Sunday, April 30, 2006



"One of the important things here is that we not lose our national soul," George Bush

Was George Bush speaking of some truly shattering event in American affairs? Perhaps the imprisonment and torture of thousands of innocent people? Perhaps the lack of democratic legitimacy in his own coming to power?

No, what Bush was describing is a version of the American national anthem in Spanish - Nuestro Himno (Our Anthem) - which was played on American Hispanic radio and television stations recently.

Now, in many countries with multi-ethnic populations, most people would see this as charming and flattering. Canada's anthem has two official versions, French and English, and were a group of immigrants to offer it in Ukrainian or Mandarin, most Canadians would be tickled. It would undoubtedly be featured on CBC.

But in America, the broadcast of a Spanish version of The Star Spangled Banner has aroused a somewhat different response. Charles Key, great great grandson of Francis Scott, offered the immortal words, "I think it's despicable thing that someone is going into our society from another country and … changing our national anthem."

"This is evoking spirited revulsion on the part of fair-minded Americans," offered John Teeley, representative of one of innumerable private propaganda mills in Washington commonly dignified as think-tanks. Mr. Teeley continued, "You are talking about something sacred and iconic in the American culture. Just as we wouldn't expect people to change the colors of the national flag, we wouldn't expect people to fundamentally change the anthem and rewrite it in a foreign language."

A foreign language? There are roughly thirty-million Spanish speakers in the United States. The analysis here is interesting: an immigrant singing an anthem in his own language resembles someone changing the national flag. This argument does, perhaps unintentionally, reveal the real concern: Hispanics are changing our country, and we don't like it.

So it is not surprising that the American low-life constituency's political and moral hero, George Bush, should declare: "I think the national anthem ought to be sung in English, and I think people who want to be a citizen of this country ought to learn English and they ought to learn to sing the national anthem in English."

Never mind that the American Constitution says nothing about language. Never mind that waves of immigrants from Europe about a hundred years ago founded countless private schools and cultural institutions in the United States where German or Italian or Hebrew were the languages used and promoted. Never mind that after a generation or two, minority immigrants always end up adopting the language of the majority, something which is close to an economic necessity. And never mind that xenophobia in a land of immigrants should have no place.

An entertaining historical note here is that Francis Scott Key did not write the important part of The Star Spangled Banner, its music. Key wrote a breast-swelling amateurish poem whose words were fitted to an existing song. The existing song, as few Americans know, was an English song, To Anachreon in Heaven, a reference to a Greek poet whose works concern amour and wine. The Star Spangled Banner, in any version, only began playing a really prominent role in America during my lifetime, that is, with the onset of the Cold War. In Chicago public schools during the early 1950s, we sang My Country, 'Tis of Thee, another breast-sweller, written not many years after Key's, by another amateur poet, Samuel Smith, sung to the music of the British national anthem, God Save the King.

It shouldn't be necessary to remind anyone in an advanced country that things change, and they change at increasing rates. Even in the remote possibility, a century or two from now, Spanish or some blend of Spanish and English were to become the dominant language of the United States, what would it matter to today's angry and intolerant people? After all, the English language came from another land, and it grew out of centuries of change from Latin to early versions of German and French layered onto the language of Celtic people.

Throughout history, fascism is closely associated with xenophobia, but then we find many other unpleasant aspects of fascism - from illegal spying to recording what people read in libraries, from torture to illegal invasion - feature in George Bush's America.

Saturday, April 22, 2006


April 22, 2006


Often small things provide the most disturbing evidence for world-changing events, as when naturalists observe the quiet disappearance of some little known species. The CIA's firing of senior officer Mary O. McCarthy is a political event of just this nature.

Ordinarily, the firing of some middling CIA officer is not an event to interest many other than John Le Carre fans and those who linger over cappuccino at the CIA's Langely cafeteria. Not just conservative throw-backs recognize the need for secrecy in many intelligence matters.

Ordinarily, the fact that some CIA agent has broken his or her oath of secrecy would not cause much disturbance outside the unhinged James Angleton types who make up some portion of any intelligence community. Surely, out of tens of thousands of employees, this is something that happens with regularity.

But Ms. McCarthy's case is different, and it is of interest to the world. She is responsible, reportedly by her own admission during a furious round of polygraph tests, for information supplied to The Washington Post concerning the CIA's vast secret prison system.

This CIA-run gulag, and there is no name more fitting, does not resemble the case of a new secret weapon or of a mole planted somewhere abroad. The existence of a secret gulag goes to the heart of democratic values.

Is the population of any democratic country not entitled to be informed of so vast and creepy an enterprise? To exercise their franchise based on facts? At some point, any secret operation, if it becomes large enough and affects the lives of tens of thousands, risks undermining the very legitimacy of the government running it.

The reputation of the United States abroad has suffered perhaps irreparable damage from the excesses and stupidities of Bush's War on Terror. So much so that Americans are now advised by their own State Department to guard their behavior and even identity when traveling abroad. Are Americans not entitled to be informed of what has caused this? Of what has been done in their name?

If you can keep tens of thousands secretly locked away and subject to torture, what prevents this number from becoming millions? Where are the limits without public information? The inherent integrity of American government officials, you say? Three-quarters of the world's people today would laugh caustically at the suggestion.

Monday, April 10, 2006


February 5, 2006


There has been a lot of noise about the victory of Stephen Harper, leader of Canada’s new Conservative party, but just what did he win?

Votes in the recent election for progressive parties - Liberals, New Democrats, and Bloc Quebecois (quite progressive on social issues) - went from 64.8% in the 2004 election to 58.2% in 2006, a handsome majority that would be rated a landslide in an American presidential election.

Harper’s minority-government party went from 29.6% of the vote in 2004 to 36.3% in 2006, hardly a mandate for change, and certainly not revolutionary change. Even Conservative diehards, while blowing about victory, were perceptibly disappointed: you could almost hear the breath whistling through their teeth. The new Conservatives remain decidedly a minority party.

When we consider that the Liberals were divided by their change in leadership, plagued by scandals and rumors of scandals, and ran an unappealing campaign, the still-small vote for Conservatives gains is telling.

Stephen Harper's muzzling of the Conservatives' Social-Neanderthal Wing, largely resident in Alberta, during the 2006 campaign also must be taken into account. In 2004, several of Harper's religious-right throwbacks made embarrassing public statements about social policy, reminding Canadians voters that they might just be letting a gang of Jehovah's Witnesses into their living rooms. Harper silenced these people in 2006.

Harper himself spoke more calmly than he did in 2004, when he sometimes resembled a flat-footed, angry kid, and I truly believe Canadians, determined to punish the Liberals, with their usual sensible and practical approach to politics, realized that a minority Harper government represents little threat.

Harper simply will not be in a position to change any of the major social policies most hated in heavily American-influenced Alberta. Even if Harper were in a better position to try, Canada’s enlightened courts stand ready to strike down any poorly-conceived legislation. In some cases, notably that of gay marriage, it was the courts themselves that brought important human-rights issues to the point where legislation was required.

Harper has already spoken of the courts. I don’t know why it is, but right-wingers always castigate courts for doing their jobs. Thomas Jefferson, the intellectual godfather of the American extreme right, absolutely hated federal courts, and it had nothing to do with democracy because Jefferson didn’t believe in democracy, and his Virginia was a place were a tiny portion of the population – white, male owners of substantial property (roughly one percent of the population, even after the Revolution) - got to vote.

Jefferson was ready to have Virginia separate, more than half a century before the Civil War, over the issue of the Supreme Court’s interpreting the Bill of Rights. Jefferson thought the words were just fine as advertising, but any attempt at their enforcement threatened his comfortable world as slaveholder, local aristocrat, and narrow-minded states-righter. His view reflected his own life in which he wrote many high-sounding phrases as a false legacy while living off the avails of slavery and believing blacks and women and others were not suited to play a role in government. A toned-down version of this nasty American intellectual heritage crops up in Alberta frequently, and Harper sometimes mimics it, though admittedly with a less hateful tone than that of its chief American exponent, ex-cockroach exterminator and big-time political money-launderer, Tom Delay of Texas.

The new Conservatives did pick up their first seats in Quebec, but despite Quebec's reputation as a progressive society, we should not forget that it was not all that long ago a base for social credit, that strange amalgam of conservatism, rural values, and financial mysticism. The Bloc Quebecois stretched hard to sweep the province over Liberal scandal but only succeeded in sounding tired as well as highlighting its disingenuousness over the connection between it and separatism. Who else was there to turn to? The NDP is viewed as a boring troop of Anglo Boy Scouts in Quebec.

So long as Harper sticks to reforms like sensible new rules for government accountability, no one can object. Other relatively minor changes, likely to be supported by one or another party, will do no harm.

There is one change that will be regrettable if Harper can get support from another party in parliament for it. The Liberals did a lot of work at building a genuine national day-care system, an important concept in a society where more than three-quarters of women work.

In places like the violence-plagued Jamaican areas of Toronto, real day-care is badly needed and the city has planned, based on agreements with the Liberals, to create many new sites. But Harper's campaign promise is instead for a monthly cheque, kind of a super baby-bonus, although not large enough to buy day-care for anyone. A cheque will be welcomed by anyone getting it, and will be especially so by Harper’s stay-at-home, mothers-in-apron crowd, but will it do anything to create good day-care where it is most needed? Does any honest person believe that a cheque will do what a well-organized, easily-accessed system would do, especially where serious problems already involve poor parenting?

The greatest threat Harper’s minority represents is agreement with the Bloc Quebecois to de-centralizing programs with cash flowing to the provinces. The reason for the Bloc’s support of such programs is obvious.

I do not oppose specific new agreements where old ones are out of date, as for example involving disproportionate impacts of immigration on a city like Toronto. But wholesale changes are fraught with difficulties. You only have to look at Bush's colossal blunders in reordering American taxes, depleting the American treasury while rewarding segments of society with windfall wealth, and yet spending like a drunken sailor on the things he thinks important. Gigantic tax cuts like Bush's have huge long-term implications for a society, many of them unpleasant or destructive.

Just one example of such destructive tax changes, perhaps many Canadians do not appreciate, is the tremendous burden that has fallen on American local governments, many of which are poor because they are home mainly to poor people. Property taxes on homes in many U.S. cities have reached extortionate levels, further driving people to distant suburbs and encouraging mindless sprawl and the choking off of healthy cities. Another example is multilevel income taxes in the U.S. with individual states generally having their own separate systems, rules, and forms - this even involves some people filing and paying income taxes to more than one state. Many American cities, too, now levy taxes we do not associate with urban jurisdiction.

Canada already is a more de-centralized society, dangerously so in some aspects. The informal coalition of a Quebec separatist party and the implicitly separatist sentiments of Harper’s Alberta crowd is a risky combination for the nation's future health and stability. This is exactly the path by which Quebec separatism is truly dangerous: federal politicians making gradual cozy arrangements which weaken the bonds of national identity. Any referendum on separation with a clear question, under prevailing arrangements in Canada, cannot produce a majority in Quebec, much less a convincing majority. The Bloc's behavior and results in this election, even at a time of heightened resentment over past federal Liberal behavior, demonstrates this forcefully, as do endless polls over many years, and as does the last referendum with its impossibly-ambiguous and complex question. Even were it possible to imagine a referendum producing a yes, the years of detailed negotiation over assets and liabilities required to sort out a fair divorce would soon exhaust the momentum for change.

In Alberta, we already have a government that doesn’t know what to do with its new-found wealth. What on earth would it do with more? It’s all code for a form of separatism, a severe weakening of the national government. If you listen to some Alberta voices, you hear silly things like you might expect from a pimply teenage rock star that has overnight become a multimillionaire. Alberta has simply lucked out in the tarsands with world oil prices exploding.

None of the province’s new affluence is due to the wisdom of its premier, Ralph Klein, or to the philosophy of Harper’s crowd. Klein balanced the budget with an unanticipated flood of cash, something with which any premier could balance a budget. Were world oil prices to collapse, all of the braggadocio over right-wing intellectual nonsense like "not being afraid of excellence in Alberta" would dry up like prairie grass in a drought.

Important social programs that almost define the character of Canada need to apply, with accommodating variations, coast to coast, and they need the resources from wealthier parts of the country to assist the poorer parts. When we seriously depart from this principle, Canada will have become the United States North.

I hope the Liberals take their rebuke by the electorate seriously, making it abundantly clear before the next election that the party is thoroughly clean and repentant. That and a sympathetic new leader, perhaps an altogether fresh voice, are the sine qua non of coming back before the Conservative-separatist axis inflicts too much damage on the country.

Harper’s almost wet-eyed puppy attitude towards the United States is dangerous over any extended period, especially at a time of American unapologetic imperial hubris, the kind of thing that makes the ongoing, pointless destruction in Iraq possible. If the Liberals do things right, Harper will not have the time.

We can expect, in the not-too-distant future, American-led action against Iran. With America’s over-stretched military forces, the bad taste in many Congressmen’s mouths of a unbelievably costly, failed policy in Iraq, plus new lows in Bush's popularity, actual invasion seems unlikely. However, severe sanctions and bombing or missile attacks seem likely. The price of oil will soar yet again since Iran is one of the world’s great crude oil reservoirs, sending a great, unpleasant shock through the economies of Western nations. Islamic countries will yet again feel insultingly stung by the unbalanced justice of American policy. Will Prime Minister Harper embrace such a de-stabilizing policy that is not in Canada’s long-term interest but is solely guided by America’s will to re-order the planet?


July 2, 2004


Reflections on an Interesting Canadian Election

Hubris played an important role in the recent Canadian election.

Paul Martin's assumption of power, after pushing aside a popular and successful, though aging, Liberal leader, was disconcerting to many. Then, despite Martin's reputation as an able technocrat in Jean Chretien's cabinet, he quickly demonstrated he was not an apt public speaker. It was not just the manner of his speech, but its content, often repeating generalities heard many times about new tax revenue for cities. The contrast with the clever and rough-hewn eloquence of Chretien could not have been more striking. Martin was promoted heavily in the press as a leader of considerable stature, but the quiet judgment of many listening to him was somewhat at odds with this puffed-up praise.

Unavoidably, too, there was a certain uneasiness about someone's assuming power without an election, although this is a common enough event in parliamentary government. The uneasiness was exacerbated by all the publicity about Martin's expecting an easy sweep of the next election.

When Canada's Auditor General broke what would come to be called the sponsorship scandal, she displayed poor judgment, using highly colored language and playing directly to reporters keen for a juicy story rather than just rigorously reporting facts. The press's incessant reportage disturbed voters far more than warranted. Many eventually came to recognize that the flap was out of proportion to the facts of what happened, but not all. The large exception, amongst those who had voted Liberal before, was Quebec whose people took the affair as an embarrassing insult. Quebec is a grande dame with a somewhat unsavory past, with many tales of questionable deals by questionable politicians lingering like hints of rare old perfume, and this reputation was something modern Quebeckers thought they had put behind them.

At first, Martin kept something of the dithering style he displayed after assuming power when he often spoke of putting choices on the table, words which seemed oblivious to the legitimate and expected function of a leader. When he decided to act forcefully, he did so by dismissing some old-line Liberals from their posts, exacerbating bad relations with the Chretien wing of the party, not a good thing to do when anticipating an election, although in at least one case the action seemed well deserved.

Martin's approach to a principled stand in the scandal was to play tough guy with no tolerance for such activities, even though everyone was perfectly aware they occurred while he held a high cabinet post and was likely aware of them. Of course, he was not the leader then and perhaps could do little to change policies with which he disagreed, assuming he did disagree, other than tender his resignation, not something ambitious men like doing.

The principled stand he should have taken was that the activities, although mistaken, reflected his party's fierce determination and commitment to prevent the separation of Quebec, which is pretty much exactly the case. Would any sensible Canadian focus on that relatively small amount of money misspent when the object was saving the great thing called Canada? There were opportunities here for fierce eloquence completely missed by Martin, opportunities that would not have been missed by Chretien. One unavoidably had a sense of a man being led by events rather than leading.

So, even before the election was called, there was a perception of Martin as, at one and the same time, a somewhat arrogant man and one maybe not up to dealing well with a political crisis. Then came Dalton McGuinty's budget in Ontario.

Dalton McGuinty's budget shook the public's confidence in all Liberals, as it should have, even though McGuinty is not a national politician. Here was the new leader of Canada's biggest province not just gently drifting away from his campaign platform, something many politicians do, but, shortly after taking office, breaking a forceful promise, a promise given in writing and staged with considerable public ceremony. Voters understand that campaign platforms are somewhat-vague expressions of intentions and beliefs, but such a show-case promise is not the same.

McGuinty's behavior went to the heart of democracy. If politicians are free to make strong promises they immediately break, the disturbing question arises, why hold elections at all? The meaning of a ballot is nullified by actions like McGuinty's.

McGuinty's provincial election campaign reminded me of the lamentable Richard Nixon running for re-election in 1972. All the polls told McGuinty for months that Ontario voters were tired of the Conservative's "Common Sense Revolution" with the damage it did to the province's social fabric. Despite knowing this - just as Nixon clearly knew that Americans were not prepared to vote for George McGovern, a worthy man whose views were too far beyond the mainstream - McGuinty showed the same paranoia about winning that drove Nixon to the destructive behaviour known as Watergate.

McGuinty had seemed a decent-sounding man before the provincial election, offering valid criticism of Ontario's Conservatives, but desperate to assure victory, he made frantic promises during the campaign. Apart from the written one on taxes, he made several inadequately-researched promises like the one about stopping development on the Oak Ridges Moraine, something which only saw him embarrassingly backing down in the face of legal action as soon as he took office.

No thoughtful person can believe McGuinty did not have a good estimate of the Conservative's hidden deficit. Not long before election day, the Fraser Institute, a conservative economic institution thousands of miles away, forecast the deficit with some accuracy. If they understood the facts, why didn't McGuinty? His almost daily public whining over the deficit, after a short stagey interval to discover it, seemed toe-scrunchingly insincere.

Martin went into a national election under very unhappy circumstances, many Liberals saying he should have waited to call it. Then, despite a good deal of talk about a "democratic deficit," whatever that inelegant phrase meant, he appointed several candidates in key ridings. I think the psychological shock of Martin's following that old and familiar parliamentary-government practice, under the special circumstances of the election, was underrated by Liberal strategists.

But in the last days of a very tough election, one in which Martin consumed generous portions of crow, he suddenly altered course, displaying the kind of grit and determination voters always admire. His voice became strong, losing its dithering quality, and he gave voters, confronted with the possibility of government by a party clearly influenced by religious-right extremists, a new sense of commitment to social justice. Martin showed admirable qualities in those last days, and he very much earned his minority. One hopes the bruising election experience was the making of a great Prime Minister.

Considering the high level voter discontent and confusion going into the election, the New Conservatives performed remarkably weakly in not making greater gains. The party's co-founder, Peter McKay, doing his best to mimic Dalton McGuinty's whining, complained immediately about negative advertising. But Liberal advertising was not particularly aggressive, and it was the public voices of New Conservative members themselves that gave its suggestions any force. Outbursts coming from members of the party resembled those of Texas Republicans, a group that doesn't need advertising to scare people - Good God, recall the insane excesses of the Clinton impeachment or the virtual kidnapping of a poor Cuban boy from his father!

Stephen Harper talked constantly about restoring integrity to government, but I couldn't help recalling a fast-food advertising slogan from years ago, where's the beef? Harper's party was born in the very-public breaking of a written promise by McKay.

Would Harper's concept of integrity include the man who still holds an important post in his party, Stockwell Day? Day's career has included many blundering and thoughtless remarks, but, early in his career, he made one when in a position of trust that ended costing taxpayers in his province a small fortune providing him with legal defence. Mr. Day never had the integrity or good grace to take responsibility for those costs.

While the national memory of former Prime Minister Mulroney's shady practices is beginning to fade, Harper's using him as an advisor suggested a considerable lack of judgment. Did Harper truly believe that associating himself with Mulroney, the man whose reputation caused voters virtually to destroy the old Progressive Conservative Party, made him seem main-stream?
Did Harper's assertion that Martin had been soft on child pornography reflect integrity? The comment would be shameful at any time, but it came after courtroom revelations about a terrifyingly brutal crime in Toronto. Harper tried to direct the public's disgust against a decent man and father. Is that integrity? The statement was loathsome, making any negative advertising the Liberals did seem positively innocuous.

There was in my mind another dimension to the pornography name-calling, concerning Harper's early enthusiastic support for America's invasion of Iraq. It is now known at least ten thousand innocent civilians were killed and many times that number were wounded or crippled by American bombs in a pointless war based entirely on lies. Many of the dead and maimed were children, for Iraq, like many Arab countries, has a very youthful population. I can't speak for others, but children torn apart by bombs is about as pornographic an act as I can imagine. Again, going to Harper's integrity, he tried during the campaign to weasel his way through the words of strong support he so plainly had given earlier.

It is simply a fact that Alberta has a quality in its politics unattractive to many other Canadians. Ralph Klein, multiple-term Premier of Alberta, is chief exemplar. His showing up drunk one night at a men's shelter and hurling coins and insults at those less fortunate cannot be forgotten. This was not the act of a foolish young man, but a mature one, supposedly having gained some wisdom through years of politics. The act was fobbed off with pity-seeking stuff about a drinking problem, the kind of self-serving confession so popular in America, particularly in the South where redemption is almost a vocation, but the Romans laid down a sound principle when they said in vino veritas.

It was the act of an extremely mean-spirited man, as were Klein's words, years ago at a time of energy problems, about letting Eastern bastards freeze in the dark. His recent insistence on prosecuting, instead of laughing off, the act of a student who threw a cream pie in his face - an act which countless politicians have managed to accept with some grace - only confirms how little he has changed.

Klein's activities during the mad-cow trouble display the same qualities. He criticised the Prime Minister for not doing more in Washington, failing to give Ottawa any credit for substantial efforts against a rather slithery and self-righteous trading partner who took the flimsiest excuse - a single diseased cow - to halt a major and historic trade. Instead, Klein insisted on tripping down to Washington himself. He was poorly received by his ostensible friends, being granted meaningless minutes with secondary figures, and he had no influence on U.S. policy whatever, but his bellowing continued.

Eastern Canadians, in sympathy with Alberta's plight, greatly increased their consumption of beef, despite high prices maintained by retailers and despite the fears of the disease promoted by American beef interests nicely profiting from high domestic prices induced by the trade ban. Did Klein ever have the grace to acknowledge this in a meaningful way? Not at all.

Well, Harper is not Klein, and reportedly Klein himself is not all that taken with Harper, but Klein's angry-child approach to politics does provide a context for anyone outside Alberta to judge a new party based there. A Joe Clark, serving with distinction and honour as a Progressive Conservative, rose above this, but Harper not only didn't, he frequently seemed not even to try.

Another refrain of Harper's was western alienation and the West's needing to have influence in Ottawa, parroting Klein's regular blubbering about Alberta being left out. If Klein's behaviours are examples of Western alienation, it is pretty clear that a great deal of the effort to correct the balance must come from Alberta itself.

I think many Canadians are open to new ideas about improving our democracy, although nonsense like "we want in," an actual phrase used in Alberta, offers us nothing but attitude. Proportional representation should be carefully examined, although those who have thought about it know it offers no panacea, bringing perhaps as many new problems as those it might solve. A promising idea for reform is a ballot which allows voters to rank their choices. That way, voters are more likely to feel their ballots count, for even getting your second choice is more satisfying than the simple win-or-lose choice voters now have, and such a system of voting takes better account of the sometimes subtle differences between parties on important issues.

During the last portion of the campaign, at the very time Martin displayed a fierce new determination, Harper began puffed-up talk about a New Conservative majority government. This not only suggested hubris, it caused many ready to chastise the Liberals with their votes to re-consider the possibility of national government with the tone of Klein's Alberta.

The frightening influence of views from Texas - views perhaps best exemplified by Tom DeLay, former entrepreneur roach exterminator (yes, that was his business) and Republican Congressional Whip - is seen clearly in Harper's refrain about courts legislating instead of Parliament. This was a favorite of Old Tom's on the Texas Top Ten for many years, but it is about the same kind of nonsense as the words to songs like "Stand by Your Man."

When a nation chooses to govern itself by creating a Charter, or Bill, of Rights, it necessarily leaves the precise interpretation of the words to the courts. Otherwise, the Charter would have to read like a provincial highway code instead of a broad statement of human principles.

What Harper seemed to be saying was that he wants to cut back on the Charter, so that Courts would have little latitude in interpreting it - that is, he wants to move in the direction of a highway code specifying things like parking so many meters from a fire hydrant. Cutting back the Charter of Rights doesn't make a very high-sounding campaign slogan. Blaming judges for overstepping their responsibility and legislating in place of a "democratically elected" Parliament does, at least in some circles.

Of course, another possible approach here is to follow the pattern of some American states in having judges elected. One hopes Harper's supporters recognize the corrupt, legally incompetent, and politically-correct results this practice produces. America's highest court, the ultimate interpreter of its Bill of Rights, remains appointed with very little chance of its ever being altered since it requires an immense effort to alter the American Constitution which was given the form of a law unlike any other law. The tactic used by the good old boys in Texas is to constantly spew their poison about the courts and get themselves elected to the offices that appoint the judges. Judges of that kind virtually appointed Bush as President.

Are we to expect an increasing chorus of yahoo rhetoric about the courts? I hope not because that is a very destructive practice, and it goes against the grain of Canadian social values, which are easily confirmed to be, on average, quite different to those of Americans.

Social values brings us back to the basic problem of Harper's party simply being out of step. His is not a new conservative party in the sense most Canadians are used to thinking of the old Conservative party. His party is the former Alliance, a regional party swollen temporarily in size by public discontents. The election gave Martin, despite early doubts about him, a large minority. The same election gave us a large number of, whatever else they may be, socially-progressive Bloc members in Quebec and a healthy vote for the NDP. The total of these three parties holds more than twice the seats of the New Conservatives - a very strong vote for traditional, decent Canadian social values.


May 13, 2005


We have the oddest form of government these days in Ontario. Almost every week there is something new, often new in the sense of bizarre or absurd. You might regard it as a form of circus. Dalton the Magnificent, in the blue-white glare of batteries of spotlights, sometimes appears in tights and gleaming sequined little pants bowing to the crowd from the high wire.

Other times he appears as ringmaster in white jodhpurs and boots, cracking his whip and making announcements about coming acts.

I think Dalton must have a fellow high-wire man posted on the roof of Queen's Park whose full-time job is launching trial balloons. The variety of these has been remarkable, almost all of them falling limply to earth as the gas seeps out. My favorite so far was for replacing the trillium as Ontario's symbol. Yes, that's right, replacing the trillium, a symbol as well established as the maple leaf is for the nation, an affectionate symbol of spring's coming to the province each year.

Where, other than as part of a circus, would this idea be thought worth suggesting? It was quietly dropped, but you have to ask yourself how it ever saw the light of day, particularly from a government supposedly working, sleeves rolled up, late into every night to solve a massive set of problems with which Ontario is saddled.

Sometimes, Dalton feels the need to step forward boldly in his full ringmaster's costume with silk hat and red cutaway coat, draw his pistol, and shoot down one of these trial balloons threatening to create a serious hazard. He did this for the one about the possible need to restrict public-sector wages. Bang! and Dalton's smoking gun was re-holstered.

During his first months most of the new announcements were about election promises he would not be keeping. These included everything from his written pledge not to increase taxes and a promise to halt a huge development on the Oak Ridges Moraine to controlling private tolls on Highway 407 and preventing increases in electricity rates. The odd thing about these promises was that almost none of them was necessary for Dalton's election. Polls had shown the people of Ontario so tired of the right-wing excesses of Mike Harris that, even though Harris had retired, they were ready to hand power to the Liberals.

But for some reason, Dalton just went right on making promises. His behavior suggests an obsessive compulsion to promise, perhaps not altogether different to the obsessive compulsion of some people who bankrupt their families while madly playing at Ontario's shiny new gambling palaces.

Recently we had an announcement about higher results on the Ontario literacy test given to all grade-ten students. Naturally, the praises of the Magnificent One Himself were fulsomely included as having brought forth this fruit. You could almost see him in tights and sequins bowing and throwing kisses to the crowd. But even a brief analysis shows the claim as ridiculous, revealing the threadbare elbows and seat bottom of Dalton's shimmering costume.

I have heard Dalton's Minister of Education answer questions. Nothing fresh or interesting seems likely ever to have clouded this politician's mind. Warm slogans and pat harmless phrases seemed to be the extent of his intellectual resources. These were all delivered in a tone you might expect from an announcement about a new desk calendar at a convention for business-form designers. The people asking questions might just as well have typed them into a computer equipped with a random-access collection of the minister's clichés.

But there are more fundamental reasons for regarding Dalton's words on literacy with the same hopeless cynicism that readers of Pravda in the old Soviet Union must have experienced countless times with each new announcement that some production target in the latest five-year plan had been met early or exceeded.

The tests in question were administered in October, 2004, and here was Dalton, elected near the end of October, 2003, taking credit for an improved result. I hope readers have some appreciation of the time lags that are necessarily involved even when governments have good ideas. What amazing programs did Dalton create, legislate, and put through the slow and cumbersome educational administrative apparatus, all in time to influence daily classroom practices of thousands of teachers almost instantly after his election? The claim was embarrassing nonsense to anyone who understands the workings of government and a huge bureaucracy like Ontario's public schools.

Actual knowledge of the test itself deepens the cynicism. Anyone without a personal stake in Ontario's professional public education establishment who has seen these tests knows they are ridiculous, a holdover from Mike Harris's pathetic efforts at reforming education.

It would take considerable political courage to eliminate this pointless test. After all, if you poll the public (as The Globe and Mail did a while back) on some simple question about students needing to be literate, you will naturally get an overwhelmingly positive response. But the nature of this test and the way it is administered makes it a poor measure of literacy.
I became familiar with the test and the practices around it through the experience of our student from China. Although an extremely bright young man - he since has been accepted and given a scholarship for a difficult program at University of Toronto - he failed the written literacy test.

So how does Ontario's educational system manage to pass a student like ours? The failed student attends an extra one-term special course, upon completion of which he or she receives a pass in literacy. It's the kind of thing we used to call a bird course at university, although a still better adjective might be Mickey Mouse.

Our student managed to pass the course. Actually, considering the nature of the material involved, it is hard to see who would not. It did, however, mark something of an educational watershed for him. The class was so mind-numbing, containing mainly academically-weak students and a teacher who typically drifted off leaving students to do worksheets, that he dreaded attending it.

We saw his assignments. The truth is our boy's grasp of English grammar was probably as good as the teacher's. He just had a vocabulary problem, and nothing in the course helped him with that.

The test isn't even objective in nature, leaving a great deal of room for discretion or questionable judgment in the marking. The marking is itself a bonanza for teams of teachers who get put up in hotels in Toronto and receive a handsome daily rate of pay to mark the test. But even were the test an objective machine-readable one, what would be the point of it? Teachers would only teach to the test to get students passed regardless of their understanding.

My wife tells me that forty years ago, a time of demanding grade-thirteen tests in Ontario, it was common for teachers to answer a student's question with something along the lines of, "Don't worry, that's not on the test." Some readers may have heard of the scandal in Chicago's public schools not very long ago, desperate to improve their dismal academic results with tests, when it was discovered some teachers and principals were actually drilling students to memorize the correct answers.

If a student can pass a demanding course like Ontario high schools' English 4U, then any sensible person would regard him or her as literate without an additional test. If courses like English 4U have been dumbed down too much in some places, they need to be toughened up. A test like the current one for literacy has no effect towards this goal.

Energy is the field in which Dalton has made his most daring jumps and flips on the high wire. He has copied the abusive American practice of pushing ethanol into gasoline. Why do I call it abusive? Because ethyl alcohol has an energy content about half that of gasoline and it is expensive to make. You don't make any environmental advance by doing this, you only raise everyone's costs while assuring people they'll travel slightly less far on each fill-up and somewhat diminishing the public's financial ability to take other meaningful environmental measures.

Then why has the U.S. government encouraged ethanol for many years? Because it provides a hidden subsidy to corn farmers as well benefiting firms like Archer Daniels Midland who process the stuff. The taxes that apply to other motor fuels are forgiven, at general taxpayers' expense, in order to boost the incomes of corn farmers. And this is all Dalton's initiative will do, yet we hear it tiresomely discussed as an environmental program.

Dalton's promise of greatest potential consequence was the one to close all of Ontario's coal-fired electricity-generating stations (about a quarter of the province's capacity) over just a few years. This promise, if kept (and there are fleeting signs of Dalton's recognizing the costly immensity of what he has promised), literally puts Ontario's economic future at risk. Plentiful, dependable electricity has always been one of the attractions of Ontario for manufacturers. Now a quarter of existing capacity is to be shut down at the same time that economic growth dictates new capacity. Southern Ontario's residential home-building industry alone has been booming, and all those homes require electricity.

Dalton is closing the coal-fired plants because of people's concern about gases and particulate matter in the air. These are legitimate concerns and need to be addressed, but arbitrarily closing Ontario's coal-fired plants by a certain date is not the way to go about it. First, Southern Ontario is downwind of more than a hundred coal-fired plants in the American Midwest. Closing Ontario's plants will not clean the air. American states like Maine have precisely the same complaint about the Midwestern plants.

New types of gas-fired plants have some attractive environmental aspects. But Canada's time of an over-abundance of gas in Alberta is coming to an end, especially with huge amounts of it committed to new extraction and upgrading facilities in the tar sands to produce synthetic crude oil. Gas prices are high.

Briefly, many months ago, Dalton talked about forty-billion dollars worth of new nuclear plants. That likely did not go down well. Nuclear plants in Ontario do not have a happy history. Some of the nuclear capacity built not all that many years ago is undergoing expensive refit. The nuclear talk receded, and we've been getting instead a lot of happy-child-with-a-daisy stuff about green energy. The ugly truth is that all the green projects Dalton's government is undertaking amount to little more than demonstration projects. They cannot begin to replace the capacity of large coal-fired plants or provide for future growth.

Many so-called green projects are not all that green, although they all are expensive. Take wind-generation of electricity for example. There is nothing green about a gigantic wind farm on the shores of a lake, regularly killing flocks of birds. These are gigantic, ugly industrial projects that create miles of sterilized shoreline. The single wind turbine Torontonians see at the Exhibition grounds is not even full size, and you literally need forests of such machines to produce substantial amounts of power. Just imagine thousands of much larger ones spreading like a metal-and-concrete desert along the shores of our irreplaceable Great Lakes.

Some advocates cite places like parts of Europe, Germany for example, using this form of energy far beyond what we are doing. One fact these critics always neglect to mention is that Germany finds these machines economic because gasoline there costs twice or more what we pay. Substitution is an important principle in energy economics, and the high cost of petroleum products in Europe is reflected in other energy prices. So the high cost of things like wind power are not nearly so apparent as they would be here. Moreover, the Green Party in Europe, a powerful group there, does not like nuclear power, and that leaves not a lot of options.

If you really want to clean up the air in a place like Toronto, you must do something about all the cars that choke it with chemical fumes each day. There are ways to do this, but they all have implications for the urban sprawl that is fueling the economy of Southern Ontario. They may even have implications for the auto industry. We have yet to hear the bowing and dancing Dalton say anything much on this important subject.

The nuclear option, probably the only realistic one for replacing coal-fired capacity, is now the cause for new releases of trial balloons. Do the people of Ontario truly want a large addition to the province's nuclear capacity? And do they understand that these plants will almost certainly be built and run largely by American firms?

No one understands the full-cycle costs of nuclear power. We have inklings that it is very expensive when the costs of permanent disposal of nuclear waste is taken into account. I wonder whether the people in Toronto - who couldn't wait to close an ordinary garbage dump, instead sending fleets of trucks loaded with their garbage over two hundred miles to Michigan every day (talk about air pollution!) - welcome the idea of high-level nuclear waste being shipped regularly and buried somewhere in Ontario for thousands of years. You really cannot separate this problem from the idea of new nuclear capacity, although I've yet to hear Dalton on the subject.

Nuclear has other disadvantages, too, which must be considered. Remember the recent great blackout caused by an American firm which had not properly maintained its lines? (Perhaps one of those same firms which Dalton's plan might bring here to operate). In some parts of the province, especially parts of the GTA, it took days to restore power. That is because nuclear plants, like those just east of the city, take a relatively long time to bring back online.

Dalton's crackerjack marketing team is now making noises about a new form of public-private partnership to provide future improvements in Ontario's infrastructure. Just exactly what they mean is not clear. What is clear is that the ringmaster took his pistol to a relatively minor public-private arrangement, carried over from the Conservatives, involving hospital equipment. When it came to the tolls on privately-controlled Highway 407, Dalton blasted away for weeks, loading and emptying his pistol so many times the barrel glowed. When all the noise stopped and the acrid smoke cleared, the tolls stood just where they were.

Now, after that performance, just who is going to be interested in signing up with his government on infrastructure improvements? What costly incentives is Dalton's government prepared to give companies to get them interested? We know his minister, coyly teasing us with suggestions around this latest brainstorm, cannot intend anything like the deal for Highway 407, and he doesn't appear to mean the traditional method of financing large public projects, bonds or debentures, instruments often purchased by the kinds of institutions, large pension funds, to which he referred. Maybe Dalton will come out shooting yet on this one.

I very much regret that the Prime Minister even partially rewarded Dalton's shabbiest performance to date, his toe-scrunching weeks of whining about a $23 billion gap in Ontario's financial arrangements with the federal government. Dalton only discovered this monstrous gap after the Prime Minister made concessions to Newfoundland over revenue sharing. Apparently inspired by Danny William's success at playing petulant, destructive child taking down the national flag all over his province, Dalton thought he had found a winning formula by calling into question the country's traditional financial arrangements.

This is what passes for provincial statesmanship now in Ontario? Where is the memory of people like John Robarts or Bill Davis, who, Conservatives though they were, several times on important matters displayed the genuine trait?

When John McCallum told the public that a good portion of what the Prime Minister had agreed with Dalton was not new funding, Dalton got upset enough to describe his words as "idiosyncratic." My bets are on McCallum who has a doctorate in economics and who generally knows what he is talking about. He holds a portfolio one can't see Dalton managing for a month. Idiosyncratic? That is an odd word for a politician to use, especially one standing there in tights and sequined little pants.


July 1, 2005


July 1 is Canada's national day, and although the country has its share of political problems, we have a great deal to celebrate.

We are not at war in Iraq, killing and maiming for no reason. We have conservatives in our politics, but we have no commentators spewing hate like Ann Coulter or Rush Limbaugh. We have no puffed-up imperialist ones like Thomas Friedman. We have no genuinely dangerous public figures like Tom Delay or Donald Rumsfeld.

Our Supreme Court has decided a murderous beast, Rwandan exile Leon Mugesera, will be deported to face justice, while a mass murderer who blew up an airliner full of people and unquestionably engaged in many other acts of violence, Luis Posada Carriles, is protected by the President of the United States from receiving justice in Venezuela.

I'd rather have a Prime Minister who sometimes dithers - although, as a pure politician, Mr. Martin has demonstrated breath-taking skill in outmaneuvering his opponents - than a President who seems capable of nothing but lying and crying about terror while terrorizing others.

Only a few days before the national holiday, with the passing of Bill C-38, Canada became just the third country in the world, after Holland and Belgium, to expand human rights by giving gays the same right to marry as others. Any person aware of history and the gradual expansion of human rights over the last few centuries understands that this is something that will come eventually to all advanced countries (Spain became the fourth the next day), but it is nice to be in the forefront of progress and decency.

Contrary to the harsh uninformed preaching of fundamentalists mainly in the United States, the fully-formed modern idea of marriage only appears in the twentieth century, a time when people choose their companions, often for love and a time when we treat children as being rather precious and needing expensive education. Many marriages are of course childless, but they are still regarded as marriages in every meaning of the word. Control of human fertility for the first time in human history gives us an idea of children new in some respects. Many do not want them. Most have a small number of them and invest a very great deal in them.

The meaning of marriage has changed many times, just since the Middle Ages. Peasants typically during the Middle Ages co-habited. The Catholic Church made marriage a sacrament to enlarge its income and control. Marriage was mainly then an institution for the rich, and it had very little to do with love or companionship. Marriages of the rich and powerful were arranged, always with a careful eye to wealth and property. At the top of the social pyramid, unmarried princesses became literally pawns of their fathers in international affairs.

Elizabeth I, the greatest prince in European history, used Europe's then-traditional views on marriage to advance the affairs of England, avoiding destructive wars by toying with various princes, sometimes for years, over the possibility or even the terms of marriage, something to which she privately was determined never to subject herself, having the harrowing experience of her father's treatment of six wives, including her own mother, burnt into memory.

While details changed, by the eighteenth century, this view of marriage was still alive, even in the New World. George Washington married the richest widow in the British colonies, Martha Custis, and made himself a rich man. I say "made himself" because by the laws and customs then still prevailing, all Martha's property became George's. George liked Martha but no one who knew them ever regarded theirs as a marriage of love. Property and male control of property remained so inextricably linked to marriage, it wasn't until well into the twentieth century in North America that women could hold bank accounts or take loans and mortgages without a husband to co-sign for them.

Children were not treated in the sentimental way we treat them. In upper-class families, children were typically raised by servants and educated by hired scholars in demanding curricula. By the eighteenth century, they were typically sent to boarding schools at a young age. In lower-class families, children were worked like beasts. Through the Industrial Revolution, people very unsentimentally sent children at an early age to work under brutal conditions - as when they were literally chained to machines - or to apprentice in some trade. Charles Dickens' hated apprenticeship to a bootblack was almost gentle compared with what many children in early Victorian England experienced.

So, too, on American farms of the nineteenth century, regarded by so many with sentimental, unrealistic visions of Little House on the Prairie. Children were assets in small under-capitalized enterprises. They did tough work like haying, picking, and water-hauling. Many of the marriages involved little of what we regard today as love or affection, although that was always possible. The women were sometimes mail-order or often not well known to their spouses-to-be. They did unremitting work, aging and dying often quite young. High infant mortality, too, limited the development of purely sentimental bonds with children because nearly half of them died before growing up.

There is simply no reason, other than blind prejudice, for gay people to be denied the rights, satisfactions, and responsibilities of modern marriage. Many may never consider marriage. That too is their right. What is wonderful is that Canada's legal acceptance of their equal status in marriage will gradually work to wear away any remnant of regarding gays as something corrupt or immoral. That is always how it is with social change: change occurs in notable events, almost little revolutions if you will, and gradually all of society alters its attitudes. A number of men, including preachers and newspaper editors, swore up and down, saying many ridiculous and embarrassing things, when women were given the right to vote in the early part of the twentieth century. It's not easy giving up privileges and prejudices.

Not that gays have a difficult time in Canada, the country being far more tolerant than many. Toronto's Gay Pride parade has become a huge event, an entertainment which families attend, with a bigger turnout than the Santa Claus parade. Most people understand that homosexuality is as birth-determined as hair color. The favorite line of preachers of hate that gays are choosing a lifestyle, an abominable lifestyle in the eyes of God, is patent nonsense. However Canada's new law allows churches who believe this stuff to be exempted from performing gay marriages.
Happy Birthday, Canada.


November 8, 2005


Following the Gomery Commission Report, the question often is asked, "What do the Liberals have to do to be thrown out of office?"

But the question is politically naïve. Let's be clear just what the scandal Justice Gomery investigated involves. Except for a limited number of individuals who took advantage and who should be prosecuted, the scheme was not about the Liberal Party enriching itself. However inappropriate the method, it was an effort to fund the fight against separatism.

I believe most Canadians understand this, and they have pretty much understood from the first revelations by the Auditor General. Many who have treated the scandal as almost an apocalyptic development were those already opposed to the Liberals, often either separatists or new Conservatives. The sense of grievance does cut more deeply in Quebec, but this has a great deal to do with embarrassment at national exposure of the way things traditionally were done in Quebec politics. Quebeckers see their politics having risen above the days of Maurice Duplessis, but there remains a long history in the province of similar schemes by politicians, and not all with any worthy intent.

The kind of choices we are required to make when voting in elections are described by economists as bundled choices, the take-it-or-leave-it of a whole bundle of goods rather than a set of individual choices. You can't pick and choose policies in any party, you must accept the whole bundle when you vote. The Liberal bundle comes with this scandal, but what does the new Conservative party's bundle include? It includes a leader, Stephen Harper, who has said many times Canada should have joined the illegal invasion of Iraq, an invasion that killed a hundred thousand innocent civilians, destroyed the economy of the country, and now has precipitated a hopeless civil war.

In advocating this course of action, Harper ignored huge ethical issues, to say nothing of international law. Some judgment, some ethics. This fact alone for many Canadians is reason enough to vote Liberal while holding their noses, seeing the party punished with a continued minority. More broadly, the new Conservative party shows signs of being influenced by American neo-cons, making it no longer the traditional Canadian Conservative party but something of a minor branch of America's ugliest, most extreme political thought.

The Conservative bundle also includes Peter MacKay who set the ethical example of being a senior executive having an affair with a subordinate. After Belinda Stronach left his party, MacKay went on a round of interviews, casting himself as poor, broken-hearted lover and his ex-lover as ruthless, unfeeling person. That's an uninspiring set of behaviors from the second-in-command of a party trying to position itself as an ethical alternative. Of course, we still all remember MacKay's breaking his very publicly-given word when assuming leadership of the former Progressive Conservative Party.

The tenth anniversary of the second Quebec referendum was recently celebrated with many discussions of how close the vote had been, but it always seems to me that this perspective is false. Go back and read the question that was printed on referendum ballots. Had the proposition passed, there would have been no mandate for the Parti Quebecois to do anything. The question was a textbook example of political obfuscation, difficult even to read and with many possible interpretations.

Of course, the nation wanted to avoid the political paralysis that surely would have followed a victory for yes, and that is precisely the danger the separatist movement represents. There has never been a majority, not even close to a majority, in Quebec ready to say yes to a clear question of separation, but the genuine threat of an unclear, politically-charged yes vote is years of national political instability.

I believe that with the recent statements by Lucien Bouchard concerning Quebec's future, we may have reached the beginning of the end of the separatist movement. It will not go away quickly, and perhaps it will always have some adherents, but its ultimate decline is a matter both of demographics and economics. In a sense, too, separatism has become something of an outdated issue as Canada has become a home for people from many lands with bilingualism an established policy.

I would like to think, too, recognition of what a wonderful country Canada is has slowly been taking root. I know of no minority anywhere that is today treated so generously as French-speakers are today in Canada. You cannot rise in the civil service of this country without being bilingual. French-speakers have been elected to, or appointed to, all the country's most important posts, indeed often out of proportion to their numbers. Quebec today is a considerable success story, not a tragedy.

You have only to compare it to the story of various minority groups in the United States. French-speakers in Louisiana and Maine have all but disappeared. They no longer even pronounce their French names the correct way. Blacks, while finally getting the right to vote after nearly two centuries, still today form a huge underclass in the United States.

The book, "White Niggers of North America" had a catchy title, but it was exaggerated when published, and it is completely inaccurate today.


June 27, 2002


Mr. Bush's speech on a Palestinian state must surely rank as one of the most pathetic utterances ever given by an American president under the exalted rubric of policy.

As foreign policy, I am perplexed to think of its having an equal in American history.
As a statement of principle, it ranks with the U.S. Supreme Court's Dredd Scott decision concerning slavery. It contains no principle, other than respect for the rights of those with power to hold others virtually as property.

Purely as a speech, it suggests Mr. Nixon's remarks about his dog Checkers and Pat's cloth coat, emotional ramblings to obscure hard (and, as it later proved, true) accusations of hidden political slush-funds. In Mr. Bush's case, the hard truth is that his stewardship over America's responsibilities in the Middle East has been disastrous.

It's been about a third of a century since the 1967 war and its aftermath of Israel's seizing land and assuming the self-appointed right to determine the future living conditions of the land's residents. Now, some say that because Arabs started that war, Israel is under no obligation to return the property it always coveted anyway.

But the best scholars do not agree that the Arabs alone started that war. There is evidence of Israel's having deliberately manipulated the situation towards achieving that end, knowing full well that it could not only easily withstand the expected assault but handsomely profit from victory.

Mr. Sharon is just one of a long series of Israeli leaders who have wanted to annex the West Bank minus its "undesirable" Palestinian population. This hasn't been a secret, it's just not featured in Israel's speeches, professions, and press releases addressed at the outside world and especially those directed at American audiences.

Yes, indeed, conquerors are often under no obligation to return what they've conquered. But is this the relationship, that of conqueror vis-à-vis the conquered, that Israel wishes to have with its neighbors in perpetuity? One does associate the traditions of modern Judaism with larger, more decent, and more humane views than that.

I will not enter the debate over United Nations Resolution 242. Its meaning is abundantly clear. Israel is supposed to leave the territories. Only Israeli hard-liners and their unblinking American defenders seem to interpret it as meaning something else. In effect, Israel behaves as though it had been granted an indefinite League of Nations' mandate over these lands, ruling them as a de facto empire. And in continuing to ignore existing resolutions of the United Nations, Israel threatens that important institution with the same kind of contempt that caused the death of its predecessor.

It is helpful to bear in mind that the Bush administration includes in its constituency the kind of Americans who refused to pay United Nations dues, who insisted as a compromise (with America's population representing about 4% of the world's) on institutional reforms pleasing to themselves, who pay for billboards advocating America's withdrawal from the United Nations, and some who consider it a proud boast never to have set foot outside the United States.

Nor will I enter the debate over what Mr. Barak offered the Palestinians at Camp David. Again, it is perfectly clear to most what the offer amounted to, something that may more accurately be described as a kind of Yucca Mountain safe depository for undesirable human beings, complete with armed resident watchers in fortress redoubts, rather than anything resembling a state.
In almost every aspect of American foreign policy, Mr. Bush, a man who during his campaign for office actually bragged about never reading the international section of the newspaper, has set back the clock many years.

The Palestinians now are pretty much expected to start over, from the beginning, as though the past third of a century had not happened. And they have pretty well been told by America's first court-appointed president what leader they should not elect.

Someone has nicely summed up Bush's conditions in saying the Palestinians must become Sweden before being given any consideration by his administration. Further, even after becoming Sweden, what they can expect is what Mr. Sharon is prepared to grant, which, judging by any standards conditioned on reality, will be precisely nothing.


September 25, 2002


I've written before that much of American foreign policy is determined by domestic attitudes and politics, in a society driven by the fantasies of adults who never want to grow up, rather than by the complex realities of the world.

How else do you explain the perverse and destructive nature of so many of America's intervention in the world after World War II? Like big, thoughtless kids kicking at colonies of birds' nests, destroying lives and community without noticing anything much more than the exhilarating time they've had doing it.

Meanwhile, where great power might really have achieved something worthwhile, generally it has gone unused. I refer to the several genocides that occurred in the last third of the Twentieth Century, not using that word genocide loosely as it often is used in America but to describe massive, blood-soaked horror inflicted on a class or type of people. Indonesia, Cambodia, and Rwanda - each of these involved upwards of half a million people being slaughtered by their own countrymen. In each case, America never lifted a finger.

The rivers of Indonesia ran red and thick with gore at the end of Mr. Sukarno's regime, but the American government thought that was fine since it was presumed members of the Communist party that were having their throats cut en masse.

Cambodia's agony, brought on by America's destabilizing secret bombing and invasions during the Vietnam War, was also fine since it only demonstrated the inhumanity of Communists and the validity of the paranoid "domino theory," it being the intervention of war-weary Vietnam that mercifully ended the "killing fields."

There is no consistency here at all. In one genocide, Communists were being killed. In the other, Communists were doing the killing. Perhaps the State Department took to heart Emerson's line about a "foolish consistency being the hobgoblin of little minds." The same philosophy undoubtedly prevailed in the several instances of America's overturning unfriendly democracies and installing friendly brutal thugs. America only likes democracies that yield acceptable results.
Consistency did show up in the attitude towards Rwanda. After all, that was Africa, and
who the hell cares about Africa?

There are many perverse and not-widely-understood aspects to this relationship between foreign affairs and domestic attitudes and politics. One of the most interesting was suggested to me by an off-handed remark in a letter from a reader in Holland. Americans can't even keep peace and order in their own cities. What makes them think they are capable of doing it anywhere else?

Indeed, and that might explain the philosophy of "we destroy, you rebuild as best you can" so characteristic of America's interventions. The big kid can climb aboard his supersonic plane and, almost like pushing the buttons on a fancy video-game, make flashes and puffs of smoke rise from tiny structures far below with even tinier, ant-like dots running in all directions. Some Americans are capable of mustering that much interest. Besides, you get to be called a hero for doing that.

The immense arrogance of a term like "regime change" is lost on America. Much of the
world, in American eyes, just resembles beat-up, ugly ghettos run by gangs that can't
speak English, anyway. Why would anyone complain if we blew some of them up? This
is the world as seen by American suburbanites cruising along in shiny, four-ton SUVs
from "gated communities" to gated corporate headquarters, showing no interest in the
scenes that rush by between one island of security and another. All that "stuff" in between
might just as well be China or Egypt or Iraq.

America is a country that has almost no experience of war, except during the Civil War, and that was a very long time ago and was pretty much limited to one region of the country. America has never seen a city reduced to the rubble of Berlin or Tokyo after World War II, peopled by phantoms flitting about desperate to find any scrap of something useful or edible. It has never had to deal with millions of displaced persons who've lost everything, even their identification papers. Or had to endure a siege like that of Leningrad where tens of thousands of frozen corpses were stacked like logs in the streets as the living were reduced to conditions resembling the Stone Age. It has certainly never experienced the remorseless rape and pillage of a foreign army sweeping through its towns and cities. It never had to bury millions of its own.

Even in the gigantic upheaval of World War II, America's loss of life amounted to just
over one-half of one percent of the fifty million souls who perished.
So when decisions are made to bomb the homes and factories of others, killing and
maiming thousands of people far away, most Americans have no experience. It's all a
little abstract. The job of politicians to decide.

And being immersed in concerns like whether they'll be able to find just the right doll for
little Kaitlyn's birthday, they show little inclination to imagine what it would be like
to feel the ground shudder hundreds of times between the screams of bombs and dying
neighbors. Hell, who wants to think about things like that after a tough day at the office?

Another interesting aspect of this relationship between foreign policies and domestic matters reflects America's attitude towards its own national government. Basically, since the nation's beginnings, Americans have hated having a national government. Americans would never even have won the Revolutionary War without the immense assistance of the French. Many contemporary observers tell us how indifferent Americans had become to events in the last years. M. Duportail wrote that there was more excitement about the American Revolution in the cafes of Paris than he found in America. Washington spent most of his time writing desperate letters pleading for help, letters that often fell on deaf ears.

The proximate cause of the American Revolution, Britain's imposition of taxes designed to help pay its vast expenses in securing victory over the French in the Seven Years War (a.k.a., the French and Indian War), a war which greatly benefited American colonists, reflected the colonists' hatred of paying taxes. And little has changed in two and a quarter centuries. There are many Americans who view Washington as the distant capital of an occupying Roman power.
They have matured to this extent since the Revolution: they are willing to pay taxes for the military, although not much else.

This strange arrangement has a profound effect on foreign affairs. With many Americans taking little interest in foreign events and little interest in national government, a great deal of "maneuver room" is afforded to the nation's power establishment. Their actions are effectively not subject to quite the scrutiny you might expect in an ostensibly democratic country. That is one reason a country that has so many of the characteristics of a democracy is capable of the kind of shameful things abroad you might expect from oligarchs or juntas.

This effect is further enhanced by the way in which elections are financed. Those who pay the bills are heard, and they are anything but a majority of Americans. And the country's major popular information sources are owned by a relatively small number of powerful groups whose interests tend to be with the jingoistic and imperial.

It is often only intense international pressure which prevents America from doing some truly destructive and stupid things, just as on more than one occasion during the Cold War, Washington stood fully ready to use atomic weapons. One can only hope that international pressure has been sufficient to prevent the moral and intellectual mediocrity that now occupies the White House from launching an action whose long-term consequences may be just as terrible and unforgiving as the use of atomic weapons.


September 5, 2003


The Perfumed Prince declared himself a Democrat. Many Americans may not recognize the nickname bestowed upon Wesley Clark by British colleagues as he strutted around Serbia with his set of platinum-plated general's stars carefully repositioned each day to a freshly-starched and ironed camouflage cap, wafting a thick vapor trail of cologne. His lack of judgment demonstrated in Serbia - including an order to clear out Russian forces that British general, Sir Michael Jackson, had to ignore for fear of starting World War III - should be enough to utterly disqualify him as a candidate for President. But this is America, land of opportunity.

The former general scents, through the mists of his musky cologne, an opportunity for service. Hell, we're at war, and any real general is better than a former male cheerleader from Andover who cross-dresses as a combat pilot. Dreams of being the hero on a white horse beckon. A fatal attraction in the American people to used-up generals is how the country managed to elect some of its worst presidents - Grant, Jackson, and Garfield, for example.

Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts announced that he wants the Democratic presidential nomination. He chose to ask for it from the deck of an aircraft carrier. I have no idea why he would repeat any part of Bush's pathetic stunt, but to my mind it is an immediate strike against his competence. Perhaps he hoped for a promotional deal on a doll in combat gear to memorialize the occasion? That is, after all, a good deal of the country's idea of war, limited-edition collector dolls with lots of cute little zippers, flaps, and pockets (all handsomely made in China or Indonesia). Never mind real war where pilots drop cluster bombs and napalm on tiny desperate figures far below, and the occupying troops slosh through the resulting human gore, a good deal of it belonging to children in Iraq.

Well, Kerry was awarded some medals during Vietnam, so that does set him apart from Bush. Kerry's doll could feature cute little medals to set it apart, but then he threw the originals into a trash bin at a veterans' demonstration in front of the Capitol in 1971. That's not the kind of association that excites collectors of expensive kitsch in America's better class of trailer parks.

By the way, does anyone know whether the Bush Elite Aviator doll wets? Perhaps you can change its undies as girls did with Betsy Wetsy decades ago? This would offer opportunities for different editions. Bush Original could chug little water-filled six-packs while Bush Holier-Than-Thou used a miniature pitcher of iced tea.

Senator Kerry's involvement with Vietnam certainly reflected the war's extremes. He earned his medals in questionable actions including the shooting of a man who was running away and the killing of a child by a member of his crew. Remember another Kerry, a former Senator, the boyish one from Nebraska who spells his name "Kerrey," a Medal of Honor winner in Vietnam, much admired until it was learned that his grisly work there had been as a member of one of the night-crawling murder squads? If only Americans could once see what utterly filthy stuff war really is, the world might be spared a lot of needless horrors.

John Kerry, having become an opponent of the war in which he served, made a speech to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1971, describing some of what he had witnessed in Vietnam. Americans had "raped, cut off ears, cut off heads, taped wires from portable telephone to human genitals and turned up the power, cut off limbs, blown up bodies, randomly shot at civilians, razed villages in fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan, shot cattle and dogs for fun, poisoned food stocks, and generally ravaged the countryside of South Vietnam in addition to the normal ravage of war, and the normal and very particular ravaging which is done by the applied bombing power of this country." I can only admire such truthfulness, but Kerry's first instinct, years before, had been to contribute to the mayhem. Only when it was politically opportune did he oppose it. I get the same morally confused signals today with a speech delivered from an aircraft carrier while Iraqis suffer miserably from what such killing machines already have inflicted.

The Democrats held their first debate, hoping desperately to find an attractive candidate. Senator Joe Lieberman was there, but you have to wonder why anyone would vote to replace Bush with Lieberman. The pair remind me of one of those 1950's cheap horror films about a monster with two heads lurching over the countryside.

Lieberman's many pious-fraud battles over personal expression suggest that the Two Heads may actually have shared a single brain at birth. Just like his Twin Head, Lieberman avoided military service out of personal interests without hint of conscience or principle, and, just like his Twin Head, Lieberman always stands ready to see people blown up in foreign lands, just so it's "our boyz" doing the blowing up. Capital punishment warms his heart, too, and he has organizational connections with Dick Cheney's wife, America's intellectual gorgon.

Even the Rev Al Sharpton, also a candidate, doesn't bring quite the same rank smell to the nostrils.

Former general Powell, who once could have been President and have had his own fancy soldier doll, instead ends his career as a tiresome door-to-door salesman in shiny-bottomed pin-striped pants, pitching plans nobody wants to the United Nations. That "irrelevant" institution, as it was hotly described by Powell's sales manager only a short while ago, now is being offered something called "a role" in Iraq. A role, in the weird idiom of Bush's Washington, consists of sending vast quantities of money and troops to a reeling, miserable country Americans are already sick of hearing about without having anything to say about their use or the country's fate. Say-so would stay in the Oval Office, the source of the vicious tantrums that created all the destruction. As of this writing, stubborn blockheads in Germany and France had rejected the attractive limited-time offer.


December 2, 2005


Or Thomas Friedman in Striped Trousers, Silk Stockings and Garters

If Michael Ignatieff is anything, it's connected, and I do not mean just to the relatively small establishment of Canada, I mean connected to the shadowy godfathers of world empire. Ignatieff has a rich career in America where truly loyal service, whether by natural or adopted sons, is always handsomely rewarded.

Another Canadian, David Frum, made it all the way to the White House with his custom-tailored scribbling. So too such a genuinely dangerous American as Pat Buchanan. How does a man like Thomas Friedman pick up prizes writing advertising copy for the Pentagon? As I said, loyalty is handsomely rewarded.

David Frum and Pat Buchanan both fell from grace, but there is little danger of Ignatieff's doing so. He almost perceptibly pants and gasps when he applies words to the imperial splendor of which he stands in awe.

Ignatieff, while running what is essentially a marketing program for America at the forty-billion dollar endowment called Harvard, has kept in touch with Canada. Every once in a while he is interviewed by someone at the CBC or the Toronto Star. The interviewer's tone typically is toe-scrunchingly along the lines of, "Here is one of the age's great intellectuals, and he's from Canada!" Certain Canadians do have an embarrassing tendency that way.

So I am familiar with Ignatieff's quietly arrogant tone. Oddly, it is almost the tone of a minister of the Gospel, educated and polished to be sure, one of those New England clerics safely ensconced in a sinecure at some dignified pile of stones where he only has to address a small, blue-haired congregation once a week to earn his keep, but a preacher none the less. Ignatieff doesn't give speeches or write essays, he gives sermons, rather dull sermons with just a hint of suppressed rage under the surface. The rage, perhaps regarded as appealing or even sexy by some, if you listen carefully, is directed at people who do not embrace his views.

Yet I have only now discovered the immensity of Ignatieff's arrogance. You see, he's been dropped into a federal riding (for American readers, the equivalent of a congressional district) to run for Canada's Parliament. He is being dropped by national leaders of the Liberal Party in search of "star" candidates for an approaching election which is expected to be close, but he has been dropped into a riding where a substantial number of Liberal faithful disagree with his alien views. Moreover, he has written in one of his books, as we shall see, words insulting to many residents of the riding.

Here is one Toronto columnist's description of Ignatieff's proud path to achieving the great honor of his life:
"And snookering one potential opponent, name of Shwec, on the grounds that he wasn't a party member, although he'd paid his dues, and another, name of Chyczij, who also happens to be the association president, on the grounds that he hadn't resigned the presidency when he filed. Not to mention locking the office door ahead of the deadline so they couldn't file in time."

It sounds a great deal like politics in Richard J. Daley's Chicago or President Mubarak's Egypt.

Ignoring requests for his withdrawal, Ignatieff spoke at the riding association meeting to tell them what a great honor - the greatest of his life, as he put it - it was to be acclaimed candidate. In this case, however, the words were almost lost in catcalls and heckling from members of his own party. At one point about a third of the audience got up and walked out of the meeting. At the end of a truly shabby performance, Ignatieff's handlers helped him through a side door to a waiting car.

You cannot completely judge Ignatieff's tone from printed words. You had to have heard CBC Radio's report with his voice to catch the full nuanced snottiness. One of Ignatieff's lines was "You must understand" that being dropped into a riding the way he was being dropped was an old party practice. "You must understand" to people whose democratic rights he was opposing!

At the same time he pontificated, "I have stood all my life against intolerance. Do you seriously think I would insult any community in our country?" Here the self-appointed candidate leaned on his role as self-appointed secular saint. The tone was exactly that of some earlier words of his, with reference to Canada's honorable stand against joining Bush's illegal invasion of Iraq. He said then, "If you oppose America, you pay," with a slight but discernable emphasis on "pay," almost relishing the word.

Ignatieff's "Do you seriously think" concerned Ukraininan-Canadian objections to demeaning descriptions in his writing. Judge for yourself, here is one of the most offensive passages from his 1993 book, Blood and Belonging: ''I have reasons to take the Ukraine seriously indeed. But, to be honest, I'm having trouble. Ukrainian independence conjures up images of peasant embroidered shirts, the nasal whine of ethnic instruments, phony Cossacks in cloaks and boots . . . ."

The attitude on display is perhaps best explained in an article by Sarah Schweitzer in Toronto's Globe and Mail where she gave the following précis of Ignatieff's family history:
"His paternal grandfather, Count Paul Ignatieff, was minister of education for Czar Nicholas II of Russia. Following the Russian Revolution, the family moved to Canada, where Ignatieff's father, George, became a leading diplomat during Cold War era. Ignatieff's maternal great-grandfather, George Munro Grant, was a well-known Canadian advocate of British imperialism in the late 19th century, and an uncle, George Parkin Grant, was a conservative political philosopher."
Almost certainly there's an arrogance gene, the Russian aristocracy having been notorious for arrogant behavior.

The people of Etobicoke-Lakeshore Riding in Toronto were not just expressing their anger at past words. This great worker for human rights has been a consistent advocate for Bush's illegal invasion of Iraq - that is, for the mass murder of one hundred thousand innocent civilians and the utter destruction of their country as a decent place to live. Ignatieff is also on record as a supporter of "mild" torture. Here is an apologist for international lawlessness and selected barbarism, so long as they serve those who provided his sinecure.

These are not views the majority of Canadians support. Since there are many rumors that this unpleasant man is to be groomed as a potential future prime minister, there is great cause for concern.

Paul Martin, Canada's current prime minister, is essentially a decent man, and I don't wish his government harm, but it is important to end the horribly archaic and anti-democratic practice of dropping candidates into ridings where they don't live and with which they have no attachment. Martin could only enhance his credibility by quickly finding a way to dump Ignatieff.

It's more important still to stop this barely-disguised American Neo-con from securing a future in Canadian politics where he can serve little other purpose than a kind of fifth-columnist for destructive interests. I will watch the election in this riding with more interest than the national contest, hoping people in Etobicoke-Lakeshore demonstrate genuine courage and independence.

Saturday, April 01, 2006


April 1, 2006


Naturally enough, few details of what American troops do in Iraq and Afghanistan reach the nation's television screens, the main source of news for most Americans. American television takes the approach of the New York Times when it refers to professional soldiers as GIs, as though they were humble mechanics and bricklayers of America drafted into the titanic struggle against Hitler and Tojo.

But if you are genuinely interested in discovering the truth, there are plenty of sources for first-hand information. And anyone taking a little time to search through some of these comes away with a sick feeling.

From several ex-soldiers comes a vivid image of America's house-to-house methods of searching for "insurgents." A small block of C-4 plastique is fixed to the front door of a house, the door is blown in, and several armored giants rush through the shock and smoke with their automatic weapons at the ready. Women and children are held to one side at gunpoint, while any men are taken roughly for questioning. In most cases, the men have nothing worthwhile to say, but they and other members of their families are left with a terrifying experience they will never forget.

These violent procedures have been repeated thousands of times, both in Iraq and in the mountain villages of Afghanistan. Could this be part of what Condoleezza Rice meant when she said recently in Britain that despite thousands of tactical mistakes, America's basic strategy was sound? Can you imagine her saying the same thing if Washington-area police blew her door down and stormed into her home in Chevy Chase or whatever other exclusive area she lives, perhaps looking for drug dealers or murderers, suspecting her home because she is black?

Another aspect of Americans' crude tactics has been their way of responding to periodic mortar fire. The American forces use a high-tech radar gizmo that tracks the path of such shells supposedly to permit accurate return fire by artillery. Unfortunately the gizmo often does not work properly, and even when it does operate well, the tactics of mobile guerillas firing a shell from a truck or car and driving away leave the data of the gizmo useless. Well, not completely useless, because American artillery still responds. It's just that all they hit are innocent residences or businesses.

The trigger-happy nature of Americans at check points is a well-established fact. These boys, many of them having joined up for benefits like money for college, do not want to be in these places, and they are irritated by the strange tongues and cultures and the blazing heat and sandstorms. They simply shoot first and ask questions after. I suppose this tactic might have been appropriate on the Eastern Front in World War II, but it is totally unsuited to a place you are occupying after having invaded, a place where the overwhelming majority of people with which you interact are just ordinary people going about their lives.

There have been dozens of pictures on the Internet of whole families obliterated in their cars by American soldiers. Children have been pumped full of holes. A kidnapped Italian journalist almost lost her life on her short journey back to freedom. The brave Italian secret service agent who had secured her freedom and was accompanying her to freedom was pumped full of holes. Yet this car and its contents were well known and had been identified to American forces.

It is extremely unlikely this was an error, the Italian journalist being someone hated by American occupation authorities for her critical stories. Such a number of unarmed journalists have been shot by American troops that the idea of the accidents of war is not credible. Of course, the recent revelation in Britain that Bush actually discussed bombing offices of Aljazeera adds another dimension to these events.

A number of British soldiers, Britain's pathetic Blair being America's only true ally in the phony coalition America's press never fails to name, have gone on record about American tactics. These include several senior officers, an unprecedented criticism of an ally during war. What they have said to the press is that American tactics are brutal and thoughtless, almost certain in the long run to produce more enemies than friends. Few forces in the world have more genuine experience than Britain's after decades in Northern Ireland, yet all their advice is treated with contempt by arrogant American commanders and politicians.

It seems both public and press have forgotten the words of Donald Rumsfeld not long after the U.S. triumphed in Afghanistan, the words being among the most shameful in American history and certainly ranking with anything a dread figure like Reinhard Heydrich uttered. On what to do with the thousands of prisoners taken in the invasion, Rumsfeld publicly stated they should be killed or walled away forever. It does appear he was taken at his word, for thousands of prisoners disappeared around the time. There are many eye-witness reports - a documentary film was made by a Scots director - about Afghan prisoners having been taken into the desert in trucks to suffocate in the blazing heat. American soldiers, if they didn't actively help, just stood around and let it happen.

In the early part of the invasion of Afghanistan, tens of thousands of emergency de-hydrated food packets were dropped by American planes in some of the same areas that cluster bombs were being dropped. As pictures on the Internet testify, the bomblet canisters (pressure-sensitive cans packed with something like razor wire and high explosive) and the food packages were virtually the same optical yellow color. Imagine how many hungry peasants and children were attracted to these deadly areas by the food packets, only to be torn apart?

Bad publicity all over the world did stop the Pentagon's grotesque practice, but the question of using cluster bombs near civilian populations remains. It was done both in Afghanistan and Iraq. The brave journalists of Aljazeera took dozens of pictures of what these bombs did to children in Iraq, their publication providing one of the reasons for the Pentagon's and Bush's intense hatred of the network.

The revelations about the behavior of American soldiers in Abu Ghraib prison are well known, although the last round of abuse and torture pictures released did not include the worst stuff that American Senators saw in closed session a while back. It's almost as though the "tamer" stuff was released to defuse demands for more information. America's great investigative journalist Seymour Hersh has said the worst stuff included boys being raped by American soldiers.

How many senior officers or officials have paid for these horrors that absolutely had to be known to them? The answer is none. What did Lieutenant Calley and Captain Medina suffer for the mass murder and rape of women and children in Vietnam a few decades ago? Not much, and their seniors nothing at all.

Of course we know from many sources including amateur plane spotters and flight records that America runs a gigantic secret prison system. Sources in Europe say that 14,000 are held in Iraq alone. There are also secret prisons in Eastern Europe, Central Asia, Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean, and at Guantanamo. All of these prisoners are held with no legal rights whatever, just as though they had disappeared into Stalin's Gulag.

In most cases the prisoners are simply people who fought Americans in their invasions of two lands. Since when do we do this to the fighters who oppose us in war? Americans themselves in the past have joined foreign wars as idealists or as mercenaries. This happened in South Africa, various African anti-colonial wars, Central America, South America, Indo-China, Spain, and other places. It's an old tradition going back to Lafayette and Pulaski in the American Revolutionary War. The men, and boys, America now holds with no rights were doing no more than what tens of thousands of Americans and others have done previously.

As I have written before, if you want the rule of law, you cannot stand outside the law and claim its moral support. What America is doing in its "war on terror" is little more than freshened-up fascism. It wants a pipeline through Afghanistan and a subservient government in Iraq, and it dresses up the brutal tactics used to achieve these goals as a war on terror.