets things mixed up like the way he has white people cheating his Indian characters or the way the government will try to pull a fast one on Indians by destroying their land with damns. I think he needs to read his history again so he can get his facts straight. Especially now after I read his latest collection of stories published by Random House Canada, The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account Of Native People In North America
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Whew, that's one long title that one, but the book sure is curious. For he goes on and on about the ways in which white folks have mistreated Indians. First of all there's not much that's funny about this book, that's for sure. Second of all there aren't really any stories in it. When you read it you'll see what I mean about how he needs to read his history books again though, cause the version of events he tells isn't what we've been told in movies or books that we read in school. I'm sure he's not meaning to tell things differently. I mean it's easy to be confused by history as its usually about things that happened a long time ago. But, I wonder how he could have come up with such different versions of events. Or there's other stuff he talks about I'd never read about or seen in a movie.

Okay, maybe that kind of reaction is unfair. However, from New Age bookstores, movies, history texts, memorial plaques and baseball stadiums you'll find Native Americans - or First Nations people as we say in Canada - being misrepresented, stereotyped and sometimes outright lied about. How many reading this aren't going to understand what's wrong with making a team's mascot a Native? You don't have to look very far to hear somebody say "We won didn't we - they should be glad of anything we give them and stop complaining".

King's book deals with the very specific history of what government after government on both sides of the 49th parallel, he doesn't even attempt to talk about the situation in Mexico, have referred to as "The Indian Problem". First it was a problem of what to do with them because they were on land that we wanted for settlers. Then it was the problem of what to do with them when the land we gave them was discovered to have valuable natural resources under them. Now it's a problem of what do to with them period. They didn't have the decency to die out when we tried to kill them and then they had the nerve to reject all the advantages we tried to force on them through residential and boarding schools.

There are those who say Indians should stop living in the past and forget what happened and concentrate on making a bright new future for themselves. Of course most of the ones saying things like that are those who would prefer they not learn the lessons of the past thus leaving themselves open to being dispossessed of what little they have now. King takes a look at this argument and shows why its so disingenuous and dangerous. The problem is, no matter how governments on both sides of the border word their policies, they still have the same goal as the ones implemented two hundred years ago. Instead of trying to figure out how peacefully co-exist with the original inhabitants, everything is still based on eliminating the "Indian Problem".

Instead of trying to kill Indians with bullets or forcing them to assimilate by locking their children up in the equivalent of jails being passed off as schools, governments are now trying to eliminate Indians legally. In both Canada and the United States there is an official government designation that qualifies a person as an Indian. In order to live on a reservation or be considered a member of a band one has to have that official designation. If there were no people with that designation there would be no need for reservations on either side of the border. So, why not just gradually eliminate the designations?

If you think that sounds highly unlikely consider this. King quotes Census figures from both America and Canada which show as of 2006 only about 40% of the Native population in North America are considered legally Indian. He then goes on to outline how both governments are now proposing new legislation, which if enacted, would work towards reducing that number even further and eventually to zero. The long term goal being the complete elimination of anybody who is a member of a band that signed a treaty giving them control over land.
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It's the land stupid. It's always been about the land. Which is why it's so important to look at the history. As King points out you don't even have to go too far back in history to find proof of that. As recently as 2006 real estate developers in Ontario Canada started selling and building a housing development on land that was claimed by the Mohawks of Grand River. It was on land given them by treaty, appropriated by the Ontario Government with the promise of it being returned, and then sold by local town council to developers.

That dispute ended with the government awarding a compensation package of $20 million dollars to, drumbeat please, the people who bought houses, the developers and local businesses for the inconvenience caused by Native people blockading the highway protesting their land being stolen. As for the treaty negotiations in regards to the disputed territory - well they might get around to them sooner or later.

So the easiest way to make sure this problem never happens again is to ensure there is no one around to make any legal claim to the land. Oh sure they're couching the policy in the same old paternalistic language they've always used when talking about Indians. It's good for them. The great White Father in Washington/Ottawa still knows whats best for those childlike savages. Think of how much happier they would be in the real world where they have all the opportunities the rest of us have. So what if they have no education, no capital and no desire to live like that. So what if they think they have some sort of sacred connection to the land. So what if that's not what they want, we know better. Anyway, what are they doing with all that land except letting it go to waste? Give them the opportunity to sell it at fair market value and see how quickly they learn to love our way of life.

Of course when Indians have the nerve to try and buy up land at fair market value, why that's another matter all together. King recounts what happened when a band in Arizona began using some its profits from their casino to buy land around the city of Glendale. Local politicians acted like they feared they would be scalped in their sleep or they were in danger of having flaming arrows shot down their throats because a few hundred acres of land were sold to Indians.

As somebody else said earlier, that King is a good story teller. Here he's not telling stories, he's telling history. A history that's not going to be everyone's liking as it runs contrary to most people's idea of Indians. Unfortunately its far more accurate than any version Hollywood has told them, the one being sold in New Age book stores or that which is offered in text books. While at first you might feel like King is softening the blow somewhat by injecting his dry humour into the proceedings, the more your read the more you realize its the type of laughter that's closer to tears than anything else.

For as King points out the war against Indians isn't over, only the battlefield has changed. Spin doctors have taken the place of generals and uranium tailings and tar sands' waste product the gatling gun and cannon. As far as our governments and business leaders, the ones who see no problem with exploiting and raping the land for everything its worth and not caring what condition they leave it in for those who come after them, Indians are every bit as inconvenient now as they ever were. For in spite of everything we've "done for them" they still insist on trying to retain their own belief systems and defending what few rights they have left to them. They just don't know when they're beaten.

(Article first published as Book Review: The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious History Of Native People In North America by Thomas King on Blogcritics.)

September 13, 2012

Music Review: Various Artists -Songs For Desert Refugees


Life in the sub-Saharan desert is hard at the best of times. The Kel-Tamasheq nomads have been traversing the area between Mali and Niger, moving their herds from water hole to water hole, since before the coming of Islam to Northern Africa. It is said among them their ancestors chose such a harsh land to live in because nobody else would want it and they'd be left alone. However, history has shown no land is too inhospitable for those greedy for territory. First it was the Arab nations spreading the word of Islam taking their land and giving them a new name, Touareg, (literally those who rebel against Islam). Even when they eventually accepted the new religion, they adapted it to suit their own traditions and made it their own.

It wasn't until the coming of the Europeans who divided the territory with artificial and arbitrary lines in the sand their lives started to be changed for the worse. The legacy of colonialism was the Kel Tamasheq found themselves cut off from their former migratory paths through the desert and the grazing lands needed for their herds. Those living in Niger were expected to stay in Niger and not wander over the shifting sands into Mali, Algeria and Burkina Faso as they once did. At various times since 1960 they have attempted to reassert their claims to the territories taken from them. A variety of treaties have been negotiated either through rebellion or diplomacy that were supposed to guarantee them territory and rights, but successive governments in Niger and other countries have gone back on their words. The discovery of uranium under the Sahara has only made matters worse as not only did it result in their further displacement, but the process of mining has steadily destroyed the environment.

While the rebellions have not always been successful, and have resulted in reprisals against the people at times, they have always been attempts to improve their lot. So the uprisings in Northern Mali in the early part of 2012 which have forced over 200,000 people to leave their homes doesn't fit the same pattern as previous Tamasheq revolts. The fact that Islamic fundamentalist troops are also involved with the fighting is even more suspicious, as the Tamasheq would not be interested in simply exchanging one group of people telling them how to live their lives for another. However, perhaps most telling, is the release of a new compilation disc, Songs For Desert Refugees on Glitterhouse Records as an effort to raise funds for those displaced by the fighting.
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In the past Tamasheq musicians have been key figures in advocating and fighting for the rights of their people. Some of them took part in the armed rebellions of the 1980s before putting down their guns and picking up guitars. Governments in the area have gone out of their way to target them for harassment and even assassination in the past, and most have spent time exiled from their home countries. Yet, during this most recent uprising instead of using their music to spread the word or to remind people to take pride in who they are, they are lending their talents to an effort to assist those being harmed by the fighting. Artists of the stature of Tinariwen,Terkaft, Etran Finatawa and Bombino, all who have been advocates for their people, have donated either previously unreleased material or new versions of older songs to this disc.

Even better is the fact that those who have compiled this recording have included some lesser known artists, ones whom I haven't heard before. Not only is it great to hear other artists from the region their inclusion gives listeners an indication of just how much diversity there is among the Kel Tamsheq groups of the region. For although they are commonly referred to as the guitar players, that does not mean the Kel Tamasheq sound is limited to the electric blues/rock guitar that has become the trademark of those well known in the West. While the offerings from Tinariwen, "Amous Idraout Assouf d'Alwa" (a previously unreleased track) and Bombino, an extended live version of his "Tigrawahi Tikma" give pride of place to the electric guitar, there are others who are more traditional in their approach.

Amanar de Kidal (Amanar of Kidal in Mali) took their name from the Tamasheq word for the constellation Orion in memory of those times the band would rehearse through the night until the stars were high in the sky above them. While the guitar is still the lead instrument in their contribution to the disc, "Tenere", it doesn't dominate in the same way it does in other groups. Instead we are treated to massed voices, flutes and a steady rhythm carrying us forward. The rhythm is not one we're used to as it induces an almost swaying motion, as if you were being gently rocked in the high saddle of a camel. Like many other Tamasheq groups Amanar also features female vocalists in the band. Here they supply a spine tingling vocal undulation as part of the harmonies for the song as well as more conventional backing vocals.

The final cut on the disc is from the band Tartit made up of five women and four men. The women provide the lead vocals and rhythmic patterns for this song while the men accompany them. At first the vocals sound rather simplistic, but listen closely and you realize there are something like five different vocal patterns happening at once. Occasionally one of the women break free from the hypnotic trance like sound to issue an undulation that rises up like a sudden wind. "Tihou Beyatne" is unlike any other song on the disc and is probably the one closest to the traditional music of the people. Here again you also see indications of why their Arabic name of Tuareg stuck as not only do the women lead the band, they go unveiled while the men keep their faces covered.
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While Tartit may be the closest to the traditional sound of the Kel Tamasheq all of the bands, no matter how electric or how much they've been influenced by Western popular music, retain solid connections to their desert roots. The majority sing in the Tamasheq language and thematically their songs are designed to remind their listeners to be proud of their culture. More importantly they use their music to teach the younger generation displaced from their desert life who they are and why the desert is important to the Tamasheq people. Musically, even artists like Bombino, whose band uses a full drum kit and is probably most like a Western pop group, retain the traditional rhythmic elements that distinguish all the bands' music. No matter how much their guitars wail, the drum still carries the echoes of thousands of years in the desert.

Like indigenous people the world over the Kel Tamasheq have seen their traditional territories taken away from them due to the encroachment of outside influences. The safety provided by living in one of the harshest environments in the world has disappeared. No where is safe any longer from civilization's greed for resources. The discovery of uranium in their traditional territories in Niger was a death knell for a way of life that had been carried out by those living there for a thousand years. The insurrections in Mali by Islamic fundamentalists earlier this year made an awful situation even worse with the displacement of over 200,000 Tamasheq and others living there.

All profits made from the sale of Songs For Desert Refugees are being split between two Non Government Organizations (NGOS) who are dedicated to assisting the Tamasheq people. Tamoudre works directly with those nomads still trying to work the land in the war torn areas by assisting them in any way possible to make their livelihoods more secure. Etar, has the more long term goal of helping to preserve, protect and disseminate the Tamasheq culture, both for the people themselves and to educate the rest of the world about them. They are currently raising money to build a culture centre in one of the regions in Mali hardest hit by the recent uprisings.

The Kel Tamasheq are a proud people who have fought long and hard for their right to be left alone and live their lives in the same way their ancestors did for generations. Music has played a key role in this fight for survival by keeping traditions alive and helping the people to retain a sense of pride in who they are. This disc represents a slightly more tangible way of helping their people as the bands involved have donated their songs and time in the hopes they will be able to raise some money to bring relief to those of their people who have once again find themselves caught up in a situation not of their making but which is causing them to suffer. Won't you help?

(Article first published as Music Review: Various Artists - Songs For Desert Refugees on Blogcritics.)

August 30, 2012

Movie Review: The Green Wave


When was the last time a documentary film made you cry? I don't usually cry in most films, let alone documentaries, yet as I was watching The Green Wave, a film by Ali Samadi Ahadi from Dreamer Joint Venture productions, I found myself with tears pouring down my face. Originally released in Germany the movie had its English language premier at The Sundance Film Festival and is now showing in select theatres in North America. With a mixture of animation, interviews and raw footage taken from camera phones and other clandestine means of photography Ahadi recounts the events surrounding the 2009 elections in Iran which culminated in government sanctioned violence against people protesting their results.

Green is the colour of Islam, but in Iran of 2009 it became associated with the campaign to have reform candidate, former Prime Minister of Iran Mir-Hossein Mousavi elected President. The film opens prior to the election. The first things which are established are the fact there was dissatisfaction, especially among the young, with the incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. What was especially troubling was how come with billions of dollars in oil revenues during his presidency the economy had worsened and there were fewer opportunities for employment for young people. Then the film introduces us to Mousavi and his campaign for president.
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We learn how the campaign had booked a large sports arena in Tehran for a political rally. The campaign workers were nervous enough people would show up to make it worth while. Then when they arrive at the arena to start setting up for the rally they discover the size of their support. People began showing up hours in advance offering to help. It wasn't just young people or students who supported Mousavi, there were people from all walks of life including members of the clergy and the military. People who had given up hope of there ever being significant change in Iran began to have hope again.

Then came the election. The first nasty shock was the ballots were designed to be confusing. In order to vote for a candidate you had to write a code in the box next to their name. While the codes were posted on the walls of the polling stations, nobody had been prepared for this rather odd practice. Then reports started coming in of polling stations mysteriously running out of ballots with people still waiting to vote and other polling stations closing hours before voting was due to stop. Confusion was high, and then things started to turn ugly. The government cancelled all visas for foreign press, shut down satellite transmission and all other means of communication with the outside world. As one person being interviewed said, they should have known something odd was going on as during the last couple of hours of voting the state television station started showing nature programs instead of election coverage.

The next day with results still undecided people took to the streets refusing to believe the government was really going to try and manipulate the election. They figured they were just stalling as long as they could before surrendering power. Then Mousavi was placed under house arrest and more and more people took to the streets demanding something be done. Unfortunately what was done was not what they wanted. The militia and the police took to the streets as well and began to attack the demonstrators. Troops mounted on motorcycles in two man teams swarmed the streets beating and stabbing anybody they came across whether they were demonstrators or not. They invaded the residence at the university and began randomly beating the students. Police marksmen opened fire on demonstrators from rooftops killing and wounding them. Hospitals were forced to turn wounded patients over to the military and the dead were unceremoniously hauled out of morgues and piled in the back of pick up trucks and never seen again.

As all media had been shut down during this time, Ahadi has very little actual footage to draw upon to tell the story. However, what he does have are people's blog twitter postings from the time. It's these he uses to give us first person accounts of what happened to some people as well as to help establish a timeline for when events took place. In spite of being under house arrest Mousavi was able to somehow access his twitter account to let people know what was happening to him. Ahadi also takes the blog posts and uses them to recreate events with illustrations. While he could have animated the images, he's done something even more effective. Individual panels, like those in a graphic novel, fill the screen freezing a moment in time. So when a doctor is talking about treating those injured by the army, we see her standing in a hospital corridor, hands spotted in blood and eyes filled with pain.
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While these images and the raw footage taken from camera phones and other mobile devices of the attacks on peaceful demonstrators are upsetting, unfortunately this type of footage is depressingly familiar. Soldiers firing upon civilians has been far too common an occurrence these days for it to come as a surprise that it would happen in Iran. It's the reactions of the survivors to these events that wrenched my heart. Naturally they still haven't recovered from the horror of what happened and that's always hard to watch. However what's really heartbreaking is the fact they are shocked it happened at all.

Their sense of betrayal and disillusionment makes you wonder how they could have been so naive as to believe the totalitarian regime they had been living under would not have attacked them for protesting. It was like they had just woken up to the fact their kindly uncle who had been buying them sweets since they were children had been sexually abusing them and the rest of their family. While it's understandable those living under the thumb of the regime might have been indoctrinated to the extent they wouldn't have noticed how harsh conditions were until they impacted on them directly, what was really disheartening was listening to some of the things said by those who should have known better.

Dr. Shirin Ebadi, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003, shows what I think is incredible naivety when she makes a comment about how France, Germany, Italy and other European Union nations should remember the dead protestors before conducting business with Iran. When has any nation let human rights abuses by another nation stand in the way of business? Oh sure they might make statements expressing outrage over the events, but stop trading with one of the largest suppliers of oil to the European Union? Not going to happen. If the West was at all serious about dealing with the Iranian regime properly there would have been a complete trade embargo in place ages ago. It's not just Iran either, the West turns a blind eye to human rights abuses everywhere whenever it suits us.

It's heartbreaking to hear such an intelligent and resourceful woman clinging to false hopes. Or to hear some of the young people living in exile talking about seeing the youth of their current home going out and having fun and wondering if they know their contemporaries in Iran don't have that freedom? Or listening to the voice of a young woman asking what is this place which is like a prison where people can be killed or arrested without reason and tearfully answering herself with one word, Iran.

Prior to the "Arab Spring", the popular movement in Arab countries where the people managed to throw off some of the longest serving dictators in the Middle East there was the Green Wave in Iran. For a few desperate weeks in the summer of 2009 there was the whiff of freedom in the air for a people who had suffered under oppressive regimes since the end of WWll. Whether the secret police of the Shah of Iran or the Revolutionary Guard and the morals police of the supposed Islamic Republic there has always been a force present insuring voices of dissent are silenced. Maybe they hoped this time it would be different. However, as The Green Wave makes clear, it might have taken the government a bit longer to clamp down on this occasion, but when they did, it was with a viscousness designed to obliterate resistance and destroy hope. I dare you to sit through this movie without crying. The people of Iran deserve our tears, it's only too bad the world isn't willing to do more for them.

(Article first published as Movie Review: The Green Wave on Blogcritics.)

May 21, 2012

Book Review: The Sly Company Of People Who Care By Rahul Bhattacharya


The world is pitted with pockmarks left behind by colonial powers. Festering black holes of poverty and anger are the hallmarks of countries built upon the backs of slave labour and indentured servitude. While Africa and South East Asia are the areas most often associated with countries still trying to crawl out from the burden of being an European subject, the Western Hemisphere has its own colonial heritage. Unlike in other parts of the world those looking to exploit North and South America weren't able to do it on the backs of the indigenous peoples. Rather unreasonably they preferred to die rather be forced to slave for those who would be their masters.

Which is why almost anywhere there were European settlements in the Western Hemisphere, from Canada to South America, there were also slaves. If, once the slave trade had been abolished, the land owners still needed cheap labour they used the next best thing, indentured servants. In exchange for the promise of a new life poor people in other parts of the world were given passage to the new world in exchange for agreeing to work as virtual slaves for a period of at least five years and sometimes seven. In Guyana, formally British Guiana, on the North East coast of South America, the scars from these practices are still open wounds.

In his recently published book, The Sly Company Of People Who Care from Picador Press, author Rahul Bhattacharya takes us on a long strange journey into the soul of probably the poorest county in our hemisphere. One of the main reasons for Guyana's poverty were the practices employed by her former colonial masters, the Dutch and the British. It was the Dutch who brought thousands of African slaves to the country. They did the back breaking work of making the costal areas not only habitable but useful for agriculture by shifting thousand of tons of earth and mud to construct dikes and canals by hand. In theory the former slaves were given the opportunity to buy some of the land they had previously worked. But the government, urged on by their former masters, did their best to make sure the former slaves would fail.

The slaves' place on the plantations were taken primarily by indentured servants brought in from the poorest parts of India. However, unlike their African counterparts, once the Indians had served their contracts they were given assistance from the government to ensure they could make a go of farming and establishing themselves. This was a deliberate attempt by those in power to create resentment and animosity between the two sets of downtrodden people. For naturally the descendants of the African slaves resented the favours granted the late comers. Political parties were formed along racial lines, and while there were some who attempted to bridge the gap, even today the divide is the biggest cause of unrest and violence in Guyana.
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Bhattacharya's story centres around the experiences of a young Indian national who decided to chuck his career as a sports journalist covering cricket around the world to spend a year exploring Guyana. What he quickly discovers, although there are very few pure blooded descendants of either racial group left, the divisions still run deep. Therefore he naturally spends the majority of time in the company of those who trace their ancestry back to India. Ironically they know little or almost nothing, of the language or culture they left behind and like their African counterparts speak a localized version of the Caribbean patois.

While the book is called a novel, Bhattacharya, was himself a former cricket journalist and spent time in Guyana exploring the country and getting to know its ins and outs as best he could. The impression he creates is of a country of extreme contrasts. From the below sea level coastal area where the majority of the population is crammed into dirty and crumbling cities where poverty and the ugliness that accompanies it is the norm, to the breathtaking natural beauty of the rain forests and exposed and wild grasslands bordering Brazil. While the transition from city life to the rainforest is made in stages; first by bus, then boat and then on foot to small settlements in the bush, on a visit to Brazil he discovers the demarcation line between the forrest and the grass land is much more abrupt. As he describes it one moment your amongst trees and the next all your eye can see for miles in any direction is swaying grasses.

Well the natural physical beauties of Guyana are spectacular, including the Kaieteur Falls the world's largest single drop waterfall, Bhattacharya's book concentrates on the people his character meets and describing their lives. It seems like alcohol and ganga play a substantial role in the lives of the men he meets, which could also explain why it feels like every gathering carries with it the potential for violence. Like any poor community there are those who are always looking for the quick way out - the one scam that will get them ahead of the game. This lends a certain air of desperation to all their actions and contributes to the ever present whiff of danger one senses. Too many people walking the knife edge of seeing hopes dashed time after time but still willing to bet everything they have on some desperate adventure.

The other impression created is of a whole nation adrift. With an economy in tatters, the only people making any money are the ones shipping cocaine from Columbia through Guyana to points further afield and those living off the bribes they pay out. While this is a work of fiction, one has the feeling the characters the author has created are based on people he met during his time in Guyana. Nobody sees any further ahead then how to get through the next little while. There's no talk of the future or planning ways to get ahead. There might be boasting of things done in the past or far fetched dreams of maybe immigrating to America, but that's as far as it goes. Depending upon which community you find yourself in, African or Indian, there's always the recourse of blaming the misfortunes of the country on the other. If it weren't for them why things would be better.
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Like those he falls in with, the lead character in Bhattacharya's story is seemingly content to drift aimlessly for the year his visa lasts. This includes a rather strange affair he has with a local woman which he falls into apparently from boredom. He knows it can't last, he has to catch a plane back to India on a specific date or face serious trouble, but at times he pretends to himself there's more to it than just something casual. She's not as stupid as him concerning the affair, but in other ways she's pathetically ignorant. She's the cause of his one great moral dilemma just before he's to leave the country, not what you think, and he fails the test quite miserably.

In some ways our narrator is not a likeable person. He's the ultimate dilettante as he plays at being poor and living the drifting life style of those around him. However, unlike them he has his passage out pre booked and paid for. He has a life and a career to go back to and the stability of a home waits for him in his native land. While he drinks their rum and talks their patois, and one of the delights of this book is how well Bhattacharya has managed to recreate the various dialects on the page, it's all a pretence for him. He's still a reporter at heart and no matter how much he thinks he's involved with what's going on he remains sufficiently detached to be able to report objectively on people's behaviour. His only saving grace is at least he's honest enough to apply the same critical eye to his own behaviour.

The Sly Company Of People Who Care is an interesting read for the light it shines on one of the world's forgotten communities. Guyana, like so many countries abandoned by those who exploited its people and natural resources after they milked it for all they could, has been drifting aimlessly in an ever increasing downward spiral ever since its independence. With little or no opportunities for careers the few who are educated leave for greener pastures as soon as possible and those who remain behind sink further into poverty and anger. One is left wondering how much longer it can continue to drift before it runs aground. It sounds like only luck has prevented it from succumbing to the horrible ethnic violence we've seen other former colonies descend into. However, unless something happens to enact healthy change soon that's a tinderbox only the right spark away from being ignited.

(Article first published as Book Review: The Sly Company Of People Who Care By Rahul Bhattacharya on Blogcritics.)

May 8, 2012

Movie Review: Oka


In North America the coming of Europeans spelled the end for the traditional lifestyle of those already living here. It didn't matter whether people had been hunter gatherers or agricultural what they had known before was taken away from them. The former saw the territories required to sustain them taken away and their food supply either deliberately exterminated (the American buffalo) or reduced in population as their habitat was eroded by civilization. In the case of the latter it was usually a case of being forcibly removed from arable land to make way for European settlers and moved to areas unsuitable for the crops they were used to growing.

European colonialists employed similar policies the world over as their influence spread. However, there were certain parts of the world where the native climate was so hostile that even the hardiest of settlers wouldn't have dreamed of trying to make a go of "taming" the land. Until late in the twentieth century people indigenous to places like the Saharan desert, the far north and the jungles of Africa and South America were able to carry on living much as they had for centuries. Unfortunately that began changing as "civilization's" greed for natural resources has meant that no area of the world is safe from exploitation any longer no matter how supposedly inhospitable it may once have been considered.

Once considered impenetrable and forbidding the jungles of Africa have only recently begun to feel the pinch of progress and development. The people of Central and West African nations are now seeing their lands torn apart by mining for materials for cell phones and other precious metals. The forests themselves are one of the last great sources of lumber, and improving technology has finally allowed companies access to the great trees that have stood for centuries.
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Naturally those most effected by these encroachments are those least able to defend themselves. In the Central African Republic it's the Bayaka people in the province of Yandombe who are most at risk. Pygmies, treated as second class citizens by the other tribes, they've long lived as hunter gatherers deep within the forests. A new movie, Oka, shows how depriving them of their traditional way of life has begun the process of marginalizing them as has happened to so many the world over. Told through the eyes of an ethnomusicologist, Larry Whitman (played by the wonderful Kris Marshall), and based on the experiences of real life ethnomusicologist Louis Sarno who has lived with them for twenty-five years., the movie depicts the Bayaka's circumstances with both intelligence and humour.

Writer director Lavina Currier has created both a portrait of an individual's personal journey, as we follow Whitman from New Jersey at the beginning of the movie to Central Africa, and what happens to a people when they are forced to relinquish the way of life which has defined them for generations. Too often this type of movie falls into one of a few traps. They will either sentimentalize their subjects and make them out to be something they aren't or become a forum for some sort of new age bullshit about the spirituality of living in harmony with nature which comes across like so much "noble savage garbage. Thankfully Currier avoids any of those temptations and allows her cameras to speak for themselves and lets us reach our own decisions about events as they unfold. Even better is the fact that Whitman is never once shown to be their saviour. He doesn't come ridding into the jungle on his white charger and lead the poor ignorant native peoples to victory over his evil compatriots.

Whitman has made its his life's work to record the sounds of the Bayaka's lives including the music they create and the sounds of the world they live in. However there is still one sound he's been unable to capture on tape, the sound of the molimo, an instrument associated with the elephant hunts the people used to conduct. With elephants now a protected species both the hunt and the instrument are thought to be things of the past as the only time the Bayaka will play the instrument is for hunting purposes.

When the movie opens we find Whitman back home in the States looking for funding to continue his work and being told he's in no physical shape to tackle the intense heat of Africa again. In spite of his doctor's warning, "there's no more trips to Africa for you Larry", he refuses to give up his quest to record the molimo. However upon his return to the Central African Republic he discovers things have changed for the worse. The local Bantu mayor has forbidden the Bayaka to enter the forests and confined them to a small village. The mayor hope is to somehow convince the authorities to waive their protection of the Bayaka traditional lands so he can capitalize on a lumber company's desire to harvest the forests in those areas.

Confined to a village Whitman finds the Bayaka have fallen into the same malaise plaguing indigenous people everywhere forced from their lands. Instead of following their traditional way of life they have become dependant on earning what they can from casual labour and have started to succumb to the lure of the material goods money can buy. There's also the feeling that alcohol is starting to play too much of a role in helping them forget their troubles. Only one man seems to have been able to avoid the trap, tribal shaman Sataka and his wife Ekadi have ignored the mayor's edict to stay out of the forest and continue to live there as they always have. (All the Bayaka tribes people roles are performed by members of the tribe. According to production notes online they were initially perplexed as to what was expected of them. They had become so used to people making documentary film about them the idea of acting out something instead of just doing it was at first confusing. Judging by the results it's obvious they caught on quickly enough, as the performance by all are natural and completely believable.)
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When Whitman heads off into the forest in an attempt to find Sataka, in the hopes of somehow hearing the sound of the elusive molimo, the rest of the tribe, knowing how hopeless he is at surviving on his own, set out after him. It's through these scenes in the forest that Currier makes her strongest arguments against the displacement of peoples from their habitat. Simply watching the Bayaka moving through the undergrowth with ease compared to the struggles Whitman experiences simply walking the same paths, tells you all you need to know about them and their environment. Contrasting how they are in the forest to their lives in the village nobody can doubt which is truly their home.

Currier has taken full advantage of her media, sounds and visuals, to get her message across. By allowing us to see and hear the forest and how the Bayaka interact with it, it's obvious where they belong. At no point does anybody make any speeches, nor are the lives of the people being portrayed sentimentalized. When Whitman argues against a proposed elephant hunt, the Bayaka look at him as if he was crazy. Elephants have been a traditional staple of the people for as long as they've been there. They provide enough meat to feed the entire tribe for long periods of time, why shouldn't they hunt it? "Don't you like meat?" they ask him. The harsh reality of the hunter gatherer lifestyle doesn't allow for any room to sentimentalize one's source of food.

Oka is a wonderful movie on a couple of fronts. For not only does it do a wonderful job of telling the story of how Whitman and his obsession with recording all the sounds and music associated with the Bayaka people, it is as honest as portrayal as you'll ever see of the effects of displacement upon a people. Here are a people who if left alone would simply carry on as they've done for generations. Ideally suited to their home environment, they don't need to be rescued, they need to be left alone. Unfortunately we don't have the greatest record when it comes to leaving things alone. Maybe films like this one will help us understand how somethings are fine just the way they are and in some cases change isn't necessarily for the better.

Oka was first released in theatres in October 2011 and is being shown in selected theatres on specific dates around the world. Check the web site for dates of a screening near you.

(Article first published as Movie Review: Oka on Blogcritics)

July 18, 2011

Tinariwen Denied Visas To Enter Canada

Well it hasn't taken Steven Harper's newly elected majority government in Canada very long to embarrass Canada internationally and send a chill through the Canadian artistic community at the same time. The Malian based, internationally renowned Kel Tamashek band Tinariwen has been denied visas to enter Canada in order to perform twice in the past couple of months. First they were turned down for a visa so they could perform as scheduled at the Winnipeg Folk Festival and then when they re-applied in Los Angeles in order to make it to the Vancouver Folk Festival they were turned down again. It's not as if this is the first time the band has travelled to Canada as they've been performing here on a regular basis since 2004.

So why have they all of a sudden been denied entry to Canada? It can't be because of security problems as they have had no problems with gaining admission to the United States for that part of their North American tour. In fact if you check out their touring schedule listed at their web site you'll see they're booked to play almost every major music festival in Europe and around the world this summer, except of course for Canada. When asked for comment as to why they denied the band their visa's this year, Citizenship and Immigration Canada refused to say anything except each application is assessed on its merits. According to the spokesperson quoted in the Globe and Mail on July 15/11, Johanne Nedeau, they consider the profile of the event, invitations from the Canadian hosts and whether letters of support were received.

Okay, so the first event they were turned down for was the Winnipeg Folk Festival which has been on going since 1974. According to figures released by Tourism Winnipeg in 2009 the folk festival creates 244 jobs, generates $25 million in economic activity and its impact on Manitoba's Gross Domestic Product is around $14 million. For those of you who don't know Canada that well, Manitoba, where Winnipeg is located, is not one of the richest provinces in Canada. It doesn't have the industry of Ontario, oil wells of Alberta or the wheat fields of Saskatchewan. It needs any little boost it can get and the Winnipeg Folk Festival with its annual attendance of over 70,000 per annum is not small potatoes.
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Artistically the festival has been attracting performers from across North America and around the world since it began. This year's festival was promising to be more of the same with acts like k.d Lang, Blue Rodeo, Lucinda Williams, Blackie and The Rodeo Kings and Little Feat from North America mixing with international performers like Omar Souleyman from North Africa, actor Tim Robbins and his Rogues Gallery Band and Toots and the Maytals from Jamaica. Not only do they hold there annual weekend concert series, the festival also runs year round programming to encourage and develop local talent and introduce young people to international music. I would think that qualifies them as a pretty high profile event both artistically and economically.

The Vancouver festival didn't get started until 1977, but it has more than made up for its late start by now. Being in a larger metropolitan centre hasn't hurt, and being on the West Coast of Canada also allows them access to bands in Asia that other festivals don't have. This year's acts include mainstream artists like Roseanne Cash, Josh Ritter and Gillian Welsh as well as international artists like Cassius Khan, Emmanuel Jal and Tinariwen - oops, not them, they weren't allowed into Canada that's right. The Vancouver festival is one of the major international folk gatherings each year. Bands and performers from around the world make sure to include it as part of their touring schedule. You wouldn't believe how many times I've requested information from publicists about whether their band was going to be performing in Canada only to find out they would only be showing up in Vancouver for the folk festival and nowhere else.

So I think we've established that both the Vancouver and Winnipeg Folk Festivals are significant events in the year's calendar, and we know Tinariwen was invited by each of the festivals to perform. As for the letters of support, upon finding out about the band being denied a visa for Winnipeg, two Canadian Members of Parliament wrote letters supporting their application for entry to perform in Vancouver. Yet somehow or other despite all the requirements for granting of a visa being met, Tinariwen still weren't allowed into Canada. One really has to wonder what was motivating the decision to refuse them entry.
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Tinariwen are fast becoming one of the biggest draws on the international music circuit. Support from main stream musicians like Robert Plant and others has given them a much higher profile than most international bands. Preventing the band from playing at these two folk festivals will definitely have an impact on their box offices as each event had scheduled them for a headlining concert - they were to have to been the opening night act in Vancouver. If one looks at the results from the last election, both British Columbia and Manitoba gave a healthy majority of their seats to the Conservative Party - so on the surface there doesn't appear to be any reason for political motivation. However, those most likely to attend and/or organize either one of these festivals are not the types who are liable to vote for the Conservative Party of Canada.

This is the same government who has already cancelled funding for a theatre festival because they did not agree with the content of a play performed in its previous season. Toronto's Summerworks Theatre Festival had its funding cancelled by the Department of Canadian Heritage because they staged a play the government didn't like. Only weeks before the festival is scheduled to begin they have been told its 2011 grant of around $48,000 was being pulled, an amount that represented 20% of the festivals budget. The message is clear, there's no such thing as arms length arts funding in Canada and if the government doesn't like you or your politics you can expect to be screwed over in one way or another.

Vancouver and Winnipeg's folk festival have paid the price for not representing Steven Harper's vision of Canada by having one of their biggest draws refused entry at the border. While cutting funding to artists is still the easiest way to silence them the government is also showing itself willing to find new and inventive ways of punishing those it can't touch through funding cuts. What kind of message is our government sending when it cuts funding to artists who express opinions different from their own and arbitrarily prevents others from crossing our borders? The one I'm hearing is if you don't agree with us we're going to make you suffer. In the long run it will be the people of Canada who suffer the most as we're gradually cut off from freedom of expression. Preventing Tinariwen from gaining admission to Canada is only the tip of the ice berg representing the beginning of what looks to be a big chill artistically in Canada. Harper and his Conservative Party of Canada have five years to do what they want, and it looks as if they're off to a flying start in reshaping the country in their image.

(Article first published as Tinariwen Denied Visas to Enter Canada on Blogcritics)

May 8, 2011

Movie Review: Wild Horses & Renegades

A few years back I wrote an article about the threat to America's wild horses in general and the small herd of Mustangs on the Blackjack Mountain preserve in Oklahoma in particular. At that time I laid the blame for the mismanagement of one of America's greatest natural resources at the feet of the Bureau Of Land Management (BLM) and their close ties to corporations buying leases on public land to run livestock. The BLM is supposedly responsible for the stewardship of all wild lands not currently national parks owned by the federal government in trust for the people of the United States. The acts which govern the terms of their stewardship spell out they are supposed to treat them in manner sensitive to the existing ecosystems. One of the pieces of legislation which applies to these territories is the Wild Free-Roaming Horse And Burro Act passed in 1971 that was designed to preserve existing populations of wild horses and burros on all government owned lands.

Unfortunately it seems the BLM have an awfully interesting interpretation of the terms of their remit and have done everything in their power to reduce the numbers of horses in the wild and find as many ways as possible to contravene not only the spirit of the law, but the letter as well. In my article of 2008 I mistakenly blamed agribusiness as the biggest co-conspirator in this effort to defraud the American public. However, while it is true they have quite a bit of pull within the BLM, they at least aren't actively destroying the environment which the horses depend on for survival. After all, they too need the pasture land and clean water the horses require. It turns out the real problem is the fact the BLM have been hard at work selling off the last of America's wilderness to oil, gas and mining companies.
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Nothing says wildlife preserve quite like uranium tailings, polluted water, radioactive waste, pools of sulphuric acid, strip mining, oil wells and a night sky light up by the flames from natural gas stand pipes. Yet while everyone's backs are turned that's what is happening all across the American West. From Colorado through Montana, Utah down through to Nevada and New Mexico the land is being doled out to responsible environmentalists like BP (remember the Gulf oil spill?) and their friends in the Oil and Gas business. Disappointment Valley in Colorado has a new crop - survey spikes staking out claims for Uranium mines. (There's still a law on the books that dates back to the gold rush days that allows prospectors to lay claim to any land not privately owned in order to set up a mining operation. Once they've laid a claim all they need do is apply to the BLM for permission to "lease" the land and they can begin mining operations. Of course once their lease is expired the country gets it back, but unfortunately these tenants aren't required to return the property in the same shape they found it and nobody else seems to want to clean up after them.)

It would be nice to say I'm just making this up off the top of my head and there's no proof to substantiate any of what I'm saying, but the truth of the matter is the picture is actually a lot worse than the one I've been painting. All you need do is watch the soon to be released documentary Wild Horses And Renegades (It will have its premiere on May 12 2011 at the International Wildlife Film Festival in Missoula Montana at the Wilma Theatre at 7:00pm.) to find out not only the depth of the BML's duplicity when it comes to their management of America's wild lands, but the seriousness of the situation facing the few remaining horses and burros in the wild. I have to warn you though, I've recommended to my wife that she not watch the movie, and if you are at all easily upset by scenes of blatant cruelty to animals either be prepared to close your eyes at short notice or to have your heart broken and your stomach turned periodically. While director James Kleinert has done his best to make this movie an homage to the horses he so obviously loves, he has made the decision not to hide the truth of their situation from the viewer.

The ugly truth includes footage from slaughter houses just across the border in Mexico where supposedly protected animals somehow end up, the repulsive manner in which the animals are "humanely" rounded up for removal and their treatment by BLM employees rounding them up. While not as visually ugly, truths obtained through the freedom of information act regarding the BLM's aims and objectives for the wild horse herds, are equally disturbing as they talk about how they can best circumvent the laws meant to preserve the horses. Not only do these documents reveal an orchestrated campaign of disinformation they outline possible ways of removing animals from the wild and subsequently selling them to slaughter. You see in 2004 an amendment (The Burns Amendment, named for its sponsor Senator Conrad Burns of Montana) to the Wild Horse And Burro act was tagged onto the appropriation bill in the Senate that once again allowed for the slaughter of wild horses where it had been originally prohibited. Any animal the BLM considers excess they can now sell for slaughter no matter if its healthy or not.

Wild Horses & Renegades from Moving Cloud on Vimeo.


What makes the movie so powerful are not just the images, too many shots of abuse and they'd lose their power to shock us. Kleinert has very wisely divided the movie up between testimony from a mixture of experts, celebrities and even interviews with BLM mouthpieces and employees, footage of wild horses on the range, images of how the West is being lost to industry and the way the BLM treats the horses under their stewardship. The experts range from former BLM employees who had the gall to believe their job was to protect the areas under their stewardship and were let go, members of Congress from the affected regions - Democrats - who want to see changes made to the way the BLM operates, people working to preserve both the horse and burro population and the wild lands, to ranchers who have seen the lands they used to run cattle on destroyed by pollution. Each of them peel away another layer of the carefully constructed skin of lies spun by the BLM of how everything they do is for the good of the animals and the land.
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Of the celebrities, Viggo Mortensen, Sheryl Crow, Willie Nelson, author Scott Momaday and Raul Trujillo make intelligent and impassioned pleas based on facts and the need to conserve something supposedly precious and unique to America. So many pay lip service to the idea of the wide open spaces and how the West is emblematic of the spirit of America, yet most have no problem standing by and letting it be destroyed. The BLM position, as expressed by employees and those who support their policies, of looking at everything in terms of whether or not it is useful is not one conducive to preserving the wild intact. In fact it's a philosophy which puts them at odds with their directive of stewarding the land and its inhabitants as any horse they deem not "useful" is now slated for slaughter.

The smartest thing director Kleinert has done in this movie is to simply let the BLM condemn themselves through their own actions and words. Listening and watching their high handed behaviour in dealing with public complaints, hearing about the repeated cases of conflict of interest and mismanagement documented by the government's internal auditors, the number of ex-oil company officials who lobby and work in the Department of the Interior, under whose auspices the BLM fall, and then watching footage of their 'safe' and 'humane' roundups tells the viewer all we need to know.

Right from the start Kleinert makes no bones about his own personal bias - this film is pro-wild horse and preserve the wild lands and doesn't care who knows it. It is an impassioned plea to his fellow citizens to do something about preserving a part of their country's heritage and a warning that those who have been entrusted with that responsibility are failing them badly. Movies like this one are important as they expose ugly truths we might never find out otherwise. It's one thing to listen to people talk about something, it's another thing all together to see it with your own eyes. I seriously doubt you'll come away from watching this movie unmoved. Hopefully it can motivate enough people to make their voices heard and help preserve the American wild horse and the land it needs for survival.

(Those wishing to reserve a copy of the DVD of this movie when it is released can do so by filling out a form at the film's web site)

(Article first published as Movie Review: Wild Horses & Renegades on Blogcritics)

April 28, 2011

Anybody But Haprer

I'm not going to be voting for the New Democrat Party (NDP) of Canada on Monday May 2 2011 in Canada's Federal election. That may not sound like much of an earth shattering announcement to most of you, but to me its a mark of just how dire I consider the circumstances facing our country. It's also an indication of how low the NDP and its leadership have fallen in my estimation. To start you need to understand something about me and my family. In every election since I turned 18 I've voted NDP, whether they've had a chance of winning the riding I was in or not. Until now they've at least always represented the moral high ground and I could believe they stood for many of the same things I believed in.

Of course there was also my family's history of affiliation with both the party and its predecessor, the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF). Back in the 1950s before he went to law school my father was national press secretary for the CCF. His mother was a delegate at the 1961 party convention which saw them change their name to the NDP and both my parents were friends with Stephen Lewis, son of former federal NDP party leader David Lewis, former leader of the Ontario provincial party, former Canadian ambassador to the United Nations and now a leading advocate for AIDS sufferers in Africa.

So you could say the NDP are in my blood and you wouldn't be too far off. But this election I'm not voting for them, I'm going to be voting for the local Liberal candidate. The funny thing is it wasn't even that hard a decision to make. First of all is the fact that the current leader of the NDP, Jack Layton, has proven to be the worst sort of political whore, willing to promise anything to anyone in order to gain power. This was rammed home forcibly during the French language leaders debate which most of English Canada ignored. During the debate he shamelessly appealed to Quebecois nationalist voters by promising to reopen constitutional talks. The last thing this country needs is to open that can of worms again, but there he was swearing to put us through that shit again in a blatant attempt to garner votes in a province where his party has only ever won a single seat federally.

Aside from his bullshit though the real issue at stake is whether or not I want to be a contributor to helping Steven Harper and his Conservative Party of Canada win a majority in the House of Commons this election. Since he won his first election he has always had the threat of being voted down in the House by the opposition restraining him from carrying out the worst excesses of his party's platform. Items such as privatizing prisons, enforcing mandatory sentencing laws for drug offences, closing down treatment facilities for drug users like Insite, the safe injection site in Vancouver, trying to ban gay marriages, and encouraging discrimination on the basis of sex, gender, and race through his "Freedom Of Religion" act which would allow people to claim their religion prevents them serving or working with people because of their sexuality etc., have all been put on the back burner until he knows nobody can stop him.

So this election I'm voting for anybody but Harper, which means targeted voting, and anybody who is serious about wanting to ensure he doesn't get the majority he so desperately covets, will swallow the same bullet. Targeted voting means looking at your local riding and figuring out which of the opposition candidates has the best chance of winning and voting for him. If you think the NDP can win vote for them, if you think it's the Liberal candidate who stands the best chance, vote for him or her. The last thing we want happening is to split the vote and let the Conservatives win extra seats. The most dangerous part of Jack Layton's continued popularity is the fact he is stealing votes away from the Liberal party and increasing the chances of the Conservatives winning seats.

Layton has gone on record as saying he doesn't see the point in targeted voting, proving that he cares more about his own political ambitions than he does about the welfare of Canada. Who the fuck cares if the NDP get a higher percentage of the popular vote in this election if it translates into a Conservative majority government? I do, because I'm going to have to live in Canada for the next five years under a government who was the first government in the history of our country to be found in contempt of parliament, who rather than face a possible non-confidence vote suspended parliament, who have routinely withheld information from both the people and parliament on the grounds we're not smart enough to understand it and can't be trusted to make up our own minds, who have flagrantly broken election spending laws secure in the knowledge that there really isn't anything that can be done to punish them, and have done their best to not talk to Canadians at all about anything if they don't have to.

In this current election campaign no Conservative Party candidate has been allowed to answer direct questions from the press and is not allowed to deviate from prepared answers and speeches that have been issued by the Prime Minister's Office. The premise is if they don't say anything, if they don't let people know what they really believe in, we might forget everything they really stand for. Remember this is the same party who promised to hold a new vote about the issue of gay marriage even though they knew full well the federal government has no control over the issue and the Supreme Court of Canada has already ruled that preventing them is a violation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Liberties. They are so cynical though that they would force through this type of legislation because it appeals to all the right wing bigots who form the back bone of their support and have since they were the Reform Party of Canada.

On May 2nd 2011 the choice is clear, in whatever riding you live in vote for the candidate most likely to defeat the Conservative Party of Canada candidate. This is not an election to vote for the Green party because you think they say some nice things. The NDP might be riding high in the polls right now, but ask yourself how many seats will that really translate into and where are they siphoning votes from? You can bet those votes aren't coming from Conservative voters having some radical change of heart. Maybe in Quebec they're taking some votes from the nationalist Bloc Quebecois party, but who is that going to help win seats? The NDP have only ever won one seat in that province and taking votes from the Bloc is only going to help the Conservatives. Only vote NDP if you think they're going to win the seat, otherwise vote Bloc or vote Liberal.

We must stop Steven Harper from gaining a majority government.

March 3, 2011

Movie Review: Agadez - The Music And The Rebellion

Open up Google Maps and check out Agadez in the Western part of Niger and the Sahara desert. If you switch over to the satellite view of the city and pull back far enough it disappears into the surrounding desert. It becomes just another shade of brown in what appears to be a never ending vista of tan. How did this city come to appear here in what is apparently the middle of nowhere? Is it just some recent thing that sprang up in response to human greed for something buried beneath the shifting sands? In actual fact the city was founded sometime before the 14th century and was officially designated a Sultanate in 1449. More importantly it is the capital of Air, one of the traditional Tuareg federations, and was one of key way stations along the caravan routes they followed carrying trade from Algerian ports on the Mediterranean Sea into the interior of Africa and back.

Descendants of the Berber tribes of North Africa they were named Tuareg, Arabic for rebels, for their initial resistance to adopting the Muslim faith, but refer to themselves as the Kel Tamsheq after their language. Even though they eventually adopted the religion and the camel herding nomadic lifestyle they now live of the colonizing Arabs, they have continued to resist any kind of external control over their lives to this day. From French colonial rule to having the way they practice their religion dictated to them by outsiders they have have struggled preserve their way of life and traditional territories. Since the withdrawal of French rule from the Sahara in the early 1960s the lands they used to move through freely have been divided up amongst Niger, Burkina Faso, Mali and Algeria. Since 1963, and the first uprising of the modern era, they have taken up arms to protect their rights in the 1980s, the 1990s and most recently in 2007.
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Much like elsewhere in the world the Kel Tamsheq discovered treaties have a way of being forgotten when governments change or when it is discovered the useless land they were given is rich in natural resources. It would come as no surprise to Native Americans to hear that when uranium was discovered in Niger all the treaties were thrown out the window. While the 1980s had seen the Kel Tamsheq fighting for their lands, the 1990s saw them fighting for survival as the Niger government began to target them for persecution. Libya and Algeria have both served as homes in exile for them in the past, and did again in the 90s. Among those whose families fled to Algeria at the time was Omara "Bombino" Moctar from Agadez. Twenty some years later, both Moctar and Agadez are the subject of a new documentary film, Agadez, The Music and the Rebellion, directed and produced by Ron Wyman and his Zero Gravity Films production company.

Since the 1980 uprisings more and more among the Kel Tamsheq have turned to music in order to both further their cause around the world and as a means of keeping their own culture alive for new generations who have been cut off from the traditional lifestyle of their parents. With the loss of their habitat to expanding populations and resource exploitation a generation faces the risk of being cut adrift from what it means to be a Kel Tamsheq as they come of age in the cities instead of the desert. According to Wyman's notes he had initially set out to make a film about the people and the city of Agadez. However the movie evolved into including the young musician, Omara "Bombino" Moctar (He was given the nickname Bombino by the older musicians who he first played with as a play on the Italian word for baby bambino) whose music they were introduced too via a cassette tape their guide played endlessly while driving them, and the role music was playing in furthering their cause.
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Sometimes changing horses in mid stream like this can result in either never making it across the river or at least getting soaking wet. However, in this case Wyman has done a magnificent job of integrating the two seemingly divergent directions his film could have taken. Primarily this is because he has the courage the recognize the strength of the bond between the music, the environment and the people to let them speak for themselves through the visuals supplied by his camera instead of relying only on talking heads to make the point. The movie's opening frames not only establish his intent to adhere to the credo of a "picture being worth a thousand words", they also prove out the adage by taking our breath away and letting us know we're entering into an environment far removed from anything most of us have ever experienced.

However, since images can be misunderstood by a viewer's preconceived notions of what is important in life based on their own circumstances, Wyman wisely ensures we are given the proper context to place them in. To us what looks like abject poverty and primitive living conditions - hauling water from wells, cooking over open fires and a noticeable lack of any of the amenities we consider bare essentials, are simply the realities of living in that environment. Through interviews with members of the Kel Tamsheq community of Agadez, well educated people who have experienced life outside of the desert and chosen to return home, we learn enough of the people's history and their philosophy of life to begin to understand what they consider important and why these "hardships" are a small price to pay for being able to live as they choose.

At one point one of those interviews tells the story of how at first the people cursed their parents for bringing them to such a harsh land where survival was so difficult. However they soon came to bless them, for nobody else wanted it and they could live as they wished. As with any other culture whose people are as in tune with their environment as the Kel Tamsheq, it's when they are removed from it problems arise. This is why they have fought so hard, and against increasingly impossible odds, for the right to live as they have always lived. However they are also realists and have come to understand they will never win through force of arms and the times require a different approach.
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The need to integrate their approach to life with living in the modern world is what has made the role of musicians like Bombino so important to the Kel Tamsheq. For not only are they able to carry their case to the world, they are also the means of communicating to the new generation what it means to be one of the Kel Tamsheq and why they should take pride in who they are. In telling the story of Bombino, Wyman shows us how music is the chain connecting the generations both through the way he learned to play and how he is continuing the work begun by his teachers. The music he plays combines the modern and traditional worlds his people move through both in the content of his lyrics and in the music itself.

The life of the Kel Tamsheq is not easy, but it is the life they have chosen to live and desire to keep on living in as much as the modern world will allow them to do so. In Agadez, The Music And The Rebellion Ron Wyman has done an excellent job of not only depicting their life without romanticizing or sentimentalizing it, but showing what they are doing to preserve it in the face of increasingly difficult odds. Follow his camera into one of the harshest environments on earth and meet the people who not only live there, but cherish the freedom it brings them. You will also meet the remarkable young musician, Omara "Bombino" Moctar, whose story of exile and return is typical for his generation, but whose talent is unique. Like his people he has persevered in the face of persecution (two of the musicians he used to play with were killed by the Niger army when they targeted the musicians among the Kel Tamsheq in the 2007 uprising and he was in exile in Burkina Faso until 2010) and now uses what he does best to fight for them.

Named Tuareg, rebels, by the first wave of invaders who tried to dictate to them how to live, the Kel Tamsheq may have laid down their weapons but that doesn't mean they have given up their battle for independence. Ron Wyman's film is currently making the rounds of film festivals in North America and around the world telling their story. Hopefully it will find its way onto DVD soon. There are many people in the world who claim to speak for freedom and liberty, but few whose way of life epitomizes those ideals as much as the Kel Tamsheq. If for no other reason it will be a shame if this movie is not seen by as a wide an audience as possible. The good news is those wishing to hear the music of Bombino won't have to wait long as his CD, Agadez, is being released by the Cumbancha label on April 14h 2011.

Photo credits: Agadez Mosque By Moonlight Swiatoslaw Wojtkowiak, Photo of Omara "Bombino" Moctar by Ron Wyman
(Article first published as Movie Review: Agadez - The Music And The Rebellion 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.)

June 25, 2010

Thoughts On South Africa And The World Cup

As the group stage of The Word Cup winds down the teams who are qualified to continue on to the elimination stage have been all but decided. While it would have been glorious if the home side of South Africa could have advanced, or even more than one team from the host continent (at this writing barring a miracle only Ghana will advance), the fact they were in a position to host the games at all is something to be celebrated. All credit for making the decision to award them the hosting duties has to be given to the governing body of international football - Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) - when they could have easily made a safe decision and kept them in Europe or given a South American country a turn. In the weeks and months leading up the match newspapers have been filled with stories expressing concerns about violence in South Africa, lack of proper facilities, transportation, and a raft of other problems besetting the host nation.

It was almost impossible to find anyone willing to write something positive about the fact the games were being held here. Even South African's football fans came in for criticism because of their use of the "horrible" vuvuzela, a plastic replica of a traditional tribal horn, that makes an ear splitting din. Commentators have sniffed that they won't be able to hear themselves speak, (as if anything most sports commentators have to say is of any real value) or even worse they drown out the traditional sound of fans singing at matches. As that's only really a tradition in England and some of the European countries, that's not really much of a loss, especially when you consider some of the drivel sung by team supporters in the United Kingdom. Quite frankly fans blowing trumpets that make an ear splitting noise are a minor inconvenience when compared to the nightmares that British team supporters used to cause when they made their annual raiding trips to the continent. It's amazing how all the British tabloid press who have been raising dire warnings about South Africa have forgotten how fans from the United Kingdom were banned from travelling abroad after their rioting resulted in thirty-nine people dying in Belgium in 1985.

Yet here we are, nearly half way through the games, and even with half the private security people having gone on strike and a few technical problems, you'll hardly hear a word of complaint being voiced by anyone now they are under way. The only comments I've heard from commentators during the games I've watched is how wonderful the people of South Africa have been and how the whole nation seems to have thrown itself into trying to make them successful. I watched the first and last games the host nation played - their one all draw with Mexico and their two to one victory over France - and heard about how they would become the first host nation to fail to advance out of qualifying in ages. Yet, while I was disappointed for the players and their fans (while revelling in seeing the French players receive the humiliation they so richly deserved) I couldn't help thinking how wonderful to see the team playing in the World Cup and South Africa hosting it, no matter what the result.

Twenty years ago, in June of 1990, only four months after being released from prison, Nelson Mandela made one of his first international visits,to Canada. He came for two reasons, one was to thank the people of the country and our government for supporting the struggle against apartheid by boycotting everything to do with the white minority rule regime, and secondly to urge our government to not relax the economic sanctions prohibiting Canadians from doing business with South Africa. Even though he had been freed from jail, the white majority government continued to rule and the apartheid laws were still in force so victory was still far from assured at that time. It wasn't until Mandela was elected president in 1994 that you could really believe in the idea of a new South Africa.

If you're wondering why Mandela would visit a relatively internationally insignificant country like Canada on what was his first trip abroad, it was because our government at the time was one of the strongest advocates for sanctions in the so called developed world. I wasn't a supporter of Brian Mulroney, and in fact disagreed with almost everything he and his Progressive Conservative Party of Canada stood for. However I will always admire the way in which he played a leading role in fighting for South African freedom. As it also involved publicly disagreeing with two of his biggest allies internationally, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher of the United Kingdom and President Ronald Regan of the United States, neither of whom would support sanctions against South Africa, his actions were even more impressive.

While our government played a large role in the latter stages of the fight against apartheid, Mandela also appreciated the fact that Canadians as individuals had been active for much longer. While it was important for him to address our politicians, and I believe he became the first non-leader of a country to address our houses of parliament officially, he also made sure to address people directly. Whether high school students as the link above describes or a public rally in Toronto Ontario, he thanked them for their help. My mother was one of those who went to see him speak when he was in Toronto, and she came away feeling like she had been part of history. You see, ever since I was aware enough to understand I knew she would never shop at certain stores because they wouldn't list where the fruit and vegetables they sold were grown. So at least from the late 1960's until the 1990's she never purchased anything grown or manufactured in South Africa, or had dealings with any company doing business with that country. Who could blame her for not feeling as if she might have had a little to do with helping ensure Mandela was able to stand there that day.

It has not been an easy sixteen years for South Africa and Nelson Mandela since his election in 1994. For close to a hundred years the majority of the nation's population had been living under the totalitarian rule of a small hand full of invaders because of the colour of their skin. They had been forced to live in poverty and any attempt at protest was met with ruthless violence. School children were shot down in the street in 1976 in Soweto protesting a law forcing them to be taught in Afrikaner, the language of the rulers, and now they had to find a way to live peacefully with the people responsible for those crimes.

While majority rule has brought about changes in the way in which people are treated, there is no way to eradicate all the damage that was wrought during the previous decades. Who knows how many generations it will take until the societal imbalances between the races is changed? Poverty and lack of education among the majority population can not be overcome instantly. Any dreams of instant prosperity that people might have harboured with democracy were quickly shattered as the reality of the task facing them became clear. Yet in spite of all the obstacles facing them this World Cup has shown the world that South Africa still believes in itself and continues to move forward. We can only hope that the people and her leaders can draw upon the success of the event to see for themselves just how far they have come in such a short time.

As time ran out on South Africa's final match of this World Cup, and the players and the fans celebrated their bittersweet victory over France, I was moved in a way that I didn't think possible by a sporting event as I thought back over the history leading up to this moment. It would have taken a minor miracle for them to be able to advance to the next stage of play, and it wasn't to be. Yet no matter what, the World Cup has to be considered a victory for South Africa and its people and one can't help but want to wish them well and hope for their continued success.

(Article first published as Thoughts On South Africa And The World Cup on Blogcritics.)

May 12, 2010

Book Review: Doing Dangerously Well By Carole Enahoro

We take it for granted, after all its all around us, it literally falls from the sky, but in some parts of the world water is even more precious a natural resource than the petroleum we in the West cherish so highly. However its still a naturally occurring resource, one readily available through springs and water holes to those in the desert and to us in more temperate climates rivers, rain barrels and the tap in our kitchen sink. Of course we in the city pay for the water we use - usually in the form of a metered rate to our municipality - but the cost is usually so insignificant we barely notice. After all nobody is trying to profit from selling us our water or treating our sewage, just covering the costs.

However as recent events have shown us, nothing is safe from privatization and corporate greed, and water is no exception. Under pressure from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank debt laden countries are being coerced into selling their water rights to American and European private corporations. The results have invariably been disastrous for the general populations as water prices have risen by as much as %50. In Bolivia, where the rights were sold to Bechetel, an American company, in the late 1990's, the result was what's become known as the water wars. People rioted all over the country in response until the company was forced to cancel the contract.

Of course companies don't need the World Bank or the IMF to do all their dirty work for them. In an age where natural disasters and wars are considered golden opportunities for doing business, all a good corporate executive need do is wait for the next tsunami, hurricane, or earthquake to destroy some poor country's infrastructure, and with the right political connections they could end up owning the rights to almost anything they want. Offer to help secure the necessary loans from the World Bank to finance rebuilding that damn and then generously offer to purchase the rights to the water the dam controls in order to help pay back the loan, and everybody's happy - except for the people who are all of sudden paying for something they never had to before.
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It's against this background of international greed Nigerian/Canadian author Carole Enahoro has set her first novel, Doing Dangerously Well, being released by Random House Canada May 11/10. However its not just Big Business and the forces of globalization that come under attack in her book, as Enahoro takes shots at every side in the argument. Government officials in Nigeria, do-gooding liberals in North America, and of course corporate social climbers are all grist for her mill.

When a major damn bursts in Nigeria killing thousands of people in the initial deluge, and then thousands more because of disease, Nigerians and Americans alike see it as a golden opportunity for advancing their careers. Ogbe Kolo is the current Minister of Natural Resources and sees this as a golden opportunity to work his way up the ladder to President and Mary Glass of TransAqua International is the one to help him get there by helping rebuild the broken damn. In return she'll only want the water and power rights from the damn, but Kolo can keep the naming rights to the new river and gets to be President. It's a win win situation for everyone save those who happen to live and depend on the Niger river and its waters for anything at all.

Naturally there is some opposition to these plans on both sides of the world. In Nigeria they are headed up by Femi Jegede, whose home village was destroyed in the deluge and after recovering from his grief has determined to prevent the plans of Ogbe Kolo from bearing fruit. Across the Atlantic Ocean Barbara Glass is equally determined to prevent her sister Mary from succeeding in her efforts. She joins a radical-Water group, Drop Of Life, in that known hotbed of socialism, Ottawa Canada, to co-ordinate resistance with her Nigerian "brothers and sisters". That she barely knows where Nigeria is doesn't prevent her from hopping a plane to travel there in order to "mobilize" resistance.
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From corner corporate offices to the corridors of power in Nigeria and from the jungles surrounding the Niger river to the backwoods of Ottawa, Enahoro leads us around the world as we follow her assorted mix of characters. Save for Femi and his companions, they are a collection of the least likeable sorts ever assembled. All of them, from President Kolo to the Glass sisters and their supporting casts, serve nobody and nothing but their own ambitions. Enahoro mercilessly skewers everything from new age pretensions to capitalist greed as she follows each of her character's globe hopping search for personal fulfillment.

The problem is that in her eagerness to attack so many targets, we lose sight of the reality. While the press material claims Doing Dangerously Well is the first satire to deal with the issue of Disaster Capitalism, and by extension the way in which governments are coerced into selling off their resources by the World Bank and the IMF, there's far too much chaff thrown up by her multi-pronged attack for the reader to focus on any one subject. While I agree with her assessments of all her targets, it might have been better to tackle each of them separately. There is the basis for three good books in this one, but instead they've been crammed under one cover and the whole suffers accordingly.

While Carole Enahoro manages to convey some of the results of the destructive policies being implemented by the IMF and the World Bank in the developing world, the book's vagueness and burlesque humour make them seem far less dangerous than they actually are. Mistaking satire for humour is a common misconception, and in this case the result is to make those who the author has targeted seem to be less of a threat than they really are. Along with the World Trade Organization, the IMF and the World Bank pose the largest threat to sustainable development, climate change, and, in the long run, peaceful coexistence among the world's nations of anyone.
By continuing to place more and more of the world's assets in the hands of fewer and fewer people they increase the divides separating the haves and the have-nots and the accompanying resentment that is the root of instability and terrorism.

Trivializing the actions of those involved by reducing them to the level of a farce gives a false impression of the real dangers we face by allowing this system to continue unchecked. The potential was there for an intelligent and bitingly funny book, but the author opted for the easy laugh instead. It's a pity because Enahoro is obviously intelligent and well informed with a good eye for the ridiculous on both sides of any issue. With a tighter focus she'll serve up some fine political satire in the future.

Article first published as Book Review: Doing Dangerously Well by Carole Enahoro on Blogcritics.

April 30, 2010

Interview: Mike Bonanno Of The Yes Men

My introduction to the Yes Men, Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno came about from watching their recently released DVD The Yes Men Fix The World. To say I was awe struck by the audacity and daring of the form their protests against multinationals, globalization, and the "Free Market System" in general and corporations like Dow Chemical and Haliburton in specific is to put it mildly. In fact they have given me cause to believe that if you looked up the word "Chutzpah" in the dictionary you'd see their happy faces grinning back up at you.

After reviewing their DVD I e-mailed them in the hopes of being able to interview either one or both of them in an attempt to find out a little bit more about who they are and what they do. Half expecting a no for an answer due to the hectic nature of their schedules - working day jobs while trying to fix the world doesn't leave you much spare time, so I was very grateful when Mike Bonanno said he'd be willing to answer my e-mailed questions. He's a lot better at getting to the point than I am so although some of his answers are shorter than my questions it's only because he doesn't waste any words.

Hopefully this interview will give you the incentive to check out at least my review of their DVD and maybe support their efforts by picking up a copy of it for your own pleasure. Those who want to get more directly involved can always check out their web site for a list of actions ongoing around the world which you can involve yourself in. Now without further ado, Mike Bonanno

1) Any special reason for the name "Yes Men"?

We started out wanting to be a funhouse mirror for big business. We thought we would say "yes" at corporate conferences until the ideas all seemed amplified and comic. Over time,  the name seemed to be more reflective of our culture of capitalism overall: we agree with the people in power just for a little short-term gain, no matter what the effect on the planet.  

2) So how did you settle upon this as a career choice - As a child did you say to your parents I want to be a professional shit disturber when I grow up or did you just gradually evolve into the role?
It happened to us by accident! We really did stumble into it... although we both had serious mischief streaks as kids. 

3) What brought the two of you together?

The Internet!

4) Some people might find it difficult to understand why you do what you do - so what is it that motivates you and why do you do whatever it is you do?

Well... the world appears to be going to hell in a handbasket. And we like the world. Perhaps we are nuts, but we think its worth fixing. Is that not motivation enough? 

5) What would you call what you do?

We are troublemakers for a cause. We hope to be the straw that breaks the camel's back. 
6) The chances of shaming someone - or something - like Dow Chemical or even a government agency like HUD are slim - so what do you hope to accomplish with your actions?

Our actions are all about getting the perspective of the powerless and disenfranchised into the news cycle – something that rarely happens in a profit-motivated media without some seriously drastic storytelling action. In the case of Dow and Hud, for example, the goal was not to make them feel bad (which they would not in any case), it was to make them look as bad as they are, for a general public that might have forgotten about their legacy in Bhopal or might not know they kicked the poorest people out of their homes after Katrina.  And in that regard we think our methods work pretty well... 

7) What do you hope that someone watching the film The Yes Men Fix The World will take away from it?

We hope that people who watch our film will be motivated to get out of their chair and go do something... put some pressure on government to change. We did actually have lots of people leave their seats and take to the streets after our theatrical screenings. We led the audience on several protests. Unfortunately, we could not do that every time, we were too exhausted...
 
8) When I hear politicians saying things endorsing the free market I realize how much closer Canada is to being a social-democratic state than the US - our politicians would never even dream of saying something like let the market forces fix a natural disaster - they would be run out of town on a rail.(Alberta being an exception to that rule being owned by the oil companies) Why is it do you thing Americans as a whole accept Free Market capitalism so cheerfully?

I think that since 1980 in the USA the free market has been revered by people at the highest levels of office, and even by our school curriculum. The people who are ripping us all off with this weird idea were pretty successful at getting people in the USA to think that human freedom = the free market. Of course that is not true at all... one only need to remember that it was a certain kind of "free market" that enabled mass slavery in the first place. But it has also been portrayed as a kind of weapon of democracy... all the presidents since Reagan were avid supporters of forcing free markets upon people along with so-called democracy. It is still a weird cold-war hangover. There is a huge education problem in the USA. We are taught to be stupid, angry, antisocial, merciless, and proud. 

9) Why is it that you think so many people at the conferences you attend as guest speakers take what you say at face value? For example the gilded skeleton, the Survivor Ball, and that bit about buying votes.

I think that there are psychological reasons why people go along with really bad ideas- but there is also the simple fact that they are there to get our business card. They think we are the most important people in the room, so they are not going to upset a business relationship over a little horror story. Hey, you only need look at world war two to see that there were plenty of american companies (like Ford) who just kept doing business with the Germans - even after the invasion of Poland - simply because they were in business together. Its pretty sick! 

10) I find it amazing that Dow Chemical was able to issue a statement denying they were going to compensate the people of Bhopal or do anything about cleaning up the site and that nobody questioned it - that nobody asked well - why the hell aren't you?

But people do ask this all the time... the victims. The problem is that the victims don't have a huge amount of wealth behind them, so they have trouble getting a word in. Other than that, many people don't really seem to notice... especially when there are huge greenwashing campaigns going on, like Dow's sponsorship of a ludicrous "run for water." 

11) Did you consider the fact that releasing the DVD The Yes Men Fix The World might actually be detrimental to any further actions of the sort depicted in the movie? That people organizing conferences might start to do a little more due diligence about who they're inviting to speak or to issue statements on television news programs? Can you see the BBC ever again extending an invitation like the one given you simply because of a web site without maybe phoning Dow and checking out its veracity?

We probably wont get invites from the BBC anymore... but there are always more ways of doing things! And more importantly, now we are actually focusing on getting more people involved. See this for more info. 

12) On your web site you offer the means for people to formulate actions and give suggestions on how to carry out the types of things you've demonstrated in your DVD. Have there been any signs that people are following your example and carrying out projects of the same scale as yours? Any choice examples?

Lots of people are doing cool projects that relate... there have been several fake newspapers where people consulted with us. A really amazing example of someone who says he was inspired by us is Tim DeChristopher, aka "Bidder 70". See his site for details, what he did is super important!  

13) How do you fund these activities - travel to Europe isn't cheap and neither would it be inexpensive to make 500 candles or some of the other prototypes you have handed out at various events? Do you follow the investment model you describe in the special features of the DVD or is there some other means you have to raise capital?

We actually lose money from making the movies. We pay for this stuff mostly from our day jobs... at least the getting to events and what not. And increasingly through speaking engagements. 

14) I assume you've read Naomi Klien's Shock Doctrine in which she details examples of disaster capitalism. How is this destruction of public resources kept from or sold to the public so easily? For example the closing of public school boards and the demolition of public housing in New Orleans.

The way its done is first to starve the public sector, and then to make people hate it because once its starved and broken it ceases to work well. That is definitely the case for the school systems in the US, public housing, public works of all sorts. So when people suggest getting rid of it and replacing it with some "private sector" solution most of the public goes along with it. Its really sorry that the strategy is not called out right in the beginning.  

15) There was a report in Canada's national newspaper, The Globe And Mail, today (March 23rd) that First Nations bands in British Columbia are threatening to blockade coastal waters in order to prevent tankers from carrying oil that was transported via a pipeline cutting through their territory. Time after time we hear people raise their voices in protest against things like this, but corporations and governments continue to try and push these projects through regardless until a protest occurs. Instead of taking things project by project, protest by protest, what can be doine to ensure these types of project are no longer even considered?

The only way to do it is to take back the government and start to enact sane regulations. Its either that or revolution. 

16) With the International Monetary Fund (IMF) forcing debt ridden countries to privatize their natural resources while cutting social spending and regulations - like environmental controls and worker health and safety legislation - that curtail business, what's the likelihood of another disaster along the lines of Bhopal?

There are countless Bhopals in the works. Unfortunately, the mother of all Bhopals is the climate change situation. Here we know we are facing disaster- with much MORE certainty than they did in Bhopal. And yet the political will is not there to change. It is criminal, and very, very sick.
 
17) On a more cheerful note - what's next for the Yes Men?

The first vacation in ten years! This summer we are taking some time off. But only to come back and put renewed energy into the Yes Lab! 

Thanks again to Mike Bonanno of the Yes Men for taking the time out of his busy life to answer my questions. If you want to see some of their most recent work - doctoring of various attendees' video statements at the recent World Economic Forum in Davos - you can check them out here. Here world and industry leaders give the speeches that they should have given in response to the plight of the world's poor and starving population instead of the usual platitudes and non-answers. Pay particular attention to Patricia Woertz, head of one of the worlds largest multinational agribusinesses, ADM, to see if you can see what could have upset them so much they demanded its removal from You Tube. The world would be a lot better place if politicians and industry leaders talked more like the Yes Men and a lot less like themselves.

(Article first published as Mike Bonanno of The Yes Men on Gonzo Political Activism and Troublemaking for a Cause at Blogcritics.org)

April 28, 2010

DVD Review: The End Of Poverty?

In the early 1960's a young man was sent by the CIA to try and assassinate the president of Iraq who was trying to divert some of the profits from the oil his country produced to stay in his country. The assassination was a failure and the young man, Saddam Hussain, barely escaped with his life. Not willing to trust such an important action to amateurs again, the CIA arranged for the president to be overthrown and executed on public television in Iraq and installed Hussain's family as rulers. Earlier, in the 1950's, when the democratically elected president of Iran tried to do the same thing, the British government on behalf of British Petroleum (BP) approached their former comrade from WWll, President Eisenhower, to see if he could take care of the problem for them. The CIA arranged for the deposing of the Iranian president and installed the Shah of Iran in his place.

Since the end of WWll a new economic colonialism has arisen to replace the old empires of Europe that has ensured, despite countries winning their political independence they are still subject states whose domestic and economic fates are dictated by decisions reached in the corridors of power in Europe, Japan, and the United States. While the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank, and the World Trade Organization (WTO) have been assuring us in the developed world that the only hope for the future lies in the globalization of trade, they've not bothered to explain whose future is at stake. If in the last thirty years the number of people in the world going to bed at night hungry, dying of malnutrition and related disease, and living on less than a dollar a day has at least doubled, while a smaller and smaller percentage of the world's population controls a greater amount of it's wealth, what does that say about globalization and and who it is helping?

While the connection between economic policy and CIA assassinations might not seem obvious to some, according to information presented in the documentary The End Of Poverty?, being released on DVD April 27th/10 by Cinema Libre Studios, they are both serving as means to the same end - keeping the control of natural resources the world over in the hands of a small minority. Not only has this resulted in increased financial hardship for the citizens of the affected countries, it has also seen the almost complete degradation of their social structure as vital services like health and education have either been reduced to a fraction of what they once were or simply become beyond their ability to afford. For not only have the countries lost any of the profits associated with the harvesting of natural resources, they have no access to them either as they are all shipped back to the home country of whichever company "acquired" the rights to them. Resulting in the country in which they were produced having to buy back they wish to use.
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The resulting loss of capital and needless expenditure means they have less money to spend on social programs and those costs have to be borne by somebody. That somebody turns out to be the people, who for the most part can't afford to pay the fees for sending their children to school or receiving even the most basic medical attention. When you barely earn enough to feed and house your family, paying for a doctor or schooling becomes luxury items you can't afford. Of course that means a new generation is being raised the world over with a skill set suited only for the most menial types of employment who have no hope of improving their or their children's lot in the world.

As The End Of Poverty? points out though, there's a fine tradition of these practices dating back to the 1500's when Spanish conquistadors first came to America. They were a little less subtle in their methods as they simply slaughtered anyone who stood in their way, and then began the process of carrying away as much of South and Central America's valuable natural resources as they could stuff in the holds of their ships. At the same time they began using the rest of the land to create plantations to grow crops suited for export, coffee and cacao primarily, depriving the local populations of even the means to grow sufficient food to sustain themselves. The same type of practices were carried out all over the world in one way or another by the Dutch, British, Germans, French, and Belgians in Africa, Asia, and North America.

The British and the Dutch took it one step further and stopped local crafts people and artisans from manufacturing goods made from these resources. They then stole the techniques used by textile workers in India (British) and pottery makers in Indonesia (Dutch) and created their own industries in the same products and sold them back to those who were no longer allowed to make them anymore. By the time the colonial powers were ready to surrender control over their colonies in the 1950's and '60's, they left behind countries with no industry, land that had been worked to death growing single crops, untrained and poorly educated populations, and massive debts from having to import everything.

It's at this point the new form of colonialism takes over, involving a mixture of bribes, threats, coups, assassinations and in some cases armed interventions. While numerous people were interviewed during the course of The End Of Poverty? from government officials, economists, to individuals from various countries describing the conditions they lived under and the way the current economic system sustains poverty, the two who were the most chilling were Chalmers Johnson, former CIA consultant and author of Nemesis: The Last Days Of The American Republic and John Perkins formerly employed by American business interests as an Economic Hit Man and author of Confessions Of An Economic Hit Man. While Chalmers confirmed things like the CIA's involvement in the assassinations of heads of state and coups to get rid of governments unfriendly to American business interests, Perkins was, if anything, even more scary in his description of his former job.

As an economic hit man he would meet with the leaders of developing countires in order to convince them to take out crippling loans in order to finance major infrastructure projects to be built by American firms. As a result of their debts these countries would then be forced to sell off the rights to their natural resources in an effort to pay back what they owed, usually to the company who was hired to build the project that caused the debt in the first place. He said that his arguments to convince leaders basically came down to you can accept this bribe and sign the contract or else we will replace you with someone more willing to assist us. According to him the assassination of world leaders from the Congo to Ecuador over the last fifty years can be laid at the door of these practices.

With the majority of the land in the hands of either large corporations or individuals and being used to either grow crops that offer no benefit to local populations or are strictly for export purposes people can't even grow their own food to offset their lack of income. As we find out when the cameras travel to Kenya and interview local farmers in the Rift Valley area, even holding on to your land doesn't help. Dominion Foods of the United States was allowed to dam the river to service their agribusiness in the valley and proceeded to flood the grazing lands and fields of all the local farmers. Land which had sustained them for generations has now been turned into swampland which means not only can't it be used for crops any longer, but the mosquito population has increased bringing with them malaria and other associated diseases.

I'm sure there are plenty of people out there who will be willing to dismiss everything said in this movie as anti-American propaganda, the whining of liberal bleeding hearts, or socialist rhetoric. However, anybody who doesn't have some sort of vested interest, be it philosophical or financial, might start to realize after listening to so many people from so many different countries all over the world describing their circumstances, this has nothing to do with politics or national sentiment. People are starving to death on a daily basis in numbers that are almost beyond comprehension and it could easily be prevented. They might even start to agree with the conclusion John Perkins has reached; that as long as people's lives anywhere in the world are unstable because of poverty, nobody's life is secure. It took the events of September 11 2001 for him to come to the conclusion that something has to change for all our sakes - what will it take to convince you?

The End Of Poverty? is not easy to watch because of the information it imparts. However there's nothing wrong with how its delivered as everything is told in as direct manner possible in language anybody can understand. The special features include even more information as they contain in depth interviews with some of those who appeared in the film and some additional experts as well. As Nelson Mandela said, "Like slavery and aparthaid poverty is not natural. It is man made and can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings". We just have to be willing to take action, and this DVD offers some of the most compelling arguments you'll ever hear for taking action. Poverty and starvation exist because of the greed of a few and the ignorance of many - after watching this movie no one will be able to plead ignorance ever again.

February 6, 2010

Interview: Aatish Taseer - Author Of Stranger To History

Twenty years might seem like a long time to go without knowing your father, but for Aatish Taseer that gap was easier to bridge than the gulf that formed between them when his father accused him of having no understanding of what it meant to be either Muslim or Pakistani. After being raised in India by his Sikh mother and her family, Taseer accepted that his father had a point. In his book Stranger To History Taseer recounts the journey he undertook in an attempt to gain that understanding by travelling through the Muslim world and the people he met along the way.

The book is fascinating for both its description of the world he travelled through, and the voyage Taseer took mentally and emotionally as a result of his quest. While he himself came to some personal resolutions because of what he experienced, he doesn't pretend they're anything more than that. What I most appreciated about the book, was not once did he try and push the reader in any direction. This was a recounting of what he saw and heard reported with an integrity and genuine objectivity that was as refreshing as it is rare.

That's not to say I didn't have any questions after having read the book, because I did, and thanks to the good people at Random House Canada I was able to pass them along to Aatish Taseer via e-mail. I'm sure some of my questions arose from my own lack of knowledge or even from misunderstanding of what he said in the first place. Thankfully he very patiently has taken the time to respond to each of the questions with the same care he showed in the writing of his book. So if you appreciate this interview, you'll definitely find the book a fascinating experience, one that I highly recommend.

Before you began your journey what if any expectations or hopes did you carry into it with regards to both your Muslim heritage and how it might help to bridge the gap between you and your father?

I was never in search of any personal religious fulfilment or identity of any kind. I wanted only to understand the distances that had arisen between my father and me. The reason I wanted to do this was because I felt instinctually that there was something deeper behind those distances, something that would help illuminate a situation wider than my own personal context. And if there was anything that aroused my curiosity at that early stage, it was only the question of what made my father—a disbeliever by his own admission—in some very important way still a Muslim.

Why did you consider it so important to make the journey - you had been estranged from your father for nearly two decades what type of connection were you hoping to forge between you?

Yes, but I had overcome that initial estrangement with my father. The silence between us was new. And I found it difficult to turn my back on the goodwill and hopefulness that that reconciliation between my father and me had produced. It was not just our personal relationship, but Pakistan too. Which formed such an important cultural and historical component of my family history, both maternal and paternal, as well as the history of the land I grew up in. It would have been very hard to pretend that the new estrangement with my father was not wrapped up in a deeper feeling of loss. But I was not travelling in search of reconciliation; I would have found it strange to travel with those kinds of personal objectives in mind. I was travelling to understand.
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You mention the term "cultural" or "secular" Muslim in reference to your father, can you define what you mean by that?

It is a term that my father gave me and it is term that grew in meaning as I travelled. I took it in the beginning to mean benign things such as an adherence to customs and festivals, a feeling for food and dress. But as I travelled I found that it contained other things besides. And these were usually political and historical attitudes, attitudes that were themselves like articles of faith, now related to Jews and American, now to Hindus and India. They almost always included a certain prejudiced view of the pre-Islamic past of a Muslim country. They often translated into a historical narrative, at the centre of which was the 7th century Arab conquest and the triumph of Islam, and on either end of which, were enemies of the faith. Now these things are not in the Book; they are not, as such, a part of the religion; neither are the prejudices that go along with them; but to many they are more important than the religion itself. They were what could make my father, despite his faithlessness, a Muslim.

What inspired you to tell a very personal story - your relationship with your father - and why is it integral to the book? Could you have undertaken a similar examination of the Muslim faith without raising the subject of your father?

No. The personal, though it had wider ramifications, as the personal often does, was what lay behind my interest. I am not a professional writer of books on Islam; my next book, The Templegoers, has nothing to do with either Islam or Muslims. I wrote about the subject because I felt I had to. And it would have been very strange for me to ignore, especially in a book like this, a first book, the reasons that I was drawn to the subject. Which, by the way, are not simply my relationship with my father; that was one aspect; but much bigger than this, in fact towering over the narrative, is the Partition. And it is in relation to this event—in my opinion, the forerunner of what began to happen throughout the Muslim world during the latter part of the last century—that my parents’ relationship became important, as did my maternal grandfather’s grief at being separated from his country.

Although you visited more than just the countries mentioned in the book during your journey you chose only to talk about four, aside from Pakistan. What was it about Turkey, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Iran that decided you to talk about them instead of some of the others?

They all represented, in different ways, the trouble Islam had had in adapting to modern political life. In Turkey, secularism had been turned into a soft tyranny, where the state was writing sermons and choosing clerics. In Syria, it was for years not part of the program, but was slowly creeping back. In Iran, the fury of the revolution had come and gone, and we could have a window into what might come next. Finally there was Pakistan, which, in my opinion, had paid the heaviest price for the faith. It had broken with itself and its history to form a nation on the thinnest of thin grounds. And the nation had been, from start to finish, a disaster. It had left millions of people sixty years later dispossessed and full of hateful lies. All of that remained to be dealt with; the ugly idea of a religiously cleansed society had yet to be fully discredited in the minds of people, though on practical terms, it had completely perished. And to have to do all of this in a climate of war and insecurity, with interference from foreign powers! It was a very bleak picture; hard to see how the land—not the country—would return to itself. (I won’t speak of Saudi, because it formed a small part of the narrative in the book.)

At one point in the book you mention the Wahhabis and their influence upon modern Islam especially in Arabic countries like Saudi Arabia. Who are they, what is their influence and how is it expressed?

They have had forerunners, and interestingly, always at times when Islam felt itself in danger. Some consider Ibn Taymiyyah, a 13th century scholar, living in the times when the Mongols sacked Baghdad, to be the first Wahhabi. But truly, the movement began in the 18th century with an alliance between a Najd scholar and a chieftain. The movement, mainly decrying the excesses that had come into the faith and preaching a purer, more Arab Islam, had some political and religious success before it was crushed, and crushed completely, by the Ottomans. Its resurgence in the 20th century can be linked to the rise of Saudi Arabia and its tremendous oil wealth, which it has used to spread Wahhabism to places, which practised milder, more tolerant forms of the religion. But I think it would be too easy to say that, and it doesn’t explain the first Wahhabi success. My own feeling is that Wahhabism represents a tendency within Islam—and perhaps also in other forms of organised thought—to close its doors, and retreat within itself, when it is faced with a political or intellectual threat too great to confront.

Do the Wahabis have anything to do with the split between Sunni and Shiite Muslims and are you able to explain the difference between the two groups?

No, nothing whatsoever. That was a split that happened some 1000 years before. And there was, I suspect, a kind of anti-Arab feeling, originating in recently conquered Persia, behind it. But yes, the Wahhabis have exacerbated the tensions between the two groups because they are deeply intolerant not only of Shiism, but of any local form of Islam.

In the book you talk about how history is being distorted by certain religious leaders in order to justify the notion that Muslims are persecuted. What purpose is served by creating this attitude among the faithful?
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It is comforting to them. It makes them feel that they are not responsible for their wretchedness, that it is all the work of a grand conspiracy which seeks to keep them down. They then, can carry on feeling envious and resentful about the big, modern world, without ever having to do the hard work of engaging it. But it is a very pernicious cycle. Because the less you engage it, the faster you fall behind, the harder it becomes to pick yourself up. And in the end when you’re nothing it becomes very easy for some greasy-faced fanatic to feed you comforting lies.

You've ended up presenting a rather negative view of the current state of Islam, from your depiction of Iran and Syria, the sentiments expressed by young religious Muslims in Turkey and Britain, to your description of your father's "moderate Muslim" as being "too little moderation and in the wrong areas". Was there anything you came across in your travels that countered that impression - that perhaps gave you something you could identify with or the hope there was more to Islam than anger and resentment?

This is the kind of question that makes assumptions I do not share. I don’t consider it ‘positive’ to travel in a country and shut your eyes to its realities. Neither do I think it is at all helpful for schoolboy English travellers to go to these places and come back with reports of their teeming bazaars and lavish hospitality. Fortunately, I come from the sub-continent, which has its fair share of crowded bazaars and generous people, so I feel no need, when I am travelling in the Islamic world to overlook the gloom of Syria or the tyranny of Iran, in the interest of feeling upbeat when I come home. I think it is cynical and patronising to go to these places and tell tales of how the people are capable of a good joke and a cheerful chat as if people and societies should not amount to more. And for people who are coming from societies that have achieved more, this kind of attitude expresses the worst kind of foreigner’s disregard.

Do you have any concerns about what non-Muslims will think after reading this book? What do you hope they will take away from it?

No. The book is published in eleven countries, some of which I have never even visited. It would be impossible for me to conceive what ‘non-Muslims,’ as a whole, might think.

Stranger To History was released a year ago, and I was wondering what the reaction to it has been from Muslims in general and your family in particular?

Again, this is not the kind of judgement I’m in a position to make. What I will say is that despite the fact that the book is only distributed and not published in Pakistan, I have received the maximum number of letters from that country. I was particularly moved by one Pakistani student who wrote: ‘a lot of us agree with you but wouldn’t write this sort of thing for reasons that need not be explained to you.”

However, I know that Muslim reviewers, whether they be in Australia, India, England or Pakistan, have all given the book a rough time. Which is an interesting thing in itself.

At one point you refer to both yourself and your father as the "Stranger To History" of the book's title. Could you explain what you mean by that?

The title, I feel, works on different levels. In the case of my father, I was thinking of Pakistan and how it turned it’s back on its shared history with the sub-continent in the interest of realising the aims of the faith. That was one historical break. But I was also thinking of a more general rejection of pre-Islamic India among the sub-continent’s Muslims, a rejection, which has translated into deeper illusions about their place of origin, many believing they came from Islamically purer countries, such as Afghanistan and Persia. There was also, of course, the personal estrangement, when it came to my father’s relationship with me. That was my estrangement, too, along with an estrangement from the land that is Pakistan, and to which both my parents are linked.

You mention near the end of the book, the one benefit you derived from your journey was it reconnected you to Pakistan. What makes that connection so important to you in light of the divide between your father and yourself?

It is the connection to the land and people of Pakistan that is important. That land, and its culture, is still, for all the distances that have been created, a part of the shared culture of the sub-continent. The things shared are language, dress, ideas of caste, poetry and song. And it is of these things that nations are made, not religion; that has shown itself to be too thin a glue. When one considers that enduring shared culture, despite everything that has been done to break it, one is forced to reject the intellectual argument for the Partition as false. There is no two-nation theory; there are no separate Indian nations; there is just the giant plural society of India, held together by an idea no less subtle, and yet no less powerful, than that of Greece or Europe. It is this society that must on some level regain its wholeness, not along angst-ridden national or religious lines, but as part of a peace worthy of a continent.
 
You set out to find common ground with your father by seeking to gain an understanding of how someone who doesn't practice the religion can still call themselves a Muslim. After what you observed in your travels, do you still refer to yourself as a Muslim in spite of the fact that you appear to have nothing in common with people like your father?

No. During the journey itself, I realised that neither on a religious level nor on a ‘cultural’ one could I ever be part of the ‘civilisation of faith’, which is, in the end, a vision of purity. I have too much hybridity in my life, welcome hybridity, to accept a world-view such as that.

I'd just like to conclude by thanking Aatish Taseer for the honesty and directness with which he answered the questions I posed, and his patience with any questions I may have asked out of ignorance and lack of awareness. Part of the problem in this world today is our inability to communicate with each other because of our refusal to be sensitive to how our perceptions of the world have been shaped by environment and conditioning. People like Aatish Taseer, who are willing to take the time to answer those questions while pointing out why they are inappropriate, are our best hope to bridge what right now seems like an insurmountable gap that exists regardless of religion or creed. How we respond will dictate the future of our world

February 3, 2010

Book Review: Stranger To History by Aatish Taseer

Most of us have little or no difficulty in understanding our heritage and what it means to us in terms of our belief systems as we usually have the example of either our parents or the community around us to go by. However, what if one of your parents comes from a culture that's not part of the majority and that person has never been part of your life? It may take a while, but sooner or later you're going to start to notice your different from everyone around you, and eventually you might start to become a mite curious as to what you've inherited from your absent parent.

Aatish Taseer was born in Delhi India as a result of an affair between his Sikh mother and his Pakistani Muslim father. While his mother never kept from him the truth about his heritage he grew up surrounded by cousins his own age wearing the turbans emblematic of their faith, making his uncovered head feel very conspicuous and out of place. It's not until he's twenty-one that he finally makes the journey across the border to visit his father for the first time. While he is welcomed by his father's wife and children with open arms, the man himself is far more reticent. Salmaan Taseer is an important political figure in Muslim Pakistan, and the knowledge he has an Indian son who may or may not be Muslim could create difficulties.

However, as Taseer describes it in his new book from McClelland and Stewart, which is partially owned by Random House Canada, Stranger To History, even if his father is reluctant to recognize him in public, at least by the end of his first visit he begins to feel they have developed the basis for a relationship. Like many other Pakistani's Salmaan is a secular Muslim, so the fact that his son is a Muslim in name only shouldn't make any difference to him. (In Islam the father's religion dictates that of the children)
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However when Taseer, now a journalist in England, writes an article about second generation Pakistani immigrants becoming fundamentalists and extremists because of estrangement and failure of identity, his father takes him to task in a letter for not understanding what it is to be a Muslim and for spreading anti-Muslim propaganda. Taseer is confused, how can the man who once said "The Koran has nothing in it for me" be offended as a Muslim by what I had written? It's obvious his father is right when he says that Taseer has no understanding of the Muslim or Pakistani ethos as he can't understand his father's apparently contradictory attitude. What does his father mean when he calls himself a "cultural Muslim"?

Attempting to find an answer to this question, Taseer sets off on a personal pilgrimage through the Islamic world. Starting in the fiercely secular Turkey, where many Islamic religious practices are forbidden by law, he makes his way slowly to Pakistan via Syria, Saudi Arabia - where he travels to Mecca, and finally the nominally Islamic state of Iran. Through conversations with various people, and his observations of life in each country, it becomes clear that there is no set answer. In Turkey he meets young men who dream about a world where everyone is ruled by Islam because it is the only faith which can tell you how to live properly. In Syria he see how that dream is being actualized by a regime with its own political agenda and not above cynically manipulating people.

By offering people a version of the world free of all contradictions and questions, a world in which there is only one "truth", they can control them with the help of a compliant clergy. In Abu Nour, a centre for international students in Damascus, people come from all over the world to learn Arabic and take classes in Islamic studies. However sermons in the mosque include distorted views of history designed to depict Muslims as being persecuted throughout the ages and work up antagonism against an enemy simply referred to as the West. The result is the creation of a world that exists in isolation designed to equate being Islamic as a supporter of the Syrian government and any who oppose Syria are enemies of Islam.

When the book shifts to Iran the depiction Taseer offers is no different than any other description you've read of people living under any totalitarian regime. Here he finds that Islam is being used to harass people over trivialities, like the length of their shirt sleeves, in order for an insecure government to exert control over them. In fact in what is supposedly an Islamic republic where you'd expect to be able to find answers as to what is a Muslim, there is even less chance of discovering that here than anywhere else. For, as one person he meets puts it, a professor at a university, "People were very connected to religion even though the government was not religious. But now the government is religious most people want to get away from religion... It is very hard for me to say I am a Muslim."
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Taseer is by profession a journalist, and while that comes through in his ability to ask the right questions of people, his writing style is far more personal than you'd expect from a reporter. He makes no pretence about this being an objective study of Islam, rather its a personal voyage undertaken in the hopes of bridging the gap between himself and the father he was estranged from for over twenty years, and that comes across in his writing. His yearning to understand both his father and the religion he professes to practice, and the frustration and confusion they generate in him, predominate throughout the book as he intersperses accounts of his travels with recollections of his attempts to find common ground with his father.

In many ways this is one of the bravest books you'll ever read, as Taseer doesn't hesitate from voicing opinions that are going to be unpopular with people at all ends of the political spectrum. His compassion for the people he meets allows him to see beyond their words to the need that gives them birth, giving the reader a deeper understanding of where their opinions were born. The title of the book. Stranger To History refers obviously to Taseer's ignorance of his father and his Muslim and Pakistani inheritance. However, it can also relate to what he has witnessed in his journeys in Syria and Iran where history is being rewritten to generate hatred against the West in order to solidify the current regimes power bases. While he doesn't offer any solutions or comfort that there is some easy way to change or prevent what is happening, hope can be taken from his time spent, in all of all places, Iran in the people's determination to deny the regime in any small way they can.

Although his attempt to reconcile his own history with his father is somewhat of a failure, Taseer consoles himself with the fact that he has been able to connect with his personal history of being a product of both parts of the Indian sub continent. By having both countries he has had the chance of "embracing the three tier history of India whole, perhaps an intellectual troika of Sanskrit, Urdu, and English. These mismatches were the lot of people with garbled histories, but I preferred them to violent purities. The world is richer for its hybrids." While he may not have come any closer to discovering his father, or his father's religion, he has discovered himself.

Unlike those who think what the world needs is surety and purity, Taseer reminds us that sometimes there are questions which don't have answers and history isn't always divided up into winners and losers. If for no other reason, that makes this an important book to read, as it not only shows you the dangers of a world where black and white dominates, but it makes you realize just how wonderful a little confusion and uncertainty can be. Well you may not come away from reading this book any more enlightened about Islam then you were before you started, you'll have a better understanding of the variety of people who fall under the umbrella of that word. After reading this book you might not be so quick to make generalizations based on a person's religion and have a better understanding of what lays behind many of today's headlines.

July 29, 2009

Book Review: Twelve The King By Michael Blake

Sometime in 2008 I wrote an article about the threat posed to wild horses by the very people who are supposed to be preserving them - the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Some of the details include a program where horses are supposedly protected by being live captured and then put up for adoption. I still haven't figured out how capturing, domesticating, and then selling the horses constitutes preserving the wild populations, but I'm sure that somebody, somewhere has come up with a justification. Of course it's a little bit better than just rounding them up for slaughter and turning them into dog food, and just as effective a means of ensuring they don't interfere with ranching, forestry, and strip mines.

Of course as animals who were born into the wild, the older the horse that's captured the less chance it has of ever being domesticated. This is especially true for the older stallions who served as the herd's protectors in the wild. Even though all stallions are gelded upon capture (castrated) some never lose that edge which allowed them to ascend to a position of leadership with a herd. That's not a horse you're about to buy when your kids want a pony.

Fortunately there are some people out there who have sufficient appreciation for the artistry of Creation to see the beauty and splendour inherent in those magnificent creatures. While they may not be able to do anything about the circumstances that cause their plight, people like Michael Blake, best known as the author of Dances With Wolves, are the only hope these horses have of ending up as your dog's breakfast, or wasting their lives away in a corral. In 1991, he paid a visit to what he described as one of the BLM's concentration camps for wild horses, and first saw the horse he called Twelve. In his new book, Twelve The King published by Perceval Press, Blake tells us the story of his nearly two decade long relationship with this wild stallion.
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While all the horses in the BLM facility outside of Reno Nevada that day in 1991 had been taken from the wild herds in the mountains it was immediately obvious that the black gelding with the numbers 1210 on his flank was different from the rest. While other horses in the camp could be ridden after only twenty minutes in a paddock with the director of the facility, nobody that day Blake visited could even lay a hand on the black. Although he was protected from the slaughter house, the numbers on his flank gave him immunity, he had been declared unadoptable because of his age at capture, twenty years old, and was looking at spending the rest of his life confined to a small pen.

For twenty years Twelve had roamed the desserts and ranges of Nevada, and for most of that time had been the protector and leader of his herd. The director of the facility in Nevada told Blake that when Twelve was released in the paddock with the other sixty or so geldings that had been in his herd, the others would never approach him. When the gates were opened for them to be returned to their stalls, he would always lead them out, after first checking it was all clear. On one occasion he recounted how all sixty horses ran in a circle around Twelve, as if paying homage to their king.

While the book appears to be simply a recounting of Blake's life with Twelve, the details that come out from this description help you understand the uniqueness of this horse, and wild horses in general. For while Twelve would allow himself to be touched, he never stopped being a wild horse. He would have nothing to do with the domesticated riding horses that Blake owned, so in order to give him companionship Blake adopted a female from the same Reno facility. The descriptions of their play time - biting, rearing, and kicks just missing the other's head - give one a sense of their power and control. For never did he see either horse actually make contact or hurt the other no matter how violent their play might have looked to human eyes.
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While Blake admits that at the beginning of their relationship he harboured hopes of a bond forming between himself and Twelve, that he would somehow be able to overcome the animal's years of living wild and "tame" him, it never happened. Yet that's what makes this book special the chance it offers to be close to a horse who, although willing to accept human companionship, never surrendered anything of himself. Blake recounts walking Twelve past a ring where young riders were being put through their paces on their new mounts. Commands to walk, trot, and canter would issue out of a loud speaker and the riders would change their horse's gait accordingly. When the horses began to canter he felt Twelve stiffen, and then turn to take up a position facing the opposite direction in which the horses in the pen were travelling. He was looking to see what was chasing them and putting himself between the herd and any potential threat. As soon as the horses were walking again he relaxed his vigil and allowed himself to be guided away. (He was never led - only ever guided)

Twelve The King is a deceptively simple book, only thirty some pages of photographs and text. Its power resides in the feelings of awe and wonder that Blake so obviously feels for Twelve and the fact that he is able to convey those feelings to us with minimal words and no hyperbole. There are no long rapturous peons of praise to the glories of nature and wild creatures, just straight forward sentences describing this one horse. Yet reading about Twelve is to be given a glimpse at what is lost each time a rancher encroaches on preserve land and the BLM removes more horses from the wild, and the herds move one step closer to eradication.

"In city traffic/I remember his eyes/So dark and wet/So full of God" ends a poem Blake wrote after his first sight of Twelve at the Reno BLM facility. It's a pity there aren't more people who share Blake's vision, who can see the hand of their Creator in the untamed and the beauty it represents. He doesn't waste space decrying the practices of the BLM, a couple of paragraphs summarizing the hypocrisy of their so-called preservation efforts - ones that appear destined to guarantee the eradication of wild horses in America - is sufficient to tell us all that we need to know. Yet Twelve The King is one of the strongest arguments you'll ever read for ensuring the preservation of the wild herds. A world in which Twelve and those like him have ceased to exist is not one I care to imagine, but is one that could soon become a reality. That would be a shame.

Twelve The King can be purchased directly from Perceval Press

June 28, 2009

DVD Review: Let Freedom Sing: How Music Inspired The Civil Rights Movement

It was in the 1950's that the United States of America began to pay the price for the years of treating African Americans like second class citizens. Refusing to be segregated and denied a voice in the selection of their government any longer, African Americans began campaigns of protest and education in an attempt to be treated equally. It wasn't only the Southern States where segregation and other forms of discrimination were practised, but it was states like Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, and Mississippi where they were most enshrined either by law or custom, or both.

Therefore it was these states that became literally the main battlegrounds of the Civil Rights movement of the late 1950's and early 1960's. People from all over North America congregated in the South to show their support for the movement by taking an active role in their protests. Sit in's were staged by black people in white only dining facilities, bus seats in the front, white only sections, of municipal vehicles were occupied, voter registration drives that ensured black people previously shut out from the polls were able to vote, and people marched in the thousands demanding equal rights. The battle they faced wasn't an easy one as they were routinely attacked and beaten by both the police and mobs, and there were deaths among both the white and black protesters.

Now as the churches were key in galvanizing the people in the South, it should come as no surprise that when the protesters turned to song in order to comfort themselves and keep up their spirits, their first thought was the spirituals that were sung in church. It was easy to identify with songs taken from the stories of Moses leading his people to freedom, and it was those songs that were first sung and even adapted to suit the needs of the movement. However, as the recently released DVD of the documentary Let Freedom Sing: How Music Inspired The Civil Rights Movement shows, spirituals weren't the first or only music that were part of the movement. It also shows how the music of the African American community grew to reflect the changing moods of the people as the needs have changed.
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Narrated by Louis Gosset Jr. Let Freedom Sing traces the history of music protesting the situation of African Americans from Billie Holiday's performance of "Strange Fruit" with it's graphic descriptions of black people hanging from trees as the result of lynching, to Public Enemy's songs about life in today's urban core. However, as befits its title the majority of the movie's focus is on the relationship between the music and the quest for equality. Interviews with musicians and former freedom riders are interspersed with footage of protests of the era helping to both recreate the era for the viewer, and providing first hand accounts of what the music meant to those involved with the events depicted.

As was mentioned earlier, spirituals were the backbone of the movement to begin with, but gradually songs from both outside the church and the black community became just as important to the people on the ground and in getting the movement's message out to the world at large. Young white musicians like Phil Ochs, Bob Dylan, and Joan Baez were key in ensuring that young educated white audiences in the northern states at least were aware of the issues, if not inspiring them to take an active role in protesting. Perhaps the most famous song associated with the civil rights movement of the early 1960's was "We Shall Overcome" and there's a nice little bit with Pete Seeger, where he makes sure to stress that all he did was introduce the song to people, and they were responsible for its genesis into the powerful protest song it became.

While some of the conversations with the musicians were interesting enough, some of them have bore a striking familiarity to ones that I'd seen in other documentaries before. The interviews that were most fascinating were those with individuals who had been active in the movement. Not only were they each articulate about their experiences, they were also able to tell us just what music had meant to them and how it had helped them through difficult times while protesting. Music not only has the power to inspire crowds, as it did in one man's memories of spending the whole night in jail singing, it also could give individuals the strength to stand up to the abuse heaped upon them by the counter demonstrators.
Time Life
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While there's no denying the veracity of the history that's being presented in Let Freedom Ring, and on the whole the music is a decent cross representation of the era as it related to the civil rights movement, there was a little too much emphasis on the music that had crossover appeal for white audiences in the 1970's. While there was acknowledgement of the rise of black power, that whole aspect of the history was skirted over aside from a brief speech given by Stokely Carmichael and some pictures of various Black Panther members like Angela Davies. Perhaps most annoying was there was almost no mention of Malcom X, any references to Huey Newton and his false arrest on manslaughter charges or any of the various efforts made by the FBI to discredit not only the Panthers but even mainstream leaders like Martin Luther King Jr.

The other problem I had with the movie is although it refers to itself as being about music and the civil rights movement, in actual fact it's about music and the history of African Americans struggle for equality. If you're going to use a title as inclusive as civil rights, you have to include all those groups who are striving for acceptance; Hispanics, Gays & Lesbians, Native Americans, women, illegal immigrants, and the disabled. While it's true that in the 1950's and 1960's the focus of civil rights activists was on the African American community, the latter part of the twentieth century saw other groups struggling for acceptance as well. While it was good that the movie included events that happened beyond the borders of North America by talking about South Africa and Nelson Mandela, if they're calling themselves a movie about the civil rights movement they need to be more inclusive.

While the movie Let Freedom Sing: How Music Inspired The Civil Rights Movement does a good job showing the connection between the fight for equal rights for African Americans and the popular music of the community, it's an incomplete and slightly misleading history as it leaves out references to key figures and events. Even if we accept it's title at face value, that the civil rights movement was only concerned with African Americans, it's still an inadequate job of telling that history.

June 10, 2009

Book Review: US Future States Atlas By Dan Mills

I've always had something of a problem political art. Far too often people expect you to lose your objectivity and only look at the message, not at how the message is delivered. It's like all of a sudden we're supposed to forget about the quality of the art because the message is so important. Maybe I'm just an elitist snob, but it pisses me off when people expect you to say how wonderful something they did was because it was about this or that, not because it was a beautifully written story or exquisitely drawn illustration.

I'm in agreement with saying art should hold a mirror up to society and there's nothing wrong with deliberately setting out to create a piece of art that makes a political statement. However, it's equally important for whomever is doing the creation that he or she are able to set aside the issue that originally inspired them and be able to focus on how best to communicate it for an audience. No matter what you do, though, creating political art is such a difficult balancing act, as you try to meet the needs of both the art and the issue you're dealing with, that not many can pull off.

However, if you're interested in seeing an example of one artist who does an exemplary job of accomplishing it check out the recent release from Perceval Press, US Future States Atlas by visual artist Dan Mills. Subtitled "An Atlas Of Global Imperialism" the book gathers together a series of satirical maps Mills created delineating countries the United States could invade in the future and annex as additional states in the union.
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For each country, or "state", Mills has taken an actual image of it from an atlas and then begun its transformation into being part of United States Global (USG).(Note: USA + USG = United States Empire (USE)) First, if these new states are more than one country, made up of bits and pieces of a few adjacent countries, or as in the case of "New Venice" (formally Venezuela) divided up into separate states, their new boundaries have to be defined on the atlas. The new regions are painted in either one or a few exceptionally garish colours that make them stand out from those in their immediate vacinity.While in some instances it makes them appear to be a mockery of the way in which relief maps designating altitude and geographical formations are drawn, the distinctiveness of the colours also puts me in mind of the way in which maps used to designate countries that were once part of the British Empire with bright pink. Even in post colonial days you could look at a world map and spot Commonwealth countries, former colonies who still wanted to be part of the same club, dotted all over the world.

In fact if you turn to the back of the book you'll see that Mills has created two new maps of the world, one of which depicts the countries of USE picked out in a sickly purple, washed out blue, and shades of green. The other is crammed full of initials as it designates all the territories through abbreviations. Looking at the new map of the world where the fourty-seven new states appear like random blotches against a pale background it's hard to find any rhyme or reason for why these particular spots were chosen to become parts of the new empire.

Not to worry, for on each of the individual maps of the new states Mills has outlined the reasons why this particular country was chosen to become part of USE, and the benefits to be derived by USA, or US50, from their inclusion. These include everything from the geo-political, a country is situated such that an American presence can easily exert influence on a region of the world, to the natural resources made available through their inclusion. Of course one country can't just annex another without so much as a by your leave, I mean wasn't the first Gulf War fought because Iraq annexed Kuwait?
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That's all right Mills has covered those bases as well. For on each map he's itemized the reasons for US50 to take over the country. Take the new state of Panama Canal as an example. First of all the country of Panama wouldn't have existed without US aid in the first place as they were part of Columbia until 1903 and only seceded with American aid. Immediately upon declaring sovereignty they gave the US control over a swathe of land through the middle of the country until 1999 in order to build the canal and run it. Therefore a good chunk of the country was ruled by America for the majority of its existence anyway. Aside from that it will fulfil the need for military bases in the region to assist in future plans for the region and provide a beach head in Central America.

With his US Future States Atlas Mills has created a wickedly biting satire of America foreign policy dating back to the days of the Monroe Doctrine and Manifest Destiny. In the later parts of the twentieth century and early twenty-first we've seen the US invade countries all over the world with impunity for what has turned out to be the most spurious of rationale. Somalia, Grenada, Panama, Afghanistan, and Iraq have all been treated to visits by American armies since the 1980s, while other countries have had to deal with forces armed and funded by various US governments. His creations are not only visually arresting with their garish colours, but they also provide insightful and intelligent commentary on American foreign policy and how truly ridiculous some of the rationale given for those previous actions has been.

Perceval Press has done its usual masterful job of presenting artwork in a book form. The works are laid out in such a way that we are able to see both their scope and the detail of each piece. Blow ups of the actual states themselves allow us to appreciate the lurid details of the colours Mills has chosen to illuminate them with, while the scale reproductions of each map are clear enough that we can make out details like the accompanying text. US Future States Atlas accomplishes the delicate act of balancing of art and politics with grace and style. While that's in large part due to Dan Mills' sensibilities, Perceval Press has to be given some credit as well as they have created an effective and accessible means for people to view the artist's work.

US Future States Atlas can be purchased directly from Perceval Press.

May 16, 2009

DVD Review: Deflating The Elephant

In the wake of the first Gulf War Noam Chomsky, an American professor of linguistics, broke down the steps taken by George Bush senior's administration to took to ensure public support for their invasion of Iraq. Manufacturing Consent, first a book and then a documentary movie of the same name, showed how through manipulating the media, out right lies, and other means, the administration ensured that first the media and then the American public were deceived into giving their consent for the war. As a linguist he was naturally interested in how the administration used the English language to assist them in their efforts, and how phrases like collateral damage, among others, were used as part of their strategy.

While it shares the same concerns about the use of English as Manufacturing Consent, Deflating The Elephant, coming to DVD on May 19th and being distributed by Cinema Libre, is looking at a far bigger picture than just one set of circumstances. Like the earlier movie the central figure, George Lakoff, is a linguistics professor interested in how language has been used to shape public opinion. His topic is how the language used by American conservatives over the last thirty years to describe liberals, or moderates, has gradually changed the public's perception of liberalism being a force for positive change to being something that has a negative impact on their lives.

Introduced by actor Sean Penn, the movie has Lakoff being interviewed, and then talking about, how conservative think tanks have focused on framed messaging to demean liberals and liberalism. According to Lakoff language is influenced by framing, the process of associating a word with a concept, and in turn our way of thinking, our ideology, and our behaviour, is shaped by the way in which concepts are used and repeated. Similar to Pavolov's famous dogs phrases such as "war on terror", "tax relief", and "tax and spend liberals" have been used sufficiently that they now result in a conditioned response that adheres to conservative ideology. Lakoff contends that this is how America has been changed from what was basically a progressive country to one with decided conservative leanings.
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In case you have any doubts as to which side of the argument Lakoff falls on, liberal or conservative, he makes it obvious when he starts to outline how progressives screwed up by ignoring what the conservatives were doing and not challenging their disinformation campaign. The real give away though is the fact that the second part of the movie is dedicated to explaining how liberals can go about countering the negative perceptions that have been created about them and their policies. This involves a detailed analysis of how framing is created and the means to change the perception that liberals are elitists who given half a chance would waste tax payers money while allowing the country to be over run by terrorists.

I've no doubts of the veracity of Professor Lakoff's arguments or his theories on language. Nor do I have any trouble believing there was a concentrated effort on the part of conservative think tanks in the United States to demonize liberalism. I also agree with both his assessment that liberals failed miserably by not taking the threat these think tanks represented seriously, and his recommendation that liberals need to start getting their hands dirty by actively responding in order to counter the impression of liberalism that's been created. In fact I would think the mood generated by the current administrations represents a golden opportunity for rehabilitating liberalism in the United States.

Unfortunately Deflating The Elephant has to be one of the most breathtakingly boring examples of film I've seen in a long time. While what Professor Lakoff has to say is in of itself interesting and informative, the manner in which the material was presented was stupefying. There's nothing at all interesting about watching someone sitting behind a desk talking directly into the camera no matter what he or she is talking about. The medium is not called motion pictures for nothing you know.
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In fact a film like this one does more to reenforce liberals as a bunch of elitist intellectuals than any conservative propaganda. Watching Lakoff lecture from behind his desk on a subject that ninety per-cent of the population neither knows nor cares anything about would only confirm in most people's minds that liberals aren't concerned about what really matters. What does any of this have to do with making sure a person can feed their family? How does this relate to the struggle to pay medical bills? There's no effort made by the filmmakers to put the information into a context that details the impact the distortion of liberalism has had on people's life.

One of the claims that's made about the film is that its an invaluable learning tool for anyone who wants to learn how to read between the lines and recognize the real meaning behind framed messaging. The only trouble is that hardly anyone is going to want to sit through it to learn what's being offered. When I read about the movie, I thought the topic would be fascinating, and was hoping for something along the lines of what had been done with Manufacturing Consent. Instead, even the introductions to the various sections by Sean Penn are stilted (you can almost see his eyes reading off the teleprompter) and the movie as a whole was an exercise in tedium to sit through.

"Preaching to the converted" is an expression meaning that the material being presented isn't going to appeal to anyone who doesn't already believe in what's being said and no attempt is being made to change other people's minds. While there is nothing wrong with a little positive reinforcement now and then, Deflating The Elephant doesn't even work on that level as the material is presented in a manner that would put friend or foe to sleep.

February 5, 2009

Book Review: Little Bee By Chris Cleave

I wonder if any of us can imagine the straits somebody would have to be in to stow away in the cargo hold of a ship in the desperate hopes that whatever awaits at the end of that journey is better than what they have all ready experienced? What would it take for you to flee with nothing but the clothes on your back? I would think that anybody who went to those lengths must seriously believe their lives to be in danger or have cause to fear for their personal safety.

Yet the usual reaction in the so called developed world to people that desperate is to lock them up in detention centres while some government bureaucrat tries to decide whether or not they deserve to be granted refugee status and given asylum in whatever country they've ended up in. If the person can offer no proof that deportation will put their lives in jeopardy, as if they had time to get affidavits from the gunmen who came into their village and shot everybody or a copy of the arrest warrant that resulted in their being tortured, the only hope they have is if the country they've landed in has identified their country of origin as one where its civilian population is at risk.

Unfortunately if you're from a country like Nigeria in Africa which is now in the top ten of the world petroleum producers, most of the industrialized world has a vested interest in the activities that have put your life at risk. This is the case that the title character of Chris Cleave's most recent release, Little Bee, available from Random House Canada February10th/09, finds herself in. When deposits of crude oil are discovered under her village in Southern Nigeria, the oil company sends in soldiers to kill everybody and burn the village down. Since the government is aware of this activity - whole villages can't just disappear without somebody noticing after all, any survivors who escape become subject to immediate arrest and disappear usually never to be seen again. (Check out the author's web site for more information on Nigeria)
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Little Bee is the story of two women, Little Bee a Nigerian seeking asylum in Great Britain, and Sarah O'Rourke (nee Summers) a successful British journalist seeking refuge from the life she has created for herself personally and professionally. It's been two years since Little Bee landed in England as a stowaway onboard a ship from Nigeria and she has spent nearly every day since in the Black Hill Immigration Removal Centre while her fate is decided. As the book opens it appears that a decision has been reached as she is being released. She and three other women have each been given chits good for a taxi and are free to go - that they might not have anywhere to go, or that they have no papers documenting their status as refugees, appears to have escaped everybody's notice.

It turns out that the release is not as official as Little Bee hoped. One of the three other women traded sex for illegal release, and it looks better for three or four to be released instead of just one. So Bee and two others find themselves standing in line waiting to use a phone thinking they have been granted asylum, when in actual fact they have just been turned into illegal immigrants.

At least Little Bee does have someone to call aside from a cab. One of her few treasured possessions is the driver's licence of one Andrew O'Rourke, journalist and husband of Sarah, both of whom she had had a chance meeting with on a beach in Nigeria slightly over two years ago. That Little Bee was with her sister at the time and fleeing the men hired by the oil company to destroy their village and kill its inhabitants at the time meant their initial meeting was not your typical interaction between tourist and local.

Sarah and Andrew were on the vacation in the hopes of saving their marriage as Sarah had been having, and would continue to have, an affair. They had separated briefly upon Andrew's discovery of Sarah's infidelity, but had decided to try to rebuild if for no other reason than their child Charlie. However by the time Little Bee phones them from the Black Hill Immigration Removal Centre, their marriage is as precarious as it ever was. For not only had their attempt at a second honeymoon failed to save their marriage, the events surrounding their meeting with Little Bee while in Nigeria had changed them both irrevocably.
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In Little Bee Cleave has managed the very difficult task of writing about an issue that he obviously feels very passionate about without ever becoming polemic at the expense of his story. He had done a masterful job of creating two very believable lead characters in Sarah and Little Bee, and an equally brilliant job of alternating the narrative between them. By sometimes having the two women describe the same situation he is able to show us the ways in which they differ and are the same without having to spell anything out.

What I particularly appreciated is how Cleave built the story so that he weaves the past and the present together as he gradually develops the history that existed before Little Bee came to England. When Little Bee shows up unexpectedly on Sarah's doorstep near the beginning of the book it not only triggers Sarah to remember the events that led up to the trip to Nigeria, but what happened when she and Little Bee first met. While at first her decision to try and help Little Bee might seem like the knee jerk reaction of a guilty, affluent, white liberal, as she reflects on her life we realize there is more to her than that. At some point in her life she had become lost and Little Bee is the catalyst that helps her find her way back to being the person who wanted to make a difference.

While some of Little Bee's narration is what you'd expect, stranger in a strange land sort of thing, it never feels cliched or inappropriate for her character. After all she is a sixteen year old girl from a small village in Africa who had never been in a city before let alone out of her own country. Yet at the same time Cleave doesn't let her become a sweet little refugee girl who we all should feel sorry for. She wants vengeance on the people who are responsible for killing her sister, and, in a way, she gets to see it carried out even though its not in a manner any of us would have expected.

It's the unexpected things that Cleave brings to his characterization of both Sarah and Little Bee that make this book so real, for neither of them fit into anyone's easy stereotype of white liberal guilt or the plucky refugee whose an example for us all. Intelligent, well written, and with believable characters, Little Bee offers readers the chance to try and understand what would drive a person to climb into that cargo hold and search for a place to start their life over again. While the characters and the institutions mentioned in the book are all fictional, the description of conditions in both British detention centres and in Southern Nigeria are accurate and based on factual evidence. You might never think of asylum seekers in the same way again after reading this book.

Little Bee can be purchased directly from Random House Canada or an on line retailer like Amazon.ca as of February10th/09.

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.

December 24, 2008

Canadian Politics: While Parliament Away, Prime Minister Plays

The Canadian Parliament has been closed since the first week of December as Prime Minister Steven Harper convinced Governor-General Michaelle Jean to suspend it until the end of January so he wouldn't lose power. The opposition parties were preparing to vote against him and his Conservative Party of Canada, and offer themselves as an alternative in the form of a coalition of two parties, The Liberals and The New Democratic Party (NDP), supported by a third, The Bloc Quebecois.

Now little Stevie isn't one to sit idly by and let fate rule his destiny, nor is he going miss out on any chance that he has to put his stamp on the face of Canadian government for years to come. So he has spent the last week before Christmas doing as much as he can get away with without Parliament being in session. He has named a new judge to the Supreme Court Of Canada, appointed nineteen friends and fellow travellers to the Senate, and authorized a bail out package to Chrysler and General Motors of four billion dollars.

I'm going to skip over the first part, the appointment of a judge to the Supreme Court for a second, because I could hear all my American friends wondering about naming people to the Senate. In Canada we don't have an elected Senate, the closest thing to be found to the Senate in another government would be the British House Of Lords. In Canada though, instead of being born into a seat, you need to be a friend of the sitting government in order to get one of these plum positions. For plum they are, paying out an annual salary of $130,400 until retirement at age seventy-five, followed by a pension indexed to inflation.

Now it's no big thing for a Prime Minister to pack the Senate, it's an old Canadian political tradition. It's how you reward the party faithful and your friends for the work they've done on your behalf over the years. The thing is that Prime Minister Harper, and long before he was even a member of Parliament, has been a fierce proponents of an elected Senate. You see a Prime Minister can't just appoint people willy-nilly to the Senate, they have to be evenly divided among the provinces to guarantee equal representation. So Mr. Harper has advocated that provincial legislatures nominate people for Senate appointments and that the sitting federal government should abide by their selections.

To give the devil his due, the first appointment Steven Harper made to the Senate was a man who had been put forward by the Alberta legislation, but not this time. Of course he's saying he takes no joy in having to stack the Senate, but it's the provinces fault for not getting it together to nominate anybody. Of course, that's why he's had to find nineteen people to sit in the Senate who all happen to have opposed the proposed coalition government. Now the Senate does not have the power to defeat any motion passed by the House of Commons, and could not overturn a vote of non-confidence taken in the house, but they can make things difficult for a government.

Normally they serve as a rubber stamp for bills passed by the House of Commons, but if the opposition holds the majority of seats in the Senate as the Liberals currently do (even after the addition of nineteen Conservatives it will be 58 Liberals to 39 Conservatives) they can delay passage their passage by holding hearings or voting against them and sending them back to House for further discussion. Aside from Mr. Harper's previous stance making him look a bit of a hypocrite in this case, the opposition is also questioned his political legitimacy to appoint people to the Senate as he's only still Prime Minister because he suspended parliament.

Harper's appointment of Mr. Justice Thomas Cromwell to the Supreme Court of Canada has raised more than a few eyebrows for many of the same reasons that his stacking the Senate has caused consternation. You see Harper has been advocating that all people appointed to the Supreme Court must undergo full parliamentary scrutiny before they are approved, but again he decided that circumstances dictated that he act with immediately. Calling the process, "stupid, wrong, and foolish" political science professor Peter Russell, and expert on the judiciary, criticized the Prime Minister for ignoring the all party process used to compile a list of finalists, and then bypassing the parliamentary review process.

Of course Harper has made no secret of his dislike for the Supreme Court's application of The Charter of Rights and Freedoms to do things like strike down aspects of his anti-terror legislation, enshrining the right for same sex couples to marry, and other decisions he considers interference with his government's ability to impose legislation that might infringe upon civil rights. The fact that, according to Prof. Russell, Justice Cromwell can be expected to use the Charter sparingly to strike down legislation, and who will generally place the interests policing ahead of the rights of the accused, might just have had some bearing on the Prime Minister's decision to appoint him while Parliament is suspended. For even if he should go down to defeat when the house is reconvened, the appointment will stand, and the face of the Supreme Court of Canada will be changed forever.

Now everyone had expected an announcement of some sort regarding the bail out of the auto industry, especially in wake of the American government's announced $17.4 billion . No matter how bitter a pill it is to swallow that we have to bail out these bastions of Free Enterprise and opponents of government regulation due to their own incompetence, no one denies that we have any choice in the matter. If the auto industry were to go under the ripple effects on the Canadian economy would leave it in such tatters that it would take years to recover. The communities that rely directly upon one or other of the big three's car plants for direct employment and the money their employees put into local economies are only the tip of the iceberg.

Dotted mainly throughout Ontario are auto parts plants that supply the industry both in Canada and the United States. A great many of these companies are located in smaller communities where they constitute a town's major employer. During strikes when part orders are curtailed these communities suffer because of lay-offs, but they can tighten their belts and ride out those short term losses. However if the big three were to vanish, these plants would close their doors for good and the economic devastation would cause the modern day equivalent of ghost towns to spring up across the province.

The problem is that by doing the deal unilaterally, without Parliament's input, the Prime Minister has been able to fudge the details of the plan according to opposition parties whose main concern is the lack of any guarantee that Canadian jobs will be preserved. While supposedly there are some production guarantees included in the agreement, according to Liberal Member of Parliament John McCallum, there is nothing in it that secures the jobs of Canadians.

What nobody seems to mention, which I find very surprising, is why the government didn't demand some semblance of accountability from the corporations. If we are going to be handing GM a loan of up to $3 billion and Chrysler $1 billion, you'd think the least we could ask of them is that make some sort of commitment to ensure that they will change the business practices that got them into this predicament in the first place. (If you're wondering about the fact that Ford is conspicuous by their absence its because they've not requested any outright loans, merely access to a line of credit that they can draw on as needed) When any business applies to a lending institution for a loan they are obliged to offer proof of a viable business plan that shows how they see plan on paying back the loan. While Harper has said that the loans aren't a blank cheque and that companies and employees will have to make concessions, he didn't say what that might entail.

Since their biggest failing has been their inability to compete against the Asian car industry and their unwillingness to embrace new technologies that would make their cars more fuel efficient and less dirty, wouldn't it have been a good thing to make those conditions of the deal? How about insisting that they work on making an affordable hybrid car that would cost less for purchasers to operate and be less harmful to the environment? How about retooling their line so they stop mass producing trucks and SUVs, or other expensive big ticket items, and focus on producing inexpensive, fuel efficient, passenger cars for families?

Since Steven Harper became Prime Minister in 2006 he has shown a singular lack of desire to involve anyone but his closest advisors in making any decisions. For the two years of his first term he was effectively able to use Parliament as a rubber stamp for his policies as the opposition parties were in disarray and either unable or unwilling to stand against him. However, only twenty-seven days into his second term he found out that was no longer the case when he tried to push through his economic statement and he only escaped being ousted by suspending Parliament.

Yet apparently he hasn't learned his lesson, as he's spent the two weeks since doing anything he can to unilaterally run the country. While there is nothing technically illegal in any of the decisions he has made, it won't do anything to dispel the opposition's mistrust or their belief that he will stop at nothing to get his own way no matter what. If his behaviour over the period between cancelling Parliament and its recall at the end of January was designed to reassure the opposition and Canada that he has changed his ways, its done the opposite. In fact his behaviour has only reinforced the previous opinion of him being intractable and unwilling to work with the opposition to create legislation for the good of the country. If he keeps this up, his suspension of parliament will have only succeeded in delaying the inevitable, and he and the Conservative Party will be back on the outside looking in again.

December 16, 2008

Canadian Politics: Canadians Don't How Their Government Works

I had wondered how Steven Harper, Prime Minister of Canada, expected to get away with calling normal parliamentary procedures like a vote of non-confidence and a coalition government treason and coup d'etat? How could any member of parliament be so cynical as to expect not to get caught in such an outright lie? In fact he himself became Prime Minister after "overthrowing" a government in 2005 through the same non-confidence procedure and winning the subsequent election. True he didn't have the opportunity to form a coalition government, but that's mainly because nobody would want to join forces with him, and the government he defeated had been sitting for two years, not twenty seven days.

Well now I know the answer. According to a survey conducted between December 9th and 12th, after the whole circus died down in Ottawa, a majority of Canadians don't know that we don't directly elect our Prime Minister, who the head of state is, or how to best describe our system of government. On the plus side, ninety percent knew that a Governor-General could refuse to let a sitting government call an election upon losing a vote of confidence in the House Of Parliament.

The survey was commissioned by a group known as The Dominion Institure who claim their goal is to build active and informed citizens through greater knowledge and appreciation of the Canadian story. Well judging by the results of their survey they have a hell of a long way to go if they want to even come close to achieving this goal. If fifty-one percent of Canadians believe that the Prime Minister of Canada is elected by direct vote like the American President, is it any wonder that the Conservative Party was able to convince people that the proposed coalition government of a couple a weeks ago was "undemocratic"?

Aside from not understanding how the parliamentary system of government works, which has been in place since 1867 when the country was formed, only a bare majority knew that we are a constitutional monarchy. Now I know to people who live outside of Canada that the concept of a constitutional monarchy sounds more than a little obscure, and why shouldn't it? They haven't grown up with the system or studied it in school. Finding out that Canadians are equally ignorant about such basic precepts when it comes to the government they live under is not only embarrassing, but more than a little scary.

Maybe it doesn't seem like such a big deal to some of you that most Canadians think either the Prime Minister or the Governor General are head of state, or that they can't name the style of government we live under. However ask yourself this, how much difficulty would an American have in telling you that the President is head of state or that they live in a republic? Why should it be so difficult for Canadians to do the same thing?

However that is trivial when compared with the fact that the fifty-one percent of the people polled in this survey believed that the Prime Minister was elected directly. That shows a not only a complete lack of knowledge as to how our system of government works at its most basic, but just how few people actually vote in federal elections. If you've ever stepped into a polling booth on election day in Canada to cast a vote you'd have noticed that nowhere on the ballot you fill out is there a place to vote for Prime Minister. Even if the margin of error, 3.1%, for this survey is factored in, it means that forty-eight per cent of Canadians of eligible voting age have never stepped inside a voting booth, or don't understand what it is they are doing when they cast a ballot.

(I'm beginning to feel silly explaining this in every article I write about Canadian politics, but obviously it's needed. Canada works under a system of parliamentary democracy where the country is divided up into electoral districts called ridings based on population density. Each riding represents one seat in the House of Commons, and political parties select candidates to run as their representative in each riding. The political party that elects the most candidates forms the government with the leader of that party becoming Prime Minister.

If no party wins an outright majority of seats in the House of Commons the one with the most seats tries to rule with either the support of another party or on its own. A minority government can lose votes in the house without having to resign except for one on financial matters or if the other parties pass a motion of Non-Confidence. When that happens the Prime Minister asks the Governor-General, the Queen's (the head of state) representative in Canada, to dissolve parliament so a new election can be called. The Governor-General has the option of asking the opposition if they feel like they can form a government, or the opposition can ask the Governor-General for the chance to form a government if they can offer proof of their ability to govern. That would usually require a coalition of parties with sufficient votes in the House to defeat a motion of Non-Confidence, and a guarantee that the coalition would last for a particular length of time.)

In order for a democracy to work a country's population has to at least understand how their system of government works. If they don't they can be manipulated by unscrupulous leaders who would take advantage of their ignorance to prevent the checks and balances built into the system from working. When a government under a parliamentary system does not receive a majority of the seats in the House of Parliament, it is understood that they do not have sufficient support to be a representative voice of the country. It is the opposition's responsibility to ensure that the governing party is responsible to the whole country, not just those who voted for them, and ensure that legislation represents the majority as much as possible.

Since Steven Harper and The Conservative Party of Canada were first elected to a minority governing position in 2006 they have acted like they have a majority government. Until this past November they were given a free ride by an opposition in disarray for various reasons. Now, when the opposition acts like they are supposed to, calling the government on legislation they did not think represented the best interests of the entire country, Steven Harper accused them of attempting to overthrow the government and usurping the democratic process. He was able to get away with that because too many Canadians don't understand how their own system of government works.

Marc Chalifoux, president of The Dominion Institute, summed up the situation succinctly when commenting on the survey: "Canadians certainly were interested by what was going on in Ottawa (the capital city of Canada) but lacked, in many cases, the basic knowledge to form informed opinions." When the people a system of government is supposed to represent don't understand how it works they surrender what voice they might have had in its process. If the people of a country have no voice in their government can it really be called a democracy?

Until Canadians can get it together to understand even the most basic principles of their own system of government they will remain at the mercy of who ever wields power in Ottawa. Until that time we are a democracy in name only.

December 11, 2008

Canadian Politics: A New Leader For The Federal Liberal Party

It's been an exciting couple of weeks in Canadian politics, and it doesn't look like the action is going to slow down any time soon. When Conservative party leader, Prime Minister Steven Harper received permission from Governor-General Michaelle Jean to postpone parliament until January 26th/09 in order to avoid facing a vote of non-confidence in the House Of Parliament, it appeared he might have dodged a bullet. His popularity had risen in the polls and the Liberal Party, leaders of a proposed coalition government poised to replace him after the non-confidence vote, were starting to turn on themselves over who should lead their party when the house reconvened.

Before the events of the last two weeks or so went down the Liberal party were just beginning the process of electing a new leader to replace Stephane Dion who had led them to their worst election result in twenty years. Of the three men who had announced their intention to seek the position, two, Bob Rae and Michael Ignatieff were considered the front runners, with Igantieff having a slight edge due to his popularity among the Liberal Members of Parliament (MP). Still, in a leadership convention anything can happen and Rae was planning an extensive cross country tour in the hopes of convincing those selected as delegates to the convention that he was the man for the job.

However with the very real possibility of the government still going down to defeat when the House reconvenes, Dion was being a considered a liability by even members of his own party in the event of the coalition being called upon to form a government or, even worse, an election were to be called. One of the reasons that Stephen Harper felt fairly secure in postponing parliament was for that reason. He figured by the time the house re-convened the Liberals would be too busy with picking a new leader to risk defeating him in an election with a lame duck leader.
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Well the Liberals have called his bluff, and two very intelligent and proud men have put aside their own political ambitions in order to make the Liberals as unified and strong as possible no matter what happens at the end of January 2009. Stephane Dion offered to step down immediately, and Bob Rae has stepped aside to allow Michael Ignatieff to become leader of the party. The party had been discussing ways of holding a speeded up leadership convention, either by having a new leader elected by the Liberal caucus or expanding the vote to include riding association heads (a riding is the equivalent of an electoral district and each riding represents a seat in the House Of Commons) and all candidates from the last election to ensure that all ridings had a say in the matter.

While they will still be going through with both votes, it will now simply be a formality as there is only the one candidate, Michael Ignatieff. This does raise the question as to what happens now? When the Liberal party was rounding up caucus members to sign the coalition agreement the last to sign was Ignatieff, in fact he signed it three hours after the deadline for signing had passed. It has also been said that if the coalition had taken office earlier this month, he would not have accepted a cabinet post in the new government. Now whether or not that's because he was preparing to be the new leader as of May 2009 and wanted to distance himself from anything to do with Stephane Dion, or he didn't believe in the idea of a coalition, isn't known. What is known is one of his staffers has been quoted as saying "coalition if necessary, but not necessarily a coalition" It appears that he is more than willing to use the threat of the coalition to keep Steven Harper in check, but not about to jump the gun and vote Harper's government down just for the sake of voting against him.

The one hitch in that plan is that he did sign the coalition agreement and backing out at this late date unilaterally would quickly sour his relationships with the other opposition parties unless he can convince them it's in all of their best interests. Both Jack Layton, leader of the New Democratic Party (NDP) the other member of the coalition, and Gilles Ducette, leader of the Bloc Quebecois, who have promised to support the coalition in parliament for eighteen months by not voting against them on bills that would cause them to lose power, have publicly said that they believe the coalition still stands and are still planning for that eventuality.

(As opposed to the lie that Steven Harper and his Conservative Party have been spouting, the Bloc Quebecois would not be part of the coalition government and would not be given any cabinet posts in that government. Anyway, he was willing to do a deal with them two years ago when he was in opposition to try and form a government so he should be careful about who he accuses of what. In fact he pissed off Quebecer's so much with his anti-Quebec comments over the last couple of weeks that he is considered responsible for the improved showing of the Parti Quebecois (provincial separatist party) in the Quebec provincial election this past Monday, December 8th/08)

I have a feeling that unless the Conservative Party do something incredibly stupid, like still try to pass the same financial plan that caused this mess in the first place, or not offer a solid package of financial incentives to help stimulate the economy in whatever plan they do propose, they will probably ride this storm out. Michael Ignatieff is an unknown quality for Canadians, and he's wise enough to know that he would be risking his political career by becoming Prime Minister as the head of the coalition unless he can offer an iron clad case to Canadians that the Conservatives and Stephen Harper are unfit to rule. Instead I think he will take this opportunity to establish himself and bash the crap out of Harper and his party until the summer recess, and then next fall pull the plug on Steven Harper and run head to head with him for the Prime Minister's office.

Of course considering the volatile political climate we find ourselves in right now, everything could change again overnight. There have been rumbles of discontent from the rank and file of the Conservative Party. Harper has had two elections now with which to attempt to win a majority and even with a weakened Liberal party encumbered with a leader nobody really liked, he was still unable to deliver a majority government this time. The Liberals may not be the only party who change their leadership between now and next year.

December 9, 2008

Music Review: Various Performeres Rich Man's War: New Blues & Roots Songs Of Peace And Protest

Music has always had the power to inflame people's passions. From ultra nationalist songs that whip up hatred against others to religious music that inspires devotions, music has the potential to have the strongest and most immediate emotional impact of all the arts. Therefore, it's little wonder that down through the years music and songs have been written to express both dissatisfaction and appreciation for the way the world is going.

While I'm sure you can find examples of protest songs from almost every era of civilization, just check out the Irish songs about the British occupation, it really wasn't until the twentieth century that English language protest songs began to take the shape that we are familiar with. Most of the early ones dealt with the plight of the working class in North America and called for the establishment of unions. As the twentieth century progressed, and fell into the depression of the 1930's, songs the plight of the poor farmers and the social/political system that could allow the crises to happen began to be heard.

However it wasn't until after WWll and the popularization of folk music that protest songs began to obtain widespread popularity in English speaking North America. With first the civil rights movement in the United States, and then the war in Vietnam, causing people to question the moral authority of government and society's inequities protest, songs and the people who sang them gained widespread popularity. Country Joe McDonald's "Feel Like I'm Fixing To Die Rag", and Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are A Changing" were along the lines of typical folk songs, while Jefferson Airplane's "Volunteers Of America" showed that the protest song didn't have to be limited to just folk singers.
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Yet, after only a relatively short time the protest song's popularity died again. It seemed that when the impetus created by the unique combination of events and circumstances that had fostered the movement for social change died, so did interest in listening to songs about what was wrong with society or other people's troubles. While punk bands like the Clash, or musicians like Billy Bragg made no bones about their politics and did their best to motivate their listeners, the majority weren't interested. Like punk, rap and hip-hop had the potential to speak for the disenfranchised, but it was co-opted until now it glorifies the very things it originally protested against. (Check out the the lyrics of any Grandmaster Flash song from the early eighties and compare it to what's being sung as rap now and you'll see what I mean)

Now that doesn't mean that protest music is dead, it just means you have to look a little bit harder to find it. As a public service the good people at Ruf Records in Germany are releasing a new compilation CD of protest music recorded in the last few years. Rich Man's War: New Blues & Roots Songs Of Peace And Protest, to be released in the United States and Canada in the new year, is a collection of topical blues songs that were written in response to the first American presidency of the 21st century. While Ruf Records is distributing the disc, only two of the performers appearing on the disc are from their label, as producer Kenneth Bays has searched out recordings by as diverse a group of blues players as he could find. You'll notice that some of the songs seem to stretch the definition of blues somewhat, which explains the slightly unwieldy title, but does nothing to diminish the quality of the music.

I guess it only shows how unpopular protest songs have become when of the twelve songs on the disc not only have I only heard two of them before, "Follow The Money" by Bob Brozman and "Jesus And Mohammed" by Candye Kane, but I only recognized the names of two of the other musicians who had contributed to the recording; Guitar Shorty and Eddy "The Chief" Clearwater. Which is a great pity, because not only are the songs on this disc all intelligent, and sometimes quite funny, but even better, they are all good pieces of music. Protest music has received a bit of bad rap over the years for being painfully earnest and painful to listen to as its been wilfully misrepresented by those who'd rather we'd not be reminded that the world isn't quite the way the government depicts it.

Needless to say as the songs collected here are all in direct response to the Bush administration and its policies their primary focus is on topics that have dominated the newspapers since his election. What was nice to see was how each of the performers found a way to address the issue they chose to talk about without resorting to making villains out of people like the soldiers being sent overseas, but attacked the policies and motivations of those who made the decision to send them. Even better, there are a couple of songs that don't even resort to blaming anybody in particular, but instead seem to be shaking their heads with regret at the whole damn situation.

Two of the best songs on the disc are the previously mentioned "Jesus And Mohammed" by Candye Kane and "A Time For Peace" by Eddy "The Chief" Clearwater. In the former, Candye Kane imagines a conversation taking place between the two prophets and them shaking their heads in disbelief at how their followers could have screwed up their respective messages so badly. "This isn't what we wanted, both were heard to say, how could our words of love lead us to this day/ Oh my children don't you understand, misery and hatred won't get you to the promised land". Sung along the lines of a country/blues gospel number, and especially with Candye Kane's big and expressive voice, the song is a particularly effective condemnation of the hatred generated by all those who would have their followers on either side believe they are fighting a holly war.

Like Candye Kane, Eddy "The Chief" Clearwater has turned to the gospel roots of blues music for his song, complete with an echoing organ solo and church choir. "How many politicians have to lie? How many good soldiers have to die?". What makes this song so effective is the stark simplicity of its message, "It's time for love/It's time for peace/It's time for war...to cease", and the genuine passion that he and the choir are able to bring to what they are saying. "A Time For Peace" is a genuine prayer for peace that transcends individual religions or politics and reminds us if we don't keep love in our hearts we're no better than those we criticize for making war.

Rich Man's War is a collection of intelligent, musically interesting songs written in response to events of the last eight years. You probably won't have heard many of the songs on this disc performed before, and you may not have even heard of some of the performers themselves. However, after eight years of listening to one version of events and maybe starting to feel a little uncomfortable with what you've been told, don't you think it's about time to give some other opinions a chance? This CD represents that chance - maybe you should give it a listen.

December 6, 2008

Canadian Politics: Prime Minister Suspends Parliament To Save Government

In an attempt to prevent his government from going down to defeat in the House of Commons and be replaced by a coalition made up of opposition Members of Parliament, Prime Minister Steven Harper has received permission from Governor-General Michaelle Jean to suspend the current session until January 26th/09. Taking advantage of a little known parliamentary technicality called "prorogation", which gives the Prime Minister the right to shut down Parliament in case of an emergency, Harper will avoid having to face a vote on his fiscal policy scheduled for December 8th/08.

The opposition parties had already made it clear that they planned on defeating the governing Conservative Party in that vote, and approaching the Governor General with the coalition deal they had worked out over the past few days in the hopes of being given the opportunity to form a government. The coalition would have temporarily been led by current Liberal part leader Stepheane Dion (he would be replaced in May by whoever won the Liberal leadership convention) and would have included members of the New Democratic Party (NDP). The Bloc Quebecois, the Quebec nationalist party, wouldn't have been an official part of the coalition but had agreed to support the new government on all issues of confidence to allow them to rule without having to call an election. (In a parliamentary system a minority government can lose votes in the House of Commons as long as they aren't on fiscal issues or specific motions expressing lack of confidence in the sitting government.)

Mr. Harper is the first Prime Minister in current history to have chosen this option rather than face going down to defeat in the House of Commons. As recently as 2005 then Prime Minister, Liberal leader Paul Martin, knew very well that he would be defeated on an economic package he was presenting to the House of Commons, but like every other minority government prior to him, including Conservative leaders Joe Clark in 1979 and John Deifenbaker in 1963, he acceded to the wishes of Parliament. Former Governor-General Ed Schreyer cited those previous instances when warning that granting a wish for prorogation at this point would be an evasion of the process to Parliament and set a dangerous precedent for the future.

What is the great emergency, he asked, that necessitates the closure of the House Of Commons? According to Mr. Schreyer with the new Parliament having just opened only a genuine emergency should be grounds for prorogation. Allowing Steven Harper to suspend the sitting so his government can survive can't be constituted as an emergency, and for the Governor-General to allow the Prime Minister to do so for such an obviously political reason would damage the political neutrality of her office.

However, as a constitutional monarchy, the Queen, or in this case her representative, is only a figurehead, and can never be seen to gainsay a request from parliament. Steven Harper asking Michaelle Jean permission to suspend Parliament is only a formality and she really has no choice in the matter. It would be an even more dangerous precedent for a Governor-General to refuse the request of a Prime Minister, then for her to allow Mr. Harper to suspend the House of Commons. In a constitutional monarchy the crown can never be seen as dictating to parliament, or the whole system is compromised.

For those of you wondering why Steven Harper waited until almost the last minute before calling everything off, was that he and his Conservative Party needed the week to paint as negative a picture of the opposition as possible for the Canadian public. So he has spent the week saying the last thing Canada needs is a separatist government during a financial crises. In fact he and his party have resorted to telling outright lies by saying things like the Bloc Quebecois would have Cabinet posts in the coalition government as they attempt to do anything to shore up their own image. He has seems to have conveniently forgotten how willing he was when in opposition to try and woo the same separatist party in his attempts to overthrow the Liberal government.

You see, even now, Harper is only grudgingly admitting that perhaps as a minority government he and his Conservatives are going to have to work with the other members of the House of Commons. For the two years prior to the election last October 14th he and his party had been able to control parliament with a minority government because the Liberal Party, the main opposition party, didn't have a leader and weren't about to call an election. However, there is only so far you can push people, and so much you can get away with. The fiscal package he introduced that was supposed to prepare Canada for the upcoming financial crises was such a slap in the face for the opposition they refused to take it.

It was Conservative party arrogance that brought about the situation and unless that changes, chances are that when the House of Commons reconvenes in January we're not going to see much of a change in the attitudes of the opposition parties. All three parties still say they are prepared to bring down the government as they no longer have trust or confidence in their ability to rule. Liberal leadership candidate Bob Rae says that he is prepared to campaign across the country in support of the coalition in preparation for the recall of parliament and has all ready called the Harper government illegitimate and accused the Prime Minister of being a coward by asking for prorogation.

If the coalition can hold together over the next seven weeks and the opposition defeats the government as they say they will at the first chance they get when the House of Commons reconvenes Michaelle Jean will then have to make a decision as to whether she should allow Steven Harper to dissolve Parliament and call an election or allow the coalition to attempt to govern. While technically the House will still only be in its first sitting, sufficient time will have passed since the last election that Harper will try to make the case that he has the right to call an election.

However, in 1979 when Joe Clark's Conservative Party government lost a vote of confidence in the house after six months in power, then Governor-General Ed Schreyer, asked opposition Liberal leader Pierre Trudeau if he thought he could form a government before he agreed to dissolve the house and call an election. So if the coalition can stick out the next seven weeks and weather the storm of propaganda that the Conservative Party will rain down of them during that time, we will find ourselves back in the exact same situation we are in now. Steven Harper has been able to delay a vote in Parliament on his fitness to govern, but it looks like he will still have to face the music when the House reconvenes.

December 1, 2008

Canadian Politics: A New Government Without An Election?

There is something very odd going in on Canada this week, Canadian politics are exciting. Normally politics in Canada is about as predictable as watching paint dry, you know what the result is going to be well in advance no matter how much anyone says otherwise. So what's been going on over the past week, and what will come to a head in another week's time on Monday December 8th, is really quite incredible as its something that has almost never happened before in Canadian history.

For the first time since WW1 and Prime Minister Robert Borden's war time Union government made up members of both his Conservative Party and Wilfred Laurier's Liberal Party, Canada is looking at the very real possibility of a coalition government running the country. Led by the Liberals, as they have the second largest number of representatives in the House of Commons, it would also include the left leaning New Democratic Party (NDP). Although the Bloc Quebecois, the Quebec nationalist party, would not be part of the coalition, they have all ready made it clear that they would be willing to vote with them on important issues.

What's that you say, what about the guys who won the election on October 14th (2008)? While it's true the Conservative Party of Canada won the largest amount of seats in the last election, as everyone predicted they didn't elect enough Members of Parliament to have an outright majority in the House of Commons. Under these circumstances the government can lose votes in the House of Commons without any serious ramifications except in the case of a vote on fiscal matters or what is known as a vote of Non-Confidence.

Under normal circumstances when a government loses in either of these situations they would be forced to dissolve parliament and call an election because they are no longer able to govern. However, there is also the option that the opposition parties can go to the Governor-General of Canada, The Queen's representative, and ask her permission to form the government without a new election being called. Canada is a constitutional monarchy with the Queen of England being our titular head of state. Both her role and the role of the Governor-General are strictly ceremonial and they are not allowed to refuse a legitimate request by the opposition to form a coalition government.

How these circumstances came about is last week Prime Minister Steven Harper's government introduced a fiscal package to the House of Commons that was what they called the first stage of their solution to help steer Canada through the upcoming financial crises. Instead of offering ways of stimulating the economy they have proposed a series of spending cuts and taking away civil servants right to strike. The opposition parties were so upset by this that they made it clear they would not support the bill, which means that the government would go down to defeat on a fiscal matter, necessitating an election. Knowing full well the opposition wouldn't force an election so soon after the last one, the government refused to back down, probably not believing that the three opposition parties could set aside their differences and form a coalition.

One of the major stumbling blocks towards forming the coalition is the question of who would be the Prime Minister and leader of the Liberal party, as they are just beginning the process of replacing the man who led them into the last election Stephane Dion. While he is still the leader of the party, the leader of the NDP, Jack Layton, had made it clear that he would not agree to any deal that made Dion Prime Minister. As the vote on the fiscal package is imminent the Liberals don't have time to hold a leadership convention, so they will have to pick someone from among the caucus to be leader. The question is whether or not the candidates running for the leadership would be willing to allow one of their number to become interim leader, and Prime Minister.

Initially the Conservative Party was going to hold the vote on this coming Monday, December 1st/08, but when they saw the way the wind was blowing they put it off until December 8th. They hope to use the coming week to convince the people of Canada that the rightfully elected government is being hijacked and to sway opinion against the coalition. Unfortunately the extra week will also give the Liberals and the NDP the opportunity to figure out a way to make it work. If the Liberals are able to appoint a new leader in that time, probably Michael Ignatieff not only will it satisfy the NDP, but it will also take some of the sting out of the Conservative party's spin against the coalition.

In his speech announcing the delay on the vote Steven Harper challenged the legitimacy of Stephane Dion to become Prime Minister as he has all ready agreed to resign as leader of the Liberal party. If Stephane Dion does remain as leader when the coalition approach the Governor General about forming the government it could mean that Steven Harper and the Conservative Party might not recognize the legitimacy of the new government and be the beginnings of a constitutional crises. Unfortunately for Mr. Harper, constitutional experts say that Governor General Michaelle Jean will have little choice but to give the coalition the chance to form a government as long as they meet certain provisos, even if Stephane Dion remains leader.

According to Louis Massicotte, an expert in government affairs, there is overwhelming cause for not calling a new election under the current circumstances. According to precedent from both British and Canadian parliamentary history whenever a government is defeated during its first sitting there is no election. As long as the three opposition parties, the Liberals, NDP, and the Bloc Quebecois, produce a written agreement guaranteeing support for the coalition and how long it would last, it would be Ms. Jean's duty to accept it so soon after an election.

As of now the NDP and the Liberals are still negotiating and the Conservative party are putting their spin campaign in motion, and the next week promises to be one of the more interesting ones ever in Canadian politics. How it will play out in the end is still anybody's guess, but come Tuesday December 9th/08 there might just be a new government in place without an election being called. I guess we couldn't let the Americans be the only ones to make electoral history this year.

October 16, 2008

Book Review AIDS Sutra Various Authors

In 1860 a British act of parliament declared that sex between men was illegal and punishable by a jail sentence of up to ten years. The law went into effect throughout the British Empire including its largest colony, India. Unfortunately, when the British government repealed section 377 in 1967 it couldn't take back what it had imposed on its colonies the century before, and to this day homosexual sex is still illegal in India. (Speaking to a gathering of Indian delegates at last summer's, 2008, International AIDS conference in Mexico, Indian health minister A Ramadoss lent his support to the repealing of Section 377, but as of yet nothing has been done to do so)

The Bombay Police Act of 1951, which covers everything from frightening cattle to public decency, gives police the power to fine and arrest people they believe are behaving indecently. As the act does not define what is indecent, it gives police the arbitrary power to arrest virtually anyone they feel like. While in theory the act is to be used to curtail prostitution, the fact that the average police officer makes less than a maid results in widespread use of the act to shake down sex trade workers for money. Of course the constable on the beat has to give a cut of whatever he takes in to his superior officer. In fact if the lower grades among the police force ever want to advance up the ladder they are expected to pay off their higher ups on a regular basis thereby encouraging the practice.

Its reading disheartening facts like these, and other far worse anecdotal tales, that makes the new book AIDS Sutra, produced by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and published by Random House Canada (available in India through Ramdom House India) so depressing. For all that India tries to present to the world the shiny face of a modern technologic giant, judging by what you read in AIDS Sutra when it comes to sexuality its stuck in the dark ages. One of the things this book makes clear is just how much these attitudes impact HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment.
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For AIDS Sutra the Gates Foundation gathered together sixteen of India's best writers and sent them out among the various communities in India affected by HIV/AIDS. AIDS Sutra tells the stories of everyone from orphan children living with the disease to women, men, and transgendered people forced to sell their bodies as a means of survival. Salman Rushdie, Kiran Desai, Vikram Seth, Nalini Jones, and twelve other authors have each contributed a report for the book that as fiction would be heartbreaking while as non-fiction are heart-sickening and horrifying in their implications.

The overall impression that you get from reading these works is that in general India is the same place North America was in the 1980's when it comes to their understanding of HIV/AIDS. There is still wide spread ignorance concerning how the disease is spread and it's only been recently that even the medical profession has begun to treat those suffering from the disease with something approaching the respect offered anyone suffering a serious ailment. Reading the story of Dr. Tokugha, as told by Nikita Lalwani, that opens the book prepares you for some of the ugliness to come. When he tested positive for the virus instead of informing him of the results, in a horrible breach of patient confidentiality, the hospital told his brother in law, a government minister. It was only six months later, a week before he was to be married, that his brother in law let him know he was positive.

Reporting on sex trade workers in various places around India Kiran Desai, Sunil Gangopdhyay, Sonia Falerio, and CS Lakshmi all draw similar pictures of women who have been pushed into circumstances by forces beyond their control. While some of them, mainly the younger and prettier ones, are able to command a degree of respect, the majority of them face the attitude of one police officer interviewed who said any woman who sells her body is bad so should be beaten, and wants sex, so should be raped.. Even more disquieting is new legislation being proposed by the government threatens to send them even further underground, making it harder for medical authorities and Non Government Organizations (NGOs) to work with them to help prevent and treat HIV/AIDS.

While the police in major centres like Mumbai (Bombay) are now starting to make attempts to educate new officers about the reality of AIDS, ingrained habits and conditioning will take years to overcome. As no records have been kept in the past there is no way of knowing how many police officers have been infected with the virus from exercising their "rights", raping sex trade workers instead of arresting them, and then in turn infecting their wives and other partners. The only group more difficult to monitor and help than female sex trade workers in India are men who have sex with men (MSM).
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With homosexual sex acts still illegal the stigma attached to being gay is such that many men are forced underground. Since sex is illegal they are continually at risk of being arrested and are routinely subject to harassment and extortion by the police. However according to articles by Salman Rushdie and Mukul Kesavan that's nothing compared to what happens to MSM sex trade workers. The police routinely set up entrapment ploys for them by sending a "client" out looking for sex in one of the regular cruising areas. When the client goes to leave the area to take his partner of choice somewhere they can have sex, the sex trade worker is arrested. If he's lucky he'll only have to pay off the police, but quite often they will be hauled back to the station house where they are gang raped by police officers and tortured.

As it is illegal to have gay sex, how do you set up programmes that will deal with preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS among that community? There are NGOs that do work with the MSM and transgendered communities in India, and as it stands the best statistics available show that 20% of MSM's are HIV positive. How many are still going undetected because of their reluctance to go public with the reason for them requiring testing is anybody's guess, as are the number of police officers who may be positive after participating in a scene as described above. Until the act making sex between men illegal is repealed in India, there can be no way of knowing the true numbers of people infected with the disease, and no way of mounting a seriously effective prevention campaign.

It's never a good thing to try and impose your own moral code unto another culture or to form judgements on it based on observations conducted by eyes conditioned to another value system. However, when a book like AIDS Sutra, written by people who are native to the culture, paints as devastating a picture of India's preparedness for dealing with HIV/AIDS, it's no longer a question of morality, it's a question of human rights. No one, no matter what their sexual orientation or gender deserves to be treated in the manner the people we meet in this book are treated. Even worse is the fact that the way they are treated not only endangers them, but endangers the population as a whole.

Reading AIDS Sutra one is forced to draw the conclusion that not only is the Indian government unprepared for dealing with preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS, the situation is such that there is no way of knowing the extent to which the disease is spreading across the country. For the country that gave us Tantric sex and the Karma Sutra, and whose pantheon of Gods and Goddesses contains a transgendered deity (Ardhanarishvara the half woman god) India seems to have somehow become stuck with horribly Victorian attitudes towards sex and sexuality.

In the West our governments ignored HIV/AIDS until it was almost too late because of bigotry and prejudice. India can't plead the excuse of ignorance when it comes to the disease as far too much is known about it for that to wash as an argument any longer. However, judging by the articles in this book the government which should be leading the fight to save the lives of its citizens is allowing conditions to continue that will only encourage the spread of the disease. The tragic conclusion one reaches reading AIDS Sutra is that India is headed the way of East Africa of ten years ago and risks allowing AIDS to reach pandemic proportions.

AIDS Sutra can be purchased directly from Random House Canada or an online retailer like Amazon Canada and in India from Ramdom House India.

October 6, 2008

DVD Review: Edward The King

While the twentieth century might have been the era which saw technological advances that continue to shape our lives, the nineteenth century was when the socio/political events occurred that made those advances possible. For it was during this era that many of the old ruling families of Europe found their power pulled out from under them, and the continent's map began to take the shape we are familiar with today. Countries which had previously not existed, Germany and Italy, were born when charismatic leaders rode the crest of the nationalist wave that was sweeping Europe.

Along with the political upheavals came social changes as the power base began to shift away from the aristocracy and their inherited wealth in courts across Europe, to a new merchant class who made their money through manufacturing and trade. With their increased wealth came demands for more say in how they were governed which led to a series of reforms across Europe that saw the gradual winnowing away of power from monarchs and into the hands of elected politicians. While it's true in countries like Germany and Russia it would eventually take war and revolution to oust the monarchy, in others the transition was far more painless.

England had already undergone its bloody civil war between parliament and the throne close to two hundred years earlier when Charles the 1st was deposed and beheaded by Oliver Cromwell. Although the monarchy was returned to power after only a short interval, it was with far less influence in the actual governance of the country. By the time the nineteenth century had come around the monarch in England was still considered head of the government, but in name only. So although she was head of a vast empire when she ascended the throne at seventeen, Queen Victoria's word was not law.
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This era, specifically the reign of Queen Victoria, is brought to life brilliantly in the Granada television production of Edward The King that has just been released as a four DVD box set by Acorn Media. For, although the series is about the life of Victoria's heir, Edward VII, their stories are irrevocably intertwined and the one can not be told without the other's. The series begins in the year preceding Edward's birth, only a few years into Victoria's reign, and not only follows his life to its conclusion, but provides details of her life with her husband Prince Albert and an overview of the changing face of Europe and the world.

The first four episodes, Volume 1 of this set, deal with Edward's formative years. In an attempt to mould him as a future King of England, Prince Albert devices an educational plan that keeps him working from dawn to dusk and isolates him from the "corrupting" influence of other children. Over the first few episodes a picture develops of a young man who, no matter how hard he tries, will never succeed in pleasing his parents. Unlike his brothers and sisters he is never shown any affection, given any encouragement, or allowed any freedom to do anything that he might enjoy. Naturally when the first opportunity arises for a little independence, when he's a student at Cambridge University, he jumps at the chance and begins an affair with an actress.

His timing couldn't have been worse, because it happens during the middle of the American Civil War and Prince Albert is involved with delicate negotiations to keep England from being drawn into the conflict. Britain needs the cotton trade with the Confederate states for its industry, but also can't afford to alienate the Union states either. Shortly after dealing with his son's affair he contracts typhoid fever and dies. Victoria blames Edward for the death of her beloved husband and for the rest of her life that dominates her relationship with her future son.

As the series progresses through its thirteen parts we see the effect this has on shaping Edward. While Prime Minister after Prime Minister pleads with the Queen to let her son play a more active role in government, she keeps insisting he's not ready to take on any positions of responsibility. At the same time Victoria retreats into virtual seclusion following the death of her husband and refuses to take part in any public functions. When the Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, asks Edward and his new wife, Princess Alexandra of Denmark, to make themselves visible by attending parties and functions to remind the people of their monarch's existence, Victoria accuses her son of being frivolous and immature. Victoria also demands that Edward not be allowed to represent the monarch in public as she is the sovereign, not him.

It's no wonder that Edward began a series of extramarital affairs, he had nothing else to do. Even though the series shows that he clearly loved his wife and was devoted to her, it also shows that his mother's refusal to allow him any meaningful employment, and her continual low opinion of him and his character, pushed him to living down to her expectations. Although a part of him knew it was behaviour akin to cutting off his nose to spite his face, he couldn't stop and was involved in scandal after scandal.

Of course no one can live forever, although Victoria sure tries, and after over sixty years as Queen she finally dies and Edward inherits the throne. By then he's already advanced in years, and doesn't have very long a reign so very little of the series actually deals with Edward as King. In spite of this it's a fascinating study of both the time and the people in it. This is the first production of any sort that I've seen where Victoria, wonderfully portrayed by Annette Crosbie, is shown as a young woman, and happy. The first four episodes showing her relationship with her husband, Prince Albert (Robert Hardy) were exceptionally well done as they managed to not only depict their happiness together but show how they developed their low opinion of their eldest son.

While in the first four episodes a variety of younger actors portray Edward, it's Timothy West who portrays him from his early twenties onwards. He does an absolutely masterful job as he is able to bring out the various sides of his character. He is both charming and, contrary to his parents' opinion, very intelligent. We watch as his frustration with his limited role gradually turns him from a loving husband into a philanderer as he continues to look for ways to spend his boundless energy and enthusiasm for life. It doesn't help much that his wife prefers a quiet life, while he desires the adoration of society as consolation for the lack of attention and affection he received from his parents.

In spite of the fact that the original program was televised in the 1970's the sound and picture quality are fine. Special features included with the four discs include an in depth look at Robert Hardy, the actor who portrayed Prince Albert, some of the original introductions to episodes when it was originally televised in the US with Robert McNeal, and a featurette on the life of the real King Edward VII.

Not only is Edward The King an exhaustive history of one of the most important times in the modern era, it is also provides an intimate portrayal of the lives of some of its pre-eminent people. British television has always had a knack for bringing history to life and making the famous real, Edward The King is another shining example of that talent.

October 3, 2008

Book Review: Little Brother By Cory Doctorow

Back in the dark ages of technology, the early 1990s, a friend tried to convince me of the necessity of learning about technology. As he was (and remains to this day) the smartest person I know I didn't dismiss his argument that we needed to understand technology in order to know what the government could do with it to keep tabs on us as complete paranoia. Hell if I had graduated from University it would have been in 1984, so the idea of Big Brother looking over our shoulder wasn't something I ever took lightly.

Still, at the time, I really didn't understand what he was so worried about, not realizing just what technology could do and its potential for surveillance work. Sixteen years later I'm wishing I took him a little more seriously as the world has gradually given itself over to technology, and more and more opportunities exist for monitoring our every move. Information chips on credit cards, GPS systems in cars that track your movements, and CCS Cameras on every corner equipped with gait and face recognition software to pick out individuals in a crowd are only the tip of the iceberg, as its the stuff I know about. It's the stuff I don't know about that worries me now.

In the past decade science fiction writers have had a field day with technology and its applications for surveillance and control. Yet, perhaps because they are so obviously science fiction, or the stories I've read just a little too outlandish, it's been easy to disassociate what they have written from the world we live in and dismiss them as fantasy. That is until I downloaded a copy of Cory Doctorow's Little Brother from the free download page at his Craphound web site
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Cory Doctorow is a Canadian science fiction writer and, for lack of a better description, copyright and free technology activist. He's one of the co-editors for Boing, Boing, has worked extensively with groups around the world at freeing up copyright restrictions and creating open source technology, and founded the open source company, OpenCola. It's his belief that by making his work available as downloads it creates the potential for more, not less sales, so all his books are available as free downloads under the Creative Commons Licence. (If you're interested in reading up on this sort of thing in detail Cory has gathered together a collection of essays he's written about it in Content that can be downloaded from his site)

In Little Brother we are introduced to Marcus Yallow, a seventeen year old high school student living in San Francisco. In Marcus' San Francisco the schools have introduced various means of monitoring their students, including handing out free laptops for their school work that monitors their on line behaviour, surveillance systems that use cameras and gait recognition software to monitor their whereabouts, and library books with chips that can be used as homing beacons. Marcus and his friends are able to stay two steps ahead of the system and have figured out work-arounds and hacks for anything the school board can throw at them.

Marcus is pretty much your typical, self-assured, slightly cocky - bordering on arrogant teenager, believing that he can handle anything the grown-up world can throw at him. A terrorist attack that blows up the Bay bridge between San Francisco and Oakland changes all that and his world forever. Caught out in the open when the bomb happens he and three friends at first try to head for shelters like everyone else. Deciding they're better off out in the open, they head out to the street where they try and flag down a cop after discovering one friend has been injured. Unfortunately the first vehicle to stop for them is the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) who immediately arrest all four of them for being somewhere they're not supposed to be.

Like any other American Marcus assumes he has rights, and demands to see a lawyer and refuses to co-operate with any of their requests for information without one. Which is when he finds out that he doesn't have any rights and the DHS are perfectly prepared to keep him in jail without telling anyone where he is forever if he doesn't co-operate. One night in a jail cell having to piss in his pants because he is handcuffed convinces him that they are serious and he caves in. He and two of his friends are released after four days, but told if they ever tell what happened to them they will disappear forever and that the DHS are watching them. Their injured friend isn't released and nobody is willing to tell them anything about him.

Marcus quickly discovers the whole world has changed and that DHS have instituted monitoring on everything. Once he recovers from his shock at being imprisoned, he makes the decision to fight back. Using his knowledge of technology he believes he'll be able to stay under Homeland Security's radar and organize resistance against them. Using various cracks, hacks, and loopholes in the Internet, and through the distribution of copies of an open source operating system, he establishes an alternative network for those wishing to stay anonymous and untraceable. (All the technology and tricks described in the book exist and are available for anyone to use if they are willing to learn how. In an afterward to the book Doctorow provides articles written by some of the people who developed them.)

At first he thinks he's accomplishing something, and in some ways it's just another computer game to him, but gradually the cat and mouse game he's playing with DHS starts to get dangerous. Not only do his opponents have access to the same technology that he does, and people working for them just as smart if not smarter than him, they have blackmailed teenagers into working for them as undercover spies who are closer to Marcus than he knows. Yet in spite of his constant and real fear of "disappearing" Marcus refuses to run away or cave in. Along the way he learns valuable lessons in what it means to take responsibility for your actions, and the responsibility of leadership. For whether he wants it or not, his online personality becomes a rallying figure for all the people resisting DHS, and people are putting themselves at risk because of his ideas.

Like I said earlier their have been lots of books written about this sort of thing recently, but Little Brother works where they haven't for a couple of reasons. The reality that Doctorow depicts is highly plausible, we only have to read unbiased news reports to verify it. Innocent people have been sent to foreign countries to be tortured, people are locked away in nameless prisons without trial and without being told why they have been arrested, and the atmosphere of fear and mistrust manufactured by governments in order to justify suspending civil liberties is a reality.

Into this very believable world he has dropped some very real people whose behaviour is completely plausible. Marcus and his friends, and the other young people we meet, could very well be any group of young people today. They are tech savvy in a way that people of my generation will never be as they have grown up taking it for granted and accepting it as a part of life, while to us it's still something alien that has to be learned and not to be completely trusted. While they understand some of the risks involved with chat rooms and such (pervs looking to score with young kids etc.) they have a hard time separating their online world and reality. Like Marcus they don't understand the real consequences of what will happen to them if they're caught as that's beyond the scope of their experience. To them it's just one more on line role playing game, but brought to life.

For those of you who have trouble getting your heads around the idea that a bunch of teenagers can be motivated enough to take a stand on issues like civil liberties, Doctorow has the brains to work recent history into the text to establish precedents. It was only as recently as the 1960's when young people were involved with voter registration drives in the South as part of the Civil Rights campaign, or protesting the war in Vietnam. Give people enough motivation and direction and they can be galvanized to action, and Doctorow provides his characters with both making their behaviour believable and realistic.

Little Brother is a well written and intelligent story that will keep you on the edge of your seat no matter what your age. It not only provides its readers with an overview of the technology that's being employed to monitor your behaviour and the means to counteract it, but it does so within a moral and legal framework that can't be argued with. Young and old, this book will help you see the world around you in a new light, and will open your eyes to the reality of our not so brave new world.

October 1, 2008

Canadian Politics: We're Having An Election Too (Not So Anybody's Noticed)

Greetings from north of the 49th parallel. As you down there in America are looking more and more like you are about to make a drastic change in your national political landscape in the next presidential election by switching from the arch-conservative to the liberal, we here in the land of igloos and ice-hockey are poised on our own cusp. On October 14th Canadians will head to the polls to choose our next Prime Minister, and there is a chance that we could be electing our first ever really conservative government.

In the past a party that called itself the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada has formed governments, and while they might have been what some people in Canada would have considered fiscally conservative, they have always been far more liberal socially than even the most liberal of Democrats in the United States. It was a Progressive Conservative Prime Minister in the 1960's who instituted our system of universal medicare after all, something that very few politicians of any stripe in the States dare to even talk about let alone implement.

The party calling itself the Conservative Party of Canada under the leadership of Steven Harper won the most seats in our House of Parliament in our last election, but failed to win enough to have the outright majority required to rule uncontested and do whatever they wanted. What they want to do is remake Canada in the image of George Bush's America - somewhere safe for God fearing, white, heterosexual Christians who want to profit at the expense of others. In the two years they've had a minority government they have managed to scrap Canada's commitment to the Kyoto Accord, rescind The Kelowna Accord (legislation that the previous government, the provinces and native leaders had negotiated that would have given native Canadians a chance to dig out from under years of poverty), cut 50 million dollars in funding to the arts, divert funding from HIV/AIDS prevention programs, extend and expand Canada's military mission in Afghanistan against the wishes of the majority of Canadians, increase military spending, and cut funds to social programs for women and children.

Of course there are some things they have failed to do; rescinding the legalization of same sex marriages, instituting legislation that would have given people the right to discriminate against others on the basis of sexuality, and closing North America's only safe injection facility, Insite. In each case it wasn't any of the opposition parties in the House of Commons who prevented them from enacting these pieces of legislation, but the courts upholding the constitution and Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

This has led to the familiar conservative call to reform the courts on the grounds they are interfering in the government's ability to rule. While this is a seductive argument, because it has some basis in truth, it is up to the courts to ensure that the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms is respected and the Constitution is upheld. If any government complains because they aren't allowed to contravene their country's constitution and do what they want, shouldn't one wonder about them instead of wondering about the courts? I would think that we should be grateful that the politicians have someone, or somebody, holding them accountable.

For those of you not familiar with Canada's form of democracy, we are what's called a Constitutional Monarchy, with the Queen of England being our titular head of state represented in Canada by a Governor-General. This is a figure head position with no real power, and the real authority lies in the hands of whoever is Prime Minister. As we have a parliamentary system of government our Prime Minister is the leader of whichever political party elects the most members to sit in parliament during an election.

The country is divided up into electoral districts based on what is supposedly the fairest means of proportional representation possible - but as certain parts of the country have a higher population density than others it doesn't really work out - with each district representing one seat in parliament. If a party wins a clear majority of the seats they are said to have a majority government and can pretty much do as they please for the next four and half to five years when they'll have to call another election.

When no one winds an outright majority, as what happened in the last election, the leader of the party with the most seats in the house forms the government. Under normal circumstances they will try and negotiate a deal with another party with seats that together they form a majority. However after the last election the Liberal party of Canada, who finished second to the Conservatives, were too busy stabbing each other in the back and electing a new leader to risk an election being called, so the Conservatives didn't have to worry about making nice with anyone.

In fact the Conservatives could probably have gone on ruling for quite some time without having to call an election, but they thought they could win a majority government if they called an election now. So claiming that parliament was unworkable, Steven Harper asked the Governor General's permission to dissolve the current parliament and call an election. As I said before, the Governor General is only a figure head and no matter what he or she might think they have to go along with the Prime Minister, so he was allowed to call an election.

It's been a perfect campaign for the Conservatives - boring and tedious. They haven't promised anything, haven't even said what their plans are if elected. Oh they make vague comments like, we're the best party for the economy, or Canada has become more conservative in the last while and the newspapers report them as gospel. Nobody is calling on them to explain how they plan on being the best party for the economy or even asking why anybody should vote for them, and the most recent polls still show them flirting with a majority government.

The good news, for those in opposition, is that the polls are by no means anywhere as near as conclusive as they were earlier in the campaign. Where it once looked like they were a pretty sure bet to form a majority, the other parties are making enough inroads into Conservative support that the chances of that happening are decreasing. Wednesday night, October 1st/08, the leaders of the four national parties, Conservative, Liberal, New Democratic Party, and The Green Party, will face off in a debate over the issues that will go a long way in deciding whether or not Steven Harper and the Conservative Party of Canada form a majority or have to make do with another minority government.

If the other four leaders are able to make the country realize that Steven Harper isn't actually saying anything and wake everybody up enough to notice that he could be on the verge of winning a majority government, there's a good chance it will be enough to prevent it from happening. On the other hand if nobody is able to do anything to wake people up, to make them pay attention to what's going on, to care enough to vote, Steven Harper and the Conservative Party of Canada could very well have a majority government on October 15th.

It would be supremely ironic if on the eve of an historic breakthrough for liberalism in the United States, the election of a black president, Canada, historically the far more liberal country, elects its most conservative government ever.

September 30, 2008

Book Review: A Most Wanted Man By John Le Carre

Guest workers. In Germany that's what they call any foreigner who lives and works in the country and not gone through the tortuous process of obtaining citizenship. In reality it applies mainly to the thousands upon thousands of Turkish nationals who reside within borders of the country doing those jobs all Western countries assign their poor immigrant populations. In the fifty odd years of the post WW 2 era, during the rebuilding, the economic miracle, and finally reunification when the Wall came down, they were an accepted part of life in Germany.

However, as of September 12th 2001, they all became potential terrorists, or at the least threats to security. Families who had lived in Germany for three generations were just as suspect as the new arrivals off the plane from Istanbul. It suddenly became important which Mosque you attended, if you were a man whether you shaved or not, or as a woman if you wore the head scarf or not. After years of looking over the Wall waiting to catch Russian spies, German intelligence now refocused on the enemy within. How many of these once innocent Muslim youth societies were now secretly preparing their young members as terrorists to be launched against the West.

Of course Germany is also sensitive to criticism about impinging on the human rights of any minority as a result of the Holocaust. However that doesn't prevent families who have been living and working in Germany for two generation coming under suspicion and being subject to threats and coercion. If you go to your daughter's wedding in Istanbul maybe we won't let you back in if you don't co-operate, or maybe we will whisper a word in some one's ear in Turkish intelligence you will cool your heels in prison for suspected acts of terrorism.
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Welcome to Germany in the twenty-first century as depicted by John Le Carre in A Most Wanted Man, being released on October 2/2008 by Penguin Canada. It's a country as dominated by paranoia, rumour, and heresy as the United States, at least among those who claim responsibility for protecting its citizens from the dangers of a big bad world. When it was revealed that three of those involved with the September 11th attacks were from Hamburg, their focus turned on the enemy within.

In the good old days of intelligence, at least according to Gunther Bachmann head of the Foreign Acquisition Unit of the Hamburg branch of the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, or the domestic intelligence unit, one used to have agents in the field. Ideally your agents were individuals from the other side who you had, by what ever means at your disposal, turned to spy on themselves. However, when America entered the game with its War On Terror, all bets were off and the focus was on results not information. Eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth no matter what the cost to future investment in preventing such incidents from occurring.

So when the stateless and homeless Russian speaking Chechnyan named Issa Karpov appears on the streets of Hamburg, Bachmann knows what he sees as an opportunity for a double agent, others, will see as a chance for an arrest to make it look like they are doing something. If he wants to win his way he must ensure that Issa is pushed in the right direction, and for that Gunther needs the help of the two people who will be least inclined to do anything of the sort.

Annabelle Richter is a young lawyer working for an agency that does its best to prevent people from being deported back to whatever prison cell they escaped from before landing in Germany as refugees. It's her job to try and keep Issa from being thrown on the first plane to Russia, as he has definitely entered the country illegally. Not even the most liberal of judges thinks well of being smuggled into Hamburg via a cargo container on a freighter originally bound for Copenhagen, and bribing a truck driver with Russian Mafia money to finish your journey.

It's the Mafia money that brings Bachmann's third piece onto the board, Tommy Brue, proprietor of a privately owned British family bank headquartered in Hamburg, Brue Freres. It turns out that Tommy's esteemed papa, at the behest of British intelligence back in the waning days of the cold war, had established private accounts for high ranking Russian officers to launder their ill gotten gains from running heroin, girls, and whatever. So little Issa, devout Muslim, is the bastard child and only heir of one Colonel Karpov who had settled sizeable sums of money in Tommy's bank in the good old days, and has now come to claim his inheritance - sort of.
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Being a good Muslim Issa wants nothing to do with the wages of sin that his depraved father earned. He is willing to concede that if he wants to fulfill his desire of becoming a doctor he needs to stay in Germany and have the wherewith all to attend medical school. The rest of the money though must be donated to Muslim charities devoted to doing good works with special attention given to his half brothers and sisters in Chechnya. Gunther has just the person in mind to be the one to be the recipient of Issa's largeness, and if all goes according to play, the good and moderate Muslim, Dr. Abdullah, will distribute the money. Ninety-five percent will go to legitimate charities, but the five per cent that ends up in terrorist hands will provide the leverage he requires to turn Abdullah into the double agent who will provide Germany with advance warning of any and all future plots.

For those not used to a John Le Carre novel it may come as something of a shock to read an espionage novel flagrantly critical of intelligence services the world over. Although we find ourselves cheering on Gunther Bachmann as he struggles to sell his plan to his bosses and out manoeuvre not only the American and British intelligence services that want a piece of the action, but rival departments in Germany's intelligence service, it's only because he's the lessor of all the evils involved. Issa's a terrorist says one, he's a hapless fool replies Gunther. Lock him and Dr. Abdullah up under the lights and see what happens say the police. Run Abdullah as a double agent and we will have all the answers you want and more says Gunther.

But Gunther has no qualms about using Tommy and Annabelle to push Issa, and promises them anything they want even if he doubts that his promises are any good. If there are any innocents in this book, Tommy and Annabelle are them, but they are both turned into double agents against themselves and must figure out how to ensure they don't betray Issa into the bargain. As they deal with the morality of their choices, and their limited options, they are forced to look deeper into themselves then ever before in their lifetimes. Le Carre has done his usual masterful job of creating characters who have spent their lives hiding behind carefully constructed public faces and are finally forced to deal with the cracking of their facade.

Le Carre carefully weaves the various strands of the story into a pattern that gradually reveals itself over the course of the book. While the conclusion is painfully obvious to all, except maybe Tommy and Annabelle who cling to the hope of the honest that others will stand by their words, the build up to the inevitable is handled masterfully. Nobody can write the double speak, triple speak, of the intelligence community like Le Carre, and A Most Wanted Man is another example of the master at work. We gasp in appalled disbelief as we hear scenes we've already witnessed mis-interpreted in order to suit the needs of an observer's agenda. People's lives are destroyed without their knowledge by the words of paid informants who repeat third hand rumours as facts.

It's not the guilty who suffer in this brave new world of international co-operation in the war on terror, but those who have done nothing wrong. Le Carre makes our worst fears about the excesses of the intelligence community come to life without hyperbole or melodrama. There is something quite terrifying how everything happens in so matter a fact and that everyone takes it for granted that there is no other way to behave and that their actions are absolutely necessary. The Turkish community in Germany may be one of the most established Islamic communities in Europe, but that doesn't prevent them from becoming guilty until proven innocent.

A Most Wanted Man goes on sale October 2nd/08 and can be purchased either directly from Penguin Canada or an on line retailer like Amazon.ca.

September 6, 2008

DVD Review: Workingmen's Death

What exactly is a documentary film anyway? Not that you can tell by what passes for documentary films most of the time now a days, but they are supposed to be impartial filmed records of events. The camera is supposedly a fly on the wall merely observing the action without having or expressing an opinion, allowing the audience to draw their own conclusions. These days it seems that people have started to pervert the form to suit their own purposes. Instead of merely presenting the facts, they start with a premise and then proceed to show the audience a film that will prove it.

It doesn't matter how well intentioned they are, the fact remains that films like Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth or any of Michael Moore's recent presentations are not documentaries. Instead they are film versions of opinion/editorial articles in a newspaper. They are no more documentary movies than any of the so called reality television shows that saturate the air waves these days.

One only needs to see a movie like Michael Glawogger's Workingman's Death, distributed on DVD by Alive Mind Media, to see the difference. Not once in the movie does the director, or anyone else for that matter, attempt to tell the audience what they should think. In fact at no point during the film are we ever directly aware of the film maker's presence save for the fact that somebody must be behind the camera.
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While the title might imply that the film is about health and safety issues on the job, or something along similar lines, the truth is somewhat more obscure. Over the course of two hours the director and his crew take us on a trip around the world to five locations to observe men and women at work. While all the jobs and the environments are different they do share some common characteristics. Everybody involved does manual labour that has a sizeable element of risk and their jobs are not ones that we encounter everyday.

The movie opens in the coal fields of the Ukraine which in the days of the Soviet Union provided the majority of the coal for the nation. Now the mines have been closed, and the former miners laid off, as the majority of the veins are tapped out. Yet as the camera pans across the desolate slag piles and the abandoned pit heads, we see a few small figures moving around. It turns out some of those miners who were laid off are working some of the old veins illegally. The camera follows one group of five men as they worm their way on their bellies into the side of a hill where they carefully chip away at overhanging rock to bring down the coal embedded above them.

"Even a cave in of 10 cm would be the end of us" says one of the miners, "nobody would ever find us under here." In the old days these mines would produce tons of coal, and old Soviet propaganda footage shows pictures of happy singing miners exhorting each other to exceed pit records for the month. Now the five men are happy to pull out a few sacks of coal because, as they put it, it's a matter of survival. In the old days it may have been about meeting the quota for the good of the state, now it's about putting food on the table. The men seem cheerful enough as we watch them use a a hand winch to drag their bags of coal up out of the valley of the mines, but what kind of desperation would drive people to crawl inside a hill on their bellies where the slightest error in judgement would see it's entire weight collapse on them?

Although the men in Indonesia who collect the sulphur from the maw of a volcano are above ground they face danger just as intense as those of their compatriots in the Ukraine. We meet them as they are preparing for the annual ritual of sacrificing a goat to prevent accidents. The workers believe that giving a goat's head to the volcano will prevent them from suffering accidents on the job. We follow them as they begin the climb up the lush mountain side covered with rain forest and watch as the green gradually gives way to rock and steam begins to billow around them.

Stuffing rags in their mouths to cut off the fumes the men descend into the craters where pipes driven into the sides send a steady stream of boiling liquid onto the ground. Here the sulphur formations are chipped away and stashed in wicker baskets that the men will load until full before carrying them back down the mountain. With two baskets strapped to a pole slung over their shoulder, weighing between 150 and two hundred pounds, they trot down the mountains. Not only do they have to worry about slipping on the path and perhaps going over a precipice, they also have to avoid tripping over tourists who have come to see the view and take pictures of the colourful locals who gather the sulphur.

Some of the men exploit this opportunity and take chips of the sulphur and mount them on bases they make from hardening the boiling liquid spilling from the pipes to sell to the tourists. There's a wonderfully incongruous moment when the men are trotting down the mountain fully laden, and coming up the mountain are a group of school children in uniforms singing a song about climbing the mountain. The work day ends for the men with the weighing of their baskets, and the dumping of their contents into a waiting truck.
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There are three more stops along the way on this journey through work sites of the world; an open air slaughter house in Nigeria Africa (don't watch this if you have a weak stomach - I had to skip through it), the graveyard for ocean liners in Pakistan where workers tear apart monstrous rusted hulks with cutting torches and bare hands, and finally steelworkers in China. At each stop on the journey we witness men and women doing jobs that are almost beyond our comprehension because of the conditions they work in and the dangers they face on a daily basis.

In North America workers in manual labour have laws and unions to keep them safe, and ensure that they aren't exploited by their employees. Although, in recent years unions have been made the scapegoats for everything from contract killings to closing factories because of the onerous demands they place on businesses on behalf of their employees. Perhaps it's no coincidence that the same businesses that close their plants in North America and Europe relocate them to some of the countries seen in Workingman's Death. What could be closer to paradise after all for them than no environmental controls and no labour safety laws?

At the beginning of the movie a quote from William Faulkner is splashed across the screen which says something along the lines that nobody can make love, drink, or do any number of enjoyable things for eight hours a day. In fact the only thing that we can do for such an extended period is work. No wonder humans are so mean to each other and others. When you see the conditions these people are working in it's hard not to agree with that sentiment. It's impossible to watch this movie and not wonder about what it does to a person's spirit to have to work under such inhospitable conditions.

Workingman's Death has no voice over telling us what to feel or think as the camera bears mute witness. Of course there is really no need as the images speak louder than any voice condemning what we are watching could hope to, yet unlike so many of the so-called documentaries of today which want to lead us to a predetermined conclusion, it allows us to think for ourselves. The fact that for the most part the people we see aren't complaining, that the majority of their talk is about life away from the job, or about the best way to accomplish a task, flies in the face of our wanting to be shocked and appalled by what we see.

This is a glimpse into a reality that few of us know anything about, the truly dreadful things that people are willing to accept as the cost of survival. If this movie doesn't make you wonder at what kind of world would demand this sort of payment from people in return for giving them the barest essential required for survival, I don't think anything ever will.

August 21, 2008

Book Review: Lines From A Mined MInd: The Words Of John Trudell By John Trudell

What do you see when you look out your door? Do you see a street in a neighbourhood with cars, roads, houses, shops, apartments, and people going about their business? Or do you see occupied territory full of things that don't belong, cluttering up the landscape and despoiling the environment? Two people can look at the same thing and see two completely different things, it all depends on your perspective. One person's normalcy is another person's hell.

Look at what we accept normal: famine, war, pestilence, and death. The four horsemen of the apocalypse have been among us for centuries but we've been too blind to see them. What would happen if the apocalypse came and nobody noticed? Guess what - it's happening everyday and you haven't noticed yet. What? You don't believe me do you - you think I'm full of shit and crazy don't you? According to our society the viewpoint I've just expressed is crazy and full of shit because it doesn't accept the agreed upon version, or vision, or normalcy.

If you're going to read John Trudell's book of poetry and song lyrics, Lines From A Mined Mind: The Words Of John Trudell, published by Fulcrum Books, you better be prepared to have your preconceived notions of how the world works challenged. First of all he has spent the past forty years as a resistance fighter on behalf of his people, the Santee Sioux, and the authority you accept as a government are in his eyes an occupying power. It was from his great-grandparents that we stole the land on which we have built our neighbourhoods, and against whom our governments conducted a campaign of genocide in order to deal with the "Indian Problem". A history like that is enough to give anybody a jaundiced eye when it comes to looking at the world around you, but Trudell has also suffered horrible personal tragedy.
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He was a spokesperson for the all tribes occupation of Alcatraz Island by Native Americans that lasted from 1969 to 1971 and subsequently joined the American Indian Movement (AIM). He was chairman of AIM from 1973-79, but following a mysterious house fire that killed his wife, children and mother in law he resigned. To this day the cause of the fire has never been discovered, but considering his position, and the animosity that surrounded AIM in those days (and that continues to this day) there will always remain the distinct possibility that the fire was set deliberately. It was after that Trudell began writing, and since 1983 he has released eleven recordings of his music, and toured around North America performing and giving readings of his work.

Lines From A Mined Mind is the first time an exhaustive collection of his writing has been gathered into one publication. For those of you not familiar with Trudell's work, he primarily wrote blues, and blues based rock and roll, but more importantly his lyrics dealt with issues that barely anybody was, or is, singing about. It's not only that he wrote about issues affecting Native Americans, but he also wrote about the effect the world we live in has on a human being's spirit; how we have allowed ourselves to be shaped and moulded to such an extent that we no longer notice that we are being manipulated.

In his introduction, titled "From Somewhere Inside My Head" Trudell outlines the precept behind "Mined Mind". "Industrial tech no logic civilization is the mining process/The intelligence of each arriving human generation/Is programmed to perceive the reality that meets the needs/Of the industrial society each human generation arrives in/The human beings are individually and collectively mined". Society conditions so that we can be of most use to it, but of course as with every industrial operation there is waste product. In our case that ends up being "the fears doubts and insecurity/That affects the human beings perceptional reality in such a way/The human being becomes separated from the being at the expense of being/Resulting in human beings viewing life through their fears and inabilities."

Now, although Trudell has made it cleat that this is how he views the way the world works, he doesn't lay any claims to being superior to the rest of us because of this belief. This is just the backdrop against which all of our struggles to be true to ourselves are played out against. In his poems and song lyrics throughout the book he talks about his struggles to overcome those obstacles. Of course his path is made even more complicated by the fact that he is also a member of a group of people considered to be a conquered race by the majority of our society. For most of his life the government that supposedly is there to protect and serve him, has done its best to deny him his rights as a human being.

What's really wonderful about his poems/lyrics is that they don't just complain about something, or sound like the usual victim's lament. He demands that his readers think about things and poses questions that are designed to try and make you see how his world view came about. In the poem "To God" he ask a few questions about some things that he's been finding confusing "About these Christians/they claim to be from your nation/but man you should see the things they do/all the while blaming it on you". The poem then lists a litany of offences that have been carried out in God's name and then continues "We do not mean to be disrespectful...our people have their own ways/we never even heard of you until not long ago/Your representatives spoke magnificent things of you which we were willing to believe/But from the way they acted/We know you and we were being deceived".

Naturally, as you would expect from a man who has fought for the rights of his people for forty years there are quite a few political poems and songs. However he is more than a one issue person, and writes about everything. From the joy children can bring, our responsibilities to each other as human beings, spirituality, and the relationship between men and women. In fact some of the poems he's written about men and women are the most honest I've read by a man about that subject.

In "Shadow Over Sisterland" he has written probably the strongest denunciation of men's mistreatment of women since John Lennon's "Women Is The Nigger Of The World". "There's a shadow over sisterland/With a Smith & Thomas/Pointed at her head.../Money and authority/Have their own way of talking/...Tethers of chains/Tethers of jewels/Economic bondage/Runs by those rules/". Everything about our society; religion, laws, and even the way the economy runs are geared towards keeping men dominant over women. When you start to consider some of the more regressive laws that have been passed in recent years, ones that have resulted in women going to jail for refusing to have caesarian sections during childbirth, you realize that you might not like the picture he's painting, but that doesn't stop it from being true.

John Trudell is an articulate and intelligent poet and lyricist whose words might confound you because they challenge your vision of the world. You might not like his perspective, and there's a good chance you won't agree with it, yet it you won't be able to deny his sincerity. Because it dares you to look at our society through the eyes of those whose backs its been built on, it's not a pretty picture, but it's a lot more realistic than anything you'll read or see for years to come. For as he makes clear, whether we know it or not, we're all victims of the same machinations.

August 13, 2008

HIV/AIDS: Sex Trade Workers, American Blacks, And A New President For AIDS International

Well the 17th International Conference on AIDS wrapped up in Mexico City over the weekend and despite being attended by over 22,000 delegates from more then 170 countries, not much of anything happened or was said that hasn't been said or done before. In fact aside from the appointment of a slightly controversial figure as the new president of AIDS International, the only event of any real importance during the Conference was a plenary session featuring a representative of an Argentine Sex Workers association as it marked the first time that anybody from the industry was given standing at the conference. In fact it was so inconsequential an event that the biggest news of the week regarding the disease actually took place outside of the Conference with the release of "Left Behind" a report from Black AIDS Institute on the impact of the disease on their community.

Julio Montaner of British Columbia, and the director of the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS was confirmed as the new president of the International AIDS Society at the end of last week's conference. He brings not only a wealth of experience to the job but an outspokenness that's seemed to be sorely lacking amongst AIDS bureaucrats for too long. Dr. Montaner came to Canada in 1981 after graduating from medical school in Argentina, and began working at St. Paul's Hospital in Vancouver, British Columbia. As well as his residency he also began a research project involving the then obscure disease known as pneumocystis carinii pneumonia, which we now know as AIDS.

It was Dr Montaner who started treating the disease with corticosteriods, worked on the first clinical trials for zidovudine (AZT) that was standard treatment for HIV/AIDS for over a decade, and helped pioneer the use of antiretrovirals, the drug cocktails that keep people with the disease alive far longer today then anything else has yet. He also has led the way in making the B.C. Centre an international leader in the field of HIV/AIDS, and making St. Paul's Hospital one of the best treatment sites in the world. He's also a very strong advocate in support of Vancouver's safe injection facility for intravenous drug users, Insite.

His support of Insite, and his general outspokenness, has drawn the ire of Canada's conservative federal government. Federal Minister of Health Tony Clement has even gone on record as criticizing Dr. Montaner by saying he and his colleagues have crossed the line from being scientists to being advocates and activists.

Dr. Montaner's response to his critics was best summed up by his speech at the closing ceremonies of last week's conference where he said that the world's failure to work more resolutely to combat the global epidemic is tantamount to a crime against humanity. He continued by saying we know what causes it, we know how to prevent it spreading, and we've even learned about ways to treat it, so what really matters now is taking action. In others words it's time to shit or get off the pot folks and take some direct action by doing what we know works in order to keep people alive and prevent the disease from spreading any further.

One of most common ways the disease is spread in many parts of the words is through the men, women, and transgendered folk who make their livings selling sex. Up until now nobody has thought to include a representative of the industry at these conferences, which hasn't stopped many organizations from deciding they know what's best for them and often causing more harm then good. This year Elana Reynaga, executive director of the Argentine Association of Female Sex Workers (AMMAR) didn't mince any words when addressing the conference about the current situation facing people around the world in the sex trade.

While her speech was peppered with statistics about the rate of infection among sex workers, its primary focus was to stress the following concerns: people working in the industry be recognized as being legitimately employed, workers be involved in the organization of any programming that impacts on their lives, and that there be an immediate ceasing of passing moral judgements on them as individuals and the nature of their work. In denying them their legitimacy and trying to forcibly "rehabilitate" sex workers, agencies like the International Justice Mission (IJM) who are funded to the tune of millions of dollars by the Gates Foundation to prevent the spread AIDS by fighting prostitution, cause more harm than good.

By coercing governments to crack down on prostitution, they get the American government to threaten to remove states from favoured nation status when it comes to receiving foreign aid, the sex trade is forced underground and the chances of infection increases exponentially. On the other hand, Ms. Reynaga sites the example of Brazil where the government collaborated with the Brazilian Network of Prostitutes on a public health and rights campaign called "No shame girl you're a professional" and the Ministry of Labour now includes prostitute among the list of recognized professions as part of their efforts to combat the spread of the disease.

The continued stigmatization of sex workers and the denial of their rights as individuals places them more at risk then anything else. In some countries sex workers aren't even able to carry condoms as police will use them as evidence of prostitution and threaten to arrest them. As Ms. Reynaga so bluntly puts it, sex workers are dying because of a lack of health care, a lack of condoms, a lack of treatment, and a lack of rights - not because of a lack of sewing machines. (IJM suggests that sex trade workers be taught how to sew so they can get "decent" employment - of course well paying sewing jobs are just lying around waiting to be snapped up aren't they)

Sex trade workers have always been one of the groups at highest risk when it comes to HIV/AIDS, yet instead of helping them organize in their own defence, money is actually being spent on programs that puts them at more risk than if we were to do nothing. Isn't it time people grew up about sex and accepted the fact that people are always going to be willing to buy and sell sex? Instead of trying to pretend it doesn't exist, or pretend we can make it go away, why not ensure that the people involved are as safe as possible by helping them help themselves?

While sex trade workers finally getting a public voice and International Aids selecting a president who will hopefully push for more direct action on fronts that are actually effective is a good sign, the biggest news of the week concerning AIDS didn't come out of the conference in Mexico City, but from north of the border. The Black AIDS Institute's report "Left Behind" revealed statistics that make it obvious that the disease has reached epidemic proportions in Black America. While African Americans only make up thirteen percent of the total American population, 50% of Americans with HIV are African American.

In every single risk group black people are more far more likely to be infected than whites: gay men who are black are twice as likely to be infected as white, more then half of infected drug injectors are black, black people are more likely to be diagnosed late then white which contributes to a much higher death rate - in New York City a black man with HIV is twice as likely to die as a white man with HIV. With black men seven times more likely to be imprisoned than white men, and the percentage of prisoners in the US with access to condoms hovering at 1% of the inmate population, jail represents another real risk to black men for infection.

Unlike other "countries" Black America not only sees a high infection rate among it's at risk population - men who have sex with men and intravenous drug users - it also is showing signs of having symptoms of a generalized epidemic - where the whole population is at risk. While only a quarter of black men have been infected by unprotected sex with women, three quarters of black women have been infected by unprotected sex with men. With black women reporting having multiple partners in a limited time, the chances of the disease spreading among the general population increase dramatically. The report warns of this danger and admonishes black men to be more responsible when it comes to sex.

What must be the bitterest pill for the authors of this report to swallow is the fact that prevention accounts for only four cents out of every dollar spent on domestic programs for HIV/AIDS. Even more ironic is the fact that although the US government insists that countries it funds help combat AIDS have a strategy in place before they receive a penny of aid, America has no strategic plan to combat its own epidemic. It seems like the government of the United States would like its citizens to believe that HIV/AIDS is only something that happens to other people, but not to Americans.

When you combine the statistics reported in "Left Behind" with the disturbing revelation that the U.S. Centre For Disease Control and Prevention has been low balling it's estimated number of new cases of HIV by around 16,300 annually for the last ten years, it starts to look like government has been ignoring the problem in the hopes it will go away. Even worse it looks like they have been cynically hoping as long as they can keep it contained to minority populations, not enough people will care for them to have to do anything about it.

Although if you take these figures in the context of the current American government's policy of allowing their moral agenda to trump actually achieving results with regards to HIV/AIDS funding in foreign countries, their attitude on the home front isn't very surprising. Would you expect them to fund money to hand out condoms or clean needles to prostitutes or intravenous drug users in the United States when they won't over seas? "Left Behind" concludes by saying that as long as we continue to allow political or moral issues to dictate the way we deal with HIV/AIDS people will continue to die.

The numbers don't lie no matter what country or continent you live on. Every year more people are still being infected with HIV/AIDS then are receiving treatment which means not enough is being done to actually prevent the spread of infection. While there was some sign of movement towards a more accepting attitude with regards to sex and the disease at the most recent International Aids conference, and a renewed call for action over talk, we have delayed taking action for so long that it could take decades before we are able to climb out of the hole we've dug for ourselves.

August 12, 2008

Book Review: Unjust Justice Chantal Delsol

It's amazing how there are words whose definition everybody can agree on, but they can still mean different things to different people. While that may sound contradictory, when a word is used to express a concept we might all agree as to its ideal but just as easily have vastly divergent opinions on what it entails. Depending on our social, political, ethnic, and/or cultural backgrounds and upbringings each of us has a perspective that will colour the way we conceptualize an idea - or see an ideal. While the dictionary may say that word justice means the quality of being fair and reasonable and the administration of the law or authority to ensure that quality is maintained, what defines fair and reasonable?

In Canada and the United States we have a code of civil conduct that is based on what our society has decided is morally acceptable.While there is an overall concordance about justice, even within our society there are significant disagreements on its application and absolute definition that stem from differing views on what exactly is morally acceptable. Yet in spite of our inability to define justice for ourselves, it doesn't seem to stop any of us from demanding the imposition of justice in other jurisdictions.

Whether it's George Bush justifying invading Iraq in order to bring Saddam Hussien to justice, demands for justice being made on behalf of the Dali Lama, or justice for Palestinians, it all amounts to the same thing. Us telling them what to do based on our morality. It doesn't matter what your political or religious persuasion is, you're going to be basing your definition of justice on your own version of morality and imposing it on someone else. Think of how ridiculous you'd think it is for a devout Islamic Cleric to pass judgement on your way of life, and you might begin to get the idea of how you look to someone in that part of the world when you tell them what to do.
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In her book, Unjust Justice, published in English for the first time by ISI Books, French political philosopher Chantal Delsol postulates that the desire to impose one person's version of justice across the board as a response to various crimes against humanity that have occurred and that might still occur, is as potentially dangerous as the original crime. In clear and concise language she develops her argument through references to social political philosophies of the past millennium, and an examination of the past hundred years of history.

While she makes no bones about her anger at Western Europe's turning a blind eye to the crimes of the former Soviet Union, and is somewhat snide when referring to what she calls progressives, she manages to present her case without being overtly political. In fact one of the most appealing aspects of this book as far as I'm concerned is that there's plenty in it that is bound to piss off people at both ends of the political spectrum. I don't say that just because it appeals to my perverse nature either, but as a sign of her integrity as a thinker. Not once did I find her trying to force her arguments so that they could better accommodate a particular dogma or ideology, indeed she is firm in her warnings about the dangers of dogma when it comes to the application of justice.

As a culture the West has a long and depressing history of cultural imperialism dating back to our earliest recorded histories. Alexander the Great, the Roman Empire, and then the Christian Church have all taken their turns at imposing their morality by whatever means necessary throughout history. Ruled by the prevailing dogma of their time, emissaries of these empires sought to create a universal code of conduct, or morality, by which justice could be defined. If it meant exterminating all those who objected, well they were only doing what was necessary to make the world a better place.

While there have been philosophers over the years who have argued against this singular view of the world, and Ms Delsol cites both Immanuel Kant and Charles de Secondat Montesquieu as examples of a more enlightened viewpoint, Unjust Justice argues that our attitudes haven't really changed. While we might believe that the desire to bring the perpetrators of war crimes committed over the past sixty-five years to trial justification for the creation of a tribunal to try those cases, the very act of doing so implies the assumption of a moral authority on par with that of the Catholic church during the Inquisition.

Chantal Delsol argues that the only way a court like this can work are in cases like the Nuremburg Trials, the judging of Nazi Party officials for complicity in the Holocaust and other war crimes, when the people on trial were guilty of contravening the pre-existing laws of their own country, meaning there is a proper context within which they can be tried. Otherwise it becomes a case of arbitrarily creating a frame work within which to hold them accountable. The only grounds we have to justify trying a Serbian leader for crime against humanity and not an American leader for ordering the bombing of Iraqi hospitals, or a Russian for bombing Chechnya is because the former lost and the latter won. While that might play well on the home front, it isn't much of a foundation for a world court now is it?

While Unjust Justice is not an easy read, it is thankfully free of the usual academic jargon that clutters up many philosophical texts. Ideas are examined in depth but never beaten to death so we are given sufficient proof in support of Ms. Delsol's theories to make them plausible, without ever feeling like she's belaboured the point. Kudos must also be give to the translator of the text, Paul Seaton, for ensuring that the clarity of the original text is maintained for its new readership. It's not often that you find ideas of this quality, let alone this important, presented in a manner this accessible. If you care about the nature of justice you really should read this book. At the very least it will make you think, and hopefully it might also get you questioning some of the easy answers other people try to pass off as ideas.

Obviously I've only barely touched the surface of the material covered by Ms. Delsol. What it comes down to is that justice, or the application of it anyway, is as individual as each society. One only needs to look at the differences between two countries as similar as Canada and the United States as to what passes for justice in their legal systems to see that. In Unjust Justice Chantel Delsol issues a warning about the dangers of assuming any of us know what's best for anyone else that we would be wise to heed. In our eagerness to see justice done we run the serious risk of committing a serious injustice.

August 7, 2008

New Words To An Old Refrain At The 17th International Aids Conference

The 17th International AIDS Conference, taking place this year in Mexico City, kicked off on Sunday August 03/08 with the President of Mexico, Felipe Calderon Hinojosa, officially welcoming around 22,000 delegates from 175 countries to the gathering. While Mr. Hinojosa's appearance makes a change from 2006 when Canadian Prime Minister Steven Harper refused to attend the Conference taking place in Canada, it looks like nothing much else has changed from two years ago when it comes to actually dealing with the disease.

Of the 22,000 or so people who have shown up in Mexico City, one has to hope that they are all aware that HIV/AIDS can only be spread by an infected person sharing bodily fluids with an uninfected person. So in order to prevent the spread of the disease all you have to do is reduce the chances of that happening. Statistical evidence gathered over the past twenty years by organization such as UNAIDS and the World Health Organization (WHO) shows that making condoms available for sexually active people and supplying clean needles to intravenous drug users are the two most effective ways of preventing the disease from spreading as those are the two most common ways the disease is spread. (Please see Elizabeth Pisani's reference page at her Wisdom Of Whores web site for support documentation and statistics)

However, judging by the way things are shaping up at the conference people are either reluctant to talk about the issue of prevention directly or even worse oppose the means of ensuring delivery of preventative measures. For example instead of talking about condoms and needles, the latest refrain is "prevention by treatment". While it is of course inexcusable that only four million out of the thirty-three million people world-wide currently estimated to be infected with the disease are receiving treatment, arguing that ensuring everybody infected is treated will prevent the disease from spreading is a fallacy.

Although it is true that once a person is on the anti-viral medication used to prolong an AIDS sufferer's life expectancy they are less infectious, they can still transmit the disease and need to take the same precautions that anyone else does. The problem is that statistics are showing that once people start taking the medication they believe they aren't a threat anymore and stop taking preventative measures.

Other problems with this approach is what do you do about people who are infected but don't know it? If you don't know you're infected with the virus you're not liable to be taking the anti-viral cocktail of medications required to fight the HIV/AIDS virus are you? Now consider that in light of recent statistics that show 1 in 5 of homosexual men in New York City who test positive for the virus already have full blown AIDS. Considering how long it takes to develop full blown AIDS after you have contracted the HIV virus - sometimes ten years - it means these men have been infectious for that length of time without knowing.

What makes that statistic truly alarming is that the gay community of New York City has been one of the most effective and organized in combating the disease and educating its membership about the dangers of unprotected sex and the importance of early testing. If those conditions exist among as an aware and active community as that, you have to wonder how many other people around the world are walking around un-diagnosed. The normally reliable U.S. Centres For Disease Control and Prevention just announced that the figures they released detailing the number of new cases of HIV in the United States for 2006 was off by 16,300 as there were actually 56,300 not the 40,000 they had originally estimated.

What the hell's the good of using treatment as prevention if we don't even know how many people are even sick, or if they've been sick for any number of years before they even obtain treatment? Anyway the whole idea smacks of closing the gate after the horse has escaped the barn. If you can prevent someone from getting the disease they aren't even going to need treatment. It seems to me the folk recommending this new plan really need to remember the old adage of an ounce of prevention equalling a pound of cure. Especially since we don't even have a cure, only treatment that will prolong life - not save it.

Of course the real problem isn't the people who are pushing this new strategy, the problem is the people they are trying to do the end run around. The biggest problem faced by people working in the HIV/AIDS field has been having to work around politicians and religious leaders who still live in caves and wont fund anything to do with needles, condoms, sex trade workers, or homosexuals. In order to secure funding they have had to convince these folk that "innocents" (women, children, and straight men) are at risk and talk about everything but the people most at risk and the ways that can best prevent the spread of the disease.

Just look at what happened yesterday, at what is supposedly a conference on how to fight HIV/AIDS. Canada's idiot Health Minister, <Tony Clement, gave a press conference attacking Insite, the safe injection site for intravenous drug users in Vancouver British Columbia. He chose to do this in spite of the fact that it completely disregarded the information released by WHO spelling out how effective such sites are for harm reduction, specifically the spread of disease. His government's reason for not liking Insite or any other safe injection site? They can't arrest the people who use them.

Is it any wonder that HIV/AIDS new infection rate still outstrips the number of people receiving treatment by a ration of 5:2 (according to the latest statistics from UNAIDS, for every two people receiving treatment there are five new cases of HIV/AIDS reported) when we're dealing with people with this type of attitude? For the longest time people have even tried to avoid saying which groups are most at risk from the disease for fear of marginalizing them even more than they are already.

Thankfully people like Stephen Lewis, former UN special envoy to Africa for HIV/AIDS, and Joe Amon, health and human-rights director at Human Rights Watch, are at least demanding that the rights of those most at risk must be protected and steps taken to ensure their access to treatment. It's a small step, but at least it's a step in the right direction. Still it's a sad state of affairs when at a conference dealing with a disease for which there is no cure and no vaccine, they can't talk about the best ways of preventing its spread in the opening addresses.

I know it's early days yet and the 17th International AIDS Conference still has a way to go, but from the looks of things we're no closer to dealing with the reality of HIV/AIDS now then we were when the first conference was held. As long as we continue to allow a moral code based on bigotry and hatred to dictate health care people will continue to die and the disease will continue to spread.

August 1, 2008

New HIV/AIDS Figures - Same Old Story

Well, for a change there's a little bit of good news in the world. The 2008 Report on the Global AIDS Epidemic by the United Nations agency responsible for AIDS, UNAIDS, shows that efforts around the world are finally starting to pay off as there are declines in both the numbers of people being infected with, and dying from the virus. On top of that the number of people living with AIDS has stabilized and more people are receiving proper treatment as well.

While Paul De Lay, director of evidence, monitoring, and policy at UNAIDS, said that the increased efforts in teaching people prevention methods are beginning to make a difference, as shown by the drop in the infection rate, he also cautioned that the epidemic was not over in any part of the world. The number of cases may be stabilizing - i.e. not showing any increases - but that number is still very high, and there are parts of the world and marginalized communities where the virus continues to run rampant. As an example he sited the figure that two of every three new cases of AIDS occurs in the Sub Saharan region of Africa.

While some of the figures the report sites show improvement on various fronts: actual number of people living with HIV/AIDS 33 million, new infections down to 2.7 million from 3 million in 2001, total deaths down from 2.2 million in 2005 to 2 million in 2007, number of children infected down from 410,000 to 370,000 in the same period, and the percentage of infected pregnant woman receiving anti-viral drugs has risen to 33% from 14% in those two years, they also show just how far we have to go in order to bring the disease under control. With a new infection rate of 2.7 million people each year and no cure in sight for the disease, it means that any let up in prevention efforts could see the numbers spiralling upwards again.

An example of the breadth of the problem that's still being faced can be found in another figure quoted by Dr. De Lay: for every two new people receiving treatment in the world there are still five new people contracting the disease. Treatment is very expensive, and according to Purmina Mane, deputy executive director of the United Nations Population Fund, the cost to supply everybody currently infected with the disease would be 11 billion dollars American annually. That's a cost that will continue to rise substantially of course, unless something is done to reduce the annual infection rate.

While it's possible that the United Nations might reach the target date of 2015 for achieving an actual decline in the numbers of people living with HIV/AIDS, it's goal of universal access to treatment, prevention, care, and support for all those living with the disease by 2010 is not looking good. That makes me wonder how much of the first goal will be met by people currently infected dying, and how much by any actual reduction in new cases of infection? If we can't provide universal prevention, how can we possibly stop the spread of the disease?

The problem is that universal prevention isn't going to happen given the current political climate in the world. The simple facts of life when it comes to HIV/AIDS is that nothing has changed since the 1980's and in order for the virus to spread you need an infected person, an uninfected person and an exchange of bodily fluids between the two of them. The most common ways that happens is through unprotected sex and intravenous drug users sharing needles. Theoretically it should be easy to prevent the disease from spreading, simply ensure that neither of those events occur.

Unfortunately there is quite a bit of disagreement on how you prevent unprotected sex or intravenous drug use. According to the Catholic Church, the current American administration, certain conservative Christian groups, and various Muslim sects the use of condoms is worse than spreading disease, so they recommend abstinence. Actually, they insist on it, at least as much as they are able to. In the case of the current American administration that includes refusing to fund any program that advocates condom use anywhere in the world.

While some countries have remarkably sane attitudes towards ensuring a supply of clean needles for intravenous drug users, Iran has needle dispensers on the streets of Teheran and a needle exchange program in its prison system, others are like Canada and the United States where needle exchanges are barely tolerated and they refuse to admit that drug use even exists in prison. Of course the prisoners don't have sex either, so there's no point in supplying them with condoms.

The solution offered by these folk is for everybody to abstain from pre-marital sex and using intravenous drugs. While the second suggestion is noble, and a good idea, the former is utterly ridiculous, and both deny reality. In the United States itself only twenty-seven per-cent of those people who sign so-called abstinence oaths promising to refrain from pre-marital sex, actually follow through on their vows. Even more unfortunate is the fact that the majority of those who succumb to temptation don't use a condom, so not only risk contracting a sexually transmitted infection, but the other, more traditional, side affect of sex, pregnancy. If the programs success rate is that poor in the U.S. among those who are supposedly willing, what does that say about it's validity as a means of prevention elsewhere?

I started off by saying that there was some good news for a change, and have pretty much gone on to refute that statement with the balance of the article. However, any signs that inroads are being made against the spread of HIV/AIDS are positive and a reason for hope. The problem is that the position is still very precarious and it's not being helped by those who willing to risk other people's lives by imposing their morality on the world. If you don't want to use a condom when you have sex that's your choice, but don't force somebody else to risk their life for a little pleasure.

As former UNAIDS employee Elizabeth Pisani says commenting on the report at her "Wisdom Of Whores" web site, "...somewhere between two and three million people are still getting infected every year with a completely preventable disease that we are spending over 10 billion dollars a year on. That’s a scandal that no amount of report-writing has been able to change."

We've known for close to thirty years how to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS yet the disease was allowed to reach epidemic proportions because of so called moral issues and those attitudes haven't changed. The miracle is that there has been any decline in the number of deaths and infections - thank God for the immoral people out there passing out condoms and making a difference.

July 25, 2008

Book Review: The Peacekeeper Shabbir Ahsan

I'm sure for most people in the West Bangladesh is only known as the country the late George Harrison once did a benefit concert for. The reality is it once was part of the Indian province Bengal. When the region gained it's independence from Britain in 1947, and the subcontinent was partitioned into India and Pakistan, the province of Bengal was divided between the two new countries. West, Hindu Bengal became part of India and east, Muslim Bengal became East Pakistan.

In spite of the fact that the former Bengal province was the more densely populated half of the country, they were continually ignored by the central government in the west and independence movements were formed as early as the 1950's. In 1971, with the support of the Indian army, Bangladesh fought a successful war of independence. Just as the country was finding its feet, the famine of 1973-74 almost destroyed them. It says amazing things about the resilience of its people that the country of Bangladesh was able to recover from both the war of liberation and the famine and in the ensuing years become one of the biggest suppliers of personnel to United Nations (UN) Peacekeeping missions. One of the permanent mission destinations for Bangladeshi troop since the mid 1990's has been the Democratic Republic Of Congo.

While there are many countries in Africa that still bear the scars of colonial times, the area that was formally the Belgian Congo is not only scarred but still bleeding heavily. The Democratic Republic Of Congo (formerly Zaire) is one of the largest countries in Africa and one of it's poorest. In 1965 - four years after independence - an American supported coup led to the installation of a military dictatorship under the rule of Joseph-Desire Mobutu. For the next thirty years or so Mobutu proceeding to drain the country dry, stealing what's thought to be close to four billion dollars from the national treasury (an amount close to the size of the country's national debt), so that when he finally left in 1997 he left behind one of the poorest countries in Africa, with the least amounts of infrastructure, and the violence that always seems to accompany desperation.
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As a major in the Bangladeshi army who has served a rotation in the Democratic Republic with the UN forces, author Shabbir Ahsan is uniquely positioned to write about the experience of being a peacekeeper in that country, and in his first novel, The Peace Keeper, he presents a fact-based, fictionalized account, of a Bangladeshi officer's year in the Democratic Republic Of Congo.

Major Samir Iqbal is a veteran of the Bangladeshi armed forces working in the Foreign Affairs Branch of the Armed Forces responsible for the co-ordination of all overseas assignments. So he's the one who receives the fax reporting the deaths of fifteen Bangladeshi service men in a plane crash on take-off. In the tight-knit community of an army any death is devastating, and fifteen is horrific; never before has the army lost that many men at once since they began supplying peacekeepers. For Samir and his wife the news is particularly upsetting as one of the men was a close personal friend.

While Samir had been eagerly awaiting news of his own acceptance for overseas placement in Africa, receiving the notice that he has been assigned as a military observer in the Congo for a year on the same day as the plane crash isn't great timing when it comes to his wife's peace of mind. The fact that military observers are not allowed to even carry weapons and are placed in volatile situations like negotiating between warring factions or reporting on the status of a cease-fire, is not information that is bound to ease her fears.

We follow Samir from the day he first receives the notification of his new assignment through his year of living in the Congo to the day of his return home. As our narrator and guide he takes us on a journey that plumbs the depths of human depravity, reveals the strength of the human spirit, and celebrates the simple pleasure of friendship and humour. The fact that all of this takes place in what amounts to basically a war zone makes it all the more amazing. Ahsan's strength as a writer is such that even when he has Major Iqbal describing the most abhorrent of behaviours, it never feels like for any other purpose than to inform. Where some writers seem to delight in describing violence, in his case you can hear the regret he feels in having to tell us that this type of activity takes place anywhere upon earth.
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The points in the book that are actually the hardest to read are the ones where the threat of violence is in the air. At one point our major is sent into a supposedly quiet area with three other officers to look for a site to set up a team headquarters. Upon their arrival they find that none of the local authorities supposed to assist and protect them are willing to do anything other than tell them to leave because they can't guarantee their safety. The team literally jumps on the helicopter sent to their rescue ten feet ahead of a mob screaming for their blood, watching and hearing rocks and bottles bounce off their ride as it lifts off with them safely on board.

Thankfully Ahsan balances the moments of terror with equal doses of humour, nearly all of it at the expense of our erstwhile Major Iqbal. Whether he's being duped by a camp servant into cooking and cleaning for him, or being swarmed by a women's soccer team for scoring the winning goal, he handles it all with equal good grace. He's a wonderfully human character who in spite of the horror and nerve wracking experiences, is still able to find positive things in the world around him. He's never unrealistic, he's heard eyewitness accounts of the horrible things people can do to each other after all, but he's also witnessed people with almost nothing extending hospitality to those with nothing as if it were the most natural thing in the world to do, so he retains hope.

The Peacekeeper by Shabbir Ahsan uses actual incidents involving the Bangladeshi army in the Democratic Republic Of The Congo as members of the UN Peacekeeping force stationed there as the framework around which Major Samil Iqbal relates his year's experience as a peacekeeper. By turns heartrending and heart-warming it's probably the best book set in a war zone that you're liable to read in a long time. The irony that one of the poorest nations in the world also supplies one of the largest contingents of peacekeepers to the United Nations isn't something that should be lost on us either. It makes you wonder why if they can find a way to do that - why can't we?

July 9, 2008

Interview: Elizabeth Pisani Author Of The Wisdom Of Whores & HIV/AIDS Advocate

A few months ago I wrote a review of Elizabeth Pisani's book The Wisdom Of Whores which recounted her work combating the AIDS epidemic in South East Asia. In the book she talked candidly about issues that most people are still afraid to speak about openly when it comes to the disease. A great deal of what she talked about is the need to ensure that the world doesn't become complacent when it comes to the issue of AIDS prevention.

As more and more drugs have come along that can extend a person's life once they have contracted the disease, and money is being poured into searching for a vaccine, less and less is being said and done about the nitty gritty of AIDS prevention. Most political and religious leaders would rather talk about how much money they are spending on a vaccine instead of talking about making sure intravenous drug users having clean needles or transgendered prostitutes have condoms.

Even sillier are the ones who start postulating about how things as unrelated as Global Warming, are causing the virus to spread. While there is some truth to the fact that poorer countries are hit harder by AIDS, economic factors are not the major contributor to the spread of the disease that people would like to think. For the disease to be transmitted it still requires an exchange of blood to occur between an infected and an uninfected individual. Unprotected sexual activity and sharing dirty needles are still the two main reasons that the disease is spread.
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Elizabeth Pisani called me from London England on Tuesday July 8th to talk about the Wisdom Of Whores. She had just retuned from a three week tour or the United States promoting the book there. When we had set up the interview she had suggested waiting until after she was done with her book tour of the United States so we could talk about the reactions to the book. Things didn't quite go as planned, as you'll see, and we ended up having a rather free wheeling discussion about the state of HIV/AIDS prevention and policy around the world.

You've just finished an extensive book tour of the U.S. for Wisdom Of Whores, and you're still among the living, but I'm guessing it wasn't without its moments

Well to be honest, there was almost no public reaction at all. (laughs) Which in itself says something. There seems to be a huge amount of reluctance on the part of the media to deal with confrontational issues.

Well what about reviews - the New York Times and the other big papers - nothing?

Nothing - there was only one review that has been published in the mainstream press since the book was released at the beginning of June. That was in the Philadelphia Enquirer, and it was a very positive review too. There has been quite a bit in the blogsphere though, and I had some radio interviews on National Public Radio (NPR), but that was it.

Even in cities like San Francisco, where you'd think they'd notice a book about AIDS, there wasn't anything at all in The Enquirer or any of the papers. I did have a meeting with the head of one of the grass roots organization in San Francisco, and that was good. He and I don't always agree on everything but I have immense respect for the work he and his people have done.

So no, there are no real "Moments" to talk about that happened in any of the public meetings. Interestingly enough though the book is selling better in the States than it is in Britain where I've had all sorts of press. It was strange to go from being in the pages of The Financial Times to nothing - but there it is.

Where I did get some reactions was in the private meetings at places like the World Bank, The Gates Foundation, and USAIDS.

Well that was a question I was going to ask you a bit later on - so I might as well ask it now. What has been the reaction of places like that to the book

I was scheduled to give a sort of brown bag, lunch time talk, with questions and answers at World Bank headquarters in Washington DC. I had been told not to expect many people, maybe ten or fifteen, but it ended up being standing room only - so about sixty people, which was quite wonderful.

What was the subject of the talk?

The interaction between prevention and treatment, and how we in the AIDS profession are still getting it wrong by not focusing our energies where they are truly needed which is on the high risk groups; men who practice anal sex, the sex trade, and intravenous drug users.

I don't get it - way back in the early days anybody I knew who was aware of the disease knew those were the people most at risk, and we also knew how the disease was transmitted - why is it still so hard for people to get that message?

There are really two issues at hand here, one is partially the fault of us in the AIDS industry and the other is the concern over the stigmatization of those in the affected groups. Unfortunately there is a very real concern when it comes to the latter; by saying men who have anal sex, people in the sex trade, and intravenous drug users are the ones most at risk for transmitting the disease you set them up as pariahs. As these are also people who already exist on the margins of most societies, or are a minority already subject to harsh treatment, labelling them most at risk for transmitting the disease increases the chances of them being ostracized.

Knowing full well that politicians weren't going to want to put up money for gays, sex trade workers, and needle users, the threat to people outside the high risk groups was stressed in order to secure any money at all. The trouble is that the money isn't being spent on the areas where it's most needed. It's all very well and good to have programs for people in the low risk groups, but if we don't spend the money on those most at risk what are we really doing to stop the spread of the disease?
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For example in the Bronx, the borough in New York City, they've just announced a program where they are going to test everybody over the age of fifteen for the virus. That includes people who have been widows for twenty years and the celibate - people who are at no risk of getting the disease. We already know who are at most risk, and wouldn't the money be better spent on testing them, providing them with treatment and setting up programs to stop them from spreading the disease?

In New York City one in four of gay men who are coming in to be tested are not only HIV positive but they are already in the throes of full blown AIDS - which means they are waiting for symptoms of the disease to show before they come into get tested and by then they are at the most infectious. There's something seriously wrong with that, and its because we're not doing enough to work on prevention.

In Canada we just had the recent furor over a safe injection facility in Vancouver British Columbia - Insite - that the federal government was going to close, but thankfully a judge in British Columbia ruled they couldn't because it provides a health care service. The attitude from the government was one of - I don't care about junkies

Right and that's the vicious circle people working in the world of AIDS are dealing with. If there was ever an under serviced area in the world right now it would be the East side of Vancouver. I've seen some pretty bad spots in the world and that's just horrible. The people there are trying so hard to do something but they have so little to work with. Insite is only able to cope with 5% of the people injecting on the street.

Here's an irony for you, when the people opposed to Insite found out that figure they tried to make it part of the argument against keeping it open by saying, well they can't be doing much good if they're only servicing five per cent of the population. Of course all that means is they don't have the resources to do any more.

Well you can make statistics say anything can't you?

Oh yes, you can torture numbers to say what you like easily enough, but it doesn't change the reality of the situation. We know that there are only very specific circumstances required for the HIV/AIDS virus to be spread; an infected person, and uninfected person, and an exchange of bodily fluids. So obviously you have to prevent the spread of bodily fluids from the first to the second.

Yet, I was at USAIDS saying just those things while I was in the States and the director says to me: "I never thought of it that way before". Maybe I'm a little too Pollyanna, but I hope that by constantly keeping pressure on the people delivering services that we can at least get them to spend the money in the areas where it's needed. Go ahead and do all your studies and set up your programming with the other groups, because of course its needed, but don't do it at the expense of the people who are at most risk of contracting and spreading the disease. Unfortunately that's the situation we are currently in.

Even before I read your book I had the impression that people are very defensive when it comes to AIDS prevention - and any critical evaluation, no matter how constructive, is treated like an attack. Is this a valid impression and if so how did this fortress mentality come about?

I'd like to say it's not true, but unfortunately it does exist. There are two types of people who get involved in HIV/AIDS work; those who give a shit, and those who are there because that's where the money is. Those of us, like me, who are in because we give a shit want to to believe we know what works. We know the communities we work with and how to best reach individuals within it - who is going to react positively to what incentives to use what prevention methods. I think if we didn't have that belief we wouldn't be able to keep doing what we are doing - you have to have the feeling that you're making a difference otherwise how could you keep on doing it?

The result is we only want to hear good news, we don't want somebody like me coming in from the outside saying well you know this isn't working because of such and such. It's so hard to get funding for programming that you fear that anything negative that comes up will adversely affect the programming you know that is working well, or that you believe should work.

For example I know, I firmly believe that there is a co-relation between preventing the spread of other Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs) and preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS but the data just doesn't add up. No matter how I look at the statistics I can't prove that working on one helps the other - yet I know that it has to be true.

Of course the second group of people, those in it for the money, want to show they are doing a good job so they can keep on getting their funding and have jobs for themselves.

Recently there's been talk by the Canadian government of refocusing the direction of their HIV/AIDS funding away from grassroots organizations towards putting it into research on a vaccine. To be honest I'd never even heard talk of a vaccine before this - how realistic a goal is that?

The vaccine has become the latest pet project, the Gates Foundation has been sinking a lot of money into it. While I wouldn't say we should give up on the vaccine, it's so far been a very disappointing failure. Of course it's very safe politically, because you don't have to say anything about the money being spent on anything controversial like needle exchanges in prisons, but it looks like you're doing something. If I may be so bold, for the amount of money that Canada would be putting up, it wouldn't really accomplish much and would be better off spent elsewhere. Huge amounts of money are already being spent on it by Gates and the World Bank

Yeah well Gates has more money than our GNP, so if he's putting money into it what difference would our few dollars make?

Exactly

How are other countries dealing with the three high risk groups. Especially countries that we in the West might consider resistant to talking about sex and drugs

Well one of the biggest success stories working with the sex trade was in Cambodia, where the government had worked out an arrangement with the brothel owners so that condom use was being promoted among all the workers. Unfortunately the US government, under pressure from the International Justice Mission (IJM), who I call Cops For Christ, threatened to remove Cambodia from their donor list if they didn't crack down on the sex trade in the country.

Cambodia did have a serious problem with child prostitution, that was simply shocking, and that needed to be dealt with, but instead of just targeting those specific cases, the government was forced to close down the whole system. The result was that the all the brothels were raided, the girls were raped and had all their savings and gold stolen from them by the cops, and the trade has been driven underground where there is no government control or regulation. It hasn't stopped the sex trade

(In her book The Wisdom Of Whores, Ms. Pisani goes into details about the events in Cambodia and the problems the IJM create where ever they go. The girls they "rescue" from prostitution have no means of making money and are dumped on local service agencies who don't have the facilities to deal with them. IMJ are despised and distrusted by the local police and the sex workers for making the problem worse not better. The girls are forced to take re-education courses - like sewing - for six months during which time they are not paid. There are many cases of them using ladders and rope made out of their bed sheets to escape the shelters they have been sent to after being rescued. As one prostitute put it to the author "Look, if I could afford to be going to school for six months without pay I wouldn't be selling sex".

The final tally is that by the end of 2005 fewer then 1000 girls had been successfully rescued from a life of prostitution, and the IMJ had received five million dollars from the Gates foundation to fight prostitution and the HIV/AIDS it was supposed to spread. On the other hand the Cambodian government's program had ensured that an estimated 970,00 Cambodians had used condoms when they bought sex by the same date.)

The real big surprise is in Iran, where they have set up needle dispensers on the streets of Teheran so that anybody who needs a clean needle has ready access to them. They also have needle exchanges in prisons there.

It's been reported in the Western media that Iran claims they don't have any homosexuals

Oh, most of the Middle East is still really bad when it comes to the issue of Homosexuality. In fact in Egypt they arrest anyone with HIV/AIDs because they take it as a sign that you're gay, which is illegal. I thought we'd grown up somewhat and were beyond that. It was just as bad in Africa where up until a short while ago in the sub-Saharan area they denied they had any homosexuals at all. Of course there homosexuals are probably no more at risk than heterosexuals when it comes to contracting the disease as it's so widespread.

Africa has obviously been the worst case scenario for the AIDS virus. At one time people were predicting that India was another Africa just waiting to happen - do you know have any information about that situation?

I've not worked on the ground in India since I was a reporter so I don't have any first hand experience but I do know the data and some of what's been going on there. UNAIDS, on the last World AIDS day - December 1st/07 - actually revised the projected number of people infected with the virus downwards by two million, from five to three million. It was a classic case of not looking at the right groups and using misleading data to base their estimations on.

The data that the figures had been based on was collected from a couple of hospitals where all the difficult cases were being referred to, and these hospitals had a large number of pregnant women coming to them with the infection. From that information they postulated that pregnant woman were a high risk group for infection across the country. At the same time they were almost completely ignoring the people in the high risk groups. This of course skewed the original tally badly - it take make it better politically to be able to say that pregnant women were at risk, but it meant nothing was being done for those who really needed treatment.

At one point there was only one web site providing information for people in the sex trade and something like two for homosexuals and one for intravenous drug users - or is that the other way around - at any rate this in a country of close to a billion people.

Thankfully, this is one country where Bill Gates, bless him, has done something useful. He offered the country 110 million dollars on the condition it be spent on prevention programming for high risk groups. When the federal government dithered and held their hands up in horror, he by passed them and went directly to state and municipal governments who gladly took the money and began implementing programming. What's even better is that other states have seen the success they've had and are creating programs based on them.

So now that you're no longer in the sex and drugs business, what are you going to do now for excitement?

Well I don't really feel like I've completely left the business, what with the book and all. I'm still out talking to people about the issues and I'm still doing the occasional consulting work, and reviewing articles for journals. To be honest what I miss is the most is the number crunching - the excitement of discovering something new or finding the proof that what I believed to be happening was actually happening.

Well this didn't turn out quite the way we planned - I still have a hard time believing there's been so little notice given the book in the press and there was so little reaction at all in the States

Well there was one good story I can tell you, it was during a radio call in show in Illinois on the NPR station. I took this one call from a gentleman who was very much in agreement with a lot the things I had been saying. At one point he said, well wouldn't it make sense to legalize prostitution? What was really surprising was he was a State Senator for Illinois.

Thank you very much for this Elizabeth

Your welcome.

Well I have to say that I had had visions of hearing tales of Ms. Pisani receiving death threats over the phone and being denounced from pulpits across the South or something similar when we set up this interview. Here she was, a woman who took great pride in saying she worked in sex and drugs going to the country who ties foreign aid to their version of morality. The fact that the book is being completely ignored is probably even scarier than it being the subject of debate or her the object of hatred. Although I'm not sure if it's as scary as hearing that the director of USAIDS had never thought about the correlation between how the disease is spread and how to prevent it from being spread.

The good new is that people are buying the book in spite of the lack of acknowledgement in the press that it's been published. In the United States the book is being distributed by Norton Books and in Canada through Penguin Canada. If you're interested in keeping up to date on information pertaining to HIV/AIDS you can check out Elizabeth's web site.


July 8, 2008

The Real Price Of Oil

In one of the first

There was no way, I argued, that as a world would we be able to maintain the level of oil production required to fuel the fleets of privately owned cars without significant damage to the environment and the economy. I also noted that it was a completely unrealistic expectation - as a culture we are so wedded to the idea of car ownership bequeathing status upon an individual that we would never surrender the keys to our vehicles.

At the time I think the price of gas at the pump in Canada was flirting with seventy cents a litre - roughly $2.80 a gallon - now here we are three years later and the price has pretty much doubled as it skitters around the $1.40 per litre mark - $5.60 per gallon. Now even if the only economic impact on us was reflected in the amount we were paying out at the pump that would still take quite the bite out of a family's budget. I don't know how many times people have to fill their gas tank in a week but let's say it's twice a week and your tank holds forty litres, it means your dishing out a hundred bucks a week to keep your car in fuel.

The thing is that what your paying at the pump is only a fraction of the total that's being sucked from your wallet because of the escalating cost of oil. I'm sure you've noticed that your grocery bill has risen substantially over the past few years and a good deal of that has been because of the rise in the price of oil. At each stage in the line, from point of origin to the grocery shelf, the cost of fuel has impacted on the cost of production, and therefore on the cost charged for the final product.

A farmer is having to pay more for the fertilizer he spreads on his field because of increased shipping costs and increases in the manufacturing costs caused by the rising fuel prices. He's also having to pay more for the fuel that runs all his equipment, that heats his barns, and that ships his product to market. If the product is packaged in a factory; frozen, canned or processed, those cost have increased due to the amount that it's costing the factory to pay out for powering their equipment and shipping the goods to market. Finally the supermarket you shop at not only has to absorb all those costs, it's also having to pay more just to stay open because of the cost of fuel.

All those costs show up in your grocery bill, resulting in your dollar buying far less at the grocery store then did it even a year ago. However, you don't have to worry, because according to the people who monitor inflation, food costs aren't important enough to be factored into the annual inflation rate that they use to tell you how healthy the economy is. Haven't you ever wondered how the annual inflation rate can only be one or two per cent when your grocery bill seems to have jumped by twenty per cent? Well now you know why.

It turns out though that we've only just begun to feel the economic impact of the rising price of oil. According to a survey of Canadian businesses released by the Bank Of Canada, (the Canadian equivalent of the American Federal Reserve, responsible for setting national interest rates), yesterday over forty-two percent of companies in Canada said price increases for customers will pick up steam over the next year. Consumer prices have remained fairly stable until now because of competition and companies being willing to swallow the costs. (Canada has also been helped out because the increased worth of our dollar against the American has kept manufacturing costs lower last year)

However that's all about to change and we're about to see the cost of everything start rising. With consumers already starting to restrict their spending habits because of the increased costs at the pump and in the grocery store, it only stands to reason that an increase in the cost of consumer goods is going to slow the economy even more. So if you were a business you'd be thinking about drawing your horns in, spending less money, and looking for any way possible that you could cut costs so that you could at least minimize these increases.

Yet the same survey that showed businesses getting ready to jack prices up has them saying that their sales are going to increase this year, and they are spending money accordingly. "Business expectations are being set up to end in tears" says Derek Holt, vice president of economics at Scotia Capital, "They may be doing the entirely wrong things". Which is as nice of way of saying that they have their collective heads up their collective asses as you can get. When you factor in the fact that both the American and Canadian economies are already grinding to a halt we could be heading into not only a recession, but a period of high inflation as well.

In spite of all our attempts at finding new sources of oil, whether the tar sands of Saskatchewan, the Alaskan tundra, or offshore drilling, it's not going to be enough to sate our demand. Prices are going to continue to escalate and our economies will continue to stagnate until they grind to a halt. Instead of making idle promises about "securing" oil supplies, countries need to start figuring out how to wean us off fossil fuels before it's to late.

Now about your car...?

May 29, 2008

Insite - Canada's Safe Injection Site Reprieved By Courts

Insite, Vancouver, British Columbia's safe injection facility for intravenous drug users, has been granted a stay of execution, and possible full time salvation. On Tuesday British Columbia's Supreme Court ruled that users and staff be granted a permanent constitutional exemption from Canada's drug laws. In his ruling Judge Ian Pitfield declared that allowing addicts to inject drugs in a safe, medically supervised environment is a matter of sensible health care and they should not be under threat of arrest.

By declaring Insite a health care facility and exempt from drug laws, Justice Pitfield took the facility's fate out of the hands of the federal government. Under their current arrangement, Insite's temporary exemption from Canada's drug laws was due to expire on June 30th, and it was widely suspected that the current government was preparing to close the facility down. In his ruling the judge gave the government until June 30th 2009 to redraft Canada's laws to reflect his findings, giving Insite at least a year's reprieve.

Well there's no word from the government on whether they will appeal the decision or not, federal Health Minister Tony Clement's reaction made it clear they were preparing to close the facility. He said that the government was disappointed with the ruling, and they believed that the best way to treat addicts was to prevent them from "getting onto illicit drugs in the first place", and that they didn't consider it the best health outcome to keep people in a position to inject illicit drugs. He continued by saying the government is examining their options, and that the Justice Minister will announce whether or not they will appeal Judge Pitfield's ruling.

In his findings Judge Pitfield disagreed with the government's position on the role that Insite and other facilities of its kind has to play in the treatment of addiction. He said that while society can't condone addiction, in the face of its presence it has an obligation to manage it. According to his findings, addiction is an illness and he praised Insite's philosophy of harm reduction aimed at saving lives and reducing the spread of infectious diseases. While agreeing with the basic tenet that there is nothing to be said in favour of injecting controlled substances, he argued that there is much to said against denying health cares services that will cure addicts of their condition.

Insite was first given exemption from the federal Controlled Substance and Drug laws in 2003 by the previous Liberal government. After its initial three year exemption expired, the current Conservative government granted it two, temporary one year extensions, claiming they needed more time to gather and study information about the success or failure of safe injection sites around the world, and Insite specifically. Considering this government's history of taking a hard line on illicit drug use, and recent announcements implying they didn't care what the research said, (when a government study showed Insite in a positive light, Minister Clement said the decision on its fate would be based on more than "just science"), it was widely believed that they were not about to extend the facility's life any further.

However, if Judge Pitfield's ruling stands, and safe injection sites are considered as health care facilities, not only will Insite stay open, the possibility exists for safe injection sites to be opened across Canada. Indeed, British Columbia's Health Minister has already gone on record as saying that not only is their government glad to be able to continue to fund Insite, but they are prepared to start opening new facilities across the province as needed.

Safe injection sites have been saving lives and reducing addiction levels in countries in Europe for years, and it looks like Canada is set to join the ranks of those nations taking a more humane stand on the issue of addiction treatment. As Judge Pifield reasoned in his findings, society doesn't condemn the individual who chooses to drink or smoke cigarettes to excess, or deny them access to a range of health care services, so there is no rational or logical reason why the approach should be different when the addiction is narcotics.

May 27, 2008

Book Review: A Case Of Exploding Mangoes Mohammed Hanif

While recent years have seen an explosion of fiction from Indian authors being published in the West, the same can't be said for the other country that was born out of Partition; Pakistan. Pakistan remains something of a mystery for most people in North America, occasionally gaining notoriety for acts of violence against women, political assassinations, and insinuations about its ties with the Taliban and the insurgency in Afghanistan.

Ironically it was its ties to the very same Taliban in the 1980s that gave it favoured nation status with Ronald Regan's administration in Washington. Pakistan was the conduit for American money and military aid to those resisting the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. In those days Pakistan was ruled by General Zia, who had led the military in the coup that had ousted the elected government of Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, (father of recently assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto), and was responsible for his execution. Zia was America's "tame" Muslim, and they turned a blind eye to his introduction of laws that allowed for women to be stoned to death for adultery.

General Zia's career and life came to an abrupt end when his presidential plane crashed on take off killing all on board. There has never been an official explanation as to what caused the crash that ended Zia's eleven year reign, but now, some twenty odd years later, an unofficial explanation has been put forward. Mohammed Hanif's new novel, A Case Of Exploding Mangos, published by Random House Canada, plunks us down in Pakistan for the last month of President Zia's life, and takes us behind the scenes everywhere from the American Embassy in Islamabad, the First Lady of Pakistan's private chambers, to a military prison.
A Case Of Exploding Mangos.jpg
The war in Afghanistan is winding down, the Taliban are closing in on Kabul, and the Russians are pulling out. For their role in allowing the American's to use Pakistan as their staging ground for funding the insurrection President Zia and his chief of staff have gone to the top of the charts as the top ten bulwarks against Communist expansion in the free world. The fact that they run a despotic military dictatorship where the prisons are full of those who might not agree with them is conveniently ignored.

Junior Under Officer Ali Shigri is in trouble. He somehow managed to miss the fact that one of the men in his squadron at the Pakistan Airforce Academy was not present during roll call that morning, and had not only gone AWOL but stolen a small plane. His seniors aren't buying his story of the series of coincidences that prevented him from first of all noticing Cadet Obaid-ul-llah was missing and then not reporting the same. The fact that the two young men were known to be close friends probably has a lot to do with that, and they can't believe that Ali knew nothing about his buddy's plans in advance.

Ali knows he's in trouble when the ISI are called in and a Major in the intelligence service shows up in car without licence plates to take him for a drive into the mountains. He doesn't realize quite how much trouble though until he's locked up in the prison where they keep the rest of the political prisoners. Yet if he thinks he's having a bad time of it, it's nothing compared to what President Zia is going through.

The First Lady found a picture of him ogling a Western journalist's breasts and has declared him dead to her and for three days running he's opened his Koran to the story of Jonah trapped in the belly of the whale and is begging to think there's a message there he's missing. On top of that he's suffering from worms, his general staff are spying on each other, and he's so sure that someone wants to kill him that he's locked himself in his armed force's residence and refuses to move into the new Presidential Palace. Sometimes paranoia is justified, and in this case the president is right, there is a plot in motion to have him assassinated.
Mohammed Hanif.jpg
In point of fact there is more than one plot underway to bring Zia's life and rule to an end. When his personal head of security has an unfortunate accident - his parachute inexplicably fails to open during a ceremonial jump for the Nation Day parade and he splatters on the pavement in front of the President - Zia is obviously distraught. He would probably be even more distraught if he knew that during the parade the head of his intelligence service was standing behind the president rehearsing his spontaneous words of regret about the death of the aforementioned bodyguard. Although probably not nearly as distraught if he knew the same man was also rehearsing his first address to the nation after the bitter blow of losing our beloved President Zia.

A Case Of Exploding Mangoes takes no prisoners when it comes to selecting targets for its satire. From its depiction of Saudi Princes with private doctors dedicated to the care of their privates, the marriage of convenience between the US and Pakistan, how to adjudicate rape cases under supposed Muslim law (the woman must be a virgin, there has to be at least four men involved for it to be rape, the woman must be able to identify all four men involved, and she must supply four male witnesses attesting to her status as a virtuous woman), to the petty jealousies and infighting among the men surrounding Zia in the upper echelons of power, nobody and nothing escapes unscathed.

While Mohammed Hanif has written a novel that is mainly light in tone and is at times quite funny, the humour at times is more than a little dark and bitter. Through the character of Ali Shigri we learn how to survive in this political climate through his ability to play dumb when needed, kiss ass when appropriate, and how to avoid the knife in the back while twisting your own blade in deeper. While we don't see everything through his eyes, his narrative is the one that leads us into the dark heart beating beneath the surface of this seemingly light story.

Hanif is playing on dangerous ground with this novel, as there is much in here that could be interpreted by people without senses of humour as offensive. The real trouble is that people don't like having their hypocrisy displayed quite as publicly as A Case Of Exploding Mangoes makes a point of doing. Nobody is safe, not even OBL of Laden and co. Construction from Saudi Arabia, who just wants people to pay attention to him at the American Ambassador's Fourth of July party celebrating victory in Afghanistan in 1988.

While A Case Of Exploding Mangoes won't give you any real insights into what life in Pakistan is like, it does lift the veil on a period of history that neither the folks in Washington, Pakistan, or the Taliban would like anyone to remember. Its dark humour and merciless depiction of the politics of convenience make it a refreshing antidote to today's omnipresent "War On Terror" rhetoric.

A Case Of Exploding Mangoes can be purchased directly from Random House Canada or an on line retailer like Amazon.ca

May 25, 2008

Just Say Yes - To Safe Injection Sites.

I'm an addict. I ran from my pain for twenty years - from thirteen to thirty-three I drank and ingested more substances than I care to think about. The only wonder is that I managed to stay alive long enough to stop. I was lucky. So I'm not about to tell you that drugs are romantic or that being a drunk or an addict anything special. There's nothing romantic about having to steal from those you love in order to fulfill an addiction; there's no excuse for a betrayal of trust of that magnitude.

Yet I don't think I was evil, or those who are addicted are criminals. Addictions can cause criminal behaviour because the need they create in the person has to be met, but the addiction itself is an illness that needs to be treated. That doesn't meant that an addict is not responsible for their criminal behaviour because they are, but there must be a distinction made between the illness and the criminal behaviour. I went to jail for my criminal behaviour which was right, but I was not punished for being sick which was also right.

Like I said before I was lucky. Of course it didn't hurt that by the time I was before the courts I had already begun to seek help on my own - but I was still fortunate that the judge who sentenced me was compassionate, and understood that I was already making an effort to get clear. He could have sentenced me to a year in jail, instead he sentenced me to seven weekends, four of which I served in a halfway house. That way I was able to continue going to therapy and receiving treatment for the root cause of my addictions.

In 2003 the city of Vancouver, in British Columbia, Canada, was given permission by the federal government to open Insite, a safe injection facility. Addicts are allowed to come there with their drugs and inject under the supervision of nurses, using clean needles, and without fear of arrest. It was originally given a three year exemption from the Federal Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, and has had two one year extensions granted while international research was reviewed and new research was conducted in order to gauge the facility's effectiveness.

The last extension expires June 30th, 2008 and the people who run the facility have been desperately trying to talk with either Prime Minister Steven Harper or his Health Minister Tony Clement, the men who will make the decision whether the site can continue to stay open. Unfortunately neither man seems to want to talk to anybody from the facility directly. Mark Townsend is the executive director of the organization that runs Insite, and has been trying for two and half years to arrange a meeting with either of the men to explain why it is a science and public health issue, and shouldn't be about ideology or politics.

Insite is about saving peoples lives; by getting intravenous drug users off the street and preventing the spread of disease through the use of shared needles, and through helping people get off drugs. They do not dispense any drugs, or offer treatment on site, but can and do refer people to detoxification programs when they ask about them. In an effort to save the facility, and convince the federal government that it should be considered part of the health care system in British Columbia, the staff of Insite have supplied extensive research that proves its success and that it enjoys widespread support across Canada for its efforts.

The problem is that it doesn't appear the government is listening to anything anybody says. Prime Minister Steven Harper's Conservative Party of Canada is notorious for its socially conservative positions. While the previous government was prepared to introduce legislation decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana, the Conservatives are more in line with the "War On Drugs" policy advocated by the American administration. Although they have yet to make any formal announcement about Insite, their history, combined with recent actions and statements, don't bode well for its future.

When Steven Harper was campaigning in the last federal election he made a point of stopping in Vancouver to announce that his party would brook no leniency toward illicit drug users and that they were the only party willing to anything about "the drug crisis in Canada". When an international police organization, that includes former members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, Canada's federal police force, that advocates treatment over punishment for street drugs issued a statement in support of Insite, it was the Health Minister's staff who gave reporters the name of a police organization who held an opposing view.

Perhaps most telling though was the government's reaction to research they had commissioned that ended up supporting Insite. They said that science alone would not be the deciding factor. An interesting statement to make when you consider that the purpose for delaying a final decision these last two years has been so that proper research could be conducted into the effectiveness of the facility. Now that science has proven that safe injections sites at the very least do not encourage drug use, and in fact are responsible for a decline in both drug use and the spread of disease, the government is downplaying the importance of these findings. It's not hard to guess what their reaction would have been if the findings had shown that the facility had increased drug usage and encouraged people to stay addicted.

However, they didn't. The findings substantiated what has been proven over and over again in countries around the world where needle exchanges and safe injection sites are the norm. Fewer people die of overdoses, fewer people catch and spread diseases, and more people are encouraged to stop using drugs and seek help for their addiction problems.Yet, in spite of all the evidence that supporting it, Canada's government is apparently getting ready to shut Insite's doors.

Isn't it time to stop saying no, and start saying yes to safe injection sites? There's no crime in showing a little compassion once in a while.

May 21, 2008

Residential School Legacy Lingers On

I once postulated that Western society was stuck in a cycle of post traumatic stress syndrome induced abuse dating back to at least World War One. Nearly a whole generation of European men were either killed or injured in that four year period. My father's father was a medic in the British army and in 1917 was caught in a mustard gas attack. As a medic he would have had to retrieve the dead and dying from the battle field and seen horrors enough to freeze a soul. After the war he drifted around the world for ten years before settling in Brazil where he met my grandmother and my father was born. They immigrated to Canada in 1931, and my grandfather never worked another day from then until his death in 1978.

He physically and emotionally abused my father, and in turn my father physically and sexually abused me. I was a drug addict and alcoholic by the time I was thirteen and didn't stop until I was thirty-three. It was then that I started to recover the memories of being abused as a young child and began the long process of recovery. I'm still in therapy, digging out the deep planted seeds abuse planted that governed my behaviour for most of my life. One way or another though, the cycle of abuse in my family has stopped with me.

On June 11th 2008, the Prime Minister of Canada, Steven Harper, is going to stand up in the House of Commons to officially apologize to Native Canadians for the residential school system. For close to a hundred years the government of Canada sponsored church run schools that stole Native children away from their parents. Aside from the shock of being stolen from their parents, they were also forbidden to speak their own languages, and taught that all they believed in was evil. If that wasn't bad enough, at a minimum, 50% of all children who attended these schools were either sexually or physically abused, if not both, by the staff.

What I'm most interested in knowing is who exactly the Prime Minister is going to be apologizing to and what he is going to be apologizing for? With the first residential school opening in the 1870's and the last one closing in the 1970's we can be sure that not everybody who went to one is still alive. Is he going to stand up in the House of Commons and say on behalf of the Canadian government we're sorry that previous governments oversaw attempted cultural genocide, allowed hundreds of thousands of children to be sexually and physically abused, and successfully tore the heart out of Native communities across Canada for subsequent generations?

There is also the question of the apology he owes to today's generation of Native Canadians. You see, for those of you who might have missed this bit of information, suicide and substance abuse among young Native Canadians is at an astronomical rate - the suicide rate alone is four times higher than for non-Natives. What this has to do with residential schools is that in a recent study done of slightly over 500 Native injection drug users in British Columbia between the ages of sixteen and thirty, nearly 50% of them had been sexually abused by a family member, and half of that number reported having at least one parent who was a survivor of the residential school system.

For those of you who can't do the math, that's twenty-five per-cent of this one study group are still suffering the effects of the residential school system. The study didn't ask, or if it did the figures weren't reported, what percentage of the participants had grandparents who were part of the residential school system, but I'd be willing to bet that the further back you go in each person's family tree the more survivors of the system you'll find. For most of these young people, like myself, the cycle of abuse probably started in their grandparent's generation, if not their great-grandparents.

In an earlier article about Canada's residential schools I mentioned the government was establishing a Truth and Reconciliation Committee that would travel across the country hearing people's stories, and digging into the schools' records. Headed by Native Canadian Judge, Justice Harry LaForme, it is patterned after a similar committee that the South African government established under the first Black majority rule government to try and find a way to peacefully bring the White and Black populations together after the horrors of apartheid.

For this committee to have any serious impact on the lives of Native Canadians, and to take a true measure of the impact the residential school system had on the population, it must examine statistics like those recorded above from across Canada. A study group focusing only on intravenous drug users leaves out large numbers of at risk populations. We already know the suicide rate is four times as high, but how many of those children who committed suicide had a parent or grandparent survive the residential school system and pass their damage on down to their child and grandchild?

For the first three hundred years of Canadian history governments, first the French and then the British, tried to deal with the "Indian problem" militarily. But when it became obvious they weren't going to be able to kill them all, the government decided to switch from genocide to cultural genocide via the residential school system. For Native Canadians the cycle of abuse started when the first child was stolen from his or her parents and placed within the four walls of a residential school. Every young person who commits suicide or chooses to escape the world through substance abuse today is an indication that the cycle continues.

If Steven Harper stands up in the House of Commons on June 11th and doesn't recognize the damage that is still being done to people today because of the residential schools, if he doesn't acknowledge that his government is continuing to fail our country's native population just like all previous government's have by allowing this cycle to continue, his apology won't be anything more than a meaningless gesture. The sins of our great-grandparents are still being visited upon Canada's native population today and there aren't enough words to apologize for that.

May 19, 2008

Logic & Reason: The Latest Victims Of HIV/AIDS

There's an old saying about health care that follows along the lines of something like an ounce of prevention equals a pound of cure. That's probably not it exactly but you get the general idea; preventing an illness is a heck of a lot more effective a means of health care than curing it. It only make sense, once somebody gets sick there's no telling what could develop and how serious it could get, so it's best if they never get sick in the first place.

It seems to me that it would make even more sense when it's a disease as fatal as HIV/AIDS. There's no cure for HIV/AIDS, but there are many ways which to prevent the spread of the disease, even among those at the highest risk. Condoms for people who have sex with multiple partners and clean needles for people who inject intravenous drugs isn't a hundred percent guarantee that HIV/AIDS won't be passed from one person to another, but it's a heck of a lot safer than any of the alternatives out there.

What about abstinence you ask? Well sure, if everybody, everywhere in the world, stopped having sex before they were married and only ever screwed one person in their whole life, it would go a long way to preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS. However, I don't know what world you're living, but for the one I live in that's not what I'd call a realistic proposition for even the heterosexual population. In fact according to statistics reported in Elizabeth Pisani's wonderful book on HIV/AIDS The Wisdom Of Whores in North America alone 70% of people who sign abstinence oaths end up having pre-marital sex. As an interesting aside the majority of those people also have unprotected sex, as nobody seems to have bothered educating them about condoms.

So with evidence like that you'd think that it would be a no-brainer for there to be a concentrated effort the world over to ensure that we focus on getting condoms to people in the sex trade or in other high risk groups, and ensure that intravenous drug users are given every opportunity possible to get clean needles. Unfortunately there are people who think that people dying of a horrible disease is less important than forcing everybody live by their moral code. So the Catholic Church, conservative Christians, and fundamentalist Muslims the world over have formed an unholy alliance to ensure that people don't commit the horrible sin of practising something that could be construed as birth control or that we even give the appearance of condoning drug use..

According to these good folk the only reason to have sex is for procreation, and if you're having sex for procreation than you don't need to use a condom. Which is all very well and good, but when was the last time you knew of a prostitute having sex for reason of procreation? Or how about gay men; do you think they have procreation in mind when they have sex? Of course homosexuality is probably an even bigger no-no than birth control in the eyes of the previously mentioned trinity, so you can't expect too much in the way of compassion from them on that front.

In fact for supposedly compassionate religious people, and both Christianity and Islam have great swathes about being compassionate in their holy books, these folk seem pretty vindictive. It's amazing how many of them seem to be of the opinion that intravenous drug users and other deviants are only getting what they deserve. What's unfortunate is how many people think like this and control the purse strings when it comes to the fight against the spread of HIV/AIDS.

Everybody knows by now how not a single penny of the money that George Bush has allocated for HIV/AIDS is allowed to be given to any group that hands out or recommends condoms as a means of fighting the spread of the disease. Now it seems like his fellow traveller, Prime Minister of Canada Steven Harper, is going down the same path. His government is planning on cutting HIV/AIDS funding to community organizations that do front line prevention work to the tune of 26 million dollars and redirecting it towards the development of a vaccine.

This comes on top of the cuts which last year saw Quebec's funding reduced by 30%, Ontario's by 24%, and Alberta only being funded for six months. What worries people most is that the cuts are going to be to the programmes which focus on prevention to those people considered to be most at risk; intravenous drug users, prisoners and gay men. While nobody is arguing that funding research to develop a vaccine to prevent HIV/AIDS is a bad thing, taking money away from programming aimed at preventing the immediate spread of the disease to do so is dangerous and irresponsible.

So why is Steven Harper's government doing this? Well in the last election he ran on a platform that included a promise to try and repeal Canada's same sex marriage law, and once elected cancelled the previous government's plans at decriminalizing marijuana. If that doesn't give you some idea of this government's mindset, how about this quote from our honourable Prime Minister when it came to the question of harm reduction among addicts: "If you remain an addict, I don't care how much harm you reduce, you're going to have a short and miserable life."

This is the same government that is doing it's best to manipulate figures to show that a trial safe injection site in Vancouver British Columbia has led to more people using intravenous drugs and has caused more harm than good. The actual truth of the matter is that every time a person shoots up on their own in a controlled environment they will not be sharing a needle and not risking the spread of disease to anyone else. There is also statistical evidence that intravenous drug users who come to safe injection sites or needle exchanges are far more likely to enter into treatment programmes than people who don't, as they are in constant contact with people who will help and encourage them to rehabilitate.

Logic, reason, and statistical evidence all point towards spending money on programmes geared towards preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS is currently the most efficient and effective means we have of controlling the disease. All the statistical evidence points to the fact that needle exchanges, safe injection sites, and the use of condoms are the most effective preventative measures going, therefore it only makes sense that those are means we should be using to prevent the spread of the disease.

Unfortunately it seems that logic, reason, and statistical evidence mean nothing to people like the Prime Minister of Canada and his fellow travellers. It's obviously much more important for them to impose their morality on the rest of us, no matter how many people they kill in the process.

References to statistical evidence in this article are supported by the work of epidemiologist Elizabeth Pisani's work as sited in her book The Wisdom Of Whores. You can find a listing of all her references at the reference page of her Wisdom Of Whores web site.

The Case Of The Missing Kyoto Accord Chapter Seven

People have a lot of misconceptions about detective work. You hear private investigator and you normally think of tough talking guys, beautiful dames etc. Well the first might be true in my case – I tend to talk tough – some would say to make up for the deep-seated insecurities I have about myself, but since I don't tend to hang out with people who talk like that it doesn't matter what they say.

Besides if you can't have the pleasure of talking out the side of your mouth now and then what's the point of doing this type of work? Nine times out of ten you're doing just what that asshole flatfoot said: gathering evidence of infidelity for one or other parties in a marriage. People say we cause divorces, but what a client chooses to do with pictures of her husband playing spank the monkey with a young woman in maid's outfit is up to her not me: P.I.'s don't cause divorces, people do.

On occasion we do run across some genuinely beautiful women but in most cases I only get to see them through the telephoto lens on my camera or in the developing tray in my darkroom. I don't even keep copies of the prints. Once you start and word gets around, and don't kid yourself it will, you'll find yourself one day with more trouble then you can handle as certain parties might be tempted to try to get rid of incriminating evidence.

Oh I've been tempted on occasion, but a few seconds contemplating my body with extra holes in it, or foreign objects sticking out of it laid out on a slab cures me of the thought. I don't like contemplating mortality at the best of times, and my own just isn't something I'm prepared to mess around with no matter how tempting. Dying for an 8"X10" photograph just seems like such a waste.

The one that really gets me, and I blame the Goddamn Brits for this with their drawing room murder investigations is the great public revelation of the killer. It's really that crazy old bigoted bat Hagatha whose to blame for it you know. Even her pansy Belgium hero is treated like dirt and made out to be an object of ridicule in spite of being the one to always put "the cads" in jail.

Anyway all her books end with the whole cast of characters gathered together in the drawing room where the detective reveals who did, where, and with what motive. I've had people come to me for divorce case investigation and they look almost devastated when I hand them the envelope with the photos, videotape, and nicely written report. They want some of that drama that they see in the b- movies, like I'm going to pull aside a curtain revealing their soon to be ex busy humping away with their paramour or something.

If only, my life would be a lot more fun if I had opportunities for a little bit of that action – I mean the drawing room mystery revelation action not the soon to be ex humping her paramour in my office. Although I'm not saying a live sex show wouldn't liven the place up now and then – I've never been really one for taking my work home with me.

But as I was thinking about all that had gone in the previous weeks with Dr. Magneson being killed, right behind my eyes so to speak, my conversations with various interested and interesting parties, and knowing that I had solved both the problem of who murdered the good Doctor and the disappearance of the Kyoto Accord, I saw this could be the perfect opportunity for me to act out my own drawing room revelation. I had the requisite parties: a mysterious femme fatale, a couple of rough customers, and a pretty ingénue. With the four of them and my two buddies from the cop shop it would be a tight fit in here, I wasn't even sure I had enough chairs or coffee cups to go around, but it could still work.

It would also be a good way of ensuring the murderous one didn't get the opportunity to have me alone and perform open-heart surgery through my spine like what had happened to the good Doc. The two cops were my security against being folded, mutilated and spindled after I'd confronted the killer. I've never understood the idiots in the B movies who go alone to the killer's house and expect him to surrender meekly when confronted with the truth of his perfidy. They always seem so surprised when he or she pulls a gun on them or puts the knife through their heart. What did they expect anyway, that confronted with the truth a cold-blooded murderer would give themselves up out of remorse? Sheesh, what idiots.

Nope I was going to make damn sure that I had heavily armed and dangerous people in the same room who were on my side. If things started to get ugly I wanted to make sure that the ugliest people in the room were with me, and I couldn't think of two uglier guys then McIntosh and Gates. Anyway they seem to enjoy their work and I'm sure the opportunity to arrest someone in such public circumstances would tickle their fancies – if a cop has a fancy to be tickled.

They were my first call and although I can't say that they were happy to hear from me, at least they didn't ask me to come over and play with their rubber hoses and phone books. Taking that as a sign that our relationship was improving I ran my idea by them and in spite of a lot of grumbling and swearing on their part they said they'd be there.

I think part of it was that under those gruff exteriors beat the heart of sadists who got their jollies out of arresting people in as public and humiliating a manner as possible. Since this had the potential of it being me, at least in their eyes, being the one publicly humiliated and arrested – if I fell on my face they guaranteed I'd get something in return for wasting their time – that was enough incentive for them to assure me of their cooperation on the day.

Then it was a matter of me persuading four out of five of the other interested parties to show up. I knew the fifth, being Dr. Magneson, had a previous engagement with a six foot hole if he wasn't still spending time in a one size fits all bag slotted away in the oversized filing cabinets they stowed the bodies in down at the city morgue. That left my three friends from the Health Food emporium and Dr. Magneson jr.

It was my pretty friend who answered the phone on three rings and I have to say her voice brightened considerably when she heard my dulcet tones on the other end of the line. When I mentioned that I also wanted her too bring along the two others her voice registered disappointment, but I convinced her of the necessity of their presence by saying I needed to go over out conversations together again because I think that I'd managed to figure out who our culprit was.

She sounded a bit cheerier after that, and I felt even cheerier when she suggested she and I could maybe have a more private discussion afterwards. She said something about making it up to me for having been the cause of my headache that day. Maybe, she said she could work the kinks out of my shoulders. I could almost hear her blush down the phone line when I said I had several kinks that I bet she didn't even know existed, but I'd love for her to help me work them out.

That's the type of conversation that always warms the cockles of my heart, not to mention certain unmentionable, in polite conversation, body parts. Anyway I'd have to quell thoughts like those if I wanted to prevent the blood rushing from my head leaving me incapable of thinking along any lines but one. I was dealing with a cold-blooded murderer and needed to have whatever limited resources I possessed at my disposal.

The final call I had to make was going to be the toughest – it wasn't that I didn't think la Morgenstern wanted to find out who killed her papa, but I just wasn't too sure how well she'd react when I told her the threesome from her dad's clandestine meetings would be showing up. Surprisingly enough that didn't turn out to be much of a problem, what did was her trying to convince me to tell her in advance who the killer was.

After all, she pointed out very reasonably, it was her dad someone had tried to open with a single bladed can-opener. The only way I could forestall her was to ask if she thought she'd be able to sit in the same room as the person she knew to be her father's murderer without giving the game away. She had the good grace to realize the sense in that and promised she would see me at the appointed time: High Noon on that coming Monday.

That had been McIntosh's idea, and I could hear Gates cackling in the room behind him. I didn't mind the image, me facing down the lone murderer, but I was kinda of hoping to avoid the fireworks of the original. I'm not really cut out for the Gary Cooper type rolls – Groucho Marx maybe – by not Gary Cooper. Still the fate was acomplis as the French liked to say, and in just two days the clock would strike and somebody would be going home in a pumpkin for murder.

When the day of the great revelation dawned, it seemed only fitting that the weather in Ottawa was positively apocalyptical, with intermittent showers being relieved by sleet and hail. As I stood at the window staring, and trying to figure out if any of the bizarreness in weather had to do with climate changes, someone tried the handle to the office door.

When whoever it was realized they weren't going to get any satisfaction that way, a gentle knock on the door followed.

"Were not open! If you're having troubles with reading the sign it says office hours 11:00 am until 5:00 pm. Go away until a clock reads somewhere between those two numbers."

"It's me" said a very familiar and sultry voice of the Nordic persuasion.

"You"? I replied

"Me"! She said.

Sure enough when I opened the door it was her; The beautiful, ash blonde, Scandinavian who started me on this search when she showed up in the office all those months ago; Morgenstern. Although she was just as stunningly beautiful now as she had been the first time she crossed my threshold, something was going on inside that perfectly shaped head that was causing her enough distraction that she was marring the smoothness of her temples with unsightly creases.

She brushed by in a waft of fancy shower gels and other exotic feminine scents guaranteed to beguile and bewitch the male olfactory glands, and proceeded into the office. She didn't stop until she was perched on the edge of my desk looking back at me still standing there with the door waiting to be closed behind her. She held my gaze for a second before letting her eyes break the contact to look down at the floor. From another person I would have taken that as an apology, but in her case...Let's just say I'd never figured her for the humble type.

I'd never be able to prove it, but I'd swear during the moment of breaking contact she was able to do a quick scan of the room, ascertaining if she was truly the first arrival. She visibly relaxed when she released that nobody else was here – whatever it was she wanted to say obviously was meant for my ears only.

I'd say it didn't take me longer then a second to close the door, which meant my head must have been turned away from her for a little less then that, so I can only figure her purse had been open and she had this all planed out in advance - the only other explanation for the gun appearing in her hand as quickly as it did implied magic that I don't believe in - so I'll settle for the pre-planned approach.

I guess I'd find out soon enough what she was gonna settle for.

May 14, 2008

Canadian Minority Government Blues

With all the attention being paid in the press to the American presidential election campaign in recent months, occasionally my thoughts turn to the possibility of a federal election in Canada. However, with neither of the two major political parties able to capture the public's imagination sufficiently to attract enough support to be sure of winning a majority government if an election were held today, the chances of one before fall 2008 are slim to non- existent. The latest poll results show the ruling Conservative Party and the opposition Liberal Party virtually neck and neck in terms of popular vote (they are separated in the polls by exactly the three per cent margin of error) so its doubtful either one of them would be willing to risk putting their popularity to the test.

I suppose that before going any further as brief an explanation as possible is required about Canada's parliamentary style of government. Unlike the American system where you elect your president independent of your representatives, our prime minister is the leader of the political party that elects the most representatives during an election. The country has been divided into electoral districts according to population known as ridings. Each riding is contested by a representative from each of the major parties and the winner is awarded a seat in the House of Commons - the Canadian parliament. The party winning the most seats forms the government and its leader becomes prime minister.

Canada currently has four political parties with seats in the House of Commons, and while the Conservatives won the most in the last election they did not succeed in obtaining a majority and formed what is known as a minority government. Most of the time when a party doesn't have sufficient seats, which translate into votes, to pass legislation without the assistance of another party they are forced to make compromises in policy if they want to accomplish anything. For if an important piece of legislation, like a budget, is defeated in the House of Commons when it comes to a vote, the government is forced to call an election.

The current Conservative Party government of Prime Minister Steven Harper has been an exception to that rule because for almost the first two years of their reign the largest opposition party, The Liberal Party, was without a permanent leader, and were not in a position to contest an election. Even now, almost a year after their new leader, Stephane Dion, was elected, they have failed to capture the public's imagination sufficiently for them to have confidence in their ability to win an election. So in spite of their status as a minority government, the Conservative Party has been able to impose their will on the Canadian public, even when their policies have run contrary to the wishes of the majority of Canadians.

While the majority of Canadians have opposed an increased military presence in Afghanistan, the government has not only extended the mission length, it has ensured that Canadian troops are used in combat situations. Furthering the public's disquiet with Canada's role in Afghanistan has been the government's attempts to play down fatalities by ending the practice of public ceremonies for the fallen upon their return to Canada. Public opinion was so against this, especially among military families, they were forced to modify that stance, but it left a bitter taste in a lot of people's mouths.

Canada was one of the first signatories to the Kyoto Accord on climate control and the previous government had passed legislation that would have seen them at least attempting to meet the minimum targets set by that agreement for controlling the emission of carbon dioxide into the environment. One of the first acts the Conservative government did upon taking power was to scrap that legislation, ensuring that Canada would renege upon its agreement. This, in spite of the fact that the majority of Canadians were and are in favour of the Kyoto Accord, if not even stronger emission controls.

One of the oddities of Canadian politics that has been the cause of confusion for any American who has cared to pay attention, is the names of our two major political parties. In the past both the Liberals and the Conservatives have had pretty much identical policies when it comes to social and economic issues. The Liberals have never been as liberal as their name suggests economically and the Conservatives have never been as conservative socially as you would think. Steven Harper's Conservative Party of Canada is a break with that tradition as they were originally the socially conservative, Reform Party of Canada who advocated a party line similar to that espoused by the Bush administration.

While they have been thwarted by the Supreme Court of Canada in their attempt to repeal same sex marriages, they have prevented the decriminalization of marijuana, and are doing their best to discredit a safe injection facility for intravenous drug users in Vancouver, British Columbia. Although the only one of its kind in North America, safe injection facilities and needle exchanges in Europe have proven to be effective means of preventing the spread of disease, specifically HIV/AIDS. among this high risk population. But compassion for drug users does not jibe with the conservative "War on Drugs" policy that is part of their tough on crime agenda.

Now with Canada's economy starting to follow the American's down the toilet, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police executing a search warrant on Conservative Party headquarters to investigate alleged overspending in the last election to the tune of $1.1 million, and Bill C-10 which would give the government the ability to effectively censor any movie whose content they didn't like, Canadians are becoming increasingly dissatisfied with their ruling party. As recently as February 2008 polls were showing them with a large enough share of the popular vote that they could have potentially formed a majority government if an election had been called. However, with the above combined with the price of fuel at the pump continuing to rise, the dollar falling below par with the American again, food prices rising substantially, and the government seemingly content with letting the largest province in Canada, Ontario, fall into a recession, people are becoming increasingly dissatisfied with them.

In spite of this the chances of an election anytime soon are slim. Stephane Dion has done nothing to instil confidence in his own party that he can lead them to victory in an election. While there is no denying the man's intelligence, he is the type of person who most people seem to have difficulty warming to. Nobody is sure how his personality would play in an election and whether he can overcome the charges of aloofness that are being laid at his feet by critics and friends alike.

Unless the Liberals believe they have a very real chance of forming a government, they won't take any steps to force an election. This means the Conservative party can act with impunity; passing any legislation they feel like passing. Under normal circumstances, when one party wins the largest number of seats in the House of Commons without having a numerical majority, the country benefits because they need the support of other parties to stay in power resulting in legislation that reflects more than one ideology. Unfortunately that's not the case this time.

Knowing full well the Liberal party has been to frightened to call an election, the Conservative haven't had to compromise on any of their policies. Canadians can only hope that the supposed leaders of the opposition start to take their jobs seriously, or any chance we might have had of reaping the benefits of this minority government will soon be wasted. I don't think a minority government has ever served out a full four year term in office at the federal level before, but unless something happens soon it looks like that just might happen.

May 11, 2008

The Case Of The Missing Kyoto Accord: Chapter 6

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 mad dog 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 in 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 was laid out like a – well like a corpse since that what he was – at my feet.

"It's what we can do 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 as an excuse.

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.

May 8, 2008

Book Review: The Wisdom Of Whores Elizabeth Pisani

It's close to thirty years ago since British rocker Ian Drury had a hit with the song "Sex And Drugs And Rock And Roll". Somehow or other nobody had strung the three together in quite the catchy way he had before, and his little ditty's title caught more then a few people's imaginations. In those innocent days prior to AIDS and the "War On Drugs", it became the catch phrase of choice for a great many people to sum up what they needed to make them happy. That Drury might have been satirizing the rock star image with his song was lost on ninety per cent of his audience, who had latched onto the title as a lifestyle definition.

The world spins around and ten years later, in the 1980s, I couldn't read the obituary pages of my local paper without reading that a man of my generation had died of unknown causes, leaving behind special friends, but very rarely, a wife or parents to mourn him. AIDS was very much a mystery in those early days in the mid to late eighties, but even then we knew it was caused by sharing bodily fluids and the quickest way of catching it was through unprotected sex and sharing a needle. It was only a matter of time before it spread beyond gay men. Sex and Drugs were "very good indeed" no longer.

When the Canadian Red Cross came clean about not testing their blood properly and giving hemophiliacs infected blood, (and oh by the way if you received a blood transfusion between these dates you really should get yourself checked), the "innocent victim" syndrome in AIDS reared its ugly head. Just what the world needed - another way to stigmatize people who were dying because they had sex or shared a needle. The Christian right in North America had already labelled HIV and AIDS as the wages of sin, and being able to say they only have themselves to blame, while others are blameless, only added fuel to the pyre they were building to burn the sinners.
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In the preface to her book The Wisdom Of Whores, Elizabeth Pisani says that when people ask her what she does for a living she cheerfully replies "Sex and drugs" as it's easier than having to explain to people that an Epidemiologist studies how diseases spread in populations. For ten year of her life, starting in 1996, Ms Pisani worked on the front lines of HIV/AIDs research looking for patterns in how the disease was spread, developing ways of curbing the spread of the diseases, trying to figure out how many people were potentially at risk, and of course dealing with the political fallout that always seems to accompany sex and drugs.

In the course of her work she has run police roadblocks in Indonesia carrying blood samples and used syringes, sat on street corners with prostitutes in the border towns of China and Tibet discussing the economics of their trade, worked with the transgendered prostitutes of Indonesia, argued policy with officials from the UN, the World Health Organization (WHO), Muslim Clerics, and brothel owners in Thailand. The Wisdom Of Whores are the conclusions she has reached after these ten years of field work about what works in the fight against HIV/AIDS and what doesn't work. These conclusions are backed up by not only her years of personal observation, but by the data she has crunched charting the growth of the disease and the effectiveness of the various means used to prevent it's spread in different countries and among different social groups.

One of the most frightening things about this book is, at the time it was being written, the amount of influence being exerted on HIV/AIDS programming by people with political and religious agendas. From Muslim Clerics in Africa and South East Asia saying that not using condoms proves how faithful you are, the American government going so far as prohibiting their staff from having access to research that proves the effectiveness of condoms in preventing the spread of sexually transmitted diseases (STD), to American policy that tries to prevent any agency, whether they receive American money or not, from advocating the use of condoms as a preventative measure; it's more important to these people that their view of the world is adhered to than the disease be prevented from spreading.

In spite of the statistical evidence that Ms. Pisani cites, that over 70% of the people who sign pledges vowing to abstain from pre-marital sex end up having pre-marital sex, the American government still preaches abstinence as the answer for preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS. The fact that the majority of these people also practice unprotected sex is even more damning. That those figures are from the US, and not a country with a flourishing sex trade, makes the whole abstinence argument even more spurious.
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In spite of what any number of groups might want you to think, according to Ms. Pisani's research very few people are sold into the sex trade of South East Asia as slaves. It's more a matter of simple economics; a women can earn more in a half hour as a prostitute than she would for making 150 t-shirts in a sweat shop. If people are really so concerned about women in the sex trade maybe they should consider paying a little more money for their brand name t-shirts so these women have a viable alternative to make money to feed their families.

In all of these countries where condom programs have been implemented within the sex trade infection rates have been halved and continue to decline. The programs that work best are the ones like the one implemented by Thailand. The government allows the brothels to operate as long as the women working there use condoms, if they don't the government closes it down and the owner loses his source of income. By routinely randomly testing all the women working in the brothels for STDs the government is able to tell if condoms are being used. Not only has this helped prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS but it has also cut down on the spread of all STDs among clients, brothel workers, and all of their families.

The sharing of needles by intravenous drug users is of course the other big way that the virus is spread. In spite of this, resistance to needle exchanges as a means of prevention still runs high. Those who believe in the war on drugs are convinced that needle exchange programs encourage drug use and don't want anything to do with it. Yet statistics presented by Ms. Pisani shows that needle exchanges not only help prevent the spread of disease, they work to help people get off drugs. Two or three times a week they are in contact with social workers who can give them referrals to treatment programs and provide them support in quitting drugs and a good many of them take advantage of it.

The other big issue that Ms. Pisani raises is the need to balance treatment and prevention. While nobody wants to see anybody die when there are drugs available that could prolong their lives for as much as ten years, the problem is now that too much of the HIV/AIDS budget is being spent on treatment and prevention is falling by the wayside. As a result people are still being infected in spite of everything we know. Politicians are much happier when they can say they are giving money to treat pregnant women so they don't spread the disease to their unborn child, or to treat a child who was born with the virus, than they are in announcing money to help people who have sex and use drugs from catching it.

The Wisdom Of Whores is like a gale of fresh air being blown through the musty smelling bullshit that has surrounded the whole HIV/AIDS issue from day one. It's not just the holy cows of the right Ms. Pisani takes on either in her battle to save lives. Everything from peer counselling to confidential testing is put under her microscope for analysis; saving lives and preventing the spread of the disease is what concerns her not what people think is right. I'm sure this will get a lot of people's backs up, but it's hard to argue with her statistics about rates of infection.

It's hard to imagine a book about a subject as dry sounding as epidemiology being a page turner and entertaining, but Elizabeth Pisani has managed to do just that. She is irreverent, but never irrelevant; by turns angry, compassionate, and frustrated, she is a refreshingly human voice among so many speech makers. Sex and drugs might be taboo subjects for most people, but they are Elizabeth's bread and butter, and according to her they are at the root of HIV/AIDS. The Wisdom Of Whores paints as true a picture as possible of the fight against the spread of HIV/AIDS and where it stands today as you're liable to ever read. As well as the book you can also go the Wisdom Of Whores web site to receive even more up to date information and join in the ongoing discussion on how the world is doing in its fight to keep people alive.

The Wisdom Of Whores can be purchased directly from Penguin Canada or an online retailer like Amazon.ca

May 1, 2008

What Barack Obama And Canada's Residential School System Have In Common

At first glance there might not appear to be much that the Canadian Government's announcement of who will be heading the Truth and Reconciliation Committee looking into the history of the Residential School System in Canada has in common with the presidential aspirations of Barack Obama and the pastor of his church Jeremiah Wright. Yet both stories reflect deep divisions that exist in both Canadian and American Society. Even a cursory look at the history behind both stories reveals the similarities, while also making a telling statement about both countries and their approaches to similar problems.

In Canada, as in other areas of North America, after the government was unable to commit actual genocide against the Native population they decided to settle on the next best thing and try for cultural genocide. Towards that end they enlisted the aid of both the Anglican and Roman Catholic Churches in establishing the Residential School system. A generations of Native Canadian children were taken from their families and placed in this school system in order to drive the "Indianness" out of them.

To that end they had their identities stripped from them through changing their names, forbidding them to speak their languages and practice their religions, and teaching them that the ways of their parents were evil. They were forced to speak in either only English or French, depending on what part of Canada the school was in, and given training in the most menial of professions. The girls were put to work in the school kitchens and laundries so they could learn how to scullery maids and the boys were put to work as janitorial staff and given basic training in how to be unskilled labour.

Aside from having to cope with the terror of being away from home and family, they were also subjected to physical and emotional abuse as punishment for attempting to use their own language or attempting to follow their traditions. On top of that large numbers of both the boys and the girls were sexually abused on a regular basis by the staff of the facilities. As a result of the residential schools - the last one was closed in the 1970s - generations of Native Canadiens found themselves unable to fit in either the White world or the world of their parents.

The colour of their skin named them as second class citizens within society at large, and they didn't have the skills sufficient to find steady employment. On the other hand they no longer had the traditions of their own people to turn to for solace, and they couldn't even talk to their parents anymore as they no longer spoke the same language. With their identities stripped away, suffering the effects of sexual, emotional, and physical abuse, and having no means to earn a living, is it any wonder that they and subsequent generations should feel as if they have no future?

When the African National Congress became the first majority rule government in South Africa's history one of the first things they established was a Truth and Reconciliation Committee whose mandate was to travel around the country hearing from people about their experiences under apartheid. Headed by Bishop Desmond Tutu, their mission wasn't simply about apportioning blame, but to try and find a way out of the hate of the past by facing up to the the truth and accepting it. You can't undo the past, but you can come to terms with it so it no longer controls you. The Canadian government hopes that under the guidance of Native Canadian judge, Harry LaForme, Canada's Truth and Reconciliation Committee, will be able to begin that process in Canada.

Although slavery was outlawed in the United States with the defeat of the Southern states in their Civil War, segregation of Black and White exists to this day. Up until the 1960's it was common to see signs in restaurants, swimming pools, and public washrooms forbidding service to people of colour. In the 1970's white communities were still protesting the forced integration of their schools. Although circumstances have obviously improved, there is still a sizeable economic and social gap between the two races.

While Barack Obama claims to be running for President of the United States because he says he was convinced that people no longer wanted to be divided by race, religion or what region of the country they live in, he doesn't have to look any further than the pastor of his own church to see that sharp divisions still exist between black and white. Rev. Jeremiah Wright has given speeches damning the Untied States for it's history of racism and accusing the American government of using AIDS as a weapon against the Black community.

Memories of Hurricane Katrina and tens of thousands of poor Black people seemingly abandoned by their government as they were dying of starvation and dehydration in the Super Dome are still fresh in plenty of people's minds. When that's combined with the continual foot dragging by all levels of government when it's come to rebuilding the homes that these same people lost when the waters flooded the Ninth Ward, and the obscenely quick way in which residences were bulldozed after the waters retreated before there was chance to see if they could be salvaged, you can see why even people more moderate than Wright might be having trust issues.

America has a tendency to look at the past through rose coloured glasses and gloss over the negative. Why do White police officers still stop Black men driving expensive cars more often than they stop White men driving the same cars? Why is the American prison population predominately Black? Why do more Black people live in poverty and have less access to health insurance and education than White people? The answers to those questions can only be found if you are willing to look the past directly in the eye and accept it and its consequences.

Saying that people don't want to be separated by the divide of race any more is all very well and good, but they are empty words when the reality is that people are divided by race and nothing is being done to rectify it. There are very real fears on both sides of this divide that can't just be glossed over by cheery words and optimism. You can't just wish away history or whisk it under the rug as if it never happened.

For the next five years Justice Harry LaForme will be travelling across Canada and examining over a hundred years of Canadian history in the hopes of finding a way to resolve the anger and recriminations that exist on both sides of the issue when it comes to the history of the Residential Schools in Canada. It's not going to be an easy task for many reasons, and it will open a lot of old wounds that some people might have preferred left alone. But when there is still rot in a wound the only way to prevent it from festering is to air it out.

You might want to think about giving Justice LaForme a call one of these days Mr, Obama and find out what kind of work it takes to bridge these divides of yours. America might be ready for you as a President, but are you ready for America's history?

April 30, 2008

The Case Of The Missing Kyoto Accord Chapter 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?"

April 27, 2008

Book Review: Pagans In The Promised Land Steven T. Newcomb

It remains a cause of wonder to me that people express surprise at how powerful conservative Christianity is in the United States. Do they not remember who it was that sailed on board the Mayflower that put ashore at Plymouth Rock? The history that's taught to American school children says that the folk who celebrated America's first Thanksgiving were fleeing religious persecution in England. Technically I suppose that it's true they weren't being allowed the freedom to practice their brand of Christianity back home, but did anyone bother to find out what exactly they weren't being allowed to do that so impinged upon their liberty?

One doesn't need to look much further than the reign of Oliver Cromwell to understand why they weren't being allowed to do what they wanted back home. Cromwell led a Puritan revolution that saw the overthrow, and execution of King Charles 1 of England. During his reign of terror Cromwell and his Puritan followers outlawed any form of worship that wasn't in compliance with their strictures, closed all the theatres as sinful, and invaded Ireland and razed it to the ground for being Catholic. Saying that the Puritans were fleeing persecution because they weren't allowed to do what they wanted is sort of like saying denying the Klan the right to hold a lynching impinges on their civil rights.

Of course in 16th and 17 century, nearly anyone crossing an ocean anywhere and travelling to a "new world" was a Christian of some sort or another. Portuguese and Spanish sailors were circling the globe and "discovering" South America. The French and the British were dividing up North America between them as everybody was trying to find an easy way to get to the East. It was the great era of Christian exploration and conquest. According to a new book by Native American author Steven T. Newcomb, Pagans In The Promised Land, published by Fulcrum Publishing, it's here we need to look to find the roots of American policy towards the indigenous people of the North American continent.

Steven Newcomb is a columnist for Indian Country Today and co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute(ILI). In his work for ILI he works to support indigenous nations and peoples to protect their sacred and ancestral homelands, restore and revitalize traditions and to heal from the past five hundred years of colonization. A good deal of that kind of work involves finding the means to advocate for various nations in courtrooms across the United States, which in turn means he's had to make a study of the rationale behind Judicial rulings that have found both for and against Native Americans in the past.

In Pagans In The Promised Land he has distilled some of that information to offer proof of his theory that American government policy towards Native Americans has been justified by concepts of Christianity. He also categorizes the relationship of American governments towards Native Americans as one that follows an empire-domination model based on an inherent right of Christian rule by discovery.

While he offers various examples throughout the book substantiating his theory through the history of America, three concrete examples, or proofs, form the core of his argument. In 1493 Pope Alexander VI issued a Papal Bull known as Inter Caetera in response to a request from King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain to justify their claiming any lands that Christopher Columbus discovered or may discover in the future. The only codicil that the Pope added was that no Christian King could claim any land already claimed by another. The Pope saw this as being a way of spreading a Christian Empire, fulfilling his desire to subjugate non-Christian nations, by whatever means necessary, and making them all Christian.

Those landing at Plymouth Rock claimed the land in the name of the Puritan Christian God. They may not have exercised the letter of Alexander's Papal Bull, as they weren't Catholic, but they sure followed its spirit through their treatment of the local indigenous population. Yet, according to Newcomb, while the Inter Caetera may have defined their relationship with Native Americans, it has been American governments likening themselves to the Israelites of the Old Testament in Exodus and America as "The Promised Land" that has had the farthest reaching consequences.

The Puritans saw themselves as the Chosen People and the new world as their promised land where they would be able to live as they wanted, but it didn't stop with them. Benjamin Franklin suggested to the Continental Congress that Moses leading the Israelites across the Red Sea should appear on the Great Seal of the United States, while Thomas Jefferson said it should depict the Israelites crossing into the Promised Land guided by clouds and fire. Both images were designed to reinforce the image of Americans as The Chosen People and America as the Promised Land.

Of course, as in the Old Testament, in America there were Canaanites who needed to be smitten before the Chosen People could move into their Promised Lands, and smitten they have been. According to various proofs offered by Newcomb throughout the book this mindset has permeated the attitude taken by America during their expansion across America and their treatment of Indigenous people's everywhere.

One of the key arguments in his book in support of his theory that the relationship between the American government and the Native population is based on the rule of Christian discovery is a legal case from the 1820s - Johnson v. McIntosh. Chief Justice John Marshall actually based his ruling in part upon the Papal Bull of 1493. In the case he said that the discovery of "heathens" by Christian people gave the Christians "ultimate dominion" over the "discovered Indian". This decision has never been overturned and remains the legal foundation for all American government dealings with the Native populations of the Americans.

Steven Newcomb has studied judicial history, and has in some ways approached this work like a lawyer proving his case in court. Fortunately, he refrains from using legal terminology, whenever possible, and has formulated his case in a way that all lay people can understand. The other thing to realize is that this book has been written for a native audience to help them understand the situation they face. One of the parts I found wonderful about this book was how he offers cognitive counsel for Native people to help them overcome the mindset of feeling like they are a conquered people. He reminds them that governments can not control how they think, what they imagine, how they use their language, or where they direct their attention. As long as they remember that, and continue to work on keeping their languages, traditions, and cultures alive, no matter what constraints the government puts on them they will still be free.

Pagans In The Promised Land is a must read for anybody wishing to understand what truly motivates American policy towards the Indigenous people's within in its borders. While at times it can make for a depressing and angering read, the author ends with a message of hope that is applicable for people anywhere in the world struggling to maintain their identity in the face of what seems to be overwhelming odds.

April 24, 2008

An Earth Day Interview With Mother Earth

Well another Earth Day has come and gone presenting us with an ideal time to check in with Mother Earth and see how she's doing these days as compared to last year at this time. (Does anybody know when Earth Day was this year - I thought it was supposed to be every April 23rd, but it looks like people were getting all Green on the 22nd this year) It's harder and harder to get in touch with Mother Earth these days as she has so much on her plate, but I was finally able to track her down and ask her a few questions.

When you think about it, we really don't know that much about the Mother do we, heck I bet none of us even know when she was born! Of course everybody has their own theory as to a date, but from the religious to the scientific we're all just guessing. One thing I do know for sure, whatever her age may be, she's really starting to show it. There are deep lines on her face which weren't even there a year ago, she's become even more stooped over then ever, and she's developed a really nasty cough.

When I finally caught up to her she didn't seem to be in the best of moods considering it was Earth Day, with people all over the world celebrating how much they cared about her. I thought she was being somewhat ungracious and decided to call her on it.

I'm surprised that you're so put out, given the fact that people all over the world have been making a big fuss about you. Don't you think you could be acting a little more grateful

Mother Earth: Oh, and I've got so much to be grateful for. Three hundred and sixty four day a year they don't think twice about spitting on me, and I'm supposed to feel grateful for them for taking one day to pick up some garbage? I'm still going to have to figure out what to do with all the crap they pick up today aren't I? No don't answer, it was a rhetorical question idiot.

What do you think is going to happen with all the garbage that gets picked up today? It's going to go where garbage always goes; into landfill, onto a garbage scow in New Jersey, or burnt in an incinerator. It means that I'm still going to have to figure out how to bio-degrade shit, pray to whoever that the damned scow doesn't sink dumping its load in the river, and trying to absorb another load of CO2 from it being burned. Not much different from any other day of the year as far as I'm concerned.

But doesn't it make you feel like people at least care about what's happening to you?

Mother Earth: Care? Care! If they god damned cared they wouldn't have dumped the garbage they're picking up in the first place. Don't talk to me about caring asshole. For the last, I don't know how many billions of years, I've worked at creating this really incredibly, delicate, balance called the natural order of things where all of life is beautifully interconnected. It's a god damned work of art if you ask me, but what do you philistines do?

Ever since you climbed out of the trees there's been somebody among you who thinks that they can do this creation thing better than I can and proceeds to rip great big holes in the web that ties everything together. I'm left scurrying to try and patch it up somehow and mitigate the damage.

Of all the animals on this planet humans were the only ones given the ability to reason, but you couldn't tell that by your actions. You people should know better. But you still shit and piss in the water you plan on drinking the next day, dump poison into the air that you need to breath in order to survive, and cut down the trees, that if given half a chance might be able to clean the air for you, to build another strip mall. Those aren't the actions of a caring and responsible people, let along rationale or reasonable.

If you were dumb like pigs or cows, while it would be understandable, but humans are supposedly intelligent and rational. Therefore, the only explanation I'm left with for your behaviour is you don't care. What else I'm supposed to think?

Well, but that was in the past. Don't you think we're getting better - look at all the things we're doing to try and fix what we've done wrong

Mother Earth: Recycling, car-pooling, florescent light bulbs, and composting your kitchen wastes are known where I come from as both, too little to late and useless as tits on a bull. Oh don't look so shocked you little putz, it's the truth. Look, those are all really nice things, and I do appreciate that the people doing them are genuine in their desire to make changes in their lives to help me. That only makes it doubly sad that it's not really doing any good.

The reality is that no matter what the government and the corporations who own them say, it's not the fault of individuals that the world is in the trouble its in. For the last couple of hundred years a small minority of humans have been making huge amounts of money off the the labour of the majority and at the expense of the planet's health. Mass production of anything leads to massive generation of waste directly and indirectly.

Not only does a manufacturer have the potential to create waste products through the direct operation of his business, but there's also the demands he makes upon other sectors of the system. First of all he needs power in order for his equipment to work so that means electricity has to be generated for his use. Then there are the raw materials he is going to be making use of in his manufacturing process. If he uses metal, that means a steel mill is involved, and there's all the waste and pollution they generate, and all the electricity they're going to need to make their equipment work.

Sooner or later you'll figure out that I don't have an endless supply of anything and I'm going to start running out of the stuff you need to feed the beast you've created. As the supply decreases and the demand increases what do you see being the end result? One day you're going to go to the cupboard and it's going to bare and then what's going to happen? Oh the corporations and their pet politicians will reassure you that it can never happen, that there's always new sources of oil laying untapped beneath the sea or under the perma-frost just waiting to feed us all. Even if you do find a way to get at that oil, it's only a stop-gap. It will run dry eventually.

You can already hear the wheels grinding to a stop. In their desperation to find more fuel for the beast's insatiable appetite they're causing famine by using land that once grew food for humans to try and find a way to sustain the unsustainable by growing plants they can turn into fuel. They're also stealing the water that we all need to drink to stay alive by diverting rivers with dams to create hydroelectric power. The world is experiencing food shortages to such an extent already that riots have started to break out because people are starving.

The more water they steal, and the more land they take, the less food there will be and people will starve. A starving population is a desperate population and they will make the food riots of today look like a day at the beach. The question is not whether the system will fail or not, it's how will the system fail? Will it grind to a stop because you've run out of fuel or will it explode into a million pieces as you run out of food for all the mouths in the world.

Now go away - you bother me.

Well you can see Mother Earth was in quite the mood. Can you believe some of the stuff she was coming up with? Talk about not understanding the big picture - what does she expect us to do? Shut down all the factories? As if that's going to ever happen. Mother Earth might know all about growing things but she's really out of touch with what it means to be human.

April 9, 2008

DVD Review: The Deserter

During the Vietnam war thousands of young American men left their homes and their families behind and crossed the border into Canada to avoid being drafted into the United States army. Since none of them had as yet been conscripted into the army they weren't listed as deserters from the army and went into the books as draft dodgers; a very important distinction in the eyes of the law and the eyes of the public.

To the majority a deserter is a coward who has run away from his responsibilities. They have betrayed their country in a time of war and in most people's minds there can be no worse crime. To the majority there are only two reasons for you to desert your country's army; either you are a coward or you are an enemy of the state. That there could be another option isn't even conceivable to some people.

On the other side of the coin is the person who enlisted in the army because he or she couldn't see any other employment options on the horizon and the army offered a source of income. They also felt that serving their country was a way of doing something of at least some significance. Once in the armed forces they start hearing stories from people who have done tours of duty in Iraq; stories of running over children in tanks, shooting civilians, that over 60% of the Iraqi population don't want them there, and how so many returning soldiers are suffering from emotional and mental problems.
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So if you were a young man like Ryan Johnson and have heard all these stories, and find out that your unit will be shipping out to Iraq in spite of being told you would only be based in the States when you enlisted what would you do? Your options are limited; go to Iraq for no apparent reason other than you are being ordered to; stay in the military and refuse to deploy and go to jail for at least a year; or desert and head to Canada.

I'm sure there are a great many people out there who will say he should either go to Iraq or pay the price for his refusal by going to jail and only a coward would take the third option. Yet think about what it would mean for a second if he decides to go to Canada. He can never come back to the United States and see his family and friends again. His government and a great many of his compatriots will consider him a traitor and a criminal, and if he were ever arrested he could very well face life imprisonment.

Ask yourself if you would be willing to do those things, take those risks, for your beliefs? Wouldn't it be safer just to play the game like you are supposed to and go to Iraq or be led off to jail meekly for refusing to deploy? Doesn't it take just as much courage to make the decision to desert as it does to blindly obey orders? Before answering that question wouldn't it be a good thing to get to know the reasons why a young man like Ryan Johnson would volunteer for the army only to desert?

Big Noise Films has just released their short documentary feature Deserter which introduces us to Ryan and his wife Jen and follows their trek north and east from California to Toronto, Canada after he has made the decision to desert. We first meet Ryan at his mom's house when he is already Absent Without Leave (AWOL). He had enlisted in the armed forces because he didn't know what else to do in order to make a living to support his wife and raise a family. Quite a number of his friends had already done the same thing, although two had joined the navy instead of the army, for the same reasons.

When the assurances that he would only ever be posted Stateside turned out to be a lie and he was told that he was going to be deployed to Iraq he started to find out as much as he could about what it would be like over there. He also considered all the stories he had heard already One friend of his had returned from a tour of duty in Iraq, and to celebrate his wife had booked the family at trip to Disney World. After the first day there his friend hadn't been able to leave his hotel room because the crowds and the noise were too much for him and he couldn't cope.

"I don't want to end up like that"

Interspersed through the rest of the movie, as we follow the young couple across the United States into upstate New York, are excerpts of interviews with veterans of the conflict in Iraq telling stories of what they did and experienced there. One man talks about being part of a company that indiscriminately shelled an Iraqi city killing hundreds of people, and another of watching a friend's leg being blown off, and having to try and haul him over the tailgate of their vehicle so he could be taken to safety.

One of the men apologized for having slurred speech, but the medication they had him on for anxiety and depression was causing him difficulties. To a man they all looked like they had seen things that no human being should ever have to experience; hollowed eyed and grim they appear to be still suffering from shock. After seeing these people and listening to their stories is it any wonder that a person who enlisted to serve Stateside balked at being deployed to Iraq.

All the way across America there operates a new Underground Railway, but now instead of helping run away slaves they are helping young Americans escape from having to serve in what they consider an unjust war. Ryan and Jen are passed from safe house to safe house until just before the border they phone the contact they have for Toronto. They've already been coached on how to get through the border crossing, but that doesn't stop them from being nervous; there is the risk that they could check Ryan for outstanding warrants and find out that he is a deserter.

Ryan and Jen have been in Canada for almost three years now, we're not told how they are living - if they are some of the deserters who have applied for refugee status or if they are living underground. In a special feature after the main body of the DVD, the movie makers have included a live video conference call that was conducted at the end of a showing of Deserter with Ryan and Jen. They both appear happy enough, and the interesting thing about Ryan is that he seems so much more self assured now than he did at the beginning of the movie when he was a scared and unsure kid who had just made the decision to leave the United States to come to Canada.

A war like Vietnam, or like Iraq, creates wounds that are invisible. The wounds of distrust and hatred between people who live in the same country. The young people who are being asked to fight these wars might do things that people will not approve of, like desert the army instead of fighting in Iraq. Before you judge them you need to hear their stories. Deserter is a little piece of Ryan Johnson's story, and maybe it will help you understand why he felt like he had to do what he did.

For the sake of the future of your country, don't you think you owe them at least the chance to tell their story?

April 8, 2008

China, Tibet, And The Olympic Games

There are layers of irony surrounding the protests over China's occupation of Tibet and the forthcoming Olympic Games in Beijing that would make an onion envious. From the signs that read "Free Tibet" to the fact that China was even awarded the Olympic Games in the first place it's hard to know where to even start. What do people have in mind when they demand a free Tibet? What were the International Olympic Committee(IOC) thinking when they awarded a country that depends on slave labour and has one of the world's worst human rights records in the world the Olympic Games?

The Dali Lama has captured the imaginations of people in the West for the past few decades in the way that no other spiritual leader, except maybe the last Pope, has been able to. He is welcomed in nation's capitals the world over, and people of all faiths hang onto his every world as if he has some particular insight into the human condition that everyone else has missed. Supposedly, he is the reincarnation of a previous Dali Lama, and was anointed as such when he was a young child by the hierarchy within the Tibetan Buddhist priesthood.

The royal families of Europe use to have this quaint notion call the Divine Right of Kings, (and Queens). Since they were God's appointed rulers of their country's they were above reproach from lesser beings, like their subjects, and their word was law. Who, after all, could gainsay them if God had put their buts on the throne. That was all very well and good as long as the majority of a country's population remained downtrodden, and dependant on their feudal lord for survival.

Once the economic picture started to change and a middle class of educated and monied people started to emerge, people weren't willing to buy that line anymore. Kings and Queens were reduced to being merely human and lost most of their authority. That doesn't mean there aren't countries in the world that are either theocracies or ruled by someone who considers themselves a divine ruler. Prior to the Chinese invasion year ago, Tibet was one of those countries.

What freedoms are people demanding so vociferously on behalf of Tibetans exactly? The freedom to revert back to being the feudal theocracy they were prior to the Chinese invasion? Where every man, woman, and child who was not part of the priesthood spent their lives in servitude to the monks. Much as in feudal Europe the labour of many was used to sustain a select few who claimed that God had selected them to rule.

While the Church in Europe promised the masses eternal salvation in the afterlife as a reward for their suffering and threatened damnation in hell if they stepped out of line, Tibetans were offered the solace of potential reincarnation as something better off the next time around if they toed the line. They'd only themselves to blame that they were toiling in the fields this time; obviously they hadn't earned enough merit badges in their previous life to be elevated up to the next rung on the ladder of enlightenment.

People need to be asking themselves what would happen in Tibet if the Chinese were to withdraw tomorrow and the Dali Lama found himself reinstated. This is a country that has gone from one form of autocratic rule to another, and has no history of anything remotely resembling representational government. Would political parties miraculously spring up overnight? Who would be responsible for crafting a constitution that would create the Free Tibet, they are calling for? Or would they be satisfied if the country were to return to a feudal theocracy where the population was in thrall to the priesthood?

Now don't get me wrong, I'm not saying any of this as an endorsement of the poor, put upon, misunderstood Chinese government either. This is a government that turned tanks upon its own people twenty years ago, that still routinely puts people in jail and even executes them for being a little too outspoken in their opposition. Yet somehow they expect us to swallow the crap they're spouting about peace, friendship, and harmony and that their decision to send the Olympic Torch on a global relay was to encourage people to build a more harmonious, better tomorrow.

The Olympic Games have been about propaganda since Hitler tried to turn them into a showcase for White supremacy in 1936, and anyone who thinks otherwise is delusional at best. Why else would countries like the United States who barely spend a cent on social programs, dump millions of dollars into amateur sport, or China, where millions of people live without running water, build an entire network of Olympic facilities from scratch in only eight years? It's just another variation on the age old pissing contest.

When the decision was made to award Beijing the Olympic games do you think that the boys in the IOC gave any consideration to the human rights situation in China? Do you think they cared that all those shiny new facilities would be made with what was virtually slave labour? I doubt those considerations even crossed their minds, and why should it? They've never troubled themselves about trivialities like that in the past; why break with tradition now?

The Chinese government figures it can tighten the screws in Tibet and not worry about anyone boycotting these Olympics because the whole of the industrialized world has been whoring itself to them for the last decade. Just the thought of a billion people waiting to be served has CEO's salivating and frothing at the mouth like a pack of rabid dogs. If they're really lucky they might even be able to go into business with the Chinese and open a factory there. China is every corporations idea of a wet dream; no environmental regulations, no unions, no health and safety standards to worry about maintaining, and best of all, a population in desperate need of employment.

No government will dare and rock that boat or they will find themselves replaced in the next election by someone more "sensitive" to the needs of the business community. It's amazing how the words freedom and human rights can vanish when they no longer serve your purposes. It's all right to fight for human rights in Afghanistan and freedom in Iraq, but not in China, and the Chinese government knows it.

The real irony of this whole business is there are so many reasons for people to be protesting against China being awarded the Olympic Games, and yet they've latched onto a cause which has no meaning. Instead of demonstrating against the horrors of life inside of China; starvation, cultural genocide, slave labour, environmental horrors, and the absence of anything even resembling individual rights, they've taken up the cause of a feudal theocracy.

If it wasn't so sad it would be funny, as it is it's just sort of pathetic. Protesting for a free Tibet has done China a huge favour by diverting attention away from the real problems that exist in that country. Wouldn't it be ironic if the Chinese staged it all just for that reason?

April 4, 2008

Book Review: Wolf Totem Jiang Rong

Throughout the history of so-called civilization zealousness and fanaticism has come in many forms, from the political to the religious. The word zealot is taken from the name of a group of fanatic Jews who fought against the rule of Rome during the reign of King Herod and the time of Christ in what is now present day Israel. That their name has stuck in our language to symbolize over the top devotion is not due to any success they had in the field of battle, but because of the mass suicide carried out by their members during the siege of the town of Masada.

Unfortunately the majority of the original zealots' successors didn't follow in their footsteps by limiting their deeds to self-harm. The worst atrocities throughout this planet's brush with human kind have been carried out in the name of God, nationalism, or political ideology as inflexible visions or beliefs won't stand for dissension or accept the possibility that another way could have validity. The Inquisition burnt heretics at the stake to save their souls; the Nazis used inferior races for medical experiments and slave labour before killing them; and today, countless men and women are convinced that killing others while blowing themselves to bits ensures their ascension to heaven.

One of the modern era's worst examples of fanatic excess also happens to be the one that we in the West know the least about. The Cultural Revolution held mainland China in the grip of terror for around a decade. It is assumed that Mao Zedung was the motivating force behind it's initial implementation in 1966 as he sought to consolidate his personal power. Academics, professionals, and artists, were deemed to have begun to put on airs and in need of re-education in order to properly appreciate the goals of the Revolution. Universities were closed and young people were formed into brigades of Red Guards with the purpose of using them to impose the new order.
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Part of the campaign saw Red Guard members and university students dispersed to the far corners of the country to help stamp out beliefs or behaviours that were considered contrary to the goals of the party. In 1967 Jiang Rong, (which is a pen name for Lu Jiamin) was one of those young people. When the schools were closed and his academic career halted, he volunteered to go to Inner Mongolia where he spent the next eleven years working and living with the nomadic people native to the area. Wolf Totem, published by Penguin Canada, is a fictionalized account of this period. It was first published in Chinese in 2004 and has now been translated into English by Howard Goldblatt.

Chen Zhen is one of a group of students who has been sent to live with the Mongolian Nomads who have inhabited the grasslands of Inner Mongolia since before the time of Genghis Khan. Like people throughout the world who depend on the land for their survival the Mongols have figured out how to live in harmony with their environment to ensure their continued existence. For hundreds of years they have raised sheep, goats, cattle, and horses in harmony with the needs of the wild creatures and the grasslands. In fact, so important is the continued existence of the prairie to them, they consider themselves the protectors of the grassland first and herdsmen second.

As Chen spends more time with an elder in the work brigade he is assigned to, the more he comes to understand just what the grasslands mean to the Mongol. It's from this same man, Bilgee, that Chen learns about a third key element upon which the lives of the nomads depend; the wolf. Although the wolf is the enemy of livestock and the Mongols are constantly at war with them, they also revere them as a source of knowledge and for the role they play in preserving the grasslands.

The Mongols understand the importance of a large predator in an environment where vegetation is limited and rodents multiply like, well like rabbits. Without the large predator not only would the pest population quickly get out of hand, but the gazelle population, native to the Mongolian plains, would soon deplete grazing land the nomads depend on if the wolves didn't keep their populations in check. This doesn't mean that the wolves are allowed to use their livestock as a buffet either; if a pack becomes a nuisance and preys too often on the nomad's herds they will be hunted down.

Chen soon learns that the wolves are not only a valued citizen of the grasslands, but also grows to respect their intelligence and battle planning. He hadn't really believed Bilgee's contention that Genghis Khan owed his military success to learning from the way the wolves hunted until he actually saw them exercise a brilliant flanking and encirclement manoeuvre while hunting down a herd of gazelle. Unfortunately while Chen, and maybe a couple of the other Chinese students are gaining an understanding and appreciation for the wolves and the way in which the nomadic Mongols have co-existed with them, the traditional way of life is considered counter-revolutionary because it is based on beliefs other than those sanctioned by the party.

For while the academics need to be re-educated through manual labour, it is also the job of the Red Guards to fight against what they see as the superstitious beliefs that are found among people like the nomads. With the fervour of missionaries the world over they have no tolerance for what they consider heresy. Some even accuse the old nomad Bilgee of helping wolves escape from a hunt he had organized because of his beliefs. It sounds ridiculous to our ears to hear someone call a wolf the enemy of the proletariat and calling for their eradication because they are a threat to livestock, but there's not much difference between that and some of the reasons given for killing wolves in the West.

It is the age old clash of the demands of civilization against the needs of the environment being played out on the pages of Wolf Totem. It doesn't take a soothsayer to know who is going to win and who is going to lose this battle. Chen is bearing witness to the cultural genocide of the Mongols; the great grasslands will be turned into pastures, the herds put into pens, and the wolves exterminated.

Jiang Rong has done a masterful job of depicting life among the nomads, from his descriptions of their everyday lives, to a terrifying ride through the night in a fierce snow storm with four horse herders desperately trying to defend their charges from an all out attack by a wolf pack. So vivid is his description that you feel like you are riding with the herders as they helplessly watch the wolves bring down horse after horse in a series of suicide attacks.

They leap onto the backs of the horses and dig their claws and teeth into them. The wolves' claws and teeth have been embedded so tightly that as the horse fights to throw the wolf off it ends up disembowelling itself as it is raked end to end by the wolf before it falls beneath the hooves. When you read that it was female wolves who recently had given birth conducting the attacks, Bilgee's assessment that the attack was in vengeance for men killing litter after litter of wolf cubs the previous week is enough to send shivers down your spine.

It's not often that we get the opportunity to read about life in China, and although the Cultural Revolution was officially denounced during the 1970's with the trial of the Gang Of Four, (the name given to the four leaders, including Mao's third wife Jiang Qing, in charge during the worst excesses of the period) it is rare for the Chinese government to allow anything this outspokenly critical of the Party and its policies to be made public.

Wolf Totem is a beautiful and heartbreaking story that everybody who cares about the state of the world should read. No amount of Earth Days, or Earth Hours will ever be able to replace the things we have lost through our own stupidity and fanaticism. The Red Guard's behaviour in Inner Mongolia in the 1960's and 1970's is no different from the destruction of natural habitats the world over in the face of progress.

There was another country, once long ago, where the original people considered themselves the preservers of the land and tried to live in harmony with the animals they shared it with. They too were considered the enemy of civilization and lost their way of life, and witnessed the desecration of the land and the decimation of the wild animal populations. Communist or Christian it doesn't seem to matter, greed wins out in the end.

Wolf Totem can be purchased either directly from Penguin Canada or through an on line retailer like Indigo Books

March 31, 2008

Interview: Stephanie McMillan Creator Of Minimum Security

Last winter I received my first introduction to the people that inhabit Stephanie McMillan's Minimum Security when I reviewed her collaborative effort with writer Derrick Jensen As The World Burns: Fifty Things You Can Do To Stay In Denial and found my first cartoon hero since Snoopy - Bunnista. What's not to love; with that cute little X instead of an eye - a memento from having survived an animal testing facility- his cute little arms, his grenade launcher, and his great do it yourself attitude. Bunnista isn't one for sitting around waiting for somebody else to make a statement about things - nope he'll be right there with as many explosives as he can cobble together and let the world know what's what.

After that introduction I wanted more and discovered that an anthology of Stephanie's work had been published under the title of Attitude: Featuring Stephanie McMillan's Minimum Security and discovered just how good she was at being a cartoonist and not being afraid to speak her mind. Now it just so happens that I agree with just about everything she has to say about the mess that the world is in and what really needs to be done to even start making amends. As far as I'm concerned it's one of the few places in the mass media where you can be guaranteed reading the truth on a regular basis.

Wanting to learn a little bit more about the person responsible for what is now my favourite comic strip I contacted Stephanie about doing an interview. The upshot was that I sent her a handful of questions and she sent me back the answers that you can read below. In addition to the answers, Stephanie also sent me the following handy biography that will give you all sorts of information about her.
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Stephanie McMillan was born in Fort Lauderdale, FL where she still lives. she earned a BFA in 1987 in film (with a focus on animation) at Tisch School of the Arts, New York University. Her cartoon, Minimum Security, is syndicated online by United Media and appears five times per week at Comics.com
Since 1992, her cartoons have been published in dozens of print and online publications including Z Magazine, Monday Magazine (Canada), Clamor, City Link (South Florida), Megh Barta (Bangladesh), Al Eqtisadiah (Saudi Arabia), Asheville Global Report, San Francisco Bay Guardian, Casseurs de Pub (France), Working for Change, New Standard News, Tribuno del Pueblo, American Libraries, Comic Relief, and Anchorage Press.

Stephanie is the illustrator and co-author, with writer Derrick Jensen, of a new graphic novel about the global environmental crisis, As the World Burns: 50 Simple Things You Can Do to Stay in Denial, (Seven Stories Press, 2007, 225 pages).

A collection of her cartoons, Attitude Presents Minimum Security was published in 2005, edited and with a foreword by Ted Rall. Her work is also included in Attitude: The New Subversive Political Cartoonists (2002), as well as in various textbooks and several books in the Opposing Viewpoints series by Gale Publishing Group. Her cartoons have been included in exhibits at the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art (New York), the San Francisco Comic Art Museum, the Andy Warhol Museum (Pittsburgh), and the Institute for Policy Studies (Washington, DC), among other venues.

She is a member of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists, as well as a founding member of Cartoonists With Attitude, a group of ground-breaking social commentary and political cartoonists formed in 2006, many of whom appear in NBM Publishing’s Attitude series of books edited by Ted Rall. You can find out all sort of other things about Stephanie at her web site if you want, but for now here's the interview. See you at the end of the ride.

When did you first start drawing, and was there anything that you remember in particular that got you started

Stephanie: I’ve loved drawing since I was a little kid. I remember bringing drawings home from pre-school and proudly showing them to my dad, who pointed out that hands and feet only have five fingers and toes each, respectively, and not the ten or twenty lines I drew radiating out from each limb.

What was it that made you decide that you wanted to draw cartoons - what is about that medium that appealed to you?

Stephanie: In fourth grade I fell in love with Peanuts and decided to become a cartoonist. Their personalities fascinated me -- the deep melancholy of Charlie Brown, and the defiant independence of Snoopy. I always marvelled at how Schulz was able to create distinct, subtle expressions with such economy of line, how just a couple of dots and curves could effectively convey worry or exasperation. By copying Peanuts at that age, I learned how to draw facial expressions. I think my characters still owe a lot to that early influence.

You have very strong opinions on social/political issues, how did they evolve?

Stephanie: At about age 12 I realized that I’d been too young to understand or participate in the social justice and anti-imperialist movements of the late 1960s. Growing up in the subsequent period of political stagnation, it frustrated me a lot that I’d missed that important and exciting time. I spent many hours as a teenager daydreaming about starting a commune, and thinking about what a fair society would look like. When I was a senior in high school, an older relative gave me the book Fate of the Earth by Jonathan Schell, which made me (unwillingly) think about -- and fear -- the possibility of nuclear war. I started writing about it for the school paper, and going to meetings of liberal anti-nuke groups.

I immediately realized that the actions they recommended – writing letters to local papers and politicians – were a useless waste of time. I didn’t know what else to do though, until outside one of these meetings I met a communist who talked to me about revolution. I was astounded and thrilled – the idea of revolution hadn’t ever occurred to me. I’d thought it was a relic of the long-distant past, and here was someone telling me we could do it too. I jumped right in.

When did you make the decision to combine the two; politics and cartooning?

Stephanie: I went to film school, where I studied animation, because it was very important to my parents that I get a college degree, but already my heart was in political action. I spent my twenties as an activist, and rejected the idea of being an artist. It felt frivolous to draw funny pictures when the revolutionary movement was so small and fragile and needed every ounce of energy we could give it. Instead I took a series of crummy jobs (warehouses, factories, retail shops) to keep me alive so I could do my real work as an organizer. I worked to defend abortion clinics from Operation Rescue, worked against the detention of immigrants, against Star Wars and other cold-war moves by the US, against police brutality, and on a lot of other issues. What I wanted was to help take these struggles out of the realm of loyal opposition, and tie them into a movement that recognized the whole capitalist system as the underlying problem.

After about 15 years of this, the 1999 anti-WTO protests in Seattle revealed that a healthy and vibrant opposition movement had developed, and I felt that it was ethically okay for me to stop being an organizer (other people were doing it far more effectively), and do what I’d always wanted to do, create art as my way of exposing and opposing the system. So I started drawing cartoons.

Initially you started out by doing the single box cartoons, and now you do a recurring strip - how did that progression come about?

Stephanie: At first they were actually multi-panel vertical rectangles, pretty wordy and elaborate. Stylistically I was influenced by the cartoonists I admired: among them Ted Rall, Ruben Bolling, Lynda Barry and Matt Groening. After a few years of that, I switched to single-panel political cartoons because I thought they’d be easier to place in papers. Then after the US attacked Iraq, in spite of millions of people all over the world protesting the moves toward war, I became so depressed that I stopped drawing altogether for about nine months.

Eventually I understood that it’s not acceptable to surrender or give up, and I picked it up again in the form of a character-based strip. I chose that form with the idea that it would be more effective to present political points using ongoing characters whom readers might identify with, and stories that would be more compelling to follow in an ongoing way.

You've created four very distinct human characters for Minimum Security , and one very angry rabbit - where did you draw your inspiration for them from? Any friends or family to
be found amongst them in some shape or form?

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Stephanie: They’re all mixed up and combined from parts of myself and people in my life. Nikko, for example, was initially inspired by my brother Nick, whom I love to tease for the TV programs he likes (Nick is much smarter though, and cuter). His sister Kranti and I share a few personality traits (only the positive ones! Ahem. I’m not NEARLY that cranky...and I do wear clothes). I have a good-hearted friend who’s a little silly like Bananabelle, and the name Bananabelle came from my cousin’s pet sheep. Javier’s name came from an activist I’ve admired, who started a community garden. There are even parts of myself in Bunnista... or rather, there would be if I had more guts.

Creating a daily comic strip must be difficult - what's your process for working on the series - writing a whole bunch of strips in advance - like the Celebrity Dodge Ball sequence for instance did you sit down over the space of a few days and power through it, or do you only work a few days in advance of your deadline?

Stephanie: Though it can vary somewhat, in a typical week I write five comics on Monday or Tuesday, draw them on Saturday and color them on Sunday. The hardest part is the writing, and I don’t typically get very far ahead. I often sit at the blank page, agonizing over what should happen and how to possibly make it funny, with a growing dread that the clock’s running out. With longer sequences, I usually have a general sense of what will happen, but don’t actually write them out until the week I draw them. They run the week after they’re finished.

Which comes fist the dialogue or the illustration? Or is it simultaneous?

Stephanie: I write out the scripts first. One of the best bits of advice from an editor I ever got was many years ago, and it was this: write everything that absolutely must be in the cartoon ... then cross out half the words. They turn out much better when I remember to do that.

It's probably safe to say that Minimum Security is socially relevant and politically opinionated - where do you find your inspiration?

Stephanie: Oh my gosh, everywhere. The entire planet and pretty much every form of life on it is being killed right now by industrial capitalism. The need to stop that from happening is tremendously urgent. There’s a lot to be upset about and to address: the imperialist wars and the relentless determination of the US empire to expand, conquer and destroy. The exploitative nature of this global economic system, where a few live on the backs of the many, and suffering is considered normal. The unfathomable levels of pollution that are driving extinct 200 species a day, and making us all sick.

Have there been any cartoonists, artists, or people in general who you would say have influenced your work, and shaped your thinking the most?

Stephanie: Sure, so many. I find artists of many genres very inspiring visually. Some of my favourites are great cartoonists like Bill Watterson, Winsor McCay, Gahan Wilson, and the others I’ve mentioned, political artists like John Heartfield and George Grosz, pop artists like Keith Haring and Yoshitomo Nara, and folk art from Mexico and the Indian subcontinent. I’ve benefited from reading a broad range of thinkers and writers, including Howard Zinn, Chellis Glendinning, Barbara Kingsolver, Margaret Atwood, Marx, Lenin, Mao, Jerry Mander, Wallace Shawn, Krishnamurti, Vandana Shiva, and Derrick Jensen.

As The World Burns was a collaboration with Derrick Jensen - how did that work. Obviously you supplied the artwork, but did he write the story and dialogue and then you created the illustrations - or did he give your a narration and you created dialogue and visuals that complimented it.

Stephanie: That was a fun, great process! We talked a lot throughout about how the story should go, and he’d send each part to me as he’d write it. He wrote it mostly in the form of dialogue, with some description. I wrote a few parts as well. At first I tried to keep up with drawing each section as I received it, but I quickly lost ground and it took me a few months to finish the drawings after he’d finished the writing.

You don't mince any words in your comics and are usually very direct in your opinions. Have you experienced any problems because of that, and how's the reaction to your strip been in general?

Stephanie: People usually either really like it or really hate it. Many readers have said that it expresses things that they’ve thought about or felt, and that they found it validating or strengthening. That sort of response is actually the reason I draw – I want to help expose the hypocrisy and false claims of the system, and encourage resistance to it.

I also get my share of hate mail and criticism. I’ve even heard about a couple of blogs out there dedicated to ripping Minimum Security apart. Sometimes a right-wing blog will send a flurry of angry messages my way, but they die down pretty quick. I just delete them. Overall, the positive far exceeds the negative. I think many people want more art that challenges the status quo, and they appreciate it when they find it.

What's the future hold for the folk at Minimum Security - any chance of live action or even another full length graphic novel?

Minimum Security is currently on the web site of United Media (Comics.com). If it does well there, and develops enough of a growing audience, then it’s possible that United will syndicate the strip for print as well (currently I self-syndicate it in print, and United syndicates it in electronic form). I would like to do another graphic novel (or more) with these characters, perhaps a sequel to As the World Burns. There are no current plans for animation, but it would be great to do that too. Mainly at this point I’m trying to get it into more print publications.

I would like to thank Stephanie for taking the time to answer my questions, and I encourage everyone to stop on over to Comics.com and get a fix of Minimum Security five days a week (Monday to Friday). Even better, why not pick up one of her snazzy Bunnista T-shirts or The Little Green Book: Bunnista's Book Of Quotations at the Minimum Security Shop.

Oh for those who were wondering, the title Minimum Security comes from something an inmate said on being released back into society when asked on how it felt to be free again. He replied that he still wasn't free - he was just in minimum security.

March 29, 2008

The Meaninglessness Of Earth Hour


Stop the presses: Tonight at 8:00 pm EST people, cities, and businesses around the world will be turning off their non-essential electricity for one hour. Earth Hour is the brain child of the World Wildlife Federation (WWF) who have co-opeted the idea from an event staged in Sydney Australia last year where 2 million people and 2,000 businesses shut off power for an hour. The idea was to show people easy and effective means that can be taken to save electrical power on a regular basis.

This year the WWF (no not the World Wrestling Federation - see above) have taken the idea global by encouraging people, cities, and businesses to sign an on-line to pledge to take part in a simultaneous world-wide hour of turning out the lights and shutting off the power. To date only about 230,000 people and twenty major cities have pledged to go along with the idea, which isn't even a tenth of the number who took part in last year's event in Sydney. In other words it's looking like this hasn't exactly caught too many people's imaginations.

Now I'm sure that there are going to be people who will say things like the television stations and advertisers aren't going to want lose that hour's worth of prime time audience on a Saturday night, so they're not going to go out of their way to promote it. It will be easy enough to point the finger of blame at some big media conglomerate who doesn't want to lose a penny, for why this event doesn't fly. It's far better to do that than to admit that the whole exercise is pointless and just another sap to people's consciences that won't accomplish dick all.

It's just another joke like Earth Day, and the corporate sponsored pick up a piece of garbage programs that take place every April 23rd. You know those events where everybody gets in their cars and drives to some spot with garbage bags and collects some of the crap that our society produces on a daily basis so that it can be added to overflowing landfill sites, burnt in incinerators, tossed in the town dump, or buried in abandoned mine shafts. Yep, then every one gathers round and has a barbecue consisting of hamburgers made from cattle that acres of rain forest were cut down to make room for. Very ecological.

I hate to break it to everyone but no amount of Earth Days, Earth Hours, Earth Minutes, or even Earth Seconds, is going to change the condition the world is in. If you want to do something constructive for the environment it is going take a commitment far in excess of anything that any of us, and I include myself in that us, are probably willing to take. One only has to consider the environmental impact we each have going grocery shopping each week to get an idea of what I'm talking about.

According to statistics reported by Barbara Kingsolver in her book Animal, Vegetable, Mineral if you were to remove the products made with corn, soy, and canola from the supermarket, close to 97% of what's on the shelves would vanish. Soy and corn are not just found in soy milk, tofu or your can of creamed corn from Green Giant these days. Check the ingredient list on the next box of frozen chicken breasts that you buy and you'll notice some interesting additions; soy protein and maybe even corn meal. Both are added to the "chicken breast" as filler to give it more weight. Yet that's only the surface, because a great deal of the packaging that your food comes in has used corn in the manufacturing process.

Now that might sound "ecological" until you start factoring in something else, how much of our agricultural land is now being used to grow what used to be know as feed corn - corn unfit for human consumption but you could feed it to your cattle - that can be processed for manufacturing purposes? In order to make that box your chicken product came in we've wasted land that could have been used to grow food in order to create packaging that has to be disposed of somehow or other.

Then there's the matter of how that packaging was manufactured. How much fresh water had to used for the paper to be pulped, for the inks to be manufactured? How much electrical power was needed for the various stages of the manufacturing process from the cutting down of the tree that supplied the wood that made the paper until the box ended up on the factory floor where the frozen chicken bits were stuffed into it? What happened to all the waste product from the manufacturing process all the way along the chain?

None of that even takes into account the chicken used to make the contents of the package. Skipping over the whole ethical thing about factory farms for now let's just consider chicken shit. That's the real problem with all these factory farms is the disposal of the animal waste product. You get thousands of chickens in one place you're talking about one hell of a lot of chicken shit that you have to get rid off somehow because you can't just have it piling up on the floor. So where does it all go?

All of that just from buying one box of frozen chicken breasts at the supermarket. If you were to take every product you purchase in the grocery store that came pre packaged and start tracing back through the manufacturing process for each part of it, you'd come up with a similar scenario. Even those so called "green" products we all buy are packaged and contribute somewhere along the way to the damage we're inflicting upon the planet.

So things like Earth Hour and Earth Day are meaningless jokes when compared to the damage we inflict upon the world we live in every second of every minute of every hour of every day of every year just by going about our daily business. No one off event once a year will change that. Sure turn your electric power off for an hour tonight if you want, but while your at it why not sit down and look at the real impact of your personal habits on the planet earth.

Oh and everybody, don't rush to turn on your electricity all at once; the power spike could black out North America for hours.

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 20, 2008

Book Review: Callisto Torsten Krol

I have no idea where the misconception came from that satire has to be funny. Satire can be funny on occasion, but as it is a means of criticizing society there are going to be times that it won't be funny in the slightest. Anyway, the things that one person finds problematic in life, another person is going to believe in devoutly, meaning that there's always going to be someone who doesn't get the joke no matter how funny you make satire.

Classic satires like George Orwell's Animal Farm, where he equated Stalinist Russia with a barn yard revolution and showed the leaders of the revolution becoming as corrupt as the usurped masters, isn't funny at all once you understand what's being depicted. Yet for far too many people it's become a silly cartoon to be taken at its surface value where you laugh at the antics of the funny animals. For the modern satirist to be successful, which in my mind means getting his or her audience to question the status quo, he or she has to find a way to bring their audience to the point where they see how ridiculous things are, without their attention being diverted by the humour.

The other major difficulty facing a satirist is ensuring that the object of the satire doesn't become the object of the audiences' affection. If you start identifying with Homer Simpson or Archie Bunker, how are you going to see them as the objects of ridicule that they are supposed to be? If a character is to represent an area of malaise in society what does that say if the audience feels sympathy for him? While it could mean that society is a lot worse off then the author thought, it usually means that the character's creator hasn't been as honest in his depiction as necessary.
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In his latest novel, Callisto, Australian author Torsten Krol has created a character, who while not necessarily un-likeable, isn't going to be someone that most of his readership are going to want to admit identifying with. Odell Deefus is what most people would call a few bricks short of a load, or any of the other euphemisms people might have for the genuinely stupid. If his IQ were any lower he could be considered developmentally challenged, and somewhere else he might have been, but not in the heartland of America, Yoder Wyoming, where Odell was brought up.

Of course as Odell is our source of all information for his little adventure in twenty-first century real-politic, he's not about to admit to the fact that he's what a generous person would call slow. In fact he goes out of his way to draw our attention to his great intellect by informing us that he's read The Yearling sixteen times. (It won the Pulitzer Prize so it can't be a book for dumb people) Anyway, Odell is intent on reassuring us about his intelligence because he wants us to take the story he's about to recount seriously.

Once he starts telling us the story you begin to understand why he's so desperate to assure us of his grip on sanity, and his ability to think straight. Through an amazing series of coincidences, misadventures, misunderstandings, (there are a lot of those when Odell is involved), and straight out stupidity, Odell ends up involved with a scheme to run drugs into a local prison, a murder investigation, and the attention of the good folk at Homeland Security on suspicion of terrorist activity. To think it was all because he was making his way to the enlistment centre in Callisto Kansas so he could do his patriotic duty and go over and kill some of them Islamic extremists.

He figures he stands a good chance of being signed up, even though he doesn't have a high school diploma, because they now have a test you can take instead. Besides they're so desperate for recruits they're offering a bonus for signing up, so they're not going to be too bothered about whether a fellow's graduated or not. Anyway what else kind of work is available these days for a guy without a high school diploma. Nope the army is just thing for a guy like Odell, and the millions of others like him across America.

Odell is not the only character in the book of course, but he is the centre of everyone's attention from the moment his car breaks down on the outskirts of Callisto when he's on his way to the recruiting centre. (Which had been closed for about a year by the time Odell gets there due to lack of interest) Most people on meeting Odell for the first time realize what a golden opportunity he is for whatever plans they might want carried out. A born again Christian preacher, drug running prison guards, a right wing politician, the FBI, and the boys from Homeland Security all see him as the answer to their prayers. What none of them count on is Odell's own unique way of seeing the world and how it will enable him to thwart them at every turn.

Torsten Krol, (whose a bit of a mystery as he does no publicity and only communicates to his agent by the internet leading to intense speculation as to his true identity), has created in Odell Deefus a character who is almost to naive to believe. Yet, once we learn to accept Odell's vision of the world and allow ourselves to see it through his eyes, everything he does makes perfect sense. Torsten has imbued him with an emotional depth, and honesty, that is humbling. For we, like all the other characters in the book, have the tendency to stop treating him like a human being and only see the surface fool.

Krol exposes our own callousness through Odell, and we can laugh all we want at how he's being deceived by the other characters in the book until a couple of things strike us. What happened to our compassion that this person who is being treated like dirt by everyone around him elicits our scorn instead of our sympathy? The second thing is that we slowly realize if we're laughing at him for still buying the line about duty and patriotism being more important then civil rights; that if we're laughing at him for any of the things he's honest enough to admit being taken in by, aren't we laughing at ourselves just as much because we've been taken in as well.

For the world that Odell Deefus lives in is the same world we live in. While some of the characters, are slightly cartoonish, they are very real representations of the types they represent in our world. Beneath the buffoonery reality is there in all its stark ugliness, and in the end not even Odell's delusions can protect him from it. To me this is satire at it's finest, as Krol creates characters and situations that are nearly cartoon, but have enough reality in them for us to recognize them as our own world, while ensuring all the while we are laughing at ourselves without knowing it.

Not everyone is going to like Torsten Krol's depiction of life in America, or enjoy the book that much for that reason. Unfortunately it's not always a pleasant thing to look in a mirror and see yourself on a particularly bad day, and that's what Torsten Krol has done - caught America in the midst of a very bad day.

March 15, 2008

The Case Of The Missing Kyoto Accord Chapter Five

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 recognize 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 I didn'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 recognizing 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.

March 14, 2008

Music Review: Toumast Ishumar

I've always found it ironic that countries that aren't one people, like the United States (What's an American look like anyway?) are called a nation, when nations that are one people have no land they can call their own. In North America alone there are hundreds of nations without their own land to control and similar situations exist the world over. When the European nations carved up Africa between themselves they did so with no regard to traditional national boundaries.

One result of this artificial delineation have been the various conflicts between ethnic groups that has scared Africa since the 1960's and culminated in the horror that was the genocide in Rwanda. While nothing comes close to matching ethnic violence in terms of human suffering, the impact of creating countries based on nothing more than convenience has been felt across the continent. Some of those most drastically affected have been the nomadic peoples that travelled the deserts as much a part of the natural rhythm of the land as the turning of the seasons.

The Tuareg people of the Sahara followed routes that now cross the borders of five countries; Libya, Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso, and Algeria. In the early 1990's the Tuareg finally had enough and began an uprising that only ended in 2001 with the election of governments in Mali and Algeria that have proven more responsive to their plight. Moussa Ag Keyna was fifteen when he joined the uprising. But a bullet wound and the assassination of his rebellion chief (also his uncle) sent him into exile in France in 1995.
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He had bought a guitar and was set to form a band with friends and cousins when the war had broken out in 1990. It was in France that he decided to pick up his guitar again, and continue the fight for his people in a non-violent way. In music he saw the opportunity to tell the world about his people and their circumstances. Although the shooting has stopped the war is far from over, as the Tuareg's territory is coveted by the various governments for the natural resources, uranium, oil, and gold, hidden beneath the sand.

Along with his cousin, Aminatou Goumar, Moussa formed Toumast. While he is the lead vocalist and guitar player, she supplies guitar, vocals and spine chilling vocal ululation that can only be experienced and not described. Already they have had success playing in festivals and clubs around Europe and their first CD is being released in North America March 14th 2008 on Real World Records.

The CD's title, Ishumar, is the name that was given to the displaced young men of the Tuareg who had to leave in order to search for work during the droughts and famines of the 1970s and 1980s that plagued the Sahara. Unable to travel with the freedom of the past, they were left with no other recourse but to go into exile in the cities of Libya and Algeria.

It's not surprising given the title of the album that so much of the music on Ishumar is given over to songs that reflect displacement and loss. While a song entitled "These Countries That Are Not Mine" is an obvious reference to a life in exile, "The Falcon" and "My Camel" may not have you making the same connection without understanding the lyrics, which makes the English translations included very useful.

Both "The Falcon" and "The Camel" express the exile's yearning for home in his desire for the things that defined life among his people. "I know what my soul wants" is the opening line of "The Camel", and it continues to narrate the life of a nomadic herdsman; "To follow the drums in the desert/That echo in the valley". Listening to that lyric and visualizing the open expanses of the Sahara, makes you think about what it must have been like for people to come from that to living within the confines of a city and how trapped that must have made them feel.

Aside from songs about exile, Moussa has also written songs reminding his people of what they fought for, and now, just because the shooting has stopped they can't let it slip away. "Hey! My brothers/Don't forget/The causes you have defended/Hey! My brothers/Blood has been shed". Peace might have come to the lands of the Tuareg but it will be for naught if they forget about what has happened and the reality of the hardships their people still face.

While Moussa and Aminatou are the primary members of Toumast, they are joined on Ishumar by other musicians to round out the sound. Foremost among them is their producer Dan Levy who aside from taking care of the arrangements, recording and mixing of the disc also plays everything from bass to soprano saxophone. He has done a fine job of creating a two layered effect with the music. While the vocals and guitars of Moussa and Aminatou tell the stories of the songs, the other instruments create a nearly hypnotic atmosphere.

Drums, percussion, and on one occasion strings, combine to create a melodic rhythm that, if you allow it, transports you into their world when combined with the sound of their voices. Guitar and the ululating of Aminatou create a strange otherworldly harmony that reminds you they are singing of a world we know nothing about, and assists in carrying us to the desert. Even without understanding the lyrics, the music speaks volumes. There is something about it that communicates the emotions hidden within the mysteries of their language.

Ishumar is a haunting disc, redolent with the sense of loss felt by a displaced people while at the same time declaring their determination not to be pushed aside and become another one of the forgotten peoples. This is a beautiful and haunting CD that deserves to be listened to for the wonder that it evokes and the message that it carries. This is the voice of a people that deserves to be heard.

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.

March 2, 2008

Book Review: The Bastard Of Istanbul Elif Shafak

The human memory can either be a blessing or a curse; a blessing because it allows you to hold onto moments in time that you cherish and a curse because it won't let you forget things you'd rather not remember. No matter how hard your try once something has been observed and recorded by your brain it's stored there permanently unless you have that piece of your brain killed - and even that isn't fool proof because nobody's quite sure what parts of the brain do what. Memories thought isolated to one part of the mind can migrate of their own volition and show up again somewhere else completely unexpected and unwanted.

History is a recording of past events, that sometimes has nothing to do with what actually happened, but unlike memories history has a way of surviving unchallenged. Somehow because it is written down, or recorded officially, it is considered much more accurate than anything the human brain is capable of remembering. The fact that histories are sometimes written by people with vested interests in how they read and years after the events recounted took place, doesn't seem to change anybody's opinion of their veracity. Only in the face of irrefutable evidence can history be re-written, and even than there will always be resistance.

All of us have a history, we we're all born, we all are children, adolescents (a time a lot of would choose to forget if we could I'm sure), young adults, and so on down the line until we die. As we age we formulate our own histories based on the memories we have of the days we've lived. Yet like any history there are points in time that are beyond the reach of our own memories, and we have to rely on what other people claim to have happened.
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The Bastard Of Istanbul by Elif Shafak, first published in Turkish and now available in English through Penguin Canada's Viking imprint, is about both personal memories, history and how they both can deny the past. Unfortunately for Elif Shafak Turkey is in such denial of its own past that she faced three years imprisonment for the crime of besmirching Turkey's good name, for something one of her character's said in the book. The best thing you can say about the Turkish government is that they probably not only helped boost sales of the book, but also nicely proved the point it makes about history and memory being precarious and easily falsified.

In the last days of the Ottoman Empire, the rulers of Turkey took it into their heads that the Armenian population of the country was a threat. So it began the first mass extermination of a people during the 20th century. As the world turned a blind eye (as it continues to do so today when it comes to Turkish treatment of it's minority Kurdish population, and the Kurdish population in Northern Iraq which they relentlessly bomb and harass) first Armenian intellectuals were rounded up and shot for sedition; then as many Armenians as they could find were rounded up in Istanbul and forced marched across the country with no food or water and shipped into exile.

Hundreds of thousands if not millions died of malnutrition during the march and subsequent confinement. Children that survived were placed into orphanages where they had their names, language, and culture stolen from them so that they could be raised as good Turkish citizens and the Armenian culture would be eliminated. Thankfully the Ottoman Empire was no where near as efficient as Nazi Germany in their methods, and thankfully a good many regular citizens interceded to protect their friends and neighbours, so Armenians survived both in Istanbul and to flee the country to start a new life abroad.

The memory and history of what happened has never left them, and each generation of Armenian living abroad is weaned on tales of those whose lives were lost and the dispossession of their homes. Armanoush Tchakhmakhchian is the daughter of an Armenian American and an American. Her mother and father had divorced when Armanoush was only two, because her mother Rose couldn't take the pressure of so many people judging her every move while always treating her as an outsider. Her revenge against her former in-laws was swift and merciless - her second marriage was to Mustafa Kazanci - a Turkish man whose family still lived in Istanbul.

While Armanoush is growing up spending half of her time with her father's family in San Francisco learning the horror of her family's past, Mustafa's niece is growing up in Istanbul without even a past of her own. Asya is the daughter of the youngest of the Kazanci sisters, four in total, who live with their mother and grandmother in the family's ancestral home. Men have a habit of dying young in the family - so his mother had sent Mustafa off to the United States in the hope that he would beat the curse that had deprived the family of their precious men.

Asya is the bastard of the title and not only does she not live with her father, she has no idea who her father is. That's a secret known only to three people; her mother, the man who is her father, and her oldest aunt Banu. Banu is blessed and cursed with the ability to read people's futures in a small way, and can find out the answers to any questions about the past that she cares too if she is brave enough. Ever since the two djinni came to live on her shoulders, Miss Sweet and Mr. Bitter, she hadn't known a moment's peace from the past.

It's her own fault she knows, but she has to ask, and Mr. Bitter has lived longer then long and has borne witness to everything, and his bitterness is the truth. With her grandmother's memory lost to Alzheimer's, her mother wrapped up in worshipping a son she hadn't seen in twenty years, her middle sisters lost to reality, her youngest sister running from the past as hard as she can, and her nineteen year old niece asking why she should care about history if she doesn't even know who her father is, who else is there to but her to bear the burden of the family's and Turkey's histories?

When Armanoush (or Amy as her mother calls her) is nineteen she decides that she has to go to Turkey and see her past for herself. Going to Istanbul to find the places her grandmother's family once lived will be the only way she feels that she can understand who she truly is. Of course who else would she stay with but her step-father's family? Telling her mother she's spending spring break with her father, and her father that she's decided to spend spring break with her mother, she flies to Istanbul to uncover her past, and inadvertently sets off a sequence of events that brings all of their pasts home to roost.

It's all very well and good to write a novel where actual history and fictional history intersect, and the attitudes of a country are reflected in the microcosm of the characters, but the trick is to make it worth reading beyond the political or social points that the author wishes to make. Elif Shafak has succeeded in this task because her primary concern are the people in the book and telling their stories. Initially it seems like the book is populated by extras from one of Hollywood's "ethnic" movies, two dimensional characters whose only personality stems from their ethnicity.

On one side there is the happy, eccentric, doting Armenians, where everything has a double meaning and there is an underlying sorrow to almost everything they do. On the other side are the happy eccentric Turks, where everything has a double meaning and there is an underlying sorrow to almost everything they do. Yet Elif doesn't leave her people stranded, and with the help of her two nineteen year old protagonists, Armanoush and Asya we quickly move beyond the realm of superficial and cliche.

This not only makes it a far more interesting and entertaining book to read, it also takes a subject, genocide, which is next to impossible for most of us to understand, and personalizes it in such a way that we can understand why the Armenians feel the way they do. Why doesn't the Turkish government admit it happened? They can easily blame it on the autocratic Ottoman Empire that was overthrown in favour of a secular government in the early 1920's, yet to this day there is a steadfast refusal to acknowledge what the rest of the world knows took place; it's only in Turkey, that the past is denied.

As long as one person remembers the past there will always be the danger the secret you've hidden, the secret you hide from, will come out in the open. The longer it remains hidden, the longer it takes to recover from and the worse the damage that is caused when it's revealed. Memory and pain are part of the same nervous system in the human body, it's how we are conditioned to know not to stick our hand in an open flame, the memory of the pain tells us not to do it again. If we are smart we learn our lesson and remember the pain; The Bastard Of Istanbul is about what happens when the pain is ignored and the wound of memory is allowed to fester until the damage is irreversible.

February 21, 2008

Wild Burros Killed As "Wildlife Management"

“Congress finds and declares that wild free-roaming horses and burros are living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West; ... and that these horses and burros are fast disappearing from the American scene. It is the policy of Congress that wild free-roaming horses and burros shall be protected from capture, branding, harassment, or death; and to accomplish this they are to be considered in the area where presently found, as an integral part of the natural system of the public lands” The Wild-Free Roaming Horse and Burro Act of 1971

It looked liked the bleeding would finally be stopped. In 1971 an American Congress finally put the brakes on what had been an ongoing slaughter for one hundred years. The killing of America's wild horse and burro populations looked like it was finally coming to an end. It was quite a sea change from a hundred years earlier when American governments had advocated the extermination of the wild horse as a means of bringing the American Indian to heel.

Even more important than just stopping the killing was their recognition that these animals needed to have territory to live in. "They are to be considered in the area where presently found, as an integral part of the natural system of public lands" would seem to guarantee both the horse, and their far less glamourous cousin the burro, at least equal standing on public lands as all other creatures. But a law is only as strong as the will to enforce it, and there seems to be plenty of interest groups with money who have the ability to sap the will needed to enforce that law.

Cattle ranchers want the land the horses use because of how little they are charged to use public lands for grazing rights, and have been more than willing to supply the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) with erroneous statistics and misleading information in order to support their cause. The BLM have done their bit for agribusiness by actually ensuring the wild horse population has been reduced by over 50% since Congress passed the 1971 act that supposedly ensured their population would be stabilized.
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If the campaign carried out against the horses wasn't bad enough it pales in comparison to the one currently being waged against the humble burro. Not only have they seen the amount of their habitat space gradually eroded until now it stands at less than fifty per cent of what they had in 1971 but herd levels have been reduced to such an extent that most have fallen below numbers considered sufficient to maintain genetic integrity (150) and some herds are so small (50 or less) that inbreeding is a serious risk.

Somehow or other since 1971 the wild burro has gone from being "living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the west" to a exotic feral animal that is interfering with the natural order. It's interesting how this wasn't considered a problem until a few years ago when a move was made by big game hunters in North America to reintroduce the Desert Big horn sheep into the same areas that burros were already grazing.

While it's despicable in the first place to re-introduce an animal into the wild just so you can hunt it, displacing another animal and calling it "Wild Life Management", is hypocrisy of the highest order. What's been happening is a smear campaign that would be worthy of any dis-information program run by the current administration. First start referring to the burros as feral and exotic instead of wild so it sounds like they were a recently introduced species instead of having been here longer then almost all breeds of domestic cattle.

Like the horse, the burro was re-introduced to North America in the 15th and 16th century with the arrival of the Spanish. The burro was especially adaptable to the climate of the Southern United States and Mexico as the breed that came with the Spanish had originated in North Africa. Not only does it require minimal amounts of water for survival, it also can obtain most of it's required water from the scrub brush that makes up the majority of it's diet.

Like the horse the burros were at various points in time released into the wild and vanished into wilderness that could support little other wild life. It's only been since another introduced creature, man, has wanted to make use of its habitat that the burro has become a "Wild Life Management" issue. Unlike horses they weren't even a concern for cattle ranchers, because they lived in territories that couldn't sustain cattle.

However, once State governments became aware of just how potentially lucrative the Big Horn Sheep hunt could be, (with licences fetching up to $100,000 each at auctions), burros became a nuisance creature that needed to be dealt with. All of a sudden we hear that they are a threat to water supplies, their populations are too high, and of course a threat to the precious Big Horn Sheep gold mine.

What's even more disquieting is the fact that many of the Big Horn Sheep are animals being introduced into areas where there was no prior sheep population. In fact the Arizona Desert Big Horn Sheep Society boasts on its web site that over 1000 animals have been introduced and have established viable populations in ten mountain ranges where they didn't previously exist.

Recently I was sent documents that were a record of an investigation into the discovery of burro carcasses in in Big Bend Ranch State Park in Texas. As these documents have not yet been made public my source has asked to remain anonymous for the moment. The documents in question are the transcripts of interviews conducted by an Internal Affairs officer who was following up on complaints of potential animal cruelty.
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Park rangers having discovered the bodies of burros rotting by the road in the park dutifully reported the crime to state authorities. The only problem was that the shootings had been carried out by Deputy Director of Texas State Parks Dan Sholly and States Parks Region 1 Director, Michael Hil, with the full support of the State Parks Director Walter D. Danby. When interviewed in early November the three men freely admitted that the killings had taken place, and had only just recently stopped.

According to Mr. Sholly's testimony they had started shooting the burros in April of 2007 until they were ordered to stop on October 23rd 2007 (although he did admit that a final burro was shot on Oct. 26th three days after the stop kill order was issued). According to him they had "kept a running total in our mind, and initially in our reports, the number we had shot was seventy-one burros". He also said that he had shot burros on five or six trips into the park, but not every time he went there - mainly because he didn't see them every time he went into the park.

In his testimony Mike Hill said that July of 2007 was the last record he has of burros being shot, and that Dan told him to keep killing burros and not to write anything down about it after that time. He said that Dan had told him that something had been said in Austin (State government offices for Texas are located in the city of Austin) about the burros being killed. It's interesting to note that in his testimony Dan Sholly claims that he never told any park employee to stop recording the number of burros being shot.

It's also interesting to note that in his initial interview with the investigating officer the dates Mike HIll said the shootings took place contradicted those given by Mr. Sholly, but two days later he claims to have reviewed "contemporaneous notes" to refresh his memory, and changed the dates to coincide to agree with those offered by Mr. Sholly. He had said in his first interview that the killing of burros had started in April of 2006, a full year earlier then the date he came back with of April 2007. Of course he might have simply confused the dates, but than again since Sholly denied telling him to stop recording his kills, I have to wonder.

Both Mr. Sholly and Mr. Hill testified that the killing was necessitated because they were wanting to reintroduce Big Horn Sheep to the park and that they had been told that wouldn't be possible with the burros in place. Mr. Sholly also claims they never went into the park to deliberately hunt for burros, but they were trying to impact on the population by taking targets of opportunity.

I thing the most damming piece of testimony came from State Park's Director Walter D. Dabney. After relaying that he told Mr. Hill and Mr. Sholly that they should kill any and all burros on site, he mentions that no other efforts have been made to control the populations in the park since he started. In other words, they haven't attempted to capture, or relocate the herd by any of the means normally followed with protected animals.

I'm not really sure how always carrying a gun and shooting any burro you see on site differs from hunting burros, but them I'm not a Director of State Parks in Texas so I wouldn't know about such distinctions. All I know is that the burro is protected animal in the wild and is not to be killed or have it's habitat displaced by any other animal. Yet in Texas the people who are running the parks system are guilty of both crimes.

The transcript of the inquiry that I received came complete with the investigating officer's findings and recommendations. The only fault he could find with the indiscriminate killing of a protected species was the fact that the people doing the killing hadn't bothered to notify the park's employees in advance that they would be shooting burros in the park. If they had known in advance that the shootings were taking place they wouldn't have been surprised to find the rotting burro carcasses beside the road, and worried that anything untoward was going on.

He recommended that in the future all park employees be better informed about the parks wildlife management programs and that proper arrangements should be made to deal with the disposal of the carcasses. Nowhere in his findings or in his recommendations does he mention that burros are a protected animal in the United States, or that perhaps they should investigate alternative means of wildlife management instead of killing them.

It took a twenty-five year fight by concerned citizens and wildlife conservationists to get the American Congress to pass the The Wild-Free Roaming Horse and Burro Act of 1971. Thirty-six years latter officers and directors of Public Parks in Texas are flagrantly disregarding the two major provisions of the act. Not only are they depriving them of habitat desperately needed to maintain the numbers of wild burros in America, they are killing them in order to facilitate their supplanting. Currently there are only five genetically viable burro herds remaining in the wild and if the current rate of attrition of both habitat and animals is allowed to continue it will result in the extinction of wild burro herds in the American West.

Is this how America preserves its cultural heritage?

Facts and figures concerning the relative sizes of burro herds and Big Horn Sheep populations and habitat, unless otherwise stated are taken from "Wild Burros of the American West: A Critical Analysis of the National Status of Wild Burros on Public Lands 2006 by C.R. MacDonald

February 19, 2008

The Case of the Missing Kyoto Accord Part Two

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.

February 18, 2008

America's Wild Horses Under Attack

The late British naturalist and conservationist Gerald Durrell used to talk about what he called the paper protection of animals. By that he meant governments made laws that on paper claimed an animal was protected but in reality the animal was still at high risk from humans. The greatest risk that Durrell saw was the fact that while there might be laws preventing them from being killed - there was no law preventing the land they lived on from being taken away.

The biggest threat to all wild life, whether it has roots, legs, fins, or crawls on its belly, is the steady encroachment of humanity into habitat. Humans and their farm animals do not mix with wild life under any circumstances. The least amount of contact will cause animals to change their habits. Look at the bears in parks like Yellowstone who beg for food, or ones near human habitation who have taken to foraging in dumps instead of hunting for food as they used to. Of course minimal contact isn't going to drive an animal to extinction, so government run parks or preserves that allow human visitors, if properly managed, are a lesser evil than the complete eradication of habitat.

In Canada a concentrated effort is being made both publicly and privately to preserve habitats where species or unique ecosystems are endangered. Once these areas are established they become off limits to any human intervention, whether habitation, exploitation of natural resources, or on occasion even human visitors. If an area is considered too sensitive to withstand even humans camping in tents, than they aren't allowed to enter the designated area.
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The necessity of programs like these was brought home to me again this weekend by the news that a herd of 150 American wild horses is under threat from a lumber company's plans for the Blackjack Mountain of Oklahoma. The herd was established around twenty-five years ago by Gilbert Jones and includes a couple of horses that are direct decedents of those who came to Oklahoma on the "Trail Of Tears" with Choctaws and Cherokees Indians during their forced removal from the Tennessee mountains.

In spite of the fact that American Wild Horses are considered a protected animal by the American government, The Oklahoma Land and Timber Company has been given permission to plant trees to harvest like a crop. In order to facilitate the growth of this "crop" they need to eliminate all ground cover and foliage that might compete with them. The company had signed a contract allowing for a two year period during which the herd could be relocated, but has since reneged and begun spraying the area with pesticides.

Bryant Rickman of the Medicine Springs Ranch, who manages the herd, has been given until February 29th to remove them from the area by the Lumber Company. Only thing is, where can you find room for 150 wild horses to run free anymore? You see the situation in Blackjack Mountain is a reflection of what faces the wild horse population across the United States as they are being squeezed off public land set aside for them by the very agency meant to be protecting them - the Bureau of Land Management.

In 1971, when Congress and Richard Nixon responded to public pressure and enacted the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) was made responsible for the welfare of the remaining wild herds and ensuring that their population was maintained at the current level. At the time the BLM claimed there were only 17,000 animals living in the wild. What this claim was based on is unknown as they didn't conduct a census of the wild horse population for the first time until three years later. The results of that first head count showed them to be off target by more then 50% as the actual total was 42,000.

While on paper the law says that American Wild Horses are a protected species and public lands must be made available to them as sanctuaries for free range, less than half the actual population has been given that protection. In its wisdom, instead of amending the original 17,000 figure when they discovered how wrong it was, the BLM decided that the excess horses needed to be "removed" from public lands. The people who were responsible for preserving the horses have instead managed to reduce their population by around 50% since protection came into place.

The real problem is the fact that the BLM are also responsible for issuing grazing licences to cattle ranchers on the same public lands set aside for the horses. So for every horse the BLM can remove from public land, they can replace it with a fee paying cow. For every horse removed from public land agribusiness gets to graze a cow subsidized by the American government. According to two General Accounting Office reports the BLM was making removal decisions not on the actual numbers of horses that a range can support, but on the recommendations of advisor groups "largely composed of livestock permittees".
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So the guys who stand to make the most money from having wild horses removed from public land are the ones telling the BLM that horses are the primary cause of overgrazing and degradation of public lands. The truth is that because horses tend to roam and can find forage in areas where cattle and sheep can't, they cause far less harm to a habitat than any livestock.

When cattle graze they don't chew the grass they pull it from the ground; if the soil happens to be wet they will therefore rip it out by the roots. Horses on the other hand have front teeth allowing them to crop grass as they graze, meaning there is far less chance of them destroying the root system and allowing for new growth. A horse's digestive system is actually beneficial to a habitat, because they pass grass seed through their system and replant as they graze.

As to the BLM's claim that horses are degrading grazing lands; well horse aren't the critter that defecate in their own water supply, while cattle do. Horses aren't the animal that hangs out in one area of land until it's stripped clean of any and all forage necessitating human intervention to move them on to other pastures. Even without any of that information, the numbers don't lie; at current levels livestock out number wild horse by 200 to 1 on public lands. You tell me who is going to have the biggest impact on the environment; two hundred head of cattle standing in one place or one horse wandering around looking for food?

Yet somehow or other, in spite of all this information available to the government and Congress about BLM's record of mismanagement and its history of playing fast and loose with facts and information, their budget was increased by 50% in 2001 and then another third in 2005 to pay for an aggressive removal program of wild horses from public lands. So if the people charged with protecting the horse population in the wild are being funded by the government to remove the horses from the wild it really makes you question the validity of the law that supposedly guarantees their safety.

Back in Blackjack Mountain Oklahoma concerned people have come together to form the The Gilbert Jones Choctaw-Cherokee Conservancy and Historical Land Trust whose immediate goal is to raise $450,000 to purchase the first 524 of the needed 2,500 acres for the Trust to secure a permanent home for these last of a kind horses. The goal is to preserve the original tribal strains of Choctaw and Cherokee and America's Spanish Colonial Mustangs in viable and healthy wild herds for generations.

Return To Freedom, a 501c3 charitable organization has joined forces with script writer John Fusco (Hidalgo, Spirit, Stallion Of The Cimarron, and the upcoming Forbidden Kingdom) the Rickman Family, and others in forming the trust. You can find out more about their effort and what you can do to help by following the link above to the Return To Freedom web site.

In 1971, the single biggest letter campaign outside of protests against war, forced Congress and Richard Nixon to enact the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act to ensure the survival of America's wild horse population and preserve the strains that are unique to our continent. Thirty-six years of mis-management and conflict of interest has done nothing but reduce the population of horses in the wild by nearly 50%.That's not wildlife preservation in my book.

Unless otherwise stated, information in this article was provided by the The American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign web site.

February 11, 2008

DVD Review: Ballot Measure Number 9

Back in the early 1980's I was what you'd call politically active I guess. You know, taking part in demonstrations against things like Cruise Missile Testing in Canada and Apartheid in South Africa. After a while I pretty much stopped, except for once in the late 90's when I took part in a demonstration against the government of Ontario, as the infighting between the factions just started to get on my nerves. All I have to show for those days is a file somewhere in Ottawa classifying me as a security risk, and a healthy respect for the organizational abilities of the right wing.

In retrospect I realize that the real problem with political action on the left is that we were always reacting to what someone else was doing. We're against this and against that, but it's not often we say what we are for. On the few occasions when that has occurred; Henry Morgenthaler's fight for a woman's right to an abortion and the fight to legalize same sex marriages in Canada; when we have stood up and said we are for this, we have won.

Instead of ever starting a campaign and mobilizing forces to propose a new way of doing something in line with our way of thinking, the left continues to let the right set the agenda all over North America on any of the issues we consider important. It never used to be that way, the left used to set goals for social change and work to meet them. From the labour movements of the early twentieth century that secured fair pay and safe working conditions to the voter registration drives of the early 1960's and the ensuing civil rights campaigns in the Southern United States.
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Watching the DVD version of the documentary Ballot Measure 9, a filmed record of an attempt in 1992 to pass a ballot measure in Oregon that would have stripped Homosexuals of basic civil rights, brought that all home to me again. It was the same basic story that is played out across the United States every election year, where conservative Christian "citizens" groups work to pass anti-homosexual or anti-affirmative action measures in the hopes of imposing their will on a community.

In 1992 the United States were coming off twelve years of ultra conservative government and the religious right was feeling its oats after having their puppet Ronald Reagan in power for eight years, and his milksop successor George Bush Sr. for four. In that time they had been able to promote an agenda claiming AIDS was just retribution against gays, women were subservient to men, that the church and state shouldn't be separate, and all the other rigamarole we've come to associate with their fascistic mind set . (Fascism is the imposition, by a central authority of a single belief system that all must adhere to)

Ballot Measure 9 was first released in 1995 and Director Heather MacDonald took her camera into the war rooms of both the Yes and the No campaigns interviewing people on both sides of the issue. As an audience member that means that initially you get a fairly unbiased view of each side's presentation. Although since the one side is calling for stripping a group of people of their human rights and the other side is saying no that's not right, unless you're an advocate for the religious right chances are you're not going to be overly sympathetic to their cause.

I have to admit that when the footage started to include speeches by the proponents of Ballot Measure nine, I skipped to the next scene. Listening to people telling outright lies and propagating hate turns my stomach and I couldn't watch it. Besides, it wasn't anything different from what's been said before or since by people like Pat Robertson and Adolph Hitler. Perhaps what was worse was listening to the stories of the hate crimes carried out against people who were working on the No side of the issue. One woman's horse was attacked with a pitch fork, another found her brake lines cut, and quite a few were physically assaulted.

The person who came out looking the best was then Chief of Police, now mayor of Portland Oregon, Tom Potter. He was genuinely appalled that one community within his city was being specifically targeted for violent actions, and he took steps to ensure that their safety was as guaranteed as possible, as the violence escalated the closer it came to voting day. Of course the leaders of the Yes movement refused to see how their spewing of hatred towards homosexuals could possibly be at the root of the violence.

I think the most unsettling part of the movie was the realization of how little has changed since 1992 when that measure was first proposed. I only have to look at Canada and all the hate that was spewed when the Supreme Court of Canada declared it unconstitutional to ban same sex marriage. In fact our current government tried to pass a "Defence of Religion" law which would have allowed people to discriminate against gays and lesbians if their God told them to. They only backed down when they realized even if they somehow managed to sneak it through parliament, it would be declared unconstitutional the first time it was challenged in court.

Included in the DVD of this film is an update that was filmed in 2007 featuring a core group of people on the No side discussing the after affects of the campaign and the current situation in Oregon. These are intelligent people who aren't afraid to be self critical and point out the problems within the homosexual community and the left in general when it comes these sorts of battles. Maybe I appreciated it so much because it echoed what I said earlier always reacting to someone else's agenda and never setting it.

There is a school of thought among minorities that runs along the lines of, if they don't know we're there they'll leave us alone to live our lives. The problem with that is you become an isolated group that nobody knows anything about and people are willing to believe any lies told about you because they've never had any dealings with people like you. In Medieval Europe, when Jews practised this behaviour, the common lie used to incite hatred against them was that Passover matzoh was made using the blood of virgin gentile girls. As ridiculous as that might sound to us today, it was accepted as the truth back then.

How much different is that from spreading the lie that a child taught by a homosexual will become one, or that gay men are pedophiles? Both are equally as ridiculous as the blood and matzoh story, but they are readily believed today by people who don't have any contact with gays or lesbians.

Ballot Measure 9 is about a plebiscite that took place sixteen years ago in the state of Oregon that tried to strip homosexuals of basic human rights. While the original movie is both shocking and uplifting in places, it's the special features on the DVD that make it important for people to watch now. Reliving past victories is as much an exercise in futility as bemoaning past losses if you don't have the courage to learn from your mistakes.

Nothing was really decided in Oregon in 1992, because there are still those actively trying to strip minorities of their basic human rights. In 2007 Oregon introduced a civil union law which allows gays and lesbians to legally formalize their partnerships. The same group who put forward Ballot Measure 9 are currently working to have a measure included on the upcoming election's ballot revoking that law. If minority groups, especially gays and lesbians, continue to isolate themselves from the community at large they will continue to be vulnerable to attacks like this.

February 4, 2008

Movie Review: Your Mommy Kills Animals

Ever since Greenpeace started photographing pictures of baby seals being clubbed to death during the annual seal hunt in Newfoundland Canada and putting themselves between whaler's harpoons and their prey, the issue of humanity's relationship with the creatures we share the planet with has become an increasingly hot topic. The fur industry, cosmetic industry, soap companies, the food industry, whaling, and companies that use animals in any sort of laboratory testing have all been subject to intense scrutiny, and forced to change their practices due to the activities of groups like Greenpeace and Sea Shepherds.

It wasn't that long ago when it was considered perfectly acceptable for a company to do what ever it wanted to animals when it came to testing if their latest shampoos would make your eyes water. Now of course no one would dream of putting out a shampoo or skin care product which didn't contain the magic words "NO ANIMAL TESTING" or variations on that theme or risk the ire of animal activists. Huntington Life Services found out what that mean as the campaign against them was so successful that it resulted in various corporations across the United States severing ties with it, and the company being forbidden from trading on the New York Stock Exchange.

Like any other emotionally charged issue where people tend to check their brains at the door and have knee jerk responses on both sides of the argument, finding anything approaching a fair and balanced look at the issue has been next to impossible. It hasn't helped matters that the government of the United States has rushed to protect the people that guarantee their elections each year by passing the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act in 2006 making activities affecting the profit making ability of a business conducting animal testing an act of terrorism under the Patriot Act. Heavy-handed reactions like that aren't liable to created conditions conducive to calm and rational debates.
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So I was delighted to find that the documentary feature film Your Mommy Kills Animals just released on DVD made a concentrated effort to be as unbiased and even handed as possible. While it's obvious the makers have sympathy for the work done by certain organizations in regards to Animal Welfare, and they regard the prosecution individuals charged and sentenced under the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act as unconstitutional, they do their best to merely observe and report.

The film is not for the fainthearted or squeamish as it contains footage smuggled out of facilities where testing on animals is conducted, and other imagery of cruelty to animals. While it could be argued that including this footage detracts from their impartiality, it is part of the reality that the movie is documenting. They have done their best to keep those scenes to a minimum and keep them in context rather than exploiting the imagery for an agenda.

One of the first things the film makers do is differentiate between the two types of groups working in the United States to alleviate the suffering of animals. Animal Welfare groups, are primarily people and organizations that run shelters and rescue facilities for domesticated and companion animals (pets). Animal activists are the groups whose primary focus is preventing the use of animals in industry; factory farms, the fur industry, medical and cosmetic testing, and what they consider the exploitation of animals for entertainment purposes (zoos and circuses primarily)

The first part of the film is given over to explaining what exactly each group does, and the differences in their approaches to the issue of animal protection. The people who run the shelters and rescue facilities have as their primary concern keeping the animals alive and giving them a safe haven from a world that's treated them badly. Most of these facilities exist as chances of last resort for animals who otherwise would be put down by local or city run animal shelters, or who have been abandoned in the wild by their owners.

These people come across as being just what you'd expect them to be - warm, generous, and compassionate humans who have devoted their lives to care for animals. Something this movie makes abundantly clear is, that in spite of the impression they might give to the contrary the United States Humane Society (USHS) does not run or fund any animal shelters whatsoever. When you give money to them, none of it will find it's way to your city run Humane Society of shelter. In fact the impression one gets of the United States Humane Society is of an organization more concerned with it's image than actually carrying out the business of saving animal lives.

While the animal welfare people come across as intelligent and caring individuals, the animal rights people aren't necessarily as easy to like. The tactics they use are pretty much the same as those used by the anti-abortion groups; demonstrating at employees homes at all hours of the day or night, committing acts of vandalism at facilities that conduct animal testing from graffiti, liberating the animals, and up to and including arson. Their goal is to foster an environment where these companies are unable to conduct business unless they cease animal testing.

Whether we like them or not, they have had a certain amount of success in achieving their goal of making it increasingly difficult for companies to conduct business in the manner in which they were accustomed to. In fact it's their very success which caused the implementation of the new act mentioned earlier in this review. Of the first seven individuals who were charged under that act, six have been found guilty and been sentenced to anything from one to six years in jail and ordered to pay 1 million dollar fines, are all interviewed in this film and don't seem anymore dangerous than you or I.

None of them were charged with actually carrying out any acts of violence, and none of them have taken part in any activities described earlier. They were all charged because of information that was posted at a web site encouraging people to take action against Huntington Life Sciences, in spite of the fact there is no proof linking them directly to the web site's publication. As a person in the film who doesn't agree with their tactics said though, the most troubling part of all this is the fact that they were charged for advocating activities that anti-abortion groups, anti-homosexual and AIDS organizations, and the Klu Klux Klan are allowed to advocate or carry out with impunity. America's cherished constitutional clause guaranteeing free speech seems to be very selective.

You may have noticed that I've not mentioned People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) in this review, and been wondering why a film about animal activism doesn't talk about them. First of all PETA refused to be interviewed for the movie and so they weren't able to rebut any of the accusations levelled against them. It seems that people on both sides of the issue, form the animal rights camp, the animal welfare camp, and the people who argue in favour of animal testing can agree on at least one thing - an intense dislike of PETA.

While most people seem intent on preserving the lives of animals, or making their situation better, PETA has been steadily running up the highest euthanasia percentage among all animal rescue groups. In one year they put down 85% of the animals they took in from shelters instead of either housing them of finding them new homes. We're talking about healthy animals that would have lived years, but PETA decided that it's better to kill them than to keep them penned up. In general PETA is another organization that comes across as being more interested in their status and seeking celebrity endorsements then the welfare of animals.

Your Mommy Kills Animals, the title is taken from that of a "comic" that PETA hands out to children that shows pictures of a rabbit before and after its been skinned that repeatedly states "your mommy kills animals", does its best to give an objective view of the various organizations and individuals who are involved in advocating for a world in which humans treat animals with respect and dignity. While the movie makes no bones about the fact that it considers the terrorist charges brought against individuals within the animal rights movement unconstitutional and a dangerous precedent on the grounds of denial of freedom of speech. it does it's level best to present as impartial a picture as possible. In the end it leaves it up to the viewer to make his or her own decision about the issue after hearing from everyone from mink farmers to Paul Watson founder of Sea Shepherds the anti whaling group.

Unlike a number of current documentaries that are no more than propaganda for a filmmaker's pet issue, Your Mommy Kills Animals does its best to simply document the issue without prejudice.

January 27, 2008

The Case Of The Missing Kyoto Accord: Chapter One

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, dependent 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. Un-peeling 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 affected 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?

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.
The Complete Persepolis.jpg
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.

January 19, 2008

American Election: What's The Real Issue

Living in the country adjacent to the United States it's only natural that Canadians would take at least a passing interest in the American political process. Most of us did one year of American history somewhere along the way through our secondary school education and know all about your three levels of government; the checks and balances that were supposedly built in to ensure one level didn't gain too much power.

There's also no denying the impact that American policy and leadership have on Canada given our economic and social connections. John F. Kennedy was as inspiring to a generation of politically and socially active people in Canada as he was to Americans of the same period and Canadians mourned his and brother Bobby's murders as if we had lost two of our own. Of course not all of America's leadership have had as positive an impression on Canadians with Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George Bush Jr. all managing to raise the hackles of the public at large up here for one reason or another.

It was Richard Nixon who first aroused my interest in American politics, specifically his fall from grace with the Watergate scandal. The first book that I read dealing with American politics was Bob Woodward's and Carl Bernstien's All The President's Men, the book that detailed the opening days of their inquiries into a burglary of Democratic headquarters at the Watergate apartment/hotel complex and their subsequent investigations.But the book that really hooked me on American politics was Hunter S. Thompson's Fear And Loathing On The Campaign Trail.

In 1972 Rolling Stone Magazine sent Hunter out to cover the American presidential campaign, starting with the primary season. Fear And Loathing On The Campaign Trail is a collection of all of the articles Thompson wrote during his time traipsing across the country after politicians. Taken together like that they present one of the clearest pictures of life on the campaign trail that will ever be written. Given today's political climate there is no chance that any reporter will ever gain the access to the candidates and his or her people that Hunter had when he wrote his articles.

Fear And Loathing On The Campaign Trail also taught me something else - American politics can be addictive, habit forming, and injurious to your social life. People tend to get a glazed look in their eyes when you start analysing the results of the Iowa caucuses at parties, discoursing on how you think they are going to impact the voting in New Hampshire. They really start looking for the exits when you invite them to start making predictions for "Super Tuesday's" results based on analysis's of voting trends in New Hampshire and Iowa.

It's been a while since I've paid close attention to campaigning south of the Canadian border, but I started to follow along again this year during the Iowa caucuses. I must admit to some surprise at the results, and the first thing I wondered was, what happened to Rudy Giuliani?

In the period after the attacks of September 11th 2001 the Mayor of New York city was being touted as George Bush's successor almost before Bush had even won his second term. Now it seems the only way he gets headlines is with reports on his poor finishes in the primaries and the financial troubles besetting his campaign. Did people get sick of him? Did he peak to early? Obviously I missed something in the lead up to Iowa.

While he claims to still be hopeful of making a comeback, with all the attention on newcomer, another former Arkansas Governor, MIke Huckabee, New Hampshire winner Arizona Senator John Mccain and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney there's not much room left for him in the public eye. Anything less than an all out win in most of the states available on Super Tuesday could well be the end of Giuliani's political aspirations.

Do you remember the seven dwarfs? In 1988 while George Bush Sr. cruised past earnest Bob Dole in the Republican primaries seven Democratic candidates waged a war of attrition to see who would face him in November. Michael Dukakis ended up being the one served up on a platter for Bush to devour. After seven months of bashing each other the Democrats didn't stand a hope in hell of beating a relatively unified Republican party.

This year with three, and if Giuliani stages the miracle comeback he's predicting, four, Republican candidates publicly sparring for months on end, one would think they could be looking at the same bleak scenario with there being only two serious contenders for the Democratic nomination. But with the two Democrats being New York Senator Hilary Clinton, white woman, and Illinois Senator Barack Obama, male African American, precedent and election history are thrown out the window.

No matter which one of them wins the nod to represent the Democratic party they will be going where no one of their gender or race has gone before. No African American or woman has ever run for President of the United States before, and nobody can predict the effect either one of their candidacies will have on the voting population.

Will the thought of a white woman or an African American man as president frighten enough people to the point that anything but campaigns are mounted to ensure people get out and vote for whatever the Republicans nominate? Or will the hope of real change motivate the close to 50% of eligible voters who haven't voted in recent elections to go into the polling booth and vote for whichever one of the two Democrates secures the nomination? (According to an article on voter turnout in Wikipedia , the average turnout for an American election is 54% of eligible voters. Those figures don't take into account the unknown number of people who don't even bother to register to vote)

In a perfect world it wouldn't make a difference what race or gender the candidates were, or their religion either for that matter. (Ask Mitt Romney if being a Mormon has affected his candidacy) But we live in a world that's far from perfect, so we know it will be a factor in both directions. There are people who are going to vote for Mr. Obama for the sole reason that he is Black just as there are people who will vote against him for the same reason. The same is true for Mrs. Clinton in that she is sure to garner votes from women simply because she is the same gender, while others will vote against her because they will not believe that a women should hold a position of such power.

Fairly or unfairly America is going to be judged by the results of this election. In the eyes of a good proportion of the world it won't be won or lost because one candidate has been able to convince the public that they are the better candidate. It will be seen to be won or lost on the issue of race and gender.

If Barack Obama becomes the Democratic nominee and loses it will be because of his race, and if Hilary Clinton loses it will be because she was a woman. But I wonder if people would believe that if they were both running as Republicans and not Democrats? Is it only because they represent what America considers liberal politics that race or gender is an issue? If it were Colin Powell or Condoleezza Rice as the Republican against Al Gore as the Democrat would it still be about race or gender?

Would African Americans or women be inclined to vote as a block for a conservative representative of their race or gender as they appear to be prepared to for a liberal? Probably not given the history of the Republican party on social issues that impact both women and African Americans more than any other segment of the population. If that's the case the argument that the election will come down to a matter of race or gender is flawed.

After George Bush's re-election in 2004 much was made of America's division along liberal and conservative lines. Given that recent history doesn't it make as much sense to consider the two Democratic front runners as penultimate liberal candidates instead of in terms of race and gender?

The 2008 presidential election could very well secure conservative power in the White House for generations with a Republican win as the liberals would have fielded a candidate who epitomized liberal thought in America and failed. But should either Mr. Obama or Mrs. Clinton win in November, the set back to conservatism in America would be equally crippling. Not only will a liberal candidate have been elected president, but it will be one whose very candidacy represents the very essence of liberalism. In either case it will be a long time before either side recovers sufficiently to be a political force.

In reality the only issue that has ever really mattered in recent American elections has been the battle between the conservatives and the liberals for the emotional support of the American people. While race or gender will factor into the final decision this time, its only because both issues are part of the larger conflict between the two political ideologies that dominate American politics.

There are still the rest of the primaries to be run, and the final nominee for each party decided upon, but the battle lines for this election were drawn years ago. Even in 1972 the contest between George McGovern and Richard Nixon was seen as liberal versus conservative, and nothing has changed. The only thing different in this election is that the liberal Democrats are finally going for broke and offering a real alternative to the conservative Republicans.

January 11, 2008

Graphic Novel Review: Attitude Featuring: Stephanie McMillan's Minimum Security

In the days known as P.D. (Pre Doonsbury) political cartoons with human characters were limited to the editorial page and one large square. The only political comic strip in P.D. critical of the status quo that made it into the daily papers was Walt Kelly's Pogo. Periodically it would feature a character based on first President Lyndon Johnson and in latter Richard Nixon. I seem to remember Johnson was a Basset Hound and Nixon a Hyena, both remarkably astute pieces of caricature when it came to the two men in question.

In Canada there were two of what were known as editorial political cartoonists that were head and shoulders above the pack, Aislin, the pen name for Terry Mosher and Duncan Macpherson. I think the fact that I can still remember both of them, and specific pieces of their art from thirty odd years ago speaks volumes as to their style and abilities. Both men considered it open season on politicians of all parties and leanings, and you would have been hard pressed guessing any political allegiances on the part of either man.

In those days the best you could hope for in terms of the mainstream media when it came to political cartoons was that they weren't flag wavers who demonized supposed enemies by depicting them as racial stereotypes. Duncan Macpherson was probably one of the few cartoonists who would draw an Asian face without making it a mask of evil during the height of the Vietnam war.

It wasn't until Garry Trudeau's Doonsbury that a daily comic strip in the mainstream dared to politically agitate against the powers that be. During the Watergate era of Richard Nixon his strip was actually pulled from newspapers across the United States because the content was periodically considered too volatile and he's probably one of the few cartoonists to ever have motions of censor put forward against him in the Senate.
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Thirty plus years later there still aren't many political cartoons to be found on the comic pages of the mainstream press aside from Gary's strip. However, in first the alternative press, and now the Internet, political cartoons of all stripes have sprouted that make Trudeau's strip look tame in comparison. Unfortunately a good many of them, no matter what their politics, really aren't worth the paper or the bandwidth required to produce them.

Thankfully there are people like Stephanie McMillan and her comic Minimum Security that more than compensate for the failings of others. While she makes no secret of her politics and her opinions she takes the time and effort to research her information and creates cartoons that are witty, intelligent, and iconoclastic. In an era when so much of popular culture is designed to perpetuate the status quo Stephanie bravely uses her comic strip to point out that not only doesn't the Emperor have any clothes on, but that the Empire is without substance behind its pretty facade.

She tackles all the expected issues, Iraq, Homeland Security, Global Warming, and Human Rights. However unlike so many others who are apt to say this is bad, and leave it at that, Stephanie goes the step further and not only explains why, but proves it as well. Open the collection of her work, Attitude Featuring: Stephanie McMillan -Minimum Security published by N.B.M. Publishing, to almost any page and you'll see what I mean.

While the boy wonder, George Bush Jr., is called to account by her cartoons for a good many of the problems facing America (and the world) Ms. McMillan is not naive enough to believe that one figure head is the root cause. In some ways Bush is only a symptom of the system that's been nurtured and developed for two hundred and thirty one years. American foreign policy in North and South America has always been predicated on the needs of corporate America, and today's circumstances are merely a continuation of that policy on a world wide basis.

From the days of the United Fruit company's sole proprietorship of the economies of Cuba, Central America, and South America to today's rapacious demands of the petroleum industry, America's military has always been there to open new markets and defend business' right to exploit foreign nationals. Of course it's all justified in the name of democracy, although how installing military dictators like August Pinochet to overthrow an elected government counts as protecting democracy I've never understood.
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Stephanie knows this and depicts Bush as being a tool of the industrial complex and his policies as having less to do with preserving America than preserving the privileges of his class and protecting the interests of corporate America. She doesn't just make wild accusations without supplying proof either. In various cartoons and strips she quotes facts and figures substantiating everything from the drop in real income across America, the widening gap between the rich and the poor, and the ever increasing profits enjoyed by multinational businesses.

But you know what's best about Stephanie McMillan's Minimum Security? It's funny, well at least I found it funny, but for those of you like me who have grown tired of painfully earnest progressive people (and boy do I mean painful) she's a breath of fresh air. Where else are you going to find Bunnista, the revolutionary bunny rabbit who lost an eye to animal testing and has now dedicated himself to "the overthrow of the capitalist/imperialist system by the international Proletariat and revolutionizing all of society based on need rather than profit".

Of course Bunnista has to deal with Bananabelle Skylark who claims there's no need to change the outer world if we but only learn to live in the moment. Social problems are merely a reflection of our inner selves and the world is actually perfect, it's our consciousness that determines our reality. Thankfully, there's also Kranti. She still tries to hand out free plants on earth day to her neighbours, but is aware enough to know that we need to change the way we live if we have a hope of surviving.

The interaction between the three and the world around them lifts the strip out of the polemic and puts it firmly in the land of comics. They allow her to poke gentle fun at the left and some of the didactic that's spouted by people more in love with slogans than actual problem solving. But unlike so many others Kranti and her friends know that things aren't as rosy as Fox Television would like us to believe, and they're doing their best to figure out what to do about it.

Attitude Featuring: Stephanie McMillan Minimum Security is a collection of Ms. McMillan's work from early one panel editorials to some of her more recent cartoon strips. They are funny, wise, not a little bit sad, but most of all, intelligent. Voices of dissent are few and far between these days in the mass media, so to find one as smart and humorous as Stephanie McMillan's Minimum Security is nothing short of miraculous.

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?

December 3, 2007

Immigrants In Canada And The U.S.: Multiculturalism Vs. The Melting Pot. Pt. Two

This is part two of a look at the supposed differences between the United States and Canada when it comes to the integration of immigrants into our respective societies. Canada has long clung to the designation of a "Cultural Mosaic" while making disparaging comments about the United States being a melting pot. Is that a fair assessment on the part of Canadians, or do they need to watch out for their glasshouses if they're going to throw stones at the Americans. Part Two continues from where Part One left off.

In the year of her centennial, 1967, Canada hosted it's first major international event, The World's Fair –"Man And His World" was both its title and lofty theme. The event was held in Montreal, at the time Canada's largest and most cosmopolitan city. With pavilions from countries all over the world, it was the epitome of a Multicultural celebration, and Canada appeared to be the a leading light in a brave new, multicultural world.

However, Canada is first and foremost a bi-cultural nation – French and English – and in 1967 Quebec nationalism was beginning to crest. "The Quiet Revolution" of French speaking intellectuals and nationalists of the early sixties had divided into two camps. Those who followed the thinking of Pierre Trudeau that Quebec was part of Canada and her problems could be solved at the federal level of politics, and those who believed as Rene Leveque did that only a Quebec separate from the rest of Canada could guarantee the rights of French Canadians.

Bombs set off by the Front de Liberation Quebec (FLQ) had blown up the occasional mailbox in the streets of Quebec since the early 1960s, but had never really been considered a threat to the community. That all changed in the fall of 1970 when they kidnapped Quebec's Minister of Justice, Pierre Laporte, and the British High Commissioner to Quebed, James Cross. When Laporte's corpse was found in the trunk of a car conciliatory talk went out the window and Prime Minister Trudeau invoked the War Measures Act.

A little known clause in the old Canadian Constitution allowed the Prime Minister to suspend the civil liberties of all Canadians in times of dire emergencies and bring the army out into the streets to enforce order. While the authority wasn't abused on the federal level, in Montreal thousands of people were rounded up by the police and held without charges. That some of them were the incumbent mayor's, Jean Drapeau, political opponents in upcoming municipal elections only increased people's anger.

It becomes difficult to lay claim to being a multicultural society when the two largest cultural groups are unable to reconcile their differences. It becomes even more difficult when sudden influxes of visible minorities exposes latent racism lurking just below our civilized, multicultural, surface.

In the early to mid 1970's events in the wider world caused an influxe of visible minorities to enter Canada refugee claimants. In 1973 Idi Amin Dada, supreme ruler of Uganda, took it into his head to expel the entire South East Asian community in his country. Thousands of people were left suddenly bereft of homes and cast adrift into the world.

While the Canadian government opened the country's borders to them, her citizens were another story altogether. It got to the point that it wouldn't matter if you had been one of those misfortunate enough to be a refugee or not; as long you were a certain colour you were considered open season by the red necks and other scum.

People were accosted and beaten in Toronto Ontario's subway cars in full view of fellow passengers - who either were too stunned to help or didn't care enough. The "Paki" joke entered the lexicon of the racist and to this day some (half)-wit will crack up the room with one of those disgusting examples of ignorance – excusing themselves with the disclaimer "that it's only a bit of fun".

Bigots are bigots and there is nothing to be done about them but fighting back by making certain it is obvious, their behaviour is unacceptable. In the city of Toronto and its suburbs, where the majority of the attacks took place, credit has to be given to local politicians for taking practical steps to curtail the attacks. They followed that up by implementing zero tolerance policies to racist activities in the school boards under their control, ensuring that it wasn't going to on the unofficial curriculum of any school.

Even more heartening were the reactions from other minority communities, and faith groups throughout the city, who spoke out against the attacks and the attitude behind them. As it became clear that people were serious about zero tolerance – including not being afraid to press alarm strips installed in subway cars to alert the police an attack was happening, and doing what they could to stop attacks while they were occurring – the physical violence stopped.

Unfortunately there is nothing that can be done about what people think and feel, and the ingrained fears of the different and unknown that are the root cause of racism are still as prevalent today as they were thirty years ago. On the face of it, Canada appears to be a shining example of multicultural tolerance, but there too many worrying trends that give lie to that appearance.

If we were truly so multicultural why are conservative politicians able to score political points by playing on people's fears of the immigrant? Not only are all the old lies still being trotted out: "they steal our jobs", "they leach off our social systems", but new ones have been invented. Let there be one incident of strife within a minority community and you can count on a politician to start bleating about "bringing their wars to our streets" and innocent (read blonde blue-eyed, children) bystanders being caught in the crossfire. They don't bother to mention that 99% of people who come to Canada have done so because those wars have made them refugees, and they want their children to grow up in a place where they aren't potential innocent bystanders.

If it weren't so appalling, it would be amazing to hear how so called pundits are able to equate multiculturalism with nationalism. They play on people's fears by asking them if they want their neighbourhood to turn into another Rwanda or Bosnia, as if hundreds of years of history, and the political and social climate of those two countries, had nothing to do with the events that happened there. They take one grain of truth, ethnic violence happened in those places, and distort it to mean that anytime two or more ethnic groups are gathered in one place you are guaranteed a firestorm.

Therefore, immigration equals multiculturalism; multiculturalism equals nationalism; and the result is fire in the streets and dark skinned barbarians raping lily-white girls. The sad part is that though their words are lies – they succeed in fermenting an atmosphere of intolerance that leads to the death of a pluralistic society. Even sadder is the ease with which they are able to achieve this result.

It means that despite claims to the contrary, Canada is no more tolerant of immigrants and cultural differences then anybody else, including our neighbour to the south. Canada has hidden its intolerance behind a facade of happy ethnic groups performing happy ethnic dances one afternoon a year in the community hall. We've lied to ourselves, or let ourselves be lied to, and called that multiculturalism.

When Jacques Parizeau, the former leader of the Quebec separatist political party, the Parti Quebecois, blurted out that immigrants voting no in the last referendum on separation lost French Canada the chance to separate from Canada, he was pillared in the press. Nevertheless, his attitude was an accurate reflection of what appears to be two, very common, sentiments in Canada – immigrants are to blame and have no business in the business of "our" country.

In the United States, the current administration relied on generating fear of the unknown and the different in order to get the backing of the population for implementing their various policies – domestic and foreign. Anti-American Canadians have taken great joy in ridiculing these attitudes and the intolerance they have fostered. That's what happens, they say, when you try to assimilate everyone – intolerance and fear of the unknown dictate your behaviour.

It's time for Canadians to get off their high horses and wipe that smirk off their faces. For all our claims of tolerance because of preaching multiculturalism, we are no different. The same fears and intolerance exist in Canada as they do in the United States. We can blame it on the recent administration in Canada if we want, but that's as much a lie as any of the others we tell ourselves. If it didn't already exist, the current crop of politicians wouldn't have been able to exploit it so successfully.

We were able to pretend otherwise for a while, but when it has come to the test, our multiculturalism has proven no more effective in creating a pluralistic society than the melting pot of the United States. We are both countries that were built on the backs of immigrants, but the race of the original colonial masters still rule and seems intent on never letting go.

In spite of the differences in name that each country adapted toward its immigration policies – there has been no real difference in result. The prevailing attitude towards immigrants, or anybody different from "us" is that of fear and intolerance. Welcome to Fortress North America.

November 30, 2007

Immigrants In Canada And The United States: Multiculturalism & The Melting Pot Pt.1

What I thought was going to be simple comparison between the multicultural and melting pot immigrant society of Canada and the United States has turned into an overview of the social history of immigration in both countries. Not a topic to be covered in few hundred words, it has become a two part effort, with part two to follow tomorrow

In almost every history textbook that I had from grade school on, the writers would at some point take great pride in pointing out the difference between Canada and the United States of America when it came to its treatment of immigrants. The United States, we were told was a melting pot, where all newcomers were quickly absorbed and assimilated into the quest for The American Dream. Canada, on the other hand was a cultural mosaic, where all the cultures were distinct tiles, making up our big picture.

Aside from some confusion when I was younger, caused by an overactive imagination that had me visualizing the United States boiling immigrants in great big vats a la cannibals in B movies, I understood that this was some vital cultural difference between the two countries. What it was I couldn't exactly tell you: we had Italian Canadians living in neighbourhoods known as Little Italy, and America had Italian Americans living in neighbourhoods known as Little Italy. Not much of a difference is there?

Still every year it kept showing up in text book after text book: Canada is a multicultural mosaic that encourages people to retain their original cultural identity while the United States are an assimilating melting pot where everyone is encouraged to become part of a homogeneous mass. The one thing missing from those textbooks was any sort of explanation as to what the hell they were talking about.

Neither Canada nor the United States started out multicultural. (I'm talking about the socio-political entities that carry those names, not the geographical areas where thousands of thriving cultures existed before their new neighbours annihilated them.) It wasn't until wave after wave of immigrants started washing up on our shores in the later part of the 1800s that the term could have even been considered accurate. Certainly, Canada had its French population left over from the conquering of Quebec by the British, and in America, there were pockets of Creole and Spanish from thefts of land from Mexico and the purchase of Louisiana respectively. But aside from that, both countries were lily white. (I'm not forgetting the slaves; I just don't consider slavery a culture. African Americans have played a huge part in the development of popular culture, but that influence wasn't exerted until the end of slavery and after the great waves of immigration).

What I found especially odd about these great pronouncements in the textbooks was the fact it was never explained how and why each country developed their supposedly different outlooks towards immigrants. Was it even some great policy decision, or did it just end up happening because of circumstances? One explanation was that it was merely a phrase used to describe the overall effect of cramming so many people of different backgrounds into one area.

In the late 19th century, New York City and Chicago were already large population centres by anyone's standards. It's easy to see how somebody could use the term "melting pot" to describe the polyglot of peoples, languages, and cultures that were crammed into the poorer areas of those cities. The cities would have born a remarkable resemblance to cauldrons overflowing with people; melting pots where they all became just more, raw fodder to be fed into the maw of industry. Cultural distinctions would have been lost due to the simple fact of numbers.

There was also the fact that this was a time of growing labour unrest. Workers in all of the industries, from the coalfields out west to the garment factories of the east, began agitating for better working and living conditions. Attempting to discredit the labour movement, industry and government told America that the unrest was the work of foreign agitators intent on disrupting the status quo and bringing America to its knees. (Sound familiar)

"Foreignness", became the mark of somebody who represented a potential threat to the country, and an unwillingness to assimilate was depicted as Un-American. Since the majority of the labour force in the big cities were all recent immigrants – who else was there desperate enough to work the horrendous hours demanded for the little money offered – it was easy to depict union organizers and leaders in that light.

Creating an atmosphere where anybody who held on to their cultural identity – or foreignness- was treated with suspicion, an alternative image to the bomb toting anarchist, trouble making, and union organizing, immigrant was needed. Industry needed the labour force immigrants represented, so couldn't smear them all with the tar of Un-American activity. So they came up with the fully assimilated model, one that thought nothing of working long hours to provide a better life for his children.

The American Dream, that anybody could achieve success and happiness through hard work was born out of that period. Sacrifice your life and health so that your kids might be better off then you are. Working in tandem with the Salvation army preaching suffering will be rewarded in the hereafter, the image of the hardworking, assimilated immigrant, ideally suiting the needs of industry, was created.

As long as you played by those rules, and weren't some ungrateful foreigner who wanted special treatment, after being allowed to come live in the Land Of The Free And The Home Of The Brave, you were considered a good American and properly assimilated. It was a modified version of America's standard foreign policy precept; as long as you do what we want you're a good guy.

During this same period in history, when the Untied States was being flooded with immigrants at Ellis Island, Canada was only receiving a slow trickle of Eastern Europeans and immigrants from the British Isles. The country was in desperate need to populate it's newly formed Prairie Provinces to prevent them from being swallowed up by American expansion, and to pacify the native populations.

In the early days of nationhood, the country had already had to suppress two native and Metis (mixed blood) uprisings led by Louis Riel in first Saskatchewan and then Manitoba. The silver lining of those rebellions was they had hastened the building of the trans-continental railway. Riel and his followers had been able to win their fight in Saskatchewan because the government hadn't been able to get troops out their fast enough to combat them.

Not willing to let that happen again, Canada's first, and third, Prime Minister, Sir John A. MacDonald, made it his personal pledge that a railway would be built that connected the country. He won the first election because of that promise, lost the second because of the corruption involved in attempting to build it, and won the third when it became obvious he was the only one who was going to be able to force the thing to be built.

You can build a railway, but you can't force people to ride on it. Canada began to actively recruit immigrants by sending representatives to countries with similar environments as the Western provinces. Forty acres, a mule, a bag of seed, and free transport (something along those lines anyway) were wealth beyond reckoning for landless peasants in the Ukraine.

They would travel by boat to Montreal, Quebec, be given the deed to their land, vouchers for their goods, and packed onto the first train heading west. A week later, they were standing on their homestead somewhere in the middle of either Alberta, Saskatchewan, or Manitoba – a minimum of a hundred and one miles from the nearest rail line. (One of the deals that lost MacDonald the second election was giving the Canadian Pacific consortium one hundred miles of land on either side of the rail line as payment for building the railroad)

Although the cities did gradually fill up with immigrants, the level of labour unrest in Canada never approached what it did in the U.S. due to the lack of industry. What did ferment couldn't be easily blamed on immigrants (Yankee organizers on the other hand were a great scapegoat), as their numbers weren't sufficient to be a threat. Policies that restricted immigration heavily in favour of people from the British Isles, and a desperate need for population growth would have made it counter productive anyway.

Visible minorities were kept to a minimum because of draconian head tax laws that required Asians and Indians pay for each member of their family brought over so they never appeared to be a "problem". Therefore, Canada never really experienced the influx of immigration that the United States did, until after World War Two.

Even then, it was often a matter of the government actively searching to fill a void in our labour market. For the building of the St. Lawrence Seaway, the Toronto Subway System, and the rest of the construction boom of the 1950's, the country needed a fast influx of skilled labourers. Since Canada was doing the soliciting, and not the other way around, there was never going to be a question of demonizing the immigrant, and with worker's rights firmly entrenched, there wasn't any reason to.

Up through the 1960's it was easy to portray Canada as a happy, multicultural paradise without having to do anything but leave people alone. Slavery had been abolished in Canada long before it had in the United States meaning we never had the civil rights battles here that divided America. We had safely stowed our Natives on reservations that kept them out of site and mind, and bigotry was polite and British; it never showed on the surface – because it wasn't proper. All that would change in the seventies because of events in the outside world.

This is the end of part one of my look at Immigration and Multiculturalism in Canada and the United States

October 28, 2007

Book Review: War With No End Various Authors

I don't make any secret of my politics and the label most people would a fix to me would be left of (insert name of person furthest to the left you can think of) but you would probably be wrong. You see I usually end up despising the folk on the left almost as much as I do those on the right; if it weren't for that I tend to less violently disagree with the left than the right it would be a draw.

My problem with all political beings is the fact that they are political beings and forget that the majority of us aren't. Most of us are just trying to get by in a world that is getting increasingly fucked up with each passing day. The problems of the world are not going to be solved because one person's philosophy is more suited than another's to the circumstances we find ourselves in as a species. Political pundits on either side of the pendulum are those who are too stupid to have understood the lessons two thousand years of history have taught about political ideology's total irrelevancy to living.

Where I tend to agree with the left is the fact that they don't like the actions of the right. They don't agree with the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, neither do I. The problem is that they suffer from the same problem as the right in thinking that they know what's best for other people, their ideas and solutions are the only ones that are viable and everything else should be disregarded as heretical and dangerous.

This has been one of the main reasons that I've avoided reading the majority of what has been written over the last five years in terms of writings against the policies of the Team Bush & Blair. I already know whom to blame for what's going on thank you very much, so who needs to hear it repeatedly. It's just as tedious as having to listen to Bush, Blair, and company reciting their mantras of blame and self-righteous horseshit.

So far the only books I've read about the occupation that have made any sense are the novel The Sirens Of Baghdad by Yasmina Khadra and a collection of essays, poems, and other writings published by Perceval Press called Twilight Of Empire: Responses To Occupation. What separated these two works from others was they were more concerned with talking about the situation on the ground then talking about whom to blame, who benefited, or a world wide capitalist/leftist-Muslim conspiracy.
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When I decided to give War With No End , published by Verso Books and distributed by Penguin Canada, a try it was in the hopes that because it followed a similar format as Twilight Of Empire it would be as diverse a presentation. A variety of authors from different professional backgrounds; academic, artistic, and journalism, have the potential for making an anthology less political and more personal in content.

It's hard to believe now, but there was a time when Israel was the darling of the left. What with her collective farms and socialist governments she was one of the few left leaning countries that weren't under Soviet influence in the fifties and sixties. Now of course all the problems of the Middle East stem from Israel, her ambitions, and her ties to the United States.

I don't have much love the Likud party or the path of self destruction that the past few governments seem to have embarked on with their intransigence on issues, but that doesn't make the country evil anymore then George Bush makes America a nation of dangerous religious fanatics. Maybe I'm a little sensitive about the issue because I'm a Jew, but I'm sorely tempted to grab the next asshole that blames all the world's problems on Israel, paint a Swastika on his chest and put a white hood over his head and dump him on the South Side of Chicago.

It must be some sort of reflex action on certain people's part, they're writing along making an intelligent argument in their case about Iraq, when all of a sudden its Israel's fault. Look, I know Israel has been pretty stupid about settlers and the whole issue of Palestine, but they weren't the ones who invaded their neighbours with the express purpose of driving the "Jews into the sea" on a regular basis for a couple of decades.

That's bound to make you a little paranoid after a while and a little mistrustful. Everyone is always quick to say that they know there are members of the Israeli population who don't support the government's policy, but they don't seem to mention what would happen to people in Syria who openly defy their government about policy? Do you think there would be Peace Now demonstrations in Damascus when Syria was fighting Israel as there have been when Israel is at war?

So I was disappointed to find a couple of otherwise intelligent essays by Arundhati Roy and Ahdaf Soueif descending into that usual territory. Soueif's essay especially, as it had started out as an intelligent and insightful look at Arab identity, the disintegration of Egyptian culture, and the gradual intellectual impoverishing of the nation due to the many years of one party/military rule.

On the other hand the essay by Haifa Zangana about the role of song and poetry in the life of Iraq, and more specifically in it's vocalization of protest against the occupation of Iraq by the Americans and its allies gives a clearer picture of the lengths that the administration will go to maintain control. Even more telling are his descriptions of the desperate to the point of being ridiculous if they weren't so heavy handed and disgusting, actions of the occupying administration to shut down the music industry. They've yet to make singing illegal but have done everything short of that to try and make sure no one hears any of the protest songs.

It started with shutting down local media outlets, escalated into raiding recording studios, and finally has resulted in attacks on any store suspected of selling CDs, music DVDs, and videos. Sometimes it's the coalition troops involved in raiding record stores, but more often then not, they get mercenaries to do the job and make the owner disappear without a trace.

The other two contributions that helped to elevate this from being merely another series of political knee jerks on somebody's behalf were Joe Sacco's mini graphic novel "Down! Up!", and the contribution from the group September 11th Families For Peaceful Tomorrows. Sacco's piece is a great piece of black humour on the efforts of two Marine "lifer" sergeants attempts to turn uneducated, poor, middle aged Iraqis into the fighting force Bush has declared must be in place before American troops can withdraw. It's a brilliant example of satire, black humour, and sobering pathos that gives us some idea of the futility of creating local security forces.

There is nothing remotely funny about the contribution from one of the many people who lost a child on September 11th whose motto "Not In Our Names" does more to undermine the moral high ground that Bush and company have tried to seize through invoking those deaths then any speech or simplistic rhetoric could even dream of.. This piece makes the rest of the book meaningless, and elevates it beyond anything political rhetoric could ever hope to achieve.

At one point near the end of her contribution she talks of how her son Stephen, who died on September 11th, sat at a conference table with a group of other people sharing a phone so they could leave messages of love to those who they knew they would be leaving behind. There was no talk of vengeance or hatred – just love. She goes on to say that is the legacy she works to keep alive - the legacy of love.

She talks of how there are times when the temptation to despair is overwhelming, but that she is given hope by those people who won't let go of the belief that the world can be a beautiful place for all it's peoples. I wonder if she realizes what a beacon of hope she is with her ability to hold on to love after what has happened to her? Does she know what a high standard she is setting for the rest of us to live up to?

Could I talk like her if a loved one had been taken from me by violence? I'd like to think so but I don't know, and quite frankly don't want to find out anytime soon. If more of North America thought like her and less like George Bush I don't think we'd have quite the number of problems we have in the world right now.

War With No End is a collection of essays ostensibly about the War On Terror, but it seems to bounce all over the place and not keep to its central focus save for a couple of the essays. As is typical of the majority of anti-war, leftist writing these days too much of it is filled with as much anger and hatred as the rhetoric of those they claim to oppose.

Thankfully there are still a few voices out there who are able to lift themselves out of that quagmire and offer a perspective that doesn't depend on ideology or an ism for its survival – now that's a real policy alternative.

October 26, 2007

Canadian Politics: Intolerance Rising

When you witness a sudden change in the attitudes of a majority of people in your community it raises a number of questions. The first question you are bound to ask is how could so many people change their minds so fast. Perhaps what you should be asking yourself though is not why or how the change happened, but how much of a change was it really. What might have looked on the surface to be the truth about people's beliefs had no real depth and was as easily dispersed as topsoil in a dust bowl.

Canada has developed a reputation as being a tolerant country over the years and seemingly has some of the most liberal attitudes on issues of race, sexual identity, and gender discrimination. Ever since the implementation of the Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1980 any legislation or activity that would allow for the discrimination of anyone based on race, gender, religion, creed, or sexual preferences have been successfully challenged and overturned.

When this has been combined with Canada's willingness to support progressive legislation in the health care field like supplying patients with medical marijuana and our former reputation as Nobel Prize for Peace winner because of peacekeeping efforts it certainly makes us appear to a kind and compassionate country. But there's a difference between what can be legislated and what are the genuine feelings of a people.

As long as people aren't confronted with situations that stretch there tolerances, they usually are able to live up to the laws of the land. Unfortunately, it looks like Canada's famous tolerance was only skin deep and at the first sign of trouble has up and vanished. Currently it's the ugly smell of racism mixed with xenophobia that's wafting around the halls of power and the streets of cities, towns, and villages.

It started innocently enough with Elections Canada, the government agency responsible for administering elections, declaring that Muslim women wouldn't have to remove their veil in order to vote, in spite of their being a new law in place requiring picture identification in order to vote. Elections Canada was willing to make an exception to this law in order to respect the traditions of devout Muslims if they did not feel comfortable revealing their faces in public.

In response Prime Minister Steven Harper came out and said he "profoundly disagreed with this decision" and that he hoped Elections Canada would change their mind. It was Harper's government that passed the new legislation, demanding visual identification of voters, so it's not surprising he'd object to the decision.

While in of itself this seems more like an etiquette decision, how to accommodate someone's religious beliefs in a situation where they come into conflict with the law, it should be asked why wasn't this issue considered when the legislation was being created. Secondly, in the past when this type of conflict has arisen, governments have acted with a little more flexibility then Stephen Harper is it this situation.

When the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) first started taking Sikhs on as officers, it was decided that they could wear their turbans instead of the regular headgear, as it would not interfere with their ability to do their job. On the other hand Sikhs who took construction jobs would have to wear a hard had. Instead of showing any sensitivity to the needs of another's religious belief, and trying to find a compromise like was achieved in the case of Sikhs, it can only be all or nothing for Mr. Harper.

Of course as is the case with most politics, there is a subtext that might help explain his stance and the lack of anything being said by the opposition in answer to his statement. It has to do with the current political situation in Quebec, where they are experiencing a sharp increase in xenophobia. When the small town of Herouxville Quebec passed bylaws prohibiting the wearing of the bukra, and stoning as forms of punishment, just in case they ever had to deal with hoards of Muslim immigrants, they were looked upon as a group of intolerable red neck bigots.

But, in the last provincial election, the party who ran on a nationalistic/protect us from the immigrants/ platform ended up in opposition in a minority government situation. Although the Premier spoke out against xenophobia he formed a commission of inquiry to go from community to community to let these bigots have their say in public. So now, all levels of government feel like they have to try and appease these folks and reassure them that if the Muslims invade Quebec disguised as immigrants looking for a better life, they won't be given any special treatment.

Did I mention that there were three seats being contested in by-elections in Quebec right about now as well? Do you think that may have anything to do with any of these signals being sent out to the ultra nationalists in Quebec?

While the whole issue of whether an Islamic women be asked to remove her veil for identification purposes before voting may seem trivial. (We never had to produce any identification at all to vote in Canada except proof that you were on the voters list and that makes me wonder about the validity of the new law requesting ID anyway) However, against the new background of fear mongering and xenophobia that is beginning to fester in Quebec and elsewhere it takes on the appearance of being a symptom of a growing intolerance to anybody who is different.

What kind of message do we send when even the slightest accommodation for another's religious practices is called wrong? Where has our tolerance gone for another person's differences, or did they even exist in the first place? Fear of something because you don't understand it is the behaviour of a coward, and intolerance is the coward's defence against fear. Are we a country of cowards?

October 10, 2007

The Politics Of Fear

Have you ever noticed how there's nothing like an election campaign to bring out the absolute worst in people? Politicians are prostitutes for power most of the time, but that's nothing compared to what they're like when seeking office. It's bad enough if they've never been in power, but give them a taste, and they're worse then a junkie desperate for a fix.

Look at how wild eyed they start getting near the end of a close campaign; they're going to promise just about anything and everything to get those few votes they think might put them over the edge. I know our system is different up here in Canada from those elsewhere in the world, we still run on the old constitutional monarchy, federalist system, but politicians are the same the world over no matter what the circumstances.

In fact, it's safe to say that one thing every society on the face of the earth has in common is a power hungry politician. It doesn't matter if it's a military dictatorship or some sort of democracy, those in power will do anything they can to stay in power. Believe me if the guys in Ottawa, or anywhere else in the world where they have elections, could figure out how they could use the army to avoid an election they would.

Seriously though, look at politicians' behaviour during elections; what are their two favourite tactics? They either smear their opponent with so much dirt that he or she looks like they have been wallowing with pigs all their lives, or they play on the voters worst fears. The quickest way to cast aspersions on your opponent is to tell the voters that he or she will make their worst fears come true, and that only you can keep them safe.

It doesn't matter whether the danger even exists, in fact it's best if you have to warn them of the dangers that will beset them if your opponent wins. If you hadn't told them they would have never known your opponent was prepared to let child molesters teach their children – something that you would never let happen when you win with a majority.

For those of you who think that's a little over the top, let me remind you of what George Bush senior did in the 1988 election to Michael Dukakis. One prisoner who was paroled when Dukakis was Governor of Massachusettes re-offended. Of course, it didn't hurt that the man in question was black, because that played on all the worst prejudices and fears. All of sudden if Dukakis were elected President nobody's lily-white daughter would be safe from mean black rapists prowling the streets.

Lest anyone think I'm picking only on American politicians, Canadians are no better. Hell for all our reputation as being polite, political campaigning up here is just as ugly and nasty as anywhere else. The province I live in, Ontario, is in the midst of an election to see who will rule for the next four years. Although there are four parties officially in the running, Liberal, Progressive Conservative (PC), New Democratic Party (NDP), and the Greens, it's ultimately a fight between the Liberals and the Progressive Conservatives for top prize. (Quick note: The Prime Minister of Canada's Conservative Party of Canada is so universally hated in Ontario that Ontario conservatives chose to retain the party's old name to put as much distance as possible between themselves and his social policies; hence Progressive Conservative).

The PC party has been out of power for almost a decade now and they're really feeling antsy and mean. So they've decided to make the whole election about leadership and who is best suited to run the province – their guy who's never held public office, or the Liberal whose been premier for almost ten years. Since logic won't win that battle, they've gone for scare tactics instead.

You would think that telling everyone to circle the wagons because renegade Redskins are on the war path would be a little dated, but that's their tactic and it might just play well enough in some parts of the province to win them extra seats. About one hundred-and fifty years ago, the province of Ontario leased treaty lands from Mohawks across Southwest and South-East Ontario. Some how or other it slipped their minds that they didn't own the land and have had a grand old time selling it off to developers to build everything from gravel pits to housing developments.

In the past two years, this has blown up in their faces with Mohawks occupying a building site just outside of Caledonia Ontario in Western Ontario, and blockading the highways in Eastern Ontario in protest over the sale of treaty lands to developers. Since treaty disputes fall under the auspices of the federal government to resolve, there's not much the province can do except to try and make sure the situation doesn't get too ugly.

The people who have paid for homes and are still waiting for them to be built aren't thrilled and neither are the developers who can't finish the homes. They need someone to blame for their troubles, and the PCs are more than willing to point the finger at the Liberals for them.

By saying things like real leadership would uphold the law, they are letting the people know they wouldn't let a bunch of pesky Redskins hold up a housing development. Then they point to the blockades happening in the other parts of the province and say, look what happens if you give these people an inch, they'll take a mile. Who know what will happen if you don't elect us, they could come after your house tomorrow!

I find it amazing that with all the real issues that face most western societies these days, like jobs and housing, that modern political parties can still play the race card and fear of "others" so successfully. But then again nobody has ever accused a politician of having a conscience when it comes to trying to win power.

With the primaries getting into full swing in the United States, and Canada probably heading for a federal election within the next year, it will be interesting to see how much low people are going to be willing to stoop to gain power. We'll probably soon hear all about how much Hilary Clinton hates American soldiers, or how much Prime Minister Steven Harper hates everybody whose not white Anglo-Saxon, as everybody tries to find a way of making us fear their opponents.

Wouldn't it be nice if somebody tried to convince us of why we should like and trust them, instead of why we should fear and distrust their opponents? Maybe that's why so few people vote anymore – politicians don't even like themselves enough to give people reasons to vote for them.

October 8, 2007

Violence And Generosity

I had to replace my laptop a little while ago. The old one had put up a good fight, but after two years, a thousand articles, two drafts of a novel, and two books of compilations, she finally surrendered to the inevitable. For a hundred dollars I couldn't have asked any more from her, but it still meant that my wife and I would have to share our desktop.

Now she has often said that she thinks what I do is important, for a lot of reasons, and I appreciate that. However, that doesn't mean I'm not going to feel guilty about monopolizing the computer and preventing her from doing the things she enjoys doing. So it meant there was a certain amount of urgency to find me another computer.

Not so long ago a friend of ours had offered us an old tower to use as back up for music and graphic files. I figured if that offer was still available it would make a good stopgap until I could find another affordable laptop. I called our friend and she said no problem she'd have it ready in a day for me; she wanted to completely dump the machine's hard drive.

Ten minutes later she called me back and said: "Let me buy you a lap top, I've got some extra money and I can afford "x". To say I was taken aback and grateful has to be the understatement of the year. This is a person whose finances up until a year ago were so bad that she almost lost her house. But through some fortune and luck she found herself solvent and with money to spare.

As she put it, one of the great things about having extra money was that she was in a position to be able to do things like buying me a new used laptop without having to even think about it. What I find amazing is that a person whose existence has been fairly hand to mouth for years – a single mom raising three boys – is able to understand the concept of extra money while people who make thousands of dollars a week can't.

The money she spent on my laptop would have bought food for a month for her and the one son who still lives at home, or she could have just frittered it away on things. I wouldn't have begrudged her a penny of it, because she'd been so long without money to spend on herself. But she had bought everything she wanted and needed for her self, given each of her sons money to do with as they felt, and that was enough for her.

So this was all wonderful, I ordered a slightly newer model of what I had before, with a little more power and a slightly bigger hard drive. It also came with a DVD player, something I thought would be very useful for reviewing purposes as I can now watch movies anywhere I can plug in. But most important to me was the fact that it came with a dial up modem.

I know for most people that's not usually high on their list of priorities, but we haven't been able to afford the jump to high-speed yet (although that might be changing soon) so a dialup modem is an essential. Needless to say when the laptop showed up and I couldn't find any place which even looked like you could plug a phone line into it I was a wee bit perturbed. I double-checked the advertisement on the website, and the receipt they had sent with the laptop, and they both included a 56k modem as being part of the computer.

I immediately phoned the store and was told by the gentleman who answered, that there was a modem, and the inputs were on the right hand side. I said that unless they were making 56k modems without phone jacks anymore there wasn't one, and what did he plan on doing about it?

First he made the generous offer of allowing me to pay for shipping it back to him, which I declined. I suggested that he send me out a 56k modem for the removable card slot and I'd be happy with that. He agreed to that and said "by the end of the week". That was August 27th. For the next four weeks I phoned; I was polite, I threatened, and I begged and still received the same answer – we're waiting for a reply from our head office.

I finally had enough and phoned the credit card company whose card I had used to order the machine. They assured me that if worse came to worse they would go after them for the money needed for me to purchase the modem. The next time I phoned them I managed to find out where their head office was, and when they refused to do anything I sent a threatening email to the head office explaining the circumstances and what I would do if I hadn't heard back from them in two days.

Ten minutes later I received an email back saying they would express post the modem directly to me from Vancouver the next business day. "We had no idea you wanted the part so urgently" was their excuse. It took all my willpower not to write them back and ask them what they used their brains for, as it obviously wasn't customer service. Instead I simply said yes that would be fine.

They obviously had plenty of removable 56k modems in stock, and brand new ones at that, because when it arrived last Wednesday the box was still shrink wrapped and all the parts were brand spanking new. Why then did it take them nearly six weeks to send me one? Why did they only respond when I threatened them? Why couldn't they just have sent me out the part I needed as soon as they knew it was missing?

Maybe you'll think I'm over reacting, but to me this is indicative of so much that is wrong with our society. If you don't use violence, or an equivalent, no one pays any attention to you. That doesn't strike me as being the sign of a caring society, or at least any I'd recognize as such. Come to think of it, there's not much proof of us being that caring anywhere you look.

Would a caring society allow corporations to charges thousands of dollars to people for a drug that could keep them alive? Would it spend trillions of dollars on war and weaponry when people all over the world go to bed hungry or live in the squalor of refugee camps? Is it any wonder that people all around the world think the only way they can get our attention is through violence?

I'm not saying I agree with that tactic, but all they see is so much evidence of our ability to ignore the plight of other people. With that in mind, it becomes easier to at least understand how people can find themselves so frustrated with waiting for a peaceful resolution to their plight that they resort to violence as an answer.

I know it seems like I've take a huge leap from the business of buying a computer to terrorist attacks, but the one is just a milder instance of the same flaw in our society that causes the other. We have forgotten what generosity means, and I don't just mean being free with money. It's about being receptive to other people's plight and responding to it with positive action and not passing the buck.

Why is that so difficult for us to understand?

October 7, 2007

Care? Who Cares?

Do you ever wonder how much longer we're gong to be able to pretend that there's nothing wrong with the world? Let me be clear here, I'm not just pointing my finger at the West or American here; I'm talking all of us. From the politburo in China, to Whitehall in England, from The Hague, to the Black Sea, from The Amazon Basin to The Outback, and everywhere in between and all around.

We've got business interests making as much money as they possibly can this very minute every, and anywhere. They don't care if they use ten your old girls in their factories or if they're selling those same girls as whores to wealthy clients, it's all money. People like stone washed jeans so we will strip mine pumice from mountains, use sulphuric acid to separate out the impurities, and make lots of money from the jeans for the year they are fashionable.

The factory fishing boats pulled up to the Grand Banks off Newfoundland and filled up their holds with fish, canned them and started all over again. Who needs a catch limit – the fish won't run out. In Japan and Northern Ontario paper companies used the nice clean water of the rivers rushing by their factories to help clean out the giant presses and they did a great job of washing the mercury out of the equipment and into the water system. It's okay though because the water is moving so it will clean itself.

The International Monetary Fund decides to give one of the deserving countries in Africa a helping hand instead of a handout. All they have to do is be a little financially responsible and they will get their loan. Cutting all social spending is a good start – people who never had education or health care aren't going to miss it anyway are they? Oh and you can't block foreign companies from owning your national resources either - it's a global economy now don't you know?

Oh and not to worry if you think you're going to having problems making your interest payments on time – you'd be surprised how few things really are essential services. Who needs roads to all these isolated areas – no body goes there do they? With so few people, having indoor washroom facilities why do you need to build sewers anyway? It's just wasting the money you could be using to pay the interest on the loan. See it's easy if you just use common sense.

There're people dying by the thousands if not millions in Africa from the spread of HIV/AIDS but we can't corrupt their morals by offering them condoms to help stop the spread of disease. Giving prostitutes condoms to hand out to their clients for protection will encourage them to have sex out of wedlock instead of waiting for Mr. Right to come along like they should.

Anyway, it's Africa, and people are always dying of something there; this country has a civil war, that country has a famine, and despots rule the rest anyway. It's not as if they have contributed anything to the world except refugees and starving mouths to feed so it's no big loss. Between Europe and North America most of the oil, gold, and other valuable natural resources have been locked up for the next few decades already – without the slave trade there's not much else of value left.

The increases in severe weather systems don't need to be a cause for alarm, instead they should be thought of as opportunities for change. Look what happened after the tsunami in South East Asia; all those messy fishing shacks and villages were washed away and new fancy hotel and condominium complexes have come up in their place.

Instead of having to perform the back breaking labour of fishing and living without electricity and running water, the former fishermen and their families now have nice clean service industry jobs and live in apartment blocks with all the amenities in one room. Some of them had never even seen a television or lived above ground level before if you can believe that...?

There's only so long I can even write like that without feeling sick to my stomach. I hope to God that there aren't people out there who still think like that. I have a sick feeling that there are more of them then I want to know about, and that far too many have positions of power.

There aren't many days that something doesn't strike me about our outrageous hubris in thinking that just because we as human's do something it's the right thing to do. There're the idiots who call themselves environmentalists because they move into a desert environment and proceed to plant trees. The fact that they are messing with one of the most delicate ecosystems in the world by introducing something with the deep thirsty root system of a maple or other deciduous tree that disrupts the water table escapes them completely.

That sort of behaviour may not appear like much to some of you, but it's an indication of just how thoughtless we've become. If we care that little about where we live, how are we going to be able to care about someone else's life and where they live? If we can't get it together soon and stop pretending that everything's okay everything could start falling apart at the seams. Another couple of Katrina's or another tsunami or two and not only will the cracks start showing, but the walls will start coming down.

Then we're all going to have to get used to living without electricity or running water

October 4, 2007

October Second: International Day Of Non-Violence

I received an interesting Press Release through the email the other day from an Arts publicity organization in India. It was announcing a special performance of the score to the movie about the life of The Mahatma – Gandhi – in honour of the United Nations declaring October 2nd, his birthday, International Non-Violence Day.

I have to say that I'm having an extremely hard time with that proclamation: International Non – Violence Day. The only thing I can think of is that some bright spark at the U.N. figured they could kill two birds with one stone by honouring Gandhi's birthday and throwing a bone to India in recognition of their new status as rising economic power. Aside from that I can't think of any other reason for even considering such a meaningless gesture.

You don't have to look very far to see how empty the proclamation is. I'm not even referring to any of the wars that are currently ongoing around the globe right now, or the actions of oppressive governments everywhere to curtail the rights of their peoples. Sure they all reflect badly on our ability to live in peace or to be considered advocates for a non-violent life, but they are only symptoms of a deeper-seated malaise.

As a species, our predilection for violence amongst ourselves probably started the first time one group of early men thought that another's hunting territory was better. There was never any thought of seeing whether the two groups combing forces and sharing the territory in an effort to feed both tribes might not be to everybody's benefit. No it's always "us" or "them" with never any thought given to "we".

Of course when the empire builders started up, Phillip of Macedonia and his son Alexander, who were followed eventually by the first great Western Empire –Rome it meant whole new reasons for fighting. Most of them had less to do with the survival of the tribe and more to do with personal glory, although those who fought against Rome would have thought of their war as battles for survival more then anything else.

Once these guys had set the precedent of trying to make the world a better place by giving everyone the present of civilization whether they liked it or not, because we know what's good for you even if you don't, you ignorant, barbarian savages, everyone decided they wanted to take a stab at it.

The Mongol Hordes in the East, under the various Khans taught everyone the value of fierceness and swordplay from the back of a horse. The Islamic world got it's own back for the Crusades by invading and occupying great chunks of Europe and keeping the West out of the Middle East from 1200 until the end of World War One.. While in Europe itself first the Spanish, and then the French took turns in occupying most of Central and Western Europe. And when they fell back the Austro-Hungarian Empire took over until the end of World War One.

Of course that doesn't even begin to cover what was going on outside of Europe when they discovered there were other countries that needed the benefits of a good Christian/Muslim upbringing. From the Western Hemisphere to the Indian Ocean and China, colonial empires expanded and contracted with the passing of the years. There were also the Civil wars that tore countries apart because of differences in opinion on religion and economic issues that left thousands if not millions dead and deep scars in the social fabric that have yet to heal even to this day.

Of course every time there was some sort of minor disagreement between countries they would solve it by meeting on the battlefields of Europe and come to a civilized agreement by killing each other's peasants by the thousands. So people like George Bush and his cronies are simply carrying on the ages old tradition of getting your own way by any means necessary.

It's become such an ingrained part of our social fabric that the majority of us live our lives with the understanding that if we ever want to accomplish anything we're going to have to resort to violence of some sort. It doesn't have to be physical all the time either; emotional and psychological violence can be even more effective in a social setting.

How often have you had to resort to some sort of intimidating action to get what you've wanted from someone who hasn't been willing to follow through on a contract? From withholding payment to threatening court action you are still using coercion or threats instead of trying to seek a peaceful resolution to your problem.

What's truly unfortunate is how difficult it is to come to a compromise with people, and it's not until you offer to escalate matters that some people will listen to you. We've become so used to that sort of behaviour it seems the majority won't do anything unless forced to – it's like you won't be taken seriously until you put a gun to someone's head.

In some instances violence or other forms of non-passive behaviour can't be avoided and a person or a country is left with no recourse but to explore other means. But for far too many of this world's people, and especially our leaders, violence remains their first option and other means are discarded far too quickly.

For the United Nations to come out and say that from now on October Second will be now be considered a day for honouring Non-Violent behaviour as a mark of respect to Mahatma Gandhi is a bit ridiculous. Those who practice non-violent resistance in most societies these days are treated like outcasts and unpatriotic because they don't think what their government does in their name with violence is something to be proud of or to condone.

Oh sure it's alright when people do it other countries against governments we're told it's alright to disagree with, but when people at home do the same sort of thing that's different. Our governments would never deny us our rights or throw us in jail without trial like others do; we're a democracy after all. When we use violence it's all right and not something to be protested against.

When the United Nations was formed in 1945 it was with the purpose of creating a body where the world's nations would be able to resolve their differences without having to resort to warfare. The only problem is that most countries simply ignore the idea of a peaceful resolution, and then proceed to heap scorn of the U.N. for not accomplishing anything.

Until governments begin to practice the type of non-violence advocated by The Mahatma, October second will simply serve as a reminder of how far we as a species have to go before we can really be called civilized.

September 29, 2007

Book Review: Animal's People Indra Sinha

On December 3rd 1984 the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal India caught fire and exploded. The chemicals that were released into the atmosphere by the fire and the smoke caused horrific physical damage to all who were exposed to the fallout as well as the initial explosion. But what remains unknown to this day is the full extent of the long-term damage to the city's environment.

How much and what chemicals infected the water table? What were the long-term effects on male and female chromosomes from the inhalation of the clouds of poison gas that swept through the area along with the flames? Aside from physical damage, what long-term mental damage were survivors inflicted with?

There might not be so many questions about the long-term implications of the explosion if Union Carbide's head office in the United States would admit that their product had anything to do with people's problems in the post explosion world. Instead, they have fled the country and tried their best to provide as little compensation as possible to the people of Bhopal. On one of the websites that posts information about the case they have a running ticker counting the hours since the disaster and how much money each person has received on average in compensation; the current count stand at six cents.

I suppose the officials at Union Carbide had hoped the problem would just go away if they hid out in the States and refused to show up in court or obey court orders in India. The fact that Ronald Reagan was President and not inclined to let foreigners push decent Americans around let them get away with this behaviour, as any decent government would have enforced at least the compensation orders.
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Try to imagine for a moment what if must be like to be the people of Bhopal who have lived for twenty plus years watching family and friends die, descend into madness or give birth to still born babies. Animal's People, the latest offering from Indian author Indra Sinha available from Simon & Schuster Canada does just that.

Through the twisted lens of the eyes of his lead character Animal we get to know some of the people of the small town of Kaufpur and learn about how the disaster affected each of them. There's also more than the disease eating away at the people; there's loss of faith in just about everything; and deep-seated despair caused by the certainty that nobody gives a damn about them.

Our tour guide through the hardest hit areas of the town, the poorest areas of the city where the hovels and shanties of the factory workers were only blocks away from their employment, is Animal of the title. Animal is a minor celebrity with visiting journalists who come to a do their biennial "what ever happened to the people of Kaufpur" looking for a story. Not only is he a good bit of local colour with his name and his attitude, he's also a great photo opportunity.

You see his name is derived from the fact that his spine is so crooked and bent that he has to go around on his hands and knees – like an animal. He's been told that he came into the world the night of the explosion and that his mother lost her life because of it. He was found in a basket and raised at an orphanage. His own earliest memories are of pain – of lying in bed as his body was racked with fever and his spine contorting.

When a journalist leaves Animal with a tape recorder and blank tapes for him to record his story the first he thing he does is sell the recorder. However, that only means he has to find another one when he finds he does have something to say about his life, the people he knows, and the events of one particular season.

The poor of Kaufpur have so little and have had so much taken away, that they are naturally suspicious of anything offered for free. So when an American doctor comes to town and opens a free clinic in the poorest part of the town, suspicions are raised that she is actually working in tandem with the bosses of the 'Kampani' who are on trial

Somehow they are going to use the health records created by the doctor from her patient list to disavow themselves of any responsibility of wrong doing when it comes to the illnesses of those in town. So, in spite of desperately needing the services offered by the doctor they boycott the clinic to protest the underhanded nature of the bosses.

Indra Sinha has performed a virtual miracle with Animal's People. He has written a story about the survivors of a Bhopal type incident without once making them out to be victims. In fact, as Animal articulates to the new doctor, what he really hates is when foreign journalists or do-gooders come around and look at him with the kind of face they'd normally reserve for a stray cat.

Of course that is what it makes the book all the more powerful – for all their differences in culture and status from most of those who will be reading the book, the characters are easy to identify with and very real. From the frustrations of the doctor as to why people won't come to her clinic, and her growing realization of how foreign doesn't just apply to nationality, but life experience as well, to the brutal self-assessments of Animal when he examines his own motivations, they all have traits we can recognise or feelings we can associate with.

Animal's People is about people who are forced to live in brutal circumstances yet never surrender to them, and continue to rise above them on a daily basis in the slim hope that some day will bring improvement. Sinha manages to incorporate enough moments of beauty into their world to offer a small measure of justification for their hope. A small measure may not seem like much, but to a parched soul, it is a bounty.

Animal's People is a wonderful book about a horrible set of circumstances that might just change the way you look at the faces staring back at you in the newspaper from photos of a disaster on the other side of the world. Aid agencies are too quick to turn people into victims and doing them a disservice. Indra Sinha takes steps to reverse that process and turn them back into human beings.

Animal's People by Indra Sinha is available for purchase by Canadians from the Simon & Schuster web site or an online retailer like Amazon Canada

September 25, 2007

Book Review: Rick Mercer Report: The Book Rick Mercer

According to the good people at Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary the definition of the word rant is as follows: "a noun meaning to speak in loud, violent, or extravagant language; rave". Seeing as rave is part of the definition, in an effort to be thorough I checked it out as well: "To speak wildly or incoherently."

According to that definition that means when we talk of somebody ranting, we're implying they are frothing at the mouth like a rabid dog, and spewing out massive amounts of insensible verbiage. It would seem to me that our current usage of the word is slightly more tolerant than that formal definition. In fact, I feel confident in suggesting that most people would agree that a rant is an impassioned statement about any subject a speaker or writer has strong feelings about.

Rants aren't even dangerous; usually they're just a really good way for a person to let off steam about something that's ticked them off in the moment. Unfortunately, some people live up to the dictionary definition, frothing at the mouth with hatred and ending up leaving a sour taste in most people's mouths. It doesn't have anything to do with political affiliations; hatred knows no party lines and left or right can be equally to blame.

The best types of rants are those done by intelligent people with great senses of humour. They are those people who won't be tied down by political affiliations or dogma, and have no problem with taking on idiocy no matter who the source is. The only people who need fear them are the self-righteous, the pompous, and folk who take themselves and their opinions far too seriously.
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A few years back Canadians were introduced to the comic genius of Rick Mercer when the satirical news/current events show This Hour Has Twenty-Two Minutes started being televised on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). More recently they have welcomed him into their homes as host of the Rick Mercer Report. Now thanks to Random House Canada and their imprint Doubleday Canada, we will now know him as an author. September 25th sees the publication of Rick Mercer Report: The Book, a compendium of interviews and editorials (rants) from four years of the show, and selected articles from his blog.

Rick is originally from the youngest province in Canada, and the one primarily known around the world for it's "barbaric" seal hunt; Newfoundland. Being from Newfoundland is an important part of Rick's makeup as a comic. Newfoundland didn't become part of Canada until 1949 and has been the poorest province since. When the Cod fish stocks failed and the seal hunt became unpopular, villages that had been first settled in the 1700's began turning into ghost towns.

Hardship like that can make you bitter, and sour your outlook on life. However, in the case of Mercer and the people he worked with on This Hour (who were either all from Newfoundland or the East Coast) it honed their bullshit detectors and gave them a healthy sense of scepticism when it came to the promises of politicians. Rick's opinions were made abundantly clear in his weekly "editorial" (rant) concerning something particularly inane that had happened in the world.

On the Rick Mercer Report, the editorials continued, but he also would do segments involving Canadian politicians, counting on their desire to be seen as "regular folk" with senses of humour. He arranged to sleep over at Prime Minister Harper's house, went skinny dippy with a leadership contender (Bob Rae) for the Liberal party, and took the leader of The Green Party out logging.

But I don't think the politicians would have done any of these stunts with Rick, no matter how popular his show is (and it is one of the most watched Canadian shows in Canada) if they didn't think there was more to him then caustic comments. Of course, it doesn't hurt that he treats everybody the same. If you insist on putting your foot in your mouth Rick has suggestions on how much further you can shove it down your throat no matter what political party you are with.
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But there's more to it then that; underneath the silliness and the satire you get the feeling he does what he's doing out of a genuine concern and love for Canada and her people. Perhaps it's not something you'd pick up on watching an episode or two of his show, but when the material is gathered together in one place as it has been for the book, it becomes a lot more obvious.

As you read through the various editorials and interviews, (the segment with environmentalist David Suzuki is worth the price of the book alone: middle of the winter and two men about to jump in a freezing cold lake – you take it from there), you can see that his indignity comes from politicians putting themselves ahead of the people and the country they are supposed to be representing. The only times you feel he is genuinely angry, not just teasing or sarcastic, are those when either people are being insulted or the country is being taken for granted.

When Prime Minister Harper showed himself willing to make deals with the political party bent on ensuring Quebec's separation from Canada (Bloc Quebecois) in an attempt to ensure he could stay in power, after promising never to do that in the election campaign, Mercer was more angry about the potential threat this posed to the country then the broken promise. When it was decided not to lower the flags on parliament hill when a soldier was killed in Afghanistan, in what appeared to be an attempt to hide information about casualties from the public, he was genuinely angry on behalf of the soldiers and the lack of respect he thought it showed for them and their families.

Whatever it is, and however he does it, and I don't think I can give concrete examples, reading Rick Mercer Report: The Book made me remember what used to make me proud of being Canadian. It's what has been missing from our leadership for a good long while now, compassion for those less fortunate.

Whether at home or abroad it was always what marked us and made us a distinctive country. If people were in trouble, we were there with help no questions asked. If people needed a safe haven from a dictator, we opened our borders to them – we have nothing if not room after all. Our armed forces were respected all over the world for being there to help settle disputes or bring vital supplies to people hit by a calamity beyond their control.

Reading this book it sounds to me that Rick Mercer wants to be proud of Canada again for those reasons. When he is critical of people for being selfish and self-serving, it is because they are doing it either at the expense of others or the future of the country. Rick Mercer Report: The Book is not just a series of political attacks for the sake of a few cheap laughs. It is a wake up call to all Canadians to remember what it was that made our country special.

If it can make an iconoclast like me think seriously about why I love my country, think what it can do for you. For those of you who aren't Canadian and wondered what makes us different from either the Americans or the British, reading this book will go a long way to offering an explanation.

Canadians wishing to buy the book can do so through Random House Canada or an online retailer like Amazon.ca.

September 16, 2007

DVD Review: Dear Jesse

No matter how hard I try I can't understand how any society that claims to cherish freedom, justice, and democracy as much as the United States of America does would allow a creature like Jesse Helms to have power in shaping the policy of the country. What's even more disgusting is the fact that he is treated with respect and dignity when he deserves to be shunned, if not tried for crimes against humanity.

In the 1960's, he fought against the racial integration of schools in North Carolina. Since his election to the senate in 1972, he has done his best to deny rights and liberties to any group he sees as not fitting into his narrow definition of the world order. Whether its been women seeking equality under the law, Hispanics and African Americans asking for assistance to redress the years of inequality in quality of education and job availability, and for the last twenty years anything allowing homosexuals even the appearance of equality in the eyes of the law, his has been the voice raised loudest in opposition.

His apologists say things like, well one thing you can say for Jesse is that you know where he stands on things, which isn't something you can say about lots of politicians. Well you can say the same thing about Hitler and Stalin but that didn't change the fact they were despotic monsters. Anyway what difference does it make that he's honest about being a bigoted hate monger or not, it doesn't change the fact that he is one.

At first glance, you wouldn't think you could find someone more diametrically opposed to Jesse Helms then Tim Kirkman if you tried. He's gay, works in the arts as a film director and scriptwriter, and lives in the epitome of the liberal north, New York City. What could these two men have in common?
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Actually, quite a lot; they were both born in the same small town in North Carolina, attended the same high school, spent a year at the same college, worked in radio and for newspapers while in school, and both obsess over gay men. For all those reasons, and maybe the last one in particular, Tim returned to his hometown with camera and crew in an attempt to understand Jesse Helms, and the state that has elected him to the Senate since 1972 that they both call home.

The resulting documentary film Dear Jesse has now been released on DVD by Sovereign Distributors and goes on sale this October. Tim criss-crosses North Carolina speaking to people from as many walks of life as possible, both supporters of Jesse and those who oppose him, creating a picture of the man who represents them in the eyes of the world that's not very flattering.

I don't know if it was his intention when he started out on this journey, but along the way it also becomes an examination of his own life and his relationship with his family and friends that still live in North Carolina. Through interviews, news clips, and voiceovers Tim tells the story of two of the state's native sons. He does his best to be an objective observer, and let other people and the historical record paint the picture of Jesse Helms, and to a large degree, he is successful. The majority of the analysis he indulges in centres around his own life, and the choices he's made along the way.

It's there where we can make our own suppositions of course. How much were those choices a product of the environment he grew up in; the environment fostered and created by Jesse Helms. Would he have been more open about his relationship with another man to his parents if Helms hadn't so poisoned the atmosphere of North Carolina with his riling against same sex relationships?

Even during the filming of the movie, he is still too unsure of how his parents would be able to cope with him talking about how upset he was because a man he had loved had just committed suicide. Can you imagine not being able to turn to your parent's for comfort when someone you love dies? Can you imagine how lonely and isolated that would make you feel?

That's what made Dear Jesse such a powerful movie is the fact that it was able to show the subtle and insidious ways that prejudice can affect the lives of people. It's not just the overt hate mongering that causes so much damage, it's the atmosphere of fear, and suspicion that it generates that can cause as much grief. Is it any wonder that a disproportionate numbers of teenage suicides are gay?

To the person who is already insecure, like most teenagers, add the fear of being rejected by ones own family to the lack of support in the community at large and you can feel like the loneliest person on the planet. The interviews that Tim conducts with individuals who have been affected by the poisoned air of North Carolina that is the legacy of Jesse Helms show just how insidious it can be.

The mother of a boy whose son died of AIDS, who had received a personal letter of condolence from Senator Helms when her husband died of cancer, reads from a letter that Helms wrote her in response to her plea for more research into the AIDS virus. In it, the Senator tells her it was her son's own damn fault that he died and that he got what was coming to him. What kind of human being would write a letter like that, rubbing salt into the wounds of a person's grief?

In Jesse Helms' North Carolina in 1996 the Klu Klux Klan were still marching in the streets without people rising up in protest against their presence let alone the fact they existed at all. Any place that hate mongers feel confident enough to stage public marches with out the worry of harassment is not going to be one where minorities are going to feel welcome no matter how long their families have lived there or how deep their roots run.

In Dear Jesse Tim has created a documentary that condemns its subject the harshest by showing how normal North Carolina looks. Yet since 1972 they have elected an openly racist, misogynistic, and homophobic man as their senator. That's the scariest thing about this movie, and I don't even know if Mr. Kirkman was aware that result was showing up on the screen.

A few years ago, a young man by the name of Matthew Sheppard was pistol whipped and left tied to a fence in the Montana where he died. The only reason he was killed was because he happened to be gay. Hate crimes like these are only possible because the people who commit them have been told by people like Jesse Helms that Matthew Sheppard was less then human and didn't deserve to be treated like a person.

At one point during the filming of Dear Jesse Tim goes to a small college in North Carolina where Jesse Helms was to have given a speech. They ended up missing the speech, so he did interviews instead with people outside the building. Ironically, one of the people he interviewed was Matthew Sheppard and his boyfriend. It is the only known film clip of Matthew.

Dear Jesse made me shed tears of sadness and rage when I heard how life under Jesse Helms had affected the lives of so many people through his hate mongering. Hopefully now that he no longer is in the Senate things might begin to change, but I wonder how long it will take for his awful legacy to be obliterated. One thing is for sure, there is no need to build him a memorial, – there are plenty of tombstones across the country of people who died of AIDS that will serve quite well.

Who knows how many of the bodies buried under them might still be alive if it hadn't been for his obstructionist policy against funding research into treating AIDS. I really wonder how he sleeps at night.

September 15, 2007

Book Review: The Unquiet Grave: The FBI And The Struggle For The Soul Of Indian Country Steve Hendricks

The United States has been at war with people living within its borders since the day the country was founded. Systematically the government has stripped them of their land, denied them of basic human rights, and tried to steal the very language they have spoken for thousands of years from their tongues. When they or allies have had the nerve to protest they are declared enemies of the state and treated as such.

If you thought acts committed under the auspices of Homeland Security were new, its only because the majority of the population of the United States has not been subject to them before. Welcome to a small taste of what it's like to be a Native American in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave.

Only a small taste however, the government isn't quite stupid enough to think that the majority of people would tolerate being treated like they still treat Indians today. Heck they never even treated the Blacks this bad - but of course they were an essential ingredient in keeping the economy going, slave labour to pick the cotton and minimum-wage slave labour to keep the service industry turning over.

But what damn good is an Indian, they don't make good slaves 'cause they just die, which why we had to import the Africans in the first place, and you can't teach him to be civilized either - look at how long we tried with residential schools. Not them, nope they'd rather keep speaking their own heathen languages no matter how much we beat, raped, or generally abused them. Well if the stubborn bastards don't want anything do with our way of life than screw 'em is what I say, and let them rot on their reservations.
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That might not be written down anywhere as official government policy, but it's certainly been the way the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) have conducted themselves when it comes to their treatment of American Indians and their supporters. The Unquiet Grave: The FBI And The Struggle For The Soul Of India Country by Steve Hendricks is the latest book to try and wake the American public to the criminal behaviour of their government toward its first citizens.

Published by Thunder Mouth's Press an imprint of Avalon books and distributed by Publishers Group Canada and Publishers Group West. It joins Dee Brown's Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee and Peter Matthiessen's In The Spirit Of Crazy Horse as attempts to counter the lies and bullshit that have been propagated as the truth about events of the last thirty years and beyond.

For organizations who claim to have nothing to hide concerning their dealings with American Indians, and in particular people who were involved with the American Indian Movement (AIM) in the 1970s, both the FBI and the BIA were and are, very reluctant to release documents to Hendricks under the Freedom Of Information Act as required by Congress. In fact in an effort to research this book, he has had to sue both agencies (with some cases still in the courts) on a number of occasions to gain access to the files he requested.

For his investigation into the recent history of the American Indian, he starts with the biggest mystery that still surrounds events that took place thirty years ago on Pine Ridge Lakota Reserve in South Dakota - the death of Anna Mae Aquash. Anna Mae was a member of AIM who was found dead on a back road in South Dakota. Right from the discovery of her body, the FBI did their best to distort the facts. They even refused to come clean on how many agents showed up at the scene after the crime was reported.

Hendricks recounts the story again in all its sordid detail: how her hands were cut off and sent to Washington for fingerprinting, because nobody supposedly recognised her. How the first autopsy said she died of exposure even though there was bullet wound in the back of her neck leaking blood and the bullet could be clearly seen as a protuberance through her face. Thirty years later rumours and accusations are still flying on all sides about who killed her and why.

She wasn't the only AIM member or supporter to be killed or die under mysterious circumstances and whose real killers may never be found out. They may find the person who pulled the trigger, but those who labelled her an informer and sealed her death will never be known. Standard operating procedure for the FBI was to seed dissent among groups like AIM by spreading rumours via agency informants that key members were selling the group out. Therefore, it remains a very real possibility that they pulled the strings that resulted in the death of Anna Mae Aquash by convincing AIM she was as an informer.

Anna Mae isn't the only scab the Steve Hendricks picks at, some won't sit well with supporters of AIM, but their hands got dirty, and the less they attempt to cover it up the better it will be for them in the long run. Suspicion and paranoia seemed to be the normal state of affairs for the leadership of AIM. Not without justification as there were continual threats on the lives of Dennis Banks, Russell Means, and others. Still that doesn't excuse what were tantamount to summary executions of people suspected to be informers.

People may say, if Hendricks was so interested in helping Indians, why did he have to go and say things that throw the leadership of AIM in a negative light. In my mind that establishes the credibility of all the other information he unearths in his book. We've already enough history books that are written that cover up inconvenient truths, do we really want more of the same no matter whose side they favour?
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According to the United States Army the virtual execution of over three hundred men, women, and children at Wounded Knee Creek on December 28th 1890 by Hotchkiss gun was and is a glorious victory for the Seventh Calvary. Any attempt to pay even the least amount of compensation to the victim's families has been fought tooth and nail by the United States Army in their continued denial of an almost universally accepted truth. Supporters of Native Americans cannot reasonably condemn the American government for propagating a recidivist version of history if they are willing to do the same.

In the long run no matter how bad the leadership of AIM might come across at times, their actions will always pale in comparison to the activities of the FBI, the BIA, and various American administrations, up to and including the current one, in regards their treatment of American Indians. Books like Unquiet Grave and men like Steven Hendricks are necessary if we are ever going to find out the truth of what happened and what continues to happen in the war the government of the United States is waging against the American Indians.

You might not like everything he has to say, but unlike the official versions of these events, he has told the truth as much as he is able to based on what people have been willing and able to tell him. The story continues to unfold at his web site as he wins access to more and more information. Even since the book was published in 2006 he has added more to the story via that address.

For anybody doubting the veracity of his claims pages 383 to 474 of Unquiet Grave cites his sources for all his information, including excerpts from documents prised away from the FBI under the Freedom Of Information Act. It's all there, from their falsification of information in order to ensure Leonard Peltier's extradition from Canada for his alleged role in the killing of FBI agents, to the contradictory statements about Aquash's death.

Unquiet Grave: The FBI And The Struggle For The Soul Of Indian Country by Steven Hendricks should cause outrage and shock because of its revelations about the FBI and the BIA, but it will be lucky to attract any attention at all. We continue to wash our hands of any responsibility for the "Indian problem" or claim it doesn't exist. Hendricks answers those who would argue that it's not our responsibility what happened hundreds of year ago with these words about the land stolen from the Lakota,"If we know of the theft, as we do, yet do not right it, we are as guilty as our forbearers".

The same can be said about the FBI and the BIA. If, as according to this book they are, they are aware of the guilt of previous agents and agency heads, and do nothing to rectify it, they are just as guilty as those who committed those acts. It's high time that those two bureaus were held accountable for their crimes against the American people, and Steven Hendricks has provided sufficient evidence to justify just such an investigation.

Unquiet Grave is an unusual history book in that it attempts to tell the truth without favouring one side over another. It lays out the story in language anybody can understand without ever oversimplifying or assuming the reader already knows anything. This important book should be included on every high school's history curriculum in Canada and the United States as an example of what the truth looks like. It's not necessarily pretty, nor is it necessarily nice, but its reality and its about time eyes were opened to it. Only then can the long, overdue, process of redressing wrongs begin.

September 12, 2007

Terror Is As Terror Does

I remember having a conversation with the mother of one of my acting students back in the early nineties about how easy it would be to become a terrorist. She worked with abused children in a custodial treatment centre, meaning these were children under the age of fourteen who had to be kept under lock and key because they were considered uncontrollable.

One eight year old boy had burnt down the house he lived in, and his mother had woken up to find him standing beside her with a knife, and had only just missed being fatally wounded. As it was she ended up in hospital with a punctured lung and her son had ended up at this facility. The boy had been sexually abused first by his father, and then by one of the mother's boy friends.

In it's wisdom the government of the province where I live decided that these children didn't need a separate facility and could be housed within a wing of an adult facility. It was all about cutting costs so they could give tax breaks to their wealthy buddies of course. Anyway, there was nothing wrong with these kids that a little taste of the belt wouldn't take care of - single moms was what the real problem was of course. They let their kids run wild while they get drunk, do drugs, cheat the welfare system, and screw anything in pants.

After another week of fighting that attitude while trying to save the facility, she said there were times she just felt like putting a bomb in a mail box.

"The only thing stopping me is the fact that somebody's kids are going to be walking by that mail box. I know how devastated I would be if my kids were killed, and I could never do that to another person."

There was a flatness in her eyes brought on by more then just physical exhaustion. It was as if everything she had believed in had been torn out from under her and the ground under her feet was no longer certain. Bombs might not have changed anything, but they sure would have provided her with a type of certainty. Thankfully, it wasn't the type she was looking for.

Unfortunately, the certainty of violence is a good fit for far too many people. Blowing somebody up is one way of making sure you get the last word in an argument. There's no need for messy ambiguities about who is in the right and who is in the wrong if the other person is lying dead on the floor with.

These days it seems that everybody who has a point to make does so by blowing things up. The problem is that instead of solving anything, each time it happens situations just get worse. From the suicide bomber blowing him or herself up in a crowded market place to an invading and occupying army fighting insurgency, nobody seems to be getting any closer to resolving any of the disputes that have been the supposed cause of the violence.

Of course it's pretty hard to listen to anyone when you're busy blowing things up. "Eh, sorry could you repeat that? I couldn't hear you over the sound of the tomahawk missile going off." Conversely, no one is going to be listening too closely when they're dodging the hundredweight of nails that have been sent firing across a market place either. Dispute resolution works a lot better if you at least attempt to hear the other person talking.

Terror is in the eye of the beholder of course; one man's freedom fighter has always been another man' terrorist, it simply depends where your vested interests lie. To the British the guys throwing the bales of tea into Boston harbour were terrorists of a kind, while to the colonists at the time they were brave heroes. But no matter who the bad guy is and who the good guy is, when you come right down to it violence is violence no matter who sanctions it.

To the people living in Baghdad when the bombs were falling the Americans were just as much terrorists as the people who flew the jets into the World Trade Centre were to the American public. People on the receiving of bombs and explosions don't really give a damn about politics or justifications. When your home is in ruins and members of your family have been killed and wounded everything else is irrelevant.

Violence is the first resort of the coward and the last resort of the brave. The problem is that most of our leaders are cowards and liars. If Osama Bin Laden put the energy and money he puts into terrorism into building schools and farms in Afghanistan he would be securing his people a much better future then the one he's paying for now with their lives.

If George Bush and his allies really wanted to wage war on terrorism they could start by not propping up governments around the around the world that treat people like dirt. They could also stop insisting that International Monetary Loans be conditional on practices guaranteed to keep countries in perpetual poverty, and they could spend a fraction of the money the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan is costing to do what's ever necessary to help eradicate the conditions that create willing followers for terrorist leaders.

Everybody is far too willing to see weapons and violence as the solutions to their problems, but every time one person picks up a gun, somebody else responds in kind. Until one person is brave enough to put down the weapons and hold out an empty hand, mothers will keep losing their children.

I fail to see how that is making the world a better place for anyone.

September 5, 2007

Book Review: The Shock Doctrine: The Rise Of Disaster Capitalism Naomi Klein

"It's the economy stupid" was the phrase that supposedly kept Bill Clinton's campaign team focused on what they needed to do in order to win the 1992 election campaign. Pound away mercilessly on the woeful state of the economic union in post Regan America, and lay the blame for it at his former Vice President, and incumbent President, George Bush sr.

What that consisted of was simply pointing out to Americans what they already knew. A great many of them were unemployed, real wages sucked, the government was billions if not trillions of dollars in debt, and the policy of cutting taxes and increasing military spending was ruinous beyond belief. Clinton's election over a sitting President was a major rebuttal to the supposedly free market, small government, and cutting of social programs measures practiced by the neo-conservatives who surrounded Ronald Regan.

Compared to the majority of industrialized nations in the world the United States has, depending on your point of view, lagged far behind in terms of the social safety net or led the way in cutting back on government interference in the economy. While the United States has never fully committed to either completely free markets or a real social safety net, it is the country where the two major contrasting schools of economic thought have battled it out on a regular basis.

John Maynard Keynes proposed government intervention in the economy in order to protect the populace from the vagrancies of economic fluctuations like recessions, depressions, and inflation. He advocated government run insurance programs to offer protection to people in times of vulnerability; unemployment, old age, and illness. His ideas formed the basis of what is known as the welfare state – which was never meant to be a derogatory term by the way.
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At the complete opposite end of the economic spectrum was Milton Friedman who advocated that the economy must be allowed to proceed without any government interference at all. Only then would it be able to operate at maximum efficiency and provide plenty for everybody. It's Mr. Friedman's philosophies and the manner in which they have been, and are being implemented that come under intense scrutiny in Naomi Klein's latest book published by Random House Canada through its Knoff Canada imprint, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise Of Disaster Capitalism

The title refers to Mr. Friedman's contention that for his theory to work the economy has to be shocked back to a state of zero, where their is no government ownership or involvement in the economy. It is Ms. Klein's contention in her book that not only is the philosophy being implemented whenever opportunities present themselves, but that American policy over the last eight years has been geared to ensuring it's implementation when and where ever possible.

From the outset, Ms. Klein makes it clear that she doesn't believe Capitalism is an inherently evil system. What she does do is systematically lay forth a damning and convincing case in support of her thesis. She has spent the last two years travelling the globe conducting interviews, and investigating situations and circumstances where the shock doctrine has been implemented.

In Sri Lanka and Indonesia after the tsunami, fishing villages that had been on the coasts for generations providing families with their livelihoods have seen their land sold out from under them to hotel, resort, and condominium developers, while they've been stuck in refugee camps. In New Orleans, the destruction of the Ninth Ward has been called an opportunity to start over again from a clean slate. Never mind the people who no longer have any place to live – think of the condominiums that can be built. Think of what can be privatized!

Of the 134 public schools that used to be under the control of the local board of education only four have not been turned into privately run institutions. Of course with no students why should the schools be kept open. The fact that students have no homes to live in and are still scattered across the country is conveniently forgotten.
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It's when she examines the situation in Iraq, and the "security" arrangements implemented in the name of Homeland Security that Ms. Klein builds her case against the Bush administration. It is her contention that in order for the type of economic shock treatment required to make the clean slate, a government needs to have dictatorial power over its population to curtail opposition.

She sites as an example the first time this type of economic experiment was attempted in practice; following the American backed military coup in Chile. Pinochet's government had eliminated most avenues of dissent through the simple expedient of killing any opposition voices during the coup. When they implemented the economic policies of complete privatization and cutting spending across the board they simply continued the practice they had started of squelching opposition.

Ironically, the policy ended up being a complete failure. Pinochet was forced to start re-nationalizing industry in the 1980's, and many of the same social programs he had cut were re-introduced in order to stave off economic collapse.

In Iraq the American team charged with rebuilding the country, has been systematically selling all the country's industry and resources to American corporations. Contracts for everything from private armies to act as security forces to building swimming pools in public parks are awarded to American companies. Services like health care, electricity, policing are all being removed from the governments control and contracted out into private hands

When the Vice President of the United States has gone on public record as saying he advocates the use of torture against enemies of the state, and there is an army occupying your country that has no qualms about shooting and killing anyone it feels like – how loudly would you be inclined to complain? Looking at the American "slogan" for this invasion – "Shock And Awe" – the connection between it and Shock Doctrine economics becomes all too clear according to Ms. Klein.

The state control of personal freedoms in the United States itself may not be as obvious as troops in the street, but any person anywhere can be arrested without reason and denied access to a lawyer under provisions of the Homeland Security Act. The British perfected that one years ago with their anti-terrorist legislation allowing them to hold anybody without charges or access to a lawyer just by saying the magic word terrorism.

What constitutes a threat to security anyway? I'm sure a case could be made for disrupting the economy being construed as a threat to national security - don't you? Without a healthy economy, how can all those necessary security measures be paid for after all?

Naomi Klein has written a very lucid and convincing argument in support of her thesis that governments around the world are taking advantage of natural disasters to implement drastic changes in economic policy at the expense of their populations' well being. What's even more disturbing is the fact that she just as clearly outlines how governments are creating the circumstances enabling those situations to develop and taking steps to ensure that opposition to the changes is suppressed.

This is a book for people of all political stripes to read. Even if you disagree with Ms. Klein's politics, that won't matter. This is a book about "economics stupid", not about whether you are on the left or the right.

Canadian readers can purchase a copy of Shock Doctrine: The Rise Of Disaster Capitalism either directly from Random House Canada or from an online retailer like Amazon.ca

August 21, 2007

Book Review: The Assassin's Song M G Vassanji

Nikos Kazantakis wrote one of most beautiful books on the life of Jesus Christ that I have ever read called The Last Temptation Of Christ. I first read the book after finding out it was on the Vatican's list of proscribed books, striking me as a great recommendation if I'd ever heard one. When I finished the book what puzzled me the most was why the Vatican had considered it so horrible.

Not once in the book does Kazantakis ever question the divinity of Christ or any of the miracles. The last temptation of the title is while he is on the cross the devil shows him what it could be like to marry and have a normal life. On the cross he lives out his days as a mortal man but in the end he accepts his destiny and dies on the cross not in his sleep.

Maybe the Vatican didn't like the fact that Jesus openly questioned his fate throughout the book, or the whole debate about predestination and fate that Kazantakis raises irked them. Personally, although beautifully written, I found the book far too dogmatically Christian for my taste and came away knowing that Kazantakis was as devout a believer in Christ as anyone I'd ever read.

It may seem odd to begin a review about a Sufi Muslim in India with references to a book on Christ, but in M G Vassanji's latest release The Assassin's Song published by Random House Canada through the Doubleday imprint, the central character faces an almost identical struggle to Christ's. Karsan Dargawalla's family have been the keepers of a shrine to a Sufi mystic since medieval times, and the eldest male in the family has always been groomed to be the Avatar of the God on earth.
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The family lives in the compound where Nur Fazal, The Wanderer, finally settled and where his remains and those of his descendants are buried. They are the direct descendants, supposedly, of the God's first follower, Arjun Dev. It was said that Dev had a vision that called him forth from sleep to welcome Fazal at the gates of Patan Anularra when he arrived there in 1260 AD.

It was to Dev's family that Fazal would turn to when he needed someone to act as his representative while he lived, so after his death the tradition continued. But it’s now the 1960s and the world is a far different place than it was even during the time of Karsan's father's ascension to Saheb of the shrine. Men are travelling through space to the moon, and knowledge in the world that far outstrips the accumulated writings and texts of the shrine's library. How can he be expected to spend his days pondering the deeds and wisdom of The Wanderer while all that awaits him beyond it's gates?

While part of him loves the shrine and wants to fulfil his destiny as the anointed heir and future Saheb of the Shrine, he also desires the learning and enticements offered by the material world. When he applies for admission to Harvard University in the United States it's not with any real hope of being accepted, or even if that miracle were to happen, of being able to attend. But when the unthinkable occurs and they offer him a full scholarship, including airfare how can he turn it down?

He knows that if his father forbids him he would stay and not even be too resentful, but he is allowed to choose for himself, in spite of his father's worst misgivings. He assures one and all that he will return to take up his duties when his schooling is done, and he is certain it will only allow him to serve the people with even greater wisdom after being in the world beyond their village.

India is also different from what it was during Karson's father's youth; for one it is now India and Pakistan, Muslim and Hindu, and that gap is too wide for the way of the Sufi to straddle in safety anymore. During the first Pakistan – India war it starts to become apparent to even Karson that things aren't going to remain the same as they once were.

They do not worship Allah at their shrine, but their names are Muslim, and across the road from their shrine is another, a Muslim shrine, where the body of the Suffi's grandson is entombed and worshiped. For some the associations are only too clear, and if you are not one of us you are one of them is the obvious conclusion that is drawn. But for a time peace is kept in the village, and the sancity of the shrine is respected.
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But Karson is determined to leave everything behind, including thoughts of the ugliness that lies beneath the glamour of India. He too is offered the temptation of worldliness over Godhood, and he steps across the line in reality and accepts the offer completely turning his back on that he was supposed to have been.

The Assassins Song is not based on any real mystic, according to the author's note at the end of the book. It's rather an amalgamation of stories told about Muslim seers who came to India in the 11th and 12th centuries AD preaching a benevolent practice of worship based on neither the Muslim or Hindu faiths, although freely recognizing both. Through this invention M G Vassanji has brought to life a world that very few of us in this age will recognize. We might call it blind faith in our ignorance and wonder about people today that still believe a person can be the avatar of a god.

This is a beautiful book about duty, faith, and the search for self awareness and how they are all inter-related whether we know it or not. Like Jesus who is given the life of a husband and father as a temptation, so too did Karsan yearn for the ordinary, but unlike Jesus, Karsen's final choice is made for him by fate, chance, or maybe even his destiny.

Sometimes it is only when we are stripped down to nothing, or hit bottom, that we truly begin to understand ourselves and where we belong in the world. Vassanji doesn't tell us what to believe; he merely shows us the various stages of a person's exploration of self. At the end, what should have been the prodigal son's return and taking up of his destiny, we are left without the certainty that the situation requires to make it a final ending.

Endings only come with death, not while we still live, and that is the lesson that Karson has learnt, more than any other, from his travels. From what he's seen of the world and the ruinous consequences of when people are certain their way is the only right way, perhaps a little uncertainty, a little doubt, is what the world needs more than anything else right now.

Canadian readers can buy the The Assassin's Song either directly from Random House Canada or an online retailer like Amazon.ca

August 12, 2007

DVD Review: Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars

Diamonds are a girl's best friend, or at least that's what companies like DeBeers would have you believe. But if you want a different opinion, maybe you should check with the people of Sierra Leone. For more then ten years the tiny West African country was torn apart by Civil War because the multinationals who control the Diamond mines in the country have no interest in any of the money staying in Sierra Leone.

According to information on the web site of the movie The Empire In Africa Sierra Leone is a country fabulously wealthy in natural resources, specifically Diamonds, while being one of the poorest countries per capita. Any time a government has been elected since independence in 1961 that looked to try and nationalize some of the Diamond money; a coup would conveniently occur that would re-establish a government that would retain the status quo.

In 1991 a group of disaffected army officers, intellectuals, and political activists began a rebellion in hopes of establishing a regime that would share the wealth amongst all the people. What followed was one of the bloodiest and ugliest ten years of civil war that any country in Africa had seen. At one point a coup was affected and the new government signed peace treaties with the rebel forces and gave them seats in parliament. The first act of the new parliament was to vote to nationalize the Diamond mines.

An embargo was immediately implemented preventing any medical supplies, food, or oil from reaching the country. With the help of mercenary soldiers, paid for by selling Diamond concessions to Thai business interests, the former government attacked Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone and turned it into battlefield forcing hundreds of thousands of people to flee for their lives.
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That's the way it always is of course, it's the innocents who suffer in cases like these. No matter what anybody says they are fighting for, the non-combatants are going to suffer horrendously. Refugees flooded into neighbouring Guinea for what they thought would be short stays of around three months and ended up in some cases being ten years before repatriation.

When your life is totally disrupted you look for any straw you can hold on to that will give you a semblance of normalcy. This was the motivation behind the formation of the Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars. In 2002 an American documentary film team was filming musicians in the refugee camps throughout West Africa when they came across the band rehearsing in a camp in Guinea. Out of that meeting came the documentary movie bearing the name of the band Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars.

The movie introduces us to the band members and gives us their individual stories. Two of them had been brutalized and had their hands cut off, other's parents had been killed, and still others had lost other family members. Music became the bond that tied them all together and united them into a family group.

Listening to each band member talk about what the band means to them you see they have no expectations from the music beyond giving them a means to distract themselves from their reality. Perhaps, considering their collective past, none of them dared to think too far into the future and were content to enjoy what they had in the moment.
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The film does a remarkable job of tracing the history of the band, from their first concert in their own camp, to touring other camps throughout Guinea, until they finally return, temporarily, to Sierra Leone for the first time in years in order to record their first album. Seeing their faces as they witness the devastation that has been visited upon Freeport for the first time is heart breaking. You can see their joy at being home warring with the shock of what they found awaiting their arrival.

While we are with the band they take us on a tour of some of the worst areas of the city where people are literally living in garbage dumps at the water's edge and sifting through flotsam and jetsam for items of value as a means of survival. If any argument other than that is needed to convince anyone of how desperate the situation is in Sierra Leone then they are blind.

One of the special features included in the DVD is a short film showing the band succeeding beyond any of their wildest dreams. First, not only is their disc recorded but they are taken to America to help promote the original film at various film festivals. They win over audiences with their impromptu street performances, exuberant attitude, and the fact that they really are so happy to be given the opportunity to show people their music.

But it's their appearance at the South West Music Conference that makes the whole tour worthwhile for them. Not only do they wow the audience but they also get a distribution deal and bookings into major music festivals around the world because of it. As happy endings go this one is pretty damn good.

The special features also include performances from their days in the camps and deleted scenes from the documentary. A final bonus feature is a small film from the United Nations High Commission on Refugees called "about ninemillion.org." The number nine million refers to the number of refugee children currently thought to exist in the world, and the web site itself is a portal that endeavours to tell their stories.

If the world was at all the place it should be this movie would never had been made and those refugee camps would never had existed. Instead through human greed and indifference to life we have turned countries around the world into hellholes of violence forcing people to flee their homes in terror. Can you imagine what it would be like to have your whole family killed in front of you and end up living in squalor depending on handouts from others to survive?

Tens, maybe hundreds, of millions of people live like this today and little or nothing is done for them. Countries like Canada, the United States, Britain, and the European Union, the richest and most powerful nations in the world, close their doors to any seeking admittance or make it extremely difficult for them to enter. We begrudge them the measly amount of aid dollars we send and force them to trade away their futures by giving up rights to natural resources in exchange for high interest loans that cripple them indefinitely.

The story told in Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars is a beautiful homage to the power of the human spirit and hope. But the story behind that story is being re told in Darfur, the Sudan, Ethiopia, and through out Africa and other parts of the world on a daily basis and will continue to do so until we say enough is enough.

Given what the band members of the Sierra Leone Refugee All Stars have been able to accomplish, can you imagine what they could do if they even only had the opportunities we take for granted? Let that be the message of this movie and maybe it will make a difference. They are only a few people among millions and millions who still living lives of desperation – don't they deserve the chance to show us what they are made of?

August 9, 2007

Post Truamatic Stress Disorder Blues

There have been times when I've wondered whether or not that the majority of our society's population are suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). I can't come up with any other explanation for people's willingness to accept at face value all that's designed to distract them from reality.

Television, religion, drugs, money, the rat race, material goods, computer games, the Internet, and most aspects of our society are diversions that keep us from noticing what's really going on around us. Whose got time to worry about anything beyond paying the mortgage, will the kids stay off drugs, and whether that new guy at work is after the promotion that really should be ours.

The human brain is a remarkable thing and does some truly amazing feats of prestidigitation to help cushion us from the effects of trauma. It's been known to completely shut down during moments of extreme horror in order to protect itself from harm. For example if you were in a horrible car crash and suffered a variety of broken bones your mind would shut out the memory of the pain so you wouldn't remember how really excruciatingly bad it was. (Which probably explains why women are willing to go through childbirth more then once; they really don't remember how bad it was)

But that doesn't mean the pain didn't exist, because it did, it's merely locked away in some storage compartment of your brain beyond your awareness. As long as your brain is distracted enough and you never suffer from a similar trauma again you will continue on in blissful ignorance.

PTSD doesn't have to be caused by remembering some long forgotten abuse; it can be caused by any situation that causes a person a severe physical or psychological injury. You could have been injured in a card accident or you could have witnessed the same accident and suffered equal trauma. Watching somebody be thrown through a car window and ending up on the hood of their car can leave scars as bad as if you had gone through the window yourself.

When I was first diagnosed with PTSD I decided I wanted to find out more about it. Seeing how this was in the early nineties and I didn't own a computer let alone have access to the Internet, I went to the library. The term was first used to describe the condition of Viet Nam veterans who couldn't acclimatize to being back in civilian life. They would dive for cover when they heard a bang, reach for non-existent weapons at sudden movements, and basically act as if they felt their lives were still in constant danger.

The more severe cases would experience flashbacks of events that happened to them while in service. A flashback is a type of memory, but it is a memory that has not been processed by the brain. If something triggers, (anything that stimulates a flashback is called a trigger), the memory the person believes the event is happening right at that moment instead of in the past. They experience every single emotion and physical sensation that they had felt when they originally lived through it.

We're not just talking about seeing it in your mind's eye either; we're talking being back in the jungle with machine gun fire, bombs blowing up and people being killed in front of your eyes. The worst thing about flashbacks is that you are completely awake for them. People who were sexually abused are raped again as far as they are concerned, soldiers watch their best friend be killed again, or a factory worker watches his co-worker be crushed under a piece of machinery. Any traumatic experience that was never properly processed is a potential flashback awaiting a trigger.

Now just because they only invented the term Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in the past thirty of forty years doesn't mean the circumstances for creating the condition hadn't existed before then. Do you not think that maybe soldiers serving in the trenches during World War One could have suffered something similar? How about the people who survived the concentration camps in World War Two?

Think of all the wars, the ethnic cleansings, the terror attacks, the bombing raids, natural disasters, random violence, airplane crashes, car pile-ups, and any of the other things that happen on a regular basis? Why is it so easy for us to accept those traumas as commonplace?

Why are we so ready to believe the lie that an expression like collateral damage makes everything all right? Would it be all right if the police came over to your house and shot your wife and children and than apologized because it was accident? Why is it that when people are being killed by the tens and twenties on a daily basis in Iraq and Afghanistan we can shrug it off, but a whole nation is captivated by some stupid girl going to prison?

Yet in spite of this, the latest statistics show that something like 1 in 4 people admit to be taking some sort of anti-anxiety or anti-depression medication. Since a lot of people aren't going to own up to taking something like that it's probably safe to say the figure is close to 1 in 3 people.

Nobody is being treated for anxiety or depression. The drugs they are being given are so that they can be happy functioning members of society. What kind of civilization needs to drug between a quarter and one third of its population in order for them to function?

Let me ask another question, what do you think would happen if all of a sudden there were no distractions from reality? No Internet, no personal computers, no television, no nothing to provide us with peace of mind and prevent us from really thinking about what is going on around us? If people actually began to comprehend what it meant when they saw a family begging for money on a street corner, read about a little girl whose father raped her repeatedly, or heard about bombs falling on a neighbourhood and inflicting collateral damage, do you think they would be able to go about their daily business in the same way they do now?

I'm sure that some people would still be able to do what they were supposed to, people did work in concentration camps without having been forced to, remember? But I'd like to think that the majority would be too horror struck to cope. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder would actually be the healthiest reaction people could have.

I know I said at the beginning that I sometimes think our society suffers from PTSD, and I guess I should amend that statement. It isn't suffering from PTSD, it has made itself the single biggest cause of potential Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. By artificially creating the circumstances that our brains do to ensure that we survive a traumatic situation, our society has created millions of potential sufferers. Let's just hope they don't all succumb at once.

August 2, 2007

All The Unknown Soldiers

I met a soldier the other day. He was driving a cab so he was really a retired soldier. He had only recently retired, signing up when he was seventeen and staying in for twenty-eight years put him at around the same age as me. My wife and I had been out and became overtired so we decided to take a cab home. It just so happened to be his cab.

You know how it is with cab rides, sometimes you'd wish the cabbie would shut up about his opinions on the world, other times they just grunt no matter what you say. But sometimes you actually get talking and have a conversation, which is what happened this time.

Somehow it came up that he only drove cab as something to do so he wouldn't go crazy sitting around the house because he was retired. Since he looked around our age I was curious as to what he could be retired from that he didn't need to work. How he could have had a full pension so young.

I remember him glancing at me sideways, and making the slightest of hesitations before saying what it was he had retired from. Thinking about what he would have seen beside him in his passenger seat, a skinny guy with long hair, maybe even an Indian, he might have wondered how him being a soldier would have gone over.

When he said he had been in for twenty-eight years I laughed and said 'you must have joined up when you were eighteen- and he gave an embarrassed smile and said no seventeen. We laughed some more and I said he still looked too young, and he said that the plastic surgery probably helped with that.

He had been in Kosovo and stepped on a land mine and it had blown off half his face; nothing like a little random violence to take all the fun out of an afternoon. 'Shit' I think I must have said 'Is that why you're out, medical discharge' He shook his head, 'I did another tour after that'.

Being curious I asked him where else he had served aside from Kosavo; the list read like a who's who of some of the hell holes of the world. Rwanda in 1994 when aside from a few under-equipped Canadian soldiers the world ignored what was happening until all that was left was the hand wringing. He was in Somalia as part of the international peace keeping force that went in to try and clean up after the American invasion.

He was wounded in Somalia as well; an eight year old stabbed him in the face through his jaw. I didn't ask him if it was the same side of his face that he had rebuilt from when he had stepped on a landmine. He was also part of the mission to Afghanistan, the first wave of Canadian soldiers who went in when we were still there to try and help rebuild the country after the ouster of the Taliban.

When I first moved to this city it took me a while to get used to seeing people in uniforms on the street and the occasional convoy of military vehicles driving by. Kingston Ontario is home to one of the largest military bases in Canada and has quite a large permanent military presence, perhaps around 10,000 people including families. Canadian Forces Base (CFB) Kingston is also one of the largest training facilities in the country, and it's routine for troops from all over Canada to be sent here in preparation for missions overseas, or for individuals and units to come here for special training courses.

Troops from CFB Kingston are usually the ones sent over first to set up the command and control centres for U.N. troops, as they are communications and engineering specialists. But there are plenty of grunts as well, infantry troops who are the backbone of any army.

Our cab driver had been infantry; entering as a private and working his way up to being sergeant by the time he left the forces. All five of his daughters, he told us, were also infantry but two of them were officers and one was just on the verge of graduating from Royal Military College (RMC), which is also in Kingston. (Canada's officer training facility – if your marks are good enough you can get a free top-notch university education in return for doing a five-year hitch in the military as a junior officer.

We laughed about how it must feel to have two, and soon to be three, daughters out ranking you, but I could see he was really proud of them. He was especially pleased that all five had decided to go into the infantry and told me that one of them was a marksman. He corrected himself "I guess I should say marksperson" with a smile.

'What about just calling them snipers" I asked, and he quickly said we don't use that term, and I caught an undercurrent of something from that – almost distaste for the word and what it meant. I skirted around it by saying something about Canada using British terminology.

Something had struck me about that conversation, him talking about his daughter being a marksperson. It sounded like women were seeing active duty on the front lines along side men. He confirmed that, the infantry had been fully integrated since 1988 he told me and he had served with women in combat lots of times in places all over the world.

The military live apart from the civilian population in Kingston, even the students from RMC are sequestered. Only the officers or single enlisted people can afford housing off base and most families live in the semidetached living quarters available to married enlisted soldiers.

I wonder if there are any women soldiers who have non-military husbands? Do they join wives' support groups when their spouses are over seas? Do they hold regular jobs like other husbands, or because their wife is off in battle they stay at home and take care of the kids? I wonder how those marriages work out and how many end in divorse.

We know so little about the men and women who we send overseas. The only time they become people is when they are killed. Then we find out they had wives and children, mothers and fathers, and brothers and sisters just like the rest of us. Oh I know you'll see the occasional picture in the newspaper of a wife and young child kissing their husband/father good-bye before they board their transport plane.

But by then it's too late to get to know them and it's just another photo opportunity to make us feel some sort of false emotion that has nothing to do with the reality of the situation. We don't know what they are really feeling or anything about that family group at all. Maybe she wanted him to de mobilize after the baby was born – or at least apply for a non-combat role. They could have even fought about it, their last night together for who knows how long.

We only learn their names when they come back in their flag draped coffins and then they get to provide a sound bite for politicians. They've either paid "the supreme sacrifice" or had their lives thrown away for no reason; it all depends on whose doing the talking.

It's easy to blame the government because it's their policy that's getting the young men and women killed, but really we are responsible because we let them do it.. A politician only cares about getting re-elected and if you make that look seriously threatened you'd be amazed at how quickly they'd see the light.

We let our governments send these people overseas to be killed and it's far easier for all of us if we don't know their names or anything about them. If you knew they have four sisters who each serve in the military and a father who served for twenty-eight year despite two fairly serious wounds before they went off to serve how would you feel?

If you know they tease each other because some of them out rank the others, (but that's okay because everyone knows a lieutenant is only as good as her sergeant) and you know their grandfather's story, how can they still be strangers whose fate you don't care about?

I didn't find out what my taxi driver's name was, or the names of his five daughters, but I wish I did. If they are going to go over seas in my country's name, even if I don't agree with the reasons for it, the least I can do is know their names before they leave, not after they come back and it's too late.

Isn't it the least we all can do?

August 1, 2007

Book Review: Flight Sherman Alexie

At one time it was a deliberate policy of both the United States and Canada to remove Native American children from their parent's homes. In the early years they didn't make any excuses and just rounded them up and took them off to residential schools where they stole their language, religion and identity from them.

But in latter years they became more sophisticated by simply sending social workers onto reserves and declaring conditions unfit for children. The children would then be placed into foster homes with white parents and in white neighbourhoods where they stood out like sore thumbs. If being subject to the racism of their peers wasn't bad enough, all they learned about their people were the stereotypes taught in schools and depicted by movies and television.

This practice was theoretically stopped in both countries by laws that required Native children to be fostered with Native families. Only if a suitable Native family couldn't be found or if a child somehow fell through the cracks by not being a registered, or status, Indian, could they end up being placed with a white family.

Sherman Alexie's most recent novel, Flight from Black Cat Press and distributed in Canada by Publishers Group Canada, is about the sense of displacement felt by children who end up on the merry go round of foster care. Zits is a fifteen year old half Irish half Indian on his twentieth foster home. At the beginning of the book he asks us to call him Zits because that what everyone calls him and it's all he has in terms of self-identification
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According to him he's got forty-seven zits on his face and he can’t even begin to count the number of them on his back. Ugly, unlovable, revolting; is how he feels and how he looks. It must be true, he's only been in foster care for six years and already he's screwed up so badly that he's been thrown out of nineteen foster homes.

He ended up on the foster care merry go round because his father left his mother about two minutes after he was born – left her in the hospital bed with a newborn kid – and his mother died of breast cancer when he was six years old. The Indian Removal Act should have kept him with Indian families but he was never registered as an Indian.

He keeps getting arrested and sent to juvenile prison and then sent back out to another foster family. He's committed arson, he's stolen cars, and he got drunk when he was twelve with some street Indians in Seattle the city where he lives. Soon he'll run out of chances, he'll run out of options and start going to adult jail, become an adult drunk Indian alone with his anger, his loneliness, and his feelings of abandonment. Alone with the hurt of being alone and not loved.

But then something strange happens to Zit. He gets arrested for pushing his twentieth foster mother (she said he punched her and who you going believe anyway a good hearted women with six foster children and the government cheques that go with them or a half-breed kid who's been in and out of jail since he was twelve). Getting arrested isn't the strange part it's meeting the white kid called Justice in the prison that's strange.

Justice talks about justice and the form that he preaches is vengeance. Don't you want to get back at the all the white people who made you what you are today? Aren't you angry he says? When Justice gets out of jail he comes and breaks Zits out of the juvenile halfway home he goes to from juvenile prison. He takes him to live with him in an old abandoned warehouse.

He gives Zit two guns – one a thirty-eight special, the other a paintball gun. Zits goes to a bank to exact justice and starts shooting people until a guard blows the back of his head off. It's when he wakes up and he's not dead that he things are weird. Especially considering the fact that when he wakes up he's a white FBI agent and it's no longer 2007 but 1973 and he and his partner are out in Indian country to put down the Indians who are raising a ruckus demanding rights and everything.

And so it goes: he goes to Little Big Horn as a twelve year old Indian child and is forced to kill somebody as revenge for a soldier almost cutting his throat; he becomes a scout leading a troop of cavalry to revenge the murder of settlers by Indians and ends up saving the life of a soldier who rescues a small Indian child; and he comes back to the future where he's a white airplane pilot who teaches people how to fly, one of whom is a terrorist who crashes a commercial plane into downtown Chicago.

He learns from each of them the futility of revenge and how betrayal can make you lonely and that everybody hurts when they are abandoned. The last body he ends up in is his father's, the man who betrayed him, the man he wants vengeance against for destroying his life. Then he finds out his father hates himself, was made to think he was worthless by his father, and was too scared to be a father himself and ran away into the bottle in a back alley in Seattle.

Zit gets saved in the end, he never killed anyone he discovers and didn't get his head shot off in the bank. He comes back from being his father and is still standing in the bank with the guns in his coat. That's when he remembers his aunt's boyfriend after his mother died, and what he did to him. Zit set him on fire when he was eight.
Sherman Alexie.jpg
He learned how to shut down and try not to feel after that. If you didn't love anyone they couldn't hurt you, if you didn't trust anybody they never could betray you, and if you didn't want to be with anyone they couldn't leave you. But now he also knows that you end up empty if you're just filled with hate, you end up alone if you push everyone anyway, and revenge turns you into the people you want revenge against.

Sherman Alexie has written a heart-wrenching novel about loss of self and the loss of identity. While his central character is part Indian, and Native Americans have been treated in such a manner that a whole generation of people were guaranteed a similar fate, he makes if clear that it can happen to anybody no matter what their nationality or race. People who are sexually abused as children, emotionally abused by a partner or parent, or physically abused all have had their sense of self perverted if not destroyed.

There are only so many times you can be told you are a piece of shit before you believe it and then what happens to you? That's what you become. In order to overcome that you have to go on the type of journey of self-discovery Zits went on, inside of yourself to find the truth of who you are and what made you that way.

This is one of the best books I've ever read on the subject. Even though it is fantastical with the time travelling, it is the most straightforward and honest depiction of the affects of abuse I've come across. Instead of just the clinical descriptions of what a person may or may not experience, through the character of Zit you live out the emotional reality.

The use of a fifteen year old street kid whose been in and out of detention centres and is not a sympathetic character makes it all the more effective. It takes a while for us to think of him as more then just another arrogant street punk, and it's only as he takes us on his journey of self discovery and he begins to care about himself that the reader will start feeling anything like compassion for him.

This is a story about one fucked up kid who finally figures out he needs help or he will end up dead. He happens to be part Indian, but that doesn't matter. What happened to Zits could have happened to anyone. That it does happen to a disproportionate number of Indian children is a stain on our society that needs to be corrected, but that it happens at all, to anyone is the biggest crime of all.

July 31, 2007

Nobody Listens To Coyote Anymore

It was one of those really fine afternoons where you can sit on the front porch and no matter which way you looked there wasn't much in the way of cloud or haze to stop your eye. Off to the West the line of the mountain was held in place by the sky at the top and the ground at the bottom.

To the East and North all you could see was flat prairie stretching away into the distance with the only interruption being the occasional scrub brush or the dips in the ground where a sinkhole had formed some time in the past. They'd filled in long ago, leaving just a slight crater scraped out of the surface. If He was in a good mood He'd call them acne scars. Catch Him in a bad mood and He'd start muttering about pox infested blankets that left scars even on Her face.

The good thing about living out here and being able to see as far as the mountains in one direction, or as far as your eyes let you in the two other directions He could come from, (there's no way you'd ever be catching Him coming along the South road), is that you get plenty of warning as to what His mood is going to be like.

If He was just trotting along with his tongue lolling out the way that it can, than you know things will go as well as can be hopped. But if there's any deviation from that than you can be sure there could be some trouble. If you weren't able to distract Him quickly enough you could wind up with anything from a bad trick being played on someone to war on your front porch.

So this afternoon when I spotted Old Coyote approaching out of the North, He was still some five miles away. But oh boy could you see that He was more then a little pissed about something. Fore warned is fore armed they say, so by the time Old Coyote arrived at my porch that looks out over the prairie in three directions, I had pulled up His favourite chair, made a pot of tea, and had His favourite cup filled with sweet tea. (Four lumps no milk)

"Hey" I said to that one" Sit and have some tea, sit and have some tea before it gets cold. Have some fry bread, I just made it, or one of those microwave pizzas – you want one of those – those microwave pizzas?"

But Coyote just continued to pace in front of my porch with His tail dragging in the dust behind Him. Boy He was one steamed Coyote. I'm wondering what I'm going to do about that, because there's nothing worse than steamed Coyote (although I've heard that Coyote pot roast is pretty bad too) and if He keeps pacing like that I'm going to have me a trench dug in my front yard.

"Hey" I said to that one again "You want to go inside and watch television on the Satellite dish –We can sit here at look at the T.V. Guide and find out we should be watching" I had put up the Satellite dish for Coyote because He wanted to watch Oprah and Jerry, and all the other funny shows they play during the daytime. He liked to talk to them and see if He could get them to talk back – sometimes He did and sometimes He didn't- get them to talk back that is.
But that one must be really steamed because He continues to pace back and forth –even the thought of back to back Jerry and Oprah doesn't seem to be penetrating His mood.. There being nothing else that I could think of suggesting to distract, I gave in and did what He wanted.

"Hey Coyote why don't you come over here and sit down; drink some tea, eat some special fry bread, and tell me what put the burr up your butt?"

You know what it's like to watch a friend get carried away sometimes and talk while they're drinking and eating? Well you haven't seen anything until you've seen Old Man Coyote try to drink tea, eat fry bread and talk all at the same time. He only slowed down after that first coughing fit almost made Him lose more than just what was in His mouth.

When He finally stopped spluttering and sneezing, and was no longer in any imminent danger of swallowing His tongue, He started again to try and tell me what had happened to make Him so upset on such a beautiful day.

"Nobody wants me" that one said "Okay, so I eat some sheep here and there, maybe the odd chicken or duck, but com'on you leave them lying around like that what do you expect from me I'm only Coyote? But it's not even the farmers and ranchers who've got me so angry and upset – they just playing their part. I try to trick them and they try to stop me from tricking them. That's good – I feel more alive on the days that I'm dodging shotgun pellets than I have in hundreds of years.'

He stopped talking this time to drink some tea, and eat some fry bread; He asked for and I got Him one of those microwave pizzas He like so much. "Don't burn your tongue on the cheese" I said. "Yeah, yeah, I never burn my tongue on cheese" He said.

After He had stopped moaning and crying about His poor burnt tongue for what seemed like forever but wasn't more then fifteen minutes, half-hour tops, I got Him to sit down again to try and tell me what was wrong. " Nobody wants me" He started off again, and I told Him he'd done that bit already, cause He can do the same bit over and over again and a story will go nowhere and you could sit there all week waiting for it to move.

"People used to tell stories about me, the tricky me, and all the smart things I'd do. How I made the world and all the great things everybody needs, and all the adventures that I had along the way. They learned how to be brave, honest, and true because of the things that I'd do. I was a great hero too many different people of many different faces all over the world"

Now wasn't the time to be telling Him, I'm thinking, that most of the stories most of us told about Coyote were as examples of what you shouldn't do. But He was right, in His contrary way, people did used to learn from Him how to be brave, honest and true – by doing the opposite of what He did in his stories. Coyote thinks something is a good idea, you'd usually be better off doing the complete opposite.

"But now people, they're just like sheep you know. They have people who tell them how they should think, what they should feel, and who they should believe. How they gonna' learn anything acting like that? Nobody wants to hear tricky tales of wise, brave Coyote when it reminds them of how they could be and not how they are.

They just want things easy now – give me this I deserve it they say. Nobody tries to figure out how they going to go out and get it and make it happen. If I had acted like that where would the world be today? There would be no world is where it would be today and how would they like that if they was just standing around on nothing with nothing to do? They wouldn't like it all I'm betting."

He stopped talking then, did Old Coyote. He picked up a piece of that microwave pizza and tested it with the tip of His tongue to see how hot it was. He remembered this time, and began to eat it all down.

Me I sat and stared at the sky as the light moved away to make room for the dark and thought about what He said. I thought about all the foolish things that Coyote had done in His time, all the trouble He had created for Himself and others, and all the tricks He used to try and get away with – how some worked and some didn't.

Whether my good friend Coyote knew it or not He was all of our worst characteristics rolled up into one four legged, drop tailed, long tongued, sneaky eyed, bundle of fur. He never learned from His mistakes, it was always someone else who was at fault when His tricks failed. He was always looking for the easy route and it nearly always backfired on Him.

If He figured out a way to make lots of kills at once it either ended spoiling before He could eat it, or Him not being able to get at it after it was dead. Everything was always about how to make Coyote's life better for Coyote. He never thought about anyone else. He was like a small, petulant, spoiled child who needed to always get His own way.

As we sat there the mountains disappeared off in the west as they turned the same colour as the sky andthe prairie stretching out flat in front of us gradually got smaller and smaller as the night sky came down to lay on top of it. Somewhere off in the distance one of Coyote's cousins started to sing his or her lonely song of love for the star who had stolen Old Coyote's heart all those years ago. He had been so foolish in love, and so beautiful. Sad and beautiful just like the song.

I could hear Coyote sitting in the dark breathing beside me, and we listened together to the night. I thought for a minute and then, "Do you want some more tea?" I asked the night beside me. I heard it sigh quietly and say with Coyote's voice, 'Thank-you"

More than ever the world needs Coyote, but we seem to be killing Him as fast as we can. Are we ever going to stop chasing our own tails and shooting ourselves in the foot?

July 30, 2007

Canadian Politics: Military Spending Part 2

One of the most lucrative contracts a private company can sign is any sort of deal they can make with a government. Not only do they know they will be guaranteed payment, supply contracts are usually long term. Whether it's supplying a ministry with office supplies or the janitorial staff with cleaning fluid you can usually be sure of your contract being renewed if you approach competence and the government doesn't change.

It's an accepted fact of life that somebody is going to hire their brother in law's firm to clean the toilets on Parliament Hill over a complete stranger. It's one of the ways that party loyalty is repaid the world over and not even an ethics commissioner would raise a fuss about it. But its supposed to be a different story when it comes to matters like multi year, multibillion-dollar defence contracts.

In Canada government's military contracts involve four separate ministries. The Department of National Defence (DND) sets out the specifications that the military requires from a particular piece of equipment; the Department of Public Works and Supply issues a request for proposals to determine a supplier; Industry Canada are asked to identify Canadian companies that could potentially act as sub-contractors for the production of required equipment and assess the regional economic benefits of each bid; and finally the Treasury Board finalizes the contract – they sign the cheques – and ensures everything is on the up and up according to their policies.

This may a sound a little complex, but what it is supposed to do is make sure that the bidding process is transparent and fair and that Canada is getting the best deal it can for the taxpayers money. But according to a recent report prepared for