Thursday, August 31, 2006

Adios, Ralph

Today, Ralph Klein spends his last day in Alberta's legislature. I have never been a fan of Ralph (as he is known by friend and foe here in Wild Rose Country), but he was mayor of my city for nine years and premier of my province for fourteen, so the least I can do is wish him well.

Ralph was never strong on policy, but he was truly a man of the people. He had a feel for the grass roots that few other politicians can match. As mayor, he drank beer in the St. Louis Hotel with union chiefs, business leaders and the hoi polloi, and was always a man among equals. He was named a Citizen of the Year by B'nai B'rith and adopted into the Blackfoot Nation. With an apology and a sheepish grin, he got away with tomfoolery that would have cost other leaders their jobs. People liked him, I suppose, because he genuinely was one of them.

His last few years as premier have lacked direction and the province will almost certainly be better off without him, but ordinary Albertans will miss him.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

The Matriarchist apologizes

Mea culpa.

To all those readers of my blog whose comments have not been posted, I apologize abjectly. When I signed up with Blogger, I understood that if I received a comment I would be informed by email. I never got any emails, so I assumed I wasn't getting any comments, so I never checked the "Moderate comments" section. Dumb, dumb, dumb.

Anyway, I finally did click on "Moderate comments" out of curiosity and to my chagrin, and delight, a long list of unmoderated comments appeared waiting on my godlike decision to publish or reject. I know this is a field where "better late than never" doesn't apply but, riddled with guilt, I worked my way back through a few months. So, belatedly, excepting the very few derogatory efforts (I don't do insult journalism), most not-too-ancient comments are now published.

Please forgive a beginner (well ... more or less) for a rookie mistake. I promise to diligently check my "Moderate comments" from now on. And many thanks for your interest.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Amhadinejad challenges George W. mano a mano

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a populist if ever there was one, has challenged U.S. President George Bush to a public debate. The feisty Iranian said, "I suggest we talk with Mr. Bush, the President of the United States, in a live television debate about world issues and ways out of these standoffs. We should voice our opinions and they would, too. The debate should be uncensored, above all for the American public."

Let's roll, George.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Women to the back of the mosque, please

While the West righteously wages war in Afghanistan to, among other things, improve the lives of women, our good friend and purveyor of oil Saudi Arabia persists in its harsh misogynistic ways. That country's religious czars now plan to restrict where women can pray in the Grand Mosque in Mecca. They have already restricted women's access to the burial site of the Prophet Muhammad in Medina.

Currently, both men and women can pray around the Kaaba, a cube-shaped structure believed to have been built by Abraham and his son. It is toward the Kaaba that Muslims face when they pray. An all-male (what else?) religious committee will continue to allow men to pray there but limit women to a distant section of the mosque, ostensibly on the grounds of over-crowding. The head of the Institute for Haj Research, Osama al-Bar, explains, "Some women thought it wasn't good, but from our point of view it will be better for them ... We can sit with them and explain to them what the decision is." Patiently, as to a child, no doubt.

Lt. Ehren Watada puts Iraq war on trial

First Lt. Ehren Watada is the first commissioned officer in the U.S. Army to refuse duty in Iraq. Lt. Watada has disobeyed an order to join his brigade there, claiming the war is illegal and his country has committed war crimes. In his words:
First, the war was based on false pretenses. If the president tells us we are there to destroy Saddam's weapons of mass destruction, and there are none, why are we there? Then the president said Saddam had ties to al-Qaeda and 9/11. That allegation has been proven to be false too. So why are we going there? The president says we're there to promote democracy, and to liberate the Iraqi people. That isn't happening either.

Second, the Iraq war is not legal according to domestic and international law. It violates the Constitution and the War Powers Act, which limits the president in his role as commander in chief from using the armed forces in any way he sees fit. The UN Charter, the Geneva Convention, and the Nuremberg principles all bar wars of aggression.

Finally, the occupation itself is illegal. If you look at the Army Field Manual, 27-10, which governs the laws of land warfare, it states certain responsibilities for the occupying power. As the occupying power, we have failed to follow a lot of those regulations. There is no justification for why we are there or what we are doing.

The young man was offered a non-combat role but refused, stating the whole war was illegal. He now faces a possible court martial and up to seven years in prison.

Eric Seitz, one of Watada's lawyers, said "It's not our intention to put the war on trial, but the nature of the trial makes it necessary." The lieutenant's life will no doubt be easier if the Army shies away from a court martial, but putting the war on trial would perform a great service for the public good.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

The poor get poorer

The National Council of Welfare has released its estimates of welfare incomes for 2005 and the figures paint a grim picture. Their press release included the following comments:
In Alberta, the income in real dollars of a single person on welfare has decreased by almost 50 percent since 1986. Since 1992 in Ontario, the welfare income of a lone parent with one child has decreased by almost $6,600 ... When adjusted for inflation, many 2005 welfare incomes were lower than they were in 1986.... Some of the losses between the peak year and 2005 are staggering, with one-third of households losing $3,000 or more. Five provinces -- Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia -- recorded the lowest levels of welfare incomes between 2000 and 2005.... All welfare incomes continued to remain far below the poverty line .... With few exceptions, the day-to-day lives of over 1.7 million Canadians receiving welfare ... became more difficult. Half a million of those on social assistance are children.
Some observations of my own:
  • Four of the five meanest provinces are in the West.
  • Alberta, Canada's richest province, is the least generous to single parents with one child, offering a total income of $12,326 in 2005. The most generous was Newfoundland, offering $16,181.
  • New Brunswick is the least generous to singles, offering $3,427 in 2005. Again, Newfoundland was the most generous, offering $8,198.
  • As federal government surpluses have blossomed, our assistance to the less fortunate has, after inflation, declined.
Council Chairperson John Murphy calls the present situation "shameful and morally unsustainable in a rich country." Not a bad description.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Iran's best friends: the U.S. and Israel

A recent report on the Middle East by Chatham House, the respected British think tank, has concluded that Iran has been the main beneficiary of the U.S. "war on terror" in the Middle East. Israel's conflicts with the Palestinians and Hezbollah have also added to Iran's influence in the region. According to the report,
"The United States, with coalition support, has eliminated two of Iran's regional rival governments - the Taliban in Afghanistan ... and Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq ... - but has failed to replace either with coherent and stable political structures. The outbreak of conflict ... between Israel and the Palestinians in Gaza, and Israel and Hizbullah in Lebanon, has added to the regional dimensions of this instability."
Iran, like Israel, is a non-Arab state trying to get by in an Arab world. Unlike Israel, however, its image steadily improves and its influence steadily grows, particularly on the Arab street. Maybe Israel, and the Americans, could learn something from Iran. The Chatham House report goes on to say that while the U.S. "may have the upper hand in 'hard' power,"
"Iran has traditionally been a master of 'soft' power -- the ability to use politics and culture to pursue its strategic interests. Its knowledge of the region, fluency in the languages and culture, strong historical ties and administrative skills have given Iran an advantage over the West. While the latter, both historically and currently, has sought to change and reform the Middle East, Iran tends to work with what it finds."
There are obvious lessons here. Rather than attempting to bludgeon the Arabs into accepting their world view, Israel and the U.S. could try a little soft power. Assassinating the Arabs most popular leaders, dismissing their most representative organizations as terrorists, and administering a little of the old shock and awe from time to time doesn't seem to be winning hearts and minds. It is, on the other hand, offering them gift-wrapped to Iran.

The illiberal Liberals

My dictionary defines "liberal" as "broad-minded, tolerant, open to new ideas," a definition that applies to small-l liberals but not apparently to big-L Liberals these days. MP Borys Wrzesnewskyj makes the common sense suggestion that we negotiate with Hezbollah, and he is harassed by fellow Liberals into resigning from his position as associate critic of foreign affairs.

Mr. Wrzesnewskyj insisted he wasn't suggesting the group be removed from our list of terrorist organizations, although one could make a very strong case they should, just that we talk to them. For this rather obvious and sensible observation, he is pilloried by his own party.

We can understand Conservative MPs not speaking until their leader has spoken for them. Mr. Harper is so terrified of what his caucus might say unless properly instructed, he has essentially issued a gag law. But shouldn't Liberals be ... well ... liberal?

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Muscle cars or muscle heads?

I don't know much about the economics of the auto industry, but judging by the failing fortunes of Ford and GM they don't either. And recent news suggests they aren't learning much. In order to boost their market share, the companies are reviving their muscle cars, the Camarro, last produced by GM in 2002, and a retooled Ford Mustang. The companies aren't expecting the retro-styled gas-guzzlers to be big sellers. The objective is "brand revival," convincing potential customers, specifically male baby boomers, that the American giants can still create state-of-the-art cars.

It seems to this lay observer that Detroit has, to its own detriment, relied excessively on big cars and big horsepower while the Japanese have concentrated on small, efficient cars that are kinder to both the pocketbook and the environment. Thus the Japanese industry thrives and the U.S. industry falters. Yet here it goes once again, counting on muscle to save the day. Hope springs eternal.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Israel kidnaps the green grocer

In an August 1st commando raid on Baalbeck, a Hezbollah stronghold in northeastern Lebanon, the Israeli army captured Hassan Nasrallah along with three members of his family and a neighbour. Unfortunately, Mr. Nasrallah was not the Hassan Nasrallah, the famed head of Hezbollah, but just a simple green grocer.

After hours of interrogation, the Israelis realized the captive wasn't their nemesis, didn't know him, wasn't related to him, and had no political or religious ties to him. They then jailed the family. After the Nasrallahs' lawyer appealed to Israel's Supreme Court, arguing they were being held "hostage to be used as a bargaining chip for negotiations," they were taken to the Lebanese border and released.

Fifteen people died in the raid on Baalbeck. Oh well, win some, lose some.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Too good to be true?

Steorn, an Irish technology firm, has issued a challenge to the scientific world. It claims to have discovered a method for obtaining free energy and is inviting scientists to examine the invention and publish their conclusions. CEO Sean McCarthy says when he attempted to discuss the discovery with scientists they either hung up on him or refused to endorse him publicly, so he inserted an ad in the Economist challenging the skeptics to examine the technology for themselves. His company, he insists, has created a constant stream of clean, free energy from the interaction of magnetic fields.

It rather sounds like this would violate the first law of thermodynamics, but to hell with the law, we're desperate.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

The follies of youth: Trudeau, Grass and young Muslims

Canadians were recently jarred by a biography of former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, he of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, when it revealed he had been, in his youth, something of a fascist. Among other things, he blamed WWII on the British, expressed anti-Semitic views, approved of the Vichy regime in France, and dreamed of a revolution that would create an authoritarian, Catholic, independent Quebec.

Now, in his forthcoming autobiography, Gunter Grass, Nobel laureate and a man considered by many the conscience of modern Germany, confesses he spent his youth in the Waffen SS, a unit in Hitler's Nazi elite. The shock isn't so much that he was in the unit (he was drafted) but that he has in the past been so miserly with the truth.

What is most intriguing to me is not that these two men experienced these sordid pasts, but how incredibly successful they were in overcoming them and doing not only great service, but great service in the cause of human rights, for their countries. Unless one is a psychologist, which I am not, one can only conclude that passionate young men can get caught up in the passions of their times and act them out before they have had time to form the moral philosophy that is true to their nature. In effect, they betray themselves before they are themselves. Or perhaps they are simply betrayed by their times as most of us are to some extent.

This brings me to those young Muslims caught up in a mighty anger toward Western neo-imperialism. Some have been so captured by this passion, they have placed bombs in public places, or at least planned to. I cannot help but wonder how many are true zealots and how many are, like Pierre Trudeau or Gunter Grass, simply betraying themselves. As a confirmed optimist, I will simply hope there are Trudeaus or Grasses among them, that they do not fall prey to violence, and that ultimately they discover their true natures and develop their true philosophies, to their benefit and ours.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Oh no, not Flipper!

Nothing is sacred anymore. A South African-based scientist has reported that the darling of the marine world, that cuddly chatterbox the dolphin, is in reality rather stupid. According to neuroethologist Paul Manger of the University of Witwatersrand, the dolphin's big brain isn't a mark of intelligence after all but simply a design to keep a warm-blooded animal's brain warm in a cold environment. It isn't so much a brain as a radiator!

Manger says dolphins' ability to do tricks is just a stimulus response to a food reward, the result of predatory instincts and good trainers. Furthermore, he claims they haven't the wits of a lab rat or a gold fish. A rat OK, they're clever little buggers, but a gold fish?

Middle Eastern wars I can deal with -- what else is new? But dumb dolphins, it's just too much.

Winning the peace

Whether Israel or Hezbollah won the recent war in Lebanon is a matter of much debate. Not so debatable is that Hezbollah is poised to win the peace. Not only did they gain a great deal of credibility by their fierce resistance to a much better equipped enemy that heavily outnumbered them, they are in a better position than anyone else to win hearts and minds in the process of rebuilding from the terrible destruction wreaked by Israel.

Hezbollah has for some time been much more effective at providing its people with social services -- hospitals, schools, agricultural centres, etc. -- than the Lebanese government. It is now swinging into action to help those who suffered from the war. The ceasefire had hardly begun before Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah went on TV to promise money for rebuilding. The "Party of God" has promised to pay for fully furnished apartments for a year for those who lost their homes and provide lifetime compensation to those who lost relatives. Hundreds of Hezbollah workers are cleaning streets, clearing rubble, protecting buildings from looting, aiding the wounded and removing the dead. By contrast, as before the war, the Lebanese government is practically invisible.

The organization's commander in south Lebanon, Nabil Kaouk, declared "We want to bring south Lebanon back to its real life and to rebuild it better than it was before the war." Given Hezbollah's proven ability to provide services for the Lebanese people, his words ring true.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

The Shia crescent -- bad moon rising?

Ever since King Abdullah of Jordan, in a moment of Sunni paranoia, coined the phrase "the Shia crescent" to describe his perceived alliance of Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas, it has caught on as descriptive of what does indeed seem to be a growing force in the Middle East.

The Crescent is something less than Shia; nonetheless, it does make political sense. Syria and Hamas are both predominantly Sunni; however, Syria is run by the nominally Shia Alawites and Hamas is a friend of Shia Iran. To the original four, we might add Iraq which is now dominated by its 65 per cent Shia population.

So is this a good thing or a bad thing?

The Islamic world has been in the doldrums for a long time. It needs rejuvenation. If the Crescent can do that in a constructive way, it should be welcomed. There are good signs. Both Hamas and Hezbollah participate in the democratic process with considerable success, as have the Shia in Iraq. Even Iran has adopted some democratic elements, including election of the president. Only Syria remains mired in a sordid dictatorship. On the social justice front, both Hamas and Hezbollah effectively provide a range of social services, and seem to do so with little corruption. Indeed they serve as an example to Arab governments. As a result of these various measures, they both have broad popular support in the Arab and Islamic worlds, even among Sunnis.

On the other hand, is the Crescent too ideologically rigid to be a healthy participant in world affairs? Certainly, it is instructed by religion and that's troublesome. Nonetheless, we are not talking about al-Qaeda or Taliban type extremism here. The leader of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, accused the Taliban of turning Afghanistan into "a hideous example of an Islamic state." As for al-Qaeda, he referred to their beheading of Nicholas Berg as despicable and has condemned most of their other actions, particularly the bombing of the World Trade Center in New York.

It is true all the members of the Crescent are bitterly hostile toward Israel; however, as I explained in a previous post (Israel and the Right to Exist), this is a reasonable point of view from the Arab perspective and must be accepted as a starting point in negotiations for a stable Middle East. Furthermore, the Shia only make up 10 to 15 per cent of the world's Muslims, so they can only lead if the great majority of Muslims are prepared to follow.

A big question is how the United States and Britain react to this revival. If they give it a chance, even accept it and work with it, it could lead to the renaissance Islam desperately needs. Unfortunately, they tend to see anything they can't control as a threat and wind up interfering and generally mucking things up. If that happens this may be yet another lost promise for the Middle East like that of democracy in Iran in the 1950s, dashed by the unholy collaboration of the US, the UK and the Iranian army. We can only hope this time they will be part of the solution, not part of the problem, even if it means just minding their own damn business.

Monday, August 14, 2006

A singular lack of leadership

An international conference in Canada dealing with a scourge that kills 3 million people a year, and our Prime Minister can't be bothered to show up. AIDS may be the second greatest threat to humankind after global warming, but it is not, apparently, sufficiently important to Mr. Harper to take a moment out of his schedule.

Mark Wainberg, Director of the McGill University AIDS Centre and former president of the International AIDS Society, had this to say to his country's leader: "Mr. Harper, the role of the Prime Minister includes the obligation to show leadership on the world stage." Indeed.

Mr. Harper has been described as aloof. A calculated display of indifference to the deaths of millions of the world's people, and the plight of millions of orphans, is more than aloof, it is cold, it is callous. And it is a failure of leadership.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Israel and the right to exist

At the heart of the seemingly interminable crisis in the Levant is the legitimacy of a Jewish state in Palestine. We in the West are confounded by Arab resistance to this idea, yet if we put ourselves in their shoes, it quickly becomes obvious why they resist:

An essentially European state has been imposed on the Arab World. A Jewish state has been imposed on the Muslim world. And a colonialist, settler state has been imposed on a region long bedeviled by imperialism, a state created in part by ethnically cleansing 700,000 Palestinians from their homeland. Recognizing all this, it becomes difficult to understand how Arabs could be anything but deeply hostile toward what they must see as an alien body in their midst.

The fact that Hamas and Hezbollah hold this view should be accepted as natural and should not deter including them in the negotiations for a stable settlement. After all, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert apparently believes all Palestine rightly belongs to the Jews. He is willing to cede land to the Palestinians only because if all Palestine were included in Israel the ethnic integrity of his country would be seriously compromised by the addition of two million Arabs, thus defeating the whole point of a Jewish state. His attitude hardly differs from Hamas's, yet this does not bother us in the least.

We suffer, it seems, from an inability, or perhaps a refusal, to empathize with the Arab street. This is proving dangerous as NGOs like Hamas and Hezbollah become increasingly popular with ordinary Arabs while their dictatorial governments, the people we choose to deal with, become increasingly distanced from their populations. We don't have to accept the proposition that a colonial, Jewish state in the Arab, Muslim world is illegitimate, but we must accept that, whether we like it or not, Arabs have good reason for believing so. Until the West, and that includes Israel of course, come to terms with this, we will never get at the root of the problem.