Thursday, September 28, 2006

Who will research the weed?

One of the victims of the budget cuts federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty announced this week was the Medicinal Marijuana Research program.

Marijuana is a drug of great medical promise. An ancient healing drug, its use dates back into pre-history as a treatment for a host of mental and physical ailments. And it continues to be highly useful for, among other things, a preferred therapy for AIDS and cancer, preserving the vision of people with glaucoma, and controlling muscle spasms in patients with multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, spinal cord injury, paraplegia and quadriplegia.

Nonetheless, cutting the federal program seems reasonable. Why not leave drug research to the pharmaceutical companies and save taxpayer dollars? The answer to that question is that drug companies have no interest in marijuana. Patients can, if necessary, grow their own, so the companies can't make a profit off it. Off derivatives they can patent, perhaps, but not off the plant itself.

Indeed, from their perspective, it's even worse. It presents a threat. Because it can replace drugs they sell, and has indeed been proven more effective than some commercial products, it threatens their profits. One wonders how much of the zeal the Bush administration shows in battling marijuana derives from that government's slavish commitment to corporate interests.

At one time, we could have counted on universities to do this sort of research. But not any more. Corporations have captured the universities. Governments now insist that if researchers want grant money they must "partner" with industry. Obviously corporations are reluctant to "partner" with work that offers no reward.

So who will do the research that will allow us to fully benefit from this promising plant? It would seem nobody. Such are the idiosyncrasies of capitalism.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

U.S. generals mutiny

The Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army, General Peter Schoomaker, has refused to submit a budget plan for 2008 to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. The general insists the Army simply doesn't have enough money to do what is being asked of it. "There is no sense in us submitting a budget that we can't execute, a broken budget," he declared. Congress has been passing emergency spending bills to pay for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, but the Army says Iraq is now straining its regular budget.

Schoomaker's rebellion is a particularly bitter pill for Rumsfeld who personally asked him to come out of retirement three years ago to become Chief of Staff. But then these are not happy days for the Secretary of Defense. Major General John Batiste, the former commander of the U.S. Army's 1st Infantry Division in Iraq who retired in protest over the conduct of the war, said yesterday, "Donald Rumsfeld is not a competent wartime leader. He surrounds himself with like-minded and compliant subordinates who do not grasp the importance of the principles of war, the complexities of Iraq or the human dimension of warfare. . . ." Major General Paul Eaton, a retired officer who was in charge of training Iraq troops, added, "Mr Rumsfeld and his immediate team must be replaced or we will see two more years of extraordinarily bad decision-making." Their views are little consolation to peacemongers, however; Batiste and Eaton want more money, more troops and a longer commitment.

With Bush et al. losing the people and now the military, where goes the empire?

Monday, September 25, 2006

Dawkins takes on God ... and it's about time

Throughout my life as an atheist, I have never been militant about it. I have always enjoyed a good argument, but if people find superstition and myth comforting, far be it from me to disturb their intellectual slumber. And if they couldn't deal with facts such as heliocentricity or evolution, so what? Let them wallow in their ignorance. Of course I recognized the division, hostility and violence that religion has caused throughout history, the inevitable result of absolute faith, but what could one do about it?

Atheism is not, after all, a belief system to counter other belief systems. It's just one belief. There is no catechism, no bible, no dogma, no ritual, no rules, no organization. It's no more an institution than heliocentrism, or evolutionism. It's simply accepting what the evidence suggests about one thing. No big deal.

Richard Dawkins, the eminent biologist, is not so cavalier. He is challenging religion. And he's cutting right to the bone. He is challenging its very basis, the belief in a God. His assault on the bastion of organized religion includes his latest book The God Delusion, in which he refers to the Bible as "a chaotically cobbled together anthology of disjointed documents." His intentions are clear. "My earlier books did not set out to convert anyone ... this book does," he declares.

Dawkins' crusade is timely. Religion is becoming increasingly a threat to all of us, particularly in its fundamentalist manifestations. Everywhere, in North America, in Europe, in the Middle East, in Asia, fundamentalists, whether Christian, Muslim, Jew or Hindu, increasingly gain precedence over their more moderate brothers and sisters. And everywhere they work to push back human rights, especially the rights of women. Perhaps of most concern is their attitude toward the greatest challenge humanity faces, global warming. They show little interest in dealing with it and indeed many believe it's a good thing, part of God's plan. They believe they will be raptured up to heaven while the the rest of us sinners burn in hell for eternity, sadistic but perfectly consistent with global warming' s potential to incinerate the Earth.

Never before have we needed more to depend on rational analysis. Dawkins is insisting we do.

But can his crusade succeed? We humans are mere specks in the universe, in both time and space. Our lives are utterly insignificant in the grand scheme of cosmic evolution. Can a self-conscious organism accept such a humiliating fate, or will most of us always require assurance we are something more and be driven to invent myths that give our lives meaning, even immortality? Dawkins has given himself a huge challenge. I wish him luck

Friday, September 22, 2006

Believe it – the world is getting safer

According to a new report by the Vancouver-based Human Security Centre, the world is becoming a safer place. Some highlights:
  • "In terms of battle-deaths, the 1990s was the least violent decade since the end of World War II. By the beginning of the 21st century, the probability of any country being embroiled in an armed conflict was lower than at any time since the early 1950s."
  • Notwithstanding the Balkans and Rwanda, "Genocides have declined remarkably since the end of the Cold War."
  • Although international terrorism "remains a critically important human security issue," "in terms of numbers killed, [it] poses far less of a threat than do other forms of political violence or violent crime."
The Centre summarizes its report as follows:
The first Human Security Report documents a dramatic, but largely unknown, decline in the number of wars, genocides and human rights abuse over the past decade. Published by Oxford University Press, the Report argues that the single most compelling explanation for these changes is found in the unprecedented upsurge of international activism, spearheaded by the UN, which took place in the wake of the Cold War.
So cheer up, folks. The glass is half full after all.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Harper's Bushite blather

Prime Minister Harper increasingly not only echoes George W. Bush's policies but his priorities and tone as well.

In his maiden speech to the United Nations, he announced, "Afghanistan leads the list of challenges that we face collectively." Sounding like Bush at his hectoring best, he went on to insist the future of the United Nations depended on success in this venture. In an address to the Economic Club of New York, he referred to Iran's nuclear ambitions as the "biggest single threat that the planet faces."

These things aren't even true. The biggest threat the planet faces is global warming. It leads the list of challenges we face collectively. Next on the list is AIDS which kills 8,000 people a day. Harper's lies flow as easily and apparently as sincerely as Bush's.

It seems we no longer need a Department of Foreign Affairs. A phone call to Washington each morning will suffice.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

The Royal Society chastises Exxon

If you wonder why recognition of the seriousness of global warming still hasn't sunk in despite near universal scientific agreement that it's happening and we are responsible, yet another reason emerges. It turns out that ExxonMobil, the world's largest oil and gas company, has been spending millions of dollars funding dozens of lobby groups that misrepresent the science of climate change. We have this on the impeccable authority of the Royal Society, Great Britain's premier scientific academy.

The Society is sufficiently concerned that it has taken the unprecedented step of writing a letter to Esso UK, challenging the corporation's behaviour. The letter accuses the lobby groups of seriously misrepresenting the science of climate change and accuses Exxon itself of providing inaccurate and misleading information in the company's own documents.

Misleading information from a corporation is hardly news. But we are talking about the future of the entire planet here, and that no doubt is why the Society has for the first time in its history written to a company challenging its conduct. Let us hope this upbraiding from the elite of British science will spark enough decency in Exxon's management to make honest men and women out of them, at least on this, the most important issue facing our species.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Once again, democracy triumphs. Or does it?

Liberal leader Shawn Graham was quite rightly elated by his party's win in the New Brunswick election, triumphantly announcing "My mandate tonight is to change our province, to bring back the pride and restore the hope."

But how much of a mandate to change his province does he have? His party won with 29 seats to 26 for the Tories, compared to Liberals 26, Tories 28, at dissolution. Not much mandate for change there. Furthermore, the Conservatives got more votes, 47.7 per cent of the total compared to 47.0 per cent for Mr. Graham's party. Not much mandate there, either.

But we mustn't be churlish about the premier-designate's promise of "a bold, new, activist government." This is, after all, commonplace with our voting system. Parties come to power with the support of a minority of the electorate and then govern as if they had an overwhelming majority. Thus the call from many quarters for a proportional representation (PR) system.

But would that have enhanced Mr. Graham's mandate? With both parties at about 47 per cent, i.e. without a majority, under PR one would have to form a coalition with the NDP, who got five per cent of the vote, and that would almost certainly have been the Liberals. But this would have swung the government further left, leaving the 47 per cent who voted Conservative even more alienated from their government. One might sensibly argue that further alienating almost half of New Brunswickers offers even less of a mandate.

PR is clearly necessary to ensure each vote counts equally, the essence of democracy, but while it ensures all voters are equally represented in their legislature, it doesn't ensure they are equally represented in their government. A second reform is needed, one that includes all elected representatives equally in governance. Only then will democracy rest easy in this country.

Monday, September 18, 2006

The Taliban: fanatics yes, but cowards - hardly

"The Taliban is a bunch of cowards," says Brigadier-General David Fraser, the Canadian commander in southern Afghanistan, responding to a bicycle-riding suicide bomber who killed four Canadian soldiers this morning.

Cowards? The guy blew himself up for heaven's sake! Fanatical yes, deluded maybe, but cowardly, I think not. He offered up his life, not risked it as our soldiers do, but offered it up. It doesn't get any gutsier - or crazier - than that.

The Taliban are fighting the most high-tech army the world has ever seen with minimal resources. They confront artillery, helicopter gun ships, predator drones, tanks, soldiers decked out in body armour, the whole panoply of modern military weaponry, with little more than rifles, grenade launchers and home-made bombs on bicycles.

I understand the general's distress, and of course he has to maintain his men's morale, but his enemy is anything but "a bunch of cowards."

Thursday, September 14, 2006

The evidence is in the bubbles

Ice cores drilled in the Antarctic tell a revealing tale of the history of carbon dioxide in Earth's atmosphere. As the ice accumulates, it traps air bubbles which capture a sample of the atmosphere at the time of deposition. A core has been drilled to depths that represent an accumulation history of 800,000 years. Analysis of the entrapped air shows atmospheric CO2 varying between 180 to 300 ppm of air as climate changed. But in the last 200 years it has accelerated to 380 ppm, off the scale so to speak. Furthermore, carbon isotope measurements suggest the additional CO2 is coming from fossil sources, i.e. from human activity.

Like the ice, the evidence of our assault on our planet's climate steadily accumulates. Unfortunately, our wisdom doesn't.

The Pope provokes Islam

Religion can always be counted on to start a fight. Pope Benedict XVI's criticism of Islam, particularly the concept of jihad, during a recent visit to Germany, has been met with an angry response in Muslim countries.

In Turkey, the head of the state-run religious affairs directorate criticized the Pope's "spoilt and cocksure point of view." High ranking Islamist officials in Kuwait suggested the Pope was acting like a Crusader and called upon Muslim states to withdraw their ambassadors from the Vatican until he apologizes. The
head of the Institute of Policy Studies in Pakistan accused him of straining relations between Islam and Christianity and suggested he is misinterpreting Muslim beliefs. A leader of one Pakistani political party struck a particularly low blow, referring to the Pope's "Bush-like statements."

Ah faith, how sweet thou art.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Chavez fuels London buses

As President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela wanders the world developing alliances, one of the most creative arrangements in the making must be a deal with the City of London to provide oil for buses in return for British expertise in managing Venezuela's capital, Caracas. The details are currently being worked out.

Venezuela will provide diesel fuel for some of London's buses, targeting those most used by the poor. In return, the city will promote the South American country as a tourist destination while helping Caracas run its transport system, fight crime, house the poor, dispose of waste, improve its air quality and educate adults.

Chavez has negotiated other barter deals, including importing Cuban doctors to serve poor Venezuelans in exchange for providing Cuba with cheap oil. In addition, he has provided oil at well under market prices to poor people in Boston, New York and countries in the Caribbean.

A deal between Chavez and the equally unconventional and creative mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, seems a natural.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Defining prosperity: vive la France!

One of the most sensible articles on economics I've read in some time appeared under Jim Stanford's byline in the September 11 Globe and Mail. He reminds us once again of the weakness of the GDP as a measure of prosperity, indeed even of productivity.

Specifically, he points out that U.S. productivity appears to be quite superior to that of France, with a GDP ratio of $ 37,500 to $27,700 per capita. However, the French work a lot less than the Americans, about 270 hours a year in fact, and fewer are employed, so comparing GDP on a per capita basis is meaningless. Comparing it on the more meaningful per hour basis, it turns out the French, like most Europeans, are more productive than the Americans. So the French have high incomes as well as much more time than their U.S. counterparts to wine, dine, politic and make love. The Americans produce more stuff, but the French have more time to enjoy life in all it has to offer. So who is the most prosperous?

The problem, Stanford suggests, is that GDP considers time worthless. Only stuff counts. But after a person has enough stuff to eat well, sleep in a warm bed and enjoy a few luxuries, time is of greater value. And speaking of time, it is past time to replace GDP with a more meaningful yardstick of economic progress.

Killing Afghans

The concluding paragraphs of a recent article in The Globe and Mail offered some revealing insights into our Afghanistan adventure. An American soldier is describing a battle his platoon had fought to a Canadian soldier:
Even worse, he said, was trying to root out Taliban from a village in northern Zabul that sympathized with the insurgents. "Every day, it was all about survival," Lt. Edwards said. "My platoon was 27 or 28 guys, and every firefight they'd have 100 at least. We would just take human waves of assaults at our position, one after another after another."

He continued: "Fortunately we had a good piece of high ground, and we'd fend it off, day after day. . . . The problem was, that's where they lived. At lot of them, we'd kill them and their house was only 10 metres away. So you'd get the wife and kids out there going, 'Oh, you killed my husband! He was innocent!' And I'm going, 'Okay, so the machine gun in his hands right now is what? His innocence?' "

Both soldiers shared a laugh at the anecdote, but the Canadian chuckled with a little less mirth. His platoon's first grape field lay ahead of him.

Some observations:

  • Killing men in their own backyards, in front of their wives and children, is unlikely to win hearts and minds. Nor is mocking the women as they lament the deaths of their husbands. As President Karzai has reminded us, when we kill Taliban we kill Afghans. In this case, local men. Every death creates a circle of hostility and hatred, among the men's wives and children, mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, relatives, friends and neighbours. Thus insurgencies grow.
  • By denying the man's innocence, the American implies he's guilty of something. But of what exactly? Of trying to drive a foreign army out of his village?
  • The soldiers find the incident amusing. Killing the breadwinners of desperately poor families apparently has its humorous aspects. I guess you have to be a military man to understand. Islamist extremists, however, may not appreciate the joke.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Confusion in Kandahar

Defense Minister Gordon O'Connor's admission that, "We cannot eliminate the Taliban, not militarily anyway," is quite extraordinary coming only four months after his government extended our Afghanistan mission for another two years. There are two possibilities: they knew we lacked adequate manpower or they didn't know.

If they knew, they were being grievously reckless with our soldiers' lives, the taxpayers' money and the country's reputation. If they didn't know, then the critics have been right all along, this war was ill-conceived and ill-planned. We've stumbled into it, a la Vietnam and Iraq, a government not knowing what it was getting us in for, a public deceived. O'Connor's plea for more troops is particularly reminiscent of Vietnam where, according to the American military, it was always a case of just a few more troops and the war would be won. It's called a quagmire.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

The world's greatest hypocrites

This week China will pay homage to Mao Zedong, marking the anniversary of his death 30 years ago. That a nation would venerate a mass murderer is not unusual -- nations do it all the time. But commemorating the man who brought communism to China does more than preserve the memory of a totalitarian past, it also unwittingly illustrates the monstrous hypocrisy of China's present.

Chinese leaders insist the country remains committed to communism, yet nowhere else on Earth does capitalism hold such unfettered sway. Capitalists can steal the land of peasants and city-dwellers alike for development with virtual impunity. They can pollute with abandon. They can literally work employees to death with 90-hour weeks at low pay, employees who have no pensions or social security, no medical or unemployment insurance, nor any right to form an independent union to promote their interests. Capitalists can have a second child, or more by paying a fine; they can have local officials who displease them fired; and their children can add marks to their school entrance exams simply for being rich.

Nowhere are capitalists treated better or workers worse than in this workers' paradise. Celebrating Mao, who also treated working people with contempt, seems somehow fitting for the new China.

Why do we fight?

Supporters of our Afghanistan adventure like to point out that although Canada has a reputation as a peacekeeper, we also have a long history of warmaking. They emphasize our tendency to join our friends in hostilities, "friends" meaning the Anglosphere, i.e. the United States, Great Britain, Australia and New Zealand.

The war faction uses this proclivity to make war alongside our friends to justify the aggressive approach we have taken in Afghanistan, yet a close look at our history as warmaker suggests it may do the opposite. Consider, for example, our involvement in WWI.

WWI may have been the stupidest war ever fought by humankind, a massive slaughter of some nine million soldiers and millions of civilians for no great cause. It was little more than an exercise in incompetence and bloody-mindedness by a bunch of European imperialists contesting for supremacy. Canada sacrificed 65,000 young men on the alter of imperial hubris. Some historians claim this is where we came of age as a country. We would have better shown our independence as a nation by refusing to share in the foolishness of our former colonial masters.

But we didn't. And then we repeated our blunder in WWII in the Asian theatre. Fighting to crush the Nazis in Europe was justified unequivocally; however joining the conflict in Asia was a different matter. This, like WWI, was largely an imperial struggle.

In the 1930s, having an empire was de rigueur for a major industrial state. But Japan was a major industrial state and it didn't have one. More galling was that the Europeans all had empires in its backyard, on its turf so to speak. The British had India and Burma, the French Indo-China, the Americans the Philipines, and so on. The only choice piece of the colonial pie left was China, so the Japanese decided to take it. The other powers demurred, and the United States imposed an oil blockade, intending to starve Japan's industrial machine of its life blood. The Japanese attacked the blockade, by bombing the fleet that maintained it and by sending troops into southeast Asia to guarantee access to resources. The Second World War was on. Canada, not an imperial power, and under no obligation to defend the imperial powers' ill-gotten gains, should have stayed out. But we didn't and paid the price, including humiliating defeat defending Britain's colonial outpost of Hong Kong.

Other wars our friends opted for we wisely declined, including the Vietnam and Iraq quagmires. Some missions we participated in were justified, including the Korean war and Kososvo. And we tried to do right by Rwanda; unfortunately, our friends lacked similar enthusiasm.

In summary, joining our friends in their hostilities has been a mixed bag. Sometimes right, sometimes wrong, with opting out entirely often the best choice. This isn't surprising. Our friends interests and ours don't always coincide, sometimes even conflict. If all this teaches us anything, it's that we should always decide carefully in favour of what best satisfies our own values and goals, both selfish and altruistic.

Maybe, as someone once said about the British, nations don't have friends, just interests.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

I wanted a girl

It's a time of joy for royalists in Japan. Princess Kiko, wife of the Emperor's youngest son, has given birth to a five pound ten ounce boy. The Japanese now have a male heir to the Imperial Throne. The wee fellow is third in line after Crown Prince Naruhito, the Emperor's eldest son, whose 42-year old wife Crown Princess Masako has failed to produce boys, and his own father Prince Akishino.

I admit I was hoping the Princess would have a daughter. This would have forced the Japanese to confront the misogynistic rule that only men can ascend the throne. Something positive may finally have emerged from this archaic institution. But the gods did not so decree.

So it's a great day in Japan for royalists. A bad day for women.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Are the terrorists winning yet?

After the 9/11 attacks on the U.S., the observation "if we do 'such-and-such' the terrorists have won" quickly became a cliche and then a joke. But, dare I ask, is it possible they are winning?

I won't pretend I can get into the heads of people who fly planes into buildings, but if I had to guess what their goal was, I would say to start a war between Islam and the West. And they seem to be succeeding.

The West is now bogged down in wars against Muslims in Afghanistan and Iraq. It has just had a nasty war with Muslims in Lebanon and is brutalizing Muslims in Gaza (taking the reasonable liberty of including Israel in the West). The leading Western nation, the United States, is obsessed with Muslim extremism to the point of corrupting its own democracy and liberties, an attack on Iran is not out of the question, and American neo-cons and fundamentalists are referring to all this as World War III.

Is this enough evidence? Are the terrorists winning? Tell me it isn't true.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Afghanistan -- now for a real debate

By advocating the withdrawal of our troops from Afghanistan by February '07, the NDP has finally created a real debate about our role in that sad country. There is certainly no shortage of evidence our participation in a counterinsurgency war is a mistake. It has been justified first, as part of the war on terror, and second, as a mission to bring democracy, freedom and other good things to the benighted Afghans.

The first objective is utterly misguided. You don't reduce the possibility of being attacked by Muslim extremists by sending troops into Muslim countries. Quite the contrary, in fact.

As to the second objective, this is a noble goal. However, noble intentions are useless, indeed dangerous, if they can't be fulfilled. The Americans had good intentions in Vietnam -- they were going to save that country from Godless Communism -- but they failed, and over 3,000,000 Vietnamese died. How many Afghans will pay the price of our hubris? The American military learned from Vietnam and articulated the lessons in the Powell Doctrine. The Bush government ignored the doctrine and waded into the Iraq quagmire. We appear to be following their lead in Afghanistan -- a Vietnam with poppies.

Whether you agree with the mission or not, it is richly deserving of a thorough, intense debate, and that's hard to achieve if all political parties are supporting the war. Now they aren't. Let the real debate begin.